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Review 2248: Owner, Behind the Tower

www.behindthetower.com

Recommended
Review by DavidLF from US

1bed/1bath apartment in Pisa, Tuscany West


When

July, Aug, Sep. 2004 & June 2005, 3.5 months

Review

For 2 1/2 months in the summer of 2004 (and for the month of June in 2005) I rented the Pisa city apartment owned by Gloria and Marcel.

For longer stays, I much prefer renting a private apartment; but unlike staying in hotel rooms, when you staying in an apartment you are not free to move from place to place every few days. So I needed a location from which it was easy to make day trips by train to the major sights of Tuscany. (Renting a car for that length of time would have been prohibitively expensive.) I also did not want to stay in hot, crowded - and very overpriced - Florence.

Gloria and Marcel's rental apartment in Pisa was just what I needed, because Pisa (away from the area immediately around the Leaning Tower) is not a tourist town; it's a 500-year-old university town - with prices considerably lower than in Florence (or Lucca).

Buying food to cook in the apartment was no problem, with the local supermarket located just around the corner. But if you don't feel like cooking, there's also a good pizza restaurant directly across the street from the apartment. (Manager Stefano used to live in San Francisco.)

The local railway station (Pisa San Rossore) is only one block from the apartment (only four minutes ride to Pisa Centrale station, the main station), but as the train schedule from San Roissore is irregular, it was easier to just take the frequent city bus from the Il Campo stop (1 block away) to Pisa Centrale (about a 12-minute bus ride - the same bus continues on for another 10 minutes to Pisa Airport). But all the Pisa to Lucca trains do stop at San Rossore, which makes Lucca a very easy 20-minute train ride from the apartment.

From Pisa Centrale, it was easy to make day trips by train to Florence (1 hr. 10 mins.), to the Cinque Terre (less than 90 minutes), to Poggibonsi (for the bus to San Gimignano) and to Siena (two hours). We also took a day trip to Santa Margherita Ligure (two hours by train from Pisa) and walked the path to Portofino. Tourists I met on the Cinque Terre hiking trails couldn't understand how I was able to make five trips to the Cinque Terre but it's just an easy day trip from Pisa.

Pisa Centrale station has a (very helpful) rail travel information office (separate from the ticket windows) and another separate window for buying international train tickets. I'm surprised I didn't see this arrangement at other major railway stations like Florence and Venice.

The only problem with Pisa Centrale station is that if you arrive back from a day trip late at night (and have missed the last train to San Rossore station), the Pisa city buses run infrequently after 8 pm, with the late evening buses taking a circuitous route back to the apartment and there can be drunks waiting for the bus at the stop across the road from the station. (As Gloria said, "Pisa is a very safe city - but it's still a city.") But it's no problem to walk across town back to the apartment, even late at night.

The local beaches are an easy 20-minute city bus ride from Pisa and the place to relax when you need a break from sightseeing. (And not a tourist in sight - they're all sweltering in Florence.) The "New York Cafe" in the seaside village of Marina di Pisa - easily recognized by the life-size mannequins of the Blues Brothers sitting at an outdoor table - has some of the best gelato in Italy!

For trips further afield (to Milan, the Italian Lakes, Venice, Bolzano, Rome, ect). it was necessary for us to stay a few nights at our destination but it was very nice to be able to come back to our own private "home" after a few days away, and find our stuff exactly where we left it. (A private apartment is a very safe place to store your luggage while you're away.) Returning after being away for a few days, we really appreciated having our own washing machine.

Taking advantage of the easy city bus ride to Pisa Airport (right on the edge of town!) we also made trips on budget airlines Ryanair and Easyjet to London, Brussels (for Bruges and Amsterdam) and Paris. (Often-overlooked Pisa is both a rail and an air hub.)

In the evenings, we hung out on a little square in the center of Pisa, Piazza Vettovaglie, where (if you're there at the right time), you can get unlimited hors d'ouevres with just one glass of wine at the enoteca (wine bar) on the square or you can eat outside on wooden benches at the "Slow Food Cafe" across the square. (Again, not a tourist in sight.). Il Bottega del Gelato - the best gelato in Pisa is only a block away, next to the Ponte di Mezzo. (Just look for the long line.)

We also battled with the locals for bargains in the Pisa summer sales (in July) - and my traveling companion managed to get her hair cut in a salon where they didn't speak a word of English, which freaked out her mother, who happened to call from California on the (very handy) mobile phone, which I had rented from Marcel and Gloria at that exact moment. (It's moments to remember like this which remind me that Slow Travel is definitely the way to go.)

I returned and stayed in the same apartment in June of 2005 (with two diferent traveling companions), because I wanted to visit places I hadn't seen the first time (can you believe 2 1/2 months wasn't enough time?) - and because I wanted to see all the festivals which take place in Pisa in June. But I was a bit disappointed in the Festival of San Ranieri, in that the some of the white lights illuminating the buildings along the Arno river during the festival were electric (only the Leaning Tower was illuminated by the original flaming torches), and the focus was mostly on the noisy and crowded street party along the Arno.

The same could not be said, however, for Il Gioco del Ponte (last Sunday evening in June); the very ancient "Game of the Bridge" was preceded by a big parade, with the marchers all in ancient costumes, knights on horseback, etc. truly a sight to see! But the surprising thing was the total lack of tourists watching this spectacle. When the center of town is closed to traffic and hundreds of people are walking towards the center of town, there are planes and helicopters flying overhead and TV cameras on top of buildings, surely even the most jaded tourist must realize that SOMETHING is going on? But the tourists stayed put in their hotels (and missed a terrific spectacle - what's wrong with these people)?

When you rent the apartment in Pisa from Gloria and Marcel, they will meet you at Pisa Airport and drive you and your luggage to the apartment and also take you back to Pisa Airport when you leave (except on Saturdays). The apartment has one (very large) bedroom with two single beds (which can be pushed together to form a double bed if you wish) and a separate fold-up single bed, The other room is a combination kitchen/living area. The bathroom is also quite spacious (and very clean), with plenty of hot water although the enclosed shower could be a bit cramped for very large people. (There is no bathtub, only a bidet.) Gloria and Marcel supply sheets and towels, and replace them at regular intervals.

My one problem with the bedroom is that it is located on a busy street, so it was necessary to keep the window shutters closed except that my traveling companion wanted to sleep with the window open (she had brought earplugs). But it was no problem for me to wheel the fold-up single bed into the other room, which is at the back of the building and much quieter. (Since I last stayed at this apartment, the owners have added a sofa-bed to the kitchen/living room for those who prefer to sleep in that room.)

There is a tiny balcony off the kitchen/living room (where you hang your wash out to dry on the lines provided, just like the neighbors). There's also a folding drying rack for drying your clothes indoors when it's too windy or rainy. The little balcony (with room for two chairs) overlooks a rather scruffy-looking rear courtyard. mostly occupied by a very large tree, a tree full of singing birds, a very nice sound to wake up to in the mornings! There is no access to the rear courtyard, as the apartment is upstairs, with it's own private indoor stairway from the street, which means that the double doors leading out to the little balcony can be safely left open at night when it's hot.

I would not recommend having a rental car while staying at this apartment; there's absolutely nowhere to park it. (But with all the local public transportation, you don't really need to have a car anyway.) But travelers with a car should also check out Gloria and Marcel's other rental property, the Tuscan village house Casina di Rosa.

This review is the opinion of a Slow Travel member and not of slowtrav.com.

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