The Angry Old Woman of Pisa

It was seeing recent images of soon-to-be ex-President Donald Trump, which made me mindful of an incident that happened to me in Pisa a number of years ago.  The parallel is that of an angry old septuagenarian powerlessly railing against forces over which they no longer have any control.

This is the story of the angry old woman of Pisa.

With it being possible to visit so much of the world in some kind of virtual fashion, whether it be on Google Maps Street View or via a professionally curated 360° virtual tour, it is almost bound to be the case that certain places, which are held up as icons of travel, will not prove to be quite so spectacular in real life as they appear online.  There is a tendency towards hyperbole in our modern, consumer-driven Age and, as such, it is inevitable that some must-visit destinations will fail to live up to their billing.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is not one of these places; the Leaning Tower of Pisa is so much better in real life than ever I thought it would be.  Perhaps, perversely, but for me the attraction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not so much about its lean, but just the pure beauty of its Romanesque architecture and its setting.  I would have found the Leaning Tower of Pisa equally wonderful whether it had been canted right over at an angle of forty-five degrees or standing bolt upright, like a parade-ground soldier.  It is simply a magnificent campanile set amidst the stunning backdrop of the Piazza dei Miracoli.

For a number of years––1990 ‘til 2001––the Leaning Tower of Pisa had been off-limit to visitors, due to fears regarding its safety.  For more than a decade, travellers were unable to ascend the tower and enjoy the views of Pisa and its surroundings from the elegant bell tower but, on 15 December 2001, the tower was reopened to the public, and the public duly returned in droves.  To marshal numbers, entry to the tower is now controlled by allocating visitors specific time-slots of half an hour duration; plenty of time to scale the 296 steps––or 294 steps, depending on which way you turn at the seventh floor––have a good nosey around the topmost, open-air gallery, take a few panoramic photos, and come back down again.

Each time-slot is limited to about 50 visitors, led by a guide.  I was raring to get going.  I arrived for my time-slot early, nevertheless, there was already a short queue of people waiting in front of me, beside the door, at the foot of the tower.  Time passed quickly, however.  It was a beautiful sunny day in April; the blue sky was untroubled by a single cloud; the conditions couldn’t have been better for a perfect view from the top of the tower.

And there it was: the door was opening; the short queue surged forward expectantly, and then stopped.  Stopped, and then began to move forward again.  Very slowly.  Very, very slowly.  I was through the door, had my foot on the first of the 296––maybe 294––steps of the narrow, marble, spiral staircase, but I was going nowhere fast.  I was champing at the bit to get climbing, but still the line of people was moving at a snail’s pace.  However, the enforced delay did give me time to examine each step––and examine it carefully, mind––as the procession trailed its agonisingly slow way skywards.  The marble of each step was worn smooth and shiny, and two deep grooves, like irrigation channels, marked the predictable footfalls, left and right, of successive generation of pilgrims. 

I looked at my watch.  Five minutes of my half an hour of allotted time had already elapsed and the queue hadn’t even reached the first landing.  Somewhere, a short distance ahead, there was the sound of raised voices; an argument––in Italian––was taking place.  The queue bunched together along the narrow, stone passageway, trying to see what was taking place.  From my restricted viewpoint, it appeared that the tour guide was engaged in a heated debate with a short, elderly Italian woman.  Of the two individuals, it was the elderly Italian woman who was squabbling most vociferously.  I couldn’t understand a word of what was being said but, from the gestures exchanged, I was able to work out the gist of the disagreement.  The elderly Italian woman had occupied the prime position at the front of the queue when the door to the tower had opened, and it had been she who had set the pace up the single-file, spiral staircase; a slow and tortuous pace, left foot slowly after right foot, slowly after left foot, which everyone behind had had to follow.  The guide was attempting to make a petition to her to now stand aside so that everyone that she was holding up could overtake her, while the elderly Italian woman was replying in no uncertain terms, that she had no intention of so doing; claiming her rights of first come first served.

Eventually, some kind of compromise was reached, although not one that evidently met with the elderly Italian woman’s wholehearted approval.  As the queue of people finally moved forward up the staircase at a less-than-dignified rush, the elderly Italian woman angrily berated everyone who passed her from her position on the first-floor landing.

I did eventually reach the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the view was everything that I had hoped for.  Despite the delay going up, I still had plenty of time to explore the bell tower and take my panoramic photos.  Before I knew it, though, the guide was signalling that it was time to descend again so that the next time-slot could take our place.

But, blow me bloody well down if, as I came to go back down the narrow, spiral staircase, the same angry, old Italian woman wasn’t in front of me again.

By now, though, I’d seen the view that I had wanted to see.  I couldn’t care less how long it took me to get back down to ground level; the angry, old Italian woman could take as long as she liked.

© E. C. Glendenny

E. C. Glendenny does the Pisa thing.

The Angry Old Woman of Pisa is an essay from E. C. Glendenny’s book Easy Pickings.

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