topics: pane Toscano (food), Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti, Campo dei Miracoli (Leaning Tower of Pisa); jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: May 25, 1998

Food of the Day: pane Toscano, or Tuscan bread

Bread in Tuscany (the region of Italy around Pisa) is different from bread elsewhere in Italy. Made without salt, supposedly because of an oppressive salt tax in earlier times, pane Toscano's hard crust and chewy center make it a perfect complement to the fresh vegetables and olive oil of Tuscan food. We normally use it to wipe our plates clean.

Person of the Day: our Pisan friends at the Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti (UISP) click to view a photograph

We rendezvoused with Alfredo Bismuto at the Piazza dei Cavalieri in the center of town and followed him by bike to the offices of the Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti, or UISP. There, Alfredo introduced us to Alessandro, Simona, Donatella, Adolfo, and a number of other UISP employees and volunteers. They comprised an eager and attentive audience for Ethan's presentation of the BikeAbout project, which an English friend click to view a photograph of UISP helped translate into Italian.

The Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti is a national organization that helps sponsor and organize sports activities for children of all ages. Besides being one of the most important sponsors of Bicincittà 1998, UISP is also behind a number of other environmentally friendly events for children. Earlier this year (in May), they held an event called Città Senz'Auto (Carless City) in which traffic was banned from downtown Pisa (and other cities) to make way for children in a number of organized activities, like street basketball, soccer and even twister. UISP also arranges regular classes in sports like swimming, and organizes recreational volleyball, basketball and soccer leagues (among others). Although UISP concentrates on sport, it also helps sponsor other programs. For example, one of the volunteers is working on a well-reputed theater program for the inmates of a local penitentiary.

After Ethan's presentation, Alessandro, Simona, and Donatella took us out for a quick picnic dinner before their next meeting. click to view a photograph Over pizza, cecína (an omelette-like dish made of chickpea flour and egg) and drinks, we discussed UISP, Pisa (which we found out used to be one of Italy's biggest and most important ports along with Venezia, Amalfi and Genova, though now the coast has receded over five km from the town), and the xenophobia caused by the recent wave of immigrants to and crackdowns against gypsies in Italy.

Place of the Day: Campo dei Miracoli

Pisa's most famous and beautiful landmarks is its Campo dei Miracoli, a huge open space at the northwestern edge of the old city crowned with a series of beautiful structures. The Campo dei Miracoli is, of course, best known for its Camponile or Bell Tower - or to call it by its more familiar name, "The Leaning Tower of Pisa." click to view a photograph However, no one should overlook the magnificent cathedral, the Baptistry and the world-famous cemetery.

Construction of the tower began in 1174, but it was left incomplete when the builders realized that its foundation would be insufficient in the soft, unstable ground. Despite these concerns, however, the tower was completed in the 14th century. Its eight arcaded stories constructed of white marble made it an attractive addition to the Campo, but it became a major attraction when it began to lean. Between the 14th century and 1992, the 55-meter (179-foot) high and 15-meter (50-foot) wide tower developed a 10° tilt from the vertical. At its height, this amounts to a difference of about 4.5 meters (16 feet). Now, while this may not sound like much, it is certainly hard for anyone to miss. click to view a photograph Until 1990, tourists were actually allowed to climb up the tower, but concerns about the continued instability of the ground prompted officials to close the tower and begin to take steps to stop it from leaning any further. For more information about their efforts, see the Tech Fact of the Day.

After admiring the Leaning Tower for a few moments, we decided to visit the Romanesque Cathedral just next to the tower. At least we were allowed inside the 12th century church where, according to legend, the famous astronomer Galileo (see more about him and gravity in yesterday's dispatch) made the observation that later came to be known as the principle of the pendulum. While watching one of the chandeliers in the cathedral swing, he observed that whether it swung in a wide or narrow arc, it took the same amount of time to complete an oscillation (one set of swings). This observation led directly to the development of the first reliable (pendulum) clocks! And to think that our observations while inside cathedrals are usually confined to "Gee, what a high ceiling."

We found the Cathedral to be one of the nicer ones we have seen, both inside and out. Unfortunately, since it, like most Romanesque structures, has small windows, the light inside was too dim for pictures (not even of the chandeliers). This is too bad for there was a particularly fascinating 14th-century carved pulpit that we would have liked to show here. However, the highlights of the outside are the beautiful decorated doors click to view a photograph (here shown in close-up click to view a photograph), and the richly decorated façade with its alternating bands of colored marble and beautiful colonnades. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

Directly across from the Cathedral is the impressive Baptistery - a round church building with a large dome in which baptisms take place. Unfortunately, scaffolding obscures much of the intricate Gothic ornaments adorning its façade. click to view a photograph

The leaning tower notwithstanding, we found that our favorite structure in the Campo dei Miracoli was the lovely Renaissance cemetery hidden by a long white marble wall behind the Cathedral. click to view a photograph Though no great connoisseurs of cemeteries, we agreed that this has to rank among the most beautiful graveyards we have ever seen. Upon entering, we found a pleasant rectangular courtyard click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, skirted by a wide colonnaded covered walkway. click to view a photograph However, much to our surprise the green courtyard was not a graveyard. Instead the dead are buried in elaborate crypts along the sides of the walkway click to view a photograph click to view a photograph or under our feet. click to view a photograph Some of the crypts were decorated with reliefs showing angels click to view a photograph while others offered darker (though still familiar) visions. click to view a photograph

Just off the walkway, we found an exhibit of very large restored frescoes by an unknown master artist. The biggest and best is a grotesque but fascinating work known as the Triumph of Death (prompting everyone to refer to the unknown artist as the "Master of the Triumph of Death"). The artist conveys the message of the painting - that death eventually comes to everyone - by some vivid scenes. Here, for example, the rich confront their own mortality, covering their noses click to view a photograph as they look upon the recently dead rotting in coffins. click to view a photograph Another part of the fresco showed terrifying scenes of demons stealing a not yet born baby from the mouth of its pregnant mother. click to view a photograph On the facing wall the artist offers a Dante-esque glimpse of Hell, replete with a gruesome monster of the underworld and the piteous damned click to view a photograph, some being tormented by devils and roasted on spits. click to view a photograph

Presumably any sinners or nonbelievers that saw these frescoes might be scared straight. Of course, it did not work for everyone. For instance, just outside the exit to the cemetery, some people (probably part of the criminal element) chose to ignore the clearly worded and prominently displayed warnings click to view a photograph and lounged on the well-manicured lawn of the Campo. click to view a photograph Happily, having an appointment to visit UISP, one particularly scrappy-looking duo of malefactors left before the police arrived.

Tech Fact of the Day: how to straighten a leaning tower

Pisa's famous leaning bell tower leans a little bit more every year. Worried that the tower will eventually topple, engineers in 1992 tried to arrest any further leaning by placing thousands of pounds (600 tons to be more precise) of weights (lead ingots) click to view a photograph on the side opposite that of the direction in which the tower leans. The weights worked well for a few years: the tower still leaned, but the lean stopped increasing. However, on one night in 1995, the tower suddenly tilted back by more than two millimeters (about a twelfth of an inch), raising fears about the stability of the tower and the whole rescue process. Basically, it appears that nothing can save the tower. But the engineers have not given up. Just days after our visit, they fitted the tower with a set of special suspenders designed to augment the weights still in place.

Group Dispatch, May 25
picture of Padraic

Since we had spent most of the previous day working on dispatches in Francesco and Nicola's apartment, we decided that today we would accomplish the requisite sightseeing. And, with most of Francesco and Nicola's roommates returning to reclaim their beds, Padraic and Corinne had to find a new place to sleep. So, at a relatively early hour, the BikeAbout team headed off with these two missions in mind. In the end they combined them.

Finding an inexpensive hotel within shouting distance of the top tourist attractions of the Campo dei Miracoli, Corinne and Padraic threw their bags into a room and joined Ethan and Anthony for a quick look around. For details of what they saw in the Campo dei Miracoli (especially the Leaning Tower), check out the Place of the Day.

At 2 p.m., we took an intermission from our visit to the Campo and scurried off to meet Francesco click to view a photograph at the Mensa, or student dining center. There, over another lunch of cheap and nourishing cafeteria food, we met another of Francesco's many friends, Stefano. click to view a photograph We all arranged to meet after dinner that evening for final farewell refreshment.

After lunch, the BikeAbouters returned to finish off their visit of the Campo dei Miracoli before their scheduled meeting with Alfredo Bismuto who would lead us to the headquarters of the Unione Italiana Sport per Tutti (or UISP) for a presentation. For more details of our visit to UISP and the people we met there, see our Persons of the Day.

It should come as no surprise to our loyal readers that despite an impromptu and hearty picnic the BikeAbout crew shared with our friends at UISP, we had not consumed enough pizza to satisfy our carbohydrate depleted bodies. So after our friends left, we nipped off to a nearby pasta joint for a quick dish before meeting up with Francesco, Nicola and Stefano for a celebratory final drink. (Incidentally, it should again come as no surprise to our readers that while waiting for the boys to arrive, the BikeAbout crew felt they had still not consumed enough so they indulged in a delicious gelato from the conveniently located "best gelateria in Pisa").

When Francesco, Nicola and Stefano arrived, we retired to a quiet pub where we sadly said our farewells.

We will miss the fabulous cooking, great conversation, and unique insight into the Italian academic world of our Pisan friends. Thanks yet again for your hospitality and help, and best of luck on your exams!

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