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Leaning towards the good life; Travel Editor Lisa Piddington visits the Italian city of Pisa - just a two-hour flight from England.

How often on a business trip do you fly into one of the world's most beautiful cities, rush from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to a meeting, and from a meeting back to the airport - without having seen anything of the place you are in.

I know of executives who have been to New York but never climbed the Empire State Building; stopped over in Paris but never strolled along with Champs Elysee; or visited Pisa and did not have the time to stare in awe at the leaning tower.

So this article is by way of an appeal to jet-setting sales reps and company highflyers to take a few hours at least in their destinations to soak up the city's atmosphere.

Earlier this month I visited Pisa, nestling in the beautiful Tuscan coastline and straddling the curve of the River Arno, for just 24 hours - and probably saw as much in one day than I would if I was on a leisurely week-long tour.

Just two hours' flying time from London Stansted, this stunning city is certainly a sight to behold - and it would have seemed a sacrilege if I hadn't taken time out from my schedule to stroll its narrow streets, sit drinking cappuccinos in its road-side cafes or have a mad dash round the elegant shops on the hunt for bargains.

I suppose the most amazing thing about the city is the Tower - or the Campanile - and any visitor must take time to stare in amazement at the structure.

Being called the Leaning Tower, one expects it to lean, a bit. But believe me, this tower really leans. How it remains standing is a mystery, and I'm sure every tourist looking in disbelief has their own idea of how to straighten it.

Constructed in the 12th century, the building started to tilt almost immediately when the ground beneath the foundations began to subside, and has continued at the rate of 1mm each year. Sadly though, it was closed to visitors in 1990.

But the Tower is not the only stunning monument. The Campo dei Miracoli (meaning the Field of Miracles) is the name of the piazza which houses the tower and also boasts the Duomo Cathedral, a masterpiece of Pisan Romanesque craftsmanship dating from1064 .

Severely damaged by fire in 1595, the cathedral was restored under the patronage of the Medici, the grand dukes of Tuscany, with further restoration work in the 1800s. The bronze entrance doors - featuring 24 illustrated panels from The New Testament sto ries - were cast in 1180 and are worth a visit in their own right.

The white-marbled Battistero stands next to the Duomo, and building started in 1152. The cathedral is one of only three in the world that boasts a separate baptistery and, with its domed ceilings, provides a wonderful echo effect. Make sure you waitarou nd for a few minutes to listen to the regular demonstrations by the staff.

The final building in the Religious Precinct is Il Camposanto, the 'miraculous' square in a vast cloister that is home to the ancient cemetery. Soil originally used for the burials is believed to have been bought from Golgotha during the Fourth Crusade i n 1203.

The building is now roofless, following an air raid by the Allied Forces in 1944, which also destroyed a number of the amazing frescoes, but many still remain and are open to visitors.

After wondering round this amazing area for a few hours, you'll certainly have built up an appetite, and there are countless places to take up a pavement table, order a glass of Chianti delle Colline Pisane or San Torpe and sit back for the afternoon.

One of the most admirable traits about the Italians is their pace of life - any of the countries that take daily siestas and enjoy long, relaxed mealtimes know a thing or two about the good life. So when in Pisa, do as the Pisans do.

As a vegetarian, I often struggle with interesting dishes in foreign cities. I have spent whole holidays eating nothing but omelette and chips. But fortunately every restaurant I visited was happy to go along with my request for "no carne" (the mostimpo rtant Italian I managed to pick up), and brought me beautiful salads of mozzarella and basil, mouth-watering pastas and the best bruschetta I've ever tasted.

For meat-eaters, there are endless dishes to try, many of the local meals dating back to the age-old clashes between Pisa and its rival Lucca. But local fare includes bavettin sul pesce (a fish recipe), zuppa di ranocchi (frog soup) and pappardelle alla lepre (pasta in a hare sauce).

An after-lunch/dinner stroll is the perfect way to wind down in time for the flight home. Because Pisa is not the biggest of cities, it is easy to just wander through the streets, watching the locals promenading in the most elegant of outfits as they gat her on the bridges over the Arno.

Oh, and don't forget the occasional dash into the shops to pick up last-minute presents.

Lisa Piddington travelled to Pisa from London Stansted courtesy of Ryanair.
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Author:Piddington, Lisa
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jul 15, 1998
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