The International Living Podcast

Episode 46: An Untourist’s Stroll Through Pisa and Florence

October 11, 2023 International Living
Episode 46: An Untourist’s Stroll Through Pisa and Florence
The International Living Podcast
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The International Living Podcast
Episode 46: An Untourist’s Stroll Through Pisa and Florence
Oct 11, 2023
International Living

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This week, the International Living Podcast swoops down to the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy. Host, Jim Santos, talks to International Living Lifestyle Editor, Seán Keenan. Seán joins the podcast fresh from a trip to the heart of the Italian region best known for its olive groves, vineyard-covered hills, centuries-old farmhouses, and art-filled cities.

Florence and Pisa, where Seán spent much of his time in Italy, are among the world’s most-visited destinations. Florence, famous worldwide for its architecture and the long-lived opulence of the city’s Medici founders, has been a fixture of European tourism since the 17th century. Europe’s educated elite made the city a stopping-off point on their ‘Grand Tour’ to the antiquities of ancient Greece. Tourists are everywhere in the historic center, there to view artworks as infamous as Michelangelo’s David, or Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus.

Pisa, too, groans under the weight of mass tourism. With a globally recognized icon of the modern tourism industry—the Leaning Tower—nestled in the city’s northwest corner, the footfall of international visitors is enormous. Most come to take a photo of themselves with the tower, and leave soon afterwards.

It’s a missed opportunity because, overlooked by the majority of its visitors, Pisa is one of Europe’s most attractive, liveable, and pleasant cities. Florence, too, away from the crush of the tourists, is an energetic and attractive civic space, with food, wine, conviviality, and charm that rewards a deeper dive than the tourist trudge from the Duomo to the Pitti Palace.

It's this ‘untourist’ experience that brought International Living to Tuscany; to search for the overlooked piazzas, cafés, bars, villages, and undiscovered corners of the region, as well as the flavors, customs, and charm that lies under the surface. It’s surprising just how easy it is to become an ‘untourist’. And it’s infinitely more rewarding than the package tour approach. Tune in for inspiration and ideas on how to make Untourist Tuscany yours.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

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Send us a Text Message.

This week, the International Living Podcast swoops down to the rolling hills of Tuscany, Italy. Host, Jim Santos, talks to International Living Lifestyle Editor, Seán Keenan. Seán joins the podcast fresh from a trip to the heart of the Italian region best known for its olive groves, vineyard-covered hills, centuries-old farmhouses, and art-filled cities.

Florence and Pisa, where Seán spent much of his time in Italy, are among the world’s most-visited destinations. Florence, famous worldwide for its architecture and the long-lived opulence of the city’s Medici founders, has been a fixture of European tourism since the 17th century. Europe’s educated elite made the city a stopping-off point on their ‘Grand Tour’ to the antiquities of ancient Greece. Tourists are everywhere in the historic center, there to view artworks as infamous as Michelangelo’s David, or Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus.

Pisa, too, groans under the weight of mass tourism. With a globally recognized icon of the modern tourism industry—the Leaning Tower—nestled in the city’s northwest corner, the footfall of international visitors is enormous. Most come to take a photo of themselves with the tower, and leave soon afterwards.

It’s a missed opportunity because, overlooked by the majority of its visitors, Pisa is one of Europe’s most attractive, liveable, and pleasant cities. Florence, too, away from the crush of the tourists, is an energetic and attractive civic space, with food, wine, conviviality, and charm that rewards a deeper dive than the tourist trudge from the Duomo to the Pitti Palace.

It's this ‘untourist’ experience that brought International Living to Tuscany; to search for the overlooked piazzas, cafés, bars, villages, and undiscovered corners of the region, as well as the flavors, customs, and charm that lies under the surface. It’s surprising just how easy it is to become an ‘untourist’. And it’s infinitely more rewarding than the package tour approach. Tune in for inspiration and ideas on how to make Untourist Tuscany yours.

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube

Jim Santos 00:11 
Hello, everyone. I'm Jim Santos, and this is the International Living Podcast. In this podcast series, we introduce you to a bigger world full of communities that are safe, welcoming, beautiful and sometimes undiscovered. A better world, too. A friendly, warm, great value world where you could live richer, travel more, invest for profit, and enjoy a better life. So let's get started. 

Greetings, everyone, and welcome to the International Living Podcast. Before we get started, I wanted to catch you up on our first few weeks of testing out the Roving Retirement lifestyle. When we spoke with Jessica last week, we were in Thessaloniki, Greece. We had a great time there, and we saw some very interesting and beautiful sights as we explored the city our favorite way—on foot. 

We're in the final days of our stay in Istanbul, Turkey, right now, and we're averaging about five miles each day on our explorations. I want to take a moment to explain our method and how we still manage to see so many wonderful places. When we selected our Airbnbs, our main criteria was location. We always tried to choose a place that was right in the heart of the things we wanted to see most.

So in Athens, we were within a mile or so of the Acropolis, Lycabettus and a host of museums. In Thessaloniki, same thing—short walk to the White Tower, Agios Dimitrios, Galarius Palace and museums with plenty of restaurants and convenience stores around us. In Athens, we took a cab once to see the Piraeus waterfront area and took a bus tour an hour and a half outside of town to see the temple of Poseidon. 

Similarly, in Thessaloniki, we took a cab to the top of the ridge to visit the city walls and a monastery and then walked back exploring all the way here. In Istanbul, we're just around the corner from the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque with Hagia Sofia down the block. After that, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi palace, grand bazaar, spice bazaar. All easy walks. Now, tonight we do plan a scenic dinner cruise on the Bosphorus that includes demonstrations of sword juggling, whirling dervishes and belly dancers. But the pickup spot is 10 feet from our front door. 

Tomorrow we plan on taking a ferry across the river to have lunch in Asia, and we may take a taxi home if we are tired. When we return, we find that for us, this maximizes the time we spend actually seeing and experiencing the culture and sights around us and minimizes the time we spend waiting in line for transportation or bouncing around on a tour bus where we always seem to be on the wrong side to see the incredible sight that we're currently whooshing by.

So that's my travel tip, and you're in luck, because today we are joined once again by International Living Lifestyle Editor, Sean Keenan. Sean has been in the Tuscany region of Italy recently, and he's here today to talk about some of his insider tips and hacks for getting the most out of your visit to two popular tourist destinations, Florence and Pisa. Sean. Welcome back to the International Living Podcast.

Sean Keenan 03:10 
Good to be back again. Seems very soon. How are your travels going, anyway?

Jim Santos 03:16 
Pretty well, pretty nicely. We're on our third week here and looking forward to the next stop now.

Sean Keenan 03:21 
And where's here? 

Jim Santos 03:24 
Just at the moment here, we're in Istanbul, and we'll be leaving in two days, I believe, to go to Vienna.

Sean Keenan 03:29 
To Vienna next. It's funny, I was just in Vienna a couple of weeks ago, actually. Not for IL, but for a personal trip, actually. I flew out of Vienna, spent a couple of couple of days in Austria, actually, with my son. So it's an interesting trajectory from Istanbul to Vienna, but not without its historical precedent. I think there was a massive invasion in the 15th century that kind of ended up in Vienna. And they're from the from the Istanbul region, the Ottoman Turks. Yeah.

Jim Santos 03:58 
It's pretty interesting, the history of this area when you look at it. And we were in Greece before this and came here. And of course, Greece and Turkey have had their disagreements in the past and currently, but it's just interesting to be in a city here that really, for a thousand years or more, it was the center of Western civilization.

Sean Keenan 04:19 
Yeah. And it's actually a nice little segue if you want, because the Ottoman Turkish and sort of Islamic aspect of what became European culture doesn't tend to get highlighted or spotlighted as much as it should. But when we're talking about where I've just been, which is Florence, the center of the Renaissance, the Renaissance all pretty much kicked off in Florence and Pisa, but with ideas and philosophies and technologies and mathematics that were all directly cribbed from the east, mostly from people going over, nobles going over to the Crusades and bringing back ideas with them. 

When you look at the Duomo, the huge dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral in the center of Florence, and if you squint your eyes a little bit, it looks very like looking at the inside of a mosque.

Jim Santos 05:19 
And of course, you have the Roman Emperor Constantine was the one who made this area the center of Rome by founding here.

Sean Keenan 05:29 
Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, we tend to think of the… we should try not to get too bogged down historically…we do tend to think of this crunching fall of Rome as the end but, you know, the Roman era just kind of fizzled out in a lot of places. When you're in Pisa, for example, when you wander around in Pisa and you see the great big walls growing around the outside, also in Florence, you can walk around close to the Roman walls. 

And those are part of both those cities that are sort of slightly overlooked because everyone looks at the beautiful Renaissance and Romanesque aspects of those cities. But Pisa, for example, became powerful and rich in the period that it was powerful and rich, largely because it had this established sea trading port with lovely, big, solid Roman walls sitting there to help defend it and so on. It was also there. 

Right, okay. The Romans are no longer administrating it, but it's still there. So it's a great foundation to be able to build upon. But then if you get to somewhere like Pisa or even like Florence, you find that the Romans were building on Etruscan foundations as well.

Sean Keenan 06:38 
So everyone's that, to an extent…

Jim Santos 06:42 
They're building on the last invader.

Sean Keenan 06:44 
Exactly. Well, I think we're coming round by sort of a sideways way of introducing the idea that these places have just got masses upon masses of very visible built environment that reflects an enormous deep history. Like you said, when you are in cities that have a history that goes back thousands of years, there is a sort of a richness to that, just even a visual richness to that. It's very difficult to express just how, without pictures, how these places actually look and feel.

Jim Santos 07:22 
Now, I've been to Florence and Venice as a tourist, so I'm interested to see what your tips and tricks are for those areas. Can we start with Florence?

Sean Keenan 07:32 
Well, just to pull you up, you just said Venice there. I think you meant Pisa.

Jim Santos 07:35 
Pisa. I'm sorry. Florence and Pisa.

Sean Keenan 07:38 
Yeah. Okay, so Florence. I've been to Venice, too, but slightly different. I have no idea how you would do an untourist approach to Venice. Well, I have a couple of ideas, but it would be difficult. And that's kind of where we start with Florence. 

You know, the very word tourist is associated with Florence. I mean, in its absolute origins, this refers to the Grand Tour, when the elite families of England, the Oxford and Cambridge students, after, I think, their first year, when they went in between first and second year, it was traditional that their tutors would take them on a grand tour, with the starting of Oxford or Cambridge, working their way down through some of the historical and cultural sites of Europe, largely skipping past France after Paris and Chartres. 

But the major stop offs on these were Florence, to an extent, Pisa, and then it wound up traditionally at the ancient classical Greece, at the artifacts of Greece. So from the Grand Tour, which has been going on since the 17th century, if not the late 16th century, theory idea of tourism comes from that concept of going on a tour to these historical sites to see.

So, yeah, the tourism in Florence has been going on for a very long time, and they are very adept in Florence at squeezing the last buck out of everything you can possibly do. But there are ways of getting away from that. 

So, first off, I would say that I want to look at it from an untourist point of view, but I really don't want to discourage people from going to the central historical district of Florence and going and seeing the Ponte Vecchio, going and seeing the Piazza Signorina, going and seeing the Uffizi Gallery, going and see the Duomo. You would be mad. And it would be immoral not to go and see those things, if you've gone all the way to Florence, out of some inverted snobbery to say, oh, I'm not a tourist. I'm not going to see those things.’

Jim Santos 09:51 
Yeah, there's some major works of art in those museums to see, major works of art.

Sean Keenan 09:53 
And even the city itself, those areas, the cities itself, are packed with public artworks, some of them of great antiquity and really highly regarded artworks which you can just see and walk through. And the atmosphere of the place, even just looking at the cathedrals from the outside, going and seeing Santa Croce, for example, those things are really very much worth your time. Although the experience can be a little difficult because they are rammed with tour groups and you do have to go genuinely elbow to elbow, pushing your way through the crowds to see some of these things. 
And it does get old very quickly, but it is very much worth it. You can go to the Galleria Accademia and see Michelangelo's original David that he carved out of Carrara marble. You know, it is there. You can do that. But you can also walk up the hill to the Piazzale the Michelangelo and see the bronze casting that Michelangelo also worked on of that very same statue. And you can do that. It's out in the open, and it's completely free to go and visit that.

So that's not an unknown activity and it's not an unknown place, but it is a slightly less touristy version of some of the same things. But I think what I want to try and get at with the untourist idea is that there are other ways to appreciate the city and there are other things to appreciate in the city other than the artworks and the central area. And a couple of those are kind of easy to do.

If you are in the Santa Croce Square, for example, which is one of the highlights of Florence. One of the cultural highlights of Florence is this beautiful piazza in which you find the Basilica de Santa Croce, which is actually not even really a Renaissance church. It's earlier than that. It's a late Romanesque church. It's actually where Michelangelo's remains are buried, although some would contest that because he was actually officially buried in Rome. But then apparently his nephew went up 20 days later and stole his remains from Rome and brought them back to his local family church, which is Santa Croce. But anyway, if you are at the Santa Croce church, it's a block, or maybe I think it's about three blocks west of that, I think you'll come to a place called Sant’ Ambrogio, Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio is pure local, really.

I won't say it's utterly without tourism and I won't say it's utterly without the edging in of gentrification. There's a cafe that is opened there recently called Artiginale, and I went into this cafe and was disgusted because they were offering banana lattes. And I thought, ‘this is not the Florence I want’. But apart from that particular place, you're in a very local sort of region. But what the highlight for me of the Sant’ Ambrogio region, just the district of the city, is that it's got the oldest working produce market in Florence. 

It's not medieval old, it's 19th-century old, but it's been continuously working since the 1860s anyway. So it's a produce market. Lovely, lovely sort of cast iron and glass produce market. But within that, in the inside of it, is a place called Trattoria Rocco. And Trattoria Rocco is sort of one of those... Again, you can't say that these are undiscovered by tourism, because nothing in Florence is undiscovered by tourism. It's had 500 years of it. You can't possibly do that. But Rocco's is certainly undiscovered by mainstream tourism. And you can go to Rocco's in the market there, and Rocco's, it's just maybe ten tables set up, but they've got, like, benches which can seat four people each.

So you turn up to Rocco's and if you don't have like, eight people with you to take over an entire booth, you just get thrown in with everybody else, really, whenever there's a gap. So you can get into these great conversations. I had a very halted, stilted conversation, but a great fun conversation with a trio of ladies who were celebrating their retirement and they were all dressed up in their best finery for this Rocco's place, which is not posh and not high end by any means. Right? 

This was just one of those experiences are the real reasons you travel. You can look at as many statues as you like and go to as many galleries. But if you get a chance to just be sitting at a bench table with three Italian ladies who are in full flow and are getting stuck in to win in their meal, that's going to be far more memorable to you in 20 years’ time than looking up at the statue of David and shuffling by elbow to elbow with 1000 other gawkers. So Rocco's was wonderful. I really would recommend getting there. And Rocco's is just one thing in the Sant’ Ambrogio region (I keep calling them regions, it's not. It's just a little city district. It's only maybe ten blocks or so of the city.) 

And even when we talk about blocks in Florence, you can't really use that sort of way of thinking about it, because the layout of the city is not as organized and as rigidly right-angle straight as the like of San Francisco or New York or some of those later cities. There are city blocks, but they're not quite as…. 

You know, you'll spend a lot of time in Florence just kind of consulting Google Maps and trying to see where that little blue dot is and which way you should be turning at this point to try and get to the place that you want to go to. Another area that I would very much recommend people go to in Florence is actually the Oltrarno district, which is on the south side of the Arno. Once you've seen the Ponte Vecchio, which is one of the most famous bridges in the world, any of the Ponte Vecchio, which is a covered bridge, it's beautiful. Funny thing about the Ponte Vecchio is, when you're walking on it, it doesn't really feel like you're on a bridge. You don't get a great sense of the river much because it does a continuation of a street.

Jim Santos 16:33 
Yeah. You have shops on either side of you all the way across.

Sean Keenan 16:37 
Yeah. Gold shops. Actually, they have to be gold. Right? Since Cozimol de Medici. In the 15th century, when the Medici family built the Pitti Palace, which was their new palace on the south side of the river. And their old palace was the Palazzo Vecchio, up in the north side of town, about six blocks away. Cosmo decided that he certainly didn't want to be walking down between the two places with the rabble of normal Florentine folk, so he had a thing called the Vasari Corridor built. 

Well, it wasn't called a Vasari Corridor at the time. It's called that now because it was designed by a guy called called Vasari. But anyway, he had, what would you say, sort of an elevated passage built between all the various buildings, between the two palaces, including all the way across the top of the Ponte Vecchio. He had a whole storey, a whole extra floor built on the Ponte Vecchio to bring him across the bridge. But when he was doing so, the Ponte Vecchio was traditionally where the butchers and the leather tanners worked in the city. And if you've ever been to a leather tannery or near a leather tanner, you will know about it, because they smell a bit. 

Jim Santos 17:57 
They smell horrible.

Sean Keenan 17:59 
And he didn't like this bit. So he decreed, he basically decreed that they all had to go. And basically, the only thing that could be traded on the Ponte Vecchio was gold, because it doesn't smell, right? And I guess none of the processes of working with gold smell particularly bad either. So, anyway, since then, they haven't actually changed that rule. And now gold is still the only… or jewelry is the only thing that can be traded on the Ponte Vecchio. 

There's another little story about the Ponte Vecchio, which is just in the center of it along this Vasari corridor on the top floor. Most of the windows are just little circular portholes, but right in the center there's three rectangular, quite ugly rectangular large windows which are built into the west side of that Vasari corridor. And it turns out that the reason why that is the case is because in 1938, Mussolini, who was leader of Italy at the time, was having a visit from Hitler, and Hitler apparently liked the river views. 

So Mussolini had the three windows put into the corridor of the Ponte Vecchio just so that Hitler could have a little river view, which is an ugly little story, but it has actually got a little silver lining to it, which is because of that or partly because of that, basically, when the Allied troops started pushing up through Italy from North Africa and working their way up through Italy and the fall of Italy, basically, Hitler's troops were retreating northwards. 

And when they got to Florence, they decided they were going to blow all the bridges, basically because to make it more difficult for the Allied troops chasing them. But Hitler actually said, don't blow up the Ponte Vecchio. I really like that one. So what they did was they blew up the buildings on either side of it. So the bridge actually stayed intact, but you couldn't actually get onto it on either side. So actually that little visit from Hitler had a silver lining for the city of Florence. 

But anyway, I digress, as I always do, but the Ponte Vecchio will get you onto the south side of the river. If you go further south from there to the Ponte Santa Trinita, actually it's further west if you go to the next bridge down and then south from there, you get into an area called Oltrarno. And Oltrarno is a district of Florence that I think has stayed more or less intact. It's very much a Florentine local sort of area.

Some people say it's bohemian and a bit hipster, but actually I would argue that… I would say that the places a little bit close to the river are a little bit hipster. But as you get further in, and particularly to a little piazza there, which is called Piazza de Santo Spirito, you really get a flavor of actual residential, local, Florentine, Italian life there. 

And it's a wonderful place to just go. The piazza itself has got a basilica on the, I think it's the west side of it. There's a bell tower if you're there, just on the air you hear the bells chiming. There are beech trees all around lining this piazza. There's kids playing football in the middle of the piazza and it's flagstones and you've got pavement cafes around the outside, around the perimeter, and it's actually just one of those places that you get there and suddenly it feels like a weight is lifted off. 

Jim Santos 21:49 
Something that we noticed when we were in Florence, and we actually stayed in an apartment that was a block off the river and about two blocks from the Ponte Vecchio. So we were in the heart of what you think of as the tourist district, but if you went out into the local neighborhood, it was remarkably free of tourists. You walk around, here's the deli shop, and here's the bread shop, and here's the wine shop, and here's the little coffee shop on the corner. 100%.

Sean Keenan 22:17 
Yeah.

Jim Santos 22:17 
And it was all local Italians in there. It's just really refreshing to have that right there. That's in the heart of so much of the tourist area.

Sean Keenan 22:26 
Super refreshing. And it really doesn't take much to get out of that crush of tourism. And also the other thing you've got to remember about Florence, that central artistic area, the Medici family who originated all that and made that all happen, they did so because they were the bankers to Europe. They funded governments and wars and massive, massive projects. They were sitting on wealth that in the modern era would be like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos together. 

And Florence, for them, was a showroom. Florence was where they brought their potential backers, their investors, to be wowed. And in some ways, it's like the expensive suit of a car salesman. Florence is made to impress. It's actually also made to slightly intimidate. All the art is at it's not at eye level. You've got to crane your head back. The buildings are very imposing. The steps are all a little bit too big for your standard size human. The scale is all very much on a very show-off sort of scale. And it was built that way specifically to impress investors. So it's not super comfortable. 

I find after a few hours walking around in that part of Florence, you're sort of wondering, what's up? What's up? I'm feeling something. And then you cross the river and go into a little local area, like you say, just one of those random piazzas where it's just suddenly you're in amongst Italians and it's just a normal little place, and suddenly it feels like a weight's been lifted off you. 

And I very much felt that when I went to Pisa after Florence, because Pisa is built in an entirely different sense, in that Pisa was not there to impress anyone. Pisa developed as a seaport. And the funny thing about Pisa is it's no longer on the sea. Pisa is about 10 miles from the sea now, but back in the 15th and 14th and 16th centuries, Pisa was right on the coast, before the River Arno silted up. 

And it's the same river. It's the same river as Florence. So you've got all those beautiful river views with those palatial townhouses, slightly fortified townhouses alongside the river, and the sunset goes down and it lights them all up in this wonderful ochre ambery sort of color and so on. And you get that in Pisa as well. But it's also a very livable city. It wasn't built with the intention of showing off or intimidating or anything like that. It's just a very domestic, very pleasant little city which, after Florence, is a super breath of relief. Yeah.

Jim Santos 25:24 
You get the impression that if it weren't for one rather poorly built tower, no one would be going to Pisa at all.

Sean Keenan 25:31 
I know. I agree entirely. And the thing is, that would be such a shame, because I could actually spend three weeks in Pisa just without going near the tower. I went to the tower twice just to take some video and oh, yeah that thing. Okay. It's skewed. 

It is one of the most beautiful creations that I think humans have ever come up with. If you think about the time and the effort and the expense that went into carving all those little arches on that tower and just like, piling them up one after the other and the detail when you get close. And you see the marble and the carving and the marble and just the utter beauty and intricacy of that building and the other two that are in the same piazza. And you think about how this was just constructed to be something that tried to recreate a Biblical idea of heaven on earth and sort of glorify existence. And then you think and it's just turned into a background wallpaper for people to take selfies.

Jim Santos 26:40 
Probably the most annoying thing about a trip to Italy is all the people taking pictures of themselves holding up the tower.

Sean Keenan 26:46 
Oh, that picture. I do not understand what goes on in the brain of anyone that feels there needs to be another one of those pictures in the world somewhere. What do you do with this picture? You send it to your family and say, look, here's me know, pushing up the tower.

Jim Santos 27:01 
Well, especially because, as you say, it's such a beautiful thing in its own right.

Sean Keenan 27:05 
It's exquisite. And the Baptistry — because for those who haven't been there, it's worth pointing out that the leaning tower of Pisa is actually the bell tower of a cathedral, which is set quite within 50 yards of the actual cathedral. And then in the Tuscan tradition, there's another thing called a Baptistry. The Tuscan patron saint is John the Baptist. So a lot of times you'll find, and it happens in Florence, too, that you have a cathedral, but then you have a separate building for the baptismal font where children are baptized and that too. 

So you've got three grand buildings of very late Romanesque going through Gothic and then going into Renaissance period architecture. Three great buildings, exquisite buildings. And even with the Baptistry, you can see the progression as it gets higher, that the architectural styles change. As the floors go up at the very bottom of it, it's Romanesque rounded arches. And then as you go two or three levels up, it turns into Gothic pointed arches. So you get this progression, architectural progression, or an artistic progression that you can see.

Jim Santos 28:21 
We did walk around the town some and get back into the off the tourist path areas. And I actually had an excellent lunch in a little restaurant that was near the college there.

Sean Keenan 28:32 
Yeah.

Jim Santos 28:33 
And again, we were the only tourist in there.

Sean Keenan 28:35 
Yeah, the whole university area is a great spot to eat because it's set up to cater for students. And it's really not far, is it? I mean, you're only talking a couple of blocks from the river. I think a good way to line up with that area of the town is to look out for a beautiful I think it's actually there's a little church on the river, on the south bank of the river called the Chiesa de La Spina. It translates to the church of the holy spine. And it was built to house a relic, which was purported to be one of the spines from the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was being crucified. 

And this little, tiny little church is only the size of a modest home. A modest home, but it's built in a very similar style to the tower and the baptistry and so on. But it's exquisite. It's got a whole series of carvings along the side of the twelve apostles. Hardly anybody ever goes to see this thing. It's actually got a funny story in that it was originally built right on the banks of the river, but when the river started to rise, it was actually moved brick by brick up about 20ft higher.

Anyway, if you can get to that particular spot and it's just to the east of the Ponte Solferino, which is just one of the bridges you come across. But once you get to that Chiesa de la Spina church, and if you turn back inland, you get into this whole university area, which, as you say, has got great food. I find great food all over Pisa. Actually, Pisa is where I got talking through the concept of gelato and why gelato is different to ice cream and what to look for when you're looking for gelato. 

Yeah, there was a couple of really interesting things at the lady at the Gelataria del Coltelli, and that's on the north side of the river by the Ponte de Mezzo. And she was telling me that there's a couple of ways to choose a gelataria to know that you're getting something really well made. And she says the first thing you do is you've got to just completely reject the idea of choice. If you've got 150 flavors, there's no way that they're making them all out the back for you that day. It's not fresh.

They can't do that. So she's saying, ten flavors plenty, 14 is plenty, but if it goes beyond that, forget it. And then she was saying, can you see the gelato? Because you shouldn't be able to see the gelato, it should actually be covered because it has to be kept at a very, very low temperature, because correctly made gelato is made of is made with milk, not cream. And cream's fat content will actually keep it solid. 

If you think about if you whip cream, for example, it will stay stiff. But milk, you can't do that. So it depends on the ice and the sugar to stay stiff. So basically that means it's got a very low melting point. So it melts really quickly if it's actually out in the open. And she's saying, okay, so there's two flavors you want to look out for. Look out for pistachio and look out for mint, because mint in its natural state has got a very, very subtle green color. Pistachio in its natural state, after it's been crushed up and whipped up and exposed to the air, is not green any longer. It oxidizes, and it goes brown.

Jim Santos 31:58 
Right.

Sean Keenan 31:59 
So if the pistachio flavor is brown, that's probably a good gelataria. I was astounded by all this. Thank you. That's great. I'm going to put that into an article. Thank you very much.

Jim Santos 32:13 
Yeah, when you step off the beaten path like that, you often run into people who are just highly… they're just so proud of their work and what they do, and they want to share that love with you.

Sean Keenan 32:23 
There you absolutely have it. And yeah, exactly. When somebody's making thing well, they don't want to hide that they're making it well. And even beyond that, they want to publicize the fact that they're making it well. 

There's another little trick that I picked up, actually. I found a place in Pisa which was selling a menu giiorno, which is really useful thing, actually. It's a set menu for sort of a working day. Set menu? Set menu, lunch, three courses. So you got your prima piatti, which is generally your pasta course, followed by your meat or fish course with a contorno, they called it. So you can get like a vegetable plate or a salad with it, and you could choose between water, which went with that, or a coffee at the end of it. And that was coming to €14, which in Tuscany is an incredible bargain. 

There aren't many of those around, but they are really worthwhile looking out for. In the same place, I had a glass of wine for €2. And what I figured out was that if you go and fill yourself up at lunchtime on one of those, you don't really need a big meal in the evenings.

But what you can do in the evenings then is go out to one of the little piazzas, and I have a specific one that I will recommend, but you can go out then and you get yourself an aperitivo in the evening. So if you go out and get yourself a glass of the lovely Aperol spritz, for example, the bitter orange and prosecco blend cocktail that they do there. Champagne cocktail, I suppose we'd call it. They will bring you usually, or in one particular place I was in called Leonardo's in Piazza Vittorio Emmanuel. In Leonardo's, you could actually take your pick from a buffet of little appetizers. And in Leonardo's, one of the parts of the buffet was actually a big pasta salad, so you could heap a plate and by buying an aperol spritz, that's your evening meal covered, because after having a big three course or lunch, you don't necessarily need that much. So that's one little untourist tip. 

While I'm talking about the Piazza Vittorio Emmanuel, which is probably the central square in Pisa, it's just a little bit north of the railway station. There's a mural on the side of a house wall there called Tuttomondo, and it was made in 1989. It was completed in 1989 by a guy called Keith Harring, who is a pop artist of the same sort of era as Andy Warhol or Roy Liechtenstein, maybe a little bit later than Roy Liechtenstein or whatever. 

So it's this really quite vibrant, lovely little piece of street art that was done by a very highly regarded artist. And it's actually a great place to go and experience a different sort of Pisa, very much a different sort of Pisa from the Tower experience. And it's a great place to sit and have a drink and have your aperitivos. And right from there you've got Borgo Stretto, which is the main street, the main shopping street, which runs through Pisa, which know, it's pretty much standard high street stores. It's Zara and H&M and Sephorah and all those sort of stores that you'll normally see, but it's lined with street cafes and so on, and it's just a wonderful place to sit and do what I think is probably the highlight of my trip to Tuscany, which was just sitting in Pisa and watching the people. 

The people watching is world-class. It really is. The styles. I was trying to explain to my wife about the fashion styles because she has an interest in such things and she was saying, well, was it all designer clothing?

It wasn't. It's not designer clothing at all that the people wear there. It's like a little bit of designer and a little bit of high street and a little bit of vintage. And they put together these great little looks that just really make you feel that you are somewhere interesting and somewhere vibrant and somewhere, I don't know… that kind of street life to me is the stuff that sticks in my mind better than the great artworks and the great historical stuff.

Jim Santos 36:45 
Well, I think part of the advantage of getting a little off the beaten path like that is you get the advantage of time. If you're trying to get your meal right at the Tower of Pisa, they're going to serve you and get this and get out. You're going to grab a sandwich from a cart. But you're talking about going out to places where you can take the time to sit and talk with the owners. Take the time to sit and watch the people going by. And that really makes it more of an experience and less of a vacation.

Sean Keenan 37:14 
100%, because I see people coming in to see the Tower of Pisa, and they're on coaches, they're on tour busses which have come from a cruise from a port, and they're seeing Pisa, Florence and Lucca in one day. You just think, how thin a surface level can you possibly hope to see of the sights of these cities? 

First, you're only going to see the very biggest places, but it really doesn't allow you to have the experiences which are what really make the experience memorable, what really make it all stick out in your mind 20 years later. Because ultimately, when you are going through a place that fast, all you do have is the photographs. I was lucky enough to cross the bridge, just the Ponte Mezzo, so completely by accident, actually, in Pisa one evening, just as the moon was rising and there's a huge orange full moon just coming up off the river, and it was just one of those stop and just say… just stop. Take a look at this and say, ‘register this on your mind’. Burn this one in, because this is an experience that you're going to remember forever. Those are the little random moments that make it all so much more valuable.

Jim Santos 38:36 
Well, we've been speaking with International Living lifestyle editor Sean Keenan and taking advantage of his travel experiences. Thanks, Sean. I hope you've inspired others to visit these two remarkable Italian cities and maybe wander off the beaten path a little bit.

Sean Keenan 38:49 
I very much hope so, and I very much would hope that people will be inspired to do that.

Jim Santos 39:05 
The International Living Podcast is a production of International Living. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. If you have an idea for an episode or a question you'd like us to answer, email us at mailbag@internationalliving.com. And don't forget to put podcast in the subject line of your email. That's mailbag@internationalliving.com. 

We created the International Living Podcast to help showcase the ideas we explore in the magazine and our other publications each month, and to grow our community of travel lovers, expats and experts who believe, as we do, that the world is full of opportunity to create a more interesting, more international life. You don't have to be rich and famous to do that. You just need to know the secrets. And that's what we bring you at International Living. If you haven't become a member yet, you can do it today with a special discount offer for podcast listeners. You'll receive our monthly magazine plus a bundle of special extras. 

You'll find the link in our show notes, where you can go to intliving.com/podcast. That's intliving.com/podcast. This week's episode makes its way to you from Istanbul, Turkey, as Rita and I continue our roving lifestyle. Be sure to check in next week or you will catch us in Vienna or maybe Prague. Until then, this is Jim Santos for International Living, reminding you there's a bigger, better world out there just waiting for you.


How Easy it is to Travel in Europe
Four Centuries of Tourism Industry in Florence
Michelangelo For Free—Where to go in Florence to Escape the Crowd
Food and Flavors—Soaking up the Local Atmosphere the Tastiest Way
Bridges With Stories—The Vecchio and the Trinita
Pisa—Far More Than Just One Badly-Built Tower
Eating Well in Pisa Without Overspending—A (Very Pleasant) Strategy
The University Quarter, Italy’s Most Beautiful Building, And Excellent Gelato
Shopping, People-Watching, and Aperitivos on a Terrace
Living the Experiences That You’ll Remember Forever