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Power tower

Pisa's toppling tourist magnet

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I feel sorry for all the other monuments in Pisa.

The Leaning Tower in this charming city in Tuscany in northwest Italy gets all the love, while the other sites -- each within a kilometre of the gravity-challenged structure -- get short shrift.

"What would happen if our tower wasn't leaning?" asks tour guide Nicole Klein in her hybrid Italian-German accent.

"Would four million people a year come to Pisa?"

The harsh answer is, of course, no.

The Leaning Tower is a beautiful Romanesque-Pisan example of column-and-arch construction in the gorgeous Carrera marble from the surrounding mountains.

But at eight storeys and 54 metres high, it's hardly imposing.

And if it wasn't for a 12th-century architectural gaffe, the Leaning Tower would be just another beautiful piece of Italia.

But it is leaning -- a very noticeable list of four metres -- and thus instantly recognizable and legendary as one of the most famous sites in the world.

In fact, on our 12-day cruise of the Mediterranean aboard the Disney Magic, the Leaning Tower tops my 10-year-old daughter's list of must-sees ahead of Rome's Colosseum, Venice's gondolas and Barcelona's Gaudi masterpiece church.

So we sign up for the Disney Magic's $69 Easy Pisa shore excursion while docked in nearby La Spezia and meet tour guide Nicole.

I also have my wife in tow, who doesn't really care if a tower is leaning.

She'd rather be off wine tasting.

But by the end of the day, she'll be impressed by the tower, enchanted by Pisa and will have had a couple of glasses of wine.

On the 75-minute bus ride to Pisa we get more Leaning Tower information than we can handle.

Here it is abridged: Construction starts on a stand-alone bell tower for the neighbouring Pisa Cathedral in 1173. By the time the third storey is completed five years later, the poor foundation and unstable ground conspire to put the building at a mean tilt.

The architect takes off and the tower sits unfinished for decades until it is finally completed in 1272. The second architect tries to even out the lean with shorter columns and arches on one side, but the tower still lists and takes on a bit of a banana shape.

The result: a tourist attraction that's still going strong 750 years later.

The tower is located in Miracle Square close to the aforementioned overlooked monuments of Pisa Cathedral, the Baptistery (the only round one in the world), the Holy Field cemetery covered with soil from Israel and the original 1,000-year-old city walls and mansions lining the Arno river, which are also leaning thanks to the same unstable ground and the hit-and-miss architectural planning of the day.

Of course, my daughter and I have to climb the tower. (My wife goes shopping for Italian linen and leather).

So we pay the hefty fee of 18 Euros (about $28) for 45 minutes of access to the tower.

After all, someone has to foot the bill for the extensive renovations 15 years ago that shored up the foundations.

After a quick orientation and history lesson on the ground floor, which is indeed listing to the right, we climb the wide spiral of 292 steps to the top.

As warned when we get to the top, we feel out of breath and dizzy -- not just from going round and round, but from making the ascent at a unique angle.

The view of Pisa is stunning, especially on a hot sunny day.

We have our picture taken and congratulate each other for crossing another experience off the bucket list.

The descent is even more confounding because when we hit firm and level ground our legs wobble and our heads spin for a while.

The crassness of commerce is kept outside Miracle Square, so we have to wander the side streets to be assaulted by vendors selling cheap souvenirs and knockoff watches, sunglasses and handbags.

But it's also on the side streets where we'll find a refreshing post-tower-climb gelato and restaurants with stylish outdoor patios.

A Disney cruise is the perfect way for a family to see the Mediterranean.

The ship goes to exciting ports of call -- Barcelona, Villefranche, Pisa, Naples, Venice, Croatia and Malta -- and the excursions are family-friendly ways to combine history and adventure.

And the ship itself is a floating five-star hotel with all the amenities from restaurants, bars and activities to pools, bars and shopping.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 31, 2013 E2

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