Why such a big shindig this year? It's the Tower, of course. After being completely closed since 1990, the fabulous Torre Pendante will reopen for visitors that weekend (some sources say on the 16th, others the 17th), only one year behind schedule. There was a "symbolic reopening" a year ago, when some local school kids were allowed into the Leaning Tower, but now the works have really been completed. The Tower has been cranked back to its position in the 18th century, and you will be able to climb all 293 stairs to the top. The view from the top really is spectacular, not only because it's the highest thing around, but also because the Tower sits just off center of a huge grassy field (il Campo), on which you will also find the Pisa Duomo, the Duomo Baptistry, which is almost as big as the Duomo and which set the style for all Pisan architecture, and the ancient town cemetery. I suspect, however, that most of what you will see if you look down on the Campo from the top on opening day, will be a sea of hats and heads -- people waiting their turn.
And that's not all. On the evening of June 16 there will be a grand concert of Verdi's Requiem for Manzoni on the Campo featuring pop opera idol Andrea Bocelli. It's not yet clear where to get tickets or how much they will cost -- some Pisans are arguing for free entry -- but travel agencies in Rome should be able to find out eventually. Get in touch with your agents now and ask them to relay the info to you when it becomes available.
And that's not all. At about 9:30 on the evening of the 16th, the lights of the Luminara di S. Ranieri will be lit. Along the lungarni (banks of the Arno River), the architectural details of the palaces, windows, cornices, balconies, the rails lining the river, and all the bridges glow in the reflected light of over 70,000 lumini (small glass lamps burning oil or wax) while thousands of lighted candles float on the waters of the Arno. Machine (lighted sham architectural constructions) and a firework spectacle at the Cittadella Vecchia finish the show. The annual luminara dates back to 1688 and marks the anniversary of the placement of S. Ranieri's remains in the Duomo. Of course it will all be more spectacular than usual this year.
And that's not all. On Sunday June 17, the river will be the scene of the annual Regata di S. Ranieri. Crew in vessels representing the four Îhistoricalâ quarters of the city ÷ S. Maria, S. Francesco, S. Antonio, and S. Martino -- will row a 1500 meter upstream course to a boat moored in mid-river. Once there, four montatori, one "climber" from each crew, will scramble up a pole to seize the banner or palio flying from the top. The specific features of the today's Regata began to be defined in 1737, but similar events have been held in Pisa since the 13th century.
And that's not all! The next Sunday is the Gioco del Ponte (Game of the bridge) a contest in which teams of the town's four quarters try to push a rail-mounted seven-ton trolley off the main bridge and into the other team's territory. It's all very ritualized (and usually bloodless) now, but this is another of Pisa's ancient traditions, and, more than any other, it arouses the spirits of the locals. It starts with a parade of hundreds of costumed "warriors", all wearing their neighborhood or club colors and real or reproduction medieval and renaissance battle gear. Almost all carry the traditional Pisan mazzascudo (club-shield) a wooden weapon, bigger than a baseball or cricket bat -- wide and flat at the top and pointed at the bottom. The weapon was originally used by 11th century Pisan marine boarding parties. Practice sessions between neighborhood barracks were often lethal and the custom lapsed when Pisa's power declined. The Medici revived the Gioci in the 16th century and staged them on the bridge, pitting residents of the opposite banks of the river against each other. The games again lapsed in 1807 after the local queen objected to the violence. Mussolini revived the games in 1932, still using the mazzascudi, but four bloody years later the rules were changed to cut down injuries. The whole character of the Gioco del Ponte changed after subsequent revisions, and instead of club swinging mobs pushing against each other it has gradually become the reverse tug-o'-war it is today.
There's much more to see in Pisa during the month-long festival. Museums mount special exhibits, there are special arts and cultural activities, markets, parades, etc. Something for everyone, and those who will be leaving Italy this summer will want to head north to visit the Tower before you go.
Like any respectable modern city, Pisa has it's own very good Internet site. Go to http://WWW.PISAONLINE.IT/E-default.htm for information in English on all of the events listed above and much more.
The Tower also has its own official web site in English and Italian at http://torre.duomo.pisa.it/.
Much more info on individual events listed above is available on the net. Type he name of the event you want in the appropriate window at http://www.google.com/advanced_search.