26 Feb 2010

The day I decided that the best way to celebrate my 35th birthday was to go out and take a vacation in my home city.

My 35th birthday in Pisa. Playing tourist in my own city.

On February 24th, I turned 35. I was in Pisa, as it was a Wednesday, and I really wanted to celebrate in style. If I think of the way I used to see 35 year old people when I was younger, well… they all seemed really “grown-up people“… so this birthday came with a whole lot of funny feelings about it, if you see what I mean.

If you add the fact that I am really ready for a vacation somewhere, well, I decided that the best way to celebrate my 35th birthday was to go out and “live the city”.

I started with a lazy morning and a lovely breakfast with a capuccino and a croissant. Perfect to start the day! I had to go to work, but I didn’t need to be in the office before 11 a.m. so I took it easy and asked my husband to drop me off in Piazza Garibaldi. I took a stroll in Borgo Stretto and looked at the stores where I knew I would drag my husband and his credit card in the afternoon! I wandered around in the area of Piazza delle Vettovaglie for a while, trying to decide where I wanted to go for lunch with my friends from the Department.

I adore Piazza delle Vettovaglie. It’s the “real Pisa“, and also the oldest part of the city. The square with its porticoes, the many bars and small restaurants with tables outside, the market in the courtyard with people laughing and making fun of each other, the lovely smell of the bakeries, the ethnic kiosks with Kebabs and spices, and some stores selling second hand clothes. And just a few steps away, the beautiful vegetable market, the few family-run shops still surviving the onslaught of hyper-stores (a butcher’s shop, a store selling only freshly-toasted coffee grains, a couple of fish shops, a shop selling shoes, etc.). More great restaurants here too.

I continued through the medieval heart of Pisa, passing by the old tower called Il Campano, a bell tower which used to mark the end of the lessons in the ancient days of the University of Pisa, whose original seat was only a few steps away, in the Medicean Palazzo della Sapienza in Piazza Dante, now home to the Faculty of Law.

I crossed the gardens in the Piazza, walking through the bars full of students taking a break, and finally got to Via Santa Maria, where the Department of English Studies is located. I saw a couple of students and then I was free again. I looked out of my office window: I’m so lucky as to have an office which overlooks the garden of the Department and the Botanic Garden on the other side of the garden walls. It’s so beautiful and peaceful. Most old buildings in Pisa have these “secret gardens”: you would never guess that behind the large renaissance portals there are smaller or larger courtyards with exotic trees, magnolias and bushes of roses and camellias. The building which houses the department even used to have a small door covered in some sort of ivy which must once have allowed the people living in the building to access the Botanic Garden directly from their garden. A serious privilege, I guess.

I decided to go to the Botanic Garden, like I used to do when I was a student. It’s really peaceful in there and there are benches under the tall trees where you can seat, read and relax. It feels like it is outside the city center, far from  busy Via Santa Maria (the street leads to Piazza dei Miracoli and the Leaning Tower of Pisa and also the center of university life, so the area is quite busy). I didn’t know, though, that now you have to pay to get in, and that the garden is only open in the morning. The admission fee is really low, around 2 euros I guess, but I got there too late. I would have had to leave the garden after less than 20 minutes, not worth it.

So I went back to my office where my friends had just arrived. We decided to go back to Piazza delle Vettovaglie to choose a new restaurant to try, some place where we had never had lunch before (we eat out at least twice a week, and when we have something special to celebrate we always try to find a different place). We chose a nice restaurant called La Vineria di Piazza. I wanted to go there because I liked the decor, I’ll confess it. It is furnished in the old traditional Tuscan style, with marble tables, marble on the walls, and  colourful chairs with straw bottoms! All that was missing were the old style flasks of wine with straw on the side!

When my husband and the other friends joined us, we had a lovely meal with pasta with a sauce of gorgonzola cheese and walnuts, shrimp in a cacciucco type of sauce, and we all had a dessert. I had a lovely apple and lavender cake, and I also tried my husband’s lime and strawberry pannacotta. I did not try the pear and chocolate cake that some of my friends had but it looked delicious. We all had coffee too. So for two courses each, wine and coffee we only spent 10 euros per person. No service charges and free mineral water. A nice find, we’ll definitely go back!

After this meal, my husband took me shopping in the stores of the center. I bought a new computer backpack in a store in Borgo Stretto, and  two brown leather bags and a green wallet in my favourite leather store near the Campano, called Max Il Cuoiaio. They have beautiful hand-made items. For two bags in real leather, and the wallet, also in coloured leather, we spent 140 euros. Not bad at all. Well, not for me! I didn’t pay!!

We took a stroll through the center and then we went back home to feed our dog and take her out. She must know I am writing about her because she’s trying to type something in her sleep…

At 7:30 pm we went out again for my birthday night out: I was determined to experience Pisa like I was there on holiday rather than as the city where I’ve worked and lived for 15 years! We met a couple of friends in Piazza Garibaldi and we went to a new wine bar and restaurant that I have recently discovered and fell in love with: Modus Bibendi. It’s in the vegetable market square too (I told you I love the area!).

It is beautiful: the interior design is unique, with stone walls, golden and red furniture, in a tasteful, yet kitsch style (I know the two things don’t go well together, but this place really is tasteful). It’s a great place to go for an aperitivo. You can grab a glass of wine and eat whatever you want. Lots of bottles of wine on the counter and many different types of appetizers. They also have a small room with tables for the people who want to have dinner there. We had always gone for the aperitivo before so when I said I wanted to stay for dinner my friends looked kind of worried because it certainly looks like a pricey place. Quite the opposite. We had delicious antipasti, pasta, tagliata, Morellino DOC wine, and coffee and we spent 23 euros per person. Very reasonably priced for being such a beautiful place. I was so happy to be served that delicious food on golden plates!!!

I had a great birthday, and I found out that Pisa really is a pleasant city to live in and to visit, with lots of beautiful places to see, and many lively bars and restaurants to relax and enjoy the good local cuisine.

I have decided that I want to be a tourist in my own city more often. I’ve seen there is a new exhibit at Palazzo Lanfranchi: that’s my “must-see” for next week’s “tourist-at-home night out“!!!


  1. Gloria, belated Happy Birthday!
    Pisa is an excellent choice to spend a birthday. Knowing the good restaurants is also a huge benefit. Thank you for sharing them with us. If I find myself in Pisa in the near future I will look them up.

  2. Auguri! This was a great idea. Sounds like a lovely day.

  3. Great post and happy birthday Gloria!! We are almost the same age 🙁
    Funny… the other day I wrote a post about “your favourite piazza in Italy” with a google map, and my friend Michela on the social media team who is also from Pisa said she liked Piazza delle Vettovaglie too (so I added it to the map). I guess I’m going to have to go check it out!

  4. I too remember very well my 30th and then 35th birthday: it didn’t seem possible that I could be as “old” as my parents were at the age that I still think I am!

    And on my 40th, Fabio and I together with Renzo and Tina, a lovely Fiorentino couple he has known for many many years, took a trip to London – a place I had worked in and had to visit many many times for work but hated… but this time as tourists. It was a fantastic day. We walked to Buckingham Palace and Westminster, ate a picnic lunch with Italian wine! along the Thames, and then went to my very favourite place since I was a young girl… The Natural History Museum. It was a very special birthday.

    I am so glad that Pisa was just as wonderful for you.


  5. Gloria! I would like to wish you a Happy Birthday. Your tour of your own city sounds delightful. The fact that you shared it with us was an even more enriching experience. Sounds like you had a great time indeed.

  6. Thank you all for your comments and for the birthday wishes! It’s funny how you live in a place that people come from all over the world to see and you never leave the house!!! I’m changing that!

  7. Carol

    Hi Gloria,

    We wish a belated but very Happy Birthday. I love the way you indulged yourself and allowed others to indulge you, too. Marcel did a good job!

    With warm regards and love from Carol and Kathy from NYC who wish we were in Pisa!

    Have a wonderful year, too.

  8. Hi Carol and Kathy! Thank you so much for the birthday wishes! Love!

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