When we decided to go to Pisa straight after leaving an increasingly wet England, we didn’t realize we accidentally chose the week when one of Pisa’s most looked forward for festival was going to happen: the Luminara of Saint Ranieri.
To be completely honest, we didn’t even know of the existence of this event before. We booked the flight for that week because the vaccinations’ nightmare was finally going to be over and, after our last injections, we could finally GO!
At the beginning we planned to stay in Pisa only for one day, thinking that that would be enough to get a feel for the city & also for Dale to see the sights, but after finding out about the Luminara we decided to stay a few extra days to witness with our eyes what had been described to us as an unmissable night.
Just a bit of history
Every year on the 16th of June, the eve of the patron saint’s feast day, over a hundred thousand little lights placed in glass holders – Lumini – are hung on white wooden boards with asymmetrical designs that are displayed on bridges, buildings, towers and churches along the Arno riverside – Lungarni.
Even the Leaning Tower plays a part in this unique show, in fact some oils lamps are arranged on it and on the wall surrounding Piazza dei Miracoli, and also, some are left floating on the the River Arno.
The lights are lit around 9 – 9:30 pm on the 16th. The street lights that are usually on every other day of the year are purposefully left switched off to give to the riverside a look similar to an old past time.
Apparently this tradition has been celebrated each year since Saint Ranieri was laid to rest in the cathedral in 1688.
The Pisans actually celebrate their patron on the 17th of June (the day after the Luminara) with an Historic Regatta (which we missed).
A Modern Look to the Celebration
That day we went for a day trip to le Cinque Terre so we only got back to Pisa late in the evening, by that time the bridge ‘Ponte di Mezzo’ was already closed to traffic and almost ready for the night celebrations.
The bridge itself and the area around was already buzzing with people even though the celebration had not quite started yet.
We decided to stick to our hosts’ plans for the night, to enjoy the feast in the same way the locals usually would.
They invited some friends around and prepared dinner for everybody. While waiting for everyone to turn up, we could hear the buzzing of the people already out in the streets (we were about 3 minutes from the River Arno in the center of Pisa. What a great location to experience such celebration! – or maybe not?). From the balcony we could actually see the streets full of peddlers selling drinks, pre-made food and local delicatessens. People were dining and chatting whilst music was playing. In the little square around the corner we could hear someone playing and singing live, it all looked really busy from the early hours.
Our hosts didn’t look too bothered to go out ‘early’ for the lightening of the lumini, they warned us that was a better decision to go out later in the night instead.
We didn’t quite understand why, but we preferred to listen to their suggestions, at the end of the day we were having fun eating, drinking and chatting with our new friends.
At some point we heard a strong noise that sounded like the start of the fireworks. Some of the people left the table and went out, some decided to still take it easy and wait a bit longer before going themselves.
Me and Dale heard that midnight brings the climax of the Luminara with the fireworks and their reflections on the river’s water, so we walked out the door not knowing what to expect.
Only then we realized why our hosts were so reluctant on going out at that time!
The city streets were really crowded, especially by the riverside. Most of the university students were out enjoying themselves adding to the high level of frantic confusion of endless amounts of people.
After making the mistake of taking the main streets and realizing there was no way we could have made it by the river, we found our way through alternative little side streets to avoid getting crushed in the crowds.
We ended up not catching a lot of the fireworks, just a glimpse every now and then. Finally we decided to walk in completely the opposite direction from the river and went to see the Leaning Tower instead – that was the wisest possible decision we could have made, infact Piazza dei Miracoli was almost completely empty!
Eventually we got back to the riverside after more than an hour later when it was finally possible to walk, to enjoy the view of the lighted lumini without getting pushed and pulled in every direction.
Admittedly the sight along the river had been worth waiting for: such an unrepeatable skyline! The buildings looked like they had been dressed up for the night, looking at their reflection on the river, it seemed like they were dancing on the water. Not long later there were hundreds of Chinese lanterns skipping along in the sky – perfect for the occasion!
When we eventually got back, the party in the streets was very much still on. Judging by the noise we heard whilst we slept, our hosts only came back around 7am, just a little bit before we were about to wake up and get ready to set off.
The Morning After
It was completely a different scene in the morning! The streets that had been jammed the previous night, were completely empty & in a very real state!
There was rubbish everywhere, the bins were overloaded and couldn’t take even one more dirty tissue. While walking to reach the train station, it was impossible not to smell the unmistakable stench of urine. Some people mustn’t have had the time to reach a proper toilet or had been too drunk to do so…not a nice smell first thing in the morning!
Anyway, the street cleaners were already at work to bring the city back to normal and get it ready for the Historic Regatta.
We left slightly disappointed, the Lumini show on the riverside was unique and really worth seeing, but the whole excessive-crowd business took a bit of the fun out of it, at least for us.
We would definitely recommend going, but be aware that you won’t be the only one there! 🙂