If you’ve ever travelled to Tuscany, odds are you’ve spent most if not all of your time in
Florence, Pisa, or on public transportation somewhere in between. Thanks mainly to those famous cultural, architectural, and historical marvels that more or less anchor the east and west sides of the Tuscan valley, this mecca toward middle Italy has become one of the most visited regions in the world, drawing thousands upon thousands of tourists every year.
There’s no question that Florence and Pisa, along with Milan to the north and Rome to the
south (and the phenomenally beautiful Amalfi Coast), should be on every would-be traveller’s bucket list. But to know Tuscany—to fall in love with Tuscany—requires a sharp turn off the tourist path, where thousands of years of tradition still exists in the narrow alleys and cobbled streets of small towns. To love Tuscany requires a traveller to love his- or herself enough to slow down and notice the endless beauty in its subtleties—the aroma of freshly baked bread, the colors of the fruits and vegetables laid out on palettes from courtyard to courtyard, brisk walks across groves of fragrant olive trees, the chiming belltowers.
Travellers looking for a kind of true essence of traditional Tuscany will find it in a small town called Pistoia (population just more than 90,000). You’ve never heard of it? That’s not surprising. One might consider Pistoia, which derives its name from ancient Roman days and can be translated as “oven,” something of a hidden treasure. That’s only partly true. It is undoubtedly a treasure, with an overabundance of ancient, traditional charm blended together with elements of the young and modern, the progressive and artistic.
It is not, however, hidden so much as overlooked. It’s just twenty minutes drive from
Florence and closer to 40 minutes from Pisa–within easy reach of everything Tuscany has
to offer—bicycling, hiking, zip-lining, wine-tasting, truffle hunting, golfing, eating, eating,
eating (written three times intentionally since dining is a daily extended event here), and
myriad other activities, including eating.
Pistoia feels so calm and unburdened, nearly untouched, by the tourist masses, that
travellers who stumble onto this old Roman castrum (military base) built onto the rising
Apennin mountains, will almost immediately become conscious of their stroke of fortune.
While most travellers are shuttling back and forth between the twin tourist majesties that
adorn every art history book (and deservedly so)–trying to see as much as humanly
possible according to a time schedule that feels a lot like work–in Pistoia there is an
engaging satisfaction in the “slow” pleasures of enjoying a plum or just spending the better
part of an afternoon walking with no particular destination in mind.
That’s not to say there’s nothing much else to see in Pistoia. The once strategic military
position is filled with evidence that it was also, at varying times in the middle ages, an
important place for commerce, for historic painters (Leonardo da Vinci’s home town is
visible from Pistoia), and for the generally cosmopolitan.
Historic references to the place have admittedly not proven terribly kind: Dante Alighieri gave a nod to Pistoia in his Divine Comedy, but the context reads like more like a
famous author’s condemnation.
Dante declares the town as the home of Vanni Fucci, an unfortunate character who spends
hours in Inferno cursing God while cloaked within a tangled knot of snakes.
Add to this literary poke in the eye the words of Michelangelo, who reportedly referred to Pistoia residents as the “enemies of Heaven,” and a trend starts to emerge. Just what was it the townsfolk were doing to deserve such ire? The search for answers to such unfolding mysteries offers plenty enough to engage the historically inquisitive.
Curious events will delight here but they certainly aren’t required. Many who visit Pistoia
will keep returning simply for its majestic setting and connection with nature. The beautiful
territory offers enormous stretches of uninterrupted countryside, gentle hills, mountains,
poppy fields, and lush garden greenery at every turn.
Pistoia’s relationship with nature has been nurtured by one generation after the next for many centuries. The small town’s storied gardening tradition, in fact, has made Pistoia
the proud home to the greatest number of commercial plant nurseries in all of Europe. Garden and flower lovers can visit many of these living treasures and see first-hand the
passion with which modern families still till the fertile soil once turned by the great great great great grandparents before them.
Walk, Don’t Run
Anyone out for a jaunt to Pisa or Florence will likely be floored by the encounter. Visually,
mentally, in most every way, visitors to those places will be inundated with a quantity of
personal impressions, historical anecdotes and trivia that far surpasses Pistoia both in
intensity and intrigue. The experience can simultaneously be breathtaking and
Rounding a corner and suddenly finding yourself in the actual presence of the leaning
tower is an A-list experience not to be missed. But it takes both time and energy to absorb.
Famous icons of the ages—whole geographical areas–have what I consider to be
something like a hyperactive history gland. Before you can even begin to process anything
about the tower you’ve seen in photos all your life, you find yourself shuffling off to take a
10-minute condensed peek inside the genius of Galileo.
By comparison, Pistoia feels like the backdrop of a still life painting. A stroll through the
network of streets that links square to square offers an endless array of foods on display,
from richly colored vegetables and fruits to the charcuterie hanging in the deli window.
Pistoia, however, is anything but still. Late into the evening, the deli owner is still busily
tying full rounds of cheese with string. Up and down the street, people are walking arm in
arm, smile to smile. I count 100 people and never see a single soul wearing the expression
of a difficult day.
Just as in many other places in Italy, Pistoians would be lost without a nice evening walk,
which requires a stop for an “aperitivo” or coffee at one of the many bistros al fresco, of
course. Corner plaza cafes provide a perfect vantage point for people watching,
reacquainting yourself with the characters inhabiting an old dog-eared book, or catching an
impromptu jazz jam. The walls of buildings bordering the squares in Pistoia, I notice,
reflect the kind of incredible acoustics I imagine were engineered by design, perhaps
directly as prescribed in one of da Vinci’s notebooks.
Noticing details—what a lovely side effect of slow travel! Simply finding the time to imagine
at all, especially for those of us who live hectic lives defined all too rigidly by overstuffed
calendars, can make one feel showered with an embarrassment of riches.
For some travellers, Pistoia will remain an unknown–a forever hidden gem–viewed
anonymously and from a great distance through the window of a moving tour bus. For
others, Pistoia will be hard to leave and even harder to keep a secret.
Which traveller are you?
Things to Do and See:
–Investigate Pistoia’s long love affair with music.
The area has a pronounced history of crafting musical instruments that dates all the way back to the Renaissance, if not further.
–International artists descend upon the town each July for the annual Pistoia Blues Festival, staged at the Piazza del Duomo, one of Italy’s most spectacular squares.
Writtten by Sean T. Kelly
–Take a cab to Pinocchio Park, where artists have honoured native Florence author Carlo
Collodi with installations depicting events from his Adventures of Pinocchio. There’s a
butterfly house on site too. Really, I’m not lying.
–Grin and bear it: Also in July Pistoia holds the Giostra dell’Orso—or Bear Joust!—an
ancient competition during which teams of riders endeavour to lance a wild bear. Fear thee
not for the bear, however. A padded fake has long served as a cleaner, less grizzly,
–Play historian and determine whether Pistoia really did lend its name to the “pistol” it
began manufacturing in the 16th century.
–Crouch your way through the underground Roman tunnels that still remain under the
Written by Sean T. Kelly
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