CLOSE TO HOME
With our stay in Tuscany more than half over, we decided to spend our fourth day close to our base, the Agriturismo I Pitti, outside of Serravalle Pistoiese. This lodging was in the Tuscan countryside, with a view over the hills towards the towers of the town nearby.Our apartment was very roomy, with a large kitchen and dining area and an even larger bedroom. We were the only Canadians staying there among several Germans, but the other guests were able to communicate with us quite well, since at least one member of each couple was conversant in English.
The owners of the Agriturismo I Pitti, Stella and Giuliano, are very personable and knowledgeable about the area. Their property is rustically beautiful, with wisteria and olives growing freely, and colourful blooms dotting the property. There is a pool, too, which provided welcome relief from the hot Tuscan sun.
Stella and Giuliano offer daily continental breakfast, which includes their delicious homemade bread and other local products. We were often welcomed to the table by their cat or their dog or both.
Looking towards the hills in the opposite direction of Serravalle Pistoiese, we could see Montecatini Alto, so we decided to head in that direction in the morning. Below it, the more famous Montecatini Terme is a popular spa town. We were impressed by the grand buildings erected over a century ago so that people could enjoy the healing waters of the area. We did not enter them, however. Some of German friends did, though, and enjoyed the experience immensely.
Instead, we took a winding road to Montecatini Alto, a lovely village perched on the top of a hill. Its narrow streets were very quiet, but they led to spectacular views over the Tuscan countryside. We walked up to an old chapel and clock tower, and then down towards the central Piazza Gusti where several charming restaurants enticed us at lunchtime. We chose Casa di Gala, where I enjoyed a delicious eggplant parmesan, and Bob had lasagna. Love Italian food!
Afterwards, we explored another part of the village, ascending to the church dedicated to Santa Barbara and the old walls of a castle. An unusual collection of armaments stand in the churchyard, because Santa Barbara is the patron saint of artillery, so we discovered.
We really enjoyed Montecatini Alto; it served as a reminder that small corners of Tuscany are just as appealing as the major centres. I am glad we discovered it.
From there, we meandered along the roads and through other towns nearby until we arrived in Pistoia, the capital of the province where we were staying. As is typical in Europe, we parked outside of the mainly pedestrian centre of the city, so that we could explore it on foot.
We first entered the church of San Francisco, which sported the stripes we had come to expect in Tuscany. More unusual was the Romanesque church of San Bartolomeo in Pantano, a much older structure. It is small, but quite remarkable. I loved the intricate pulpit especially, but the interior as a whole was very impressive.
The Duomo in the centre of the city was the top attraction, of course, just like all the Duomos we visited in Italy. The Romanesque façade is said to be inspired by San Bartolomeo. With its narrow columns, it is less imposing than most cathedrals.
The baptistry stands separate, the common practice in the region, but the campanile is right beside the church. In this main square, we also visited the Palazzo Communale, the city hall. It was very interesting. We had the place to ourselves, too, which was a refreshing change after the crowds of Florence the day before.
In another part of the city, we found yet another church, again with the signature striped appearance of Tuscany. San Giovanni Fuoricivitas was greatly damaged during the WWII, but thankfully, it has been restored to its former glory. Only one side of the church is visible, but it is striking, with a combination of blind arcades, diamonds and stripes. Inside, the pulpit, designed by a student of Pisano, is quite special.
After our walk around Pistoia, we headed off in search of a place to enjoy a special dinner, as this was my birthday. We were looking to eat rather early by Italian standards, so that complicated our quest, as few places open before 7:30. Eventually, we chose to stop at a resort very close to our home base, the Hotel Lago Verde. Its restaurant offered a good special that night, so we toasted another year in my life in a peaceful setting before returning to our “home” for the night.
The next morning, we headed east to Pisa. It did not take us very long to get there; in under an hour, we were parked a short distance from one of Italy’s main tourist attractions.
Walking through a gate in the 12th century wall, we had a “wow” moment. The Piazza dei Miracoli lay before us, a large expanse of grass on which stand four gorgeous white marble buildings. The Duomo, Baptistry and Campanile of Pisa are like no others we saw. They are set apart from the rest of the town, living testaments to a glorious past. The fourth building, the Camposanto, is particularly unique, as we soon discovered.
Bob and I had visited Pisa on a bus tour a long time ago, and what I remembered was the iconic tower, but the other monuments are well worth seeing too, as is the city itself. To better understand the Camposanto, we first visited the Museo della Sinopie, a modern building which displays the ochre underdrawings of the frescoes in the Camposanto. These were discovered when a fire occurred at the site after bombing during WWII. In order to preserve and restore them, the frescoes were removed and the underdrawings were revealed.
This was a fitting introduction to the Camposanto itself, a massive rectangular building which has been used as a burial ground for many centuries. It is similar to a cloister, but it stands on its own, unattached to a church.
We spent a lot of time studying the frescoes and scultptures on display in the building. There was so much to look at and to learn from. I was especially intrigued by many depictions of hell, as in the photo above.
The many sarcophigi and other monuments to the dead were intriguing as well. What stories are buried here?
This is a place where a guide would have been useful, since there was much symbolism here. Certainly, Bob found the Camposanto inspirational, taking some very creative photos. You can see some of his interesting angles in the shots above.
The baptistry was lovely too, but it was more impressive on the outside than on the inside. The church was also beautiful from the outside. Construction began in the 12th century, but there have been many updates and changes since then.
Many Italian cathedrals have spectacular coffer ceilings and this was one of the best, in my opinion. The pulpit also followed a common pattern, with lions at the base and filigreed marble decor. The art and design elements in the Duomo were very special indeed.
The last building on the campus is the most photographed. It is of course, the world-famous leaning tower of Pisa. When we last visited the site, tourists were not allowed to climb the tower, but now that the building has been fortified, it is possible to do so, but only at an assigned time. Not willing to waste a minute, we opted to forego this opportunity, but we did take lots of photos.
Instead, after lunch, we took a walk around the city. I wanted to travel in a horse and buggy, but Bob prefers to control the angles and pace of our explorations. He gets better pictures that way. It’s hard to argue with that point of view, since his photos are so very good.
Our first stop was the Archbishop’s Palace, a beautiful peach-coloured building with a statue of Moses in front of it. A little later, we came upon a small church, which was full of statuary. The Parrochia di San Michele degli Scalzi is now used as a museum and a lecture hall. In fact, we walked in on one such talk, while looking for a bathroom.
From there, we headed south towards the Arno. We found an arcaded shopping area where local stores and gelato distracted me for a while. Then we crossed over the river for a different perspective, but we soon discovered that the north side was the more fashionable one, so we retraced our steps.
When we arrived at the Piazza dei Cavalieri, we knew we had come upon a special spot. Created as the political centre of medieval Pisa, it was later the headquarters of the Order of St. Stephen. Today, it houses some University buildings. The former Palazzo della Caravana is now a normal school–a teacher’s college. This is a gorgeous building with a very intricate façade. Sgraffito was the technique used to a beautiful effect.
Also in the square is the Church of the Knights of the Holy and Military Order of St. Stephen, a lovely 16th century building. On another side of the square is the Palazzo dell’Orologio, a clock tower.
This part of the city of Pisa was a highlight. I imagine that many tourists do not take the time to find it– their loss.
We left Pisa early enough so that we could enjoy our final evening at Agriturismo I Pitti. Our hosts had planned a dinner for all the guests. This was something we were greatly looking forward to, and I must say, the event exceeded expectations. It was very memorable.
Lanterns had been hung on the arbour outside the house, and the table was set for sixteen, including our hosts’ two adult children, who helped prepare and serve the meal.
This was a feast–four courses of delectable home-made fare with jugs of local wine to share. We began with a light salad adorned with a local soft cheese; then a basil flavoured pasta. The main course was barbecued chicken and ribs, with grilled vegetables and fresh tomatoes in ample quantities. Everything was absolutely delicious.
As the evening turned into night, we enjoyed each other’s company and the wine flowed freely. Conversation was lively, and although lots of it was in German, our fellow guests were always willing to translate for Bob and me. To add to the perfection of the evening, Stella put on a Leonard Cohen CD. I could not believe we were in the Tuscan countryside, on a perfect evening, listening to “Suzanne” and “The Sisters of Mercy”. I was in heaven.
Suddenly, the lanterns were put out and everything went dark. From behind me, Stella emerged with a “cake” with a candle in the middle. Everyone sang “Happy Birthday”. I couldn’t have been happier; I did not want the evening to end.
The cake was actually a cream filed mille feuille concoction that Stella had whipped up that afternoon. It melted in our mouths. (Bob couldn’t wait to have seconds.) Of course, we stayed for some time after dessert, not wanting the evening to end, but, of course, eventually we headed off to bed. We would leave the Agriturismo I Pitti in the morning, but we would never forget our stay there.
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