First it was the acrobat tied up in a tree. Then the three-headed woman with a snake slithering from her posterior. Now there’s a naked warrior with a belly big enough for Sumo wrestling…
No, not a Tuscan freak show—it’s Piazza Matteoti in the northern Tuscan town of Pietrasanta. And these are only three of the town’s many bronze and marble sculptures. Contemporary “art for the people” is often disappointingly third-rate, but not here. Some major sculptors have their works on public display.
Pietrasanta means “sacred rock.” A medieval walled settlement, it has inspired artists and sculptors for centuries. Michelangelo lived here from 1516 until 1520, enticed by the backdrop of marble mountains.
Other former residents include Henry Moore and Joan Miró. Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero—creator of the chunky warrior—lives here part-time. Take a peek at his frescoes inside the Misericordia Oratory. The Gate to Heaven has a plump Madonna, a paunchy Lucifer waits at the Gate to Hell. Even the skeletons are comfortingly chubby.
In the streets around the cathedral, galleries and studios pop up among the boutiques and café-bars. If life-size goddesses for the garden are more your thing, the bronze foundries and large marble workshops are just outside town.
Pietrasanta is a treat. This town of 25,000 people is hidden Tuscany’s boutique art and bohemian destination, the perfect vacation spot. Well, it is if you enjoy having beaches and mountains on the doorstep, a choice of good restaurants, and browsing around Sunday bric-a-brac markets.
But it’s only one of Northern Tuscany’s neglected treasures….
Lucca: Music, History, and Cakes
Henry James was right. Lucca is “overflowing with everything.” Encased in 15th-century walls, it’s a sleeping beauty of palaces, marble-striped churches, and high, stone towers.
The birthplace of the composer Puccini, Lucca invites aimless wandering. In its spider-web of streets, classical melodies spill from a music school. There’s a flower market on one piazza, an art exhibition on another. Tiny shops tempt you with violet leather gloves and golden rings of buccellato, a specialty cake stuffed with dried fruits and flavored with aniseed.
Another fun thing to do is walk or cycle (you can rent bikes) on top of the astonishingly wide walls. Known as “Lucca’s Living Room,” the three-mile paved circuit is lined with trees and grassy spaces. It’s like promenading through a park—one that looks down onto secret gardens and piazzas.
If there’s only time for one church, make it San Frediano’s. The sun turns its mosaic facade into shimmering gold. Inside, the mummified body of Lucca’s patron saint, St. Zita, lies slumbering.
Not far from Lucca is an exquisite stone bridge at Borgo a Mozzano. Officially called Ponte Maddalena, it is nicknamed the Devil’s Bridge. Legend tells that its builder made a pact with Old Nick. As payment for his labor, the devil demanded a sacrifice: the first living thing to cross it. Happily for the village, it turned out to be a scraggy pig, not a fair maiden.
A few miles farther north, Bagni di Lucca evokes the genteel era of the Grand Tour—a past of poets, painters, and Russian princes. It was the thermal springs, reputed to cure skin diseases, that brought them flocking to this town of riverside walks and fairytale villas.
Beyond Bagni di Lucca is the Tuscan wild: the Garfagnana. The scenery turns alpine, the forests thicken and villages get sleepier. For hikers, there’s no shortage of trails. Spring brings blossom-laden trees and meadows starred with wildflowers. Two historic towns well worth a meander are Barga and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.
Festival Time in the Lunigiana
Gentler than the Garfagnana, the Lunigiana is a land of medieval castles, river valleys and hill villages above the chestnut woods. Between the mountains and Liguria’s coast, it fits into Massa-Carrara province, Tuscany’s northwestern tip.
Each town is different. Go to Pontremoli for its mysterious prehistoric figures, or to Bagnone for its perfect setting with a castle rising above a rushing river. Fivizzano has a Tuesday market and enough marble to justify its tag as the Florence of the Lunigiana. And if tales of murder, treachery, and wanton women thrill you, one castle not to miss is Fosdinovo.
Between May and September, the village festa season goes into overdrive. Whether it’s a saint’s day or the recreation of a medieval world of archers and horseback knights, trestle tables are piled with good food and wine. Come nightfall, there’s dancing in the dark under twinkly fairy lights.
Pistoia: The Guidebooks Got it Wrong
Ignore the guidebook that says Pistoia is a “gloomy” city. Inexplicably spurned by most travelers, its historic center is packed with curiosities. In Piazza della Sala, fruit and vegetable stalls create a colorful swirl around the Well of the Lioncub, a gift from the Medicis. On Piazza del Duomo, the marble Baptistry is striped like a confectioner’s fantasy of green and vanilla.
Jazz bars, a Blues Festival and jousting tournaments don’t suggest gloom to me. Nor do pink and ochre palaces, gleaming silver altars and della Robbia’s terracotta frieze that adorns the facade of a medieval hospital, Ospedale del Ceppo. Depicting various acts of mercy, the frieze is as Crayola bright as when it was created in the 1500s.
In Pistoia province, Montecatini Terme is Tuscany’s most illustrious spa town. An elegant place with a turn-of-last-century ambience, it has nine thermal establishments. Some spas are sumptuous Art Nouveau affairs, others more modern.
Visitors are mostly Italian. The emphasis is on health cures, but opportunities for pampering are plentiful. The best spa for a dip is Grotta Giusti. Entrance to its outdoor thermal pool is $16 on weekday afternoons.
If you decide to linger, check for special packages. For example, an overnight stay with breakfast in a three-star hotel, entrance to Rede spa, a hydroponic massage and a return funicular ticket to the medieval village of Montecatini Alto for dinner costs $170.
The Versilia Riviera
Unravelling in a golden ribbon from Liguria to just above Pisa, the Versilia Riviera is manicured Mediterranean perfection. But with few free beaches, finding space on one isn’t easy in summer. If you loathe a crowd, visit one of the hundreds of stabilimenti balneari.
Also called bagni, these are private beach clubs. Although Italy’s beaches are state-owned, bagni owners rent a concession from the government. Free spirits can walk the shoreline, but they get chased if they lay down towels.
Some Italians book slots at their favorite club for a month or the entire season. The largest and liveliest resort is Viareggio. Here, the average cost for two sun loungers and a beach umbrella for the day is $29. The shallow sea is ideal for children, but in high summer it bursts at the seams.
In smaller resort towns like Marina di Pietrasanta (my favorite), prices vary depending on facilities. Although you can expect a snack bar, showers, pedalo hire, and children’s play area at the very least, $41 a day for a couple in high season is low end. For a more stellar experience, think upwards of $70.
And then there’s Forte dei Marmi. In its exclusive beach clubs, swimming pools and fancy restaurants come at an eye-watering price. The daily rate for those two sun loungers and an umbrella often tops $120.
With its designer stores and luxury villas, the town is a summer nesting ground for Italy’s rich and famous—and, increasingly, Russian millionaires. If $6,700 to rent a rather ordinary three-bedroom property for a week in July seems reasonable, you’ll feel at home. If not, better to day-trip for a quick look.
Stay at an Agriturismo
Often far cheaper than a hotel, an agriturismo offers an insight into rural Tuscany. Some agriturismi are working farms offering basic bed and breakfast. Others are like country inns with a restaurant open to all comers.
Based on regional cuisine, the food is invariably delicious. Home-made soups. Pappardelle ribbon pasta served with a sauce of hare or wild boar. Grilled meats, garden vegetables, and farmhouse cheeses.
In Lunigiana, Lo Spinofiorito is incredible value. With four guestrooms and a restaurant, its mainstays are pigs, olive oil, and vegetables. I stayed on a half-board basis: bed, breakfast, and three-course dinner with a bottle of red wine for $66 per person. Try the chestnut pasta in pesto (basil, olive oil, and pine nuts) sprinkled with parmigiano cheese. Superb.
Italy’s horticultural heart beats around Pistoia. Three miles from the city, Il Vivaio is a 17th-century farmhouse surrounded by the family’s plant and ornamental tree nurseries. Double rooms are from $88; the substantial breakfast is $7.40 each. On Saturday nights, its terraced restaurant fires up the pizza oven. Including a carafe of wine, the dinner bill for two people was $27.
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