Quirky Italian Town Life

Many Italian towns have a Bar Michelangelo. But few can claim that the country’s most celebrated artist and sculptor lived and worked there for four years.

Pietrasanta can, and you’ll find its Bar Michelangelo on Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral square. Sitting on its sunny terrace with an espresso, I’m thinking this must be one of the  loveliest little towns in Tuscany, Italy. Renaissance houses in sunset colors…medieval archways…art wherever you look.

The town has the quirkiest contemporary sculptures I’ve ever seen. Some are bronze, others are marble, and they’re all over Pietrasanta. I can’t quite figure what an acrobat dangling from a tree, a three-headed snake woman and an enormous naked warrior have in common, but Piazza Matteoti makes a great start to the sculpture trail.

It’s a shame, but unless traveling independently, most foreign visitors never find Pietrasanta. That’s not because it’s remote—the Mediterranean is only a couple of miles down the road. But it’s in Lucca province, a part of Northern Tuscany. And it’s Central Tuscany that always grabs the most attention.

In the foothills of the Apuan Alps, an offshoot of the Appenines, Pietrasanta translates as sacred rock. Behind the town, the marbled massifs gleam and glitter, and even in summer the tops look capped by snow. In nearby Carrara, marble is quarried in industrial quantities for floors, pillars and garden statuary.

Michelangelo, who came to Pietrasanta in 1516, isn’t the only name on its celebrity roll-call. Artists who work with marble and bronze have been drawn here for centuries. Henry Moore and Joan Miro were residents, and the current legend is a talented Colombian sculptor called Fernando Botero.

Best known for the giant black cat on Rambla del Raval in Barcelona, Botero is the creator of Pietrasanta’s gigantic Warrior (see photo above).

He paints, too. Even if you don’t normally visit churches, take a look at his frescoes of the Gates to Heaven and Hell inside the Misericordia Oratory. Seeing chubby skeletons was a first for me.

The bronze foundries and most marble workshops are just out of town, but the historic center has galleries galore. There are also boutiques, shops with fabulous fabrics and pieces for the home, and a great choice of restaurants. And don’t miss the best gelateria in town, La Dolce Vita on via Mazzini. I can thoroughly recommend its chocolate and nocciola (hazelnut) ice-creams. In Italy, it always seems a sin to only have one.

On the first Sunday of the month, you can browse around an antiques and bric-a-brac street market near the Cathedral. I couldn’t resist a couple of photographic prints of Pietrasanta and the marble quarries taken in the early 1900s—20 euro ($29) for two, and a wonderful memento.

The bad news is that Pietrasanta doesn’t do property bargains. It’s too close to Tuscany’s Versilia coast and the swanky resort of Forte dei Marmi. There’s precious little under   300,000 euro, though one agency has a two-bedroom apartment (967 square feet) to renovate for 290,000 euro ($423,000).

That said, the marble city of Carrara is only 30 minutes away. It’s much larger and not so high-profile—similar sized refurbished apartments cost around 200,000 euro. Studios of 430 square feet start at 85,000 euro, or you can rent furnished from 400 euro ($580) per month.

Behind the mountains lies a really affordable Tuscan hideaway: the Lunigiana area. Under an hour’s drive from Pietrasanta, it still delivers restored stone cottages for 88,000 euro to 150,000 euro ($130,000 – $220,000).

Of course, Pietrasanta may inspire you to start a new career. There are courses in all kinds of art disciplines, especially in summer. For example, a week-long marble sculpting course through Alessandra Politi is 600 euro ($875). This marble workshop also rents space to craftspeople for 350 euro ($510) per month.

Editor’s note: Steenie’s best Tuscany tips are reserved for subscribers to International Living magazine. See the current June issue and the upcoming future issues for her full reports. Subscribe now to make sure you get the full set.

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