Archive for the ‘The Northern Valdinievole’ Category

The Northern Valdinievole Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

Chapter 4, The Northern Valdinievole

From The Seat Of My Brother’s Bicycle

November, 2003

Itinerary: Molin Nuovo, Villa Bellavista, Borgo a Buggiano, Castello a Buggiano, Massa e Cozzile, Montecatini Alto, Montecatini Terme and a visit to my Brother’s work, Masini Butcher Shop

image002Moreno had already left for work by the time I began dressing at sevenish. I tiptoed to the bike and today I slipped by the dog unnoticed. Towards Bar Shanghay I deliberated over the day’s adventure. In a few seconds I was decided; it was to be Villa Bellvista and then north towards Buggiano and the mountain towns and roads skirting the north edge of the Valdinievole.

When the lady behind the counter saw me parking the bike she began to fix my cappuccino. In a minute I was at my usual table by the window munching on a croissant and reading one of the many daily newspapers available for customers. She slid the cup of capuccio next to my newspaper and quietly walked away. The bar owner was a middle aged lady, slender with short brown hair and glasses. She was friendly and business like. She’s always dressed neatly with wool skirt, crisp blouse, leather shoes and a spotless white apron. Today I was reading “La Nazione”. It’s kind of nice at the bars. All the daily newspapers are available-La Nazione, Il Terranio, La Toscana. Half dozen guys had gathered at the tables for coffee before their day’s work. There was always a group as some would come and others would go. Later there would be the older retired guys.  I read all the fifty or so pages of the paper and barely noticed the idle chatter about me.  On my way out the lady said, “You are a very dedicated rider to go out riding every day”.“Yes”, I said, “it’s the best way to see Tuscany”. I paid 2 euros and was on my way.

Today was overcast and gray but there was no fog nor was it cold. The road was familiar so I rode lazily just watching the morning scenery go by. Just north of Molin Nuovo is the imposing Villa Bellavista recessed behind iron gates and a narrow Cypress tree and statue lined road leading to the ornate baroque entrance. The imposing structure is atop elevated terrain and is visible from miles around. Moreno would tell the story about our grandfather, Raffaello, doing the weekly shopping. The poor man would walk the four miles from our farm by this Villa onto Borgo a Buggiano to do the weekly shopping for our family. He would return with two heaping large bags filled with food for the family of eight.  I remember him but barely. He was rather short and bald. As I took pictures of the villa and the regal entry I envisioned my grandfather’s burdened figure slowly walking this same road some fifty, sixty and seventy years ago.

The entry gates were rusty and chained shut. It looked as though they had not been opened for years although I had read on the web that tours were available daily to see the interior of the Villa. This is very Italian, I thought.

I began to ride towards the mountains but noticed a small road following the right side of the villa. On a whim, I wound my way around the huge structure with ornate exaggerated cornices over weathered mustard paint. The rear of the building was equally impressive withimage004

Villa Bellavista

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View from the rear as the peasants would have seen it!!

remnants of geometrical gardens, a double stairway and landing, and oodles of french doors and windows with a narrow, narrow white striped road leading straight back through the rust leaved vineyards. I followed this threadlike road to gain proper distance for pictures. As I turned and focused on the façade I envisioned seventeenth century nobility dressed in their fineries withcarriages, teams of black groomed horses and servants waiting by the sides of the stairway. Absolutely a miniature Versailles set amidst the vineyards.

This Villa had been commissioned by the Medicis and an arrangement was made with their favored nobility to cement feudal allegiances. There were some fifty farms which the feudal lords of this Villa managed and profited from. Mills, stables and wineries were built. This particular system of feudal farms continued and evolved into the system into which my brother and I were born. In our day it was called “Mezzadria”, a form of sharecropping. The peasants were absolutely poor and economically tied to the land. It was just like the feudal system in many ways.  Fortunately, our family owned our farm. But, we were definitely in the minority. My uncle had to share everything with his landlord. When he butchered a pig the landlord was there for his half. When he would make wine the landlord would take half of the barels. When the wheat was processed, the landlord would haul off half the sacks. The Mezzadria came to an end in the mid sixties and many of the peasants along with my uncle were able to purchase their farms through benevolent government programs. My cousin still lives there.

I thought of the splendor of lifestyles which this villa represented and also of the misery which the system inflicted on the poor peasants. Now, this villa is mostly vacant and in a state of severe disrepair while many of the descendents of the indentured peasants of the surrounding lands are prospering. My brother being one. How ironic. How just.

I worked my way to the north side where I found and open gate. In spite of the rusted no entry sign I walked in for a closer look. If caught I could always plead ignorance.  Old doors and windows were stacked against the side of the building seemingly ready for a restoration effort but obviously postponed or canceled. The front was truly majestic although in a severe state of decay. A large circular fountain, the centerpiece of the entryway, formed a grand approach to the front door and amazingly was working.  Multiple gray columns framed the dark wooden doors which were in pretty good condition. I looked in one of the adjacent doors and a polite young man in navy blue uniform appeared. He informed that the building was used by firefighters and now the museum was closed.

I walked around the back and inspected the grand stairway and landing just off the main ballroom. It too was crumbling but the vista of the narrow carriage road disappearing in the vineyards was magnificent. A flatbed farm wagon in faded Prussian blue was parked at the corner of the building. A data plate from the manufacturer revealed a 1910 vintage from Verona. For some reason as I looked at this wagon, pictures of war came to mind. Napoleonic or Austrian or Prussian troops with wounded carried by such a wagon. Perhaps it was a scene from one of such epic movies. Or perhaps it was a mental picture derived from reading Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”; but that’s what I though at the time. The imagery was strong.

A couple of miles to the north is Borgo a Buggiano which is the developed economic extension of its medieval nucleus, Buggiano, perched above on the mountainside. My brother would tell the story that Borgo was only accessible by boat from the south as that area was all

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image009Old wagon waiting restoration!

 Train station at Borgo a Buggiano

 marshy swampland. That was many years ago though, probably in the early nineteen hundreds. But even now as I look at a map it shows the route of old railroad which makes a wide loop from Montecatini north to Borgo a Buggiano and then south to San Salvatore and Altopascio, thereby skirting the wet swamplands.  I was familiar with the roads as I had explored Borgo in depth a few days before when I accompanied my brother as he played bridge at the Bar Centrale. Now I dreamily rode through the city streets by the semi abandoned railroad station and wound through the underpass as a train lumbered by. On the other side was a fine view of the nineteenth century station buildings which must have been quite fashionable in their day. The facades were bold and dramatic poised next to the platform and the tracks. Nowdays, overgrown bushes, graffiti and missing doors and windows were the first glimpses to meet the occasional passenger arriving at Borgo. Most trains would speed on by without stopping, though. I clicked a couple of pictures and could only see the elegant station which I remembered when leaving for America some forty years ago. I was nine then and was leaving my world of the Valdinievole, my father and brother. It had been an emotional moment as I boarded the train hand in hand with my aunt, Mary Alice, leaving the lone sad figure of my father with beret in hand on the station platform. I took another picture and smiled as I also reflected what a grand stroke of luck it had been for me. America gave me a new life, great opportunity and a superb education.

I left the station behind and proceed to Buggiano. The road was steep with no respite and estimated the climb to be around 12 degrees.  I was out of the saddle most of the time and was breathing pretty good. Nets and barrels were spread about under the olive trees on either side of the road. All seemed ready for the harvest. Just in front of the Buggiano walled gates I stopped to rest and appreciate the grand vista and the noticeable outline of Villa Belvedere. Buggiano was a fine example of a medieval walled city and typical of this area in the fifteenth century. Now, it

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Magnificent view of Buggiano from sister city Stignano

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Another quiet afternoon in a medieval hill town!

and most like towns have become bedroom communities as there is no industry or jobs within their medieval walls. Inhabitants drive to the valley towns for work. For me, this was perfect.  I meandered through the town at a leisurely pace taking pictures, talking to the occasional resident, admiring restored homes, reading antique plaques set on side of buildings or in the pavement, feeling the cold Tuscan stone of bell towers, inspecting large cathedral doors, and always marveling at the beautiful scenery of the surrounding valleys, mountain passes and other walled towns wedged in the distant mountains. It’s a rather surreal experience with man, a bicycle, his thoughts, beauty and medieval history all in a setting of antiquity.

From Buggiano the road follows mountain ridges along the northern border of the Valdinievole with panoramas leading to the Arno Valleys. I maintained a pretty good pace through the climbs and descents stimulated by my thoughts and reflections. Many new villas were being built. Heady mustards, soft peaches and rich rusts were the colors of choice. Lots of arches with blends of wood and tile adorned inviting entries highlighted with beds of vibrant colored flowers. These family oases were set in olive groves and steep mountainsides commanding serene panoramas.

Colle a Buggiano came quickly. Once through the walls at the main gate I was met with a central square, a cathedral on the opposite end and government buildings with coat of arms. Those of the Florentines become easily recognizable as most of these villages came under its dominion.  Beyond the square are the cobbled, narrow streets and alleys lined with two and three story residences. I walked one of these alleys following the rear walls of the town built on the mountain’s edge. Tiny cars are parked in every nook and crevice and garages with seemingly impossible access are set in ancient facades. The doorways are always interesting and the eves too. Some of them are exotic and ornate probably signifying the wealth and status of the original

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Walled piazza at Colle a Buggiano

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                                               Friendly, but don’t get too close!

occupants. I wound through a maze of these streets and never saw a soul. With the exception of automobiles it could have been the year 1500.

As I ride, I keep passing dogs and interestingly enough, they are never on a leash. They don’t pay much attention to me and never give chase. Thank goodness! Many seem to be going somewhere. One day on the way to Borgo with my brother we saw a dog attempting to cross the road. It stopped and looked both ways. Then it crossed smartly. My brother said “that one must have left some fur behind”. Said in Italian it’s much more poignant. We both laughed. Patricia and I first noticed and were amused by these independent dogs when we visited Montepulciano a few years ago. We would be doing sightseeing and a lone black dog would be trotting down a street, another up an alley and a third crossing the square. All were traveling at a pretty good clip and seemed to be moving with purpose. At the sighting of each new dog we would look and laugh. Just outside Colle a Buggiano I passed two golden retrievers which were in front of their house and noted my passing ever so nonchalantly. They were cute and apparently gentle so I stopped and rode back to take their pictures. At the second picture they moved closer and began a throaty growl. I turned my bike with camera in hand and sped off. So much for cute I thought! One bite, and my riding adventure would be finished. “Adios, dogs”.

Massa e Cozzile was the highest point of my ride overlooking the sprawling suburbs of Montecatini Terme. A sign posted on the doors of its church bid me to go in. Amongst other things the sign counseled parishioners, “It serves no purpose to light a candle unless one also changes his heart.” It was a simple country church with many side altars. I sat alone and meditated for a while. Ah, yes, I also lit a candle. Directly across a small angular piazza was a bar and food store. A few people could be seen inside. I went in for coffee and a warming Vecchia Romgna. How good it is when it’s chilly.

On the way down the steep and winding road I had to stop to put on gloves as it was rather cold. On the outskirts of Montecatini I recognized Le Panteraie which was a ritzi swim club which we had frequented on prior trips during hot summer days. Montecatini Terme was renowned not only for its thermal waters and mud baths but also the saline mineral waters for their purgative and cleansing powers. Vacationers came for the season and would take up residence at the many hotels and pensiones located throughout the city. Night clubs, restaurants, bars, horse racing, ice cream parlors and avante garde shops dotted every corner of the city. In the evenings people make the “passeggiata” and sit in outdoor cafes and bars all dressed in the latest fashions. In the summer months the town is packed. The streets are filled with the very latest of luxury automobiles from all over Europe. It’s an exciting place and we would come after dinner sometimes just to be part of the hubbub.

At the north end of town I picked up the signs for Montecatini Alto. Yes, this was the medieval counterpart perched over Montecatini Terme and connected by a steep funicular railway. My climb proceeded up the winding road through mostly mountain suburbs. At the mid point signs indicated “road work” or “road closed” but it was not really clear so I continued. As I approached the road workers and machinery busy at work no one seemed to pay much attention to my motions to be waved through. Hoisting my bike over my shoulders I trekked over an adjacent field to resume my ride on open road.  The last stretch was steep and dotted with rustic mountain architecture. Gray stone facades highlighted with forest green wooden shutters and tidy little gardens marked the presence of stores, residences and restaurants at many of the mountain road intersections. With the off season and the windy weather shutters over windows and doors were shut tight.

The incline was steep and I could see the walled city looming large up ahead. I was

image019 CENTRAL PIAZZA AT MONTECATINI ALTO

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  MOUNTAIN VILLAGE ON WAY TO MONTECATINI ALTO

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     climbing with little or no effort now. When I slowed I just rose from the saddle and would attack. Automatically so, never breathing hard. I could be out of the saddle for what seemed miles and never be winded. Was I having a good time or what? Absolutely, the very best! I wish Patricia was here to see all this, though.

            The road wound around the town walls twice, spiraling higher and higher. Me and my bike walked the narrow streets and found the main square. It’s the size of a football field lined with bars and restaurants and hundreds of chairs for outside seating. As I walked towards the central fountain it was rather eerie. I was the only one in the entire square. And with seating ready for hundreds. Ah! The pleasure and luxury of travel in the off season. In the summer this space would be jam packed with crowds and the road around the wall I had just traveled would be lined with cars. But, today it was all mine. To possess it; to take pictures at my leisure. To ponder in solitude. Or just to walk about as the Brits would say.

When I had my fill I hopped on my bike and began the descent, smoothly and carefully. It was time to visit Moreno at the butcher shop in the center of Montecatini Terme below. My pals, the road workers were still there. I motioned to one and he sleepily waved me through.

Soon I was weaving through the streets of Montecatini Terme filled with traffic, sounds and vibrancy, completely the antithesis of its counterpart above. I visited a couple of old spots which had personal meaning. The Ercolini Savi Hotel, in front of which I had taken Gina’s picture when she was little, was now the New Savi Hotel. Gina will laugh when she sees the change. “We’ve been ousted” she’ll say.  In the central square at the beginning of the boulevard adjacent to all the luxury thermal hotels and in front of the oddly modern cathedral was a very old tree whose trunk had naturally hollowed and the interior had been painted crimson. Standing inside the trunk I had taken pictures of Gina and Patricia at different times over the past twenty

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OUR

ICONIC

TREE

IN

MONTECATINI

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VIEW

OF

MONTECATINI ALTO

FROM

MONTECATINI TERME

 MY BROTHER, MORENO, AT WORK

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years. Now there was a large sign just in front of it. What’s up with that? They wrecked our tree. Also from this vantage point was the finest view of the central boulevard framing Montecatini Alto atop the mountain. What pleasure it is to visit old familiar places.

At the Masini Macelleria (butcher shop) Moreno was behind the counter in his white jacket waiting on customers. This little independent butcher shop is one of the few remaining in operation. Large chains and behemoth cooperatives have replaced many of the small shops and certainly most of the butcher shops. This one struggles on, but barely. Moreno, since his shop in Chiesina closed, works here three days a week. I took pictures of my brother in action. He is very good with people with his free and easy manner and warm smile. As we chatted the young lady who owns the Calzedonia shop next door entered in a burst of energy. She had a new neon sign in her window installed and thought it was crooked so we all surveyed it and rendered our opinion. Patrizia was dressed in a mini-mini skirt with knit top, bold panty hose and mod shoes. Just out of Carnaby Street from the sixties, I thought. She was very slender and it looked good on her but also she was a walking model for her shop. She owned a franchise of Calzedonia, a trendy pantyhose and stocking shop. Every time I would visit Moreno I noticed a new window display at Calzedonia and would always pop my head in to say hello to Patrizia. She was spunky and fun to talk to. Before my departure I went in and bought pairs of beautiful black pantyhose with muted tapestry floral patterns for our daughters, Chelsea and Gina. This is the type of stuff they would go nuts for, I thought, and it’s not in America yet. I had bought them youthful leather purses too and stuck the stockings inside; I was right, both the purses and the stockings were a big hit.

Back at the house Giovanni had come for lunch along with his dog, Ty. We chatted for a while as we waited for Moreno. I slipped downstairs to use their new shower with instant hot water. This was a family newfound luxury and it was a bit of heaven after a strenuous mountain ride.

Lunch with Moreno, Nina and Giovanni is always a happy occasion. We ate fresh tortellini with a very light herb tomato sauce, slices of braised beef, spinach sautéed in garlic and for dessert Giovanni had brought a semolina torte which was light and delicate. We laughed, drank wine and retold old stories which we all relished.

Luciano J. Ercolini

The Cycling Tuscan

Dalmatian Realty, Silicon Valley Real Estate, www.dalmatianrealtysv.com