Archive for February, 2010

Svizzera Pesciatina Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

I was born into the peasant class in the heart of Tuscany, a small valley known as the Valdiniebole. Some speculate the name originates from ‘valis nubula’,  Latin for valley of fog, while a more probable name derives as the valley of the Nievole River which originates on the Appenine slopes just north of Montecatini and flows south towards the Arno Valley. We were ‘dirt poor’ but we did not know it. We thought we were rather well off especially when compared to the others nearby. Most of all we were happy. It was a small farm, very small, but it sustained our family. All was on a small scale and intended for family consumption, except perhaps for the annual calf raised for sale or the abundance of vegetables brought to market in the summer. We made wine, raised two pigs and slaughtered them to make prosciuttos, salames and sausages along with pancetta and trays of snow white pork fat laced with rosemary for cooking.  Chickens and rabbits and wheat and corn and some fruit and nut trees. We had no machinery, but all was done by hand or powered by our two milk cows that would be hitched to the plow to work the fields.

Family Pictures 172


Water was drawn from the well just in front of the house and the bathroom…well…it was just to the side of the pig sty and indoor stalls. There was no running water or electricity.  Life was simple. Saturday afternoons and Sundays would be for rest, recreation and church. Once in a while we would go to the movies to one of two theaters in nearby towns. We would go by bicycle as no one had automobiles. In fact when a rare auto would drive by I would stand by the side of the road in awe. Probably looked like a true ‘country bumpkin’ with mouth agape. Once per week my grandmother, Agnese, would rise before dawn and light the fire to provide embers for the brick oven. She was dressed in black: black stockings, black dress, black apron and head scarf. That was the traditional Tuscan style for older ladies. She would spend most of the day making bread for the family for the week. They were those wonderful, golden, rustic textured, oval loaves with hearty crust. By the end of the week the bread got a little tough. One day in 1953 electricity arrived. What a change. No more oil lamps and we even got a radio.

My uncle, grandfather and aunt each had farms adjacent to ours. Another uncle had escaped the farming scene and had settled in the city of Florence working as a ‘carabinieri’. I loved to see him in his navy blue uniform with white belting and gun and all. Another aunt had married a Frenchman and lived in Marseilles, an aunt and uncle had emigrated to America…San Francisco area and yet another aunt was married and lived in La Spezia on the Tyrrenaum Coast near Cinque Terre. This was my paternal branch…then there was the maternal side…aunts, uncles, cousins…suffice it to say that we had a large family. But that was typical back in those days as labor was needed to work the land.

There was an aunt and uncle that I particularly fancied. They were butchers and had a shop in the nearby town of Pescia. They lived in a nice flat over the butcher shop, with a fancy heavy wooden front door, marble floors, rugs, electricity, running water and…yes…even an indoor modern bathroom. I remember being afraid to flush the toilet as they had the overhead water tank and it made a terribly loud, rushing noise. They also had two children, my cousins, Giuseppe and Antonio. Giuseppe was two years older and would take me around Pescia when I visited. I was country and he was urbane. He had toys and went to the movies and had lots of friends and I hung around as the cousin from the farm. They would talk about girls, the latest toys in shop windows, shoes and clothes, motor scooters and lots and lots of comic books.  My cousin had a motor scooter when he was very young. They seemed terribly sophisticated and exciting. Pescia to me seemed like a big city; there were cars and the streets were paved and lots of city noises. All was such a nice contrast to the dirt and smells and quietness of the farm. I always had a special, exciting place in my mind  for my cousin Giuseppe and his family and Pescia.

In 1956 I came to America to live with my aunt and uncle in San Francisco. I did not realize it then..but…that was the single greatest stroke of luck in my life. America….better than all the money in the world. Over the next half century I would visit my family in Tuscany on a regular basis as circumstances, personal commitments and finances would allow. Each time, however, there would be the next episode of ‘Giuseppe’. He was a high energy, big ideas, big talk, devil may care type of guy. In the sixties he set up an ice cream shop in touristy Montecatini and coupled that with a fashion business. His father financed and Giuseppe put on the big show. Cars, night clubs, schmoozing till the creditors knocked.  When all was hopeless he grabbed his passport and hightailed it to Rotterdam where he got a job cleaning oil tankers.

In the seventies I found myself in Fulda, Germany serving in the U. S. Army. After a few inquiries I discovered ‘Giuseppe’. Yep, he was close. I was in Fulda and he was some seventy miles away in a small town near Kassel. We visited him and laughed. He was working for an international company as a waiter going from place to place. He had entertaining friends, lots of girl friends as he was now single and seemed to be enjoying ‘life in the moment’.

In the mid seventies I found him back at Pescia making amends with his family. All was quiet…but as time would tell…not for long.

In the late seventies I became involved in the bar and restaurant business and on my next visit to Tuscany discovered that Giuseppe had married a German girl….one of the girl friends I had met while in Germany…and was setting up bars and night clubs in Germany. My uncles were going up to visit and all seemed to be going splendidly.

In the early eighties I was a restaurateur and found time and resources to visit often. Giuseppe was back in Itlay. He set up a night club in super touristy Viareggio just north of Pisa. The club was on the beach with dancing and shows etc. It was a flop. Soooo….Giuseppe….with his strange mind pondered for a week…and ‘voila’…we are now a gay night club. Frau Marleine!!

The next year when I returned….Frau Marleine was a huge hit. Gays were coming from Florence, Pisa, Lucca and all nearby areas. Giuseppe was somewhat of a celebrity. We would go to restaurants and all would know him and send us drinks. It was a continuous party.

The next year Giuseppe got one of my uncles involved in the business and bought a fancy coffee, tea, pastry bar with formal piano, recitals, silver, crystals, solid dark woods…etc. They spent a fortune. It was in the center of Lucca on Via Fillungo. It was beautiful and pleasant to have coffee but I could see that it was well on its way to being a flop.

The next year, mid eighties, Giuseppe was back in Germany. It seems that the mafia wanted a little piece of the business…the cash rich Frau Marleine. Well, Giuseppe, in his best cavalier attitude told the heavies to ‘stick it’. Like in the ‘Godfather’, in the middle of the night cars came and fired multiple gunshot into his house. I suppose that was the ‘horse’s head’ that convinced Giuseppe that perhaps he WAS a bandleader. He sold all quickly and with equal adroitnes sped over the Brenner Pass into Deutchland once again.

In the subsequent trips I would hear rumblings of his adventures. He seems to have quieted a bit…I suppose age may have a hand in that. Whenever I think of Giuseppe I can’t help but laugh. He’s one of those rascal figures that always pops up somewhere with the next scheme. He never looks back, never regrets and brings a smile to your face. All in all, that’s not a bad thing.

Early records (951 a.d.) refer to Pescia (Pehhia) as a Longobard city built on both banks of the Pescia River. The commercial portion surrounds the long oval Piazza Mazzini with shops, residential area and government buildings and the flower market. The opposite bank housed the cathedral and hospital…the same hospital which was moved from Altopascio and its long history along Via Francigena (see Riding Around Altopascio). Medieval defensive walls along with characteristic medieval crenellated buildings can be seen riding along the Pescia River through the town. North of Pescia along the river is the area known as Svizzera Pesciatina (Pescia’s Switzerland), an area so named by eighteenth century historian and naturalist G. Sismondi who was exiled to the area  and reminded him of his home in Switzerland. The region provides the traveler with beautiful unspoiled mountain and river valley scenery along with medieval towns unaltered by commerce and a trail of old paper factories which were an important piece of the local commerce beginning in the late fifteenth century. Both Pescia and the ten towns of Svizzera Pesciatina follow the common historical thread of the region: first under dominance of Pisa, then Lucca and eventually under the Medici and Florence. In the modern era Pescia is known for its flower market where its ships flowers of all varieties especially carnations throughout Europe.


 Pescia Flower Market & Medieval Town of Uzzano in mountainous background

At this point I will include a chapter of my unpublished book, ‘From The Seat of My Brother’s Bicycle’, describing a ride through Svizzera Pesciatina.

Day Five

Thursday, November 13, 2003 


Itinerary: Pescia Flower Market, Pietrabuona Paper Museum, San Quirico


Old Tuscan Proverb: Muore la pecora, muore l’agnello

                                     Muore la bue e l’asinello

                                     Moure la gente pien di guai,

                                     Ma I rompecoglioni non moian mai!!!


                                     Dies the sheep, dies the lamb,

                                     Dies the ox and the ass,

Die the people full of woes,

                                     But…ballbusters never die!!!!

(the rhyme and zing is lost in translation)

I am sitting at Bar Shanghai for my usual cappuccino and croissant before my ride. Normally it’s sleepy and quiet here but today I stepped into a maelstrom. Two tables of guys were locked in heated argument. The apparent leader kept repeating that “you do not go to establish peace with armored cars”. I didn’t quite know what was going on as I had gone to bed early last night and hadn’t learned the latest scoop. With La Nazione in front of me, though, I quickly learned that nineteen Italian policemen had been killed in Iraq. They were part of a peacekeeping force and some were from nearby towns in Tuscany.





As a new person entered, the most vocal of the group would attempt to draw him into the melee. Goes to show you how stupidity has no geographical borders. Usually the louder ones tend to be the more stupid. This was no exception.  A little bald headed guy was talking loud and looking at me trying to get an indication as to my stance. As I was wearing an American flag dew rag I really had no wish to be dragged into a nonsensical conversation.  A rational minded guy came in and refused to accept the popular view. As he resisted the same bald headed little man got even more excited. When he was asked why are you taking this so personally? Have you been drinking already this early in the morning?  That did it! The little guy went ballistic. With arms flailing, voice crackling with emotions, and every vein in his head bulging he attempted to make logical arguments. But just couldn’t; he was too excited. It might have been humorous had it not been so early in the morning. I kept reading my newspaper trying to ignore the whole mess but it was difficult.

Up to now not much had been said about the war but today it was front and center. Nineteen Italian policemen had been killed in Iraq and their pictures were plastered all over the front pages. The war in Iraq had come home to Italy. And now the Italians on main street were getting involved.

Enough, I thought, I’m going to La Svizzera Pesciatina. As I paid the bill, the lady behind the counter apologized for all the commotion. “No big deal” I said,”it happens all over the world.” I proceeded north from Chiesina towards Pescia. Traffic was light and the weather was pleasant. It felt good to be in the fresh air but my ears were still ringing with the angry emotion strained voice of that unattractive little man in the bar. But as I looked up, the mountains drenched in warm sunshine and the gentle Tuscan countryside quickly restored peace.

Some miles ahead were the feint outlines of the new Pescia flower market poised like a giant metallic tarantula over the low urban skyline. Steel towers anchored in cement suspended cables over and supporting the seemingly fragile roof. Patricia remarked when seeing its picture “what’s this ugly modern thing doing amidst all this beautiful architecture”. As I worked my way into the entrance a gate guard waved me down. “Entry is restricted to growers and wholesalers”, he said.

I explained to him that I had been raised in this area and wanted to have a look at the market. He let me sign the guest book and was very polite and as a matter of fact all Tuscans are very polite.



I rode my bike into the cavernous pavilion which had docks on three sides for loading eighteen wheelers.  Inside, many of the counters were already empty although there were still pockets of activity. The bartender inside the cafe had said that most of the selling activity was completed by eight. Staging areas were piled high with pallets containing boxes, buckets and pots of flowers and plants of every imaginable variety. At one time the carnation was king but the market has now expanded to a vast array of flowers. As I wandered about the floor taking pictures I marveled at the variety, colors and magnitude of the whole operation.  One area contained carnations of every color, in another, margaritas packed in boxes, orchids packaged in cellophane, oriental bamboo plants, lilies tall and white and greenery of every variety to complement floral arrangements.

In my wanderings I came upon one of the workers laboring with the boxes.

“Have you sold everything”, I asked.

“Everything”, he said.

“Do you own a farm around here to grow flowers”.

“No” he said, “we don’t grow flowers. We handle wholesale and distribution.”

He was a pleasant man, polite and full of smiles.


Waterwheel from ancient paper factory operation. Now in hotel lobby!

On the way out I thanked the gate guard and was on my way. I went by Pescia but I did not stop as I had seen it many times before. I raced north by the bridges, river and old paper mills. At the little valley of the converted mill into the hotel and restaurant I looked across the bridge with fondness. It’s the type of setting which beckons you to linger. Come across my bridge and stay awhile, it says. Come sit. Enjoy the vista of our river valley and the mountains. It’s a beautiful day. Come, take a moment. Let the beauty of our area soak in. Take the memories back with you, wherever home is. Breathe the fresh air. Listen to rushing waters. Let serenity be your ally. Indulge yourself. The road will always be there. You can resume your journey anytime. Come, let the winter sun engulf you.


Ancient Paper Factory now Converted into Hotel San Lorenzo

I kept on pedaling, though, and soon I was in Pietrabuona in front of Il Museo della Carta (Paper Museum). It looked closed as it had a few days ago but I rang the bell as the sign directed. The door opened immediately to reveal three smiling faces. Two young ladies were doing clerical stuff behind desks and the neatly dressed young man with prefect hair told me to make myself comfortable. I began to view the paper displays on the wall but soon he lead me through a door to a small theater with about thirty seats.

I removed all bicycle gear and sat back comfortably in a middle row. He began to speak. Even though I was the only one in the room he stood in front and proceeded with his presentation. He was a good speaker in full command of his subject and his easy style made me feel fully at ease. His Italian was perfect and I understood him with ease.


Well fortified entrance to Medicina

The history of paper manufacturing in the Pescia area dates back to the 1300’s, he began. Late in the fifteenth century noteworthy printing companies were already established in Pescia. Numerous paper mills were erected along the Pescia River as can now be evidenced by the many dilapidated and abandoned brick structures just north of city along the river. Collectors would make their rounds in city and farm areas to return with loads of old rags to be processed into the finest paper for Europe’s discriminating markets. At our normally lively lunch later that day I asked Nina if she remembered the rag collectors. “Oh, yes”, she said. “When I was a little girl living on the farm in Lammari just outside Lucca a little old man would come every few months with his horse drawn cart. Years later he used his three wheeled “Ape”.” As she rose from the table to clear the tray of cheese and bowl of fruit she reflected “they gave us almost nothing for all those rags, though.”

He showed me how watermarks were placed in the paper and explained the process. A number of samples were available with the most interesting being the wedding invitations of Napoleon and Maria Luisa of Austria in 1810.


Pietrabuona built on the banks of the Pescia River

The museum was in the process of acquiring an old paper mill just up the river, he went on. Funding was being provided to restore the mill along with the old machinery and to transform it into a working exposition. They would produce paper the ancient and traditional way while displaying the process to the public. It was important to do this now, he continued, while there still were trained artisans living and buildings and machinery were still salvageable. In the middle ages this area was renowned for the quality and artistry of its paper. Lucca, Pisa and Florence vied for its control. The theater and museum were to be a vital part and the beginning point of the exposition. When completed this project would be an important element to revitalizing the tourist industry in this area. It had been a most interesting presentation, just the type of stuff which my mother, Mary Alice, would have loved.


Rugged and Unspoiled Terrain of Svizzera Pesciatina

As I proceeded north along the Pescia River a large, colorful road sign conveniently divided the ten towns of La Svizzera Pesciatina into three tidy itineraries. So reminding him of his homeland, a noted Swiss economist dubbed this region, “Pescia’s Switzerland”, upon taking up residence here in the mid 1800s.  Roads leading to  Medicina, Fibbiola and Aramo passed but I decided to just visit what appeared to be the most interesting, San Quirico, some ten miles up the mountains. The other towns in the group would be reserved for later adventures and later trips. There would definitely be more; I was sure. I wound my way along the river, through forests, up mountains, along ridges, into valleys in total solitude. Much of the time I was in the shade as I was threading through dense pine and chestnut forests filled with thick underbrush. It was chilly but all was peaceful as I progressed deeper into the wilderness. Rarely did I see a car. Occasionally on ledges of the densely wooded mountainsides a weathered tile roof or chimney would pop through the forest canopy. The road and these occasional abodes were the only signs of civilization. As I raced effortlessly up lengthy ascents amidst all this natural beauty from time to time a bothersome thought came to mind. What if I had a flat tire? My tubeless tires couldn’t be patched. Oh, well I smiled inwardly; it will just be another impromptu adventure. It will add more spice to my trip. The further north I progressed even the occasional home was no longer evident.

As I traversed the ridge line onto the next valley following the crest of the mountain an expansive panorama revealed distant mountains and feint outlines of clustered rock buildings, tile roofs and sharp towers. The closest of these I assumed to be San Quirico. As I took pictures of the distant villages almost lost in the expansiveness of the mountains I could almost hear the voice of Sean Connery doing his narrative to the opening of the “Name of the Rose”.  More climbing and more switchbacks revealed steep cultivated slopes with vineyards and olive groves. A gentle smoke with redolence of olive wood filled the area. As I approached San Quirico voices of workers burning olive cuttings could be heard.

Once through the walled gate I walked my bike with care up and down the narrow stone alleys of this medieval oasis. I followed a walkway around the massive fourteenth century stone walls with fine views of the forested Apennines and on occasion could still hear voices of workers filtering up through the rows of olive trees. All the while the air was filled with the scent of olive smoke and the warm winter sunshine was so pleasant amidst all the cold stone buildings. At one point while walking behind some older ladies all dressed in black I marveled as to how they could negotiate such steep inclines of the city streets. Perhaps necessity kept them in good shape. I came to a small piazza enclosed on three sides by buildings of extraordinary proportions. I leaned my bike on the exterior short wall and sat down to rest, reflect and absorb the scenery. A bell tower, built of massive stone, rose to the sky and dwarfed its church just across the piazza. Simple joys such as the warmth of winter sunshine contrasted by massive cold stone all about or the vision of medieval figures clustered in small groups in the piazza exchanging the latest from Lucca, Pescia or the neighboring mountain towns or the serenity and peace with the vista of the distant, smoky Appenines filled my consciousness. It is moments like these that all seems right with the world. This was harmony.

In the thirteenth century this little mountain top town was decimated by the Black Plague. Its citizens dwindled to a precious few, twenty. The Archbishop of Lucca, under whose control San Quirico was, issued a ten year edict to wave any and all taxation to help repopulate the area. Over the ensuing years the town recovered but was in constant feud and war with the surrounding mountain villages which were aligned with Florence. In the eighteenth century the forces of Napoleon established a regional headquarter in San Quirico. Its citizens, enamored with concepts of liberty and democracy of the French Revolution, used this very bell tower to warn against the advance of Austrian troops. In the twentieth century seventeen of its citizens were butchered by the Nazis probably in this very piazza as retribution for two German soldiers killed in the area.

I used the timer on my Olympus digital to take some pictures of me in this contemplative moment. I was done for the morning which usually means that I was beginning to envision our little kitchen table set and ready with a big bottle of Chianti and garlic and rosemary aromas emanating from the kitchen. In short, I was hungry.

The ride back was smooth and pleasant banking into gentle downhill turns and effortlessly seeing pleasant greenery go by as I reflected on the many events of that morning. At Pietrabouna I stopped at one of the little bars to warm up with a little Vecchia Romagna and espresso. It is such a pleasant combination in the coolness of the winter. As I passed the flower market I heard a metallic sound against the pavement but dismissed it. A few more miles and the problem was revealed; the left pedal slipped off the shaft onto the pavement. I stopped and replaced it but the bolt was gone so I limped on in to Chiesina pedaling with care.

Our lunch began with a pastina in chicken broth with herbs and parmigiano. Crisply sautéed chicken breasts in garlic, sage and olive oil accompanied by steamed and sautéed fresh spinach was the main course with plenty of hearty bread and wine. The Tuscan table always seems to be filled with plenty of talk, stories and laughter. Meals are a loud business and if one is to be heard he must learn to exercise his vocal cords. Even the timid catch on quickly especially after a little Chianti. We finished our meal with bowls of fresh fruit and cheeses. On Sundays we would normally have dessert and espresso too.


The Cycling Tuscan

Silicon Valley Real Estate……. Luciano…Broker/Owner…