Scenes from Tuscany

June 17th, 2009

Cycling Pisa

Over the Arno River on the way to the Leaning Tower! And…what a joy it was. I had been to Pisa a number of times but it was never as free and fun as this time by bicycle.

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Montecatini, Montecatini Alto above, Bar New York. One of my favorite sidewalk bars for caffe e latte and people watching.Ah, ehr…maybe a Cognac, too!

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My paesano, Niccolo, outside the Ufizzi Palace. He got a ‘bum wrap’ from history. To understand the mind of a Tuscan one must understand the mind and times of Macchiavelli.

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Along Via Francigena, the tenth century ‘pilgrim’s road’ to Rome, is the famous town of Altopascio with hospital, refectory and hostel. Pilgrims would be given lodging, medical care and hearty minestrone soup to sustain them on their journey. Above is the cauldron for the soup.

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The hilltop town of Montecarlo. Here begins the ‘Via del Vino’ to Lucca. The town is walled with fortifications of Medieval and Renaissance eras. Many of my riding days began with caffe e latte and updating my journal at the bar on main street. Absolutely delightful way to begin the day!

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North of Pescia along the Pescia River are historical remnants of midieval paper factories. This region was renouned for its fine paper, water marks and all. It is reputed to have produced the paper for the wedding invitations of Napoleon. The above building is Hotel San Lorenzo which was converted and restored from a paper factory. Within the lobby, bar and dining room are fine relics of the paper manufacturing era.

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This is a stretch of the original Via Francigena, the ninth to thirteenth century Pilgrim’s Road to Rome . It is located in the hamlet of Galleno. Via Francigena was a network of roads beginning in Canterbury across France, over the Alps into Italy, along the west coast into Tuscany, inland to Lucca, to Altopascio, Galleno, Fucecchio and south to Siena and Rome. Other lifetime pilgrimage destinations at the time were Santiago Campostella in northern Spain and Jerusalem.

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I sit on the southwest corner of Piazza delle Catene in Lucca-cool, comfortable and relaxed watching busy locals and dazed, hot and sticky tourists. Am about to eat a focaccia prosciutto and cheese sandwich with Montecarlo wine bought from La Grotta Pizzicheria on the north end of Via Fillungo. Isn’t life great?

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The Vasari  Corridor from the Ufizzi Palace(right) across top of Ponte Vecchio to Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens and Fort Belvedere. This architecture embodies the psychology of the times best articulated by Niccolo Macchiavelli. In the Prince Niccolo advised leaders to be vigilant of threats from within the city and from outside the city….so the times were fraught with danger from everywhere. This corridor protected the Medicis on their trip to and from work from the dangers of the ‘street’.P7190231

The town of Vinci, birthpalce of Leonardo. In the center of town is an interesting museum depicting the mechanical innovations of the ‘Master’ in scale models. Vinci is in the rolling hills adjacent to the Arno River and the beginning of the heralded Chianti region.

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The walled, ancient city of Lucca! My very favorite. An Etruscan city and a Roman castrum, a pawn of Pisa and then Florence in the middle ages…but always a jewel in the heart of Tuscany. The footprint of a Roman amphitheater still exist where I’ve enjoyed many a deli lunch midway a bicycle ride. On one  trip I walked around the city atop the walls examining the fortifications, soldier’s quarters, munition storage areas with views of the inner areas of the city and outer environs fading into the Apuan Alps. A walk down its main street, Via Fillungo, blends antiquity with the luxury and elegance of modernity. It was a stop in the ancient pilgrim’s road, Via Francigena , with the ‘volto santo’, the holy relic, housed in its cathedral, San Martino. But most of all I love the flavor of the city. To shop for fine woolen sweaters. To eat crisp focaccia while window shopping. To while away an hour people watching over an espresso and a cognac at a sidewalk cafe. To visit an ancient church in an out of the way quarter. To climb one of the towers offering magnificent panorama. The city is small, comfortable and friendly.

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Covered bridge over the canal to the hamlet of Ponte a Cappiano. Rebuilt by the Medicis in the mid sixteenth century. Served as a fortified bridge, mill, forge and center of local commerce. This was also en route of Via Francigena which lead to the Arno crossing and south to Siena and Rome.

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Town center of Montelupo Fiorentino some fifteen miles east of Florence on the Arno river. The area is locally renowned for the fine pottery which has been in production for centuries. It is of the same quality and style as Deruta although internationally lesser known. I spent some delightful hours strolling through the pedestrian center and marveling at the colorful and imaginative pottery.

P8020606Hilltop fortified town of San Miniato visible from miles around. Strategically located between Florence, Pisa and Siena and overlooking the Arno plain. It was witness to the many battles of these city-states and suffered the ravages of mercenary armies in middle ages. Today the area is known for the famous ‘white truffle’ and is a popular tourist stop at the gateway to the Chianti region.

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One splendid Sunday morning in July I absorbed the Tuscan countryside. With nary a schedule or place to go. I rode to the beat of my own drummer and thought beautiful thoughts.  I smiled and waved and my pals whom I’ve never met nor will ever meet returned a greeting in the Tuscan sunshine. Life is good…if you know where to look!

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Acquedotto Nottolini==This aqueduct delivered water to the city of Lucca from the Mount Pisano area some three kilometers to the south. The four hundred plus columns are routed through the hamlets of Guamo and San Concordia. Following link is a fine picture gallery of the water collection areas, water temples and environs http://brunelleschi.imss.fi.it/itinerari/galleria/AcquedottoNottolini.html

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The Medici Hunting Lodge in the town of Cerreto Guidi some twenty miles west of Florence. It’s now a museum showing the opulence and lifestyle of the renowned medieval family. There is a most interesting room depicting a series of paintings of seventeenth century turbaned Turks with their spectacular hunting dogs. The museum is free to the public but I had to be persistent as the guard had locked all and was sleeping inside. I rang the entrance bell heartily!!

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On the mountain roads notheast of Lucca are gems to be found around every corner. This might have been an old winery or olive processing facility. Now it’s a relic of interest on a desolate Tuscan byway.

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Just north of Pisa close to the small town of San Giuliano my bicycle seat snapped off the post. I rode for some miles seat-less but was a great distance from home. This lovely lady who owns the hardware store let me fish through her supply of old bolts till I found the right one. I was able to complete my trip through the mountains of Pisa and Lucca and home. No further mishaps that day!

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The Florence Airport(Peretola or Amerigo Vespucci) reminiscent of air travel during the casual and carefree period. Two ground level buildings, departure & arrivals and a walk to and from the plane on the tarmac. I had the pleasure of experiencing this mode on my last journey and leaving the airport on my laden bicycle for city center. For those with a sense of adventure….I heartily recommend this style.

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Piazza Michelangelo overlooking the city of Florence. Built between 1865-1870 when Florence was the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. One day I walked the hills to the southeast of Florence to Fort Belvedere behind the Pitti Palace and meandered through the narrow forested streets. The views of the city were marvellous. I had brought a lunch and ate it right in front of the Church of San Miniato nestled above Piazza Michelangelo which in turn is situated on a hilltop perch offering the best panorama of Florence. It was so breathtaking that the next day I did it again. This time, though, by taking the #13 bus right in front of the train station which was also interesting as it gave a tour of the various neighborhoods of the city.

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Life in the hilltop towns of Uzzano and Stignano. Older ladies in typical Tuscan dress doing daily chores or perhaps waiting for the grandchildren to arrive. Life in these hilltop towns is soooo quiet as all businesss activity is conducted in the valleys just below. The homes’ exteriors are rough and rustic and a contrast to the marbles and woods and fine stucco work found inside.

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It was a long ride. South through the flat-lands of the Cerbaie to the Arno River through Pontedera and the river towns to Pisa. I could feel the coolness of the nearby ocean and I toured through city streets un-bothered by traffic. Then over the Pisan mountains to Lucca where just in the nick of time I bought lunch at my favorite pizzicheria and ate it in the amphitheater just around the corner. A focaccia filled with prosciutto, cheese and basil and…Montecarlo Red. If you ever find yourself in Lucca here’s their mouth watering website  http://www.pizzicherialagrotta.it/index.html

Perhaps the best value while casually traveling through Italy. Bars and Roadhouses. Reminiscent of the gasthaus & restatte I used to love while traveling through Germany.

This is Casa Rossa just outside of Fucecchio near the Arno and gateway into the heralded Chianti Region. It was my first lunch on this Tuscan bicycle trip. I slowly ate two facaccia sandwiches (salame and prosciutto) with cold draft beer for about $10. Just great. These places have an energy of their own. Travelers dash in for quick coffee and snacks and locals come to socialize. I eat and look out onto the road traffic and listen to the local color. It’s a rich way to spend and hour.

This is a leather tannery. My uncle, Enzo, owned such a place. This area along the Arno from Fucecchio to Santa Maria Sul’Arno and along to Pontedera was known for its leather tanneries.

During the forties and fifties my uncle would travel about Tuscany by bicycle and buy the hides from slaughter houses and butcher shops. Burcher shops in those days would slaughter their own animals locally at the shop.

In the seventies during one of my visits to the area I saw the tannery in operation. I remember hides of all varieties in vibrant colors ready for shipping for manufacture of shoes, coats and purses.

Enzo was a true capitalist. A successful businessman and savvy investor.

Luciano

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