“…What a landscape all around! What a mountain, what a greenery, what a shadow, what a river, what cool streams running merrily under the chestnuts, olives, and orange trees, and the marble quarries flank the greenery on every side!”
(Poet Giosuè Carducci on Pietrasanta)
Some travellers are drawn to enormous cities flourishing with distinguished monuments and lively streets packed with Michelin-starred gastronomic delights and flowing souvenir shops. Some are allured to just the opposite. Perhaps, I have become one of the latter. Lately, I have developed a weak resistance for unknown little, hidden towns beaming with secret charming jewels that only beam if you venture to discover them among the dirt, the disturbed, the chaotic, and even sometimes among the dangerous, dark alleys.
On one brave journey to Palermo, Sicily, where people would often say, “Be careful, the mobs are out there”, I looked the other way to a route not marked on a tourist map and walked behind the backstreets of villages that almost looked quite torn down—almost shadowing what onlookers might even call an impoverished life. There, you would not find grand, classical and historical landmarks to stand in front of for that album-made photo-taking, but instead street children in worn-out clothes playing ball on uneven cobbled pathways; a plump grandmother with heavily-carved wrinkles on her face, painstakingly carrying a huge netted bag of vegetables up an unwashed staircase; or a circle of teenagers—one or two with pierced noses or tattoos on their arms, loitering on the sidewalk pavement. They, for me, were my classical monuments.
Thus, I took no hesitance to plunge myself into the mystery of the petite, charming town of Pietrasanta, tucked on the coast of northern Tuscany in Italy. Clearly quite unheard of among many guidebook travellers, Pietrasanta is, in fact, a medieval town founded in 1255, that historically belonged to Genoa, and later became part of the Lucca province—the latter obviously a far more treasured Tuscan icon visited by many tourists for its many Renaissance remains and Giacomo Puccini’s home. However, Pietrasanta’s sophistication lies in its wide array of contemporary sculptures and art objects randomly scattered around the town’s plazas, walls, gates, pavements, or frontages of buildings. It is, in itself, an entire eye-catching outdoor museum that effectively keeps one’s vision in linear harmony with history and modernity.
Its reference to “Little Athens of Italy” is perhaps, an understatement, considering the constant shift of extraordinary art pieces sprinkled everywhere by prominent international artists who continue to set memorable landmarks in this charismatic town. Not only the Versilia artistic marble-working tradition that was cultivated here upon the discovery of marble quarries in the nearby Apuan Alps centuries ago, but also notable visits and art residencies of phenomenal artists have made Pietrasanta a favourite niche for sculptors, painters, writers, and seekers of beauty, nature and serenity. Such artists who learned to love Pietrasanta were for instance, Michelangelo who often travelled to Pietrasanta to work with local artisans and to obtain marble for his sculptural works, and Fernando Botero who rested his bronze sculpture Il Guerriero at the Piazza Giacomo Matteotti, and his majestic frescoes, La Porta del Paradiso and La Porta dell’Inferno (Gate of Heaven and Gates of Hell) inside the Church of Sant’Antonio e San Biagio, one of the oldest churches in the town. It is said that Fernando fell so much in love with Pietrasanta that he bought a house there. A few winters ago, the streets were also filled with masterpieces of Salvador Dali. Other renowned names that have discovered this bewitching place are the Chilean writer Luis Sepulveda who was given the Pietrasanta Honorary Citizenship; the Mexican film Director Alfonso Cuaron of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, who lives in Pietrasanta; and the sultry Gina Lollobrigida who also resides here, and whose sculptures are sometimes displayed around the town.
From Lucca, Pietrasanta is an easy 40-45 minute train ride passing through Viareggio. The 15th century Porte a Pisa archway that welcomes you to the town centre wastes no opportunity to introduce the town’s carpet of artistic treasures. In front of this archway in Piazza Giosue Carducci stands the Arlecchino, bronze sculpture by Joseph Sheppard. As you enter the main Piazza del Duomo—itself a majestic architecture of the 14th century adorned with frescoes and sculptures by Luigi Ademollo, Stagio Stagi, Lorenzo Stagi, Donato Benti, and other artists from the era—huge bronze, metal and stone contemporary pieces greet you with surprise. Behind the cathedral we see The Centaur, half man-horse bronze sculpture by Igor Mitoraj. A bit further to the right at the end of Via Garibaldi is an outstanding marble sculpture Il pugilatore by Francesco Messina, depicting a young man squatting and gazing intensely at the skies. For a touch of avant-garde objet d’art, there is a street with big colorful beanbag cushions sitting in front of the shops for passersby to rest on. The list goes on and on.
Unmistakably, the most adorable sight as you walk through the side streets is the suspended installation of colorful butterfly mobiles hanging between buildings. A few years ago, the hanging art was a rainbow of umbrellas. In midsummer the bright hues of orange, pink, blue, yellow, purple, green, and red in varied gradations hovering above you against the brilliant blue sky makes for a perfect painting. Underneath this heavenly umbrella of floating butterflies the life of Pietrasanta blossoms. Two men sink in deep conversation in an outdoor café in mid-day. Their silhouettes swarmed by the pastel colors of the building facades in the background and the rainbow effect of the hanging butterflies overhead seem to emerge from a fairy tale book. Strolling by is a young couple with their baby girl in a stroller as they stop by a gelato parlor where the plump lady behind the counter, in a floral-spilled blouse is cooing tenderly to the baby girl. There are boy scouts in front of the cathedral selling some charity pastries and middle-aged couples stopping to sit on the cathedral staircase as they simply observe the amicable atmosphere of the plaza.
The captivating beauty of Pietrasanta is the town’s position below the gorgeous mountains of Apuan Alps and the close vicinity to the Mediterranean Sea. In less than ten minutes, a bus can drop you right along the pathway to the beach of Marina di Pietrasanta. The scenic beach is a five-kilometer stretch of golden sand, and in summer, is dotted with rows of blue and orange parasols, typical of the Italian coastline. The long pedestrian bridge that extends from the pier into the wide blue sea provides a most breathtaking and dramatic panorama. Here, lovers take their photographs before the backdrop of the crystal blue skies; families munch on their picnic food under the central canopy, and a middle-aged couple casts their fishing rods over the cobalt sea. Art also continues to this seaside, with a towering bronze statue of St. Anthony by Novello Finotti on a pedestal right in the middle of the ocean.
After a few hours of beach relaxation, the return to Pietrasanta town brings back with you a fuller basket of unstained memories, concluded with a glass of Aperol Spritz and a slice of Buccellato pastry while forgetting the arrow of time.