If you're looking for an uncrowded corner of Tuscany that is rich in history and culture, you'll be delighted to find yourself in pretty Pistoia at the foot of the snow-capped Apennine mountains.
Even the locals were taken by surprise when their modest city was voted Italy’s Capital of Culture for 2017, but there’s no doubt that Pistoia richly deserves the award. This thriving, self-confident town, where culture effortlessly bridges the gap between the past, present and future, offers visitors a plethora of delightful experiences.
Climb the cathedral’s campanile
Stepping into Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo for the first time, you get an eerie feeling that you’ve time-travelled. The ground beneath your feet was first a Roman forum, then a medieval market place and then the civic heart of a rich Renaissance town. A fine, 67-metre-high campanile sits in the centre of the square, drawing your eyes upwards to the expanse of blue sky and giving the square a feeling of grandeur.
The square is largely unchanged since the days of Dante and Machiavelli. To the left of the campanile is the Palazzo Comunale with its bold Medici insignia, while to the right is the Bishop’s Palace and a beautiful green-and-white marble baptistery, which faces off with the Romanesque cathedral. To see them in perspective, climb the 200 steps of the campanile. From the cool, dark base of the tower you ascend into the bright light of the crenellated roof terrace. From here you can peer down on the square and a sea of terracotta roofs framed by the swooping foothills of the Apennines.
Explore the subterranean passages beneath the Ospedale del Ceppo
The underground tour of the Ospedale del Ceppo offers a more visceral view of medieval life. As the Black Death laid waste to the Tuscan population in the 13th century, the hospital needed to expand rapidly and the only way to do that was to divert the nearby river below ground. It’s along this damp water course that the walk takes place, in a barrel-vaulted tunnel that holds the historic city above your head.
Beside the stratified clues to the city’s construction there are a host of other curiosities. As the concept of ‘hospital’ changed from hostelry to hospice and then medical centre these underground chambers found uses as a laundry, oil mill and even a publicly-rented grain mill powered by the underground river. Fragments of pottery reveal advancing knowledge of infectious diseases (black pots for plague victims only, please), while new surgical blades advanced anatomy classes in the anatomical theatre upstairs.
Discover Marino Marini, the Tuscan Henry Moore
The monks of the order of St Anthony who built Palazzo del Tau would probably have felt right at home with the epic modernist sculptures of Marino Marini that are now displayed in its halls and corridors, and the chapel next door. Like Niccolò di Tommaso’s moving frescoes of sad-eyed Adam and Eve and St Anthony exiled in Egypt that have adorned the chapel walls for centuries, Marini’s sculptures speak volumes about man’s daily struggles.
Many of them depict a mythic horse and rider in various stages of conflict and cooperation: sometimes the horse is stiff and unyielding, at other times it rears wildly, its rider clinging on for dear life. In September 2017 Marini will also receive top billing at the city’s premier contemporary art gallery, Palazzo Fabroni, with a retrospective of his work held in collaboration with the Guggenheim Foundation.
Make friends and drink spritz in Piazza della Sala
You might not be in the market for bull’s heart tomatoes or bags of chestnuts, but like every shopping-trolley toting nonna (grandmother) you’ll be magnetically drawn to Piazza della Sala. 'La Sala' is one of the oldest squares in Pistoia and there has been a market here since the 11th century. It sells everything from fish to fruit, vegetables to flowers, all of which are piled high on benches beneath shady canopies. It’s like an open-air food court and a community hub rolled into one.
Each day follows the same rhythm. In the morning, Pistoiese housewives are out in force doing the daily shop. At lunchtime the shutters of surrounding shops clatter open so workers can grab superior snacks at delis like I Salaioli. There’s a sleepy slump in the middle of the day before things crank up again at aperitivo hour, when the crowd at wine bars like Voronoi (ristocaffetteriavoronoi.it) grows younger and hipper. By the time night falls, the square is an intimate drawing room, back-lit to reveal its best features to romancing couples who melt away into adjacent alleys for dinner at intimate trattorie such as La BotteGaia.
Go on an art trek at the Fattoria di Celle
There’s a big difference between viewing art in a museum and seeing it in its original context. It’s hard to imagine the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel without the building it inhabits, for example, or Titian’s stirring Assumption without the golden glow cast on it from I Frari’s soaring stained glass windows. Art collector Giuliano Gori understands the power of such context perfectly, which is why he transformed the 19th-century gardens of the Fattoria di Celle into an utterly original site-specific art museum.
To experience it you’ll need to strap on your hiking boots and prepare for a stiff four-hour walk across meadows where Magdalena Abakanowicz’s headless bronze figures stand like sinister sentries, through woods where oaks are wrapped in steel sheathes that look like giant chrome bee hives, and across a stream where Anne and Patrick Poirier’s Death of Ephialtes lies prone with an arrow piercing his large marble eye. It’s utterly magical.
Enjoy Tuscany’s biggest Blues Festival
It is Pistoia's living culture that sets the city apart from the nine other contenders for Italy’s cultural crown. Nowhere else in Tuscany will you find a philosophy festival like the Dialogues of Man (dialoghisulluomo.it) sitting comfortably besides a huge international Blues festival like Pistoia Blues. In the last few years, packed-out performances in Pistoia’s historic squares by the likes of Damien Rice, Bastille, Father John Misty, Mumford & Sons, Robert Planet and the Arctic Monkeys have drawn crowds of up to 45,000 spectators.
Taste the valley of chocolate
Pistoia has its very own Willy Wonka, Cavalieri Corsini, who opened his antique sweet shop (brunocorsini.com) on Piazza di San Francesco in 1918. The vintage glass jars lined up on the dressers are filled with 'confetti' – sugared sweets filled with almonds, hazelnuts, cocoa beans and aniseed, as well as a whole host of delicious pralines and chocolates spiced with chilli, cinnamon and nutmeg.
The Tuscan penchant for chocolate originated in the 17th century when Medici dukes developed a taste for it blended with musk and jasmine flowers. Corsini isn’t the only confectioner milling and melting top-grade cocoa. In the suburb of Agliana, Tuscany’s leading chocolatier, Roberto Catinari (robertocatinari.it), owns a smart contemporary shop filled with 110 different types of pralines; while across the valley in Monsummano Terme, Catinari protégé Andrea Slitti runs the cosy Caffé Slitti (slitti.it) where you can scoff ‘Slittosa’ creams with a cup of excellent coffee.