Sunday, 3 December 2017

le dieci castella

I was awoken by the arhythmic sound of Sunday bells calling people across the region to mass. It was like a glorious piece of minimalism. Just as I thought I was on top of the rhythmic pattern the two bells were creating, it changed. Italian bells, of course, are randomly jangled, so I was never going to be able to predict what pattern was coming next, unlike, of course, the highly complex English bell ringing tradition, which you could argue was minimalism in its truest form.

We drove into the foothills outside Pescia to visit a couple of the fortified medieval villages which cling perilously to the mountains in these parts. They’re known as the “le dieci castella” on account of there being ten of them. We parked up just outside Pietra Buona and followed an ancient, extremely steep track up the hill towards Medicina. The immediate thing which struck us both was the silence. You simply cannot hear the sound of either traffic or planes. It’s actually exactly a year since I walked the river Nene, and one of the things that struck, and disappointed, me about that walk was the fact that, even on the fens, I was always accompanied by the distant roar of traffic. In this part of Tuscany, you can’t hear any of those mechanical noises. You hear bird song, the rustle of trees and the odd barking dog from somewhere across the valley, but that’s about it. Sound really does travel in these mountain communities to the extent that I suddenly understood why yodelling and Alpen horns were used to communicate back in the day. When bells ring in another one of the villages, you hear magical harmonics echoing all around you. Like a sort of otherworldly drone. The singing of the spheres. 

As we wound our way ever further up the hill, we started to notice giant birds of prey riding the thermals beneath us. It was all rather Mrs Tiggywinkle!

The footpath was a little eerie in places. Periodically we’d stumble across a disused hut or bothy and there were gun cartridges scattered everywhere. This is plainly a place where the locals like to hunt.

Medicina is tiny and somewhat creepy. It’s apparently where ill people in the area were traditionally brought, which, one assumes, means it’s seen more than its fair share of death. It full of twisting walk ways and tunnels barely tall enough to stand in. Great protection, one assumes, from both the angry summer sun, and marauding invaders. It’s delightfully downtrodden and has all the trimmings of being a “local place for local people.” The village smells strongly of wood smoke.

We sat on a wall for half an hour eating crisps and drinking water whilst a terribly friendly and ludicrously fluffy cat wriggled around our ankles.

We followed the official road back down the hill and were passed by a father-son duo riding a miniature petrol-powered truck who were off to pick olives. It seems a little late in the year to be doing that kind of work, but perhaps there’s a type of olive which is better after the first frost. I know there are grapes like that, and, I vaguely recall, a certain type of apple...

On the way down the hill we also saw a burned out car in an entirely burned out car port right next to someone’s house. There’s plainly a story there, but it’s one we can only guess at. 

We drove back into Pescia, in the hope that we’d be able to find a cafe for a spot of lunch. It was a bit of a fool’s errand on a Sunday in Italy, but we managed to find a rather charming little spot where a woman was sitting behind the counter crocheting bags out of thick, string-like yarn. I ordered a doughnut which was delicious. It turns out she’d made it herself. I was glad I told her how much I’d enjoyed it.

We then drove up to another one of the dieci castella. This one is called Vellano, and it is the largest of the siblings. It’s also a great deal more picturesque. The views from up there are astounding. Look due east and you’ll be treated to a series of entirely snow-covered mountains which looked almost superimposed against the powder blue sky. Chilling winds whistle through the town’s snickleways and there’s an intoxicating smell of sweet, sweet woodsmoke up there.

We drove further up the mountain, astonished by the car’s thermometer which plummeted from 14 degrees to 2 during a ten minute upward climb.

We ended up in Gorailo, which isn’t one of the hill towns. It’s not really a town. It’s merely a series of houses sitting on a very high ridge from where you can see as far as Florence and all the way to the sea, which was glowing bright orange in the setting sun. There was also snow on the ground up there, which felt a little exciting. It was too cold to hang around for long however, so we travelled back down to Vellano from where we watched the orange sun sinking beneath a mauve mountain.

The air in these parts is so fresh and clear. It makes me realise how dangerously polluted London is.

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