Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Camellia Towns--Pieve & Sant'Andrea di Compito

Dear readers--Beautiful Florence is back.

After a long winter, burrowed in working on Magenta Publishing's soon-to-launched new web site,
updating our English-language column on Florence's La Repubblica web site, looking ahead to the publication of Vista magazine, and a trip to visit my Italo-Argentinian cousin Alejandro in Barcelona
your less-than-faithful blog team discovered beauty once again.
Vista staff writer Rita Kungel, myself and faithful Beautiful Florence blog photographer Kori Endo ventured to the hills above Lucca to visit the Antique Camellia Festival.

I would like to dedicate this post to my late mother, Vittoria Palmina, whose birthday is today,
April 5.  She was born near Monte Pollino in a small hill town much like the ones we were heading to visit.  In fact, ours was a trip back in time.
Winding around the curves up the hills of Tuscany to our destination, Rita at the driver's wheel, suddenly said, "Look, donkeys!"

We met Gina (above) and her caregiver Giovanni next to a Tuscan stone farmhouse.
Giovanni remembers when the donkey was a work animal and a means of transport, as familiar with this past reality as I know my mother was.  Close to Gina was her son Zurigo (Zurich).  Why the name?   Giovanni revealed that he had 17 donkeys in all, many of them named for Swiss towns in honor of his brother who emigrated to Bern.

We went down to a pasture to see the rest, who were having breakfast.
Giovanni remembers when the donkey was a work animal and means of transport on the farm, surely as my mother had.  But what prompted him today to provide a home for a multitude of donkeys as well as a pregnant pony?  "They're so docile," he revealed.  Even at mealtime.

Continuing on our way, close to the entrance to the Camellia Towns we found a brook, the Visona.
The gurgling sound reminded me of the brook I grew up next to in the village of
 Highland Falls, New York.

The cool, clear water in these parts is one reason why the camellia thrives in this part of Tuscany.
 That and the clean air, and an elevated habitat not far from the sea,
 hence temperate, yet sheltered by mountains.

From medieval times to the Renaissance, silk was spun into textiles in the city below, Lucca.  Merchants had a thriving business in the Orient, eventually importing camellias for their homes and villas in the 1800s.  The plants would find their ideal home in the surrounding hills.

Yet their origin was clearly visible in the scientific display that opens the Camellia Festival: the genus and species was labeled Camellia Japonica.
Our Japanese-American photographer, Kori Endo, remarked,
"It's a long way from home."

Back outside, everywhere we looked,
camellias lined the side of the road,
which were filled--by not overcrowded--with hikers stopping to photograph.

Around a bend, we saw the medieval town of Sant'Andrea di Compito (below).

Settled by the Lombards, Germanic invaders who arrived before the year 1000, Sant' Andrea
and neighboring
Pieve di Compito passed under the domination of Lucca.

The tower is a watchtower; a
bonfire would be lit to signal the
in Lucca.

Like many medieval settlements in Tuscany, spaces inside would be remodeled over the centuries.  In the case of Sant'Andrea, the church acquired a Baroque interior (right).

Once inside, we discovered a shrine dedicated to St. Rocco, who also happens to be the patron saint of my mother's town, San Giorgio Lucano, in the hills of the province of Matera.
St. Rocco was immediately identifiable by his staff and the shells pinned on his mantle.

In fact, the villages are located on an ancient pilgrim road--even older than the via Francigiana--
called the via di San Colombano.  I am sure that donkeys have trodden these trails...

Walking down,
we saw a sign advertising the sale of tea.

Little did we know-- at least up to now-- that the world's tea is derived from the leaves of camellia plants.
A local plantation has an annual production of 12 kilos (26 lbs) of green, prize-winning oolong and black tea--we drank a cup at Villa Borri.

Our next stop was another villa called Torregrosso (big tower), which I'm existed at one time.
Now it is a historical home (right) still inhabited in summertime.  
The generous owners had the door open to visitors; no entry fee.

As beautiful as the house was, with it period furnishings, a treat
awaited us in the garden:  the oldest camellia in 
Sant'Andrea del Compito (above), planted by family ancestors in the second half of the 1800s. 

There was yet more to explore in the Camellia Towns.  Our last stop was a Camellia nature reserve.
Next to our old acquaintance, the Visona brook, are over 1000 camellia plants, trails and picnic areas.
Areas of the reserve are poetically designated for Tuscan composers such as Mascagni and Puccini, although they have never visited.

With the sun shining on an early spring day, we were as happy as this bee nestled in the heart
of a camellia

and our hopes for the future as shiny as this camellia below.

After all,
it is is finally spring.

Reporting live in Tuscany for
Beautiful Florence -- Rosanna

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