Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Tuscan Summer of 2015 & 1944

Today is August 11, marking the 72nd anniversary of Florence & Tuscany's liberation from Nazi and Fascist forces thanks to the efforts of the Allies who proceeded northward from Rome, aided by local partigiani (Italian resistance fighters).  

2015 is also the hottest Tuscan summer since records were kept, with daytime temperatures hitting 102°F.  

Even for a die-hard beach aficionado like me,
the heat was too much to head to the coast on weekends.

I abandoned my spot under a beach umbrella 
(left) along the Mediterranean, and began to dream of a picture I published in the magazine Vista, Florence & Tuscany.  Taken by my work soul mate Andrea Pistolesi, it depicted a waterfall somewhere near the Tuscan border with 
Emilia Romagna.

That picture haunted me.  An alternative image popped into my mind's eye: a cool, clear river I bathed in many years ago.  With only my memory to go on, I decided to find it, and to return.

In the search, friends Erin (mother of a toddler and six months pregnant), husband Chris and myself, took a trip back to the tumultuous liberation of Tuscany as well as to the timeless beauty of the countryside.

I called old friend, Andrea Politi, remembering having been invited to a convivial lunch at his family country home near Pelago, and indeed, he identified the river as the Vicano, which follows its course close by, eventually flowing into the Arno.

One Sunday morning, Erin, little Elise, Chris and myself went up to the mountain pass of the Consuma (3000 ft), hosting a village renowned for its schiacciata, the Tuscan variant of the focaccia, which comes topped or filled with a choice of vine-ripened tomatoes, porcini mushrooms from the local woods, onions, ham, cheese etc.  We had a mid-morning merenda (snack), accompanied by espresso, but had so enjoyed our authentic Italian moment in a non-touristy location that we neglected to take pictures.

Chris drove us down the mountain to an altitude of 1500 ft, to Diacceto, where we made a turn-off to Ferrano.  As per Andrea's directions, Chris drove to the end of paved road, and continued to on a dirt road (strada bianca) to the end, until we saw a small chapel.

"This is Andrea's property!," I said, and indeed later on he confirmed that that his rustic country home and chapel were originally part of a larger estate and that his ancestors were originally tenant farmers.

It was Erin who spotted the plaque on the house first.

It says that a Jewish family found refuge within its walls thanks to the big-heartedness of Giuseppe Politi, Andrea's father.  Their lives were saved in the wilderness of Ferrano, and the marker commemorates this fact for posterity.

"They were the Navarro family from Rome," Andrea told us later, "who had friends in Diacceto, just down the road, on the way to Pelago."

It was Andrea's late father, a partisan fighter known as
Braccioforte (Strong Arm) who sheltered them.  He headed a group of 200 men, the Perseo brigade, who sabotaged the German's mean's of communications and routes, also to help defend the
local population.

In retaliation, the Nazis rounded up 19 locals, including women and children, who were the victims of a massacre.  For their anti-Nazi and anti-Fascist stance and actions, the village of Pelago was awarded a silver medal at WW2's end.

The house itself is from the 1700s, a quintessential slice of true Tuscany.
Andrea's sister lives here in the summer, while Andrea himself and wife Nicole, of Polish-Jewish heritage whom he met on a trip to Paris, arrive from Florence on the weekends.

After a picnic lunch among the olive groves, it was time to find the river.

Indeed refreshing, but only one to three ft. deep because of the drought, alas! we did not go swimming.
Sitting on cool rocks, we put our legs and feet in.  The Vicano indeed pristine as the nature surrounding it, and full of fish and crayfish.  NB:  from a subsequent Internet search, I discovered that the place to bathe in the Vicano river is at Fontisterni, several miles away, where German tourists have been even reported to dive in the river's pools recklessly headfirst.

Another memory flooded in my head: that of a stone church dating back from 1100 CE (or AD).
Andrea obliged us and led the way in his vintage Vespa scooter, from 1984.

Isn't it a beauty?

As timeless as the original Fiat 500.

In any case, we were traveling in a red Opel Corsa, half-German, half U.S. General Motors car, bought new in

It was an uphill drive -- great for a spring or fall hike -- but now I was glad to be in the car.

Suddenly, after parking, we were in the presence of a perfectly preserved stone Romanesque church.

Its antiquity is testified to by the open bell tower and the
single rose window.

The church's name is Santa Maria a Ferrano
(St. Mary of Ferrano), and is located at 1800 ft.  For the record, it was built in the 11th century, and belonged to the Albizi family
(my office in Florence happens to be on Borgo degli Albizi, and the descendants of the family still live in the Renaissance section of the palazzo).

Santa Maria a Ferrano has been more or less abandoned since 1574, occasionally serving as a barn, before becoming recuperated by a religious community headed by a German monk.  He has apparently taken to Italian habits and was away on vacation.

Hence the door was locked.

Years ago, once inside, I saw a wood beam ceiling and a ray of setting sun come in through the bare rose window, to strike the stone altar.
Indelible memory.

This is the view of the hills around Ferrano and Santa Maria a Ferrano, woods filled with chestnut, beech and fir trees.

Driving back, I saw a sign for Rufina, which provided an adventure for the following weekend for me, Erin & family:  a visit to Petrognano, a farm bed-and-breakfast w/pool (we swam at last!) belonging to friends Enrico Lagorio of the La Toraia Chianina burger food truck fame, and his wife Antonella.

Here Chris, Erin and Elise are going into lunch and meeting another family.
In a twist of fate, Petrognano is situated right below Pomino, which was for centuries an Albizi wine estate.  The family coat-of-arms still graces the then (19th century) innovative white wine blend, Pomino Bianco.

It would appear that I have a karmic link with this historic Florentine family, although my family is originally (and proudly) from the hills of Lucania, province of Matera, near Pollino.

As for me and Andrea, as pictured, we continue the long trail of our friendship.
It dates back to when I first arrived in Beautiful Florence as a young girl, when I became friends with his neighbor, Mariangela Bortolani, introduced to me by art historians Lucia Monaci Moran and Gordon Moran.  Older than us -- I  learned during our adventure that Andrea was born to Bracciaforte (Strong Arm) and his wife at the beginning of peacetime, the end of 1945.

He has always been to Mariangela, an art conservator who is from the mountains of Emilia and who would probably recognize Andrea Pistolesi's waterfall photo -- and I,
nothing less than a Tuscan big brother.

    Reporting live-- 

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