The Road to Castelnuovo, Barga, and a Cool Cave

Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy

Part 4, The Road to Castelnuovo, Barga, and a Cool Cave

At the time of writing I feel I can say with all honesty that I now quite enjoy driving here in Italy, for in the short time I have been sharing the road with Italian drivers I have come to appreciate their competence, skill and supreme nerves-of-steel confidence. And while the speed with which they drive might seem somewhat reckless, the fact that they are all tearing hell for leather means that they, we, are all in the same boat; we’re all moving along at the same pace and therefore the mayhem when experienced from the inside assumes an entirely different prospect… a kind of slowing of the action, rendering it far less fearful than it might look to the casual observer. The root, or zen, of this racetrack mentality is that no one ever seems to think they are going to hit anything – and therefore, by and large, they don’t. Whereas, say, back in the United States everyone thinks they are going to hit everyone, and so confusion reigns, hesitation prevails, speed bumps loom around every bend, and speed limits are rigidly enforced at levels that assume everyone is either drunk, plain stupid or has just learned to drive.

Now, I will admit that all this makes for a necessarily attentive pedestrian population but as drivers are also pedestrians I have yet to witness much in the way of carnage on the roads, either vehicle on vehicle, vehicle on pedestrian, or pedestrian on pedestrian. Furthermore the cars themselves show little sign of damage… the pedestrians too for that matter. And, amazing as it might sound to all those drive-through addicts who simply cannot wait until they get home to unwrap their burger, slurp their big gulp, and gobble their fries, Italians seem to share my own disdain for eating in their cars, leaving them free to concentrate fully on the life and death issue of avoiding a collision. Plus, the ubiquitous stick shift more or less renders the cell phone practically useless.

But when I boldly set out to cross the mighty Apuane  Mountains last week I was aware of none of this, for I had only picked up ‘The Bee’ (as I have come to regard her), my fearless little Fiat Panda, from the rental company in Viareggio the previous day, and aside from creeping back to my lodgings here at Da Pio in Pietrasanta a brief little evening excursion along the twisting lanes that weave their way along the steep hillsides high above the city was all the experience I had to go by. True, I had driven a VW camper through this region many years ago, but that was many years ago, and it was a VW Camper… mountain roads the like of which I was about to embark upon were utterly beyond its air-cooled capacity.

And so, getting a nice early start I boldly headed out in the direction of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana… I couldn’t actually pronounce it, but I knew that if I headed in the direction of Querceta, hung a right, and followed the twisting, winding, turning road up into the hills I would, if the gods were with me, arrive at the town within an hour or two.

So, having now done my best to dispel the fearsome driving myth about Italian drivers I now have to torpedo another great misconception: Tuscany is not, I repeat NOT awash with tourists, well at least not in April. Prior to my arrival I read all sorts of rubbish about there being no unspoiled places left to visit. Don’t believe a word of it. Perhaps in June and July, and most certainly in Florence, Pisa, Lucca, etc, but as I was about to find out tourists in this neck of the woods are as thin on the ground as weeds on a putting green. I mention this because I distinctly remember reading various travel guides advising me to ‘forget about finding the uncrowded Tuscany’, or words to that effect. Well, either I have been miraculously fortunate or they have some hidden agenda that is quite lost on me, but the almost complete lack of tourists has been a defining feature on every single excursion I have taken to date, and this first thrust into the hinterland was to set the tone that I have been enjoying ever since.

The day began really well; on the main road north out of Pietrasanta I not only kept up with traffic but I didn’t even miss my turn, pretty soon though I began to realize the nature of the task that lay before me: the road consisted of a series of perpetual turns, some hairpin and some even sharper… turns that involved steep gradients, blind bends and the occasional unguarded sheer cliff edge. However I was beginning to think my trusty Fiat, ‘The Bee’ had passed this way before as she waltzed around corner after corner as if she were on rails. Up and up we climbed, higher and ever higher, until at last I caught my first glimpse of the famed marble quarries that were responsible for luring me to this enchanting corner of the world in the first place. There they were, not burrowing into the side of the mountain as I had blithely assumed, but cropping it from the top down.

Pulling safely over to the side of the road I parked The Bee and gazed up in awe at the spectacle that hovered like a mirage a thousand or two feet above my head. Craning my eyes (my binoculars were entombed in my lost bags) I began to grasp the scale of the operation. They also brought to mind a sound bite I that had stuck in my head when I first began to research the marble quarries last summer: ‘the mountains are getting shorter’. I hadn’t really thought about the implications of that but I was now staring reality in the face. Silly me, it just hadn’t occurred to me that they could, or would dismantle a mountain from the top down, but from the sheer scale and scope of the operation I could see with my own eyes that did indeed seem to be the plan.

Climbing back into The Bee and moving her up through the gears I was pondering this very fact when all of a sudden I rounded a bend and there directly in front of me, and bearing down fast, was an enormous great truck – right in the middle of the road. How a collision was avoided is a testament, if I’m honest, to the skill of both drivers; he slammed on his air brakes and veered his monster closer to the abyss than I dare contemplate, and I somehow hit the brakes, slammed the clutch, and came to rest just inches from the rocky wall on one side, and the mammoth wheels on the other… if there was a foot either side of my mirrors I’d be amazed.

Heart pounding, mind whirling I was at a loss as to know just how I was still alive. But once the joy and relief subsided the task of untangling the two vehicles raised the question of just how? The wall to my right was craggy and uneven, the monster truck had come to a stop at an angle that prevented any forward motion on my part – it was checkmate. Eventually the unseen truck driver inched his vehicle forward (his brakes hissing and screeching) sufficiently that I could just about make it through the gap.

The best thing about a near death experience is that you don’t in fact die, the next best thing is that the sense of relief is so palpable that a kind of joy, ecstasy, nirvana accompanies you for a considerable while. I drove the rest of the way along that sublime highway in a state of near bliss, gingerly peeking round each corner however and slowing to a crawl at each hairpin.

At one point I came across a pile of marble, seemingly dumped by the side of the road, that would keep a rogue carver like me busy for months – and yet there it was, just dumped by the side of the road. Quite amazing.

After making a vain attempt to park The Bee in a congested and confusing Castelnuovo I ditched the idea and instead headed straight to Barga. Desperate as I was for my first cappuccino of the day I was beginning to realize that these kilometers simply drop like flies compared to their mileage counterparts, and the pesky 10 or so kilometers involved in reaching Barga disolved in what seemed a few short minutes.

Thankfully the scene that greeted me on my arrival was as different from Castelnuovo as chalk from cheese. The town seemed about to take its afternoon nap, the sleepy air only broken by the gangs of schoolchildren whooping and hollering their way home for the afternoon siesta. Coffee and pastry duly consumed I pointed my feet in the direction of the hilltop church that had drawn me here in the first place and set off down the narrow lanes that lead to the old narrow bridge serving as a gateway between the merely old and the absolutely ancient.

In the days since these events transpired I have now visited many such villages, walked many such impossibly narrow lanes, and gazed in awe at a medieval world transported, seemingly intact, into our modern times, but this was the first such village I had experience in a great number of years, and the stark authenticity of the place quite stunned me. I’m not sure if there is anywhere in the world where people live so compactly, where the sheer narrowness of the lanes prohibit all forms of vehicular traffic, where the steepness of the lanes running directly uphill literally takes your breath away. But as I crossed the bridge and plunged into the labyrinth the glimpse of the 13th century Duomo di San Cristofaro I had caught from the bridge disappeared, only to reappear again once I had reached the very steps that penetrate its formidable foundation walls.


Climbing the steps I was immediately rewarded with a stunning panorama. The views in every direction stretched out across verdant rolling hillsides that looked as if they have been inhabited and farmed forever.

It’s easy to forget just how little scope artists had in which to express themselves prior to relatively recent times. Art was not about free expression, making statements, shocking or insulting the public at large – it was about religion and portraiture. A sculptor was expected to deliver a defined product in a style that was preconceived and unyielding; hence the proliferation of saints and kings, nobles and their retinue captured in sculptural form that we see repeated over and over and over again. Even the biblical tales that seemed to provide a possible outlet for creative energy are often stifled under the weight of authority meted out by a suspicious and often heavy-handed clergy. And in a time of inquisitions, purges, and outright terror an errant over emphasis, a misguided interpretation running at odds with the current clerical doctrine could have dire, not to say gruesome consequences.

And so I always find it amazing when mediaeval sculptors manage to squeeze a little of their own style into what would otherwise be a quite mundane task; in this cast to tell the story of a seemingly blind youth plunging a dagger into the neck of a ferocious lion. Now, judging from the skill and imagination that has clearly been poured into the carving of this most ornate pulpit I’d say that the sculptors were not exactly working first hand with actual real lions – perhaps they had never even laid eyes on one, but the look and feel of the act that is taking place seems very real to me.

On a technical note I have been quite amazed at just how much drill work there is to be seen on medieval carvings here in Tuscany. Of course carvers have used drills for millennia but in general we attempt to hide our tracks and in some way disguise the telltale circular clues, but here as with the many other examples they seem to be pronouncing them in an almost exaggerated manner, as if to say; ‘look, see; “drill marks”’. I don’t know why that is but the overall effect is to complement the quite stylistic nature of the carvings as a whole. The figures on the tableau for instance would not look out of place in a modern art gallery; they are neither fully representational nor stylistic. In fact they seem to me to have an almost playful irreverence about them, and the treatment of the animals seems to suggest an attempt to introduce thinly veiled humor into the occasion.

Eventually though I had to tear myself away and head in the direction of a dark dank interior of a different sort, and so, taking one last lingering view from the elevated terrace I retraced my steps back to the car and pointed it in the direction of the Grotta dei Vento, or “Cold Cave”.

Compared to the eventful journey across the Apuane mountains the short hop across the broad valley and up along the gorge that leads up to the cave was a cinch, although worryingly two huge busloads of school children did sweep past me in the opposite direction raising concerns about the decibel level should I find myself sharing the narrow confines of the Grotta with an untold number of noisy European youngsters, the like of whom can easily fill a large plaza with a quite deafening roar. But my fears proved unfounded as aside from myself just one couple were waiting for the 4 PM hour long tour – and since I was the only English speaker – the other two being Italian, I was treated to my own private tour.

My tour guide, Michaela, proved not only knowledgeable but spoke exceptional English, and for an hour she reeled off facts and statistics that brought the whole experience to life. Of the many tidbits of information she enthusiastically revealed was the fact the colossal stalactites and stalagmites grew at a rate of one millimeter every eighty years; “Every eighty years” she repeated. Turning to meet her gaze I saw that she was peeking one eye through her thumb and forefinger by way as an illustration. “A lifetime” I volunteered. “Exactly!”

Clearly I had got it, I fully grasped the geological grandeur of her caves and from that point we graduated to discussing geological time, the age of the universe and many such weighty issues. Needless to say the hour flew by, and in actual fact, such was the nature of the conversation that I inadvertently made her late for the 5 o’clock crowd, but she didn’t seem to mind, and as I shook her hand and made my way back to The Bee I realized her lack of concern for the next group stemmed from the fact that there was no crowd, no one at all in fact.

Originally I had planned to retrace my path across the mountains back to Pietrasanta the hard way, but with the day growing short, and the shadows long, I decided to hop on the main road and go the long way around… quite a long way around as it turned out, but at least on the return journey I didn’t come face to face with a monster truck.


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