Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 21, Pontremoli, The Heart and Soul of Lunigiana
Pontremoli sits at the confluence of two important rivers and took full advantage in utilizing this strategic position in its defenses. The castle, perched high above the town, ensured its dominance was safeguarded by a strong military presence.
Pontremoli imposes its formidable and resplendent presence at the epicenter of the Magra river valley at the northern tip of Tuscany rather like a flamboyant and grand old dame. Having long since lost its former power and glory as a military citadel and convenient tax collection point this wonderfully pragmatic and confident North West Tuscan community commands the respect of all who enter its threshold via one of the many ancient arched bridges.
Before we take a tour of the place however we just have one point to clear up: if when you read the word Pontremoli you foolishly, as I did on my arrival, pronounce the word ‘Pon-trem-Oli’ you must cease and desist immediately before it gets stuck in your mind. That is, if you ever wish to visit the place without causing the ire and consternation of the locals. It is pronounced ‘Pon-tremoli’, and you’d do well to begin practicing the word right now… so that it positively rolls off your tongue by the time you find yourself crossing one of those lovely bridges. And if you can rrroll that rrr with a rrring, then all the better.
So, let’s begin the tour with my favorite bridge… the one in the foreground, although the Autostrade in the distance is a modern day gem in itself.
The ancient and the modern: bridges serving the same purpose many centuries apart. The Autostrade in the background serves to ferry people, goods and animals through Lunigiana’s Magra river valley from the Mediterranean to Parma, as did the old trading road that ran through Pontremoli for a very great many years.
I crossed this bridge many times on my way in and out of the city during the week of my visit, and each time I found it a bit of a thrill… an appropriately dramatic way to enter such a noble little trading town. For without going into too much detail over Pontremoli’s past it was for several centuries a very prosperous little ‘commune’ indeed. The source of its wealth stemmed from the fact that if the richer cities to the north – mainly, but not exclusively Parma, wanted their goods to reach the Mediterranean, and from there to be traded on the global market: or reversely, if they wanted oriental black pepper for their pepperoni, Chinese silk or a thousand other goodies, and they didn’t want to deal with their hostile neighbors in Genoa or Venice… then they were forced to lug their wares over the ‘Passo de la Cisa’, which in turn meant forking over a tidy sum to the Medici family via their tax collectors stationed at – you guessed it, Pon-tremoli. And a nice little earner it proved to be for the Medieval world’s most powerful and successful banking family!
We’ll actually cross the Passo de la Cisa in the next blog, but for now let’s continue our little walkabout the town. Having crossed the bridge we weave our way through a myriad of tiny passages until, quite unexpectedly we burst out on to a wide open space and bingo, we find ourselves in the central square, slap bang in the middle of town. Well, one of them. There are two squares actually – one for the ‘Guelphs’ and one for the people who apparently couldn’t stand the Guelphs, but as they stand practically side by side – the giant belfry is all that really stands between them, I’m guessing that most of the time they managed to find a way to get along.
I’m not really sure just where the difference between the Guelphs and their rivals stemmed from, other than to say that one side opposed certain powers claimed by the Pope and the other didn’t. And so, 500 years later the town boasts two central squares – a feature I’ve noticed in a few Tuscan towns now that I come to think about it, but unlike the other towns boasting two squares Pontremoli’s, as you can plainly see, have not been pedestrianized. In fact, no limitation at all to traffic seems to have been imposed upon the central area whatsoever. I was a little shocked to discover this actually, for these days a pedestrianized urban core is now fairly standard, and as I say, quite expected… particularly in a town boasting such historic credentials as Pontremoli. But nope, anyone can, and does, park anywhere there is space to park a car. And strangely enough the whole thing seems to work rather well.
It been a long time since I’ve been around such a liberal parking arrangement whereby pedestrians and automobiles live in such close proximity, and it reminded me how the towns and cities of my youth in Lancashire used to operate way back when. It actually made me quite nostalgic for those simpler times.
As the week progressed the town continued to grow on me, partly for the reasons stated above, and partly because it was exactly what it seemed – a bustling little market town going about its business and not really caring what anyone thought of it. Quite clearly, unlike many of its Tuscan counterparts, Pontremoli shows scant interest in pandering to the international tourist trade. The whole time I was there I recognized perhaps a handful of tourists – ten at the most, who, like myself when I first arrived, seemed to be somewhat at a loss of what to make of it. But as I said, the longer I was there the more endeared to the place I became. For when all is said and done, towns like these are precisely the goal on setting out – the reason why I travel. I find them all, each in their own way, so very reassuring.
Once I acclimatized myself to the town’s proud, independent air of Pontremoli I actually found the whole experience quite wonderfully refreshing.
As I mentioned earlier, Pontremoli is the undisputed Queen of the Lunigiana Valley, and as I was about to make my departure the point was underscored when a veritable hoard of local children gleefully descended upon the larger of the two squares, filling it to overflowing in order to attend a very popular (it seemed) book fair. I had watched with curiosity wondering what the occasion might be as the hundreds of white plastic chairs had been carefully set up the previous evening, and as the day progressed and the children began to flood in and the noise level steadily grew to a screaming crescendo as the festivities got underway. As a book-lover myself it did my heart proud to see so many children so very excited at the prospect of a book fair. Louder and louder the din grew until I could hardly hear myself think. And as I made my exit for the final time their enthusiastic echoing racket followed me all the way back to the car; a fittingly fond farewell to a surprising and boisterously confident little town.
And so, if you ever find yourself in the region… passing along the slick, speedy and precipitously elevated Autostrade that runs from Parma to La Spezia you may want to do what your Medieval counterparts did back in the days of oxcarts and mules… and pay your respects to Pontremoli. These days however you’ll be spared the taxation, save for the VAT you’ll fork out on your delicious lunch or dinner.
Next time we’ll take to the gorgeous and practically deserted Lunigianan mountain roads as we relive the glory days of automobile touring… Italian style.