Tuscany still has its secrets and the small hill city of Pontremoli seems to exist only as a whisper. An hours drive from either Parma or La Spezia, Pontremoli (which translates as “Trembling Bridge”) is one of the most beautiful outposts of the vast and splendorous Massa-Carrara region.
One of the oldest towns in Northern Italy, it has existed in some form or other since 1000 years BC, flourishing in the 12th and 13th centuries, coming under French control (naturally to the people’s distaste) from 1508 to 1522. Also under the control of Milan and Modena at various historical junctures, the delicate layers of history and architecture can be seen when wandering around the two main piazzas.
Birthplace of Carlo Collodi, the author of Pinocchio, there is a large statue of the wooden boy that was recently, strangely, vandalized by the naturally bored anti-capitalist youth of Pontremoli. The fun to be had, as in any ancient European city, is simply to wander and wish you lived there. The cafe’s are plenty and the geletaria in the older part of town is the best of its kind, with fittings and decor surviving its 60s hey-day. There is a large market on Saturdays and Wednesdays, great for sampling the best cheeses and fruits of the region.
Local specialties to be found in most of the small restaurants include Torta, horridly addictive potato and spinach pastries. Another regional favourite is risotto la bomba, a sumptuous kind of baked risotto cake with meat and sauce at its explosive centre. Wild boar, rabbit and porcini mushrooms are common to the region and find their way onto most menus. The choice restaurant – Casa del Moro – is just out of town and offers the most delicious gnocchi outside of a glutton’s imagination. Reasonably priced and situated before an unreasonably picturesque backdrop, it’s antipasti is unmissable.
The nearby frazione (small towns) that twinkle around Pontremoli at night contain a mixture of hardy French and Italian (and the odd English) farmers. Of particular interest are the villages of Monti and Navola, idyllic little places built upon Etruscan foundations where you cans tumble upon priceless arches and walls in almost perfect condition. A little excursion will take you to the vibrant ski-town of Zeri. Car hire is cheap but you’d be missing out on a cinematic trick not to pick up a Lambretta or Vespa at some point. Zip up to Cervara (birthplace of invincible Juventus goalkeeper Gianluca Buffon) and you’ll see the wonderfully grotesque gargoyles that adorn each of the older houses – an inexplicable oddity not present in any of the other nearby villages.
Walk beyond Monti to find the mysterious road to Bratello. The walk is serene and almost always uninterrupted, not to mention hard going. Wending further and further up into dizzily fresh air along rocky roads, the journey to Bratello becomes worthwhile as the pine trees slowly wind into view. The town of Bratello seems to consist of a solitary trattoria and a war memorial. Of greater interest after the two hour walk is the trattoria. They’ll cook any basic dish, within reason, with a selection of ham and wines to strangle your hunger and ambitions to return home. It’s a cyclists dream (torturous as it is) and a walker’s purgatory.
A short drive from Pontremoli can take you to the lovely port town of La Spezia, or better still, the beaches of Marinella. Nothing beats the saggy posing of an Italian beach, a genuine mix of the bold and the beautiful. The marble green sea is framed by the mountains in the distance, a view bordering on an event. The various towns along the coast make for the best nocturnal adventures, Pontremoli offering only modest but lazily atmospheric bars.
The most enjoyable route to take to Pontremoli is to drive from Parma as it allows the mountains to roll into view as you make your way along this almost always empty stretch of the autostrada. It’s a great feeling to know that within the hour, you’ll be up there, too, convincing yourself that you’ll never leave.
Mr. Paolo Cabrelli