Autumn in the Hamlet with Cassandra Campbell-Kemp

    It is Autumn in The Hamlet. In the last few days the temperature has dropped ten degrees, the
leaves on the trees have started changing colour and the heat haze has disappeared leaving
stunning clear air where, on my drive into town, I can see the Alps and Monte Baldo north of
Verona, over 100 kms away.
My thoughts are turning to home, for I leave in 3 weeks, but before I do, there are myriad things to
do.
Last week, in the midst of the national holidays (for most people take their holiday in mid August)
my best friend and I headed across the mountains into neighbouring Tuscany, to a small spa town
hidden in the countryside between Pisa and Lucca.
We drove over the Passo delle Radici – at 3500metres above sea level, it was a refreshing break
from the heat, even in our part of the mountains. We stopped for traditional panini at the
somewhat odd and otherworldly hotel/restaurant/bar at the top of the pass. It sits proudly on the
border between Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, which must be a logistical nightmare for the elderly
owners, as some local laws differ between Regions.
I was warmly welcomed as usual and we were immediately sat at my favourite outside table, just
by the door so we could watch the comings and goings of the tourists – Italian and foreign – for
this is a lovely stop on a day trip from the coast. We sat munching our enormous and delicious
sandwiches, two slabs of Tuscan bread with thin slices of Pecorino (sheeps cheese), prosciutto
and beef tomato, washed down by a delicious if slightly bitter local beer.
The sun was warm (when it wasn’t hiding behind clouds) and we basked in its warmth until we
headed off to San Pellegrino in Alpe (no, not where the water comes from!) to visit the entombed
Saint. In fact there at two entombed Saints, lying side by side for eternity.
San Pellegrino was apparently the son of a Scottish King and not wanting to inherit his father’s
kingdom, headed off on one of the ancient routes into Italy where he became a noted Hermit,
living in the obligatory cave. His companion in the glass sepulchre, is San Bianco who was a
noted brigand. The two, so legend has it, struck up a close friendship, the brigand was duly
converted to Christianity and the two of them lived and worked together until their deaths, when
they were interred side by side in their glass coffin, beautifully attired with comfy slippers!
The views from their church are astonishing and, after a brief nod in their direction, I pointed the
car towards Tuscany and The Devil’s Bridge! This wonderfully evocative bridge was constructed
at the behest of the Medieval Queen of Italy, the Grancontessa Matilde di Canossa, a
benefactress without equal who, during her lifetime, built and restored hundreds of buildings,
churches and hospices along pilgrim and merchant routes, thus allowing safe passage for body
and soul.
I was particularly taken by the logo of the Osteria at the foot of the bridge! A clever piece of
graphic design.
Something that amazed me was the difference in attitude to tourists and visitors by the Tuscans
who seem to view them as prey and Emilians who view them as guests. Which is why I prefer my
side of the Appenines, the Emilian side.
We stopped for the obligatory photographs and had an interesting encounter with a churlish bar
owner when we just wanted coffee and an ice cream. But it was a stunning bridge and well worth
the few moments of being made to feel less than welcome, despite my fluent Italian!
The heat increased as we drove towards Lucca and followed the directions of my SatNav to a
small, beautifully elegant spa town, in a little-known part of Tuscany.
Our apartment was in an historical villa, once the village Manor House, in which flows the small
private spa of the thermal baths. The main, open air public one was across the road and was full
of people enjoying the mineral-rich waters in the sunshine.
Once again, we have Matilde of Canossa to thank for this. For it was she who discovered them
when her pet blackbird, who was ailing, kept disappearing and then returning looking stronger
and stronger. Matilde suffered from gout and found the waters to be extremely ben facial for her
condition. In fact, both my friend and I felt much better (but oh so tired!) after immersing ourselves
in the deliciously warm water.
She preferred the open air bath, while I preferred the privacy of the ones under the villa!
In the evenings we would sit on the terrace of the elegant cafe/restaurant which had originally
been the entrance to the Baths, redeveloped by the Hapsburgs in the 18th century, it was situated
on the main piazza and from there we would sip our wine and watch the world go by. The world
being mostly elderly people who’d come to take the waters, the rest of Italy frenetically rushing up
and down motorways and beseiging overcrowded seaside resorts seemed a million miles away!
So passed the days in a haze of thermal waters and good wine! We enthusiastically perused the brochure of treatments available at the Spa, including eyewateringly expensive products made with the mineralrich waters. It was, in a word, bliss!
All too soon, it was time to leave and point the car towards the hairpin bends leading back home,
but first, lunch! Decisions, decisions… i trawled my memory and remembered that there was a
small town with a great, unpretentious Trattoria near the marble quarries of Carrara – made
famous by Michelangelo hand selecting his marble, oh and a zillion white bathroom tiles, kitchen
worktops and hotel floors for the consumers of today.
We had a wonderful traditional lunch then set off up the winding roads passing a marble mountain
en route. It was magnificent, sparkling white in the sunshine and looked like something from a
science fiction film. Sadly it was hard to stop and take a good photo as the road was steep and
mountainous with mad drivers appearing around each corner, but it’s image is forever burned into
my memory.
After several hours of torturous hairpin bends we arrived back in San Pellegrino where, it was
really cold, Autumn had definitely arrived, along with the traditional delicious funghi fritti (fried
local mushrooms) and mirtilli the protected local berries, from which is produced an astonishingly
alcoholic liqueur!
It was good to be back, pampered, relaxed and replete. Monte Valestra and it’s ancient energies
awaited. It was good to be home!

 

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