July 2018: Cooking, Mexican art and a weekend in Carrara

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Welcome to Hidden Italy’s July newsletter:  a celebration of Piedmontese cuisine, Mexican art in Genova and a fab weekend in my three favourite places in northern Tuscany: Carrara, Forte dei Marmi and the Alpi Apuane.

Hidden Italy in July:

Hidden Italy in July:

One of Hidden Italy’s favourite and most popular self-guided destinations is Alba and the vineyard-covered hills of the Langhe in southern Piedmont and one of the finest hotels we use is the Real Castello in the beautiful village of Verduno.  We are pleased to announce that Alessandra Buglioni di Monale and Liliana Burlotto of the Real Castello will be hosting a celebration of Piedmont cuisine and wines in Sydney and Melbourne in early August.  See below for booking details.

Events in July:

Events in July:

A Celebration of Piedmontese Cuisine and wines, Sydney and Melbourne (booking requests:  olek.in.verduno@gmail.com).  This August, the team from Ristorante Real Castello di Verduno and rockstar Barbaresco producer Olek Bondonio, bring a taste of Piedmont to Australia. The menu will be curated by Alessandra Buglioni di Monale celebrating some of the winter classics, including: bagna cauda, risotto al Barbaresco, raviole ris e coi, finanziera, bollito misto, tagliata alla Carlo Alberto and zabaione.  $90 for 5 course set menu with wine/beverage charged on consumption.  Sydney (ACME, Rushcutters Bay): Sunday 5/8 (lunch and dinner) and Monday 6/8 (dinner);  Melbourne (TIPO 00, Little Burke Street):  Sunday 12/8 (lunch and dinner) and Monday 13/8 (dinner The Recreation Bistro and Bottle Shop, Fitzroy North).

Stories:  96 Years of Design; Palazzo Triennale, Viale Alemagna 6, Milano; www.triennale.org/en/; until 20 January 19.  Founded in 2007, the Triennale Design Museum offers the visitor the chance to discover the excellence of Italian design.  It its 11th edition, Stories, tells the history of Italian design from 1902 to 1998 with over 180 iconic pieces organised around five themes.

Duomo, Siena, www.operaduomo.siena.it, until 31/8 and then from 18/8 to 28/10/18.  In 1265, Nicolo Pisano was commissioned to make a new pulpit for the Siena cathedral.  In three years he created one of the absolute masterpieces of Italian art – a work that was fundamental to the emergence of the Renaissance.  After extensive restoration, the pulpit has been reopened to the public, coinciding with the annual uncovering of the Duomo’s paved floor, visible until the end of October.

Exhibitions in July:

Exhibitions in July:

Mexico: the Great Muralists; Palazzo Ducale, Genova, www.palazzoducale.genova.it, until 9 September.  This wonderful exhibitions includes seventy works by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, known collectively as Los Tres Grandes, the three giants of the 20th century Mexican avantguarde.  Their story began in 1922 with a series of large murals in Mexico City and continued: a story of innovation, experimentation and political commitment.  The exhibition includes paintings, HD videos, preliminary sketches and documentation for the original murals as well as 50 photos documenting the three and Frida Kahlo, Rivera’s companion.

Modigliani: Art Experience; MUDEC; Via Tortona 56; www.mudec.it/eng/, until 4 November.  One hundred years after his death, Modigliani, the ‘damned artist’, has moved from the fringes to the centre of Italian art.  Through a variety of mediums (pictorial, sounds, music, video) this fascinating exhibition explores the short and troubled life of one of Italian art’s great Romantic figures.

The Portraits of Elliot Erwitt; Castello Carlo V; Vial XXV Luglio; Otranto (Puglia); http://www.lecceprima.it/eventi/mostre; until 9 September.  This is the first complete retrospective of the Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, born in 1922 in Paris, who has been called the ‘photographer of the human condition’.  His lyrical black and white portraits of people such as Che Guevara, Sophia Loren and John F Kennedy have become icons of the 20th century, while his colour photos have rarely been exhibited.  All set in a fab 16th century castle in one of southern Italy’s most charming coastal towns.

Hidden Italy Weekend: Carrara, Forte dei Marmi and the Alpi Apuani

Hidden Italy Weekend:  Carrara, Forte dei Marmi and the Alpi Apuani

Versilia is a flat strip of coast that runs from the mouth of the Magra River in Liguria south to the mouth of the Arno River in Tuscany: forty-five kilometres of featureless beach, fringed by an unbroken line of towns and expensive beach clubs, cheek by jowl most of the way.  Dreary as it may be, Versilia is beloved by the Florentines and their northern Tuscan neighbours.  In July and August, it pulsates with life as the locals and foreigners alike seek relief from the torrid summer temperatures, crowding under umbrellas by day and disco balls by night.

There is nothing at all dreary, however, about the Alpi Apuane, the rugged mountain range that rises behind the coast.  Completely covered in forest and reaching a height of nearly 2,000 metres, the mountains are almost all within the boundaries of the Regional Park of the Alpi Apuane and offer a perfect refuge from the heat and crowds on the coast:  thick chestnut woodlands, pristine mountain streams, sleepy villages with rustic trattorias, and spectacular walks on well-marked trails.

The star turn of the area, though, is Carrara, an attractive town tucked under the northern slopes of the mountains, surrounded by the soaring white quarries that have made it famous.  Marble has been taken from here since Roman times.  Michelangelo was a regular visitor, coming for the first time in 1496 to select the block from which the Pieta latter emerged.  An elegant art town (with a celebrated Fine Art Academy and over two hundred art studios), Carrara also has a bolshy past: the first anarchist party in Italy was founded here, in 1946 the town was collectively awarded the Medaglia d’Oro for its heroic resistance against the Nazi occupation.  It is a no-nonsense place, proud of its long history – an ideal base from which to explore this fascinating corner of northern Tuscany.

How to get there:

By car:  Go along the A12 autstrada that connects Genova and Rosignano, taking the Carrara exit.  By train: Take the Pisa to Genova line, getting off at the Carrara-Avenza stop and then catching the 52 bus to Carrara (www.massa-carrara.cttnord.it).  By air:  the closest airport is Galileo Galilei airport at Pisa, 62 kms south.

Where to stay:

Hotel Michelangelo; Carrara, Corso Rosselli 3).  A modern 4-star hotel with 28 rooms in the centre of town.  The foyer and rooms are decorated with works by local artist Giuliano Tomaino.  Double rooms from 130 euro per night.

B&B Alberica 10 (Carrara, Piazza Alberica 10).  An elegant B&B on the first floor of a 16th century palazzo.  It has four rooms decorated predominantly in white.  Doubles from 110 euro, with breakfast at the nearby Caffe Leon d’Oro included.

Hotel Eden (Cinquale, Viale Gramsic 26).  This 4-star hotel is a 30-minute drive from Carrara, down on the Versilia coast.  With large common spaces, this comfortable hotel has extensive gardens and a swimming pool.  Doubles from 138 euro.

Castel del Piano (Licciana Nardi, Via Piano).  Set in woods on the Taverone River, in the neighbouring Lunigiana district, this very comfortable ‘agriturismo’ is in a restored, medieval castle once the summer residence of the ruling Malaspina family.  Double from 95 euro.

Where to eat

Il Re Bacco (Carrara, Via Giorgi 5).  In the centre of town, a short walk from the Academy of Fine Arts, this elegant restaurant offers a creative mix of land and sea: lasagne with a seafood ragu and Black Angus bresaola with fennel and pineapple.  Around 55 euro per person.

Extra (Carrara, Viale Turigliano 13).  A very fashionable restaurant with an innovative cuisine on the edge of town proposing dishes such as ravioli with borage and a cicada broth.  Average 55 euro per person, with a degustation menu at 50 euro.

Hope (Carrara, Piazza delle Erbe 1).  Set in a heritage pharmacy, complete with a beautiful wooden counter, this small restaurant offers modern dishes such as CPP, a square spaghetti with cacio cheese, pepper and ground pistachio.  Around 45 euro per person.

Venanzio (Colonnata, Piazza Palestra 3).  Nearby Colonnata has been quarried since Roman times.  Its famous speciality is lardo (not the dripping we once knew but strips of marbled prosciutto fat, pickled in fresh and spices in marble baths).  This historic restaurant offers a solid choice of traditional local dishes.

What to do:

Friday evening:  Check in to your accommodation, have an early dinner and get to bed early, ready for a full weekend.

Saturday morning:  explore the town.

Carrara town has a rural hill-town feel, with peeling pastel stucco on its houses, elegant side streets lined with rows of green shutters, some quaint piazzas and a duomo that would do credit to any Tuscan town.  Your tour should start with the cathedral, dedicated to Sant’Andrea, with a handsome Romanesque pulpit and a collection of 14th century sculptures known as ‘le cassannelle’.  From here it is a short walk up Via Santa Maria, the heart of the town, passing workshops and art galleries, to the public gardens in Piazza Gramsci and the medieval Malaspina castle, now the home of the Academy of Fine Art, which has a collection of works ranging from Roman sculptures to carvings by Canova.  Continue on to Piazza delle Erbe, the heart of the town and the seat of a weekend market.  The square is dominated by a huge mural of Francesca Rolla, a hero of the WW II Resistance.  You then carry on past the Animosi Theatre for lunch at the historic Antica Drogheria Riacci.

Saturday afternoon:  explore the marble, galleries and quarries.

Carrara is built on and with marble and there several museums that celebrate the town’s rich history with this fascinating stone.  The Centro Arti Plastiche is an excellent sculpture museum set in the 14th century ex-convent of San Francesco and includes contemporary work by Italian artsits such as Kounellis and Vangi.  Two kilometres out of town is the Museo dei Marmi, which was designed by Carlo Scarpa in 1963, has an impressive display that looks at the history and production of the stone.  Michelangelo stayed in Carrara on eight different occasions and spent nearly three years in the mountains opening up quarries for Pope Leo X.  A new museum dedicated to him and his relationship with the district was recently inaugurated in Villa Fabbricotti, in the Parco di Padula on the edge of town.

The real magic of Carrara happens, however, with a short drive into the interior that brings you across one of the most startling sights in Tuscany: the huge scars of the several marble quarries that rise up behind the town:  huge, blindingly white marble basins, their floors and walls perfectly squared by the enormous wire saws used to excavate the stone.  It is possible to join groups or organise private guided tours which include visits into the bowels oof the mountain through CTT (http://www.cavedimarmocarrara.com).  It is also possible to explore the quarries with your own car (itineraries are downloadable from the CTT site).

Sunday, Option 1:  go glam and hit the beach.

For a change of pace, put on your summer finest and head to beach.  Forte dei Marmi is a pleasant resort town a short drive south of Carrara.  Once a major port for the marble (it still has its marble fort and a loading jetty that juts 275 metres into the sea) ‘Forte’ was discovered by artists and writers in the 1930s.  In the 1950’s, its famous Capannina Club became one of the Dolce Vita hotspots.  Today, Forte is the second-home capital of Tuscany and, in summer, a very chic holiday destination, popular with well-heeled Italians, local celebrities and the odd Russian oligarch.  It’s fun, a pleasant place to spend a day, with lush, tree-lined streets, some very good eateries, great shopping and a good beach.

Spend the day on the beach.  Along the seafront, the most exclusive and comfortable baths in Italy (Bagno Piero, Annetta and Raffaelli) follow each other seamlessly: all well-groomed, equipped with every service, with a heated swimming pool, bars and restaurants on the wooden terraces, babysitting service and candid tents under which to take refuge in warmer hours (Versilia prides itself on its reserve and discretion, avoiding the noise and excess of the gauche Roman beaches).  It is possible to enjoy the Italian beach experience for a day but it comes at a cost, of course.  A three-place cabin with two deckchairs, one chair and two sun loungers starts at 75 euro a day.  There is also a small public section on the beach - good for a dip after a stroll along the waterfront but not really for spending the day.

Otherwise, if the beach doesn’t appeal, you could just mooch around the town, people watch and soak up the atmosphere.  Start your morning with a little shopping: women’s clothing at Daniela Broch or Gallery and men’s clothing at Babol or you good both buy a fine pair sandals handmade by Giovanni, one of the last remaining artisans.  After a break for a ‘bombolone’ at Alessio or a coffee at Il Principe or Il Giardino, you could fill in the morning with visits to the showrooms of Riccardo Barthel or Nardini for some new homemaking ideas. 

There are some excellent places for lunch that won’t stretch the budget too far.  The Osteria del Mare is on the waterfront a short walk from the centre, simple cooking based on the high quality of the ingredients (around 45 euro per person).  For a real treat, line up like everyone else outside Orlando, a third generation ‘foccacceria’ for some of their delicious schiacciatine (classically served with peas, creamed cheese and prosciutto or with butter and culatello).

Afterwards, you can walk off lunch browsing in some of the many galleries in town: Poleschi, Vecchiato or Susanna Orlando, to admire the latest works by Aldo Mondino.  To finish off for a perfect day, go for a walk along the beachfront and then join the passeggiata out along the jetty to admire the optimistic fishermen and watch the sunset,  enjoying an aperitivo back on terrafirma before heading home.

Sunday, Option 2:  go for a walk in the Alpi Apuane.

The mountains behind Carrara are crossed by a network of way-marked trails.  The main approach to the northern group (around Pania della Croce, 1858 mts, the highest point of the range) is from the village of Levigliani.  A comfortable day trip is an out and back walk that starts on a mining road that leads up to Monte Corchia then a marked trail (#9) that leads you to the Rifugio Giuseppe del Freo (2.5 hrs), a great place for lunch.  If you are keen, you could also stay a day or two at this very nice mountain lodge, making it a base for other walks (including an early climb up to the peak of the Pania to watch the sun rise). 

The southern group of the Alpi offers some less challenging hikes.  The best access point is from the lovely village of Stazzema.  The classic walk (#5) is a gentle climb up through chestnut forests to the Procido, a huge table-top crag mentioned by Dante.  You continue up to Monte Nona and before doubling back to the Rifugio Forte dei Marmi (just below the crag) for lunch then heading back down to Stazzema.  If you have time, you might also choose to stay at the rifugio and enjoy a few more walks in the area.

Multigraphic produces a detailed 1:25,000 scale map of the Alpi Apuane walks, which a widely available.  Both Stazzema and Levigliani can be reached by buses from Forte dei Marmi and Pietrasanta.

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