Evading McTuscany

Burgess leans into the undiscovered Italy.

By Steve Burgess 27 Jun 2006 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Gabriella Carbini in her studio: Some culture still without spin.

My plan today is to drive up to Pisa and see that tower lean. Maybe jump up and down a few times and finish it off. I'm staying seven kilometers outside of San Gimignano in a tiny little town called Ulignano, and an exceedingly friendly hotel called Vecchio Asilo. Guido, the owner's son, has suggested that I might stop in the nearby town of Certaldo on my way up north to Pisa.

I drive my rented Fiat through lovely countryside and into Certaldo as suggested. There's a spot of bother getting into the town square parking lot and a few dirty looks as I drive down a pedestrian-only street. But soon I'm sorted, having a powerful espresso and trying to figure out whose statue stands in the square. The clue is the name of the nearby pizzeria: Boccaccio. He's the man who wrote the Decameron. Not bad for a two-bit Tuscan town, but then again, we're just down the road from Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo da. Historical competition is fierce in these parts.

Guido told me there's a funicular railcar that takes you up the hill to the old city (Certaldo Alto), but it's not running today. (According the girl at the ticket office, the reason is a shrug.) Just as well -- the walk up the hillside is brief and lovely. Inside the old city walls, the sunlit streets are nearly deserted.

All exposed by enemy books?

Picturesque little towns are like Hollywood starlets, waiting around to be discovered. Until Peter Mayles wrote A Year in Provence, not many people cared about the little French town of Menerbes. Once upon a time, Cortona was not the Tuscan must-see it has become since the book/movie Under the Tuscan Sun made it the destination of choice for mid-life romance-seekers.

Certaldo? Even my exhaustive Lonely Planet Tuscany/Umbria Edition manages to miss it completely. Odd, considering the cute (if sporadic) railcar, the striking views, quiet brick-red streets, and a castle with foundations that predate Christ. It does lack the pure scenic voltage of nearby stars like Volterra and San Gimignano, and perhaps no disillusioned author will ever write a book about how Certaldo restored their spirits and brought them olive oil-scented true love. But half an hour after climbing that hill, I am already glad that not every corner of Tuscany has been discovered to death.

And I've even found true love. Not my own, alas -- a wedding party is coming up the street toward the castle. They are almost the only tourists to be seen in the noonday heat. The couple poses happily for pictures, even for a Canadian guy sitting at a café table.

This idyllic scene, completely unrelated to the sale of t-shirts, makes for a marked contrast with crowded San Gimignano. That town, famous for the medieval towers that create the most impressive skyline in its population class, certainly deserves to be popular. Nor has San Gimignano been utterly destroyed by tourism. It has enough narrow streets and byways to swallow wandering visitors, and on one recent summer evening a pageant featuring young local drummers and dancers in medieval garb made for an enchanting spectacle in the town square.

Spinning tourists

Still, the old city of Certaldo offers something San Gimignano cannot: the illusion of wandering into a picturesque Italian village that was not waiting impatiently for your arrival.

The illusion wavers a bit when I sit down for lunch in a restaurant clearly designed for a clientele wider than local laborers just in from the fields. Not that it's exactly McDonald's, unless the big clown has started serving up rabbit cacciatore and Tuscan roast potatoes. (Rabbits are passive-aggressive little bastards. They attack their predators posthumously with a bunch of little bones. If you complain, the international rabbit lobby knows you'll get no sympathy.)

Afterwards, I wander upstairs to Palazzo Giannozzi, featuring a little cluster of attractions beside a sunny patio. There's a printmaker and a ceramic shop. Beside the ceramic shop is the Museo del Chiudo -- the Museum of Nails. Started by a local craftsman, it traces the history of the noble nail through time. Perhaps this is what separates the Tuscan superstars from the bit players. In San Gimignano there is a Museum of Torture, so popular with the kids that it has spun off a few imitators. Volterra has one too. Certaldo? The Museum of Nails. But talk about authenticity -- when I try the door, the Museum of Nails is closed. Tight. Now that's thematic purity.

The ceramic shop is closed too. But the lights are on, and what I see stops my feet. Ceramic shops are common as cafes in Tuscany, but the work on display here seems a cut above. Across the way, the printmaker tells me it will be open in five minutes. Ten minutes later, the artist herself arrives, smiles shyly to see that a one-man lineup has formed, and unlocks the door. No saleswoman, she goes straight to her wheel and begins working while I browse. Breathtaking colour is on every shelf, and texture too -- on many of the plates and bowls you can trace the raised colours with your fingers.

Stone piazzas and TV

The artisan's name is Gabriella Carbini. She has a face that recalls others seen in Italian museums, and soft strawberry blonde curls. Alas, my questions are a kind of work she finds more difficult -- she speaks almost no English. Other customers are showing up now, and soon I catch a break. Lena, from Pensacola, Florida, speaks Italian. She is able to translate my questions about the various functions of the pieces. Lena also tells Gabriella that she looks like Shakespeare's Juliet, for which I'm grateful -- from me it would seem insincere. And of course, incomprehensible.

Soon Lena and I are working each other into a frenzy of appreciation, going gaga from room to room. Plate buying was not on my agenda but art happens, and soon I'm walking back down the hill laden with Gabriella's precious (but not overpriced) work. Guido says that in mid-July there is an artisan's fair in Certaldo. "So crowded," he tells me, "your feet will not touch the ground."

So even if few visitors know Certaldo, Tuscans certainly do.

In the public square, Pizzeria Boccaccio has set up a big TV screen. Italy is playing the Czech Republic; at stake is a second-round berth in the World Cup. Lots of shouting, two Italian goals, and soon the streets of lower Certaldo are riotous with cars and horns and motorbikes and flags.

It's early evening now, and I wander down the street in search of a hotel. Aiming for Pisa, I made it exactly eight kilometers. Hey, I've seen the postcards. It's just a wonky tower.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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