Over the weekend we went to Pistoia, a medium/little town about 35 minutes from Florence on the train. We went for my research stuff, but also because it promised to be a quiet break from the crowds. But what we found when we got there were huge crowds: it was market day!
The streets (all of them!) were jammed with stalls and stands selling clothes, household items, small appliances, food, even a guy standing in the middle of everything with a bag full of towels that he was selling to passersby. It was riotous and colorful and smelled DELICIOUS because of the various food carts that were around as well. We got (at 11am) some fantastic meats/bread on a stick from a rosticceria in a truck that held us over until lunch. After doing some reconnaissance work on a tomb in the Cathedral:
We wandered a bit and saw Giovanni Pisano’s gorgeous pulpit. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of Giovanni Pisano or his heartbreakingly beautiful sculptures?! Well let me enlighten you, because they are awesome:
They’re late-medieval, so they aren’t really what people typically think of when they think of sculptures in Italy (hello Michelangelo), but there’s infinitely more pathos in the figure of the old man, or the lion pinning a rabbit (both of which serve as bases for the support columns of the pulpit in case it isn’t clear) than in the entire Renaissance put together. After a leisurely lunch we thought we would check out a few more churches but we were completely stymied; the city was SHUT DOWN for siesta. I don’t remember experiencing a city that was as absolutely cleared out and empty during the early afternoon hours as this. It seemed like a ghost town– even the public toilets were closed!
Since I have almost exclusively lived in Florence and Rome I am used to places staying open after lunch– in more tourist oriented locations it’s typical to see some shops, bars, and restaurants close down in the early afternoon, but these tend to be outnumbered by others that remain open. But in Pistoia in the early afternoon, if you desperately need a coffee or a gelato, you would have to break into someone’s kitchen and make it yourself because you’re not going to be able to buy it anywhere. I remember hearing about this custom when I was younger (before I ever came to Italy) and marveling at the civility of it, but I hadn’t really experienced it yet. It’s lovely, such a quiet, peaceful time to wander around. When I was gathering information about going to Pistoia I kept reading on travel sites “tourists don’t really go here,” which, after the chaos of the market ended, turned out to be true. Authenticity is a slippery and debatable concept, but it was thrilling to see a place that seemed so authentic and so un-sanitized for visitors. For example:
That’s a butcher shop that specializes in horse-meat. In all of my time in Italy I have only seen cavallo on a menu once, in Bergamo, though I know that it is a relatively common (not super typical, but still) dinner option. Most people (particularly Americans) I know are disgusted and horrified by the notion of eating pretty ponies and I have definitely never, ever seen any references to horse-meat in Florence or Rome, or any of the other cities that are more frequented by tourists. It felt special to experience a place (and particularly one that wasn’t tiny/in the middle of nowhere) that holds on tightly to these traditional Italian ways. But I also wonder… did the presence of two Americani in Pistoia: at the market, in the streets, sitting at lunch for an hour and a half, talking amongst themselves in English (though to others in Italian), does that chip away at the authenticity and the tradition? How many visitors does it take before a places loses its traditional authenticity and assumes a new/different one? One? Ten? A thousand? And (not to get too meta) which authenticity is actually more authentic? I certainly don’t know. Ideally I (we?) travel to experience new and different things, and beyond the complicated matrix of place/visitors/locals/authenticity/loss of authenticity, I felt lucky to find new and different things in Pistoia.