We reached the rather unassuming train station of Montecatini Terme on a blazing hot spring day. The town looked bleak and desolate – though the throngs of tourists weren’t too far away – scattered between the town centre of Montecatini Terme, the various spas of the city and the endlessly charming Montecatini Alto – which sits atop a hill overlooking Tuscany’s spa capital. We quickly made our way towards the wonderful old Funicular station, taking a detour down a country lane and accidentally passing over the back of the beautiful Terme Tettuccio, a boarded up church and through several overgrown fields. However, when we did find our way, we were confronted by the most charming of Funicular stations with very few people to speak of, and absolutely darling red trains creaking their way up the hill at a snail’s pace. This gorgeous little piece of engineering has stood since 1897 – when it was once steam operated, before converting to electric in the 1920’s.
Regardless of its conversion, the occasional plastic covered bin and the slight wurr of a modern car or motorbike engine as it passed by outside, the station stood, not just as a passage to the hilltop town of Montecatini Alto, but as a gateway to another time. Almost nothing has changed here in over a century.
As we boarded the funicular, standing at the front to better survey what lay ahead – it became more and more apparent just how cut off this little village truly is. The tracks stood before us, beginning with a modest slant, a slant which soon turned into an almost vertical climb through lush hedge ways and under crumbling stone bridges, until after 15 minutes or so, the quaint red car slotted with a mechanical grind into its space at the Montecatini Alto station. We climbed out and were first struck by the incredible views out over the Tuscan countryside in the direction of Montecatini Terme and around, and then traipsed onwards into the village to explore.
The town square, though small does become something of a central hub just a little after the clock strikes noon – as it’s filled with restaurants, it’s really the only place to eat in the small village. Those partaking of the rejuvenating spa waters from below, the once barren swampland of Montecatini Terme, begin their ascensions into history a short while after slurping the salty waters from Terme Tettuccio and of course after eating breakfast, and so generally arrive in time for lunch. The rest of the crowds belong to coaches waiting in the coach parks below, whilst a few of us, those donned in slightly less uniform, colourful sunny attire, following sign posts instead of guidebooks, have generally all arrived for the day from somewhere near, by way of the aforementioned Montecatini Terme train station. Once everyone starts piling into the square, the restaurants’ many waiters and waitresses, doubling now as touts, begin their hawk eyed hunting – my wife’s Russian face ensuring we get attention from everyone of them, hoping to score a ridiculous tip (I have one for them but it’s probably best not to share it here)..and suddenly the various (some of which even held in well regard) restaurants are full – serving fully dressed steak al fresco to the throngs.
We bypassed the urge to eat, deciding to wait until we’d hoofed a little further up the hill to the 11th century Church of San Pietro and the remains of the ancient fortifications that stand within the church’s grounds. The church was of course desolate, cold inside and though beautiful, far from exceptional. The battlements outside were sparse, with evidence of ancient battles in the marring on the stones. There’s also a somewhat odd monument just outside of the church, in dedication to the Patron Saint of Montecatini Terme – Saint Barbara, who is, amongst other things, the Patron Saint of explosives – and so with stoic commitment to her cause – the monument is a collection of large guns, bullets, fire fighting equipment and other equally surprising elements, all meant to show appreciation of the institutions that fall under Saint Barbara’s protection – the Military, Fire Brigade, Navy, etc.
As we made our way back to the piazza we stumbled through some beautiful, quiet as twilight alleyways, home to very well kempt houses and antique shops. Here are some of my favourites:
The square itself was slightly less vibrant by the time we got back – though each restaurant still had over half its delegation of chairs occupied and several were nearing full – but emptying in time for the post-lunch spa treatments. We sat down at La Torre (least annoying touts by far) and didn’t expect too much – it was acceptable, old fashioned but in a timeless fashion rather than old and tired (though there was a rather lovely nonna – grandmother – sitting just inside the door who looked a little like she’d been a part of the framework since shortly after the renaissance). The restaurant has a good rep and some okay food but in my humble opinion, could really work on its sloppy presentation. Here’s what we ate:
After a somewhat heavy lunch – we went onto to leisurely explore the rest of the hilltop village. Starting with a couple of buildings of interest in the piazza. Namely the gorgeous old theatre:
and this ancient looking chapel which we stumbled into quite by accident:
Next we aimed towards one of the few standing towers – 1 of 6 still standing from what was once a grand 25 – the Torre del Carmine o dell’Orologio (tower of the clock) – fortunately a survivor of the troops of the Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici, who sieged the town in 1554. The tower looks out over the plains and countryside that connects the two Montecatini’s. The clock that gives the tower its striking face was constructed sometime in the 1500’s, though it was reconstructed a hundred or so years later and then modernised in the 1700s’s with external hands – the marble dial and roman numerals came later however – in 1844. The bell hidden within the clocktower lasted quite some time until in 1843 it was replaced with a new one which would strike every sixth hour. Close to the tower is an entrance to a photography exhibition, which shows Montecatini through the ages – with original photographs dating all the way back to the 1800’s. The fact that these photographs show a town that still exists today, in much the same state is astounding.
After we’d explored the tower and the exhibition, we made our way through the outskirts of the tiny village, still feeling somewhat lost in time, walking historic streets, looking out over countryside that has seen little change since the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Pietro Leopoldo had the marsh lands cleaned and reclaimed for use as spas in the 1700’s. The whole village is phenomenally quiet – on par with and even more so than the villages of my beautiful homeland in Yorkshire – think Holmfirth – but with a stoney medieval grandeur, and a typical, if somewhat backwards, Italian charm.
Of course, as the day drew on and we started to yearn for a little alcoholic refreshment to ready us for our evening train journey back to the city, little bits of life from the modern times, or reality should we say, began to creep back in. As we got further from the village’s piazza and to the rural roads that skirt the village, more and more cars began to appear, mopeds and several service vans, and as we got to the medieval walls that line much of the outskirts of the village we stumbled across homes with wide open windows, the dwellers there seemingly unafraid of passing burglaries and unruly tourists (which it would seem rarely make it much further than the piazza) and this typical little Italian scene below. Hanging clothes – but this time right on the public footpath outside the house.
So yes, Montecatini Alto may be lost in time and the families here can undoubtedly trace their blood lines back to ancestors who were bombarded by the Medici of Florence, but they still need to dry their, unsuitably modern clothes, in unsuitably, though wonderfully trustworthy conditions.
If you liked this post please share it: