Location: Pietrasanta, Italy
Nickname: Little Athens
Vibe: International bohemian for artists and art-lovers.
In Italian, the word “Pietrasanta,” translates as sacred rock. That is perhaps the only possible name for a town located at the foothills of the majestic Apuan Alps. These mountains are famed for their composition and unique offering to the world: super fine white marble. For centuries, artists have made the pilgrimage to this small, northern Tuscany town, wedged between these mountains and the Ligurian Sea, in search of slabs of holy stone to call their own.
500 years ago, Michelangelo made the journey from Florence to get his god-like fingers on this white marble to chisel. It’s said the artist hung around the central Piazza del Duomo – where, today, there’s a cafe named in his honor – to draw inspiration from the unique light and shadows created when afternoon sun hits the looming peaks.
Just as the Old Master, sculptors from around the world have set up shop here for access to the finest materials from nearby Carrara quarries, along with skilled labor trained in hands-on traditions passed down through generations, often through members of the same family.
The air you breath.
Pietrasanta lives and breaths art and everyone in town is either an artist, partnered with or otherwise connected to an artist. The area boosts nearly 90 stone-cutting and working studios as well as dozens of bronze-casting foundries, mosaic studios and contemporary art galleries creating a viseral creative energy.
In summer, loads of tourists breeze through in route to the seaside, just two miles away, but now, in off-season, visitors are here to experience the town at her essence: as open-air museum. Large-scale installations, from an international set of past and present artists-in-residence, are featured throughout town and rotating exhibits take center stage with the 14th century cathedral as background.
Luck has been on our side, arriving here in late October, to find works still on view from a summer installation by famed Spanish artist Manolo Valdés. His tactile works in bronze, wood and aluminum take on different life with each hours’s changing light. Against the rough, heavy stone of the plaza and cathedral, the luminous works seem alive and pulsating.
Other famous artists associated with the town include Columbian-sculptor Fernando Botero, whose playful works “Warrior” and “Centaur” are local favorites, and Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, whose powerful piece “Annuniciation” graces the church of Sant’Agostino. On another artistic stream, Oscar-award-winning Mexican film director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamá También) is perhaps the most famous contemporary resident.
When you visit.
Anyone who has visited Tuscany knows that no amount of time is enough. Between Florence’s Renaissance jewels and Chianti’s rolling hills and vineyards, days and weeks can and do roll by. Then, there’s Lucca, one of our favorite towns in all of Europe for the easy way it lives daily life in an artful manner.
While it’s possible to visit Pietrasanta for a day-trip, we think at least one overnight is essential. That’s the only way you will experience the changing light and evolving mood of a town awash in the glow of creativity. And, that’s the whole point of the journey, right?
Here are a few more Pro-Tips for visiting Pietrasanta:
- This small town is loaded with elegant and pricey fashion boutiques, home stores and art galleries. Most open for a few hours in the morning, then close around 1 p.m. (13:00) for that beloved Italian tradition pausa pranzo (which basically translates as “lunch break.”) Everything reopens and the town comes back to life between 4 – 5 p.m. (16:00-17:00) in the afternoon. Hint: this is a great time to cycle to the coast (see below).
- Appertivi and antipasti tradition, aka happy-hour drinks and eats, are robust in Pietrasanta. After 6 p.m., locals gather at two neighboring hotspots. Trattoria Gatto Nero and Bar Pietrasantese both put on delicious spreads of cheese, cured meat, savory pastries and pickled veggies. Order a glass of Vermentino – the Vermentino wine route runs through this area – then, settle in. Tasty snacks are included in the cost of your drink. (We so dig this tradition!).
- Befitting any town with such international flavor, Pietrasanta boosts several Michelin-recommended restaurants including Filippo and La Brigata di Filippo. If in your budget, splurge and go for it!For us, something a bit more modest called and – are we glad we answered. At La Buca, we ate the best pizza of life. Let that sink in. The BEST PIZZA ever. And, we’ve had a lot of pizza. Paper thin, yet crispy crust. Sparse, yet potent sauce. Exceptionally plump ingredients. Italian beer on tap, engaging staff and cozy, historic dining room. Winning, all the way around the plate.
- Try to plan your visit around the opening hours – those seem to change – of the town’s impressive Bozzetti Museum dedicated to the art of sculpture, naturally.
- If staying overnight, book a hotel room or Airbnb apartment in the center of town, near the cathedral (actually, everything in the “center” is near the cathedral. It’s that small). Avoid the all-too-common industrial sectors on the outskirts.
- There’s a nice bike trail / running and walking path that leads from Pietrasanta to the coast, from Via Maggio to Via Fiumetto to Viale Apua. (I’m sure this sounds more complicated than it is. It took me days to figure out. But, basically, this combination of side streets is a seamless way to weave together the bike path with little traffic and great views). Ride down to the seaside and grab a coffee at sweet little Cafe Grimaldi (a tradition in Marina di Pietrasanta since 1925).
- Wherever you are coming from or going…TAKE A TRAIN (all caps are obnoxious, I realize. It’s just that no one takes this advice to heart, especially fellow Americans. haha). The Italian train network is one of the country’s greatest resources. (You may hear locals complain, but compared to other train systems around the world, this one is a jewel). Trains are relatively on time, clean and affordable.While renting a car means navigating roads you don’t know and navigating notoriously-speedy Italian drivers. But, also, you must worry about speeding violations (it’s the rare foreign driver who escapes Italy without at least one super-costly traffic ticket), finding a place to park, then deciphering if that particular open parking space is actually open to the public, meaning you, or reserved for residents.Okay, rental car lecture for non-native drivers complete. Any way you get there, get there if you can. Pietrasanta is one of Tuscany’s shiniest hidden gems.
If you like this story, you may also like:
Weekend Layover: Lucca, Italy (I wrote this story for American magazine Paste in 2014).