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the horseshoe adventure in
The climb up the steep and winding stone path through the old town was fascinating. There seemed to be a big real estate boom going on in this part of Tuscany. Many of the ancient houses had been refurbished and, although the Italian Government insists the exteriors of these historical landmark buildings remain the same, the interiors had been totally modernized and remodeled. I caught glimpses of some surprisingly elegant living spaces through open doors and windows as I passed by.
The village follows the natural curve of the hillside and is narrow, only two or three houses wide. The path twists through its center, leading straight up the mountain, with turns and stairs to facilitate the walker. There is small road along the outside perimeter, with limited parking along the way, giving local residents an option from the exhausting stair-filled path.
Claudio was waiting for me as I rounded the last bend at the top of the village and walked into the San Bartolomeo churchyard. The view was magnificent. The Val di Nièvole plains stretch out below, with Lucca to the right and farmlands forming a patchwork quilt to the left. The church, with its wooden sculptures, 15th Century frescoes and terracotta statues, was closed tight. We looked around outside but couldn�t find anyone who knew when the church would be open, so reluctantly we turned around and headed back down the hill.
We had come to Collodi in search of a special type of horse shoe with built in hooks that catch on the cobblestone streets. In the olden days, before automobiles, these hooked shoes helped prevent the horses and mules from slipping as they made their slow and dangerous trek down the hills pulling heavily loaded carts. The roads were especially dangerous in Winter when the cobblestones were slick with ice. The area was once filled with important silk mills and the heavy rolls of fabric were transported by horse cart from the factories to large warehouses for processing and ultimately shipping.
I had learned about these hooked horseshoes from a friend who�s family was from this area. She didn�t know exactly what the horseshoes looked like, but her description intrigued me enough to go in search for them. I thought they must be strange looking and wondered how the horses walked on flat land with them, and if they hurt their feet. When I told Claudio the story of these special hill town horseshoes he was puzzled too, and agreed to go on the quest with me. My Italian is very elementary, so acting as translator, he dutifully asked people we met along the way if they knew about the horseshoes designed for steep hills, where we might get some information and perhaps see what they looked like. People just smiled and laughed and said they didn�t know what we were talking about.
We took the road along the edge of town and as we walked along I kept thinking about those poor animals, trudging down the steep, slippery roadway and wondering again just what the hooked horseshoes looked like.
The village of Collodi is famous for the magnificent Villa Garzoni with its lovely gardens and as the birthplace of the legendary fantasy character, Pinocchio. It stands midway between Montecatini Terme, known for its thermal waters and spa, and Lucca, a lovely town surrounded by ancient walls, beautiful monuments and charming winding streets. It is also near Florence, one of the main centers of cultural and artistic life in the world.
The village was once heavily fortified and an intregal part of the Lucca province and was the scene of many bloody battles during the wars between Lucca and Florence in the early 16th Century. Today Collodi straggles up the steep hill behind the Villa Garzoni and only a few ruins of its original fortifications remain.
The Villa Garzoni, often referred to as the Castle of the Hundred Windows, was built in 1633-62, and is surrounded by spectacular gardens. The villa is charming, and touring the grand reception rooms, bedrooms and galleries, all decorated with flowery frescoes, polished terracotta floors and some dusty, faded furnishings, sparks one�s imagination. I felt as though Pinoccio would come bounding through one of the doors at any moment.
The kitchen looked inviting with its big fireplace and cast iron cooking utensils all lined up ready to use. It seemed as though the cook had just stepped away for a moment, perhaps to gather fresh herbs from the kitchen garden nearby.
I was particularly intrigued by the well scrubbed pine table where Carlo Lorenzini, using the pen name of Collodi, wrote the delightful Pinocchio stories. Pinocchio�s birthday, May 25, 1883, is celebrated in the towns and villages throughout the region.
We wandered down a tree shaded path to the lovely series of waterfalls that cascade down the hillside to the magnificent statue-filled stone terraces that make up the focal point of the garden. The garden, in the Tuscan Baroque style, is one of the loveliest to be found in all of Italy. The garden opens up like a large amphitheater with water fantasies and reflecting pools all around. Flowers abound and topiary bushes lend an additional touch of whimsy.
The layout of the garden follows the strict post-renaissance ideals with its rigorous geometrical structures melting into green, the bright spots of flowers, the comic, epic and imaginary elements of statues, the large masks and the glorious fountains. The original architect of the garden was the Marquis Romano di Alessandro Garzoni around 1633, and it took one hundred seventy years to complete. The job was finished by Ottaviano Diodati, who added his genius and capriciousness to the project with statuary, waterworks and French style parterres.
A gardener clipped away on a small topiary bush in the shape of an elephant as we stopped to ask him if he knew anything about hill town horseshoes. He looked as us and smiled, no he didn�t know what we were talking about, but he directed us to the guard at the Parco di Pinocchio across the road, whom, he said, knew a lot about everything.
Piero, the guard, did in fact know a little bit about a lot of things and proceeded to tell us just about all he knew - including the special hooked horseshoes. He actually drew a little picture of one, but no, he didn�t know where we could find any. They were too old and he didn�t think anyone used them anymore.
The Parco di Pinocchio is an open air museum designed for children of all ages. The park was built in 1956 and tells the tale of Pinocchio with giant toys, sculptures, mosaics and fountains. The fantastic settings make the tale come alive as you pass by Geppetto, sitting at the end of the dark hole, or the Circus where Pinocchio changed into a donkey, or the Fairy Child watching as you pass by her little white house.
However we didn�t go into the Parco di Pinocchio. We were hungry by this time and decided to save the park for another day.
We headed east, past Pescia, to the tiny hill town of Uzzano for lunch at the Ristorante La Costa. The restaurant is in an ancient stone farmhouse that has been lovingly restored. It is ideally situated, perched on a terrace overlooking groves of olive trees with the fertile valley beyond.
The restaurant consists of several dining rooms on the main floor, with the kitchen on the floor below. The top floor is the private apartment of the owner and his family. The padrone seated us at a cozy table near the windows in the largest of the dining rooms. The sun came streaming in through an open window and glittered off a large copper pot filled with flowers in the center of the room. The soft cream colored walls made an ideal backdrop for an incredible collection of antique wood working hand tools. More strange looking tools hung from the dark wooden beams of the ceiling. On one side of the room was a giant fireplace with a lovely old copper hood. The day was too warm for a fire but I could imagine that the room would be an enjoyable place on a cold Winter day. The aroma of grilled meats tweaked my nose as I surveyed the menu.
We began our lunch with a salad of fresh greens and fat, juicy tomatoes, dressed with fragrant local olive oil and balsamic vinegar. This was followed by homemade Pappardelle, gently tossed with a delicious ragu of fresh Porcini mushrooms. Then came a giant mixed grill platter consisting of chicken, steak and house-made sausage, accompanied by a dish of typical Tuscan style cannellini beans. We chose a lovely Chianti that tasted of blackberries and wild herbs to accompany our feast. And finally, we ate luscious, dark red raspberries covered with sweetened cream.
The padrone was a bit stiff and formal at the beginning of our meal, but by the time we had scooped up the last raspberry he had become decidedly more sociable and brought a treasured bottle of locally made grappa to our table for us to taste. It was delicious.
Inspired by his friendliness, I encouraged Claudio to ask him if he ever heard of the hooked hill town horseshoes. Much to my amazement not only had he heard of them but he had one. I could hardly contain my excitement as he went into one of the other rooms and pulled a rusty old horse shoe off the wall and held it out for my inspection. Claudio took one look at it and laughed in amazement.
"That�s what you have been looking for all this time?" He asked. "I didn�t realize this is what they look like. I have some of these at home in the barn."
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