EUROPE TEATIME TRAVEL

Exploring Pistoia, the city of enchanted stone

Saturday morning in Pistoia. The pedestrian streets of the historical center are teeming with activity. After a couple of rainy days, the sky is almost blue and the air is warmer than expected. People have gathered in Piazza della Sala for the farmers’ market, to buy vegetables, fruit and fall products like chestnuts, or local products like dried chickpeas and lentils. There’s a lively atmosphere, the restaurants and cafés are full of locals and tourists who are enjoying this mild November weekend. After visiting the stunning borghi of Pitigliano and Sorano, we are back in Tuscany to explore Pistoia, a small and very old town just half an hour by train from Florence.

where our journey begins

The town center, once enclosed within a circuit of massive walls, has narrow Medieval streets, imposing palaces and ancient churches. Our itinerary starts in Piazza Duomo, a large square around which stand the most important symbols of religious and civil power. San Zeno Cathedral,, the Baptistery, the Town Hall, the Bishops’ Palace, the Palazzo Pretorio and the Tower of Catilina are here to remind us the rich history of Pistoia. The Town Hall is home to the Civic Museum of Ancient Art, which houses a collection of works of art telling the story of this Tuscan town. The Baptistery of San Giovanni dates back to the 14th century and is one of the greatest examples of Tuscan Gothic architecture, with its white and green striped marble. 

Pistoia, historical center

THE HEART OF PISTOIA

San Zeno Cathedral was probably built in the 10th century, but its Romanesque façade was reconstructed  between the 14th and 15th century, after being damaged by earthquake and fire. It was Andrea dalla Robbia, the world famous artist of ceramic glaze, who decorated the church. Inside, the right isle was once occupied by the Chapel of Saint James. In fact, in 1145 a fragment of Saint James’ bone was brought here from Santiago de Compostela, thus making Pistoia one of the main pilgrimage destinations along the Via Francigena in Italy.

Pistoia: Bell tower and Battistero

Nearby, Piazza della Sala, once Pistoia’s mercantile center, is now home to the fruit and vegetable market. But every night, after the stalls disappear, it becomes the hub of Pistoia’s nightlife together with the smaller Piazza degli Ortaggi. A short distance away, the church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas is another splendid example of Tuscan architecture. Inside is housed one of Luca dalla Robbia’s masterpieces, La visitazione, an elegant group of formally refined ceramic works depicting the Madonna and Saint Elizabeth. Outside, the white and green striped side dominates via Cavour, a large street lined with shops. 

THE age of clement ix, the pope from pistoia

If you get back to Piazza Duomo and take the narrow Via del Duca, you’ll reach Piazza dello Spirito Santo, from which a great dome can be seen. It resembles Brunelleschi’s masterpiece in Florence and belongs to the Basilica of the Madonna dell’Umiltà, which has no space around for people to stop and look at the dome. That’s why you need to admire it from here. Facing the square is yet another church, Sant’Ignazio di Loyola, where Pope Clement IX, Giulio Rospigliosi, commissioned the famous Gian Lorenzo Bernini to design the altar. In the 17th century, the Rospigliosi family owned a palace on Ripa del Sale. It houses a rich collection of works of art and furniture, open to visitors (Clemente Rospigliosi Museum). Pope Clement was also linked to San Domenico, a peaceful church and convent in Piazza Garibaldi. 

GLAZED TERRACOTTA AND MARBLE SCULPTURES

Pistoia is so small that it’s very easy to get from one place to another, even without Google Maps. From piazza dello Spirito Santo, via de’ Rossi takes you to the Church of Sant’Andrea, with its beautiful façade and the marble pulpit, a masterpiece by the sculptor Giovanni Pisano. Nearby is the so-called Spedale del Ceppo, the old hospital of Pistoia. On the façade is the elegant 16th century loggia with a Della Robbia frieze in a glazed polychrome terracotta, one of the town’s jewels. There’s also a museum for those interested in old medical tools, and a very peculiar tour of Pistoia Sotterranea, the underground city.

DIMORA STORICA PALAZZO PUCCINI

I must confess that one of the reasons I’ve loved Pistoia is Dimora Storica Palazzo Puccini. Right behind the Cathedral, this beautiful hotel is housed in a historical building that belonged to Puccini family. They were not noble, but merchants who thrived in the 16th century. The rooms of the first floor have been turned into bedrooms, breakfast room, dining room and reception, furnished with exquisite taste and a charming combination of old & new pieces. There’s a luxury yet homely atmosphere in the Dimora Storica Puccini, and the kindness of the staff made my staying more than pleasant. Breakfast is served in a warm, elegant room with statues, cupboards, pottery and carpets. Cakes are homemade and tea and coffee is served in decorated cups. Bedrooms are large, comfortable, and have everything one might need for a relaxing weekend in Pistoia.

EATING OUT IN PISTOIA

A tour of Pistoia won’t be complete without a mention of its restaurants. I’ve stayed three days, so I’ve tried some places that I can recommend. First of all, La BotteGaia, a Tuscan restaurant located in a narrow street next to the Cathedral. The menu includes regional dishes such as ribollita (a vegetable soup), a selection of cheeses among which pecorino (made with sheep milk) and pasta with porcini (mushrooms). Don’t skip the dessert: the flourless dark chocolate cake is simply delicious. Next to the restaurant there’s also a shop selling local products and selected cheese.

Another interesting address is BonoDiNulla, located in the same street as La BotteGaia. In a warm, welcoming space you’ll be able to order some classic Tuscan dishes such as Fiorentina steak, ravioli (stuffed pasta), homemade pasta and bread. For a quick lunch, there are several bakeries selling pizza and focaccia, and even an American bakery called Chris’ Bakery where I’ve eaten salmon pancakes. For those who like good wine and Tuscan cuisine there’s also Cacio Divino, but if you prefer fish, you should go to Sq’amami in via Panciatichi, next to the church of San Giovanni Fuoricivitas. Finally, don’t forget to pay a visit to Arté, an art boutique full of objects which I could (and did) watch for hours. That’s the magic of Pistoia, also known as “the city of enchanted stone”.

WHERE IN PISTOIA

Dimora Storica Palazzo Puccini: vicolo Malconsiglio 4
La BotteGaia (restaurant): via del Lastrone 17, www.labottegaia.it
La BotteGaia (shop): via di Stracceria 4
BonoDiNulla (restaurant): via del Lastrone 3, www.bonodinulla.it
Cacio Divino (restaurant); via del Lastrone 13, www.cacio-divino.it
Arté (art shop): via della Madonna, in front of the Basilica della Madonna dell’Umiltà