Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco (idiom) – Not all doughnuts come out with a hole, meaning things don’t always turn out as planned.

Here’s an interesting fact: The vending machine at the train station in Pistoia, Italy sells underwear.

I’ve just gotten off the train and there is it. Three pair of low-waist briefs for just €9. It strikes me as an odd sort of convenience, intended for the ill-equipped traveler who either forgot to pack the essentials, or has gone too long between stops at the laundromat. What’s confusing, though, is that Pistoia isn’t on the tourist trail. Rick Steves ignores it completely in his guidebook. Lonely Planet mentions it twice, but only with the most bare-bones logistics, which begs the question: How did I find my way to Pistoia?

I suppose it’s a combination of proximity and laziness. I slept in late and it was nearly noon by the time I reached the train station in Florence with a vague inclination to go somewhere. The ride to Pistoia takes all of 37 minutes and one of the links that came up in a google search called it “the hidden jewel of Tuscany.” That’s good enough for me.

I’m flying by the seat of my pants, so maybe that underwear will come in handy after all.

I walk past the vending machine and out onto the street, using the GPS on my phone to navigate my way along Via XX Settembre to Via Cavour, and on to Piazza del Duomo. Nearly every Italian town has a Piazza del Duomo and it’s always a good place to start. There’s an octagonal baptistery and a Romanesque cathedral with a graceful arcaded façade, as well as a handsome old palazzo that serves as the town hall and civic museum, but aside from a soaring bell tower, it’s difficult to see any of it given that the square itself is overflowing with a flea market whose awnings and umbrellas radiate a claustrophobic heat.

I survey my surroundings and then flee to a restaurant nearby, La Botte Gaia, and order a selection of local cheeses as a light lunch as I assess the situation. As it turns out, the civic museum is closed on Wednesdays. Likewise, the churches in town will be closed for most of the afternoon, and the town’s most celebrated site, the Ospedale del Ceppo, with its glazed terra-cotta frieze by Della Robbia, is sheathed entirely in plastic and scaffolding. When I find an ad for a tour of the Pistoia underground, I leap at the chance. There’s not much else to do, really, and it’s in the high 90s outside. It’s bound to be cooler down there.

I’m their only visitor, so I’m sent down alone with a young guide. He takes me through a fascinating maze of arched brick passageways, but the history is largely lost on me since Giovanni Luca’s English is so broken that, at best, I only understand half of what he says. He tries hard, and asks frequently if I’m following along, but I haven’t the heart to tell him the truth. I want to prolong the tour as long as possible to avoid the heat outside.

In Italian Hours, a true masterpiece of a travelogue, Henry James writes about his visit to Pistoia in the late 19th century. He found it “drowsy,” but “full of idle vistas and melancholy nooks.” And he enjoyed himself, lounging away “in the empty streets the quiet hours of a warm afternoon.”

I’m trying, I really am. But the truth is, some places are off-the-beaten-path for a reason. Maybe it’s the heat talking, it probably is—the sign on a tabbachi shop I pass on the way back to the train station at just past five is registering 37 degrees Celsius—but for now, I think Pistoia is one of them.

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