In keeping with our plan of taking small trips around Lunigiana during the school holidays, we visited Sarzana this week. We were not only lured by the history to be found there, but by the promise of a shopping mall which our friend Lesley told us about. I haven’t visited a real shopping mall since Singapore and I’ll admit I do miss such pleasures from time to time. Sarzana is about a 30 minute drive from here, and the mall is pretty much the first thing you see when you arrive. We spent some time shopping there, buying a few essentials. Ironically I was the ONLY one who didn’t get anything for myself! Oh well, I’m saving up for the bigger european cities we will be visiting.
After our little shopping excursion, we drove into the centre of Sarzana. We were very excited to see the ultimate in zombie-proof houses there. Actually, it’s the Villa Carpena which sits on top of Torrione Testaforte. Who owns it? When was it built? Why was it built there? All questions I must know the answer to! Check it out:
After we entered the very impressive city gates, we wandered around a bit and “stumbled” upon the fortress (as you do!). Seriously, you walk up a bit of a hill next to an old church and there it is. A huge stone structure with battlements, a moat and a bridge. It’s the Firmafede Citadel, built in 1249. Of course it wasn’t open (!!), but I have these photos for you:
Sarzana is a very old town, existing before the year 1000. It’s full of lovely piazzas, churches, shops, cafes, statues….all your usual Italian delights. We strolled around the almost deserted streets (yes, it was lunch time and also winter) and took photos here and there. I would imagine that in summer the place would be booming and I’m looking forward to seeing that.
January 6th is an Italian national holiday to mark The Epiphany. Le Befana (the witch) who flies on a broomstick to bring lollies or coal to children on the night of the 5th, is a big part of this celebration. The Christian version of this legend goes as follows: the night before the Wise Men arrived at the manger they stopped at the shack of an old woman to ask directions. They invited her to come along but she replied that she was too busy. Then a shepherd asked her to join him but again she refused. Later that night, she saw a great light in the sky and decided to join the Wise Men and the shepherd bearing gifts that had belonged to her child who had died. She got lost and never found the manger. Now La Befana flies around on her broomstick each year on the 11th night, bringing gifts to children in hopes that she might find the Baby Jesus.
Of course there is a pagan version too: The Romans had a pagan festival of Saturnalia, a one or two week festival starting just before the winter solstice. At the end of Saturnalia, Romans would go to the Temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill to have their augers read by an old crone. The old crone is La Befana. (One thing I really love about Italy is the recognition and celebration of the pagan history. For a country that is so Catholic, I have not met many people who would call themselves Catholics. Perhaps it is because we have spent so much time in rural Italy?)
We went out on the 6th looking for some La Befana action! Our friend Lucia had recommended we go to the little village of Quercia (a bit past Aulla). Quercia is famous for having the world record for the biggest stocking and is supposed to have quite a celebration for Epiphany. We arrived about an hour before it was supposed to start (having been told that there would be no parks and there would be a shuttle bus to get in and out) to a deserted village. We found a park easily and wandered around for a while looking for the celebrations. Nothing! I can only conclude that it was cancelled due to the rain, or perhaps it starts exactly on time and there is no setting up or waiting beforehand? Either way, we left after a while and headed over to Ponticello to visit their celebrations.
On the way over to Ponticello, we stopped off for “pranzo” at a little Trattoria. I have written about this one before actually, but didn’t have a photo of it. It’s the one which reminds me of an RSL hall, where the food is very cheap (10 euros for a full lunch) but VERY delicious. I had the best lasagna of my life (sorry Mum, yours is good too, but this was an almost spiritual experience!)
After we had gorged ourselves, we headed over to Ponticello just in time for the church service that begins the children’s celebrations. It was all in Italian, but I got the gist of what was going on. At one point there was a procession where I thought everyone was getting communion, but instead they were kissing a baby. How interesting!
After the service, everyone walked into the centre of the little village of Ponticello and awaited the arrival of La Befana. Soon, we heard the roar of a quad bike and there she was! Not the traditional broomstick mode of transportation, but practical for the wet and narrow streets. La Befana had a big container of hand-sewn stockings which she doled out to all of the children. The boys were pretty thrilled with that, and afterwards there was hot wine and fireworks for the adults. Here’s some pics:
Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season celebrations here in Italy and the boys are going back to school on Monday. We’ve had a great time going on our little adventures together. Here’s some random pics of what we got up to during their holidays: