Last November, I visited a friend and fellow cultural venturer who lives in The Garfagnana, the mountainous region in northwest Tuscany. While geographically situated in Tuscany, the terrain, traditions and foods are distinctively different from what Americans envision as “Tuscan.” The Garfagnana, known as a place “where time doesn’t run” (dove il tempo non corre), looks nothing like the cedar-lined hills of the Chianti wine region (or “Chiantishire” as it’s known because of its history of English expatriates and villa getaways), or the bustling, filigreed cityscape of Florence. Here, as hills turn to valleys and eventually rocky white and grey cliffsides, the urge to move on from a place, to look for convenience, and to keep track of time dissolves as the altitude climbs.
The blood and history of civilization itself flows through The Garfagnana, and its artery is the ancient Serchio River. The Serchio’s force carves through algific, impenetrable rocks with ease, floods hillside banks, roads and fields without time or thought for mercy, and levels itself into the Pisa plain, pushing West to the Mediterranean. It feeds the hills, silts the growing fields, and ultimately nourishes the bodies of its subjects, who don’t take its temper –or its place in Italy’s life- for granted.
This transalpine haven was also among the Poets’ favored retreats. Percy Bysshe Shelley captured its sublime dichotomy: the violence of nature’s forces, creating a peaceful hermitage for the weary thinker:
Against the Serchio’s torrent fierce,
Then flags with intermitting course,
And hangs upon the wave, and stems
The tempest of the...
Which fervid from its mountain source
Shallow, smooth and strong doth come,--
Swift as fire, tempestuously
It sweeps into the affrighted sea;
In morning’s smile its eddies coil,
Its billows sparkle, toss and boil,
Torturing all its quiet light
Into columns fierce and bright.
The Serchio, twisting forth
Between the marble barriers which it clove
At Ripafratta, leads through the dread chasm
The wave that died the death which lovers love,
Living in what it sought; as if this spasm
Had not yet passed, the toppling mountains cling,
But the clear stream in full enthusiasm
Pours itself on the plain, then wandering
Down one clear path of effluence crystalline
Sends its superfluous waves, that they may fling
At Arno’s feet tribute of corn and wine;
Then, through the pestilential deserts wild
Of tangled marsh and woods of stunted pine,
It rushes to the Ocean.