I spend much of my time in Italy searching for the past, which, like most romantics, I assume to be superior to the present. Forgotten mountain villages and the work of forgotten artisans, like woodcarving and baking bread, are the prizes of my wanderings. There are usually surprises as well.
The tiny mountain village of Vinca in northern Tuscany had all of these.
Vinca sits at the far edge of the Lunigiana. Stone houses lean against each other on the steep slopes. The road ends in what you might call “downtown” Vinca. You know you’re there when you smell the heady fragrance of the bread leaking from the seams of Panificio Rita. The bread from this tiny mountain village, Pane di Vinca, is famous all over northern Tuscany.
A few steps down the road you notice a man leaning over his work on the marble windowsill, his chisel releasing spiral peels of wood from what would become an intricately carved window box. He keeps his notes and measurements and does his math in pencil on the marble, which you can see if you click to see the larger picture. His finished work, including a bundle of carved walking sticks, is displayed in an open alcove. There are no signs, no enticements. He looks up at us only when I ask him his name. Federicci.
Then at the end of the road is the alimentare, which also serves as the town bar. It has a single communal table out front, a thick slab of marble polished to a high luster, its brilliance enhanced perhaps by years of scrubbing and card playing.
Your only choice, at the end of this road, is to head up a steep set of stairs to see the village. No cars can circulate, so there wasn’t the need for a fight over pedestrian zones. Passageways snake between stone houses, little homemade terraces catch the mountain breezes. There are fountains and a communal wash basin, a lavatoio.
Choose the right street and you might come upon Mario’s little store, where he will sell you Miele Apuano Vinca, local honey. But not just any honey! It’s: extra vergine integrale super energetico honey. Mario recommends his honey for “sportsmen, moms, grandparents, kids, and convalescents.” The medicine you need.
Across the street someone, perhaps Mario himself, has kindly fastened a gigantic map of the hiking trails to his garden fence so anyone can consult it. That’s good, because just up the street is a very well marked trail-head for sentiero 190, leading you toward the peaks of the craggy Apuane Alps, recommended for expert and well-equipped sportsmen.
We poke around a bit then head down the hill. There’s a spring; someone’s thoughtfully built a little marble shelf for the communal glass tucked away from the glaring sun. Then a few steps on there’s a more sober bit of Vinca history. A monument of marble inside what appears to be a sheep pen.
This is the other thing Vinca is noted for. It’s not a nice thing. On the 24th of August, 1944, barbaric and aggressive Nazi-Fascist soldiers brought 20 young people into this pen and slaughtered them, according to the sign, a remembrance as moving and thought-provoking as that found at a similarly remote but better known outpost in Tuscany, Sant Anna di Stazzema. These mountain villages, remote as they were, became hotbeds of resistance in the war—successful ones, enough to evoke the ire of the enemy no end.
The past is not all roses. Arbitrary hate is infectious; we must not forget.