Thankfully, things have changed a great deal since I first arrived in Italy to take up the position as U.S. Consul General in Florence in July of 2020. Finally able to get out and about more, I have lately taken to grabbing my backpack and getting out to explore places that are off the beaten path in Tuscany.
I recently had the opportunity to explore the Pisa area with my family, in the excellent company of Antonio Mazzeo, President of the Tuscany Regional Council. There is truly nothing better than seeing new places through the eyes of someone whose knowledge about the history, culture and traditions run so deep.
Our first stop was the Carthusian Monastery (Certosa di Calci), a gorgeous 14th-century structure steeped in history, tailor-made for the monks who had taken a vow of silence to minimize interaction and distraction. Today the compound also houses the incredible Pisa Museum of Natural History. The museum is chock-full of curiosities (including whale skeletons!) and was a huge hit with my children.
Next we headed to Vicopisano, where we visited the fortress and watchtower commissioned by the Medici and designed by Florentine Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi. True to form, not only are the reinforcements functional, but they are aesthetically pleasing. This visit trigged our imaginations as we mused over what life would have been like living under the constant threat of siege.
This wonderful day trip was designed to engage all of the senses, so we also stopped in Lari to enjoy the annual cherry festival (Sagra della Ciliegia). Festivals like these serve to remind us that Italian cuisine is essentially a celebration of the seasons, making the most of seasonal fruit and produce, which is always the tastiest. A wonderful hilltop town with an excellent castle to explore, Lari is also home to delicious Martelli pasta.
Now every time I spot a Vespa on the road, I fondly remember this day and dream about what color Vespa I would like to ride on someday. I’m thinking fire-engine red as it’s my favorite color.
Finally, we visited the Piaggio Museum in Pontedera, the birthplace of the iconic Vespa scooter. The collection covering over 100 years of Piaggio history showcases the best of Italian design and engineering of the Vespa, Piaggio and Gilera collections. I highly recommend channeling your inner Audrey Hepburn (or Gregory Peck) and checking out the 1951 Vespa 125cc, the model they sped around Rome on in the cinema classic, Roman Holiday. Now every time I spot a Vespa on the road, I fondly remember this day and dream about what color Vespa I would like to ride on someday. I’m thinking fire-engine red as it’s my favorite color.
I can assure you that these places would be just as delightful to see on one’s own or in good company. They are a quick trip from Florence, and may or may not be in your guidebooks. So, if you’re in the market for something special that’s off the beaten path, the Pisa area has lots to offer. You will be charmed by the rich history, sights and flavors we are fortunate enough to have right here in our own backyard.
-Ragini Gupta, U.S. Consul General in Florence