Train journeys are one of the delights of Italy. Unlike the UK rail network, which not only has some of the highest fares in Europe (my journey from Stansted Airport to Liverpool Street Station London cost me more than my flight from Pisa to the UK!) but also has a very London centred network in which, for example, there is no direct rail route from Cambridge to Oxford without having to go to the great Wen, the Italian rail system can be remarkably good value if one steers clear of the super freccie rosse and bianche express trains. Anyway, why travel non-stop to big cities when some of the most delightful places to visit in Italy are to be found by minor stations?
(Graffiti are a fashion on many Italian trains).
We halted at one of these minor stations yesterday, Filatteria, and walked up to find a delightful borgo at the top of our road. To reach it we followed part of the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome which has in the past few years been put back on the map again. I noticed that indications showed it was a little over 1200 kilometres to Canterbury… I wonder how many of Chaucer’s pilgrims would have continued to Rome – the Knight certainly.
Filatteria isn’t on anyone’s immediate list of things to see in Lunigiana, let alone Tuscany, yet it has all those features which make even the remotest hill village endearing. Founded in 540 by the Byzantine general Belisarius under orders of Emperor Justinian, the town was built as a fortified settlement. Its name, in fact, derives from “Filacterion”, the Byzantine name for a castle. Eventually, Filatteria became the property of the Malaspina and entered into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the sixteenth century.
The castle, belonging to the Cesare Buglia family, still remains and is visitable on Mondays from 2 to 4 throughout the year. Trust our luck to come on a Tuesday, but we still saw something of it.
Filatteria has three parallel streets with some picturesque houses (and cats) on them.
In the first street there is the hospital (corresponding to a hostel today) caring for pilgrims going to Rome by the knights of the Tau from Altopascio, an order which protects pilgrims from infidels and bandits, and dedicated to Saint James whose plaque is over the main gateway. Fortunately we did not need their protection yesterday.
In the middle street there is a church which, although of austere exterior appearance, is delightfully light and playful inside.
Of all churches, however, that of Saint George at the end of town is the most moving in its Romanesque simplicity. No matter how theatrically elaborate Italy’s baroque churches may be, none of them ever can approach the exalted spirituality of these unassuming structures.
On the left wall of the church there is an eighth century tombstone with an epitaph to Leodgar, a missionary bishop sent by the Pope to convert the Longobards who were suffering under the Aryan heresy which denied the divinity of Christ.
We returned to the station and had a little time to catch our train back home. I then spotted another Romanesque church a little way on. We decided to visit it. Thank goodness we did for it turned out to be the great Pieve di Sorano and inside it was another superlative surprise – a prehistoric stele – like those we had visited at Pontremoli in July this year: see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/the-magical-steles-of-pontremoli/ – only discovered this century. In fact, there were two steles. One had lost its head but the other was definitely one of the best we’d seen of these extraordinary objects.
My advice: just take to the train and alight at that insignificant little station and then walk – Italy is so rich of sights that one is bound to find something extraordinary as we did at Filatteria.