A Sanctuary and a Hard Graft

Don’t think you must always take the same road home, even if it is a relatively new one to you. It was pretty hot yesterday in Porcari. The factory car park (car parks always seems to be the hottest places on a hot day) sizzled at temperatures rising to 40 degrees and the tarmac started to melt. I decided I was in need of some coolness and returned home via the Pizzorne – that densely wooded Apennine outpost rising to over 3,000 feet and overlooking Lucca’s plain.

As the way wound up above the olive groves and vineyards of Matraia I saw a road sign I hadn’t noticed before: “Al santuario” it said.  I ventured up a narrow track until a log barred it and then continued walking, shaded by a row of cypresses against the fierce sun.

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My walk was rewarded by the beautifully-kept sanctuary of Coldipozzo (yes it was quite”cold” too… but the name actually means “hill of the well”). Unfortunately, the chapel itself was closed but there was plenty to keep me happy there, including the freshest of spring waters, and I fell asleep in the shadow of the remains of an ancient castle tower.

The sanctuary chapel, dedicated to St Andrew, originally formed part of this castle and was founded by Frederick of Barbarossa in 1155. In 1327 that omnipresent Luccan lord, Castruccio Castracani (dog castrator), captured and destroyed the castle but the local villagers still kept the chapel open for Marian  worship and it sheltered a collection of hermits, or holy men, until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The sanctuary subsequently became attached to the parish of Matraia and every year the feast of the Madonna of Graces is celebrated on “Lunedì in Albis” (“white Monday”, better known as “Pasquetta” or Easter Monday when in the early church baptisms took place on the night and catechumens wore a white tunic).

Unfortunately, the sanctuary fell into neglect and disrepair to the extent that even the miraculous image of the virgin was stolen in 1977 together with the faithful’s ex-votos. But in recent years a great effort has been made to reinstate this enchanting spot (mainly through the fund-raising and efforts of the local blood donors’ group) and I was impressed by the beauty of its location, its flowers, its impeccable maintenance and its utter peacefulness overlooking the Piana di Lucca.

The newly-repainted ceiling of the entrance portico was particularly sweet with its trompe l’oeil swallows. I thought I also saw another trompe l’oeil, that of a mosquito, but it was a real one!

Clearly, the row of flowers in that portico must have been donations by the faithful for graces received. It is wonderful that in Italy there is still respect for out-of-the-way sacred places like these which are, hopefully, still out of danger of being defaced, desecrated or vandalised by modern barbarians. I have doubts that such untenanted and isolated buildings would be as safe in the country I used to live in.

Descending back towards the main Pizzorne route I noticed some smoke rising from a shack by the wayside. Round the corner I noticed some brilliantly burgundy-coloured hollies. I stopped, curious, and was greeted by a younger man, whose job it was to collect the holly from the surrounding forest, and an older fellow, termed by him as the “chemist”, whose job it was to mix the dyes to colour the sprigs into shades of either dark red or green. (I was suddenly reminded of the playing cards painting the roses red by order of the Queen of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland”).

“It’s a tedious job“, declared the younger man. “My hands get all cut up and, besides, the dye used is noxious to our health. But my father started this business in 1975 and, for what it’s worth, I’ve continued it after his death”. I asked to buy some of his forest handiwork and he gladly gave me two sprigs but refused any payment for them. “I could try and publicise your work,” I suggested. “Heaven forbid”, the younger man replied. “I don’t want any more work than necessary. It’s a tough way to earn one’s living and I would have even thought of packing it in if it wasn’t for the fact that jobs are so difficult to find today in our country.”

I thought of how many other forest crafts have been lost because of the hard graft involved with them and I was full of admiration for this strange couple of workers in the woods’ wilderness.

The bitter-sweet smell in the dyeing shed reminded me a bit of Hartley’s Seville cut marmalade.

We’ve all had our way of painting the town red; now I also found there was also a way of painting the forest red, and earning one’s living from it too!

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3 thoughts on “A Sanctuary and a Hard Graft

  1. Hi Francis,
    What an interesting area this seems. Does one have to drive here, or could it be a walk? Is it possible to drive part of the way and then walk? I ask because this sounds like a fascinating place to hike with our daughter, her husband, and our grandkids when we’re there in September.

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