Cicerone author Gillian Price discovers a fascinating history of ice making in Tuscany. She shares some of the wonderful walking in the area and tells us more about the region's ice making traditions.
When people hear the name Tuscany, in their mind's eye they see Renaissance towns, sunshine, cypress trees, wheat fields and poppies. No doubt about it, those are all in plentiful supply. But there's so much more to this centrally located region of Italy. While researching walks for the fourth edition of my Walking in Tuscany guidebook (due out in January 2018), I was exploring the northern parts of Tuscany and was tempted into little-known hills and valleys.
The lovely town of Pistoia (Culture Capital of Italy for 2017 and well worth a visit) stands in the broad agricultural valley running from Florence west through to Lucca and the Tyrrhenian Sea. But it is backed by dense deciduous woodland cloaking rolling hills. These precede the lofty crests of the mountainous Apennines which I was well acquainted with from trekking the GEA Grande Escursione Appennica. To be honest I'd never paid that much attention to the lower altitudes, so the appeal and beauty came as a pleasant surprise, boosted by great historical interest.
Making ice in Tuscany
The start of our adventure was the quiet village of Le Piastre, a short bus trip from Pistoia and well off the well trodden tourist routes. We were in the congenial company of Manuela Geri, a local resident and historical expert who is passionate about the district's heritage – and with good reason! The main player here is the River Reno; it rises nearby and flows northeast to the city of Bologna before swerving southeast towards the Adriatic Sea. The river's initial stretch follows a narrow shady valley which is particularly cold during the winter months and renowned for its icy winds from the north and lack of sunshine. Perfect for making ice! As of the late 18th century local families invented ingenious ways of exploiting these remarkably hostile conditions to make a living from ice production.
And this is how they did it. They dug a system of canals – called gora – and would use these to divert water from the river and draining into flat shallow ponds. Here it would inevitably freeze overnight. The next job in the chill of the following morning was to break it up into manageable slabs which were then floated like rafts or dragged to a special store known as a ghiacciaia or ice house. Precursor to the modern refrigerator, these well insulated sturdy conical structures were constructed in masonry and had a thatched roof. The ice slabs were carefully stored layer upon layer, separated by chestnut leaves to stop them sticking together. As the heaps grew inside, the workers needed to gain access at a higher level so upper and lower doors were included. The Reno river valley once boasted 70 such buildings. One splendid exemple, the impressive Ghiacciaia della Madonnina near Le Piastre, was renovated in 2012. It is 15 metres tall and boasts a capacity of 700 cubic metres. As can be seen from the old photographs, whole families were involved in the icy work. Men, women and children alike had different jobs. As the story goes, the greatest reward for their children after their hard work was to be allowed to go to school the next day!
Many months after the winter was over, the precious ice was sold in summer in the towns of Tuscany and even as far away as Lazio. Transport and distribution was greatly facilitated by the marvellous historic road that runs between Pistoia and Modena via the key Abetone pass on the central Apennine ridge. Completed in 1781 and funded jointly by the Grand Duke of Tuscany and the Duke of Modena it was designed to connect their powerful regions and open up trade and transport routes from the port of Livorno to northern Italy – carefully bypassing the Papal States and their taxing controls! The production of ice continued all the way from the 1700s up until World War 2 after which the introduction of industrial ice works inevitably spelt an end of an era.
Tracing the history on the Sentiero della Ghiacciaia walk
The hill village of Le Piastre is now quiet, to say the least, but it was once a bustling centre of ice production and distribution. A signed walk route begins here - the Sentiero della Ghiacciaia (ice house route). Described in Walk 5 of the forthcoming fourth edition of Walking in Tuscany, it takes you from Le Piastre to the Madonnina ice house. Guided visits are on offer during the summer months - check out www.ecomuseopt.it.
After Manuela took us along the approach path via sluice gates and drainage canals, she showed us the fascinating ice house itself. It was so much larger inside than we'd imagined. Then we made our way across the Reno river on stepping stones. A leisurely stroll through woodland led up to a modest ridge where at a break in the greenery regales a surprising view south all the way to Florence where the city's famous landmark cathedral dome is visible on clear days. Quite amazing!
An hour or so on and we emerged at Pontepetri. There, as well as lunch, more history and industrial archaeology awaited. The lively village occupies a broad strip of land between two rivers, the Reno again and the smaller Torrente Maresca. In the past they were harnessed to provide power for local industry. In this case it was an ironworks or ferriera, set close to the water's edge. For centuries iron ore was brought in from the island of Elba and thanks to Cosimo I de Medici this was the leading ironworks in Tuscany in the 1500s. However documents have recently come to light showing that the factory existed as early as 1388 – when it was sold for 100 gold florins – making it Tuscany's oldest ironworks. In operation up until the 1980s, it has since been restored with European and local funding and has been open to the public since 2016 along with an interesting museum.