To think of marble is to think of the town of Carrara in the Italian Apuan Alps. But a more interesting place to visit is the nearby village of Colonnata, which also has a heart of stone, un’anima anarchica (a soul of anarchy), and a palate for lardo.
The Colonnata basin constitutes the eastern part of the Carrara marble region and holds about seventy quarries, forty-four of which are still active. Arrive via a narrow winding road that goes up the valley cut by the Carrione river. On the other side of the canyon it is still possible to see the old route of the Marble Railway coming from the Miseglia basin. (Studies completed in 2003 confirmed that the marble of Michelangelo’s David was quarried in the Miseglia basin.)
It’s best to come on the weekend when the last two miles of the road are blocked and visitors are required to take the CAT bus as the track gets narrower with challenging hair-pin curves.
A tower behind which looms the white-slashed cliffs of the marble quarries guards the main village square. At about 1,800 feet above sea level, the air is fresh and crystal clear even at the height of summer. Distant thunder seems to role off the cliffs on the clearest day – the sound echoing from work in the quarries.
For centuries the mountains were excavated and blocks of enormous size were lowered down the cliffs. Thin veins and dark blue spots distinguish the marble extracted from the quarries of Colonnata. During a flood in the mid-19th century, numerous marble artifacts came to light, in particular an inscription, dating from ancient Rome, inferring the importance of the Colonnata quarries. The name is taken from the Latin Columna.
Inhabited by quarrymen, who in the past walked to work in the surrounding quarries, Colonnata is now more famous for the lunch these workers ate. The quarrymen of years past would carry lardo, cured pork fat, cut it into thin slices to then put it between two slices of rustic bread along with pieces of tomatoes. This “sandwich” was prepared early in the morning and was used together with the flask of wine to give the laborers the necessary calories to face the steep slopes and backbreaking excavating. They were often in the quarry for several days without returning home. They needed food that was nourishing, but also did not spoil. In the last century, the cured fatback was called “the food of the anarchists” because people persecuted by local governments were forced to take refuge in the Apuan Mountains and subsisted on lardo.
Wandering the walkways of this tiny hamlet there is a lardarium around every corner. There are now fourteen establishments creating the delicacy that is shipped throughout Italy and beyond. The local trattorias and restaurants specialize in transforming lardo into sweet or savory and hot or cold dishes.
Of course, it goes without saying, there are dozens of shops along the road from Carrara and in Colonnata where items made of local stone can be purchased. Take home an elegant mortar and pestle for the kitchen, a decorative ball thinly veined in blue or pink, or a travertine fruit bowl.
Colonnata, virtually open to the outside world when the “new road” was built in the 1970s, however, is no tourist trap. The citizens, now numbering about 300, down from a high of 1,000 residents in 1950, still proudly support their anarchist political past. In 1894, they joined the Italian Anarchist Movement in insurrection against the new national government. A plaque in the town square reads, “To our anarchist companions, fallen on the road to freedom.”