Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Villa Bellavista an unexpected pleasure during a bike ride

Monday, March 26
View from the back of Villa Bellavista.
It is generally wise to research before exploring a tourist site in order to know what one is seeing, and I usually do. But still it is hard to match the serendipitous thrill of stumbling across something exciting that you knew nothing about and is not mentioned as a local tourist attraction. During a bike ride to Borgo a Buggiano today, I notice in the distance a massive baroque-style building on a knoll, and I as I pull into a parking lot to take a photo from afar, a workman comes out of a nearby building. “What is that huge building?” I ask.

He says it once belonged to the Kaiser of Germany, who used it as a vacation home. All the farms in the surrounding hills used to be forested, and the Kaiser used them as his hunting grounds, the workman says. He also tells me what street to take to get a closer look, and soon I am pedaling up to what I later realize is the rear entrance. It is surrounded by brick walls and iron gates, and as I circle around, I find both the front and rear gates are closed. No sign mentions whether this is open to the public, gives hours of opening or even provides the name of the estate, though I later learn that this is Villa Bellavista. I do find an aged sign that reads: “For Assistance of the Sons of the National Fire Department.”

As I continue around the villa, I find that the side gate is wide open and a few cars are parked by some smaller buildings inside. Now I park my bike and circle the grounds again, only this time right next to the building. It is surrounded by balconies and has four large towers, one at each corner. The front entrance has a porch with three arches and a large basin and fountain spraying water from the center. Imposing statues and trees line the entrance road. To the right is an elegant chapel. To the left is another huge building with a plain exterior. Servants’ quarters, perhaps? But no one could have that many servants. It looks more like a hotel or a factory.
View from front of Villa Bellavista, near Borgo a Buggiano.

Amphibious fire fighting vehicle.
A helicopter and two vintage vehicles provide more evidence that the building is owned by the fire department. All are emblazoned with “Vigili del Fuoco,” and though they look well maintained, they don’t appear to be currently active, so perhaps this is being developed as a historical museum. I realize that I am probably not supposed to be walking around the grounds, but it is late afternoon and no one is outside, so I take my time snapping photos.

As I ride slowly off the grounds, I see families working in the nearby farm fields, and I am struck with the thought that children have the privilege of growing up in the shadow of this historical villa, though they likely take it for granted, just as I took for granted many of the blessings of my childhood.

Back home, I look up the villa on the Internet and find very little information. Marques Francisco Feroni purchased a farmhouse with 45 farms from Grand Duke Cosimo III dé Medici in 1673 and built a flour factory, so that would explain the large and plain building. The villa was begun in the 1690s and completed in 1699, by which time the owner had been succeeded by his son Fabio, who then commissioned the building of the chapel. At one time, some considered it the second most beautiful villa in Italy, according to the Italian Wikipedia. For financial reasons, the family had to sell the surrounding farms and finally the estate itself, in 1829.

No online history is provided from 1829 to 1939, but the story about the Kaiser sounds plausible. It came under government ownership in 1939. It has been used as a rest home for retired fire fighters, and then a hospital for German soldiers and later for American soldiers. For a while, it was a sun therapy center and home for orphaned children of fire fighters. It closed completely in 1968 but reopened in 1992 as a museum devoted to the history of local fire brigades. According to the vigilifuoco.it website, it is open only by appointment for group tours.

For me, it is more than enough that I have given myself an unscheduled individual tour of the outside. It is one of the reasons that taking bike rides in Italy can be so pleasant.

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