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PISA ARTE
Versione Italiana

In the park of kings, a life fit for a king
by Fabrizio Carbone

Versione Inglese

This is the slogan advertising the nature park of San Rossore, a green haven between Pisa and the sea where nature rules supreme. Sand dunes, beaches swept by the north-west wind, luxuriant Mediterranean scrub. Further inland, pine forests alternating with coppices. A system of canals brings water to the cultivated fields. In the background, the Apuan Alps, brilliant white like the precious treasure they still hold, much in demand throughout the world. The coastline from the mouth of the Arno northwards to the Lake of Massacciuccoli is still a place of absolute natural beauty. Thanks to a series of favourable coincidences, this part of Maremma is still largely intact - and has been so for eight centuries. At first, in the Middle Ages, because of the malaria that drove peasants and fishermen to flee to the hills, leaving the flat ground to become swamps, the reign of curlews, cranes and wild geese. Later, thanks to the Medici family, who chose to make the whole area along the coast their private game preserve. After the Medici, the land revived under the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, who were expert in drainage and canalisation. The coastal plains became animal farming land and pastures for cattle and Maremma horses, as well as being a well-stocked game preserve with an inexhaustible supply of boar, deer, fallow deer, roe deer and all kinds of migratory birds. The estate of Migliarino San Rossore changed hands many times until it became a holiday residence of the House of Savoy, the family of the Kings of Italy. When the monarchy was over, the estate was assigned to the Presidency of the Republic of Italy. Villa del Gombo, a stone’s throw from the sea, became the residence of Italian heads of state who for decades came to spend their holidays on the estate, inviting illustrious guests, hunting for boar or fishing in the numerous small lakes full of pike. The first turning point came in 1979: the entire area free of property speculation became a nature reserve. The protected area included Migliarino San Rossore, the estates of Coltano and Tombolo, the so-called Lucca scrub and the Lake of Massacciuccoli, once famous for its wild geese hunts and for the villa of Torre del Lago, where the great opera composer Giacomo Puccini lived. In 1995 another turning point: the region of Tuscany committed itself to running the entire park for a ten-year period and signed an agreement with the Presidency of the Republic. In 2000 the park was restored and opened to the public. The Gombo, now the official headquarters of the region of Tuscany, was inaugurated by illustrious guests - Tony Blair and his family. The British Prime Minister left a comment in Italian: “Many thanks for the kind hospitality, the bicycles were marvellous and the children were proud to have been the first to use them.”  A series of projects came into being, referring to the Casale della Sterpaia, the visitors’ centre of an area of almost 25,000 hectares. The first floor of the Casale, located beside the imposing stables of the House of Savoy, was given over to congresses and exhibitions. On the second floor a series of rooms with two to six beds can be booked for holiday periods. Nature was made accessible to the general public, who was given the opportunity to enjoy the presence, especially in spring and autumn, of a great number of migratory birds. All this in the immediate surroundings of a town like Pisa, rich in art and history, thus presenting the city with a sensational, unique green area. In recent years the Migliarino San Rossore park has acquired accommodation facilities that make it possible for school children to spend take nature trips here. “In the park of kings, a life fit for a king” is the slogan launched by the people who run the nature reserve, who have set up an important services network. Guided tours of the park take place six days a week from Tuesdays, and visits by carriage, in great demand, can be booked at the Sterpaia visitors centre. The latest development is a little train that runs along a 30 kilometre long route through the park’s principal points of interest. A scale reproduction of a German nineteenth-century model, it functions with an eco-diesel, low-pollution engine and can carry up to 30 people. Boars and large herds of fallow deer are still among the park’s most characteristic animals. During the migration period, especially from October to March, species that are rare for Italy frequent the flooded fields: oyster catchers, lesser curlews, ospreys, cranes and wild geese. All kinds of herons, as well as kingfishers and great bitterns, live in the Lake of Massacciuccoli, a wildlife reserve run by LIPU (the Italian League for the Protection of Birds). When winter ends the forest wardens who work in the presidential estate are kept busy checking on the reserve’s wildlife and breaking in the colts. The park is a perfect training ground for “butteri” (the Maremma equivalent of cowboys), thus reviving a profession that was forgotten for decades but has become popular again in these last years. Here, and in the Maremma nature reserve, one can learn how to brand animals and use a lasso, just like an American cowboy. In spring the sandy areas behind the dunes echo with the cries of bee-eaters, spectacular birds who, after wintering in the forests of Sub-Saharan Africa, migrate to central Europe. In Italy the bee-eaters’ arrival marks the beginning of the warm season. These colourful birds (in all the hues of the rainbow) form densely populated colonies. The nests, dug out of the more friable parts of ferrous rock or on the sandy banks of rivers and canals, consist of an unapproachable internal room and a gallery, up to a metre long, where these magical, colourful birds and their young can be admired. The Lake of Massacciuccoli deserves a special mention. Birdwatchers take part in competitions - the winner is the one who spots most species. Bird fans can follow routes dotted with hides with special openings for taking photographs and observe the birds with telescopes. Just a few metres from Giacomo Puccini’s villa, Ecotour, a services company based in Viareggio, offers the chance to visit the lake and its wonders on board the “Burlamacca”. In addition to its fascinating ornithological species, the lake is also interesting from the point of view of archaeology and ancient history, represented by a great Roman villa and baths, known locally as “Nero’s holes”.

Fabrizio Carbone, journalist and writer, expert on enviromental issues


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