Carrara as a town doesn’t get much tourist press and by itself it’s not worth a special trip given how many places there are to visit in Tuscany, never mind Italy. But if you’ve been up the mountain to see the marble quarries and you're already in the neighborhood or you're making your way along the coastline then it’s definitely worthwhile stopping in the old part of Carrara for lunch and a stroll around.
In fact when you get the map out and look at this stretch of coastline, in the space of fifty miles along northwestern Tuscany and into Liguria there are a lot of places worth visiting that would fit nicely into one itinerary. Starting with Viareggio, just west of Lucca, and continuing north along the Versilia coast to Liguria there are many interesting places to see: Viareggio itself, Pietrasanta, Carrara, Lerici, Porto Venere and then of course the five villages of the Cinque Terre. And that's not counting short trips up into the Apuan Alps at various points like a trip to Pascale Francesca near Fosdinovo to buy some Vermentino.
The Tuscan part of this shoreline has plenty of beaches which are hugely popular in the summer months because it’s the nearest coast to both Florence and Lucca and there is a significant local population as well, but it’s not our favorite area for beaches as we've perhaps mentioned elsewhere.
Like Pietrasanta, the old town of Carrara is set well back from the sea. It’s about 3 miles from the main square to the port and the beaches of Marina di Carrara. There’s nothing to see at the port other than the blocks of marble waiting for export and the Marina is basically just a long beach so we’d suggest that you head straight to the center of Carrara at Piazza Alberica.
This piazza is a great example of how colorful all the buildings are in the old part of town, certainly more in the Ligurian style than Tuscan. Perhaps it’s a deliberate attempt to contrast with the white marble because there’s plenty of that too as you would expect, the Duomo being one example that is completely clad with white marble dating back to the 12th century and the Animosi theater is another.
The large marble statue in the middle of the square is of Maria Beatrice d’Este, a complete nobody who became princess of Carrara in 1790 until her death in 1829, though interrupted, like many other reigns in Italy, by Napoleon and the French between 1796 and 1815. She married an Austrian, spent most of her time in Austria and as far as we can tell did very little for Carrara and certainly nothing of lasting merit, so the statue must have been some sort of vanity project and you wonder why it remained after she was gone. The fact that it is still there after all this time is even more surprising given the strong historical links to anarchism in Carrara.
There is another statue nearby which is much more worthy and well deserved. It bears the name of Alberto Meschi. Anarchism became part of the cavatori culture in the latter half of the 19th century as a result of the horrific working conditions in the quarries. In 1894 a series of demonstrations took place in Carrara in support of an uprising in Sicily which was demanding land reform. The army was dispatched to both Sicily and Carrara, the cavatori went on strike and predictably deaths followed. It became known as the Lunigiana revolt and things continued to simmer until Meschi arrived on the scene. Meschi was a bricklayer and activist for workers’ rights who became a writer for anarchist newspapers. He was expelled from Argentina in 1905 for causing trouble and in the pre-war period from 1911-14, through orchestrated strike action, he achieved remarkable things for the cavatori and minatori, especially considering how long ago that was. He negotiated a massive reduction in the working day from 12 hours to 8 hours and also the introduction of pensions.
Meschi went on to become a prisoner of war in World War 1 and a prominent anti-fascist under Mussolini and then a prisoner again. He survived it all to become one of the most revered citizens of Carrara and his life illustrates why there's the following Italian expression for the Carrara people: duri come il marmo (as hard as the marble).
However Carrara is not just about history. It attracts sculptors from all over the world, has a very prestigious Academy of Fine Arts and, together with nearby Pietrasanta, has a large number of workshops full of artisans, sculptors and artists, all working with the local material and producing high quality marble products of all kinds including jewelry and ornaments.
There is a community of sculptors and artists who reside in these two towns for all or part of the year just as Michelangelo lived and worked in both Carrara and Pietrasanta for months at a time and whose old lodgings can be found near the Duomo (below left).
Giuseppe Mazzini, an ardent Italian nationalist and one of the intellectuals behind the drive for independence and unification, can be seen in the handsome marble statue in the right photo below. He was a native of Genoa but his father's family, like Garibaldi's father in an odd coincidence, was from Chiavari, just up the road from Carrara.
Mazzini's role at the heart of the Risorgimento doesn't seem to have translated into very many statues around Italy, elbowed aside by the less deserving Count Cavour and the lucky but equally undeserving king Vittorio Emanuele II. In Lucca, Mazzini's name somewhat insultingly merits only a nondescript side road, a car park and a statue buried deep and barely visible in the woods on the walls. Here in Carrara at least he has been given his rightful place of honor in the center of town.