Earlier this month, Jim, my son John, my brother Liam and myself set off via Ryanair for a holiday in Tuscany. Inspired by Ian Mitchell's article on Barga 'Chianti, Culture and Chips' I mentioned on the site that I would love to visit this place and thereafter opportunities to organise the trip fell into my lap. Tanita Casci contacted me to tell me about her father, Benito, who runs a business in Tuscany selling and letting villas. Then Frank Arrighi and his daughter Lidia invited me up to Maryhill to their fish and chip shop to tell me all about Barga, where the Arrighi family come from.
With our curiousity suitably aroused we soon had the plane tickets bought and one of Benito's villas booked. 'Le Selve' looked just fantastic, remote and peaceful with plenty of space, a lovely pool and incredible views. The villa was beside the village of Castiglione - a very old place built high in the mountains of Garfagnana and situated a few miles beyond Castleneuvo, the main town of the Garfagnana region. A little path from 'our' place provided a short cut to Castiglione, John and Liam got into the habit of strolling down each morning to pick up some fresh bread and milk at one of the few shops/cafe. They quickly struck up a friendship with the locals and often the boys brought back a little gift like some lovely butter or a special type of bread.
We were made to feel very welcome at Le Selve and on the first evening the owner, Leonardo de Blasio, called up to visit us with a present of some local wine. We also had a visit from Benito Casci, whose perfect English, resulted in part from his having studied Engineering at Glasgow University. We had plans to visit some of the main towns in the area, dine in some good restaurants and drive on some scenic routes to interesting destinations. Benito's knowledge of these topics was a valuable augmentation to the knowledge gleaned from my perusal of the Tuscan tourist books.
Our aim was to spend time both relaxing by the pool and going on some interesting excursions to include: Barga, Lucca, Pisa and a drive over the Apuan Alps to Viareggio. We managed to see all of these places but did not make it to Siena and San Gimangano, which were quite a bit further south. (Just means we need to return to Tuscany.)
The trip did not go absolutely to plan as the weather was a bit unsettled with glorious sunshine followed by drizzly rain and one very dramatic storm. However, despite the fact that the pool was not used and some plans for lazy days turned into busy days, we all succumbed to the magic of Tuscany. The terror in my heart on those tortuous mountain roads was balanced by the sheer drama and beauty of the wonderful views.
We visited Barga twice, both times in glorious sunshine. We hung out with the locals in Nesto's cafe and had a beautiful meal in the Alpini. We explored the old town with its narrow lanes and steep, steep stairways and when we eventually reached the Duomo at the very top we were rewarded by the most amazing views. The Tuscan land is rich and verdant, the mountains high and that day the skies very blue all making the perfect backdrop for the church towers and the houses with their rich shades of terracotta, ombres and gold.
When we were in Barga we went to visit Maria Arrighi, Frank Arrighi's mother, who made us very welcome. A very sprightly 80 something she was just finishing some of her baking in the kitchen and we sampled some of her home made produce. Not, as you might imagine, tiramasu or such like but Dundee cake!!! Well, after all, like lots of the inhabitants of Barga, Maria is a Scotswoman. She spends a lot of her time in Barga but still considers her home to be in Kirkintilloch. It made me laugh when she listed the baking products she cannot buy in Italy and also some of the sweets that her grand-daughter Lidia sends over from Glasgow, including sherbet dabs.
When we were in Barga we also tried out the wonderful cake of the region made with chestnut flour in a lovely little cafe situated in an attractive square, where John Bellany - the Scots artist has a really lovely gallery. The staff in the cafe were very concerned that he had been ill, suffering two heart attacks. (The news on Bellany's website is that "he is recovering and will be home with his family soon").
The drive back from Barga going north to Castleneuvo is really lovely with some tremendous views. We also headed south on one of our trips and went to Bagni di Lucca, another old town and a spa. It was very fashionable in the early 19th century, and according to the Rough Guide (Umbria and Tuscany) was visited by Byron, Shelley and Browning - among others. On the day we visited the baths were closed for refurbishment but expected to re-open July, 2005. However, we enjoyed our trip there and instead of taking the waters we indulged in some of the region's wonderful Bei and Nannini coffee and some great ice cream.
The very best place we went to for coffee was the fabulous Caffe di Simo in Lucca, at 58 Via Fillungo, pricier than most places but thrillingly attractive in a formal kind of way. This street has lots of lovely shops with beautiful Liberty-style shopfronts and is situated in the up market San Michele area. Caffe di Simo was another place that I just had to visit twice. Overwhelming stylish the ambience is of another time and the vast array of exquisite ice-cream cakes quite irrestible.
Lucca is a lovely place, there is no doubt about it. The town walls are completely intact encircling the city centre and you can stroll or cycle right around. There are quite a few landmarks including the very imposing San Michele in Foro, which has a remarkable facade and a busy square with parades, street performers and surrounded by interesting shops.
Another interesting site is the Piazza Antitreato, perfect for photographs with the medieval buildings surrounding the Roman amphitheatre; this is the subject of many post cards of Lucca. It is an undoubtedly attractive city and demonstrates the charm of dilapidation. Liam with his work in interior and exterior design found himself rethinking the benefits of 'sprucing up' buildings.
One of our more ambitious trips during our holiday was to cross the Apuan Alps from Castleneuvo to Viagreggio - a fantastic idea if you really like heights. I don't think I would repeat this journey but we probably made it a bit more difficult as we took the wrong turning, at the only turning point, and instead of heading for Massa we found ourselves heading for Pietrasanta. However, if you are really brave you will love being up in the clouds and seeing the vast, white sheaths of marble glistening on the mountain sides. It is then interesting to see this marble being used in Pietrasanta's industry.
Jim got us all safely and soundly to Viareggio on the glamourous Riviera and we enjoyed a long walk along the seafront promenade with its Art Nouveau hotels, palm trees, designer shops and spruce cafes. Despite its feeling of grandeur it is possible to visit Viareggio on a budget as I went there with my hitch hiking buddy Maureen O'Donnell in 1965. There are still plenty of one star hotel and the ubiquitous pizza takeaways, which can spell survival for the less than affluent visitor. When we were there we spent some of the time under our umbrellas and there was something fascinating about seeing the beach unadorned by bodies.
From Viareggio it is pretty simple to head south on the Livorno - Genoa motorway to Pisa so we headed in this direction. Pisa is truly an enthralling place - nothing ever looked more like a post card than the leaning tower set with the cathedral and baptistry in the Campo dei Miracoli (the field of miracles). It is an absolutely stunning sight and worthy of the huge throng of tourists and the never ending line of souvenir stalls.
The contrasts in Tuscany are remarkable - we did not make it to Florence, but had planned that for another time and the trip to Southern Tuscany had to be abandoned because we had stormy weather, however, the North has much to recommend it. Garfagnana's dramatic hill top towns, remote villages and huge skies have tremendous appeal. The lusciousness of the land with rich fields with thriving crops interspersed with sleepy villages, its alps, caves and wonderful scenery brings something new to impress you every day.
I am planning to meet up with Ian Mitchell and Frank Arrighi to chat about our trip and we must also visit The Mitchell Library where The John Bellany Odyssey, includiing paintings of Italy runs until 10th September, 2005
Further information: Travel - Home and Away
Villas such as Le Selve can be found at Benito Casci's website at: http://www.housesintuscany.net/
Lidia Arrighi recommends-
The Mezza Luna email@example.com
phone number 00390583710476
Scottish/ Italian couple - English spoken.