I’d forgotten just how enticing my huge fireplace, roaring with logs from trees that once stood on my ground, is on a cold winter’s day. Or how wonderful it was to know there was a pot of soup on the stove waiting for me to be hungry. And to add to it a slice or two of that foccacia from Piazza al Serchio that seems to stay fresh for a week and a dollop of extra virgin oil. Not to mention the dozens of bottles of red cooling their heels in my cellar which need to be warmed up by the fire before you can pop some into your glass. And I’d forgotten just how good Italian coffee is.
I’d forgotten too how the mist swirls around sometimes hiding the fortress on the next hill completely and at other times so close to the windows I can’t see anything. I was hoping for snow but not too much and that is just what happened on my third night in residence last week….a sprinkling of crunchy white stuff on the ground and covering the windscreen of my car the next morning. It makes everything looks magical and mysterious and I was sorry I had only asked for a little. I wanted more. I wanted the place to be covered as it was a couple of years ago when my neighbour Anna sent me this picture below.
We arrived on Monday after a slight delay at Heathrow, then into a hire car and off to Lucca for a late lunch, or at least a glass of red and a walk around my favourite Italian city. Always elegant, somehow in winter it seems more so; maybe for lack of tourists, and I like it even better if that is possible. The sun was out and the blue sky between the trees in the Piazza Napoleone where we sat was just lovely.
My local town market the following morning was minimal as it always is in winter time but the bar was busy and we caught up with good friends for a white wine and a nice overdue chat. At home we bedded the rhizomes for the ginger lilies whose fragrance I hope will fill the air in the summer, made a big log fire, poured a red and enjoyed one of my favourite films, Bread and Tulips.
On Wednesday we drove up the valley, in the mist and a little rain, around some of the lovely villages north of my villa, stopping at Pieve San Lorenzo to photograph the church which has the most exquisite bells, and for Linda to purchase her very own Bialetti coffee machine in a local shop. Playing around the shores of the lake at Gramolazzo and pretending to fall off the little jetty into the icy cold, we were stunned at the beautiful colour of the water: the greenest we had ever seen…full of minerals and delicious to taste. Lunch was a sensation: no written menu but exquisite home-made pasta and local wine and coffee and a bill of €27 crossed out to €25 for the two of us.
Castlenuovo di Garfagnana, the major town of the area, hosts a Thursday morning market and it is something I go to rain, hail or shine. It’s a tribal affair: men standing and chatting politics, sport and probably women, and women ferreting in the stalls for something for their kitchens or their backs. We did both, then met up with a new friend over a couple of Hugo’s…my normal Thursday noon drink after the market.
Up through the hills on the way to the coast we went to an amazing restaurant, Ceragetta, for lunch. It looks out over the mountains and was humming with activity; almost every table was full when we arrived and we were lucky to get a nice spot for two in the corner. I love this place and the people who own it. We were offered 10 antipasti, 3 different pastas, 3 main courses with salad and chips, a bottle of wine, some sweet wine with dessert and coffee for the amazing cost of €23 each.
On the way home we stopped to walk around the lake at Pontecosi and take pictures of the two bridges – one ancient, one new, at the far end of the lake. A group of young people headed for the tiny old bridge with their guitars for a photo shoot as we watched and the ducks swam by.
Friday and Saturday were spent in Florence – away from the madding crowds of the summer and oh! so much nicer. Whilst we had booked for the Uffizi and the Academia, we didn’t really need to as there were no queues and there was only one other person when we visited the beautiful Brancacci chapel in Oltrano over the Arno. We loved the David, the amazing paintings now over 600 years old in the Uffizi and the modernised food market near San Lorenzo. It was wonderful to see all buildings of the Duomo without scaffolding: something I don’t think I have ever seen before, and it was marvellous to walk down the wonderful roads and alleyways and not be cheek by jowl with a bunch of foreign tourists. Such is the pleasure of visiting in winter!
We ate a beautiful dinner with an exquisite bottle of Sangiovese at another of my favourites, La Fonticine and we stayed in my 3 star find: the clean, with a nice breakfast, 5 minutes off the motorway, 5 minutes from the Duomo, Hotel Palazzo Vecchio at only €66 a double, plus €19 parking. Amazing in this day and age. But this is Italy and its winter.
We meandered home via Ikea for some cushion covers for my new sofas in the barn and some candles for the candelabra, thinking we were going to a dinner party. Sadly the hostess was ill so we lit a roaring fire, opened a bottle of red and had a much earlier dinner which was probably just as nice after our busy tourist time in beautiful Florence.
On our last full day we went down the valley to Il Pozzo, a wonderful member of the Slow Food family of restaurants in Italy and again feasted with more food that is respectable and beautiful wine and paid poco….or little! On the way out past the local soccer field we shuddered at the muddy quagmire and the soaked players in their red and green hopefully enjoying their Sunday afternoon game despite the rain.
And so to our last night. My last night in my bed. My own bed. My house. My home. My Italian dream. I could stare out the window any season for hours on end at the changing weather and vista and feel overjoyed. I have, as have others before and after me. And taken countless pictures of that view. I used to stand at the kitchen window every time I left to weep, if just for a moment. But I don’t do that now. I live in London so its a few hours, not 24 and I can come back whenever I want. How that pleases me!
I hadn’t been in winter since 2001 and I wondered how I would feel about it. It’s fabulous. Wonderful, any time of the year. And I think the heartiness of the food makes winter even more special. The house was warm as toast, the fire roared, the rebollito on the stove was warming to the cockles of your heart and the cold cellar was full of wine just waiting to be opened, warmed a little and drunk in an armchair by the fire.
Until next time: Primavera and planting the veggie garden! And if you’d like to spend some time here in the coming summer please let me know now.