GUNS AND MONEY:: AUTUMN IN MY HILLS

October 6, 2015

I wrote this description of my Tuscany in autumn three years ago today….and thought I would repost with a few photos. Nothing much has changed…

‘My bikini-clad body had not yet left the most private terrace of my villa when the sound of guns started. Have they no respect for a body catching the last rays of what has been an absolutely beautiful summer? But no, the Italians have been intent on stocking up on their military fatigues (or replicas thereof) in the local village street markets to head into the hills for their all time favourite activity, hunting!

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Every year there are reports of dead hunters in spite of the half-hearted attempts to get them to wear orange baseball caps so they may at least be partially visible in the thickly wooded forests which hide the wild boar that are their prey in this season, now that Licenses have been issued for their demise. But I guess they think it is part of the game, which involves very nasty looking dogs which are heard howling in the wee small hours of the morning and late at night, disrupting the otherwise tranquil nature of life in the hills.

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Normally the only sounds one hears are the church bells and the farm machinery. Now there are also the sounds of chain saws as the seasons change and their unbelievably neat piles of firewood for the winter take shape. Not a log out of place; all cut to the same length and stacked as if there is a prize for the best. It is part of their bella figura mentality I think: everything has to look good, even if it’s not. It’s why they polish their brass doorknobs daily and sweep the front steps: it’s why the girls buy a new pair of jeans every three months and it is why there are no second hand clothing stores around. But I lie. I have seen two in recent years. One recycled clothing store in a tiny town called Montefegatesi, where the inhabitants went to New York after the war. No doubt they brought the custom back. And last year I discovered a very up-market shop in Sarzana where the offerings were mink coats and designer evening dresses!

So autunno is here. The heat of summer is over, but not entirely. There is plenty of time to sit on the terrace and read and work on the tan just a little bit. But the evenings are getting cool and the activities in the hills are changing.

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One of the things I so love about being here is the seasonality of life in rural Tuscany. I think, in Australia, we have lost the ability to live in the seasons. We want mangoes all the year, we want strawberries and pineapples and summer stuff in winter….even when it tastes like cardboard because it is out of season. Here you live in the season you are in. If its summer you eat the delicious stone fruit freshly off the trees without its stick-on label and you are happy to eat apples that are not perfect looking but are also not coated with wax and have not lived for months ripening in a cool store. You eat out of the next field or the next village.

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So now there are different offerings in the shops and we see huge pumpkins lying among cracked leaves in veggie gardens up and down the valley. The last of the zucchini flowers are coming off the vines, and the zucchini are left for sale, flowerless in the markets and shops. And my staple diet has changed from summer salads to heart warming thick vegetable soups and my home-made bread.

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My neighbour Vittorio, who was one of the 17 owners of my property (and that’s another story!) has the largest veggie garden around. Around 70, he is out there beavering away morning, noon and night and I am constantly in awe of the variety and quality of beautiful produce that sometimes comes my way via a wooden box kindly left on my doorstep. Vittorio also owns the local cows. Like all Italian cows, they used to live in his barn but over the years he saw such comings and goings of visitors to my villa that he turned his cows out to pasture at the top of the village and turned his cowshed into an agritourismo, attracting guests for a few days at a time. I don’t think it’s been hugely lucrative, but he is the “capo” of the village, with the local store, his veggie garden and the license to sell bottled gas for our stoves, so methinks he lives a pretty good life!

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One of the great hazards to the hunters is the porcini gatherer. These people, of whom my neighbour and dear friend Anna is very much one, turn into secretive, mysterious, tight-lipped avoidance freaks when the weather is right. A heavy downpour or two followed by some good strong sunshine and they are out; specially designed wicker baskets on their backs and a sharp knife, they head for the hills, avoiding conversation, avoiding others and either trying to hide their car or parking some distance from where they have been watching for signs of fungi life for some days. They know the hills backwards, and they are fiercely secretive. What is theirs is theirs! Their secretiveness however provides in itself a great hazard: what with them and the hunters in the hills, they have to be incredibly vigilant or else they will end up, not with a wicker basket of prized porcini, but inside a salami of wild boar and local herbs.

The only other non-Italian in my vicinity is a girl from the UK with a Jamaican mother and a father who hailed from this area or vice versa who has one of the very few cottages left in the old village that preceded mine, which was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1920. Her warnings to me about the dangers of the porcini have fallen on deaf ears. She reckons they are susceptible to the fallout from Chernobyl but I don’t think so. When I question Anna, my expert foodie, she says well it would also affect our apples and pears, our lettuces, tomatoes and zucchini and everything else we grow. And I agree, reminding her of the death of our neighbour last year on her way to 107 good long healthy years.

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I’ve hosted my 10 day Women of Wisdom event which was a huge success and then spent some time in two lovely local towns Montecarlo (for wine) and Montecatini (for the spa), then to Parma and Fidenza arriving just as the first shop we saw full of beautiful clothes was closing when my friend remarked “if they’d known we were coming, the shops would have stayed open”. It is STILL annoying that shops shut for several hours at lunchtime, and mostly all of them do.

No wonder the Italian economy is in such a diabolical situation. My bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, supposedly the oldest bank in the world, recently needed to be propped up to the tune of $1 billion. Press reports laughed at the smallness of the amount, how trivial they said, and how ridiculous when in fact the deficit was due to the enormous amount of money that the Monte dei Paschi had lent the government! Robbing Peter to pay Paul methinks! The Italians have a pathological hatred of the banking system. In all the years I have been here (now 25) I cannot get a cheque book that contains more than 12 cheques! They don’t exist. Furthermore, when I used to pay my manager with cheques, it would cost her about 40 Euros a cheque to go into her account. Now, I do what most Italians do, pay with cash. And so add to the economic woes of the country.

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When Italy changed over to Euros on 1 January 2002 there were fears that all the Lire in trunks under beds and in garden sheds would hit the banks and they would not have enough Euros to pay for them. But I think they eked them out, bunch after bunch of crumpled old notes, not wanting too many questions to be asked. Even today they grumble when you want more than a couple of thousand Euros from the bank and I have been told not to pay people in cash. Sorry, Mr Bank, none of your business! And in my local supermarket, they have a machine that puts even a 10 euro note through it to make sure it is legal tender before they accept it to pay for your groceries.
Their debt situation is critical and probably a no-win. The bodies that are trying to fix the problem suggest they go after all the high flying industrialists and tax them properly. These guys are mega billionaires who have enormous yachts, properties all over Europe and the ability to hide their money just as well as some notable Australians who paid or pay little tax. I think they should tax the Church: the wealthiest landholders in the country, and receiving the most benefit from the taxpayers and contributing little. Some would say nothing. I am not so unkind as to agree but I similarly do not endorse the greed and fear of the churches that is endemic in this country. But that is for another time.

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Meanwhile, I sit in the sun in my new office in the villa and write, and sit in what’s left of the sun in my new outdoor furniture and read. Now that I have claimed this place as my official residence (and finally been given resident status again) I have done a huge cleanup in the villa, the shed, the stables, the cantina…you name it. Stuff that has not seen the light of day for a long time has been removed to the little roadside deposit where the Comune collects it once a fortnight, and dust that has accumulated for a decade has been swept away. I have a list of jobs for next season including new barbecues and new gardens and I have ordered two beautiful sofas for the sitting room in the villa. Having tidied up everything I can, I am preparing to leave this haven for the winter.

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But not before the vendemmia; the annual grape harvesting, which happens this weekend at the vineyard of Toty, my yard man who makes delicious wine. This is a first for me and I understand that the men are the pickers of the grapes and the women are in charge of the food and wine. So it all sounds good and I shall report on it next time.
Until next time, with heart

Buzz

www.TuscanVillaRental.com

ARRIVEDERCI MAGNIFICENT GARFAGNANA

September 2, 2015

Every last morning here I have stood at the kitchen window, played the first couple of tracks of Venetian Coronation – magnificent and haunting bells, and silently wept.

For most of the last 27 years that last morning preempted a 24 hour flight to winter in Australia and signaled a gap of probably 11 months until I returned to this magnificent place.

Now I am but a short flight away and a journey down a valley I have grown to know and love and I am no longer a replica of the Weeping Madonna one sees frequently around this valley.

Now I stand at that window and give blessings to the land, to the mountains upon which I gaze, to the men and women who fought to keep this place safe and sound and who sacrificed so much and to my neighbours and friends who are so welcoming and gracious even though they have oft asked why would I choose to walk down someone else’s ancestral roads.

I know that answer and yet every time I am here I am amazed that I am here; that it is mine and that it was a dream since I was 22 years old. When I am lying by the pool I look up at the huge building that is my villa, my barn, my stables, my outhouses and my sheds and I say, sometimes aloud, I own every sodding stone in this building, and it is so only with considerable blood, sweat, tears and years.

But now, as I look at my indescribable view of the ancient fortress on the next hill and too many to count small villages scattered down the valley, I am immensely grateful.

I shall miss the sounds of silence; utter silence that is full of grace and beauty. I shall miss the church bells ringing at 6.58 and 7.02 but never at 7am, and I love it even more for its imperfections. I shall miss the summer haze, the brilliant blue skies, the purple mountains, the thin ribbon of pink over the dawn mountains and the wonderful displays of thunder and lightening that inevitably accompany every summer.

I shall miss the markets and the bars, the €1.50 prosecco and the €1 vino; my baker’s fresh foccacia and the ripe tomatoes on the market stall. I shall miss the Gorgonzola, the prosciutto,  the wild boar salami, the odd sightings of said wild boar, deer, the odd mink or badger, sometimes even a grass snake or a tiny scorpion, the baby foxes playing in the road at night, the skinks running around my dry stone walls, my wisteria, my orchard and my vegetable garden. I shall miss the smell of the country and the fresh air and the incredible taste of the water which spurts forth from the mountain side.

And I shall miss the views: the villages, the sunrise and the sunset and my ability to be perfectly happy here doing nothing, on my own, seeing and talking to no one sometimes for days on end. I shall miss not living in my own home, but I think I am getting used to that now.

Just as I want to engage you in the beauty of this place, I want to have these special pictures to remind me of this home and give me solace in the long London winter.

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2015-08-13 08.44.51 blue moon

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5 via del cerreto  caprignana entrance

I have said goodbye to friends and neighbours, had my final dinner party, eaten the one aubergine that appeared in my veggie garden this year and farewelled my Olive tree: named for my mother Olive and planted on what would have been her 90th birthday. I have not yet told you that story – but I shall.  And when I return there will be 18 more olive trees planted…. at each end of my pool, with their lovely silvery sage green grey leaves to shimmer in the sun.

There are of course, thousands more wonderful buildings and scenes and food and architectural pieces of beauty that I could show you but not yet.  there is plenty of time to give you more of the beauty of the area of Tuscany I am privileged to call home.

Until then, arrivederci Italy….and to my readers, mille grazie for your enjoyment of my summer blogs and the many emails I have received…and I will be posting occasionally from London. If you’d like more pix, please check out my website www.ItalianExperience.com.au. And if you want to visit and become padrone of this wonderful piece of Tuscany for a week or longer, you know where to find me.

A presto

Buzz.

And one final look up the valley: my villa is the big building under the whitish church tower at the very top of the picture. You can see the outline of the 10th century fort on the hill in front of it. And the village in view is San Romano, my Comune – where I pay my taxes, get my Carta d’Identita and have been known to pay a bribe. Ah this is indeed la bella Italia!

the view to my house

 

FOOD

September 1, 2015

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All from my garden: figs, medlar, apples, grapes

I am writing this on my last morning in this Paradiso. By the time you get it in your email boxes I will be waking for my last morn, and off to the stazione for the brand new train that traverses my valley for an 8.24 departure for Pisa airport.

But I have promised two more….and they will be mainly pictorial if you don’t mind, for I have a thousand things to do to pack up my villa for the winter.

So, food. One of the things one comes here for. One of the things that keeps the villagers busy in spring and summer, planting and tending and harvesting, and that keep them alive for long and healthy lives: fresh, home grown, delicious food.

In recent years I have tended my own orto and even this morning, my freshly made juice had three components I have grown this summer: carrots, beetroot and gorgeous little green apples, just going red as I leave.

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Beetroot and pears from my garden

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Plums and Zucchini from my garden

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Luscious tomatoes and a little snack on arrival in April

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Two of my locals: Il Vecchio Mulino at Castlenuovo and Marovelli Cheese factory in Vibbiana

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At my table

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At my table

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Delicious local cheese with Garfagnana honey and rabbit with olives at La Baita, Corfino

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Men do meat:  My local village dinner, and my neighbour Carlo preparing a baby pig for my stone oven

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Nando serving the pig and men preparing a local village meal

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All this lot for €22 and the simplicity of shopping by bike

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My attempts at bread making

And now…..yes, there could be far more….the food is indescribably good and there is so much more I could tempt you with. Anyone who has been here knows that. If you haven’t yet been here, you can come. My villa which sleeps 10 is available for rental year round. The barn which sleeps 4 is available during the summer months. If you haven’t you must. There are no ‘shoulds’ in life.

Until tomorrow….the village market and the sun call me….the packing can be done at mezzonotte.

Ciao amici

Buzz

 

 

 

 

 

TO MARKET, TO MARKET

August 31, 2015

One of the absolute joys of simple country life in this beautiful part of Tuscany is the markets that bring towns alive and humming one morning every week.

Whether you want a new insert for your Bialetti coffee maker, a giant saucepan for pasta or a vast selection of knives all of which you can buy at the amazing hardware shop on wheels; whether you want the runniest most delicious Gorgonzola cheese, a rotisserie chicken, a warm vest for the winter, a new pair of jeans, the latest fashion in shorts or any vegetable that is currently in season, you can get it anywhere round the valley on market day.market

My Hugo has always wanted me to look like the Italian stay-at-home-ladies who wear these to do their housework….but so far so good. They have remained in the stalls but are clearly a good buy for €15.

I love the hardware stall….it has thousands of things on it and they take an absolute age to set up and pack up each day, and yet they, like many of the others go from village to village, town to town, taking maybe Sunday and Monday off.

market stall kitchen gear

Whether you want a new t-shirt or a linen shirt, a €3 top or a pair of undies, you can find it all here.

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2015-08-08 08.46.24I particularly like the scrimmage that occurs on the One Euro stall selling anything and everything that you could possibly either want or not want. But whatever is going, the ladies adore it and then men hang out in the square and talk politics and sport. And drink either an espresso or a vino or one of the many disgusting digestivos they love.

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I personally love the beautiful fresh fruit and veg

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This lot cost me €22 last April…

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At Castlenuovo there is a beautiful shop L’Aia di Piero that looks and smells so utterly delicious you want to buy everything….from the best olive oil to local jam and preserves, pesto, salami, mouthwatering prosciutto and a million other delights.2015-08-30 09.13.43

 

And now, after all the rain one finds a sprinkling of beautiful Porcini mushrooms waiting for that risotto or pasta dish.

But whatever you go for, its the journey, it’s the people watching, it’s savouring the delights of the tribal life: the men chatting, the women shopping, the kids showing off their best clothes and eyeing off the opposite sex. It’s a wonderful pastime, particularly on Thursday at Castlenuovo di Garfagnana, the leading town in a area and a short drive down the valley from I Cinghiali, my home.

And, when you are done, you absolutely must sit in the square and drink: a vino for €1, a prosecco for €1.50, or something more exotic like a Hugo (clearly my favourite) or an Aperol spritz.

2013-04-17 16.37.09Sadly no more markets for me for the moment….but I know that not much except the colour in fashion will have changed by the time I return.

Ciao for now…until tomorrow

Buzz

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Wonderful Castlenuovo

www.ItalianExperience.com.au

CASTIGLIONE DI GARFAGNANA

August 29, 2015

My hills are scattered with beautiful towns, each unique in its way, some larger than others and all filled with age old stone buildings and baskets overflowing with red geraniums.

Some have ancient walls and were fortifications, like Castiglione which I re-visited a couple of days ago. It is situated on a sunny hill outside Castlenuovo with beautiful walls circling the old town and it has been called one of the most exquisite villages in Italy.

I’m going to give you a visual feast with some of its buildings, particularly the Church of St Peter and St Michael’s Church.

My days in Tuscany are numbered…down to four more…so it is not my intention to sit behind my laptop when there are grown vegetables that require my presence in the orto, and sunshine which demands me by the pool, and nor do I wish to deprive you of my Tuscan jottings.

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One of the lovely towers in the ancient and thick walls

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The chapel and the old well in front of the town hall

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St Peter’s church and tower first mentioned in the 8th century

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Beautiful doorways – the right one from 1708

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St Michael’s church from the 13th century

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In a niche in the old walls is the 15th century wooden Madonna

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So, a glimpse of Castiglione…the earliest mention of which dates back to the year 723. The origins of the walls date back to the late Middle Ages but the present day walls and cylindrical towers are typical of military architecture at the beginning of the 15th century.

It is, as I said earlier Castiglione di Garfagnana is but one of the beautiful and ancient places in my special valley. I invite you to come and explore sometime.

Until next time…carrots, beetroot, lettuces, radicchio, fennel and even an aubergine call me to my veggie patch.

Ciao amici

Buzz

WWW.ITALIANEXPERIENCE.COM.AU for your own sojourn in my Paradiso.

BEAUTIFUL BARGA

August 27, 2015

Down my valley and a little way up another one is the beautiful town of Barga, surrounded by a large number of villas some of which are very elegant. There is a modern new town which has most of the shops and offices and sporting facilities but we are not concerned with it here.

The old town on a hill is the beautiful Barga that I always take my visitors to, often on Saturday where we park in the new town and troll through the Saturday market before climbing a rather steep cobbled hill to the top of old Barga.

After the Second World War many of the men from my village and the surrounding villages went to Western Australia to start a new life – to Perth, which they call Pert. I’ve mentioned before how one of my official documents has Perth as my place of birth, not because it’s true but because Australia is the place I was born and someone at the local Comune only knows Perth so accorded me with it at my birthplace.  But from Barga they all went to Scotland and even now you can hear the odd Scottish lilt in the shops and marketplace. Not so many years back one of the three or four shoe shops in new Barga had an old lady always in it, probably the mother of the owner, who spoke Scottish English to visitors. I imagine she has passed away now as its some years since I have seen her there.

Barga has a cultural life like no other town in the region although there are lots of cultural events nearby. Out of my window right now I can see Camporgiano across the river which has a world famous folkloric group, and Castlenuovo, the region’s premier town has a wonderful theatre which was restored a few years ago.

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The Opera House and a lovely building opposite

But in Barga there is a tiny round opera theatre like a mini La Scala that one morning, in 2001, we ventured into when he heard singing and saw an open door. There was a maestro up the front of the theatre and one by one hopefully got onto the stage and auditioned. We were spellbound at the quality of the voices heard in this tiny town far from a Big City, and enchanted. Mr Maestro turned around and asked if there were any more to audition and rather shamefaced we quietly got up and scuttled out.

So they have opera, and they have a summer jazz festival and they have lots of arts. And they have had, for many years, quite a population of Brits who obviously like the cultural aspects of this quaint town.

My absolute favourite is the 17th century marble duomo of St Christopher perched on the top of the hill, followed by the lovely lunch menu at Ricardo’s Osteria in the square on the way down where I love introducing my friends to the delights of lardo on bread – yes lard! It’s heavenly!

It’s a very photogenic town, so without further ado…please enjoy some of my favourites.

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I love this old wall with its Macelleria – butcher’s shop sign, now gentrified and painted out

barga churchThe Duomo of St Christopher which has panels of alabaster instead of windows

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And the elaborate marble pulpit with a nasty lion trapping a man on one of its feet

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Views from the Duomo

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My friend Connie and I at the beautiful entrance of marble steps

 

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Santa Croce Church/Chiesa di Santssimo Crocifisso

Barga is just one of the beautiful towns around my valley. There are many, smaller mainly, but perched on hilltops to accord a wonderful vista of surrounding valleys and peaks. Each in their own way is worth a visit, whether to see the lovely stone houses, or the red geraniums overflowing from their baskets, or to hear the church bells or drink from the water fountains. It is a special part of Italy, remote from the tourist trail, still, quiet, ever beautiful, and for 27 years my home. I have nothing else in my life has been there for 27 years except this place, and almost nothing I love more, except my wonderful Hugo.

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Until next time….and as of tonight I have only 3 more sleeps on this trip….

Ciao amici

Buzz

www.ItalianExperience.com.au  – should you be interested in renting my place maybe next summer

THE ELEGANT CITY OF LUCCA

August 26, 2015

Every day this summer whilst writing my blogs I have looked at the ever-growing list of topics and then decided on something completely different once I have sat down to write.

And now, with only 7 more sleeps and a busy London life awaiting me when I return home, I look at that list and see how many have not yet been done.  My favourite buildings, the grape harvest, the War and the Partisans, Money and Bribes, From the Visitor’s Book, the Italians preoccupation with Hunting, Autumn, Hugo’s year at School, the Restoration of the Villa, The Barn, the Cheese Factory in the next village, Odds and Sods, Chestnuts and Bread, and Wine and Markets. And Lucca.

So tonight as I write, it shall be Lucca – one of the most elegant and beautiful towns I have been in, and one that I now know intimately.

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On our first visit here back in 1988 we were looking for Marco, a surveyor who was the local agent of Nino, the guy we bought the house through, and we found him in his office just by the walls of the city. He was just going to lunch and said please come back at 3 so we had a couple of hours to meander. And meandering is the way to see Lucca. Throw out the map. Don’t look at the signs. Its one of those places to do intuitively…meander, get lost and eventually you will find your way.And you will be enchanted, perhaps fall in love, as I have, with this beautiful city, fortunately long ignored by guidebooks and therefore missed by the annual hordes of summer tourists to Italy.

Lucca has made it into some guide books but I’m not going to write what they say but rather give you an impression of my Lucca, the medieval city of great beauty, totally surrounded by walls from which, either by walking or a 4km bike ride you can obtain wonderful views into gardens and across rooftops.

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His and hers…the b/w by my former husband who didn’t even see the bird as it flew past but won a competition with this photo & the coloured by me – the ancient and beautiful Roman amphitheatre

There is an elegance about Lucca that defies even the summer tourists in shorts and flip flops; women and men in beautiful clothes, the women in high heels, peddling their cycles over the cobbled streets, baskets full of shopping and patiently avoiding gelati-eating visitors. For it is essentially a city of locals, not like Florence where you see nothing but tourists. In Lucca you can experience the local men and women going about their business dressed beautifully and, like most Italians, forever chatting on their cellulares.

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Piazza Napoleon in winter with a light cover of snow and bare trees

Lucca boasts 76 churches…the Duomo of San Martino with its Tintoretto and other beautiful paintings stands in a wonderful square and is the focal point of a very important celebration each year on 13 September and the amazing St Michaele in the square of the same name with its astounding pillars of different colour marble.

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The square of San Martino and the Cathedral

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San Michele with the Archangel Michael flying off the top

La Processione di Santa Croce / La Luminaria is the most significant part of the annual Lucchese calendar. Every year, on the eve of religious celebrations the following day, a procession commences at 8pm of civil dignitaries, church leaders, representatives of Lucchesi living abroad, local charity organisations, and choirs etc. The procession starts at the church of San Frediano, wending its way through candle-lit streets to conclude at San Martino Cathedral with some fireworks. The event marks the occasion when Lucca’s most important religious icon, the Volto Santo or The Holy Face of Lucca, was moved from San Frediano to San Martino. Dante mentions the Volto Santo of Lucca in his Inferno.

BenQ Digital CameraThe Volto Santo is a venerated wooden corpus of a crucifix, located in the free-standing octagonal Carrara marble chapel which was built in 1484 by Matteo Civitali, the sculptor-architect of Lucca. Medieval legends stated that it had been sculpted by that Nicodemus who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in depositing Christ in the tomb and specifically dated its arrival in Lucca to AD 742 where it was placed in the Basilica di San Frediano and it is no longer included in the procession but remains in the cathedral for viewing. (The present Volto Santo itself is an early thirteenth-century copy of the original, that is ascribed to the circle of Benedetto Antelami. It appears that the original was chipped away beyond repair by relic-seeking pilgrims.)

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A marble trough (and me – yesterday) outside San Francesco and San Frediano with its beautiful mosaic facade

The Procession, which I have enjoyed many times, commences at the beautiful church of San Frediano down off the Via Fillungo from which I have been (at least partly) dressed for going on 28 years by now. Elegant shops line the narrow street and on the night of La Luminaria a fork lift places tealight candles in metal frames around every window, making the street look absolutely enchanting.

Lucca has a brilliant summer festival each year, performed in the Piazza Napoleon and where I have enjoyed Leonard Cohen one night and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds two days later. Elton John is a regular, Bob Dylan and this year I saw huge queues for some popular young man whose name escapes me. But it is a brilliant festival and worth a visit in July.

Lucca farmacia sign       IMG_5019  Lucca Gelateria    Lucca church 3

 

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The inside of the amphitheatre – even the elegance is not ruined by the washing!

Lucca church 4

Lucca church 1

 

 

lucca rooftops from towerlucca rooftops from tower 2

 

sign 1988      IMG_5035

Wonderful buildings, wonderful signs, fabulous rooftop views, and one of my favourites of Hugo and I last summer.

It is an astounding city. I cannot do justice to it here and all I can suggest is that you visit…even if just for a day you will be enchanted enough to return. Fortunately, for me, it is my home town…or at least one of them.

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Until next time

Buzz

www.TuscanVillaRental.com

 

 

THE CINQUE TERRE – PLUS MY FAVOURITE 4

August 23, 2015

When I first discovered the Cinque Terre, or five lands on the Ligurian Coast, many years ago, they were not as well known as they are now and travelling through them was a different experience to today’s crowded paths and trains.

This amazing area, called the Cinque Terre since 1419, has five tiny medieval towns, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore jutting out into the ocean.  Picturesque, small, inaccessible – only Monterosso has cars – and with Vernazza’s streets lined with boats, it is well worth a visit, preferably not in high summer.

These first photos are of Vernazza, my favourite. A few years ago just after I left Italy for London there were amazing storms and the mud covered the main street (well the only street really) and all the boats were piled up on each other. It was unrecognisable but they are resilient people and by the following summer all things were back in action again.

cinque vernazza boats

vernazza

VERNAZZA  IMG_1911

VERNAZZA  VERNAZZAIMG_1917The whole area of the Cinque Terre is a wine producing area, but only with great difficulty, with vines on practically vertical land, expertly terraced, above the villages, and some very nice wine it produces too!

cinque vineyards

Monterosse al Mare because it is accessible by road, has the characteristics of a more normal Italian town.

MONTEROSSO  MONTEROSSO

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There are a couple of ways to explore the area from my villa. The first is taking the train from my local station to Aulla, then on to La Spezia and the Cinque. Then you purchase a day pass for the national park and you can visit all the towns, hop on and off the train and walk between whichever ones you want.

You can also drive up, park above Monterosso or go further to Levanto and then take the train as you wish. In the summer months it is nice to travel between the towns by boat.

All are at sea level, except the middle, Corneglia, which is 378 steps up from the station. The trails to it were closed for a few years due to a landslide in 2011.  There were further rock falls just where I was standing in 2012 on the Lover’s Walk between Manarola and Riomaggiore but about a week later and two Australian women were injured.

LOVERS WALK

Two restaurants I love on the Cinque: Vulnetia on the seafront at Vernazza where we had this beautiful plate of seafood, and Marina Piccola at Manarola where I have dined on fresh seafood, pasta and ‘salsa Genovese’ otherwise known as ‘pesto’ and for which the region is famous.

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I talked of ‘other towns’ and there are four I recommend in the general area.  Firstly Levanto at the top where I have stayed at a gorgeous hotel, in the old part of Stella Maris, (at Via Marconi 4) and eaten at many lovely restaurants.

Portovenere, at the base, is very attractive with lots of colourful boats in its harbour and narrow streets leading to the end of the peninsula. It is also definitely worth a visit but do not attempt to drive there on a Sunday. It is packed with the Sunday lunch crowd and a parking spot is almost impossible to find, even for those who claim to have “parking angels” looking after them!

Lerici which is where Lord Byron used to swim out into the sea from, and is a colourful port with a rampart down one end.

fishing boat lericiA fishing boat at Lerici

And for a better than best food experience go to Boca di Magra, at the mouth of the Magra river and eat at my friend Mario and Wendy’s restaurant Ciccio, preferably for Sunday lunch. Founded by Mario’ father and now over 50 years old, the restaurant’s head waited was listed in Australian Gourmet Traveller a few years ago as being the best waiter in Italy. Wendy is an Oz girl, and like her cousin also married an Italian in the food business. (Her cousin married Lucio of Lucio’s fame as the best Italian restaurant in Sydney, in Paddington). Wendy grows the lemons that make the Limoncello and its the very best I have ever tasted.

ciccio fish  ciccio mussels

Delicious food at Ciccio where the gardens are filled with beautiful statues and the river is lined with boats of all sizes

To get around the Cinque you can purchase a Day Pass and a 3-Day Pass for the train. The pass entitles you to unlimited use of the trains between Levanto and La Spezia, use of the little buses in each of the Cinque Terre towns, and use of all the services managed by the Cinque Terre National Park, including the walking paths, and information centres.

Manorola       cinque manarola

Manarola

Along with your Train Pass you will get a printed timetable, a Z-card fold out map of the coastline and the five towns, and some additional information, maps etc. You can also travel by boats between the towns and as far as Levanto to Portovenere, operated by a regular ferry service. There are several paths to choose from if you want to walk the Cinque, with differing degrees of difficulty.

Approximate walking times are as follows:

Riomaggiore to Manarola 20 minutes
Manarola to Corniglia 1 hour
Corniglia to Vernazza 1.5 hours
Vernazza to Monterosso 4 hours
Levanto to Portovenere 12 hours

manarola

Please be well equipped with proper shoes (the tracks are extremely narrow in some places), sunscreen, hat and lots of drinking water.  There is much information on the Internet about the Cinque Terre. Check out the websites www.cinqueterre.it and www.venere.it

Enjoy and remember to charge your phone or camera – its a very photogenic place!

Ciao for now

Buzz

www.ItalianExperience.com.au  for your own villa experience in the heart of beautiful Tuscany.

ITALY’S UNTOUCHABLES – THE CHARCOAL BURNERS

August 22, 2015

One of the other books I love about my part of Italy is Love and War in the Apennines, written by  travel writer, Eric Newby, along with his other classics including A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush and Slowly Down the Ganges.

Eric Newby grew up near Hammersmith Bridge and was educated at St Paul’s school before working in an advertising agency and taking a windjammer trip to Australia subsequently described in The Last Grain Race. Later he became travel editor of the Observer.

 eric newby

During WWII he was captured near the coast of Sicily and sent first to a camp near Pescara on the Adriatic coast, then to Fontanellato near Parma. After the Italian Armistice he escaped with other British prisoners and his book describes his long period of hiding in the Apennines where he was helped by a Slovenian woman, Wanda, whom he later married. He says he wrote the book because so little had been written about the ordinary Italian people who helped him and other prisoners of war at great personal risks and without thought of personal gain.

One of the experiences he describes was meeting a group of carbonari – who were at the time the lowest of the low on the Italian social scale. If this had been India, these people would have rivalled the Untouchables. The carbonari were the charcoal burners, largely a job passed down through families over the centuries.

They were mostly nomadic, living in the woods and speaking their own language. Their job was very hard and dirty work.

One day I asked a friend in my village if the production of carbone was also an activity in the Garfagnana. “Yes” she says “it was an important part of the economics in earlier times, to heat the houses during the long months of winter” and explains the process.

BLOG CARBONE 1

Early in the morning, at 5am, work begins with the preparation of the scarazzo, essentially a cone-shaped mound of twigs with the inner twigs fixed with soil to create a solid base until the structure is about five to six metres in diameter and about two metres high. Taking about a week to build, all the branches are moved by hand according to their weight and it is covered with earth and perhaps a cow skin leaving a central hole for the fire to be lit.

BLOG CARBONE
When it is finished the carbonieri light the fire in the hole in the middle of the dome and slowly start to “cook” the wood. As the flames must be fed two to three times a day, the carbonaio will have made a little hut to live in for the duration. It will burn for 20 to 30 days until the big logs are totally cooked and transformed into carbon and no more smoke comes out from the scarazzo.

Leaving it for 4 to 5 days the carbonieri will then extract the charcoal from the scarazzo, usually containing 100 to 300 kilos of charcoal. He or she – for it was a profession that women also held – will get the charcoal ready for market, putting it in big balls of canvas to be transported by mules to the point of sale. He was paid by a percentage of the finished product – around 60 cents for a kilo and once sold he abandoned his hut and moved somewhere else to repeat the process.

Thankfully the days of the carbonieri have vanished. It was a truly challenging and isolated life for the people who were brought up into it. There are real life models of the scarazzo in the national park above my villa, along with other interesting relics of an earlier life.

Eric Newby later lived in Fosdinovo with his wife Wanda, at the upper end of my valley where there is a beautiful castle one can visit on an afternoon’s run.

FOSDINOVO CASTLE   2015-08-21 18.45.09

Castello-Malaspina-Fosdinovo-2

The beautiful castle at Fosdinovo at the top end of my valley: definitely worth a visit

FOSDINOVO       FOSDINOVO

FOSDINOVO       FOSDINOVO

Ciao until next time
Buzz

www.ItalianExperience.com.au

ARRIVING TO CLAIM OUR PIECE OF ITALY

August 20, 2015

The sun is already beating down in Rome early that July morning in 1989 when we arrived to claim what was ours. The smell of Italy is intoxicating. In the airport at Rome the aroma of strong coffee draws us to the nearest bar once through the collection of Immigration and Customs officials. There are many mysteries in Italy and one must surely be the role of the Immigration Officials who do not give even a cursory glance at our Australian passports: instead they smile and usher us in. Although this particular mystery escalates in duration and importance when we decide to have a year in Tuscany, it is sufficient that on this day, two Aussies with a mountain of baggage are welcomed into Italy, feeling proud and excited that they own just a little bit of it.

We make our way to the bus that goes to the main railway station in central Rome remembering to be alert to the zingari (gypsies) who inhabit this place with our 200 kilos of baggage in 8 duffel bags from the adventure travel company, World Expeditions, of which I am the CEO. And we finally arrive, exhausted, in Florence. Two days later, hire car laden we drive to a store on the outskirts of Florence to start equipping the villa. When I look in my shelves now, 27 years later, I am delighted so much of what we bought that day survives: simple white porcelain plates, platters and bowls. We load up three huge trolleys of household goods and with difficulty add them to the already laden car. We buy wine: red and white and food that will become some way or another, dinner that night and we head for the hills.

cinghiali house sketch

What strikes us as bizarre is that we are driving ‘home’ and we don’t even know the way! Finally on the north side of Lucca our progress grinds to a halt as hundreds of serious cyclists pedal in our direction. We stop and wait, wondering why these folk are not at work this week day.

Eventually they pass and we wind our way up the valley, past the paper manufacturers that contribute to the wealth of this area. Lucca was known for its silk weaving many years ago, now it is paper. It is lunchtime and the businesses along the main road are closed, leaving large displays of merchandise outside their shops. We wonder how long this stuff would last in Melbourne before it was pinched. Driving slowly up the valley, neither wanting to miss anything nor wanting to dawdle too long and delay our arrival we are full of excited apprehension. Will we get there and find it not as expected? Is it too daunting a task? Will our arrival commence another journey worth making or will it not? Will the dream surpass the reality?

The villages get smaller and smaller, the hills closer and the roads more and more windy. The towns have gone and we are now in the countryside. There is no obvious industry and it is enchanting. Blue hills surround us with villages perched at an alarming angle on the tops. A river runs silently beside the road. We pass a trout farm. Fields of wheat wave in the slight breeze, elsewhere brilliant emerald green vines are hiding small red and green grapes beneath their leaves.

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2015-05-12 18.07.23  2015-05-12 18.07.29 - Copy - Copy

sign1Eventually a sign to our village appears on a stone wall and we turn off the main road knowing we are but 6 kilometres away. There is just one more village to pass through before we arrive at ours. The siesta is over and road workers are there before us. The road, barely more than a single car’s width at the best of times, is totally blocked. We can go no further.

The only thing to do is turn the engine off and wait. We have no confidence that going back and looking for an alternative route to our new home will meet with success. We wait, and we wait.

verrucole sign

We are 4 kms from home and stopped in our tracks.

The workers have no idea of our impatience and our excitement. To them it is just another job, another day, another village, another bit of road that needs fixing before winter. For us it is interminable. To think we have waited ten months, or for me, twenty years, and now, in sight of the prize, we are thwarted once more. “Is this to be the eternal pattern in Italy?” we ask ourselves and are too naïve to know the answer; yet.

 

sale contractAnd for the curious who keep asking….the reason for the delay in purchasing this place: the owner a Signor Mannolini, had died without having had children. Under Napoleonic Law, all relatives inherit, so instead of going downwards, inheritance goes sideways. When our sale was disrupted and Nino started offering us a free trip to Tuscany to find another house and we refused, the vendors were located. I just found the original document down in my cellar…there were 11 owners of the property, mostly living in Caprignana, or nearby, a couple in Livorno. Probably most of them did not even know they were the new owners and certainly most people did not believe houses would be sold out of the family as I have explained in an earlier blog. In any event, Nino’s action resulted in a Power of Attorney being created so that one person could sign off on the sale. That process took about 9 months.

 

villa on day one 1988

 

Until next time, ciao amici

Buzz

 

The state of the house when we arrived…..those red duffel bags being loaded out of the hire care onto the weed-covered terrace that I spent the next two weeks, night and day, cleaning.It was not very inviting!

www.ItalianExperience.com.