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  – should you be interested in renting my place maybe next summer


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.

Lucca church detail  Lucca church 4

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.

anfiteatro   lucca

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.

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

Lucca church 4

Lucca church 1



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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.


Until next time





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  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.


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.


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.


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


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


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 and

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

Ciao for now

Buzz  for your own villa experience in the heart of beautiful Tuscany.


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.


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.

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.

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



Ciao until next time


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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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



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!


August 17, 2015

Whilst not technically in the Garfagnana, Bagni di Lucca, at the confluence of the Serchio and Lima rivers, is another town down the valley (and up another one) which is worth visiting if you are staying at my place. It has been known since Etruscan and Roman times for its thermal springs, which I have had the pleasure of experiencing. And, more recently, the home of a fabulous summer festival organised by some good Aussie friends.

bagni  bagni 2

Like most of the places around here it began life is a feudal manner until the City of Lucca took it over and restored it in the 14th century recognising that it was a money spinner with visitors coming for the thermal springs.

In the 19th century it received a great boost during the reign of Napoleon when his sister Elisa Baciocchi came to stay and had the buildings of the hydro restored and a casino built – the first in Italy, and a large hall for dancing. Over the years it has attracted many famous people including Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Alexander Dumas, Strauss and Liszt among others.

bagni 1

Bagni di Lucca was also on the travel agenda of one of my heroines, Jane Digby, Lady Ellenborough (1807-1881) whose divorce from Lord Ellenborough in 1830 by an Act of Parliament was the first ‘news’ on the front page of The Times as previously only advertisements graced that page.  After she left him and had an affair with her cousin, she had a string of European lovers from petty royalty to mad King Ludwig I of Bavaria (with whom she had 2 children),  but she only had only one child she loved and together around 1846 they visited Bagni.

scandalous life

Leonidis, sired during her relationship with Greek Count Spyridon Theotokis whilst she was still married to Baron Karl von Venningen (the two men had a duel over her in which the Greek was wounded and the German released Jane from their marriage) was aged 7 whilst she was in Bagni di Lucca when he fell down a staircase and died. She was heartbroken, returning to Athens where her next lover was Otto, the King of Greece. After him was a swashbuckling Albanian and later, at age 46 she met the love of her life and spent the next 28 years living in the Arabian desert and deliriously happy married to Sheik Abdul Medjuel el Mezrab, until her death in 1881.

ponte a serraglioPonte a Serraglio

Not much of this has to do with Bagni di Lucca but I keep meaning to explore the Church of England Cemetery as Leonidis would have been buried there. I have always been enchanted with Jane’s story and heartily recommend it as a good read: A Scandalous Life by Mary Lovell. Her grand-niece, Pamela Digby followed in Jane’s footsteps, married Churchill’s son Randolph, Leyland Hayward and W. Averell Harriman, US Secretary of State, she also had scores of liaisons across Europe including Gianni Agnelli of Fiat, Prince Aly Khan, and Baron Elie de Rothschild. She was variously described as ‘the greatest courtesan of the century’ and ‘a world expert on rich men’s bedroom ceilings’.

garfagnana bagni di luccaOne of the beautiful Bagni di Lucca buildings

But back to Bagni di Lucca….the visitors built an English church there, now converted to a library that holds century old records and during WWII because it was on the Gothic Line it was occupied by the Germans. Several houses and mansions in the area were used as German soldier residences and many residents and immigrants (who were born after 1940) of the Bagni di Lucca area are known to have a tiny bit of German blood in them.

bagni di luccaThe thermal complex is based upon 19 springs of water containing salts of sulphur and calcium reaching a natural temperature of up to 67° Fahrenheit (54° C) and of varying concentration, warmth and radioactivity.

At the Jean Varraud thermal spa and Ouida beauty establishment, dominating the square behind the newly restored casino, you can sit in a hot thermal pool, have a Turkish bath or a sauna until an attendant lets you out, wraps you in a large crisp sheet and covers you with a blanket for a 30 minute rest period with a herbal tea before you move onto any of the other beauty treatments. There are also hot stone therapies, mud baths, aromatherapy, anti-cellulite treatments, and wraps to name a few of the other options. The beauty rooms offer body and facial treatments with natural products containing chocolate or red grapes. The long corridors of the treatment rooms are reminiscent of the hospital which was once housed here.

bagni casinoThe casino

Apart from the older Spa establishment a complex of three thermal swimming pools has been set up in the garden of “Villa Ada” which is open in the summer months. At the “Villa” itself the visitors may take the waters and thereby benefit from their notable biliary and hepatic qualities which serve for the relief of kidney-and gall-stones and of congestion of the liver. (Sounds like a great cure for too much Italian vino!)

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The contortionist who opened the Arts Festival two years ago.

Like so many of these towns in recent years, recession has set in and shops have closed leaving the High Streets almost deserted. Aussie friends, sculptors and painters, who live in Ponte a Serraglio have, with their equally creative sons masterminded an annual Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival and now for four to six weeks in summer the sounds of music and the sight of artistic endeavours fill their streets, just a stone’s throw from the main town. It is certainly worth a visit.

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Michael Cartwright, one of the Aussie organisers of the annual Arts Festival and myself

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The beautiful bridge of chains on the way to Bagni di Lucca

So until next time, ciao



August 16, 2015

There is a plethora of books available on Tuscany and I have always been a hearty critic of them.

Under the Tuscan Sun I could not abide, neither the book nor the film because it seemed to me to be so trite, so different to my own restoration which I wrote about, together with the story of the 2001  stay of 12 months at I Cinghiali in Interlude with Wild Boars; its cover from a painting given by Andrew Sibley in exchange for a painting sabbatical in the barn one year.

 interlude with wild boars

My all-time favourite is A Tuscan Childhood by Kinta Beevor (mother of the renowned British historian, Antony Beevor) who grew up with her eccentric parents in a 15th century military fortress at Aulla at the very northern end of my valley in an area called the Lunigiana.

kinta cover

In 1896, her Oxford undergraduate father fell in love with the wild beauty of the place and seven years’ later, on his honeymoon, he returned to show his bride the sunset that changed the colour of the marble peaks of the Carrara Mountains from apricot to the shades of a Florentine iris.

Within two years, the Waterfields had moved into the inhospitable fortress, which they first leased and then bought, with only camp beds and a packing case for furniture. So began their unusual life in the Fortezza della Brunella in Aulla, which was to result not only the restoration of the fortezza itself, but also in the construction of an extraordinary garden in the sky.

aulla brunella

Aubrey Waterfield was a painter, who loved gardens almost as much as he loved painting. The idea of a magical garden in sky took root when he discovered that, following the occupation of the fortezza in the 18th century by the Spanish, soil had been hauled up onto the roof to absorb the recoil of the Spanish cannon.

He designed his garden in the sky around a rose-covered pavilion of white trellis work with a central dome, inspired by the Brighton Pavilion in England. Beneath the dome, sparkling with goldfish and water lilies was a sunken marble bath, six feet square and five feet deep. Miniature box parterre containing beds overflowing with fragrant flowers edged the broad grass walk that led to the rampart walls, out of which grew small irises. Vines, a hedge of rosemary, and a large persimmon tree added to the enchantment. The most startling aspect of the garden was the avenue of mature ilex trees that provided shade to the garden in the sky.

In the heat of the summer, cooled by the late morning breeze that found its way up the valley from the coast, the roof garden was the focus of life at the fortezza. In the evening, dinner was hauled up in a large basket from the courtyard below and eaten by candlelight to a background of cicadas and tree frogs, and illuminated by dancing fireflies. When it was too hot to sleep inside, the family hung old canvas naval hammocks between the trees or under the trellis pavilion. They would listen to the nightingales and cool off in the deep water of the marble pond.

Kinta Beevor was born in 1911 and when her father joined up in the First World War her mother took her and her brother John to Florence where she started the British Institute. Kinta’s childhood was spent in the ancient castellated villa of Poggio Gherardo in the hills above Florence surrounded by three small farms with their vineyard and olive groves with Aunt Janet.

blog vendemmia 1   blog vendemmia 2


She first saw the Fortezza as a child of five in 1916, and her book recollects her childhood while her father silently painted and her mother took her typewriter off on visits to Rome, and when they entertained tourists such as D.H. Lawrence and Rex Whistler.

blog whistler train to aullaWhistler: Train to Aulla

Her fascinating account describes the lost garden in the sky, life in Lunigiana and Florence, the sad history of the fort during World War II, its deterioration and, finally, its sale in the 1970s to the Italian authorities, who removed the garden and changed the shape of the towers as part of an expensive and pointless project. The fort is now home to the Natural History Museum of Lunigian and one can visit.

The Times Literary Supplement writer Isabel Colegate said of the book ‘Kinta Beevor’s distinctive contribution is in her details and unsentimental account of the peasant life of the time; its surroundings, its labours and its joys, and in her ability to convey the remembered happiness of a childhood spent in the freedom of two exceptionally beautiful houses amid some of the most delectable countryside in the world’.


But what I love most is the poignancy of a lost kind of life: the post war discovery that the simplicity of life in the Tuscan countryside was gone, forever.  I recommend you read this lovely book.

Until next time,


Ciao Amici

Due to updating of my blog and websites, the last but one blog entitled COULD THIS BE YOUR TUSCAN DREAM TOO?? was either lost, or viewed without photographs.

Please go back and enjoy it. Lots of details on the villa for those of you who fancy yourselves being the Padrona of a Tuscan villa for a week or two and lots of lovely pix.




And later in the day you will receive today’s blog on …well, I’m not sure yet…something delicious about my wonderful part of Tuscany.




August 15, 2015

The Italians are the masters of a good festival. And, with the practice they have, they should be.

My gentle rolling hills are soundless in summer apart from the church bells that wake one at 6.58 or 7.03, but never quite on 7am, bid one home for lunch at mezzogiorno, and demand you leave your fields at 7pm, and the odd sound of a chainsaw or whipper snipper cutting a tree or the weeds that make up most of my ‘lawn’, except around mid August when all things change.

Occasionally, and sadly, but inevitably with the ageing population, there is also the tolling of the bells, usually for half an hour or more, reminding one of the fragility of life and, since I am talking about celebrations, giving one even more reason to celebrate.
blog ferra 3      porchetta






Earlier I have told how families diminished from 8 or 9 children to one in two generations, leaving a whole host of un-lived-in beautiful old stone houses (one of which I am fortunate to call mine). But in August many of these come alive with the return of their sons and daughters, leaving shuttered-up hot apartments in Milano, and Cremona and Roma; home to the solitude of the mountains and the camaraderie of their friends and family, and a month of Festivals.

Back in their ancestral villages there is a reason to be out and about almost every night. And that reason is food. Every time I am out my car is festooned with notices of this festival and that one, bunched under every windscreen wiper, front and back, enticing me to each end of the valley and every hamlet and village in between.

The villagers of Trasilico have a whole smorgasbord to celebrate: bread and biroldo, ravioli and tripe, polenta and wild boar and then cakes – all with music.  Whilst Villetta celebrates the 26th festival of pork, not once but on 8 separate nights during the month.


In 2013 I went to a festival celebrating farro, the ancient grain. We were issued with ten tickets, each for a separate course, wine included and a dilly bag to put our wine glass in whilst we ate. Dinner was in ten locations over two villages, culminating in a huge outdoor dance arena where we danced with firemen and first aid workers in their uniforms under the starry night.

blog ferra roz  blog buzz                           blog rozi danceMy friend Rozi, filled with farro…now on the dance floor!

Gorfigliano, a village up the valley has a late July festival, Festa della Madonna. It is attended by hundreds of people who walk a mile or more into the local football field which is like an amphitheatre, surrounded by the marble mountains that provide employment for most of the men of the area. Apart from the eating and drinking and stalls selling Kewpie dolls and fairy floss, there is an almighty fireworks display late at night illuminating the marble Madonna who resides half way up the mountain. It is spectacular.

FIREWORKS 3    blog madonna   FIREWORKS 2
The 10th century fortress on the hill opposite is a prime venue for summer celebrations, often music playing until the wee small hours or, during the day, flag throwing, crossbows, traditional dancing, and all to the accompaniment of food. There is no festival without food. Never. No one would go.

blog fort  Fortezza flag  blog flags
My little village, which I think only has 61 inhabitants (60 of them and one of me) hosts an annual street dinner for about 160 people (god knows where they all come from) and they usually ask to use my huge oven to cook the roast potatoes. The meat is all done by men, at a large barbecue. Aussie men eat your hearts out – these Italians REALLY know how to do meat – starting from the butcher’s shop!
blog cap meat  blog food

Last year, on the eve of Ferragosto I happened to be in a supermarket with a fabulous butcher’s section. It was about 11am and I wanted just a couple of things but I had to wait in line whilst about 13 men before me ordered up the meat for their celebration. One butcher, cutting everything individually, very exactly for these men who were committed to not just cooking their meat but buying precisely what they wanted, and it took about ¾ of an hour before I was served. It was fascinating.

blog ferrag  blog ferra

Ferragosto is on August 15 and it is the Assumption of Mary which according to my sources is a Holy Day of Obligation. Since I’m not a catholic I’m a bit naïve on all this, but I suspect it means you have to drink wine at an altar. And they do. Copious amounts of it, with a very low alcohol volume, but at a friend’s house rather than the chiesa I suspect.

This celebration was introduced by Emperor Augustus in 18 B.C. where beasts of burden were released from work duties and decorated with garlands of flowers. Under the Fascist regime the tradition arose of taking a trip on this day and in the second half of the 1920’s there were hundreds of popular trips organised around the country with trains at heavily discounted prices.  To my mind they must have been almost free for even now almost a century later it still only costs about €8 to travel the 90 kms from Pisa airport to my town – and that’s an increase from €7.20 last year!!

Early on the morning of the eve of Ferragosto I went shopping and just as well. There was almost no bread left in the bakery by ten to 9 and the supermarket was full. I bought what I needed, stocked up on Martini Bianco and a few bottles of vino and scuttled home to my peace and quiet.  I’m waiting for my friend Linda to arrive and for us to head off to the Festa del Vino at Montecarlo, a beautiful wine making area about an hour away.

blog ferra 4
Buon Ferragosto, as they say here
Until next time


Ciao Amici

Due to updating of my blog and websites, the last blog entitled COULD THIS BE YOUR TUSCAN DREAM TOO?? was either lost, or viewed without photographs.

Please go back and enjoy it. Lots of details on the villa for those of you who fancy yourselves being the Padrona of a Tuscan villa for a week or two and lots of lovely pix.

Cinghiali in summer

craigs pool shot


And later in the day you will receive today’s blog on FERRAGOSTO…the special holiday being celebrated throughout Italy as I type.