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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!
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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.

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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.

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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.




August 13, 2015

Years before I owned my own Tuscan Dream I had a dream to own one. When it was bought it was for lifestyle  but not long after its extensive restoration I had the first request from an old school friend to have their own Tuscan dream holiday and it sort of went from there.

The village of Caprignana I Cinghiali or The Wild Boars

The village of Caprignana                                     I Cinghiali

It was followed by dozens of other requests and so, deciding this house had a soul too and should not be left locked up for 11 out of every 12 months, a succession of visitors became Padrone and Padrona of their ‘own Tuscan villa’ for the summer, or at least part of it.

Some, from Melbourne, came back 7 times, each time with new friends, who in turn rented it and returned with their friends. Others have come 3,4 and 5 times. Many have come twice. Most have come for between 2 and 4 weeks. Queenslanders, hating the heat of their summer, came for 2 months one northern winter and loved every moment of their time here.

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Dawn                                                                        And Dusk

The reasons they come are different but always include the peace, the food, the absence of tourists, the village life and markets and, now, the pool. Many are groups of 5 couples, or two couples with adult kids variously working in New York or London and ‘its time for a catch up holiday’. One Melbourne barrister had 6 months in the barn, going back twice for cases, leaving his girlfriend here. Their relationship flourished under the Tuscan sun and she is now his wife and the mother of his 2 kids.

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The villa in summer                                               The ubiquitous red geraniums in my window

There’s been every birthday celebrated from 90 down to a Melbourne couple who celebrated their daughter’s 30th here and invited the entire village to dinner cooked in the stone oven, rumoured by my neighbour to be the largest in the area. And not forgetting Hugo’s 2nd which was attended by the local priest who just happened to be walking in the fields below and we hijacked him. He curiously would not take the birthday cake because he was just about to take communion but was very happy to accept the vino we offered!

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Simple bread and cheese                 And zucchines waiting to be stuffed

All the testimonials on Trip Advisor on the Holiday Lettings and Airbnb sites are five star. Those in the visitor’s book range from ‘If this isn’t heaven you can see it from here’ to ‘how wonderful to have our milk delivered to the doorstep in wine bottles’ and ‘what an extraordinary relief from the heat of Florence’. The one written by my son’s friend Lachy, when 5 of the kids came here in their gap year probably takes the cake. Five kids turned up one very hot summer’s day, off the overnight ferry from Croatia to Ancona and across Italy by train. Smelly, hot, dirty, dehydrated, you name it, these 5 Melbourne Grammar kids all working at schools in the UK were hilarious. When I asked Hamish what they’d been eating from Amsterdam to Prague to Budapest to Berlin and back he replied ‘a lot of museli Buzz’. To have at least 2 meals a day with meat, a fridge full of beer, hot showers and a washing machine,freshly ironed sheets and proper beds was an untold luxury for them. For me it was the highlight of the summer of 2009.

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One of the three Aussie Queen bedrooms          And one of the twin rooms

But back to you – if you’re interested in a holiday in the villa here are some of the useful bits of information. It sleeps 10, 3 Aussie queen sized beds, 2 rooms with twin beds (and a single room I don’t mention just in case there is someone who snores). There are two lovely bathrooms, one has a full sized bath in it. The dining room table opens out to sit 12. There is a very large terrace perfect for dinner with the view of the fortress which has a table and 10 chairs, and a large umbrella.The sitting room is gorgeous in the cooler months with its fireplace from 1825. There is unlimited satellite wifi, satellite television and over 100 DVD’s, games, around 1000 books, freshly ironed linen,towels, duvets and blankets, and the kitchen is equipped with enough stuff to feed the proverbial 5000. The nearest airport is Pisa where you can hire a car and drive up the valley – about 90 kms. There is a shop in the village that has the best prosciutto in the land and Vittorio my neighbour will sell you fresh vegetables and eggs and bread on a Sunday just so long as you order it the day before.Everything else can be found in the next village or the next field including a tiny cheese factory in walking distance and delicious fresh pasta in the next town.

vegetable-shop-lucca tomatoes

Eat fresh, eat local, buy more, pay less, enjoy more!

You can take day trips to the beautiful walled city of Lucca and the Cinque Terre or Pisa. Closer are numerous gorgeous little villages, markets and an abundance of restaurants and pizzerias. Or stay at home, be close to nature, take a walk, read a book on the terrace, enjoy being rather than do-ing for a change. And enjoy getting out of your three piece suit for a change.

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Breakfast on the lower terrace                All this lot for less than €20

You can cook up a storm in my kitchen in a double oven Paul Bocuse stove or try the forno: bake bread, make a pizza, cook a pig…whatever!  Enjoy the process and have a lot of wine on tap. This is not a place to be in a hurry.

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The old wood stove or forno           From the terrace to the church tower

Oh, and I nearly forgot…the pool is 12 x 4 metres, chairs and sun lounges and umbrellas both ends, a perfect view and illuminated for your night time swims. It’s divine. And the veggie garden and the orchard are yours for the picking. Let me know if you taste the cherries…I never have…I’ve just watched the tree grow since I planted it. The neighbours clearly love it when I’m not here! Many an August when I’m long since back in the cold of Melbourne and Hugo’s at school when the figs finally leap onto someone else’s plate!

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The villa is fully heated so you can come all year round. Christmas and New Year is lovely and you may have a little bit of snow to add to the atmosphere. Prepare to cook up your feast in the forno: just get up early and start the fire by 8am. Watch the spirals of smoke all around the valley from others doing the same. It’s magical.

pool-2 pool-with-a-view

The price per week on the holiday websites for 2016 is May through June £2700, July and August £3100 and September – October £2850. Other times are negotiable. But don’t book through them, book direct with me and I will give you a sconto (discount). If you want more than one week – which I definitely recommend – I will give you a further sconto.

You can pay in Euros, Sterling or AUD$. Divided by 8 or 10 it’s a pretty inexpensive holiday, combined with buying food at markets and cooking up a storm at home rather than eating out. Prosecco at my local bar is €1.50, vino €1 and at the local bottega a litre of good red is about €1.60 and they’ll put it into a vacuum pack of 5 or 10 litres.

If you are interested in the wonderful barn, then watch this space because there will be a blog on it shortly.

Both are listed on my website and you know where to find me to ask questions or book your Tuscan dream holiday. If you’re thinking 2016, most people book 8-12 months out to get the time they want so talk to me soon.

Until next time, ciao amici




August 11, 2015

It’s probably a case of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, but its pretty hard to live here and not get excited about growing your own stuff. But its not until you get serious about it that you realise just how tricky it can be. Now that I’ve mastered some of it, its like being a proud mama to bring your own stuff to the table.

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Two kinds of plums from ancient trees planted long before I was the Padrona of this place.

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One of the remaining pears and my fresh beetroot

From my one herb pot in London (happily donated by a girlfriend for my birthday) to an entire vegetable garden and orchard here was a long step and, for a part timer like me, probably a bit of madness.  I’m either not here early enough to plant things or else I am here too late. I’m not here to water them if I do plant them or tend the tiny shoots if a cold April or May snap occurs, and I’m not here long enough to eat the stuff if it takes an age to grow. And of course, what I can buy in the marketplace is so fresh and so cheap and hasn’t taken a toll on my nails or my back or my time by the pool that it is madness whichever way you look at it.

So even that it doesn’t make one iota of sense I have got terribly enthusiastic about my orto in the last several years.

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My orchard on a hot summer’s day, and the ancient apple tree


Fruit from my orto and last year’s zucchines

The orchard was here from Day One. Lots of pear trees, now mostly dead and removed, an apple, a couple of stellar figs and some plums. Years ago we planted a cherry tree: beautiful it is too and 16 years later I’ve never tasted a single cherry. The fig tree is another thing: whilst we were on the Australia-Italy hop when Hugo was young the neighbours clearly enjoyed their arrival in August whilst we were collectively cold and back at school. I thought I would plant a nectarine once but it turned out to be a medlar – looks interesting but I’ve never seen a ripe fruit and it quite frankly doesn’t appeal. Pears and apples…most too high to pick and by the time they fall on the ground they are half eaten by wasps. Lemons are useless – its too cold and they have to be taken indoors in winter, and although I have an olive tree its too high for the fruit to come.

Anyway, now that I am here more often I have made inroads just because. Because I want to; because I’m a quintessential Taurean who needs to have her hands in the earth, and because if you can’t beat them, join them!

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My luscious figs….and the implement used to pick those too high up to reach

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A bumper crop  – ready to go into the oven with lashings of Vin Santo

And finally it has begun to work. I have a device to reach the high flying figs, a yard man to prune the trees and to plant new ones….and at last my nectarine and a peach – both in the ground this April.

Toty made me a veggie garden a couple of years ago and I love that too. It’s full of surprises: the artichoke is not looking too healthy, last year’s zucchines were wonderful, this year’s a dead loss. The beetroot I don’t remember planting is delicious in my juice every morning; my fennel is too close together and may not produce a single bulb, the carrots are slowly getting there and the herbs are fantastic.

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The gentle purple flower of the aubergine and the zucchines and herbs

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Growing lettuce, and ready to eat with my nasturtiums

My most favourite vegetable the rich purple aubergine will probably make it long after I’m back at Waitrose, and the tomatoes will probably wither on the vine, but the lettuces and the radicchio are amazing and I adore picking my own salad every night.

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The nespole I thought was a nectarine, and the nectarine I planted in April groaning with fruit

Whatever they say, it is worth it. I love my veggie patch and my orchard. I may not do what the locals do which is plant when the moon is waning and pick with it is doing the opposite (or the other way around) but I hope to get better at it every year. And in the meantime, I love surprising my guests with a basket of something or other on their doorstep from time to time and I love my daily meditation with a hose after the sun has gone down and before the gin & tonic.

Until next time….I must head out to water this lot.

Ciao amici



August 10, 2015

The Garfagnana is an area of Northern Tuscany often referred to as The Natural Park of Tuscany because it is so full of trees and a couple of major parks, particularly Orecchiella which is situated just above my village. It encompasses the valley of the Serchio river and lies between the Apuan Alps, near the Versillian Coast or Italian Riviera on the one side, and the Apennines, known as the spine of Italy on the other.

It’s a valley about 100 kilometers long between Lucca to the south and Aulla/La Spezia to the north and whilst the roads are good there is no motorway making it a place you either go to purposefully or you don’t. The main town is Castlenuovo di Garfagnana which you can see in the middle of the map and the area is divided into 22 Municipalities for administrative purposes.


My village of Caprignana is like dozens of others: small, on a hillside, buildings made of grey stone blocks, a couple of community facilities like a bar and shop, a water fountain or two, a communal washing trough, maybe a bocce track, sign boards for death and festival notices, maybe a postbox and a church. Sometimes even the tiniest of villages have two churches…one ancient and gorgeous and one big and high and ‘we’ve got some wealth now’ status.

Just a village or so down the valley from me, and very much in sight from my windows is the pretty little town of Sillicagnana and it was here this morning that I took my friend Kate on her way down the valley and to Pisa to fly home to London.

My municipality – where I pay my rubbish bill of around $1000 a year, my taxes (always under dispute), get my Carta d’Identita, Codice Fiscale (tax file number) and various other things is the Municpality of San Romano in Garfagnana, a few kms north of Castlenuovo.

My guide book tells me it is one of the few where agriculture is still the main source of economy and as I look out at the tranquil scene below in Vittorio’s field with one bull (whom I named Oscar) and one much larger cow (Lucinda of course) and a few chickens and a field of corn, below which are vines heaving with both black and green grapes, and not a smoke signal from any secondary industry, I believe it.


The book, recently purchased, tells me that the population in 1931 for the whole of the municipality was 2041; in 1961 it was 1999 and now although completely unreliable is 1430, and I remember completing forms for two censuses – in 2001 and in 2011, and I wonder why there are not more updated figures. Then I remember that  this is Italy and why would you need to have accurate figures when ones 54 years old can suffice??

There are 8 settlements in San Romano in Garfagnana, the main one carrying the name and 7 others that I call hamlets including mine deemed to have approximately 329 inhabitants. I have always told people it had 61 : 60 of them and one of me so I am shocked with this number and don’t believe it in the slightest.

Anyway it was Sillicagnana, another visual feast, which we visited today, which is deemed to have 383 people living in it. It was the location of one of the five houses we looked at in 1988 when searching for something to buy but we did not want to live in a village, however charming.

Charm it has…as you will see…..even on a dull day where the pix are not so brilliant.

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Until next time, a glimpse of my wonderful valley.

I wonder where we shall go next??

Ciao amici



August 9, 2015

Caprignana, my village, was constructed after the 1920 earthquake that pretty much demolished its predecessor, now called Caprignana Vecchia, Old Caprignana.

Last Saturday a wonderful collection of old photos of the village and its inhabitants was opened by the mayor in a small building just above my house which, I discovered was the old school house. The photos are old and faded but are a wonderful record of my tiny village and the people who walked their own ancestral roads before I, a mere interloper, came along and fell in love with the place.

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The Mayor opening the Exhibition – Fragments of stories and images of the lives of the village

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This was a postcard of the village in 1936 – the church was not yet built and my house would be down to the right


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This was temporary housing after the terremoto – earthquake  – destroyed the earlier village

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Family groups in their finery

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Ancient implements – many of which I still have in my shed and my stables


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My friend and neighbour Anna’s father Delfo and her mother Sara, our introduction to Caprignana in 1988

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And my neighbour Vittorio’s father, Domenico, who never returned from the war


The wonderful Maurizio whom I remember still working his fields in the old town at a very advanced age

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And last, but not least, my house about 60 years ago with its first inhabitant, Cesare Mannolini and his family

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Enjoy – for me it was fascinating.

Until next time, ciao amici