In September of 2012 we flew out of JFK at 10pm to jet to Rome. Then a short hop to Florence to begin our 14 days of looking, tasting, walking, eating, drinking and generally enjoying what we found in our planned stops in Italy. Because we traveled as lightly as possible (each carrying one backpack) we did not have the camera equipment the typical eager tourist would carry. Instead we took photos (over 1200), audio clips and video with an iPhone4 and an iPad2. Each night the bulk files were uploaded to Dropbox to allow room on our handheld devices and for safety.
The trip "capture" was not completely without gadgets. For a bit more variety - and to try to take a great picture with a phone - I used more than the iPhone's installed apps and hardware. First I brought a Monofix monopod. This item stretched from 11 to 60inches with a tug and was a big attention getter at airport checkpoints - without fail. I used this to take shots way over my head, over the edge or held it horizonally to take photos of ourselves. In order to hook the monopod to the iPhone it was necessary to have some intermediate hardware with a screw hole. This job went to the Glif. An ingenious widget that holds the phone firmly while providing a standard connector for tripods and such. To augment the iPhone's lens I purchased an Olloclip. This gem hugs the corner of the phone and positions one of 3 lenses over the iPhone's. There is a fish-eye, wide angle and - by removing the cover lens on one of those - a macro lens. Nice variety that fits in your pocket. On the software side I purchased some Apps to add to the fun and variety. My favorite is Autostitch for taking panoramas. I'm sure that no one enjoys these more than I enjoy conjuring them. Eventually I figured out that making a pano of more than 4 shots created a distortion that was hardly ever pretty. I became making 3 click panos that I'm quite satisfied with. Unfortunately AutoStitch outputs fairly low resolution jpgs so the panos don't translate to a large screen as well as I would like. Ironically, while we were away, Apple released iOS 6 which included a very nice panorama feature within the iPhone Camera app. This release was a few days too late for us to use this vacation.
Caveats and Excuses
You already know that we didn't use "real" image or video recording devices - so the ground expectations may have been set. You should also know that I'm a bit self concious when holding the iPhone up to someone while shooting video. You've heard of people being camera-shy. I guess you could say I am behind-the-camera-shy. For that reason some videos of performers are downright crappy giving only a vague representation of whatever we were seeing. I included those clips because I thought the audio might be interesting to someone.
Stops along the way
The buttons on the right of this page tell the list of cities we visited. For the sake of chronology it should be noted that we landed in Florence and spent that first sleep-deprived, jet-annoyed day in that beautiful city. We intended to "force" ourselves to stay awake all day, get a good night's sleep and start on our Europe clock beginning on day 2. We spent that one night in the Plaza Hotel Lucchesi. On the second day we rented a car and drove to Greve in Chianti for the yearly Chianti Wine Festival. After a few days there we drove to Barga, the birthplace of my grandfather and totally endearing old village. We left Barga and drove down the mountain road to Lucca. There we surrendered the rented car and walked to our next hotel - La Luna. Our visit to Lucca was scheduled around the yearly Luminaria de Santa Croce procession. We also enjoyed many unscheduled events while there. After that we traveled by train to another location we had visited in 2002 - Cinque Terra, and spent our wedding anniversary in beautiful Vernazza. Our last train ride of the trip brought us back to Florence. We stayed in a much more modest but still excellent hotel - Florence Old Bridge for 3 nights. All too soon we were back at JFK waiting our turn in the US Customs line. That's the high level overview of the events. The rest of this site holds more details.
Day One - Hanging Out in Florence
We know that when we booked our first night's vacation stay at the four-star Plaza Hotel Lucchesi it would get us off to a great start. When I told the young lady behind the desk about our reservations and gave her my name, her reply was "Welcome home, Mr. Lucchesi." It was so cool. Our room was on the top floor with a room-length terrace and view of the Arno and the Oltrarno beyond. Each time I saw "Lucchesi" stamped, embroidered, printed orotherwise emblazoned on something, I had to smile. The accomodations were luxurious - especially considering the places we would be staying over the next 13 nights. Our next order of business was to find gelato.
When visiting Florence you will quickly learn that gelato is the dessert of choice and that the city boasts having the best. The concierge at our hotel gave us a tip as to what to look for in good gelato. She said the freshest stuff would be where you see small containers in the display case rather than huge mounds garnished with fruit, nuts or dustings. Gelateria that serve in this spare style are making product only as needed, and so it is closely watched in the making and always fresher when served. We asked this concierge for her favorite gelateria. Before answering she asked, "what is your favorite flavor?". In less than a breathe my wife replied, "chocolate". With that lead she directed us to the Gelateria dei Neri- a short walk from where we were. This small gelateria on a narrow sidestreet, was packed with cakes, candy and refrigerated display with 36 flavors of gelato including nine (9) chocolate flavors. Some of them were cioccolato amaro (bitter chocolate), cioccolato all'arancio (chocolate orange), gelato albacio (with chocolate Kisses), cioccolato bianco (white chocolate), and the darkest chocolate we've ever eaten - cioccolato extra nero (extra black chocolate). The extra black is the one we talk about to this day. It had the appearance of freshly poured tar and gave off an aroma of roasted cocoa. The taste was a deep, rich, robust chocolate. We enjoyed it in combination with gelato alla ricotta e fichi (ricotta and figs), and later on with limone ghiaccio (lemon ice).
Finishing our gelato meant we had completed the "planned" part of our day. We had the rest of this beautiful, sunny, warm day to wander and weave among the other tourists and residents until we found something to do. It didn't take long before we were climbing a few steps to enter a large, cubicle shaped, stone building. We quickly decided not to take the museum stairs in favor of amore casual path through the building. We walked up just a few more marble stairs and found ourselves in what we now know was the first courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. The entrance opened up to an immense room. A fountain in the center, frescoes on the walls and gilted, stucco'd pillars squaring off the space. Can I get this incredible sight into my iPhone? If we're amazed by this - what could the museum upstairs be like? Spoiler - we never visited it.
Eventually we stepped out of the door at the other end of the courtyard into the bright afternoon sunlight. We were looking at the Piazza della Signoria standing between statues of Hercules and David. The first thing that I was impressed by was the number of people in the Piazza. This is a popular tourist site. I think a good percentage of people were local Italians enjoying the space... and watching us. This was an amazing place for us to have discovered on the first day of our vacation and we walked around, taking in as much as we could. We saw the Uffizi Gallery to the right of the Palazzo. We planned on going there when we on the last 3 days of our trip - when we would return to Florence. At some point we ventured out of the Piazza della Signoria into the surrounding streets, passing restaurants, shops, piazzas. We stopped for an expresso, and cappuccino decaffeinato. Eventually we came to the magnificent icon of Florence, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore - the Duomo. We had been here in 2002. Back then we had climbed the tower and ventured into the Baptistery. But on this day we would only stroll around and try to take some photos fighting the blazing late afternoon sun. We knew we would be back in 11 days.
When dinner time came we passed on the hotel's restaurant as being too fancy. We wanted something local so we ventured along the same path we had gone before to a restaurant in a strange corner building. We sat outside and ordered off the menu, and vino della casa, of course.
After flying the night before and wandering around Florence all day, we were ready for a good night's sleep. But not before we had a night time cappucino and chocolate volcano type dessert at the hotel's bar.
Day Two - On to Greve
About a month before we left the US we arranged for a rental car from AutoEurope. It was a painless arrangement and came to about $300 for the 4 days we used it including insurance and English speaking GPS. We took a cab from Hotel Plaza Lucchesi across Florence to AutoEurope's downtown office. We spent the 30 minutes or so waiting in conversation with a couple from Massachusetts who were behind us. When the car showed up I took some pictures for the "before" in case I had to prove it's appearance after. Driving in Florence was not that bad and we were on a highway in no time. I'm sure we frustrated the TomTom, forcing her to recalculate over and over. At least once we heard "At your first opportunity, turn around." If not for a few missed turns it was a harrowing ride that went by in a flash.
Normally, when driving somewhere, we would have used our iPhone's Maps App to find places. But in Europe we turned off those features to keep from getting socked with AT&T data charges. So in preparation I had made an iBook with scans of all the directions, reservation letters, and confirmations we had received over the weeks building up to the trip. Among the scraps of data built into this book were street level photos captured from Google Maps showing anyplace I thought we would need to find. The parking lot for our hotel in Greve was the first such place.Because of the Wine Festival the area around our hotel was closed to traffic and we had to park in a lot about 1/4 mile away. Fortunately I had a digital and mental picture of the alleyway we had to turn up to get to that lot. Once parked we grabbed our backpacks and took our first walk on an Italian small town road. We were walking through a neighborhood of vineyards. We took our time and some photos.
The road ended at a set of stairs leading down to the main square, Piazza Matteotti, where the last day of the Festival was a few hours in session. To get to our hotel we had to walk around the edge of the square (actually shaped like a triangle), down a side street and through an archway to Antico Pastificio Ulisse Mariotti (the Pasta Factory). We had a small room with a window facing the veranda where other tourists sat at tables with umbrellas. On the dresser was a cork screw, 2 wine glasses and a bottle of wine without a label. Let the festivities begin.
The 42nd Chianti Wine Festival was one of the destinations we had been looking forward to since early in the trip planning stages. We walked into the Piazza KNOWING what we had to do first - get festival wine glasses and a "book". The book was pocket size except shorter. Inside were pages of advertisements for all the vendors and the 8 tasting tickets we would use to sample their wares. There were about 30 booths, each decked out with a particular vineyards brochures, cases of wine and a counter where bottles were on display. All the vineyards were showing multiple types of wine which made the value of my 8 tickets seem pretty meager.
We weren't really sure what the protocol was so we decided to take some time to look through the book and have a light lunch before starting to taste. The piazza had at least 5 restaurants open at the time. They all had tables outside mere feet from the festival foot traffic. It was easy to find a table and after welcoming us the waiter suggested that we try a traditional Tuscan lunch plate. We were definitely game for traditional Tuscan so we agreed. Once we ordered I decided to leave Sandie at the table and go fetch us a few tastes of wine to go with our lunch. I started out with full NJ bravado but within the few steps it took to reach a booth I realized where I was... NOT in NJ.
In the US we would have walked up to anyone at the booth, said, "hi, I'd like to try..." and name or point to a bottle. Instead I thought it might be polite to at least try to appear interested in learning something about the wine, the festival and even the vineyard business. I was eager as hell to have a taste of wine but didn't want to appear too "touristy". So I approached a booth and asked the tall, dark-haired woman, using my best friendly but serious smile, "hello. What do you have?". I stopped myself before attempting to clarify by adding "I mean, whaddaya GOT?". Instead the woman and I stared uncomfortably into each other's face until she broke the silence with, "we have wine". This was not going well. I turned to find Sandie at the table. Fortunately she was not watching. I decided to retreat and regroup. I don't know where or how I tried my first Tuscan wine at the Festival. I only know that I eventually did.
When I got back to the table I ordered water naturale to drink with lunch. About the traditional Tuscan antipasto. That turned out to be a plate of thinly sliced cured meats. Mortadella, capicola, salami, soppressata and a few other. These are meats that I have eaten in a sandwich doused with oil and vinegar, hidden among lettuce and tomato. Never laying flat and exposed and looking right up at me on a plate. Mortadella is simply not an appetizing thing to look at. Without going too far on the topic let's say I left the table hungry.
The day we arrived was the final day of the festival but we found plenty to do. We tasted so much wine that my gums became numb. But tasting wine is not the only activity. Around 2pm, the hottest part of the day for sure, the procession began. They came down the narrow street adjacent to our hotel. First there were about a dozen flag jugglers. The only female among them appeared to be about four years old and was close to the beginning of the procession where Papa could wave his colors and keep an eye on her. Next came the fife, horn and drum band followed by the a group of people who were probably representing royalty of the era. Everyone in the procession was dressed in colorful Medieval garb.
They followed a route into the Piazza, up one side around the tasting booths, and down the other until they reached city hall. There they stood in close groups, under a blazing sun, around either side of the mayor's reviewing stand. We gathered along the curb to form the fourth edge of an open area. We had never seen flag juggling before but apparently its been around for hundreds of years. The flag is large, light colorful fabric attached to a pole about 5ft long. I'll have to post the video I took during the solo juggler's routine. The one thing I remember most is how hot and sweaty I was just standing there wearing summer time clothes. The people in the procession were wearing traditional garb, layers of cotton, wool and whatever - that pretty much covered them from head to toe. And the jugglers were actively, well, juggling.
The Procession lasted about an hour after which we left the Piazza Matteotti to walk along the streets where the festival extended into town. Restaurants had set up outside tables with different treats. One we had never encountered before was schiacciata all'uva or grape cake. It's a plain sort of cake about 1.5 inches thick covered with whole wine grapes. It's a juicy, seedy kind of fun food. We also had a glass of wine loaded with peach slices. The peach pulp coated the glasses for the rest of the day. We watched a man building chairs by hand. He used a machete type knife to hack and plain a length of wood. Wood chips all around him. He never looked up.His samples were stacked around him. You could see the rough resemblance of the legs and back of the finished chairs to the wooden post he was working on. The chairs were all of the same style but different sizes, from doll-sized on up. I think the only way we could have gotten him to stop working and look up would have been to step up and buy a chair.
One thing about making a trip like this; many stops with backpack only, is the criteria you develope for souveniers. Small, flat, foldable, rollable, flexible are all terms that come to mind. That said, we bought 2 wine classes from the festival and, despite the many hazards, my wife transported them caringly throughout the entire trip. They arrived home in perfect condition (maybe a little peach pulp still on them). It was about 3 months before one broke. We'll just have to go back and get more.
On the narrow end of the Piazza, where the church stood, we observed them setting up a Bingo-type board and couldn't resist getting into the action. The game is Tombola. A traditional kind of raffle where players hope to fill their cards with numbers that are picked from a drum. The big-board has numbers from 1 to 90. For €5 we got our own card with 20 numbers. It must have been the mayor up on the terrace of the building near the end of the Piazza. He would chatter, people would react, a metal pot was shaken and a numbered tile (tombolini) would be pulled out. He would bellow it, people would react, the number would be turned on the big board, and there would be more patter, more metal rattling. This went on for about 20 mminutes while a few hundred people in the Piazza stood with their wine glasses and played along. I later learned that each number had a traditional nickname that the caller used to add color to his patter. For example 23 was also known as "La suocera ", the mother-in-law. Number 39 is "La smorfia ", or the grimace. 41 is "buffone " - the Jester. When someone called out "Tombola" everybody else moaned. We knew what that meant. No translation required.
We learned a lot about wine in general and the specifics from the vendors at the event. We learned that "Chianti" is not a flavor of wine (silly me) as much as a region where the wine is cultivated. We learned that the DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is a government program guaranteeing that the product is from a specific region and that it's cultivation and blending with other wines is "controlled". The symbol to look for on the neck of the bottle is a Rooster. We learned that "Super-Tuscan" basically means that the vintner did not participate in that government guarantee program. Many growers, for one reason or another, opted out of the DOCG program but didn't want to be left on the shelves so they arrived at their own marketing key term - Super Tuscan. These wines could be considered "boutique" blends. Chianti grapes may have been used with grapes from other regions or in different proportion than in traditional Chianti wine. Don't worry. It's all good. Before the end of the night we bought a bottle of red from a red-haired man from the Fietri vineyards. We enjoyed that bottle a few days later in Barga when we picniced in the rain.
That night we had dinner at a restaurant down the street leading to the Piazza - La Cantina . Because of the Festival crowd all of the restaurants were jammed and this one was no different. We stood along one side of the front part of the place watching three men make pizzas behind the glass counter. They pounded and spun the dough into paper thin, round sheets. The manager - a nervous-looking, shaved-headed, man - brought us glasses of white wine, "while you wait". Before too long we were shown to our table. We ordered Tagliatelle with Pesto and Pizza Margherita. Two fairly mundane dishes to be writing home about except that the pizza turned out to be the thinnest and tastiest I ever had - including during the remainder of the vacation.
I'm something of a pizza-snob from New Jersey. I've eaten many different styles and brands of U.S. pizza in cities and suburbs around the state. I expected Italian pizza to be different but I had no idea it could be like this. I had to take pictures to show how light, thin and crispy this crust was. It was surprising and unbeatable.
As an aside - when we went back to La Cantina the next night, Alessandro, the manager - suggested a typical Tuscan appetizer. We were in a trusting mood. YIKES! We soon found in front of us the tray of thinly sliced, assorted meats (and meat by-products?), with some sliced cheese. We enjoyed the cheese, bread sticks and wine throroughly and were again pleased with our entres - but the meats stayed on the plate. I guess I'm not as much of an Italian as I thought. I later found out that Alessandro had apartments and a cooking school operation connected with the restaurant.
With the Festival basically wrapping up the final attration was a live Rock band set up in a large parking lot a block or two from the Cantina. I don't know the name of the band (guitar, bass, keyboard, drums & singer). but could tell they were playing some Italian Pop favorites. The crowd danced, bounced and sang along. I've posted a video in the Clips section with some highlights of the day including this band. If you can identify the group or the song they are singing in the video, please let me know.
What is an authentic Italian Festival like? That was one of the questions I wanted to answer on this trip. We'd been to "feasts" around home and they were always fun and funny. But now we had the chance to experience the real thing. The first difference is the lack of food vendors and portable kitchens in the surrounding area. We did find a park where a big dining tent had been set up and there were some things to eat being made in that area. Elsewhere there was a candy store wheeled in where a guy was smoothing a gooey mix of hazelnuts and sugar that had just come out of a turning, cooking caldron onto a marble slab. The counter of the store on wheels had a wide variety of hand made candies. We had the best nougat log ever. But that was the extent of the commercial aspect of the event. There were no t-shirt vendors, trinket sellers or games of chance/skill set up along the roadsides. We were not disappointed.
Another thing completely missing from this festival experience was any kind of altercation. Here was a crowd of a few hundred people drinking wine, holding glasses and bottles, bumping into each other as they wait for a taste, and it was very relaxed, congenial and civilized thoughout the entire day and night. I don't recall even hearing anyone raising their voice in anger. A surprising lack of drama at this Italian Festival. We didn't mind that either.
The next morning was our last in Greve. The Piazza Matteotti was again an open area. All the booths were gone and the last remnants of the event were being swept off of the stones. We packed up our backpacks with our bottle of wine and Festival wine glasses and walked back to the parking lot on a fabulously sunny day. Next stop - Barga.
Jewel of the Garfagnana
Barga is about a 2 short hour's drive from Greve. The last few miles on Strada Provinciale 7 (SP7) were mountainside roads that were scenic and fun to drive. The map in our planning book made it easy to find Albergo Ristorante Alpino (the Alpine Hotel). It's pretty much in the center of town. This hotel was opened by the Castelvecchi family at the end of the 18th century and is managed by the same family today. We enjoyed this hotel. It was clean, quiet and nicely decorated. A quaint check-in counter, a restaurant with a huge wine selection on the second floor, we had a spaceous room with a full bathroom. Our room on the top floor was facing the main street (Via Roma) which gave us a very cool view of the shopping/strolling area outside. I have to admit that, while I had heard the phrase "old Barga", it didn't register with me until we got to the Alpine and thought, "this is not that old". Old Barga must be somewhere else. One of the sites we planned on seeing was the Duomo. (Through friends at the BGRG we had an appointment with one of the campanaro for the next day.) It stands at the town's highest point. It finally dawned on me that the revered old church must be the center of old Barga - a section of town entirely different from where we were. So that is where we headed.
I've already said what a fan I am of Google Earth and Google Maps but I think they could have been a bit more precise about the entrances to the old city. Not that I'm complaining (too much) but when we followed the planned path we came to an archway that could not have been the "main gate". We took it as such because we didn't know any better. So much for the planned path. It took us the rest of the day, wandering through old Barga, to find the real main entrance (a much more imposing stone archway) with a much more direct path back to the Alpine.
Leaving "modern" Barga we walked across an old stone bridge and looked down on a landscaped park, eventually reaching a stone archway. Not very official looking and I don't even recall if it said "Barga" on it. Just past there the road split to a steep stone path to the left. We wandered and took pictures (its a good thing "film" is free) almost every 10 steps. Many of the streets were steep but the doorways were level. This is the logical way of construction but here, each door was so different that the logic of it was superceded by the whimsy. Some doors looked like pauper's plank doors that had not been changed since the 1400s. Others (the majority) stood like finely crafted, polished statements - testaments to quality and certainty. Many had the traditional door knocker - a lion's head gripping a metal ring in its teeth. I had seen this type of functional ornament all over Italy and since then, all over Ebay.
I think I first heard the word "Barga" when I was about 11 or 12. It was in answer to the question, "where was Nonno (my grandfather) born?" "Barga". "What a funny name for a town" I thought. "Not like Union City or Cliffside or even New York or Washington". I thought little of Barga and what it represented for decades until it came up again over a family dinner. Maybe it would be an interesting trip to see where Nonno was from. Fast forward to 2002. We stayed in Lucca and had planned on taking the once-daily bus up to Barga - but missed it (that's another story and part of the incentive to rent a car this trip). Since then my oldest brother and his wife visited Barga in 2011 and his description whet my interest even more. So - I've been imagining what a walk around Barga would be like. The anticipation was pretty high before we actually got there. I was not prepared for the excitement that came over me as we walked and gawked around this old village. I kept imagining life back when these homes were new. I saw the sundials on the sides of buildings. I heard the echo of footfalls on the narrow, winding stone walkways. I stared at the flat street stones carved with slots to function as storm drains. Everything took on a significance beyond the reality - because this was where Nonno was from. Being this geographically close to my ancestral seed was delicious to my senses and I could not drink enough of it in fast enough.
While we explored we didn't come upon people. Not walking on the same streets as us or looking out windows. In fact the most common encounter of the day was a motor scooter driven by pair of giggling youngsters. We could hear them coming minutes before they appeared and I suppose they knew the town was empty and scooting around was fairly safe. It's possible that they were disturbing someone in town but it wasn't us.
The streets in old Barga are characteristically narrow. Just wide enough for a horse-drawn cart, I imagined. Also perfect for scooters. The buildings were two or three stories tall and many had been refaced. Every few hundred feet we came to clearings or piazzas at cross streets, where we could look up and see the Duomo. It had undoubtedly been the focal point of life in medieval times. When we eventually came to a wider road it was the road to the Duomo. The closer we got the steeper the road became. There were occasional road side plateaus where a modest building and garden were perched. Perhaps these were the local convent or rectory. Along the way we stopped at these plateaus to take photos of old Barga below. We could see the laundry hanging on lines, the manicured flower gardens, the roof antennas and nicely-tended lawns. We did see a man in his yard but he apparently didn't like being watched or waved to by strangers looking down.
When we finally reached the Duomo we walked around its grounds noticing the different "patches" that had been applied since its original construction around the year 1000. There were major renovations and/or repairs in the 12th, 13th and 16th Centuries. Evidence of each iteration can be found by strolling around this historic old building. The facade is mostly flat - made of irregular marble blocks. Climb 5 close steps to the entrance portal arch which is flanked by columns topped with lion heads.
The interior of the Duomo is dominated by arches that divide the main atrium into 3 sections. A few steps in stands a marble pulpit which dates back to the 12th Century. The carved details on this single sculpture/platform describe ancient faith and virtue. Lions, dragons, dwarfs, mountains, eagles, angels, sphinxes, kings, saints, the Baptist and the Madonna are all represented. At the beginning of the right aisle stands a marble baptismal font. The center seating area, supposedly reserved for clergy, is raised a step and separated from other sections of the church by a waist high barrier made of red marble and inlaid white stone. Every edge, every surface has carved figures, faces or florets. Behind the alter stands an 11 ft tall wooden statue of St. Christopher, the patron saint of Barga. On the left and right of the main nave are chapels adorned with brightly colored glazed terre-cotta sculptures attributed to Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525). There are many other notable features and objects inside the Duomo but be sure to take in the view from the entrance - looking out over Barga.
On our way back down the steep road we stopped for cappuccino (yes, we like to drink it all times of day. Not just in the morning). We wandered around and found some piazzas with modern sculptures in the center. A testament to the living "old" Barga, I'd say. We actually came upon a visitor's center where a very friendly young woman talked with us and head us in the right direction to find the real archway entrance to the city - on our way out. I came away from the visitor's center with a heavy knowledge of how many sites, aspects of the region we would not get to experience. At least not this trip.
While walking around old Barga we occasionally, unintentionally happened to take pictures of the same things. One of those spots in town was a few feet down a sloped street from Piazza Angelia. The photos we took are attempts to capture the optical illusion-like nature of the corner. As we walked up sloped street there was an "alley" (vicolo stretto) that sloped downward. Looking down that alley to the left we could see another walkway and the corner of a building. To our right we could see the Piazza farther up the street we were on. In the center of this under-and-over view was a series of steps leading to the front door of someone's home. This home was positioned over the alleyway yet slightly lower than the leveled off area of the square. In one spot we could see 3 levels of habitat. Very curious. As I said - we would pass this spot many times. Especially to our favorite restaurant, l'Osteria, which stands on one side of Piazza Angelia.
It was at l'Osteria, our first night in Barga, that we were introduced to a most interesting appetizer - formaggi con miele - cheese with honey. The plate had blocks of 3 types of cheese - sheep cheese we later learned - and a center pool of acacia honey. You slice, you drizzle, you place in mouth and you make faces for the delight. We've tried this many times at home taking great pains to get the right cheese and honey. Somehow it's not the same without being surrounded by the Italian night air and the authentic vino de casa.
L'Osteria has a dining room inside and outside under an awning. We sat outside next to an interesting young European couple - he from England, she from Amsterdam. They were in town for the weekend staying at a bed & breakfast in old Barga which essentially was a room in a house belonging to a painter. We entertained each other through a very pleasant dinner. As we left our table a gentleman sitting at another table stopped us to introduce himself. He was an American chemist who had been working in Germany for years and wanted to comment that it was refreshing to hear American accents. He and his German lady just drove down on a whim and were looking for things to do (similar to the way we might just drive down to Cape May). I told them about the Luminaria procession in Lucca coming up in a few days - one of the biggest annual events in Tuscany. To my surprise they were not aware of it and I was glad to guide fellow travelers. All in all it had been a great night, good food, good wine, nice folks.
The following morning was overcast with periods of heavy rain. We wrapped ourselves and our picnic lunch (wine from Greve, bread, some cheeses and honey bought locally) in hooded rain parkas and headed up to the Duomo to meet with one of the Campanari (bell ringers) - for a "private" tour set up through a friend in the BGRG. Our guide, Cristian, let us into the Duomo's bell tower door, past the timing mechanism, up the steps to the level where the three bells hung. With his teenage daughter as translator we were able to learn about the competitions the Companari participate in, the team of 4 to 5 men who attend to the bell ringing every Sunday, and the huge bells themselves. I was interested to learn that chips were hatcheted from the metal edges to achieve the fine pitch tuning so necessary for a pleasant bell harmony. And that the bells must be turned every so often when the bell striker starts to wear at the inside of the bell. We were also in the tower when the automatic timer set the bells a-ringing. Yeah - it's loud - but Cristian laughs it off as part of the job. Of course we couldn't leave the tower without taking some photos from the unique vantage point. Even on this overcast day the view was enchanting.
We left our guides at the base of the tower and began our walk - in the rain - down the hill. We eventually found our way to l'Osteria, which was not open yet, and took refuge under the same canopy where we had eaten the night before. The rain fall loudly on the canopy roof as we unwrapped our provisions and proceeded to get sticky with honey and silly with wine. After a short time a small truck pulled up in front of the restaurant. The woman driver got out, and proceeded to make her delivery of fresh veggies. In the U.S. our presence might have been viewed with suspicion but she smiled and assured us that we were fine as she unlocked the restaurant, and disappeared into the door with her hand truck stacked with boxes. When she came out we exchanged references to the torential rain and she drove away. An hospitable encounter if ever there was one.
After a shower and a nap we made our way back for our last night and walk through Old Barga before leaving town. This time we knew the way to the front gate without Google and were drawn by the sound of live music coming from a storefront just inside the old village. We gingerly stepped into the store that had musicians standing and sitting all around. There was an accordion player running through some traditional songs. We respectfully nodded at anyone who looked at us when we walked in to see if anyone would motion us away - no one did. We crossed the room into the area of the store, an alcove where magazines, books and newspapers were sold. There a man with an electric guitar was arranging his chair, music stand, and amplifier. Being a guitar player myself I thought I would be able to start an easy conversation. It wasn't too long before my lack of Italian language skills reduced the encounter to polite smiles and nods. Then we sat quietly on the sofa that faced the entrance, while other musicians came in and set up. There was an acoustic guitar leaning on the sofa and as I moved it out of the way I instinctively cradled it to play. This was the first time since we entered that we seemed to cause some concern. The eldest gent sitting across from us spoke to the man behind the counter who started toward us. I played a few chords to communicate that the instrument was safe with me. We made eye contact and the brief tension was eased. It was clear that I would be permitted to continue to hold the guitar…for the time being.
There was a casual stream of chatter among the players - none of which was addressed to us. I thought they must be accustomed to having an audience. I never learned anyone's name but it was clear that the eldest gentleman was the "concert master". Perhaps he was the music teacher because every one of the mandolin players presented their instruments to him for tuning. Anyway, by the group dynamic I observed, everyone deferred to the elder.
The seating arrangements were organized with electric guitar and bass sitting in the side room walled with magazines and newspapers for sale. In front of them sat the 4 mandolinists who faced the center of the room. Our sofa was on their left so I could see the sheet music the end player was using. The accordionist sat with his back to the store's counter, across the room and facing the elder. Eventually the elder acknowledged that I was playing his instrument and it was time for me to pass it over the crowded coffee table to him. The younger man helped him plug the guitar's pickup into an old amplifier that was on the floor next to him. The accordionist, who played scales or melodies continously while conversing easily with everyone, became immediately quiet when the elder called the group to order. Seeing that everyone was in place, and confirming that the correct sheet music in front of them, he counted off.
Up until this point there had been a mix of familair and unique things happening in the room. The surroundings were unique but the items on the shelves in this store were obliquely familiar. I knew what crackers and cereal were - I just didn't recognize these packages. The language was obviously different but I'm familair with musicians setting up and arranging themselves in a room, tuning, adjusting, chatting. I'm familiar with one person focusing the group's attention and starting off a song. I was not prepared for the feeling that came over me when the music actually started. I was not familiar with the song but utterly delighted by it's playing. The sounds coming from all directions. I looked at each player and noticed a different level of intensity in their concentration - always intending to cooperate with the other players - keeping in tempo and filling in their part of the composition.
After about a minute I fumbled with my iPhone to start the recording function and captured the clips included in this website. After the song ended it seemed we were the only ones charmed by the performance. In fact, since the group's own reactions ranged from nonchalant to outwardly disappointed, I felt that my outburst of appreciation was unwelcomed and possibly an intrusion.
The elder made a few sharp comments to the accordionist and someone else - perhaps the bass player, then called out another song. Sheet music ruffled and they played again. We sat quietly for this and one other song and then decided to leave. As we crossed the room toward the door we offered our thanks, first to the elder and then to the group. When we stepped outside we could see a woman at the end of the street, carrying a mandolin walking quickly toward the store, talking hurriedly on her phone. I thought, the elder will not appreciate her tardiness.
There is only one more experience I'd like to mention since we found it so different from the way things are in the U.S. As described in the beginning - we each packed only one backpack each. All of our luggage fit into the overhead bin of the aircraft. This means we ran out of clean clothes and had to do laundry every so often. Our intention was to purchase whatever detergent/softeners we needed at the laundramat. To our surprise - they don't sell such things at the laundramats because they are not needed. When you load the machine and insert your coinage, the soap and softener are included in the cost and is dispensed automatically. Not only was this more convenient for us but the laundramat store was a cleaner environment without the packaging trash. Very civilized, I thought.
Lucca, the Luminaria and Settembre Lucchese
The next morning we drove from Barga to our next vacation spot - Lucca. We returned the rental car about 4 blocks outside the wall and walked the rest of the way to the Hotel La Luna on Via Fillungo. The entrance to the hotel is in a short side street. Our corner room on the second floor overlooked this short street to the restaurant across the way. With a neck crane to the left we could see Via Fillungo - one of the most popular shopping streets in town. The room had what looked like a 20 foot ceiling with a painting or possibly a fresco on it. Very nice room but we wouldn't spend much time there on this day.
We were familiar with Lucca from our 2002 trip - the wall, the amphitheatre, the gelato, and the impressive array of high-fashion retail stores. Now in 2012 we came specifically to take part in the Luminaria di Santa Croce and the coinciding celebration - "Settembre Lucchese". These two events are the biggest occasions in Lucca - possibly in all of Tuscany - beginning a day away. We set out to get our bearings and make our first day in town special on it's own.
The Church of San Michele in Foro stands in the center of a large square. It was constructed over a Roman Forum around the year 790 AD and rebuilt in 1070. The facade is from the 1300's with numerous sculptures and inlays. More restoration was done in the 19th Century. The peak features a 13 ft-tall statue of St. Michael the Archangel. Among the artworks inside is a Madonna with Child terracotta by Luca della Robbia. On the lower right corner of the façade is a statue (1480) of the Madonna salutis portus, sculpted by Matteo Civitali to celebrate the end of the 1476 plague. Across the street from San Michele there is a portico (portico of the Palazzo Pretoriale) with a statue of Matteo Civitali - Lucca's most famous Renaissance sculptor, painter and architect. It just so happened that on this day that portico was the location of a wine tasting featuring wines of the "Colline Lucchese" - the hills of Lucca. We paid €10 and each got a long stem wine glass we used to sample any 4 of the many bottles on display. After we had tasted and relaxed we returned the glasses and received our €10 refund. Very generous... and a great start to our visit to Lucca.
Lucca has some great attractions. Among them is the Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower) built in the 1300's by the wealthy Guinigi family. You can distinguish this tower from all the others in town by looking up and finding the tower with trees on the top. On the ground floor there was a live exhibit of two women spinning yarn and weaving on a free-standing loom. On the way up there are some tapestries on the walls dating back to the era when the tower was new. Climb the 130 steps and you immerge at the top of Lucca. From the shade of these holm oaks you can get an unparalleled 360 overview of the city.
The Church of San Giusto, one of the smaller ones in Lucca, has a distinctive alternating black and white, horizontal stripe design on the top part of it's facade. The present building was built over the first, and dates back to the 12th Century with re-facing during the Renaissance. The reason I mention it is that this is the landmark for the great little vegetarian restaurant we found across the street called "Soup in Town". Its a very small place but what caught my eye was the signboard outside announcing gazpacho - a cold soup usually only made during harvest months. I never get enough of it before it goes out of season so I couldn't pass it up. Over the next few days we would stop in to see what was on the day's menu. We had great lunches - farro soup, falafel, veggie omelets, quiche - with cool jazz playing in the background. I loved the idea of being served by the chef. Yeah - best lunch in town.
The church of SS. Giovanni and Reparata is a must see in Lucca's Roman area. This building offers a fascinating look into the history of the area and audio player guides do a good job of untangling the architecture. The church has a 16th-century facade and a 12th-century body, but excavations started in 1969 have revealed the structure is actually five layers deep. The modern (12th century) church sits atop a much older Lombard church that served until the early 700s as Lucca's cathedral, which in turn was built atop a 5th-century-A.D. paleo-Christian church and 6th-century cemetery, which took the place of a Roman temple built atop Roman houses. In the 9th century, a crypt was added. In all, 12 centuries of history jumble together in a confusing but interesting mélange beneath the pavement inside. During our tour we climbed down below the basement to see the areas where 1st century AD baths, water-channeling systems and pools had been excavated. The guide pointed out graffiti telling of "famous" visitors and a section of original mosaic tile flooring.
The museum aspect of the church of SS Giovanni and Reparata is only one reason to visit. The building is also used for an ongoing festival celebrating Giacomo Puccini and his music in his native city. We had stumbled into a venue dedicated to the performance of the world's classic music and we came back 3 times in 2 nights. The early shows featured a pianist and two different female vocalists. While we sat within feet of the performers I noticed that there were instruments and chairs set up behind the huge portraits of Puccini that made up the "set" for the cameo concerts. When I asked why the room was set up for a larger performance I was told about the show that would take place later in the evening. We paid another €17 and came back at 9 to hear a full orchestra with 10 voice choir, and male and female soloists. Three video cameras around the performers projected the action onto screens behind the musicians. The center of attention was the conductor who seemed to draw the music from the ensemble and then bounce it around his podium. The music was expertly performed without benefit of amplification - only the remarkable acoustics of the church building. Sometimes the band over powered the singer but the passion for the material always came through. I captured some of this great experience and you'll find an audio clip of a "Soprano duet in Lucca" and a video clip "Rule Britannia in Lucca" in the Clips section of this website.