Image Credit Cécile Paul unless otherwise stated.
Italy has been an endlessly alluring and enchantingly seductive travel destination for centuries. From the 18th century onwards Italy has been a magnet for the aristocracy – for their ‘cultural education’ (and pleasure of course!) and the so-called ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe was a ‘must-do’. Home to the Romans and considered the heart of civilization, Italy was the ultimate dream journey. Little has changed, and the fashionably boot-shaped country with its diverse natural landscapes, its exotic coastline, rich history, unrivalled culinary scene and uber-fashionable inhabitants remains the holiday destination of choice for those who want to venture a little further south than beautiful France.
One of the areas often overlooked when conjuring up in the mind’s eye the iconic sun-scorched rolling hills, picture-perfect rows of cypress trees and winding roads of ‘Chianti-shire’, Florence, Sienna and Volterra is their geographical neighbor, the adjacent green and lush Garfagnana Valley. This is a spot in which we – the Paul family – have spent 25 years holidaying in our tiny rural farmhouse surrounded by a few acres of orchards, high up in the mountains near the grand old walled city of Lucca. Year after year, with 4 young boys crammed into our battered Land Rover we’d set off on a rather slow journey that would take the best part of two-and-a-half days from Edinburgh Scotland, through the UK, France and northern Italy to arrive at our humble abode La Rocca at Gromignana, near Lucca in Tuscany. As I’ve been intimately acquainted with this area – a lesser known gem than some of the obviously famous Tuscan tourist destinations, allow me to give you a little ‘Grand Tour’ of my favourite piece of bell’Italia.
Everybody knows where Pisa, Florence and Siena are, and you may have heard of Cortona, San Gimigniano, Pontepulciano, Viareggio and Volterra, but not everyone will have visited what must be one of the most spectacular parts of Tuscany, the Garfagnana Valley, with its charming hilltop towns sprinkled across a lush green landscape of rolling hills and valleys. Winding roads connect the historic little market towns and more often than not the road hugs a cascading river anywhere you travel around the area, criss-crossing ancient bridges. Steeped in history, each of these towns – from Barga to Coreglia Antelminelli, Bagni di Lucca to Castelnuovo and further north, Casteleone di Gafagnana, to mention but a few, has an ancient architectural heritage and is situated within a setting of breath-taking natural beauty. Not to mention the mouthwatering array of delectable food and wine offerings to be discovered and enjoyed in the region!
Should you decide to explore this phenomenal part of Tuscany you’re advised to fly to Galileo Galilei International Airport at Pisa (which is around 30 minutes’ drive from Lucca), rent a vehicle and head northwards from Lucca into what can only be described as another world: the stunning Garfagnana Valley. Should you choose to stay in one of the many B&B accommodation hubs in the countryside, you’ll need a vehicle as the roads are steep and winding, and buses will only take you so far.
If opting to stay in one of the villages – like the quaint and ancient rustic hilltop town of Gromignana, Ghivizzano, Coreglia Antelminelli or Barga with their panoramic views over the rolling landscape, or the poetic Bagni di Lucca with its warm springs – you can make use of public transport, trains and buses are prompt. You will, however, need a vehicle if you want to access the more remote attractions in the area, like the famous Grotto del Vento.
From the vantage point of our little rustic villa, the stone-built La Rocca, the world is one’s oyster. Snugly situated on its own mountain slope, once you’ve arrived via a very steep and winding road, you’re in total privacy – the next idyllic little farmhouse is literally situated on the next hill in the distance. The house looks to the south down the spectacular Garfagnana Valley towards Lucca and westwards to the Southern Apennine Mountains. During the summer the area is abuzz with summer festivals in all the small villages, and summer sportspeople, especially mountain cyclists, take to all the winding roads in their flamboyantly vibrant riding kit.
From La Rocca (or your own holiday abode in the Garfagnana Valley) you can plan a break that has all the hallmarks of the quintessential holiday under the Tuscan sun – from visiting the beaches at Pisa, Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi to wine tasting around Lucca, visiting the art galleries in Barga and sightseeing in Florence. Should you prefer to stay closer to home, this area is covered in mountain tracks for day walks. Our favourite walks include a steep 20 minute trek up to our local ruined monastery Romitorio San Ansano beside the tiny village of Gromignana (offering a spectacular 360 degrees view over vineyards, olive groves and mountains), a 40 minute walk to the spectacularly quaint neighbouring town of Coreglia Antelminelli (for a well-deserved morning coffee after all that exercise!) and an exilarating 30 minute walk through the forest, crossing the river to yet another neighbouring village, Lucignana, to watch the locals play football. Whatever we do, we always aim to be back home around 4 pm, to have some delicious local wine, have another swim, watch the sun set over the mountains, light the barbeque fire and wait for the millions of stars to appear overhead.
A note to wildlife enthusiasts … if residing in the countryside, you’re bound to spot plenty wildlife: a phenomenal amount of birdlife – from white barn owls and hawks to buzzards and woodpeckers live in the canopies, porcupines, hares, deer and wild boar roam the forest. It comes with the territory that the odd scorpion, spider and snake is never too far away either, but rest assured, none of us has ever suffered a bite. For part of the summer the forest is ablaze with millions of fireflies at night – the most magical of spectacles to behold!
But first things first! Before you do anything, you may want to stock up the fridge with all the delectable necessities for a scorching Tuscan summer. You’ll marvel at the huge selection of local wines and beers for pool-time sundowners, the incredible selection of salumi or cured meats of the region (my favourite is salame piccante, a typically spicy semi-dried sausage) for snacking at any time, the local solid and saltless Tuscan breads (that are delicious dipped in a mix of local olive oil and balsamic vinegar), the plump and tasty Roman tomatoes, peaches, apricots and an array of summer fruits, the rustic Tuscan pork sausages for your barbeque, the incredible selection of pasta and of course all the vast choice of Tuscan sheep’s milk cheese and other formaggio. If you’re there during the winter months added bonuses include divine Panettone and fresh chestnuts (the Garfagnana Valley is home to numerous chestnut forests), readily available at the shops and markets, roasted on the fireplace indoors or on the barbeque. Now that you’re ensconced and stocked up, you may want to start exploring the area! There are too many trips to mention, but here are a few of my favourites.
A wonderful daytrip is to the stunning medieval hilltop town of Barga (which incidentally, claims to be the most Scottish town in Italy and is universally regarded as one of the most beautiful villages in Italy). Filled with umpteen ancient palazzi, art galleries (Barga boasts umpteen famous artists in residence), an antique market and eateries, Barga is also home to almost 40 years of Jazz Festivals. Our favourite walk is one that takes you through the old town gates, up the tiny steep and winding streets that lead to the ancient church with its tall cypress trees at the highest point of the town (making various pitstops underway for coffee, traditional pastries and of course the obligatory and unbeatable creamy gelati or sorbet at one of the many Gelaterie). From the top of Barga one has a stunning birds eye view across the red Tuscan roof-tiled houses, across to the panoramic valley and surrounding villages – it truly encapsulates all that is Tuscany. Unsurprisingly Barga – being full of Scots – also hosts a famous annual Fish & Chips Festival – a brilliantly festive event to meet the locals!
Another fabulous trip is to the dreamy historic spa town of Bagni di Lucca, known for its healing thermal springs since the time of the Etruscans and Romans. This quaint riverside town, situated in the middle of chestnut forests, has been home to many famous visitors and foreign inhabitants including Napoleon and his sister, Dante and Puccini. Today the town is home to numerous fabulous eateries, a warm spring and stunning public swimming pool, where we often spend an afternoon poolside amongst the elegant locals. One of our favourite trips is to pack a picnic – bread, cheese, fruit and beer – and head for a spectacular swimming spot in the river Lima just outside Bagni di Lucca, where one can swing – old-school – from a rope and land in the cool water on a swelteringly hot summers day.
Should you want to have a beach-side adventure, I would suggest the ultra-elegant seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, often called the ‘Hamptons of Tuscany’. Birthplace of Paola Ruffo di Calabria, Queen of the Belgians from 1993 to 2013, this town is still pretty aristocratic and very upmarket, having boasted the likes of authors Thomas Mann and Aldous Huxley, Guglielmo Marconi and sculptor Henry Moore as locals. Not to mention singer Zucchero, tenor Andrea Boccelli and Paolo Bertolucci! You may bump into Giorgio Armani, who has a villa here or the fashionable Castiglioni family, founders of the Italian fashion brand Marni, who have spent their summers here for generations. Should you be after the latest Prada or Marni handbag or sunnies, Forte dei Marmi is the place for you. And if exquisite eateries and delicatessen, fashion boutiques and art galleries are what are on the menu before sunbathing with the beautiful Italians in their designer swimsuits afterwards, Forte dei Marmi is it! The famous Wednesday market is also a must.
No trip to Tuscany is complete without at least one visit to Puccini’s birthplace, the spectacular walled city of Lucca. We usually park outside the Renaissance-era wall gate (or, if you arrive by train, it’s a short walk to the nearest entrance to the old town) and head for one of the picturesque gates into the ancient cobblestoned town with its narrow streets. Here you rub shoulders with the super elegant Lucchese, navigating town on their bicycles, dressed in crisp Armani linen suits, baskets filled with faccaccia, Villa Antinori wines and fashionable shopping! There are too many touristic things to mention, but a must-do is the Antiques market over the second last weekend of each month in the centre of the old town, when a huge part of town is filled with monumental antique artefacts, bric-a-brac, food, vintage clothing and the likes. It is a sight to behold! Another firm favourite is a climb up the Torre Guinigi, from where you have a breath-taking aerial view over the entire city of Lucca. Shopping, especially food and fashion, is another highlight – the perfumeries, apothecaries, delis, bakeries, wine shops, book shops and ice cream parlours are second to none. My favourite thing to do, however, is to simply walk through the cool, narrow lanes lined with their terracotta and ochre-coloured buildings, many with spectacular roof gardens overlooking the city, with their monumental doorways and heavy wrought-iron windows, to stop at the water fountains and wet my face in the Tuscan heat, fill up the water bottle and continue strolling and people-watching. Lucca hosts the world famous annual Lucca Summer Festival, with high calibre performers like Eric Clapton, Placebo, Massive Attack, Roger Waters, Tracy Chapman and Santana, all in the most spectacular setting and balmy Tuscan evening heat.
Here are a few other favourite things we like to do in the Garfagnana Valley:
- Pose for photos at the Ponte delle Maddalena (The Devil’s Bridge) at Borgo a Mozzano.
- Drive through breath-taking scenery and visit the Grotto del Vento caves at Apuane Alps Nature Reserve.
- Visit the Friday food and clothes market at Fornaci di Barga for fabulous hand bags and frocks, fabrics and towels, local olive oil and succulent fruit.
- Picnic and swim in the river at Bagni di Lucca.
- Lunch at the green Botanical Gardens at Castelnuovo.
- Walk over the 13th century medieval bridge at Casteleone di Garfagnana before eating local salumi at Il Pozzo.
- Visit the vast sculptures and statues of the Boboli Gardens
- beside the Pitti Palace in Florence.
- See as far as Lake Trasimeno from the renown Piazza Garibaldi in Cortona.
- Enjoy the vibey nightlife on the boardwalk in the seaside town of Viareggio with its palatial buildings.
- Buy some Etruscan goodies in the spectacular walled town of Volterra.
- Count the towers in the ochre-coloured town near Siena, San Gimignano.
- Do a day trip, walk from village to village and stop for a scenic picnic in the dreamy Cinque Terre.
- Visit the famous wine estates around Lucca like Fattoria Al Dotto Lucca and Terre del Sillabo for wine tasting and fabulous views.
For more images of La Rocca, see https://www.facebook.com/Villa-to-Rent-in-Tuscany-La-Rocca-427213210818422 and www.airbnb.com/rooms/10764934.
HOPE TO SEE YOU IN MY NECK OF THE WOODS!
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