Barga: The medieval hill town where Tuscany meets Tartan
I had been to Tuscany about ten years ago, and had formed the view that if my life had turned out just a bit differently, this would be the one place in the world where I could choose to live.
If, for example, I had been an English rock star of the 1970s - which, of course, I so nearly was - this is surely where I would have ended up, in some grand old villa high in the Tuscan hills, with maybe a modest vineyard to keep me occupied.
There I would reminisce about my number one album in America which is still paying for it all, the time I was one of the headliners at the Reading Festival along with Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, and my many appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test.
In this vision I would also be wearing a white linen suit as I sat drinking coffee at a table outside a little cafe in the village every morning, reading my International Herald Tribune and wondering if I could be bothered moving for the rest of the day.
And while my actual life is not quite like that, I think that Tuscany naturally suggests such visions in the way that a work of art can offer us clues to a higher state of being. Tuscany in itself is an enormous work of art, pretending to be a region of Italy.
If we have any tendencies towards the bohemian side of things, those crazy Tuscan hills will always bring them out in us, as we observe some villa situated so high up on one of those hills, it seems to have been put there purely for artistic purposes - purely to stimulate our sense of wonder that anyone would even think of building a house up there, to challenge our imagination as we try to figure out what the view is like from such a height. Or is there anyone up there at all?
Last time we were in the Chianti region, this time Caroline and I and our 17-year old daughter Katie were a bit further north in the medieval hill town of Barga, to which we drove in a Fiat Panda rented at Pisa airport. At which point I will pause to deliver a very important announcement, pertaining to road travel in Italy but also perhaps to many other countries where you basically don't know where you are going : you will need a Sat Nav, of that there is no doubt. But here's the really crucial thing - when that woman in the machine asks you if you want to use a toll road, you must always say "yes". I know that your instinct might be to say "no", to think that you're on your holidays and you're happy to wander off the main highways, and anyway you fear that the toll system may be confusing.
But if you do that, you might well end up where we ended up one night, driving up a mountain pass for about an hour, and then down the same mountain pass, knowing that if we got a flat tyre we couldn't phone for help because there was no phone coverage up there, and generally fearing that our lives were going to end in some deeply unpleasant way.
When we got down from there, somehow, the medieval vistas of Barga seemed all the more alluring. And when I say that Barga is medieval, I don't mean there's an old ruined castle there as a remnant of some vanished culture, I mean that most of the old town is still actually laid out as it was in medieval times, with these little cobbled streets and squares and churches and, of course, discreet reminders of the modern world such as restaurants and bodegas and galleries, maybe even a bit of wi-fi available in the old piazza.
Naturally you will also see that quintessential vision of Italy, the motor car that suddenly appears on the cobbled street, with about six inches to spare on either side, its driver navigating the old alleyways with a sense of complete nonchalance, as if the town planners of the Middle Ages had foreseen the exact dimensions of the aforementioned Fiat Panda, and now its time had come.
We were staying for a week just outside Barga in San Bernardino, a grand old villa originally constructed in the late 18th century. and renovated but not in a way that would detract from its essential character. It's a proper house with thick walls and heavy furniture, but also a pool in the garden and access to the internet. So you could feel as if you were living in the interiors of some subtitled Italian film, but you could also check your emails.
There are five large rooms with enough space to accommodate up to nine people and a dog - you can bring one pet, which is probably more of an attraction for visitors from Germany or Poland who can travel overland, as it hard to imagine even the most fanatical animal-lover flying their dog over from Ireland. But it's a good thought anyway, creating an air of informality which was reinforced by the proprietor Stefano, who was very helpful in a discreet sort of way, responding to an early emergency when we locked ourselves out of the house, as we were inevitably going to do.
And while I for one might have elected to spend the entire week getting a bit of Tuscan heat in the garden, beside the pool, perhaps reading some EM Forster and glancing up occasionally at the view of those magical hills, contemplating the Apuan Alps and the Appenines, there was an alternative option whereby we could drive off every day in the Fiat and visit the top attractions of greater Tuscany.
Which is what we ended up doing, using San Bernardino and Barga in general as our base camp, always returning there and gradually discovering that it was not quite as it seemed - that it was not entirely Italian at all, in the sense that there is this deep connection between the town of Barga and Scotland, in particular the city of Glasgow to which many people from Barga went and where they prospered mainly in the restaurant and takeaway business.
This was a strange and wondrous discovery, bringing us a sense of social history along with the history embedded in the walls of the great cathedral which was built at the top of the hill of Barga, like something out of a medieval Disney fantasy .
Because the land was not the best, they left all this to go to work in the chippers and the cafes and the ice-cream parlours of Glasgow, and so there is this other surrealism stacked on top of the existing Tuscan kind, as you realise that the woman bringing you a pizza in Pub 46 in Barga has a Scottish accent and is originally from Paisley, that at any restaurant you are most likely to hear a Scottish accent at the next table, that there's a red British phone box in the town as a kind of a symbol of this connection, and that there's a plaque in one of the churches which contains the name Nutini, someone who might well be an ancestor of Paulo Nutini himself, whose people came from these parts and who has apparently maintained his links with Barga to the present day.
Then you start to think of other well-known Scots with Italian names - the footballer Lou Macari, Sharleen Spiteri, the singer with Texas, the actress Daniela Nardini. This fantastical land is where they are coming from, and having prospered in Scotland or indeed in America, they may return to the old country, to this place they call the tartan Tuscany, maybe to open a little bodega, just like Paddy used to do.
And when I say "old", I am referring to a specific kind of oldness which, like many things in this region, has been raised to something of an art-form. You can still see it in Ireland in the few pubs which weren't "modernised", and which now seem like listed buildings, but in Tuscany it seems to be everywhere, this sense that they realised at some vital point that there was no need for certain things to change, that they were just right the way they were, and that if they left it alone, with a certain amount of subtle maintenance, the whole world would come to appreciate it.
So while the landscapes are fantastical, and the antiquity is mesmerising, there is also abundant evidence of rock-solid common sense. And in Florence, which we visited for a day, there is a ridiculous amount of all such things. We drove for an hour from Barga to Lucca, then got the train to Florence for roughly 90 minutes. And then we just wandered through many of the treasures of the Renaissance. Though for some of them, such as the David, you are advised to book a couple of days in advance.
If you go to the Boboli Gardens, and you keep climbing the steps, you will see a panorama of Florence that is beyond imagination. But we were hungry for culture all over the place, which took us on another day to Torre del Lago, a town on the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli, which is devoted mainly to the honour of Giacomo Puccini, and where in July and August they have a grand opera festival which will be visited this year by a party from Ireland led by Marty Whelan.
On a kind of a reconnaissance mission for Marty, we visited Puccini's villa, which is tremendously well restored, including his stand-up piano on which he composed Madama Butterfly and Tosca, though some may find the fact that the great man is buried in a mausoleum there, to be a tad disconcerting.
It didn't bother us though, and we continued our jaunt towards the coast to the beach at Viareggio, before swinging back towards Barga through the town of Pietrasanta, a place long associated with artists, a work of art in itself, in which the quality of the local stone was recognised by the likes of Michelangelo.
Indeed, motoring through these parts, being overtaken frequently and expertly by the local drivers, we saw great slabs of the local marble waiting to be shipped to the connoisseurs in New York or London or maybe even certain areas of Dublin.
Which stands to reason - everybody wants a piece of this place.
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Take Three: Top attractions
You can see many of the great treasures of Florence in a day, just by following the many other tourists, especially Americans and Japanese, and the occasional Irish person. But if you go high up into the Boboli Gardens you can see the whole of the city, and that may be enough for you.
It’s quite a climb, but in the end they make it worth your while.
Torre del Lago
Its full name is Torre del Lago Puccini, since the entire town on the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli is dedicated to the memory of Giacomo Puccini, a very sensible idea which we might copy in Ireland — ‘Athlone John McCormack’ sounds good. It was strangely quiet on the day we visited, but the opera season really kicks off in July and August. And then it’s all Puccini, all the time.
Dominating the old town of Barga, as it was no doubt meant to do, the Collegiate Church of San Cristoforo makes us ask some of the great questions of ourselves, such as, how the hell did they build this hundreds of years ago when they had no proper machinery? And is it all right to go up into the pulpit and pretend to give a sermon? Like much else in this extraordinary place, these things will remain a mystery.
Sunday Indo Living