The Beauty of Barga and the Garfagnana

If you’re looking for somewhere to get away from it all, the medieval town of Barga in the Garfagnana is a lovely location. While there are several historic sites, churches and monuments, none are as compelling as the vistas of the countryside and mountains, so it is the perfect place to take a break from sightseeing and spend a restorative day or two ‘smelling the roses’. If you’re after a little more action, Barga is also a great base for some serious mountain biking and hiking.

The Garfagnana is the area that encompasses the valley and hills trailing the Serchio River between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines towards Lucca. It is probably the most undiscovered part of Tuscany and is prized for its wide skies and mountain vistas. Mostly consisting of small, hillside hamlets scattered among oak and chestnut forests, Barga is one of the larger settlements in the Garfagnana and is billed as the most Scottish town in Italy (a nod to the Scottish Highlands).

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Getting there

Barga is approximately 35km from Lucca and is an easy, 45-minute drive. From Pisa, it’s about an hour. There are regular trains from Lucca to Barga-Gallicano station on the Lucca – Aulla line (€9.00 return trip). From Barga-Gallicano station, Barga is about 4km uphill. If you’re fit, take a bike with you (additional €3.00 return trip on the train), but the climb from the station is quite steep and would challenge a novice rider. Buses run from across the road from the station, but may not connect with all trains, so it is best to check at the time of booking. It is also possible to travel direct from Lucca by bus.

Staying there

If you don’t have a car, you will almost definitely want to arrange accommodation in Barga. For those with a car, the range of accommodation extends to luxury spa hotels and agriturismos in the surrounding hamlets.

We travelled by train (with bikes) and stayed in Barga at 3-star Villa Moorings Hotel, which was a 5-minute walk to the old city and to a range of restaurants and osterie. Villa Moorings Hotel is a Liberty style villa-turned-hotel and is packed to the gunnels with history and charm. Our room and bathroom were vast and full of period furniture and fittings. Beatrice, the owner/manager, was as charming as her hotel. She has done a wonderful job of repurposing the villa, once owned by her grandparents – think frescoed ceilings, grand staircases and ornately tiled floors. The effect of stately charm extends to the outdoors where there is a large pool alongside a grassed lawn and orchard. We travelled to Barga in June and booked through a booking website, however you can contact Beatrice direct on +39 583-710915 or +39 583-711538. We paid €101 for the night plus €10pp for a breakfast that was delicious and way more substantial than we needed.

Eating out

There is a range of trattorie and osterie in the old city and several options outside the old city walls, including bars and pizzarie. Like other Tuscan cuisine, the Garfagnese take pride in preparing traditionally simple food, using local, seasonal produce. We had dinner in the old city at L’Osteria, which included an antipasto of cheese, nuts and honey, followed by macaroni (no resemblance to what we are used to in NZ) with truffle, then by lamb and potatoes – all delicious and relatively inexpensive at €39 plus drinks. We skipped dessert and were treated to a glass of local limoncello ‘on the house’ before we left.

What to do

Duomo di Barga
A walk up to Barga’s Duomo (Church of San Cristoforo) through the old town is a must. Walking through the town, you can be forgiven for feeling somewhat of an intruder – the cobbled lanes and stepped passages are very narrow and steep; even the piazze are tiny. Follow your nose uphill and you will eventually arrive at the terrace of the Duomo where you can take in the majesty of the views of the Serchio river valley, the Appenines and the Apuan Alps. From behind the Duomo, looking down towards the valley floor, you can see steeply terraced plantings of grapevines, olive trees, citrus and vegetables that are typical of the area. The Duomo itself is well worth a look and will provide welcome relief from the heat if you are there in the summer.

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Sommocolonia…
Looking out of our hotel window, I was intrigued by the tiny village sitting atop a not too distant hill to the north of Barga. Beatrice was quick to provide us with directions that included a hike up to Sommocolonia by way of an ancient mule track (mulatiettiera). The mule track can be joined about 2km from Barga at Catagnana; keep an eye out for the red and white ‘signs’ (which may just be paint marks on the road, and may almost be worn away). We lost our way a couple of times and needed guidance from a helpful local, the owner of two mules which we had the pleasure of encountering along the way. The climb up to Sommocolonia is not difficult, but it is a steep walk and requires a reasonable level of fitness (approx. 1.5 hours). At the top, from the tiny village (population about 35), the views are sublime. Originally an important fortified Roman outpost, Sommocolonia was partially destroyed by bombing in 1944 during the Second World War. At the village’s highest point, a monument to the partisans who died fighting alongside US forces seems incongruous with what now appears to be a peaceful and sleepy village. It’s a good idea to take plenty of water and a snack with you. When we visited, the only people we encountered were also hikers and although it was very hot and made sense for locals to be indoors, the chance of happening upon a bar or any other eatery seemed very remote.

Another big thanks to guest blogger Niki McNeilage of Wellington who is currently spending a few months living and touring in Italy, France and Spain.

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Slow travel – Lucca, Italy

If you’ve pounded the cobbles, jostled with hordes of tourists, wilted in queues for the ‘must-sees’ and yet remain in love with Italy, consider Lucca in Tuscany as a slow travel destination or base for your next experience of la dolce vita.

Ignore the current herd mentality: ‘Tuscany is done to death. Florence is overcrowded. Chianti is expensive and overrated’. Head to Lucca for an experience that is quintessentially Italian, in a city that is very liveable for residents and tourists alike.

Yes, the scenery in the surrounding countryside is jaw-dropping – olive groves, vineyards, peach and cherry orchards. And yes, the medieval buildings, churches, and monuments are awe-inspiring. It’s the essence of Lucca and its citizens (Lucchesi), the ease of getting around, and its proximity to other transport hubs that differentiate Lucca as an ideal destination.

Lucca is defined by le Mura, an ancient 12-metre high, 4.2km stone wall that surrounds the historic centre of the city. Originally built to protect citizens from invading Pisans and Florentines, the wall is now a tree-lined promenade and wooded park for the Lucchesi and invading visitors. On any day, the wall resembles a treadmill of strollers, amblers, dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists. On its grassed and wooded bastions, locals engage in cross-fit, yoga, board games and any number of other activities.  It’s a venue to meet friends, sit, read, and for those with time on their hands, to while it away. Drop down from the wall into il centro and you’ll discover a maze of cobbled streets, lanes and piazze. There are myriad shops, bars, delis, restaurants, trattorie, pasticcerie and gelaterie. Of course, there are also supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and the usual trading establishments you would expect to find in a thriving city. After all, unlike many of Italy’s other, more touristy cities, the Lucchesi live and work in their historic centre.

Lucca is not however confined to its historic centre. Outside the wall and beyond its pastured fringe, a tree-lined ring-road spills traffic to nearby residential, commercial and agricultural areas, and to all the services essential to support the city.

The Lucchesi are a paradox of professional and polite yet warm and friendly, parochial yet cosmopolitan, and laidback yet conscientious. In the hotels and restaurants and in many of the shops, staff speak sufficient English to easily accommodate visitors. They know when you buy a coffee that you’ll likely want to sit at a table outside, and they don’t charge extra for table service, which is common in many of Italy’s busier tourist cities.

Getting about is easy. Walking or better still, cycling is the most convenient way. In fact, the centre of Lucca is limited to residents’ vehicles and in much of the centre, vehicular access is prohibited. Whether you’re an accomplished cyclist keen to take advantage of the fantastic cycle routes on offer outside the city, or a novice hoping to master a few laps of le Mura and pick up dinner from the deli, there are bike shops that can rent or sell you the right bike for the job. Lucca is a city of bike users and bike aficionados.

Options for activities in Lucca are plentiful. Shopping ranges from high-end designer stores to farmers’ markets. Take in some of the sightseeing, festivals, shows, exhibitions, and concerts on offer. There’s something for everyone. Take a language course or a cooking class. Don’t be surprised, when you’re out for dinner, to find there’s a free concert in the piazza you’re dining in. For the more active, there’s hiking, mountain biking, equestrian, and cycling.

Within an hour of Lucca and an easy day trip by train or car (or by bike for the fit), you can visit the vineyards, wineries and olive oil producers in the hills of Lucca and in Monte Carlo; the seaside resorts of Viareggio and Versilia; the spa towns of Bagni di Lucca and Montecatini Terme; the mountain towns of the Garfagnana; or Pisa (and its famous tower). Many are worthy of at least one night’s stay, if you have the time.

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Florence and all that it offers, Siena, the hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, and the Italian Riviera cities of La Spezia (the southern gateway to the Cinque Terre) and Portovenere are within easy reach by train or car. You will almost definitely want to consider making more than a day trip to these.

Venture further afield by car or by public transport; trains hub out of Pisa and Florence, and both cities are serviced by international airports.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in la dolce vita, Lucca is an easy and relaxed destination to do it from. Expect the unexpected, take the time to observe the locals, soak up the atmosphere and experience the culture. Do as little or as much as you like; you just might not want to leave lovely Lucca.

Big thanks to guest blogger – Niki McNeilage from Wellington who is spending a few months living in and experiencing the charms of Italy, Spain and France.

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