My iPhone vibrates me gently awake just before 7, and a rustic beamed ceiling comes into focus above me. I’m lying in the back bedroom of a 16th-century house in the North Tuscan hill town of Barga. After pushing open a shuttered window for a quick peek, I dress quietly in the weak morning light and gingerly slip out the door, careful not to wake my slumbering wife.
I’m on a mission.
Braced with but an acrid cup of instant coffee (a proper espresso will have to wait), I grab my Nikon and take to the winding stone streets, hushed and deserted at this hour. I reach Porta Macchiaia, a stone-arched exit from this medieval walled town, without seeing a soul. All the action is overhead, you see. The last two days were gray and damp, but now, major meteorological changes are afoot. Clouds are to-ing and fro-ing like a hurried set change at an opera. Is that blue? I need to get to higher ground.
I speed-walk up a narrow farm road snaking eastward across a hillside of terraced gardens, olive groves and vineyards seeking the perfect perch to catch Barga bathed in golden-hour light. Finally, there’s a break in the roadside bramble and I turn westward to behold nothing but a band of white mist where the town should be. So I wait, listening to the last of the evening’s rain drip from olive branches and a distant rooster’s call. Finally, the gauzy curtain parts to reveal the crenulated bell tower of the Romanesque duomo, its flanking of conical cypress trees and the pastel-colored houses tumbling higgledy-piggledy down from there. I fire away, almost giddy from the beauty.
And to think I never wanted to come to Tuscany.
Jill first proposed coming here six years ago for our first big trip as a couple. I quickly nixed the idea (and we went to Portugal). Tuscany just seemed overdone. I mean, Olive Garden says it’s “Tuscan inspired”; there are Tuscan-flavored Wheat Thins and “Tuscan herb” potato chips; the book-cum-film “Under the Tuscan Sun” birthed a veritable cottage industry of world-weary Americans journaling their spiritual redemption within crumbling Tuscan villas. Tuscany just seemed like this overly imagined Italian landscape—and one I pictured as chockablock with yapping Americans clutching Rick Steves guidebooks astonished to find that the hidden-gem eatery they read about is chockablock with yapping Americans clutching Rick Steves books.
But then some old friends of mine rented a house in Barga and invited us over. And then we saw that bargain-basement flights were available (just over $1,300 round trip for both of us) and that the Euro was pretty dented. So it was that in early September we found ourselves on a train out of Milan, wending our way along the Serchi River valley amid the Apuan Alps.
Make no mistake. Barga is a touristed town. Curiously, many of the tourists are Scots. It even bills itself as “The Most Scottish Town in Italy,” a byproduct of a 19-century, job-seeking diaspora that saw many locals end up in Glasgow, where lasting familial connections were forged. No, there’s no haggis ravioli, but the town does have an annual fish and chips festival and a red, Brit-style phone booth (doing duty as a tiny lending library).
It’s not a big place—some 10,000 residents—divided between walled, maze-like Barga Vecchio, where auto traffic is restricted, and the adjacent Barga Giordano, or new town, that’s home to the larger shops and businesses. But Barga punches above its weight, blessed with the amenities of a much larger locale: a jazz club, a cute hatbox of an opera house (a weeklong voice festival was ending on our arrival), art galleries and a slew of great restaurants (fancy Scacciaguai, friendly L’Osteria, and pastry-focused Pasticceria Fratelli Lucchesi, to name a few). So, yeah, tourists come. But when strolling the old town’s undulating Villa Mezzo, the main drag linking a series of small piazzas, we don’t overwhelm the place. (Contrast this to Lucca, an hour’s bus ride away, where we did an overnighter. It’s an amazingly beautiful place, but some of its pedestrian byways are so choked with camera-slingers you could probably lift your feet up and still be borne along by the throngs.)
Coming to this quieter corner of Tuscany left us bereft of a must-see agenda of cathedrals, artworks and museums. Oh, well. Guess we’ll spend an afternoon on the back terrace in the shade of a bay laurel with a book and a glass of wine while the duomo bell tolls out the hours of unrushed time. We do enjoy hiking on our overseas jaunts, though, and Club Alpino Italia has marked out a number of nearby trails. The most rewarding leads up to Sommacolonia, a stony hamlet perched way, way above Barga. Serene now, it was the scene of fierce fighting in World War II. A heroic band of black GIs, aka Buffalo Soldiers, defended the town with considerable bravery and loss of life. (Their leader, Lt. John Fox, was killed in action and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor; a Sommacolonia street is named Via 92 Divisione Buffalo.)
It’s heavy going at times to get there up along an old mule trail through chestnut forests. As is often the case, there came a point when—panting, eyes stinging with sweat—we looked at each other, like, wait, why are we doing this on our vacation? But there is always a payoff—in this case, dizzying views of Barga and other terra-cotta-roofed villages far below, and later, much local vino and a hearty pasta lunch at ristorante La Terrazza in the neighboring town of Albiano.
Oh, sweet Jesus, the food over there. I was able cook some with fresh goods from local markets (please don’t touch the produce before you buy it; you’ve been warned) while also employing wild rosemary and thyme forged in the hills. We had plenty of white-linen dinners (I dream about ristorante L’Altana’s delicate sheets of fresh pasta in truffle sauce) and some decidedly unpretentious noshes, too. Take the mom-and-pop outfit Fratelli Rossi—half café, half grocery—we heard was serving two-course lunches. The price with wine: 10 Euros (about 11 bucks). But eating excellent spaghetti alle vongole (white clam sauce) and a caprese salad amid racks of paper towels and canned goods beneath a TV showing “The Simpsons” dubbed in Italian? Priceless. (And just the sort of down-hominess long gone from the burgs encircled with bus parking.)
Our over-too-quick, two-week trip alsoincluded a couple of nights in the windswept, old Etruscan hill town of Volterra and also among the Parmesans in foodie Parma (in the neighboring Emilia-Romagna region).
Rhapsodize as we do about our itinerary, we still get the odd look and curious questions at cocktail parties. No Florence? No Chianti hills? No Cinque Terre?
No, really. And no regrets.
WHERE TO DRINK.
If you come to Barga you will end up at Da Aristo, a whole-in-the-wall cafe and de facto social hub on Piazza Del Comune where locals, ex-pats and tourists unite for vino rosso, Campari sodas and al fresco musical jams.
WHERE TO STAY.
No, we didn’t stay at Casa Fontana B & B but my friends have (and raved about it), and we met its jovial Scottish owners, who helped with our hiking plans. It’s a beautiful old home with a garden terrace that routinely tops every list of local accommodations.
WHAT TO READ.
The excellent, largely English barganews.com website is a labor of love by a man-about-town called Keane (like Cher, that’s it), an ex-pat Anglo-Irishman who’s part artist, musician, writer and photographer.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR.
Garden gnomes. Kinda hard to explain, but some years back, Barga was named a European Gnome Sanctuary and garden gnomes from all over where “liberated” from yards and delivered here. Best ask Keane about this lark over drinks at Aristo’s.