We re traced our steps back across the 2000 year old cobble stones dragging our golf bags and suitcase behind us. Today’s train trip would take us to Pisa in the heart of Tuscany.
There was not a lot of room for our golf bags so we commandeered a single seat at the back of the carriage and hoped like hell no one had booked that seat. We had window seats facing each other – Steve had a good view of the bags so could keep an eye on them. Unfortunately half way through the trip someone got on that had booked that seat. The conductor told us we could lie the golf bags by the doors to exit the train – no problem when we were moving but every time we stopped at a station Steve had to get up and make sure people could get out! Not the most relaxing journey we have had.
We had booked the second class tickets back in NZ and after our experience in first class on our trip from Switzerland to Rome and then our experience to Pisa we would recommend booking first class going forward – a lot more space for you and your bags!
We arrived into Pisa at about 3pm and caught the PisaMover to the airport which took about 6 minutes. We then followed the signs to the car rental depot to pick up our little car 🚗 and little it was. I did wonder how we were going to fit all our luggage in but once we put the seats down it was surprisingly easy.
We had booked a hotel off the Luxury Escapes website called Renaissance Tuscany IL Ciocco Resort which was in the Garfagnana and Serchio Valley region. It was about an hour and a quarter to the hotel during which time we got our first introduction to Italian drivers! Generally they drive very fast (the speed limit signs are a mere decoration), love to cut corners, tailgate, overtake at any opportunity and beep at you if you’re not going fast enough for their liking and can’t get past. Even with all this crazy driving, cyclists still choose to share the road with these maniacs – they must be crazy Italians too. We encountered a lot of cyclists and if they are coming towards you at the same time as a car is coming towards you the driver of the car will overtake the cyclist without any regard for you coming the other way so it is up to you to take evasive action. It was a harrowing first trip in our little car.
Our hotel was a couple of kilometres up a windy and steep road so our next challenge was to get our little car full of luggage up there. Our poor little car was working hard but coped admirably.
The resort was lovely and set high up above the valley so we decided to take the weekend to chill and relax – it was hot and the pool was a welcome way to keep cool. On Sunday night we took a drive to Barga which was about 6km away. They had a festival over the weekend and had some food trucks in the piazza so we enjoyed a few different dishes from those.
Barga is a medieval town with a population of 10,000. Pania della Croce, a mountain of the Apuan Alps, dominates the surrounding chestnut trees, grape vines and olive groves. Chestnuts are a local speciality although they aren’t in season at the moment.
This Red telephone box was a gift to Barga from retired fish and chip shop owner Mauro Cecchini – who’s family were originally from Barga but who has been living and working in Edinburgh Scotland for many years.
Mauro bought the K6 cast iron telephone box in an auction back in 1986 and installed it in his garden where he had a working telephone connected to his house so that he could make and receive calls in the comfort of his own home. When he moved to a smaller house without a garden a few years ago he was forced to leave the box behind.
A chance meeting with the Mayor of Barga, Umberto Sereni and connections with an export/import company in Scotland who moved the 750kgs box for free was enough for the idea of donating the box to the city to pass from just an idea to being a concrete reality.
The iconic cast iron red painted box with its distinctive small window design, crown and telephone panel, was the idea of noted architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He was commissioned to design the box in order to commemorate George V’s Silver Jubilee Year, which heralded a policy to install the so called ‘jubilee kiosks’ into every town or village with a post office. The design, which built upon various prototypes from the 1920s became known as the ‘K6’ and soon became a welcome sight at the roadside across the United Kingdom.
However, it is not used as a telephone box but a book exchange – the smallest library in Tuscany.
On Monday we decided to go and do a wine tasting at a family owned winery near Lucca in the hills of Mataraia. The winery was called Fattoria Colleverde. The drive down to the winery was interesting and we hoped we wouldn’t meet anybody coming the other way. There were olive trees everywhere and it was a beautiful setting.
We got set up for our wine tasting outside – we had opted for the five wines tasting – the pours were very generous so we took our time and enjoyed each one. Our hostess told us a lot about the winery and methodologies.
The land on which the vines are planted was originally in olives and although they still have 2000 olive trees they planted some vines about 35 years ago. The land was part of the wife’s heritage and when her and her husband moved onto the land they decided to plants grapes 🍇 – neither of them had any wine making experience but they have made a success of it over the years. The vineyard is certified organic and they use organic and biodynamic principals in growing and making the wine.
They have 4,500 vines per hectare and produce about 40,000 bottles annually. A lot of it is sold locally with some exports via people visiting the winery. The wine is made in oak or stainless steel vats but they don’t add any additional yeast – it is all fermented naturally. All the grapes are hand harvested.
A lot of the buildings were from the 16th century and they have been restored to their original state.
The main white grape varietal in the region is the Trebbiano. Their red blends were made with a high percentage of Sangiovese. They also make a 100% Chardonnay and their flagship wine called Sinopia is 100% Cabernet Franc.
They don’t have any irrigation so rely on nature. They have a twenty year cycle where they dig up the vines to uncover the soil that retains water – this is compressed and the vines replanted. The vines then take about five years to get back to full production.
It was a wine sort of day so after a lovely few hours at Colleverde we headed back to the hotel to join the complimentary wine tasting we had been invited to. We tasted a local red and a local white wine which were very nice. A lot of the wineries just produce for local consumption.
Although we didn’t taste any prosecco the sommelier gave us some background information. I find I am enjoying the sweeter wines more these days so am tending to go for a prosecco rather than a champagne so I was quite interested in what he had to say.
Prosecco is an Italian white wine. Prosecco controlled designation of origin can be spumante (“sparkling wine”), frizzante (“semi-sparkling wine”), or tranquillo (“still wine”). It is made from Glera grapes, formerly known also as Prosecco, but other grape varieties may be included. The following varieties are traditionally used with Glera up to a maximum of 15% of the total: Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.
The name is derived from that of the Italian village of Prosecco near Trieste, where the grape and wine originated.
Prosecco DOC is produced in nine provinces spanning the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. Prosecco Superiore DOCG comes in two varieties: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, which can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (north of Treviso), and the smaller Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, produced near the town of Asolo. DOC and DOCG refer to the designated origin of control with the G standing for Government meaning that a wine with this label not only comes from the area but meets the quality standards as set by the Government.
Prosecco is the main ingredient of the Bellini cocktail and can be a less expensive substitute for Champagne. It is also a key ingredient of spritz, a cocktail popular in northern Italy.
I woke up very early on Tuesday morning to the sound of thunder and I could see lightening flashes through the curtains – it wasn’t a nightmare just a blip in our time under the Tuscan sun. It was definitely cooler with a bit of rain forecast throughout the day so we changed our plans to visit San Gimignano until the Wednesday and had a relaxing day at the hotel.
It actually came out quite nice in the afternoon so we enjoyed some sunshine before our complimentary cooking class at 4pm.
There were 9 of us and we all participated in making the dough for gnocchi, ravioli and tagliatelle. The chef did speak a little english but when he realised we had an Italian speaking guy in the class he deferred to him to translate. Luckily Matteo was a nice guy and enjoyed translating for us.
The chef and his assistant then took our finished products away to cook and add the sauces so I’m not really sure if that qualifies for a cooking class but a raw pasta making class. It was fun never the less.
We all enjoyed the local wines while we waited for our food to be cooked. Matteo and his wife Rosbella were from Torino in the north and although Rosbella didn’t speak english she could understand it. A bridge had collapsed a couple of hundred kilometres north of where we were so that was the big news of the day – Matteo uses this particular bridge regularly so was very interested in how the tragedy was unfolding.
We talked to Matteo about the Italian economy and it was very interesting. He said that if you work for the Government or a Government agency you can retire after 20 years of service and continue to be paid your full salary which is adjusted upwards annually for inflation. What a deal but what an unsustainable situation that the country finds themselves in. I had heard on the news that morning that Italy was looking to lower their retirement age which was going against what other countries around the world are doing. They too have an ageing population and issues with growth due to the reduced labour force.
After World War II, Italy was transformed from an agricultural based economy which had been severely affected by the consequences of the World Wars, into one of the world’s most advanced nations and a leading country in world trade and exports. It has an industrious and competitive agricultural sector (Italy is the largest wine producer in the world), is known for its creative and high quality automobile, naval, industrial, appliance and fashion design – it is the largest hub for luxury goods in the world and the country’s private wealth is one of the largest in the world.
Despite these important achievements, the country’s economy today suffers from structural and non structural problems. The late 2000’s recession hit Italy hard and the Government spent massive amounts of money to revive it which produced a severe rise in public debt. In 2017 debt was 133% of GDP. In comparison NZ’s debt was only 22.2% in 2017. There is a considerable divide in living standards between the north and the south with the south being the poorer cousin.
After our discussion on the Italian economy we enjoyed the pasta that we had helped prepare – it was delicious 😋. We enjoyed the company of our fellow pasta makers – Brian and Kerry from Australia, John from the UK and Matteo and Rosbella from Italy.
Wednesday the 15th of August was Ferragosto which is a public holiday in Italy, Ticino (the Italian speaking part of Switzerland) and San Marino. It coincides with the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. By metonymy, it is also the summer vacation period around mid-August, which may be a long weekend (ponte di ferragosto) or most of August.
The Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the virgin Mary into Heaven – the day when Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven “body and soul” after the end of her life on earth. However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.
Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period – intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.
In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races, and the Siena Palio dell’Assunta, which takes place on August 16th, keeps these traditions alive.
Today, the holiday combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots; it also marks the semi-official start of Italy’s summer holiday season.
We took a trip to check out San Gimignano which is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany, north-central Italy. Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls, form “an unforgettable skyline”. Within the walls, the well-preserved buildings include notable examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with outstanding examples of secular buildings as well as churches. The Palazzo Comunale, the Collegiate Church and Church of Sant’ Agostino contain frescos, including cycles dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The “Historic Centre of San Gimignano” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is also known for saffron, the Golden Ham, and its white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape which is grown on the sandstone hillsides of the area.
At the height of its glory, San Gimignano’s patrician families had built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano still retains its feudal atmosphere and appearance.
We enjoyed wandering around the many shops and art galleries. We enjoyed lunch at a restaurant outside the walls that had a great view over the valley. The landscape in this area was more like what we had been expecting in Tuscany – gently rolling fields full of sunflowers and grapes. The area where we are staying is much more mountainous but equally as picturesque.
When we were planning our trip to Italy we had checked out staying at a golf resort called Castelfalfi but decided against it. Enroute back to the hotel we came across Castelfalfi so had to stop in to check it out – it looked Ike a great course with lovely scenery albeit a bit hilly.
The plan for Thursday was to visit the Cinque Terra which was a couple of hours from where we were staying. I had seen the pictures and it looked beautiful.
The Cinque Terre (five towns) is a string of five fishing villages perched high on the Italian Riviera (region Liguria) which until recently were linked only by mule tracks and accessible only by rail or water. An ancient system of footpaths is still the best way to visit the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.
The Cinque Terre is noted for its beauty. Over centuries, people have carefully built terraces to cultivate grapes and olives on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the Mediterranean Sea.
The breathtaking views of harbours far below the wild but hospitable coastline along with the medieval fortresses and plentiful vines and vibrant colours make this a memorable holiday spot.
The Cinque Terre, recognized in 1997 by the Unesco Mankind’s World Heritage, are today a National Park and Protected Marine Area with the aim of protecting this great cultural heritage and natural environment.
I did some research and decided it was best to park at La Spezia Migliarina and catch the train to the main La Spezia station which is the gateway from the south to the Cinque Terra. When we got to the main station at La Spezia we were greeted by hundreds of people everywhere and a big queue to get tickets for the Cinque Terra. You can buy a day ticket or a multi day ticket that lets you access the trains, toilets, hiking trails and wifi hotspots. I joined the queue and about an hour later I had two Cinque Terra day passes. Next mission was to get on a train – it was crazy busy but with a bit of jostling and sprinting down the platform we got on.
Due to how busy it was we decided just to go to a couple of the villages to get a taste of the place. We went to the furtherest village first – Monterosso.
Monterosso is the largest of the five coastal villages. The village is located on hills cultivated with vines and olives. The vegetation surrounds the built-up area like an embrace; its amazing beaches, its beautiful reefs and the sea’s crystal clear waters make this small village one of the most hospitable of the Ligurian Riviera.
The village is divided in two parts marked by the medieval tower of Aurora. The new part of town, Fegina, is full of life, it is the reflection of an area that tourism has made rich, as the great quantity and excellent quality of hotels and restaurants give evidence.
Fegina is dominated by the famous concrete statue of the Giant, built beside the terrace of a local villa. This statue was created at the beginning of the XX century by Levacher and Minerbi, an architect and a sculptor, and represents Neptune, the god of the sea. Now it has become the symbol of Monterosso.
The old town of Monterosso is dominated by the ruins of the castle and characterized by typical narrow medieval streets carruggi with multi-coloured terraced houses. The beach is the only extensive sand beach in the Cinque Terre and runs along most of the coast line and is well used by tourists and locals.
The beach was jam packed and the water looked so inviting. We strolled along the coastal path enjoying a gelato stop. We have become gelato snobs though after our Roman Food Tour in Rome looking for signs that the gelato is real and not fake – it is not as easy as you may think 🤔, especially in the tourist hot spots.
We then carried on to the Aurora Tower which is in the style of the 1500’s although it has been added to and renovated over the centuries. There is a really nice restaurant up there and we decided to treat ourselves to a Hugo. Everyone has their take on cocktails and today’s Hugo was quite sweet with minimal bubbles – I really enjoyed it and it was such a gorgeous spot.
We decided to make our way back to the train station to check out the next village – we had chosen Vernazza but spoke to a couple at the station who were staying at Manarola who said they found it was the quietest of the five villages. I am not sure what planet they were on because when we arrived it was also jam packed. There is no beach here so people just lie on the rocks and jump into the water from there. We walked up to the high point and again the views were gorgeous.
We sat in the shade and ended up chatting to a lovely young French couple – the guy spoke english and told us that his english teacher was from Auckland, NZ. They were fun to talk to and I so love the way they translate English phrases. We discussed the fact that no one checks the tickets on the trains so you could easily ride them for free which they had done on a couple of occasions – they were staying at Monterosso for a few days so had been visiting the different villages. He was laughing and said ‘but I don’t want to be burnt by the fire’ – his take on ‘if you play with fire you could get burnt’.
Manarola, built on a high rock 70 metres above sea level, is one of the most charming and romantic of the Cinque Terre villages.The tiny harbor features a boat ramp, picturesque multicoloured houses facing the sea and a tiny piazza with seafood restaurants.
Along the main road the boats are pulled onto dry land every time the sea is rough. The Main Street down to the sea was lined with small boats. Although there is no real beach here, it has some of the best deep-water swimming around.
The village is all ups and downs, with steep narrow alleys carrugi, leading to the sea. Today the church serves as a religious and community meeting place, but in more ancient times, the bell tower was used as a post to watch for potential pirate raids.
Another peculiarity of Manarola is a pyramid in white cement whose peak can be seen rising between the taller houses and is used as a navigational reference point for all those at sea.
We decided we had done our dash with the crowds so headed back to the train station to catch the train to La Spezia and another train back to our car at La Spezia Migliarina. We then had a couple of hours to endure with the crazy Italians on the road before reaching our sanctuary at Renaissance.
It was a worthwhile trip but I would recommend going when it is quieter so you could enjoy the villages without the crowds and the searing heat.
On our travels south we had spotted a cool stone bridge that I wanted to check out – the bridge at Borgo a Mozzano, called “The Devil’s Bridge” or the “Maddalena Bridge” is certainly the most beautiful bridge in the province of Lucca, and one of the most suggestive in Italy. Many legends were born from its myterious construction and its singular design, with one large arch flanked by three smaller ones, inspired the works of many artists. The bridge’s slimming profile, which continues to strike its admirers, must have been even more impressive in the past before a dam was built, in the years after the Second World War, which raised the level of the water in the surrounding area.
According to legend, the bridge was built by Saint Julian who, unable to complete the hard project, asked the Devil for help, offering him in return the soul of the first living being who would have crossed the finished bridge. Once the bridge was finished, Saint Julian threw a piece of bread onto the bridge, luring a dog to cross it, cheating the Devil.
There is little historical information about the building of the bridge. Nicolau Tegrimi, in the biography of Castruccio Castracani, attributes the bridge to Matilde di Canossa (1046-1125) and mentions a restoration made by Castruccio Castracani (1281-1328.) According to the hypothesis of Massimo Betti, during the Castruccio government the minor arches were constructed in stone, replacing previous structure in wood. This would explain the difference between the major arch and the minor ones.
In the 16th century the Hermitage of Maddalena was built on the left bank, providing a name for the bridge. In the following centuries the right bank was built up with factories. In 1889 the structure of the bridge, on the Borgo a Mozzano side, was modified to allow the passage of the train line which runs from Lucca to Aulla. A part of the bridge was demolished and a ramp was built over the train tracks.
We arrived at the bridge about 8.15am and the sun hadn’t risen above the hills so it was rather chilly with quite a wind which we hadn’t really encountered anywhere else. Our visit was short lived.
Next stop was Pisa which is the capital city of the Province of Pisa. Although Pisa is known worldwide for its leaning tower (the bell tower of the city’s cathedral), the city of over 91,104 residents (around 200,000 with the metropolitan area) contains more than 20 other historic churches, several medieval palaces and various bridges across the Arno River which empties out into the Mediterranean. Much of the city’s architecture was financed from its history as one of the Italian maritime republics.
The city is also home of the University of Pisa, which has a history going back to the 12th century and also has the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, founded by Napoleon in 1810, and its offshoot, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies as the best sanctioned Superior Graduate Schools in Italy.
The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, the Square of Miracles in English, was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The square is not located right smack in the center of the city as you might imagine but along the north western edge along the city’s fortified wall, almost out of the center. This is where space was available back in 1094 when construction was first started on the cathedral.
Since the times of the Etruscans, the three structures found in the piazza have been considered central to religious life, symbolizing the main stages of a human life: the Baptistery represents birth, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta life and the Camposanto, of course, alludes to death. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually considered a part of the cathedral since it is really its bell tower.
The square is surrounded by a beautiful green lawn which you are not allowed to walk on. As in most cities, the square was called Piazza del Duomo until Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio described the square as the “prato dei Miracoli,” or “meadow of miracles” in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910). The square is now simply known as the Campo dei Miracoli, which is literally the “Field of Miracles”.
Construction of the Duomo began in the 11th century and, after many changes, was actually only completed in the 19th century when the architect Alessandro Gherardesca gave the square its final present appearance.
The Square first started taking shape in 1064 with the creation of the centerpiece of the entire complex: the Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. The cathedral symbolizes the maximum expression of Pisan Romanesque architecture influenced at the same time by various stylistic elements. At the time, Pisa was a Maritime Republic (from the 11th through 15th centuries), and sailors travelled around the Arab world and remained smitten by all the beautiful things they saw.
Years later the enlargement of the fortified wall began (the church at the beginning wasn’t inside the walls) and the building of the baptistery began only in 1152. The baptistery was located directly in front of the Cathedral with a diameter equal to the facade of the cathedral. About 20 years later, work started on the bell tower which is now known simply as the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. In 1277, work stated on the graveyard, known as the Camposanto.
Before the Florentine siege in the 15th century, you could enter the square through the Porta del Leone, but this was closed by the Florentines when they built the current door called Porta Santa Maria. During the era of the Medici and Lorraine dominance in the region, the four monuments were surrounded by the construction of many other buildings: these were knocked down only at the end of the 19th century when the architect Alessandro La Gherardesca reorganized the square to give it its current structure.
The most recent changes were made during the Fascist era: the monument She-Wolf of Rome was added on the lawn north of the bell tower and 17 cypresses were planted east of the square, in memory of the soldiers that died in the war.
We had parked in the free parking about a kilometre from the tower and walked there passing all the souvenir shops. The tour buses had also started to fill the parking lot. We were pleased we had got there early because the place was really filling up as we left. I had spotted these hand painted t-shirts as we walked in so went back to have a look on the way out. I spoke to the woman and her husband who’s stall it was and it turns out they have a son living in Auckland – he has been there for 15 years and is a real estate agent. They have visited and loved it. The woman and her daughter paint the t-shirts and their main design is the sunflower 🌻 – it was only right I purchased a couple 😉.
The closest large town to the hotel is Lucca and although we had driven past it a number of times we hadn’t stopped in so today was the day. I had googled where to park and ended up within the city walls – we were driving slowly through the car park with ancient walls either side and getting beeped at – bloody Italians! We ended up leaving the city walls and finding some free parking about a kilometre away. Some people we met in Rome had recommended we bike the city walls so we hired a couple of bikes and off went – it was only 4km to circumvent the old town so nothing too onerous.
Lucca has become a popular retirement spot for the British, French, and Germans in recent years. Although the city as a whole contains about 84,000 inhabitants, the old walled city, by far the most interesting part of town, has a population of only 7,500.
The walls encircling the old town remain intact, even as the city expanded and modernized, unusual for cities in the region. Initially built as a defensive rampart, once the walls lost their military importance they became a pedestrian promenade, the Passeggiata delle Mure Urbane, a street atop the walls linking the bastions. Each of the four principal sides of the structure is lined with a different tree species than the others.
The old walled city is commonly referred to as the city of one hundred churches for the large number of religious buildings which represent marvelous examples of architectural Italian styles.
It was very hot so after our little jaunt around Lucca we headed back to the hotel for some R & R by the pool – our last afternoon under the Tuscan sun. In the evening we took our little car another 1.2 kilometres up the hill to Locanda Alla Posta for a lovely dinner. We were leaving the restaurant after dinner when Steve said hello to a little fella who was about 3 – he then proceeded to tell Steve in Italian that he had done a farto 😂. The little guys grandma came over to drag him away laughing as she tried to explain what he was saying. It is the same the world over – kids and farting 😮.
Some final thoughts on our trip to Italy…..
In hindsight we didn’t do enough research on Tuscany before coming here. The hotel we stayed at was lovely but it was probably a little bit removed from the action. When I thought of Tuscany I thought of fields of sunflowers, vineyards, local markets and an abundance of fresh produce. I think this would have been more prevalent a bit further south and we wouldn’t have had to travel so far each time we wanted to do something.
I am going to make a generalisation here – the Italian people as a whole are not particularly friendly. Of course we encountered some nice Italians but it wasn’t the norm to be greeted in a positive and friendly manner.
So many people smoke here and it still seems acceptable to smoke in public places although it was banned in 2005.
August is a busy time in Italy so it is probably not the best month to visit if you are not a fan of lots of people and queues.
I mentioned what we perceived to be crazy driving by the Italians above so I was curious to see what their road toll was as a percentage of drivers and cars on the road. It turns out it is about 2% lower than NZ’s per 100,000 population and about 5% lower per 100,000 cars so maybe what we perceive as crazy driving is actually highly skilled driving 🤭.