When thinking of Tuscany most people, Italians included, imagine rolling sienna coloured hills with Cypress lined roads snaking over top, vineyards, sheep, and umbrella shaped pine trees. We know differently…
We flew out of Porto on a fairly late flight, destination Rome. As the last flight arriving on the tarmac that evening we were destined to pay 40 Euros ($60) for a 5 minute taxi ride to our airport hotel on the opposite side of the airfield. The modest hotel had a comfortable bed and a breakfast included for $180. After a satisfying breakfast, we packed up, walked to the train station and headed for Florence. Normally our maximum budget for short term accommodation is about $100 CA. But this was Rome. Rome is awesome but having been there a few times we didn’t go in.
We have been to Florence together twice and this was Deb’s 8th visit. With hopes to see our chef and cooking school friend, Marcella Ansaldo, we chose to visit Florence. (Unfortunaely she was occupied on our date but able to visit us at our next destination; San Miniato) We booked a room close to the train station and Palazzo Antinori (the famous purveyors of historic Tuscan wines). $190 CA! It was in an older “house” that was converted into shops and apartments. Our little space was up two flights of stairs, through a large entryway that may have been a bedroom or parlor, down a very long hallway to a tiny door then down a hidden miniscule spiral staircase that our carry-on barely fit through. Another tiny locked door at the bottom of the stairs revealed our stay. A space resembling one that Quasimodo may have inhabited. Perfect! What a Slice. It opened up into a room with a coffee machine. The bathroom was like our trailer with the shower just over the sink, toilet and floor drain. It had a very comfortable king size bed!!! How they got that in there is beyond me. Magic.
We walked and walked. It was October 31 and there were zillions of little goblins with parents in tow. The blood donation people were in ghoulish costumes promoting their mission. The weather was perfect and we saw much of the memorable stuff. Clet’s souvenir store, delicious gelato in San Niccolo was savored, Santa Maria Cathedral and Duomo, Piazza de Michelangelo, Ponte Vecchio, Uffizi and it’s surroudings, Piazza del San Lorenzo, and all the things you pass along the way. Dinner at Mercato Centrale capped off the evening. We fell into bed at midnight with sore feet, full bellies and the morning task of hopping the correct train destined for the famous White Truffle area of San Miniato on our minds.
Arriving by train to San Miniato on All Saints day meant no public transit busses. We managed to figure out a cab and the driver asked if we were hiking the Via Francigena. We had heard of (and tasted) the “must have” sandwich called Francesinha in Porto, so the name was sort of familiar but after the cabbie’s prompting, it was on the radar!! What is it? -This pilgrimage route called the Via Francigena is from Cantebury, England to the Holy Land (Jerusalem) (walking?!). Between these “bookends” are France through to Italy via Apulia, Lucca, Sienna, Rome then hop a barque to the cradle of Christianity. We researched this unfamiliar term that kept cropping up after our arrival in San Miniato and fit it in with many of the churches and cathedrals we visited in the EU giving us a broader lens to understand European history. San Miniato, situated on a hill, has a tower at the upper most part of town (of course). The impressive Torre di Frederico II was built in the 1300’s but destroyed by the Germans in the 2nd WW and rebuilt in 1958. From the surrounding grounds we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and took in the sweeping views of the agricultural lands below. On our one full day there we hiked through town past a number of large churches that line the road as well as many shops, street-side bars and restaurants. We took note of the many event tents that were being assembled in the streets for the largest White Truffle festival in Europe. Sadly, we would have to miss that spectacle due to arrival times for our house-sit in Camporgiano. But the tourist info office had recommended a trail meandering past small farms and vineyards that surround the hillside town. The hike, including the walk through town was about 8 Km and well worth the effort. Our dinner of Tortellini with spinach and mushroom ragout accompanied by delicious Tuscan wine was divine. We had earned our sleep that night.
We had two great days there, one day spent on our big walk (which, incidentily, did include a short bit of the Francigena “Way”) and another closer to our AirB&B. On one of the evenings we sampled the local cuisine with our friend Marcella. Choosing a cozy, small, well established family restaurant, hoping for dishes composed, in some way, of white truffle in light of the start of the National White Truffle Festival slated for the following weekend. As mentioned the tents and displays were being readied and the anticipation of the featured attraction was on everyone’s minds. However, the host / proprietor informed us they had sold out during the afternoon service and they didn’t have white truffles. (*insert sad emoji here*) In retrospect it’s probably better for our wallet that they didn’t. No idea how the festival went since the drought in the summer had made these mushrooms scarce and definitely unaffordable for the likes of us. San Miniato on the other hand was not an expensive destination with lots of hiking and delightful little stores full of delicious ingredients if that was your thing. Plus, the view was to die for.
Marcella is one of those wonderful women who is professionally trained, worked in a man’s culinary world, and has enough entrepreneurial spirit to open a cooking school in Florence. Hailing from the Isola del Giglio she grew up in the family restaurant. When I met her, I needed to find a place to teach my students preparation of some Italian foods. I loved that she “got it”. I didn’t want them to just make pasta and pesto. Over the years she educated us on cooking cock’s comb, baby artichokes, various honey varieties that were not necessarily even sweet, Lardo de Colonatta (more on that later), a sauce of olive oil, breadcrumbs, garlic and anchovies, pesci pasta, a tender pasta made with milk for beet and ricotta ravioli (Casumziei Ampezzani) and olive oil cake that starts in a cold oven. So many ideas that broke the mold of any of my training. I wish I had a picture of us this trip but here is one making pici with my students from her school in Florence.
After staying two nights in San Miniato, we hopped the transit bus back to the train station and we were off to Lucca. We booked a modestly priced “room with private bathroom and shared kitchen” in the walled town. Our host was Lucia and one of the guests taught harp at the music school. Lucia’s family had been in her “house” for over 400 years. She had 2 floors with 2 kitchens, 4 bathrooms, at least 4 large bedrooms and two living rooms above the ground level parking and storage. Her sister’s apartment was separate and equally sized. The house was spotless and jammed with heirlooms. It was not minimalist at all and perhaps a bit cluttered. But how do you downsize 400 years of stuff? Good stuff. Stuff that belonged to the priests in the huge church beside the house. Stuff that was her mother’s mother’s lace or cabinet. Everything had a story and Lucia shared her stories and proudly introduced us to her shy, 4 Y.O. granddaughter.
We walked and walked in Lucca as well. Huge tents and platforms that were erected throughout the inner piazzas and fields outside the walls were being dismantled. Comics and Games 2022 where over 300,000 visitors had finished just before we arrived. The wall around the old town is about 4.5 k around and at least 30 meters wide for most of it. Originally designed as a defensive fortress, the wall was also designed for the nobility to discreetly promenade during peaceful times. Giant sycamore trees line the roads and playgrounds, gated secret walkways and restaurants line the historical path.
These past 5 nights from Rome to Lucca were part of this episode of our travel life as housesitters. We have a profile on a website called TrustedHousesitters that allows people to travel economically by looking after others homes or by having someone caretake your home, pets and plants while you are away. We saw a listing for 6 weeks in Northern Tuscany and jumped at the chance. After a video call with the owners, we checked all the boxes and they welcomed us in while they got married and went surfing in Costa Rica. Our responsibility was Kyra, their gorgeous husky, and Cali, their robust ginger cat. Located in the Garfangnana region of the Serchio river valley in the Province of Lucca, this area was all about the Apuan Alps on the west and Appenine mountains to the north, Castagne (chestnuts), Cararra marble, and the ancient roadway trails of the (previously mentioned) Via Francigena, Via de Volto Santo and the Campostolo de Santiago. We did our best to get to know it with Kyra the dog in tow.
The largest center on the upper Serchio is Castelnuovo de Garfagnana and the largest community near us with stores, restaurants, bars, fuel and schools was Camporgiano, pop-~2000. Within walking distance were the hamlets of Roccalberti (pop 38), Isola de Roccalberti (pop 0), Colle Aprico (pop 12) and Vitoio (pop 82) Roccalberti was always on our walking route, with an unused bell tower built into the rock above and a small bell with amplifier on the newer church within the farming village. In winter, we seemed to be the only tourists wandering the trails. Those trails were probably built by or before the Romans when they conquered the area 2400 years ago. Many of the hilltops over the valley have fortresses in all forms of repair and disrepair. Some have become tourist destinations, local goverment seats, or piles of rocks. Every town has a church and bell tower. There is no getting lost on the trails as all creeks flow to the Serchio and all communities announce their location with bells ringing every half hour after about 7:30am.
Every day came with a new discovery. Our host introduced us to their surrounding locale and it became our standard loop with Kyra. Within 4k we passed through the 5 small hamlets listed above, some populated, some not. Summer would be a different story as many of these mountain towns have been turned into holiday houses as the cooler elevations are welcome in the summer. Behind tall shrubberies are pools, outdoor kitchens and pizza ovens. The populated hamlets are multi-generational farmers who also may work in the local marble quarries in the nearby Apuane alps, guide adventurous tourists, teach local cooking in agritourismos, or mill castagne and polenta powered by a creek under or near their homes.
The local tourism associations are working on keeping trails clear for alpinist hikers, mountain bikers and pilgrims. One trail we saw often was the Via del Volto Santo. Often there were trail markers, directional signs on the roads, or nothing at all creating mysterious disconnects. The website visittuscany.com has a good description for trekkers. The sounding bell towers were always helpful for allowing us to not feel lost. We often saw signs for biking to Spain’s Caminho Santiago de Campostela from train stations and small towns in the Serchio valley. But these signs were sparce and we didn’t investigate further. The tourist offices probably had more information but our hosts said they “were working on it, I think”. The Via Francigena was very well marked in Lucca and San Miniato. Although the mountains surrounding the Serchio were part of the route, we saw very few trail markers to understand it. These discrepancies added to the sense of the Garfagnana’s “off the beaten track” atmosphere and pervaded our thrilled feeling of having discovered this unique place haphazardly without contending with the usual throngs of tourists.
We took Kira to the beach near Pisa. During the summer months it is very crowded. But, this too, we had to ourselves during the slow November and December months. Note, below, the Apuane Alps in the background and Albert (in shorts) suggesting it was warm. It was!!
In the small town of Camporgiano we could find delicious Italian staples. But no cilantro anywhere! Some might celebrate this…
One day we hiked along the Via del Volto Santo to Castiglione di Garfagnana and came across this “mulino” The man invited us to come see it in operation. The water flowing under the hosue was turning the millstones and he was grinding polenta. No doubt a multigenerational tradition from a much earlier time.
After starting through some of our pictures here, we realize we need to do a bit just on this part of Tuscany. We absorbed so much during our six week stay that it felt very familiar but still intriguing with so many more discoveries around each corner. Perhaps there will be a second visit someday. More to come. The Garfagnan – Tuscany is not just rolling hills and cyprus trees…
Ciao for now!