Freshen-up

It doesn’t seem possible that we have been living in Italy for 7 years now.  In August and September of 2010, we were hard at work bringing Casa La Pace to life.

One important improvement that I completed that autumn was to refinish all of the doors and windows.  Our windows and doors are actually made of two types of wood.  The lighter wood is abate (a type of fir, I believe). The darker is castagno, chestnut.  Abate was cheaper that castagno.

In 2010, they hasn’t been attended to in several years, so I wasn’t sure that they could be saved. I also considered replacing the abate with castagno in order to have uniformity.  But when I sanded and scrubbed, I managed to remove most of the grayish-black damage. When  I applied the varnish, it revealed a beautiful honey color.  It seemed a shame to discard such beautiful wood, especially as they were original to the house when we bought it.  So other than a few that were rotted, most of the windows are the original abate.

In the intervening years since I completed the refinishing, the wood and varnish have withstood cold, wet winter days and scorching-hot summer afternoons.  The stress of 7 years of such extremes was evident. I decided, after a long stretch of procrastination, to refinish the abate again.  (The castagno, being a more resistant wood, can wait a while longer).  We had a very few days without guests this autumn; I took advantage of the empty house

First, some light sanding – not nearly as drastic as in 2010. The second day, I applied the varnish.

The house reeked of varnish and varnish remover for a couple of days. But the fumes dissipated before the next guests arrived. (Or at least, none of them complained of a strange smell!)

And now the windows and balcony door are as beautiful as new!

2017 Guests So Far

As we reach the middle of summer, I am reminiscing about the terrific year Casa La Pace has had so far. As in years past, our guest list includes a mix of old friends and new acquaintances.  We have been thrilled to welcome so many people into our homes and hearts.

Here are some of the memorable moments of the first half of 2017

Our first guests, a mother and daughter, arrived very early in the year, when Carnevale was in full swing.  I had gone with friends to Viareggio to watch the parade of fantastic floats.  But with Rebecca and her daughter we had a more memorable moment of this year’s pre-Lent celebration. As we strolled through Castelnuovo on a cold but bright day, we entered a large piazza and watched a small performing group entertaining young children.  It was wonderful to watch the little ones, dressed as fairies, action figures, and princesses and to note how hard the troupe worked to keep their attention amidst all of the colorful chaos. Later I took them to our favorite cioccolateria to warm up with cups of dense, delicious hot chocolate.

We have had a ‘full house’ a couple of times this year. One of these times was organized by a returning guest. Jana had been to Casa La Pace two times before.  This time, she rounded her colleagues and friends:  several independent businesswomen, plus one daughter – and a token male (one husband).  They were a diverse group, some of whom were strangers to others when they arrived at our house.  It is interesting and entertaining to see how these individuals reacted to each other and developed a common bond, where none existed before.

 

A couple from northern California were with us for several days.  They have a ‘dry wit’ which kept me in stitches – perhaps because it is so close to my own.  On the same morning that they departed to the Firenze airport, I was taking guests to Firenze. So we all rode the bus together.  The journey was a non-stop conversation that ranged from family to the recent drought in California to reminiscences of the highlights of their trip.

Two guys who have been friends for several decades came to Casa La Pace for a few days. Steve is a friend from Arkansas, with whom we caught up on the latest political and cultural happenings. Neil, whom we had not met before, was a creature of the theater, travelling around the United States and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s with a famous Broadway show.  His stories of life on the stage and on the road were fascinating, entertaining, and sprinkled with acting gossip.

Miriam is a widow from New York who is retired and spends most of her time nursing her elderly mother.  She and her boyfriend came to Casa La Pace as a gift from her friends.  Miriam and Tony are originally from Colombia and moved to the United States long ago. I was thrilled to hear their stories of Colombia and New York City.  Miriam left with tears in her eyes, expressing her thanks for a wonderful vacation.

Before we left Little Rock in 2010, I gave a young guy we met at a pizzeria the business card for Casa La Pace.  All these years later, Tyler brought his girlfriend to Casaa La Pace. He told us that he had retained the business card, pinning it to wall of his cubicle and promising himself to come “sooner or later”.  How amazing that a chance meeting resulted in his stay with us!

Two ladies came for a short visit, popping over from Spain. We knew them both in Little Rock, though not well.  Roisin now lives in southern Spain; Murry went to Spain to visit her.  Pepper and I were happy that they decided to pop over to Italy for a brief visit to Ghivizzano.  We reminisced about Little Rock and Pepper and I lamented that we didn’t know them better and spend more time together we lived in Arkansas.

An oldfriend of Pepper’s came for a short stay, part of her travels through Italy.  Rena’s daughter studied in Firenze last year, and also came to Casa La Pace for a visit.  Rena, Pepper, and I went to Firenze for the day. We had great fun wandering the streets with ‘Mom’, pointing out the school, the piazze, and the neighborhoods where her daughter had lived for 6 weeks.

As though living in Italy weren’t fulfilling enough, it is wonderful that many friends include Casa La Pace in their Italian travel plans. I met Desma in 1984 when we lived in the pensione and studied together at the FSU Firenze program.  She and I have remained in touch through the years, exchanging letters, then emails, and now Facebook messages.  She and her husband Joe came to Italy in May.  During their vacation, I went to Firenze. We walked down the familiar streets together: past our school, our favorite piazza, and other heartwarming spots in this most beautiful city.  A couple days later, Desma and Joe came to Ghivizzano for a (too-short) visit.  By chance, Pepper was invited to a festa in a small village near Castelnuovo, so he set up his easel and spent the afternoon painting for the passersby. Desma, Joe, and I explored the Garfagnana. I was glad they could see more of the beauty of this rugged mountainous part of Toscana that we call home.

A family with 3 daughters stayed for a few days.  One is working as a social worker at a hospital. The second is studying to be a speech pathologist.  Though they grew up in privilege, they are pursuing careers to help others less fortunate. Our guests often provide inspiring stories like this, a wonderful antidote to the popular image of Millennials.

We have welcomed into our home a few Italian guests this summer.  One set are friends of residents of Ghivizzano (friends of ours, too). We are honored that they stayed at Casa La Pace for the second year in a row.  These guests came from various parts of Italy, north and south.  Not surprisingly, they spent most of their time outside of our B & B, with their friends. But each morning’s breakfast provided a quiet moment for me to learn more about them, where they live and what their lives are like. To me, this is one of the great pleasures of welcoming people into our home.

A couple from rural Illinois are spending a year apart. Ian works for the U S State Department in Iraq. Courtney is in Illinois, raising the children and  studying to be a nurse.  They were travelling through Europe for a month during Ian’s vacation. Talking with them I noticed many the similarities between their part of Illinois and rural north Florida, where I grew up.  In their few days with us, we had many wonderful conversations about the world and the United States, from the points of view of ex-patriots and citizens.

Two friends came to Italy to stay in the Cinque Terre, where daughter of one has a long-term connection.  They ‘popped over’ to Casa La Pace for a couple of days.  The two of them have been friends for more than 30 years, having met when they both worked at a ‘head shop’ in Hawaii.  We were delighted that they appreciated the beauty and tranquility of the Serchio Valley and compared it favorably to the Italian Riviera!

Another couple from Little Rock came to stay for a few days. They loved Casa La Pace so much that they extended their stay with us for 3 more days – the highest compliment we can hope for! Back home, they have built a pizza oven.  Pepper and I are invited to a backyard pizza party when we are next in Arkansas.

Our final guests were also those closest to ‘home’.  They live in the Park Hill neighborhood of North Little Rock, a short distance from the house we lived in.  We reminisced with them about the neighborhood and lamented that we hadn’t met them when we lived there. Amazingly, they are close friends with a couple that lived around the corner from us and who we invited to dinner! Once again, we delighted in the companionship of people that we wish we had met when we lived in Arkansas.  But we are happy to be their friends now, however delayed our acquaintance.

It has been a challenging year so far for the United States; political polarization seeps into many conversations and affects relationships with friends and family.  During these first months of 2017, at Casa La Pace we have welcomed people with various political opinions. And I enjoyed our conversations thoroughly, even – and sometimes especially  because – I knew the other person did not agree with me.  I tried to focus on what we had in common or what values we share. We are all humans and hope for the best for our families and our community. When we listen to each other with respect and compassion, we can exchange ideas and learn more about others and ourselves.

 

Trip Advisor 2017

Just in time for the commemoration of our seventh year in Italy – June 22, 2010 – we received terrific news:TripAdvisor has awarded Casa La Pace the Certificate of Excellence for 2017.

We are honored to receive this award.  And we are extremely proud that Casa La Pace has been recognized by TripAdvisor every year since we opened in June 2011.

Pepper and I work very hard to make Casa La Pace welcoming and comfortable to each and every guest.  We are proud of the fact that the guest reviews on TripAdvisor are uniformly positive. This tells us that our efforts are appreciated and that our guests want to share their experiences so others will find Casa La Pace.

We want to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who has stayed with us and to all of you who took the time to add your contribution to TripAdvisor.

We couldn’t do it without you.

 

 

Roses 2017

This year, we have had terrific spring weather.  There have been few rainy days and lots of sunshine. The nights have been wonderfully chilly and the days are gradually warming up. May and June are always wonderful months to be in Ghivizzano, but this year is spectacular.

 

And speaking of spectacular, the roses in the courtyard of Casa La Pace are more beautiful than ever.  I don’t know if it is because of the perfect temperatures (neither too hot, nor too cold) or the abundant sunshine – or maybe even because most of the rose plants are at least 3 years old, I don’t remember such an explosion of color and perfume in prior years.

 

I won’t write much more in this post. Instead, I’ll let the roses speak for themselves.

This is probably the most delicate flower. It explodes into full bloom and then drops its petals quickly.

There are several multi-hued roses.  This one opens with a pure-white center and gradually the pink spreads to the center.

This unusual flower – yes, it’s a beautiful purple spattered with white – was a gift from friends.  It is immediately outside the front door, so I think of them each time I walk indoors.

 

This peach-and-yellow rose is amazingly abundant – I counted 11 blossoms on one stem!

 

And each bloom is huge, gorgeous, and wonderfully fragrant.

This salmon beauty has proven impossible to photograph. No photo captures the warm color of each perfumed flower.

The most prolific bloomer is perhaps this yellow climbing rose.

This is a close-up of the beautiful yellow climber.

Looking back at 2016

It’s February already and this blog entry has been rattling around in my mind since the end of last year. It’s time to stop procrastinating!

In a word, 2016 was wonderful!  Casa La Pace welcomed more guests than any prior year. We made many new friends and welcomed into our home many old, gold ones. (“Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold”).

As I recall the second half of 2016, a series of images flash.  Most of all, I remember the smiling faces. Pepper and I are extremely proud of the happy times we have created with our guests.

Here then are some of the memorable moments:

As often happens, old friends bring along their friends, who then become our friends. A couple from central Arkansas invited two of their friends to rendezvous with them at Casa La Pace. The new acquaintances were hysterically funny.  Irreverent and brash, they remind me that the stereotype of Southerners is entirely unfair.  We come in all colors of the rainbow and have more than our fair share of wit and wisdom.

 

In the newspaper I recently read of some new stage plays opening in London.  I immediately thought of the guests who are university professors.  In the past, they lived in London. Each morning in our breakfast room she recounted, to my envy,  her passion for the London stage.  It seemed she knew almost every theater in that wonderful city and had seen many, many productions while they lived there.

 

Three girlfriends who have known each other for more than 30 years came to stay with us for a week.  They each now live in different parts of the world and hadn’t seen each other in many years.  Casa La Pace was their chosen point of reunion. During the week we got to know each individually and also be included temporarily in their circle.  An interesting coincidence provided the solution to a mystery.  One evening as we strolled to dinner, I pointed out several “Liberty” houses along Via Nazionale.  I pondered aloud why the Italians use the English word “Liberty” to describe this architectural style from the early 1900s.  Jan quickly piped up with the answer:  Liberty is an iconic department store in London. Even more astounding,  she whipped out here cellphone and showed me several photos of the interior and exterior of the store!

 

A wonderful California couple came on the recommendation of a business acquaintance. As often happens, Pepper and I felt an immediate connection.  He is a lobbyist and she is a scientific journalist and they were as engaging and fascinating as it sounds.  They defyed appearances, too, as they are both motorcycle afficionados and she has won many competitions! They were with us only a few days, but our bond was so deep and quickly formed that we were thrilled to meet up with them again in Lucca at the end of their vacation.

 

A couple from Connecticut surprised me. Being from the South, I have an idea of what a Yankee is. Not surprisingly, my narrow definition did not do justice to these two people.  He is buff and meaty, built like a former linebacker. She could be a former beauty queen. (In fact, I can easily picture them at their high school reunion, on the stage as the returning Homecoming King and Queen.)  Unlike his tough exterior, he expressed great sensitivity and compassion.  And she was astute and witty, the antithesis of a “dumb blonde”.

 

I am no longer star-struck, but I get weak in the knees in the presence of writers.  Two brothers with relatives in Ghivizzano stayed with us. One is a Jesuit priest and the other a writer for the Associated Press.  The latter spent several years in Russia and we had breakfast discussions on the state of journalism, the fall of the USSR, and the book that he is writing.  After leaving Casa La Pace, the priest was headed to Assisi, where he would be guide to a pilgrimage group.

 

Because Pepper went shopping in Denver a family group stayed with us at Casa La Pace.  Does it surprise you that he struck up a conversation with the sales clerk?  And because of his enthusiasm for Ghivizzano and Casa La Pace, she came to visit – and brought her relatives  All were delightful, coming from various points on the map and sharing their diverse lives – and love of family – with us.

 

November was a real surprise this year. We had only 1 day without guests during the whole month!  All of the guests were friends (some because they stayed at Casa La Pace) and several were returning for another visit.

Two ladies, long-time friends, left behind their husbands and came to Casa La Pace for an extended visit.  They seemed polar opposites – blond and brunette, thin and not-so-thin, corporate go-getter and office secretary, regular traveller and first-time voyager.  But they had been friends for many years and shared their friendship with us.  I recall that during our tour of Lucca, they paid close attention to the details and each asked perceptive questions that let me know they were really interested in the tour.

 

A family that we met when they lived in Italy returned for a too-short visit.  During their sojourn in Italy, they regularly visited Lucca. So when they came to Casa La Pace, we didn’t need to introduce this exquisite walled city to them. Instead, we strolled around, visiting their cherished spots, chatting and laughing as we walked.  To end the day, we rented bicycles and rode atop the walls of Lucca. It was a truly memorable day of golden autumn sunshine and friends.

The biggest group of the year arrived in November, members of a tango-dancing club.  Pepper had arranged for them to perform an exhibition dance in Coreglia and so I have several images burned indelibly in my mind:

Sabrina, the liason for the commune, invited us all to her home for a delicious home-cooked meal. Afterwards, she recounted the history of the house, including the suffering and deprivations of her grandfather during WWII.  It brought us all to tears to step into the shoes of the Italians in one of the dark moments in history.

As we were returning to town on the winding, narrow mountain road, I encountered an elderly woman driving a large (by Italian standards) SUV.  As I squeezed between her car on the left and the precipice on our right, I breathed a sigh of relief –  until a heard a quick screech and then a thump. I stepped out of the car and trudged to the back of my car the blinding rain. I looked down at my car bumper, rocking slowly on the asphalt, whole but desolate.  I had no choice but to push it to the side of the road, carry my guests on to their destination, and return an hour later to load the bumper into the back.

Another returning couple brought along their newly-wed friends.  The large majority of the guests of Casa La Pace are closer to retirement than to high school. So it was thrilling to be surrounded by the energy and excitement of young people starting their lives together.

 

 

Our final guests are a wonderful couple who wanted to share Italy and Casa La Pace with their nieces.  Once again, it was delightful to see Italy through their eyes.  The girls are still teenagers. So they sometimes acted as though they know everything already. And other times, they were sweetly naive. Both fell in love with Pepper, who carries the spirit of youth in him in spite of his age.

 

As I raked the garden in my mind trying to remember these things, I am sorry to say that names and faces get mixed up and fade quickly. In 2017, I promise to take notes along the way!

Pepper and I hope that you will come to Casa La Pace and make memories with us in 2017!

 

 

 

Our neighbor Lina – RIP

I learned today the sad news that Natalina Zafferri, better known as Lina Nizza, died yesterday.  She was in an RSA (nursing home) since 2014.

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Guests of Casa La Pace from 2011 – 2013 may remember her as the old lady who sat in our courtyard and spoke very loudly.  And Lina didn’t care that our guests didn’t know Italian, she would have a long, loud discourse with anyone.

When Pepper and I first arrived in Ghivizzano, Lina was in the courtyard to greet us.  She seemed to be there always: any time we walked out the front door or walked into the courtyard returning home.  She had a sixth sense about new arrivals, coming out of the passageway from her house just as our guests were rolling their suitcase to the front door.

For a very long time, I tried to avoid her.  Lina had a severe face, a loud grating voice, and a ‘blue’ vocabulary that few other Italians could match. When she saw me, she’d yell “O, Americano”, and then follow with a long discourse. I would respond politely – and then make a quick exit.

One day, as we were loading our dirty laundry into our car, she rushed to the gate and yelled, “Where are you going?” in an accusatory manner.  I responded that we were going to the laundrymat to wash our clothes.  There was silence for a moment, and then Lina yelled, “Why are you going there? I have a perfectly good washing machine that is going to waste. Use mine!”

From that point on, we were fast friends.  As she became less mobile, I sometimes dropped by and sat in her cozy kitchen to chat for a few minutes.

Our neighbors told me we were lucky to have met Lina in her declining years, when she wasn’t so cruel and annoying.  I am lucky to have known her and to have been a friend.

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Pepper e Lina

 

2016 – Best year yet!

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It doesn’t seem possible, and yet the calendar tells me that Casa La Pace has been welcoming guests for 5 years.

This year’s weather has been almost perfect. As I recall past years, I remember many days of beautiful weather. But I must say that 2016 has been almost the textbook definition of normal weather.  The exception was winter – which there was none, as the cold temperatures rarely dropped below freezing. But as typical, February was a long stretch of rain and gray.  Yes, I suffered and moaned. But that is normal for the Serchio Valley. And we had just returned from a wonderful 6-week visit to the U.S. So I tried to keep all things in perspective.

March was sunny and bright. I remember that the gardens were full of flowers, with plants often blooming ahead of schedule (I blame the warm winter).  Azaleas and wisteria, apples and cherries, the bees were buzzing and I was humming.

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April was gorgeous!  Everyone says it rains for Pasquetta. But this year was the exception. And it rained sparingly, giving us longer days of sunshine.

May continued the trend of little rain.  By now the snows had disappeared from the mountains. But we weren’t ready to pack away the winter clothes, as the nights were deliciously chilly.

June started rainy and continued the unusual weather for most of the month. We had sunshine at least part of each day though, so it was never dreary. And then, amazingly on the first day of summer the clouds vanished!  As the month ended, the march of days got gradually warmer. So by July, it was truly hot at midday.  As in years past, there were about 10 days of hot weather and then a sudden cooling.  For the rest of July, the days were moderate and we opened the windows at night.  Funny enough, several of our guests closed their windows and slept under the quilts!

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As August ends, I also think back to our guests.  2016 has been a wonderful year in this way, too. We’ve had more guests than ever before and for longer stretches.  The other day, we reviewed the calendar for September and October. I couldn’t believe we have guests almost every day during these two months.

In our first year, friends and family were our primary guests. Happily, we had quite a few people find us on TripAdvisor and the Internet. As our list of guests (and new friends) has grown, so has the word of mouth. Now we are welcoming people who were recommended by previous guests.  I couldn’t ask for a better compliment.  And Pepper and I couldn’t be prouder!

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Spring Festivals 2016

As the valley wakes up from its winter slumber, its pe ople begin to shake off their lethargy, too.  As though a long hibernation is over, more bicyclists whiz along the highways.  The terrace of Bar Sport and other sidewalk bars and caffe’ are more crowded.  And villages and towns hold festivals to mark the arrival of spring.

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Decorating for spring

Flowers, flowers, everywhere!  Every market, every greenhouse, and even on the side of the highways, roses, geraniums, azaleas, and petunias are for sale.  Their bright colors in the golden sunlight are a perfect counterpoint to the gray days of late winter.

 

Chiesa delle Azalee
Chiesa at Borgo a Mozzano

Everyone is ready to get out of the house, too.  The festivals we have visited so far were more bustling than past years. It could be because Easter came early this year, and so everyone is more mentally prepared to be outside. I think that it is because this has been a picture-perfect spring. All of March and most of April were without significant rain.  Days of endless sunshine and warm temperatures have brought the valley to full flower earlier than years past.

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Along the street in Borgo

This year, we went to Borgo a Mozzano in April for the bi-annual Azalea festival.  The single long road that winds through the town is blocked off. Banks of flowers and imaginative arrangements appear as if by magic, softening the cold stone corridor with the bright colors of azaleas and camellias.  We avoided the traffic by taking the train, only 2 train stops from our station.  We arrived in time for lunch, sitting outdoors at the local pub.

 

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Central piazza of Borgo a Mozzano

Afterwards, we strolled for a couple of hours, including afternoon coffee in our itinerary.  I boarded with train for home with only a small azalea, resisting the temptation (mostly) this year to fill the courtyard with these early bloomers.

May 1 is International Labor Day in Italy as in most countries (except in the United States).  This year was the 56th year that Fornaci di Barga was the center of activity for ‘Primo Maggio’.  Perhaps because it fell on a Sunday or again because of the gorgeous warm sunshine, but it seemed that everyone from Ghivizzano was there.

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Roses for sale
Fornaci decoration
Primo Maggio Moto

And there were more people than I have seen before. People from throughout the valley were in attendance.  I spotted a several foreign tags and a few steering wheels on the right side of the car. Once again, the Lucca-Aulla train line allowed us to avoid the headaches of parking and traffic.

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Crowd of Primo Maggio

Too soon, the sun will become hot during midday and everyone will retreat indoors for the afternoon siesta. In the meantime, we are celebrating this wonderful spring of 2016 out of doors.

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Fornaci in Bloom

First Snow!

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The Segone

Pepper and I have been in the Serchio Valley since June, 2010.  We have
enjoyed 6 autumns, some prettier than others.  This year’s edition has been incredible!  We’ve had long stretches of sunshine and very little rain.  If anything, it has been a little warmer than I’d like – but I’m not complaining!  It took a while, but the trees finally began losing their leaves a couple of weeks ago.

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Camparlese

Last Saturday brought our first heavy downpour.  It rained all day, becoming ever wetter as the day progressed.  What a surprise, then, to wake up to crystal-clear skies and cooler temperatures on Sunday.  Since then, it has been “sweater weather”.

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Even more thrilling was to discover that the mountains were blanketed in snow, both the Appennini and the Alpi Apuane.  An afternoon or two has been overcast since then. But most days, like today, are sunny and cool.  The perfect end to a perfect autumn.

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Appennini

We can only hope that winter is as “picture perfect”!

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Pania della Croce

150 TripAdvisor Reviews!

When Pepper and I were preparing to open Casa La Pace, my cousin mentioned a website named ‘TripAdvisor’.  I told her that I’d never heard of it. She responded that she used it extensively to plan her trips.  When I mentioned this to Pepper, he of course knew all about it – and had already put Casa La Pace on the website, ready for our first review.

We’ve been delighted and honored to read the reviews our guests submit to TripAdvisor. We enjoy welcoming guests to Casa La Pace, and would do our best in any case. But it is a great feeling to know that our efforts are recognized.

We recently reached 150 reviews.  This may seem like a small number, but to us it’s a thrilling milestone. Not every guest submits a review, of course. It represents a small sample of the wonderful people who have stayed with us since we opened in 2011.

My experience has been that someone with a complaint is ready and willing to share it with others. So we are doubly proud that the reviews are almost exclusively top-rated.

We are grateful to each and every one of you who has shared your review on TripAdvisor.

Please check out our TripAdvisor page.  Casa La Pace