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.

 

Azalea piazza
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

 

2015 Guests – so far

As summer comes to an end, I’m looking back on the year so far. Casa La Pace had a terrific spring and summer. As I remember this year’s guests, it is a mix of old and young, but each fascinating in his/her own way. I can honestly say we were sad at each departure.
* An old schoolmate. Rita had already been here once, bringing along a nephew. This time she treated her niece, a lovely girl who was open to new adventures.
* A couple from central Arkansas and his sister from Kansas. Husband and wife were recently retired and we were delighted to learn of so many friends in common. Janet is also retired (from the postal service) and is also a very talented artist. She honored us by giving us a few pieces she created in our courtyard.
* 4 ‘crazy’ ladies who had been long-time friends. They filled the house with more laughter than we’ve ever had before.
* Another 4 ladies from central Arkansas, wealthier than our average clientele. One owns a car dealership and another used to own a golf course. But they were as sweet and interesting as any of our other guests.
* 2 single ladies, one who celebrated her 70th birthday with us and the other a retired newspaper owner. Judith is passionate about criminal justice reform. Kitty has promised to write a profile of Casa La Pace.
* Relatives of a neighbor. They were with his sister most of the time, so we didn’t get to spend much time with them. Breakfast was our opportunity to learn more about this young couple from a different region of Italy.
* Father and wife, daughter and husband, all from Arkansas, but none from the Little Rock area. All 4 had fascinating stories and I felt like we just scratched the surface, even though they were with us for a full week.
* 20-something couple from Louisiana (soon to be Texas). I got to know them better during our day trip to Firenze. How surprised was I to their response to my query of what they were listening to on their shared earphones: not the latest pop or country hit, but a podcast from NPR!
* A German and his family. Pepper and I met Bernd when we lived in Colorado. It was wonderful to catch up on his life from when he was a young, eager college student and meet Isabelle and their two adorable children. It was a memorable week and I was on the verge of tears when they left.
* Arkansas girl and her former-exchange student friend from Germany. Abbie and Pascale remind me that spending more time with ‘the younger generation’ is a wonderful way to sweep away the negative perceptions that I can allow to develop.
* 7 ladies, 5 older and 2 younger, from Mississippi. They found us through our great friends David Taliaferro and Norma. They now have a terrific story that could be entitled ‘the delights and dangers of Italian train travel’.
* A redhead and his wife, recently retired, who sail during their vacations. They made a brief visit to Casa La Pace on their way home from a sailing adventure in the Seychelles.
* Our dear friends from S Florida. This is Bernie and Toni’s 3rd visit to Casa La Pace and definitely the most satisfying (for me, anyway). More generous and loving friends you won’t find.
* 5 Italians from Toscana and Emiglia-Romagna, in Ghivizzano because of their common passion for vintage motorcycles. Their days were preprogrammed, so we hardly got to see them. But they’ve all promised to return to Casa La Pace for a longer visit.
* An Arkansas family who, at the same time as our move to Italy, they moved to Mexico for three years. Katherine and Mike, Matthew and Russell were a marvelous, fascinating group. We are honored that they included us in their month-long travels throughout France, Italy, and Spain.

We are excited that September, October, and November will bring a fresh wave of guests. I’m looking forward to reflecting on them at year-end.

Casa La Pace – new and improved!

Since ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, I won’t write a lot in this blog post.  Instead, I’ll let the images tell the story.

We bought the house in 2009 and don’t know how long ago the house was last painted.

This was the front of the house before we began.

Casa La Pace before

The first step was to patch the cracks.

Casa La Pace during 1

Then the workers applied an undercoat, which should limit cracks and impede mold growth.

Casa La Pace during 2

Then the new color was applied – it was so exciting to watch the transformation.

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After finishing the front of the house, they moved to the side facing Ghivizzano Alto. Scaffolding 1

Thank goodness the road next to the house is now closed.

Scaffolding 2

And now Casa La Pace is more beautiful than ever, inside and out.

This is the front of the house as seen within the courtyard.

Casa La Pace After 1

And this is the house as you see it when climbing the path from the train station.

Casa La Pace after 2

We hope you’ll come see for yourself how beautiful Casa La Pace is.

Exciting changes at Casa La Pace

When we bought our house in 2009, we recognized that many improvements would be required.  Since then, we completely renovated the interior. We also made important changes to the outside, including replacing the two roofs on the front of the house (one is pictured here) and installing solar panels.

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But we postponed ‘cosmetic’ changes until we were satisfied that Casa La Pace was structurally sound and as comfortable for our guests as possible.

Finally, though, we have begun the work to repair and repaint the outside of the house.

Check back soon for pictures of the new-and-improved Casa La Pace!

Spring!

I love springtime in all its colors, sounds and smells. 2015 promises to be a spectacular one. Winter in the Serchio valley was very nice this year. It was cold, especially at night. But that is a welcome development, as last winter was one of unusucamelias1al warmth – which led to a wet, mild spring and summer.  This year, the mountains around us are blanketed in heavy snow.  Fortunately, it hasn’t fallen in the valley, so we are able to enjoy the beauty without the inconvenience.  We’ve had a moderate number of rainy days. But we haven’t had long stretches of gray, dreary weather and I remember many days of sunshine so far this year.

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With the passing of the spring equinox, the valley appears to be still stuck in winter. But small signs of the season are springing up (pardon the pun). While the mountains are still austerely brown, the shrubs that grow in the stream wildflowersbeds and alongside the Serchio river are flares of bright green leaves. Today, we drove into the mountains nearby. I noticed an occasional tree that had branches whose tips are pregnant with new growth; not yet ready to burst forth, the trees are holding their breath, waiting for warmer days. The meadows are already green, even in the higher elevation, and low wildflowers are sprinkled about.

 

The courtyard of Casa La Pace is in bloom, as are many ornamental shrubs and trees incamelias 2 our neighborhood. Our camelias are especially beautiful this year (I like to think it’s because I learned from my mistake of two years ago and pruned at the right time in 2014).  Fragrant hyacinth hyacinthstems dance in the afternoon sun. And the pansies, which I planted in the fall, are beginning to bloom again. The rose branches are sprouting bright red growth, bursting with new life.  I don’t expect rose blossoms for another few weeks, but the new leaves are colorful additions to the courtyard.  It is exciting to measure the progress of spring by the reawakening of each plant, flower, and tree. quince

Spring also represents the beginning of the season for Casa La Pace. We’ve taken advantage of the slow winter days to make more changes to the house. (Most of the improvements are for comfort, improved efficiency, or normal repairs,  and the majority will be invisible to our guests).  We’re excited that our first guests arrive on March 22nd, only a couple of days after spring officially arrives.  We’re looking forward to an even more exciting year in 2015 and the joy of making new friends and welcoming previous guests and old friends back to Casa La Pace.

 

2014 in review

Another year has flown by. It doesn’t seem possible that 2014 has ended already. 2014 was a banner year for Casa La Pace. And for Pepper and I, it was another year of new friends and wonderful memories.

Pepper and I began the year with a visit to friends and family in the U.S.  We were there 6 weeks.  That sounds like a nice long trip, but in fact it still was not enough time to see everyone we had hoped to.

This year, Casa La Pace’s season began in April around Easter.  It lasted until early December, so we had a longer season than ever before. During that time we welcomed more guests than any prior year.  As I think back on all the faces, I remember fondly the many people from around the world who graced our home.

I’m glad that we had a diverse guest list.  Although the majority were Wes & SvenAmericans, we welcomed our first Belgians and our first Italians (can you believe it took 3 years?)  We enjoyed our Belgian friends so much that we went to Gent in December for a few days to spend more time with them.

 

I remember 2014 as a warm, wet year.  (And the latest news is that 2014 was the warmest year on record globally).  There were several months of gorgeous weather, fortunately.   Spring and autumn were quite nice and there were glorious stretches of warmth and sunshine.  Unfortunately, summer was almost non-existent, with more than average rainfall and not a single truly hot day. November was quite rainy, as usual. And December unusually warm, with several days of record high temperatures. The first cold snap arrived with Santo Stefano, i.e. only a week before the New Year.

Some of our guests had personal connections. I met a cousin of my father; she remembered me from when I was very little, but I didn’t really remember her. Our paths hadn’t crossed since the mid-1970s.  I was happy to get to know Jennifer and her husband. They provided new stories of my family. And more importantly, they were great company.  I was sorry that they were with us for only a couple of days.

Pepper’s brother, his wife, and her son came for a visit during the summer. It was his brother’s 3rd visit to Casa La Pace, but the first for his stepson. We had a great time at Casa La Pace and took the opportunity to travel with them.

Our young friend David spent almost a full year in Europe. He bicycled around the British Isles, working odd jobs in the spring and early summer.  Afterwards, he crossed the Channel and met up with his family in Belgium.  He later headed south, crossing France and the Italian Alps, arriving at our house in mid-August. He was with us for about a month. We loved spending time with David, who we hadn’t seen much of since we lived in Arkansas. He regaled with stories of his bicycling and ‘woofing’ adventures and I even bicycled with him in the Serchio Valley.  We were sad ‘uncles’ the day he rode away, off to southern France and Spain.

Speaking of Spain, our first Spanish guest actually lives in Berlin with his husband.  Paco is a newscaster for a German television channel that broadcasts in Spanish language news of Germany to Spain and Latin America.  He is perhaps more famous abroad than at home.  We were honored to spend time with a celebrity – who is a delightful, normal guy.

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We are proud that Casa La Pace was a honeymoon destination for at least 5 couples.  One happy pair even left behind their one-year old (no easy sacrifice, I’m sure) to enjoy a delayed honeymoon with us. Another beautiful young couple are both post-graduate scientists in Puerto Rico.

jaaziel and beatrice

Ancestral connections were important to a family who came from Boston late in the summer. Pat’s grandparents were from this area: his grandmother was from Lucignana and his grandfather from Ghivizzano.  Pat had never been to Italy until he came to Casa La Pace.  The family had an incredible week, meeting long-lost relatives and learning of property they didn’t know the family still owns.  They also learned the moving story of an uncle who played an important role in the partigiani (Italian resistance movement) during World War II.

Other special guestsanne & kristin were Anne and her daughter Kristin, who arrived in October.  We first met Anne when she and her other daughter came to Ghivizzano in 2009, before our house was Casa La Pace.  During her first visit, she and Juli sanded and drilled, nailed and cleaned, helping us improve our house.  Anne’s first stay was almost a hardship, as we didn’t have interior doors nor hot water.  We were proud that on this visit she and Kristin could take long, hot showers and see how much Casa La Pace has improved since those early days.

We had several return visitors; we are proud that they enjoyed their previous gail and harleyvisit and wanted to return to Ghivizzano.  Among them was Gail, who first came to Casa La Pace as ladies-only outing.  This time, she wanted to share Italy with her husband.  He is as kind and interesting as she.

 

 

Speaking of ladies only, one of the most memorable groups was 6 women, almost all somehow related.  We tried explaining to Ramona and Grazia, our good friends who liveelaine & family nearby, the relationship between them all.  I kept getting confused, and forgetting the Italian for ‘in-law’, ‘step-mother’, etc., and it all ended in laughter.  Ramona and Grazia still ask fondly about Elaine and her group.

 

Our final guests of the year were with us for Thanksgiving.  This family of 6 could not have been more interesting and entertaining.  Father and mother are both doctors and their 4 children (two girls and two boys) are typical teenagers – in all the right ways.  Italy doesn’t observe Thanksgiving, but we appreciated being together with fellow Americans on this special day.

I’m also happy to end this reflection with good news for the coming year.  2015 is shaping up to be another good year.  We have many confirmed reservations for our new season.  We’re hoping for another banner year.  And I’m certain many guests will arrive strangers and depart as friends.