Casa La Pace Blog

Life in Real Italy

Casa La Pace Blog - Life in Real Italy

Hiking – Monte Forato

We recently had several guests who wanted to hike during their stay with us.  I was thrilled to share with them what little I know.  The mountains around us are covered with trails and we’ve spotted many well-marked trails during our (too few) outings.  To the east, the Apennines separate Toscana from Emiglia-Romagna and many of the trails cross between the two regions.  The mountains to our west, the Alpi Apuane, are similarly a web of trails, some leading over the passes to the Mare Tirreno (Mediterranean Sea).

The Serchio Valley has always been an important trade route between the various countries that make up our area, including Lucca, Modena, and Firenze.  The inhabitants of the valley since prehistoric times have traveled between villages following ‘mulettiere’ (mule trails).  As a result, there is a wealth of possibilities for the hiker, whether beginner or mountain climber.

When we havFornovolascoe free time and good weather,I try to explore new trails.  But Casa La Pace keeps us busy, so I haven’t had many opportunities to hike.  When the various guests asked about hiking possibilities, I directed them first to an information office in Castelnuovo.  Friends had raved about a great hike to Monte Forato and so I recommended it heartily (and crossing my fingers that I wasn’t leading them astray).

A sunny Sunday in October provided the perfect opportunity for me to ‘put my money where my mouth is': to hike up to Monte Forato to see if it really is worth the effort.

My friend Giuseppe and I arrived in the beautiful village of Fornovolasco Torrentearound noon.  Fornovolasco is at the base of the Alpi Apuane and the start of the trail up to the summit.  The trail was well marked out of the village. Right away, we encountered a group of 20 or 30 Italians preparing to climb the mountain, too. (Italians love clothes and always dress for the occasion. You’ll rarely see an Italian on a bicycle who is not wearing the appropriate outfit, expensive glasses, and helmet. These folks were wearing climbing shirts and pants, as well as specialized boots.  I, on the other hand, had on a long-sleeve t-shirt, denim shorts, and hiking boots.

The hike began on a gradual incline, passing through lush green forests. In Fornovolasco towerplaces, the trail consisted of stones, cut and placed in precise patterns. This a sure sign that this trail was once an important via, not simply a pasttime trail. The weather was perfect for our entire hike. It was slightly chilly in the shade and beneath the dense canopy of chestnuts, oaks, and other deciduous trees.  As we climbed and exerted ourselves more, we stayed cool and hardly sweated.

We continued hiking and the path turned gradually steeper.  We occasionally encountered hikers descending, but the trail was mostly empty. Giuseppe is well-read and we talked politics, the Italian economy, feminism, and other subjects arcane and profound. Before I knew it, we reach tree line. Quickly the climb became difficult and I was glad to be wearing the hiking boots. The path cut deeply into the mountain, exposing the white granite (or marble?) and many loose rocks.  Our conversation petered out and we began to breathe deeply.

I was beginning to wonder if this was such a great climb to recommend to our guests.  Until nEastern viewow it hadn’t been difficult, but I wasn’t sure what lie ahead and perhaps the casual hiker would not be able to reach the summit.  At that moment, two children, about 4 and 7 years old, came scampering down the trail toward us. They barely paused to let us struggle past; I was determined not to allow mere toddlers show me up! After a 5-minute pause to catch our breath, I looked above us and was relieved to realize that the arch was close. The final 20 minutes are most difficult part of the climb.

The arch, which gives the mountain its name (‘forato’ means pierced in Italian), Arch from aboveis a unique feature in the Alpi Apuane.  It is clearly visible from Barga, though not as large as it seems from far away.  It is still impressive, especially when I look through it to the other side of the mountain chain.  The eastern slope, which we ascended, is the more gentle climb.  The western side, facing the Mediterranean, seems almost a sheer drop hundreds of meters to the villages in the valley below.

A short climb pIl monte foratoast the arch brought us to the summit. There is no marker indicating the altitude, but wikipedia informs me that we were at 1,230 meters above sea level.  The views in all directions were breathtaking. East you can see the Serchio Valley, then Barga, and the Apennines beyond.  To the west is the Tirreanean Sea. To the south, Lago Masaciuccoli glistens.

Giuseppe and I picnicked on the summit.  As always, the l'uomo mortocheese, bread, and beer tasted much more delicious in the open air.  It was sunny and breezy, a perfect October day to be ‘on top of the world’.  There were perhaps 50 other people during the half hour we lazed up there.  Giuseppe took a short nap.  But I was attentive to the time – it was already 3:30 p.m. or so – and was concerned that we not end our hike in the dark.

We took a different path for the descent. This one traveled longer along the mountain ridge, so we had a series of stupendous views for at least 30 minutes before View to the westwe dropped down into the woods towards Fornovolasco. Along the way, we saw absolutely no one. But there were many signs of human activity.  There are petroglyphs throughout the Alpe Apuane, signs that these mountains have been inhabited for thousands of years.

 

We were nabandoned churckot fortunate enough to stumble upon any petroglyphs, but we did pass an ancient ruin of a church. Giuseppe explained that these trails were also pilgrimage routes and religious hostels were scattered throughout the area. Later, we past an old sluice and a mill; man has been harnessing water as a power source for a very long time.

Old mill

We arrived in Fornovolasco at dusk, tired but satisfied. Fornovolasco streamHow delightful to spot a bar, its bright light beaconing us to enter.  We each had a hot tea (Giuseppe lived several years in the U.K.) and a chat with the proprietor, a kind old man with a gentle smile.  On one wall was a photo of a drawing of Fornovolasco in 1498.  It shows a mill, smelting furnace, and chimney, the most advanced factory complex for producing iron of the territory of the Este family.

On the summit

Our entire journey lasted about 6 hours. I can now wholeheartedly recount my first-hand experience of the hike to Monte Forato for the next intrepid guests of Casa La Pace.

2014 weather – part II

First, the good news: September was spectacular!  I recall only one 3-day stretch of rain during the whole month.  I’m fairly certain that was the same time that the entire Arno plain was attacked by a terrific storm system.  From Viareggio to Firenze, there were downed trees, torrential downpours, and even a carpet of hail on the streets of Firenze.

During September, the days were warm and sunny, with highs often approaching 30 degrees.  The nights were deliciously cool, just enough to Bicycle Day 1warrant long sleeves, but never cold enough for a jacket. On several occasions, I was able to go for bicycle ride.  As I rode, I noted the small signs of the coming change of season.  The cherry trees were almost bare.  The summer flowers are still in the fields, but the stalks are now  brown and brittle, the seeds either waiting to fall or already safely tucked in for the winter in the earth below.  The swallows departed, leaving behind an empty stillness.

There are new colors, too; Mother Nature still has a couple of months to show grape leaves 2her glory. Along the river are vast stretches of golden flowers, resembling black-eyed susans. The roadsides are sprinkled with wildflowers, their yellows and purples dancing in the wind. Asters are tucked in the corner of many gardens. And Virginia creeper and grape vines have begun to turn from green to flaming copper.

The good weather of September was especially welcome because August wasn’t wonderful.  In fact, this year, we didn’t have much of a summer at all. As with July, in August there were an incredible number of rainy days. Quite often, the morning would be rainy but the afternoon sunny, or vice versa. But there were also a few unfortunate days of gray clouds from dawn until dusk.  In the Serchio Valley, and indeed, almost all of the Italian peninsula, it typically doesn’t rain from mid-July until late August.  This year was a summer for the record books.

October is so far ‘variable’ (a favorite word of Italian Bicycle Day 2weather forecasters).  We’ve had quite a few days of rain, but several days of wonderful sunshine.  In fact, the weekends have been beautiful, so we’ve been able to get out and enjoy Tuscany in autumn.

 

Why ‘La Pace’?

A month after we bought the house in Ghivizzano, Pepper and I came to Localita’ Camparlese Number 6 for a short stay. We were still living in the U.S. (North Little Rock, AR) and were nervous and excited to see our ‘new’ house.

Over the following 3 weeks, I completed a long list of items: changing the utilities to my name, finding an architect to begin planning the renovations, our first visits to Bar Sport, Maria Pia, and other businesses in town. It was a cold March and we slept many nights under newly-purchased blankets and piles of coats.  Most days were sunny, though, and we quickly fell in love with Ghivizzano and the Serchio Valley.

We hadn’t decided on a name for the proposed bed and breakfast (and we were blissfully unaware that we were still a long, long way from our inauguration, so we would have plenty of time to decide.)  I wanted something that conveyed the tranquility of our promontory, away from Via Nazionale and traffic. It was quiet at night and we slept with the windows open, serenaded by the Segone, the stream that flows between Camparlese and Ghivizzano Alto.  Pepper proposed names that captured our natural surroundings: the forests, mountains, and the Serchio river. He rejected my suggestions as being too much like the name of an assisted-living residence. I rejected his proposals because to me they gave the impression that we were in the wilderness, probably fending off bears. So we were at an impasse, awaiting inspiration.

On one of our last days before returning to the U.S., I had a rare moment of idleness. The previous owner had mentioned in passing that a plaque over the front door  possibly showed the year the house was built. (In fact, our neighbors’ house has a corner stone with ‘1746’ clearly incised).  To me, it was an illegible gray rectangle, with vague characters in low relief. I was curious to know how old our house is and decided that a rubbing might reveal the date on the plaque.  I grabbed a pencil and piece of paper.  I placed a chair in front of the door and climb onto it. Up close, the plaque was obviously tin, not stone, so I was disappointed; this was not going to be at all like our neighbors’ cornerstone. But I was there on the chair and felt I should finish what I started. I held the paper over the plaque and began rubbing the side of the pencil against the paper.  Slowly, like magic, instead of numbers, letters began to appear.  L-A P-A-C-E.  I felt goose bumps and almost fell from the chair.  I jumped down and rushed to bring Pepper the paper.  We looked at each other and suddenly knew our home already had a name. Casa La Pace is ‘House of Peace’.

La Pace

Five years on, the plaque had become even more illegible and rust was La Pace in progressbeginning to show.  After much cajoling, Pepper decided to paint it so that everyone can read the name.   Our good friend David, who is cycling through Europe (and ‘wooff’ing during a good portion of his journey) was staying with us for a couple of weeks.  He was ready to lend us a hand on any task. So Pepper supervised while David applied the color.

We still aren’t sure when our house was built, but I am happy to know that we’ve chosen just the right name.

 

My Arrival in Italy

September 5, 1984.

30 years ago, I was 21 and had never been to Europe, much less to Italy. I knew only two words in Italian: ‘pizza’ and ‘spaghetti’. But as soon as I stepped out of the airport at Pisa, I felt “at home”.  I’ve never been able to understand the feeling nor really describe in a way that makes sense.  I had just completed a journey of more than 24 hours.  And yet, despite being tired, disoriented by the babble of a new language, and confused by the new environment, I felt peaceful and free.

I would be studying in Firenze at Florida State University’s satellite program for the fall semester.  The total student population was 84 and perhaps 30 or 40 were on the same flight that day.  The program director had chartered a bus to transport us on the final leg of our journey, from Pisa to Firenze. I walked to the awaiting bus, plopped down in a seat, and looked out the window at the umbrella pines.  They are an unusual shape, very different from the tall, straight pines of North Florida.  I studied the quality of the sunshine and the dark hair and dark skin of the people entering and exiting the terminal.  (My mind seemed to exclude anyone looking like a tourist as I tried to identify ‘the Italians’).

A bespectacled girl dropped into the seat next to me.  “Hi, I’m Lisa. What’s your name and how long will you be in Florence?”

What a stupid question!  Of course, FSU’s Florence program lasts one semester.  I suppressed an eye roll and introduced myself.  I told her the date of my return flight in December, a few days after the semester would end.

“Well, I’m here for the full year. I’ll be leaving in June though, because I want to travel in Europe for a while after spring semester ends.”

I blushed because I had jumped to the conclusion that there was a one-semester limit to attending the FSU program.  And my heart leaped as a new door of opportunity flew open. Eight months in Italy…wow!  I hadn’t been on the ground an hour  and now my future suddenly tumbled out in new and exciting directions.

I was poor, a ‘starving student’ coming to Italy in part because a wonderful adviser helped me obtain supplementary financial aid. But in that moment, money became irrelevant: somehow or other, I was going to “make it work” and remain in Italy until the springtime.

It was early afternoon as the bus arrived in Firenze. In those days, buses, cars, and scooters could drive practically anywhere in the city center.  Our driver was able to wind his way to the piazza closest to the Pensione Florentia, where most of us would live.  What a jaw-dropping introduction to Firenze was Piazza SS. Annuziata.  It is a grand square, with loggie along two sides and two elegant fountains in the center (surrounded at that time by a jumble of parked Fiats.)

As I gathered my suitcases, I looked around me, trying to absorb every sensation and all the beauty. I remember clearly the amazing Italian light, softened by the humidity high above the city.  It cast a pale gold glow over the piazza and I sometimes wondered later  if I dreamed this moment.  (But if so, what happened in ‘real life’?)

There were almost no tourists, nothing to blot out as I surveyed these new people called “Italians”.  I don’t recall if there were newspaper stands, fruit vendors, or other businesses at that time in SS. Annuziata nor how many people were walking through the square. I do remember the sensation that I somehow belonged in this foreign land.  Even more striking was that I never had a similar feeling in my hometown nor at FSU’s campus in Tallahassee.

I grabbed my suitcases and followed the program director and other students.  We wound our way through the narrow streets to the pensione, my ‘home’ for the next eight months.  In the days that followed, I learned my way around Firenze and began to acclimate to the school, my fellow students, and to the culture and people of the city. But the first sensations of Piazza SS. Annuziata lingered in me for many days after.

Lucca Summer Festival – Freak Out!

Lucca is the epicenter of a fantastic series of concerts every July.  The Lucca Summer Festival, now in its second decade, hosts musicians from around the Lucca Summer Logoworld.  Top names come to Lucca to perform in Piazzale Napoleone.  The Lucchesi call this elegant square “Piazza Grande”. And though it is the largest piazza within the Renaissance walls, it is an intimate space for a performer.  No more than 7000 people, most of them standing (or dancing), can squeeze into the area in front of the stage.

2014 is the fifth summer that Pepper and I have been in Ghivizzano.  We hadn’t yet made it to any of the concerts.  There have certainly been acts that we’d love to have seen: Burt Bacharach and Alicia Keys come immediately to mind.  And I was despondent at missing Eros Ramazzotti, who was in Lucca in 2010, immediately after our arrival. But we were knee-deep in paint, varnish, silicon, etc., and dead-tired at the end of long days of house renovation.

This year, we finally attended our first concert in Lucca. And if our experience was typical, I can’t recommend the Lucca Summer Festival highly enough.

Sheila EIt was a perfect summer evening in the piazza and the warm breezes kept it from being stifling.  Sheila E opened and began her set before the evening light faded.

 

 

 

When NileLucca Summer Piazza Rodgers and Chic strode onto the stage, it was truly nighttime.  But the lights from the stage illuminated the entire piazza. From the first chords Nile strummed on his guitar, I knew this was going to be great fun.

 

Anyone who knows me can attest that I am not a dancer, and indeed do not like Chic ballto dance normally. I’d be happy to have “two left feet”, as I seem to have no feet, only legs of lead.  But when the music began, I couldn’t resist the urge to move and clap and sing along.  It was a fantastic string of songs from every decade since the 1970s.

I knew a little bit about Nile Rodgers. He was a prolific music producer, helping Madonna and Diana Ross create some of the biggest hits of their careers. But I Chic Guitarwasn’t expecting a mind-blowing show, full of energy and fun.  Nile doesn’t sing, leaving that to the female singers and the occasional male solo by various band members. For example, his drummer did a memorable rendition of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance”.  Niles is an amazing guitar player, too, with a distinctive ‘funkiness’ that is immediately recognizable. Think of the guitar licks in “Notorious” by Duran Duran, “Upside Down” by Diana Ross, and “China Girl” by David Bowie.

But Nile Rodgers is more than a nostalgia act.  In fact, he has produced or Nile Rodgerswritten several smash hits in this decade, including “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.

 

 

 

From beginning to end, Pepper and I were dancing with crowds, singing and Chic Redjumping around like teenagers. And the crowd at Summer Music was much more relax and happy than at other concerts I’ve attended. In the back of the piazza, serious dancers were moving like they were possessed.

 

Chic crowdsWe were in the “standing only” area, the cheapest tickets in “the house”. For the first half of the show, seatholders had prime position in rows of chairs close to the stage. But about midway through, the bouncers allowed us to move past the barriers and crowd the stage. For the remainder of the concert, it was more mosh pit than concert hall in Piazzale Napoleone.

I think that Nile enjoyed himself that night and appreciated the screaming fans Niles Guitarand laid-back feel of Lucca Summer Festival. At the end, after the other musicians left the stage, he stayed.  He put down his guitar, strolled back and forth across the stage, waving and playing air guitar.  Even as the roadies began to disassemble the drums and electronics, Nile continued to wave and smile.

Here is a bit of the concert.  I challenge you to stay still:

2014 weather – so far

Every time I’m in Maria Pia’s shop or picking up fruits and vegetables from Loreta, the topic of today’s weather (or tomorrow’s or for the weekend) is sure to come up.  That it is:

too hot

too cold

too wet

too dry

is certain.  Everyone in the shop has his or her two cents to add.  So these conversations, mundane and yet comforting in their sameness, are part of the fabric of Ghivizzano.

I’ve grumbled on more than one occasion about the never-ending dreary spring of 2013.  Thankfully, 2014 has been anything but dreary, so far, and often has been the epitome of the Italian climate.

In March we returned from an extended visit to the United States.  Though the calendar said it was still winter, we were delighted to find an early spring had taken hold in the Serchio valley. It wasn’t really surprising, since Italy really had no winter.  For example, the normal temperatures for February and March are very cold.  This year, however, not a single night had temperatures dropping below freezing.  From the day of our return through the official arrival of spring we had higher-than-normal temperatures and only moderate rainfall.  There were many sunny days and the trees and plants seemed to be on an accelerated schedule, blooming and leafing very early.

April continued the fine weather. I remember a long stretch of sunny days, with just the right amount of rain to keep the flowers in bloom.  I’d awake each morning, dreading to open the windows and see the grey blanket overhead that greeted me each morning in 2013.  Instead, my heart jumped for joy at the sight of the morning sun.  We packed away the heavy winter clothing, retaining only light jackets and a scarf or two.

In the 1990s, I came to Italy in May and spent the better part of two weeks under an umbrella or ducking into cafes and churches to avoid the rain.  One day, I was walking through a park when a sudden downpour began dumping buckets of rain.  There were no buildings nearby, so I found a leafy tree and crouched beneath it, holding my umbrella overhead for a half-hour. May 2014 was truly spectacular.  There were no such tragedies this year.  In fact, May was a bit low on rain according to official statistics.  The days were so beautiful that I dared the fates and planted geraniums early.  Everyone warned me of the always-possible cold snap that would lay waste to these tender summer-loving plants.  But the coldest nights never approached zero and my flowers thrived; they’re now lush and beautiful, cascading from their planters almost to the ground.

I expected June to compensate for May. Last year, June was unusually cool and soggy. The beaches were barren until late June; only pink English schoolgirls ventured near the water on the days that I visited the coast. This year, June was almost perfect in our valley.  We had long stretches of sunshine and warm temperatures.  Pepper’s brother and sister-in-law, along with her son, came for a two-week visit.  I don’t recall an umbrella being opened during their entire visit.  The warmth and sunshine of this particular June stayed with us during our visits to Genova, Siena, and day trips from Casa La Pace.  I finally packed the remaining winter clothes away;  a few long-sleeve shirts and a pair of jeans were enough for the cooler nights that occasionally came our wa.

The first hot days came in June, but they were few.  Each year since we’ve been here, a warm week in June fools me into thinking that the long stretch of hot days has arrived. Each year, including 2014, this heat is short-lived and the cooler days and almost-cold nights return.  In fact, I’m always hesitant to put away the winter comforter.  Each morning, I gauged the thermometer in the early morning.  I’d shake my head and postpone the decision for one more day.  This year, I think I brought down the summer quilts after June 15.  And I was not surprised that guests who stayed with us later in the month pulled out the additional blankets they found in the armoire.

The end of June did bring unseasonal rain.  Pepper participated in a new art event at Ghivizzano Alto. ‘Corart’ was a two-day affair with artists lining the streets and Pepper positioned strategically in the heart of the old town.  The sun shined brightly all day Saturday and most of Sunday.  Only at the end of the day, just as the judges were announcing their favorite artwork, the skies opened up.  The rain stayed with us all that night and for a couple of days after.

July has been extraordinary in more ways than one.  The termperatures have been mild.  Several of our friends returned from their beach-week vacation beautifully bronzed, but lamenting that they had to wear shirts on the beach, especially in the evening. Since the first of the month, we’ve also had quite a few days of rain.  I was startled watching the weather last night;  there have already been four ‘perturbations’ and a fifth is on its way.  Unusually, we’ve even had days of dark, menacing clouds all day.  It felt more like Novembre than July.  Of course, we certainly need the rain – the Serchio river and Segone (stream) are very low – but perhaps not in such long stretches of sunless days.

We often get queries about the ‘best time’ to come to Casa La Pace.  I’m never confident in responding to this question. In the 4 years we’ve been in Ghivizzano, each month of each year has been unique.  There are of course trends of warmth and cold, but a rainy month one year has been a beautifully sunny month the following year.  Some guests have ventured to Barga, Lucca, and other towns nearby mostly under an umbrella.  They’re in the unfortunate minority and thankfully the ‘season’ from April to November gives us many days of golden sunshine.  But with the weather, you can never tell!

Update I:  The last day of July was beautiful: sunny and warm.  It was unusual for this year: the newspaper on 30 July reported that 23 days of the month were cloudy or rainy!

Update II:  It’s official:  July was rainy beyond belief.  Here are some statistics…they’re in Italian, but the numbers and graphs are easy to read.   Rainy July.  Most striking is the very first number:  more rain by 490%!

 

Shopping Late in Lucca

Lucca is an amazing city. It is as old as Firenze and has as much history and charm. It suffers from an inferiority complex, because it has always been less powerful and famous.  Firenze has a wealth of monuments, museums, and other ‘must see’ places, Lucca has very few – and to guests of Casa La Pace that is one of its great advantages.  The majority who return to us at the end of a day trip to Lucca say that they like Lucca better than Firenze.

Lucca

You can enjoy your day in Lucca without a check list and with no agenda.  You can sit quietly at a caffe in Piazza Napoleone, relaxing and watching people walk by.  You can rent a bicycle and pedal the entire Renaissance wall that surrounds the city.  Or you can stroll down Via San Paolino or Via Filungo without feeling that you’re “missing out” on anything.

During summer, Lucca does its best to enliven your days and nights. Most famously, the Lucca Summer music festival brings musicians from around the world to a series of concerts in Piazza Napoleone. In Piazza del Amfiteatro, several jazz concerts will ‘heat up’ the evenings in June.

Lucca

For summer 2014, the shopkeepers of the centro storico are also rolling out the red carpet. During July and August, the shops will stay open late.  One of my few complaints of Lucca is how early it shuts down: at 7 p.m. you are in a lively crowd as you window-shop…by 7:30 p.m., you are almost alone.  This year, the merchants are actively courting the summer crowd. It has been announced that many stores in the centro storico will be keeping late evening hours every Thursday and Friday in July and into August.

Lucca

Let’s hope this is a great success and that this becomes a new tradition of Lucca in summer. Lucca should be a more lively place, and, since the sun is staying out late, we should be able to, too.

 

Early Spring?

Ghivizzano didn’t really have a winter this year. The last week of November and beginning of December were cold. Night-time temperatures were below freezing and the days were chilly but not bitterly cold. Then around mid-December, the cold disappeared.  The daily highs were usually around 11 degrees and the night-time lows never reaching zero.  It rained regularly, and sometimes intensely. But there were stretches of wonderful sunshine, too, a terrific relief from last winter’s dreary weeks and months.  This pattern continued through January (and heavy rains resulted in many landslides throughout the country, very unusual for January).

Pepper and I traveled in the United States for the month of February, so I don’t have first-had experience of Italian weather. But we exchanged emails and messages with our friends, so were regularly updated with the general weather conditions.  Our Italian friends told us of the rains and of the sunny days, never mentioning cold.

Meanwhile, in January and February, parts of the U.S. experienced wave after Little Rock in Marchwave of snow, ice and record-breaking low temperatures.  Pepper and I were incredibly fortunate that the great majority of our American vacation was filled with sunshine. The last Sunday of our visit to Little Rock saw the arrival of  a fast-moving hail and snowstorm, which shut down the city for a couple of days.  Otherwise, our travels were not negatively impacted by bad weather.

Gloucester in MarchOur journey ended in the Northeast, where show lay on the ground.   The maximum temperatures each day were barely above freezing.  But the sun accompanied us, creating beautiful canvases of bare trees, snow banks, and granite outcroppings.

 

As soon as we landed in Italy in early March, we peeled off our jackets.  It seems thForsythia, Quinceat spring has already arrived in the Serchio Valley – almost a month earlier than years past. On our ride home from the airport, explosions of yellow captured my attention, forsythias in full bloom in the gardens along the road.  On the hillsides, white blossoms revealed pear and almond trees popping out from the austere browns of the still-naked chestnuts, acacia, and oak.

The next morning, I walked down to the Ghivizzano market, the first time in more than a month that I had done so.  What a beautiful, warm day it was and Magnoliait highlighted the striking contrast of the same walk a month before.  Chinese magnolias are already dropping their petals. Early spring is their moment and this year, the creamy white blooms and deep purple cups seem fuller and more elegant that years past.  Daffodils are still in bloom, but already dying. As the earliest arrivals, I had missed their sunny-yellow dance.

The camelias are in full bloom, their rich drinkable-red flowers popping out Cameliasagainst the glossy-green foliage. They must be in bloom for a while now, as the bed of fallen flowers beneath each bush attests.

 

 

 

The entire week in Ghivizzano has been beautiful, with one warm day followed Panseysby another.  During lunch, Pepper and I eat in the courtyard, the sun warming our backs and a cool north breeze chilling our fronts.  I notice that the sun is high in the sky again, and now manages to sail over the mountain to the west in its evening descent.  This means that sunset is now at 6 p.m. and it’s light outside until almost 7 (and Europe doesn’t change its clocks until the end of March.)

We’ve survived another winter and each morning I awake to the promise of spring. All around us are the sights and sounds that I associate with mid-April.  Windows are flung open to air out the house. Wild Snapdragon

Fruit Tree in loomChainsaws roar, removing dead limbs and cutting down dead trees.  Birdsong flies through our open windows from every tree and bush. And the impossible greens of spring, from olive to lemon-lime to forest, bombard the eye wherever I turn.

The weeds and grasses have gotten their usual head start, taking advantage of Wild violetsthe bare trees to take in as much sunlight as possible.  The calendar says that spring is still a few days away, but the world around me says that the season is already here.

 

2013 in Review

Has another year flown by already?  It seems like only last week I was writing about 2012.

As we hoped, each year has been better than the year before. Casa La Pace in 2013 welcomed more guests, there were more nights with all rooms booked, and more nights with at least one room occupied.  As ever, we are thrilled to welcome new people from around the globe.

2013 for Casa La Pace could be subtitled ‘The Year of the Australians.” Until this year, we’d seen mostly Americans and a smattering of Europeans. In Our 1st AustraliansMarch, our first Australian guests arrived, two wonderful couples from Queensland. They were kind, funny, and all-around great guests.  We felt so lucky that they found Casa La Pace. We never imagined that they would be the first of a wave of Aussies we hosted this year.  Our final count for 2013 is 17 Aussies – each and every one delightful.

In addition to Australia and the U.S., we had guests from Great Britain, Poland, Hungary, Denmark, Singapore, and Dubai.  (I have probably forgotten a few).  Meeting people from other countries is one of the most interesting aspects of running a B&B.  We’re ‘tied down’ and can’t travel most of the year. But as we hear the stories of the lives of our guests, I can travel to their home in my mind.

This year we welcomed our first visitor from my hometown. Rita and her Rita and Jim Pruettehusband Jim, along with their nephew, came to stay with us early in 2013.  I left Blountstown in 1983 and have returned for only a couple of brief visits. During her time at Casa La Pace, Rita and I reminisced about high school and she updated me on significant events in her life in the past 30 years.  I was glad to learn that she and Jim are happy and healthy and active in their community.

In 2013, we had several returning guests. We love the good reviews on Trip Advisor. But a guest who wants to return to Casa La Pace says much more to us than words of praise.  It confirms that Casa La Pace is a welcoming place and that our efforts are appreciated.  We have promises from several people of their return to Casa La Pace in 2014.

Our final guest of this year was also our very first guest. In 2010, Becca brought along her friend Kate; they arrived about 10 days after Pepper and I moved Becca and Andrasfrom the U.S. to Ghivizzano.  The renovations to the house were (mostly) complete. But the walls were unpainted, we had almost no furniture, and we had no heating system.  Shortly before their arrival, I rushed to Lucca and bought two twin mattress.  Becca and Kate slept in the Nelida room on the mattresses on the floor.  Fortunately, it was a hot week in mid-summer, so they didn’t complain too much about the cold showers.

This December, Becca brought her husband Andras.  They slept in comfort in the Victoria room. They stayed with us for 4 days. And though it was cold outside, the happy couple took hot showers and were toasty and warm.  It was exciting for Becca to see how far we’ve come in 4 years.

We continue to make improvements to the house, as time and our budget allows.  Solar panels went onto the roof in April; they were finally approved and linked to the power grid in July (thank you, Italian bureaucracy).  We also installed air conditioning /heating units in each guest bedroom. The summer of 2013 was mild and the air conditioning was hardly needed.  But we’re ready now for future heat waves.

Though we had more guests and fewer free days, we still managed to travel a couple of times this year.  In February, we celebrated my 50th birthday in the Canary IslandsCanary Islands.  And during August, we escaped the heat by journeying to the Isle of Wight, off the southern coast of England.  In both cases, we stayed at B&Bs when possible.  We got to know the owners at a couple of them and wish we could return every year to see them.

During our free time, we tried to spend time with our friends, old and new, here in Ghivizzano.  We remain close with Ramona, Grazia, Rossano, and Ester. We Alessandro and Rebeccavisit Alessandro and Marinella and Samanta and Albano often.  We’ve added to our circle of friends Antonella and her husband Dean, who was born in the U.S. and is a perfect English speaker – and bakes wonderful bread in his pizza oven.  We met Andrea and Elisabetta at Alessandro and Marinella’s and we hope to see them much more in 2014.  We are grateful that our friends welcome us into Albano and Micheletheir homes and seem to enjoy meeting guests of Casa La Pace when we bring them along.  Alessandro and Dean speak English, but language seems to be no problem over a glass of wine or limoncello.

 

Pepper and I are grateful to everyone who came to stay at Casa La Pace in 2013. We already have many reservations for 2014 and we couldn’t be happier.

Sun Powered

I am reposting this, as the spam comments overwhelmed the previous post.

Pepper and I have always supported environmental organizations with monetary contributions and, when possible, by volunteering. (One memorable outing with the Nature Conservancy to southwest Arkansas was on one of the coldest days of winter to gather wildflower seeds.) We’ve also tried to live in a way that reduces, as much as possible, our negative impact on the environment.  So it made sense to ensure that Casa La Pace is as ‘green’ as we can make it.

When Pepper and I shopped for a refrigerator, washer, dryer, and dishwasher for the B&B, we bought only ‘A+’ or ‘A++’, even if they cost a little more. In Italy, the appliances have big, colorful stickers explaining how much each model consumes.  Each one is also assigned a letter, ‘A’ being the best model (lowest power consumption) and ‘D’ being the worst. (I assume that ‘F’ models are not offered for sale).  Europe has been very progressive in promoting energy efficiency, so many models these day are ‘A+’ or ‘A++’.

From the start, we hoped to install solar panels, as well.  Water heating panels are very popular here.  But our hot-water usage is not too high, and so decided to make our first priority photovoltaic panels.  (I also have some experience with photovoltaic, having installed it on the house in Arizona several years ago.)

After requesting several estimates, we located a great guy who offered an excellent product at a reasonable cost.  We signed the contract in March and the panels were installed on the roof in April. Solar Panel 1

End or story?  Of course not.  It took ENEL, the electric company, two more months to issue the permits and change our electric box.  And so, finally, Casa La Pace is now producing ‘green energy’.  Coincidentally, the clouds of spring dissipated about the time the panels began producing electricity.  (Perhaps the only ‘good side’ to the terrible spring weather is that I wasn’t fretting about ‘losing’ sunny days to produce electricy, since there was little sun.)

The panels have been functional for  about 3 weeks.  So far, we’re producing between 20 and 25 kilowatts of electricity each day, even on partly-cloudy days.

As an aside, I am irritated when people make ‘payback’ their top priority.   Why is the discussion about solar panels so focused on ‘return on investment’? Yes,  energy production efficiency should be considered, as well as cost of the panels, installation costs, and the like. But no one expects an air conditioner, garage door-opener, or refrigerator to ‘pay for itself’ in X years.  To me, we should treat home alternative energy sources in the same way.

This isn’t a great view of the panels, but I think I’d need a tall crane or helicopter for a “bird’s eye view”.  And very soon, the solar panels will show up on Google maps.

solar panels