Christmas at Casa La Pace

Christmas is a beautiful time of year. At Casa La Pace, we have 2 special reasons to love the season.

The first is our ‘annual’ Christmas party. For the second year, we have invited all of our friends to our house. Our friends are a great mix of Italians and

Christmas Party 1

expatriots.  There are the locals of Ghivizzano, including Samanta and Albano and Giuseppe and Marcella.  Friends also drive from Lucca, mostly from the now-defunct ‘meet-up’, including Christina and Giuseppe.  This year, Rusty’s Mom and dear friends from Little Rock were also staying with us.

Christmas Party 2The evening began with a potluck dinner, a concept relatively foreign to most Italians. To them, it is unusual to have the food all on the table at the same time, instead of served as a series of dishes. We had Columbian-style chicken and rice, vegetarian dip, and, of course, many Italian options. Albano provided a special treat in the form of necci, chestnut pancakes that have a long history in the Serchio Valley and the Garfagnana. He prepared them on the stove top using traditional metal pallets.

Christmas Party - Albano

After several hours of eating and drinking, we moved to the salone for the ‘white elephant’ gift exchange. Here too our friends were introduced to a fun idea. At first, some coaching was required. But eventually everyone embraced the idea of stealing someone else’s gift.

Christmas Party - White Elephant

As our guests departed, we were happy to once again host a festive gathering of our closest friends. When we have guests, our friends are neglected. Fortunately for us, they understand and are available when we have precious time to spend with them.

The tower

The second holiday event was the “Precepe Vivente” (Living Nativity) in Ghivizzano Alto.  Two years ago a heavy snow forced the cancellation. Last year, major restoration of the tower resulted in its cancellation. This year, the tower renovations are complete and a shiny new elevator has been installed to reach the old church. We were very excited, as this was the first year we attended.

  Unexpectedly, Pepper wCarolersas ‘invited’ to participate (the mayor exerted great pressure, which Pepper was unable to resist).  For the event, the old town comes alive, with the villagers dressed in traditional garb and demonstrating traditional crafts.  The mayor wanted Pepper to be an artist, painting a scene as visitors stroll by.

The weather had been awful, with heavy rains for 3 days running.  Everyone wondered if the rains would force the cancellation of this year’s event. Almost Copper Potsmiraculously, at 6 p.m., the rains ceased, as though a spigot had been closed.  (As a side note, the weather was atrocious in November and December, right up to December 15. After the Presepe Vivente, we’ve had many more days of sun. And even the cloudy days don’t bring terrible rains, for which I am thankful).

Pepper Live Nativity

With Pepper ensconced in a dark, isolated corner, I roamed the old town.  In Weavereach open cantina a story was being acted out. In this one, a woman sold copper pots. In that one, a family poured wax into small tubes for candles.

Of course, food was an integral part of the tableaux: bread making, a tavernaVin Brule'

with wine and sliced meats, and a stand where necci (chestnub pancakes) were cooked over an open flame.  In two piazzette were cauldrons bubbling with vin brule’ (mulled wine).

 

 

I returned to visit Pepper several times. I brought him food and drink throughout the evening. Surprisingly, many people managed to find him and were interested in his work.  He gained two fans, young boys who are budding artists and insisted on impromptu art lessons.

The taverna

Around 9:30 p.m.,  Mary and Joseph, followed by the Magi and others, moved silently through the village.  At each open cantina, they stopped, knocked, and asked for lodgings.  They eventually climbed the stairs to the grounds of the tower, where a manger was waiting, complete with a live donkey.  We missed their arrival, but were ‘told’ of Jesus’ birth by the explosion of fireworks.Living Nativity

The crowds were light, but the food was terrific and the villagers put their heart into their roles.  Pepper and I enjoyed sharing this tradition with the villagers and getting to know them better.  We are honored that the people of Ghivizzano have embraced us as members of the community.

Lucca Comics 2012

As I’ve written more than once, we are fortunate that Ghivizzano is so close to Lucca. A 25-minute train ride takes us to the train station just outside the walls of Lucca.  A short stroll brings us to the heart of the city.

This was especially convenient recently, when the whole world came to Lucca for the 2012 edition of Lucca Comics and Games.  This festival is at least 10 years old and gets bigger every year.

In all of the piazze of the historic center are sprawling tents, inside which are comic vendors, movie makers, and hundreds of other participants.  If you’re interested, you can easily spend the entire festival participating in activities, wandering from pavilion to pavilion and vendor to vendor.

For those of us less interested in comics, Lucca is an outdoor stage, full of exhibitionists who want nothing more than for you to look at them.

Thousands wander the streets in costume, most individually but also many in themed groups.  Lucca is never more crowded than for the Comics festival.

Trains from Viareggio, Firenze, and Pisa are stuffed to the rafters with people of all ages coming to Lucca. Some are already dressed, others carry costumes and change upon arrival.  Many more are civilians who, like me, are there as spectators.

I was in Lucca on that Saturday and the weather could not have been better for this grand event.  Imagine a combination of Halloween, Carnivale, and sci-fi- movie opening combined into a single event. According to a post-event newspaper article,  more 300,000 visitors were in Lucca during the 5 days.  Saturday (the day I went) set a new record for attendance, with 56,000 people walking the streets and visiting the pavilions.

Place it in a medieval city with a maze of narrow streets and a wide Renaissance wall on which people can stroll and pose and you have the Lucca Comics and Games street scene.

An unexpected treat was to visit the Palazzo Ducale, which was hosting an exhibition of comic art.  I’ve been dying to visit this marvellous palace.  I’d seen photos in a guide book, but have been told on more than occasion that the palazzo is not open to the public.

I was delighted to be able to wander the same rooms as Princess Eliza.  I noted that the silk wall coverings are festooned with bees, one of the symbols of the Napoleonic empire.

For full details of the festival, be sure to check out the official website: http://www.luccacomicsandgames.com

 

 

Murabilia – Lucca

The walls of Lucca are truly spectacular. As you approach them, you realize how massive they are.  The walls are earthen-works contained by brick and stone. The top of the walls are a much-used public space, transformed into an elegant walkway by the rows of trees on either side.  At any hour, you will see joggers and tourist on bicycles, an old couple strolling arm in arm, and a group of teenagers passing the time.

Twice a year, Lucca organizes Murabilia, a wonderful garden show along one stretch of the walls. This year’s fall event was in early September, though smaller than last year, was much more colorful.

Murabilia started as a type of fair, providing an opportunity for local farmers to exhibit their biggest and oddest pumpkins. Murabilia has grown through the years into a real garden show, with exhibitors from Toscana, Emiglia-Romagna, and other regions even more distant.

This year, there was the usual parade of attention-getters: the roses, antique and hybrid, in blinding colors and with intoxicating perfumes.  On the other end were the bushes, grasses, and plants that seem almost wild.  All were so tempting and I could have come home with many wonderful plants.  But the courtyard of Casa La Pace is already bursting with color (though I don’t rule out a few acquisitions at the spring event.)

I’m always amazed to see the variety of agrumi (citrus). Coming from Florida, I am familiar with the many varieties of orange. Italy seems to specialize in lemon-like fruit: cedro, bergamot (yes, it’s a citrus!) and other plants I can’t name.

Frangipanis and ginger were delightful with their flowers exotically colored and sweetly fragrant. But I wondered as I strolled past, where can one maintain them, in a province with below-freezing temperatures for 3 months of the year?  There must be many other hopeful gardeners who, like me, defy the advice of the experts for the joy of a splash of color.

In addition to plants, there were spice vendors, with long tables of powders and seeds; the smells of cinnamon, lavender and curry seducing me as I approached the table. Soap makers, lotion makers, candy makers, and many more artisans were present. When a booth was quite busy, the exhibitor seemed content. At more than one lonely booth, I saw contentment of a different type: busy hands, knitting a sweater, the woman enjoying the sunshine and cool shade atop the walls of Lucca.

First Snow

As September moved into October, the nights got progressively cooler.  But the daytime temperatures remained wonderfully warm.  Pepper and I were regularly outdoors in shorts in the afternoon.

That all changed last weekend.  Three days of heavy rains brought much cooler tempatures.  I finally turned on the heat, the first time since spring.  The overnight temperatures weren’t much lower, but the daytime temperatures didn’t go very high either.  The thick gray clouds hung overhead.  Unlike most autumn rains, there were no breaks in the clouds, no sunshine peeking through to warm the house.

Monday we awoke to a spectacular dawn.  The clouds were scuttling away and the golden rays streamed through the windows.

That morning I went early to Lucca on business. As I was waiting in the main square for the bus, I happened to look up the valley – and saw that the Alpi Apuane were blanketed in snow!

The snows won’t last very long, as it’s still too warm in the mountains. But I wanted to capture the beauty of the first snowfall of the season.

 

Porcini

Disclaimer: None of the pictured mushrooms is a porcino.

The hills of the Serchio Valley are quite beautiful and usually peaceful. Beginning in September, shortly after the first rains, however, they are invaded by a steady stream of cars, especially on the weekends.  Porcini mushrooms are popping up and everyone wants fresh mushrooms.

Porcini are pungent and flavorful. Garfagnana is famous throughout Italy for its porcini.  They can grow very large and command high prices.  Over the years, the price has risen so much that many landholders have fenced their property in a vain attempt to keep out those who come gathering mushrooms for money.

Porcini are particular in their growing habits. After the long dry spell of summer, the rain is a welcome relief.  The first rains don’t usually soak the forest floor, so everyone waits for the later, heavier downpours.  About 10 days after these rains, porcini mushrooms will appear. If it’s too hot or cold, or if the winds blow down from the mountains, there will be few mushrooms.  Fortunately, 2012 is the perfect weather and we’re having a bumper crop.  (This is a welcome change from last year, when the mushroom harvest was pitiful).

Since I learned that we live at the center of the porcini universe, I’ve been dying to go mushroom hunting.  September and October are also the perfect travel weather, so there have been few days without guests (Not that I’m complaining!)  An additional factor is the weather, in that I’m not really enthusiastic about traipsing through the forest in a downpour. So you’ll understand how my hopes have been repeatedly dashed.

Fortunately for me, on a recent Sunday I was free and the weather was decent. Our friends Alessandro and Marinella were going with Marinella’s mother ‘for an hour or two’ and invited me along.  They have a top secret spot to gather porcini – I knew better than to expect we’d be headed there. My invitation was, according to them, an opportunity to ‘get out of the house’. This suited me, too, as it would reduce the pressure to find a porcino.

Our guide was Marinella’s mother, not surprisingly.  She has the knowledge of old timers, plus the latest gossip on where the mushrooms are growing.

Our car climbed above Ghivizzano, passing through the loose collection of houses which comprise Gromignana.  We continued for another few minutes, until we were winding through a forest of chestnuts. We parked behind another car – never a good sign if one hopes to find porcini – and climbed out of the car. A quick survey showed me that the area had already been scoured. I spotted overlapping footprints and overturned leaves.  This wasn’t at all a disappointment to me, as I really wanted a ‘first experience’.  I am confident there will be many other days for serious mushrooming.

It was a beautiful day.  It wasn’t perfect, as a regular army of gray clouds marched overhead.  But they were not closely organized and allowed regular periods of bright sunshine through. The temperatures in these autumn days are dropping as we head towards winter; this day required a long-sleeved shirt.  The passing showers made a lively beat, the drops mostly hitting the treetops.  The chestnut canopy is thick and protected us from most of the rain.  For mushrooms, this is an ideal environment. The canopy ensures that moisture reaches the ground, but doesn’t evaporate quickly.  The wet leaves decay slowly, so porcini mushrooms have lots of food.

An aside:

Porcini grow best under chestnut and oak tress. The Garfagnana has a sinister invader that is pushing out these trees: the false acacia.  The acacia is, like most invasives, a seemingly pleasant addition to the landscape. In June, each tree is covered in delicate white blooms, so fragrant that the whole valley is perfumed. The hillsides turn from deep green to silver when the masses of acacia bloom. The blooms soon turn to seed – millions of long flat pods. Their prolific reproduction rate, combined with their rapid growth means the acacia are quickly crowding out the native trees. (In 2 years, acacias next to Casa La Pace have reached 5 meters in height.) The forest floor changes from moist mulch to desert; the leaves of the acacia don’t block the summer sun, so the moisture evaporates too quickly.  No porcini grow among the acacia.

Back to mushroom-gathering:

With little prospect of finding porcini, I focused on all of the other mushrooms I was seeing that aren’t porcini. I had no idea there are so many varieties, practically under my nose. Mari’s mother says some are edible, but none of them knew which ones.  (Each year, the newspaper breathlessly recounts the deaths of people who have eaten poisonous mushrooms.) So instead of worrying about porcini, I happily gathered mushrooms with my lens. I perfunctorily scanned the roots of the chestnut trees, stirring the leaves only if they blocked my ‘shot’. I wandered aimlessly, hoping to spot mushrooms much more colorful or odder than porcini (which are fairly dull in appearance).

Marinella meanwhile had been gathering galettas, a beautiful orange-yellow fungo.  She says they’re edible and indeed they cooked them up that night.

After an hour or so, we moved on to another hillside.  Here, too, were fresh signs of hunters.  I slowly climbed, once again looking for reds and yellows, or blacks and whites. Very soon, I spotted a dusky-brown sprout and then its twin nearby.  Not daring to hope, I called Alessandro over.  He confirmed the impossible: I had found my first porcini!

The remainder of the afternoon passed uneventfully.  I continued to stroll until the camera battery died.  The others continued their serious search, made more expectant by my discovery (another example of beginner’s luck).  As the sun waned, we climbed into the car and headed down the hill.  Two porcini don’t make a meal (or at least these two runts of mine), so I insisted that the others include them with their galettas.

It was a happy day. And now I know what I’m looking for; I’m trying to suppress the desire to rush into the woods again – I think I’ve been infected with porcini fever!

 

Improvements at Casa La Pace

As any homeowner will tell you, a house is always a work in progress. This is true at Casa La Pace as well. After purchasing the house, we renovated Casa La Pace. There was a long list of improvements, not all of which we had the time and budget to complete. So we separated the list into ‘now’ and ‘later’.  When we opened in June, 2011, we were proud of how much improved the house was and that our guests would find the latest conveniences in a beautiful setting.

At the end of our first year accepting guests, we reviewed the ‘later’ list.  We decided to take the opportunity of the August heat and close the B&B to improve the house even more.  Here then are the major improvements we’ve completed.

Early guests who stayed in the Nancy room have stories about taking a shower, usually ending with a frantic call for mop and bucket. The house had two existing bathrooms and the Nancy room has one of them.  We realized that we couldn’t change the dimensions nor placement of the bathroom. But those clever Italians have bathroom fixtures to address almost any situation. We installed retractable shower doors, which function well and are much more beautiful than a shower curtain.  We also replaced the radiator with a shiny new towel warmer.

 

The more obvious and satisfying improvement is to the facade of the house. When we applied for permits to renovate, the city required us to remove the existing roof over the balcony.  They said it was ‘out of compliance’, i.e. a modern structure on a historic house.  We partially complied, removing the hideous corrugated fiberglass roofing. But we left the rusting frame, an eyesore that had been an embarrassment to us (Fortunately it had a small profile in relation to the facade, so was not too noticable – we hope!).  We hired our favorite carpenter, Rossano, to construct a rustic ‘tettino’. He installed it in a few days and deserves a medal for withstanding the baking sun.  Just in time for guests arriving on the first of September (literally only hours before), we had the house ready.

The new roof improves the appearance of the house and, as we hoped, it provides more protection from the weather. The blazing sun is blocked from our balcony doors and the rain kept at bay, too.

Last but not least, we finally have a street sign!

On your next visit to Ghivizzano, you’ll see this sign on Via Nazionale.  Our guests will know you’ve come to the right place!

 

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Day Trip – Lerici

Thanks to Rick Steves, the 5 charming villages of the Cinque Terre are now crowded with American tourists.  The coastline is beautiful and each village is charming. But too many people in too small an area makes the destination less enjoyable. Many of our guests return from the Cinque Terre disappointed, saying they heard ‘nothing but American’ on the paths and in the villages.

 

To me, Lerici (pronounced LEH-ree-chee) is a much better option.  Like the Cinque Terre, it is in Liguria, the Italian region that also includes Genova and Portofino. But it is just over the border from Toscana – and closer to Casa La Pace.

 

 

Lerici is a popular option for the Italians to spend their August holidays. Yes, Leric is a larger and more developed town than Monterosso or Vernazza. But this means it is much better at welcoming the daytripper than the Cinque Terre, with many more restaurants, cafes, and shops. And  Lerici at any time other than Ferragosto is a delight, with broad streets and exquisitely-painted buildings lining the marina.

 

Lerici is on the southern end of the Bay of Poets and it takes advantage of its long coastline. The port and beach are an easy stroll;  the visitor doesn’t need hiking boots and two-liter botter of water. In fact, I have often encountered more people in bathing suits than pants.  For the sun worshipper, Lerici’s beaches are perfectly Italian, with rows and rows of lounge chairs and umbrellas.

 

 

For me, the beauty of Lerici is secondary to the food. Its restaurants offer many choices, but of course fish is the main dish.  My two most recent trips to Lerici were ‘pilgrimages’ to a restaurant recommended by a friend.  I can safely say that the best meals I’ve ever eaten were in Lerici. I eat little the day before so that can enjoy the endless bounty of ‘It Pescatore’. Each course includes multiple dishes and wine and coffee are included in the price. (So is the bread, which is delicious – but who wants to fill up on bread when there is so much fish to be eaten?)

After lunch, you can hop on a boat that regularly crosses the Golfo dei Poeti. In less than a half-hour, you’ll arrive at at another impossibly-beautiful village, Porto Venere. This tiny town is on a finger of land between the bay and the Mediterranean.  It too is filled with restaurants and shops, including a shop that sells nothing but pesto (and the most delicious pesto I’ve ever tasted). And it should go without saying that the views in any direction are incredible.

From Porto Venere, you can take the bus to La Spezia or return to Lerici by boat.  In either case, you’ll be back at Casa La Pace in time for dinner.

 

 

An American Car in Europe

Guests of Casa La Pace have been surprised when we’d show up at the Ghivizzano train station in an American car sporting Arkansas license plates. We explained that, like so many aspects of life in Italy, registering our car is a “long and winding road”.

We shipped the car from the U.S. in June 2010. It sailed across the Atlantic and arrived (without a scratch) in Livorno in August. After two months of limited transportation options, I felt the rush of adrenaline as I zoomed down the autostrada with the radio at full volume.  I might have been 18 again and driving away from the  dealership with my brand-new Ford Focus.

In the intervening months, I’ve travelled throughout Toscana in pursuit of documents, official stamps, and fulfilling other demands of bureaucracy, both reasonable and inscrutable.  I learned new terminology and met interesting people. I also quickly realized how naive I had been to imagine that shipping a car from the U.S. would be any easier than other aspects of our move to Italy. Needless to say, we blew through the six-month deadline long ago.

The highway police, on the few occasions that I spotted them, seemed uninterested in stopping me. (An American friend told me the police dislike dealing with English-speaking drivers and wave her on as soon as she opens her mouth. Perhaps the American tag was useful in discouraging traffic stops.) However, I’ve felt vaguely like a fugitive, so we limited our trips, with Volterra and Firenze being the outer limit of our travels.

I am proud to report that, after nearly two years of emotional highs and dashed hopes, my 2006 Toyota Matrix is now sporting Italian plates.

I couldn’t have done this alone, of course. For every Italian bureaucrat who shrugged his shoulders, there was an Achile who provide me with answers. For every mechanic who refused to even look at my seatbelts because the Matrix is not a model sold in Italy, there was a Luca who found the parts that exactly matched – from a wrecked Yaris.

My Italian friend Ramona has warned me that my troubles are just beginning: now that my car has Italian plates, the government knows where to send the speeding tickets!

Post-script: Pepper and I recently drove to Val d’Aosta for a much-deserved vacation.  We were on the road for more than 6 hours and the Italian license plates gave me a sense of liberation. I no longer checked in the rear-view mirror for any sign of the highway police; we were just one more vehicle in the great annual migration of Ferragosto.

Ghivizzano at the Olympics!

The cured meats of the Garfagnana are renowned throughout the province of Lucca. When you order an appetizer plate of salami or prosciutto, more than likely the source is one of two companies located in Ghivizzano.

This week, I was startled to spot the newspaper headline ‘Farro lands at the Olympics in London’. Farro is another specialty of the Garfagnana. It is a grain closely related to wheat, but cultivated much earlier. (Read more about this tasty grain here.) The article explained that Ghivizzano native son Rolando Belandi, proprietor of L’Antica Nocineria, is going to London.  Products from around the world will be showcased at The Queen Elizabeth Conference Center in London, ‘next to the Abbey of Westminster and Big Ben’. Rolando saw this a unique promotional opportunity  and, as a result, farro and other products from the Garfagnana will represent Tuscany at the Olympics.

At Casa La Pace, we embrace the ‘Slow Food’ movement. When possible, we serve meats, cheeses, fruits, and other food from local producers.  In addition to L’Antica Nocineria, there are at least 2 other nearby butchers who also provide the Serchio Valley with the highest quality meats, grains – and even farro beer! – from local producers.

Congratulations Rolando and Ghivizzano!

Che Bella Giornata

You know the line “Oh, what a beautiful morning! oh ,what a beautiful day!” from Oklahoma?  Oscar Hammerstein must have awaken on just such a day as today when he wrote those lines.

The clouds above the Appenines are thick and dense, like mascarpone that is rolling down the mountains. But here at Casa La Pace, the sun is bright and summer-strong.  There are strong winds and the trees are rocking back and forth and round-and-round. But unlike other July days, the wind is from the east, from the mountaintops.  It is not the humid sea air from the west, nor the hot desert air blowing from Africa to the south.

Since mid-June, we’ve been closing the windows during the day, but leaving them open at night. This keeps out the heat of the day and lets in the cooler night air.  Today, though, I’ve left our windows wide open.  The temperature is about 10 degrees centigrade cooler today. The air is swirling through the house and the sun dances on the terra-cotta-colored tiles.   It feels more like late September than late July.

I know the heat of August will be here soon. In the meantime, I will relish the beauty of this day.

 

Postscript:  The hot days of August have arrived.  It makes the memory of this beautiful day that much sweeter.