Day Trip – Lajatico

We love exploring the Serchio Valley and the surrounding mountains.  But we also want to see other parts of Tuscany.   With a friend, we recently traveled south to the province of Pisa.  I was here once before when I was looking at properties.  But  I was ‘a man on a mission’, so had no time to stop and enjoy the scenery.  On this trip, I was seeing familiar intersections and villages, but with fresh eyes.

The ‘colle pisane’ rise quickly from the plain and are dotted with many lovely villages. Pines, grasses, grains, and grapes are everywhere, a sea of gold and green. This is the Tuscany of rolling hills, golden sunshine, and earth tones that you see on all of the posters, book covers, and movies.

The day was quite warm.  The summer’s lack of rain (a positive for tourists and beach-goers) leaves the grasses brown and rattling in the wind.

After driving up and down, around and over, we ended up near Lajatico. 15 years ago, no one had heard of this sleepy village. Yes, it’s a beautiful and ‘quaint’ hilltop town.  It has an unusual clock tower – from the front, it is 2 stories high; spiral around to the back and you’re only one story below the crinellated roof.  The central piazza is quite small and, as with many hilltop towns, the buildings all flow downhill.

Then a local boy named Andrea Bocelli became world-famous. Now the tourists pour in throughout the year. And Bocelli’s wealth is such that Cassa di Risparmio of Lajatico is now ranked richest financial institution per-capita in Toscana.

To his credit, Bocelli has brought positive change to his hometown. He is the reason that the ‘Teatro di Silencio’ (Theater of Silence) exists in the dramatic landscape downhill from the village.  It is a wonderful outdoor ampitheater with incredible views in all directions.

Every year since its construction, Bocelli has performed at least one concert in the outdoor theater.  (I recall at least one on PBS a few years back.) He later declares it will be his last year at Lajatico. And then the next year, he is back with another fine performance.

Other great singers and musicians also perform at the Teatro del Silencio.  If you’re planning a trip to Italy next summer, be sure to check out the website http://www.teatrodelsilenzio.it/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Casa la Pace

Pepper and I are always excited to welcome our next guest to Casa La Pace.  In the beginning, it was  compatriots, often on their first trip to Italy.  As Casa La Pace has become more popular, we are welcoming guests from other places, as well.  I’m excited to report that  we’ve hosted three couples from different (non-American) countries.

First, we hosted a couple from Berlin.  Each morning, Dave and Priska asked for breakfast in the courtyard.  They  were content to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the tranquil sounds of the country.  I remarked that it was cool  in the mornings (16 degrees).  Then I realized that Berlin’s high temperature was probably about 16 degrees!. After breakfast, they headed off to the beach, returning late each evening.  On the last morning,  they lingered long after checking out.

Next was a couple from Dubai, though as Nourane explained, no one is really ‘from’ Dubai. Wadih was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Nourane grew up in Switzerland, but her heritage is Egyptian. (She speaks “four and a half” languages and I am totally envious). They went to Firenze for two day trips, returning late each evening.  But on the last morning Wadih said that he loved Lucca and proclaimed it the delight of their time with us. Like Dave and Priska, they seemed loathe to leave us.

Most recently, we hosted our first guests from Ireland. They were reserved when they first arrived. By the end of their stay, Dave and Ger were relaxed and happy. In fact,  they are coming back to stay with us in the autumn!  Ghivizzano and Casa La Pace worked their magic!

When we imagined the life of B&B owners, of course we hoped to welcome a many friendly guests.  We are privileged to welcome visitors from abroad into our home. These three couples represent for us a wonderful aspect of our life at Casa La Pace: without leaving our front door, we’re meeting fascinating people from around the world.

A distinguished guest – Carolyn Briggs

When Casa La Pace first opened, the large majority of our guests were family, friends, or friends of friends.  Over time, word of mouth and exposure on the web means that now we often don’t know anything about our next guests.  I don’t note the names of the upcoming arrivals, being more preoccupied with provisions for breakfasts and clean sheets. So when our guests arrive, I am a ‘blank slate’, greeting each stranger as a future friend.

All of our guests are interesting and we’re glad to learn more about them. A recent guest deserves special mention because she is an accomplished writer. Carolyn Briggs wrote a memoir a few years ago, entitled “This Dark World”. (Here is an online link to the book)

Carolyn’s fame doesn’t end there, though.  The book caught the eye of Vera Farmiga, who is perhaps most famous as George Clooney’s co-star in “Up in the Air”. Vera wanted to make the book into a movie and so recruited Carolyn to adapt the book into a screenplay.  Vera directed the movie and starred in it (as Carolyn). Somewhere along the way, the title became ‘Higher Ground’.  If you are one who reads movie reviews and follows the ‘buzz’ from the independent movie circuit, you’ll have heard of this fine movie. (See the Rotten Tomatoes consensus)

I am not generally star struck when I meet actors nor musicians (Olivia Newton-John excepted).  But a published author will send me into “silly mode” and I find it very hard to remain composed.   Meeting Armistead Maupin in Colorado Springs is a perfect example. To this day, Pepper mimics my “gushing”.

A person who can complete a book that is good enough to be published is an amazingly talent. Assuming the task of screen-writer to a movie is even more evidence of a wonderful gift for words. Perhaps you can understand how hard I had to work at ‘behaving’ while the Briggs were here.

During their stay at Casa La Pace, Carolyn and her husband David were gracious and talkative. Carolyn’s stories of writing the memoir and  the screenplay were captivating.

On the last morning, as Carolyn and David enjoyed their breakfast, I finally admitted my admiration for her. I must have managed fairly well, since I noted no sign of panic in her face, no pleading looks at her husband to ‘rescue’ her.  We’ve remained in contact since their departure and are hoping that they’ll make good on their promise to return soon.

I would love to organize the first-ever Ghivizzano Book Festival. In the meantime, I’ll be content to invite any and all authors to stay at Casa La Pace. And I’ll try not to “gush”.

 

 

Casa La Pace turns 1!

Casa La Pace Bed & Breakfast has now been officially open for one year.

In the past year, Pepper and I have hosted more than 200 people in our home.  Many Americans have come here, of course. But we also welcomed people from Canada, France, Turkey, and Scotland. Most recently, we have had a lovely couple from Germany and newlyweds from Dubai.

All of our guests have been super. Each person has had an interesting story to share. All have been appreciative of our house and the beautiful environment in which we live. Many have been generous in their praise, both in person and on TripAdvisor (for which we are extremely thankful).

When we began planning for a B&B, I questioned how good I would be as a host.  While Pepper is outgoing, I am more introverted. Everyone who meets Pepper immediately is his best friend; I am more reserved and more interested in listening than in talking. I am proud to say that I absolutely love what we’re doing and I really enjoy meeting new people.

As I think back over the past year, I recall so many smiles. We’ve made many friends and we look forward to meeting many more.

How lucky are we to be living in Italy and loving the ‘work’?

 

 

 

Exploring our valley – Monteperpoli

When we have guests, it is usually not possible for us to venture far.  And sometimes when we are free, the weather doesn’t cooperate.  So we were delighted that on a recent spring day we were able to explore.  We hopped in our car and headed north, without a map and with no definite destination in mind.  We soon found ourselves above Gallicano, on the other side of the Serchio river from Ghivizzano.

Monteperpoli is a dramatic hilltop, guarding the valley. The Serchio river below bends sharply. From this strategic hilltop, one can see the entire valley.

It must have been an important lookout for many centuries.  Most recently, it was an important post in the “Linea Gotica”, the defensive line that the Germans constructed across the Italian peninsula in WWII.

Perpoli is, not surprisingly, the tiny village that sits on the summit. 

We parked in the convenient little parking lot below it and ascended through the ancient gate; there is only one.

 

The first thing we saw was a stone plaque embedded in the plaster of a home. The plaque was incongruous to the facade; it obviously originally belong to some other older structure. The intricate carved decorations were mostly worn away by centuries of harsh winds, rain, and snow. We could just make out the date.  (Unfortunately, I can’t site it here – I didn’t write it down, assuming I’d be able to see it in the photo… I was wrong.)

Update: See comments from a contributor for more accurate details.

 

The entire village consists of a single road encircling the summit. The houses are arranged along the road, each one hanging out over the valley below.

At the summit is an ancient church, probably once attached to a fortress. The fortress no longer exists and a modern house is planted there, with a lovely garden and a grove of ancient trees at one end.

 

 

 

 

Perpoli is the living definition of ‘sleepy village’, but it was a wonderful  adventure for us.

 

 

 

 

 

Day Trip to Florence – Video

To me, Firenze is the most amazing city.  I studied there in the 1980’s and it was the beginning of my love affair with Italy.  I still find it hard to be believe that I can take the train to Firenze for a day trip. I pinch myself sometimes when I am there with guests of the B&B or friends.

On recent visits, I shot these videos of two beautiful locations in Firenze.

From Piazzale Michelangelo, the entire valley is spread out before you.  It gives a new visitor a bird’s eye view of the city.

Piazza della Signoria is the heart of Medieval Firenze. This grand space encompasses the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia dei Lanzi, as well as Michelangelo’s David (a copy) and the Neptune Fountain by Ammannati.  It is breathtaking in its scope and yet somehow intimate, too.

TripAdvisor Award

When we began the Bed and Breakfast, I was hardly aware of TripAdvisor.  Pepper added us to the website a year ago. Of course, Casa La Pace was at the bottom of TripAdvisor’s rankings of B&Bs for Tuscany.

Over the past year, our guests have been enthusiastic in their submissions to TripAdvisor and, with each new review, Casa La Pace rose in the rankings  We said we would be satisfied to be in the top 200 this year. You cannot imagine how stunned we were when we broke the top 50.

Since then, we’ve continued to rise and, as of this posting, No. 1 in the province of Lucca and No. 3 in  Tuscany!

To top it off, TripAdvisor has awarded us the Certificate of Excellence for 2012.

We have worked really hard to make Casa La Pace a special place for our guests. We are proud and delighted to receive this award.

Pepper is 50!

No one who knows Pepper can believe that he is 50.  His face is unlined and his happy nature is youthful and sometimes silly. And yet, it’s true; he was born in 1962. For his 50th birthday, I knew I had to plan something special…a surprise party was in order. But Pepper is very suspicious and I had only pulled off a surprise party once before.  A couple of items were in my favor:

1) His birthday was on a Saturday and

2) Our guests were leaving the next morning, leaving us ‘free’ on Sunday afternoon.

I concocted a plan and executed it with the help of several co-conspirators.

But first, Pepper had to remain in the dark about the party, so we had a celebration on Saturday night, on his birthday.  We went to dinner in Lucca with our ex-pat friends.  It was a fun evening, but everyone at the table – except one – knew what was in store the next day.

It was a wonderful dinner, and everyone had a good time and a good meal. But I think Pepper was secretly disappointed. He even grumbled, “it isn’t every day that I turn 50…you’d think you’d do something special.”

For the real party, I invited our Italian friends from Ghivizzano and our Italian and ex-pat friends from Lucca.  Most everyone from the dinner would be there, plus lots of others.

Rossano, our carpenter and good friend, allowed us to use his workshop as our party room. All of the guests convened in the workshop by 12:30 p.m. At 1 p.m., Rossano called the house. He asked Pepper to come over to the workshop to see the progress on some doors Rossano was making.

 

 

Pepper wasn’t thrilled to be called away. He also anticipated returning in a short while. So he left the house in slipper and sweatpants.  As we approached the workshop, I was happy to see that everyone had parked their cars elsewhere; I knew a mass of strange cars in front of the building would be a dead giveaway.

 

 

Rossano met us outside the door. Pepper didn’t notice how suspiciously dark the workshop was until it was too late.  He stepped inside, the lights came on and all our friends, squeezed into a dark corner yelled ‘Sorpresa’!

 

It was a wonderful party, with lots of good food, wine, and fun. When anyone asked what to bring, I told them to bring food. Pepper’s favorite dish is ‘sformato’, which he calls ‘food for the Gods’.  At the party, there were 5 or 6 and each one was delicious. I don’t know how much Pepper got to eat, but I sampled everything and can confirm that every dish was wonderful.

 

Several guests stayed until after 6 p.m., so I’d say the party was a great success.

 

 

 

 

Azalea Festival

As spring arrives, many villages have festivals to celebrate the season. Borgo a Mozzano is one such village, with an Azalea Festival each year in mid-April. Borgo is  two train stops from Ghivizzano,  and is most famous for the Ponte della Maddalena, better known as ‘The Devil’s Bridge”.

In the 1970s, flower growers discovered that the soil and climate of Borgo a Mozzano are perfect for the azalea.  Since then, azaleas have been grown commercially in Borgo and the festa soon followed.  The Festa della Azalea is a two-day festival, with azaleas of every size and color on display. Azaleas are one of my favorite flowers, so I was looking forward to this festa.

 

This year’s festival was a great success. Saturday was a wash-out, with heavy rains all day. Someone must have made another deal with the devil, because Sunday was a perfect spring day.

We and our guests traveled by train  to Borgo a Mozzano in the late morning. It was cloudy and cool when we arrived, so we had the streets mostly to ourselves.

 

 

We were able to stroll casually down the main thoroughfare, which was bursting with the colors of azaleas, camelias, and other flowering shrubs and trees.  The imaginative arrangements were amazing, especially knowing that these  banks of landscape were assembled atop the cobblestones of the streets.

 

We reached the end of Via Umberto I having worked up a good appetite. We took our guests to our favorite pizzeria for a late lunch. As we dined, the clouds rolled away. When we exited the restaurant a couple of hours later, we were delighted to bask in the full sun of a gorgeous Sunday afternoon. And instead of the hundred-or-so people of the morning, we were now winding our way through thousands. They too were enjoying the gorgeous weather in this magnificent medieval town. It was elbow-to-elbow all the way down the principal street of Borgo.

Italian creativity never ceases to amaze me. They love design and incorporate beauty in most aspects of their lives. A festival of flowers provides a great canvas on which to express the joy of springtime.

Day trip to Firenze

Finding Ghivizzano was a stroke of good luck for so many reasons.  The Serchio Valley is incredibly beautiful, the local dishes are delicious, and the people of our village have welcomed us with open arms. As though this bounty wasn’t enough, we’re a day trip from Firenze (Florence). So our guests can visit ‘the most beautiful city in the world’ from Casa La Pace and be home in time for dinner.

For example, we have been to Firenze several times in the past few weeks.  It is of course a photogenic city and everywhere you turn is a beautiful photo waiting to be taken.  Here are a few images from our recent trips.

The Ponte Vecchio

The Medieval walls that once encircled the entire city . Yes, that’s smoke: the olive trees are pruned in springtime and someone was burning olive branches.

Palazzo Vecchio behind the gorgeous Fountain of Neptune.