Spring in Ghivizzano

I have been meaning to write about the arrival of spring since mid-February.  I thought I’d have lots of time. In years past, the change of seasons has been slow, with every tree, shrub and plant having its days of glory. This year, however, we’ve galloped through spring and the temperatures are alarmingly close to summer!

In early February, the crocuses made their appearance.  In the Serchio Valley, they are all called ‘bucaneve’ because they traditionally popped up through the snow.

A week later, on my walk down to the main piazza, I noticed these lovely violets, their purple blossoms bright against the dead grass and gray stones.

With each passing day, the temperature rose a degree or two. In short order, many trees and bushes burst into bloom.  The first day of spring brought a definite change in season, but the flowers were well ahead of schedule.

There were flowering fruit trees all around,

‘Tulip’ trees with fragrant white or pink blossoms,

and forsythia and quince.

In addition, our courtyard garden continues to expand. This year, I’ve added camelia,  which have a long history in Lucca.

And we once again have planted pansies which add a lot of color this time of year.

Borgo a Mozzano has an azalea festival each spring, this year from April 14 – 16. I have seen azaleas in bloom already; we can only hope they are in still blooming in two weeks.

Snails and slugs

I don’t usually talk about guests of Casa La Pace, and even less often will I use their name.  But we recently hosted a delightful couple from Seattle.  He is a world-renowned author and she a talented illustrator.  They have been married only a short time, but their union has already resulted in a wonderful book.

David Gordon is the author of 19 books, including ‘Eat a bug cookbook’. His latest is ‘The Secret World of Slugs and Snails’. Karen Luke Fildes created the exquisite pen-and-ink illustrations.

Since we moved here, Pepper and I discovered that the official logo for the Ghivizzano merchants’ group is a snail climbing the tower of Ghivizzano Alto.  The people of Ghivizzano are called ‘Ciucconi’ (little snails). And there are snails everywhere!

As we do with many of our guests, we walked around the town and introduced David and Karen to the shopkeepers and our friends. We told them of the book, and were surprised to find out that the snail has a long history here. So many people shared with us stories of snails.

Most exciting, we learned that, once upon a time, there was a snail sagra.  It faded away many years ago. No one admits to eating snails any more – even though the snails of Ghivizzano must be very tasty: David’s expert friends confirmed that ‘our’ snail was raised by the ancient Romans to eat!  In fact, these are the same snails that are served in Paris as ‘escargot’.

We knew none of this when the Gordons made their reservation with us.  Karen found us on the Internet and Fate brought us together.

We are hoping to gin up enthusiasm to revive the snail festival. David and Karen are eager to lend their names to it (and return to Ghivizzano, too).

Cross your fingers for us – or antenna, if you are a snail.


Windows and Doors

Among the many details that are ‘authentic’ about Casa La Pace are the beautiful windows and exterior doors. When I visited the house the first time, I noted their fine workmanship. It was winter then and I also noted how little they kept out the cold. So I added the windows to my mental list of tasks for renovation.

A serious evaluation revealed that 4 windows were beyond repair. Rossano, a local carpenter (who has become our good friend), replaced the 4 rotten windows. All of the remaining windows and doors, though sun-bleached and discolored, were sound. I told him that I wanted to redo the other windows and doors myself. He kindly offered the use of his workshop. I’ve never worked with wood before, so Rossano also became my mentor, jumping in to help when rain approached or when I needed extra guidance.


Casa La Pace has 3 floors. Nine of the windows and 3 sets of doors needed work. I began with the windows of the first (middle) floor in September 2010. Rossano recommended against chemical varnish remover. This suited me just fine; the fewer toxic chemicals at Casa La Pace, the better.  This meant that the removal of the old varnish, along with the top layers aged, weathered wood, was done almost entirely by hand. Only the largest surfaces could be cleaned with a power sander.

During this time, our friend Julie came to stay with us, bringing along her mother, Ann. The B&B wasn’t open yet, but they offered to ‘pay’ for their stay by helping us with various tasks. By lucky coincidence, Julie had recently refinished her own windows and was enthusiastic about helping me. (I suspect that if I were in her shoes, knowing how much hard work it is, I would have run in the other direction.)

This is tedious work and a full day of sanding gave me back pains more than once. But Julie, Ann , and I made good progress. With Julie’s guidance, I developed patience for the task at hand. (I never felt a ‘Zen’ moment that Julie said made her enjoy the process, though. To me, it was always back-breaking work.)  I continued to work on the windows and doors after they returned to the U.S. I finished the work for the first-floor, including replacing the old glass with double-paned glass. in time for the cold weather. The wood was transformed from gray and flaking to honey-colored and solid. In addition, there was no whisper of air movement and even the splashing waters of Segone were a now a faint murmur. I surveyed my handiwork, feeling pride, satisfaction, and only the palest ghost of exhaustion.

Spring 2011 found me back at work, this time on the windows of the second (top) floor.  I finished these in time for our first official guests in June. Once again, the airtight atmosphere was palpable, a satisfactory stillness in sharp contrast to the earlier version of the windows.

The month of August 2011 was dedicated to the ground floor, the most difficult task.  There are only 2 small windows, but there are 4 doors, each one with the surface of area of 2 windows. And the windows and 2 of the doors are of chestnut wood, a completely different task from the windows and doors I had previously restored. (The wood is also infinitely more beautiful.)

Whereas the two main doors were solid and moderately weatherized, the doors to the breakfast room were not. I surmise this area was once the stables and this agrarian practice is well documented. The body heat of one’s animals below made the living area warmer. (And one was in constant proximity to the animals, so the odor would be unremarkable.)  Because these were once ‘barn doors’, they are not as thick and required extra attention to make them more airtight.

I finished these in good time, but with a bad back – which took 2 months to fully recover from.

In February of this year, Rossano created 4 new window frames for the doors.  (Unfortunately for our wallet, he installed them after the Siberian winds brought in the coldest temperatures in 28 years. The heater burned through propane at a frightening pace.)  With the double-paned windows in place, the ground floor is fairly well-sealed – as good as I can hope for, so long as we retain the original windows and doors.

More than one guest has noted how beautiful our windows are. I swell with pride in the knowledge that I brought them back to their original beauty (almost) by myself.

Arkansas Heart Ball

When we were in Arkansas, Pepper was one of the artists chosen to participate in the Heart Ball.  This event benefits the Arkansas affiliate of the American Heart Association (for more info, visit this site).

Since we now are in Italy, we decided to donated a week’s stay at Casa La Pace in Ghivizzano.  Last year, the stay at Casa La Pace was in the silent auction. The couple with the high bid came to Casa La Pace in September.  They are a wonderful couple. Thye had a great time with us, so memorable that they went home and created a presentation for the 2012 Heart Ball.

At this year’s Heart Ball, Casa La Pace was a live auction item.  Amazingly, the winning bid was 5 figures!

The couple with the high bid sent us a wonderful email, a moving story about how the American Heart Association helped them in the treatment of their young daughter’s illness.

We are proud of our contribution to the American Heart Association.


Casa La Pace follows the ‘slow food’ philosophy. (You can read all about it here.)  For us, this means that our breakfast includes as much local food as possible.  For example, the pecorino (sheep cheese) is produced in our valley and the prosciutto comes from a butcher nearby.

We also include fresh fruit as part of our breakfast.  Through the winter, there wasn’t much available, as you can imagine.  The apples were without taste. The pears were good but were green and took a week to ripen.

It should come as no surprise that I was over the moon to see fresh strawberries at the Ortaggeria last week. They are red and ripe and as sweet as candy!

The kiwi are coming into season, too. And the blood oranges have arrived, so I’m squeezing orange juice that is a deep orange.

Our friend Meltem gave me a great recipe for a stove-top ‘jam’ made from over-ripe fruit.  I’ve made strawberry ‘jam’ twice now and it is heavenly. It’s so good, I’m not so disappointed to find a mushy strawberry or two.

Viareggio Carnevale – Video

Last weekend’s parade of carri (floats) was wonderful.  A few pictures don’t do it justice. The figures tilted and rotated, the dancers moved to the rhythm, and the music was very loud.

We shot some video and have edited the footage into this short film.

I’m a little disappointed that a few  of my favorite carri are missing from this video.  I am still figuring out the bloggie, so some of the videos were blurry or otherwise unviewable.

Oh well, there’s always next year!


We finally made it to Viareggio during Carnevale.  We went on Sunday (two weeks after Lent began) and weren’t sure what to expect.  What an amazing festival!

Viareggio is a modern town, with most of the buildings constructed in the post-war boom.  It was heavily bombed in WWII, but the seafront seems to have been spared.  Along the beach are bars and restaurants.  Then there is a promenade, a two-way street with palm-tree-lined median.  Hotels and restaurants line the opposite side of the promenade and many of these buildings have Art Nouveau details.  Beyond those are blocks and blocks of squat, indistinct buildings containing hotels, pizza joints, clothing stores, and bars that cater to the beachgoers of summer.  The train station is about a kilometer from the sea, so our walk towards the festivities was like Dorothy’s walk through the forest to reach the wonderful Oz City.



The parade of carri (floats) moved along the promenade in a long loop.  Each carro would travel slowly north, preceded by throngs of dancers in identical costumes, then turn and meander south, then turn and come north again.  We arrived at about 2:30 and the carri were already touring. When we left at sunset, they were continuing their 10-block journey.  (The dancers were still wildly enthusiastic, maybe because the evening crowd was just arriving.)



The carri were amazing and I’ve never seen such towering creations of papier-mache’ before. Each was populated with colorful moving figures, some taller the surrounding buildings, and each had a unifying theme.  The majority were political in nature, with caricatures of Berlusconi, Merkel, Sarkozy, and the like.  Barack Obama was even a figure on one, dressed as a Catholic Cardinal! There were also allegories of nature, both awesome (dancing trees and flowers) and terrible (the Japanese tsunami in the form of a black creature with fierce teeth and disco-ball eyes).



As the sun went down, the carri began to dance with lights, so the evening show was more spectacular than the daytime one. (We had a train to catch, so we weren’t able to hang around to enjoy the full effect.)


Perhaps because this was an ‘extra’ weekend, there were thousands of people, instead of tens of thousands, on the promenade.  I’ve read that there are different activities at night, so perhaps there is decadence on the streets after dark. But this afternoon was family-friendly.  Many attendees come in costume and many families were in full costume, from babies in strollers to grandparents. This is not at all like Mardi Gras of New Orleans nor the Carnevale of Venice. Imagine the state fair with as much color and creativity in the crowd as at the official exhibitions.  Add carri rumbling along, blaring Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and Rhiana.



I was in awe of the workmanship, especially the towers that swayed, heads that bobbed and turned and and ocean waves that rose and fell. The dog’s head moves back and forth, his jaws open menacingly. The cardinals, all politicians, turn and sway, four-story figures in a slow-motion dance. Dracula, representing the federal tax-collection agency, swoops down, the bats dancing behind with labels of the onerous taxes (most) everyone begrudgingly pays.



Amazingly, all of this movement is controlled manually.  As each carro passed by, you could glimpse someone discretely hidden by a cardinal’s robe or in the base of a tree trunk. She or he was pulling a rope, as though ringing the bell in a bell tower. With each tug, a pulley moved or a hinge rocked, and a huge head rolled left or a papier-mache’ Arc de Triomfe tilted right.

I dislike crowds and so had avoided Viareggio in years past. But I’m glad we finally went and will definitely be there in future Februarys.




Leap Day

Today’s paper reports that this has been the warmest February in more than 20 years. I’m not complaining, though.  When we returned to Ghivizzano in early February, the high temperatures were below freezing.  We had missed the snow storm, but the “Siberian” cold front hung around for a while.  Beginning in mid-February, each day seemed warmer than the one before.  (Last year, it rained on my birthday, a dreary, cold rain. This year, it was mild and beautifully sunny.)

When I dress in the morning, I still put on several layers of clothing. The jacket comes off by mid-morning and I peel off the sweater after lunch. When the sun sets, the temperature drops precipitously and I put the layers on again.  Overnight lows are cold, but don’t descend to freezing.

Cross your fingers for continued good weather, at least through Sunday. We have planned a trip (with the Ex-pat Meetup group) to Carnevale in Viareggio. If it rains, the floats, which are made of papier-mache, don’t come out.  Last year, the sun would shine during the week, but rain would roll in every Sunday.

I thought you might like to see what the Serchio Valley looks like in February. The trees are bare, but it is still beautiful.

That sound you hear in the background is the Segone, the little stream between Camparlese and Ghivizzano Alto.

Back in Ghivizzano

The heating system still works! Thank goodness, because inside our house it was 5o C upon our return. Yesterday morning it was -3o C outside.

We missed the snow last week, but our neighbors (and the newspaper) tell us that it will snow again this weekend. There’s still plenty of snow on the ground, though. The hills around us are blanketed in white and the Apennines are finally completely white. (When we left in early January, there had been little precipitation and a handful of days below freezing.)

There have been a few notable changes in our absence. The price of the newspaper jumped 20% (to 1.20 ) and gasoline is now 20 cents more expensive per liter (about 70 cents more per gallon). Claudia, our lovely young neighbor, delivered a boy on the day of our departure.

Other things remain the same. For example, I walked down the hill yesterday morning to replenish our refrigerator and ran into the usual characters who populate our piazza. And Deborah, Loretta, Maria Pia, and Cristiano were all tending their shops and commented on my extended absence. The old town is as impressive as ever, especially with snow on the hillside and valley below and stripes of pink clouds meandering behind in the pre-dawn glow.

Our first guests of 2012 arrive on Saturday and I am anticipating their arrival with pleasure. Even though I have resumed working for Arkansas Blue Cross, I am beginning to see myself as a B&B proprietor more than a programmer. Without guests, I am purposeless, like a sailing ship with empty sails, awaiting the next strong wind.

It is wonderful to be home again, but bittersweet to realize we were in the U.S. for almost a month. As I think back, I can recall each day of our trip and we did our best to make each one ‘count’. But it all went by too fast and of course there was not enough time to see everyone we wanted and to do all we wanted to do. We are so fortunate to have wonderful friends who hosted us in Little Rock and Chicago, and so many wonderful friends who wanted to see us.

Highlights of our trip include:

Mom, Pepper, and I hiked on the cactus-covered hills of Usury Park at sunset.

Dad, my brother, and I spent a wonderful morning in rural N Florida, inspecting our land. We ate lunch (BBQ – yum) with my cousin John.

My childhood friend David and I reconnected. He drove me to the 3 schools in Blountstown so that I could see a few of our schoolmates (most of whom I hadn’t seen since we were 18).

Mom, my brother and his family, and I picnicked on the beach in Panama City. It was warm enough to remove my shoes and dig my toes into the sugar-white sands.

The PAII conference (the ostensible reason we returned to the U.S.) was in Little Rock and I attended several great workshops.. We got to spend time with our friends (and mentors) who own the most beautiful B&B in St Louis.

Pepper organized a luncheon at E’s Bistro, overflowing with previous and future guests of Casa La Pace and many, many old friends. I was having such a good time that I never had time to eat!

Our (too-brief) time with our ‘host families’, who are so kind and generous with their time and their homes (and their dogs!). We treasured the early mornings and evenings when we were together, gathered in front of the fire or drinking tea in the sun-filled morning room.

We were able to see 2 movies with our Movie Club. Oh, how I miss our Sundays together! More than films, I miss our gathering around the dinner table and chatting for 2 hours about the movie, politics, and the little moments that brought us close together. It was like Thanksgiving every Sunday (without the horrid football games).

We ended our trip with 2 theater- and ethnic-food-filled days in Chicago. Once again, our Turkish friend was generous and kind, making us feel at home (and she also shared her dog with us).

Pepper has extracted a promise from me that we’ll return to the U.S. every year. With very little encouragement, I’ll keep my promise, even though it may mean forgoing trips to the Canary Islands, Africa, etc, during our off-season.