By mid-July, we established a rhythm and routine for the work we had to do.  We had a rental car, so some days we went furniture, light, or paint shopping. Other days we hardly stepped foot outside the house.  Here’s what I wrote a couple of weeks on:

The breakfast room is now complete! (Please ignore the lack of furniture on which to actually consume breakfast).  As I may have mentioned, we (Pepper) decided to paint it a sunflower yellow. (The name on the can is ‘ginseng’, but I have no idea what part of a ginseng is this color, do you?)  There was enough paint left over so we also painted the kitchen.  The results were great and Pepper said repeatedly, “I am loving this color”.  I must say that I’ve never noticed before what a difference a coat of paint to have on a room.  The entrance into the breakfast room and the door into the kitchen are archways, which we decided to paint white.  I think the effect is very ‘clean’.
On our various shopping trips, we’ve also been buying light fixtures.  As we’d see one we liked, we’d pick up the box (or, in one case, the bubble-wrapped beast).  At home, it was  tucked in the corner of one of the as-yet-unfinished bathrooms.
The electrician repeated said, ‘when you have lights, call me. I’ll come right over, since I live just down the hill’. Since the walls had been painted, we called the electrician on Friday.  As typical for Italy (and maybe in the U.S. too), Allesandro couldn’t come Friday nor Saturday, and then not even Monday.  He finally arrived yesterday afternoon and installed all of the lights for the breakfast room and kitchen.  To me the lights really added the finishing touch to the breakfast room.  And we can now see in the kitchen (though we can’t cook yet – but that’s another story).
Today we painted some more.  It’s odd that the end result of 4 hours of painting is only part of a hallway…….

I wrote this in early July, not long after we arrived.  The house was almost complete – the 3 new bathrooms remained to be done – and now our work began.

I feel good because today we finished our first  task!
Our house is 3 stories and there is an internal staircase.  The Albanians (the workers who performed the renovations) sand-blasted the iron railings.  When we arrived, the railings looked better than before, but definitely needed painting.  I originally had that as task #77 (give or take). But the Albanians informed me that they couldn’t apply the sealant to the stairs until the railings were painted.  Paint can be removed from bare stone, but not from the sealant, it seems.  (Do you think they sized me up as a mess-maker and klutz?)
In conclusion, the railings on the stairs are now a nice graphite color (not glossy, but with a hint of shimmer).
Only 124 tasks to go!

Becca and Kate arrived in early July, staying two nights.  Even though they had to take cold showers, I think they really enjoyed their brief stay.

Saturday morning we were up for an early breakfast.  We caught the 8:45 train to Lucca and spent the morning wandering the narrow streets.  We of course had to stop for a cappuccino and gelato during our stroll; all 5 senses were satisfied.  By 12:30, the sun was directly overhead and it was hot and sultry.  We found a wonderful restaurant in a piazzetta just off the Via Filunga, the main shopping street, with dining under lovely umbrellas, and, even better, air conditioning inside.  It was our good fortune that the food was really good, too.

After delaying our exit as long as we possibly could, we returned into the hot, still streets of Lucca.  To work off our lunch, Kate and I climbed the Torre Guinigi, the highest tower in Lucca. It is as famous as much for the oak trees growing on it (6 stories above street level) as for its incredible views of Lucca.  Pepper and Becca sat and awaited our return (and Becca had a nice power nap).  The best part of our visit to the top was not the marvelous vistas. It was the wonderfully cool breezes that blow along the tiled rooftops, with just a little tang of the sea (or perhaps this was suggested to me by the cry of the seagulls).  Kate and I lingered a good while and hated to leave our breeze aerie. But our friends were baking below, so we begrudgingly spiraled down again.

The best antidote to a sultry afternoon is gelato, of course, so we sauntered back to the train station, licking cones and slurping spoonfuls of the delicious (and cold!) treat.

Whether it was the heat or the wine at lunch or the gentle rocking of the train, Kate and I couldn’t keep our eyes open, even for the 25-minute return to Ghivizzano.  A short nap refreshed us and then we drove to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana for a sunset stroll and wonderful dinner.

Sunday morning was a lazy one, with the girls coming to breakfast after nine.  With stomachs full, we drove first to Ghivizzano Alto.  Our Medieval village is a perfect introduction to the  structure of the hundreds that are scattered along the Serchio and Lima valleys.  Each town, tiny or large, is similar and yet each has its own history and geography to render it unique.

Our next stop was Coreglia Antelminelli, the seat of power for our town (Ghivizzano is one of 5 villages that make up a ‘comune’).  Being much larger, it also takes much longer to walk through, but provides many more photo opportunities.  Coreglia is also at a much higher altitude, constructed on the peak of a mountain so the alleyways can be much steeper.  The houses on the side alleys were festooned with geraniums, lavender, hydrangeas and other flowers. We finished off the morning with a cappuccino, and hopped in the car to descend to the valley floor.

After a wonderful lunch of pizza (and water this time, to avoid afternoon sleepiness from wine), we strolled the Ponte della Maddalena, also known as Ponte del Diavolo.  Then we took a ‘Sunday drive’ (Kate said it was just like her grandparents used to do) to a village up, up, up on a promontory above the Lima river valley.  This village was tiny, so the complete circumnavigation lasted only 20 minutes or so. But the views in all directions were incredible!

We ended the drive by dropping down, down, down to Bagni di Lucca for a wonderfully cold gelato.

Too soon, Becca and Kate departed on the train to Lucca.

When we first began thinking about buying a house in Italy, one of the first requirements we put on the list was a train station nearby. When I looked at properties in Italy in 2007 and 2008, I visited many houses that were truly lovely and would surely have impressed our guests. Many were in small villages, some on the plain and others high on a hilltop. But none was within walking distance of a train station. 

Ghivizzano does have a train station and it’s a short walk from our house. We are on the Aula-Lucca line. From Lucca, you can transfer for trains to Pisa or Florence. From Aula, you can transfer for trains to Milan, Cinque Terre, and Genova are short trips. And of course France, Switzerland, Germany, and Austria are just beyond the Italian border.

Our home is on a promontory overlooking the Serchio river. The main road, Via Nazionale, is below us and between us and the river. Because the principal piazza is so close, many conveniences are within walking distance. 

Leaving our courtyard, we descend steeply on an ancient cobbled footpath. The right-hand side is covered with bright green, a blanket of weeds so lovely I hate to use that term. To our left is the small valley between us and Ghivizzano Alto (the Medieval town). Reaching the end of the footpath, we turn left and then walk along a short private road. It is level and about half-way along is a bridge that crosses the Segone. The Segone is the rivulet that cascades down and through the eons has carved out the small valley between us and Ghivizzano Alto. Crossing this bridge, we reach the road that descends to Via Nazionale. Opposite us is a cobblestone path that climbs to Ghivizzano Alto. We’ll turn right instead and begin to follow the gently-descending road. We walk past a row of homes on both sides, each with its fenced yard that is lovingly landscaped.  As we continue along this road, we see on our right a two-story edifice with a small parking lot in front. On the right is the pastry shop. I can smell the Torta della Nonna,  a double-crust tart filled with a delicately flavored pastry cream,baking. Perhaps we’ll buy some chocolate-filled cookies. Alternately, we can say hello to Maria Pia in the alimentary on the left. This corner store sells a little bit of everything. Maybe we’ll buy fresh mozzarella or pasta sauce, a deliciously-ripe tomato or olives, house cleaning products or lavender scented soap. If we can resist these temptations, a short piece of road remains to Via Nazionale. When we arrive, we’ll pop into the bakery on our left. Let’s buy a loaf of freshly-made Ciabata, a few pizzettas – a little more than a mouthful, but as flavorful as the larger ones – and a dozen chocolate-dipped cookies.

 Crossing Via Nazionale is our main square, Piazza Quattro Novembre. Let’s stop in Bar Sport. An Italian ‘bar’ is unlike the American version. Especially in small towns, it is the heart of the community.  At breakfast, we can have a brioche and a caffe’. If it’s lunch time, sandwiches (straight from the display case or toasted) and a Fanta or a glass of local wine are available. It’s hard to resist the gelato case, with 10 or so flavors, all handmade by Lorenzo, the bar owner. Here we can also recharge our cellphone, buy a lottery ticket, or purchase a bus or train ticket. After dinner or Sunday afternoon, we can join the crowd around the television or play pool or cards in the next room. In short, Bar Sport will be a regular part of our lives in Ghivizzano.  Across the small square is the Post Office. Here, in addition to mailing letters and buying stamps, we can pay our electricity or water bill. The Italian post office also offers checking and savings accounts, pays pensioners their monthly check, and many other government functions.

 Leading from the piazza is Via della Stazione, another gently-sloping road at the end of which is our train station. From our doorstep to the station – if we’ve resisted all the delights along the way – has taken no more than 7 minutes. And we’re here just as the train to Lucca pulls up. Let’s go to Lucca for lunch – we can be back by dinner time!

Originally written Oct 15

Rusty writes:

Piazza della Repubblica on Sunday morning. There is a nip in the air, but the warmth of the sun feels so good. I scoot my chair further out of the shadow of the umbrella. We are seated at one of the several cafes whose army of tables are in formation on opposing sides of the piazza. Sasi has joined us for breakfast. For me, it’s a cup of hot chocolate and a fruit tart. The chocolate isn’t hot and the glaze on the tart has more flavor than the fruit. But nevermind, the point of being here isn’t the food. It’s the mere fact of being able to afford a 35-euro conversation with friends in this square in this city on this beautiful morning.

In 1984-85, I was a student with the Florida State University program in Firenze. I was so fortunate to be there, as I barely had enough money to pay my school expenses during my time in Tallahassee. Through a fortunate series of events, I lived in Firenze for 8 months, with even enough money to travel from time to time. But since I had a 4-month financial aid package and was determined to live in Italy for 8 months, I had to stretch every Lira to its limit. And sitting at a table in Piazza della Repubblica was a luxury, one that rarely, if ever, crossed my mind. I passed through the piazza many times on my way to the train, the Ponte Vecchio, or the pensione. But I was never tempted by the overpriced coffee and pastries.

One law about Italian dining is that the length of time one spends at the table is determined solely by the occupants. Today in October 2009, I was determined to stretch our breakfast time as long as possible. As I sat back and listened to Sasi and Pepper talk, I looked around the square and cast my mind back 25 years. I imagined a similar sunny October day in 1984, sitting at the same table. At that time, the Italian automobile was king, with the Vespa a close second. The noise of a motor could be heard in every corner of the city at every hour of the day. How could I possibly have enjoyed this beautiful scene with the assault on my ears of hundreds of combustion engines passing by? Would I have smelled the chocolate with the exhaust of 2-stroke engines blowing through the square? How long before my companions and I would have paid our bill and escaped the square?

In the intervening years, the city leaders have slowly removed cars from the city center. With each visit, I would arrive at Piazza della Signoria or walk the Lungarno to the rumor of voices and footsteps, instead of running motors. Gradually, Firenze has become once again a city of pedestrians (and a few horses). I don’t know when traffic was diverted from Piazza della Repubblica, but on this fine morning, only the occasional taxi cruised lazily by. (As a matter of fact, on the Sunday following this visit to the city, the final blow to the car was imposed – the mayor of Firenze prohibited even buses from Piazza del Duomo.)

I realized this morning in Piazza della Repubblica on October 15, 2009 could not have, and should not have happened to me on October 15, 1984, nor in any previous year. Both I and Firenze had to mature and change to make this perfect day.

Originally written Oct 14

Rusty writes:

During his visit, Pino discovered a hilltop town near Ghivizzano. He raved about Lucignana and included a few pictures. Naturally, it aroused Pepper’s curiosity, so he included it on his list of villages to visit. The name nagged at me, and it seems somehow familiar.

One afternoon was free of obligations. It was perfect day. The sun shone in a clear blue sky and the hills were still dark green, with the occasional brush stroke of red hinting at the arrival of autumn. As we were returning home from lunch, I spotted the sign-post for Lucignana and turned off the main highway. We found ourselves climbing steeply, first in a long curve around the hill and then in a series of sharp switchbacks. Framed by a gap in the trees was a hilltop village in the distance. Further up, we entered a shadowy tunnel of trees, thick and humid enough for ferns to grow. Finally we arrived at in the tiny village of Lucignana. It is on a high mound that protrudes from the higher mountain and overlooks the Serchio Valley. It is set back further than Barga and Coreglia, so you can see the eastern face of western mountains, but not the down into the valley itself.

 We parked the car – no easy feat, as the parking spaces are arranged single file abutting the town itself and the road is just wide enough for the parked car and one passing vehicle. Like many of the villages in the valley, Lucignana seems from afar to be open and welcoming until you arrive at its outer perimeter. It presents the visitor with blank walls, with here and there an entrance. It is easy to imagine arriving in ancient times to siege the town and finding the entrances sealed shut with heavy wooden doors.

 We strolled the walkways of the town, a series of footpaths paved in the gray stone of the mountains. There wasn’t a flat one in the whole place. Some had gentle slopes, but others were very steep. None can truly be called ‘stairs’, but the steeper paths had a series of stones placed at regular intervals on which to place your foot so you don’t slip. Those ingenious Italians!

When we arrived at the high point of the town, we didn’t find the typical church tower or fortress. Instead, there was a lovely vineyard abutting a large house. And suddenly I realized why ‘Lucignana’ rang a bell. In July 2007, I visited this very house with a realtor. It was large enough for a B&B. But it was a multi-level structure, and I recall that each bedroom was on a different level. Yes, the vineyard almost made it worth the price, as it was one of the only open spaces inside the town walls. And on such a lovely day, with the sun shimmering on the grape leaves and revealing the hidden purple-black clusters of overripe grapes, I could easily have been convinced that this was the house for us.

Descending from the summit, we spotted the church below us. From our vantage point, we were level with the top of the bell tower and overlooking the expansive gardens. The sun had descended behind the mountains, so it seemed almost sad and lonely, the vast expanses of green completely devoid of any living creature. Meanwhile, on the paths around us, a group of children were in lively play, chasing a dog or running after a fast-rolling, downward-destined soccer ball.

Originally written Oct 12

Rusty writes:

Pepper and I were traveling with Norma, a friend of ours from Little Rock. It was her first trip to Italy. It is always fascinating to travel with someone who hasn’t experienced Italy before. Each person reacts to new experiences in a different way, and Norma was no different. At times, she pulled in, rejecting an unusual piece of meat. At other times, she charged brightly forward, for example taking a train for the first time. It was a reminder to me that our guests will also be a diverse lot and each of them will have a unique response to our home. And I will have to remember that each one is valid, even if I don’t share his/her opinion.

As our plane approached the coast, we saw a thick layer of black clouds hanging over the entire coast. Within 2 hours of our arrival in Pisa, the heavens opened up. By then, we had found a nice sidewalk café situated within one of the main galleries leading from the train station. As we ate lunch, we watched the rain fall, first as a shower then as a torrent.

I always enjoy people-watching in Italy, but especially in a rainstorm. One lady refused to open her umbrella and strode defiantly through the rain. She entered the galleria with glistening curls and wet face, but neither increased her pace nor slowed down. A man walked within the gallery with his umbrella open, not noticing that he was protected by the arches above. Tourists in rain hoods ambled past, teenagers skidded by on the wet marble, and old Italians in tweeds and sensible shoes walked past us.

Even as I enjoyed the show, my mind was picturing the misery of a rainy visit in Italy. October is often a rainy month, so this deluge seemed to signal the weather for the coming days. How delightful then to see the rain cease and, almost magically, the clouds begin to scurry away. By the time we began our drive up the Serchio valley, the brilliant blue of the sky and the blazing Italian sun were with us.

As we approached Ghivizzano, I was both excited and anxious. We would be spending over 2 weeks in Italy. But 6 months had passed since our last visit. What would we find at Casa La Pace? As I put the key in the lock, I really felt the tension. Imagine my relief to see that the house was in better shape than when we left in March. Pino had conscientiously scrubbed the kitchen and living room and put away all of the linens. Walking through the house, I felt as though we’d been gone for a long weekend and were returning to our home.

Next Page »