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Barga and the Garfagnana - The Other Tuscany

Kerry from Barga

Festive Mountain Villages

Leaving Lucca and traveling north there are two roads flanking the Serchio River heading into the mountains of Tuscany. To the northwest there are the Apuan Alps, where you find the finest marble in the world, in fact it's tempting to think you see snow caps, but you don't, it's solid marble that has caught your eye. To the northeast there are the Appennine mountains, and as you travel up the Serchio River Valley, as have a multitude of invading armies through the ages, high in the mountains, you see the fortresses of many medieval villages.

As you drive through these quiet back roads you realize these isolated mountain villages are not abandoned, as you might think, they are thriving and lively and home to warm hearty foods and rustic traditions, surprisingly welcoming enclaves of activity.

Mountain farming is still a viable way of life. The cooking always takes advantage of local and natural ingredients. Chestnut products and farro, a whole grain used in soups, and porcini mushrooms are staples in the kitchens. Many households still have wood burning bread/pizza ovens and make their own bread on a weekly basis. There are unique varieties of olives and grapes that thrive in these mountains.

Every city, town, or village, has its specialty festivals, sagra, which are usually held in the open air, often with music and dancing. Everyone is welcome, and in fact celebration is a way of life here and posters for festivities beckon from every corner.

Land of Wolves and Outlaws

In the area of Lucca, if you would like to express to someone that someplace is really out in the middle of nowhere, you tell them it's in the Garfagnana, with a backwards wave of your hand over your shoulder.

Set in the beautiful mountainous northwest corner of Tuscany, the medieval city of Barga is situated on a spur overlooking the mid-Serchio River Valley. Although Barga was once known as one of the Jewels of the Garfagnana, never call the "Barghigiani" "Garfagnini."

Barga, in it's heyday, was a stronghold of The Medici's Florence. Against the often fiercely independent republic of Lucca, and the Dukes of Este, or ubiquitous Visconti, it was known as Barga Fiorentina. This is still evident in its culture, language, art and architecture, and the proud Barghigiani continue to think of themselves as a cut above. Barga is nevertheless on the edge of the wilds of the Garfagnana, "land of wolves and outlaws" otherwise known for vast chestnut forests, wild boar, delicious pecorino cheeses and porcini mushrooms.

Barga adds to this a rich cultural life of summer jazz and opera festivals, regular international contemporary art exhibitions, outdoor markets, and a gem like theater founded in 1688, in addition to a city life that is vibrant, diverse and will take any excuse to celebrate. Whether it is the Porcini mushroom season or the chestnut harvest, there is always something going on, to remind you that you are, in fact, in the middle of somewhere.

Two Faces of Barga

The bad news is that traveling up through the Mid-Serchio River Valley it's easy to miss a sign for Barga, the good news is that there are at least half a dozen roads that lead you up there. You enter Barga by way of tree lined roads which wind up past Florentine Villas and rustic farmhouses. These two elements are the keys to its rich history.

The juxtaposition of the Florentine influences, in this seemingly remote mountain village, now a city, and the thriving mountain farming community, lead to what the Barghigiani consider an identity crisis but really is its charm.

The city of Barga is home to a sophisticated blend of town and country. It was one of the first cities in the area in which there were internet cafes, and there's a terrific website: www.barganews.com.

There is a world class summer Jazz Festival and composition competition, and a year round jazz club. There is a beautiful Theater, with a full winter season of operas and plays and a summer Opera Festival, and has the distinction of having staged the opening of Puccini's Madame Butterfly simultaneously with La Scala in Milan on February 17, 1904. Poetry is deeply ingrained in the local heart and mind. The famous Poet Giovanni Pascoli, a close friend of Puccini, made his home here.

At the same time its agrarian roots go deep and there are ongoing celebrations of local products. There is an array of chestnut products which lend themselves to festive occasions like the recent Lecci Festival, the fresh ricotta-filled chestnut-flour crepe tasting, the crepes are cooked over an open flame, or Le Mundine, roasted chestnuts, and Castagnaccio, the rich chestnut custard like torte. There is a light sweet chestnut paste, used as a condiment. Chestnut flour is readily available in markets and is used not only in the lecci and Castagnaccio mentioned above but also in a polenta like side dish. Even in supermarkets you still find fresh locally made wood burning-oven baked bread, delicious local pecorino cheeses, porcini mushrooms, and berries from the nearby mountainsides. Roasted dishes dishes use a seasoning called salamoia made with the delicious combination of rosemary and sage. In typical local counter point, wild boar sauce, sugo, is served on melt in your mouth delicate fresh Pappardelle.

Barga, Where Women Man the Gas Pumps

Barga figures in the listing of Slow Food's Slow Cities, as well as having the honor of being named one of the 50 "Most Beautiful Villages of Italy" and in addition has recently been awarded the Orange Flag of the Touring Club Italiano, as a distinquished tourist destination. There are several other things that set Barga apart from other beautiful medieval Tuscan cities.

One thing that you will notice about Barga, besides the lovely tree lined roads of Florentine Villas, is that the Gas Station is operated by women, and in this day and age of increasingly self-service stations, this is a full service station with two friendly dynamic sisters always willing to smile and chat. One day when I reached for the air pump, I was over taken with "Oh no, let me do that! Are you used to doing this?" she asked. "Italians would never do this themselves" she laughed, as she filled my tires. A heart warming break from the norm.

You might also be likely to pass right by what looks like a dusty old hardware store on the main street, Via Giovanni Pascoli, don't, because on entering Ditta Clerici you will find, as well as the typical hardware store stock a wonderful selection of tableware, giftware, espresso pots and machines and one of a kind wrought iron decorative accessories. I coveted a beautiful tree of life wrought iron magazine rack for over a year before it was sold. At 140 euro I felt it was way too expensive but I enjoyed looking at it each time I passed. I did find several delightful miniature rams head motif wall racks in my price range.

Another unique opportunity, is buying a midnight snack at the "Midnight Bakery", a bakery that works through the night to provide for the next day's bread. This is particularly appealing in the summer when the social life and festivities run into the wee hours in Barga, as attested to by our young American guest who, after partying downtown, rode his bike the 5 mountainous miles back to our house in the dark, often arriving at 3 AM.

The above mentioned festivities take place in the central Piazza Giovanni Pascoli; in front of The Albergo Alpino, a wonderful old boutique hotel full of Tuscan Antiques, with a beautiful restaurant; and up in the old town where throughout the year there are musical events, Art exhibitions and local Sagra, the open air food festivals.

Other than that Barga is a typical Tuscan hill town where you'll find the best sausage at the butcher shop on the piazza. Across the street at the Alimentari, the corner grocer, you'll be offered a taste of that local Pecorino you inquired about, as well as a complimentary splash of wine to wash it down.

They Call It Rum

It can happen to anyone. You're traveling though Italy, Umbria, Orvieto let's say, waxing rhapsodic about this beautiful country, the atmosphere, the superb food, and wham, one Grappa too many. Grappa, that delightful distillate of the dregs of the wine making process, admittedly an acquired taste, is generally between 40-42% alcohol, about 80 proof, potent enough.

When I was growing up in the U.S. south I remember talk (I was too young to partake, thank goodness, because the tales they told...) of 151 Rum; it'd make your head spin.

Here in the mountainous northwest corner of Tuscany, an area sometimes known as The Garfagnana, in the town of Fornaci di Barga, the great furnace of Barga, a foundry town which once employed 3000 people, and today has the distinction of calling itself "where the euro was born" smelting the metal that is used for euro coins, there is a history of a delicious distillate that they call "rum" or "Leone 70," for its alcohol content of 70%. 140 proof. Pretty darn close to that 151 Rum of which I'd heard tell.

Leone 70, a warm sweet dark distillate of sugar cane, rum, a bottle of which is purportedly in every cupboard, is generally used in "Caffe Corretto," corrected coffee, and fires up the furnace of many a Garfagnino.

The company that produces it right here in Fornaci di Barga goes back over 100 years having started out traveling the back roads from Fornaci to Modena, selling not only Leone 70 but also a wide range of distillates and liqueurs using ingredients culled wild from the local mountainsides including blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, chestnuts, and walnuts.

They even produce a distillate of Porcini mushroom. There are ten products in the traditional Grappa and Grappa liqueur line. They have several versions of the traditional bitters and anise based aperitifs, and are also famous for their Mandarin liqueur which is served warm in winter, with a twist.

Fortunately, Leone 70 is used judiciously, a nice warm kick to the coffee, morning or afternoon, which may account for the warm friendly temperaments hereabouts.

Nardini Enrico s.n.c. Localit Loppora Fornaci di Barga (Lucca).

Kerry has vacation rentals in Tuscany, near Barga
www.apartmentvacationsitaly.com. Kerry has also published, Barga Tuscany, a guidebook to the area.

Some parts of the articles on this page were originally published in International Living Magazine, 2003, © by Kerry Bell, Barga, Italy All Rights Reserved

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