A Tour Sprouts

I’ve long wondered how to incorporate the rich agricultural heritage of the Lucca plain into a tour. Watching a bean stalk grow would try the patience even of a very slow traveller.

On Thursday I visited the organic farm Favilla in the suburbs of Lucca, where I was welcomed by Andrea, the owner’s son. As he spoke about his farm and its crops, the words tumbled out of his mouth and his face was alive with the enthusiasm he and his family devote to their project. The list of crops is long leaving no season without its fruits: wheat, vegetables and fruit.

Pasta Favilla

Andrea clutching his wheat and pasta

To find out more about the small group tour germinating at Sapori e Saperi Adventures, read the rest of my blog at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/a-tour-sprouts/. Read to the bottom of the blog and you’ll find a special offer.

Save the dates: 2–9 July 2017.


Garfagnana: My Tuscany part II

The Garfagnana and Media Valle del Serchio (Middle Valley of the Serchio River) is my home and the base for many of Sapori e Saperi’s tours. If you’ve been here with me, you might remember that the Serchio is the third longest river in Tuscany. Wild, rugged mountains ascend on both sides of its valley, their rocky ledges bearing stone villages and cultivated terraces.

(Although something is wrong with the sound, the pictures say it all.)

It seems improbable that so many riches lie hidden in my Garfagnana. It’s the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I feel fortunate to have landed here by chance. The people are full of pride and determination to carry forward their traditions. They hope you’ll come share their Tuscany with them.

(Note: Farro IGP della Garfagnana is Triticum dicoccum or emmer in English, not spelt which is Triticum spelta. Emmer is an ancestor of spelt. I was finding emmer on Neolithic sites in Italy when I was an archaeologist on the Early History of Agriculture Project at Cambridge University.)

Posted in beans, BEEF, BEER, BREAD, cheese, CHESTNUTS, fagioli, FARM, GARFAGNANA, LANDSCAPE, latte, milk, POLENTA, PORK, RICOTTA, Salumi, sheep, SOUP, TRADITION, Tuscany | Leave a comment

Autumn in Tuscany

I can never decide which season I like best. The one I’m in always wins. Here are five reasons to love autumn.

Sweeping multicoloured vine leaves

Sweeping particoloured vine leaves


Picking olives with friends

Picking olives with friends…


And  going to the olive mill and tasting the new olive oil

…and going to the olive oil mill and tasting the new extra virgin oil

Hunting for white truffles with Riccardo and Turbo…

And eating them

…and eating them

You can do all these things with me (perhaps not sweeping my terrace), during my new small-group tour called ‘Autumn in Tuscany’. Read more about it in my blog on the Slow Travel Tours website at http://slowtraveltours.com/blog/autumn-in-tuscany/ and see all the details at http://www.sapori-e-saperi.com/small_group_tours/autumn-in-tuscany/ (click on the row of tabs below the introduction). It’s my favourite season… until winter arrives.

Posted in holidays, LANDSCAPE, OLIVE OIL, TRUFFLES, Tuscany | 2 Comments

Street Cleaning

A couple of Thursday evenings ago I wrote a to-do list for Friday.  The first item on the list was to pick up some leaflets at Topo Gigio, the bar-trattoria in Fabbriche di Casabasciana, the village at the bottom of my hill. The leaflets advertised a concert on Sunday for the benefit of the centre for the elderly at Casabasciana, which I was helping to organise. Considering the length of my list, all the things I wanted to get done before the weekend, the sensible thing would have been to hop in my car and drive the 3.8 km (2.4 mi). But it was a warm, not too hot, sunny day, and I hadn’t walked the mulattiera in ages.

Mulattiera at the bottom of Casabasciana

People in the village used to walk down it to school or work and back up again at lunch time every day. It seemed a bit feeble not to do it. I strapped my pennato lucchese, a Lucca-style billhook, around my waist and invited my friend Penny to accompany me with her secateurs.

My pennato lucchese handmade by a blacksmith

Mulattiera translates as ‘mule track’, but this makes it sound a paltry dirt path. In fact, the mulattiere (plural) were the super highways of the past, often many metres wide, surfaced in rounded cobbles or flat paving slabs, with stone-lined drainage channels at the sides or down the centre. Where necessary they were stepped. In mountainous areas like mine, they ran along ridges, usually just below the crest. Although they frequently crossed streams and small rivers, it was at the top where the water course was narrow and presented no great obstacle even in the rainy season. They descended to the valleys of major rivers only where absolutely necessary to arrive at a destination on the other side of the river.

Broad mulattiera leading to fort on Monte Battifolle

This mulattiera traverses ridge below the crest.

Flat paviours on well-maintained mulattiera to Sommocolonia

Steps in the mulattiera below Casabasciana

Panoramic views make navigating easy

I’m not sure how old the roads in the Garfagnana are. It’s known that the Roman Consul M Claudio Marcello had the Via Claudia or Clodia Nova built in the 2nd century AD, and it’s likely that it followed an Etruscan road and possibly even earlier routes. The mulattiera that links Casabasciana with the valley is said to be mediaeval, but that’s the date people always attach to anything old. It’s about 4 metres wide and forms the main street in the village, descends about 100 m below the village and splits in two, the left fork diving steeply down to the pieve, the old romanesque parish church, and then continues to Sala, a hamlet of about 15 houses, which is linked by another mulattiera to the Liegora River which runs into the Lima River to the right. The other branch carries on straight down to the Lima, along which Fabbriche di Casabasciana is strung out.

Religious procession along Via Lastraco, Casabasciana

Via Lastraco merges with mulattiera at bottom of Casabasciana

I’ve learned from my neighbours that upkeep of the mulattiera was the responsibility of each family through whose property it passed. In the ’60s the present-day car road was built, and since then the mulattiera has been used less and less by the locals. Only the sections used by woodsmen, hunters of wild mushrooms and wild boar, and horse riders (mostly tourists) are now maintained, and even these denizens of the forest tend to favour newer dirt roads suitable for 4×4 vehicles. It’s to us stranieri, who arrive with the notion of nature as a setting for recreation instead of work, that the task of cleaning the mulattiere now falls.

The modern road cuts through the mulattiera at several places.

Tourist hiking the mulattiera to Sillico

Spring flowers attract naturalists

Penny and I set off at about 9.30. We hacked, slashed and clipped our way to the bottom by around noon. Some parts of the road had been cleared but others were thick with elder and acacia saplings intertwined with clematis (old man’s beard) and brambles. It was particularly galling to find that one household had cut their land down to within a metre of the mulattiera and hadn’t been civic-minded enough to cut that stretch of the mulattiera as well.

We pass a crumbling church.

Where's the mulattiera?

The mulattiera begins to emerge from the undergrowth.

A few final snips

A pulmonaria shelters at the edge of the mulattiera.

At Topo Gigio, arms scratched and bleeding, we bragged about our feat to the men playing cards or arriving for lunch, and taunted them by asking where they had been when needed.

Fabbriche di Casabasciana at the bottom of the mulattiera

Topo Gigio

It's THE place to meet friends and have lunch.

We took the exhortation above the bar to be addressed to us.

Above the bar the sign says:

‘O pilgrim, weary of your journey: stop, drink and then redouble your pace.’

A good lunch cures all pain.

Restored by the excellent worker’s lunch, I collected the leaflets and we set off back up the mulattiera. Even though uphill, it was much easier going this time.

If anyone knows of a volunteer work group skilled at repairing cobbled roads, please get in touch with me at info@sapori-e-saperi.com. They’ll receive warm hospitality at Casabasciana.

Posted in hiking, HISTORY, LANDSCAPE | 6 Comments

Water Power

I first thought about the power of water when Bob Coleman, my tai chi teacher and director of works at Neal’s Yard Dairy (there’s always a food connection), was trying to get us to comprehend the force behind one of the moves in ‘grasp sparrow’s tail’. Water isn’t compressible, it doesn’t give when it hits you. We practised sending all our energy to our forearms and not budging an inch.

While I was editing the World Bank’s independent review of the Narmada dam project in India with social anthropologist Hugh Brody, I became aware of the power of water to disrupt traditional communities.

Moving to the valley of the Lima River, a major tributary of the Serchio (pronounced serk´-ee-o) River that flows across the Lucca plain and into the sea just north of the Arno brought me closer to the power of water. As you drive up and down the valleys, you see everywhere the evidence of the power of water to generate electricity through micro-hydro plants.

It’s impossible to imagine what the Serchio was like before dams were built on every tributary and the main river itself, and huge tubes were drilled through the mountains between the tributaries so that water can be shunted to whichever reservoir needs it most. I’ve read that it was navigable, which it certainly isn’t today. One theory for the unequal heights of the arches of the Devil’s Bridge is that the masts of sailing ships had to fit through one of them.

Devil's Bridge, Borgo a Mozzano (photo: Helen Higgs)

In mediaeval times the river (then called the Auser) progressively flooded land nearer and nearer to Lucca. Luckily, the Bishop of Lucca San Frediano, an Irish priest, was also an expert hydraulic engineer, and put a halt to the flooding by moving the course of the river to its present channel in 561 to 589. It takes a long time to move a river, but it did the trick. The Lucca plain is still crisscrossed by drainage canals to stop flooding and create rich arable land.

San Frediano directs works with his rake

Once or twice every winter due to a particularly heavy rainstorm or snowmelt, the Serchio is in spate. The swirling drive of the water is almost intoxicating as it fills the whole river bed and churns the worn river stones gouging out unfortified stretches of the river bank and piling up new pebble islands that will be visible when the water recedes.

Occasionally it floods the main road at the Devil’s Bridge, just upstream from the big dam at Borgo a Mozzano, the last bulwark where the amount of water flowing across the Lucca plain can be regulated. Usually the most annoying damage is a few small landslides (frana in Italian) that either undermine or block the narrow mountain roads connecting the main road along the valley floor to the ancient villages high on mountain ridges.

All those roots yet the wind and rain won

As I write this it’s been raining hard, really hard for five days in the Province of Lucca (probably elsewhere too, but what’s local has most impact). There’s an occasional break of a few hours, and then the rat-a-tat of the drops starts again. The force of the water in streams, rivers and canals is destroying roads, houses and fields. There are many more landslides and trees lose their grip and topple over also blocking roads. Although I didn’t ask for them, my computer gives me FaceBook updates from the Provincia di Lucca. In the last 24 hours they’ve been coming through nearly as fast as the raindrops.

24 hours ago

#maltempo [bad weather]: The level of flow of the Serchio remains constant. The major danger remains the network of drainage ditches on the Lucca plain.

#maltempo: Road maintenance crews from the Province removed detritus from the road at Acquabona (Castelnuovo Garfagnana) on the SR455. They positioned protection blocks. The road is open.

#maltempo: On the strada provinciale 37 of Fabbriche di Vallico (locality Lombardo) in course of removal of detritus and water issuing from an adjacent ditch. Light inconvenience but the road is passable.

#maltempo: In locality Ripa (comune of Seravezza) the eponymous river overflowed because of an obstruction of the river course caused by a landslide. Two houses are flooded. The comune sent its own volunteers to protect the houses and sent the Consorzio di Bonifica [land drainage] Versilia Massaciuccoli to remove the obstruction from the canal.

#maltempo: The water flow at the dam at Borgo a Mozzano at 13.00 was 600 to 700 cubic metres per second.

[I hope the Devil’s Bridge is holding strong. It’s over 1000 years old.]

21 hours ago

#maltempo: Engineers are constantly monitoring the situation of the #serchio.

#maltempo: The frazione of Tereglio is cut off due to two landslides which fell on the SP56 and on the SC Tereglio–Lucignana.

#maltempo: A rise in the level of the #serchio has been registered.

15 hours ago

#maltempo: A night of work for the personnel in the operations room for civil protection in the Province of Lucca. Many and diverse emergencies caused by the strong rain. At daybreak visits to the places are planned to assess the landslides and flooding.

14 hours ago

#maltempo: In the comune of Gallicano, the frazione of Fiattone is reachable only by 4×4. The road was affected by a landslide.

[Just below Fiattone is Podere Concori where Gabriele da Prato makes excellent wine. Are his terraces being swept away?]

#maltempo: SP60 from Pascoso–Pescaglia remains closed due to a landslide. Road maintenance crews are working at the site. Pascoso continues to be unreachable. [A comment 5 hours ago: It’s still closed.]

13 hours ago

#maltempo: Transit barred by a landslide on the comune road Mulino di Burica, in frazione Fabbriche di Casabasciana (comune Bagni di Lucca). At the moment one house is cut off.

[It’s getting closer. That’s at the bottom of my hill.]

#maltempo: A landslide has closed the road to Sillico, comune of Pieve Fosciana.

[How will Ismaele, one of the norcini who teaches my Advanced Salumi Course, get up there to feed his pigs and cattle?]

I feel anxious. What will be next? It feels like the world around me is crumbling, washing back to the sea where it came from.

12 hours ago

#maltempo: The comune road to Bargecchia (Pieve Fosciana) was rendered impassable by a landslide obstructing also the road to Capanne di Bargecchia. The two communities are cut off, reachable only on foot. Work has already begun.

#maltempo: The road to Sillico in the comune of Pieve Fosciana previously interrupted by a landslide has been reopened as an alternating one-way system to ambulances only.

[Will they feed Ismaele’s pigs?]

#maltempo: Worrying the level of Lake Massaciuccoli which has reached 48 cm. It is continually being monitored especially in the vicinity of Massarosa.

#maltempo: In locality Lombardo, in the comune of Gallicano, a landslip is affecting a high tension electrical pylon. ENEL [electricity company] is assessing the  situation.

11 hours ago

#maltempo: After the peak flow during the night of 1100 cubic metres per second, the flow of the Serchio at 7.00 am was down to 950 cu.m/sec. The levels are being constantly monitored by the Province’s engineers.

3 hours ago

#maltempo: President Baccelli [President of Lucca Province] inspects the SP56 in the Valfegana.

[That’s the road to Marzia, one of my cheesemakers. Good thing they’re almost self-sufficient.]

We'll have to go back to mules for transport

Gradually the reports bring better news; roads have been partly opened and dikes repaired, but some people have lost their houses. President Baccelli has asked for financial assistance from the Tuscan region.

In one of the gaps in the rain, I go out to investigate whether Casabasciana has suffered any damage.

A gloomy view

I’m relieved to find that all the houses and roads are intact. Mediaeval town planners had the good sense to bed their villages on solid rocky spurs high above the valleys that were subject to flooding. The cobbled streets slope toward the centre where the water gushing from downpipes from roofs coalesces into mini-rivers that flow downhill out of the village.

The main street efficiently drains the rainwater

I think of the people swept away by tsunamis and major floods. We’ve escaped lightly, this time.

Posted in HISTORY, LANDSCAPE, WATER | 8 Comments

Asparagus, Caves & Figurines

Is it better to visit the Presepe in Grotta (nativity scene in a cave) during the day or at night? We puzzle over this at lunch, which, as usual in Italy, goes on so enjoyably and so long that it’s dusk when we arrive at the bottom of the trail.

nativity scene in a cave

The beginning of the trail

sentiero alla grotta

Following the lights

The way is lit by a string of low-energy lightbulbs, which is just as well, since the trail is not for the faint of heart.

guida ambientale stefano pucci

Stefano, our evening guide

When we finally reach the cave, our guide Stefano has no doubts that the only time to make the pilgrimage to the presepe is in the evening when you follow the lights, mimicking the Magi who followed the light of the star.

Please behave yourself on the trail

I put this to the test when I come with other friends the next morning to repeat the journey in daylight. This time I’m more relaxed, not worried about getting to the cave before the rough, steep path disappears in shadowy gloom. We take time to appreciate the work put in by the speleological club, which had created a detailed nature trail along the path. This sign reads: ‘Botanical path. Le Campore: 600 m. Respect the woods. Wear hiking boots. Keep dogs on a lead. Carry an emergency lamp. Thank you for your patience’.

Blacksmith's forge

Even at 11 am Carlo Galgani’s forge is in the shade. For three months during the winter the sun never reaches the bottom of the valley.

steep path

Wonky steps on the steep ascent to the cave

The steps up to the cave at 600 metres are steep and uneven and were more than a little scary in the gloom of dusk the night before.

Wild asparagus

The walk itself is an education. Trees and plants are identified along the way.

The botany and food culture wild asparagus

Here we learn that around Lucca you’re allowed to forage for wild asparagus only between 10 February and 20 May, and each person may pick just thirty spears a year. This might be another activity to add to the foraging weekend I’m developing.


Area for making charcoal

Cultural history makes its appearance along the trail too. This sign explains that in the past there were many charcoal burners in the area. Carlo the blacksmith still uses charcoal from one of the few remaining charcoal burners. I’ve been meaning to try to visit him to find out whether I can bring guests to watch the process.


A waterfall splashes and sparkles

As we near the cave, the trail gets even more arduous, but a laughing waterfall cheers us up the last set of rickety steps.

Shepherd pipes to an audience of stalagmites

Within the cave are pastoral tableaux staged with gesso figurines. Their manufacture made the fortune of many artisans in the Serchio Valley from the seventeenth century until the second world war, and their trade carried them as far afield as Scandinavia and Brazil. A family in my village still manufactures them, and I’m reminded that they offered to show me their small factory at the bottom of the hill, which I still haven’t gone to see. So many riches still to investigate.

A bagpiper leads his sheep

No one remembers bagpipes in this area. Perhaps this shepherd comes from the Abruzzo.

Environmental guide Marco in full spate

Marco is on duty as the daytime guide. He tells us all the facts about the cave in a torrent of words with a flurry of hands. He says Stefano is the poetic guide and he’s the practical one.

lake at bottom of cave

The three kings arrive at a watery manger on Epiphany

The cave has only one opening and slopes steeply down to an emerald lake at the bottom which is 7 or 8 metres deep in winter. There’s no life in it at all.


The vehicle that makes the nativity scene possible

Back outside Marco explains that all the gear has been ferried down by the cable car from the dirt road above the cave. We take this even more precipitous path up to the road, which we follow gently down to the valley and our car.

Nightfall below the cave

The evening before we descend carefully down the lighted nature trail with some Italians who repeat rapturously, ‘Suggestivo, veramente suggestivo’; the English ‘full of atmosphere’ sounds lame, perhaps ‘charming’ or ‘romantic’ conveys our impressions better.

Posted in CRAFTS, hiking, LANDSCAPE, TRADITION | Leave a comment

Snow Patterns

The travellers’ image of Tuscany is all sunshine, olive trees, vines and cypress-lined roads, and if you come in spring, summer or autumn, that’s mostly what you’ll see (although you’d be in for a surprise here in the Garfagnana). In winter the scene is completely different. We have snow — not much, but we can count on it every year. No one pretends it doesn’t happen, so it’s compulsory to have winter tyres on your car or chains at the ready. Snow ploughs clear the roads within a few hours. Far and near the snow reveals patterns that are invisible at other times of year.

Castelluccio from CasabascianaRoof at CasabascianaVine arborThanks to Klaus Falbe-Hansen for his photos.

Posted in LANDSCAPE, Tuscany | 2 Comments