Barga and Lucca, in northern Tuscany
with my nine-year-old grandson
Barga and the Garfagnana
Ever since my first visit six years ago, I have been fascinated by this little town and have been back often. This time we chose to stay at the Casa Cordati. It is a large house with enormous rooms stuffed full of paintings by Bruno Cordati, shelves lined with books, rocking-chairs and hammocks in strategic spots, tempting you to forget everything, curl up in a corner and spend the day reading. My grandson, J., fell in love with the house straight away and, at the end of our stay, declared it to be paradise.
Barga's attraction to me is that it is a functioning town with a local population and numerous cultural activities. It has close ties to Scotland and, on closer acquaintance, these ties become evident in odd circumstances. Car traffic is restricted but residents are allowed to drive into the town and to park and this contributes to it not looking like a museum-town. There are several excellent restaurants where you are made to feel welcome.
On our first full day we headed to San Pellegrino in Alpe and the Museo etnografico / Ethnographical museum. We were the only two visitors which is a pity as it deserves far more. There are about 3000 tools and everyday objects, beautifully displayed and in a logical manner. Many were, of course, familiar to us since we live in Corsica. The building itself is impressive and would be worth a visit on its merits alone.
In the afternoon we explored Vagli di Sotto and J. daydreamed about coming back one day when the water is emptied out in order to see the "drowned village" which was sacrificed to the artificial lake in the 1950s.
Later we went in search of a "Cava di marmo" having been fascinated a year earlier by our visit to the marble quarries of Fantiscritti near Carrara, not very far away geographically but separated from us by the high mountains of the Alpi apuane. We discovered not only a marble quarry but a double bonus of a house built against a rockface with "rooms" (if you can call them that) which made use of the natural cavities in the rock, and a mysterious statue carved in marble, of course. This route must have been used more frequently in the past but it seems now that there are only gigantic lorries laden with marble which make their way down the zigzag track from the summit of the quarry.
We spent the whole of the next morning at the Selva del Buffardello adventure park. The monitors were extremely helpful and gave J. the necessary instructions in English and were attentive to his progress. He covered each of the three children's courses twice and perhaps found them to be slightly easier than the adventure park he had already been to several times in Corsica but it was good to have a different experience. The site is beautiful in a forest of tall pine trees and, later, we made use of one of the numerous picnic tables scattered in shady spots.
From Selva del Buffardello it is possible to walk in 30 minutes to the Fortress at Verrucole but we took the car. Even from the car park, there is quite a climb. This was a fascinating visit as the renovated fortress is in fact a living museum with personnel dressed in Medieval costume carrying out various activites of the period. The guide in the Keep was excellent explaining, amongst other things, the use of the deadly weapons used in battle. He spoke in Italian which we understood but he did offer to translate into English for us. The absolute highlight was the launching of a football by means of the giant catapult, which J. had the presence of mind to film. I can only offer a rather poor photograph.
Of particular interest to a small boy are the different vehicles to be found in Italy, especially the little 3-wheelers. We were lucky to find in Fornaci di Barga a Mayday exhibition of all types of vehicles for the farm and garden. Later that day, in Colognora, we were able to see that the Api really are the most suitable vehicles for the narrow streets.
This was not my first attempt to visit the Chestnut museum - Museo del castagno in Colognora, since it is not often open, but the wait was certainly worthwhile. It is not very large but it is stuffed full of interesting implements, tools and utensils some of which were probably still in use up until the 60s. Luckily we had some very interesting explanations (in Italian) from a young guide. I was particularly interested to see (at last) how cinders actually helped to get the washing clean and also to see how "necci" (chestnut flour pancakes) were piled up between flat stones by the fireside so as to be cooked, hot and ready when the family members came in from working outside. The machine for peeling chestnuts is a big step forward from putting the chestnuts in a sack and beating it repeatedly against a stone as was the case in Corsica until fairly recent times.
We stayed three nights in Lucca and on the first morning we took the train to Florence. I had designed the programme with a small boy in mind: first the 414 steps (!) to the top of the Giotto bell tower. Later I had to wonder why I made the (considerable) effort to get to the top when I asked J. to tell me what he remembered from our day in Florence and the bell tower had slipped his mind completely, it had paled in comparison to the two museums we visited.
From the top of the tower, we had heard the loud shouts of protesters echoing off the buildings of one narrow street while Italian Prime Minister Renzi was speaking at the Teatro Niccolini in the next street.
Because of the demonstrators, we had to take a detour to our next destination, the Museo Leonardo da Vinci. Since the street (via dei Servi) was partly blocked by the demonstators, I asked a policemen where the museum was and he was unable to tell me, or else he had other problems on his mind. Having asked a postman who also (unbelievably, for me) didn't know, I then looked up the street number on my smartphone AND (even more unbelievably for me) the postman hung around to ask me what the answer was!
This small museum was an enchantment for J. who is fascinated by all that is mechanical. These are modern constructions made from the designs and sketches left by Leonardo da Vinci and most of them can be manipulated by the visitors, young or not so young. J. of course didn't need prodding and he turned handles, pressed buttons, operated pulleys to his heart's content.
The second museum (and, yes, this was a rainy day) was the Museo Galileo on the banks of the Arno. To my mind, any parent accompanying their child to this museum should have some knowledge of science and physics... Unfortunately this is not my case and, although I had installed their dedicated app for this visit, it wasn't practical enough to be helpful and I could only suggest that perhaps one day J. will come back with Papa or on a school visit to get the most out of the exhibits.
Our final day in Lucca was set aside for the Pinocchio park in Collodi which we had had to put off for lack of time just one year earlier. J. loved it. I had seen mixed reviews and perhaps the fact that we live in Corsica and J. has not lost his enthusiasm for such attractions influenced his feelings. The trail is set in very attractive gardens and round each corner there is a new surprise relating to the adventures of Pinocchio: a giant policeman, assassins, the fairy's house, the giant crab and of course the gigantic whale. There are shady picnic spots, swings and ropes, a new adventure trail, round-abouts and also a Pinocchio puppet show. We spent the best part of 4 hours there and both enjoyed it.
Back in Lucca, J. had been looking forward to bicycling round "Le Mura" or city walls, each circuit is just over 4km. Last year we clocked up 25km over 3 days and I think he was hoping to improve on our record. However, I am one year older and also we were not helped by having one day of rain so we just managed the 6 circuits in 2 days. Handing back our bicycles, I told the kind man renting them out : "Mi basta per un anno!"
J. and I are now "seasoned travellers" since this was our third trip to Italy and second to Lucca. Lucca is a pedestrian town and, since my two favorite restaurants are at the other end of town from our favorite hotel, we take J.'s little child's scooter which lives in the boot of the car when not in use. This means that setting out to cross town yet again is something to look forward to, for both of us. When we reach a quiet piazza he can take a few extra whirls round the fountain or the statue.
To reach Italy from Corsica, we have to take the 4-hour ferry crossing from Bastia to Livorno and I always get a cabin, even though it is a daytime crossing. At first I told myself it would be easier with a child but now I think it is grandma who needs the rest. On our fairly short car trips, whenever I suspect boredom, we practise multiplication tables and this has the double effect of improving his tables and also making him less likely to ask "How far now?"
We were in Tuscany in May 2016.