It’s all been a bit difficult this year. The extended Easter break has put me and quite a few of our U3A group out of kilter.  Five of us have nevertheless managed to get away on a short cultural visit to Italy. I have a touch of the Lawrence Durrell’s at the moment as I sit in my Italian garret pecking away at the laptop in an attempt to satisfy our Editor’s plea to pad out her “scrawny” magazine.  We should have brought the magazine out here to Italy’s Lunigiana region. There is nothing scrawny about any of us after 4 days of very good Tuscan food.

After arriving on Thursday afternoon and reaching our usual Agriturismo(Bed &  Breakfast), La Concia, in time for a hearty al fresco dinner, we settled into a  determined pattern of cultural mornings, followed by long lunches, a brief siesta and more al fresco dinners. Friday’s culture was a visit to the private house of a local American expat who has lived in Italy for over 30 years and moved to this area after a career in designing shoes for Ferragamo.

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Amongst many other activities, he is now the proprietor of http://www.youritalianconcierge.com  His former farmhouse cum country manor is packed with an eclectic mix of all the paintings, statues, furniture, glassware, crockery and knick knacks that he and his partner have been able to garner from Italy’s abundant flea markets and antique dealers. What was intended to be a half hour hello turned into an hour and a half examination of his painting and gardening techniques, all explained in his charming Southern drawl. It was so entertaining that it nearly made us late for our next appointment at Ristorante Al Vecchio Tino, where lunch awaited us on the veranda.

 

Two hours later we raised ourselves from the table to watch a flying display put on by the local eagles and buzzards. Al Vecchio Tino is perched on top of a hill with a 360 degree view of the surrounding Apuan Alps in which the eagles particularly like to make their nests.

Friday’s dose of culture was a bit more serious with a private visit to a castle which formerly belonged to the Medici family, Castello di Castiglione del Terziere.

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On arrival, the owner asked how long we had allowed for the visit. I made the mistake of saying that we had as long as she wanted. Two and a half hours later we shook hands, embraced and, in the Italian way, kissed farewell to our new friend, the Chatelaine. She had shared with us not only the history of this 15th century castle, but also the story of her love affair with her “husband”, the late owner, and their mutual love affair with the castle, the Lunigiana area and its literary and cultural history. We had spent so long at the castle that we had to race to our lunchtime venue to enjoy our Panigacci lunch before the kitchen closed at 2. I’m pleased to confirm that we made it. The restaurant, Da Gambin at Podenzana enjoys another 360 degree hilltop view, this time including a glimpse of the sea in the Bay of Poets, and to Corsica beyond.

Thus far, the only cultural aspect missing was music. With this in mind, on Sunday we headed for Torre del Lago Puccini. I’d like to say Lake Massacciucoli, its proper name, but you try it and you’ll see why I settled for its easier tourist industry name. Apart from the lake, which is a beautiful expanse of inland water, fringed by marshes, and home to many waterfowl, the main attraction is Puccini’s summer home, which is now a museum to his life and works. The museum is packed with photos and paintings of Puccini, his friends and family, and many of the artistes who sang in his dozen operas, the whole accompanied by a soundtrack of some of his most famous arias. Guess what! After the museum visit, we had to repair to Le Chalet restaurant for lunch.

The restaurant terrace extends out over the lake itself and another splendid lunch was enjoyed by all. We had intended to take a boat trip on the lake after lunch but Sunday was Republic Day in Italy and the holiday traffic was already building, so we decided to beat a retreat for home.

Today, we are looking forward to a visit to the seaside at Bocca di Magra and its very well-heeled leisure port.

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Perhaps there will be a fish restaurant there. Who knows? [P.S. there was!]

To satisfy the cultural element of the trip, we may have to call in to the Abbey of San Caprasio in the small town of Aulla.

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Between Allied bombardments and Italian partisans blowing up a German munitions train parked in the nearby station during the Second World War, this 11th century church was largely destroyed but has now been beautifully restored.

Must dash. a presto!