Lady in red at rest on the walls of Lucca

I hope you’ll forgive us for republishing this article on last year’s Italian group visit to Tuscany.

At 3 o’clock on a September Sunday morning, 10 intrepid members of U3A rose from their beds to start their journey to Bristol airport, and thus to Pisa for the start of a week’s stay at Agriturismo La Concia, the old Tuscan farmhouse belonging to our wonderful hosts, Maart and Davide. They are already well-known to many of the group for whom this was the third visit to La Concia. We arrived just in time to enjoy lunch in the courtyard before a spectacular “temporale” drove us to our apartments for a well-earned afternoon rest and to summon the appetite for a sumptuous courtyard dinner, the thunder, lightning and rain having, by now, passed over.

Monday was a day of rest, which allowed the trio whom our hostess Maart had christened  “the Boys” to find the local bar and try out their Italian language skills, talking to the locals and reading the papers. Others headed off to explore the mediaeval centre of the village of Codiponte with its ruined castle and monastery.  Now suitably rested and recovered from Sunday’s travel, on Tuesday we set off to explore the castle of Piagnaro and its exhibition of 4000 year old menhir which have been found in the locality. After an interesting drive into the Tuscan hills we lunched at the restaurant of another Agriturismo, which had hosted the wedding banquet of our driver Tommaso, and which he was very keen to show off to his passengers.  Tommaso has become an integral part of our La Concia visit team over the last 3 years and we have learned to trust his judgement. It was not misplaced. Unfortunately, we ate so well at lunchtime that we weren’t really able to do justice to the “little taste” of local food which was placed before us that evening.  The weather was still trying to put a damper on proceedings and we had arranged to meet and eat in another nearby Agriturismo belonging to Eleonora and Nicola, friends of Maart and Davide.  They both made us very welcome and forced us to sample their own very good home-made wine and after dinner liqueur.

Fortunately, on Wednesday the sun came out, just in time for our first trip to the seaside at Lerici. Lerici has for many years been our favourite spot to enjoy the sea and sand of La Spezia’s Bay of Poets. This is where Shelley was staying nearly 200 years ago when he took his last ill-fated sea voyage from Livorno and drowned during the course of an unexpected storm. We fared rather better and enjoyed ice cream and aperitivi in Lerici’s main square before being faced with a magnificent fish lunch in a local restaurant. Having got a taste for the sea and sun, we returned the following day for a boat trip along the five seaside villages of the Cinque Terre, which cling to the steep cliffs of the Ligurian coast from Monterosso to Riomaggiore and thence to Portovenere. Here we were able stop and explore the town and its ancient church, or just chill and enjoy more ice cream and coffee.

On Friday, we were able to give one of our members practical experience of Lesson 5 for Beginners’ Italian “Booking tickets at the train station”. She did a wonderful job of obtaining 11 return tickets to Lucca which enabled our group, plus Maart, to travel through the dramatic countryside of the Garfagnana valley on our way to the beautiful city of Lucca. Armed only with a town map and the instruction to meet at Gli Orti di Via Elisa for lunch at 1pm, our party split up to explore the delights of Lucca’s main shopping street, via Filungo, its café quarter, the Anfiteatro, based on the old Roman amphitheatre which once stood and this spot, and whose shape it still retains, and the Guinigi tower, whose tree-topped roof terrace gives a magnificent view over the city and surrounding hills. After lunch all I was good for was a walk on top of the city’s perfectly preserved walls. Some of the party managed the entire 3 miles; others found the nearest bit of shade and watched the world go by from one of the areas of parkland which are to be found on the wider parts of these Da Vinci designed walls.

Saturday had been planned as a day of rest, but I was keen to visit the nearby castle at Fosdinovo, which I had missed when the group went there 2 years ago. I had been to the castle a few years before, but at that time it was not possible to visit the private apartments of the Malaspina family who still use it as a summer retreat, nor other parts of the castle which were then being restored. Restoration was necessary not just because the castle is a 1000 years old, but also because of the damage inflicted on it by Allied Forces when it was used as a local headquarters and gun emplacement for the German army as it retreated during the last few months of the Second World War. This time we had a very knowledgeable guide who was able to get us into almost all of the castle and explain the stories behind the many works of arts and historical artefacts to be found there. I think the group forgave me for breaking into their rest time, especially once a short journey took us to Agriturismo Ca’ vide’ where Francesca and her delightful sister Sara, cooked and served us  produce  from their own fields, including the nettles, from which they had made a wonderful pesto, served with pancakes. Try it! It’s delicious. The ham, sausage, cheese, vegetables, oil and wine were pretty good as well. After lunch, Francesca accompanied us on a tour of the cellars where they make their wine and olive oil, and the ultra-modern equipment which they use to do it.

That evening, after the now traditional final feast in La Concia’s courtyard, and the singing of Welsh and Italian songs, we retired to bed, so that we could rise, at a slightly more civilised hour, for the return to Pisa airport and home…all except  one Angelo, who went off by train to enjoy the family home near Bardi, from which his parents emigrated last century, but which still remains in the family. We hope to see him again in September.

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