Tuscany Retrospective: The Garfagnana

An Italian “gn” is like a Spanish “ñ” [enya]; so, this is pronounced “Garfanyana”.

Francine likes to be somewhere special for her birthday. That was particularly true this year, it being a special birthday. Enough said! After a little effort searching, Francine found something that appealed, a combination of two 1-week walking trips, both organized by Explore! and both in Tuscany, which Explore! confirmed we could do back-to-back. We are almost completely unfamiliar with Italy, having had but one prior brush with the Venice area some 25 years ago.

Week #1 of our re-introduction to Italy was Explore!’s Trails of Hidden Tuscany trip in a lesser known area of Tuscany called the Garfagnana. We flew from Gatwick and into Pisa, a town that is (in)famous for one thing and one thing only, a major Italian architectural cock-up. Well, maybe the architecture was good but the engineering was wrong. That would fit the typical Italian pattern of good design ruined by crappy build quality. No, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the leaning tower from the plane on the way in.

P1030099 Devils BridgeWe met our tour leader at Pisa airport and were driven to our accommodation for the week, a superb agriturismo [converted farmhouse] at La Villa. En route we passed the Devil’s Bridge – every country seems to have at least one Devil’s Bridge – where we chomped our first Italian sandwich while it began thrashing with rain. I opted for the ham sandwich, in preference to the mortadella sausage sandwich, and that’s exactly what I got, bread and ham; there was no lubrication whatsoever. This was a pattern that was repeated. It was tasty, though, and I added my own lubrication in the form of beer. 🙂

_MG_6421Because we were largely out in the middle of nowhere at La Villa, in a break from Explore!’s normal format, four evening meals, together with packed lunches for our walking days, were included and supplied by the utterly delightful couple, Amadeo and Rosa, who ran the agriturismo. Lunches were ample and consisted of two sandwiches of, you guessed it, decent bread containing ham or mortadella and … nothing else. Italian sandwiches seem to be minimalist [a.k.a. dry] in that they comprise bread, a meaty filling, and nothing else. Some of our number on the trip were having a hard time with dry sandwiches made of real bread that required chewing. Following representation, on subsequent days, sliced tomatoes, freshly picked from the agriturismo’s garden, magically moistened things up a bit. Much better.

Our included evening meals even came complete with wine in reasonably copious quantity. Amadeo was a man after my own heart and clearly enjoyed a drink. He also liked to force a shot or two of home-made grappa upon his unsuspecting guests as a digestivo. What a man! Grappa, it must be said, varies tremendously from the very good to something more akin to lighter fuel. I think we had both available. 😀 Other booze, including wines and beers, was available at other times via an honesty bar – mark off what you take and settle up and the end of the week. Great system, great hosts.

_MG_6555Prior to departure, we had a preconceived image of Tuscany, a mental image which, I suspect, had been created by the work of various landscape photographers. The Garfagnana did not match our mental image. Whereas we were expecting a rolling countryside featuring meadows and columnar cypress trees, what we got was seriously craggy mountains and woodland. As usual with seriously craggy mountains, there were frequently some seriously grey clouds either above them or, occasionally, at their feet. The constantly changing early morning mist/cloud formations billowing up from the valley were really quite intriguing. The main intrigue was in trying to figure out what the coming day might hold. Fortunately, our days walking up to the higher peeks – we hit a little over 2000m – were dry and largely bright with nothing worse than atmospheric cloud cover. We enjoyed the mountain walks tremendously.

P1030138-sizedA word on walking/trekking. Our party of 14 (plus the leader) suffered two fortuitously relatively minor injuries due, IMHO, to personal equipment. Injury #1 befell a lady who slipped descending a steep muddy slope folding her leg beneath her as she sat unceremoniously down: she wrenched her knee/ankle. Though she had been equipped with trekking poles, she wasn’t using them; they were strapped to her rucksack being purely decorative. Injury #2 happened when another, very sporty lady, walking in rather lightweight trainers/walking shoes, accidentally drop-kicked a sizeable boulder bruising/breaking (she couldn’t decide which) her toe. Stout walking boots would have prevented that type of injury. Using appropriate walking gear is the trekking equivalent of a motorcyclist donning leathers, even if it is summer, for protection. Should you be unfortunate enough to skid along the tarmac, it’s the cow skin rather than the motorcyclist’s own skin that gets abraded. Enough said.

P1030155 Cinque TerraOne day took us out of the mountains and on a very different kind of walk along a section of the Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage landscape of the Tuscan Riviera. Getting to the walk involved dealing with three Italian trains for a couple of hours. Section #1 of the walk itself was essentially a cobbled pedestrian motorway comprised largely of high steps unsuitable for anyone shorter than 6ft/1.85m. The general pedestrian traffic on said motorway consisted of the usual assortment of beach brigade bods clad in inappropriate footwear (see above). I actually spotted one guy in cheap rubber toe-post flip-flops carrying his young child on his back in a ruck-sack papoose device. I dreaded to think what might have happened to his rugrat had he slipped/tripped and fallen. Our walking boots and trekking poles certainly looked overkill compared to the surrounding fashion but the poles certainly helped those shorter than 6ft/1.85m down the tall steps. The intended section #2 of the walk had been closed, literally just before we got there, due to a landslide. We were not unhappy to call an early halt. We hopped on a crowded boat instead before dealing with another three trains over another couple of hours to return to sanity. I suppose the coast is quite pretty but we didn’t enjoy this particular interlude. It was far too much effort for far too little gain. The Cinque Terre seems to be the draw that gets many people to sign up for this trip, though, so it’s included. Give me the peace, solitude and majesty of the mountain landscapes any day. It was a relief to return to them the following day.

Italian food has a high reputation. Certainly, the home cooking of the agriturismo was excellent, though some might have called it basic, perhaps. When it came to our few brushes with restaurants, I formed a somewhat more qualified opinion; whilst each individual course may have been very tasty food, as a diet the Italian mixture sucked. For example, in one fixed price/fixed menu restaurant, we were presented with a fairly typical cold meat antipasto course, followed by a risotto course, a gnocchi course, and no less than two pasta courses. Were there any real vegetables in evidence? No. I know we were on a walking holiday but this was carbo-blasting of the highest order. To cap it all, on our day off in Lucca, I was presented with the worst pizza I’ve ever had, though admittedly I chose badly in selecting the seafood pizza. What’s the point serving half a dozen mussels in their shells on a pizza, pray tell? They need to be removed from the pizza to eat them. The twice-cooked, heads-on prawns needed similar treatment and were now predictably overcooked, too. Pathetic! Lesson learned: keep pizzas simple.

So, all in all a slightly surprising but mostly enjoyable week in a delightful location and in the company of the finest hosts I’ve ever experienced, despite the lack of any roughage in the restaurant food.

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Posted in 2013 Italy

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