Miles from the tourist hotspots, deep in the Italian countryside with olive groves surrounding us, we drive into a red-tiled village to find a prominent sign inscribed with the legend, “Twinned with East Lothian”.
Just before it, at the entrance of this picturesque and very Italian-looking place, we had spotted, another sign stating “Barga – the most Scottish town in Italy”.
Perched high in the tree-covered Apennines with fantastic views of the rugged Apuane Alps, Barga could be the prototype for scenic Tuscan villages, boasting not only the distinctively quaint houses but also its own ancient duomo, imposingly situated at the top of the very steep, winding, cobbled streets.
Yet in the first bar we come to, we not only find a Celtic Supporters’ Club (one of only two in Italy) but also a picture of Scots pop sensation Paolo Nutini – who, it turned out, is named after the bar’s owner, Paolo Marchetti, who happens to be very good pals with Nutini’s dad. What’s more, the singer visits every year as, along with many people hailing from the Scots/Italian community in Scotland, he regards Barga as a home from home.
As we sip our espressos, Paulo Marchetti’s daughter, Celeste, tells us that the winter population of 6,000 swells to 10,000 with returning visitors in the summer who enjoy the annual jazz bonanza and Italy’s only fish and chip festival.
They are the descendants of Italians who emigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to seek a better life. Not all aimed for Scotland, although many ended up here, particularly in Glasgow and the surrounding towns. (There is a street in Saltcoats called Barga Gardens). Some paid to go to the United States but arrived in Scotland to find that was the end of the journey. Others travelled to London then headed north.
Founded by the Lombards in the Middle Ages, Barga was initially a wealthy town because of the excellent silk threads it produced for the mills of nearby Florence. While the plan of the village has remained more or less the same since then, the demise of the silk industry in the late 19th century led many of its sons and daughters to seek work elsewhere. Some became makers and sellers of ice-cream and ice-cream parlours started to spring up in Scotland so fast that between 1903 and 1905 the number of shops in Glasgow increased from 89 to 366. Hard work eventually saw many of these immigrants prosper so that now their descendants can enjoy their summer holidays in Italy.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
There is certainly much to savour in Barga and the surrounding area of Garfagnana, a treasure trove of unspoiled hilltop villages boasting a backdrop of stunning scenery.
In Barga itself, there is the limestone cathedral, or duomo, founded in the 9th century on the crown of the hill around which the whole village is clustered. It is worth the steep climb to the cathedral’s terrace for the incredible view of the surrounding hills and valleys. There is also the Church of San Francesco, completed in 1490, which houses intricate works by Andrea della Robbia and his sons.
One of Italy’s most famous poets, Giovanni Pascoli, spent a long time in the area and is buried in the chapel in Castelvecchio, a hamlet of Barga. He wrote: “I was looking for a secluded and solitary place. I came to Barga. I saw that it was beautiful and stayed. In these places there is good. Where there is beauty and goodness, the heart of the artist has nothing more to desire.”
Scottish artist John Bellany also developed a love for Barga after recuperating there in 1988 from a period of ill health. East Lothian’s first ever Freeman, the country recognised his link with the Italian village by formalising a twinning agreement in 2006. Other painters have found inspiration in the area as it is a perfect location to explore churches, fortresses and castles.
Our home for the week was in a beautiful villa on the outskirts of the nearby city of Lucca, another unspoiled Italian treasure. Owned by Eve Cameron – who has familial links to Fort Augustus, but is married to an Italian, Angelo – the villa is a perfect base for exploring the region. Set on a hill overlooking the spires and domes of the city, it is both peaceful and handy enough to pop in for some gelato and a stroll round the magnificent city walls. These date from the 16th century and their fame was so great that the walls of English border town Berwick-upon-Tweed were modelled on them.
One of the delights of Lucca is that within the walls it is almost traffic-free and visitors can wander the quaint streets to their hearts’ content, undisturbed by cars and buses. Visit the Pisan-style duomo which contains works by Jacopo della Quercia and Tintoretto; the peculiar oval-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro which stands on the site of the old Roman amphitheatre; the beautiful church of San Frediano, which keeps a preserved body of a saint on show; the grand church of San Michele; the baroque gardens of Palazzo Pfanner and the Palazzo Guinigi, which has olive trees sprouting from its tower and is worth climbing for the views over the city.
Shoppers looking for smart boutiques should try Via Gallitassi, or Via Paulino for coffee shops and delicatessens selling local wines and cheeses.
Less than ten minutes from Lucca, our villa was also handy for Pisa (25 minutes) and the beach. Many tourists head to Viareggio, but it is expensive here to rent an umbrella and sun loungers, so a cheaper option is to head slightly further down the coast where it is easy to hire an umbrella and two sunloungers for around E10. The sea also seems cleaner here and it is close enough to Pisa to head back for another gelato and some pictures of the leaning tower.
We also found we could easily visit Florence for the day as the train is a mere E8 (about £5.75) from Lucca and there is a regular service.
With a lovely pool, five large bedrooms, kitchen, diningroom/sittingroom, three bathrooms and a terrace overlooking Lucca, our villa was easily big enough for two families but as it is in such a prime location it is popular, especially in summer. High summer is not the only option, however – it is an area that is beautiful in any season.
• Owners Direct (www.ownersdirect.co.uk) has nearly 500 holiday homes near Lucca available to let with prices for two-bedroom villas, farmhouses and apartments averaging around £500 for a seven-night, accommodation-only rental in the low season. Large properties such as Villa Montebello sleep up to 12 people with prices starting from £2,665 for seven nights.
• Direct flights to Pisa from Edinburgh are available with Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) from £33.99 one way.
• Train fares from Lucca to Pisa cost €2, while train fares from Lucca to Florence cost €8.