Travel: Italy - Discover a little slice of Scotland in the Tuscan town of Barga

Barga, Tuscany, where you have a choice of chianti or Irn-Bru with your fish supper
Barga, Tuscany, where you have a choice of chianti or Irn-Bru with your fish supper
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Beyond the focaccia, rice cakes and pretty sugar-dusted befana biscuits stacked high at this traditional Tuscan bakers is an unexpected sight: a pyramid display of Irn-Bru cans.

Beyond the focaccia, rice cakes and pretty sugar-dusted befana biscuits stacked high at this traditional Tuscan bakers is an unexpected sight: a pyramid display of Irn-Bru cans.

Mountain views from a Barga terrace

Mountain views from a Barga terrace

The soft drink is in high demand at La Bottega del Pane in Barga due to the long push-and-pull of migration between this hilltop town and Scotland.

Bakery owner Ralph Ercolini, who also does a sideline in porridge oats, Tetley tea and marmalade, relocated from the Glasgow area to Barga in the 1970s. His parents and grandparents had gone the other way, the family typical of several thousand to have moved between the two areas since the mid 19th century, with the end of First World War proving a catalyst for transit in particular. “Everybody went to Scotland. There are not many people in Barga who don’t have a Scottish connection,” he says.

Jobs in the mines of Lanarkshire and the forests of Argyll were enough to take the first men away from their home in the exquisitely beautiful but once extremely poor Serchio Valley, which is cradled by the Apuan and Apennine mountains.

Some of the early arrivals in Scotland thought they were going to America, but ended up settling instead around the west coast from where their trans-Atlantic journeys were never made.

What followed this early migration from Barga was a level of enterprise that not only laid the foundation of the Scots-Italian community but created a cornerstone of everyday life: the fish and chip shop.

Every summer in recognition of this legacy comes Barga’s three-week Sagra del Pesce e Patate, or Festival of Fish and Chips, when the town football pitch is transformed by lines of fryers, trestle tables and hundreds of diners tucking into a cod supper complemented by lots of chianti and a barrel of tomato salad.

Singer Paolo Nutini, whose Barghigiano great-grandfather opened the family chip shop in Paisley, often visits the area during the summer. His impromptu appearances at the late-night sessions at the summer music festivals that spill through the winding streets and little piazzas are fondly remembered locally.

The Nardini ice-cream family of Largs also originally came from Barga, with the first member of the family, Pietro, leaving in 1890.

Over time, some returned from Scotland to Barga, perhaps at first for long holidays with new arrivals brought to see their grandparents. Old family homes became bases for new beginnings in the sun.

Meanwhile, the registry office at Barga does brisk business in the summer months with Scots-Italians searching for their ancestors.

The town cascades down from the Romanesque Church of San Cristoforo, which dates in part to the 11th century, and is trying to build its tourist appeal and share the wealth enjoyed by its Tuscan neighbours of Florence, Siena and Pisa.

All sit within easy reach of this charming medieval walled town that Scots artist John Bellany called home for many years, with his former gallery on Piazza Angelio now marked with a plaque. Bellany loved the climate and the food here, but above all the people and timelessness of the place.

Indeed, after just 48-hours around the town I wished time could stand still so departure was no longer necessary.

Key to this fine experience was a stay at the 180-room Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort and Spa high on a hillside overlooking Barga. Arriving at night, my only sense of the surrounds was the steep climb in the car up a winding entrance road.

Opening the curtains in the morning, I gasped at the 180-degree views of this verdant valley rich with chestnut forests and vines, where cypress trees sway in the breeze and the smell of rosemary and lavender rises in the warm air. Tiny villages, some built as lookouts by the Romans, cling on to the most precarious mountaintops crevices.

The hotel is formed from a sprawling Tuscan villa, decorated in climbing roses and wisteria, with old outbuildings now little shops selling antiques, vintage designer clothes and curios.

Indoors the mood is contemporary, smart and comfortable. Marble floors meet ochre velvets, gilt and dark wood in the lounge area. The main restaurant is crisp and clean with glass doors letting daylight flood in, and it’s here that you can enjoy your breakfast and linger over a coffee or two as the morning temperature rises.

An outdoor pool commands glorious views or you can slip into the indoor baths where the water is set to a warm day on the Med. Further lounging can be done in the Turkish bath.

Cooking classes are a speciality of the hotel, with chef taking small groups into the kitchen to prepare market-fresh three-course meals to be enjoyed at lunchtime – a great way to meet other hotel guests in a relaxed way and share the fruits of your labour.

You don’t feel the need to leave the Renaissance, which has the atmosphere of a mountain retreat given the space and the surroundings, but a shuttle bus runs guests to and from Barga three times a day.

One nearby attraction is the Podere Còncori biodynamic vineyard, where all the forces of nature seem to converge on this land free from chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Nutrients are pulled into the vine from herbal compounds packed into cow horns and buried deep in the furrows and beans and tomatoes grown between vines are not eaten but dug back into the ground to add goodness.

Everything stays in the ground here, which could also be true of the wider area. If you go to Barga, part of you will never really leave.

FACT FILE

Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa, Via Giovanni Pascoli, Castelvecchio Pascoli, 55051 Barga LU, Italy.

Rooms from €274 a night for a double classic, including breakfast. www.renaissancetuscany.com