From My Tuscan Window

Visiting Gioviano
When tired, some people have the good fortune of being able to flop down anywhere under any circumstances and be happy. I envy those flexible souls just as I envy people who can squeeze themselves into “sardine class” for a ten-hour flight hemmed in between two or more other “sardines” with their knees up to their chins, sleeping like babies, never having to pee or stretch or care. In his days of traveling, my father was one of those people who was very happy if the hotel room was cheap regardless of quality and very unhappy if he perceived the cost to be too much-- which for many years was $5.00 for a family of five. It took me and my mother years of effort to get him to turn loose of an extra dime if that meant the difference of not having to settle for a hammock for a mattress, a one-inch thick pillow, and a view of the wall of an adjoining factory. We preferred more luxurious accommodation with fabulous views from the balcony which were oftentimes available for just a little extra money. The straw that broke the camel’s back and forced his reform was the night many years ago that he was so delighted to have found a room for our entire family for only $3.00. In fact, the room had many beds in it, more than we needed. About midnight, the extra beds began to fill up with some rather unsavory characters. That’s when my mother put her foot down, which she thought would be once and for all, but which actually wasn’t -- but that’s another story. Below, I am going to list some places to stay that I hope will meet with your satisfaction. There are no guarantees in life, and I am not about to guarantee that you will find any of the listed accommodations to your liking. For one thing, sometimes there are management changes. Sometimes prices are raised to unreasonable levels. Sometimes, you may find yourself given a room that is the one room that doesn’t have a view. I would appreciate your comments so that they can be posted at I am hoping however, that your stay in any of the listed establishments will be unforgettable in a positive way. Also, I must add, there are probably dozens of nearby accommodations that are equal to or finer than those listed that I am unaware of, so please feel free to stop at any place that suits your fancy. If the experience is wonderful, please let me know, and we can add it and the associated albergo (hotel/ inn) to the web site.

Some suggestions for your first visit to the Garfagnana and the Media Valle del Serchio:

1. Don’t lock yourself into a one week or more minimum stay at a “holiday house,” villa, or any other place that requires that you stay for longer than overnight on your first trip. By staying in a hotel or albergo you can then explore the countryside and visit some of the longer-term accommodations in the area to decide which one would offer the most delightful and relaxing stay. For example, let us say that you sent a deposit in for a two-week stay in a beautiful ancient farmhouse with a swimming pool only to find that it was “immerso nel verde” (immersed in greenery), without a view and that it took 30 minutes on a dangerous one-lane dirt mule trail to get to the closest grocery store, restaurant or gas station. You would be a sad puppy indeed. This is an adventure right out of my Tuscan window to make the above point come to life: For years I have sat by my window reading and staring out at the great beauty before my eyes. Just across the valley at my eye level is a house that has been restored as a “holiday house.” With its swimming pool and obviously beautiful view right into our bedroom, I thought it must be the perfect place to recommend to persons wishing to stay near Gioviano. Yesterday (June 14, 2006), while working on the “Where to Stay” section of this book, Sue and I decided to try to find the house opposite us and ask the persons staying there how to make reservations. I knew it was currently occupied because with my binoculars I could see a small car parked in front, and occasionally people would be walking about. The only road that goes up that particular mountain begins in the heart of Calavorno. There were many signs pointing toward the little road from the main highway, so we turned in. Within a short distance, we were beginning to feel a little anxiety attack coming on because just in front of us was the high -arched and very narrow 14th-century bridge that had been built so that mules could take merchandise across the little stream that empties into the Serchio. Little did we know that heavy modern automobiles were expected to cross a 700 year-old mule bridge. It was too late to turn back, and it would have been impossible to turn around anyway, so up to the top of the bridge we went. We were unable to see the other side since the car was pointing up toward the heavens and the bridge at that point wanted to go down to the opposite bank. So I gritted my teeth and proceeded into the unknown. Unfortunately, due to the length of our stay, with our video cameras, tripods, and sometimes extra passengers, we are forced to drive a minivan, in this case a Peugeot 606 which was just about the same width as the bridge. It turned out just a short distance later that the van was almost the same width of the one-lane paved mule path with its two-way traffic and precipitous drop-offs to the valley floor farther and farther below. There seemed to be a zillion marked and unmarked dirt paths big enough for a golf cart, mule, donkey, bicycle, or tiny car but not for an extra-wide minivan. I was able to pull over far enough for other vehicles to pass in a couple of places and walked up the dirt paths seeking the “holiday house”, but to no avail. This road is not on any map, except the 1:25,000 scale “Carta dei Sentieri e Rifugi” of the “Appennino Toscoemiliano”, which is the map used by hikers to find their way along various mule and cow trails. This very large-scale map shows both mule trails and cattle trails with cattle trails being wider than mule trails. The road we were on we discovered later, was shown to be a mule trail. According to the map, it wasn’t even wide enough for cows! In any event, up and up we went praying that either the road did not get any narrower, in that case, we would have to inch backwards down the mountain to a place that might be wide enough to turn around or else just decide to die and be buried right there. Eventually, we saw a village in the distance, and I guessed from our road map that it must be Vitiana which is hidden from view from my window by the hill that creates the Gola di Calavorno and upon which Terzone lies. I inched toward the village hoping that it would immediately connect to the carrozabile (road for automobiles) that would lead back down the mountain under more ideal and less frightening conditions. The last thing one wants to do is to get stuck between walls in which case, if it is impossible to back out which sometimes happens, then it is also impossible to open the doors or windows of the car in order to escape. Not knowing what to expect ahead, I found a tiny place to pull over about 200 yards from the village and walked to a place where the road went between two large stone houses. I walked between the houses with my arms spread out, including the place where a step invaded the roadway (mule path), and returned to the car where I stood at the back with my arms spread out while Sue eyeballed from the front to see if she could see my hands. We determined that if we pulled the side mirrors in, we should be able to pass between the buildings. Just as we got to the buildings, a tiny car whizzed through in the opposite direction. Fortunately, a steep sidewalk into the village was located on our side of the mule trail and the little car was able to pull onto the sidewalk far enough to let us pass into the creepy passage. At the point where the step encroached we had maybe two inches on each side of the car. What a relief to make it through! We thought that we were home free but that wasn’t to be the case. The only way to get to the real road on the other side of the village was to drive through the village. We thought that we had reached civilization when we came to a piazza with several (tiny) cars parked in it. I thought that I saw the exit that would lead out to the main road, but the road’s wideth went from being as wide as our car, to being about three feet narrower than our car. (I have learned the hard way to always walk unknown scary territory by foot before proceeding in a vehicle. One time during our Army years in Italy, we had to enlist the aid of several townspeople to lift our long VW bus up and over a church step so that we could leave the village.) Back to Vitiana: Another tiny opening seemed even narrower at its entrance. I thought that we might have to turn back and retrace our route all the way back down the mountain on the virtual mule path. I asked an elderly gentleman how cars exit the square, and he pointed to the narrow opening. I inspected it and walked it, but the really frightening thing is that it wasn’t a straight shot but curved. With the help of two men and Sue, with the mirrors laid back, we inched our way through the gap between the walls. We had no more than one inch to spare on either side of the vehicle. Last year we had had an even more harrowing experience attempting to get to Lucignana, the little village with the flickering lights that help put me to sleep at night, since it is the only village that I can see while lying in bed. The story was the same as above except that the mule trail that we found ourselves on was even scarier. After seeing a sign indicating that there was a pizzeria nearby, we turned onto a road that kept getting narrower and narrower, with sheer drop offs of about 300 feet on one side. Since the road curved, backing up would have been a disaster as we were hugging a rock wall on the left side of the car, and there were no more than a couple of inches on the precipice side. Anne got out of the car and helped us inch along standing in front of the vehicle and walking backwards, making sure that she didn’t tumble off the mountain if the road turned, until we reached the village. At this point, the road was blocked with construction material that had to be moved before we could proceed back to civilization.
From now on, I have resolved to just enjoy the view from my bed and window-side couch from afar and allow the mules to repossess their ancient trails without me usurping them in a far-too-large internal combustion vehicle. Actually, mules are as scarce as hens’ teeth in the modern age. I believe that my father ate the last one some years back when he spotted “assino arrosto” (roast donkey) on the menu and ordered it. That old man will eat anything that doesn’t eat him first.

A strange convergence related to the above story (June 16, 2006): After visiting Pian di Fiume, described in the “Places to Stay” chapter, we returned to Gioviano only to find a carload of Englishmen and women trudging up the hill into the town. As usual, I put on my act in Italian which they didn’t understand, and then I asked them if they understood Texan in my most ridiculous Texas accent. It turned out that they were the people renting the mystery “holiday house” directly across from my bedroom window. They had come to Gioviano to search out the “monastery” that they were told that they looked onto from their window. I said, “You have found the monk, because what you were told was the monastery is actually Casa Rosina”. After giving them a tour of Palazzo Margherita, I read them the story of our adventure of just two days before in which we attempted to find them and their holiday house. They told us of a shortcut that avoids the medieval bridge and invited us up to see them--an invitation that I respectfully declined.

2. Always ask for a room “con la piu bella veduta” (with the most beautiful view), and if you spy a loggia or terrazza ask for that room, especially if accompanied by a beautiful view. If you just take any random room without having seen it, you may feel very sorry for yourself. As an example, the Hotel Corona in Bagni di Lucca has rooms that face a busy highway on one side and rooms that overlook a beautiful stretch of the Lima River on the other. If you don’t ask, you might find yourself listening to cars and trucks pass all night rather than to the relaxing sound of the water as it passes over a series of rapids just below the rooms on the river side.

3. Travel as lightly and in as small a vehicle as possible that still offers comfort and enough room for your luggage. The dilemma is that if traveling with more than yourself and one companion you will almost have to have a vehicle that is really too big for the primitive and extremely narrow roads into the mountain fastnesses and remote villages.

4. Be flexible. Don’t lock yourself into a schedule that will insure that you will be so worn out that you won’t enjoy your adventure. You can’t see everything within five miles of Gioviano in one trip and certainly not everything in the circles I have drawn on the map of Tuscany with various radiuses, out to a maximum 50 miles from Gioviano. This includes Lucca, San Gimignano, Florence, Bologna, Pisa, Livorno, La Spezia, the Cinque Terre, Modena, Prato, and Pistoia. There are many villages that I can see either from my bedroom window in Casa Rosina or from the loggias of the Palazzo that we have never been to in over thirty years of exploring the countryside. So, take it easy and just enjoy yourselves, allowing each day to unfold as if it had a will of its own. When we wake up each morning, we ask each other what we should do and usually end up doing the equivalent of chasing a butterfly.

5. If you are thinking about buying a house, take your time. It took us nearly three years of searching before we found Casa Giorgio. Of course, if you have done your homework and the perfect dream house pops up as the first house you see that is for sale for the right price, grab it, because it might be gone tomorrow. I will offer more on house hunting in another section.

Revised March 3, 2008
Copyright 2005-2006 George H. Russell
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