Barga

On a perfect sunny spring day, we drove to the medieval walled town of Barga, an easy 45 minute drive from Lucca. We had learned it was easier to park outside these ancient towns and walk in rather than risk inadvertently driving into a pedestrian zone or the wrong way down a one way street. Crossing the bridge, we passed Parco Fratelli Kennedy, named in honour of American President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, both of whom were assassinated.

1.Parco Kennedy

The old stone aqueduct was built in the 15th century to supply clean water for the fountains and crosses the original moat of the old village.

1a.aqueduct Parco Kennedy

Narrow streets and steep steps hinted at what was to come once we were inside the walls.

Beautiful buildings lined the main thoroughfare

4.beautiful building

as we made our way to Porta Reale, one of the three gates in the medieval city walls. Below the observation tower, the gate still displays the ancient coat of arms of the city.

5.Porta Reale

The layout of the town has remained virtually unchanged since the 8th century, buildings at impossible angles hug narrow lanes, mysterious alleyways and stone steps.

We set off through the web of streets with no real destination in mind, happy to amble randomly in the sunshine. An interesting sculpture caught our eye

10.sculpture

outside the Teatro dei Differenti, Barga’s main theatre. Constructed in 1668 it was deemed too small at the end of the 18th century, a new structure was built on top of the old one.

11.Teatro dei Differenti

Along with the theatre, the adjacent buildings have been beautifully restored.

We decided to head to the highest point in the town once we spotted the bell tower of the Duomo di San Cristoforo.

14.Duomo di San Cristoforo

Our quest took us past the immaculate garden of the Palazzo Salvi,

15.Palazzo Salvi16.Giardino di Palazzo Salvi

less opulent but equally interesting plots

17.garden

and the myriad doorways we had come to expect.

We finally reached the cathedral, a spectacular edifice that I will need to cover in a separate post.

30.Duomo di San Cristoforo

The views across the rooftops to the Apuan Alps and the shrouded peak of Pania della Croce were stunning.

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33a.view

Tearing ourselves away, we meandered back to town in search of sustenance, discovering a memorial garden in Piazza Garibaldi, adjacent to the Museum of Memory. A large sculpture entitled La Vedette (in military terms meaning the forward observer) was unveiled in 2009 on the 4th November, a day celebrated in Italy as the anniversary of the end of  World War I.

We reached Piazza Angelio at lunch time, a popular place in summer for exhibitions and entertainment. The particular shape and almost perfect acoustics of the piazza make an ideal setting for international festivals such as “Opera Barga” and “Barga Jazz”.

16th century poet Pietro Angeli, nicknamed Bargeo, watches over the piazza from the corner of Palazzo Angeli.

The offerings on the blackboard at L’Osteria enticed us in, we weren’t disappointed.

41.L'Osteria

With much of the town still to see, we continued our wanderings in a different direction.

45.narrow street

Colourful homes lined the street

48.colourful houses

and some clung precariously to the edge of the cliff.

49.fabulous homes

All had magnificent views of neighbouring hilltop towns and verdant countryside.

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The aqueduct and Kennedy Park were behind us

52.aqueduct

as the outskirts of town stretched in front.

53.Villa Buenos Aires

The 17th century Chiesa di San Felice, was quite small and understated when compared to others we had seen on our travels.

54.Chiesa di San Felice55.Chiesa di San Felice

Outside the church was this memorial plaque, apparently dedicated to a Scotsman with an Italian name. It seems Barga has a strong connection to Scotland, with many residents emigrating there in the 19th century in search of work when industry in Tuscany suffered a decline. They won the Scots over with their gelato making skills and, coupled with a knack for cooking fish and chips, made great success out of their cafés and restaurants. Over the generations, some returned to Barga and now sixty percent of the town’s 10,000 residents have Scottish relations. The annual Festival of Fish and Chips, Sagra del Pesce e Patate, celebrates this connection for three weeks each July/August. I can’t find any clues as to the life of Mario Moscardini but I assume he made a considerable contribution to Barga.

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Working our way along Via di Mezzo, we found an interesting little face peering out from the wall of a restaurant. It is known as a scacciaguai, a folk magic figure that protects from trouble and harm. Hopefully, the charm has worked for the restaurant of the same name.

62.scacciaguai

Three doors along, we paid a visit to Casa Cordati, a 17th century palazzo that was once the studio of local artist Bruno Cordati.

63.Casa Cordati

It is now owned by his grandson, Giordano, and offers rather sumptuous accommodation as well as an extensive gallery on the first floor. The rooms on this floor have been preserved as they were during Bruno Cordati’s creative years, the views were nothing short of inspirational.

Our exploration of this magical town had come to an end as we reached the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata and the 16th century church of the same name. The 19th century façade was badly damaged by artillery shells in World War II and was later restored.

72.Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

There was only one thing left to do to make the day complete.

73.gelati

angels and martyrs

If I hadn’t been told about this amazing church by a work colleague before leaving for Italy, I’m sure we would have missed it. The façade is somewhat disguised amidst the opulence of the Piazza della Repubblica.

1.facade

The Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs) was built in part of the remains of the Baths of Diocletian, the largest public baths in ancient Rome.

2.facade

It absolutely boggles me that this massive structure was completed in the year 306. It took them seven years but where is that talent and temerity in this technological age? I digress! The siege of Rome brought an end to the baths in 537 when the water supply from the aqueducts was cut off. A priest, wandering through the ruins in 1541, had a vision of angels which Pope Pius IV interpreted as a message from God. He thus ordered the building of the church on the site, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the angels and the Christians who died during the construction of the baths. The old wooden doors were replaced in 2006 with a very impressive bronze pair by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj. The right hand one depicts the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, while a risen Christ emerges from the left hand door.

In 1563, Michelangelo was commissioned to design the church but, unfortunately, he died the following year and the work was completed by his student, Jacopo Lo Duca. Stepping through the doors, the sheer magnitude and beauty of the interior was breathtaking.

5.transept

There was so much to take in, around as well as above.

6.dome

The dome originally had an opening in the top to allow rain to fall into the bath waters below but is now filled with a fabulous work of stained glass by Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata.

8.Light and Time

The church is built in the shape of a cross, a magnificent altar at the end of each section.

9.altar10.altar

One of these is the Chapel of St. Bruno,

11.Chapel of St Bruno

the left hand wall filled with a spectacular cherry, walnut and chestnut organ built by Bartélémy Formentelli. Inaugurated in the year 2000, the organ has 5,400 hand-made pipes and is often used for concerts.

12.organ

I can imagine listening to the incredible sounds while slowly dissolving into the ceiling.

13.ceiling Chapel of St Bruno

There was so much to absorb, from stunning stained glass windows

to statues, frescoes, ceilings and the 3D design of the marble floor.

23.marble floor

Following directions to the sacristy, we passed through a room with exhibits displaying the history of the baths before entering a tranquil courtyard. We were greeted by an imposing bronze statue of Galileo Galilei, a gift from China designed by Professor Tsung Dao Lee, winner of the 1957 Nobel prize in Physics.

24.Galileo Galilei

On completion of the church, it was given to the Carthusian monks who built a monastery next door. It is thought that this courtyard may have been the garden and the back of their cells.

We were very happy to avoid the crowds and queues at the more well-known sites in Rome, very few tourists seem to be aware of Santa Maria degli Angeli.

Avon amble

Having explored Shakespeare’s birthplace and home town, it was only right we would visit his place of rest. On the banks of the River Avon, Holy Trinity Church is the oldest building in Stratford. Dating back to 1210, much rebuilding was undertaken between 1465 and 1491. The original wooden spire was replaced in 1763.

1.Holy Trinity Church

There were many fascinating gravestones, these two seemed to be connected in some way.

2.gravestones

I could find no information about Catharine Gill who died in 1868 at the age of 71 (on the right of the photo). However, I found that Abigail Insall, (on the left), who was buried in 1869 at 80 years of age, had lived in this gorgeous semi-detched early Georgian Town House at 4 Tyler Street. I liberated this photo from Google maps.

3.4 Tyler Street

The interior of the church was breathtaking

4.the nave and font

with several huge stained glass windows.

5.stained glass windows

William Shakespeare was buried in 1616 in the chancel alongside other members of his family.

6.the chancel

During services, priests had to stand, which was particularly hard on the older ones. Small hinged seats, called misericords, were installed in the 15th century so the priests could rest, yet appear to be standing up. There are 26 of these misericords and each one has three carvings on the underside, only visible when the seat is folded up. There are no religious scenes but an interesting array of bawdy, theatrical faces – a reminder of the devil’s presence and his search for wayward souls.

7.carvings on misericord seats

The impressive pipe organ dates from 1841 and has undergone several restorations.

8.the organ

Leaving the church, we wandered along the banks of the River Avon enjoying a different perspective of Holy Trinity along the way.

9.Holy Trinity Church10.Holy Trinity Church

The magnificent stained glass window in the chancel was more subdued from the outside.

11.Holy Trinity Church from the east

Autumn leaves littered the path

12.River Walk

and the geese were out for an afternoon walk.

The Tramway Bridge was built in 1822 to carry the horse tramway and is now a footbridge across the river.

15.Tramway Bridge

100 metres to the east, road traffic crosses the river via Clopton Bridge. Built in the 15th century to replace an earlier timber bridge, the reflections from the 14 pointed arches on a clear day would be amazing.

16.Clopton Bridge

Sant’ Antimo Abbey

Leaving Asciano, we weaved our way through the beautiful Tuscan countryside to Sant’ Antimo Abbey, not far from Montalcino.

1-sant-antimo-abbey

The Benedictine monastery dates back to the Middle Ages and the abbey was completed in 1260.

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I love the solitary cypress next to the bell tower.

3-cypress

The landscape of olive trees, vineyards, fields and cypress was an artist’s dream

4-artist

and the town of Castelnuovo Dell’ Abate stood guard over the abbey.

5-castelnuovo-dell-abate

We wandered around the grounds of the monastery

6-monastery-garden7-monastery-garden8-garden

before entering the abbey to observe the prayers and chanting of the monks.

11-entrance

We were awed by the light streaming in, accentuating the 13th century wooden crucifix behind the altar.

12-sant-antimo-nave

The interior was stunning, the alabaster walls reflected the light

and there was so much detail wherever we looked.

The capitals had intricate carvings,

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the most impressive depicted Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

22-capital-with-daniel-in-the-lions-den

The abbey was known for its Gregorian chanting and the monks started at exactly the scheduled time of 12.45pm. Words can’t describe our ethereal experience, surrounded by those exquisite voices with the Tuscan countryside offering a tranquil portrait in the window frame.

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Returning to reality, we spent some time admiring the architecture of the exterior

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and found more intricate carvings of animals and humans.

One last look at the spectacular surroundings

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and we headed for our next destination, Montalcino.

Cortona

I have wanted to visit Cortona for as long as I can remember, even before “Under the Tuscan Sun” made it popular. An ancient Etruscan city, dating back to 600BC it was every bit as magical as I expected. Only a 10 minute drive from Il Castagno, we parked outside the city walls and strolled through the beautiful narrow streets

1-cortona

lined with every shop imaginable.

Michael even bought a pair of shoes!

12-shoe-shop

Somewhere along the way, we caught a glimpse of the cloister of Santo Agostino convent.

13-cloister-of-santo-agostino-convent

Our wandering led to Piazza Garibaldi with an obelisk dedicated to Guiseppe Garibaldi and a commemorative monument to Leonardo di Vinci.

We were lured to lunch at Ristorante Tonino by the breathtaking view.

16-val-di-chiana

Unfortunately, the menu catered for tourists rather than those wishing to experience a traditional Tuscan meal.

After lunch, we walked through the Parterre Gardens, past the Monument to the Dead of World War I,

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a beautiful fountain,

and what appeared to be an amphitheatre.

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There is a marble sculpture, the Dove of Peace, by John D Kehoe who, in 1970, founded an international art study program in Cortona.

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Just past the magnificent San Domenico Campanile

we found ourselves on a tranquil tree-lined path.

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We attempted to find Bramasole, the villa renovated by Frances Mayes in “Under the Tuscan Sun”. We either didn’t walk far enough or we took the wrong turn, sadly, we never found it. Instead, we headed for the highest point in Cortona.

27-cortona

It was a very hot spring day and after a heavy lunch and a vino or two, it was a bit of a challenge.

Stopping to catch our breath now and then, the sights were rewarding.

The further we got, the more determined we were to make it

and finally, we reached Fortezza di Girifalco.

37-fortezza-del-girifalco

We took our time exploring the well preserved ruins of the 16th century fortress.

The panorama over the rooftop of the 14th century Convent of Santa Margherita

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across the Val di Chiana and Lake Trasimeno was spectacular.

50-val-di-chiana51-lake-trasimeno

There would be some fascinating stories in the old walled cemetery.

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The Basilica Santa Margherita was built following the death of the patron saint of Cortona in 1297.

53-basilica-di-santa-margherita

The return walk to town was an easy stroll, I couldn’t resist the intriguing doorways once again.

After a short visit to the Chiesa di San Francesco, built in 1245,

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we enjoyed well earned gelati before returning to our gorgeous villa to sit with a vino and reflect on our wonderful day.

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