When Dana, the owner of Inspired in Tuscany, first pitched the idea of a creative retreat to me, she sent along some pictures of Tuscany to woo me to that beautiful little corner of the world that seems stuck in time. I honestly thought the pictures were stock photos from a travel website. Truly. They were just too beautiful to be believed. But, I came to see with my own eyes that she sent me legitimate pictures (that she took herself ) of the actual town where we were going to stay and find rest and inspiration – Barga.
It’s a place that is so perfect in its quintessential Tuscan look and quaintness that it smells of a corner of Disney’s Epcot Center or a movie set. But it’s not. It’s a real town nestled in the rolling mountains on the upper west side of Italy’s boot.
It’s a place with a town square that bustles late at night with children playing soccer and riding bikes while adults casually supervise and engage in conversation on the surrounding benches.
It’s a place where you can purchase a gelato for €1 from an Italian girl who speaks English with a Scottish accent.
The narrow streets are populated with couples who were probably born, raised, and married in Barga and now walk the steep hills slowly with canes or by leaning on each other.
In contrast, the young and strong carry loads and walk at an impossibly fast pace on the inclines. One young teenage boy effortlessly ran past us once as we were inching breathlessly down a steep alley. Show off, punk.
The buildings, that look so magical to us are just their homes, businesses, and schools. And, just as we do, they plant flowers and sweep the steps and bolster the charm even further.
The vibrant paint colors change in the varrying light that is cast on them. They look pale under a gray, overcast sky, dappled under the mid-day sun, and almost glow as the warm light of the golden hour creeps across their walls.
As you climb up the hill toward the oldest part of the city, you are treated to glimpses into the maze contained within the ancient walls that once fortified the city during feuds that were common between towns in this region.
An aqueduct, built in the 15th century, still stands, spanning a small dale.
A phone booth, obsolete even in a medieval town, was turned into a small library that is frequented by locals.
On a sloped street leading up to the arched entrance to Barga, there sits an apricot-colored hardware store with striped awnings. Handmade baskets and ceramic address numbers invite visitors and locals alike to have a closer look inside to see what other tempting goods might be for sale.
The arched gate to the city stands, impossibly old. An Italian flag is perched where a torch was once held to light the entrance. The coat of arms for the city is set in stone at the apex of the arch. I wonder how many young men spent hours leaning on those small, stone window frames, watching for danger.
Now, only an orange tabby stands sentry on a stack of newspapers.
One look down the narrow streets of Barga and you understand why Italian cars are so small. (And yes, they drive on these streets! There are actually places where the stone in some walls has been chipped away to accommodate the side mirrors on cars!)
Within the walls, that are as old as the 9th century, there are homes and restaurants, art galleries, theaters, and an opera house…
There are secret passageways…
There are delightful views around each corner – stone steps sagging with age…
…patriotism displayed through flags that flutter in the breezes trapped between the buildings…
…and a cat taking a lengthy and very public bath in the middle of the street.
And, joining all of the snaking alleys and corridors…
…are the piazzas. The claustrophobic building walls part and the sun streams into the open courtyards.
Most of them are populated with restaurants and cafes.
They are run by stereotypical Italian men with handlebar mustaches and plaid vests, who act like they are grumpy, but then insist on getting a kiss from all of the women.
They are run by mother/daughter teams who spend each day baking bread and rolling out pasta to cut, cook, and serve for dinner each night.
And, if you are fortunate enough to enter a building and look out a window, you see the more intimate side of the residents of Barga. Laundry strung from window to window, hanging out to dry and women leaning out to check on them.
Planter gardens and tables set for alfresco dining are situated on small, rooftop decks, with just an umbrella or awning for privacy.
And you are treated to views of the mountains and the expanse of sky that meets them over the crumbling terracotta tile rooftops.
Paris was grand, with all of its museums, stately buildings, ornate bridges and an ambience created by a old city that offers it all. In contrast, Barga was a little jewel box. A sleepy town with delightful secrets that can only be discovered if you open the lid and see it from the right angles or in the best light.
Paris wows you in the big moments, Barga quietly captivates in the small.