Tuscan Excursions 13, Castello

Many visitors to Castello arrive by air and hire a car. This is an easy route whether you choose to fly to Pisa, which is less than 45 minutes drive from Castello, or Florence, which is a few minutes further away.

A second option is to drive from the U.K. There are many alternative routes, and we can advise if you wish. It is a journey of some 900 miles from Calais. Once arrived in Castello we find it hard to drag ourselves away - because it is quite simply the perfect place to be! But in fact it is also the perfect place from which to make a great variety of expeditions. Whether you are an art or an opera lover, a hiker or a stroller, a history buff or a devotee of cafe life, a shopper or a gourmet: there are ideal trips awaiting your particular enthusiasm.

Starting with the closest to home, without even getting into your car, there are several easy and rewarding walks around the valley, ranging from a gentle stroll in the evening to a longer ramble taking in the pretty villages you can see from the terrazza. Take such an excursion on a Sunday and you will be rewarded with the discovery of an al fresco restaurant where Italian families love to while away an afternoon. Why not join them? The extensive and helpful 'House Notes' describe this and a number of other delightful routes.

For serious walkers, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana is the centre for hiking high in the Apuan Alps and is only 40 minutes drive away. There you can buy maps and guides to the National Park and follow some way-marked trails.

You have already seen how close Castello is to the world famous art treasures of Florence and Pisa but, much nearer at hand, Lucca is a gem often overlooked by tourists - happily for the locals! The fine walls , which encircle the old city were built in the 16th century, at a time when the cities of the Italian peninsula were at war with one another. Nearly four kilometres long and very broad, the top of the walls was planted with trees by Napoleon's widow, the Duchess Marie Louise, in the 1830's, creating for the Lucchesi a circular boulevard along which young and old alike stroll, jog, cycle or just look at the view. Bicycles are for hire at £1.50 per hour and nothing is more pleasant than a circuit before that pre dinner drink. The gentility of this experience, with views of the churches and roofs of Lucca within and the timeless hills without, should be followed by a 'passegiata' along the Via Filungo where Italians congregate in the evenings to socialise and window shop in the stylish Art Nouveau designed and decorated shops. Perhaps an aperitif at Puccini's favourite café (he was a boy chorister in Lucca and learnt to play the organ here), or at a table in front of the magnificent façade of the church of San Michele which converted Ruskin to a love of Renaissance architecture. Enjoy dinner in one of the many fine restaurants and return through the night, up among the stars to your house at Castello, and a grappa and coffee on the terrace.

Driving north up the Serchio valley, away from Lucca, you arrive at the picturesque medieval town of Barga, where there is a renowned opera festival every July and August. A few kilometres to the east lie the elegant villas of the Lucchese which, with their gracious formal gardens, are open to visitors. Nearby is the famous spa town of Bagni di Lucca, and higher up in the Appenine range to the north the ski resort of Abetone.

Only half an hour's drive to the west of Castello is the Mediterranean and the fashionable beaches of Viareggio. Immediately south of it is Torre del Lago where Puccini lived and wrote. He is buried here, at his home which is now a museum. His operas are performed every August on a floating stage just yards from the room where they were conceived, beside the lake where the composer loved to shoot coots!

Also well within day trip distance are San Gimignano where every citizen who had the money built himself a tower – of which 15 remain, and Volterra, the home of alabaster. Or you might like to take a drive through the Chianti region beloved by Elizabeth and Robert Browning and visit Siena.

After so much activity and culture, there is the wonderful Italian food – and plenty of excellent restaurants very close to Castello. We much enjoy continually updating our book of restaurant notes which you will find in the house along with the House Notes, and always welcome your new discoveries. You can choose an open air woodland eating house, or maybe visit the tiny village of Celle dei Puccini where an extraordinary restaurant nestles next to the house where the composer's forbears lived. This is now a tiny museum, and the restaurant itself contains many memorabilia of the great man. You have to book, and the lady who cooks only does so at weekends, but the gastronomic experience is one you will not forget!

For those who still have the energy it is not far by train or car to Rome, The Lakes, Umbria, Venice... The only problem with such more distant plans is the difficulty of tearing yourself away from the richness and diversity of your immediate surroundings. The choice is yours, and there is much for every taste and inclination. Of one thing you can be certain: it would be a strange visitor indeed who cannot find peace, stimulation and much pleasure from a stay in Castello and – like us – most find themselves returning for more.

[The above text can be downloaded as a printable .doc file here]

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