Grifoglia: A Slice of Peace in the Tuscan Mountains
By Max Hartshorne
I needed a break. I devour three or four newspapers a day, am constantly on my computer viewing the latest news bulletins, and often click on ABC News to get quick jolts of televised news clips on my computer screen.
A perfect candidate for a media fast, a complete news blackout would eliminate all of my day-to-day knowledge of what’s going on in the world for a mere week.
Luckily, I found Grifoglia, a farm B&B nestled around a series of curvy roads just past the town of Barga in the mountains of Tuscany.
There was no TV. No internet. No cellphone service to speak of. Just a scratchy little radio that didn’t pick up more than a wisp of a signal for Armed Forces Radio.
Plus they have a giant garden full of vegetables, a clear pool, and in the distance, roosters crowed and sheep tinkled their bells on hillsides and the mountain views were soothing.
In short, this was a place where you could truly escape the madness and if you survive the blind curves with the thousand-foot drops, live to tell about it.
Driving from Pisa
We drove out of Pisa on the autostrada toward Florence, after picking up our friends Howard and Meryl at the train station. The car was an Alfa Romeo, a sexy-looking wagon that sits low to the ground. It starts with a button and has six forward gears.
As it was getting late, we all were hungry. But it’s a bad time to get hungry in this part of Italy, as at 3:30 on a Saturday, there is almost nothing open. We stopped by a few ristorantes, to no avail, walked the cobbled streets by a rushing river, and eventually settled for a few sparse panini and some cokes in a roadside cafe.
Winding Mountain Road to Barga
We wound up and around a mountain, over narrow, curvy roads that arched around corners and left us no room for error, and up, up, up we went.
We met another car and they cheerfully backed up, we struggled to keep the car in gear and going the right direction and lurched ahead, and zoomed around more sharp curves.
Just as we thought we were lost, we saw a young boy and a man tending a garden. We were there!
Pietro Messina, at 60 hale and hearty, picked a basket of vegetables for us from the large garden. Sweet corn, lucca beans, ripe tomatoes, carrots, onions, eggplants and plenty of herbs like basil and oregano. Combined with some Tuscan pasta and a quick homemade sauce of tomatoes and onions, we had a meal by 9 pm or so. It was simple and delicious.
After dinner, we sat out on the patio. The stars were bright and the only sounds were a rushing stream and crickets chirping their last of summer. It was time for bed, and it had been a good day portending a great week ahead.
The grounds of Grifoglia are gorgeous, set on a terraced hillside, in a long mountain valley. Across the other side is a hunter’s house with barking dogs in the distance and the sound of crowing roosters all morning. Wisps of smoke emanate from distant cabins, you can see for tens of miles and the green of the mountainsides gives way in the far distance to rocky faces.
There is a well-tended garden that Pietro manages skillfully; he has his many varieties of tomatoes spiked up, and even a stand of American corn which they eat on the cob.
In all of Europe, this vegetable is disdained, as corn is considered animal food. But Kerry’s American roots show and they had the seeds sent over to grow their hearty little gaggle of corn plants.
They also have eggplants, lucca beans, onions, basil, oregano, tomatoes (a variety with stripes on the sides, not the smooth sides we’re used to) and other crops. Pietro uses a giant, scary-looking pressure cooker to can dozens of containers of tomato sauce each fall.
Solar panels and composting make this an eco-friendly lodging. The property also has a consecrated chapel that was recently restored by Kerry and Pietro. Once a year the priest holds a service there, and guests can even be married.
There is no TV or radio at Grifoglia, but that doesn’t stop a stream of guests from reserving week after week here. During our visit, there was another couple in the back studio apartment. They were both lawyers from Scotland, and pale as snow. As soon as they sat down by the pool, you could tell that the Tuscan sun would be roasting their fair skin.
Kerry has been renting Grifoglia since they brought it back from nearly dead six years ago. We got a chance to see the before and after photos and like so many of these properties, this was a long labor of love that involved a lot of masonry and roofing.
Thankfully, Pietro is a mason which is a good thing since that is how all of the houses here are built, with two-foot thick walls and solid tile floors.
Kerry designs dresses and once did it full-time in the US. Now she occasionally designs dresses for guests. She’s also a writer and has published articles about the town of Barga in several magazines and on-line publications.
Pietro has a background as a maitre’d. He worked in Montreal in a grand hotel and they lived in Switzerland for seven years before making Barga their full-time home. He’s a man of many talents, equally as versed in pizza making as gardening and building. He advised us as we watched him make his pizzas not to put too many ingredients on the pies, that a few of this a little of that was the way to make a perfect pie.
Then they were shoveled into the 400-degree pizza oven, along with a few thin pieces of chestnut wood, to make a flame. The pizzas were cooked in less than five minutes, and brought out with a flourish by Pietro, and served by Johnny, their eight-year-old who speaks an amazing three languages easily. English, like his parents, Italian, like his schoolmates, and German, which he picked up from watching satellite TV at the house.
Walking to Coreglia
One day we decided to take a long walk to the town on the other side of the valley, Coreglia. It was a marvelous day, perfect temperature of early fall, and the winding road took us up the side of the mountainside along farms with barking dogs behind fences and long stacks of piled-up firewood. After about three miles we reached the small hillside town of Coreglia, which like Barga is piled on top of steep hillsides and consists mostly of narrow vicolos, or alleys.
The narrow streets were barely wide enough to allow a car to pass, so the sparse traffic consisted of three-wheel scooter trucks and motorcycles. We wandered around and found a second-floor ristorante, Pensione L’Arcile.
The empty dining area was a terrace surrounded by plants and flowers, that blocked the view of the street below. The floor was wide tiles, and soon we were munching on bread.
A few of us had pasta, ravioli filled with sage and ricotta, and others wide flat pasta with rabbit sauce. A Caprese, fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, with the cheese inserted into a whole sliced tomato, was a nice side dish with the hearty pasta.
While we passed up the secondo, or meat course, we were full from the hearty portions and then started our walk back to Grifoglia. The sun was still shining and it felt great to stretch our legs and the walk went faster since it was nearly all downhill.
After napping we sat by the pool and read our books, something I don’t ever get enough time to do when I am home. Hours of reading, listening to music on the iPod, and snoozing made this a relaxing day.
We had time on our hands, the way you only do when you’re on vacation. It was a glorious time to spend time doing very little. We lounged around, played cards, I taught my friends how to play bridge, we read our books, we fiddled on the computer.
It was lovely not having any responsibilities and just bask in this space and time with no responsibilities. It’s really what vacations are meant to be.
The Scots Love It
David and Karen have returned to Grifoglia for the second year, they are lawyers who live outside the city. There is a connection between Barga and the northern country. Many Scots married women from this region and they travel back and forth.
I visited with the couple in their cozy little cabin on the property and asked them what drew them to this remote place here in the north of Tuscany.
David and Karen sat by the pool, two pale ghosts covered in hats, sunglasses and beneath the umbrella, came in June last year. A bit warmer, they stayed in the same place. “Only holiday that we don’t do anything. We always do something, it’s restful. We get two papers a day,” they said. Like me they enjoy a media fast every so often.
It’s nice to just take a break away from it. Life’s so fast-paced, you can still keep in touch (he checked the football scores using his mobile once). Twenty-something lawyers who work 13-14 hours a day, relish the chance to unplug. “Would you come here again?” yes they would.
There wasn’t a chance they would be leaving; they settle in with groceries and books and don’t go far. “We only walked as far as the river,” she said. In the distance a farmer is moving logs around with heavy equipment, dogs peal off sullen barks now and again, and the rooster continues to crow intermittently as if to remind us that we are in the sticks.
One day we ventured out to the giant hypermarket called E. Leclerc, where you can find just about anything. The food, in typical Italian style, includes just about anything and we found low-priced wines and an assortment of foods we could prepare on our own in our apartment kitchen.
We sat outside on her sunny patio in the morning sunshine and Kerry Bell talked about how much the beauty of the Tuscan countryside means to her and that this is the real draw.
For five years they’ve been doing this. In October, guests from England come for their third year in a row. The English often return again and again. And many of the visitors come for two weeks. It’s difficult to do that much in just a week if they want to see everything.
But for the two-week guests Lucca or Florence are the most common destinations. Cinque Terre is an hour and a half away, the walled city Lucca about a half-hour.
September and Oct are the busiest months with shorter bookings, one week at a time. Summer brings two-week bookings three nights is the minimum. €700.00 for a two-bedroom apartment for one week. €335.00 and 420.00 respectively for a studio apartment or one-bedroom apartment for one week. €500.00 for The Barn one bedroom apartment for one week.
Built the Business Slowly
“We’ve built the business slowly, people who want to be in the countryside, more of a personal contact with guests, ” Kerry said.
Guests come to Grifoglia from the US, Canada, and the UK, a fairly even split. You’ve got to have a car, so it’s not backpackers who stay. Her season is from April through October and this season is one of the best ever. And she’s already booked weeks for next season.
Our last night at Kerry’s we made risotto and read the Herald Tribune, and thankfully did not have any after dinner espresso to keep us awake. I found myself drifting off to a panoply of dreams. Oh, thank goodness for that. I awoke refreshed to a sunny Tuscan morning, and after our strong cappuccinos made with a little pump that froths the milk, we were ready to pack up and say goodbye to Kerry, Pietro, and Gianni.
This property is listed for sale now in 2021, so if you’ve ever wanted to be an innkeeper, here is your chance.