I have a confession to make. One of my pet peeves about travel forum websites is the amount of attention paid to the major tourist destinations. Of course, there is nothing wrong with the big tourist draws; in fact there must be something very right with them to make them so overwhelmingly popular, but judging from the questions being asked on most travel forums, one could get the impression that Italy consists mainly of Rome, Florence and Tuscany, Venice, and possibly the Amalfi coast and Cinque Terre. Please don’t get me wrong; I love the well-known sites too, and I understand the motivation for wanting to see them; particularly on one’s first visit, but I think that many people fixate on the most popular destinations simply because they do not realize what else is out there.
Italy is a relatively small, but extremely diverse country. The majority of Italians do not live like the inhabitants of the popular cities and tourist-driven towns, and these days our popular culture seems to celebrate the blockbuster – modesty doesn’t get much press. We want to be bowled over by our entertainment and I think this may possibly influence how many of us approach our travels. I suppose that’s why so many foreign visitors to the United States head straight for New York City and Times Square, but that hardly offers a true picture of life in the US. Going hand-in-hand with slowing down, I believe that travelers could benefit from thinking outside the mega-tourism box. Consider spending time in the smaller, out of the way towns – some of the ones that don’t get the big write-ups in the travel guides just yet.
On our recently completed Arts Sojourn to the Tuscan city of Lucca, which itself seems to be becoming an increasingly large blip on tourist radar screens, I led my small group on a day trip to Barga, in the Apennine Alps. Barga is hardly undiscovered, but it has that charming, small-town genuineness that the big draws (even small big draws like San Gimignano) often lose. It took some research on my part to get us there by public transportation from Lucca. Deciphering Italian bus routes and schedules can be a bit confusing – there are school day and holiday schedules and you also have to figure out the name of the correct stop; in this case, Barga Fosso. I found that even the hour and ten minute bus ride, although not the height of luxury, was revealing. As we passed the smallest of towns I saw that the bus stopped in places where only the locals would know to wait for it. The main purpose of this bus was not chauffeuring tourists around, but dropping locals at the market. The ubiquitous north African street peddlers also used the bus to get to their destinations. I was surprised to see that the five or so that boarded the bus in Lucca all knew each other and they divided their territories by agreement; each one getting off in successive small towns, wishing the others luck. It gave me a new appreciation for just how lonely and difficult these fellows’ lives must be. The real treat of the bus ride came as we passed the famous “Devil’s Bridge” along the River Serchio in Borgo a Mozzano.
This was my first visit to Barga. I always enjoy seeing a place fresh for the first time. There is often an element of surprise, but the steep and narrow streets of this little mountain town felt very familiar to me. My wife and I explored the web of tiny streets in the medieval section, eventually working our way down to the busier modern town outside the medieval gates, browsing the shops frequented only by local residents. In my pre-trip research I had heard that there was a Roman-era aqueduct somewhere below the town. We took a wild guess and figured that it was probably on via Acquedotto, which led down to a shady ravine. I’m not entirely certain that it was truly a Roman aqueduct, but we found it! We enjoyed a nice lunch in a no-frills Osteria; a fresh pasta with truffle sauce for only eight euro. We ended our day with a late-afternoon drink and some journal writing in the cool shade of an outdoor café. There are no blockbusters to be found in Barga; except maybe the view of the Apennines from the Duomo at the top of the town. The small sights are not always the easiest to get to, but they can be enormously satisfying nonetheless.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Matthew Daub is a professional artist and university professor with works in major public and private collections throughout the United States and Europe. He has been leading plein air painting workshops in Italy since 1994. In 1999, Matthew and his wife Barbara formed Arts Sojourn, as “a vacation for artists and their friends.” The program is designed to appeal to artists of all levels as well as non-artists who enjoy the company of creative people in a slow travel format.