Romance, serenity, culture and beauty are just some of the essential ingredients for that ultimate wedding - and we found them all when we tied the knot in the Tuscan hilltop town of Barga
Organising a wedding can be a wonderful but somewhat traumatic experience. That is why more and more couples are saying ’I do' in foreign locations, and the allure of romantic destinations, sunshine and lower overheads is leaving the local parish church or registry office literally out in the cold.
My wife and I recently organised our big day. It was to be a small but very special affair. The guests were our three sons and daughter-in-law. No one else had any idea what was happening. In fact, everybody thought we were holidaying in Portugal when we were actually in the small town of Barga, a hilltop town in northern Tuscany.
With all good weddings, the devil is in the detail, and implementing these details can be as frustrating as it can be challenging - even more so when they involve bureaucratic Italy. That is why you should consider using the services of the experts. We called on the experience of an Italian wedding planner (www.exclusiveweddings.com), who arranged flowers, ordered taxis, booked hairdressers and restaurants, hired the interpreter and organised paperwork and the comune (town hall).
Tuscany was to be the location; Barga we discovered after some research. It looked the perfect setting, just under 100km from mystical Pisa and its perfectly positioned airport; 25 km from the magical town of Lucca, with its amazing walls; and 40km from the beauty that is Firenze (Florence) - all well within driving distance for those must-do day trips.
Barga commands breathtaking views of the Serchio valley and Apuan Alps and is situated in the Garfagnana region. A blanket of red-roof-tiled buildings huddle reassuringly around the tower of its Duomo. The small hamlets of Sommocolonia and Correglia Antelminelli nestle on the neighbouring mountaintops. Terraces of grape and olive groves chequer the landscape, intermingled with small gatherings of trees. In winter, you can ski at the major Apennine resort of Abertone, located in a state forest only 40km from Barga.
Barga itself has two distinct areas: Barga Vecchia and Barga Giardino. Vecchia is the old medieval walled quarter (it was originally founded in the 9th century) and is a collection of small piazzas, timeless shops, art galleries and narrow, cobbled, stepped streets festooned with flowers and caressed by sweet aromas. All the small streets, each so different in its beauty and serenity, lead to the impressive cathedral and its piazza. Small restaurants and cafes sit perfectly throughout Vecchia, unimposing, enhancing its historic beauty.
Aristos (Piazza del Comune; Tel: 0583 723062) the scene of impromptu concerts, is a small cafe serving a piatto freddo (cold platter of local hams, salami and cheese with olives and foccaccia) that is a must have at lunchtime or in the evening. Visit the famous Caffe Capretz (Piazza Salvi 1; Tel: 0583 723001) to sit on its terrazza and consume some of Barga's finest views and pizzas. In the evening, book a table on the terrace at Trattoria da Riccardos (Fosso; Tel: 0583 722345) facing the main gateway into the old town: it's a superb restaurant and the terrace provides an amazing view across the hillsides. Riccardos provide great home-cooked local food. Favourites include their hot seafood salad, the stinco di maiale (shin of pork) roasted in the wood-fired oven, and pannacotta for dessert.
Barga Giardino is the newer quarter and this is where you will you will find shops, banks and a supermarket. It holds a festival to celebrate the Feast of San Rocco (15 August), a three-day event of music, dance and song. Italian families come from far and near to talk as only Italians can, eat some of the finest ice cream and dance the night away. The outdoor market also arrives, a vast selection of stalls selling everything any local Italian could ever want and any visitor would love to have.
Sit and relax on the terrazza at Hotel Ristorante Alpino (Via Pascoli 41; Tel: 0583 723336), enjoying chilled vino bianco and basking in the easy laidback life of Barga. This hotel is very comfortable and offers all that is required for a very enjoyable stay. The staff are wonderfully friendly, and the location is excellent. While sitting on the hotel's terrace do not be suprised to hear an Italian accent suddenly change into a Scottish brogue, as many locals settled in Scotland during the leaner years. In summer they return to holiday - among them, the singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini.
Our home during the stay was to be Piazza Verzani 4, a 16th-century town house built on the walls of the old town and tastefully restored by its English owners, Andrew and Judith. It is a three-storey, three-bedroom, stone oasis with views from its terrace that can be described in only one word: unbelievable. For further details and availibility on this fantastic property you can e mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is located on a small cobbled street, and its narrow facade only deceived us as to what lay behind the rugged walls. The large old wooden front door reveals a stone stairwell, each step worn down by centuries of laboured footsteps. The stairs curve upwards to three impressive double bedrooms, one of which has its own terrace. The house also has two bathrooms. The kitchen and living area, with exposed beamed ceiling, is located on the top floor and is tastefully decorated and authentically furnished. A small double door leads you on to the terrace and the beauty that is Tuscany. Here, you will spend some of your most memorable evenings, dining al fresco, chatting, eating and consuming quantities of beautiful locally produced vino. And admiring the stunning views that will remain etched in your heart forever.
We were welcomed by the property's housekeeper, Maria, a lady in her eighties and without a word of English. She is as enthusiastic in her willingness to assist as she is when plying you with her home-grown vegetables, fruit and toe-warming grappa.
As we had arrived late, she very kindly introduced us to the owner of the local Osteria Angelio (Piazza d’Angelio 13; Tel: 0583 724547) It is an informal restaurant with outside terrace. Riccardo and his very friendly staff provide superb, home-cooked food at reasonable prices. For starters, try the pecorino con miele e noci (sheep's cheese, honey and walnuts). The tagliata di manzo (beef steak) and bistecca di maiale (pork chop) are wonderful, as is the piatto dell'Osteria, a selection of local antipasti (hors d'oeuvres).
As we were the first Irish citizens to be married in Barga, the regional newspaper published an article on the event and the Irish tricolour was draped alongside the Italian flag. Gifts from the people of the town were also presented to us. In Palazzo Pancrazi at five o’clock on a hot Tuscan afternoon, presided over by the Mayor, Umberto Sereni, draped in his green, white and red sash, the Italian ceremony began. His animated words flowed as freely as the champagne that followed as we posed for photographs with Umberto on his personal terrazza. Office clerks came to watch, applaud and take photos.
On a cloud of euphoria and happiness, our party strolled through the small piazzas, acknowledging the locals as they clapped hands. Old women added to our memories by joining us in our photographs, their joy and best wishes as warm as the evening air. We sipped on more champagne at the Caffé Capretz, sending texts and making calls to Ireland and London proclaiming the grand occasion.
We made our way through the narrow streets to the Fosso. Here, we boarded our people carrier taxi and 10 short kilometres later, we dined at one of Garfagnana's best restaurants, Il Pozzo (Via Europa No 2/A, Pieve Fosciana). On its grand terrazza, a table beautifully decorated and adorned with chilled bottles of champagne awaited us. Showcasing the very best in slow cooking and the finest chianti and prosecco, a feast of courses fit for kings and queens ensued. The celebrations continued long into the night and beyond.
As Giuseppe Verdi once said, ' You can have the universe, if I may have Italy.' Personally, I would happily settle for Barga. Ciao.
Other places to stay
Villa Moorings: a Liberty-style three-star hotel, with great staff, ambience and location. It is blessed with having a superb cool swimming pool, for those long, hot Tuscan days. The hotel is located outside the walls in Barga Giardino.
Casa Fontana: a small and homely b&b in an ideal location within the walls of Barga Vecchia. The interior is tastefully restored and enhances the 18th century building. All rooms (some with balonies) are en suite and are very comfy, with great views. Ron and Susi assure you a very warm Italian welcome and enjoyable stay.
Most low-cost airlines now offer services to Pisa. We flew by Jet2 (www.jet2.com) on an afternoon flight that was ideal. Our hire car was supplied by Sixt (www.sixt.com). A small car (Fiat 500) or similar is recommended and best suited for the narrow winding roads in the hills of Garfagnana and the narrow cobbled streets of its villages and towns.