Trying to find "cheap" accomodation in Italy is like finding a needle in 600 haystacks - impossible. Like everything else here, things are double if not triple the price of the exact replica in Australia. You can then imagine that we didn't hesitate for very long when we stumbled across a well presented, two bedroom apartment in Tuscany, just out of Lucca, for something like €100 per night ($200). Cheap.
On arriving in Lucca the other day from Venice, we followed the directions that Fausto, the owner, had given us to reach Casa Marta, our new home for the following days.
When we started heading out of the city, I didn't think much of it. We knew it was about 30km, so no drama. It wouldn't take us long to drive into Lucca everyday to plan day trips to other parts of Tuscany. But then we began to meander slowly, and soon not so slowly, up into the hills right behind Lucca.
Aside from feeling entirely giddy - the little silver BMW we hired has the suspension of a horse cart - I started to get the feeling that this place was a lot further, time wise, from Lucca than any of us had cared to imagine, or bothered to check.
The roads became windier and narrower until we seemed to have left all signs of civilisation behind us on the plains. There were cows and rickety fences, a few scattered stone houses, some ruins; where exactly were we going to end up?
All ideas of an idyllic tuscany with rolling hills, tall cypress trees and glistening olives disappear; we are in the hills here, the Alpi Apuane, as the next sign tells us. The Alps.
Christ, I think. I came to Italy for Tuscany, not the bloody alps. Everyone is hanging their head, disappointed. We all had different pictures in our minds and none of us are too excited to be out here in the middle of nowhere, much further out of Lucca than we originally thought.
Eva steers around the tight corners further and further up the mountain side. Once we reach what seems like the peak, we are driving back down again into another valley. Its lush, green with thick wads of grass; big cherry trees hang over the road, and the smaller apple trees are scattered around randomly with goats of every shade of grey.
Finally, we reach the township; Pascoso, part of the Pescaglia community. Hmmm, not very impressed. Its nothing like the Tuscuny we wanted. We don't have much time for worry or lamentation however, as Fausto, the fit, 60 something Italian with a stud in his left ear, is already awaiting us at the piazza, the central marketplace of the small town.
He's cheery, polite, and instantly explains several practicalities to us in broken English. That's the pizzeria, there's the road to Mt Mantanna, here is the church square - the only one in Pascoso, he laughs. We get back into the car and drive a little further up the "main street", to where he waves we should park. Out again, we begin the walk to Casa Marta, where Fausto will first explain everything before we come back for our luggage.
I wonder why we can't just drive to the house, but soon, I know why. The main street is nothing more than a glorified cow path through the village, transformed at some stage into a road when macchinas, cars, began to come up the mountain. Fausto laughs; you can only pass through the main street with a small car, not a big one like ours. I look at Eva oddly - we've only got a one series, the smallest of the non-sport models. I wonder what he would say to a four wheel drive.
Regardless, the village is very authentic and rustic aside from being literally tiny; 50 inhabitants, says Fausto. I don't reckon we'll find too many tourists up here.
We walk all the way down the main street, past nearly every stone house in the village, past wooden doors with what seems like the same surname - are they all one big family?
Inside, Casa Marta is something quite special. Fausto and his architect son gutted the place several years ago and transformed it into a modern, yet warm and homely space. Upstairs is an open bedroom with sitting area and book shelves; on the ground floor is the master bedroom with lovely starched lace curtains; on the first level is the funky kitchen with a big marble table, decked out with a basket of Tuscan food and wine to welcome us.
What excites me most about this place, however, are the surroundings its set in and the fresh, crisp mountain air that makes me feel good instantly. The house is right on the end of the main street, and beyond lays the forest, thick, green and full of life. When I stick my head out of the window, I could be forgiven for believing that the birds here in the Alpi Apuane are in fact no ordinary birds, but little magicians. Unbeknownst to the rest of the world, they gather everyday to sing the most wonderful melodies from deep within their little bellies, notes fit for kings and queens. An orchestra directed by the finest, most elegant of the fauna, so refined and synchronised that you can simply hear nothing else.
Surely this is where music originated? I wonder what awaits us here in Pascoso.
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