Leaving my Garfagnana home in the silence of a hot August afternoon, I had a weird feeling that a significant part of my life was over….that it had either changed inexorably, or was about to and I was unsure what it was. Had it changed? Or was it about to change? I did not know. All I knew was that life felt very different and that nothing I had stood for earlier mattered any more. It was not that nothing mattered, or that I didn’t matter, but rather there was a shift in energy that took me into a state of nothingness or the great unknowing and it took me by surprise.

Perhaps it was to prepare me for the time warp quality of where I was heading. For Alicudi is indeed in a time warp. There are no vehicles other than a 3-wheeler rubbish collecting Ape, and a van, permanently parked on the tiny wharf because there is nowhere else for it to go, and filled with things the islanders want; plastic chairs and tiny tables and stuff displayed on the foreshore each day. There is no public lighting: at night you take a torch or rely on your iphone app to see the way. And there is thankfully no television.

But I am ahead of myself. As I drive to the Pisa airport hotel with the feeling of change inside me, I am looking forward to seeing my friends Luca and Lucia tomorrow. Eleven years ago Luca called me in Australia to offer their services for a 3 day festa I was organising in Lucca for the 80th birthday of the matriarch of one of Australia’s First Families. Recommended by the aristocratic owner of the beautiful 17th century villa in which two of the events were planned, Luca and Lucia led a troupe of Renaissance dancers that performed at significant events throughout Italy and the Middle East. But dancers only they are not: Lucia is a criminal lawyer and Luca is a civil lawyer and they work for a coastal Comune (local council) in Tuscany a mere 15 days a month to allow time for the things they really want to do in life. Dancing is one. Alicudi has been the other for a couple of years now. And Lucia, ever creative, and an exceptionally beautiful spirit who swims in the sea 365 days a year, now transforms the weather and sea rounded rocks of the island into works of art.

The directions of the hotel staff bring me back to life: I go past the turning to the airport, hoping to get off at the next exit near the hotel and instead find myself in Livorno…the ancestral home of the Leghorn Chooks my father used to keep at the bottom of our garden. Oh well, I said…turn back, go off the autostrada onto the blue road and I am sure it passes the hotel. It did and I unload a too heavy suitcase and ask the girl at the desk about parking my car. The guy last week, when I took my friend Andy there before the same early flight, said yes it was OK to park outside for 11 days, but I felt uneasy and unsure whether I was insured if anything would happen to my car. So I booked into the long term airport car park which I have used before until the desk girl said ‘you can park in the garage, its €5 a night’.

Oh how like Italy this is: everything depends on who you get on the day. He could have told me that, but no, it clearly didn’t occur to him. This is why I love this country. A ‘no’ is never a ‘no’. There is always another way, even if it once was a five million lire bribe to the man at my council for a building permit. I am currently dealing with him again via my friend Mary for a swimming pool permit and am hoping he does not remember how prompt and unflinchingly generous I was last time.

The hotel has paper thin walls and a boring restaurant but I am hungry so head for the tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and sage leaves. It is delicious along with a glass of Chianti classico, and I head to bed for my 5am start. Murphy’s Law: I usually wake at 5 but because I have to, I wake all night. The paper thin walls probably have something to do with it.

Eventually I am on the plane and see my orange case being loaded. For some reason I feel it will not make it to Palermo, via Roma, with me. As I head for the baggage carousel in Palermo I take note of the location of the lost baggali department and sure enough not long afterwards I am there reporting in. Thankfully I have a photograph of every piece of luggage I own on my iPhone so a description is easy and he tells me to wait for the next plane, ‘it is probably on it’. His colleague tells me again and again over the next hour and a half to go to the international section, even though I tell him I have come from Pisa. Because I am blonde and foreign, he cannot think otherwise that my luggage has come from abroad. I am in Sicily.

Reunited with my orange friend which emerged as the very last offering from the later flight from Rome, I find the bus to the port and am thankful I had some hours to spare. Alighting from the bus I turn to see the Bristol Bar where Luca had suggested I pass the time rather than the port office, and I head there for a panino, ignoring the largest line up of gooey cakes I have seen for ages and the obligatory fridge full of gelati, and more importantly, the first of many lemon granitas for which Sicily is famous.

So far everyone I have spoken to in Italian has responded in English, which annoys me. Whilst my Italian is not perfect, it is more than OK and I wish they would address me in their native language but I let it go and head for the port and my hydrofoil, which was rather a fast boat than one of those things that floats on the top of the water, and it was very bumpy and overly air conditioned.

Eventually, after about 2 hours, we slow down and I see the cone shape of the island rise out of the sea. Along with 6 others Alicudi is part of the Aeolian Islands, of which Stromboli which daily discharges from its volcano, but always in the same direction, is one and the others are Lipari, Vulcano, Filicudi, Salina and Panarea where the rich and famous, such as Signor Benetton of clothing fame and Flavio Briatore who owns Formula 1 and used to be engaged to Naomi Campbell, have fancy villas to spend languid summer days and entertain their friends.

Delighted to see Luca and Lucia, whom I have not seen for 2 years, they remark that I look a decade younger and soon I will look 20 again, I think ‘this is what living a stress-free life in Italy and beyond does for me’ and give thanks again that I set myself up for the ability to do this, at a time when many of my compatriots spend their time playing bridge and golf in between babysitting grandchildren. I remember my school friend Lynn Thompson who said to me one day, when, about the age of 14, we were heading to the oval to play hockey ‘you won’t do what the rest of us will do. We’ll all get married at 21 and have babies…your life will be very different.’ And I wondered again how she knew. Silently I thank my long-gone mother for her aged olive green atlas which my sister still has (and I wish I owned!) which was the most treasured book of my childhood. That and the Enid Blyton Faraway Tree series were the two things that inspired my tireless fascination with travel and faraway people that has led to thousands of hours sitting on sidewalks observing the daily activities of the locals in more than 70 countries, to date.

Alicudi was a volcanic island but has seen no action for 28,000 years. Its normal population is around the same as my Tuscan village, 60, which swells in the 6 weeks from mid July mainly with Italians, to around 150, some of whom I met at dinner on the first night where I sat at a table for 12 with others from Brescia, Bologna, Roma and closer to home, Catania, only a stone’s throw away in mainland Sicily. The food was beautiful and all of it fishy and I managed well in my Italian. The locals speak a dialect which I have no hope of mastering.

Breakfast is at the island’s beachside café where the cappuccino is mediocre but the cannoli makes up every bit for it. Early evening sees the place rocking with sun bronzed Italians, who will all be back at their desks next week, drinking beer, white wine and the ubiquitous Aperol spritz which was on my daily agenda in April in Roma.

This café also serves a mean lemon granita and I am reminded of that famous Melbourne institution, Pelligrini’s, but Melbourne seems far away both in distance, time, and emotional pull. I am not drawn to return and it is no longer where I call home. Everywhere I want to spend time is an hour or two from London or Tuscany where I feel my next years will be lived. The thought of selling my house, my car and my stuff and either drinking or sending to Europe my 18 dozen bottles of wine in controlled climate storage can be delayed indefinitely or until I find something in London that I absolutely have to buy. Sacrificing a piccola villa in Melbourne for a dog box in London is a daunting thought and with a beautiful flat awaiting my October return the inevitable can, for the time being, be postponed.

There are no church bells or town hall clocks on Alicudi, just the ferries from Palermo, Napoli or the other islands to mark the time of day. Those leaving outnumber those arriving as the Italians prepare to return to normality and the island can sigh in relief that the tourist trade has once again saved them from the economic woes of present day Italy. There are rumours of yet another election, the 64th in the 68 years since the end of WWII, in which Berlusconi, facing an imminent 4 years rattling the bars for engaging under-age girls in his infamous bunga bunga parties, will not stand. But even the officials are trying to find a way out of him going to jail because he has been an important citizen. I wonder how that would sit with Alan Bond, who did his time or Christopher Skase who exiled himself to Majorca and died anyway, or English author Lord Jeffrey Archer who also rattled the bars for a time. It could only happen in Italy. And perhaps Nigeria and Uganda and a few other dodgy places.

A wonderful afternoon after a horrendous climb – it is always up in Alicudi. But the reward was a delightful visit with Marco Tagliaro, a fit and bronzed artist of 71 who lives in a beautiful 2 roomed house with neither electricity nor running water. His shower is a terracotta pot high up on a pillar that he fills with water and opens the tap when he wants to bathe and the water, drawn from his well, is the sweetest I have tasted for a long time. In his kitchen, decorated with objects of yore, there is a candelabrum which may or may not get lit as the evenings pass from light to dark. Marco I feel lives by the stars and the sun. An educated man who speaks several languages, he wrote me a beautiful card when we left to acknowledge my visit, with a fountain pen containing brown ink.

Meandering to the only hotel up the other end of town under a very red full moon shining on the water I felt immensely grateful for my adventurous spirit and my freedom. There was a time when I loved being married but it was a very challenging affair and whilst being on my own is not my preferred choice it is good for now. If it was to change ‘he’ would have to completely sweep me off my feet, captivating my heart and my intellect at the same time, allow me my freedom and my peregrinations and command my trust and respect and I’m quite frankly not sure this man exists. If he does he will show up when I least expect it. Anyway dining solo no longer bothers me and I observe the others, all couples on the verandah, meters from the lapping sea. Five of the women around me are blonde, so probably from the north, only one has a wedding ring and four are at some time during the meal of either swordfish or tuna, on their mobile phones. At least there is no television blaring in the background.

The wine is good. The fish entrée bathed in oil and lemon is delicious and again I choose the swordfish. Sleep comes easily after the big climb today but I am awake and sitting on my balcony opposite the sea from 3.20 to 5am enjoying the silence of the night, save for the man snoring in the next room.

A morning on the beach is called for and I find a large rock to drape myself over. Others use wooden pallets of the type lifted by a fork lift, and there is a Persian carpet next to me on the beach awaiting its occupants. My rock is fine and the water is clear and beautiful. I am blessed to be here.

The heat of the afternoon has me climbing up the hill further than I have been before. Luca says, get to the seat, and keep going up, there will be 80 steps. A beautiful massage on the terrace of Luca and Lucia’s piccola casa with a gentle breeze is wonderful; the next hour and a half doing yoga with Lenka, a Czech girl, is agonizing but a joy meeting one of the other girls, an osteopath from Rome who spent a decade travelling the world as an acrobat.

My love of an international life and the people one meets was further enhanced over many plates of good food later that evening. Dinner is a curious affair here: local inhabitants open their homes and serve dinner for around €25 to whoever turns up. Tonight I met a big blonde woman in her 60’s, born in Morocco, who runs a modern dance school in Paris, a young female judge from Messina and her Dentist husband with whom I had a wonderful conversation about psychology and life, a young man with a Nigerian father and a Scottish mother who graduated from the VCA in Melbourne and is now a sculptor in Rome and an Irish gallery owner who also resides in the country’s capital.

The days pass and I settle into a routine of waking early to read the fascinating account of Gertrude Bell, granddaughter of a Yorkshire steel magnate who, around the time of WWI, probably knew more about Arabia than any non-Arab in the world. A woman of courage, determination and multifarious talent who was a mountaineer, an archaeologist, a spy, an author, a poet, a linguist and an extraordinary explorer, but to her endless but well masked disappointment, never a wife or mother. I later discover Werner Hertzog is doing a film on her life starring Naomi Watts, and I can’t wait to see it.

About 11 I head down to the island’s one bar and order a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant or sometimes a cannolo for which the place has a serious reputation. To swim I don my bright pink jelly sandals to counteract the rocks for there is not a grain of sand to be seen and I am yet to acquire mountain goat status over the rocks that make up this island. Possibly my apprenticeship ended when I climb up a second time and by day three I probably graduate. Setting out too early to visit Luca and Lucia’s house for another massage I am amazed how quickly I get there even though my feet have taken 985 upward paces including the last 250 which are all steps. Reminder to tell Luca that it is 250 not the 80 he told me! Nice story my friend!!!

A couple of swims a day, visits to the bar, massages, yoga, Gertrude Bell, dinner, and the days pass all too quickly and beautifully. It’s a simple life and the locals fiercely protect their island and their summer income of meals and rented rooms, expressing displeasure at non locals renting out their places to the tourist trade.

There are two shops for provisions, a street stall for cheap summer frocks and sun hats, gas is all bottled, the garbage leaves in a ship once a week, there is only one street light, no Wi-Fi, no ATM’s, no credit card facilities. Water is periodically shipped in to the island, pumped up to a big tank higher up than any houses and once a week the taps are opened and each house can receive fresh water in its own storage tanks. It all seems to work fine. About 10 of the permanent residents are under 20 and Luca enjoys playing football with them on the concrete landing pad for a medical-emergency helicopter. He tries to organise them to do other things but they are busy in the summer and a bit lazy at other times so that has not been a great success.

Before I leave I am invited to a lunch party by yoga teacher Lenka in the home of Giovanna and her 20 cats. She recently lost another 20 to a virus but she is not by any means a mad cat person and is a delightful hostess. Lenka serves up zucchini spaghetti…a delicious raw meal, followed by raw cheese cake which is equally yummy. The other guests I think are a couple, Piero and Antonella, until later I meet the very bronzed and handsome Piero on the path and he tells me ‘Lenka is my love’ and I think ‘lucky Lenka’.

Later that afternoon we climbed half way round the island to a beautiful remote beach – well there was us and a naked man on a rock and a few fishing boats tied up on the shore and the water was deliciously warm if not a trifle rough for my last swim.

Finally it was time to take my leave from Alicudi: an exquisite place in a time warp. A bit like my Tuscan home in the Garfagnana, you either mean to go there or you don’t and as Luca said on my arrival, ‘you will either love this place or you won’t’. For me it was love at first sight. Thank you Luca and Lucia for sharing your extraordinary, wild and wonderful sanctuary with me. I will be back.

Until next time, with heart


How, you say, could it possibly be boaring in Tuscany: its high summer, the fields are mellow with corn and haystacks, there is a wonderful stillness peculiar to the area, and a warmth that calls, rather too often, for a refill of the gin and tonic.

But boaring it is! Not boring….but notice that extra letter!!! My home is not called I Cinghiali or The Wild Boars for nothing…..for indeed one of the little critters was found in the field directly under my bedroom window a week or so ago. He tottered off into the lower fields, owned by Vittorio, the King of Caprignana, where I am led to believe, he either joined his family or vice versa because there was some awful kerfuffles going on late into the night for a while. And just when I think all is well, at about midnight last night there is a very large bang from a very close shotgun and I feel that this poor little piggie won’t either make it to market or make it home again. But he, or whomever the hunter’s gun was aimed at last night, is probably by now on his way to becoming a very delicious salami.

Summer of course brings out all sort of other critters and I have seen them all this year: cicadas, grasshoppers, bees, a tiny bat or two who came to visit in my bedroom for half a second before they realised they were not wanted, a snake on the road, a tiny scorpion, delicious fire flies, and a very large hedgehog. But not a mozzie to be seen! And hardly a fly: one of the many compensations for living at 833 metres above sea level.

So with the bad stuff out of the way we move on to the good. Cheap gin – 7 Euros a bottle for Gordons, 4 for London; cheap and delicious vino, food grown in the next field or the next village, the most mouth watering ciabatta on the planet from the next town, a glass of Prosecco for only 1 euro 50, a cappuccino for around 1 euro 20 and the runniest Gorgonzola in town.

I love this place. For the food. For the wine. For the air. For the water which comes direct to my tap from the hills above me uncontaminated and cool, for the people and for the festivals. Oh and I love my home too.

In June I celebrated the 25th anniversary of that day back when in 1988 I stood on the crumbling terrace and asked ‘If you can’t catch a dream once in a lifetime why are we here?’ Lots of dreams have been created here since then, and a few, some biggies, have crashed, but they have not taken me with them and once again, I give thanks for my courage, my focus and my ability to maximise situations.

After a very cold winter there was much to be done when I arrived back at the beginning of June and thanks to my trusty friend Mary who has every trades person in the valley up her sleeve, an army of Toty’s, Massimo’s, Michele’s, several Carlo’s and one Fiorenzo (who happens to be the most delightful dishy plumber I have had the pleasure to know now for 25 years) have been coming and going from my villa and my fields.

Those who have been following me on Face Book will recognise Massimo with his big sickle and his pair of scythes, with which he cut my entire acre of very long grass. Or you will recognise him from his lack of teeth…..sadly a phenomena of this valley and the surrounds….and I used to wonder why the dearth of ‘Studio Dentistico’s’.
Massimo, I thought, was 88, but this week as I drove him home and refused to tell him my age, saying a lady does not discuss her age with anyone, he told me he was in fact 89. Well good on him for working in my fields 10 hours a day and then going home to his brand new lady wife: a 60 year old Albanian, to whom he has promised his house and his pension, to the chagrin of his sons, I might add!! Massimo works all day for not very many Euros and a bowl of pasta at lunchtime…..I felt rather like The Good Wife and also felt a bit done in. As much as I love entertaining I am over the obligation of cooking daily, especially for a man who could, instead, take me out to luncheon or dinner. Not Massimo, but anyone else, if you get where I’m going with this.

Toty is another kettle of fish. A wonderful man, just a few more teeth, much younger, jovial, helpful, will do anything, and makes delicious wine. Remember last year when I helped on his grape harvest? Well I’ve already been invited to join the gang this October, which will be a pleasure. Toty does all the things around the house that a husband would do, or did in the past, but requires no food, no grog, and goes home to his wife in the evening. A perfect arrangement for which I am happy to pay heaps!

Carlo 1 worked on my orchard, taking out dead trees and cutting them up for winter firewood, and giving my two remaining pines, out of the original 5, a huge haircut. Carlo 2 has given me a quote for a steel pergola, and Fiorenzo is coming to make wet areas in my bathrooms and remove the shower boxes that were the done thing 24 years ago when the house was restored from the crumbling wreck it was. Michele and his mate didn’t turn up as planned on Monday or Tuesday after a big weekend but at early o’clock on Wednesday I woke to the sound of their steps over my head as they worked on the precipitous edge of my roof, three floors up, to reassemble the typical Tuscan half round tiles that had made their way elsewhere under the heavy winter snows. No harness, no hard hat, no nothing. That’s the way it’s done here in the Garfagnana.

The region I call home, the Garfagnana, isolated in its alpine silence, and surrounded by the bare summits of the Apuan Alps and the Apennines of Tuscany and Emilia Romano, with villages nestling in curves sculptured by winter torrents, is almost like a place in time-warp. A picturesque region with a mixture of charming ancient towns, hilltop castles and breathtaking views across the hills and valleys it has no motorway traversing the one hundred kilometers between Lucca to Aulla. One either means to go there or not. Thankfully it has avoided the crush of southern Tuscany in the tourist season and the towns and tiny villages, grouped into 15 municipalities, survive without a proliferation of souvenir shops. Unadorned folklore and local cuisine are some of the timeless qualities of this beautiful area I am fortunate to call home. Every tiny hamlet has something to offer, not specifically major works of art or ancient treasures, but more the ability to participate in a village life that is local and real.

And that is the other thing about summer: festival after festival which pretty much all involve eating and drinking, which the Italians do so very well. Whilst my friend Rozi was here we went up the road and round the corner to the Festival of Farro…the timeless grain so loved in these hills. Organised to within an inch of its life, we were given a book of numbered tickets, a glass in a bag we could hang around our necks and a glass of Prosecco to head off to first course. Every course was made out of farro and, as much as I love it, I was a bit farro-ed out by dessert and instead enjoyed the limoncello that came after the red vino that came after the white and the Prosecco. Every course was at a different location in this quaint village and its neighbours, tables and chairs laid out and waiters bringing wine aplenty the moment you sat down. Later there was dancing and I am oh so impressed by how these country folk of a certain age know just how to twirl their women around. I danced with a man in his voluntary fire fighters suit and I’m not sure if it was my out of practice-ness or his three feet that had us not quite the perfect example of the night. But it was fun and I love seeing the locals dress up and get out to have fun. Their winters are often harsh and in summer when it is light until late, then what else is there to do but eat, drink and dance?

I had a lovely visit from my son Hugo and his girlfriend Eve whose eyes light up when I mention the word ‘pool’ and ‘maybe next year’….but for this year we had some fun on the terrace and two wonderful nights in the magical city of Lucca with Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave at the annual Summer Festival. Rozi was there too: we had a wonderful 6 weeks together: playing for 3 in London where I introduced her to all my friends for breakfasts, lunches and dinners until she was all knocked out and called them all Linda because of her state of utter confusion. I had intended to write a blog on London and the Lindas but suffice to say we were having too much fun and at least 4 of them are, in fact, a Linda. The others who are not called Linda played their part in keeping us up night after night at parties and restaurants and bars and it was a wonderful, wonderful time. Then just as soon as I returned to Tuscany I shot off for four unforgettable days with, of course a Linda, to Istanbul for a bit of shopping. Bit??? Well, no, not really, a bloody lot of shopping and reconnecting with my friend Kathy who has been there for 16 years making a living taking people shopping: so who she does not know is not worth knowing!! And the food was fabulous too: a return to Didem Senol’s fabulous restaurant with a wall of walnuts behind chicken wire, and at last her wonderful recipe book that was too heavy last year after last year’s shopping spree. Next year Linda and I are going to take a group of ladies for a few days so start saving gals. It’s a real treat!

Finally a week or so on my own to reconnect with my Italian Grammar Exercises (oh really!!), working on my 7 tax returns (how boring) and some more time eating and drinking with Italian friends and of course more festivals. Last weekend it was the 38th International Folkloric Festival at Camporgiano and we had music and dance from Paraguay, the Czech Republic, Brazil and of course, Italy in the town’s amphitheater. This weekend is the huge fireworks festival for the virgin (or should that be Virgin with a capital?) at Gorfigliano, where marble is still mined out of the mountains. It’s a wonderful festa and I look forward to taking my friend Andy, currently winging her way here from Melbourne, to it.

After that, who knows? More lazy, hazy days of summer in the most wonderful hills on the planet. And then I fly south because to have a summer and not swim in the Mediterranean is heresy. And that will be the next chapter.

Until then, with heart