Some of my favorite travel experiences are the result of serendipity - happy accidents that result in the discovery of something wonderful. Though I am by nature a planner, I have learned the joy of leaving some things to chance and grabbing opportunities that arise during the course of travel.
Such an opportunity recently presented itself in the form of an invitation to accompany a fellow language student on a day trip to the small town of Bagnone for its annual spring onion sagra (festival). I knew nothing about Bagnone, or what made its onions worth celebrating, so some research was in order prior to this trip.
Bagnone lies in the province of Massa - Carrara, Tuscany, about 60 minutes from Lucca by car. This area is known as the Lunigiana, a historical designation from before the unification of Italy, crossing the border between Tuscany and Liguria. Importantly, it is home to a large number of Medieval-era castles/fortresses, about 30 of which are intact. Many others are visible as ruins, dotting hillsides and small hamlets throughout the Lunigiana.
Bagnone is charming, with a small branch of the Magra river flowing through the middle of town. There is also a 14th century castle that encloses a still-occupied Medieval village. This is not a town with many tourists. Strolling along its quiet streets (pictured below) was a pleasure, as was wandering through the village surrounding the castle, which lies up a hill above the center of Bagnone.
As for the onions - Bagnone includes an even smaller borgo (neighborhood) just up the hill from Bagnone proper and called Treschietto. A recent local census lists 96 inhabitants, most over the age of 65. Looming over Treschietto is the ruin of a castle, complete with a tall, round tower.
Treschietto is famous for a small, round onion (cipolla) that is red on the outside and white on the inside. The Cipolla di Treschietto is mild and sweet. It is said that the onion “non fa lacrimare” (doesn’t make you cry). The onion is grown in fields in and around Treschietto and each year, at the end of April and beginning of May, the community hosts a festival where everyone gathers to eat piatti tipici (local specialty dishes) made with the famous onions. These dishes were a good example of cucina povera, simple foods eaten in rural areas where resources are limited.
Sitting under a large tent, at a communal table, we sampled Barbotta (a soft onion, cornmeal, and cheese torte), torta di cipolle (a crispy onion pie with the white and green parts of the onion and a spinach-like taste), and a pasta with sugo di cipolle (onion sauce).
We also saw many people eating the onions raw, dipped in a little bit of olive oil.
As a bonus, no one at our table spoke English and the meal was accompanied by lively Italian conversation with friendly locals, a spontaneous language lesson and a delightful cultural experience. Serendipity indeed.
-post by JMB