Camillias and Tea with a Japanese Flavor in Tuscany

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The camellia (camelia in Italian) is a prized flower in the area of Tuscany around Lucca. So much so that each spring there is an annual camellia festival that takes place in some of the villas in the countryside around Lucca and in the small town of Sant’Andrea di Compito. 

I was able to visit Sant”Andrea during the festival in 2018 and was enchanted by the town, the festival, and those lovely flowers.

My memories were so wonderful that I was looking forward to making a return visit this spring.

This year the Antiche Camelie della Lucchesia festival marked its 30th anniversary with a special celebration that combined the beauty of the flowers (scientific name Camellia Japonica) with an exhibit reflecting the Japanese culture from which the flowers get their name and from where they were originally imported to Italy.

Ribbon cutting ceremony to open the exhibit at the Antiche Camelie della Lucchesia festival, 2019

Ribbon cutting ceremony to open the exhibit at the Antiche Camelie della Lucchesia festival, 2019

The focus of the Japanese exhibit was on tea - growing, processing, and serving. The connection with tea is that a species of camellia (scientific name Camellia Sinensis) provides the leaves used in making tea. Along with the many beautiful flowering camillias, there is also a garden in Sant’Andrea where the tea plants are grown.

Tea plants are raised in the Antica Chiusa Borrini, a large walled garden in Sant’Andrea di Compito.

Tea plants are raised in the Antica Chiusa Borrini, a large walled garden in Sant’Andrea di Compito.


The Japanese exhibit included a demonstration of the antique method of processing tea leaves by hand - a labor-intensive process that involves kneading the fresh green leaves over a heated surface to elongate and dry the leaves. The process takes five hours. 

Processing the newly harvested tea leaves the old-fashioned way - kneading over a cloth-covered surface heated from below

Processing the newly harvested tea leaves the old-fashioned way - kneading over a cloth-covered surface heated from below


There were also tea tastings (delicious!) and displays of Japanese tea accoutrements including tea pots, whisks, and cups, as well as a market selling a variety of Japanese items.

Of course there was also the traditional annual display of camellia blossoms, a plant market, and artisan stands. After visiting the market we strolled through town, admiring the beautiful houses, villas, stone walls and gardens - with the camellia as the star among flowering forsythia bushes, fruit trees, and wildflowers.

 

The entrance to the garden of Villa Borrina

The entrance to the garden of Villa Borrina

I enjoyed finding this unexpected bit of Japan in Tuscany and learning the history of the camellias, both their visual beauty and their flavorful use in tea. Italy is full of delightful surprises. -post by JMB

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Sant’Andrea di Compito on a lovely early spring afternoon

Lake Massaciuccoli in Tuscany

When picturing Tuscany - beautiful cities, art, fabulous food, rolling hillsides, umbrella pines and Cypress trees - it’s easy to forget the area is also home to coastline, lakes, and nature preserves. Recently, I was able to visit one of these lakes with a small group of students and teachers from Lucca Italian School. This was a different slice of Tuscany, and one well worth visiting.

Along the eastern shore of Lago Massaciuccoli

Along the eastern shore of Lago Massaciuccoli

First, a bit of history. Once upon a time, the areas of coastal Tuscany, including Lucca, contained large areas of marshland. Teeming with wildlife, these areas frequently flooded, causing problems for nearby cities (damage, mosquitoes, malaria). Eventually, many of the wetland areas disappeared, some naturally and others drained in the name of creating more livable environments for humans and a greater productive land mass.

Late afternoon sun on Lake Massaciuccoli

Late afternoon sun on Lake Massaciuccoli

Today the largest remaining wetland in Tuscany is Lago Massaciuccoli (a bit of a tongue twister, pronounced Mass-a-choo-co-li).  It lies about 12 miles (18 km) from Lucca, an easy 35-minute car ride.  There is also a bike path that begins just outside Lucca and goes all the way to the lake.  Lake Massaciuccoli is also connected by a series of canals to nearby Viareggio and can be reached by bike path from that city as well.

Lake Massaciuccoli has two very different shores. On the west, closest to Viareggio, lies the town of Torre del Lago. Here, in a beautiful lakeside villa, Puccini wrote many of his famous operas and also hunted in the areas around the lake. Here, too, is the Teatro Puccini, home to the Puccini Opera festival. This is the “civilized” more urban part of the lake. On this visit I skipped the western shore and headed straight to the “wild side” on the eastern shore

The entrance to the Oasi LIPU wetlands at Lake Massaciuccoli

The entrance to the Oasi LIPU wetlands at Lake Massaciuccoli

On the eastern shore, by the tiny town of Massaciuccoli, lies the Oasi LIPU protected wetlands, a wild bird sanctuary. The edges of the lake, full of marshes with tall reeds, are crossed by wooden boardwalks that skim just above the water and have small observation blinds at key points, allowing visitors to watch the wildlife while hidden from view.  Staying still, quiet, and out of sight allows for great bird watching.

The boardwalk path through the marshes

The boardwalk path through the marshes

There are informative signs about wildlife and flora posted along the boardwalk and in the observation points. Also offered are guided bird-watching expeditions and various types of boating expeditions (canoe, kayak, and larger tourist boats). This is a great place to sit with a pair of binoculars, walk along the boardwalks, listen to the sounds of bird calls, or peer into the shallow waters to see what lies beneath.

Literally a bird’s-eye view

Literally a bird’s-eye view

This peaceful place provides a nice side trip from nearby cities, a chance to experience the “wild” side of Tuscany, and an easy walk along the boardwalk.  I visited in mid-March when plants were still in winter mode, the dried stalks of last summer’s flowers had a beauty all their own.

Late winter in the wetlands of Lake Massaciuccoli

Late winter in the wetlands of Lake Massaciuccoli

 A stop in the town of Massaciuccoli provides a good spot for a coffee, lunch, or a glass of wine post exploration. There is also a nearby  archeological site - but that’s a topic for another post. -post by JMB

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