When I first saw the movie Under the Tuscan Sun, I was enchanted by the beauty of Tuscany and day-dreamed about how wonderful it would be to spend time there.

This summer my dream came true when I was invited to Culterra Magica, an artist’s residency in the Garfagnana Alps of Tuscany. It was a wonderful and unforgettable week of creative adventures, restorative time in nature, and family-style meals featuring regional home cooking.

I was enchanted by Tuscany from the moment I arrived at the Pisa airport. Fields of sunflowers greeted us as we drove past medieval villages and up into the mountains to Canalechia, home to Culterra Magica. Canalechia was once a chestnut farm and the farmhouse is a charming 400 year-old stone building (shown above)  with glorious views of the Garfagnan mountains.

View from Culterra Magica Canalechia Tuscany

View from the kitchen at Culterra Magica, Canalechia, Tuscany

Chestnut trees at Canalechia

Chestnut trees at Canalechia

Marina Dessiatkina, founder of Culterra Magica, has created a friendly family atmosphere through her gracious and warm-hearted hosting. Our small group of artists and art-lovers quickly bonded and we had loads of fun together.

Dinner Culterra Magica Tuscany

First night at Culterra Magica, Tuscany. Marina our host is on the far right

Italian Home Cooking

I chose to visit during the week Italian grandmothers Elisa Costantini, and her sister-in-law Elvira Capretta were offering cooking lessons using recipes from Eliza’s new book Italian Moms Spreading Their Art to Every Table.

Italian Moms - Spreading their Art to every Table, by Elisa Costantini http://amzn.to/1ULc0Rl

Italian Moms – Spreading their Art to every Table, by Elisa Costantini

Italian Moms - Spreading their Art to every Table,by Elisa Costantini http://amzn.to/1ULc0Rl

One of my favourite dishes cooked by Elisa and Elvira from the  Italian Moms cookbook.

The plan was to learn to cook at dinnertime, but that didn’t really happen. I couldn’t resist Marina’s invitations to go out on excursions and by the time we returned to Canalecchia, I was too tired to cook. Besides, the grandmothers had already spent the afternoon preparing dinner, making their own pasta, biscotti and casseroles. To my joy, they made wheat-free versions for me using Kamut flour (it tastes almost like modern-day wheat and it is not as heavy as what I get in Vancouver.)

I did try my hand at rolling our gnocchi, not as easy at it looks. Isn’t that always the case when learning from a master? The grandmothers laughed when I said mine looked retarded.

Making Gnocchi

Making Gnocchi with Dorina and Elisa


My retarded looking gnocchi

Elvira likes to ask her family, “Did you have a hard day?” Eat pasta and you will feel better.“ Love that!

Her roasted trout looks like a work of art:

Roasted Trout

Elvira’s Roasted Trout with vegetables (not in the cookbook) 

Put trout in a pan, cover with chopped onions, potatoes, zucchini, & tomatoes, add rosemary, herbs, salt and pepper. Roast in the oven. That’s all I know.

The grandmothers reinforced what I already knew: Simple cooking requires extra-ordinarly good ingredients, and that usually means local. I must say, local Italian tomatoes taste amazing! And when Dorina Serafini arrived later in the week, she treated us to olive oil made on her farm. Simply wonderful!

Making the most of a short art holiday

Settling into a rhythm of coffee, creativity, slowing down,
daydreaming, and discovering the country side.

I’ve learned from experience not to rush around trying to see everything, so I set an intention to enjoy whatever Culterra Magica had to offer, as well as take time for reading Dante’s Divine Comedy (trying to at least, since he was born in Tuscany and this year marks the 750 anniversary of his birth) creating art, and being in the here-and-now. I certainly did not want to not fritter away my precious week on the internet, so I went on a strict social -media diet.

It didn’t take long for me to de-compress my over-worked brain and settle into the slow rhythms of life that make Tuscany so magical. Tuscany operates on its own time, so it helps to relax and go with the flow. This made our site-seeing excursions to Barga, Pisa, Lucca and Florence so enjoyable. Marina calls this “slow tourism,” a further development of the slow food movement started in Italy by Carlo Petrini.

On a few really hot afternoons we headed out to a nearby river in the forest for a refreshing swim. Each night I was lulled into blissful sleep by the chirping of crickets, which cured me of insomnia.

While I like a slow holiday I prefer fast art, and these days I am exploring photo-based art possibilities using  my iphone and ipad.

Water colour done on my iPad

Water colour done on my iPad

While I like a slow holiday I prefer fast art. I had plenty of time for image-making with my iphone and ipad.

Tomatoes. Still life watercolour created on my iPad

Highlights of the week included art and cultural adventures to Barga, Lucca, Pisa, and Florence

Romanesque cathedral in Barga, Tuscany

Romanesque cathedral in Barga, Tuscany

Sculpture detail from the Barga Cathedral

Sculpture  from the Barga Cathedral

Linda Elvira Elisa

Going to the opera in Lucca, Tuscany, the birthplace of Puccini

We attended a soul-stirring Puccini opera recital in Lucca (where Puccini was born), marvelled at renaissance masterpieces at St Martins Cathedral, and delighted in wondering down mercifully un-crowded medieval streets.

On a trip to Florence, I was so moved by the awe-inspiring beauty of Il Duomo I was brought to tears. Seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Spring in real life had the same tear-inducing effect on me.

I must say, I was shocked by the crowds of people snapping selfies; and thought, how tacky they are. Then Oleg and his wife Natasha, who were part of our group, told me to stand in front of the Birth of Venus for a picture, so I was just as tacky as everyone else.

Oleg and Natasha at the Uffizi Galleries

Photographing Oleg and Natasha as they photograph me at the Uffizi Galleries


Being a tacky tourist in front of the Birth of Venice at the Uffizi Galleries, Florence

I was embarrassed to be posing in front of  the crowd taking pictures of the Birth of Venus, but as you can see below, they weren’t looking at me. They were focused on taking pictures of the painting, but not taking time to really see it. What a shame.


Tourists taking pictures of The Birth of Venus

Delight is in the details

Looking is not the same as seeing. To see a work of art is to look past the obvious, notice all the details, and attempt  to perceive what the artist was trying to convey. It takes time and patience to really see a work of art, and its easier if you are in a small group. I saw so much more with Oleg and Natasha then I would have on my own. In my experience the art of seeing is enhanced when shared. (I regularly put this into practice in my creativity workshops.)

During my trip I worked within the limitations of my iPhone. It is not so great at scenic views, my iPad is better for that.. and I did not want to return home with generic snapshots when it’s easy enough to find great shots on the internet, so I tried to find intriguing details where-ever we were.

Street vendor mask display in Florence

Street vendor mask display in Florence

Some of my pictures look quite painterly as you can see from the images below:

Dining room at Culterra Magica

Dining room at Culterra Magica


Dorina Serafini making crepes

Some of my friends have criticized me for taking such a short trip, but I feel I made the most of this wonderful gift of a holiday by savouring every moment, enjoying the company of new friends, and feeling gratitude, especially for being so well cared for by Marina and the grandmothers. The entire week was a deeply soul-nourishing experience, and I returned home replenished, and renewed. A friend asked me if Tuscany is really as magical as it appears to be in the movies. Why yes it is.

Find out more about art holidays at Culterra Magica.

Italian Moms - Spreading their Art to every Table, by Elisa Costantini http://amzn.to/1ULc0Rl

Buy Italian Moms at Amazon.

#Tuscany #art #slowtourism #artholiday #culterramagica