Day 9: Contessa Claudia and Villas near Lucca.

There is a member of the Ruffo royal family (descendents of Count Felice Rignon), cousin to the Prince of Belgium, who likes to guide tours for Rick Steves' groups.  Her name, Donna Claudia Ruffo di Calabria (whom Brad called "Contessa Claudia"), may seem stodgy, but in actuality she is completely charming and has no upturned nose we could see.  Today, dressed in jeans and pearls, she met us at the entrance to Lucca.  She was going to show us two estates nearby.

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Our first stop was Villa Grabau, a large estate whose dignified eccentric owner, Francesca, invited us in for peach juice.

Outside of the main building of the estate were fancy all-metal patio furnishings that were surprisingly comfortable even though they lacked cushions, because the metal was springy.  The day was sparkling, sunny and warm.

We walked around the grounds, and into a giant lemon tree shed bigger than my house, and gathered outside for group snapshots.

We visited the guest house, which the owner was living in, and we admired her collections of everything imaginable, including numerous toy elephants given to her over the years.

Our next stop was Fattoria Mansi Bernardini, an estate that makes olive oil and a little wine.  The owner, Marcello, who is Claudia's former husband, served us wine and cheese on a terrace that overlooked the valley below.

Claudia took us up a trail from the house to visit her mules, which she affectionately called her "babies."  A wonderful lunch of bowls and bowls of homemade pasta in Marcello's kitchen followed, and then out to the terrace again for espresso, where we relaxed and took in the sun.

Some of us had too much sun, or too much wine, or both.

We went back to Lucca after lunch, and during some free time Freyja and I bicycled around Lucca.  Freyja had missed the ride yesterday, and I was only too happy to join her for a second one.  We circled the city twice.

In the evening, we took the bus to Monte Carlo, to a winery called Il Poggio.  There we met Elena, who guided us around the vineyard and then joined us for a wine tasting and dinner.

Elena described each wine and the type of food that should go with it before we drank a sample, and then she got out the grappa (a highly distilled alcohol made from grape skins).  It was a great dinner to cap off a very nice day.

We stayed quite late into the evening, and were sorry that Silvio could not drink, for he had to drive us back to Lucca, after which we retired for the night.

Families survive, even their traditions to some extent.  The Contessa and the owners of the villas must modify what they do to continue on.  Now they show tourists and tenants the majesty that once was held only by the rich.  From their demeanor they are obviously glad to do it, and hopefully others are as well, embracing the time when tourists outnumber royalty.

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Last updated 11/12/2005 .  Email me at