Barga: How Italy's most Scottish town coped without its annual 'invasion'

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

  • Published
BargaImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Barga usually sees thousands of Scots visit during the summer months

Thousands of Scottish Italians can trace their roots back to Barga and the surrounding area.

The connection is said to go back to the turn of the 19th Century, when large numbers of people struggling to find work in Tuscany decided to emigrate.

Many Scots return to the area every summer with their friends and family, swelling the size of the Tuscan town.

But this year the coronavirus pandemic has forced many to put their annual pilgrimage on hold. So how has "the most Scottish town in Italy" coped without them?

Luca Galeotti, editor of the local newspaper - Il Giornale di Barga - said there had been a big impact in July and August.

He said those months were "different, unusual and a little bit sad".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The "party atmosphere" brought to Barga by the Scots was missing this summer

"There wasn't the usual party atmosphere you get meeting all the Barga Scots going around.

"They usually arrive in Barga at that time and fill the bars, cafes and restaurants and take part in a lot of events going on in the town during the summer."

He said visitors from Scotland, particularly early on, had been "practically non-existent" apart for a few "hardcore" ones who were determined to see their families.

"The atmosphere was different, especially in July, when the streets, squares and venues were sadly half-empty," he said.

"Things were better in August when a new tourism arrived in Barga - made up of Italians who normally go away in that month."

He reckons, overall, maybe 20% of the normal numbers arrived with a "drastic fall in revenue" for local businesses.

'A lot quieter'

Image source, Lio Moscardini

One person who did decide to visit was Lio Moscardini, a lecturer in education who teaches at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow.

His family came to Scotland in the late 1800s and he has been going back to Barga for more than 60 years.

"It was a lot quieter - we were there for a week of the Glasgow fair," he said.

"Usually this would be one of the busiest times of the year."

He said it was similar to how the town was during the 1970s, before overseas visitor numbers boomed.

"I like Barga during the quiet periods, but you don't expect to see it like this at the height of the summer," he said.

'A very special place'

Image source, Sonia Robb

Fellow Glaswegian Sonia Robb - whose mother and grandparents were from the town - was not so lucky. She was unable to visit this year.

"Barga is a very special place, not only from the wonderful memories as a child and connections with family and friends but also because a big part for me is to visit the cemetery," she said.

She said she would miss being able to spend time cleaning up the grave stones and rearranging new flowers for her mother, grandparents and other relatives.

"It goes without saying that I really missed going to Barga this year," she added.

However, she decided to bring a bit of the spirit of the place to Scotland by producing a painting of the old town and its Duomo - or cathedral - instead.

'Sorely disappointed'

Image source, Carla Bruce

Carla Bruce from Ellon in Aberdeenshire also missed out.

Her Barga roots go back to her great-grandfather, who came to Lanarkshire and ran Zamboninis fish and chip shops in the area. Her father moved north in the 1980s.

The family had big plans for this summer. Her parents were due to spend four months in Italy, while Ms Bruce and her husband and two children had three weeks booked.

"We were so sorely disappointed. We miss our friends we have made that we only see in Barga, including those who now live further afield," she said.

"We miss the peace that Barga brings to our lives each year terribly.

"In short, we miss the part of our family's history that we enjoy so much."

'Bookings withered away'

Image source, Ron Gauld

Ron and Susi Gauld also used to live near Aberdeen, but moved to Barga 17 years ago "in search of a tranquil Italian town where we could open a bed and breakfast".

They found the area by chance and were unaware of its Scottish Italian connections.

Mr Gauld said the coronavirus pandemic had hit their business hard.

"This year has been a write-off," he admitted.

"At the start of the year our books were well filled with forward bookings, but as Covid-19 progressed and flights were cancelled, all the bookings gradually withered away.

"Luckily many have already rebooked for 2021 - we shall see what the new year holds."

See you next year?

Image source, Sonia Robb
Image caption,
Sonia Robb produced a painting of Barga when she could not visit

The town - like the rest of the world - will have to wait and see if next summer will be more like normal.

That is certainly the aspiration of local businesses and those of the Barga diaspora denied their visits this year.

Mr Galeotti said the "biggest hope" now was for a "reliable cure or vaccine" to be discovered as soon as possible.

That, he said, would allow Barga to put 2020 behind it and, eventually, let it become nothing more than a "bad memory".