High in the Tuscan hills, surrounded by lush forest and looking out over the valleys of the Apuan Alps, sits the beautiful 10th-century walled town of Barga.
At first glance, its winding cobbled streets and red-roofed villas give Barga the appearance of many other picture-perfect hilltop towns in northern Tuscany. But if you spend a bit of time here you’ll soon realise that this is a town unlike any other.
Barga quite literally has a strong Scottish accent. And for three weeks in summer, from July 27 to August 16, the town hosts a festival dedicated to the local favourite dish – fish and chips.
Fish and chips at the festival in Barga, Tuscany. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Every evening at the Sagra del Pesce e Patate, billed as a celebration of “traditional Scottish fish’n’chips”, around 300 people enjoy a fish supper at trestle tables set up on the local sports field.
The festival has now been going for 37 years. Organisers told The Local that hungry visitors get through about a tonne of chips and even more fish every year.
Italian chefs preparing fish and chips at the festival in Barga, Tuscany. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
For anyone not tempted by fried fish, there’s also pasta and grilled meat on the menu. And there are typical Italian desserts, coffee, and beer – though some locals prefer a glass of Chianti with their deep-fried dinner.
The fresh cod is deep-fried in home-made beer batter in a makeshift kitchen at the sports stadium. While the chips are frozen and there are sadly no mushy peas, they do provide vinegar, and there's hopeful talk of adding pickled onions next year.
It definitely makes a change from the usual offerings at sagre, or food festivals, held in countless towns and villages all over Tuscany.
But Scottishness among the town's 10,000 inhabitants runs far deeper than just an affinity for battered cod – or the fact that the surrounding hills and mountains are curiously reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands.
Barga prides itself on being “the most Scottish place in Italy”. It‘s twinned with East Lothian and Italians here speak English – and in some cases, also Italian – with an accent you’d normally expect to hear on the west coast of Scotland. In fact, many of the town’s residents say they, or their parents, were born and raised in the Glasgow area.
People enjoying fish and chips at the festival. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Many say the connection goes back to the turn of the 19th century, when large numbers of people struggling to find work in Tuscany decided to emigrate.
One story goes that a group of local forestry workers were hired by the visiting Duke of Argyll to work on his Scottish estates. They took their families with them, and more followed. Some eventually opened Italian-style ice cream parlours, as well as fish and chip shops.
Eventually, many of these Scots-Italians made return trips to Barga and nearby, and some stayed, cementing the connection and bringing a little taste of Scotland to Tuscany.
The town regularly hosts Scottish weddings complete with kilts and bagpipies, and a new event taking place in September honours the closeness of the two communities. Barga’s Scottish Week is set to take over the historic centre from September 3-9 with music, markets and cultural events.
The town hosts various other food festivals, and a well-known jazz festival in mid-August. There’s also an antiques fair on the second Sunday of every month, when the pretty historic centre is filled with stalls, piled high with vintage furniture and knick-knacks.
Whenever you visit, Barga is a gorgeous Tuscan town with sights including a Romanesque cathedral dating from the 11th century, and Barga Castle, perched dramatically upon a ridge.
A view of the mountains from outside Barga's cathedral. Photo: Clare Speak/The Local
Its historic centre has panoramic views of the dramatic, mountainous landscape, especially from the gardens known as the ‘Arringo’, found next to the cathedral.
Barga is not the only town in Italy to have a strong link to Scotland. Gurro, a small village in the Italian Alps, was populated by Scottish soldiers 500 years ago, who made a mark on the local culture that still endures today.