Some places make more of a mark in the virtual world than ever they do on maps. A mere pinpoint on a chart, a spot that cartographers imply might be taken or left at will, can turn out to be a busy crossroads on the internet - a place where the hubble bubble of virtual life rarely subsides into silence. Of course, there are communities, even some whole kingdoms, that exist only in virtual space. One of our favourites is Schlaraffenland, a splendid affectation of the late seventeenth century German writer Johann Schnebelin. Conceived, it would appear, by a dedicated carnivore, Schlaraffenland is a territory where chickens, geese, and pigeons fly around already cooked and waiting to be eaten, and every house is surrounded by a hedge of sausage. Modern web worlds play with the boundaries of virtuality, even creating utopian nations like Bergonia or Verduria.
Barga, a small town in northern Tuscany, is indeed no more than a dot on the map, but one that contrives to combine virtuality with reality in a manner that is the envy of many another community. The town's website at www.barganews.com receives some two million hits a year - not bad for a place that gets barely a mention in the tourist guides. Barga is a little hilltop town that is tucked away in the Garfagnana - that corner of Tuscany that happily has avoided the crowds that jostle for space in Florence and Siena. Barga looks out across the Serchio valley to the Apuane Alps, with their chestnut groves and the whiter than white stone that has made Carrara a household name. The tourists go to the walled city of Lucca for its Romanesque churches, to Massa and Carrara to gaze at the huge quarries whence marble is hewn, and to Pisa to photograph a tower that somehow defies gravity. But few make it to Barga. Adam J Shardlow reports from a town where reality lives up to the promise of its website.
An unlikely spring rainstorm decanted over the entire valley, rendering the wipers almost useless and making it impossible to see out of the windscreen. The headlamps threw a pathetic light onto the soaked road that twisted and turned alarmingly as it climbed the hill. To my right a vertical drop, cliffs dotted with pine vanished into the dark abyss below. Occasional flashes of lightning seared the hillside, highlighting bruised clouds rolling across the sky, as the engine of the small car hesitated on a steep bend. At the very crest of the hill, the steeply wooded hillsides suddenly gave way to reveal the Duomo of Barga, the illuminated clock tower a welcoming beacon on this stormy night.