Bel canto di Barga
I've been obsessing over the Tuscan hilltop town of Barga since my family vacationed there last spring. We loved the place for all the reasons you might expect - the beauty, the people, the architecture, the food, the wine, the history - and one I didn't expect:

The music.

Maestro Aristo

Aristo Casciani doesn't run Aristodemo's bar anymore. These days, son-in-law Marino Comparini and daughter Danila put in the long hours of pouring wine, frothing milk for cappuccinos, slicing sheep cheese and tolerating customers' wisecracks. But Aristo makes daily appearances, always looking sharp in a sweater and tie. And where Aristo goes, the music follows.

When the moment feels right, Aristo, who worked as a musician on ocean liners back in the day, sits at his electric piano and launches a song. This gets a cheer from the drinkers. Mandolins, guitars and banjos hang on a nearby wall like so many prosciutto hams, so some locals - called Barghigiani, fortunately, and not "Bargans" - grab instruments and join in. An accordion appears. Aristo punctuates his singing with quick, and apparently clever, asides to the audience. More drinks are poured by the stoic Marino. And there is dancing. Even I was yanked to my feet by a lady in red for a spin around the floor while Aristo led his impromptu jam band through a bouncy ditty one night. Whether I was the butt of a locals-versus-tourists joke, or just handy, I don't know. I do know she didn't seem to recognize me when we crossed paths a few days later. But who cares?

Aristo is 80. He regales American tourists by asking their home state, then naming the capital: "Rich-a-monda," he says. May he play and sing until he's 100.

Late-night accordion

Our rented Fiat is in a two-hour parking space. But it's late, and better spaces should be open by now. So I'm trotting through Barga's slot-canyon streets, past the local Communist Party office, Osterio Angelio wine bar and Andrea's grocery, toward the parking lot. But I'm brought to a stop by what I hear coming from the darkness beyond a curve in the street bounded by Mario's newspaper shop and the Altana restaurant.

After a stealthy reconnoiter, I'm running back to Aristo's to collect my wife, Lorri; our daughter, Emily; and our Swiss friend Heinz. We're all soon back in the darkness, peering through a slightly open doorway into a small room where a man sits with his back to us, playing an accordion. His song is slow and romantic. It seems to cry for a love just beyond reach. I spin around to try to imprint the scene on my mind. Would the music sound this good if we weren't in this exact place, with its cobblestones, medieval walls, heavy wooden doors and parked Vespas?

We listen for a while, surprised and mesmerized and grinning stupidly at each other, spying on an innocent Italian musician.

But hey, I'm thinking, he is not so innocent, playing with the door open like that. This is entrapment by enchantment.

In the end, I forget to move the car, but everything is going right on this night. I run down to the parking lot the next morning - the accordion player's street looks so different in the light - to find no ticket on the windshield and a long-term parking space open and waiting.

Bell boys

They gave the duomo's bells a workout on Palm Sunday. We watched the procession of children carrying baskets of olive sprigs and written blessings up the stone stairs to the 1,000-year-old duomo, (no one calls it a cathedral here), as the bell ringers did their thing high in the tower. And this wasn't just ding-dong, ding-dong. Rhythmic patterns rose and fell and weaved around each other.

It turns out there's a "Gruppo Campanari," a bell-ringers club, in Barga, and it takes skill and practice to earn this duty.

"Oh, the campanari have a grand time of it," our hostess, Carla, said later, when I asked about the bell-ringing. "And they take flasks of red wine up there, you know."

"I wish I could have seen it up close," I said.

"On Easter," she said, "if the door's open, go on up the tower and see what happens."

So when the bells started on Easter morning, Emily and I gulped down our breakfasts and ran up the hill. The tower door was open. We ducked inside and climbed the stairs, hearts and ears pounding, as the ringing grew louder, and louder, and louder. Finally, we arrived in the belfry and stood practically underneath one of three huge, centuries-old bells. Expecting to be kicked out of the tower, I scanned the faces of the eight or 10 men around us, asking, in the international language of eyebrow arching and mouth frowning, "Is it OK for us to be here?" A couple of men gave what seemed to be "buongiorno" nods.