Saint Luke’s of Lucca

I had my first experience of Lucca’s new hospital last week when a highly slippery paste, concocted of lime seeds and rain (thank you Bagni di Lucca comune for not keeping the roads clean…..), caused me to part company with my scooter on the last curve before entering Bagni di Lucca from Corsena.

The damage to the scooter was minimal but I didn’t realise the damage to myself until sometime after when, having picked myself up and dusted myself down, I biked towards Lucca after having met my wife who now became a pillion passenger.

Arriving at Ponte a Moriano, I noticed some increased pain. A visit to the pharmacy prompted a further visit to the Green Cross there whose staff promptly strapped me onto a stretcher in one of their ambulances and drove my wife and me to the Ospedale San Luca near Lucca.

Fortunately nothing was broken but a deep gash to my left elbow left me somewhat dangerously open to infection. Stitches, plastering and scanning followed and it was some six hours before I left the new establishment.

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As we had no idea where we were except that we were somewhere to the east of Lucca we were at a loss on how to get back home (the scooter had, of course, been left at Ponte a Moriano), until a guardian angel in the form of a hospital pathologist stopped his car alongside us and asked if we needed any help. Not only did the pathologist drive us all the way to our car parked at Bagni di Lucca station but also detoured to a pharmacy to get my medication.

My verdict on Lucca’s new hospital? It is North Tuscany’s aims to rationalise its hospital system into four new super-hospitals. These are, respectively, Apuane, Lucca, Pistoia and Prato. Lucca and Pistoia have already been completed and the other two are in the offing. There has been lots of discussion and back-biting about the new hospitals which are all being built to roughly the same plan.

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The arguments against them are that:

  • The current hospitals still work satisfactorily so why fix them?
  • The new hospitals will take longer to get to, especially in emergencies. (There is even a level crossing before one gets to San Luca!)
  • The old hospitals had fine architectural features, art nouveau embellishments, and great traditions.
  • The old hospitals had more beds
  • The new hospitals will have obvious teething problems which will clearly take some time to sort out
  • Existing neighbours of the new hospitals won’t like being next to buildings with loud ambulance sirens at all times of the day and night.

The arguments for the new hospitals are, predictably:

  • They will have more up-to-date medical equipment.
  • The buildings will be easier and more economical to maintain

The proof of the cake is in the eating and I found all the staff very helpful and sympathetic and resigned to their novel fate of working at San Luca.

There are some redeeming architectural features, however, in the new hospital.

There is an impressive entrance foyer with outside shuttle bus service to Lucca town centre (about twenty minutes away)

There are some fine escalators.

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Signage is good:

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There are attractive waiting rooms:

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There’s a good bar selling excellent focaccia sandwiches (a canteen is to follow)

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There’s a nice chapel for Catholics

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There’s an alternative ecumenical centre for other religions including eastern ones and for atheists to worship in.

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There’s an up-and-coming exhibition area showing the amazing archaeological finds uncovered during the hospital’s building dating back from Etruscan times to the modern age.

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Indeed, part of a Roman wall forms a feature of the central courtyard, which is a rather pleasant area to be in.

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The hospital has a Saint Faith’s feel about it. If anyone remembers the episode on the compassionate society in that memorable comedy series “Yes Minister” one realises that this hospital is so efficient because it has an excellent administrative and maintenance staff but, apparently, rather less in the way of medical staff and patients… (Am I being unfair?).

So, without dying to get into the hospital again, I feel that it will provide a useful and worthy Italian National Health experience for anyone who needs to avail of its services – which reminds me I have to be back there tomorrow. Must try another of the bar’s rucola-filled focaccie this time….


Ulivi Mark Two

What do you do if, when in your allotment, you try to start a portable water pump by pulling the handle on the chord, the handle falls off and the chord becomes inextricably tangled? Despair?

For all our horticultural mechanical gadgets we’ve availed ourselves of a place called Ulivi Garden which is on the road towards Gallicano, just beyond the bridge at Calavorno.

This place has supplied us with a petrol lawn mower, a bush cutter, that portable pump and, more recently, a small rotivator.

If anyone had gone past the old Ulivi which existed on the right hand side of the road until October 2014 they would not have been unduly impressed by the facilities offered. The workshop was a botched-up shed of corrugated iron, wood and polythene and the so-called “showroom” was equally not much of a show.

Imagine my delight when the new premises (which are now on the left hand side of the road) opened in time for that object of desire, the rotivator. The staff continues to be helpful and informed but now they work in semi-palatial surroundings when compared with the old dingy premises. Workshop and service is on the ground floor and on the first floor there is a showroom which would bring cries of delight to anyone interested in the good life!

I visited the new premises to get that handle fixed late on Saturday morning. It closes in the afternoon but I didn’t have to wait until Monday, The job was done on the spot by the boss himself and at a very reasonable rate.

I’d gone to Ulivi to get an urgent job done and didn’t realise that a post could have been made out of it until the last moment. Next time I’ll take a picture of the helpful Ulivi himself…

Meanwhile enjoy the Ulivi new premises inauguration video at:

The web site, which is still under construction but which shows essential details, is at

It’s great when, in spite of Italy’s depressing economic situation and the continuous news of failure of so many large and small businesses, someone has the confidence to invest and please both employees and customers – adding a typical Italian artistic flair to it all!

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Leghorn or Livorno?

Livorno is Tuscany’s third largest city after Florence and Prato. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t get a very good press, both from the tourist agencies and from Tuscany’s own inhabitants. It’s meant to be a city with nothing of really outstanding interest and the people’s character is often disparagingly depicted. (But then isn’t this the fate of most Italian cities as depicted by their neighbours…).

All this is, of course, quite stereotyped and wrong. Livorno is a fascinating place to visit and is unique among Tuscan cities in that it was specifically planned as a port city by the Medici in the sixteenth century when Pisa had become hopelessly silted up.

Situated along the coast of the Ligurian Sea, Livorno is one of the most important Italian ports, both commercially and as a tourist embarkation centre. What a pity all those hoards alighting from cruise ships for a hasty visit to Pisa’s leaning tower don’t stop for at least an hour there…

Livorno’s general appearance is modern, not just because it has no mediaeval buildings, but because it was heavily bombed in World war two. Despite this there are many districts and buildings of charm. For example, the “Venice” area, so –called because of its canals, is fascinating.

The old and “new” fortresses are also well worth perusing.

There are some magnificent examples of art nouveau buildings, often with an oriental or saracenic tinge, along the seafront.

Livorno also happens to be, historically, the most “international” and multi-ethnic city in Tuscany because of its origin as a free port frequented by foreign merchants and home to consulates and shipping companies. For example, there is the protestant cemetery with the tombs of such notables as the author Smollett (whose writings on Italy make particularly amusing reading). And soon the Dutch protestant church (one of the largest in Italy) will be restored after years of neglect. Jewish communities, too, have benefitted from the city’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Livorno used to be a renowned beach resorts with spas, and was also known as Montecatini-by-the-sea. I doubt if few people would choose it today as their favourite bathing establishment – the port is too close for that. There are, however, delightful walks to be had along the seafront leading to that superb marine plaza, the terrazza Mascagni, dedicated to one of the city’s three best known sons and happy scene of shows and dancing in the summer months

Livorno’s two other most famous sons are Modigliani, whose house still remains and is visitable (though, regrettably, without any of his priceless works) and Italian impressionist painter, Fattori, some of whose wonderful paintings are fortunately still with the city and displayed in the luxurious villa Mimbelli.

Nearby is the Montenero Sanctuary, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, patron saint of Tuscany, The sanctuary, which has magnificent views looking out over the bay, hosts also a very interesting collection of ex-votos mainly dealing with (naturally) miraculous escapes from the sea and road accidents

We’ve visited Livorno (or Leghorn as it is traditionally known among brits) several times, and not just for the purpose of jumping on a ferry to Corsica or Sardinia. Each time we have found something new of interest for us, whether it be a visit on the open day of the Naval Academy or whether it be the aquarium and Mediterranean sea-life museum. (photographs here were all taken during a visit in June 2006).

Above all, Livorno has a real “city feel”, so if one pines for crowds, night-life and traffic after the sylvan peace of Bagni di Lucca then “Leghorn” is an appropriate destination.

You may also be interested in reading another post about Livorno at






Wild Peonies at the Orecchiella Natural Park

The parco dell’Orecchiella is a natural reserve situated a little north of Corfino in the upper reaches of the Serchio valley. It is probably one of the best walking areas in Tuscany, if not in Italy, and offers countless itineraries of varying difficulties and lengths.

We’ve walked the three main ones or “aironi” which take one through the most varied countryside. Leave a good day for each one to enjoy them at their best.

The amount of wild flowers at this time of year is astounding as these photos taken on one walk in June 2006 show: entire meadows covered with wild peonies.

It is ideal country to enliven the spirit as in those famous lines of Keats’ ode to melancholy:

…… when the melancholy fit shall fall

       Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,

       And hides the green hill in an April shroud;

Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,

       Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,

               Or on the wealth of globed peonies;


Apart from the amazing flora, (there are also dog-roses and lovely rainbows after the showers) there is also lots of fauna in the form of deer, wolves, mouflons, bears (fenced in a paddock) boars, plus frequent sightings of eagles and buzzards.

The history of the parco dell’Orecchiella, which actually consists of three parts: Lama Rossa, Corfino, is interesting as being one of the first attempts at conservation in Italy.

At the end of the First World War there was a major agricultural crisis leading, especially in this area, to rapid depopulation and land degradation. At that time, in fact, the territory suffered from an abuse of natural resources. In particular, repeated deforestation and erosion through over-grazing led to degradation and continuous landslides. For this reason, in 1927, the Lucca district Forestry commission presented a project for the area’s re-afforestation and soil conservation.

In 1936 reforestation began and continued throughout the 1950’s under the management of the Forestry commission. Eventually, in 1960 the Orecchiella Park was established. Old photos at the Orecchiella park reception show how bare the landscape used to be once.


The park itself is included within the National Park of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.

We regularly visit this beautiful part of the Apennines. There is an excellent visitor centre with nearby refreshments. There are several events including crafts and food fairs and there is also an interesting and well-labelled botanical garden at Corfino.

It’s also a great place to find waterfalls and rock pools to cool off in the summer heat:

The Pania di Corfino itself is the easiest mountain to tackle, with a gentle north side ascent and a steeper south-facing scree descent. Other mountains to ascend are Monte Prado (the highest in Tuscany at 6738 feet) which has the most magnificent views extending over both sides of the Apennines.

More information can be had at the park’s web site at:







Master Wafer-makers at Calcinaia

Calcinaia is a town on the Arno valley to the east of Pisa. In June 2006 the ancient guild of the Mastri Cialdonai were invited to join in the historic procession weaving its way through this picturesque place. A cialda is a kind of hard wafer made by squeezing a flour mixture between red-hot scissor-like irons. Often, these irons are embossed and the resulting wafer can be very decorative.

Incidentally, Cialda is also the name given to those packets one places into automatic coffee-making machines and is also what some of the larger and tastier ice-cream cones are called.

There is a “costume” centre run by the association who organises the event and I was suitably fitted up as a renaissance lord.


 Our presence formed only the precursor to the main celebration, which is a historic Regatta in honour of Saint Ubaldesca, the town’s patron saint.This regatta has been running since the nineteenth century and involves three rioni (or town districts) called “Montecchio”, “Oltrarno” and “la Nave”. The proceedings are livened by a market, live music and other entertainments. “La Nave”.

Who was saint Ubaldesca? She was a nun, born in Calcinaia in 1136 and who died in Pisa in 1205. Interestingly, she belonged to the military order of Malta. Her saint’s day occurs on May 28th.


St Ubaldesca distinguished herself through her ascetic practices and her care of the sick and needy. Among her most famous miracles was the transmutation of water into wine in the well of the round church of the Holy Sepulchre in Pisa. – I must ask where exactly this well situated next time I’m in the area…

These photos were taken in June 2006 and a fun time was had by all. This is surely another festival which we should return to enjoy.

Shoulder-Biting Experience

Just before the FIFA World cup championship I received the following suggestions from a friend as to the ideal watching venue:
……. the best place to watch the football, in the Bagni di Lucca area, for adults (that is, without fools and drunks, a great atmosphere to be had for all, without traffic and lots of food choice even at 1am)  over the next few weeks are the following places:

  • Del Sonno – best spot down the hill
  • Il Biribisso – my choice as there will be lots of space outside without cars and good food
  • Buca Di Baldabò (Vico Pancellorum) – if it’s open and they don’t get any complaints from the locals
  • Il Cavallino Bianco – best in Benabbio for grown-ups.
  • Ristorante Villa Aurora: excellent spot if it’s open.

We chose none of these places – not because we didn’t agree with the suggestions (Buca di Baldabò and Biribisso have been the top contenders for the best eating places in Val di Lima for some time now.) but because we just didn’t happen to be there at the time of the kick-off.

We witnessed England’s demise in the comfort of our home and yesterday Italy’s expiration was watched at the AGIP service station at Chiffenti where a small, but select, group gathered around the two sets and watched in increasing dejection while they were well fed free-of-charge with excellent hors d’oeuvre, including chicken wings and pasta, while imbibing a moderate degree of alcohol.

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Yes, it was definitely a match that requires further investigation. Marchisio was shown a red card and sent off without any valid reason that I (or anyone) could see. And Suarez complaining about toothache after biting Chiellini’s shoulder (the third time he has been involved in such an incident) was really the last straw in a match which was played with constant irritation and frequent frustration, particularly on the Italian side.


If only the Italian play of the last few minutes of the second half and the extra time – when Prandelli’s team showed what they could do with sustained attack, wave after wave, in a desperate last-ditch attermpt to get that equalizing goal which would have kept them going into the next round – had been attempted at the beginning of the match!

Even that unpredictably genial Italian foster-kid, Balotelli, was not up to scratch and was replaced in the second half.

Despite their well-thought-out 3-5-2 formation, the Azzurri (light blues –actually the Italians were wearing a rather deeper blue kit) showed a disappointing lack of confidence – something which Prandelli sensed deeply and blamed on himself when he proffered his resignation as Italy’s national coach after the match.

What a difference I thought to myself from 2006 when the life of Italians, victors of the world cup, moved forward into broad, sunlit uplands and when the Italy I had lived in just one year was a nation full of economic, political and social confidence. (Indeed, my neighbour had painted his old Punto in the colours of the tricolour flag).

At that time I was in London, watched the match on the large screen in the Italian institute in Belgrave square and, after the glorious victory against France which got Italy their fourth World Cup win (even though the final score had to be decided with that so-unsatisfactory compromise: the penalty shoot-out), we marched triumphantly to occupy Trafalgar square and cool off in the fountains, watched over by Landseer’s Lions.

The pictures of that wonderful year for Italy are still to be seen in Doctor Enrico Castellacci’s surgery in Lucca which I attended a few years back when shoulder arthritis had made sleeping a tedious occupation for me. Now, the disappointment for Italy may give me at least one further sleepless night.


Ah well – it’s only a game of football!

Places of Memory

In London there are many “houses of memory”, as the Italians like to call them. It’s possible to visit buildings where such shining constellations of humankind as Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, John Keats, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Handel and many others lived, loved and created.

Some of these houses belong to that great conservation society, the National Trust. Others are private trusts and some are in the care of the local councils. They are all worth visiting, whether one agrees with the ideas of the person who lived there or not, since they give an excellent idea of London life at particular moments of history.

On my last visit to London I visited several of these places.

The address “No.1 London” was all that was required for posts to be directed to the Duke of Wellington’s residence at Apsley house. As an acolyte of Napoleon I was not too keen in admitting myself to the “Iron Duke’s” house, especially as he took a very reactionary line against liberal movements.

The subway approaches to No.1 gave us the flavour of what was coming.

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Happily, the house contains wonders independent of the Duke’s ideas. Its collection of paintings is simply superb and displayed in magnificently decorated rooms.

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Furthermore, on that occasion, there was an interesting demonstration of Regency army fire power and battle tactics together with tales from the front by a re-enacting detachment of the British army of the time and “camp-women”.

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Considering that such re-enactment societies flourish in France and most countries affected by “Boney’s” empire aims, (including the province of Lucca), it will be an amazing concentration of latter-day soldiers who will congregate on the field of Waterloo next year to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of a battle which, in Arthur Wellesley’s own words, was  “a damn close-run thing.”

I’ve mentioned another place, Lord Leighton’s, (the distinguished Victorian society painter), house near Holland Park in my post at This purpose-built residence-cum-studio has been recently restored and opened to the public. I remember it fondly as the venue for several concerts I attended before my exile, including those given by the now sadly-defunct Società Dante Alighieri, (especially Gilbert Rowland’s dextrous Scarlatti recital and, most memorably, the evocation of life at the house in the company of such eccentric luminaries as Sir Richard Burton – played by friend and actor David Reid)

What a re-evocation of the social life and times of fin-de-siècle Leighton House – that occult corner of oriental domesticity at Holland Park London – in a forgotten tableau vivant where whole canvases were evoked by half-naked houries and narghiles breathing opium in mosaicked and fountain-trickled halls!


I evoked that evening at Leighton House in Burton’s company with the following words:


A sultan’s couch in Kensington

awakens cold desire

and tiles around the marble pool

reflect deep blue-eyed fire.


Above lace balconies withdraw

behind dusk’s harem veil

while dreams float on an unknown sea

as argosies set sail.


The evening party now retires

and ancient tales are told

of dusky djinns and desert towns

and she who’ll not grow old


Dim stairs escape to music’s room

where arcane songs are heard

from her whose melting voice is like

a paradise-born bird.


The night perfumes a garden’s hair

and soaks fruit lips with wine;

beyond cooled earth new worlds release

galactic starlights’ shine.


Her body, like a gold sheet’s draped

upon a coralled bed;

her skin with sunset marble’s tinged

and whispers the unsaid.


Then past the leaves high casements seek

an argent summer moon

as paintbrush strokes upon the cloth

a soft and flaming June


 What a pity that this tenderly passionate canvas was sold for a plate of potage when such artists were considered out-of-fashion. What would it cost to buy it back from the Puerto-Rican government today!

The third place of memory was probably the most poignant one I have ever visited. In the company of my wife, we explored the hidden hilltop alleys of Hampstead to reach the church of Saint St Mary’s, the first Roman Catholic church to be built there after the English Reformation . Founded by the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, a refugee from the French Revolution, the church was completed in 1816.

The appearance of this building in the centre of a characteristic Georgian terrace is delightfully surprising, crowned with its bell-cote built in 1852 when an act of parliament first allowed Catholic churches to ring their bells. The church was closed, but fortunately a lad we met outside turned out to be the verger and kindly opened the door for us which led into a simple but noble interior decorated in the apse by fin-de-siècle mosaics and a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin.

But what was the memory evoked by this place? Why would we have wanted to visit this church? The clue is given in the following photograph.

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It is the place where my wife was baptised in that coldest of winters in the year which would later bring the Olympic games for a second time to the UK. It was the first time she’d been there since that auspicious day.

Near Saint Mary’s we encountered another place of memory which we’d never suspected existed: the old Hampstead cemetery, one of the very few in London to remain in its original state of delicious decay. Among the notables who have found their last resting place here are the great labour politician, Hugh Gaitskell, the brilliant artist and writer, Gerald du Maurier, (whose grand-daughter was “Rebecca” author Daphne) and, best of all, John Constable, whose paintings are the quintessence of the English landscape.

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What better way to say goodbye to London than visiting this place?