Via the Viaduct

If one fancies walking across high bridges there is yet another experience for them in the railway viaduct from San Romano di Garfagnana to Poggio on the line which carries on from Bagni di Lucca, past Castelnuovo di Garfagnana to eventually reach Aulla.

There is a special pedestrian walkway on the left hand side of the viaduct crossing one side of the valley to the other and giving beautifully long views up and down the Serchio valley. This viaduct can easily be incorporated in a longer walk.

Below the start of the viaduct there’s a house. I wouldn’t particularly like to live under one of these arches especially if there are litterbugs travelling on the train above, but the house does have extensive flat lands around it.

Another delight of this area is the village of Sambuca, the smallest in the comune of San Romano, dating back to the tenth century.  It’s very picturesque with its church of San Pantaleone and its houses scattered and perched between giant black rocks called dogli.

The Serchio flows nearby and contains some wonderful rock pools brilliant for bathing. Who really needs a swimming pool when there are these?

I was looking at these photos yesterday morning when there seemed to be nothing much to cheer one up with the continuous rain. (It did clear up in the afternoon, however). Sometimes there was little information about the pictures apart from when they were taken.

Then I discovered that I had a huge archive stretching back to when I first moved here – my emails. Just using Gmail I found that I had sent these pictures with descriptions to those who had been with me on walks and visits – eight hundred alone to one person and thirty thousand emails in all!

It’s going to be a tough job for future social historians to make sense of the vast amount of data we are accumulating through the use of digital photography and emails – if we decide to keep them. (There is currently talk of legislation which would allow effective wiping out of personal data on one’s decease if one decides on this).

Selection, of course, is the answer. I was amazed to find also that Picasa, a photo organizing programme I find particularly useful for re-sizing pictures down to five hundred pixels for use on the web, also has face recognition built into it: find a photograph of someone, give it the name of the person and the computer will scan for all similar likenesses. Absolutely fabulous. I’ve grouped well over seven thousand picture of my wife alone from many, many years. Do we really change that much then?

It would be also great if there could be programmes that recognise places where one took the photographs. At least, I have some memory and those emails to locate these pictures which I took on Midsummer Day 2006.


Ain’t Gonna Rain Anymore?

Rain, rain and yet more rain! I didn’t think my new system of watering the orto (allotment) would be that successful! But now the rain, in this totally uncharacteristic Italian July, is taking its toll. Trees are falling down at a terrifying rate. This is the road to our house yesterday:

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The Brennero road, the usual road one takes out of Bagni di Lucca, to get to Lucca has completely caved in (or out) adding almost half-an.-hour onto the city’s journey time; traffic now has to take the Calavorno bridge road and the junctions at either end are approaching the increasingly dimming memories I have of London’s south and north circular roads at the best of times. (PS Italian for this geological effect on roads is voragine = abyss)

Yesterday, Bagni di Lucca Villa itself had diversions since the ancient roof beams of its town hall were being replaced – in this weather! Let not the town hall (a rather magnificent sixteenth century building where weddings can also be celebrated  -see collapse if everything else does!

Does anyone remember, however, the time when Ponte a Serraglio and Villa at Bagni di Lucca were cut off from each other by a landslide in March 2008 for at least two months?

Tourism has clearly suffered, especially the seaside resorts like Viareggio which now have (for them, too,  unusually) weather approaching places like Barmouth and Scarborough. Perhaps those nostalgic for an English seaside holiday might take a sentimental trip to the Versilia coastal resorts today?

At least Italy has got plenty of indoor activities – mainly its wonderful museums and palaces … when they are open and, at least Bagni di Lucca has its Arts Festival (and several children’s activities) among which today will be the inauguration of the new river installation. Remember last year’s?

As Arts festival inspirer and organiser Jaqueline Varela mentioned to me:


 The name of the installation in the river is 44º10º (forty-four ten)

 Alexandra de Requesens, Arnau Tàssies, Ana Huerta, Clara Romani, Eva Vera, Pau Garcia and Samuel Angulo – Collective Group –  3D NEIGHBOURS.

5 of them were here last year and created TAMING THE WILD at Art Space “La Mesticheria”

TAKE A LOOK at their last year’s project for BDL Art Fest:


More water. Let’s be positive about it. After all, the great Dolly Parton said:

“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.”

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The Show Goes On…and How!

The Bagni di Lucca arts festival continues apace until August 10th (and probably a little beyond) and new exhibitions are opening all the time. I was at the second phase of this now internationally known and respected event last Friday.

Already the second year of the festival is proving even more engaging and varied than the first, especially with regard to courses, performances and the always debated continuum between art and artisanship.

With regard to workshops it’s startling to realise that the following items were all sculpted by students who’d never lifted a stone carving chisel before but who’d attended a week’s sculpture course run by Petra Boshart (returning to Bagni di Lucca from last year).

Other courses include life drawing, theatre & clowning and ceramics. Full details are at

It’s a great chance to do something one may have never thought of doing before (or just dreamt about) with a convivial group tutored by masters of their arts.

Performance-wise, there was a magical union of two art forms, music and acrobatic ballet, in Bagni di Lucca Villa’s central park last Friday evening. Qualche volta sogno, (sometimes I dream) combined local (and international) tenor Claudio Sassetti singing, unaccompanied, arias from Tosca, Traviata and Neapolitan songs with Danica Hilton from the Cirque du Soleil executing virtuoso dancing using a rope suspended from the trees. There was true interaction between Claudio’s operatic movements and Danica’s expressive choreography. A story of love unfolded, uniting unlikely combinations with a stroke of genius and working brilliantly among the twilit trees and lawns of the park.

It’s so often the yoking together of two seemingly dissimilar worlds that produces new and stimulating creations. One just has to develop a mind freed from the usual boxed-in experiences one so often gets imprisoned in with life and art.

I was also pleased that finally Villa is beginning to interact more fully with Ponte through this show. After all, it forms part of Bagni di Lucca too!

Of new exhibitions opened since last Friday at Ponte a Serraglio the following are to be particularly noted:

Giorgio Brogi’s installation which plays with colour and water, Alyssia Lazin’s superb photographs, Glauco Di Sacco who, too,  explores new expressive means, photographer Simone Franchi from Lucca who experiments with digital effects, Pavel Kapic’s abstract art, ceramicist Carol Newmarch and eco artist Wren Miller who derives her palette literally from mother earth.

With the added focus on artisans one cannot forget the incredible quality of made-in-Italy crafts brought together (and all for sale) by Belinda Hall and which range from the most delicate (and warm) shawls made from Kashmiri goats bred in Chianti to traditionally-weaved textiles from Lucca. (See for more details.

With another wet day forecast today why take the risk of getting even wetter by the swimming pool when you can have a true rive gauche quarter created at Ponte di Serraglio all to yourself and, at the same time, keeping dry with great things to look at, feel, hear and maybe even buy…


The Most Holy Crucifix Blesses our Valley

Italy abounds in religious processions centred on a town’s patron saint or holy relic, especially in the south. Recently there was a news item in which the priest leading a procession in a Sicilian town was heavily ticked off for allowing it to halt and get the Saint’s statue to bow before the house of a well-known mafia chief (who had apparently also helped to sponsor the event).

San Cassiano’s Festa Triennale del SS Crocifisso (Feast of the Very Holy Crucifix, celebrated in grand style every three years) has fortunately no such shady associations. It is a very moving festival of the religious and community spirit of the area, bringing together not only the inhabitants of the surrounding villages but also relatives who have emigrated to the Americas and northern Europe. For an anthropologist the Festa is a complete vindication of Durkheim’s concept of “collective effervescence” and the identification of God with Society.

The intermixing and fusion of the sacred and the secular can be felt throughout the three days of this wonderful occasion, both for San Cassiano and for the entire Valle di Lima.

This was the programme:


The High Mass I attended on Sunday was brightened by the glorious singing of the San Felicita choir from Lucca who sang organ-accompanied plainsong with a delightful alternation of men’s and women’s voices.

I returned in late afternoon for the Vespers where the most spectacular part of the celebration takes place. The fourteenth century and wonderfully expressive crucifix, which normally resides in a side chapel to the right of the high altar, has been positioned above the altar on a pedestal placed on a trolley on a carmine-covered “railway”. A cable then lowers it at the slowest of paces, just like a San Francisco cable-car, until it reaches the safe hands of the bearers who place poles through the pedestal and carry it with the maximum care (low entrance door!) out of the church into the bright sunlight. For the sun always shines when the crucifix is brought out – even yesterday when storm clouds broke out in the morning and were threatening for much of the day. No-one can remember the procession ever being cancelled because of bad weather!

The order of the procession is as follows:

  1. The various local associations and religious guilds
  2. The holy host held in a beautiful ostensory
  3. The crucifix itself born by around twenty bearers with further bearers in their white and red costumes (signifying their adherence to religious self-help associations)
  4. The band of brass and wind instruments playing various religious songs.
  5. The people following on.

The route taken by the procession is a symbolic “beating the bounds” and is meant to instrumentalise the imparting of blessings by the holy crucifix on the entire parish area for good crops, fertility and avoidance of pestilence and war. It’s virtually like a gigantic house blessing.

I returned in the evening to witness a fabulous fireworks display over the illuminated church of san Cassiano.

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It’s wonderful that these events can still happen in the difficult times Italy is still passing through. True, there may be fewer people present than once – so many have emigrated. All the features of the ancient rites are there, however, as is the very Italianate sense of solemnity and jollity of this glorious event.

I do hope I shall still be here in three years’ time to witness this great communal outpouring again! It is so very special and shows that Italians have an innate sense of organisation and order when it comes to their village celebrations that the government they labour under would do well to emulate.

Here are a few video clips from this event:








Water, Water Everywhere (At Last!)

The water problem caused by a spiteful neighbour (yes, people can be spiteful here too) had to be resolved quickly. I was lucky that we were passing through the wettest July on record in Italy, else my tomatoes and lettuces would not have survived on our limited supply

There were four solutions I pondered over:

  1. Placing a large plastic sheet supported by posts over the water tank so that any rainfall could be funnelled into the tank.
  2. Using a water diviner to track the water course running under our field.
  3. Getting an extra connection of water from the mains.
  4. Digging a large hole and lining it with plastic sheeting so that it could collect rain water.

I discussed the four solutions with our local wood-cutter and he pointed out the snags with three of the schemes:

  1. Driving rain and strong winds could soon blow the plastic sheet away even before it started channelling water.
  2. Even if the water diviner was successful, a borehole would have to be made. This could go down to an aquifer possibly at least one hundred feet below and would prove very expensive indeed.
  3. The water company only connects water to land occupied by a resident. Our land was farmland and no connection was possible.

In the end we decide on solution 4. The wood-cutter’s little excavator was brought into my olive grove, skilfully manoeuvred by one of his sons. The hole was dug to a metre’s depth and is able to contain two and a half thousand litres.

The bottom and sides of the hole were smoothed off to provide no jagged edges for the laying of the plastic sheeting.

I hadn’t realised the complexity of the controls on a mechanical digger. The son was a virtuoso with it as much as a pianist can be on the ivories.

The sheet was laid and the sides held down by the earth so that the displaced earth actually formed a nice embankment round it.

In fact, the exercise was similar to making a giant duck pond (see  “Duck!”  post) except that plastic sheeting was used instead of a pre-formed shape and there was the advantage of machinery.

The whole work took little more than two hours and my relief at seeing how an intractable problem could be solved with such obvious and simple means was great.

Now all that needs to happen is for it to rain which, judging, by the dark clouds hovering around our valley at this moment, is sure to occur very soon.

 And this is how the “tank” looked like after a night with some slight drizzle

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Many people have been surprised that at a height of almost six hundred metres we are able to have capers growing from various exterior walls of our house in Longoio.

The capers came with the house – and more have self-planted themselves since moving here. I have given seed-pods to friends but capers seem to have a mind of their own…

My wife likes to pick the pods and pickle them. Capers make even a cheese toast a gourmet’s delight! I enjoy the buds blossoming into the most beautiful flowers. There are enough capers to satisfy both senses of taste and sight!

Incidentally, if someone exclaims “Capperi!” in a surprised tone of voice this merely means that he/she is astonished at something. It’s the Italian equivalent of “Crickey!”

The photos I took of our capers the other morning make some of them look a little bedraggled: there was heavy dew.

You could even see the cobwebs clearly enough on our ex-Christmas tree. Capperi!

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Extra Mural Studies

An exhibition of photographs of mural painting throughout the world (“Murales nel Mondo”) taken by Piero Berti, was inaugurated on the 21st of July on the upper floor of Bagni di Lucca’s Circolo dei Forestieri, runs until the end of this month and is open daily from 4 pm to 7 pm..

It’s a pity that the exhibition runs for such a short time and has such awkward opening hours because its subject matter is most interesting and I certainly expanded my knowledge of mural painting by visiting it.

The first thing to remember is that painting on walls (wall in Spanish = mural) has nothing to do with graffiti which are based on individualist and letter-based concepts. A Murale is essentially a community project and expresses, in allegorical terms, political and cultural concepts. Unfortunately, many murals in cities may lose this community inspiration and be disfigured by graffiti through individuals re-defining their tribal territories.

Having said this, there are several murals which combine both figurative and lettering schemes successfully. This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland where in places like Belfast and Derry it has reached its utmost development within an emotive political situation.

I first came across murals when, as a youngster, I hitched across Mexico. There, muralism as an art movement sprang up as a result of the 1910 revolution and was developed to great heights by people like Diego Rivera (whose mural masterpiece adorns Mexico city’s town hall) and José Orozco.


Muralism may, of course, be regarded as much older than 1910. Not only are the great  fresco cycles in Italy aspects of muralism but it must also be remembered that in many parts of Italy the exterior of buildings are, or have been, adorned by murals. In Florence, the technique of sgraffito (a sort of reverse-painting technique where the design is produced by literally scratching off layers of different coloured paints as in Bianca Cappello’s house) was particularly popular.


Closer to home and our times, the most famous Murale is Pisa’s Universal Peace wall painting by American Keith Haring (who died of AIDS aged only 31 in 1990).

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Even closer to home are the murals of Lizzano (well under an hour’s drive from Bagni di Lucca although they are in Pistoian territory). These murals were painted by the “Donatello” group of artists, some coming from Florence. They, too, are peace-praising Murales and were inspired by the story of an American sergeant whose life was saved through the local inhabitants’ bravery during WW2 (Lizzano is near the Gothic line) and who then decided to became a priest.

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I can’t think of any murals in Bagni di Lucca although I feel that the current arts festival could inspire at least one.  Murales, of course, require community spirit and consent, as happened in Lizzano. Perhaps next year?

To return to the exhibition at the Circolo dei Forestieri, some criticism: three flights of stairs may be a tall order for less-able people: a lift is a prime necessity for equal access if the lovely space is to be regularly used for exhibitions. Each photograph should be labelled individually instead of having to return to a single printed sheet with numbers stating photo locations every time one wants to know more information about the photographs. Furthermore, the location descriptions could be more detailed. The lighting is not very good and the reflexive glass which covers the photos gets into the way.


Despite these strictures I found the exhibition both insightful and instructive.




The owner’s son was truly grateful of our purchase and bowed to the Buddha with reverend hand gestures in gratitude I suppose for our presence it was quite moving. I will indeed ask Francis to post the progress I have finished the job but I must say what with the heat et. al. It was a huge project to undertake!

1. Get your pond shape.

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2. Decide where to place it and dig a whole greater than the size and shape of the pond. Remove all sharp stones and stones generally.

3. Fill the base of the dug-out area with fine sand.

4. Place the pond shape on top.

5. Fill with some water and check for levels with spirit level.

6. At this point job was left. Next morning it was filled with rain water and the ducks were already happily swimming and enjoying their new pond!

7. However, the plastic pond distorted one side due to the weight of the water bearing down on it so all water had to be removed and saved.

8. Major job now ensued to collect as much sandy or clay soil as possible as well as nice loamy earth.

9. Then all the areas had to be packed with this mixture of soils to ensure no more distortion of the plastic pond.

10 Finally, fill the pond again with rain water. I nearly forgot that the actual final part is to create a nice rockery around the pond edge and plant ferns and other plants. Job done photos to follow!


Sandra Pettitt


Ravioli and Suspense in Val di Lima

The nice thing about visiting familiar places with friends and visitors is not just to enjoy good company but also to regain the ability to see new things in accustomed sights and recapture the sensation of seeing them for the first time.

This happened yesterday, in particular, when our little party visited attractions which I thought I knew well.

Our first stop was at the extraordinary church of San Cassiano. The interior was locked (but we shall visit it next Sunday when a major triennial festival takes place in the village – see However, the principal beauty of the church is its beautifully sculptured façade, full of symbolism which I am unable to fully understand even now!


The nearby chapel was opened for us to view the beautiful cavaliere di San Cassiano: a statue of Saint Martin riding his horse and presumably on the way to giving half his cloak to a destitute man who turns out, in a dream, to be Jesus Christ.


One member of our party pointed out the extraordinary swift-swallow carvings on the chapel’s bell-cote which I’d never properly noticed before.

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We continued to the Ponte Nero (“Black bridge”) with a very unassuming building next to it. This turned out to be a pilgrim’s chapel with a particularly beautiful fresco we could peer at through some grills in the closed door.

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What was even more beautiful was the narrow gorge stretch of the river Lima called “I stretti di Cocciglia” with water that even on this not very bright day shone like turquoise.

We took the road up to the village of Casoli more to enjoy the expansive valley views than the village itself which did, however, turn out to have some very charming corners.

By this stage we were beginning to feel hungry: no problem since I’d booked us in at the Buca di Baldabò restaurant in another remote village, Vico Pancellorum.

I’d stated in a previous post that if one wishes to eat well in the Bagni di Lucca area one should head for an eatery in one of the villages (e.g. “Biribisso” at Granaiola, “Santina” at San Cassiano etc.). It was, therefore, with great delight that I joined my party to eat, too, for the very first time at Buca di Baldabò. I must add it was the best meal I’ve ever had in the Val Lima, perhaps even beyond.

Hors d’oevre were dispensed with and we plunged immediately into the pasta and, in particular, into the ravioli filled with ricotta cheese and topped with sage and butter, which one part member declared were feather-light. 07242014 015

For our second course, some chose the thinly sliced Italian way of eating roast beef and the others another meat with funghi (not yet local ones at this time).

By the time the dessert came our stomachs were fully satiated and we could only manage one tiramisu among five!

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Before moving on from Vico Pancellorum we decided we’d give the place a quick look and headed for the top part of this steeply sloping village which ends in a beautiful Pieve. Other friends who’d visited Vico declared it spooky because they hadn’t seen any sign of humans in its deserted streets. Just as we were reaching the same conclusion a band of merry men appeared and told us that they were getting ready for the annual arts festival at Vico which would restore it back to life. (More details at

A stop at the large village (or small town?) of Popiglio was rewarded by a visit to the exquisite interior of the Pieve enriched by the fortunes of the local Vannini family who struck it lucky with papal employment in the seventeenth century and decided to share some of their treasures with the local inhabitants. (For more details of Popiglio see my post at

For me, however, the most beautiful piece in the museum attached to the Pieve was not the ornate collection of ecclesiastical utensils, or the mighty Vannini family vault, but the exquisite trecento statue of Santa Lucia holdings her palm of martyrdom.

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There was still time to fit in another Val di lima experience and the more foolhardy of us crossed the pedestrian suspension bridge built by metal factory owner Scotti to help workers from the opposite side of the valley commute more easily to his factory (For more on this see my post at

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We were warned not to cross the bridge if it was windy or if we were more than eighty (in number of persons – not age!). It wasn’t windy but it was still a bit wobbly.  I would also add the warning not to cross the bridge if there is a party of school kids on it as they love to make it swing even more. Dogs don’t like it either (sensibly).

A nice cup of tea at the local bar ended our revelry of sights in the Val di Lima on a wonderfully clear and rain-free day in this unusually damp July.

Working for one’s Lunch

I was a little early for the working lunch at the Cantina di Carignano so decided to take advantage of a beautiful morning in welcome contrast to the cataclysmic low pressure deluges Tuscany had suffered the previous day. The whole area on the hills behind the cantina is the western half of the olive oil and wine region of Lucca. It is quite heavenly country and has many places where one can buy local agricultural products direct. It also has some very elegant villas – clearly, this area was chosen long ago by the Luccan aristocracy for their summer residences and its home-producing farms, similarly to the area to the east of the Serchio which, too, has such magnificent villas such as la Villa Reale (now apparently bought by a Russian magnate for a mere forty-five million Euros and whose gardens are only visitable until October this year).

The Carignano area has some unusual shrines, one of which I’d come across several years ago and had lost sight of until this year when I rediscovered it. I took another visit to the Madonna delle Lubache (named after the road that passes in front of it) yesterday. The brain child of an undoubtedly very religious man it is a beautifully eccentric homage to the Virgin with some unusual but attractive woodcarving.

Because of the previous day’s heavy rain the little stream that runs through it was quite swollen.

I am constantly amazed that such places can exist in Italy. Regrettably, in England I do not think they would last very long with the number of vandals of absolutely no particular religious persuasion who would soon wreck them. (That’s why I’m also not telling you exactly where this shrine is – a different hand will guide you there.)

The attractive church of San Martino di Vignale was closed but, again, I was pleasantly surprised by the trust of a local group of women who opened it up for me. The church has a magnificent approach and next to it is the House of the Blessed Charles de Foucauld, dedicated to soul searching activities – a spiritual centre, in fact.

Charles de Foucauld himself seems to have been another anthropologist-turned-priest (see my previous post on Don Mathieu). He carried out some important research on the culture and language of the Tuareg of the Sahara and built a hermitage in the middle of the sands. Beatified by Pope Paul II in 2005, de Foucauld is another extraordinary character who merits further investigation.

Returning to our working lunch: I’d seen the Cantina di Carignano before but assumed it would be an expensive place to eat in. Conditioned by years of living in London where our height of delights would be to eat Fish ‘n Chips on a park bench (or, at the very most, a curry in Brick Lane – unbeatable and one of the few bits of “English” cuisine I miss here) I’d expected the cantina to be pricey. Apart from the fact that the meal was offered to me through the generosity of the Editor of that widely read and wonderfully informative Lucca-area English-language magazine “Grapevine”, I was amazed to find what I could have on the menu for just nine euros, wine water and coffee included. I chose the rigatoni and the cotoletta alla Milanese – others chose spaghetti with clams and escalope with funghi. Only the fullest compliments as to the cooking could be given.

Giovanni’s Cantina will certainly be re-visited me especially as it also has a cooking school which allows one to savour more and more unusual dishes. The atmosphere was great, the company convivial (mainly writers for “Grapevine”, several of whom I’d met for the first time), work was actually achieved on the next edition of “Grapevine” and, most important of all, the food was the best I’d tasted for some time in Lucca province. (The cantina’s web site is at