I’ve Seen This Place Before

In the heart of the Senese countryside stands one of Italy’s greatest ruins: the abbey of San Galgano. Founded by the Cistercians in 1218, it had its moment of highest glory in the fifteenth century and, thereafter, began a slow decline until finally abandoned in the seventeenth.

I’d first visited the abbey in 1997 and was keen to return to see if the initial impact of this extraordinary building would still affect me.

It certainly was. Now roofless, the abbey’s vaults are the bluest of skies and its once stained glass windows reveal beautiful views of the surrounding forests and hills. Like Tintern, its parallel in the Wye Valley of the Welsh border, it is sublimely impressive in its present despoiled state, amply evoking that wonderful line in Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet: “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Presumably the “sweet birds” referred to the singers in the apse, for surely sweet birds still sing in those empty spaces today. I wonder if, like Wordsworth with Tintern, some Italian poet has written lines on this abbey.

Unlike Tintern, however, which fell a victim to Henry VIII’s monastic dissolutions, San Galgano was merely abandoned and its ruinous state is due to its being used as a quarry for building materials. Most of the cloisters and many of the monastic buildings have disappeared because of this but the main abbey Church still rises majestically.

Who was San Galgano around whose cult such a magnificent building was raised? He was a twelfth century nobleman whose life as a knight had already been planned by his family. Galgano then had a vision in which he met the twelve apostles, on a hill near the present abbey, as a result of which he threw away his sword into a rock which opened out embracing it up to the hilt which remained exposed in the form of a cross. Galgano’s rich cloak was also transformed into a threadbare hermit’s habit.

After the visit to the abbey we took a steep path up to the top of the hill where san Galgano had his vision. This is now crowned by an evocative round building known as the Eremo di Montesiepi.

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The interior is austere, evoking both Etruscan and Celtic motifs, and its ceiling a wonderful alternation of concentric bands.

Right in the centre is the sword San Galgano threw away and which entered the rock.  A King Arthur Excalibur story in reverse!

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As a result of an unfortunate incident, in which someone tried to steal the magic sword but was then attacked by a wolf who pulled off his arms, the sword has been protected by a plexi-glass cover. In case you didn’t believe in the wolf story here is the skeleton of the arms:

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Our day was by no means finished for we wanted to make a brief stop in Siena to visit the cathedral and see the magnificent floor which, for a very short time in the year, is exposed to the public. (It’s normally protected by wooden boards).

The floor is made of intarsioed marble and illustrates biblical and historical subjects. Around it are placed the sibyls – one of several classical elements incorporated by the church into its own theology.

It’s incredibly difficult to photograph the floor (the best way would be to climb up on the ceiling – clearly not possible) but easy to appreciate at close quarters. We were so lucky to be able to see this wonder of the world on one of the few occasions it’s visible to the public.

More wonders were to follow in Siena cathedral, not the least of which was the Piccolomini library decorated by the animated and colourful frescoes of Pinturricchio, one of my favourite painters and one which, together with Ghirlandaio, gives a valuable insight into the manners and fashions of the Tuscan renaissance.

A pit stop at the impressive fortified village of Monteriggioni with its battlements and towers (mentioned by Dante in his inferno: “in su la cerchia tonda Monteriggion di torri si corona”) was followed by our entry into the city of the lily – Florence.

PS If you liked the films “Nostalgia” and “The English Patient” then you’ve seen the abbey of San Galgano before too!

 

Volcanic Baths in Saturn(ia) and Go-Karts in Civitella

Next day’s itinerary took us first to Scansano, famous for its Morellino wine. The hilltop town is also very attractive and we enjoyed a welcome break here.

There is an interesting museum with a collection of Etruscan items and a section on wine-making.

I’d seen a picture of the cascatelle of Saturnia (little waterfalls) and was determined we should include this on our itinerary. The cascatelle are fed by hot thermal springs and emanate a smell of bad eggs. They are very curative for a variety of ailments (mainly back-ache) and also very relaxing

The “little waterfalls” were gushing and despite the number of people enjoying the warm waters we too found a place and for about half an hour I had the pleasure of a hot waterfall pouring over me.

The waterfalls are free which is not the case with Saturnia terme, an exclusive hotel and golf course complex we skirted on our way to the actual town of Saturnia, which is quiet and attractive.

The borgo of Saturnia should not be missed – it has a good section of Roman road – part of the Via Clodia – going through its Etruscan-era gate:

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Near Saturnia is a jewel of a hilltop town, Montemerano, happily free from those busloads of tourists that infect those other attractions of Tuscany like San Gemignano.

The parish church is quite beautiful and contains a number of valuable pictures including a Lorenzetti.

The church also has a quaint Madonna called the Madonna della gattaiola or the cat-flap Madonna. The story goes that a priest needing a new door for his house found a plank of wood with a discarded portrait of the Madonna on it. Being also a cat owner the priest decided to use the panel with one small modification, – a round hole in the bottom right of the painting which one can still observe today to serve as a cat-flap. This is surely a prime example of a picture that is admired for something that is missing from it!

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Our journey now took us towards the coast. We wanted to experience the fun of crossing the two tomboli that have roads on them out of the three that connect Monte Argentario to the Italian mainland. In one of the two lagoons a windmill had been built.

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Orbetello is a fine old town and famous for the pioneers of Italian flying boats.

Monte Argentario is a beautiful place. Once an island, it now hosts marinas and a surfeit of time shares and parking is a real problem….it’s not quite our place we decided.

Before returning to our hotel we looked into Civitella Marittima (marittima means that the place is in the Maremma, not that it’s near the sea), a nearby hill town. Here the inhabitants were celebrating the Palio of the carretti – or hand-made, non-motorised go-karts This is another example of the inventiveness of Italian palios.

I realise that the idea of the Palio is also to release tension between the various parts of a town and avoid such shameful phenomenas as Britain’s (and the USA’s) regular inner city riots. Setting off steam in this way is a great way also to attract visitors and turn the different elements of the town into a real community.

We wandered around looking at the stalls and eating Donzelle. These are not maidens but a variety of delicious fried bread.

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There were the usual artisan stalls and some less usual fashions displayed.

Returning to our base we realised that this was to be the last night in this area before proceeding next morning to Florence.

Of Castles and Abbeys

The following morning was overcast so it was an ideal day to visit museums and monuments. We headed out for Montalcino which has the reputation of producing the best wine in Italy – the Brunello. It was a place I’d last seen in 1997 when I’d reached it on my Honda Transalp on my first major motorbike trip across Europe. I was glad to revisit it and for Sandra to see this proud little hill town for the first time.

We parked our fiat Cinquina near the main museum and were just in time to enter it when threatening thunder surrounded Montalcino and it began to rain.

 

The museum was very well laid out and contained, among other treasures, some paintings by Lorenzetti, one of the greats of the Senese school of painting.

It takes no art  critic to realise that there are major differences between Senese and Florentine paintings even if the two cities are so close to each other. Whereas, in the fifteenth century Florence entered fully into the renaissance and developed perspective and new ways of presenting familiar religious subjects Siena continued with its post-byzantine style which eschewed perspective and used stylised poses and gold backgrounds. It developed this exquisite hieratic style to perfection culminating in the works of Simone Martini and Lorenzetti.

I was particularly intrigued by these pottery vases which date back to the thirteenth century and featured strange animals including ferocious felines and exotic birds.

We had intended to continue our journey sooner but the weather was still very rainy and when we were invited to a lunch at a nearby palazzo we took up the offer. It was organized for a Festa dell’unità (or political party related Festa) and featured antipasto, two pasta courses (penne and local thick spaghetti called pici) meat and veg course, finished by delicious water melon and cake, washed down by excellent local wines.

At our long table were a party of Italians from north of the Apennines and we enjoyed their company especially as they appeared to be well-versed in their musical subjects.

It wasn’t until three that we managed to leave our table, rather later that expected, and headed for the castle which produced great views but little else apart from its splendid battlements and towers.

After lunch we headed to Sant’Antimo, the exquisite Benedictine monastery just outside Montalcino and set in a beautiful valley. This too I’d visited on my two-wheel escapade back in 1997 and was keen that Sandra saw this fine building .

Constructed in a French-influenced Cluniac-style of architecture, the abbey is striking both in its exterior and interior with some wonderful carved column capitals. The monks worship here seven times in twenty-four hours and sing fine plainchant. Unfortunately, we could not wait for the vespers as this would have made us return home too late and instead we headed past the slopes of Monte Amiata.

This mountain is all that remains of a once active volcano and has thickly wooded slopes. Apparently, there is still some geo-thermic activity, as this ENEL plant we passed showed ,with its naturally caught geodesic vapours.

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Our last stop was a mediaeval Festa at Cana, a sweet little village south west of Arcidosso which boasts an extraordinary position among pinnacles and gorges.

Here we met Dante reciting the last Canto of his “Paradiso”.

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We enjoyed sauntering along the picturesque streets of this semi-forgotten village and delighted in a languid sunset stretching out onto the Maremman plain.

Southern Tuscany is sometimes neglected, especially by those of us centred in Northern Tuscany. It is just a little too far for a day trip. It’s not that the distances are excessive but that the roads are so twisty that it takes so much longer get to places.

We shall certainly back to explore those places we missed this time and, perhaps, even get to the top of that extinct volcano which for the whole day was swathed in clouds.

Abandoned Cities and Empty Beaches

 

Roselle is an abandoned city between Paganico and Grosseto. Within its confines are Etruscan walls, a Roman amphitheatre and forum, villas with beautiful mosaics and marble intarsioed floors and much else.

We had the site virtually to ourselves. We walked for about a mile around the cyclopean walls only to discover that we’d only covered a fifth of their circuit. It’s not surprising that, once, people used to think that these walls were built by giants!

The statuary in the forum area seemed at first to be part of a modernist exhibition, so clean and white it was. Then we discovered that these were the original statues of the Bassi family who were top people in the city around 100 AD.

The site of Roselle was spectacular with extensive views all around to the Maremman mountains and the broad valley of the area’s main river the Ombrone.

Cicadas racketed, wild flowers bloomed and the sun did not shine so fiercely.

At the top of the hill were two Roman cisterns and an artisan area with remains of pottery kilns.

We found out that Roselle was founded in pre-Etruscan times and that there are remains dating back to the prehistoric Villafrancan period (the same era that produced the steles we saw at Pontremoli). Roselle survived well into mediaeval times when it was finally abandoned because of encroaching malaria from the plains surrounding it: the old Roman irrigation system had broken down and the anopheles mosquito started to breed ever more furiously. Strangely, we didn’t come across any remains later than Roman. Perhaps they are still to be discovered beneath all that undergrowth.

The sea now awaited us: the unspoilt coast of the regional park of the Maremma with its miles and miles of umbrella pine-fringed natural beaches. We had intended to reach Marina di Alberese but the car park there was full, so one of the girls directing motorists suggested that we head towards Fonteblanda and a special secret beach whose name translates as “enjoy yourself”.

With its mixture of rocks and sand it was the perfect haven to relax after our morning’s archaeological walk. The views stretched to Monte Argentario, the Isola del Giglio and Talamone.

We had a quick look at Talamone which, apart from its choc-a-block full marina, still presents the appearance of an old fishing village dominated by the castle and its walls.

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Then we headed back to Marina di Alberese. On the way we met up with some docile long-horned cattle characteristic of this part of the world:

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Continuing along a dirt track we came across this:

If only more of Tuscany’s (and Italy’s coastline) were like this! The umbrella pines almost came from a lost world and formed a wonderfully cool natural canopy under which to walk. The beach stretched for miles: it wasn’t at all crowded, even in this holiday period, and romantic strolls into the sunset could truly be taken on it.

The au naturel  feel stretched to the bivvies beach combers had built. We felt transported to some exotic island in a Pacific Ocean and not the usually crowded summer Mediterranean coastline.

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To Southern Tuscany with Cheeky

Paganico is not a town that immediately springs to mind when one is on a short holiday in southern Tuscany. We only chose it because that’s where our hotel was, For 55 euros we were guaranteed a  room with double bed and en suite bathroom, TV air condition, Wi-Fi and breakfast included. What was also included was permission to bring Cheeky with us into the hotel since, at only six weeks she was much too young to be left at home. In fact, the hotel owners turned out to be avid cat-lovers!

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We left Longoio a little after midday and took the standard via Aurelia route (statale no. 1 the Italian equivalent of the A1). Just before Grosseto we turned off on a minor road which took us past a piggery housing the ancient breed of Cinta Senese pigs with their distinctive colouring. This breed, despite the fact that it requires much more grazing land than a standard pig, is making a considerable come-back:

The road was lined with impressive umbrella pines – the tree of the Maremma, the once malaria-infested region we were now entering.

We then entered a forest of cork trees, with stunning bark-less red trunks and descended into the Ombrone valley where Paganico is situated.

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We chose the hotel mainly for its economic price rather than its looks which were definately 1970’s vintage.

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Our original choice had been for an agriturismo but that, at double the price, did not even have a TV in the room and no swimming pool. Together with some unflattering comments pasted by previous customer to it we were glad we gave it a miss.

Agriturismi, or farm holidays, are all the rage in Italy but, unlike hotel ratings, standards are very uneven and they should always be checked up on “Trip advisor”. Moreover, the location of an Agriturismo, although often stunning, can have its drawbacks. Town centres and shopping may be distant and often it’s difficult to tear oneself away from the activities these places may offer and, instead, tour the area, which, in my opinion, is the main point of being there.

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The hotel we stayed at was also well placed for visiting the more remote places of southern Tuscany and for enjoying an afternoon on the beach.

Shortly after we arrived we decided we’d do some shopping in Paganico. Expecting an undistinguished town we were very pleasantly surprised to find a mediaeval walled borgo with at least one splendid entrance gate:

 

The parish church had some fascinating fourteenth century frescoes attributed to Biago di Goro Ghezzi and illustrating stories about St Michael the Archangel (to whom the church is dedicated).

The streets were picturesque and the locals very hospitable. Some of the shops were quite quaint:

Yet, such are the riches of Italy’s heritage that Paganico is not even mentioned in the Automobile club d’Italia guidebook, let alone the Rough Guide.

We came home with some vino sfuso (wine from the barrel) expecting that, too, to be undistinguished. Instead it turned out to be an excellent tipple. After all, Scansano with its Morellino wine isn’t far distant from here.

Entertainment was offered in the form of a “Sagra del Granocchio” but, as fans of “The Wind in the Willows” we didn’t fancy eating toad, even if it wasn’t the one from the Hall:

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The night was pleasantly warm and we had to put on the ventilator. Needless to say, Cheeky alternated between playing with us and sleeping profoundly.

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Sam enjoys his Whiskey

Sam Stych, world bibliographical expert on Boccaccio, at 98 years of age is the link between the present parade of ex-pats in Bagni di Lucca and the former.

There is a vast difference between the two types of ex-pats. The old school, including such luminaries as Ian Greenlees and Robin Chanter, (see my posts on them in http://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/06/r-i-p-ian/) were the last of the descendants in the cultural ilk of the aristocratic grand-tour lords. They were classically educated, took it for granted that an effort should be made to learn Italian, knew their old masters off by heart and declaimed Dante, at least in translation.

For these people Bagni di Lucca was a shelter from the torrid heat of their main residence, which was in Florence. (Although Greenlees later sold his apartment in Via Santo Spirito and commuted instead between Villa Fraita in Anacapri and Casa Mansi in Bagni di Lucca.

Today the cultural tone, at least, is somewhat different among the present ex-pats, most of whom commute between another European country and Italy rather than permanently residing here. Low-cost flights and Euro-access have made travel so much easier and less expensive.

However, something is lost. For example, letters of introduction were once  issued to English persons so that they could have the right connections in Italy. Today, such letters are anathema to many who try to avoid even the sight of another compatriot. Cultural knowledge about things Italian is virtually nill and is usually confined to know-how about the best restaurant and the most pleasant vintage.

This is where Sam, steps in and joins together different generations. Still amazingly lucid, he had been passing through some less than happy times when his friend on the floor above died at an unacceptably young age. To add to his sadness, his tomboy cat Alessio disappeared for ever after having given Sam a last, touching, midnight goodbye.

A time of mourning ensued when cat-less Sam (who already has two marble tablets inscribed to former feline pets in his courtyard) could only stare at a picture of his departed companion on the table next to his armchair where, alas, Sam is now confined since 2011.

Happily, I am informed that all is now changed since we discovered a perfect successor to Alessio through the “Piccole Cucce” association for abandoned cats. We took a tiny black and white kitten to Sam who promptly and wittily baptised it “Whiskey” (also, Ian’s pre-prandial tipple).

We are so glad for Sam and wish him the very best with his new companion. Judging from the comments of his cook and helpmate, Sam and Whiskey are getting along swimmingly and, in the words of another friend, “is a changed person.”

Animals can often  change people more than other humans (as the influence of animals on autistic children has shown) and I am sure that Sam will be in perfect eye-winking shape to be able to attend and make a valuable contribution to the conference that will be held on Ian Greenlees this September in the ex-Anglican church (now Bagni di Lucca library) this September.

In case you didn’t have the programme of this conference click on the following link:

http://www.prolocobagnidilucca.it/IX%20convegno%20internazionale%20ian%20greenlees.pdf

By the way: as a result of supplying Sam with a new feline we too have a new one of our own. We couldn’t go away from the piccole cucce lady without taking with us Cheeky, Whiskey’s sister. Here she is and getting along well with Napoleon the master-cat of the house.

Graffiti Hit Longoio’s Church

News! The graffiti that disfigure so many buildings in major Italian cities and, perhaps some of the walls of our beloved Lucca have now arrived in the smallest villages of the Controneria.

Last night I noticed with horror that the beautiful church of Longoio (the village where I have lived for ten years), which dates from 1631, has been “decorated” with three hearts painted in black. The two hearts on the right side of the wall of the porch were painted on cement that could be removed and replaced. But the heart on the top of this wall has penetrated the surface of the “pietra serena” stone that has more than four hundred years. The removal of this graffiti would require the intervention of the government’s fine arts department to be effective and in compliance with the principles of the restoration.

It does not matter that they are hearts. Certainly, hearts are better than any other graffiti since the Church, as reflected Pope Francesco, is love. What has been “painted” could have been much worse. We can confirm, however, that a few hours before we saw two lovebirds, the girl with long blond hair, sitting right on the same spot where a little later I found these hearts.

They will be in love but certainly not with the beauty of the church that has been abused in this rough way.

Maybe you will agree with a part-time resident of Longoio who, in my previous comment on another incident of vandalism in Longoio, writes “Perhaps it would be better to ask why some people write shit like this” or maybe you’ll be in agreement with (among many) Jouko Ofverberg who writes “What a pity that these things happen in your environment.

We think, however, that most of the people reading this will agree that what was done to the church of Longoio is not a good sign but an indicator of the deterioration of the village and of our times.

For more about this church please click on

http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/chiesina-della-madonna-dei-sette-dolori-di-longoio/