Journey towards the Centre of the Earth

Because of its large areas of limestone Italy has some of the most spectacular cave systems in the world. It’s reckoned, for example, that the cavities inside the Apuan Alps which rise to the west of our Serchio valley are some of the most extensive anywhere on Earth (or rather, in Earth!). Anyone who has been to this part of the world and missed taking at least one of the three separate itineraries inside the Grotta Del Vento is truly missing something exceptional.

The Grotta Del Vento’s web site is at http://www.grottadelvento.com/ENG/home.aspx.

Italian speleologists, true experts in their field, have done much to discover and explore unknown cave systems; it is terrible that two of them out of an expedition of four,  Oskar Piazza and Gigliola Mancinelli, have lost their lives, as a result of the Nepal earthquake.

Those caves with some of the largest natural halls in the world are in an area which was formerly Italian but which was lost after the treaties concluding World War II. They are the caves of Postumia, now in Slovenia and locally known as “Postojnska jama”.

The area round the caves is exceptionally pretty.

Postumia caves extend for twenty kilometres and have been known since they were inhabited by humans in prehistoric times, although they were only described for the first time in the eighteenth century. In 1884 Postumia were the first caves in the world to be lit by electricity and have ever since proved to be a very popular tourist attraction. I was lucky to have visited them in April 2007 (when this post’s photographs were taken) and my wife had visited them when they were still in Yugoslavia.

The photographs of long departed royalty show some of the visitors who preceded us in the last century.

A railway inside the caves was installed in 1872 and Postumia are the only caves to have one. Here is an example of former rolling stock.

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The system has, clearly, since been updated and we seated ourselves comfortably in open carriages ready for our ride into the bowels of the earth which was taken at, what seemed to me, break-neck speed. I would have liked it to be rather slower so that I could appreciate the limestone formations more clearly.

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Here are three videos of that journey:

We did, however, have ample time to admire the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, some of which were of massive dimensions, during the second, walking, part of our itinerary.

The caves house two unique species of fauna: a blind amphibian called Proteus Anquinus with a pretty pink coloration, and a beetle, Leptodirus Hohenwart, presumably blind too.

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I wasn’t impressed by the food at the restaurant at the entrance to the caves, although the ambience was rather baronial. Was it mediocre catering or was Slovenian food just not as tasty as Italian cuisine?

The caves’ temperature is a constant eight degrees with high humidity so bring some warmer clothes if you are visiting them in summer!

More information is available at the caves’ web site at http://www.postojnska-jama.eu/en/

Seaview Trieste-Style

Described by “Lonely Planet” guide as “the most underestimated of Italian tourist destinations”, Trieste is a truly fascinating place to discover, not least because of its location at the crossroads of three worlds, the Italian Mediterranean, the Mittel-European Austrian and the Slavonic Balkans.

It was also James Joyce’s favourite place and Italo Svevo’s too (who was taught English by Joyce before setting out to our London borough of Greenwich to run a paint factory – but that is another story.)

Trieste could be described as Vienna-by-the-sea. Its impressive buildings do have a strong taste of classic Ringstrasse architecture.

But Trieste is also typically Italian with its narrow winding streets in the old town and its beautiful cathedral dedicated to San Giusto.

Trieste has the reputation of being the original caffé centre of Italy. When the Turks had to retreat from their siege of Vienna in 1683 they left behind a bag of….coffee beans and Austria and Italy were hooked on the dark liquid. Of course, if the Turks had won we’d still be hooked but then Italy and Europe would be full of minarets rather than campanili! The best place to drink il Caffè is, of course, the magnificently historic San Marco Caffè.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.

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Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

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Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care.  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.

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But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

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As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.

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Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeed him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.

All my photographs date from my last visit to these fairyland places in April 2007. I must return soon and find out more!

Lest We Forget

May 23rd 1915 marks the hundredth anniversary of Italy’s entry into World War I. I have already given the background to this entry in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-the-great-war-from-an-italian-perspective/ .

As that ominous date approaches I recollected my visit, in April 2007, to the military memorial of Redipuglia in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Dedicated to the memory of more than 100,000 Italian soldiers who died during the Great War it was built during the fascist era to replace a less colossal cemetery just to the front of it.

It was that same fascist regime which almost lost the memorial to the Yugoslavs in the bitterest fighting that marked the close of the Second World War. The cemetery is, in fact, situated in the province of Gorizia, a town which has been divided between two countries since 1945 as a result of that fighting. Several other Italian cemeteries have not been so lucky and one has to cross over into Slovenia or Croatia to visit many of them, something more easily done now than during the existence of Yugoslavia.

The Redipuglia monument is the centre-piece of a large memorial park which includes several parts of the karst battlefields. These were the scene for some of the fiercest battles fought and include the Isonzo war theatre comprising twelve battles between 1915 and 1917 which ended with the disastrous defeat by the Austrians at Caporetto.

The huge size of the Redipuglia memorial makes it easily the largest military memorial in Italy and one of the largest in the world. It was an incredibly moving experience to be there.

I went to the top of the memorial where there is an ossuary dedicated to sixty thousand soldiers who died without a name and slowly walked down the colossal stair ramps (twenty two steps in total) casting an eye on some names which somehow rang a bell with me.

In all there are 39,857 names referring to the identified bodies of soldiers. I found the constantly repeated inscriptions “Presente” referring to the soldiers’ morning roll call particularly touching. Truly these soldiers are always present with us, “lest we forget”.

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It is really shocking to realise that 60,330 soldiers are buried here without a name to identify them!

Interestingly, there is also a woman, a Red Cross nurse, buried at Redipuglia: Margherita Orlando, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic which followed the war’s end and claimed even more victims that those who fell in combat.

At the monuments base is the porphyry tomb (weighing 75 tons) of Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia-Aosta, commander of Italy’s Third Army – a sort of symbolic gesture (which he wanted) of a general leading his soldiers even beyond death.

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Every November 4, in the presence of the President of the Senate (replacing the President of Italy who observes at Rome’s Altar of the Fatherland – or Motherland?) there is a commemoration, on the lines of our own tribute at London’s cenotaph, in remembrance of the 689,000 Italian soldiers who died in the First World War.

The great stone stairway down which I walked, and which forms a kind of gigantic shrine at Redipuglia, is placed directly in front of Sant’Elia Hill, which housed the previous war cemetery and which was also the scene of bitter fighting between 1915 and 1918. I found this previous war cemetery particularly touching as it was designed by the serving soldiers themselves rather than by a totalitarian regime which would drive Italy into yet another disastrous war.

The area between the two cemeteries contains relics of the fighting including trenches, tunnels, munition, machine gun nests and various examples of WW1 firepower.

The dedications set up by the survivors are themselves particularly poignant and, although this previous cemetery lacks the impressiveness of the new one designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglioni, it is for me even more moving, giving a closer impression of how feelings ran about the bloodiest conflict mankind has known.

It is both ironic and unbelievable that Mussolini’s monumental masterpiece was inaugurated in the same year that he began negotiating a “pact of steel” with his great admirer, Adolf Hitler.

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When will we ever learn, I wonder.

Iced Up in Lucca

At a relatively early age I discovered what made the big difference between Italy and the UK (apart from the weather). It was the quality of the ice-cream. (The wine came later). The summit of ice-cream making in our London suburb was when the van turned up with its enervating chimes and we rushed to get our wafers or cones with something, either ghastly pink or off-white, with a chocolate flake stuck on top.

It was lickable but paled very significantly as the taste buds were awakened into extasies by ice-creams in Italy with their incredibly varied flavours and taste of natural ingredients.

Ice-cream reached the UK in the seventeenth century when Charles I imported an Italian chef to make it for him. The “royal” prerogative was largely broken when a Italian-swiss ice-cream maker named Gatti set up the first ice-cream stall before Charing Cross station in 1851. From then on the British public, regardless of class, have been hooked on this wondrous dessert.

Sadly, however, just as (in an episode of that immortal comedy series, “Yes Minister”), the British sausage had to be re-named, according to European Union rules, as the “emulsified high-fat offal tube”, so the average British ice-cream, which contains well above the permitted E. U. level of fats and oils, should be re-titled the “hydrogenated vegetable oil iced slab”. Or am I becoming a little unfair?

Returning to Italy and, in particular, Lucca: until a few years ago we used to patronise a couple’s ice-cream shop in Via San Paolino. Apart from the excellence of their product, what was interesting was that this couple had given up work in a UK insurance office to enter into a business in which not only did they lack experience but also where they were in stiff competition with the natives.

However, just as Italians emigrating to Glasgow struck it lucky opening up fish ‘n chip shops (a fact celebrated in Barga’s summer festival) so why shouldn’t Brits have done the same with ice-cream in Italy? It’s a difficult act to follow and our friends did it excellently before moving to pastures new in France.

Yesterday at Lucca, enjoying Saint Zita’s day, visiting her uncorrupted corpse (a sign of sainthood apparently) exposed in a glass case near the entrance to San Frediano’s church and appreciating the city’s unique amphitheatre square ablaze with flower stalls

(see my post at   https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/from-flour-to-flowers-festa-di-santa-zita/ for more of that event) we decided to taste some ices at Gelateria Veneta in Via Fillungo no 136.

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Our taste buds were certainly not disappointed. In fact, we thought it was the best ice-cream we’d licked for a long time. The prices for our cones were reasonable and, if we wished, we could have indulged in even more gluttonous pleasures, including an amazing looking banana split.

It may seem strange to have the Venice region as an originator of ice-cream. Surely the tradition started further south? Venice, however, was amply provided in its hinterland with all the fruit trees it could have wanted to make up a great variety of flavours. The Alps just north, supplied all the ice it wanted, even at the height of summer, before modern refrigeration took over that task. Moreover, Veneto’s location made it an excellent focal point from whence ice-cream seller invaded the Austro Hungarian empire and its capital, Vienna (until 1866 the Veneto region was part of this empire) besides spreading across the whole of northern and central Italy.

The recipes followed are those originating from the Zoldo valley in the Dolomites (hence the name “zoldano” ice-cream) do not use milk and specialise particularly in fruit sorbets.

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There are in fact four branches of the Gelateria Veneto, including the yoghurt place by the Rex hotel near Lucca station. The other three are within the city walls, one appropriately sited in Via Vittorio Veneto near san Pietro gate.

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There’s more information at their web site at http://www.gelateriaveneta.net/

When the weather really heats up you’ll know where you’ll probably find us if we’re in Lucca…

End of Shangri-La?

My own experiences with earthquakes, only realised since living here – see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/i-feel-the-earth-move-under-my-feet/ , increases my awareness of how much the people of Nepal must be suffering right now as a result of two devastating seismic shocks reaching almost point 8 on the Richter scale.

I once compared the Indian sub-continent to a geographically giant version of Italy (or was it the other way round, did I compare Italy to a miniature version of India?): the folded Triassic mountains of the Himalayas, taking the place of the Alps, the alluvial Ganges plain the Po valley and the Ghats the Apennines. What I should have realised is that both parts of the world are similarly subject to tectonic plate clashing within their boundaries. Italy’s nearest equivalent, both in scale and geographical location, of the horrors  Nepal is now experiencing would have been the catastrophic Friuli earthquake of 1976 (Richter scale 6.4) when almost a thousand people died.

Where would I find a miniature equivalent of Nepal in Italy? Livigno or the Valtellina are a poor choice, yet they do have several features in common. Surrounded by the highest mountains in each respective continent, they contain a broad central valley and very picturesque towns and villages.

I should know about this since in Sergeant Pepper year I’d hitch-hiked with a friend all the way from Catford, London to Kathmandu, Nepal. I stayed for around a month in the mountain kingdom’s capital and hired a push-bike to visit towns in the broad valley, including Bhaktapur and Lalitpur. I was surprised by the often close similarity of Nepalese temples with their ornate wood carvings to the rural baroque of alpine Italy and Austria.

What was fascinating about Nepal was its religious syncretism and variety. Local gods were fused with classical Hindu deities, refuges from Tibet had also added their own brand of Buddhism and, no doubt, American missionaries were at work too.

Staying in a hostel whose walls were papered with old newspapers I met up with other travellers including seven-finger Eddy, and two others who I was to meet later when I returned to the UK, somewhat changed in attitudes and ideas, to pursue my first uni year.

Strangely, I find I have been living in another mountain valley in India’s miniature version, Italy, for close on ten years now. Is it because I have been infected by Hiltonism? (James Hilton, the author of that classic book about the search for an inaccessible earthly paradise called Shangri-La – Tibetan for “mountain pass to the valley of Shang”).

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Whatever this may be, as hippy dreams have faded away to be replaced by brutal realities, as the Nepalese are counting their dead and as Unesco is measuring the destruction of the country’s unique world heritage sites I have only some very faded photographs, all technically unwittingly underexposed, to describe one of the great experiences in my life.

Let us hope that the technique of anastylosis, whereby every fallen piece of a fallen historical palace or temple is collected, numbered and, like a jigsaw, returned to its original location in the building, is used in Nepal. Then Kathmandu might return to its original glory, like Gemona (which we passed on our way to Vienna with the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra last December) where tourists can enjoy the Friulian town’s historic centre with only the odd number on some of its stones to remind one that just over forty years they had been reduced to a pile of rubble.

Sadly, however, no technique can bring back to life the thousands of earthquake victims, both from Nepal and from abroad, that lie scattered in that beautiful mountain state.

Wisteria and Wood

Our wisteria is in its full cascading splendour. Wisteria certainly makes a beautiful display but we are wondering how much more it should be allowed to spread as its branches can grow as thick as an arm and could begin to envelop our whole house…

It’s a pity that such a spectacular plant should also be a poisonous one. Eating its seed pods can, in fact, cause vomiting and diarrhoea. I think our cats realise that risk by instinct, however.

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Incidentally, the beauty of wisteria was recognized as far back as fourteenth century Japan when it was extensively depicted on Karatsu-style pottery, together with freehand geometric patterns and grasses.

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***

It may seem odd to ask for firewood just as the weather is truly warming up but one thing is certain in this part of the world and that is that winter will return. We ordered our wood from a guy whose timber yard is on the Brennero road. He weighs the wood at the weighbridge in Chiffenti so we are guaranteed a fair price.

Our last lot of firewood lasted us for two winters and only now is it running short.

Having had the wood delivered it’s our job to stack it up and shelter it from the weather. Not a quickly done operation!

By the time the cold weather is on us anew the wood will have been nicely seasoned and, whether it be acacia or oak, will provide excellent fuel.

One job that has received a boost from the thousands of trees that fell in the great whirlwind at the start of March is, of course, the wood-cutter’s one. For us too it’s easy to come back with loads of the stuff from kindling to larger branches just by taking a walk through our local woods. It’s sad to realise that, whereas here trees are taking over more and more abandoned agricultural land, in other parts of the world serious deforestation is causing ever more soil erosion and the devastation of land which could have been used for cultivation.

Today is Italy’s liberation day from Nazi-fascist forces in the last month of World War Two. Let us hope that in the not too distant future there will be a liberation day to celebrate the world’s freedom from hunger.

 

 

 

Grado: Freud’s Favourite Seaside Resort?

A disadvantage of living on a more or less permanent basis in Italy is that one can become a little lackadaisical about sightseeing. It’s almost as if one thinks “ah well I live here now so don’t have to cram in all my visits as I used to have to do when I could only spare a few weeks each year to come here.”

When does the exciting holiday finish and boring every-day life begin after one’s settled in Italy? I hope the holiday aspect has never completely finished for me – actually I’d call it exploration rather than holidaying. But the fact is that, in my first couple of years here, I completed quite a few “tour” trips. This was with a company called “Mediavalle Viaggi” whose web site is at

http://www.mediavalleviaggilucca.it/public/versione_nss/pages/ITA/menuok.swf

We didn’t have a car then so these trips were excellent ways of swanning  around Italy. We visited Naples, Caserta, Rome Lake Garda, and Verona, for example.

Looking through my photographs from April 2007 I found out that I’d been on a two-day journey to Grado and the surrounding area.

Grado lies north of Venice and has its own lagoon between the Isonzo River and the Adriatic. It’s divided into various districts: Borgo de foraIsola della SchiusaColmataCentroSqueroCittà GiardinoValle Goppion – ex Valle CavareraGrado PinetaPrimero. Until 1918 Grado was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Each district has its own characteristics, ranging from ancient historic centre enclosed within a former Roman military camp or castrum to modern seaside resort.

The beautiful lagoon has thirty islands in it and covers an area of ninety square kilometres. Among the islands are Isola Maggiore, where old Grado is located, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, l’Isola Della Schiusa and Isola Della Barbana, the scene of an important annual religious festival which takes place on the first Sunday in July when a flotilla of colourfully decorated boats filled with pilgrims reaches the island’s sanctuary.

Other parts of the lagoon are natural protected parks and are prime territory for birds and bird watching.

We stayed in a hotel by the beach. It was still too cold for bathing but it was lovely to walk down the extensive and deserted sands. I was in good historical company: Sigmund Freud (in one of his letters of 1898 he describes a two and a half hour journey through the most desolate lagoons to Grado’s beach where he was able to collect sea shells and urchins) and Luigi Pirandello were visitors to Grado.

Like so many other Italian seaside resorts Grado has a historic centre well worth visiting. There are two main churches: Sant’Eufemia with its baptistery and Santa Maria delle Grazie. These churches have conserved their old byzantine-Romanesque features and have some lovely features including delightful mosaics.

The old town is a quaint warren of narrow streets and, despite the inroads of tourism, still preserves much of its ancient atmosphere. The port area is great for messing about in boats.

Perhaps we should return and take further coach trips to visit more of Italy. Apart from the drastically early start for these trips – we met up at Bagni di Lucca at 5 am to start this one – it’s a pleasant way of seeing new places in convivial company without the hassle of car driving, parking and the rest of the palaver.

PS I am informed by Sigmund Freud authority Professor John Forrester, who kindly sent me a copy of the whole letter in which Freud mentions Grado  that there is only that one reference to Grado in his letters. I don’t think Freud, therefore, ever returned in spite of the nice shells and sea urchins he found there. Grado just didn’t appeal to him that much.