The Hill of the Mountain Pen

San Luigi alpeggio (or summer pasture) above Vallico di Sopra in the Val Turrite is the starting point for a number of interesting walks, the main ones of which are:

Monte Penna is a strange mountain. It’s a sort of Pietra Bismantova of the Garfagnana.

(If you don’t know what the Pietra Bismantova looks like here is a photo of it when we passed it in 2007 on the way back from a wedding. As you can see it’s an excellent place to go to if you’re looking for a lover’s leap!)

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With a flat top and sheer sides on its northern and southern flanks, Monte Penna is a mountain riddled with caves, one of which, the grotta di Casteltendine (or Castelvenere), has become famous through the finding of Etruscan fertility statuettes which are now on display in the Rocca Ariostesca museum at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. (Do see my posts at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/22/heavenly-alpeggio/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/the-tuscan-underground/ for pictures of that cave and also of San Luigi and its little chapel.)

(View of Monte Penna from Monte Palodina)

It’s possible to do a round trip edging below these sheer cliffs from San Luigi by following CAI footpath 136. The first stage takes one to a cross in about an hour. Another hour brings one to the village of Cardoso and thence to the cave of Casteltendine and the road to San Luigi.

Yesterday afternoon I started out from San Luigi with the aim of getting to the cross. I’d done this route some years before and could not remember it descending so much in its first stage. The footpath went through an immense chestnut forest with some really old trees.

I passed a couple of ruined metati (chestnut drying sheds)

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The path now entered into a holm oak and birch area which was littered with huge rocks cast down from the top of Monte Penna.

There were several expanses of pretty autumn crocuses.

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Eventually I reached a sign stating:

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Here at last was the cross I had visited all those years ago.

There were some nice poems dedicated to the joys of mountain walking:

The English description of the cross was hard to follow to say the least….

(I think Google translate could have done better! It’s a pity these translations get plastered up at all. Surely, Italy’s wonders deserve healthier prose!)

The cross was erected by the citizens of Bolognana whose present priest, formerly of San Gemignano, is Don Emiliano. I wonder if he’s led pilgrimages to the cross. Although not a difficult walk it certainly requires a little training in negotiating a couple of scree slopes and some somewhat dodgy torrent channels.

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The view from the cross is excellent: the whole of the Serchio valley from the gorge beyond Ponte a Campia to Mediavalle stretches out before one. It’s truly a three-D map and the geography of the area can be clearly worked out.

Straight down before me, for example, were the metal works where part of the euro is manufacture.

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Here’s Loppia as seen from Monte Penna:

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Far to the right the Prato Fiorito above Longoio was clearly visible.

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I returned to San Luigi following the same route. The only snag was that the steepest climb was at the end of the path – not so wonderful if one has been walking for over two hours!

However, the walk was well worth it. The weather in September and October is brilliant for this kind of activity: bright, not too hot and, in this case, the forest provided ample shade from too much sun.

What fresh woods and pastures new today I wonder?

(The chapel, fountain and cheese dairy at San Luigi)

Special Sarzana

Sarzana is, of course, a lot more than its fortresses. The town has some very picturesque streets:

and for restaurants and bars one is spoilt for choice: it has truly a culinary prodigiousness..

Italy is famous for its historic cafes but one doesn’t have to go to Padua’s caffé Pedrocchi or Lucca’s Caffé Simo (one can’t enter that one, anyway as it’s been shamefully closed for several years now), Sarzana has one of its own and it’s placed on the corner of an almost fantailed shaped piazza which I would rate as one of the most charming I have come across in Italy.

The Piazza Matteotti is especially important as it’s one of the very few documented places where Dante is known to have been during his exile and where he received a safe conduct from the Duke of Malaspina. As the inscription in the square states “Ombra di Dante non si cancella”. (One cannot cancel Dante’s shadow).

The Caffé Costituzionale (like so many other historic cafes in Italy) was a centre of intellectual and political discussion and a hotbed of ideas leading towards the Italian Risorgimento. Founded in 1833 by Signor Manena it was the meeting place of patriots including Berghini who was a member of the Giovane Italia (young Italy) movement. It still preserves something of the atmosphere of those heady times. Certainly, political discussions were still going strong.

Historic cafes are normally overpriced but this one certainly wasn’t’! Two euros provided me with a caffé macchiato and a brioche with crema pasticciera brought to my outside table for just two euros.

I could have stayed more but now needed to be on my way to discover some of Sarzana’s churches.

On the way I passed this nineteenth century former launderette.

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A recent plaque recorded the unsung labours of women and their continued suffering under tyrannical males (Italy has one of the highest feminicide rates in the western world.)

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The Pieve di Sant’Andrea is Sarzana’s oldest church and dates back to the tenth century.

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Like so many other churches in Italy, it had a baroque make-over but more recently the side walls have been laid bare to reveal a far more ancient Romanesque building.

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In the wall niches there are some very beautiful statues dating from this earlier period.

I didn’t know what to expect from the Duomo or cathedral. The entrance portico was elegantly gothic with some beautifully fluted columns:

Inside I was bowled over by the width of the gigantic spans separating the nave from the aisles.

The gorgeously decorated apse was outstanding-

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There were two impressive gothic side altars loaded with statuary:

and some pretty della Robbias:

However, the greatest treasure of Sarzana cathedral and certainly one of Italy’s greatest artistic riches is the painted crucifix by Mastro Guglielmo which dates back to the eleventh century. It’s the oldest painted crucifix in Italy pre-dating those masterpieces by Berlinghieri and Cimabue by over a hundred years.

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Interestingly, Christ is shown triumphantly on the cross and not passively suffering as became the fashion later on (and remains to this day). The “ecclesia triumphans” had to be the motto at the end of the dark ages when power and glory battled against the sinister forces which destroyed Rome and almost demolished Western civilization.

Returning to catch my train I passed some elegant art nouveau houses. Here too, Sarzana showed itself as one of Italy’s most delightful towns.

But perhaps I shouldn’t say this as one of the pleasures in perambulating its streets and alleys was to encounter a minimal number of tourists.

Youthful Musical Talents in Lucca

LEONARDO MACERINI RECITAL AT THE ‘BOCCHERINI’

On Thursday, October 1st at 9 pm in the auditorium of the “Boccherini” musical institute in Piazza del Suffragio, there’s a recital by young pianist Leonardo Macerini, a student of Maria Gloria Belli. The program will include works by Mozart, Chopin, Debussy and nocturnes, dances and poèmes by Scriabin. The evening forms part of Percorsi musicali di Autunno of Boccherini OPEN 2015, and is dedicated to the city’s best students who have the opportunity of performing in public. “Performances Boccherini” from Thursday 1st to Sunday, October 4th will give you the chance of hearing Lucca’s new musica talents. More information is at: www.boccherini.it.

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DUO CARLI BINI AND FRANCESCO ARMIENTI RECITALS AT THE ‘BOCCHERINI’

On Friday, October 2nd at 6 pm and at 9 pm in the “Boccherini” Musical institute Auditorium in Piazza del Suffragio, there are recitals by the Lisa Bini and Serafino Carli (flute and piano) duo and the young pianist Francesco Armienti. The Bini-Carli duo will perform music by Weber, Tchaikovsky, Liszt and Roussel while Armienti will present pieces by Brahms and Schumann.

YOUNG PIANISTS PERFORM AT THE ‘BOCCHERINI’

On Saturday, October 3rd in the “Boccherini” Musical institute Auditorium in Piazza del Suffragio there’s a recital by young pianists Teresa Russo and Sofia Gazzola 6 pm and Alessio Ciprietti 9 pm. The programs include songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Rachmaninoff.

YOUNG TALENTS PERFORM AT THE ‘BOCCHERINI’

Om Sunday, October 4th in the “Boccherini” Musical institute Auditorium in Piazza del Suffragio there are recitals by young pianists Agata Minnocci and Sarai Vangelli De Cresci at 6 pm and Elia Faccini at 9 pm. The programs include pieces by Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart and Liszt.

PICTURES OF KAROL SZYMANOWSKI

On Friday, October 9th at 6 pm, in the “Boccherini” Musical institute Auditorium in Piazza del Suffragio, there’s a presentation of Aldo Dotto’s book ‘Le Maschere Di Karol Szymanowski’ (The Masks of Karol Szymanowski). During this meeting, entirely dedicated to the most beautiful music of the great Polish composer Karol Szymanowski, Aldo Dotto will alternate playing the piano with his explanations of the songs, revealing the secrets hidden between the notes of the musical scores and offering an interesting cultural history of Poland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Violinist Cristina Papini will also perform with soprano Maria Novella Malfatti. ‘Le Maschere Di Karol Szymanowski’ is published by ETS of Pisa, with a preface by professor at the “Karol Szymanowski” University and president of the “Karol Szymanowski” association in Poland, Joanna Domanska. Free admission; more details at: www.boccherini.it.

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Blood Moon

In the early hours of this morning something quite extraordinary happened in the skies which will only occur again in 2033: a “supermoon” in a total lunar eclipse.

What’s needed for this to happen and why is it so rare?

First, the moon has to be a full moon.

Second, the full moon has to be at its closest point to the earth. The moon travels in an elliptical path round the earth and has both perigee, closest, and apogee, farthest, points. The closest the moon gets to the earth is 225,804 miles (363,396 km) at the perigee and the farthest 251,968 miles (405,504 km) at the apogee… That’s a difference of 25,000 miles. No wonder that at its perigee the moon looks almost a third larger!

Third, there has to be a lunar eclipse. This means that earth is exactly aligned in the middle between the moon and the sun.

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A blocked-out moon does not occur here for the sun’s rays can penetrate the moon’s shadow and create a rusty red colour much in the same way that sunsets and sunrises are reddish since the other colours in the spectrum are scattered away.

A blood moon has intimations of prophecy. It may, in the minds of some, forecast the end of the world. In the Bible’s book of Joel, for example it is written: “the sun will turn into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes”.

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This year signals (for a few) the end of the world for some time to come (if that isn’t an oxymoron!) since there have been a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses which coincide with six full moons in between, with no partial lunar eclipses and all coinciding with Jewish holidays. The technical term for this is a tetrad.

Strangely I did wake up at around three (Italian time) in the morning to witness the lunar eclipse. I’m sure that those with more powerful cameras and telescopes will have produced some dazzlingly red pictures. I was only able to come up with the following however. But you can still see the first phase of the eclipse and the spreading of a reddish glow over the moon’s surface.

Blood moons have always haunted me. Here is one stanza from my poem on the battlefield of Verdun:

 

Spiked helmets of ghostly armies

rise up in the smoking dawn,

the pregnant moon is still red,

hanging over the new day’s uncertainty.

 

And here’s another of my poems on the same subject. If you know Salzburg poet Georg Trakl you’ll recognize the theme:

 

INCEST

 

Pale clouds spin trails across the sky

like cotton wool upon deep wounds;

they hide the centuries’ lone cry

and wrap in silence cold earth’s sounds.

 

Still could you touch the inner heart

that beats against forbidden walls?

And might you ever feel apart

from something vast that never palls?

 

Your skin, pellucid as dried bells

that inked a fertile alpine grass,

feels like the velvet twists of shells

cast up in folds high on the pass.

 

That light which takes from night’s false dawn

sings like an unknown eastern bird

and sees a life that’s yet unborn

and hears a music still unheard.

 

While wolves amass by freezing trees

a dark red moon hangs by a star:

with memories of summer bees

my sister comes both near and far.

 

When very young and on an autumns twilight in Lewisham Park London, I remember being scared by the vision of a red moon rising above the poplars. My brother and mother were with me and they said it was a strange apparition but nothing to worry about. Let’s hope that this time round, even with the supermoon, there’s still nothing to worry about!

 

 

 

 

Sarzana’s Stupendous Fortresses

Sarzana is sited in a very strategic position between three regions of Italy: Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Just look at the map.

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The town controls the route across to Parma; it’s a gateway to the Ligurian Sea and is also at the entrance of a pass leading to the Lombardy plain. It’s not surprising then that Sarzana has been fought over by several powers in its one thousand year history.

It was, therefore, with the greatest interest that I decided yesterday to take a train there and visit the town and its fortifications.

Sarzana is an absolute delight. Whether you’re into Medicean fortifications, speciality shopping, gourmet restaurants, or architecture from Romanesque through baroque to art nouveau Sarzana has all these and more to show.

A few facts: Sarzana is a comune in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, and is easily reached from Bagni di Lucca by rail on one of two routes:

Bagni di Lucca-Aulla (change)- Sarzana. This journey has lovely views of the Serchio valley:

Bagni di Lucca – Pisa (change) – Sarzana (Nice views of the Apuans and the coastine)

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Sarzana is first mentioned in 983 but the growth of the town stems from 1202 when the administration moved from Luni (the fabulous abandoned Roman town – have you visited this wonder – a Tuscan Pompeii, almost?) to a new site near the river Magra.

At first part of the Pisan republic, Sarzana was conquered by the Florentines before being annexed by Genoa in 1572.

All these political machinations have resulted in the building of two of the finest fortresses in the area. Note that it’s a fortress, not a castle. What’s the difference? A fortress tends to develop from the sixteenth century onwards, thus rather later than a genuine castle. A fortress is aware of the rise of fire power and, thus, has lower, more slanted, walls. It also has Vauban-style bulwarks, big storage areas for gunpowder, platforms for cannons and complex defence systems for the principal entrance.

Our Lucca is, in a sense, a fully-fledged fortress town while Pisa’s walls still reflect the pre-firepower era with its high walls which were built to withstand nothing more menacing than siege ladders and arrows.

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Sarzana is, indeed, a true fortress town with the actual fortresses only a part of the total fortifications scheme. However, in the nineteenth century the worthy Sarzanesi decided to demolish most of their walls leaving only the turrets at each corner of the town which were then sold to privates to build their own dwellings on. Here are some examples of what they came up with:

Sarzana has, in fact, two fortresses: one in town called ‘Firmafede’ (firm faith) and one on a nearby hill with an extraordinary triangular shape called ‘Sarzanello’. I had only time to visit the town fortress thus giving me a good reason for returning to this delightful town!

The town fortress whose plan is this:

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is particularly interesting for its main features, best described by my photos, which include:

Two large courtyards including a parade ground

Eight turrets including the central one enclosed within one of the courtyards

Complex entrance defences including two barbicans.

Underground passages beneath the towers.

Huge areas for soldiers’ quarters

A (now dry) moat.

(Please note, if you want to see rusty suits of armour or cannons etc. you’ll be disappointed. Firmafede fortress hasn’t got much else to offer except its marvellous architecure and stupendous views).

The fortress was given in 1814 to the kingdom of Sardinia which later that century was the propulsive force behind Italian unification.

Interestingly, for Bonaparte devotees, a branch of the Cardolingi di Borgo Nuovo family acquired the name of Bonaparte and settled in Sarzana in the thirteenth century. In 1512 one of their members moved across to Ajaccio Corsica and…the rest is history.

Indeed, Napoleon had a particular love of Sarzana and stayed there during his Italian campaigns as this plaque on one of Sarzana’s high street palaces proudly proclaims:

Napoleon also made it the capital of one of his Italian cantons. Sarzana continued its defensive importance during WWII when it was the centre of strong anti-fascist partisan activity. Fortunately, it wasn’t devastated like some other towns (e.g. Aulla) and so luckily we have an almost perfectly preserved fortress town for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

There’s a lot more to Sarzana than its two fortresses of course. But you’ll have to wait for my next posts to discover what they are!

In the meanwhile here’s the Sarzanello fortress I’ll be visting next time I’m in the area:

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The Fifth Flight of the Butterfly!

Last night’s ‘Volo Della Farfalla’ at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico was the best yet. The mix of dance, song and drama completely captured the capacity audience’s attention and the applause at the end of the show was loud and long.

Local lad Stefano Girolami had a promising theatrical career ahead of him when in  2010  his life was tragically cut short by Ewing’s sarcoma. ‘Il volo della farfalla” is an annual theatrical show in Bagni to remember him and to raise funds for research into the disease at Bologna medical school.

What were the show’s highlights? Every act was, in fact, a highlight starting with the incredibly proficient Albachiara rhythmic gymnastics team. This kind of sport is not something I am fully cognisant about and, frankly, is not an activity I would normally drive miles to see. But the young girls of the group, all well under fifteen, performed stunningly. A sequence of tableaux, each one depicting different scenes from the beach to the street was admirably done.

Albachiara had the audience swept off it feet. I could not believe that such young people could memorize so well the complex choreography they had to perform and their acrobatic movements were more than a little balletic.

The second act was a singing trio with a brilliant guitarist. The fact that this part was improvised at the last minute did not detract from its excellence.

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The drama which rounded off the evening called ‘dieci metri quadrati’ (ten square feet) was written and produced by Laura Caressa and Giulia Olivieri and was a sort of Italian version of ‘Huis Clos’ with some quite amusing scenes.

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Local and international tenor Claudio Sassetti rounded off the evening by presenting awards to the various participants. Modestly, he chose not to sing, leaving the limelight firmly on the performers.

Euro 25,000 has now been collected by the show so far for research into the rare disease which Stefano Girolami died from – no mean achievement! We look forward with anticipation to next year’s show which always takes place on the last Friday of September.

Bravissimi tutti – especially Leda and husband, parents of Stefano, who decided to remember him in this wonderful, joyful way!

And don’t forget – the sixth flight of the butterfly is on next year on the last friday (as usual) of September!

Of Cribs and Choirs

I realise it’s over three months to go before Christmas but the news I heard yesterday, from a friend that had picked it up from the bar in Equi Terme, is really great: the living crib in that town in the Lunigiana is returning this year after two years’ absence (because of earthquake damage to Equi terme in 2013).

We’d always taken part in this spectacular event since we landed in this part of the world and were beginning to really miss participating in it. Here are some photos from 2007, the first year we participated in the event:

I’ll be back in Equi Terme before that since on October 3rd our choir is going to sing in this delightful thermal town’s patron saint festa of St. Francis in the parish church of Saint Francis. We’ve hired a coach to take our thirty-strong choir for the event.

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Last night at Ghivizzano church we were busy rehearsing for the concert.

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Here’s the programme of what we’ll be singing:

Concerto Equi Terme, 3 ottobre, ore 20.30

1) Sollevate o porte – Frisina
2) Celebra il Signore – Frisina
3) O Salutaris hostia – Perosi
4) Pane di vita nuova – Frisina
5) Ascolta creatore pietoso – Frisina
6) Gloria – Haydn
7) Cantate Domino – Hassler
8) Sanctus – Zardini
9) Stabat Mater – Kodály
10) Tollite hostias – Saint-Saens
11) Trisaghion – Frisina

It’s good to know that so much of Italy can pick herself up and dust herself down even in the face of calamity. I’m sure the Equi terme festival will be a great success and mark another stage on the way to a complete revitalization of the town and its surrounding area.

In the meanwhile, tonight at Bagni di Lucca the butterfly flies again. Yes, the show at the Teatro Accademico celebrating the life of Stefano Girolami, a promising theatrical artist from Bagni, returns.

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If you’re in the area do come along for an event which is always entertaining and serves a very good cause indeed as all the freewill offering from the audience will go to supporting medical research into the disease which cruelly stopped Stefano Girolami. from fulfilling himself.

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(For last year’s Volo della Farfalla event see my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/the-butterfly-flies-again/

and for the same event in 2013 see

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-butterflys-flight/

)