A Welcome Break on the Way to Pisa Airport

For anyone driving from the Lucchesia to Pisa airport the route is usually the standard and tedious one of catching the autostrada at Lucca and then carrying on to Pisa. (It’s actually better, and cheaper of course, to leave one’s car at a station on the Aulla-Pisa line and catch the train from thence.

There are two alternative routes which are only marginally slower: the old road that goes round the Pisan Mountain via Ripafratta with its romantically ruined castle, or the Foro road which leaves Lucca in a direct line to pierce the mountain with a one mile tunnel.

Presumably the preoccupation of getting to the flight on time is paramount to most motorists but there are some very beautiful places to visit just off the beaten track of the foro road.

One of these I came across by chance earlier this month when scootering (scooters park free of charge at the airport car park) to the airport. It’s the borgo of Santa Maria del Giudice which is on the old road running parallel to the standard one. Santa Maria has a charming central square and there are some good restaurants nearby waiting to be discovered. But its chief glory is the Romanesque parish church dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, certainly one of the most beautiful religious buildings in the Lucchesia.

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Dating back to 1166, Santa Maria Assunta’s facade has a double order of arcades which extend round the sides of the church. Everything is carved with the finest delicacy and the church itself presents a transitional architecture between Pisan and Luccan Romanesque. For example, the use of squarely carved stones from the marble quarries of Pisa’s San Giuliano- just on the other side of the tunnel – is evocative of Pisa’s own cathedral which also finds an echo in the columned inlay tympanum of the Pieve.

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The campanile is of a rather later date and, oddly, is of an an octagonal shape placed on the church’s semi-circular apse.

I was unable to enter the building as it was closed but the exterior was enough to convince me of the extreme beauty of its architecture.

I don’t think I added more than fifteen minutes journey time to the airport and what a relaxing relief it was to have a final glimpse of a picturesque Italian small town centre complete with delicate Romanesque church before entering into the globalised horrors of air-flight procedure!

 

Just a Perfect Day

We’d been invited for lunch with friends at a secret location believed to be a couple of valleys along from Shangri-La. (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/a-universal-sense/ if you need to know more…)

The first part of our journey involved climbing to ever higher levels. Even our tallest mountain la Pania Della Croce seemed to be at eye-level.

Amazingly there was no snow on the road – just a few icy patches.

At one stage we abandoned our car and started walking through a bosky valley to reach the arcane hamlet.

Here we met with convivial company and indulged in what must have been one of our most spectacular meals both in terms of contents and in terms of location.

How lovely it is to enjoy genuine human company in a super-natural setting with food all graced by care and love!

Our return was through ever darkening mountains with the nostalgic glow of the setting sun upon them.

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Our day continued into the evening with an absolutely gorgeous concert given by two great local choirs, the superb Stereotipi vocal group (who sang the Rutter pieces most idiomatically) and a gloriously sonorous philharmonic brass-woodwind band.

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This was the programme:

With Elysian results all these components combined together in the last piece which was a Mass by Dutch-born Jacob de Haan.  The effect in the beautiful monastery church of San Francesco at Borgo a Mozzano was totally riveting.

As normally a ‘rinfresco’ ranging from prosecco to spumante to pandoro to valdostana was offered in the monastery hall.

In the monastery courtyard the crib reminded us of the principal reason of our festivities:

Who wrote about ‘just a perfect day’? Certainly, this was one of them!

2015 in review

Of course, it mustn’t be taken too seriously but according to WordPress.com which I use for my blog the following report appeared today.

“The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 48,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 18 sold-out performances for that many people to see it. “

I checked this out with last year as a matter of interest. The monkeys on that one worked out the following:

 2014 in review

“The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.”

(PS I’m sure if they’d used our Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro accademico as a guideline for their stats the wordpress chimps might have come out with even more impressive figures!)

Perhaps I must be doing something right after all as 2015 represents a 171% increase in readership over 2014.

In any case, I wish all those patient enough to follow my blog a really, fantastic ,fulfilling and fabulous 2016!!!

Thank you so much for your interest and comments which are sincerely appreciated and, to quote the immortal words, of the great Dave Allen: “may your God go with you.”

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Will Finches Sing Again?

As much as concert halls may be appropriate places for hearing so many of the world’s greatest pieces of music there’s nothing to beat a concert in the intimacy of a country house or Italianate villa.

In the Lucchesia we have enjoyed concerts, even operas, in such places as the villa Oliva and at the palazzo Bove in San Gennaro. Being in Italy we are not necessary confined to the grand salon or the drawing room but instead can enjoy the balmy evening summer air in the gardens, porticos and terraces of these graceful mansions.

Italy also has some notable collections of musical instruments as befits a nation who invented the fortepiano and who had such craftsmen as Stradivarius and Clementi.

Just in Tuscany we have the Museo dei strumenti musicali in Florence (see http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=cherubini ) quite apart from the Accademia Bartolomeo Cristofori (see at http://www.accademiacristofori.it/ABC/Home.html )

The organ museum in Massa Carrara is also a must. We visited this in 2011. See

http://www.museodegliorgani.it/

Further afield the musical instruments museum in Milan’s Castello Sforzesco (http://www.milanocastello.it/it/content/il-mio-amico-museo-costruiamo-gli-strumenti-musicali) is second to none and Rome’s Academia Santa Cecilia’s collection is housed in a building designed by no less than Renzo Piano. Rome also has the national collection of musical instruments accommodated by the basilica of Santa Croce.

Of course, composers’ houses, of which Tuscany has several: not just Puccini’s three (!) houses at Torre del Lago, Lucca and Celle di Pescaglia, but also Caruso’s villa, Busoni’s house in Empoli and the Titta Ruffo collection in Pisa’s Teatro Verdi, provide further evidence of historic musical instruments including those on which such masterpieces as “Turandot” were composed.

For percussion instruments Pistoia’s Museo Tronci is unmissable (see http://www.fondazioneluigitronci.org/).

There are several other museums in Italy associated with musical instruments and with composers but I have yet to visit them. Perhaps next year?

It was, therefore, with particular sadness that I realised yesterday, via a snippet on BBC’s Radio 3 that there is yet another reason for not visiting the UK in a hurry and that is because the glorious Thomas Archer mansion set in the most idyllic part of the Kentish weald will no longer house the extraordinary collection of one hundred keyboard instruments built up and restored by that indomitable pair who we have known for such a long time, Richard and Katrina Burnett.

Gone will be our evening motorbike jaunt down the A21 and thence across country lanes to the beautiful setting of Finchcocks. Gone will be our truly and deliciously English fayre served before the concerts in the mansion’s cellars. Gone will be the delightful exhibition illustrating London’s vanished pleasure gardens, Gone will be the beautifully arranged keyboard instruments ranging from the Portuguese Antubes harpsichord of 1785 to the 1835 Collard (played by Chopin?) to the evocative collection of musical boxes. Gone will be even the more recent jazz festival there.

Gone, above all, will be the inimitable atmosphere of an evening spent there in the great hall, perhaps sitting on cushions in the grand staircase, listening to wonderful and largely unknown repertoire truly played on historically authentic instruments.

Why could not a trust have been founded to bring Finchcocks securely into a new century? It’s been done in often organizationally criticised and cash-strapped Italy so why not in the UK?

We can at least look forwards to a small part of this priceless collection being preserved in a more modest milieu – the rest will be munificently placed on auction for charitable purposes. But overall, our experience in the UK will be once more a little further diminished for us for whom Finchcocks was truly a sylvan heaven miles away from the frenetic pace of the city we used to live in and a true joy to look forwards to… (Well I suppose there’s still Fenton House and Hatchlands…)

(Finchcocks in 1995)

We thank Katrina and Richard for the taste of heaven they have given to us over the years and wish them well in their future new years.

 

Can it Really be Winter?

The weather continues to provide perfect walking condition. Although almost two months without rain has caused severe pollution problems in many Italian cities – which have instituted car bans during daylight hours – in the country the air remains as fresh as ever.

With our most intrepid calico cat Carlotta we explore the surrounding area where many trees have still not entirely lost their foliage.

Our field hasn’t much to show for itself except for a few cardoons.

Some geraniums are still flowering.

There’s not very much to do as yet except perhaps to enjoy the setting rays stretched on a hammock.

Meanwhile, our local flock of sheep have already received some newcomers.

Let’s just hope we’re not going to have to pay for all this in January when a sudden change in the weather is forecast…

A Mountain Nativity Scene in a Cave

There are living cribs with ‘raffiguranti’ representing shepherds, artisans and, of course, the Holy Family. The best example of these around us is at Equi Terme in Lunigiana and at Ruota on the Pisan Mountain. There are cribs in stables or in grottoes. Again, Equi Terme is wonderful because the nativity scene takes place in a Palaeolithic cave.

There are also figurative cribs with statues taking part of the shepherds, the artisans, the Holy Family and the panoply of angels which graced that miraculous night of December 24th 2015 years ago.

This year we decided to visit a ‘presepe nella grotta’  (the Italian for crib in a cave) and ventured to the grotta delle Campore which is at the end of the valley leading to Pescaglia.

The instructions told us of a half-kilometre walk through a wood but be warned! As much as Italians may over-emphasise the pomp of their princes and lords through the magnificent palaces erected for them they will also underemphasise the difficulties of certain terrains.

Armed with a torch but, through carelessness, lacking our trekking sticks (must remember to bring those next time, if there is a next time!) we ventured forth up a candle-lit path which quivered this way and that over rocks and tree roots and steps, lots of them – a path with boulders on one side and an unfathomable drop into a fast flowing stream on the other and not much to hold onto…

It was getting darker and darker. We’d got this far. We’d done the Buddhist caves in Cambodia only a week ago. Surely we could do this one!

And we did and it was worth every near-slip of our steps and every sigh of suspense.

The grotta delle Campore, where the statue crib is placed, is a primordial cave placed rather above a thousand feet from where we started near the area’s last remaining olde-worlde iron smith at Galgani (see my post at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/back-to-the-iron-age/

whose furnaces are still furnished with water power). It’s a cave that has sheltered hermits from ancient times, shepherds from all ages and partisans from the last bloody conflict which took part in this area of the world. In all senses pf the word , the cave is a refuge and we truly felt like pilgrims approaching a natural sanctuary.

The cave, as is often the case, was more spectacular than the statues within it which we could see better than other times, we were told, since as it hasn’t rained around here for almost two months the water levels were very low and we could walk where underground streams would normally purl into the abyss.

Although not an easily repeatable experience we were so glad we visited the nativity scene in the grotta delle Campore near Convalle. We felt that all those following us in this somewhat rash deed (it was dark by seven and walking up a mountain in the dark is no joke) were miraculously transformed from sightseers to pilgrims.

Our descent was a little more perilous than our ascent but the spirit of camaraderie in those making sure we’d all get down in one piece was absolutely top-class and really made our day (or night, rather) for us.

We, indeed, had been transformed into pilgrims and felt (especially in our knee-joints) something of the effort it would have taken all those pilgrims over two thousand years ago to celebrate something whose future they knew nothing about but which was announced by a comet-like star.

Let us hope that the future our forefathers believed in then will still be felt by us for without it I feel we can see very little other future on this future-menaced planet where, as I write, at the same time as traffic has been banned from Italy’s major cities because of extraordinarily high rates of pollution through lack of rain, so many areas of north east England, and especially Yorkshire seem to look like a prophecy of the universal deluge from pictures I have seen from the planes of intrepid pilots.

In any case may your Christmas festivities continue as dry as possible (and I’m not thinking about the Morellino or even the Chianti  …)

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PS If you are a health and safety fanatic don’t bother to go!

Christmas Feasting in Val di Lima

Boxing Day, which in the UK is (was?) the traditional day in which lords and masters presented their servants with a christmas box of goodies to thank them for their loyalty, is, in Italy, called il giorno di Santo Stefano to commemorate the first Christian martyr who died by being stoned to death.

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(Saint Stephen by Giotto)

Some irreligious wags might say that this was an appropriate mode of martyrdom as they wake up on December 26th with hangovers as a result of another variety of stoning the previous day.

We had a very Merry Christmas lunch but definitely avoided getting too stoned!

After the traditional antipasto which included salmon, artichokes, gherkins and olives:

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our first course consisted of pasta al forno deliciously cooked by Sandra our kitchen supremo.

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Quails followed. These after some searching we found in that large superstore near Gallicano.

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(We used a wok to do our quails).

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(Beware of cunning cats!)

Being just us two (plus our pets) we felt that that we could not face a capon or guinea fowl.  (Incidentally, it should be mentioned that turkey is not standard fare for Christmas here and is, indeed, considered, a rather cheap meat. We fortunately avoided those days of curried turkey, turkey sandwiches, even turkey soup which seem to follow for ages on the plates of those living in the UK after Christmas. The ideal bird would, of course have been the goose immortalised in Charles Dickens’ Christmas carol:.

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There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family…)

For our sweet we eschewed the Christmas pudding and opted for panettone and tiramisu.

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For Boxing Day we were invited by a friend to a village (which is directly opposite ours so that if the phone or internet should ever fail we could communicate to each other by smoke signals). It wasn’t just us who were invited but a veritable panoply of guests who all contributed some culinary delights to the overflowing table.

The original plan was to eat inside the house to avoid the outside winter cold. As it happened we ate outside to avoid the inner winter cold, so absolutely balmy was the day with temperatures in excess of twenty degrees and with warm beams sunning our necks it almost seemed springtime! (Not so good, incidentally, if you’re after some good pistes around here).

We all fitted on the balcony and a truly convivial giorno di santo Stefano was enjoyed by all.

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Today the fine weather continues and I think the best plan is now to opt for a leisurely walk to work some of the festive feasting out of our system.

(More guests of the four-pawed variety yesterday)

But, truly I don’t think we overdid things this year. The glorious sunshine certainly did, however!