Ten Years of Borgo’s Green Theatre

Imagine one hundred and fifty of Italy’s (and the world’s) most significant figures descending on a little town which most of them had never heard of. Then hear them discuss their work, be quizzed by the mayor on their views, reply to questions asked by a local audience. And all this happening in an exquisite green theatre – a theatre whose scenery consists of box hedges and verdant trees placed in a luscious mid-summer evening landscape of dramatic hills and sunset skies.

This year Borgo a Mozzano’s Teatro Di Verzura celebrates its tenth anniversary. Springing from the brainwave of energetic and highly personable Francesco Poggi, mayor of the town from 2004 to 2014, the Teatro has offered a platform for some of Italy’s most distinguished current personalities to meet the people.

Here are some of the celebrities me and my wife and I have met there:

Emmanuele Filiberto di Savoia, who would have been King of Italy had the 1946 referendum gone for his Royal House;


(Emmanuele Filiberto Di Savoia)

Magdi Allam, the Egyptian-born convert from Islam. personally baptised by the Pope and a penetrating commentator on the meeting of two religious worlds (he’s still under attack, of course and security was discrete but high when he appeared);


(Magdi Cristian Allam)

Craig Douglas, the psychic detective who has also assisted America’s FBI in their investigations; Vittorio Sgarbi, a true art connoisseur, perhaps the Italian equivalent of the late lamented Brian Sewell. (we also met Sgarbi at Villa Bruguier’s conference on Italian Villas and gardens in 2009 and visited his quirky exhibition of forgotten masterpieces at Milan’s Expo last year);


(Vittorio Sgarbi)

Walter Veltroni, the politician who lived through the ‘anni di piombo’ (the years of lead – bullets) of Italy’s home-grown terrorist infiltrated seventies and eighties, and economist Alan Friedman have all been attracted to Borgo a Mozzano’s pastoral confines.


(Walter Veltroni)

And there has also been the great actor Giorgio Albertazzi (who sadly passed away the other day) and that doyen of Italian journalists and politicians, Giulio Andreotti.


(Giorgio Albertazzi)

At first it was a little difficult to persuade such persons to come here. Most of them didn’t even know where Borgo a Mozzano was! Then requests began to come in thick and fast and Borgo, with its supreme symbol of the Ponte Della Maddalena, has been firmly put on the map for the majority of Italians. Indeed, I would suggest that anyone who has attended the evenings at the Teatro wouldn’t get a much better insight into the problems, the triumphs and tragedies of contemporary Italy. They would, indeed, return home with a much greater understanding of this beautiful, fascinating and incredibly complex country.


(Borgo’s mediaeval Ponte Della Maddalena)

Last Sunday evening Francesco Poggi’s book ‘Protagonisti del Nostro Tempo’ (protagonists of our time) was presented in the great hall of the Conservatorio delle Oblate di Santa Francesca Romana.

In a beautifully organised programme reminiscences by many of those involved in the project were interspersed with musical interludes, including virtuoso flautist Antonio Barsanti and guitar prodigy Zeno Marchi.

Francesco Poggi has been, in my opinion, one of the most successful mayors in our area of Mediavalle. A graduate in Economic sciences from Pisa University, he has not only created the very successful meetings at the Teatro di Verzura but he’s also behind La legenda di Lucida Mansi, Borgo’s incredibly successful Halloween festival, the Chet Baker jazz festival (yes Chet Baker stayed at Borgo too…), the summer festival and several theatrical enterprises. It was, thus, a truly celebratory event bringing many people in the packed hall together.


(Francesco Poggi)

Afterwards we adjourned to the convent of Saint Francis on the hill overlooking Borgo a Mozzano for a sumptuous rinfresco. Within the peaceful setting of the ancient cloisters the spreads were succulent and the wine excellent. I could only enjoy the food and company, and contemplate the success of Poggi’s and Borgo’s unique Teatro Di Verzura venture.

For this year’s programme at the teatro di verzura see https://www.facebook.com/teatrodiverzura/




Verdun 1916 – 2016

I cannot let pass the hundredth anniversary of the start of perhaps the bloodiest battle of World War I, (close to a million young men were killed in it ). This poem recollects my visit to the battlefield in 1997.



Before the early fog has lifted

I enter the woods’ canopy

and trip on ridges and craters:

the mired banks of the age of steel.


Spiked helmets of ghostly armies

rise up in the smoking dawn,

the pregnant moon is still red,

hanging over the new day’s uncertainty.


These trees echo an empire’s split

between sons, the hollow slaughter

and bleating soldiers filing past

the shepherds of the nation.


Waxed moustaches, duelling scars

fight hand-to-hand with les poilus

and the Fort’s dark under-ground

transforms into their catacombs.


“Do not by-pass us as you go by;

We are the bayonet platoon,

overwhelmed by earth and rising

into new life with our steeled spines.”


Death of youth. The turf is bone-fed,

those lucky in the ossuary

which, like a giant white bullet,

points at God’s heart in vast reproach.


“Lord, your only begotten son

you gave; a million loves we lost

and mislaid a generation:

your mercy conducts obscurely.”


Sad, stone lion, you have barely strength

to lick your wounded paw and stare

away from the world as if bars

of an invisible cage surround you.


I can bear this death-field no more:

the young men and their promised loves.

Is my life wasted as others

have consumed theirs in blood and pain?


Leaping on my motorcycle

I flee from the past, my conscience.

Lion, summer’s birth sign, you live

in the minds of men everywhere…



Sports Day at Bagni Di Lucca

Many would think that with its Mediterranean diet the Italian population should be looking reasonably healthy and, what is most important, in good shape. Unfortunately, this is not quite the case. Italy has now the fastest growing rate of obesity, especially among its young. This is due largely to two main causes:

First is the increasing number of working mums who, instead of being able to give their children a decent lunch, palm them off with chocolate bars and crisps.

Second is the growing fashion, again particularly among the young, for American-style fast foods including big Ms, fizzy drinks etc.


(Lucca’s own contribution to the fast food culinary inexperience at San Concordio)

What is the solution to the problem? School meals are optional in Italy so not much can be done on that front. Sports are not a standard part of the school curriculum so that can’t help.

What does benefit, however, is a concerted effort towards a healthier diet which must include fruit and veg. Our local Penny (super)market has just finished a popular card collection called ‘fruvees’ emphasising the benefits of eating more fruit and veg.  Here’s a page from my (now complete!) album:

Last Saturday Bagni di Lucca held a ‘giornata dello sport’ (sports day) where local associations were invited to encourage young people to take up sporting activities.

Much to my delight I saw a very close semblance of a game of cricket in Villa’s public gardens.

I wonder if in the past games of cricket were played at Bagni di Lucca? Incidentally, Italy has a very active women’s cricket team federation.


(Olimpia Casteller Cricket Club from the Veneto who became Italian champions of serie A in 2013).

Other activities in Bagni’s sports day included rugby, golf and volleyball.

There was also a chance to see the inside of the victorian gothic water tower that graces the public gardens donated by the Contessa Casalini to the municipality

The day was beautifully warm and the town centre was made traffic-free.

I thought this was a great initiative both for preventing obesity increase and for getting children to come together (and with their parents).

Ultimately, however, the best cure for obesity will be the fact that any self-respecting Italian will always want to ‘fare una buona figura’ (cut a good figure). What with the bathing season upon us who could countenance excess kilos of flesh oozing from their swimsuits?

Water, water all around and ……..

20160525_123341 20160525_123347 20160525_123405       For some time in Longoio we used the liquid supplied by Gaya the water supply company. We were not enamoured of its taste as it seemed over-chlorinated and sometimes the water coming out of the kitchen tap looked almost white. Things came to a head when we bought our first two goldfish and filled their tank with tap water. The poor Pisceans died within a day.


(The luckier successors: Tira and Molla)

Fortunately, an alternative and safe supply of water came to our attention when a spring water tap was installed near the Refubbri stream on the way down to Bagni di Lucca from Longoio.

The supply used to be well-hidden by woodland but after the massive rechannelling works carried out by the province last summer in order to prevent further landslides and floods the tap looks quite the centre of attention.

I always stop there to fill up water bottles, not just for the fish tank but also for cooking and especially to make a nice cup of tea. Although never quite tasting like a cup of tea in England the spring water is excellent and I’m sorry for anyone who still has to suffer the over-chlorinated water from Gaia. That’s ok for bathroom use but my fish have proved it’s not pukka. Furthermore, I tested my cats on it by placing before them before a basin filled with tap water and one filled with our local spring water. They soon chose the spring water…

Let me emphasise its local spring water at 0 kilometres transport. I’d never go so far as to order spring or mineral water in a restaurant. I don’t approve of supporting traffic pollution caused through transportation of that apparently fashionable commodity…

A Big Network at Marina di Pisa

The Arno has again made world-wide news. This time, however, the flooding has been not caused by the river but by the water board whose leaking pipes eroded the Oltrarno embankment in Florence just to the right of the Ponte Vecchio and caused a massive crevasse to appear and eat up at least a score of cars. The embankment wall, however, fortunately withstood. Now works costing at least five million euros will have to be initiated and completed before the autumn rains. At the same time the usual recriminations have started and every one is blaming the other,


The situation in Florence is a far cry from the peaceful estuary of the river Arno where retoni or giant nets lie suspended waiting to be lowered and catch their fill of fish, mainly whitebait but often larger varieties.


In August 2007 when Marina di Pisa had not yet received its new port the situation was even more peaceful. I remember enjoying an afternoon of conviviality and good eating with friends there in 2007. It was fun lowering the nets and then seeing what they would catch. It was mostly whitebait which we then barbecued and deliciously ate.

The sunset was brilliant too!



Shelley at the House Plus an Australian

Shelley House’s programme of week-end events continues apace. Thanks to the efforts of its proprietors Luca and Rebecca and the support of the comune, together with the assembly of writers that live in its vicinity, Bagni di Lucca will, no doubt, soon be crowned with the title town of poets.

Here is the current programme for May and the summer is filled with more literary events which I will post later.

Bagni di Lucca has already been summer home to many previous poets and authors from all corners of Europe. Just to take a few examples: there’s Heine from Germany, Montaigne from France, Pascoli and D’Annunzio from its own homeland and Shelley, Byron and the Brownings from England.

Shelley and Byron became friends on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816 where Shelley’s second wife, nineteen year old Mary, wrote that spine-chilling novel Frankenstein (with a little help from her husband, it should be stated). They met again in Italy and both stayed at Bagni di Lucca (though not at the same time).

Robert Browning fully recognized Shelley’s stature as a supreme lyric poet and celebrated him in his early collection of poems Pauline, published in 1833.

Is there any other connection between the triad of poets consisting of Byron, Shelley and Browning apart from Browning’s Pauline and a posthumous respect?

Fascinatingly there is and one has to go to Australia to find it. In 1815 Byron published his Hebrew melodies to considerable acclaim. The melodies include one beautiful poem which has become particularly well-known:

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

The Hebrew melodies were published in two editions: one with the lyrics but without the music, the other with both lyrics and music – an edition that has become something of a rarity.

Who wrote the music? The father of Australian music himself, Isaac Nathan. Born in Canterbury, UK in 1790 Nathan was a music teacher, music publisher and opera composer. In 1815 he collaborated with Byron in his first major success, the Hebrew Melodies which adapted ancient Jewish chants to Byron’s lyrics.

Nathan wrote several books on music including the Essay on the History and Theory of Music and On the Qualities, Capabilities and Management of the Human Voice. This last so captivated Robert Browning that he chose Nathan as his music teacher and declared that he’d never had such a good vocal mentor in his life. It would have been most interesting to have had a recording of Browning singing. Evidently, he had a very good voice.

In 1841 Isaac Nathan hit financial difficulties forcing him to emigrate to Australia. There he became choirmaster of St Mary’s cathedral, Sydney and composed many songs including Australia wide and free in 1842. Nathan also composed Australia’s first opera ‘Merry freaks in troublous times’ in 1843.

Isaac Nathan was also a pioneering ethnomusicologist and transcribed the first collection of aboriginal music including Koorinda Braia.

Max Bruch now enters into the connection. The German composer, famous for his lovely first violin concerto (whose popularity he came to loathe), also composed the elegiac Kol Nidrei based on two Jewish chants, the second of which was composed by Isaac Nathan for Byron’s Hebrew Melodies.

‘Only Connect’, as E. M. Forster famously wrote in his preface to Howard’s End. It’s a little astonishing that one has to go down under to find a person that connects the three great English poets who resided in Bagni di Lucca, Shelley, Byron and Browning plus the German composer who became chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic orchestra. But that’s yet another story….







The Black Leap (or Precipice)

The Balzo Nero (Black Leap/precipice) is the name of that stately but slightly sinister mountain that rises above Vico Pancellorum, one of the more remote villages in the Val di Lima.

It’s notorious for hurling inexperienced mushroom collectors to their serious injury or even death as it’s got quite precipitous sides. However, if one stick to the well signposted footpaths, there should be no trouble.

The walk starts from the first hair-pin bend one encounter after passing Vico Pancellorum, well worth visiting just for its exquisite Pieve, one of the oldest churches in the area.  Path no 8 start from here. The first part is along a gravelled rough road which soon peters out and gives way to the first of several scree crossings.

The path then submerges itself in dense woodland and follows the course of the Rio Coccia di Vico torrent some distance above it to then reach the Rio’s level and cross it.

Shortly afterwards there’s a little deviation to the grotta dei porci (pigs’ cave). I don’t’ know why it’s called the pig’s cave. Perhaps it may refer to wild pigs or boars as I doubt anyone would want to keep pigs here so far away from any settlement.

The path then begins to rise through the luscious woodland until it emerges into some wonderful upland pastures called ‘Le Piane’ (the levels). When I first did this walk a heavy mist descended here and the surrounding mountains were obscured making me feel that I was in some north London open space like Hampstead heath. A subsequent visit enabled me to appreciate the wonderfully extensive views from here at the Punto panoramico.

From le Piane it’s possible to go left and follow a path to the Poggio agli Agli (lit. ‘Hill towards the garlic’) but I’ve never explored this option (although I like garlic). More commonly, one can go to the top of the Balzo Nero through a precipitously exposed rocky ridge. This, too, I’ve never done although the signs say the summit’s just half an hour away.

On another occasion I took this walk with a group of young Germans who treated the whole exercise as a fast sprint. Reaching le Piane I pegged out but the Germans ran from here to the top and back in a little over half-an-hour!

The return to Vico Pancellorum can be effected using the same no 8 footpath but it’s more interesting to take the 8B  deviation as this brings one out of the forest to an uncovered but steep mountain slope with magnificent views.

Planning this walk carefully will enable one to enjoy a great meal at Giovanna’s restaurant la Buca di Baldabò at Vico, an eating place which had consistently won the highest accolades in the Val di Lima.


How to Make a PB and J in Longoio

I can’t understand why peanut butter is not readily available in Italy. Having experienced the American Peanut Butter with Jelly sandwich (affectionately known as a PB & J) during my perambulations over there I was languishing for one nel bel paese until yesterday. Besides, taking a well-made PB & J can supply almost a quarter of daily calorie intake – useful if you need energy for a long hike in the mountains.

Peanut butter takes a peanut of a brain to make up and costs just peanuts!

First get your peanuts.

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Then take some oil. I used sunflower oil which is not too strong in taste. Some people go for olive oil to get a truly Mediterranean version, however.

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Place an Italian coffee-cup full of oil into your blender and then add a handful of peanuts.

If you want smoother peanut butter, keep the blender going for longer.

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However, if you prefer crunchier peanut butter blend the mixture for a shorter time.

Similarly if you like your peanut butter a little more runny add more oil. If you prefer more solid peanut butter then put a few more peanuts in the blender. Be warned, however, that the blender is already hard at work and could blow up if the mixture gets too tough for it to blend.

Fortunately my blender didn’t blow up and I was able to extract the peanut butter to the consistency I preferred.

Let the mixture stand for at least an hour until using it.

I took a jar of home-made quince jam which my wife had prepared earlier.

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I spread the peanut butter on a slice of bread:

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I topped the layer with a spoonful of the jam (in Italian marmellata di mela di cotogna) to cover the peanut butter layer

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and that was my first home-made example of a PB & J sandwich!

05102016 037So you PB & J starved expats there is a solution.


A Pint of Science

It’s less than a kilo of gelatinous matter that has created everything about mankind that is most awesome, like Bach’s fugues and the works of Shakespeare and everything that is most loathsome, like war and extermination factories. This matter is called the brain and we still know precious little about it.

Prof Ratto’s both learned and highly amusing exposition of the current state of research on the brain was delivered yesterday as the final part of three evenings of ‘A Pint of Science’ at Lucca’s Caffé letterario. This is a venture to make recent scientific developments more accessible to the public and especially to younger people. I’d missed the first two events, one of which was a talk about the gravitational wave interferometer at Cascina which I’d visited earlier this month (see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/my-date-with-virgo/ ) so was particularly keen to get to this one.


The caffé letterario has now been going for over two years and is a valuable asset to the city. Situated near Lucca railway station the caffé boasts an excellent bar (beer and a decent spread for just five euros) and a very extensive bookshop. Its programme of events is truly inspiring.

Pisa research scientist Professor Ratto made us fully aware of the unbelievable complexity of the brain and started by looking at the brain of mice. Even here the amazing miniaturisation of components makes today’s computers look like clumsy attempts. The concentration of the brain’s communication channels within a tiny space is truly miraculous. Ratto made some startling analogies. For example, if a neuron was at the centre of Lucca’s Piazza Anfiteatro then the ganglions from this neuron would stretch all the way to New York! The message transmission method in the brain is very much like that used in transatlantic telegraphic cables: electric impulses guide the messages along and for this reason each channel has to be isolated and kept in a sheath of salty liquid rather as earlier cables were insulated by being wrapped in rubber. (Here Ratto entered into an amusing digression on the British empire’s enthusiasm for botanical gardens and the establishment of Kew seed depositories largely to discover plant derivatives which could solve certain scientific establishment problems – the start of bio-technology, in fact).

A sobering thought is that neurons are non-reproductive cells and that they gradually die off the older we get. When Einstein expired, for example, a less than usual number of neurons were discovered in his brain – surprising in view of his genius! However, it’s the connections between the neurons that make all the difference. Certain Italian politicians may have more neurons that Einstein but the connections between them are clearly somewhat lacking…

Ratto’s talk gave rise to many inquisitive queries among the audience. There were questions about the brain and mental diseases. Here Ratto showed an ECG of a normal mouse’s brain and that of an autistic mouse to point out the frequency differences. (Yes Ratto in Italian means rat – although no-one present was discourteous enough to make a joke about this!) My question was the chestnut about the relationship between the brain and the concept of mind. Ratto said that there was no real dichotomy and that as a reductionist there would come a time when the mind would be entirely explained in terms of the physiological processes in the brain.

The relationship between artificial intelligence and the brain was also brought up. Ratto explained that the study of one would be of little benefit to the other since each works on very different principles. A. I. has a clear distinction between software and hardware, as in any computer, and operates rapidly without any significant parallel operations. The brain, on the other hand, works at a much slower speed but has a complex number of parallel operations. Furthermore, the software is the hardware – it’s a unified field.

Do most of us use just a small part of our brain? An unanswerable question. Certainly, if the brain was used at maximum capacity all the time early death through burn-out might ensue!

Memory was also discussed and here Ratto brought up another interesting analogy. Memory is not localised in any particular part of the brain. As a hologram when cut into half still displays the same image, only fainter, so the brain if damaged or trepanned will still hold a memory although in increasingly fainter form.

Now what was I going to state next? Can’t remember. So I’ll just say that it was a truly fascinating evening with a knowledgeable prof. with a wry sense of humour and that I was glad to be dragged out to Lucca and its magnificent Caffé letterario.

For further events at the caffè see https://www.facebook.com/libreria.luccalibri

PS If you are in Florence there’s another great literary caffè at the main station there. (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/the-bar-bookshop-at-florence-station/)

PPS The ‘Pint of Science’ website is at https://pintofscience.it/









Unitre End of Year Nosh

The academic year ends at Bagni di Lucca’s Unitre or university of the third age. On Saturday 21st students and staff met for a big nosh-up at the Circolo dei Forestieri. Staff are, of course, all volunteers and are not paid. We do, however, get a free lunch at the end of it all (students have to pay). I think it’s my eighth free Unitre lunch and the event was, as usual very convivial.

The lunch was very expansive in all sense of the term. It included antipasto, rice, macaroni, veal, potato cake, fried pasta, a nutty salad and a very nice ice-cream and fruit salad at the end.

On the ‘high’ table were the dignitaries which included Fabio Lucchesi who is retiring for his potion as president of Unitre after ten years in the job. Other notables included the mayor, Dr Vito, and Marco Nicoli.

Daniela Orsi and Valeria Catelli will surely keep the flag flying for Unitre – a valuable part of our community and one which I am proud to be a part of