Bagni di Lucca’s Town Hall is now Open to All

Bagni di Lucca Villa’s Palazzo della Lena, better known as the ‘municipio’ or town hall, is the town’s oldest building and dates back to the mid-sixteenth century.

It’s named after the ancient family of Lena, one of whose illustrious ancestors’ tombs is marked by a marble slab placed in the centre of the nave of Corsagna’s parish church.

The palazzo’s exterior has proud stonework worthy of some of the finest Florentine palaces. The interior houses the council chamber with ceiling frescoes decorated by the coat-of-arms of the villages which comprise the comune. On one side of this noble room are paintings dating to the nineteen thirties and including work by the Barga artists Bruno Cordati. One of the canvases amusingly depicts a local figurinaio selling plaster souvenir statues to a just-landed Cristopher Columbus in the new world. This is probably to emphasis the point that such craftsmen were in existence well before the great navigator was born!

The palazzo’s entrance hall is graced by the beautiful statue of a female bather which has become the symbol of this spa town.

Anyone who has had to enter the palazzo Lena on council business will have realised that it’s full of stairs and steps and a warren of passages giving few concessions to those persons who have reduced mobility. The present council has done much to redress this situation and yesterday a ceremony was held at the palazzo to inaugurate the completion of the works to make the whole building more accessible. Mayor Betti addressed a substantial crowd in the brilliant sunshine of the palace’s garden courtyard. The mayor stated that the restoration and restructuring of the town hall in order to make the place accessible to all without hindrance was carried out under various separate contracts – so no excuse now for failing to pay one’s council tax!

Among dignitaries present, in addition to regional administrators, were Max Mallegni, the president of the provincial disabled association, Paolo Bonassin of the accessibility committee, Massimo Diodati from the National Disabled Association and a representative for the National Blind Association.

A tour of the improved facilities was then undertaken. The old blocked archway which formerly led to the ufficio anagrafe (registry office) has been opened out to provide wheelchair access to the rear of the building.

Here there is a new lift reminding me somewhat of the one in Lucca’s own town hall.

There is also a wheelchair ramp.

Inside the palazzo floors have been smoothed out and steps reduced wherever possible. This was a particularly difficult job to do since the building is historically listed and everything has to be carried out with regard to this fact.

Finally, the proceedings finished up with a beautifully prepared rinfresco which proved most scrumptious!



Brihadishwara Temple

If there is one place in south India that has to visited above all else then it is Tanjore with its Bridaseshwara temple. This building is the supreme glory of the Chola dynasty and represents religious architecture as its celestial summit.

I’d visited this temple when young but when I approached it yesterday after so many years it seemed born anew; reaching the precincts in the late afternoon when the declining sun’s rays began to tinge the building with a glorious honey-dew colour will remain with me forever as a truly exstatic moment of my life.


In 2010 the temple celebrated its thousandth year of existence with an extensive cultural programme of dance and song.Although we missed that we arrived just at the right time for the temple doors to be opened and to admit the devotees, who had gathered from all parts of India, into the grihasta or sanctum sanctorum of this Shivaite shrine originally constructed for the performance of rituals to confirm the divine right of the chola kings.


We passed down a crepuscular passageway marked by sculptures of gods and daemons before receiving ashes and a gold coloured chord from the chief brahmin priest. I felt particularly awed by the fact that the ceremonies performed at this shrine were older than those undertaken at ancient Greek temples and, unlike those, had been continuously observed into the present times. Truly a living history!

Tanjore also has a somewhat unkempt royal palace which houses, among other treasures, a precious collection of chola bronzes up to the standard of those in the Chennai museum.


Tanjore and its great temple was the unforgettable climax of our exploration of India’s Hindu heartland of Tamilnad – a visit to cherish until we too join the mysterious domain of the gods…..

Journey to the East

Several decades ago, in this month, two young men, who’d escaped from school and had started to enjoy their gap year, decided to go east.

One of them had managed through his mother’s work to obtain a free airline ticket. He was to act as accompanist to a mentally-ill Sicilian person who was to be repatriated to his family in Catania.

His friend joined him a little later and, after a train journey to Messina, they crossed the straits and started to hitch across the heel of Italy. In some respects this was the most dangerous part of their journey since they were warned of a confrontation with a mafia gang at the booth of a service station where they had been invited to spend the night. Reaching Brindisi safely the two took the ferry to Patras and touched Athens where they stayed in the city’s youth hostel,

The next part of the journey took them through Northern Greece to the border with Turkey. The weather at this stage was getting colder and colder and by the time Istanbul was reached it was positively freezing.

Istanbul was the first taste the two had had of the mysterious east and they enjoyed visiting the City’s old quarters, Hagia Sophia and the Blue mosque.

The longest, and perhaps most uncomfortable, train journey either had taken took them across the Anatolian plateau through Syria, where they visited the great mosque of Damascus,

and finished up in Beirut.

At this point money problems stared to afflict them and one of them took a job as a barman at a ski resort in the Lebanese mountains. Baalbek was visited:

A meeting with a Swedish guy who drove a Volkswagen van enabled the two to reach a still-divided Jerusalem.

A dip in (or rather a float on) the Dead Sea was a must:

Amman’s Roman theatre was also explored:

Then it was a journey through Jordan past the H4 border post and into Iraq where they arrived in Bagdad. After a few days in the thousand and one nights city the next stage took the two to Basra where they were hosted by the British consul there.

A journey to Kuwait was rewarded by a chance to gain some extra money, both through giving blood and also by writing up travels so far and broadcasting the script on the English-speaking section of Kuwait radio.

Another van, this time driven by an English person, took them through the unstable Iraq-Iran border past the amazing ruins of Persepolis

and the graceful architecture of Isfahan and Shiraz

to a Teheran still ruled over by a Shah.

Thence it was towards Afghanistan via Meshed and past Herat and Kandahar to land up in Kabul.

The descent down the Khyber Pass to Pakistan was accompanied by ever warmer weather. It was now March and the torrid heat of the Indian subcontinent plains was building up. A stay at the hill station of Murree was welcomed.

From Lahore a train was taken towards New Delhi with, of course, the obligatory border transport hiatus where one had to walk a mile across no-man’s land to India.

A stay in Varanasi (Benares)

was followed by a crossing into Nepal and Kathmandu where a full month was spent at the mythical blue Tibetan guest-house and restaurant. Cycling and walking around the Kathmandu valley recharged one’s batteries before starting the return leg.

More of Northern India was visited, including Jaipur and Agra.

Then it was a return crossing into Pakistan and back to Kabul. Here a truck with a home-ward bound expedition in the Hindu Kush Mountains took one directly back through Iran and Turkey to Istanbul. Thence it was through Greece and Italy to come home to the UK from Catania airport.

This was a journey of a lifetime and one which changed the outlook of both protagonists for ever. The world’s diversity was opened out for them, the exposure to different cultures was seminal and the encounter with some of the world’s most amazing and often strangest sights was stunning.

It was also the journey of a lifetime because it would be difficult to repeat such a hitch-hiking trip today. Parents would have been dissatisfied with just an occasional post-card and no cell-phone calls. Certainly, the UK’s foreign office would have strongly discouraged such a voyage, especially by two teenagers.

Yet such an expedition was all the rage in Sergeant Pepper year. The hippy trail was a central experience for the youth of that distant decade and one which laid the foundation of social changes which radically transformed attitudes and views.

It’s so sad that practically every country journeyed across then has since been torn apart by inner conflict and exterior meddling. Some of these have been worse than others. Will one ever gaze peacefully on the ruins of Palmyra for example? And as for the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan…

There are no prizes for guessing who one of the two who came back, changed and chastened by their oriental voyage, was….




A Museum All to Myself in Florence

As I write a very strong and icy wind is sweeping across Italy bringing ever more misery to the earthquaked cities, towns and villages of central Italy and our first snowflakes here. This morning I woke up to a house without electricity but, fortunately, still supplied with gas and a good stock of wood.

The Museo San Marco, which I visited on my recent trip to Florence, seems eons away, especially the divine tranquillity of its cloisters and the frescoes in the friars’ cells painted by Beato Angelico.


January and February are particularly good months to visit Florence’s great cultural heritage. The tourist masses have not yet arrived and it’s often possible to have the place to oneself. At San Marco I was the only person there for most of the time – it was wonderful!

How did this monastery come to be created and who was Beato Angelico?

The foundation of the monastery by Silvestrine monks (a sub-order of the Benedictines) dates back to before 1300 and there are some frescoes below ground which still remain from this period.


In 1418 the monks were told to leave because of irregularities in their order but it wasn’t until 1420 that, thanks to Cosimo de Medici, they were replaced by Dominican friars from Fiesole. The friars found a very dilapidated structure mainly consisting of wooden huts so in 1437 Cosimo commissioned the great architect Michelozzo to rebuild the monastery according to renaissance ideals. In 1443 San Marco was finally consecrated.

The structure is of great beauty and contains two large cloisters (St Anthony and St Dominic) with painted lunettes:

and two smaller ones.

In addition to the friars’ cells

San Marco also includes a chapter house, two refectories, dormitories, a library and a pilgrim’s guest house.

The library may be confidently said to have truly sparked off the great advancement of learning, particularly the rediscovery of classical texts, which underwrote the whole renaissance adventure and marked a break from the previous age of mediaeval scholasticism. Without this library we might well still be speculating on the number of angels on the top of a pin…..

Among the greats of this new learning curve were humanist Agnolo Poliziano (Politian) and Pico Della Mirandola who are both buried in the adjoining church. (Incidentally these writers together with Marsilio Ficino are part of the teaching of the School of Economic Science in London whose events and courses we have attended).


(Tombs of Politian and Pico della Mirandola with statue of Savonarola in Florence’s San Marco church)

How perfect it must have been to have one’s mind opened by studying texts in this airy and light-filled library!

There is a good display showing how the illuminated manuscripts were produced. The parchment was made from animal skin which then had to be coated with gesso to produce a workable surface.

All the colours had to be ground from their sources. Blue was particularly prized.

Then, of course, there was all the binding to be done after the writing and illuminating:

What a difference from word-processing a document today and how much more beautiful the end product!.

The heart of the monastery are, however the rows of Dominican friars’ cells decorated by frescoes by Beato Angelico in the 1440’s. Beato Angelico was actually beatified, (by Pope John Paul II in 1982), but his transcendence as a painter earned him the title of ‘Beato’ soon after his death. Artistry and adoration are magnificently combined by Beato Angelico:

(The frescoes of episodes from Christ’s life don’t follow a chronological sequence down the cells but I have arranged them above as they succeeded one another)

For those with sight difficulties there was a tactile representation of one of the frescoes – the Annunciation:

Giovanni da Fiesole, to give him his original name, started off as a miniaturist very much in the late mediaeval tradition. Indeed, Beato Angelico illuminated one of the books in the library:


Born in Vicchio in 1395 Giovanni’s aims were to combine mediaeval devotional painting in the post-byzantine idiom with the new rules of perspective, light and shade of renaissance art. In this he succeeded admirably. In one sense Beato Angelico might be regarded as a naïf painter but he certainly knew his contemporary artists well and was fully up-to.-date with what was happening creatively around him.

It’s no wonder that Beato Angelico is the patron saint of artists – his day is celebrated on February 18.

Two of the cells provided a retreat for Cosimo de Medici:

Another was home to the fundamentalist priest Savonarola who railed against the decadence and luxury of renaissance Florence and even persuaded Botticelli to burn some of his more sensual pictures.

Not surprisingly he eventually finished up at the stake in Piazza Signoria (his burning place is marked by a plaque today):

I think the portable chair Savonarola invented was the best thing about him: take a dowel out and the chair folds flat:

The museum has further works by Beato Angelico in the old pilgrims’ hostel.


This includes the restored wonderful Pala Annalena which had arrived from the workshop just a few days previously :


and also works by Fra’ Bartolomeo, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti, Jacopo Vignali, Bernardino Poccetti and Giovanni Antonio Sogliani:

I particularly like Ghirlandaio’s last supper with those lovely birds and that well-fed cat by the table. I feel that the cat is there to celebrate an animal whose intervention in capturing vermin from the granary stores safeguarded provisions for the Last Supper – or indeed any supper for that matter…I’m glad the birds flying above are safe from his claws!

PS In case you are confused by the difference between priest, monk and friar see

In short not all priests are monks or friars and not all monks or friars are priests.

Chinese Checkers

Recently I posted on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in Florence (see This reminded me of our visit to the Shanghai museum last November. After our visit to Tibet we had a little time left in Shanghai and decided to spend it in various ways.

First, we soared by a very fast lift (elevator) to the top of the Jinmao Tower. It’s truly spectacular architecture with wide views over the city:

Jinmao means ‘golden prosperity’ so it’s truly a monument to China’s present golden age, at least as far as industrial production is concerned. The tower, which in some respects echoes New York’s Chrysler building of 1931, dates from 1999, has eighty stories and is 1,380 feet tall. It’s not the tallest skyscraper in China, however. That record is held by the nearby Shanghai tower which surpassed it at 2,073 ft. in 2015 and is the world’s tallest building as far as usable floor space is concerned.


(Jinmao tower on left, Shanghai tower in centre)

However the Jinmao tower was tall enough for us and it has an amazing hollow centre which contains one of the highest internal atriums in the world.


Its’s incredible to think that twenty years ago all this area of Shanghai was largely occupied by marshland and paddy fields .

Second, we visited the old town which is a shopper’s paradise especially if you are buying tea. It’s also the best place to eat delicious Xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings).

We could escape from the urban bustle into the peaceful atmosphere of the Yuyu (happiness) gardens which are highly characteristic of this part of China with its pavilions and rocks. The gardens have a long history and were started in 1559 during the Ming dynasty by Pan Yunduan, the governor of Sichuan province, as a present to his aged father Pan En who had been governor of Shanghai. It was truly wonderful to find this haven in the heart of Shanghai’s megalopolis.

In the centre of the gardens we attended a fine open-air concert:

Third, we ventured on the extensive Shanghai metro system to reach the fabulous Shanghai museum, perhaps the finest repository of Chinese art in the world. The museum’s architecture is most original being based on the shape of an ancient bronze cooking pot called a ding. The building is round and set on a square base echoing the traditional Chinese idea of the world as having a round sky and a square earth.

Visiting everything in the museum, which was opened in 1993, seemed a daunting task at first. The exhibits on its five stories, however, were well labelled and beautifully displayed. The sections were classified according to themes and materials used: bronze,

(Noticed the Ding on which the museum is architecture is based in the last photo?)






seals, coins, furniture

and minorities

.I was particularly touched by the Marquis Yi’s ceremonial bells (bhianzong) given to King Li as a ‘thankyou’ present for some land given to him after a good fighting record. How do we know? Yi’s name and the Chinese for thankyou are inscribed on the bells. These carillon-like bells are still playable after over two thousand five hundred years! This is what they sound like:

Our visit to the Shanghai museum was a wonderful extra to our adventures in China and Tibet. In the evening we had a scrumptious last supper on Chinese soil at the chic Astor House Hotel once favoured by such celebrities as Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Chaplin:

Next morning we were off to the airport on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev (magnetic levitation) travelling at speeds above 400 kph.

Undoubtedly we shall return soon to this part of the world for there is so much more to see and explore and it’s all changing so fast just like our train journey to the airport.

Which reminds me: if you are craving for Xiaolongbao there are some delicious ones to be had in a Chinese eatery (Ni Hao) just round the corner from the Palazzo Blu in Pisa.


A Sunset on the Old Year

Pietrasanta, that centre of sculptural production with the dazzling marble of the Apuan Alps behind it, was just the right sort of place to spend our New Year’s Eve.

The town was bathed in a richly sad winter sunset light which gilded the beautiful main square with its cathedral.

Inside the cathedral the font even had sculpted fish swimming in it – a beautiful way to remember the early Christian sign of ‘ichthus’ or fish whose letters symbolise the following:

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for “Jesus“.
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), Greek for “anointed.”
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for “God’s”, the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos,” Greek for “God.”
  • Upsilon (y) is the first letter of (h)yios] (Υἱός), Greek for “Son”.
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for “Saviour.”

Outside and in the adjoining convent there was the Christianity and symbolism of Salvador Dali instead – a truly magnificent display which also included his illustrations for ‘Carmen’.

Christmas cribs abounded in their entire Italian inventiveness in the baptistery.

For me the most memorable part of our New Year’s Eve was the walk along the beach at Marina di Pietrasanta. I think I prefer the beach like this, free from the paraded deckchairs and sun-tanning bodies that fill it for the summer season:

The high pressure area has moved away after perhaps completing a record rain-free and sun-bright December and today we are seeing grey skies and a storm alert. Rain at last to wash away the iniquities of the old year?



Out with the Old and in with the New!

2016 has been described as a year of great losses in the field of exceptional persons who have left this earthly plane to reach immortality in whatever terms one defines that word.

Their names are imprinted in our ears and in our hearts: David Bowie, Prince and (for me especially) Leonard Cohen among so many others.

As a lover of classical music I would add the following to be especially remembered among, again, a very considerable list of departed, inspiring persons:

Pierre Boulez, composer and conductor (e.g. of Berg’s ’Lulu’s’ first complete performance).

Nicholas Harnoncourt, Early Music pioneer conductor

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, British composer (particularly for me. See my post at )

Einojuhani Rautavaara, Finnish composer (remember his ‘Canticus Arcticus with those haunting polar bird sounds?).

Neville Marriner, British conductor and violinist. Remember the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields?

Some may say that quite a few of these greats had a good innings (after all, even Beethoven didn’t survive to his sixtieth birthday and Schubert was just turned thirty-one when he left the world). However, they all represent a great loss to our lives, a taking away of unique richness and a reminder that we too are getting older…..

There are the personal losses too. For me there was a loved relative to which I felt very close. My uncle, who was professor of French literature and an admired poet, I remember particularly for the wonderful mountain walks he took me when I wasn’t yet a teenager and for his deep appreciation of art and architecture and the visits he would take me to art galleries and ancient buildings. His sense of humour was both whimsical and pointed and he had a deep faith which many of us would envy.


Just one day after Christmas another deep loss: a friend with whom I had shared so many walks in this lovely part of Italy where I live. As I wrote to his widow, an equally keen walker: “Dear ***** we are so saddened by your news. We will always treasure the time we spent with **** and you: those wonderful walks on the hills and mountains surrounding us in Italy – the Pisan mountain, the hill of Vinci, that big trek around the Pania della Croce, just to mention a few. ****’s kindness and hospitality to us was so exceptional. We shall always remember him as one of the dearest persons we have ever met. We feel so privileged to have been able to share some of our most convivial moments with you and ****. We send you and your family our deepest most heartfelt condolences and our thoughts are near you in this saddest of losses.”

There are also losses of people who we never knew and who so unnecessarily lost their lives. I’m referring to victims of that cancerous social disease, terrorism – a madness that must be cured if humankind is to have any future, just as wars must be halted in favour of grinding one’s teeth and actually talking to each other.

There are finally losses of persons who are still alive but who, through an unexpected misunderstanding are no longer with us in heart and mind. Political views have much to do with this and, regrettably, a particular event in June this year in the UK has divided both friends and families. I understand from friends living in America that the same sort of thing has happened over there with regard to the presidential elections.

The simple fact is that life is just like a game of chance (or rather a game of chance is just like life). Nothing can be predicted. Nothing is certain (except death and taxes, of course). The one thing that is certain is that in the end we are all losers – the owner of life’s casinò (gambling house such as in Bagni di Lucca was famous for) ultimately gets to win.

What more appropriate note then to finish this year than photos of our recent visit to the old games of chance, destiny and fortune displayed in Bagni di Lucca’s Terme alla Villa’s magnificent Palazzo Buonvisi and have them described to us by the master croupier, Virgilio, who also reconstructed this marvellous collection:

I wish all my blog readers a very Happy New Year and may the game of life play gently with you and make you win at least occasionally!