Italy’s Eel-Pie Island

In Italy, Pasquetta or Easter Monday is traditionally a time to go for a journey ‘fuori le mura’ – outside the walls, which here doesn’t just mean getting out of one’s house but out of one’s town which, like Lucca, is often surrounded by defensive walls.

We chose a local coach firm, largely to experience this aspect of Italian traditional life.  We crossed the Apennines through Renzi’s greatest achievement – an alternative Autostrada del Sole route (variante di Valico) opened in December 2015. It traverses the mountain range almost entirely through tunnels and has cut the journey time from Florence to Bologna by almost an hour. It’s fine on speed, not so good on panoramas. Luckily the old autostrada route has been kept for more scenic travel.

We then travelled through the lush Emilia-Romagna lands with their rows of San Giovese grapevines and dramatic cloud formations.

Our first stop was Ravenna which should by all rights deserve at least a couple of days to visit decently. Although we felt short changed on mosaics we did, at least see some of the extraordinary sights of this city which, at one time in its glorious past, was capital of the Roman Empire.

Theodoric’s’ mausoleum dating from 520 AD is an amazing feat of engineering with a solid stone roof carved out of one stone block weighing tens of tons and originally transported to cap the structure via a ramp.

The Arian baptistery with its beautiful dome mosaic is unique in the world for being the only architectural evidence of a heresy which believed Christ to be literally the son of God i.e. born from the creator and, therefore, subservient to him without any hint of the Trinity as expounded in the Nicaean creed and which is recited by most Christians today. (There’s a tablet inscribed with the Nicaean creed in Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican church, now library).

Dante’s tomb is surely the holiest secular shrine in the Italy and it’s a moving experience to see where the major formulator of the Italian language and the author of the Divine Comedy now rests.

Although bashed about a lot in the Second World War Ravenna retains many characteristic town corners including a lively main piazza.

The biggest event of the ‘scampagnata’, or Italian Easter Monday trip, is, of course, the lunchtime meal which in this case took place in a vast restaurant with no less than five halls. It was quite amazing how quickly and how well we were served with appetizing food. I sometimes think that if cooks and restaurateurs were elected to run the country Italy would turn out to be far better administered! Our lunchtime company was very congenial and remarkably well travelled too.

After lunch we headed for the valli di Comacchio which is an extraordinary area of wetland – probably the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe, approaching the Danube delta in dimensions. A continuation of the Venetian lagoon, the area is flat, often marshy, filled with immense brackish lagoons, canals, dykes, clearly a bird-watcher’s paradise and, above all, famous for its eels.

The main town, Comacchio is the centre of eel fishing and production and is a charming place in its own right with a highly photogenic triple bridge and some delightful traffic-free streets.

Half-way along what must be one of the longest porticoed streets I’ve walked along is the entrance to the eel manufactory where eels are dried and canned. The old factory is now a museum with interesting exhibits showing the boats and basket nets used. Among the photographs were stills from a Sophia Loren film I have yet to see, describing the romantic life of an eel-canner and appropriately entitled ‘La Donna del Fiume’ ‘(the lady of the river.’)

It was then time to return home. Since we’d joined the coach at 6 am in Fornoli by the time we reached Bagni di Lucca close to midnight we were ripe for bed-time, falling swiftly into a dream-world where Theodoric, Arianism, eels, lagoons and La Loren were collaged together in ever unbelievable sequences.


Florence’s (and the World’s) Beautiful Game

Do you love Florence? Are you interested in football? If so have you visited the football museum located at Coverciano in that city? It’s where the Italian Football Association has its headquarters, its training centre and where Pier Luigi Nervi’s architectural masterpiece is located – the first reinforced concrete football stadium ever built, dating from 1931 and where, besides memorable matches, such immortal singers as David Bowie also have given concerts.

Italy boasts a proud history of the beautiful game and has been world champion no less than four times: in 1934, 1938, 1982 and 2006. ‘Gli Azzurri’ (or ‘light blues’ as they are called from the colour of their football jersey) are truly this country’s pride and joy and fully deserve this very well laid-out museum with helpful staff and an excellent archive.

The Museo Del Calcio, which I finally visited last week, is laid out in a historical sequence, starting from the late nineteenth century when athletic clubs used football to develop their members’ skills. The origin of football teams from these clubs is also apparent in the UK in such names as Charlton Athletic, our local south London team which was a firm favourite of the great Italian writer Italo Svevo (‘The Confessions of Zeno’)  when he was managing a paint factory near the college where I taught for a quarter of a century.

It’s so fascinating to follow the history of the Italian national football team and also to gaze in wonder at the jerseys of such greats as Pelé and Maradona.

It’s equally sad, too, to follow the tragedies of Italy’s magnificent international team: for example, the Superga disaster of May 1949 when an aircraft carrying the ‘Grande Torino’ football team, which included most of the country’s international players, crashed in thick fog on the side of the Superga hill near Turin killing thirty one persons, including the great Valentino Mazzola.

I should also mention that my grandfather, an avid sportsman, was a trainer of Inter football team in the years before World War One – something mentioned with pride in his obituary. Inter was founded in 1908 as ‘Foot-Ball Club Internazionale’ since the existing Milan team (originally known as the Milan cricket and football club) did not encourage foreign players. I am old enough to have recorded my grandfather’s account of Inter’s friendly game against Bayern Munich in 1910 (they lost but were applauded for their tenacity against a rather better funded and equipped German team.)

Although the modern history of football stems from England don’t forget that the game actually originated in Italy in mediaeval times. The official rules of the ‘Calcio Storico Fiorentino’ – a heady mixture of football, rugby and wrestling – were first laid down in 1580 by Giovanni de’ Bardi, a Florentine count. This fact is remembered in Florence’s annual traditional ‘Calcio Fiorentino in costume’ which is played on June 24th on Florence’s feast day for its patron saint, St. John the Baptist. Four teams fight it out for the grand finale:   Santa Croce Santo Spirito, Santa Maria Novella and San Giovanni. It’s also a great occasion for putting on one of the city’s most spectacular historical pageants.

Whether it’s the modern game you’re interested in (and especially if you’re a supporter of ‘Fiorentina’ la viola, Florence’s own football team – at present happily eighth in serie A – or whether you like to revel in the Calcio storico Fiorentino played out in the square before Santa Croce church your Florentine experience would certainly not be complete if you haven’t been present at one of the two versions of this emperor of all sports.

The Museo Del Calcio’s web site, including how to get there and opening times, is at:

Cappiano’s Osteria Numero Uno

A delightful detour if one is taking the route from Altopascio to Empoli across the Arno valley on the way to Florence is to cut across to Ponte a Cappiano, a major engineering work carried out by Cosimo de Medici and replacing an older bridge on the pilgrims route known as the via francigena and once protected by the knights hospitaliers of Altopascio. I have described this area more fully in my post at

I’ll just add here that if one parks one’s vehicle in the main square of this truly laid back town and walks round to the right one comes across an excellent osteria appropiately called ‘numero uno’.

We ate well and cheaply there with excellent pasta first courses and brilliantly cooked manzo and involtini for seconds accompanied by some of the best mashed potatoes I have tasted.

The osteria’s facebook page is at

Booking is essential. We didn’t book but were lucky as the osteria filled up quite quickly. Helpings were generous and some of what we couldn’t eat was packed away for us by the friendly proprietors and served for our supper too!


Ponte a Cappiano was a truly welcome break on our journey towards the capital of the Grand Duchy during yesterday’s brilliant spring day.

Was the Flute Really Magic?

It’s certainly not your average Italian opera house which has the classic horseshoe shape for the auditorium and a majority of seating in boxes. Outside, this venue is elegantly minimalist and entering its foyer one isn’t sure whether it’s an opera house, a museum, a railway station or perhaps an airport foyer. This is ‘Opera Firenze’, Florence’s opera house which, since 2011, has been providing the city of the lily with a state-of-the-art building for opera and concerts as part of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival.

I’d been to Opera Firenze before, in 2015, to see a performance of Bellini’s ‘I Puritani’. (See my post at and was impressed by the three most important things an opera house should offer: excellent acoustics, good sight-lines and comfortable seats. When I tuned into a performance of Mozart’s  ‘Die Zauberflöte a couple of nights ago I knew I had to be in Florence to attend a performance of this immortal work, usually termed a Singspiel or German operetta with spoken dialogue.

This was the production and singing cast at the performance on 28th March (shown with the original German role names):

Conductor Roland Böer

Director Damiano Michieletto
Scenes Paolo Fantin
Costumes Carla Teti
Light design Alessandro Carletti
Video design Carmen Zimmermann/Roland Horvath
Choir director Lorenzo Fratini
Orchestra and Choir of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Sarastro Goran Jurić
Tamino Juan Francisco Gatell

Pamina Ekaterina Sadovnikova
Königin der Nacht Olga Pudova
Papageno Alessio Arduini

Der Sprecher Philip Smith
Monostatos Marcello Nardis

Papagena Giulia Bolcato

Erste Dame Heera Bae
Zweite Dame Cecilia Bernini
Dritte Dame Veta Pilipenko
Erster Geharnischte/Zweiter Priester Cristiano Olivieri
Zweiter Geharnischte/Erster Priester Oliver Puerckhauer
Alte Dame Daniela Foà
Alte Dame Daniela Foà
Die Drei Knaben Soloists del Muenchner Knabenchor

What is Die Zauberflote about? For me it’s principally about the most heavenly music Mozart ever wrote. In it he displayed every type of musical form he’d learnt in his all too short life: from the semi-fugal overture, to the lied, to the revenge aria, to the chorale prelude, to the solemn choir. It’s all there in an unparalleled quintessence of beauty. Indeed, I would regard Die Zauberflote as a way of distinguishing true friends from false. Together with the love of cats and the belief in a European community, appreciation of the opera is a prime way of helping one to choose genuine companions.

Plot-wise the Magic Flute can be taken on two levels. First, there’s the interaction of wildly differing characters, for example, the rebellion of a daughter against her mother, the comical naivety of some country folk and the trials of life itself without which there’s no gain without pain. On another level one enters the world of freemasonry and the new age of enlightenment which the opera underwrites. In this sense Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, represents decaying religious dogma and inflexible, intolerant rules while Sarastro displays the new world of ideas of brotherhood and the dignity of humankind. Indeed, for the high priest, man has the possibility to transform himself into a god and the earth can indeed become a paradise. How wonderful and, at the same time, how fatuously hopeful when viewed from the present times!

The production certainly made an effort to highlight these dichotomies. The scene was largely set in a 1950’s classroom with Tamino and Pamina as adolescent schoolchildren. The three ladies were dressed as nuns with severe rules to match. In the second act the schoolroom was ‘lifted’ to reveal a primeval forest where the trials Pamina and Tamino would have to go through to prove their love were played out.

Ok the idea is novel but it’s only half-effective: the libretto has so many references to doors opening and gates closing that did not find their actualization in the stage set. What did compensate to a certain extent was the intelligent class blackboard which ‘drew’ the snake that pursued Tamino at the opera’s opening and which was used to illustrate other aspects of the libretto throughout the evening.

What was lacking, however, was any convincing idea of pomp and mysticism which permeates the original conception of Die Zauberflöte. I remember many years ago seeing this twice-magical opera in the setting of London’s Freemason’s hall. There, under the vaulted stars and the symbols derived from ancient Egypt, the work really did come to life and enact its arcane metaphors.

I could not fault the singers in any way. Queen of Night Olga Pudova’s two virtuoso arias were passionately delivered and the duet between Papageno (Alessio Arduini) and Pamina (Ekaterina Sadovnikova) was near-sublime. Sarastro hit those deep notes confidently and the choir was very effective. It seems sad, however, that the ‘three boys’ had to be imported from Munich rather than have three boys trained up for the parts in Florence. If anything too, the orchestra could have chosen a slightly slower tempo for the overture which fizzed along almost out of breath

All in all I was glad to have made the journey to Florence to see Die Zauberflote (and visit other things as well!).

On my return I was startled to note that earlier in the year there had been another Magic Flute at Pisa with costumes and choreography by Lindsay Kemp. Although I understand the singing there didn’t match the Florence performance I felt I could have empathised more fully with the production, especially in its emphasis on the opera’s magic aspect.

The most tragic what-if in the history of western music is ‘what if Mozart had survived the rheumatic fever he caught in 1791?’ In my wildest dreams I hear the music that this gift from god might have composed. Perhaps we shall hear that music in heaven – if there is such a place, of course.


For information of further productions at Opera di Firenze see



The Greatest of all Singers: his Villa

He was the world’s greatest recorded singing voice – demonstrated by the fact that over one hundred years later his recordings are still best-sellers. He was also the world’s first media star. Feted by over half the world, a film star, a regular feature in the gossip columns his fame lives on and on. Despite far better technology today, despite all the great singers that have followed him, including the three tenors, he will live for ever as the supreme golden voice. And yesterday I finally trod the hallowed grounds of his splendid villa at Lastra a Signa near Florence.

If you’ve seen that extraordinary film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ from 1982 you’ll know immediately who I’m talking about. It’s Enrico Caruso, of course. And the villa I visited is Bellosguardo – ‘Beautiful view’ – a gorgeous baroque fantasy dating from the sixteenth century built by Giovanni Dosio, with which the great Caruso fell in love in 1905. It was Bellosguardo which the tenor returned to again and again to relax in the paradisiacal Tuscan landscape after his world tours which took him to such places as Buenos Aires, Saint Petersburg and, most famously, New York. Indeed, our own Luccan-born Giacomo Puccini wrote ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (The Girl of the Golden West) with Enrico in mind. For when Giacomo heard Enrico’s voice he asked him ‘whose sent you to me? God perhaps?’

(Caruso as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’, 1910)

The villa has two main blocks connected by a gallery. To the left is an agricultural museum open by appointment. To the right is the Caruso museum. It’s beautifully laid out with audio guide, film snippets featuring Caruso and themed rooms displaying every aspect of this amazing ambassador for everything that’s top-class in Italy.

There are photographs from Caruso’s family life which wasn’t all smooth sailing especially when his big love, Ada Giachetti, went off with the chauffeur.

(The woman who preferred her chauffeur to Caruso)

His beloved children and his seaside holidays are also there.

Another room shows the maliciously witty caricatures of himself and his contemporaries Caruso loved to draw.

There are fine collections of his phonograph/gramophones,

some precious costumes including the one from ‘I Pagliacci’, which role Caruso truly made his own:

and his bedroom, which has been atmospherically recreated together with his touring trunk.

I had the place to myself and it was incredible to wander around the villa as if I owned it. It was such a beautiful day too and the grounds, laid out in classical fashion with parterres, statues and avenues, were truly to die for.

In 1918 Caruso wedded New Yorker Dorothy Park Benjamin from which he had one daughter, Gloria. They planned to have an idyllic life at Bellosguardo. Alas, in 1921 Enrico died of peritonitis not even fifty years old. His daughter died only in 1999.

(Enrico and Dorothy)

I could have said so much more about Caruso: how he was a heavy smoker of Egyptian cigarettes, how he loved to play the card game called  ‘scopa’, how he was never without his good luck charms, how he was an elegant dresser and how he took two baths a day but….

Caruso’s villa is also an excellent place for wedding celebrations and receptions. Want to know more? Check out the villa’s web page at

Now let’s hear this astounding voice again – over a hundred years later!

A Meeting with the Mayor of Lucca

Italy has more wonderful buildings than any other country in the world. Indeed, it has too many for its own good: so many architectural miracles are at risk or inaccessible to the public. It’s for this reason that every year there’s an open day in March when such buildings open their doors. This is courtesy of the country’s major heritage and conservation body FAI. FAI stands for Fondo Ambiente Italiano (Association for the Italian Environment) and is probably the nearest one can get in Italy to England’s own National Trust. Indeed, there’s collaboration between the two associations whereby there’s free entry to each other’s list of buildings in their care. To find out more see FAI’ web site at

On FAI open day in 2014, I visited the extraordinarily beautiful little church of Saint Catherine near the old cigar making factory in Lucca. It was thanks to such open days that S. Caterina was saved from further decay and is now yet another jewel in Lucca’s crown of lovely buildings. You may have read my ‘Grapevine’ article on this church. If not there’s my post at

Last year we visited an exquisite art nouveau villa at Viareggio which I’ve described at .

This year I’d wanted to visit Puccini’s last villa at Viareggio which is being rescued by FAI from total abandonment. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible this time as the visits to the villa had been fully booked up but at least I’m now on the waiting list. You can read my post on this superb Puccini-and-Pilotti designed villa at

This year I headed for Lucca and its palazzo Orsetti for my FAI treat.

Palazzo Orsetti is in Via S, Giustinia in the north-west quarter of Lucca and was built by the Diodati family in the sixteenth century on the foundations of a medieval palace. Today the palazzo is one of Lucca’s town council headquarters and houses the mayor’s offices. Indeed mayor Alessandro Tambellini came to personally give us a tour of this wondrous palazzo, prefacing it by a fascinating account of the history of Lucca and the building.

There can be few more learned mayors in Italy (perhaps Vittorio Sgarbi?) and I learnt so much about the place from Alessandro including this:

In 1541, Carlo Diodati was baptized in the palace by Pope Paul III with, in attendance, Emperor Charles V as Carlo’s godfather. In 1567 Diodati was suspected of heresy when he was found with a copy of the King James Version of the Bible. Diodati emigrated to Geneva where he married Carlo Flaminia Micheli, also originally from Lucca. After her death he married Maria Mei, also from Lucca. From this marriage was born, in 1576, Giovanni Diodati, the great Protestant theologian and first translator of the Bible in Italian. In 1661 and 1662, since the Diodatis left no heirs, Lelio Orsetti bought the entire building with furnishings included paintings by Pietro Paolini including the one illustrating Wallenstein’s trial and which, together with a Pontormo, is in the palace to this day. The Orsettis made loads of money through international trade. Indeed, there’s an Orsetti castle in present-day Poland. (See for more fascinating history).

However, hard times hit the Orsettis last century and in 1963 the building was sold by them to the municipality of Lucca for just 74,000 pounds sterling…

The palazzo has a charming garden now dedicated to that great Luccan composer, Geminiani, who made his fortune in the UK when free movement of labour was still encouraged. (See my post on geminiani at )

The palazzo has two monumental entrances, probably the finest in the whole of Lucca which, otherwise, has more restraint in its palace architecture. The sandstone portals bear trophies in relief. At the top of one portal there is a triton, at the top of the other there’s a siren.

There’s a stately staircase.

This is where Pontormo’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’ is situated.

There’s also “The conspiracy against Wallenstein” by Pietro Paolini.

The interior is full of spectacular stately rooms. Among them there’s the Hall of mirrors. This room was the ballroom of the palace. It is decorated with original eighteenth-century Empire furniture. The hall is used for official meetings.

There’s the music room with gorgeous stucco ceiling decorations and an elegant scagliola false marble floor. This room is furnished with original furniture and upholstery. It has a beautiful eighteenth-century chandelier and sumptuous red curtains. The acoustics of the room is another important feature. You can test them by clapping your hands under the central chandelier. The vibrations are amazing!

The Green Room was the palace’s living room and owes its name to the green curtains and upholstery brocade that covers the walls. Today it is used for civil marriages – one of my friends was married in it. What a place to tie the knot in and with Napoleon’s sister Eliza, princess of Lucca, gazing down upon you…

There are other rooms decorated in neoclassical style. At the highest floor of the building there are sixteenth century painted wooden beams only recently rediscovered under a false ceiling.

Thanks Mayor Tambellini for the talk for the tour of your offices! And thanks to your assistants, the students from Lucca’s Liceo Scientifico and classico, who also walked and talked us around the palazzo in exemplary fashion.

There are so many aristocratic palaces in Lucca. I wonder if we’ll get a chance to visit their secrets in the near future. Perhaps more should be added to the FAI. Certainly the Orsetti palace wetted my appetite.

For more on FAI see my post at

Camellias, Kumihimo and a Concert

Camellias originate in eastern and southern Asia and were introduced into Europe during the eighteenth century. The tea plant is a member of the camellia family and, indeed, the expansion of the tea trade enabled many new varieties to be brought into Europe. Hybridization did the rest.

Every March at Sant’Andrea di Compito, by the slopes of the Monte Pisano, south of Lucca there is a camellia festival where one can fully appreciate the variety of flower forms and colours of this perfume-less plant. A shuttle bus takes you to the camellias – the only way to get there as the narrow roads would soon be clogged up with cars. The camellarium is spectacular at this time, the mill-stream walk is delightful.

The exhibitions are most informative, there are many stalls selling local products and there are also musical events.

The camellia festival of Sant’Andrea is something we always try to attend. You can read my account of our visit there in 2013 at

and in 2015 at when Sandra’s mum, then 93 years old, accompanied us.

And in 2016 at

Why choose this area for camellias? The fact is that the climate is ideal for them. It was the English ex-pats of the nineteenth century, escaping from the torrid summer of the Tuscan plains, who discovered this and introduced the camellia to these hills. Indeed, dotted around the Compitese are many aristocratic villas complete with their luscious camellias

and there is even a society dedicated to old varieties of camellias in Lucca province.

Could I add anything new about the visit to the camellias this year? Not much except that as things of beauty these flowering shrubs remain a joy for ever.

The day started off very sunny but storm cloud started to gather in the late afternoon. However, the rain held off until the last stretch of my homeward journey.

The setting of the camellia festa is so very beautiful. Sant’Andrea is nestled in a valley of the Pisan hills and the town is quiet charming. Near the entrance is an exhibition centre with some prize camellias.

There was a section on the Japanese art of braiding known as Kumihimo and using a special loom. These braids are used to fasten the button-less Kimono.

An open-air exhibition brought photographs, whimsical sculptures  and sly cartoons together.

There was also a tea ceremony in which we were allowed to participate.

At the top of the Sant’Andrea is the magnificent parish church.

I arrived in time for a concert given by an unusual ensemble consisting of two double bases, accordion and flute. The fine performance included pieces by Piazzolla, Bartok, Domenico Scarlatti and Bottesini, who was the Paganini of the double bass.

Today is the final day of the Camellia show in the Compitese. So if you are in the area and haven’t been there do so now! It would be truly sad to miss one of Lucchesia’s most colourful and evocative events.



PS If you fancy your cup of tea not only can you buy delicious camellia tea but you can have the ultimate Italian invention: camellia-tea flavoured ice-cream!