Have a Swinging Time!

‘All that glisters is not gold – often you have heard that told’ as the message states in the golden casket, where the the Prince of Morocco expects to see his beloved, Portia’s picture but instead finds one of a skull.

The first of the new ‘swing’ trains entered into service on our Lucca to Aulla line on 22nd March this year. Built in Poland by the Pesa Company they are meant to replace the old FS ALn 663 class of trains which were getting a bit long in the tooth. Indeed, passengers often had to open their umbrellas on wet day as rain water would seep through the roof! Moreover, increasing mechanical problems were causing more and more late arrivals, departures and, worst of all, cancellations.

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(FS ALn 663 class of diesel railcar)

The new trains promised a new era in railway travel on our line which I would, in terms of the scenery through which it passes, count as one of the great train journeys of the world. Spectacular viaducts, stratospheric bridges, two very long tunnels and much else make this line (which was started in 1892 but only completed in 1959) also one of the great engineering feats of FS (Ferrovie dello stato) Italian state railways. Surely this line deserved the best trains to run on them?

We’d hoped that the new era would descend upon us with the introduction of the ‘Menuetto trains’ some years ago. Built by an Italian form, Alstom, in their factory at San Giovanni near Milan the Menuetto gave us much hope. However, there were problems with loading gauge (some of the tunnels were not high enough), signalling and mechanical reliability.

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(Menuetto)

Again we were saddled with increasingly ageing FS ALn 663’s for several more years until the arrival of the ‘Swing’ diesel railcar (the electric version of this is called ‘tango’). Unfortunately, there have been major problems with the ‘swing’ trains too.

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(Swing)

First there are problems relating to the line in terms of signalling which have caused delays and even cancellations.  Correct timing is essential on a single line railway and the delay in the arrival of the up train can clearly have severe effects on the down train too.

Second, there have been problems with the actual carriages themselves. Doors have failed to open or close and in one case a door actually fell off. I was involved in one problem on a train journey to Aulla the other week. I’d just moved from one seat to one nearer the door when I heard an almighty crash behind me. I looked round and saw a steel bar on the seat where I’d formerly sat, one of its points impaling the exact position where I’d been! I discovered that this bar was a curtain rail on as it has sliding hooks on it (with as yet no curtains, as there were no curtains anywhere in the train to pull and protect aganst the summer sun). The bar had fallen from just above the window frame when it had been positioned.

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(Where the curtain rail should have been)

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(Place where the curtain rail was now missing)

I’m not sure whether this was a one-off situation. I think however that one should be a little wary of where one sits in these trains and, certainly test the curtain rail beforehand!

Reading a recent copy of our local paper ‘Il Tirreno’ I note that FS, Italian State Railways, intend to have these problems ironed out by the middle of November. So let’s hope we return to a swinging time by then and not be ironed out ourselves…

Our Choir Sings for Saint Francis at Equi Terme

Equi Terme is the first station one reaches on the Lucca-Aulla line after passing through the 7.5 kilometre Lupacino tunnel inaugurated in 1959 and finally completing a railway which was begun in 1892. Railways had reached Equi by 1930 but only from the Aulla side. Kinta Beevor in her ‘A Tuscan Childhood’ describes how, when she was a girl staying with her parents in the imposing Fortezza della  Brunella, the railway only reached as far as Monzone necessitating a pleasant walk through woods and the village of Aiola to reach Equi Terme.

Last night our choir didn’t take the railway but a coach instead since we had to get back the same night, by which time there would be no more trains until the following morning. The coach took us down to Lucca and thence by autostrada through the Versilia. By-passing Sarzana we reached Aulla where we left the autostrada to wind our way up to Equi Terme through increasingly hilly countryside.

Our reason for singing in Equi Terme was to participate in the commemoration for Saint Francis, whose patron saint Equi is and whose name-day is today, 4th October. Saint Francis is also, of course, patron saint of Italy so it’s a doubly important day!

Another reason was to celebrate the life of Signora Vinicia, the Lady of Equi Terme, with whom we always stayed when participating in the presepe vivente (living crib) and who sadly passed away las year.

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(Signora Vinicia with Prof. Giovanni Fascetti at Equi Terme)

Here is Saint Francis surrounding by loving birds:

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(Tiled picture in San Francesco Equi Terme)

Equi Terme, the source of a hot sulphur spring which was known to the ancient romans for its curative properties as excavations,revealing the original marble floors prove, is a town described as ‘quaint’ by that late-lamented traveller Eric Newby in his “A small place in Italy”. It certainly is that and more. The spa is well-equipped and has a lovely open-air swimming pool fed by the hot waters. If one is suffering from skin problems, breathing difficulties, gynaecological complications and rheumatic pains then certainly this is the place to visit.

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The original hotel was named ‘Hotel Radium’ which, somehow, suggested to me a place where one would depart glowing in the dark. It has since been renamed ‘Hotel Terme’. (See http://www.lunigiana.net/alberghi/hotelterme.htm) Packages combining a stay at the hotel with a course of spa treatments are available.

The points of major interest in and around Equi Terme are the following:

The church of Saint Francis at the top of the old town.

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The Solco di Equi – a narrow canyon with its rock walls almost touching each other. It’s a little over half an hour’s walk away.

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The Santuario Della Madonna – a sweet little chapel about 40 minutes’ walk up a nearby hill where in 1608 the Madonna appeared to two shepherdesses. Whether you believe in visions or not it’s worth attending the festa in honour of the Virgin there on 7th June every year.

The Equi Terme natural park – the whole area is rich in limestone phenomena such as caves with stalactites and stalagmites and underground rivers. The most famous of these is the Teca di Equi Terme where each year the baby Jesus is born as part of Equi’s living crib celebrations. (These are most happily returning this Christmas after an absence of three years due to earthquake damage to the town). A little museum is in this spectacular park which displays relics of cave bears and Neanderthal people.

Our coach arrived in an Equi Terme decorated with chains of lights and little flags.

Event organiser Stefania met us and took us to the local hall where an ample repast of bread cheese and affetttati greeted us together with plenty of drinks, both soft and otherwise.

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We then walked to the church of Saint Francis.

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Our concert was a complete success. The little church of Saint Francis at the top of the hill was most attractively decked out with plenty of flowers. The nave was packed with, it seems, the entire population of Equi and the applause at the end was long and heart-felt. Most importantly, our choir-master Andrea was pleased with our singing.

These were the pieces we sang:

Sollevate o porte – Frisina
Celebra il Signore – Frisina
O Salutaris hostia – Perosi
Pane di vita nuova – Frisina
Ascolta creatore pietoso – Frisina
Gloria – Haydn
Cantate Domino – Hassler
Sanctus – Zardini
Stabat Mater – Kodály

Tollite hostias – Saint-Saens
Trisaghion – Frisina

After the concert we were invited to a further repast, this time consisting of cake and local wine.

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We were then each presented with a copy of a very interesting book written by my friend and erstwhile teaching colleague, Giovanni Fascetti, on Equi Terme and the valley of the river Lucido, beautifully illustrated by his artist father and explaining everything about the area.

We met the local parish priest, a towering personality in more ways than one.

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In this photograph you can see Andrea, Don Guido and Giovanni Fascetti whose love for Equi Terme inspired our choir in its venture to sing there.

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We did not do the autostrada on our return but, instead went directly to the Garfagnana crossing the Carpinelli pass on endlessly twisting roads. As it was past midnight the road was mercifully free from any other traffic.

It’s significant that Equi Terme’s patron saint is Francis for it was he who created the first living crib in 1223 at Greccio.

We hope to see you at Equi Terme at Christmas for its own magical living crib! The presepe runs from 24th to 27th December. Further details are at http://www.presepeviventeequi.com/

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(Banner of Saint Francis in Equi Church)

For more on Equi Terme’s and other presepi viventi see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/no-room-at-the-inn-in-equi-terme/

And

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/

For the Equi Terme earthquake see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/midsummer-nights-nighmare/

For lovely walks around Equi see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/of-dragons-irises-and-knights/ and at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/magical-mulattiera/

For more on our choir’s presence at Equi terme see post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/of-cribs-and-choirs/

Aulla and Saint Caprasio

“The destruction was terrible. The only building to survive in any form at Aulla was the church of San Caprasio and the old palace of the dukes of Modena”

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(Aulla in 1945)

So writes Kinta Beevor in her adorable memoir “A Tuscan childhood” (1993).

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Aulla was even more strategically placed than Sarzana in WWII, controlling the railway lines from south, west and east. Bombing raids by the allies started in 1943 shortly after the abortive September armistice when Germany moved in whole armies and occupied Italy as a foreign power.

After this time Aulla was virtually deserted when citizens fled to the safer areas of the surrounding mountains as “sfollati” (evacuees)

The real damage to Aulla, however, was not caused by the allies but by a mortar shell fired by a group of partisans which hit a German munition train with devastating results, flattening the town and killing over 600 Germans and 150 allies.

Bombs still remain to be disovered in and around Aulla to this day. Indeed, only in March this year an unexploded one had to be detonated at a safe distance from the town.

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If it’s not bombs the town has suffered from then it’s flooding as this photograph, from  the disaster of October 2011 when two citizens died, illustrates. Not a very lucky town it seems…

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So what’s the point of visiting Aulla today? Not much, people might say except to change trains. This is what would have been my thought but because of the late arrival of my train from Bagni di Lucca I was unable to catch the ‘coincidenza’ to Sarzana. No coincidence at all! Also no ‘coincidenza’ that the station bar, with its delightful model railway running overhead, had been closed down and cleared only days previously? (See my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/ for pictures of the model railway and bar).

No coincidence that this super-modern station did not even have a gents or ladies!

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The new Aulla station is an absurd white elephant built some distance outside the town to accommodate the re-aligned La Spezia-Modena railway which has now become a high speed track.

As I had more than an hour to wait I decided to catch the bus to see what Aulla could offer, at least in terms of bars.

My first impressions were expectedly disappointing. Large concrete palazzi, erected in the most unimaginative styles, marked the area where the old attractive town would have been. It was market day so I decided to wander around the stalls which, at least, were not disappointing.

Then I thought there may have been some part of old Aulla still standing. I gazed up at the hill overlooking the town and dominated by the fortress of Brunello where Kinta had spent her idyllic childhood (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/carinthia-in-aulla/ for pictures and a description of the fortress).

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Indeed, around the old railway station, which bombs had failed to destroy, there were some streets that gave a hint of how old Aulla must have looked like.

I was particularly interested in seeking out the church (formerly abbey) of San Caprasio.  I was glad to visit this witness to Aulla’s great past as a major centre on the ancient Via Francigena pilgrim route.

The church and monastery were founded in 884 by Adalbert I of Tuscany and first dedicated to the Virgin. In 1050 it was re-dedicated to San Caprasio (the only church named after this saint in Italy) , a holy hermit whose body was brought here from the Lérins islands off the coast of Provence in order to save it from being despoiled by the Saracens.

Through the ages the church has undergone several modifications and now presents a largely classical appearance.

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Beside it, however, there are substantial remains of the original monastery with ancient columns and vaulting.

In the chapter house there’s an interesting little museum conserving all that was saved from the ravages of WWII.

Where is San Caprasio buried? Archaeological excavations in 2003 have revealed the saint’s tomb with a reliquary containing his bones.

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Other pieces of interest in this well-ordered museum include recreations of a mediaeval abbot, monks and pilgrim, sculptured capitals, coins, ceramics and a stone gospel.

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So if you’re stuck in the concrete and marble desert of Aulla’s new high-speed bar-less and toilet-less railway station don’t hesitate to catch a bus to visit Aulla. The town contains more riches than you might have imagined!

All Aboard Please!

There are two main similarities between the Italian train system and the British train system (quite apart from the much greater pleasure a journey on an Italian train is able to give one when compared to much of British Rail – or whatever they call it now) and two main differences.

The two similarities are that the track gauge is identical (or almost – there’s a half-inch difference between the two which did cause a spot of trouble when the Channel tunnel was built) and that the trains in both countries travel on the left rather than on the right. After all, the British did invent both the standard rail track gauge, based on the diameter of a standard cartwheel and the direction of operation, which they still use for all vehicular traffic on their own roads. This similarity has caused accidents for idiots in Italy trying to negotiate a level crossing when the gates are down (if it’s a double track, that is).

The two differences are that Italians use rail-tracks to number their train arrivals and departures. “Binario Uno” mean track one – and not platform one, which classification the British use. I prefer the Italian system. It makes more sense.

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After all there can only be one track but a platform could have two sides to it. (Shades of “Brief Encounter”?).

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The other difference is that in the UK the platform is very much more raised than in Italy so that it’s rather easier to board a train. In Italy there is often a bit of mountaineering to be done to climb upon some trains since the platform is at a considerably lower level.

I thought of this last point when we escorted what Dickens would call “the aged parent” to Bagni di Lucca station the other day. There was no need to worry. The new style “swing” trains, which are rapidly taking over from old stock which should have been discarded years ago, have low-slung entry sliding doors (which must be operated by pressing a green button) and immediately give onto a large base area from which you can rise to a higher level only if you want to.

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(Inauguration of new Swing Train)

I suppose everyone reading this post must realise that, as all good citizens, one must have a valid rail ticket before boarding a train and that this ticket must be validated before the start of the journey.  At Bagni di Lucca that increasingly rare human species, the ticket issuer, has long been extinct and, instead,  there is a state-of-the -art machine which issues tickets. It may be worth reaching the station at least a quarter of an hour before the train arrives as the machine is quite slow in operation and there may be a queue of people attempting to use it. It may be an even better idea to come to Bagni di Lucca station without even thinking of boarding a train just to do a test run on the machine, which has both language and payment options.

In theory it’s even possible to use this machine to buy a ticket to the coasts of Sicily or the wilds of Calabria but I’ve only tried it for tickets as far as Rome.

After buying the ticket it must be validated by placing it in a yellow stamping machine, otherwise dire punishments could await one.

I have to add that as a responsible citizen I’ve always bought my train ticket at Bagni di Lucca, even though I have found that ticket inspectors also seem to be an endangered species. But they can suddenly appear.

In an unfortunate incident which occurred to one of my friends the ticket machine at Bagni di Lucca was out of order (it can happen sometimes) and the passenger boarded the train without a valid ticket. A particularly officious ticket inspector was on board, asked to see my friend’s ticket and, when my friend (who is fluent in Italian) tried to explain that the ticket machine at Bagni was out of order, refused to believe his explanation and threatened a minimum fifty euro fine.

What could my friend have done? What I’ve done if the ticket machine is out of order, or if the validating stamper doesn’t work, is to go straight to an operative on the train and state my case. It’s always worked. It seems that now, however, it might be a good idea to take a photograph of an out-of-order ticket issuing machine just in case…

If one doesn’t know how to operate a ticket machine there are plenty of unofficial “helpers” around. When in Rome I tried to obtain a ticket for a somewhat circuitous route. A young man (not a railway employee) was there to assist me and get a valid ticket issued in time for me to catch my train. I felt the small tip I gave him was well worth it. He remained there waiting for the next befuddled passenger to ask for his assistance.

This is an example of unofficial “black work” in Italy which could land both the unofficial assistant and the confused user in trouble but it is certainly widespread. Another unofficial “black work”, this one literally, are the car-space indicators from regions south of the Mediterranean who will find a place for your car to be parked in the centre of (e.g. Pisa) often using the partly-used ticket of a previous occupier. At least (it is to be hoped) your car won’t be broken into or damaged while you’re away glorying in the sights of the city.

Since a significant majority of Italians have an official and an unofficial work a blind eye is usually cast on these practises and it would only be the most martinet of visitors to this country to report these cases to the “forze dell’ordine”.

I do hope, however, that the authorities see sense with my friend and that they will discard the threatened fine. I am glad to say that in our case the train guard was very courteous toward the “aged parent” – indeed the majority of Italian railway employees share the same attitude, thank goodness.

 

 

A Swinging Time between Pisa and Bagni di Lucca

At last, after too many years of train travelling between Pisa, Lucca, Bagni di Lucca and beyond on worn-out, and dirty rolling stock, we have been introduced to a “swing” era. For that’s the name given to the new multiple-unit diesel trains which are replacing the old stock which has more than passed its useful life.

Some years back there was hope that the three-unit Minuetto trains would signal a start of a new era of train travel on this highly picturesque route. The ALn class of rolling stock in both diesel and an electric forms and named “Minuetto” (perhaps because they came as combined three-unit carriages with a distributed propulsion between them – minuets are in ¾ time, don’t forget) were originally commissioned by Trenitalia, the national rail company, as substitutes for the ALn 660 and AL 801 diesel and electric railcars which dated back to the early 1970’s.

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Unfortunately, the Minuetto was not a success in this part of the world. Although its interior furnishing was futuristic and a marked improvement on what we had to put with in the smelly over or under-heated Al 660s, the Minuetto suffered from three main faults. Firstly, the control software was unreliable and breakdowns were not infrequent. Secondly, the railway line between Lucca and Aulla is so tortuous that there was abnormal wear on the train’s wheel flanges which had to be frequently replaced. (The same problem arose on all other mountain routes the Minuetto served, especially in Aosta and Sicily). Thirdly, the seating capacity was insufficient for many journeys. All these faults led to the withdrawal of the Minuetto on our line in 2007 and we were condemned to returning to travel on the old stock.

We then had to pass several more years with the out-dated trains which were increasingly subject to mechanical failures, progressively filthier seats, a certain amount of vandalism and even rain seeping through the carriage roofs which drenched quite a few of us!

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When, therefore, the “swing” made its first appearance it seemed to us truly a vision from another world!

The first Swing started service on the Lucca-Aulla line on 22 March this year and scored an immediate success with staff and passengers. It certainly could not have been otherwise!

The features of the new train include special seating for less able passengers, electric sockets for use of PC’s two toilets on each carriage, one designed for disabled passengers, open space connections between carriages (instead of narrow dangerous interconnecting passages) and the facility for trains to expand from three to a maximum of six carriages as traffic requires.

We travelled on one of the new trains the other day and had a truly swinging time. The seats are not only comfortable but they are clean and there’s even an electronic route map showing our journey’s progress. Above all, our ride was incredibly smooth and quiet. The windows are large and one can actually see through them and admire the wonderful terrain of rivers, mountains forests and villages through which the line proceeds.

The Lucca-Aulla line has a long history (which I’ve already described in other posts. See, for example, https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/minuets-are-back-very-soon/ ). Started at the turn of the last century, it was only completed in 1959 and provides a magnificent alternative route between Lucca and Genoa. Indeed, the line was built for strategic purposes in case enemy action might  have put the much more exposed coastal route out of action.

There can be even less reason to travel to Pisa or Lucca by car now unless, of course, one is going to a late show. Last trains from Lucca depart shortly after 9 pm. Perhaps something can be done about this?

And what about train travel to Florence? An electric version called “jazz” has been introduced on the Lucca-Florence line and when the track doubling is completed journey times should be considerably cut.

Italy is investing heavily into its railway network and train travel in this country is considerably cheaper and generally much more pleasurable than in the UK.

We are sure we’ll have a swinging time with the new trains for a long time to come!

Come and enjoy one of the great train journeys of the world on the Lucca to Aulla line, now in luscious comfort.

Face to Face?

Writing an effective blog requires verifiable facts and appropriate images; while text files can be easily searched, and desired contents found, photographs can sometimes present a problem.

Pre-digital photographs can be scanned and even enhanced. Required details such as whom, when and where can often be remembered and these details added to the digitalised image. Remember, however, in photo properties, to distinguish between the date the image was originally snapped and the date it was scanned and digitalised.

With digital photographs the “when” detail is easy as it appears in photo properties, together with any amendments. The “where” bit can be located if the camera is equipped  with GPS (as many are today). The “who” part can be performed with a faces search in “Picasa” which presents one with thousands of mug-shots after a search. If the face is unrecognizable then the photograph can be expanded to show the context of the face. This greatly enhances one’s memory but, of course, if it’s an unknown face in a crowd not much can be done about recognizing it. Privacy details would, moreover, be involved.

I am quite amazed at the “faces” option and its way of recognizing one, whether aged six or sixty. If George Orwell, just before dying, said “everyone gets the face they deserve” then that face comes pretty early in life!

The only snag about faces searched is that some of them belong to paintings and sculpture. There can be weird options with “image-checks” as there are with “spell-checks”. However, it’s flattering to find that one’s spouse has been mistaken for Botticelli’s Venus…

Animals also present a problem. Perhaps the search hasn’t reached that stage yet but I’d love to have individual identification of my cats.

Making collages of the faces one’s found is fun. I seem to have taken a lot of pictures of this person. Guess who and where he lives. (No prizes!)

 Coreglia statue

Everyone’s computer is an electronic archive of one’s life. Again there are pros and cons in this. If one decides that one’s life is interesting enough for an autobiography then the material in letters, emails, photos is there and can sometimes be daunting (especially if one decides to archive them on a separate hard disc).

With regard to autobiography I’ve managed to wheedle out Lina Waterfields “Castle in Italy”, written in a completely pre-digital age, from BDL’s library.  For me the book is a missing link between the earlier generation of ex-pats in Italy and the current one. If the names Janet Ross, Bernard Berenson, D.H. Lawrence or Kinta Beevor mean anything to you then you will find the book especially engrossing. But it’s also fascinating because it presents life in this part of the world in the first half of the twentieth century when for an Englishwoman to ride a bike through a village would arouse astonishment and where life for several ex-pats would be full of luxuries but none of its necessities. Those who have visited the Fortezza Della Brunella (see my post at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/carinthia-in-aulla/) will understand what I mean.

Now let’s go out and get those necessities….

 

On (or off?) the Rails to Pontremoli

What’s the point of always using the car to visit places in Italy when, with a little careful planning and consultation of the Trenitalia web site, one can enjoy beautiful countryside, not worry about crazy roads (and crazy drivers) and reach one’s destination refreshed and ready to explore on foot? Train travel is still incredibly cheap in this country if one avoids all those high speed express trains and uses the much more enjoyable local branch lines which fortunately have been largely saved the terrible fate which Dr. Beeching imposed on their UK versions.

When yesterday promised good weather, we decided to visit Pontremoli which is famous for its prehistoric steles (more of that later.). We took the train from Bagni di Lucca and changed at the superstation of Aulla where there are no human station attendants in sight but where we met a friendly station barman with an attractive train set (0 gauge) running all the way round the well-equipped refreshment room’s upper walls. Unfortunately, the trains were not working on that day in the bar because of a derailment. We hoped this was not a sign that the full-scale Italian railways we were using were going to run into a similar spot of bother.

Interestingly, the rolling stock of this enterprising barman’s railway was modelled on the Austrian Zillertal railway which coincidentally has also supplied some of the rolling stock for the Welshpool and Llanfair Caereinion light railway in Powys Wales which we are very familiar with, having resided on-and-off in that area for close on twenty years.

There were going to be more strange coincidences between this part of Italy and the Celtic parts of the British Isles, including not only Wales but also Scotland and Ireland, as we were later to discover that day.

There’s a lot more to Pontremoli than its museum of prehistoric finds as we found out. The old centre has some picturesque corners in varying state of attractive decay. Almost immediately, for example, we were invited through an unlocked door into an abandoned baroque palace of unimaginable splendour. Every room on the piano Nobile was a majestic and enthralling display of beautiful frescoes and also of great sadness as the vandals had already been there and ripped out many fittings including what must have been glorious fireplaces. This mixture of grandeur and decay, of majesty and misery touched us with both astonishment and melancholy.

Why was this palace abandoned? What was life in it like once? What grand soirees, what ladies flouncing crinolines and gentlemen in periwigs, what orchestras playing gavottes and minuets, what flunkeys adorning the walls, what mountains of venison and jellied fruits, what amorous trysts were enacted under those mythological ceilings populated with angels and loving gods and goddesses? Imagination ran riot as we entered one dusty, empty room after another and more and more rubble surrounded our path.

Our little adventure in the unknown territory of Pontremoli had begun and a lot more was to follow that day …..