A Tibetan Bridge in the Garfagnana

If you live in the Lucchesia you don’t have to go all the way to Tibet to cross a Tibetan bridge. Since the summer this year you only have to go as far as Lake Vagli which is reached on the road leading left from Poggio, north of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.

I love the thrill of highly strung pedestrian suspension bridges and, of course, we have our own in Val di Lima which I’ve described at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/ravioli-and-suspense-in-val-di-lima/ so I was keen to try out the new one at Vagli.

In Tibet suspension bridges are usually made of strong chord and are used to provide a short cut across the many deep valleys of that country divided by such rivers as the Mekong and the Brahmaputra which originate in the Himalayan snows before descending into the plains of India and Indo-China.


(A bridge in Tibet)

There are already two bridges in the Vagli valley plus the dam that was built shortly after the last war to provide hydro-electric power and drinking water for Pisa and Livorno by blocking the river and forming a large lake which effectively encircles Vagli di Sotto. Vagli’s mayor thought it would be a good idea to add a third bridge to carry across a mountain trail and provide an added frisson for ramblers in the area.

(Vagli Dam dating from 1947)

It was an idea which brought over two million visitors to the area in summer. Such was the demand to see and cross the bridge that crossing it had to be restricted to visitors just for the week-end. So it was a bit of a disappointment when I reached the bridge on a Thursday and found the gate to the lakeside path leading to the ‘ponte Tibetano’ closed.

Fortunately, I had two allies in my side. First, the lake of Vagli was practically dry. Because of the lack of summer rainfall most of the inhabitants of Pisa and Livorno had drunk its contents! In theory it would have been possible for me to get down towards the lake bottom and thus circumvent the fence. Then I met two kindly officials who said that since I’d come all this way to cross the bridge I could, with their approval, carry out my plan.

The scene before me was totally spectacular – one of the most astonishing days I’ve passed for a long time. The almost emptied lake was breath-taking with its grey, lunar-like, landscape and I could make out some of the old buildings and roads and bridges which would have led to the now submerged village of Fabbriche di Careggine. The lake had last been emptied for maintenance in 1994 – a sight I’d experienced (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-exquisite-alpeggio-of-campocatino/ on that supernal experience). There were promises that the lake would be emptied this year but because of the water shortage the importance of having some sort of reservoir was essential.

Reaching the bridge I approached a monument park and was particularly moved to see that the wonderful dog Diesel, killed by islamists terrorists last year, was commemorated by a marble statue to him with the words ‘honour and respect’ inscribed on it. To read more about Diesel and other heroic dogs (and cats) see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/of-simon-the-cat/.

The bridge, itself is a political statement for it honours the naval squadron of which the two Italian Marò (marine fusiliers) so wrongly accused of the murder of two Keralan fishermen in 2012 and who are still undergoing the almost unbearable stress of a legal case (I know I’ve been through one in my own minor way).

Crossing the bridge was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Quite alone, hundreds of feet above an almost dried-up lake I crossed to the other side witnessing the most wonderful views of the Apuan Mountains around me.

I returned to Vagli without missing the ancient mystique of the Romanesque church of Saint Augustine.

Vagli di sotto is itself a charming, quiet place with a beautiful marble and stone striped parish church and silent alleyways whose main inhabitants seemed to be a variety of cats.

Vagli di Sotto’s Tibetan bridge is less dippy than the one in Val di Lima and its foot-walk is made up of wooden slabs rather than reticulated steel plates so it’s quite possible to take a dog across it provided, of course, that the owner doesn’t suffer from vertigo!

If you go there aim for a week-end and don’t expect to see the lake as dry as I found it. Within twenty days I was told it’ll be full again.

(A Beleagured Mermaid – where has my lake gone?)

Which reminds me – we have no water to our house today unless we go down to the stream!

An Evening Dedicated to Chifenti

The indefatigable Marco Nicoli, journalist for ‘La Nazione’, event organiser, founder of the Mammalucco cultural association and general all-rounder, in collaboration with the comune of Borgo a Mozzano, presented an evening dedicated to the history, sights and people of Chifenti as part of the new ‘Borgo e Bellezza’ series of events.


Here are the other participants:

The great symbol of Chifenti is, of course the Ponte delle catene, the chain bridge designed by the great Nottolini who went to England to study engineering with none other than Thomas Telford. The event was on the Chiffenti (south side of the extraordinary bridge, one of Italy’s greatest nineteenth century engineering feats.

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Because a suddenly precipitous thunderstorm fell upon us in the late afternoon bringing much needed rain, but also causing a few electrical problems, the evening was somewhat delayed but it finally got off to a good start after an inaugural speech by Borgo a Mozzano mayor Patrizio Andreuccetti. (Yes, Chiffenti is in the comune of Borgo – the bridge doesn’t just span the Lima River but unites two boroughs.)

The show consisted of reciters, the great Walter, ex-barber of Ponte a Serraglio on guitar, a big screen and some splendid lighting (when they finally got it to work).

Chifenti’s history dates back to the ancient Etruscans and Ligurians. Of mediaeval remains there are traces of a castle on the hill above Chiffenti where the original settlement was located. The construction of the Brennero road brought Chifenti down from its original hilltop location to line the important route north. Eventually, after the washing away of the old stone bridge built by Castruccio Castracani ,and dating from 1317, the pioneering chain bridge was commissioned in 1840 by Carlo Ludovico from Lorenzo Nottolini who’d travelled to the UK to study the construction of the Clifton Suspension bridge in Bristol and Hammersmith Bridge in London.

Badly damaged by Gerry, the bridge was restored in 1953 at which time it was open to all traffic whether vehicular or pedestrian. (Now you dare drive a car, or even a scooter, across it!).

Chifenti centre now became that familiar piazza known as piazza del ponte d’oro (square of the golden bridge) so-named because the new bridge cost a small fortune to build.

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The speakers were all excellent with the unflagging Morena Guarnaschelli reciting the part of Mrs Stisted whose husband encouraged the building of the Anglican Church, now library, at Bagni di Lucca. Mrs Stisted’s reminiscences were fascinating. She remembered logs being floated down the Lima tied together into rafts which became thus both transport and merchandise. In those days it was the only way to transport huge tree trunks down-river to supply the ports of La Spezia and Livorno in the building of their ships. The job of manoeuvring the rafts down the river was both a specialised and a dangerous craft.

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Chifenti church was also described in some detail. Recently restored, it has some beautiful features like the tabernacle for the holy oil made by a pupil of the great Lucchese sculptor, Matteo Civitali.

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And then on to more recent times. Characters from the world of sport and commerce made an appearance, many of them remembered still today when the Piazza was filled with shops and industries and was a true social life hub. Happily, the bar Tintori  together with some shops (flower and gardening outlets, one of whom supplied nice floral displays for the evening) still exist but they are but a faint recollection of what the piazza once was like in terms of activity.

It was a great little evening beautifully presented (once the technical difficulties wreaked by the thunderstorm had been sorted out) and was a wonderful example of how a community can come together and present entertainment and instruction in a lively and fascinating way.

For me the highlight was, apart from some amazing photographs from the archives, certainly hearing for the first time Walter, our retired hairdresser and barber from Ponte a Serraglio, singing and playing his guitar. Not only did the memorable Walter play local and self-composed songs – he proved himself a master in renaissance guitar music and even played a lovely version of ‘Scarborough fair.’

Well done to all concerned. It was a truly memorable very well attended evening and we hope one of many more to come. This is truly what our community needs!

The programme continues. Here are future appointments. Don’t miss them!



PS I’ve written quite a few posts about Chifenti. If you’d like know more about Chifenti do see my posts at:










Building Bridges in the Lucchesia

One could write so much on our area’s bridges. The Ponte Del Diavolo (more appropriately called Ponte Della Maddalena) is, of course, the most famous example of bridge building in the area and is a veritable gateway to the upper Serchio Valley. Built by command of the great ruler Countess Matilde di Canossa it dates back to the 11th century.


Bagni di Lucca’s Ponte delle Catene is probably Italy’s first suspension bridge. Designed by Nottolini in 1840 it was finally completed in 1860.


Sadly, many bridges were destroyed by retreating German forces in World War II. There used to be, for example, an ancient bridge at Calavorno but only a part of its ruined piers remain today.


(Remains of old Calavorno bridge just downstream from the new bridge)

 I’ve managed to find a photograph of the old bridge in a book by Arnaldo Bonaventura published in 1913 as an illustrated monograph in a series entitled’ Italia Artistica’. The ‘Ponte a Calavorno’ was one of the oldest bridges spanning the Serchio. Dating from 1376 it was built by the Orlandinghi, feudal lords of Loppia, who were patrons of the old Ospedale (or traveller’s hostel) of San Leonardo in Calavorno. Its two arches of different sizes recall a little the very disparate arches of the Ponte della Maddalena.


Happily, however, there are still many old bridges remaining in the valleys leading off from the Serchio. The pretty one at Fabbriche di Vallico is the best known of what in England would be called a pack-horse bridge. From spring-time onwards it’s decorated with overflowing geraneum boxes.


Just past the artificial lake on the left side of the road leading to Fabbriche to Vallico in the Turrite Cava valley is a further example of packhorse (or packmule?) bridges.

Known as ‘il pontaccio’ the bridge crosses the Turrite Cava stream and gives its name to the nearby small community (which also boasts a restaurant ‘Il Laghetto’ serving some of the best wild boar I’ve come across). It’s an arched bridge which had become somewhat dilapidated but was expertly restored in 2004.

The arch is 36 feet in span wide and reaches 16 feet at its highest point above the stream. The road across the bridge is 5 feet wide.  It’s thought to date from at least the fourteenth century and is built with stones from the stream itself.

Il pontaccio may look a picturesque but humble little bridge. However, it once served a very important role in linking the old state of Lucca with the Garfagnana territories ruled over by the Estensi family. Goods were traded between the two countries over this bridge.

At this moment, when the frontiers of Europe appear to be clamming up against each other, bridges of all types have assumed a particular importance. After all, bridges are the first things to be blown up in hostile situations – bridges between people, communities and countries. We should be grateful; therefore, that il Pontaccio was spared to survive to this day as a symbol of unity and strength.


Since I landed in this part of the planet eleven years ago three new bridges have been built in our area. They are the bridges that cross the Serchio at Fornaci di Barga, Pian di Coreglia and Rivangaio. A fourth one is planned across the same river to link up with the new hospital at San Luca and avoid having to go into town – a sort of northern by-pass in fact. Not bad going but one must consider that Italy is, indeed, a nation that truly invented bridge building starting with the Roman arch.


(The Roman Bridge at Rimini – First Century AD)



More Than Gushing Streams

When the works on the Refubbri stream bed began in summer we thought that this would be an example of overkill: the old stream bed seemed to be sufficient in our eyes to contain any raging torrential floods, (consult my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/07/08/of-water-water-proofing-and-watercolours/ to see the works being carried out.)

After two days of persistent and often heavy rain, however, we changed our minds. This was the scene at Refubbri bridge yesterday morning:

The way forwards on in Italy is to carry out more of these hydro-geological scheme else the country could literally crumble and wash away. One has to realise that living in Italy means living in a geologically much younger country – no Cambrian rocks here as in the UK. Mountains, for example, are formed by tectonic plates folding the rocks and not created by upraised ancient plateaux being dissected by watercourses.

As always, too, there are no climatic half-measures in this peninsula. After the rain comes the sunshine with true blue skies and they are here to stay for at least another week. Here’s this morning:

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Great! For today we’re off in our secret costumes to take part in the biggest Games and Comix festival in Europe (I believe there’s a bigger one in Japan). It’s at Lucca and for further information see http://www.luccacomicsandgames.com/en/2015/home/ ).

We were last here in 2013 (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/the-tiger-of-malaysia/ ) and it’s always brilliant fun, that is if you don’t mind the huge crowds!).

For our costumes then see https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/a-question-of-style/

This year Sandra’s keeping hers yet again a secret. Will let you know photographically when the secret’s out!

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Who Was Matilde Di Canossa?

Those who have crossed  the amazing Ponte della Maddalena (more colloquially known as the ponte del Diavolo – see my post on it at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/river-diversion/) near Borgo a Mozzano will realise that the old story of the devil requiring the heart of the first living soul crossing the bridge if he completed it on time (and getting a dog’s heart instead) – a story oft repeated in many other parts of the world such as Pontarfynach (Devil’s bridge) near Aberystwyth in Wales – isn’t quite correct!

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(An old print, in the current BdL library exhibition  showing the Ponte della Maddalena )

In fact, the bridge was ordered to be built by an extraordinary woman, someone even more astonishing considering she lived at a time when women were usually still considered as chattels – the Countess Matilde di Canossa. She built the bridge as a means of helping travellers across the Serchio river along the Via Francigena pilgrim route which connects Canterbury with Rome.

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Matilde di Canossa is to be placed among that divine hierarchy of mediaeval women which includes Hildegard of Bingen, Berengaria of Navarre and Eleanor of Aquitaine.

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The fact that Matilde is closely associated with our part of the world is an added bonus and a good reason to dedicate a study afternoon to her by the industrious Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, the historical and cultural association which operates within the comune of Bagni di Lucca.


After the initial traditional hand-cannon (technical term gonne) blast-off by members of the Vicariato della Val di Lima

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the conference was opened by the chair, Bruno Micheletti vice-president of the Fondazione and director of our section of the Lucca Historical association. There were prefatory remarks by the Mayor of Bagni di Lucca, Massimo Betti. The president of the Michel de Montaigne Institute, Marcello Cherubini, then gave an introduction to the great figure that Matilde was.

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In case you didn’t know why Matilde is such an amazing mediaeval woman here’s a summary of her life.

Matilde (in English, Matilda) was born in Lucca in 1046 and died at Bondeno Romagna in 1115. In 1076 she came into the possession of a large territory that included present day Lombardy, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany with its centre in the town of Canossa. In 1111 Matilde was crowned as deputy Queen of Italy by the Emperor Henry III at the castle of Bianello.

As grand countess of Tuscany, Matilde lived during turbulent times of battles, plots and ex-communications (Pope versus Holy Roman Emperor). Despite the age she lived in Matilde showed immense qualities of leadership, courage and compassion towards her subjects.

Her father, Bonifacio of Canossa, was assassinated in 1052. With the deaths of her siblings Matilda was left as the only heir of the house of Attoni. In 1054 Matilde’s mother married Godfrey Duke of Upper Lorraine who hated the Emperor Henry III, who captured Beatrice and Matilde as hostages in 1055. However, after reconciliation with Godfrey the two ladies were released.

Godfrey died in 1069 and Matilde married his son, Godfrey the Hunchback. They had one son who died in infancy. In 1076 her mother died and Matilde took the reins of the kingdom, siding with the Pope against the Emperor.

It was at Matilde’s castle at Canossa that the famous event took place in 1077 when Pope Gregory received the Emperor’s penance after making him wait three days, barefoot and bareheaded, in the castle courtyard’s snow, before giving the hypothermic Emperor the papal absolution. The phrase “going to Canossa” has since come to mean an act of submission or humiliation.

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In 1089 43-year old Matilde married 17-year old Welf, duke of Bavaria and Carinthia. Their marriage only lasted six years. Further conflicts occurred between Emperor and Pope but in the end Matilde signed a peace treaty with the Emperor gifting him her territories. Since she had previously donated these to the Papacy the way was set for the subsequent quarrels which, in Florence, became an irreconcilable battle between Guelfs and Ghibellines.

The esteem in which Matilde was held was so high that her remains were translated and reinterred in St Peter’s Rome in 1634 where I saw this monument to her when our choir sang there last year (see my post at ). https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/27/our-choir-sings-at-romes-and-the-worlds-greatest-church/ ). To this day Matilde di Canossa remains the only woman buried in St Peter’s basilica,.

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The first talk was given by Ilaria Sabbatini on the subject of the routes Matilde would take over the Apennines between her two main sections of territory, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany. The variability of these routes was conditioned by the climate and also by the adjoining territories which were under Longobard domination. Ilaria Sabatini introduced the concept of ‘route areas’ stating that a definite route was not easily mapable. The presence of ‘ospedali’ and ‘ospedaletti’ did give an indication of the places travellers and pilgrims would stay for the night to received shelter and food but the way between them was not strictly defined. I thought of my experiences in Mongolia (in 2008) where road travel is rather like navigating on a terrestrial ocean. There are no defined roads in most of that country and drivers find their way by locating landmarks like mountain peaks and river crossings. Routes from A to B can thus be multifarious and cover a very wide area. There is no doubt, however, that one of the routes Matilde would take is over the Foce a Giovo pass which she would traverse on a mule as described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/foce-a-giovo/

The second talk by Valentina Capellini concentrated on the documentary evidence relating to Matilde’s presence in Lucca’s diocesan archives. This was more of a specialised subject and, frankly, unless one was a devotee of bibliography, I felt it would be only of interest principally to specialists in the field. However, I was fascinated by Matilda’s monogram with which she would sign documents.

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The study afternoon was rounded off by an introduction by Tommaso Rossi,  a brilliant young archivist who had organised an exhibition of documents relating to Matilde in three of the library’s showcases. The mediaeval parchments were, of course, just represented by photocopies. The books relating to the Countess and her subsequent elevation to a myth were represented by original examples. In the more modern section I was glad to find out  that even I owned a part of the literature relating to the great woman as a copy of ‘ A famous corner of Tuscany’ by Evangeline Whipple (see my post mentioning her at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/29/some-corner-of-a-foreign-field/) was displayed..

The conference was incredibly well-attended with standing room only for some of the audience. This is clearly a good sign as it shows increasing interest by Bagni di Lucca’s citizens in their local history. Well done to all those who pulled together to produce this fascinating study afternoon!

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.


(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.



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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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…

Sylvan Scenes by Silvia

There’s only one day left in which to visit the current exhibition in the foyer of Bagni di Lucca town hall. It’s a display of paintings and poems by Silvia Pasqualetti who earns her living on the Piaggio assembly line in Pontedera. The exhibition is called ‘Fiori di coscienza’. (Flowers of consciousness)

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It’s clear from Pasqualetti’s pictures that the area round BdL provides an escape from the tedious grind of the scooter factory. The subjects include abundant images of nature, especially rivers and trees. Here’s the bridge at Cevoli near Fabbriche di Casabasciana:

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And this is part of the villa Fiori gardens:

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The subject manner varies from naïve naturalism to almost abstract geometry. More recent efforts by Pasqualetti concentrate in the division of a painting into squares, rather like a sheet of stamps.

Some of the images appear sadly haunting. I wonder what’s going on in the artist’s mind here.

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This most abstract of her canvases I find a little reminiscent of Delaunay in its kaleidoscope of colour.

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The poems accompany the paintings and are, in effect, verbal blueprints for the subjects depicted. It’s a pity that translations of them were not done as they might have cast more light on the paintings themselves.

It is to be hoped that Piaggio will encourage Silvia Pasqualetti in her artistic endeavour – the firm has a good track record for sponsoring the arts and there is even an arts activity centre in its factory

Large-Scale Gardening

Too many of us have had the unfortunate experience of dealing with blocked drains in our homes. Kitchens and bathrooms get flooded, the water pours like torrents through the state room in our humble abodes, the drain pipes splatter over our balconies, hairs have to be extracted from the S-bends of sinks………….enough said about this sordid situation..

Italy is becoming like a huge house with blocked drains. The awful spate of landslides, streets turned into raging waterfalls, the flooding of vast tracks of once fertile agricultural land point to one simple fact. Don’t just blame the weather, or even climate change, for these “bombe d’acqua” (literally, water bombs) but point to the fact that the millions of rivulets, valleys, dales, gorges, channels, creeks and gullies that are supposed to drain this most mountainous of European countries have become blocked through neglect and abandonment of once cherished farmland.

There was a time before the “economic miracle” when Italian chestnut forests giving that “bread of the poor” with their fruit were manicured with the care usually administered to English bowling greens, when rivers were carefully banked, where fields were meticulous terraced and their irrigation channelled with the attention given to Indonesian paddy-fields, where streams were gently guided through torturous routes with the care given to exotic water features in Kew gardens.

The last five years of environmental disasters in Italy has finally prompted the government to set up an emergency programme to literally unblock the nation’s natural drains and to make everyone aware that the country’s preservation depends enormously on the care given to its natural habitat.

I am, therefore, very heartened to see that on our road through the Controneria to our village of Longoio and beyond, Cantieri (or construction yards) have been set up to clear up the areas of streams crossed by bridges.

Acrobatic excavators are performing miraculous balancing feats on impossibly steep slopes (just imagine if one of them toppled over!), logs are being positioned to create artificial weirs and control sudden rushes of water, spikey, tangly undergrowth is being cleared and large boulders placed on ravine sides to stabilise further soil erosion.

It’ all very encouraging and I look forwards to further tutelage of the beautiful countryside around us. This sign says it all and it’s part of a scheme to reduce damage to the environment by water gone wild:

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There’s absolutely no need to have a semi-tropical rain forest eating everything up. It’s principally a correct balance between natural features and man-made improvements “à la Capability Brown” that can make our countryside look not just more appealing but safer and enable us to walk even more paths through it natural beauties.

Perhaps even that chapel approached by an ancient bridge over the Refubbri stream and the inspiration for  Robert Browning’ poem (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/devil-may-care/) could be included in this scheme. Who knows? Italy is happily realising, and not one jot too soon, that the countryside is a work of art needing just as much care as the façade of Lucca cathedral or any other item in its magnificent architectural and historical heritage.

How to See God

Lucca’s greatest contemporary musical impresario, its most versatile conductor, its most energetic interpreter of music too often little known by the lucchese and, most certainly, its most multi-honoured musical ambassador reminded us last night in the wonderful acoustics of the Chiesa Dei Servi, enriched by a wooden coffered ceiling which adds the most exquisite sound nuances to great music, that the second of June is not only a victory for democracy in Italy with the foundation of its republic, now just sixty-nine years old, but is also a similar victory for the United Kingdom with the anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on the same June second in 1953. Not only will the Queen become the longest serving monarch this November overtaking even her own great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, but she will also celebrate the world’s oldest constitutional monarchy and parliamentary system.

Which music would Andrea Colombini choose to celebrate this inspiring occasion? No Italian national anthem, no “God save the Queen” (although Colombini did speak the phrases “Viva l’Italia” and “”God save the Queen”). Which composer truly unites a European consciousness with its multifarious strands of Italian melody, British nobleness and German thoroughness? “Il divino sassone”, of course: George Frederick Handel himself.

Starting from a thoroughly north German post-Buxtehudian training, Handel loosened up and expanded his musical language under the aegis of cardinal Ottoboni in papal Rome and thence, by fortuitous accident, finished up in England where he wrote probably his greatest works, and combined Germanic counterpoint with Italian mellifluousness with French overtures with Purcellian sensitivity into a musical language which, while being entirely his own, has long become part of British consciousness among music lovers  and now is becoming ever more internationally loved.

In 1985 we were fortunate enough, during that memorable European year of music, to visit the chapel and the organ where Handel wrote his first “English” works, the Chandos anthems. Here are some pictures from that visit:

Handel’s music touches everybody. Which Welsh ex-coalminers’ choir cannot remember their “Messiah” by heart? What graduate of London’s’ Royal school of music has not taken their part in a Handel opera? What occasion of British military pomp and circumstance has not been ennobled by a Handelian March or trumpet tune?

One of the most encouraging statements I’ve received from my Italian friends was when the young, highly talented conductor of our local choir of San Pietro e Paolo di Ghivizzano stated that he would be ever grateful to me for having introduced him to Handel’s greatness. I was surprised but, of course, very pleased since Handel has coursed through my life’s blood from a very early age. I remember being enchanted by that wonderful larghetto with variation from the 12th Op 6 Concert Grosso when I was barely six and humming it to myself.

Indeed, at school when an eleven year old treble first fumbled his way through the intricacies of “Worthy is the Lamb” to the young bass who helped Mary Datchelor’s girls school, with the cooperation of the local firemen’s chorus, in “Messiah” to the later performances with the Plumstead choral society Handel has ever been a companion to me like my favourite cat, my wife, my greatest loves.

I chose music as one of my school O level subjects and shall never forget my discovery of one of the pieces we studied:  Handel’s “Semele” which combines so perfectly all those European stylistic schools from France to Italy to Germany and, especially, to England and her great Purcell.

In later years the “big band” Handel concert was somewhat superseded by our hearing historically informed performances on a smaller scale and often on period instruments by such departed greats as Christopher Hogwood. Every year one of our treats was to listen to a Handel opera, either at Sadler’s wells or in the Britten Theatre. In Italy too we were so lucky to have captured the greatest of baroque opera composers in the main courtyard of the palazzo Pitti in an unforgettable performance by Musica nel Chiostro.

But to return to “La Gloria di George Frederick Handel”, as the concert was entitled. Not Handel’s “Gloria” which he wrote while still a stripling in Rome but the “Glory of Handel”.

Audiences are, hopefully, now mature enough to appreciate both historically informed and big-band Handel. Andrea achieved the rarely realizable task of combining the two stylistic strands in an evening which also accomplished a wonderful fusion of Italian elegance and British pride which combine so appropriately well on that memorable date, June 2nd.

No added orchestration by Ebenezer Prout and his Ilk infected the performances. Not even any soft modifications by the near-God Mozart. Instead, a thorough understanding of pace, balance, timbre and eloquence informed the entire evening’s performance.

This was the programme:


Of course, we all had our favourites. On the singing front I found mezzo-soprano Alessia Bandinotti particularly moving, her voice darkly regretful – almost a contralto I should say. On the orchestral side the trumpets were absolutely superb and so were the horn players.  Winton Dean in his book on Handel’s Dramatic masques and oratorio’s strangely demeans “The Trumpet shall sound” but the trumpet player of the Orchestra Philharmonic di Lucca together with bass Romano Martinuzzi gave it an added élan which almost made it sound as white-knuckling as that most exhilarating of passages from “St Cecilia’s day ode” sounding a truly clangourous trumpet and a doubly double-doubling drum.

Two encores had perforce, to follow and they were clearly the audience’s favourite items:” Zadok the priest “, which reminded us again of the importance of yesterday’s date to subjects north of the English Channel and the Hallelujah chorus which, this time round, we were allowed to relish sitting down.

As the great man said when he composed that chorus:  “I did think I did see all Heaven before me and the great God Himself”. We didn’t quite see all that that last night but as we wandered through the beautifully full-moon lit streets of a midnight Lucca we realised that not only our Handelian hearts had been softened by the glorious music gloriously performed by Colombini and his felicitous band of musicians but that those citizens of Lucca fortunate enough to attend had now realised the true worth of the “divine Saxon”.

Incidentally, Handel’s really made me travel both musically and physically, I motorcycled to his birth house in Halle in 2001. Some years ago I wandered down Fishamble Street in Dublin where “Messiah” was first performed. London’s Foundling hospital contains much Handel memorabilia. Rome, of course, witnessed the first performance of his magnificent vespers in the Barberini palace.

Next time I’m in London I’ll have to step once more inside Handel’s house now saved for the nation. I wonder what the G. O. M thought of his last days on this planet? Perhaps this?



I am old, worn out and now gone blind too

from writing many notes. A deal of stuff

flowed from my brain. Eternally, I’m through

with all this fine music – I’ve had enough.


Once-young man in the Cardinal’s service

– choice place Italy and her sopranos

desirable – bright and not yet obese,

I was feted as genius among beaux.


Then England and qualified success,

nobility’s pretensions (no knighthood),

but a most convenient Mayfair address

near Corinthian gold and God’s common good.


Yet I hear cash plagues you as it did me,

my dear house up for grabs: how else could be?



What more can I add to this post? Only some words from other admirers…..

Beethoven:  “Handel was the greatest composer that ever lived.  I would uncover my head, and kneel before his tomb.”

King George III “Handel is the Shakespeare of Music.”

George Bernard Shaw: “Handel is not a mere composer in England: he is an institution.  What is more, he is a sacred institution.”

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As we drove back home the new bridge over the Serchio was lit up like a transcendent vision – it was truly a bridge between brother and brother, between God and man, on this auspicious day.

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Thank you Andrea and thank you Handel!

Grado: Freud’s Favourite Seaside Resort?

A disadvantage of living on a more or less permanent basis in Italy is that one can become a little lackadaisical about sightseeing. It’s almost as if one thinks “ah well I live here now so don’t have to cram in all my visits as I used to have to do when I could only spare a few weeks each year to come here.”

When does the exciting holiday finish and boring every-day life begin after one’s settled in Italy? I hope the holiday aspect has never completely finished for me – actually I’d call it exploration rather than holidaying. But the fact is that, in my first couple of years here, I completed quite a few “tour” trips. This was with a company called “Mediavalle Viaggi” whose web site is at


We didn’t have a car then so these trips were excellent ways of swanning  around Italy. We visited Naples, Caserta, Rome Lake Garda, and Verona, for example.

Looking through my photographs from April 2007 I found out that I’d been on a two-day journey to Grado and the surrounding area.

Grado lies north of Venice and has its own lagoon between the Isonzo River and the Adriatic. It’s divided into various districts: Borgo de foraIsola della SchiusaColmataCentroSqueroCittà GiardinoValle Goppion – ex Valle CavareraGrado PinetaPrimero. Until 1918 Grado was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Each district has its own characteristics, ranging from ancient historic centre enclosed within a former Roman military camp or castrum to modern seaside resort.

The beautiful lagoon has thirty islands in it and covers an area of ninety square kilometres. Among the islands are Isola Maggiore, where old Grado is located, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, l’Isola Della Schiusa and Isola Della Barbana, the scene of an important annual religious festival which takes place on the first Sunday in July when a flotilla of colourfully decorated boats filled with pilgrims reaches the island’s sanctuary.

Other parts of the lagoon are natural protected parks and are prime territory for birds and bird watching.

We stayed in a hotel by the beach. It was still too cold for bathing but it was lovely to walk down the extensive and deserted sands. I was in good historical company: Sigmund Freud (in one of his letters of 1898 he describes a two and a half hour journey through the most desolate lagoons to Grado’s beach where he was able to collect sea shells and urchins) and Luigi Pirandello were visitors to Grado.

Like so many other Italian seaside resorts Grado has a historic centre well worth visiting. There are two main churches: Sant’Eufemia with its baptistery and Santa Maria delle Grazie. These churches have conserved their old byzantine-Romanesque features and have some lovely features including delightful mosaics.

The old town is a quaint warren of narrow streets and, despite the inroads of tourism, still preserves much of its ancient atmosphere. The port area is great for messing about in boats.

Perhaps we should return and take further coach trips to visit more of Italy. Apart from the drastically early start for these trips – we met up at Bagni di Lucca at 5 am to start this one – it’s a pleasant way of seeing new places in convivial company without the hassle of car driving, parking and the rest of the palaver.

PS I am informed by Sigmund Freud authority Professor John Forrester, who kindly sent me a copy of the whole letter in which Freud mentions Grado  that there is only that one reference to Grado in his letters. I don’t think Freud, therefore, ever returned in spite of the nice shells and sea urchins he found there. Grado just didn’t appeal to him that much.