Two Triestine Castles

It was the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa who laid the foundations of modern Trieste. She decided that the city should become a free port – a gateway between East and West – and planned that part of the city which to this day is called the ‘Città Teresina’. The picturesque grand canal, the church of Saint Anthony and all those other churches, temples and synagogues serving different religious communities sprang up and are testimony to the immense religious tolerance this city has been famous for.

Maria Teresa also took down the walls of the old town built around the cathedral and the castle which dominate one of Trieste’s hills. We decided we’d take the bus to the top of the hill. First, we passed the old Roman theatre.

At the Piazzale della cattedrale the view was already extensive. Before San Giusto stands the remains of a Roman basilica and, indeed, the base of the cathedral tower is built on a Roman temple. The cathedral itself is fascinating. Basically it’s two churches banged into one so it has two apses, one of which has magnificent byzantine mosaics, and double aisles too.

The best thing about San Giusto, however, is its magnificent rosone or rose window.

We almost thought we’d come to the conclusion of our Trieste town visit but were encouraged to visit the castle where we were promised the best views of Trieste bay. This was quite correct!

We enjoyed visiting the armoury, the dungeons now filled with roman statuary and walking along the bastions themselves.

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this wonderfully windy spot. A slight bora – Trieste’s notorious wind which blasts its way through the mountains from the east and is meant to drive people mad – was starting up and we needed to make our way back home.

But we still had to visit the haunted Miramare castle.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. The walk to it is via a dramatic piece of coastline.

Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.

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Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

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Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care or, as they now say in Italy, ‘in una struttura.’  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

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After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.

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But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.

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Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeeded him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.

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No wonder, however, that the castle od Miramar is haunted…….

 

Where Venus Rose from the Waves

The name itself evokes beauty – Portovenere, the port of Venus – and indeed it is a goddess-like place. Embracing an arm of the immense golf dei Poeti, the gulf of poets with views on one side towards the fantasiose rocky coastline of the Cinque Terre and on the other looking across to the highest of the Apuan Alps, Porto Venere is a place to return to again and again and never be disappointed.

Porto Venere takes its name from an ancient temple dedicated to the Goddess Venus This temple has since been built over by the little church of Saint Peter which stands at the end of the promontory leading to the harbour as if to wish every departing sailor a safe journey and to welcome home all those who have risked the often perilous Tyrhennian sea.

There is yet another connection with Venus in Botticelli’s exquisite picture of the goddess’s birth, now in Florence’s Uffizi gallery. At the right side of the painting you can see part of Porto Venere bay with the islands of Palmaria, Tina and Tinetta which form a little archipelago facing it.  The lovely Venus is none other than Simonetta Vespucci, the girl who lived next door to Botticelli when he stayed there and with whom he fell inexorably in love. Considered the loveliest woman of the time, Simonetta tragically died of typhus in 1476 aged just 23. Botticelli immortalised Simonetta in one of the world’s most iconic and gorgeous paintings.

Here is that painting and my thoughts on it:

THE BIRTH OF VENUS

 

The zephyrs blow: she rises from her shell

while flowered maidens wait with cloaks unfurled.

Within her eyes a thousand heavens dwell,

between her thighs the heart of all the world.

 

It is a gentle sea and winds drop sprays

of leaves on little lapping wavelet crests

and buds and reeds bend to love-circling days

as slender fingers cover perfect breasts.

 

Her gold-spun locks enfold like breeze-tinged foam

until long hair entwines her pubic mount;

those lovely arms entice lost lovers home

to arcane planet’s mantle-hidden fount.

 

Meanwhile, the bay and olive grove awaits

to squeeze sweet juice that always satiates.

 

On this visit to Portovenere we climbed to the top of the Doria castle, surely one of the most formidable defences built by the Venetians. We had the place practically to ourselves, far from the increasing crowds of tourists visiting this heavenly part of the Italian coastline. The views were magnificent and the sea so blue!

We visited the church of San Lorenzo, the patron saint of Portovenere and saw the miraculous log which was cast on the shore filled with sacred treasures and reliquaries.

Byron was just one of the poets who fell in love with this area. One could add Shelley, Montale, D. H. Lawrence, George Sand, the painters J. M. W. Turner and Arnold Boklin, Baroness Orczy, she of the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, and Dante himself who describes the coastline in his Divine Comedy (Purgatorio Canto V)..

Our hungry stomachs beckoned us to a charming little osteria on one of the caruggi or narrow streets which characterise Porto Venere where we enjoyed an appropriately fish-based meal. It was, indeed fish Friday, my wife is born in the sign of Pisces and the waters around us are fishermen’s paradise.

Another type of beauty beckoned us as we returned to our starting point – a rally of vintage cars ranging from Bugatti to Bentley to Bristol. Their sinuous curves showed me the entrance towards yet another beautiful chamber in the paradise that is Portovenere.

 

You can see more of Portovenere in my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/01/28/venus-harbour/

 

 

 

 

Venus’ Harbour

The ‘Cinque Terre’, that dramatic piece of Ligurian coastline which incorporates the little towns of Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, almost desperately clinging onto the rugged coastline to avoid being swallowed by the sea, are easily accessible from Bagni di Lucca and are rightly very popular (sometimes I think too popular) with walkers traversing the footpath connecting the five places.

Porto Venere is actually a sixth town on the list, so the ‘Cinque Terre’ should more correctly be called the ‘Sei Terre’. However, since Porto Venere doesn’t have a railway station and is reachable by bus from La Spezia it’s often left out. This is a great pity for Porto Venere is one of the most beautiful places on earth and it was only this week that I first visited it after ten years of making Italy my principal residence. How strange!

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I arrived at Porto Venere after taking a train from Bagni di Lucca and changing at Aulla for La Spezia, which is worth a day to itself: see my posts on La Spezia at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/la-spezia-again/

and

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/

I then took the 11P bus to Porto Venere from Viale Garibaldi which is just ten minutes from the station. Parking must be a headache in Porto Venere and the road to it is twisty and often narrow. The greatest hazard, however, is not the road itself but what you can see from it: the views are so spectacular that you could be easily distracted and plunge to your doom over the often steep sides!

The whole public transport journey from Bagni di Lucca to Porto Venere takes a little over two hours if you study your connections well. My return journey took me via Viareggio and Lucca involving a couple of changes but I was glad I didn’t use my own transport.

From ancient Ligurian beginnings Porto Venere became part of the great Genoese maritime republic and shares many of the republic’s characteristics:

Massive fortifications crowned by the Doria fortress:

Narrow alleys called ‘caruggi’:

Beautiful Romanesque zebra-striped church architecture:

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San Lorenzo with its miraculous image of the Madonna:

And the most delectable seascapes including the island of Palmaria, separated by the stretch of water known as ‘le bocche’:

Not leaving aside Byron’s favourite haunt, the cove where he would forget his club foot which made him limp embarassingly and swim his disability away in the lovely waters of the bay of poets:

There is something quite magical about visiting normally tourist-infested haunts in mid-winter when there only a few hardy souls about. There may not be many bars, restaurants and souvenir shops open but the freedom from crowds is surely something to be enjoyed.

It’s great that we have these wonderful places, so different from our mountain haunts in their seascapes, at such a close distance from the Val di Lima. What other country, I wonder, has so much variety packed in so small area of territory?

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PS Fellow blogger Debra Kolkka has written extensively on Porto Venere. For example, see her post at https://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/portovenere/

There’s also a pretty good web site for Porto Venere at https://portovenere.a-turist.com/index

 

 

 

 

 

View from a Watch-Tower

Amazingly warm and clear days are still with us in the heart of winter. I checked the long-range weather forecast and it seems that the rough weather will finally reach us in February.

It’s an ideal time for walking as the air is crisp and I took advantage of it to reach the top of Monte Bargiglio where there is an old watch-tower erected by the Republic of Lucca. I’ve described this structure at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/the-eye-of-lucca/ and it’s worth looking at that post as it shows the tower before recent work on it was completed. The views from the tower remain as spectacular as ever but the entry to it has changed considerably and I’m not entirely sure whether it’s for the better.

I appreciate the replacement of the old wooden rails which prevent one from descending into the depth of the steep ravine on one side.

I do miss, however,  the raw reality of the entrance to the old watch-tower where one could take pictures of the surrounding views through the little windows.

Instead, there are now well-graded steps leading up to a purpose-built metal structure which incorporates a staircase and a viewing platform. It’s quite impossible to go down to the interior although certainly the panorama from the platform is splendid.

This wasn’t just my view (sorry!). Shortly after I had arrived a party of three came and pronounced the same judgment. On the other hand, new signage and conservation of this primeval internet communication hub has eased the access to it.

Restoration of any monument involves often highly debatable decisions. How far should one go? The Arthur Evans reconstruction of parts of the palace of Knossos in Crete using inappropriate material such as concrete is definitely passé but will future generations regard the viewing ‘platform at the Bargiglio tower a little over the top?

 

Camporgiano Castle and its Unexpected Treasures

This time I was lucky. Signor Sarti on tel 338 28 79741 was the right person to contact in order to visit the ceramics museum of Camporgiano.  I returned to the little town in the upper Serchio valley dominated by its massive Estensi fortress and met him. We entered into one of the four great turrets forming a quadrilateral and at last got to see  these long-for ceramics.

Where did these ceramics come from? There was no pottery industry in the area so how did these pieces come to be here in such quantities. Signor Sarti explained it all to me. The original fortress was built in the 1300’s by the condottiere Castruccio Castracani before the advent of firepower and had high thinnish walls to deflect arrows. When cannonballs and muskets came into the fray and the town was conquered by the Estensi dynasty something defending against the new weapons of war had to be thought out. So a new fortress was built in 1446 encircling the old and displaying the inclined, thicker and lower walls which are known so well by those who visit Lucca. There was, thus, a hollow space created between the old and new fortress walls and the inhabitants used this as a dump, over the years for their old, broken or unwanted plates and pottery items. Most of these items had come from that capital of the best Italian pottery Faenza – from which, of course, we get the word faience.

The main buildings of the Estensi fortress were irreparably damaged in the 1920 earthquake but the massive walls withstood the seismic shock and a private residence was built on top of the walls.

During the last war the fortress was used as an air-raid shelter by the local inhabitants before the allies advance further north towards the decisive battle of Aulla

Quite by chance after the last war, during an archaeological dig, these pottery waste dumps were rediscovered and found to contain some truly precious pieces of renaissance works dating from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. These included everything from plates to pitchers, bowls and tiles.

A museum was eventually opened in 1976; restored in 1999 and again closed this century for several years until it was recently reopened.

In fact, when we entered the museum was covered with a layer of dust which the custodian was desperately trying to sweep away since the whole interior of the bastion had been closed for some four years.

Here is the area where the majority of the ceramics was found – between the walls of the old and the new fortress.

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The collection was well lay out and there were some quite magnificent examples.

I was also able to visit the beautiful private gardens and met a charming couple from the USA who were also ‘castling’ in the area. They’d been to Italy at least twenty times and had enjoyed most of the fortresses and castles that dot the Garfagnanan and Aulla regions.

I pointed out to them the fortress of Verrucole (described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/13/a-stunning-castle-comes-to-life/) which stands opposite Camporgiano near San Romano and truly the Scythian gates of the upper Serchio.

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I now headed towards another great new discovery for me – the recently constructed Tibetan bridge over the Lake of Vagli. But that area deserves a whole new post!

 

 

The Southern Limits of Tuscany

Tuscany may not look very big on a world map but its size is deceptive. Mountain roads lengthen journeys and the only real way to visit many parts of perhaps Italy’s most beautiful, and certainly most varied, region is to locate a base and stay there for some days.

We found Manciano fitted the bill perfectly. Equidistant from the mysterious ‘tufo’ towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Sorano, the natural beauties of the lagoon of Burano and the wild beaches beyond it is located among the rolling hills of southern Tuscany – a region perhaps as neglected by the impatient tourist as our part of northern Tuscany once was.

We chose an agriturismo a little distance outside Manciano with a very good price and a friendly ambience. This morning, for example, we had breakfast in the garden which overlooks a deer park, part of the animals kept here which also include chicken and goats. It was lovely to see the deer, with some prized horned specimens having their breakfast too.

Our room was well-appointed and it was amazingly booked just a few days before the mad rush of Ferragosto, the Italian Bank holiday, when it’s impossible to find anything decent, especially if it’s near the sea.

After a standard drive down the Via Aurelia we branched inland at Albinia and reached our base after a journey of around four hours. Traffic was light and the countryside of La Maremma quite glorious with irs rolling hills, vast panoramas, umbrella pines and golden fields. It was difficult to believe that this area was once considered ‘maledetta’, cursed, because of the lack of proper drainage and the high incidence of malaria.

Yesterday we started off with an excellent continental breakfast of home-made ricotta, peach jam, cake, yogurt and caffé-latte served in the delighful early morning sunshine of the farmhouse’s garden.

We then set off to Manciano’s centro storico. The steep narrow streets led us to the main church and, near the top, to an excellent museum which gave us an insight into the history of the area. There has been a settlement here since the Old Stone Age and Manciano became an important centre under the Etruscans and Romans.

The castle keep (cassero) at the top is the home of the town council and it was very windy on the terrace surrounding it, giving us splendidly clear views of the surrounding country.

There was an interesting art exhibition nearby.

We proceeded to Capalbio, an even more spectacular southern Tuscan hill town with its ultra-steep streets and charming corners.

The Romanesque parish church has some beautiful old frescoes and the views from the town extended towards a truly blue Mediterranean.

There was a great walk around the town walls. I wonder if Capalbio was ever captured with such strong defences which included an outer wall as well?

The climax of the day, however, was yet to come!

Florence’s Magic Railway: Part Two

Brisighella seemed a pretty name for a small town and it was a truly pretty, even  spectacular place. We’d now crossed over the appennines into Emilia Romagna and found the locals speaking a very differently accented Italian, almost Venetian in fact.

Where to begin with Brisighella? High above the little town we spotted the imposing Fortress standing high like Kafka’s castle.  It does require a little climb with over six hundred very steep steps (if you have a car then, of course, it’s much easier as there’s a twisty road up) but it’s worth changing into a human equivalent of a mountain-goat to get to the top. The fortress is quite majestic and was built strong enough to keep Federico da Montefeltro, the crunched-nose ruler of Urbino, out.

‘La Rocca’  houses an agricultural museum (closed when we were there) but the best thing about it are the views which are wondrously spectacular, looking over the Romagnan pre-appennines and showing off the precipitously situated alarm bell tower and the little sanctuary of Monticino precious to the Brisighellians. These buildings are placed on the ‘tre colli’, (three hills) symbols of the town.

The walk down to the old town reveals a highly picturesque centre.

There is also what must be one of Italy’s most unusual streets. It’s called ‘la via degli asini’ or ‘donkeys’ way’ and is a covered arcade running above street level. Originally part of a defensive system, the street takes its name from the fact that it once housed stables for donkeys bringing in chalk stone from the chalk mines the area was once famous for.

There were some pleasant cafes, a highly talented team of artist and marqueteer,

(indeed Brisighella is a haven for artists including the great Giuseppe Ugonia (1881-1944) four hundred of whose  paintings and lithographs are housed in the civic museum)

We strolled down ever more picturesque streets, met some pleasant cats

and entered a church with a painting by Guercino within it.

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We could have spent days in this delightful town for all around are marvellous walks and spectacular geological formations including caves and, of course, vineyards growing the famous Sangiovese wine!

On our return journey we just managed to take one quick photo from our railway carriage of the Pieve di S. Giovanni in Ottavo (pieve del Thò), a venerable romanesque building, one of the oldest in Italy and which dates originally from the fifth century. Ah well! Next time.

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How tantalizingly short is life! If the saying goes ‘one lifetime is not enough to see Rome’ then I doubt the finest supercomputer would be able to tell me how many lifetimes I’d need to possess in order to visit all the marvels of this marvellous nation. At least a cat is at an advantage in this!

 

 

The Cascio Criscioletta

For much of its length in Mediavalle and Garfagnana the river Serchio has roads on both its banks. For example, if one is going from Bagni di di Lucca to Lucca one can either take the Brennero route on the left bank or the Lodovica route (named after the last duke of Lucca) on the right.

Similarly, going from Bagni di Lucca to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, the next major centre going north, it’s possible for much of the way to choose the route through Fornaci di Barga (an excellent shopping centre) or Gallicano (with its Conad superstore).

However, there’s a joining of the two roads at Ponte di Campia when just one route goes through the narrow gorge on its way to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.

Nevertheless, from Gallicano there’s an alternative route to Castelnuovo which takes one over the top of a spur which has several delightful village clinging onto it. I’ve described two of these, Palleroso and Perpoli, at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/rosy-straw/ and https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/precipitous-perpoli/ and others, including Bonini’s excellent restaurant, at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/01/saint-anthonys-pastures/.

One place I haven’t yet described is Cascio which lies just a little to the left of the ridge road.

Cascio forms part of the comune of Molazzana and has around three hundred people living there. It’s one of the oldest villages in the area and its name is supposedly derived from the Latin, Fundus Cassii, which points to the founding of the settlement by a retired Roman centurion (as is often the case with several villages in our area).

The walls around Cascio were built as a result of various wars between the Estensi and Lucchese at the start of the the seventeenth century. In 1603 the town was conquered by Lucca.  It was then re-captured by the Estensi (from Ferrara) and the inhabitants were forced to build the walls as a result of their supposed cowardice in ceding Cascio to the Luccans.

Cascio was in another war in 1944-5 when it stood on the second gothic line. Some buildings were damaged as a result.

The walls are almost 2,000 feet in length and the inhabitants must have been kept very busy in building them! There are some impressive gateways through them:

In the centre of Cascio there’s a sweet square with a church dedicated to Saints Laurence and Stephen inside which there’s a terracotta Madonna with Child from Benedetto Buglioni’s workshop. (Buglioni was a pupil of Della Robbia and the Madonna dates from the fifteenth century.) The church itself dates back to the start of the tenth century and once belonged to the Luccan monastery of san Ponziano. In 1378 it was taken over by the Olivetian Benedictine order. Little, however, remains of the original construction which was radically transformed into its present nineteenth century appearance

We’ve been to Cascio’s most notable event, the sagra Della Criscioletta, which take place at the end of July and start of August. Indeed, as part of Expo 2015, there’s been a presentation of the Cascio criscioletta there too!

But what is a criscioletta?

It’s a sort of pancake made from maize flour, water and salt. It’ cooked on a heated, locally made, steel base. Adding bacon or cheese greatly enhances its flavour.

Until a short while ago the sagra Della criscioletta was held in the sports centre to the right of the ridge road. This enabled everyone passing on that route to see the festival but it wasn’t particularly atmospheric. For a few years now it’s held in the actual village itself and has gained greatly from the picturesque surroundings.

We’ve never been to the relocated sagra but fully intend to do so next year when the village is also characteristically decorated – not one week late like this year when these photographs were taken.

There’s a facebook page on Cascio at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Conoscere-Cascio-in-Garfagnana/392604264157943 which will keep one informed on events there.

A Stunning Castle Comes to Life

The fortress of Verrucole is near San Romano to the north of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana in the upper Serchio valley. It once formed part of a complex defensive system whose other main protection points are Mont’Alfonso fortress, just outside Castelnuovo, the castle in Castelnuovo itself, Camporgiano castle and the fortified town of Castiglione di Garfagnana.

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We first visited Verrucole for a mediaeval afternoon described in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/02/castling-in-garfagnana/ in 2005 to attend a mediaeval afternoon with dancing, sword fighting and cross-bow shooting.

Since that time, and thanks to European Union funding, the fort has been almost fully restored and we were keen to revisit it a couple of days ago.

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Parking is in the actual village of Verrucole itself and there is a steep but not difficult fifteen minutes’ walk to the castle gate where a “dogana” now charges admission (standard is 5 euros. For more price and opening time information see the web site at http://www.fortezzaverrucolearcheopark.it/orari.php.)

The first thing we noticed was the restoration of the keep to its full height which is now crowned by an octagonal roof. We were advised to visit this part first and were treated to a truly interesting display of medieval life carefully explained to us by a young man who’d graduated in mediaeval studies and really knew his stuff.

He explained much about daily life, fighting strategies and medical practice of those times in which the castle was used.

For example did you know that the Italian word ‘ammazzare’ – to kill – come from mazza which is that steel ended club-like weapon guaranteed to smash anyone’s cranium in? It naturally became a symbol of power in the English mace, which is a symbol of mayoral power through the UK and, indeed, form part of the UK’s and the commonwealth’s parliamentary regalia.

The Mace

We almost needed medical attention ourselves since there was a plant with large sweet berries growing in the herb garden by the tower which I tasted but did not swallow. It was, in fact, belladonna, three berries of which can kill one adult outright but which in small doses was used by mediaeval damsels to enlarge their eye pupils and make them more alluring.

The chain mail was particularly heavy and explained the fact that those crusaders wearing it in the holy wars against the Muslims were unable to bear the heat generated by such heavy armour as against the more lightly clad Saracens.

The one thing chain mail armour could not withstand was the arrow and we were led into the courtyard to the north of the tower for a demonstration and hands on experience of firing from long-bows.  I managed to hit the target but it must have been beginner’s luck.

The crossbow and even the muzzle loaded harquebus were unfavourably compared to the long-bow whose archers won us the battle of Agincourt, After all, twelve arrows could be shot in one minute with a long bow whereas only two could be fired in the same time by the crossbow and the harquebus.

We then visited the top floor of the keep which was laid out with dioramas and a souvenir shop. The view from the windows here were absolutely stunning, looking out over both the Apuan and Apennine range.

Looking at the fantastic location of the fortress I could easily understand why it was seriously challenged only once, in the twelfth century.

We then walked around the rest of the fortress which originally had two separate keeps joined together by further crenellated walls in the fifteenth century and treated ourselves to some delicious fruit salad ice cream and blackcurrant tart.

We thought that our visit was one of the most satisfying ones to any castle in Italy. It wasn’t just another pile of rubble but a well-kept, well-organised place in an awesome location. The bringing to life of the castle via its brilliant mediaeval guide, the excellent refreshment facilities, the characters in appropriate costume: in short, the total presentation was an example of how a castle should be presented to the public. Full mark for the effort put into Verrucole. It really made our day!

 

Rock-Hard

Pian Della Rocca is usually by-passed on one’s way from Gallicano to Borgo a Mozzano and beyond. Apart from a monumental electricity generating station and some useful garages for revisione (MOT) and car repair there’s not too much to stop there for except for an excellent espresso at its one and only bar.

Rocca, above it, is quite another fish, however. Rocca clearly mean rock in Italian and it’s the ideal place to build a stronghold. The village has one dating back to at least the fourteenth century, if not before.

Rocca rises 314 meters (1030 feet) above sea level and is built on a steep slope of a hill dominating the valley of the Serchio and Lima. Thanks to its strategic location it was a stronghold of the Suffredinghi clan for many year before Lucca took it over.

The settlement retains the characteristics of a medieval village with stone arches and narrow cobbled streets, clearly part of the castle keep at one stage.

At its top are the ruins of the old fortress and the base of a circular tower.

Obviously, a more ample archaeological dig would be needed to uncover the extensive castle ruins such as has been done to great effect at Benabbio. But one can still see the slits where arrows would be flung at the enemy

The village church was built between the eleventh and twelfth centuries and is attached to a spacious rectory which was once the seat of Suffredinghi and the Antelminelli. We’ve visited part of the rectory before, which contain an interesting collection of old farm implements, but it was closed when I went to Rocca the other day.

The road leading to Rocca has a chapel dedicated to the Alpini on whose wall are the names killed or missing in two wars in Borgo a Mozzano comune.

Unlike the other Alpini chapel on top of Bagni di Lucca’s Colle, this chapel has nothing modern about it. It’s a conversion of an old oratory. From it an avenue called the avenue of the fallen rises up into the surrounding sweet hills and behind the chapel are a series of coats of arm of the various regiments involved.

It should be remembered that the Alpini suffered the worst losses in World War II when Mussolini had the crazy idea of aiding Hitler in the conquest of Russia. The Alpini, because of their experience of mountain combat, were meant to conquer the Caucasians but instead got bogged down in the River Don valley to disastrous effect and with inadequate clothing and ammunition. Just look at any war memorial in our valley and you’ll see the longest list of soldiers commemorated on them is those “dispersi nella Russia”.

It’s difficult to realise this context of war in such a beautiful setting ,especially when one sees the gentle countryside dotted with the  picturesque hay stacks one builds in this part of the world.