Goodbye Lio!

The grapes are clustered juicily on their stem. The vines are ready for their vendemmia but the hands that tended them for so many years will never pick them again. Those hands have gone to another vineyard, God’s own.

Lio Lucchesi, long-term resident of Longoio, after a short illness died on the 15th of this month. I attended his funeral yesterday.

The smaller the community the greater the impact of that fate we must all attend at the end of our lives – the one-way journey to a land so distant that no face-to-face meeting can possibly be attempted while we who remain have their legs still firmly on this earth.

Lio was one of the first locals I’d met when I arrived in Longoio and I found him a convivial person with a very racy sense of humour. Often this humour was, I feel, used to disguise a rather more serious person. It was perhaps a mask for covering some of the pain in his life. One aspect of this may have been his batchelorhood. I was surprised at this since Lio had an endearing way of getting along with women of all ages. I just wonder why he never found the right companion or whether he never had the certainty of choosing the right one. He would have made a very good father.

With Lio I embarked on several organised coach journeys covering different areas of Italy and often lasting some days. I was keen to discover new parts of the country, especially when I decided to settle here permanently here over eleven years ago.

One of the journeys I remember was to the north-east part of Italy and beyond.  We visited Trieste where this photograph of Lio was taken on the waterfront of that wonderful mittel-european city:


We also visited the battlefields and war graves on the eastern front. This was taken in the bar near the monumental Redipuglia First World War memorial.

This one shows a somewhat dubious Lio on the little train that rushes at break-neck speed through the immense caves of Postumia, formerly Italian but now in Slovenia.

There are doubtless other photographs, including some of a trip to Naples and the royal palace of Caserta but I’ll have to spend more time looking through the photographs I have.

My wife and I last spoke to Lio last summer when he was resting from his labours on his beloved vines. He spoke cordially to us and especially thanked us for having time to talk to him. The jokey sense had been somewhat diluted and I felt that a shadow had already fallen on him. Lio had previously jested that he’d sold his vineyard but I’m glad he still kept onto his passion until the very end. For some days Lio was confined to his bed in Longoio’s Piazza dell’Amicizia. Relatives then took him to ‘la Vigna’ (appropriately translated as, ‘the vineyard’), a large house a little distance outside Longoio towards La Serra.

Around 6 am on the 15th of this month Lio’s condition worsened and a Misericordia ambulance was called. Shortly after ten on the same day he’d left us for ever at ‘la Vigna’

The funeral was well-attended with many relatives and friends being able to be present. (Italian funerals occur rarely more than three days after the death of a person because Italian undertakers do not embalm the body). Something I found strange, however, and which our local parish priest, Don Franco, also noted, was that there were quite a few people waiting outside the church where there were still many seats available. I recognised two of them as being Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which attendance outside a Catholic church is normal in the case of funerals, but I couldn’t believe everyone waiting outside the church was of that persuasion. Never mind. At least they were near Lio for his last journey.

Goodbye Lio old boy! You’re another one of that traditional country-man stock which is literally fast-dying out of our part of the world taking away some of the history of this part of the world for ever. We’ll truly miss seeing you again and we’ll always wish we’d recorded some of the traditional songs you used to sing in the piazza of Longoio – those improvised ‘stornelli’, for example, which you would sing and make up with delicious gusto.

For how long will your chair remain empty now and for how long will your grapes have to wait for devoted hands to pick them now that you are in the hands of God himself? God only knows, dear Lio!




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.


(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.


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 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.


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

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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


For the Equi Terme earthquake see my post at

For lovely walks around Equi see my post at and at

For more on our choir’s presence at Equi terme see post at

Bathing Competition

How many visitors to Bagni di Lucca today visit the Terme, the thermal waters establishment, at the top of the volcanic hill which rises up behind the town?

A couple of winters ago we were able, through a doctor’s prescription, to have a course of ‘grotta’ on the Italian National Health Service. This meant sitting in a very hot cave heated by the almost boiling waters which came from the hill’s entrails. After twenty minutes we were invited to leave (if we hadn’t already through sheer inability to withstand the temperature) and go and lie down on a camp bed and await both a ‘reazione’ and a tisane.

My ‘reazione’ (reaction) was to fall into a heavy swoon from which I had to be invariably woken up by the attentive staff.

Having dressed we then faced a crisp winter’s morning in Bagni, our pores thoroughly cleansed

My only complaint about the whole process was that the ‘reazione’ area is placed directly above the changing rooms and sometimes there is noticeable noise from the quarters below which interfere with one’s relaxation.

Bagni di Lucca bath have had their heyday, particularly in the nineteenth century when they were favoured by Europe’s most distinguished company of aristocrats and artists. However, when compared, particularly to Montecatini Terme which isn’t that far away, they do not equate.

Montecatini, with its fin-de-siècle plushness, may seem an unfair comparison to make but even with less luxurious establishments the Terme di Bagni di Lucca do not compete very well. The Terme of San Giuliano, formerly known as Terme di Pisa, where Shelley resided for some time and completed his poem on the death of Keats, Adonais, is, in my opinion, a cut above Bagni di Lucca’s efforts.

By 2005 (when these photograph were taken) San Giuliano Terme had completed a thorough restoration and was seductively well-appointed. It needed to for in 1992 it was threatened with complete closure!

The origins of the baths at San Giuliano are very old and date back to at least the time of that indomitable lady, Matilde di Canossa, in the middle ages. It was, however, only toward the end of the eighteenth century that San Giuliano really developed into an elegant thermal establishment. In 1743 Grand duke Francis of Lorraine restructured the baths and built his grand summer villa which is the centre-piece of the terme. People of quality started to visit the baths, including several of the Hapsburgs.

San Giuliano even has a thermal grotto on the lines of Bagni di Lucca. It’s called the grand duke’s hammam and was built in the eighteenth century. The ‘hammam’ was only rediscovered a few years back and its thermal waters drop from a waterfall at a temperature of 38 degrees into a stone basin in which one can take a dip.

If Bagni di Lucca is to return to its former glory then it must realise that it is facing increasing competition from at least one other terme within easy striking distance of it…

Of Plateaux and Black Leaps

After a very propitious start, with several days of wall-to-wall sunshine, the spring is giving us somewhat unsettled weather. It’s great for plants – the cloudy atmosphere is reminiscent of tropical rain forests – but not so good for walking. Has the climate really changed that much in eight years?

In May 2007 I decided to take a long walk from near Vico Pancellorum up to the Balzo Nero mountain which lords it over the village.

The walk was mainly on CAI footpath no 8, starting at 2066 feet and which follows the valley of the Coccia di Vico torrent. The first part was a broad unmetalled road which then gave way to a path crossing a large scree slope.

After an initial exposed part, the path plunged into a wonderfully thick holm oak forest.

There was a little detour  to see the Grotta dei Porci (cave of the pigs) at 2460 feet which was suitably mysterious. I don’t exactly know why it’s called the cave of the pigs. Perhaps the name refers to wild pigs or boars which might shelter there when the weather is inclement. In summer, obversely, the cave could be a good place to cool off in!

I then re-joined the main path which began to rise until the forest ended and then entered an area called “I Piani”, a grassy plateau emerging from a beautiful beech forest at altitude 3854 feet, and immersed in a faery mist, strangely reminiscent of the Welsh highlands.

From here there was a choice of either going right to the top of the Balzo Nero (“black leap”), the rocky mountain which overlooks Vico Pancellorum, or turning left to a viewpoint called Poggio degli Agli.


I did neither but decided in view of the thickening mist to take a short rest and then descend back to my starting point using, however, an alternative path no 8b, to do so.

This path avoided the forest but involved a lot of scree walking about which one had to be careful to avoid a twisted ankle. I got to my scooter safely; glad that at least I’d reached that eerie plateau of I Piani.


Here is a map including the route I took (I did the violet and red bits in a clockwise direction):

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There’s also a good map with photographs showing signs of the route taken at

I would repeat the walk again in later years, once with a group of keen Germans. They seemed to walk at break-neck speed and actually reached the top of the Balzo Nero. Instead, I again rested at I Piani. Will I reach the top of the Balzo Nero this year, I wonder?


In working out walks one should remember even more than the distance travelled, which in this case was just a little over ten kilometres, the various differences in height level one has to traverse. In this case it was a total of 945 metres. There is also the question of gradients, useful to know if one has a vertigo problem or doesn’t like more extreme scrambles over rocks. In this walk the maximum gradient was 54%.

The walk is classified as grade E. There are several different hiking difficulty grades in operation through the world. Difficulties in Italy are measured according to a clearly defined scale laid down by CAI (Club Alpino Italiano, founded by Indian army Colonel Budden back in the nineteenth century. See my post at for more on this remarkable character) as follows:

T Tourist trail

Hiking within everyone’s reach; route on roads, mule or wide paths; paths are generally not long, do not present any orientation problem and do not require specific training. Trails are near villages, resorts, roads, and are easy for all able-bodied persons.

E Hiking trails

Hiking that takes place on well-signed and marked footpaths trails or mule tracks and cross a variety of terrain including forest, fields, and screes. Discrete physical training and orientation skills are required.

EETrail for experienced hikers

Routes that involve an ability to move easily over rough and treacherous terrain. Requires good prior exercising, good knowledge of the mountain, and basic techniques in use of appropriate equipment. Generally they correspond to routes crossing medium or high mountain and may include some vie ferrate (use of steel cables or iron steps to help one across some sections – in England’s lake district there’s a via ferrata in Honister’s slate mine. In Italy there are over 400 vie ferrate over half on them in the Dolomites but quite a few here both in the Apuans and the Apennines.)

EEA Path for expert hikers with suitable equipment

These are equipped paths or climbing routes that lead hikers on high cliffs, ridges and ledges, Ropes are essential together with helmets, harness etc. (unless one is a free climbing expert). See my post at for pictures of this kind of walk.

EAI Hiking in snowy environment These are routes in snowy environment that require the use of snowshoes. The Apuans in winter are the real challenge here as often there is ice beneath the snow where at least one person in our area falls to their doom every year.

Finally how long is the walk supposed to take? In this case the suggestion was from five to six hours which was pretty accurate as far I was concerned back in 2007. Will it take longer now….?

Journey towards the Centre of the Earth

Because of its large areas of limestone Italy has some of the most spectacular cave systems in the world. It’s reckoned, for example, that the cavities inside the Apuan Alps which rise to the west of our Serchio valley are some of the most extensive anywhere on Earth (or rather, in Earth!). Anyone who has been to this part of the world and missed taking at least one of the three separate itineraries inside the Grotta Del Vento is truly missing something exceptional.

The Grotta Del Vento’s web site is at

Italian speleologists, true experts in their field, have done much to discover and explore unknown cave systems; it is terrible that two of them out of an expedition of four,  Oskar Piazza and Gigliola Mancinelli, have lost their lives, as a result of the Nepal earthquake.

Those caves with some of the largest natural halls in the world are in an area which was formerly Italian but which was lost after the treaties concluding World War II. They are the caves of Postumia, now in Slovenia and locally known as “Postojnska jama”.

The area round the caves is exceptionally pretty.

Postumia caves extend for twenty kilometres and have been known since they were inhabited by humans in prehistoric times, although they were only described for the first time in the eighteenth century. In 1884 Postumia were the first caves in the world to be lit by electricity and have ever since proved to be a very popular tourist attraction. I was lucky to have visited them in April 2007 (when this post’s photographs were taken) and my wife had visited them when they were still in Yugoslavia.

The photographs of long departed royalty show some of the visitors who preceded us in the last century.

A railway inside the caves was installed in 1872 and Postumia are the only caves to have one. Here is an example of former rolling stock.


The system has, clearly, since been updated and we seated ourselves comfortably in open carriages ready for our ride into the bowels of the earth which was taken at, what seemed to me, break-neck speed. I would have liked it to be rather slower so that I could appreciate the limestone formations more clearly.


Here are three videos of that journey:

We did, however, have ample time to admire the amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, some of which were of massive dimensions, during the second, walking, part of our itinerary.

The caves house two unique species of fauna: a blind amphibian called Proteus Anquinus with a pretty pink coloration, and a beetle, Leptodirus Hohenwart, presumably blind too.


I wasn’t impressed by the food at the restaurant at the entrance to the caves, although the ambience was rather baronial. Was it mediocre catering or was Slovenian food just not as tasty as Italian cuisine?

The caves’ temperature is a constant eight degrees with high humidity so bring some warmer clothes if you are visiting them in summer!

More information is available at the caves’ web site at