Am I Really Going Quackers?

Coincidences are always startling to some degree. But the one that happened to me yesterday was a real quacker!

I came back home to find that my camera, which had a shutter problem, had been returned from the repair factory to my very own front door by the courier instead of the often usual situation where one has to go down to the local bar in Bagni di Lucca because couriers often pretend not to know where I live. Since the camera was under guarantee there was even nothing to pay for it!

Later in the afternoon I received a call from the courier stating that he’d managed to put the parcel next to my door because he found the garden gate open. He also found my two Muscovy ducks, Flip and Flop, playing outside my house. He said he’d lifted them up and deposited them in the front garden before leaving and closing the door. I thanked him profusely.

Mystery. Have I really gone so far as to forget to close and lock the front gate?

Anyway, full marks for the kindness of a really helpful courier.

In the evening I received an email from a friend who lives in the wilds of middle England describing his bike-ride. ‘I am back in the land of notices’ he wrote and sent me these stating ‘Ducks at Play: please be sensitive – don’t mention plum sauce or l’orange’ placed near the waterway he’d cycled to.

Just before I travelled into dreamland I received a post from someone I’m very keen to follow. It’s from the excellent blogger, Mukul Chand from India, and is at The photo’s entitled ‘Enchanting Group of Ducks at the Harishchandra Ghat in Kashi’


Kashi= Varanasi (Benares) and the river is the  Holy Ganges

So on the same day three lots of ducks decided to have a game with me in three different countries. Or am I really going quackers?

Sam is Ninety-Nine!

Bagni di Lucca’s most venerable citizen, Franklin Samuel Stych, best known as Sam, was ninety nine years old this fifteenth July 2015.

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We celebrated Sam’s birthday with a pre-prandial drink at his residence in the upper part of the town centrered around the old thermal bath and the place where, among other worthies, Montaigne, Shelley and Byron stayed and where Whiskey, his new cat, now has pride of place.

Thanks to the courtesy of the Italian Red Cross we were able to transport Sam down to the Circolo dei Forestieri where a table was reserved under the front portico for our little gathering.

Sam hasn’t quite the appetite he once had but he still enjoyed his penne and his bacon and cheese course.

I’m not the world’s best cake maker but my Muscovy ducks, especially Flip, laid some excellent eggs, of which three were used in the preparation of a madeira cake.

The cake was brought in with candles supplied by Jenny, whose masterplan, the celebration was and were successfully blown out by Sam (I should add there wasn’t room to put 99 candle on the cake so two nines were used instead.

The mayor of Bagni di Lucca who has known Sam since he (the mayor) was a young lad joined us was most cordial towards Sam and his party and reminisced about past times. I could note there was a lasting bond of affection between the two.

Toasted with spumante we could all see that Sam was thoroughly enjoying his lunch, especially the wine.

I read out a speech which, since Sam appeared to like, is reproduced here:

Sam it gives us a great pleasure to join you here at the circolo dei forestieri to celebrate your 99th birthday.

Dr Franklin Samuel Stych was born in a part of Birmingham, which was then in county of Worcestershire, now East Midlands, in 1916 when the First World War was raging in its second year.

Let us cast our mind back to the events which happened in the year, month and day Sam was born


This rare and interesting name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, and is a form of topographical or occupational surname for a man who owned or cultivated a “stitch” of land. The name derives from the Old English pre 7th Century term “stycce”, meaning “a piece” of land, still found in Cambridgeshire and Essex field-names, and meaning “a ploughing land”. As a topographical name it denotes residence on or by such a piece of land. The modern surname has a number of forms, ranging from Stitch, Stithe and Stitcher to Stych and Styche.

Sam himself saw active service in the Second World War in the Ordnance department of the army and was stationed in North Africa and Italy where his love for this country grew.

When Sam returned to the UK in 1946 he also returned to his great love of libraries and bibliography and became a senior member of staff of the municipal libraries. One of his mentors was the great Italian scholar Professor Whitfield of Birmingham University. Sam retired about 43 years ago and when given the chance to acquire a residence in Italy through his connection with Ian Greenlees, the director of the British institute in Florence, made the move to Bagni di Lucca with gladness. 

There are three significant works by Sam, which have greatly contributed to deeper understanding between Britain and Italy.

  1. How to Find Out About Italy is an excellent introduction to the bibliography relating to this country and, although published almost forty years ago, is in the opinion of many still highly relevant and useful
  2. Sam devoted 20 years of his retirement here in Bagni di Lucca to the creation of a comprehensive annotated bibliography of 2,242 items by Boccaccio, adapted from Boccaccio, or about His material was edited and prepared for publication by his former student, Michael Buckland, at the School of Information Management and Systems.  (Incidentally, the same Michael phoned up in the morning to wish am happy birthday.)     

This seminal work is now on the web and is, therefore, able to be constantly updated. It remains the most fundamental, formidable tool for any research on Boccaccio.
Sam has received several honours in recognition of his work. Among these he is elected as a commendatore of the grand ducal house of Tuscany

Sam has also written an interesting study of Pinocchio in Gran Bretagna e Irlanda, tr. Gaetano Prampolini, Firenze: Quaderni Della Fondazione nazionale Carlo Collodi n. 8, 1971. A you’ll know Collodi is only a short distance from Bagni di Lucca

Throughout his time here Sam has become the last remaining Englishman to link the present generation of residents and newcomers in the area with the classic coterie of cultivated English gentlemen who included such names as Ian Greenlees, Robin Chanter and, last but not least, Harold Acton. He is important not just for his great bibliographic works, not just for Bagni di Lucca, not just for Italo-English relationships but also for his quality of character.

 Until recently self-sufficient, but still independent of mind, Sam receives visitors with pleasure and time spent with Sam is amply rewarded by his fine mind and wit.

 Sam is an example to us all of kindness, scholarliness, decency, hospitality, courtesy and warmth, qualities which are enduring and which, all too often, are sadly lacking in the age we live in now.

 Sam, cherish all your happy moments: they make a fine cushion for old age.

 Sam, here’s to you with respect, love and friendship on your 99th birthday and may we soldier on and even see next year, three instead of two numbers on your birthday cake.

Yes, next year it’s Sam’ century and I’m sure we’ll all meet again to celebrate it the same style and joy as we celebrated it this year.

Our Choir Sings at Anchiano’s Nativity

Anchiano’s Christmas Presepe Vivente (living crib) may not be the most spectacular one in our valley but it’s certainly one of the most charming. Anchiano itself is the perfect background to present this lovely Italian tradition. Set around a little hill to one side of the Via del Brennero its church is immediately recognizable, standing castle-like at the summit.

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Indeed, the village has several castle-like features including this amazing Gothic arch in the centre if the village. A former castle entrance perhaps?

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Deep in the hill are more recent reminders of fortifications. The Axis powers converted it into part of the Gothic line and dug deep tunnels within it. Here is the entrance to one of them.

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Anchiano is also the place where our choir sings for the nativity scene in the church. We miss so much our many years’ participation in the beautiful presepe vivente at Equi Terme. Since 2013 it’s been closed as the bad earthquake that year has made the whole village unsafe. It’s so sad but, at least, I got the chance this year to participate in another living crib…

Not well publicised and not attracting very many people because of the weather’s uncertainty Anchiano has, nevertheless, many attractive features. Traditional craftsmen are particularly well represented.

There was a joyous band of singers accompanied by guitar and harmonica singing local Christmas folk songs.

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The prisoner in the local jail was well-guarded.

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The village school was still active with traditional learning and a register dating back to 1890:

Here is the old way of washing clothes – using ash!

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All those present seemed very happy and focaccie and vin brulé abounded.

A local friend converted a side window of his house into a beautiful presepe:

I met up with my choir and we headed up the church up a steep cobbled path which, because of the rain has become rather slippery!

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The church is very lovely and even has a little dome.

We started singing our repertoire which included that majestic piece from Saint-Saens’ Oratorio de Noel, “Tollite Hostias”, composed when he was just 22.

Behind where we sang was this delightful Della Robbia tabernacle:

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and this lovely early fourteenth century Madonna and Child.

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And then the Nativity arrived! The little baby needed a bit of adjustment.

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But he was very good and didn’t scream at all throughout the display.

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The three wise men included a member of the choir and Borgo di Mozzano’s very popular former mayor for ten years.

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These events are things which truly touch one’s heart and make one feel so glad that one is living Christmas-time in Italy for these are traditions that surely will always live.

We wish all our readers a very happy Christmas season. May you be as glad as we were last night at Anchiano:


The Poisonous Miasma of Pieve Fosciana’s Lake

Apart from its Rocca and its Duomo, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, sometimes called the “capital of the Garfagnana”, is a disappointing place to visit unless one needs to do some last minute shopping. Much of this has to do with the fact that, as a nodal point in the allied advance during WWII, it was severely bombed (though not as badly as Aulla further up north in the Lunigiana which was completely flattened). For more information and photographs about war damage to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana see my post at

Castelnuovo is a straggly sort of place without a true sense of being a centre in its own right. For that sense, and for a true feeling of civic togetherness, one has to go a little further north to Pieve Fosciana. With its semi-grid plan, narrow side alleys, noble palaces and a treasured church, Pieve Fosciana, although breathing an atmosphere of some neglect and having been in WWII’s front line for seven months, remains largely intact and is a place to linger in.

(Photos taken by Sandra Pettitt)

Regarding the origins of Pieve Fosciana, the area retains prehistoric traces dating from the Neolithic period. The place name probably derives from an ancient parish church which administered the community and a centurion called Fustianus. The birth of the church, like all churches of Lucca province, is shrouded in mystery but old manuscripts in Lucca, indicate that may have been founded by Bishop San Frediano in the sixth century. The first permanent settlements in the area of Pieve Fosciana date back to Roman times, as evidenced by archaeological finds.

Pieve Fosciana is famous for being the burial place of the blessed Ercolano Piegaio, a Franciscan preacher of the fifteenth century. The Blessed Ercolano received the authorization to establish religious communities in Garfagnana from Pope Eugenius and founded two monasteries dedicated to St Francis, one near Barga (where the hospital is – see my post at and another in Pieve Fosciana. Surrounded by the fame of holiness, Ercolano died in 1451 in the convent of San Francesco. After this convent was demolished in the nineteenth century Ercolano’s relics were translated to the Pieve where they can still be viewed and worshipped.

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Buildings of interest include the Pieve di San Giovanni Battista and the old mill, described in my previous post at which has belonged to the Regoli family for five generations.

Pieve Fosciana also has a small thermal area where one can bathe in hot waters which are considered excellent for alleviating rheumatism and other physical ailments.

The thermal lake of Pra di Lama is a small lake where a few ducks nest and swim. It is fed by several springs, which emerge from volcanic strata, rather like those of Bagni di Lucca.

The lake appears to have no particular abnormalities, but its geological situation is far from stable. Sometimes the lake level is suddenly lowered. Immediately afterwards an eruption occurs that pours large amounts of muddy water into the Serchio,discolouring it for several kilometres. The lake’s banks may collapse, its waters engulfing the surrounding fields, and quick sands may appear which have swallowed several people.

The origin of Lake Pra di Lama is quite recent. In 1826 in place of the lake there was a meadow, in the centre of which, over an abundant thermal spring, a hut was built where people bathed for therapeutic purposes. Within a few months, the hut was swallowed into the earth leaving only a small pool of water.

At 11 am on August 15, 1828 a loud explosion startled the local inhabitants, and at the base of the hill there arose a great amount of muddy water blasted into the air along with a pestilential miasma that caused a serious epidemic striking at least two-thirds of the population for years and causing a marked increase in mortality. On that occasion a pond forty feet wide and eleven feet deep was formed but in 1842 it had almost completely disappeared.

Between February and March of the following year a new soil movement and the birth of ten other thermal sources expanded the lake again, and the Serchio was stained by mud for twenty kilometres up to Borgo a Mozzano. Again, in Pieve Fosciana and the surrounding areas deaths dramatically increased from diseases caused by the inhalation of the lake’s poisonous vapours.

A century later, at the end of World War Two, the lake was reduced to a small pond which locals attempted to reclaim by filling it with rubble and waste. However, new eruptions occurred, enlarging the lake again.

In the following years facilities for bathing with changing rooms and baths were built. Those using the facilities increased.

This situation lasted until the early nineteen seventies when the lake sprang to life again, swallowing trees up to a height of ten metres so that only the tops were visible and bringing down most of the buildings constructed for the thermal baths.

In March of 1996 the lake again erupted, before suddenly dropping down about two metres. (Fortunately it’s over a hundred years since one last heard of epidemics and mysterious deaths around the lake, otherwise we may not have been here to write this).

Meanwhile, chemists have established the excellent therapeutic qualities of the sulphurous lake water which is also radioactive. They include sulphate, sodium chloride with a fixed residue of 5.45 grams /per litre. The water’s temperature is 37 degrees C.

During our visit the thermal springs were being used by this gentleman.

We tested the waters and found that, although they smelt of bad eggs, they were deliciously warm and relaxing. Near the lake was the rapidly ruining white elephant of the thermal establishment of Pieve Fosciana. This building, dating from the early 1980’s was meant to place Pieve Fosciana in the same league as other spas, like Montecatini, but financial mismanagement caused the project to flounder miserably. We thought of exploring the concrete monstrosity but were deterred by the danger of falling masonry.

(The cupola in the photograph above is the original cupola of a nearby church, which has since been replaced.)

What a pity! Although geologists have apparently secured the safety of the lake by controlling its noxious vapours and avoiding the asphyxiation of visitors in search of its therapeutic qualities, the presence of the decaying concrete monster leads to a feeling of dejection around the place, typical of so many pie-in-the-sky projects in Italy which have never been finished and are left for the contemplation of the frustrated public.



Swanning it in Collodi

When I first visited the Garzoni gardens at Collodi in 2001 they were a somewhat underwhelming sight. Unkempt flower beds, dishevelled lawns and unsafe paths did little to convince me that this was one of the world’s great gardens to be compared favourably with those of Hampton Court, Versailles and Schonbrunn.

Happily all has changed today in the magnificent gardens, dating back to the seventeenth century, thanks to new ownership and continuous restoration (and maintenance). We were enthralled by their baroque wonders so wonderfully sited on the steep slopes of the Pizzorne and cascading down in spectacular terraces with secret arbours, a maze, bamboo grove and mythological creatures.

There are plenty of birds in the gardens including this graceful Australian black swan.

On the right hand side of the gardens is the butterfly house and the standard ticket gives one access to both this and the gardens (there is also a comprehensive ticket which allows access to the Pinocchio garden nearby.)

I found the butterfly house delightful although I am certainly not a lepidopterist and find the idea of pinning down specimens of this wonderful insect distasteful.

The palace itself remains closed although much restoration has been done on it. Judging from photographs of its state rooms it looks very impressive. I hope on our next visit that it will finally be open to the public.

We couldn’t leave Collodi without seeing the old village itself. It must have one of the steepest high streets in Tuscany!

The parish church at the top is charming and the oratory nearby had a photographic exhibition.

It’s good to know that there is a lot more to Collodi than the long-nosed puppet that has become famous throughout the world although without Collodi Pinocchio probably  would never have been born.

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Further details at



The owner’s son was truly grateful of our purchase and bowed to the Buddha with reverend hand gestures in gratitude I suppose for our presence it was quite moving. I will indeed ask Francis to post the progress I have finished the job but I must say what with the heat et. al. It was a huge project to undertake!

1. Get your pond shape.

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2. Decide where to place it and dig a whole greater than the size and shape of the pond. Remove all sharp stones and stones generally.

3. Fill the base of the dug-out area with fine sand.

4. Place the pond shape on top.

5. Fill with some water and check for levels with spirit level.

6. At this point job was left. Next morning it was filled with rain water and the ducks were already happily swimming and enjoying their new pond!

7. However, the plastic pond distorted one side due to the weight of the water bearing down on it so all water had to be removed and saved.

8. Major job now ensued to collect as much sandy or clay soil as possible as well as nice loamy earth.

9. Then all the areas had to be packed with this mixture of soils to ensure no more distortion of the plastic pond.

10 Finally, fill the pond again with rain water. I nearly forgot that the actual final part is to create a nice rockery around the pond edge and plant ferns and other plants. Job done photos to follow!


Sandra Pettitt