An Etruscan Bay

There’s nothing more tedious than having to return to one’s home in one fell swoop after days spent in a glorious part of the world.

Crossing a bridge on our return we noticed some paddlers and swimmers in the river below and so decided to join in the fun. Unlike our own bracing Lima the waters were warmish, probably because they had been fed by nearby volcanic springs (which we were told had been assaulted by hordes of holidaymakers).

Here, instead, all was peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed time with natural hydrotherapy and tiny fish biting our dead skin off us while the glorious Maremman countryside encircled us.

That was not the only water we dipped into on our return to the Val di Lima. The bay of Baratti (I prefer to call it a cove) is a beautiful corner of the Tuscan coastline and so unspoilt. It also has the added bonus of an important Etruscan necropolis behind it. We didn’t make it to the acropolis but were able to admire a tumulus that somehow reminded me of New Grange in Ireland. Indeed, I was confirmed in my supposition by the excellent guide who’d visited it.

It was in this tomb that the well-preserved Etruscan chariot, now on display at Florence’s archaeological museum, was found:


Among the other tombs there was a perfectly preserved temple tomb, only discovered quite recently.

The beach was very near and after negotiating a strand of seaweed we found with water warm and clean and surrounded by some lovely umbrella pines.

We played with the idea of spending the night on the beach but the thought of our cats missing us enticed back onto the road homeward bound. So we decided to tuck into a delicious italian-style take-away fish supper at San Vincenzo before setting off for Longoio:

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My English Masters

It’s not often that there’s a meeting with one’s old English master after more years than one cares to remember. I use the word ‘old’ meaning ‘former teacher’ when I was at school. Naturally, we are both older now but there’s less than ten years’ difference between Brian and me.

A disciple, at Downing College Cambridge, of one of the most formidable twentieth century critics, F. R. Leavis, Brian has had a distinguished teaching career starting with London’s Dulwich College (where he had me as one of his pupils) and ending with Bristol’s Clifton College. Brian Worthington remains the chair of the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society who benefit greatly from his fine prose style in their monthly magazine.

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(Brian and Carlotta)

It would be quite correct to say that Brian has helped me perceive what is truly worth reading and what isn’t. My critical judgement, however, differs from his in a few instances. For example, at school, when gaining a form prize I opted for the complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley who isn’t exactly Brian’s cup of tea. I remember Brian devastating, for example, Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’, one of the poet’s less successful lyrics, it must be admitted.

At King’s I became friends with E. M. Forster whose ‘Passage to India’ remains one of those few novels I have to re-read at regular intervals. Again, as a representative of the Bloomsbury school, anathema to Leavisites, this might have been a questionable activity.


(Forster in his rooms at Cambridge)

On most matters however, I don’t differ from Brian as to what constitutes profitable reading. Dickens has been re-established as an author that far transcends that caricatured word ‘Dickensian’. ‘Little Dorrit’, for example (which was one of my A-level texts) contains views on nouveau-riche British travellers abroad that still trenchantly describe the situation today. D. H. Lawrence has also been my companion both in reading and in travelling. My visit to Tarquinia, for example, was largely inspired by the author’s posthumous ‘Sketches of Etruscan places.’

I sometimes have had lapses in good taste when, for instance, I overpraised Restoration heroic drama which is just a poor mirror of the great French seventeenth century dramatic tradition and I do enjoy reading some of Edith Sitwell’s poems and listening to them too – as in Walton’s ‘Façade’. Which brings me to music. For an English master to lend his Bernstein recording of Mahler’s Sixth (it was vinyl then) to a messy schoolboy was some risk but clearly Brian trusted me and the symphony was listened to (for the first time) and the two discs returned in unscratched condition.


Mahler unites Brian, my wife and me in a special way. For it was at a London Royal Festival Hall concert where Deryck Cooke’s performing version of Mahler’s Tenth was heard that I had my first date with Alexandra. Brian complemented me on choosing such a beautiful girl for that date the following morning during my English lesson. To me she ever remains beautiful, of course.

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(Teenage Alexandra) 

Some years later I wrote this poem on that premonitory event:




It was the tenth (we started at the end

and then worked our way to the beginning):

searing chords of tremendous sound ascend

darkly overlaid like the death-bird’s wing.


Suddenly a trumpet screams out on high,

siren-like, cutting our souls to the bone

of thought, collapsing in a yearning sigh

as we shiver before the feared unknown.


We found refuge in flowering of nature,

the last slow movement of the third,

God-given harmonies that reassure

like the ethereal song of heaven’s bird.


This music is a scene-change to our lives:

beyond our loves transcendent sound survives.


Brian was also the first teacher to take us out to visit the then Dulwich College Picture Gallery, now simply the Dulwich Gallery, and help us appreciate the value of good and great art.

Again, some years later I wrote this about the visit to the Gallery – a jewel-like collection in the world’s first purpose-built gallery. I’ve inserted a few of the pictures alluded to in my poem.





Three iron gates conclude the day

and lawns are left alone

to twilight ducks and passing birds

and thoughts that lie unknown.


Green sashes kiss sear autumn light

and mirror naked years

while fingered village signposts weep

new ice age fountain tears.


Upon the sacral mountain slope

the God sucks on her teats;

Amalthea rises, hornèd proud,

as bees drone round their sweets.


Red house upon dusk’s park unfolds

its emptied living room

with frozen sounds of half-heard pasts

and failing roses’ bloom.


In furze-brown taverns clay-pipe smoke

embraces heaving breasts

as sanguine, wide-hipped country girls

consider sly requests.


The evening road winds past wild fronds,

declining columns and stone tombs

while draperies unfurl their toes

against the night’s perfumes.


And could I rise like waxing moons

upon this painted scene;

reflect in crystals of the mind

on what has never been?


The pictures inserted are, of course, by that supreme French Classicist, Nicolas Poussin.of whose works the gallery possesses a dozen examples).

It was a particular pleasure, indeed a privilege, to have Brian and another of his Dulwich pupils with his wife for lunch a week ago. In a sense it was like an unofficial Old Alleynian lunch (old Alleynians are what former pupils at the school founded by Shakespearian actor Edward Alleyn in 1616 are called).


(Dulwich College London SE 21)

Which brings me to Shakespeare himself. No bard of Avon will do for Brian. There were real hints from this pointedly charming and erudite teacher that Shakespeare hailed from the part of the world I am now residing in. In that sense my piece on the man himself at may have greater resonance than I first imagined.

How wonderful it is that I met my English master again in the romantic wilds of the Apennines. Surely I fulfilled the tenet that Brian had of me at school, that I was a hopeless Italianate aesthete.

(In the last photograph Brian is holding a print featuring the Surrey railway network in 1856. Included in the print is a drawing of the old college at Dulwich. Surprisingly, I found the print at Lucca’s antiques market).

But then I also met another of my unforgettable English masters in the exotic orientality of Saigon not that long ago….


(Bradley Winterton – Lincoln College Oxford – at Mũi Né, Phan Thiet, Binh Thuan, Vietnam earlier this year. Far East journalist, reviewer and author of ‘The Mystery Religions of Gladovia’)



PS Incidentally there’s a good Shakespeare festival at nearby Capannori. See my post at for more on that.

PPS Dulwich gallery now has three more Poussins. See





Camaiore: A City of Organs

Camaiore is one of my favourite Tuscan towns and is within easy striking distance from Bagni di Lucca. Not to be confused with Marina di Camaiore which is its nearby bathing establishment – and is one of the few around here with a public pier:

Camaiore has many points of interest and could be combined with a day at the beach which is less crowded than the one at Viareggio (hopefully!). At this moment, however, I doubt there’s anyone swimming. Snow is actually forecast on our mountains. Is May by any chance near?

To get to Camaiore the easiest way is to head towards Lucca, turning right just before reaching the EsseLunga roundabout.

You can also get to Camaiore from Castelnuovo by doing the dramatic route up the Turrite Secca valley and via the Cipollaio tunnel through the Apuans. This is a great way as you pass many picturesque places including Isola Santa

and the now disused Henraux marble quarry.

The first part of the former route is along a beautifully wooded valley road which then rises to reach the heights of Montemagno before descending into the Versiliana plain, approaching Camaiore via a handsome tree-lined avenue.

Stile Liberty (Italian Art Nouveau) devotees shouldn’t miss out on the church of San Martino in Freddana which dates from 1904.


Camaiore was originally an Etruscan and, subsequently, Ligurian settlement as archaeological finds in the area show. (There’s an archaeological museum in the town but it always seems closed. Its site is at but the opening hours are stated as ‘still to be defined’. The museum was originally opened in 1986 but has been ‘under restoration – an ominous phrase in this country – for some years.).

Camaiore was then colonised by the Romans who established a castrum or camp with a typical grid pattern which still exists to this day.


It was the Middle Ages however which truly brought glory to Camaiore. The town became an important hospitality point on the Via Francigena, the great pilgrim route which links Canterbury to Rome.

In fact, Sigeric the Serious (ordained as priest at Glastonbury and subsequently archbishop of Canterbury from 990 to 994) in his description of the itinerary to Rome to receive his ordination from the Pope mentions Camaiore as stage 27 on the journey. He called it ‘Campmaior’ (major camping ground…). Sigeric stayed at Saint Peter’s monastery just outside Camaiore.

In the thirteenth century Camaiore came under the definitive control of Lucca which strongly fortified it, (parts of the defensive wall still exist), as it led to the City’s secure route to the seaport of Motrone.

When we first visited this delightful town the monument outside Saint Peter’s monastery now known as the Badia (abbey) di Camaiore had recently been unveiled. It commemorates all the pilgrims who ventured (and still happily venture) on the Via Francigena to reach their Papal destination, the basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican City.

This notice states that ‘with the Papal Bull of 21 June 1505 Pope Julius II communicated to the Holy Roman Empire to have given the charge to Canon Peter Von Hertenstein to lead two hundred Swiss soldiers with their captain Kaspar von Silenen ‘to protect our territories’’. The recruits entered Rome on 22 January 1506. Blessed by the Pope the guards began their duties on the same day. Thus were the Swiss Guards of the Pontifical state born.

(PS the word ‘bull’ here refers to the lead seal (bulla) attached to such documents. It’s got nothing to do with the horned variety…)

The church itself presents a characteristic Romanesque basilican plan with nave, two aisles and a semi-circular apse.

However, the first monument to grab one’s attention when entering is the baroque tabernacle to the Madonna of Piety to the left.

There is a copy of a painting by Francesco d’Andrea Anguilla on the left wall. (The original is in Camaiore’s ‘Museo d’arte sacra’).

DSCN0290The atmosphere is wonderfully calm and meditative. We have returned to this beautiful building a number of times. On one occasion there was a wedding being celebrated. What a perfect location to have one!

Camaiore’s town centre streets are full of character and there is a very convivial square on which the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta is to be found. It’s Camaiore’s main place of worship. I love the fishy fountain in the square.

The Collegiata is, again, of Romanesque architecture. The church was ‘baroquized’ in the seventeenth century but was largely restored to its original appearance last century. By its entrance are a beautiful mediaeval font and a marble water tank.

The Pieve di Santo Stefano is Camaiore’s original church and one of the oldest in the whole Lucchesia, dating back to around 700. Its main feature is the Roman sarcophagus intelligently recycled as a baptismal font. From Death to Life it seems to state!

We have also visited the Museo d’arte sacra (museum of sacred art) which is well worth seeing. (Opening details at )


We hope to return to Camaiore in the summer when its biggest event takes place. It’s the Organ festival celebrating the wonderful musical instruments many churches possess in this part of the world, some of which date back several hundreds of years. Details of the festival (translated into English by LuccaMusica magazine team member Francis Pettitt i.e. me) will soon be shown at


Do be sure to visit Camaiore if you’re on your way to Marina di Camaiore. It’s not to be missed!



More Mysterious Etruscans

‘The mysterious Etruscans’ is an almost tautological phrase. They were a truly mysterious people from the doubts as to where they came from to their almost impossible language, more difficult to decipher than Cretan Linear B, to their thoughts on the universe to their presumed demise.

In fact, Tuscany derives its name from ‘Tuscia’ which is the ancient word for Etruscans and, in a subtle way, the Etruscans are still with us in the Tuscan people themselves. Their cult of the dead, their dexterity, their love of beauty, their philosophy, their physiognomy and character are all derivations of Etruscanicity, if such a word can be made up.

Prato, a very beautiful city and the ideal spot to escape from the tourist crowds now beginning to besiege Florence is a place I’ve already described in my post at : . It has a truly picturesque historic centre and is easily explored in a day.

Prato also has some cheap and excellent eateries:

It also contains some wonderful museums (the textile museum is brilliant for anyone who has an interest in fashion and clothes) and extraordinary buildings. The Duomo is quite stunning with its zebra-like marble effects:

The apse has wonderful frescoes by Filippo Lippi illustrating episodes of the life of Saint John the Baptist and including Salome’s dance and her reward for it:

The cathedral’s well-organised museum and beautiful cloister is a must-see.

The palazzo Pretorio had been closed for thirteen years for ‘restoration’ but when it opened in 2013 I felt the wait was worth every minute of it. Last week we returned to the palazzo, which contains a fine museum, to visit the exhibition on the Etruscans appropriately called ‘the shadow of the Etruscans.’

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If you are intrigued by these people then visit the palazzo before the end of June when the exhibition ends. It will save you a lot of wandering around difficult-to-reach places in Tuscany for the museum has collected some of the most stunning cippi and stele belonging to this enigmatic civilization. What is a stele anyway? It’s a slab usually of stone taller than it is wide used for a commemorative or funerary purpose. And what is a cippus? It’s a sort of column, in Etruscan times, more of an onion shape, which holds an altar.

Many of these strange objects were found stuck in the stone walls of houses built much later and used as building material so they’ve been retrieved by chance.

The objects on display cover the whole area of Tuscany from north of the Arno river, along the Arno plain to Pistoia, the Mugello area, the Val di Sieve.Here are some votive statuettes followed by some of the stele and cippi on display.

The exhibition also centres on Prato and Gonfienti, an Etruscan city close to Prato and only re-discovered in 1997, by accident, by Silvio Biagini when a motorway service centre was being built. The Etruscan town of Gonfienti has the distinction of having the largest house ever discovered among these people (1460 sq. metres) in which was found an incredibly valuable object, the kylix (cup) of Douris, an artist of whose production very little remains.

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Only a small fraction of Gonfienti has been excavated. Who knows what other treasures will be discovered there….


For more information see

The exhibition is run in conjunction with one in Cortona (see and is also covered by an article  in this month’s ‘Grapevine’ magazine.

Finally, the use of the word ‘ombra’ (shadow) in the exhibition’s title is a connection with the famous Etruscan statue you can see in Volterra’s very worthwhile Guarnacci museum and which was baptised ‘l’ombra della sera’ by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Here it is:


My Mum’s a Spiny Ant-Eater

In Italy, the first Sunday of every month allows free entry to the country’s state museums and art galleries. Unlike the UK there are entrance charges for all the national collections so this first Sunday is a good occasion, for families especially, to save money.

We were in Florence on the Sunday and, realising that even on admission charge days places like the Uffizi and the Pitti palace would be over-crowded, decided instead to visit one of Florence’s lesser-known wonders, the archaeological museum, which has its entrance by that most beautiful of squares, the Piazza degli Innocenti.


The museum was founded at the start of the nineteenth century and suffered severe damage in the infamous 1966 Florence floods. Despite this, there are some wonderful things on show. For me it’s worth going there just to see the fabulous chimera which was discovered in renaissance times at Arezzo.

The chimera is indeed a fabulous creature in the strict sense of the word, having the body of a lion, the tail of a serpent and, in the middle of its back, the head of a goat. In fact, the word “chimera” has been imported into scientific terminology and is applied to organisms having genetically different cells, quite apart from its popular use to refer to impossible schemes and day-dreams

Having caused widespread destruction, as most monsters are apt to do, the Chimera was killed by Bellerophon riding Pegasus, the winged horse. Here is a fresco showing the hero’s feat:


The Arezzo Chimera is now displayed in a separate room together with that other fine bronze statue of the orator which is the only surviving example of an Etruscan metal sculpture using the cire-perdue method..


There are many other fascinating things to see in Florence’s archaeological museum. Its Egyptian section, for example, is second only to that of Turin’s amazing collection.

Perhaps the finest part, however, is that displaying Etruscan artefacts collected in that former stronghold of Etruscan civilization, the southern part of Tuscany.

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip here and were glad we avoided the Uffizi as we heard that people had been queuing there for three hours to get in. Of course, the Uffizi is a must but if we want to see the paintings there we’ll sensibly book on-line at

By the way, how do I explain the weird title of this post? Simple. Chimera’s dad was Typhon, the father of all monsters, and his mum was Echidna half-woman and half-snake, the mother of all monsters. Her name is now applied to the Australian spiny ant-eater since the little animal has features which make it seem half a reptile and half a mammal. On the other hand, it looks a lot cuter than that chimera.


Volcanic Baths in Saturn(ia) and Go-Karts in Civitella

Next day’s itinerary took us first to Scansano, famous for its Morellino wine. The hilltop town is also very attractive and we enjoyed a welcome break here.

There is an interesting museum with a collection of Etruscan items and a section on wine-making.

I’d seen a picture of the cascatelle of Saturnia (little waterfalls) and was determined we should include this on our itinerary. The cascatelle are fed by hot thermal springs and emanate a smell of bad eggs. They are very curative for a variety of ailments (mainly back-ache) and also very relaxing

The “little waterfalls” were gushing and despite the number of people enjoying the warm waters we too found a place and for about half an hour I had the pleasure of a hot waterfall pouring over me.

The waterfalls are free which is not the case with Saturnia terme, an exclusive hotel and golf course complex we skirted on our way to the actual town of Saturnia, which is quiet and attractive.

The borgo of Saturnia should not be missed – it has a good section of Roman road – part of the Via Clodia – going through its Etruscan-era gate:

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Near Saturnia is a jewel of a hilltop town, Montemerano, happily free from those busloads of tourists that infect those other attractions of Tuscany like San Gemignano.

The parish church is quite beautiful and contains a number of valuable pictures including a Lorenzetti.

The church also has a quaint Madonna called the Madonna della gattaiola or the cat-flap Madonna. The story goes that a priest needing a new door for his house found a plank of wood with a discarded portrait of the Madonna on it. Being also a cat owner the priest decided to use the panel with one small modification, – a round hole in the bottom right of the painting which one can still observe today to serve as a cat-flap. This is surely a prime example of a picture that is admired for something that is missing from it!


Our journey now took us towards the coast. We wanted to experience the fun of crossing the two tomboli that have roads on them out of the three that connect Monte Argentario to the Italian mainland. In one of the two lagoons a windmill had been built.

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Orbetello is a fine old town and famous for the pioneers of Italian flying boats.

Monte Argentario is a beautiful place. Once an island, it now hosts marinas and a surfeit of time shares and parking is a real problem….it’s not quite our place we decided.

Before returning to our hotel we looked into Civitella Marittima (marittima means that the place is in the Maremma, not that it’s near the sea), a nearby hill town. Here the inhabitants were celebrating the Palio of the carretti – or hand-made, non-motorised go-karts This is another example of the inventiveness of Italian palios.

I realise that the idea of the Palio is also to release tension between the various parts of a town and avoid such shameful phenomenas as Britain’s (and the USA’s) regular inner city riots. Setting off steam in this way is a great way also to attract visitors and turn the different elements of the town into a real community.

We wandered around looking at the stalls and eating Donzelle. These are not maidens but a variety of delicious fried bread.

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There were the usual artisan stalls and some less usual fashions displayed.

Returning to our base we realised that this was to be the last night in this area before proceeding next morning to Florence.

Abandoned Cities and Empty Beaches


Roselle is an abandoned city between Paganico and Grosseto. Within its confines are Etruscan walls, a Roman amphitheatre and forum, villas with beautiful mosaics and marble intarsioed floors and much else.

We had the site virtually to ourselves. We walked for about a mile around the cyclopean walls only to discover that we’d only covered a fifth of their circuit. It’s not surprising that, once, people used to think that these walls were built by giants!

The statuary in the forum area seemed at first to be part of a modernist exhibition, so clean and white it was. Then we discovered that these were the original statues of the Bassi family who were top people in the city around 100 AD.

The site of Roselle was spectacular with extensive views all around to the Maremman mountains and the broad valley of the area’s main river the Ombrone.

Cicadas racketed, wild flowers bloomed and the sun did not shine so fiercely.

At the top of the hill were two Roman cisterns and an artisan area with remains of pottery kilns.

We found out that Roselle was founded in pre-Etruscan times and that there are remains dating back to the prehistoric Villafrancan period (the same era that produced the steles we saw at Pontremoli). Roselle survived well into mediaeval times when it was finally abandoned because of encroaching malaria from the plains surrounding it: the old Roman irrigation system had broken down and the anopheles mosquito started to breed ever more furiously. Strangely, we didn’t come across any remains later than Roman. Perhaps they are still to be discovered beneath all that undergrowth.

The sea now awaited us: the unspoilt coast of the regional park of the Maremma with its miles and miles of umbrella pine-fringed natural beaches. We had intended to reach Marina di Alberese but the car park there was full, so one of the girls directing motorists suggested that we head towards Fonteblanda and a special secret beach whose name translates as “enjoy yourself”.

With its mixture of rocks and sand it was the perfect haven to relax after our morning’s archaeological walk. The views stretched to Monte Argentario, the Isola del Giglio and Talamone.

We had a quick look at Talamone which, apart from its choc-a-block full marina, still presents the appearance of an old fishing village dominated by the castle and its walls.

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Then we headed back to Marina di Alberese. On the way we met up with some docile long-horned cattle characteristic of this part of the world:

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Continuing along a dirt track we came across this:

If only more of Tuscany’s (and Italy’s coastline) were like this! The umbrella pines almost came from a lost world and formed a wonderfully cool natural canopy under which to walk. The beach stretched for miles: it wasn’t at all crowded, even in this holiday period, and romantic strolls into the sunset could truly be taken on it.

The au naturel  feel stretched to the bivvies beach combers had built. We felt transported to some exotic island in a Pacific Ocean and not the usually crowded summer Mediterranean coastline.

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