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 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






The Dormouse’s Den

If one takes the Via Brennero on the Lima’s other side from Bagni di Lucca one comes across this shop.

‘La Tana Del Ghiro’ means ‘the dormouse’s den’ and has only recently opened for business. The subtitle ‘dal campo alla tavola’ means ‘from the field to the table’ so the food is surely guaranteed free from those debilitating and polluting transport costs which shamefully characterise so much of the foodstuffs we buy today.

It’s a place that sells local agricultural products and also has a restaurant. At the moment the Tana is just starting but the proprietors have assured me that by the summer they’ll have plenty of food stocked which comes from our area. This includes olive oil, honey, potatoes, jams, cheeses, maize flour, vegetables, fruit, pickled vegetables inlcuding onions, crostini sauce, tomato puree, chestnut and wheat flour and mushrooms.

The restaurant is only open for evening meals on some days but the ambience looks promising and certainly what will be served will be both genuine and local.

I gather one thing ‘La Tana del Ghiro’ won’t serve you with is dormice. Although popular with the ancient Romans I’m glad these delightful furry creatures, which spent a large part of their lives sleeping, won’t be on the shelves!

Do phone up the Tana before going there for a meal. Its phone number and email are:

Tel. 0583 805864 – latanadelghiro@hotmail.com

Chinese Checkers

Recently I posted on Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in Florence (see https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/01/08/east-meets-west-or-does-it/). This reminded me of our visit to the Shanghai museum last November. After our visit to Tibet we had a little time left in Shanghai and decided to spend it in various ways.

First, we soared by a very fast lift (elevator) to the top of the Jinmao Tower. It’s truly spectacular architecture with wide views over the city:

Jinmao means ‘golden prosperity’ so it’s truly a monument to China’s present golden age, at least as far as industrial production is concerned. The tower, which in some respects echoes New York’s Chrysler building of 1931, dates from 1999, has eighty stories and is 1,380 feet tall. It’s not the tallest skyscraper in China, however. That record is held by the nearby Shanghai tower which surpassed it at 2,073 ft. in 2015 and is the world’s tallest building as far as usable floor space is concerned.


(Jinmao tower on left, Shanghai tower in centre)

However the Jinmao tower was tall enough for us and it has an amazing hollow centre which contains one of the highest internal atriums in the world.


Its’s incredible to think that twenty years ago all this area of Shanghai was largely occupied by marshland and paddy fields .

Second, we visited the old town which is a shopper’s paradise especially if you are buying tea. It’s also the best place to eat delicious Xiaolongbao (Shanghai dumplings).

We could escape from the urban bustle into the peaceful atmosphere of the Yuyu (happiness) gardens which are highly characteristic of this part of China with its pavilions and rocks. The gardens have a long history and were started in 1559 during the Ming dynasty by Pan Yunduan, the governor of Sichuan province, as a present to his aged father Pan En who had been governor of Shanghai. It was truly wonderful to find this haven in the heart of Shanghai’s megalopolis.

In the centre of the gardens we attended a fine open-air concert:

Third, we ventured on the extensive Shanghai metro system to reach the fabulous Shanghai museum, perhaps the finest repository of Chinese art in the world. The museum’s architecture is most original being based on the shape of an ancient bronze cooking pot called a ding. The building is round and set on a square base echoing the traditional Chinese idea of the world as having a round sky and a square earth.

Visiting everything in the museum, which was opened in 1993, seemed a daunting task at first. The exhibits on its five stories, however, were well labelled and beautifully displayed. The sections were classified according to themes and materials used: bronze,

(Noticed the Ding on which the museum is architecture is based in the last photo?)






seals, coins, furniture

and minorities

.I was particularly touched by the Marquis Yi’s ceremonial bells (bhianzong) given to King Li as a ‘thankyou’ present for some land given to him after a good fighting record. How do we know? Yi’s name and the Chinese for thankyou are inscribed on the bells. These carillon-like bells are still playable after over two thousand five hundred years! This is what they sound like:

Our visit to the Shanghai museum was a wonderful extra to our adventures in China and Tibet. In the evening we had a scrumptious last supper on Chinese soil at the chic Astor House Hotel once favoured by such celebrities as Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Chaplin:

Next morning we were off to the airport on the fastest train in the world: the Maglev (magnetic levitation) travelling at speeds above 400 kph.

Undoubtedly we shall return soon to this part of the world for there is so much more to see and explore and it’s all changing so fast just like our train journey to the airport.

Which reminds me: if you are craving for Xiaolongbao there are some delicious ones to be had in a Chinese eatery (Ni Hao) just round the corner from the Palazzo Blu in Pisa.


Our Christmas 2016

“Pasqua con chi vuoi ma Natale con i tuoi” is a familiar Italian adage meaning ‘spend Easter with whom you like but spend Christmas with your own.”

Our own are us two, our cats and ducks (and two goldfish to be on the complete side) and that’s the company we spent our Christmas with.

First we opened our presents (which are strictly either utilitarian or chocolaty).

Then Sandra set busy preparing Christmas lunch.

After the hors d’oevre which consisted of home-made bread crostini with salmon and liver pate a la fiorentina:

we plunged into scrumptious oven-baked lasagne:


This was followed by quails and a variety of vegetables including fennel and mushrooms. Delicious!

We finished off with mince pie and cream.


After a little festive rest after lunch we went for our traditional Christmas walk with two of our cats Carlotta and Cheeky. (Napoleon is over seventy cat years old so we made an allowance for him).

The evening finished with us watching the Moscow ballet production of the ‘Nutcracker’ as performed at Lucca’s Giglio Theatre (see my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/nuts-about-ballet-in-lucca/ )

The Christmas period in Italy has been so mild that it hardly seems winter at all – rather a harbinger of spring. I wonder if winter will really make itself felt later on, however…


Our Christmas Eve

How did we spend our Christmas Eve?

First we travelled over the pass from Benabbio through Boveglio past Colognora to Collodi and thence to San Gennaro where we visited the marzipan (mmmmm) crib in Palazzo Bocella done by the students of the management and catering school there.

Next door there was more to see in the wonderful Romanesque parish church including this exquisite sculpture of an angel by Leonardo da Vinci executed when he was still a pupil of Verrocchio. It’s Leonardo’s one surviving sculpture and was only identified as by the master at the end of the last century.

Remember the angels Leonardo painted for Christ’s baptism for his teacher Verrocchio and which you can see in Florence’s Uffizi?


There are lots more to see in San Gennaro’s pieve including an ancient  wooden statue of San Gennaro himself:


A beautiful pulpit:

And marvellous capitals on the columns.

Then back to Collodi with its literary associations and that giant Pinocchio on the way out.


Then past ‘Caspita’, the Chinese shop by the roundabout at the end of Viale Europa, for some last minute shopping.

Then for an evening meal (it’s traditional in Italy to eat fish-based courses on Christmas Eve) at Da Pinzo in Ponte a Moriano. Our course included a delicious plate of farfalle with salmon:


and bacalà (cod) with capers and potatoes:


Then, leaving the car at Ponte a Moriano we climbed into the navetta (shuttle bus –‘ literally ‘little ship’) for Midnight Mass with the best music around at the Convento dell’Angelo once belonging to the Passionist fathers but now Maestro Kuhn’s Montegral singing finishing school.

This was the programme of the liturgy:


The convent has become our traditional Christmas Eve venue. For more on Montegral see my posts at:



Then back home at around 3 am and a good sleep before Christmas day!







Unitre Christmas Lunch at Borghesi’s in Bagni di Lucca Villa

Our Unitre (University of the Third Age) Christmas lunch was held at the Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa a few days ago.

I’ve already written about the opening of Borghesi restaurant and bar in my post at


and described a meal there at:


but have not yet mentioned how good Borghesi is at catering for larger parties.

Despite the fact that the well-loved front part of the restaurant with its floral frescoes no longer forms part of Borghesi the space remaining is ample enough.

This was our menu:


The antipasto was very good, especially the fried artichokes.


The vellutata ai funghi (smooth soup with mushrooms and little bits of toasted bread with herbs) was excellent and went down a treat.


The maccheroni, (large edge-frilled pasta squares, not to be confused with the English ‘macaroni’ tubes) made with chestnut flour and ragù sauce, was also highly delectable.


The secondo, arista al forno (Tuscan pork roast) with patate duchesse (duchess potatoes i.e. potatoes mashed with egg yolk, butter and cream), was equally delicious.


(The pomegranate pips were not just Christmassy – they were a homage to Matilde di Canossa in her anniversary year – if you’d like to know more read my posts on this great lady at:




The dessert, which consisted of crema portoghese (a sort of crème caramel), was accompanied by castagnaccia (chestnut pancake) and ended a very enjoyable Christmas lunch which, at twenty euros a head (including wine, coffee, bread and cover) was very good value.

Visitors from across the big pond are often surprised at how rather smaller Italian meal portions are. But does one really want to depart from a restaurant with a bloated feeling? Each of the five courses was well proportioned and accompanied (of course) by good wine, bread and focaccia. We left the restaurant comfortably replete.

I have no hesitation in recommending Borghesi for even the larger groups (booking, of course, on tel 0583 86514). Its standards of cooking have improved even further and the week-day fixed lunch at ten euros has to be of equally good value.

I do hope that the Borghesi will open out the back of their restaurant so that summer diners may have the option of eating under sunshades as in another well-known restaurant in Bagni di Lucca Villa.

Congratulations to Borghesi for having reached their nineteenth month of good quality catering in Bagni di Lucca Villa.



A Perfect Day

What’s the definition of a perfect day?

First, perfect weather like we’ve rarely had it this so late in the year.


Second, perfect company: people you really feel at your ease with.

Third, a perfect walk to appreciate the beauties our blue planet can offer to the entire cosmos of creation.

Aren’t the winter beeches and silver birches fabulous against that cerulean appenine December sky!

Fourth, perfect food. And, since it was also the feast of the Immaculate Conception, our host wittily quipped it’s also the feast of the immaculate confection.


The bignole came from a patisserie I’d never suspected of producing such wonders. It’s called Da Pino and it’s located at Calavorno, a place one usually sweeps through in search of more romantic locations. I savoured their chocolate truffles and also their cherry liqueur bomba. Truly it’s a mouth-watering explosion of flavour. Be careful though: the cherry has its pip like all true cherries. So don’t get too stoned eating them…

Finally, a bustling Christmas mercantino di Natale at Fornoli where one meets half of one’s little world of friends.

That’s my definition of a perfect day:



Hills unfold blue waves:

The sun on my face breaths love:

Contentment of life.

Nuts About Chestnuts

Castagnate (chestnut feste) abound at this time in our part of the world. They are places where one can meet up with friends, enjoy products made from the chestnut (including, of course, roast chestnuts themselves!) and they are also places where old memories are remembered and traditions revived.

If Dr Johnson demeaningly said of oats that they are ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ then more proudly and happily one can say of chestnuts in Italy ‘they are a fruit which today give pleasure and joy through festivals and the many food and drink products they are the basis of but which once supported the entire population of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.’

Where would one be without marrons glacées, chestnut jam, necci (chestnut pancakes made with chestnut flour), mondine (roast chestnuts), chestnut cakes (delicious!), and pan di legno (literally ‘wood bread’) chestnut bread?

It is sobering to think that without the chestnut tree many Italians, especially ‘gli sfollati’, those escaping from the second world war-ravaged cities into the woods, would have literally died of starvation. One of my favourite books is intrepid traveller Eric Newby’s ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ (made into a film in 2001 starring Callum Blue) where he describes his experiences as a British soldier. Having escaped from an internment camp in Italy Newby manages to survive in the forests of the Apennines surrounding us and where he met hospitality from the locals and his future wife too. Sadly Eric died in 2006 – I would have loved to have met him! Now I won’t even be able to meet his wife, Wanda who died last year. For, when asked if there was one thing he couldn’t travel without, Newby replied: “My wife.”

There are so many castagnate happening now and they are all as unique as the little villages where they take place.

Last Sunday, for example, there were the following to choose from near us and this is just a selection!

Our favourite one has always been the one at Lupinaia in the comune of Fosciandora (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/new-chestnuts/ on that one. Bagni di Lucca was supposed to have its castagnata soon  but, regrettably, it has had to be cancelled this year. However, there are still the following to get to:

You’ll still be in time for the castagnate at Bolognana and Trassilico on October 16th. the ones at Mont’Alfonso Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Careggine and Pieve Fosciana on October 23rd, the Pontecosi castagnata on October 30 and the Lupinaia one on 13th November. There will be others in our area of course. You’ll just have to look out for them!

We’d never been to the castagnata at Cascio, so plumped for that one this year. The weather however, looked ominous with very stormy, dark clouds. It turned out, indeed, to be a somewhat wet castagnata but visitors were out in droves, the umbrellas added a colourful touch and, luckily, the locals didn’t postpone the event.  For when it rains in Italy it’s truly a serious thing and, unlike the UK where precipitations seems more the norm, rain in Italy tends to completely reschedule open-air events.

We queued up to get our tickets and I obtained an excellent platter of local products including biroldo – a sort of blood-sausage -, pecorino cheese, bread, crisciolette (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/whats-a-criscioletta/ to find out what those scrumptious items, unique to Cascio, are), wine and water, and even managed to find a dry spot under the ruins of the fortress. The views from this part of town are stratospheric.

Meanwhile, the serving department was busy at work.

This year the chestnut roasters were saying how lucky they were to have a warm toasting fire before them. It was getting a bit nippy with all that rain! Last year, evidently, they were complaining how unnaturally hot it was at this time of year and what a sweaty job roasting the caldarroste.

Cascio has a charming church dedicated to Saints Lawrence and Stephen. It contains a sweet Della Robbian Madonna:

The village’s gatehouse had two fine local photographers displaying their art.

The ciambelle (doughnut) makers were busy at work.


Two wandering minstrels gave us a medley of favourite songs including that perennnial ‘volare’ by the great Domenico Modugno and now almost sixty years old!


The upper part of town had the necci makers hard at work with their ferri (waffle irons) and there was also a desert course included.

A sign tempted to a metato (chestnut drying hut) deep in the surrounding woods where further goodies awaited us including a delicious liqueur made out of chestnuts. I was told that I could find places that sold it in and around Barga.

All-in-all it was an exhilarating day with the rain diminishing in the afternoon. Congratulations to all the Casciani for their great efforts to make this Castagnata another success in their annual calendar of events.




Mountain Magnificence

Today it’s started somewhat cloudily and the temperature has fallen to below twenty degrees centigrades. One shouldn’t complain, however, since September and October up to this point have had balmy, sunny weather, great for walking.

I met up with some friends at Roggio last Wednesday, a small village above Vagli di sotto and its artificial lake. I realised I’d been there before, in 2012 and instantly recognised the church of San Bartolomeo perched on top of the compact village. In fact, the big village festa is on the 24th of August, the same time that Bagni di Lucca has its Saint Bartholomew’s fair. Perhaps next year I’ll try to be at Roggio instead on that day.


Incidentally, Roggio is famous for two things. First it is supposed to have the best porchetta (a savoury, fatty, boneless traditional Italian pork roast) of any place around. Second, it has a particularly strong connection with south-east London (where I was born and bred) since so many Roggiani emigrated there. Evidently, if one is in London it’s possible to attend a Roggio festa there on August 24. I must find out exactly where it takes place. Tulse Hill, Lewisham or even East Dulwich?

We decided we’d take our walk before having lunch which is always a good idea unless one brings a light packed repast. The unmetalled road opened out onto a beautifully extensive ‘alpeggio’ (pasture) and a magnificent scenario of mountains spread themselves before me. I recognized most of them. To the right was the Monte Pisanino, the highest of the Apuan range at a height of 6384 and one which I’d climbed back in 1994.

The dip in the range was the Focolaccia pass where there’s the rifugio Aronte, the oldest of the mountain refuges, dating back to 1880. I remember spending the night on the lower slopes of the Pisanino (it was summer but at over 1000 metres the nights are still rather chilly…)

In the morning of that summer of 1994 I carried on skirting the path round the Roccandagia which is the cliff-like mountain rising above Campo Catino, another alpeggio which now has become a popular summer resort with its characteristic little stone houses. We went to a festa there in 2015, described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-exquisite-alpeggio-of-campocatino/ which also mentions my adventures and a poem I wrote on Monte Pisanino. Cheese-making was one of the crafts being demonstrated and there were other activities and an exhibition. It was a truly fun day out.

I could see all these places so clearly in the crystal clear air on our walk. It was a truly wonderful (and slightly nostalgic) experience.

We passed a cottage which seemed to have been recently deserted. It was a sort of rustic Marie Celeste and eerily sad to explore. The ghost of its previous inhabitants still seemed to haunt it.

For lunch we returned to La Guardia restaurant which I would thoroughly recommend for its special feel, the very friendly atmosphere and the great food.


We were treated to antipasto, primo and secondo but no-one could manage a dolce so we all plumped for caffé macchiato instead.

It was the best idea possible to have done the walk before such a deliciously gargantuan lunch!

The only disappointed was that we missed the sale of some excellent porcini mushrooms to some clearly more cunning visitors.


We then visited the village of Roggio which stands at a height of 2814 feet. The view from the church was spectacular, taking in the whole of the Vagli valley and beyond to the Apennines. It was lovely to see that many of the houses had been roofed with the traditional grey stone slates in a Welsh-like manner, rather than the more modern red tiles,

We explored a stretch of the Sentiero Del Fungo which is an old mulattiera (mule-track) connecting Roggio with Casatico. I remember doing this track with Sandra in 2012 and reaching Casatico.

By this stage, however, we felt that one longish walk was enough so returned back to Roggio after a little distance.

We said goodbye to each other and I jumped back onto my scooter. The Sentiero Del Fungo, however, still tempted me so I decided to risk it on two wheels. Apart from a few muddy tracts it was in reasonable shape I knew the woods around me would be full of mushrooms but a day would have been necessary to fully fathom out where they were.  On the way there were useful signs telling visitors what mushrooms were to be avoided if one wished to live another day. If in doubt all of them!

To walk the distance to Casatico would definitely have taken ‘un’oretta’ which means anything from over an hour to almost two.

Casatico was a tiny place, a hamlet, in fact and a road from it led back to Camporgiano with its imposing fortress, now in private hands and its ceramics museum, for ever closed and no-one to tell me who had the key to it. Next time I’ll try to phone 0583 618888 and make a proper date. Another number was also suggested:  Signor Sarti on 338 28 79741


I passed some nice pumpkins, two imposing railway viaducts, one of which has a footpath along it and then re-entered the very familiar countryside around Bagni di Lucca and home.




If there’s one store which has the same name in Italy as in the UK then it’s the ‘Co-op’ which in Italy is known as ‘la Coop’ (pronounced ‘cop’). The two coops, although having certain principles in common, are, of course, managed by different organisations which, however, are members of the international cooperative forum.

Historians of supermarkets will remember that the original ‘co-op’, or co-operative store opened in Rochdale in 1844 under the name of the ‘Rochdale society of Equitable Pioneers’. There were two main purposes in setting up this society. The first was to fight back against the truck acts whereby workers were paid in coupons to be spent at their factories’ own stores – clearly an infringement of individual freedom and a grossly unfair way of paying employees. The second, which has become the hall-mark of the cooperative movement, is the sharing of the company profits among members of the cooperative society through the use of the original ‘dividend.’ I can faintly remember coop dividend coins being issued used in Lewisham, London. They were made of tin and could be exchanged for products in the store. This was, in fact, an early type of the present day plastic ‘loyalty card.’

Italy, too, has had early beginnings in its cooperative movement – in Turin in 1854. However, it wasn’t until after the last war that the coop store started to become a regular feature in Italian towns.


Whereas in the 1990’s the British coop store hit some really hard times and appeared doomed to extinction, the Italian coop store has continued to expand throughout the peninsula. (I’m glad to say that the Coop in the UK is again thriving, especially since it bought up Somerfields.)

There is a huge newish Coop store in Viale Giannotti, Florence for example, and, last week I took my first look into Lucca’s mega-coop store which is at Viale Puccini no 1718 (the road leading out of Lucca city centre towards Massarosa). It’s open daily from 8 am to 9 pm, Mondays to Saturdays, and from 8.30 am to 1.30 pm on Sundays.


Like the great late Dave Allen in his famous monologue on the subject I feel somewhat manipulated in a supermarket but I have a particular affection for the coop and I was not disappointed by Lucca’s contribution to a retail outlet which was founded on idealistic principles. These principles are still largely upheld and they include the following:

  • Voluntary and open membership
  • Democratic member control
  • Member’s economic participation
  • Autonomy and independence
  • Education, training, and information
  • Cooperation among cooperatives
  • Concern for community and ecological issues

The store has a good variety of food and related items. I thought the fish section was particularly good.


The pet section was brilliant with non-packaged cat biscuits of all varieties to suit the fussiest feline:


I couldn’t find any baked beans though. (Esselunga has them at Marlia, however.)

Although prices are not at the ‘discount store’ level, there are still a number of bargains and ‘offerte’ to be had, provided you have your coop card with you (issuable at the store).

If you happen to be travelling down the Via Puccini the Coop is definitely worth a look-in and just next door there’s ‘Mercatone’ (pronounced ‘mercatonay’) too – good for home furnishings and electrical goods.