Fiery Combats at Coreglia Antelminelli’s Festa Medievale

How did I spend my birthday yesterday? In the morning I went down to the orto with ten litres of desperately needed water for the few tomatoes and courgettes which are surviving the prolonged drought.

Later I was joined by my wife followed by one of our cats, Carlotta, and we relaxed by playing a game of boules. Carlotta joined in the fun though I was lightly reminded of the game of croquet with flamingos in Alice in Wonderland. Carlotta was very good at estimating which boule was closest to the winning post.

After a light birthday lunch (it’s difficult to eat anything more than light in this weather)

we were given the most wonderful weather present in a rainstorm. We rushed out just to feel the cool water drip over us and have our first shower for some days. Sheer bliss!

It’s medieval festa time in Italy and we decided to visit the one at Coreglia Antelminelli and meet up with friends there.


There were stalls and even a mediaeval dentist who we definitely wanted to avoid even though he seemed cheaper than your standard high street one.

Everything was beautifully organised. Entrance was free and we only paid for what we wanted to eat which in our case included an antipasto and a sweet.

Every mediaeval festa has it special highlights. For Coreglia Antelminelli these were four groups of Sbandieratori or flag twirlers. Their virtuosity and choreography were of the highest standard. As everyone knows Gallicano’s Sbandieratori always win national prizes for their displays but even Coreglia’s own group, mainly consisting of girls, was excellent.

A somewhat fiery combat between two knights then took place.

An amazing act involving a fiery girl followed.

Some wonderful bird of prey were on proud display:

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Stories were recited:

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Fortunes were told:

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And, to top it all the evening ended with an absolutely spectacular fireworks display.

We didn’t hold a birthday party in our orto this year. It was just as well since our village hadn’t had water for two days and it was still uncomfortably hot at 5.00 pm. Instead, we had a glorious time just with ourselves in the morning and with one of our cats and, in the evening, with our friends in the fabulous pageantry of Coreglia Antelminelli’s superb Festa Medievale.

Again, crowds were just the right number and the navetta (shuttle) service ensured that there were absolutely no traffic jam when we returned home around 1 in the morning to arrive at a village wonderfully cooled by the storm.

There are plenty more mediaeval feste in Italy. There’s, of course, our local one at Gombereto and the highly picturesque one at Nozzano Castello but what we saw last night would be a hard act to follow.

It’s easy to miss the feste. There are just so many of them! Apart from the local tourist office you could start looking on the web at



(Photographs also by courtesy of Alessandra. Thanks!)



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War and Peace

The hamlet of Domazzano lies on a side route from Borgo a Mozzano to Lucca. One turns off at Valdottavo and find the sign for Domazzano to the left.

Lying at a height of 190 metres and with 130 inhabitants, Domazzano is a sweet little scattering of houses with a beautifully simple Romanesque church, remarkably untouched by later accretions, a separate, later, campanile and some gorgeous views.

The church dates from the twelfth century and still preserves the original plan. It was slightly damaged in the last war, as a result of which tombs arranged in a herringbone pattern following the main church axis were discovered and an opportunity was taken of removing later additions, including a wall that separated the nave from the gracefully curved apse, and taking the walls back to the original stonework, thus restoring the building to the typical single nave plan of so many Romanesque churches in Lucca province.

Domazzano assumed an important role during WWII when it lay on the main Gothic line. From it a footpath leads to the top of a hill where trenches laid as part of the defences can still be clearly seen.

The walk up to the top takes little more than half-an-hour.

Also well-preserved is this casemate. The view from it is very beautiful – so ironical for such an instrument of death. (Incidentally the word casemate, or armoured structure, comes from Italiana “casamatta”, the etymology of which is unknown. Literally it means “mad house” –  I think anyone designing these structures, or manning them, must have been or become mad to do so.)

There is also the base of a cannon platform.

Returning to Domazzano you can take a different route through a beautiful wood.

Domazzano’s war memorial is an odd mixture consisting of a plinth dedicated to those who fell in WWI and an added G.I. helmet with a US star to commemorate the allied intervention in WWII.


We’ve done this lovely walk at least four times. The pictures you’re looking at all date from July 2006.




Rosy Straw?

Travelling north to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana from Gallicano the Serchio valley narrows considerably, largely due to a spur coming straight down from the Pania Della Croce. At this point one can either proceed through a dim and dramatic gorge or find sunlight and great views by going over the spur itself (especially if one is heading for a meal at the incomparable Bonini’s).

The crossroad at Bonini’s leads, to the left, to the high ranges of the Panie and a number of delightful villages. To the right there are also a couple of sweet villages which, in my opinion, are unduly neglected.

I’d already known Perpoli since our choir sang there on such a wet Sunday that rain was coming down inside the campanile itself. (See my post at for more information on Perpoli). The spur on which this tiny village is situated must have sported several castles due to its strategic position between the Luccan and the Estensi border and on a hill in the centre of Perpoli are the very overgrown remains of a fortress.

We’d never visited Palleroso which is the other village on the spur until a week ago and were delighted by it. Unfortunately, both our camera batteries were flat (does this happen to others too?) so no photographs remain of that visit.

When the sun peeped through yesterday I decided I’d have to return to Palleroso with a charged camera and was even more enchanted by this village, which is larger and more spectacularly placed than Perpoli.

In fact, it’s built including a whole castle, hence the sign to it describing it as the mediaeval tower of Palleroso. Palleroso is surrounded by several places that together form what the villagers commonly call “la campagna”. These locations are Pianaccia, Santa Cristina, Canipaia, Buriconti, Pastine, Novicchia, and La Casina.

The entrance to Palleroso is through a  square dominated by the church of San Rocco (the patron saint of plague prevention) built when the village was preserved from a bubonic plague in 1630.

One then proceeds through Via Tabernacoli and reaches a flight of steps leading to the castle entrance. The old gate was built in 1610 and the ground floor has a fountain, defensive slit windows, and an effigy of the Virgin. Upstairs is a room, formerly used by the Castilian which, over time, has served as a school building and as a municipal clinic.

The street then leads onto the main square which has a wonderful viewing platform and a sweet parish church dedicated to Saint Martin. Its interior is quite elegant and very well kept. The church’s structure recalls romanesque architecture but, instead of a rose window, there is a niche with an image of St. Martin. In the apse is an oil painting by the eighteenth Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Lorenzetti representing the Virgin and Child, St. John the Baptist, St. Martin, Mary Magdalene and S. Ansano.

Continuing the Via della Torre you reach the highest part of the village at a height of 537 metres and find the ruins of an ancient circular tower. The large stone blocks suggest a probable Etruscan origin. The tower’s function was as a signalling post with other towers located on the surrounding hills just like the one I described in my post on the ”eye of Lucca” at

There are a number of trails which I must explore soon when the weather improves. What I most enjoyed of my time at Palleroso (which some people say is a corruption of Paglia Rosa – rosy straw) were the 360 degree views from it. I was able to recognize many villages from it which appeared to me for the first time as they must look like to eagles.

A local told me also that the Palleroso porcino and galletto mushrooms are the best flavoured in the area so that’s another reason for returning to this delightful village.

Because of its very strategic border position Palleroso has quite an interesting history for a village of its size.

The first historical documents date from the late twelfth century when in 1169 Berudico di Bolzano, leader of a small army, after conquering Gallicano, Barga, Cascio, Perpoli and Fiattone, destroyed Palleroso.

In 1346 the Marquis Spinetta Malaspina-sold Palleroso to the Florentine Republic for just 12,000 gold florins. In 1370, Lucca managed to recapture Palleroso from the Florentines. In 1383 Lucca was again forced to surrender Palleroso to the Florentines. In 1384 a document notes Palleroso as having one of the most important castles of the Garfagnana.

In 1451 Palleroso passed to the Marquis of Ferrara Borso d’Este and remained under Este rule until the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1836 the road that leads to Monteperpoli from Castelnuovo Garfagnana was built (the one we still use today to get to Castelnuovo over the spur).

In 1840 the village’s first aqueduct, “the Fontanino” was built.

Palleroso was unfortunately caught up in WWII. By the autumn of 1944 and spring of 1945 the war front between the Italian Social Republic and Germany on the one hand and Anglo-Americans on the other stood in Garfagnana along the second Gothic Line that went from Pania della Croce to the Rocchette, and from there to Bruciano, Eglio, Sassi, Molazzana, Monteperpoli, Palleroso, the Bridge at Campia and, crossing the river Serchio, up to Castelvecchio, Treppignana and the Saltillo pass.

In late August 1944, an American airplane fell in the woods near Palleroso. At the beginning of October the first bombs fell near Palleroso. On December 26, 1944, (at least they took Christmas off…) the Germans attempted an offensive against the Americans, recapturing Palleroso, and pushed up towards Barga and Gallicano, but the next day the Anglo-Americans launched a counter-attack. In February 1945 some bombs fell in Palleroso killing 30 civilians who were hiding in a shelter and the Chaplain of Castelnuovo. On April 18, 1945 Palleroso was occupied by American troops, and on Sunday, April 22 Mass was celebrated in the village church before a congregation who had now almost all returned from hiding in the mountains.

So even this o-so-peaceful place has had to suffer the tortures and uselessness of war….

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The Biggest Wetland in Italy

There are many ways of getting to and from Longoio and Florence. The fastest (and most boring) way is to take the autostrada del mare to Lucca or Altopascio and just drive straight there. More interesting is to choose  the road through the Controneria to la Lima and then drive through San Marcello Pistoiese until one descends into Pistoia (another great town well worth a visit) and then take the short stretch of motorway that leads into Florence. This is definitely the most scenic road to take: the view from Le Piastre is especially stunning.

A route which is quite fast but involves no motorway tolls is that which takes one to Altopascio and then goes across the Arno valley through Galleno and Fucecchio to hit the Fi-Pi-Li superstrada at San Miniato del Tedesco.

It was this last route that I took returning from Florence. Despite some crass industrialization and cement pouring over large tracts of the Arno valley this route has many beautiful parts. Indeed, it has the largest wet-land area in the whole of Italy – the Padule di Fucecchio – which are the equal of any fenland area or even Slimbridge in the UK. I’ve visited this area before and will say the best time to see its fauna and flora is before June when the birds start migrating.

Indeed, the whole of this area is a maze of waterways, rivers and canals largely set out by the Medici dynasty to drain the swamps and provide a communication system for barges. One of the parts I delight in most is that near the Ponte a Cappiano, a purpose-built Medicean bridge and locks system crossing which, as the plaque on it declares, was rebuilt in the sixteenth century by:

Cosimo Medici Duca Di Fiorenza
Ha Rifatto Questo Loco Da’ Fondamenti
Per Benefizio Pubblico,
Et Non Sia Chi Lo Disfaccia Più
Con Isperanza D’acquistarne Commodo Al Paese
Sappiendo Ogni Volta Che S’è Disfatto
Essersi Perduto
Di Sotto L’uso Della Terra
Et Di Sopra Della Pescagione
Senza Acquisto Alcuno

Which roughly translates as:

Duke Cosimo Medici of Florence 

Rebuilt this bridge from its foundations

For the benefit of the public,

And let no-one destroy it again

With the hope that it will bring comfort to the land

Knowing that every time it has been destroyed

We have lost

The use of the Earth underneath us

And above us the fisheries

Without any gain.


The destruction refers to the times the bridge was involved in the battles between the Florentines and the Pisans. Interestingly, Leonardo da Vinci refers to the bridge in one of his drawings which shows the fortified bridge and its tower.

Anyway, there was no sign of revolting Pisan forces when I approached the bridge upon my return to the old Luccan republic. Instead, there was collection of stalls beside it dedicated to natural history as part of a local event and with many interesting things to look at or even buy.

One stalls holder is a retired physics and chemistry teacher and a keen geologist. I purchased a shark’s tooth of the Cretaceous period from him, rather larger than the ones I’d been used to digging up in the Blackheath beds of Lesnes Abbey woods in south-east London and had a most interesting chat with him at the end of which he presented me with a piece of meteorite which was most magnetically attracted (and attractive).

The birds of prey on show were most impressive. The owls, including the eagle owl and the barn owl (which in Italy is called “barbagianni”) were also very noble. These birds come from a nearby wild-life sanctuary.

Less attractive were some of the cockroaches and other beetles but the examples of butterflies and moths were gorgeous. The praying mantis and other live insects showed off their camouflage to perfection.

To top it all there was a dray horse from France, a Percheron, who was getting ready to take children for a ride on this carriage.

If I stopped at every place or event of interest I encounter on my way to and from Florence I’d never get home! There is so much to see and do all the year round.

The Slow Train to Filatteria

Train journeys are one of the delights of Italy. Unlike the UK rail network, which not only has some of the highest fares in Europe (my journey from Stansted Airport to Liverpool Street Station London cost me more than my flight from Pisa to the UK!) but also has a very London centred network in which, for example, there is no direct rail route from Cambridge to Oxford without having to go to the great Wen, the Italian rail system can be remarkably good value if one steers clear of the super freccie rosse and bianche express trains. Anyway, why travel non-stop to big cities when some of the most delightful places to visit in Italy are to be found by minor stations?

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(Graffiti are a fashion on many Italian trains).

We halted at one of these minor stations yesterday, Filatteria, and walked up to find a delightful borgo at the top of our road. To reach it we followed part of the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route to Rome which has in the past few years been put back on the map again. I noticed that indications showed it was a little over 1200 kilometres to Canterbury… I wonder how many of Chaucer’s pilgrims would have continued to Rome – the Knight certainly.

Filatteria isn’t on anyone’s immediate list of things to see in Lunigiana, let alone Tuscany, yet it has all those features which make even the remotest hill village endearing. Founded in 540 by the Byzantine general Belisarius under orders of Emperor Justinian, the town was built as a fortified settlement. Its name, in fact, derives from “Filacterion”, the Byzantine name for a castle. Eventually, Filatteria became the property of the Malaspina and entered into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in the sixteenth century.

The castle, belonging to the Cesare Buglia family, still remains and is visitable on Mondays from 2 to 4 throughout the year. Trust our luck to come on a Tuesday, but we still saw something of it.

Filatteria has three parallel streets with some picturesque houses (and cats) on them.

In the first street there is the hospital (corresponding to a hostel today) caring for pilgrims going to Rome by the knights of the Tau from Altopascio, an order which protects pilgrims from infidels and bandits, and dedicated to Saint James  whose plaque is over the main gateway.  Fortunately we did not need their protection yesterday.

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In the middle street there is a church which, although of austere exterior appearance, is delightfully light and playful inside.

Of all churches, however, that of Saint George at the end of town is the most moving in its Romanesque simplicity. No matter how theatrically elaborate Italy’s baroque churches may be, none of them ever can approach the exalted spirituality of these unassuming structures.

On the left wall of the church there is an eighth century tombstone with an epitaph to Leodgar, a missionary bishop sent by the Pope to convert the Longobards who were suffering under the Aryan heresy which denied the divinity of Christ.

We returned to the station and had a little time to catch our train back home. I then spotted another Romanesque church a little way on. We decided to visit it. Thank goodness we did for it turned out to be the great Pieve di Sorano and inside it was another superlative surprise – a prehistoric stele – like those we had visited at Pontremoli in July this year: see – only discovered this century. In fact, there were two steles. One had lost its head but the other was definitely one of the best we’d seen of these extraordinary objects.

My advice: just take to the train and alight at that insignificant little station and then walk – Italy is so rich of sights that one is bound to find something extraordinary as we did at Filatteria.




I’ve Seen This Place Before

In the heart of the Senese countryside stands one of Italy’s greatest ruins: the abbey of San Galgano. Founded by the Cistercians in 1218, it had its moment of highest glory in the fifteenth century and, thereafter, began a slow decline until finally abandoned in the seventeenth.

I’d first visited the abbey in 1997 and was keen to return to see if the initial impact of this extraordinary building would still affect me.

It certainly was. Now roofless, the abbey’s vaults are the bluest of skies and its once stained glass windows reveal beautiful views of the surrounding forests and hills. Like Tintern, its parallel in the Wye Valley of the Welsh border, it is sublimely impressive in its present despoiled state, amply evoking that wonderful line in Shakespeare’s 73rd sonnet: “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” Presumably the “sweet birds” referred to the singers in the apse, for surely sweet birds still sing in those empty spaces today. I wonder if, like Wordsworth with Tintern, some Italian poet has written lines on this abbey.

Unlike Tintern, however, which fell a victim to Henry VIII’s monastic dissolutions, San Galgano was merely abandoned and its ruinous state is due to its being used as a quarry for building materials. Most of the cloisters and many of the monastic buildings have disappeared because of this but the main abbey Church still rises majestically.

Who was San Galgano around whose cult such a magnificent building was raised? He was a twelfth century nobleman whose life as a knight had already been planned by his family. Galgano then had a vision in which he met the twelve apostles, on a hill near the present abbey, as a result of which he threw away his sword into a rock which opened out embracing it up to the hilt which remained exposed in the form of a cross. Galgano’s rich cloak was also transformed into a threadbare hermit’s habit.

After the visit to the abbey we took a steep path up to the top of the hill where san Galgano had his vision. This is now crowned by an evocative round building known as the Eremo di Montesiepi.

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The interior is austere, evoking both Etruscan and Celtic motifs, and its ceiling a wonderful alternation of concentric bands.

Right in the centre is the sword San Galgano threw away and which entered the rock.  A King Arthur Excalibur story in reverse!

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As a result of an unfortunate incident, in which someone tried to steal the magic sword but was then attacked by a wolf who pulled off his arms, the sword has been protected by a plexi-glass cover. In case you didn’t believe in the wolf story here is the skeleton of the arms:

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Our day was by no means finished for we wanted to make a brief stop in Siena to visit the cathedral and see the magnificent floor which, for a very short time in the year, is exposed to the public. (It’s normally protected by wooden boards).

The floor is made of intarsioed marble and illustrates biblical and historical subjects. Around it are placed the sibyls – one of several classical elements incorporated by the church into its own theology.

It’s incredibly difficult to photograph the floor (the best way would be to climb up on the ceiling – clearly not possible) but easy to appreciate at close quarters. We were so lucky to be able to see this wonder of the world on one of the few occasions it’s visible to the public.

More wonders were to follow in Siena cathedral, not the least of which was the Piccolomini library decorated by the animated and colourful frescoes of Pinturricchio, one of my favourite painters and one which, together with Ghirlandaio, gives a valuable insight into the manners and fashions of the Tuscan renaissance.

A pit stop at the impressive fortified village of Monteriggioni with its battlements and towers (mentioned by Dante in his inferno: “in su la cerchia tonda Monteriggion di torri si corona”) was followed by our entry into the city of the lily – Florence.

PS If you liked the films “Nostalgia” and “The English Patient” then you’ve seen the abbey of San Galgano before too!


Leghorn or Livorno?

Livorno is Tuscany’s third largest city after Florence and Prato. Unfortunately, it sometimes doesn’t get a very good press, both from the tourist agencies and from Tuscany’s own inhabitants. It’s meant to be a city with nothing of really outstanding interest and the people’s character is often disparagingly depicted. (But then isn’t this the fate of most Italian cities as depicted by their neighbours…).

All this is, of course, quite stereotyped and wrong. Livorno is a fascinating place to visit and is unique among Tuscan cities in that it was specifically planned as a port city by the Medici in the sixteenth century when Pisa had become hopelessly silted up.

Situated along the coast of the Ligurian Sea, Livorno is one of the most important Italian ports, both commercially and as a tourist embarkation centre. What a pity all those hoards alighting from cruise ships for a hasty visit to Pisa’s leaning tower don’t stop for at least an hour there…

Livorno’s general appearance is modern, not just because it has no mediaeval buildings, but because it was heavily bombed in World war two. Despite this there are many districts and buildings of charm. For example, the “Venice” area, so –called because of its canals, is fascinating.

The old and “new” fortresses are also well worth perusing.

There are some magnificent examples of art nouveau buildings, often with an oriental or saracenic tinge, along the seafront.

Livorno also happens to be, historically, the most “international” and multi-ethnic city in Tuscany because of its origin as a free port frequented by foreign merchants and home to consulates and shipping companies. For example, there is the protestant cemetery with the tombs of such notables as the author Smollett (whose writings on Italy make particularly amusing reading). And soon the Dutch protestant church (one of the largest in Italy) will be restored after years of neglect. Jewish communities, too, have benefitted from the city’s tradition of religious tolerance.

Livorno used to be a renowned beach resorts with spas, and was also known as Montecatini-by-the-sea. I doubt if few people would choose it today as their favourite bathing establishment – the port is too close for that. There are, however, delightful walks to be had along the seafront leading to that superb marine plaza, the terrazza Mascagni, dedicated to one of the city’s three best known sons and happy scene of shows and dancing in the summer months

Livorno’s two other most famous sons are Modigliani, whose house still remains and is visitable (though, regrettably, without any of his priceless works) and Italian impressionist painter, Fattori, some of whose wonderful paintings are fortunately still with the city and displayed in the luxurious villa Mimbelli.

Nearby is the Montenero Sanctuary, dedicated to Our Lady of Grace, patron saint of Tuscany, The sanctuary, which has magnificent views looking out over the bay, hosts also a very interesting collection of ex-votos mainly dealing with (naturally) miraculous escapes from the sea and road accidents

We’ve visited Livorno (or Leghorn as it is traditionally known among brits) several times, and not just for the purpose of jumping on a ferry to Corsica or Sardinia. Each time we have found something new of interest for us, whether it be a visit on the open day of the Naval Academy or whether it be the aquarium and Mediterranean sea-life museum. (photographs here were all taken during a visit in June 2006).

Above all, Livorno has a real “city feel”, so if one pines for crowds, night-life and traffic after the sylvan peace of Bagni di Lucca then “Leghorn” is an appropriate destination.

You may also be interested in reading another post about Livorno at