Fill your page with the breathings of your heart

There are no better palliatives to the disease so many humans inflict upon mother earth than to return to nature and all those beings who are one with it. There are delights upon this planet that will never change our lives.

Like this shepherd and his flock passing up a gorge I saw on my way home to Longoio the other day:

What greater influence upon keeping calm can the scene of this person, alone but not lonely, with his dogs and his sheep, have?

What greater delights can our ripening cherries have on the palate of our thoughts?

And even in the worst of the ‘acquazzoni’ (‘showers’ in Italian but they are more like mini-tempests in this country) what happiness can Flip (one of my ducks) impart when she enjoys feeling the rain drops on her candid plumage?

Let us enjoy even the smallest everyday things of life. Let us always be one with nature. Let us savour each minute of our lives with the enjoyment given to our first glance of anything beautiful and with the custody given to the thought that it could well be our last on this planet.


Where Venice’s last Doge died, where Napoleon stayed and where Sting played

The Veneto region of Italy is famous for its beautiful Palladian villas which did so much to influence the typical eighteenth century English country house. We have visited a handful of these villas on previous trips to this region and knew what splendours to expect. However, we were quite unprepared for the glories of the Villa Manin which is near Passariano on a secondary route from Udine to Trieste.

The villa owes its sixteenth century origin to a Friulian Antonio Manin who, having lost territories in Dalmatia as the Venetian republic’s power diminished, decided to concentrate on land and expanding his agricultural domains.

In succeeding centuries the villa was added to with barcòn (Venetian for service wings), a classical portico and, most astonishingly, a monumental exedra consisting of two semi-circular arms, almost horse-shoe shaped, which embrace the front area of the villa.

The Villa Manin has been the scene of the most disparate events. In 1796 Napoleon stayed with his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, whose amorous entreaties in such gorgeous surroundings he could not possibly have refused. (Or did he?)

Here too Napoleon signed the treaty of Campoformido (or Campoformio) which brought the Serenissima republic of Venice to a tragic end after almost a thousand years of independence. Indeed, the last Doge died here in this bed:

In subsequent years the villa went through highs and lows until, in the second half of the last century, it had fallen into a sorry state of decay and was sold by the last of its noble owners to the region of Venice in 1962 for the equivalent of £ 70,000, on condition that it be restored to its original glory.

After years of restoration the villa has reached something of its former splendour despite the fact that most of the original furnishings have gone.

The exterior is dazzling and owes its present appearance largely due to the architect Domenico Rossi who brought in some French influence in the neo-classical design. Next time we’re in the area we must visit Udine where the cathedral’s façade is also by Rossi.

The interior has some very fine features. The chapel is in a typically ornate baroque style and houses the ancestors of the Manin family.

The villa’s ‘garage’ houses some fine examples of old carriages and landaus.

The Villa’s park, designed by Ziborghi in an English landscape style influenced surely in part by Capability Brown, is huge and one could spend a whole day just walking around it.

This sweet little sign says ‘please don’t tread on the grass here, the narcissi are just about to be born’.

The villa’s piano Nobile has rooms painted by Dorigny, Amigoni and Oretti with some youthful contributions by Tiepolo before he became the greatest of eighteenth century decorative artists.

Today the villa has new life as a centre of restoration of works of art particularly those damaged by the terrible Friuli earthquake of 1976 in which almost a thousand people died. It also holds art exhibitions ranging from Sebastiano Ricci to Kandinsky, The one we saw during our visit had as its theme World War one which in 1917 raged only a few miles away from this seemingly idyllic arcadia.

The Villa is also a sort of Italian ‘Woburn Abbey’ with pop concerts given by such groups as Kiss, Iron Maiden, Radiohead and Sting. Pity the Stones didn’t choose this place instead of Lucca -there would have been much more room and I might have even been able to get a ticket!

There’s also a very atmospheric bar and restaurant, an adventure trail for children in the park and very helpful staff.

Indeed, I was not only impressed by the prodigious villa itself but also by the almost National Trustian way it was managed. I do hope that more of Italy’s magnificent country houses will emulate Villa Manin in bringing new energy into properties which could so easily have crumbled into dust.

The Greatest of all Singers: his Villa

He was the world’s greatest recorded singing voice – demonstrated by the fact that over one hundred years later his recordings are still best-sellers. He was also the world’s first media star. Feted by over half the world, a film star, a regular feature in the gossip columns his fame lives on and on. Despite far better technology today, despite all the great singers that have followed him, including the three tenors, he will live for ever as the supreme golden voice. And yesterday I finally trod the hallowed grounds of his splendid villa at Lastra a Signa near Florence.

If you’ve seen that extraordinary film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ from 1982 you’ll know immediately who I’m talking about. It’s Enrico Caruso, of course. And the villa I visited is Bellosguardo – ‘Beautiful view’ – a gorgeous baroque fantasy dating from the sixteenth century built by Giovanni Dosio, with which the great Caruso fell in love in 1905. It was Bellosguardo which the tenor returned to again and again to relax in the paradisiacal Tuscan landscape after his world tours which took him to such places as Buenos Aires, Saint Petersburg and, most famously, New York. Indeed, our own Luccan-born Giacomo Puccini wrote ‘La Fanciulla del West’ (The Girl of the Golden West) with Enrico in mind. For when Giacomo heard Enrico’s voice he asked him ‘whose sent you to me? God perhaps?’

(Caruso as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s ‘La Fanciulla del West’, 1910)

The villa has two main blocks connected by a gallery. To the left is an agricultural museum open by appointment. To the right is the Caruso museum. It’s beautifully laid out with audio guide, film snippets featuring Caruso and themed rooms displaying every aspect of this amazing ambassador for everything that’s top-class in Italy.

There are photographs from Caruso’s family life which wasn’t all smooth sailing especially when his big love, Ada Giachetti, went off with the chauffeur.

(The woman who preferred her chauffeur to Caruso)

His beloved children and his seaside holidays are also there.

Another room shows the maliciously witty caricatures of himself and his contemporaries Caruso loved to draw.

There are fine collections of his phonograph/gramophones,

some precious costumes including the one from ‘I Pagliacci’, which role Caruso truly made his own:

and his bedroom, which has been atmospherically recreated together with his touring trunk.

I had the place to myself and it was incredible to wander around the villa as if I owned it. It was such a beautiful day too and the grounds, laid out in classical fashion with parterres, statues and avenues, were truly to die for.

In 1918 Caruso wedded New Yorker Dorothy Park Benjamin from which he had one daughter, Gloria. They planned to have an idyllic life at Bellosguardo. Alas, in 1921 Enrico died of peritonitis not even fifty years old. His daughter died only in 1999.

(Enrico and Dorothy)

I could have said so much more about Caruso: how he was a heavy smoker of Egyptian cigarettes, how he loved to play the card game called  ‘scopa’, how he was never without his good luck charms, how he was an elegant dresser and how he took two baths a day but….

Caruso’s villa is also an excellent place for wedding celebrations and receptions. Want to know more? Check out the villa’s web page at

Now let’s hear this astounding voice again – over a hundred years later!

Camellias, Kumihimo and a Concert

Camellias originate in eastern and southern Asia and were introduced into Europe during the eighteenth century. The tea plant is a member of the camellia family and, indeed, the expansion of the tea trade enabled many new varieties to be brought into Europe. Hybridization did the rest.

Every March at Sant’Andrea di Compito, by the slopes of the Monte Pisano, south of Lucca there is a camellia festival where one can fully appreciate the variety of flower forms and colours of this perfume-less plant. A shuttle bus takes you to the camellias – the only way to get there as the narrow roads would soon be clogged up with cars. The camellarium is spectacular at this time, the mill-stream walk is delightful.

The exhibitions are most informative, there are many stalls selling local products and there are also musical events.

The camellia festival of Sant’Andrea is something we always try to attend. You can read my account of our visit there in 2013 at

and in 2015 at when Sandra’s mum, then 93 years old, accompanied us.

And in 2016 at

Why choose this area for camellias? The fact is that the climate is ideal for them. It was the English ex-pats of the nineteenth century, escaping from the torrid summer of the Tuscan plains, who discovered this and introduced the camellia to these hills. Indeed, dotted around the Compitese are many aristocratic villas complete with their luscious camellias

and there is even a society dedicated to old varieties of camellias in Lucca province.

Could I add anything new about the visit to the camellias this year? Not much except that as things of beauty these flowering shrubs remain a joy for ever.

The day started off very sunny but storm cloud started to gather in the late afternoon. However, the rain held off until the last stretch of my homeward journey.

The setting of the camellia festa is so very beautiful. Sant’Andrea is nestled in a valley of the Pisan hills and the town is quiet charming. Near the entrance is an exhibition centre with some prize camellias.

There was a section on the Japanese art of braiding known as Kumihimo and using a special loom. These braids are used to fasten the button-less Kimono.

An open-air exhibition brought photographs, whimsical sculptures  and sly cartoons together.

There was also a tea ceremony in which we were allowed to participate.

At the top of the Sant’Andrea is the magnificent parish church.

I arrived in time for a concert given by an unusual ensemble consisting of two double bases, accordion and flute. The fine performance included pieces by Piazzolla, Bartok, Domenico Scarlatti and Bottesini, who was the Paganini of the double bass.

Today is the final day of the Camellia show in the Compitese. So if you are in the area and haven’t been there do so now! It would be truly sad to miss one of Lucchesia’s most colourful and evocative events.



PS If you fancy your cup of tea not only can you buy delicious camellia tea but you can have the ultimate Italian invention: camellia-tea flavoured ice-cream!












La Primavera

The earth is ready to burst with multicoloured energy. The soil below my feet is vibrating with the force of a new spring season and it’s just two days before spring (la primavera) officially begins. Here is the scene in my main field:

The daffodils and crocuses are showing off their last displays before they go to sleep again and primroses are exploding everywhere on our slopes. Our little house at Longoio is also displaying its own modest contribution to the advent of the season of rebirth and love:

Apricity Combines with Chinoiserie in Villa Ada

If ‘April is the cruellest month’ (as the opening line of one of the last century’s greatest poems says) then surely November is the saddest. It is the start of advent but Christmas seems still so far away (although it will catch up with us before we know it!). The days become ever shorter preparing us for that most mournful of days: St Lucy eve. As John Donne describes it:

 The sun is spent, and now his flasks

         Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

Yet I should not complain. We have had a sequence of totally wonderful winter days with true blue skies at Bagni di Lucca. But if you just step into a shadow then it’s soooooo cold!

There are blog posts and facebook entries that inspire and two of them joined together to make my day.

The first was that of UK tour guide and writer par excellence Stephen Liddell with his post linked at:

Yes, Stephen’s introduced me to a word I knew not but could easily apply to describe the sensation of feeling the light squibs of the winter sun upon me. It’s ‘apricity’ and what a wonderful word it is and sounds.

The second was a facebook entry and photo by Rita Gualtieri, a local friend, who showed me a Gingko Biloba in Lucca’s botanical gardens in the fullness of its autumn colouring:


She then posted a picture of a Gingko Biloba in Villa Ada gardens, Bagni di Lucca. It did look so sorry for itself in the abandoned grounds of what used to be the English Florentine consul’s summer residence.

The whole area seemed so neglected: like a gorgeous nymph left alone in a forest where no-one could find her and gaze upon her infinite beauty.


The ginkgo biloba is a living fossil of a tree and dates back 250 million years to the Permian era. After the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the only living things found to survive were six Ginkgo trees!

The only other Gingko tree I can remember seeing in this part of the world is in the botanical gardens of Lucca but there’s also one in another tristfully neglected spot – the garden of the Duke of Lucca’s summer villa just above the terme. (see my post at ).  The seeds of the fruit are esteemed in Chinese cuisine – that is, if you can bear to collect them since their smell has been described as half way between very rancid butter and vomit.

Today, walking through the gardens that once had held happier memories but now were falling apart as we all must do in our short lives, I experienced a transcendentally beautiful afternoon with a cloudless sky and a sun promising humanity that it would never let us down even in the coldest of winters.

I even met some friends who showed me precisely the Gingko Biloba so badly battered in last year’s February storms. The tree had been shed of all its fantail leaves by the strong winds of recent days. Scattered among the already dark brown and withered leaves of the other trees they shone a bright gold like nature’s own coinage among the dimming ground.

I was truly experiencing apricity and quite overjoyed about it.

With the bamboos, China’s very special Gingko tree,  and the steps that seemed to lead to a temple I felt I was back in the east. I half expected a Panda to appear in the trance-like state I had entered.

Thankyou Stephen and Rita. Even through the ether, you helped me open my heart to the beauty of this earth at a time when all nature seems to close up on us.

Lhasa’s Summer Palace

In the afternoon of our first full day in Lhasa we visited Norbulingka. This was the Dalai Lama’s summer palace and was largely built between 1755 and 1783 by the seventh Dalai Lama. The name translates as ‘jeweled park’ and, indeed, the palace, which actually consists of various large pavilions, is placed in a very beautiful park not too far from the Potala, or winter palace. Like the Jokhang and the Potala, Norbulingka is a UNESCO World heritage site.

Sadly, it was from the south gate of this palace complex that the present 14th Dalai Lama had to make his escape from Tibet in 1959 when he realized he would otherwise end his life as a prisoner of the Beijing government.

Unfortunately, like so much else in Tibet, Norbulingka and its park was damaged during the first years of the Cultural Revolution but since 2003 it has been in phase of restoration and we found the park and palace a great delight after the morning’s hustle and bustle in the Barkhor. Families were out enjoying the wonderful sunshine of Lhasa and there were many picnic places.

Again, however, we were too late to see two things: the full splendour of the flowers in the park and the Sho Dun Festival which is held in the middle of August. It’s also known as the Yoghurt festival since the monks are offered yoghurt in an event which includes dancing and pageants.

Here is a photograph of the festival as it was in 1993:


We did, however, see aspects of a film they were shooting using the palace as a backdrop. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the film set but took one of some of the extras who were patiently waiting for their next entrance into the scenario. I wonder what the name of the film was.

Of course, Chinese films can be absolutely spectacular and riveting. I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘Crouching Tiger, Creeping dragon.’ Unlike the decaying situation in the west there are on average twenty new cinemas being opened in China every week and a multimillion dollar ‘cinema ‘city’ has just been approved for construction. At the same time, some films like ‘Gundun’ and ‘the Last Emperor’ made from a western point of view are still controversial items under China’s strict political and cultural censorship laws.

For me the most fascinating and moving part of Norbulingka was the new palace pavilion built for the present Dalai Llama between 1954 and 1956. It’s sad to think that His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso spent just three years here but everything has been kept or restored exactly as it was when he lived here. Among the Dalai Lama’s tutors was Heinrich Harrer (mentioned in my previous post) who introduced the young lad to western influences and did much to ease his isolation and somewhat formal existence. It was incredible to see the Philips wind-up record player mentioned in ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ and other items including a Russian radio. The walls of the ‘new’ palace are beautifully decorated with over three hundred paintings illustrating history of Tibet and the whole complex is built in a wonderfully traditional Tibetan style.

I am so glad that the whole Norbulingka is being restored to its former splendour. Fortunately, the ancient skills still exist for such works to be carried out. I only wish that one day the present Dalai Lama could be allowed to visit the place where he grew up and recognise that it still retains an enormous importance not only for the Tibetans but now for the Chinese themselves. After all, it is part of the extraordinary history of a country and we all know that an Orwellian deletion or re-writing of history means the death-knell of any civilization and its people.

Autumn Gold

The skies may be dull but the autumn colours are ever more resplendent in our valley and do help to brighten up the day. Here are just a few of the hues we can see this afternoon (and don’t you think I’m an excellent circus cat? My next bid is to try some tight-rope walking).

How are the colours in your part of the world’?


Overcast valley:

the leaves fire little sunrays

green changes to gold.


Your Path to the Paradise Garden

Today’s the last day you’ll be able to visit this year’s Lucca’s ‘Murabilia’ garden festival. It’s open from 9.30 am to 6.30 pm and is quite unmissable if you happen to love flowers and gardening and, of course, if you happen to be in Lucca too!

Together with springtime’s ‘Verdemura’ it is one of the two premier Lucchesi events dealing with horticulture and gardening. ‘Murabilia’ takes place on the ramparts and bulwarks on the south side of the city near the station and ‘Verdemura’ takes place on the northern walls close to where one enters into the city from Bagni di Lucca.

Both locations are superb with wonderful views over the Lucchesia and the opportunity to explore the underground passages of the city walls where several interesting exhibitions take place.

This year’s Murabilia theme is ‘seeds, the origin of life’ and the entry ticket (7 euros but only 3 for under fourteens and over sixty-fives.) includes admission to many interesting talks and shows. Full details are at the event’s web site at

There are flowers, seeds and bulbs to buy to suit all tastes:

Murabilia is not just about flowers although it’s possible to come back with cartloads of varieties as special trolleys are provided. Garden machinery and craft stalls abound and there are also competitions.

As an added bonus entry to the botanical gardens is free. For the festival, appropriately, there’s an exhibition showing how seed collection became a mania in the eighteenth century, particularly with such luminaries as Sir Joseph Banks who did so much to establish London’s Kew gardens as one of the world’s major seed banks.

I was quite attracted to the stall set up by secondary school children demonstrating how to make polyhedrons (structures fundamental to nature). They clearly had a very good maths teacher and I managed to make my own seven-pointed star.

‘Let Nature be your teacher’ as Billy Wordsworth so acurately wrote!


A Garden’s Major Arcana

The climax of our first full day, however, was the extraordinary ‘giardino dei tarocchi’. Inspired by Gaudi’s parco Guell in Barcelona and the stone monsters inhabiting the park at Bomarzo near Viterbo, the tarot garden was created by a remarkable woman and wife of Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalle. Started in 1979 it was still incomplete when Niki died in 2002. The twenty-one cards of the major arcana are represented by sculptures of a high plasticity  decorated with glass intarsii and mosaics. Among the sculptures there are various machine-like creations by Tinguely himself.

As one present at Keane’s inauguration of his exhibition of paintings of the major arcana at Barga (see my post on that at ) I was particularly interested in visiting these gardens which had been on my mind for some time.

As Niki said ‘this garden was made with difficulty, love, wild enthusiasm, obsession, and most of all faith. Nothing could have stopped me.’

She continued ‘as in all fairy tales, before finding the treasure, I met on my path dragons, sorcerers, magician, and the Angel of Temperance.’

We spoke to an artist in Capalbio who described Niki as a sad woman. Perhaps it requires sad people to create places imparting joy and hope. Certainly, we came out of these extraordinary gardens quite exhilarated.

Just to remind you the symbols of the major arcana are the following:

Le Bateleur (The Mountebank, The Juggler, The Magician)

II. La Papesse (The Papess, or The Female Pope)
III. L’Impératrice (The Empress)
IV. L’Empereur (The Emperor)
V. Le Pape (The Pope, or The Hierophant)
VI. L’Amoureux (The Lovers)
VII. Le Chariot (The Chariot)
VIII. La Justice (Justice)
IX. L’Hermite (The Hermit)
X. La Roue de Fortune (The Wheel of Fortune)
XI. La Force (Strength, or Fortitude)

XII. Le Pendu (The Hanged Man)
XIII. [usually left unnamed, but “called” L’Arcane sans nom, La Mort, or Death]
XIV. Tempérance (Temperance)
XV. Le Diable (The Devil)
XVI. La Maison Dieu (The House of God, or The Tower)
XVII. L’Étoile (The Star)
XVIII. La Lune (The Moon)
XIX. Le Soleil (The Sun)
XX. Le Jugement (Judgement)
XXI. Le Monde (The World)
no number. Le Mat (The Fool)

See how many you can recognize in these pictures we took of this amazing garden. Let me remind you that the garden is an overwhelming tactile and visual experience which no photograph can properly capture. It’s also possible to enter inside several sculptures so that one experiences a psychedelic synthesis with subject and object, connecting into a transcendental oneness. Niki, herself, lived in some of these sculptures…

Truly, the giardino dei tarocchi has the extraordinary quality of disturbing, questioning but ultimately enthusing one. I was equally fascinated by the reactions of the visitors there which included all ages together with a healthy variety of pet dogs. The ‘giardino’ does achieve its purpose of uniting humans into wonder, joy and harmony. We need creations like Niki’s to truly bring the world together!

PS The garden is near Capalbio just off the Via Aurelia near the Lazio/Tuscany border.