Saint Anthony’s Pastures

There are two ways of reaching Garfagnana’s “capital”, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, from Gallicano. One is to follow the main road through the gorge. This has the advantage of fewer hairpin bends but greater possibility of icy surfaces in winter. The other takes one over Monte Perpoli. There are a substantial number of bends but one is rewarded by the beautiful views over the Serchio valley. There are a surprising number of villages on Monte Perpoli. One of them is Perpoli itself, which I have described at But there is also Cascio, Debbio, Broglio, Brucciano, Promiana, Campo (described at, Monte Rotondo and several others.

At the top of Monte Perpoli is a bar and restaurant at which I used to stop quite frequently for lunch when I was teaching at Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. It’s called Trattoria Bonini and its fine workers’ lunches at only ten euros have received the accolade of trip advisor reviews (see In fact, it’s been voted the best restaurant in the Castelnuovo area out of twenty two!

From the trattoria, roads spread out to even more villages: Eglio, Sassi, and Montaltissimo for example. These all worth visiting for their hidden and often neglected riches. Yesterday I decided I’d go to Piglionico and Alpe San Antonio.

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I know Piglionico well as it’s the start of footpath no. 7 which takes one to the Rifugio Rossi in under two hours. The rifugio Rossi is an excellent starting point for reaching the top of the Pania Della Croce, Pania Secca and visiting that amazing limestone plateau called la Vetricia. Last time we were at the rifugio Rossi it was for a concert given by two sopranos accompanied by the brass section of the orchestra Del Maggio musicale Fiorentino. The area’s natural amphitheatre and the stupendous views from five thousand feet made the slog up to attend a concert truly worth it.

Piglionico also has a more sinister connotation as a centre of resistance to the Nazis during WWII. The little chapel is a witness to the struggle and in it is a memorial to these killed for liberty.

Several of the victims were thrown to their deaths off this precipice opposite.

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I’d never been to Alpe Sant’Antonio so was keen to explore it. Like Campo Catino and San Luigi it’s an old summer pasture area practising transhumance. The population inflates a little during the summer but is reduced to around three in winter. The houses are spread out rather than clustered together.

At the end of the road is a nice trattoria called “La Betulla” (The birch) and there is also an agriturismo to stay nearby.

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There is a sweet church built on a hillock at the end of a fir-tree alley and the whole place has wonderful views.

There is also a little shrine opposite the church and a further shrine on the way back to the trattoria’s crossroad.

This area was inaugurated as a village square dedicated to Fosco Maraini in a ceremony described at

But who was Fosco Maraini and what is his connection to this way-out place? He was an anthropologist, explorer, orientalist, poet, photographer, climber and writer born in 1912.

Fosco had a particularly strong relationship with China and Japan. His book on “Secret Tibet” is a must-read and his second wife was Japanese. Indeed, when the square dedicated to Fosco was inaugurated in Alpe Sant’antonio there was a significant Japanese presence.

Maraini  died in 2004 and wished to be buried in a cemetery in the Garfagnana. The one at Alpe Sant’Antonio was chosen and here is Maraini’s tomb:


For more information about this multi-talented guy go to

Isn’t it amazing how even a seemingly insignificant place like Alpe Sant’Antonio can reveal whole new areas of knowledge! The entire area is definitely a trekker’s paradise and is now particularly beautiful with its autumn colours appearing.

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Garden Gnomons?

Several large Italian churches are also self-contained observatories and time-keepers. Because of their size and because so many of them have cupolas these architectural features have been used to guide the sun’s rays and produce more accurate calculations of time. For example, the gnomon in Pisa’s cathedral is used to compute the start of the traditional Pisan New Year at the spring equinox through the sun’s rays hitting a particular part of the building.


Another fine example of a gnomon, dating back to the fifteenth century, is in Florence cathedral. Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome provides the perfect ambience for this (together with the greater hours of sunshine in Italy, of course). There is a great video of this gnomon marking the summer equinox at

Sun-dials are a variation of the gnomon. Usually smaller in size, they grace gardens church steeples and the facades of buildings. Sun-dials were used as clocks and were sometimes made by clock-makers: in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Llanfair Caereinion, Powys, for example, there is one made by a local welsh clock-maker, Samuel Roberts, in 1755.


Despite the incredible advance in astronomical equipment, the advent of the digital observatory and the use of space telescopes there is still a place for the gnomon today as proved by the elegant re-shaping of Piazza Allende in the small village of Filettole which is near Pisa.

We were on our way to the seaside a couple of days ago when we decided we’d get there in a leisurely way  using by-ways and noticed this object.

(Translation of plaque: “the sun rises for everyone”)

It is, in fact part of a gnomon. All we needed to tell the correct time was for the sun to come out – a somewhat capricious event in this strangely unpredictable Italian summer.

The whole project was unveiled in 2004 and, in the words of its architect, is intended to provide a civic gathering place, recreation area and market place. What a good idea to pave the village centre in this manner!

When we eventually reached the seaside at Marina di Vecchiano it was to massive rolling waves and a red flag which signalled “dangerous conditions for swimming”. We, at least, managed to get a virtually deserted beach so close to Ferragosto (on August 15th – the Italian bank holiday) and a hydro massage on our backs lying at the water’s edge.

It all reminded me of a typical day by the seaside in the UK!





Places of Memory

In London there are many “houses of memory”, as the Italians like to call them. It’s possible to visit buildings where such shining constellations of humankind as Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, John Keats, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Handel and many others lived, loved and created.

Some of these houses belong to that great conservation society, the National Trust. Others are private trusts and some are in the care of the local councils. They are all worth visiting, whether one agrees with the ideas of the person who lived there or not, since they give an excellent idea of London life at particular moments of history.

On my last visit to London I visited several of these places.

The address “No.1 London” was all that was required for posts to be directed to the Duke of Wellington’s residence at Apsley house. As an acolyte of Napoleon I was not too keen in admitting myself to the “Iron Duke’s” house, especially as he took a very reactionary line against liberal movements.

The subway approaches to No.1 gave us the flavour of what was coming.

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Happily, the house contains wonders independent of the Duke’s ideas. Its collection of paintings is simply superb and displayed in magnificently decorated rooms.

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Furthermore, on that occasion, there was an interesting demonstration of Regency army fire power and battle tactics together with tales from the front by a re-enacting detachment of the British army of the time and “camp-women”.

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Considering that such re-enactment societies flourish in France and most countries affected by “Boney’s” empire aims, (including the province of Lucca), it will be an amazing concentration of latter-day soldiers who will congregate on the field of Waterloo next year to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of a battle which, in Arthur Wellesley’s own words, was  “a damn close-run thing.”

I’ve mentioned another place, Lord Leighton’s, (the distinguished Victorian society painter), house near Holland Park in my post at This purpose-built residence-cum-studio has been recently restored and opened to the public. I remember it fondly as the venue for several concerts I attended before my exile, including those given by the now sadly-defunct Società Dante Alighieri, (especially Gilbert Rowland’s dextrous Scarlatti recital and, most memorably, the evocation of life at the house in the company of such eccentric luminaries as Sir Richard Burton – played by friend and actor David Reid)

What a re-evocation of the social life and times of fin-de-siècle Leighton House – that occult corner of oriental domesticity at Holland Park London – in a forgotten tableau vivant where whole canvases were evoked by half-naked houries and narghiles breathing opium in mosaicked and fountain-trickled halls!


I evoked that evening at Leighton House in Burton’s company with the following words:


A sultan’s couch in Kensington

awakens cold desire

and tiles around the marble pool

reflect deep blue-eyed fire.


Above lace balconies withdraw

behind dusk’s harem veil

while dreams float on an unknown sea

as argosies set sail.


The evening party now retires

and ancient tales are told

of dusky djinns and desert towns

and she who’ll not grow old


Dim stairs escape to music’s room

where arcane songs are heard

from her whose melting voice is like

a paradise-born bird.


The night perfumes a garden’s hair

and soaks fruit lips with wine;

beyond cooled earth new worlds release

galactic starlights’ shine.


Her body, like a gold sheet’s draped

upon a coralled bed;

her skin with sunset marble’s tinged

and whispers the unsaid.


Then past the leaves high casements seek

an argent summer moon

as paintbrush strokes upon the cloth

a soft and flaming June


 What a pity that this tenderly passionate canvas was sold for a plate of potage when such artists were considered out-of-fashion. What would it cost to buy it back from the Puerto-Rican government today!

The third place of memory was probably the most poignant one I have ever visited. In the company of my wife, we explored the hidden hilltop alleys of Hampstead to reach the church of Saint St Mary’s, the first Roman Catholic church to be built there after the English Reformation . Founded by the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, a refugee from the French Revolution, the church was completed in 1816.

The appearance of this building in the centre of a characteristic Georgian terrace is delightfully surprising, crowned with its bell-cote built in 1852 when an act of parliament first allowed Catholic churches to ring their bells. The church was closed, but fortunately a lad we met outside turned out to be the verger and kindly opened the door for us which led into a simple but noble interior decorated in the apse by fin-de-siècle mosaics and a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin.

But what was the memory evoked by this place? Why would we have wanted to visit this church? The clue is given in the following photograph.

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It is the place where my wife was baptised in that coldest of winters in the year which would later bring the Olympic games for a second time to the UK. It was the first time she’d been there since that auspicious day.

Near Saint Mary’s we encountered another place of memory which we’d never suspected existed: the old Hampstead cemetery, one of the very few in London to remain in its original state of delicious decay. Among the notables who have found their last resting place here are the great labour politician, Hugh Gaitskell, the brilliant artist and writer, Gerald du Maurier, (whose grand-daughter was “Rebecca” author Daphne) and, best of all, John Constable, whose paintings are the quintessence of the English landscape.

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What better way to say goodbye to London than visiting this place?