A Living Crib is Reborn at Equi Terme

Equi Terme’s living Christmas crib is one in which we have taken part several times as characters in this, one of the most spectacular of such events in Tuscany. Sometimes we have been the Roman governor of Caesarea, sometimes one of the three Magi and Sandra has been a cialdonaia (waffle-maker).

You can see some photographs of our appearances in this crib through the years in our posts at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/of-dragons-irises-and-knights/

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/no-room-at-the-inn-in-equi-terme/

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/of-cribs-and-choirs/

In 2013 a strong earthquake shook Equi Terme and the surrounding area and for the next two years it was unable to hold the crib or ‘presepe’.

In 2015 the presepe was happily back in Equi Terme after temporary sites at Sarzana and Vezzano Ligure. The crib’s site is truly spectacular with the highest part of the Apuan Mountains behind it and with its giant cave where the actual nativity is held. Here are some scenes from it during our visit there a couple of days ago:

The costumes, unlike several other living cribs, are modelled on a biblical Palestine and there are few concessions to renaissance or mediaeval times.

The presepe takes place every evening between 6 and 9 pm from 24th to 27th December. Be prepared to queue. It’s becoming ever more popular! Although we weren’t characters this year we helped out and were able to avoid the queues and the modest entrance charge. There’s more information at tel 346-3619103, or e-mail: atsl@atsl.it. Maybe you’d like to become a part of this wonderful Christmas celebration?

Our visit on ‘il giorno di Santo Stefano’ (Boxing Day) was truly a journey down memory lane. We love this living crib more than any other, both for its extraordinary setting in which the old village of Equi Terme is transformed into a little Bethlehem and for the memories it holds for us of happy times staying in the house and company of La Signora Vinicia, the Lady of Equi Terme, now sadly no longer with us.

Happily our dear friend Giovanni Fascetti is still, as Mastro Cialdonaio (master waffle maker), able to play an essential part of the crib with his exquisite antique ferri (irons) used to make the delicious waffles.

The essential thing about Christmastide is its continuity through the years. Having friends that we know will be there adds to this continuity and gives security in these uncertain times.

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Ghosts in Love

INTRODUCTION

It’s good when people read your blog and put a “like” below a post.

It’s even better when readers put a nice comment too.

But it’s wonderfully unexpected when someone reading your post actually gets inspired to write a short story about it. This is what happened to us when we visited Pontremoli, described in our post at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/

and where we entered, quite by accident, into one of the most beautiful abandoned palazzi we’ve ever seen in Italy.

Maurizio Bardi is a writer, journalist and publisher, passionate about saving Italy’s beautiful neglected princesses of palaces from complete neglect and decay. We consider ourselves privileged that he wrote this short story after reading our post. It’s not just a ghost story or a fairy tale: it also carries a particularly strong punch regarding some local political situations in present day Pontremoli. We’ve translated his evocative Italian prose into English. Thank you Maurizio! Read on and enjoy.

PREFACE

They visited Pontremoli. They entered into the Palazzo Damiani. They took some photographs and asked themselves some questions. Then they posted their thoughts on their internet blog. And if Alexandra and Francis were ghosts returned in search of their home after nearly three hundred years? Maybe…, Everything else, however, is true, including the history of the theatre curtain.

On July 11, 2014 an English couple, Alexandra and Francis, on a visit to Pontremoli, entered by chance into Palazzo Damiani and published their disenchanted thoughts on the internet. This event inspired the following short story.

Maurizio Bardi

GHOSTS IN LOVE

We felt a great wish to return to our room, in our building. Dozens of palaces, monuments of great beauty sited between two rivers, were built in eighteenth century Pontremoli.

Our building is open and unattended. Outside in the street some young people playing football, a strange game involving kicking a ball, shout and break the silence. They upset us. Farther along the horn of an iron wagon they now call a car is booming.

Nearly three centuries have passed. Why has the pleasure of silence disappeared? We are no longer able to listen. Where are those friends who frequented our palace, those intelligent souls who told us about new ideas from Paris, who spoke about the Enlightenment wandering from one place to another? Did they disappear along with Nicolò Contestabili’s frescoes, along with the collapsing walls and windows, along with our conversations in front of the fireplace?

Alexandra, my beloved, says to me: “Look at our ‘Dawn’; the fresco is now unrecognizable because of its abandonment. Remember when, under ‘Dawn’, Stefano Bertolini read us his preface to “The Spirit of Laws,” which had been requested by Montesquieu? Or do you recollect when he told us of his commitment to the legislative reforms of eighteenth century Tuscany?”

“Do you recall how the Pontremoli nobles criticized my ideas about the Enlightenment? They called me the revolutionary, the Palazzo Damiani revolutionary.”

We look for our room in the twilight. Its alcove is crumbling. The frescoed ceiling is collapsing. The walls and the plaster are collapsing. The world is collapsing. How painful! Even we, ghosts, grieve and suffer!

Francis is lost. Pleasure, which was the basis of his philosophy of a carefree and light-hearted life, has been stolen from him; that philosophy emanating from the works of Natali and Contestabili, those eighteenth century painters who gave Pontremoli its splendour.

“What can we do?” Francis asks Alexandra.

“I’ve already done something, but it was useless!”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been to the mayor’s office and I made a painting fall down …”

“And the mayor?” Was she scared? “

“No. So I made it fall down again.”

“And what did she do?”

“She thought it was an attack by her political enemies. She called in a security guard and ordered him to stand still, fixed in front of the painting and guard it, day and night. I made the picture fall down again. Then the guard understood. He started talking about ghosts, but no one believed him. The guard is the only one who understands but just as he starts talking about ghosts they tell him to stop drinking. “

“So?”

“So”, continued Alexandra, “I went to the Town Hall, in the room of a type of foreman. He’s the person taking care of the city’s palaces. I looked for the file on Palazzo Damiani and upset the sheets of paper on his desk, just to make him irritated.”

“Very good!”

“When he returned and saw the papers scattered everywhere he began to shout. He yelled at his deputy foreman in the room next door. He screamed that he must stop touching his documents when he wasn’t there! His face reddened, he took all the files and began to throw them about. Gradually every space in the room was filled with white sheets. He looked like a ghost! “

“Leave it well alone. If we get involved, it could also happen that the whole building collapses. Definitely.”

“Why do you say that?”

Francis’s voice saddened: “Do you remember our wonderful theatre by the river, the Rose Theatre, also built with funds from our family? They renewed it. It was he, the master builder, who was works-manager. I was happy, so I went to have a look. I looked for the terracotta floors hand-made with Terrarossa clay. I looked for the walnut doors of the master carpenters behind which we hid during the festivals. I looked for the painting before which guests arriving at the theatre remained enchanted. They are no longer there. Now they are elsewhere. But where?

I then looked for the vast theatre curtain painted by Contestabili whose creation we saw being completed day by day – a great work of art. I looked all over until I flew up into the attic. I found the curtain there in the corner, huge, curled, dying, and rotting. A great masterpiece that once had enthralled audiences was now abandoned, and before long it will be completely decomposed. “

“I can’t believe it.”

Perched on the alcove railing, exhausted, Alexandra falls asleep. I gaze out of the window that looks over what was once a small pleasant, gentle garden surrounded by arches and think about our longing, our desire to create a world which is, however, beyond that barrier that we ghosts cannot surmount.

“Let’s go”, Alexandra whispers in a soft voice. “We can’t do anything and perhaps it’s better that way.”

Then, suddenly, as if it is resurrection night for ghosts, she confronts him: “Francis, wake up! There’s no time to lose, you must tell. It’s true we are ghosts, but with the internet we ghosts can become something else!

Maurizio Bardi

Alexandra and Francis’s blog is at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/

Our Choir Sings for Saint Francis at Equi Terme

Equi Terme is the first station one reaches on the Lucca-Aulla line after passing through the 7.5 kilometre Lupacino tunnel inaugurated in 1959 and finally completing a railway which was begun in 1892. Railways had reached Equi by 1930 but only from the Aulla side. Kinta Beevor in her ‘A Tuscan Childhood’ describes how, when she was a girl staying with her parents in the imposing Fortezza della  Brunella, the railway only reached as far as Monzone necessitating a pleasant walk through woods and the village of Aiola to reach Equi Terme.

Last night our choir didn’t take the railway but a coach instead since we had to get back the same night, by which time there would be no more trains until the following morning. The coach took us down to Lucca and thence by autostrada through the Versilia. By-passing Sarzana we reached Aulla where we left the autostrada to wind our way up to Equi Terme through increasingly hilly countryside.

Our reason for singing in Equi Terme was to participate in the commemoration for Saint Francis, whose patron saint Equi is and whose name-day is today, 4th October. Saint Francis is also, of course, patron saint of Italy so it’s a doubly important day!

Another reason was to celebrate the life of Signora Vinicia, the Lady of Equi Terme, with whom we always stayed when participating in the presepe vivente (living crib) and who sadly passed away las year.

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(Signora Vinicia with Prof. Giovanni Fascetti at Equi Terme)

Here is Saint Francis surrounding by loving birds:

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(Tiled picture in San Francesco Equi Terme)

Equi Terme, the source of a hot sulphur spring which was known to the ancient romans for its curative properties as excavations,revealing the original marble floors prove, is a town described as ‘quaint’ by that late-lamented traveller Eric Newby in his “A small place in Italy”. It certainly is that and more. The spa is well-equipped and has a lovely open-air swimming pool fed by the hot waters. If one is suffering from skin problems, breathing difficulties, gynaecological complications and rheumatic pains then certainly this is the place to visit.

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The original hotel was named ‘Hotel Radium’ which, somehow, suggested to me a place where one would depart glowing in the dark. It has since been renamed ‘Hotel Terme’. (See http://www.lunigiana.net/alberghi/hotelterme.htm) Packages combining a stay at the hotel with a course of spa treatments are available.

The points of major interest in and around Equi Terme are the following:

The church of Saint Francis at the top of the old town.

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The Solco di Equi – a narrow canyon with its rock walls almost touching each other. It’s a little over half an hour’s walk away.

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The Santuario Della Madonna – a sweet little chapel about 40 minutes’ walk up a nearby hill where in 1608 the Madonna appeared to two shepherdesses. Whether you believe in visions or not it’s worth attending the festa in honour of the Virgin there on 7th June every year.

The Equi Terme natural park – the whole area is rich in limestone phenomena such as caves with stalactites and stalagmites and underground rivers. The most famous of these is the Teca di Equi Terme where each year the baby Jesus is born as part of Equi’s living crib celebrations. (These are most happily returning this Christmas after an absence of three years due to earthquake damage to the town). A little museum is in this spectacular park which displays relics of cave bears and Neanderthal people.

Our coach arrived in an Equi Terme decorated with chains of lights and little flags.

Event organiser Stefania met us and took us to the local hall where an ample repast of bread cheese and affetttati greeted us together with plenty of drinks, both soft and otherwise.

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We then walked to the church of Saint Francis.

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Our concert was a complete success. The little church of Saint Francis at the top of the hill was most attractively decked out with plenty of flowers. The nave was packed with, it seems, the entire population of Equi and the applause at the end was long and heart-felt. Most importantly, our choir-master Andrea was pleased with our singing.

These were the pieces we sang:

Sollevate o porte – Frisina
Celebra il Signore – Frisina
O Salutaris hostia – Perosi
Pane di vita nuova – Frisina
Ascolta creatore pietoso – Frisina
Gloria – Haydn
Cantate Domino – Hassler
Sanctus – Zardini
Stabat Mater – Kodály

Tollite hostias – Saint-Saens
Trisaghion – Frisina

After the concert we were invited to a further repast, this time consisting of cake and local wine.

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We were then each presented with a copy of a very interesting book written by my friend and erstwhile teaching colleague, Giovanni Fascetti, on Equi Terme and the valley of the river Lucido, beautifully illustrated by his artist father and explaining everything about the area.

We met the local parish priest, a towering personality in more ways than one.

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In this photograph you can see Andrea, Don Guido and Giovanni Fascetti whose love for Equi Terme inspired our choir in its venture to sing there.

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We did not do the autostrada on our return but, instead went directly to the Garfagnana crossing the Carpinelli pass on endlessly twisting roads. As it was past midnight the road was mercifully free from any other traffic.

It’s significant that Equi Terme’s patron saint is Francis for it was he who created the first living crib in 1223 at Greccio.

We hope to see you at Equi Terme at Christmas for its own magical living crib! The presepe runs from 24th to 27th December. Further details are at http://www.presepeviventeequi.com/

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(Banner of Saint Francis in Equi Church)

For more on Equi Terme’s and other presepi viventi see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/no-room-at-the-inn-in-equi-terme/

And

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/

For the Equi Terme earthquake see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/midsummer-nights-nighmare/

For lovely walks around Equi see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/of-dragons-irises-and-knights/ and at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/magical-mulattiera/

For more on our choir’s presence at Equi terme see post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/of-cribs-and-choirs/

Of Cribs and Choirs

I realise it’s over three months to go before Christmas but the news I heard yesterday, from a friend that had picked it up from the bar in Equi Terme, is really great: the living crib in that town in the Lunigiana is returning this year after two years’ absence (because of earthquake damage to Equi terme in 2013).

We’d always taken part in this spectacular event since we landed in this part of the world and were beginning to really miss participating in it. Here are some photos from 2007, the first year we participated in the event:

I’ll be back in Equi Terme before that since on October 3rd our choir is going to sing in this delightful thermal town’s patron saint festa of St. Francis in the parish church of Saint Francis. We’ve hired a coach to take our thirty-strong choir for the event.

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Last night at Ghivizzano church we were busy rehearsing for the concert.

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Here’s the programme of what we’ll be singing:

Concerto Equi Terme, 3 ottobre, ore 20.30

1) Sollevate o porte – Frisina
2) Celebra il Signore – Frisina
3) O Salutaris hostia – Perosi
4) Pane di vita nuova – Frisina
5) Ascolta creatore pietoso – Frisina
6) Gloria – Haydn
7) Cantate Domino – Hassler
8) Sanctus – Zardini
9) Stabat Mater – Kodály
10) Tollite hostias – Saint-Saens
11) Trisaghion – Frisina

It’s good to know that so much of Italy can pick herself up and dust herself down even in the face of calamity. I’m sure the Equi terme festival will be a great success and mark another stage on the way to a complete revitalization of the town and its surrounding area.

In the meanwhile, tonight at Bagni di Lucca the butterfly flies again. Yes, the show at the Teatro Accademico celebrating the life of Stefano Girolami, a promising theatrical artist from Bagni, returns.

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If you’re in the area do come along for an event which is always entertaining and serves a very good cause indeed as all the freewill offering from the audience will go to supporting medical research into the disease which cruelly stopped Stefano Girolami. from fulfilling himself.

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(For last year’s Volo della Farfalla event see my post at

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/the-butterfly-flies-again/

and for the same event in 2013 see

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-butterflys-flight/

)

L’Epifania Tutte le Feste Porta Via

Today, January 6th, is a national holiday in Italy. Coming so soon after Sunday the majority of Italians will have constructed a “ponte”, or bridge, so that yesterday too was a sort of holiday for this country as well. As any Christian will know January 6th is Epiphany, the day when the wise men arrive from the east to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the baby Jesus. The whole event is incomparably summed up in the poem by T. S. Eliot when one of the Magi looks back on the difficult journey they had undertaken. I can do nothing more here than quote in full this sublime poem:

 

The Journey Of The Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

 

In Italy it’s also the time of” La Befana” when a very old, ugly white-witch comes on the eve of January 6th to fill up the stockings of good children with sweets and those of bad children with coal (at least that’ll be useful for heating up our houses on these extremely cold evenings.) La Befana is, of course, a corruption of the word “epiphany” but how did this beneficent old crone come onto the scene in Italian households in the first place?

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As with the majority of Christian rites, ”la Befana” has a pagan origin. In Roman times the goddess of fertility would sweep the skies at the winter solstice to augur the return of growth in the fields. The broom was a symbol of the cleansing of the earth for the new forthcoming growing season. (Harry Potter eat your heart out…).

The early Christians condemned such practises as heretical and this beautiful goddess was thus turned into a horrible witch. However, the locals would have none of this and, in her uglified version, the Befana returned to reign supreme in children’s minds in this custom.

Indeed, a further story was added to retain la Befana’s credibility. In this version the Three Wise Men meet an aged crone and aske her the way. Only afterwards does la Befana realise the importance of this encounter and tries to find the Magi. She asks everywhere and, where indications are had, gives sweets and presents to the children of the households hoping that one of the houses will, indeed, shelter the baby Jesus. Originally children would place shoes and stockings to help the Befana on her quest. Later, shoes were discarded but the stockings remained, to be filled with goodies.

Epiphany is also the time when, by popular consent, the Christmas season ends. As the couplet says.

 

L’epifania

Tutte le feste porta via

 

(“Epiphany ends all festivities”).

 

Liturgically, this is quite incorrect, however since it’s the presentation of Christ in the temple that officially ends the Christmas season, on February 2nd, at the festival called the Candelora where candles are presented and blessed to symbolise the advent of Christ’s light upon the world.

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 La Befana is celebrated everywhere in Italy with many local variants. In our area the best celebrations are to be found at Barga but there will also be children-oriented events in Bagni di di Lucca. Since the winter holidays are so short in Italy it also means that the children will return soon afterwards to school, hopefully in a positive mood after their days of being spoilt rotten.

There is a Tuscan variant of the little rhyme about the Befana which goes as follows:

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
attraversa tutti i tetti
porta bambole e confetti .

 

(The Befana comes by night

With shoes in disrepair

She crosses all the roofs

Bringing dolls and lots of sweets).

 

How do we adults fit into all this? In 2007 I was one of the wise men (Melchior, I think) at one of the most beautiful presepi viventi (living cribs) in our part of the world: the presepe of Equi Terme just across the “border” in Lunigiana.

Alas, this presepe is no more since the 2013 earthquake put end to the celebrations as the whole village was declared unsafe and little has been done to bring it back. Moreover, the grand lady of Equi Terme, Vinicia Fogacci, the inspirer of the Presepe, Dame of the Republic of Italy,  owner of a lovely shop and the provider of exceptional hospitality towards us when we took part in the presepe, has passed away. I learnt the news the other day, by phone call from my friend Giovanni, just as we were in the tribune of one of the greatest holy sites of Italy the basilica of Santa Maria Annnunziata in Florence.

We could do nothing else but say a little prayer in memory of one of the most wonderful ladies we have ever met. Truly, it’s “the worst part of the year.”

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(The great Vinicia aged 90-plus with Giovanni in 2007)

Later I received this moving message regarding the incomparable Vinicia from Giovanni. I’ll leave it untranslated so you can practise your Italian…

Con profondo dolore nel cuore, i soci del Gruppo Culturale “Ippolito Rosellini” si uniscono al lutto dei familiari e degli abitanti di Equi Terme per la scomparsa del Cavaliere della Repubblica Vinicia Fogacci, imprenditrice. Vinicia, persona di grande umanità e semplicità, memoria storica e decana di una comunità, ha esercitato le doti dell’ospitalità e della Carità cristiana per una lunga e intensa vita. Vinicia è stata sempre lungimirante e attenta nell’amore per il suo paese in particolare e per l’Italia in generale.

Animata da grande senso civico, dedizione al lavoro, rispetto delle Leggi e dello Stato, amante della verità, madre di famiglia esemplare, ha dispensato il suo amore materno non solo ai figli ma anche a coloro i quali, venendo a contatto con la sua meravigliosa persona e ricevendo il suo aiuto, la sentivano come una madre generosa, comprensiva, illuminata. Vinicia, sempre combattiva, sempre in trincea fino oltre i novanta anni, è stata abbattuta dalle ultime disgrazie di Equi: il vedere un paese prostrato non solo dalla crisi economica ma anche devastato dal terremoto e senza aiuto per poter tornare una fiorente comunità, l’aveva colpita. Terremo sempre viva la sua memoria e speriamo che il suo spirito continui a vigilare amorevolmente su Equi e su di noi.

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(Above, our own take on the Three Wise Men)

 

Topolino – alias Mickey Mouse

Our train from Aulla to Filatteria was slow but not slow enough to stop there. We had, therefore, an unplanned halt at Pontremoli waiting for the next train to take us back to Filatteria. During our break we visited parts of the town we hadn’t seen on our previous visit last July and did some shopping.

For elevenses we had a piece of focaccia which we ate in a small play-garden.

This area for me strangely summed up everything which is both right and wrong about Italy. In its present uncared-for state the garden was quite depressing but it must have been a pleasant place once.

Overgrown grass was littered with beer bottles and cans (fortunately we didn’t notice any syringes as in some other places).

The play equipment was hopelessly out of date and dangerous. Unmaintained and without any chance of a soft landing for the children, it looked suicidal.

In the centre of the garden was a round pond with lots of large goldfish in it. At one stage an old gentleman came and fed the fish with some bits of bread. At least there was a little sign of love in this forlorn place.

Our attention was then drawn to a statue at the garden’s far end. Was Mickey Mouse looking at us? Surely not!

But it was Mickey with Donald and Pluto – Italian style and cast in bronze over a marble plinth which had an inscription.

Translated this reads:

The “City of Books” foundation donates these Walt Disney characters to the city of Pontremoli grateful to “Arnoldo Mondadori” publishers who have genialy offered them to Italy”s children.

There are two cartoon booklets respectively called “Topolino” (Mickey Mouse) and Paperino” (Donald Duck) in Italy which are not only read by kids but by adults too. The booklets have the adventures of the Walt Disney characters, often in serial form, and introducing new characters which, in the English-speaking world, are unknown. All the stories are written and drawn by Italians.

When the “Topolino” booklet first came out in 1949 (there had been a Topolino comic strip in newspapers during the 1930’s but in WWII,  with fascism and in an anti-US campaign, Mussolini ordered “Topolino” to be changed into a non-mouse character – but with similar characteristics – called “Tuffolino”) it was immediately a great hit and has remained so ever since. It’s certainly my favourite reading on a lazy beach afternoon.

There have been notable cartoonists working for “Topolino” – two of the best were Guido Martina e Giovan Battista Carpi. The stories are always fun to read and also very useful for those learning Italian! To date I’ve never found any Mickey Mouse cartoon magazine approaching anywhere near the quality of the Italian equivalent, so “Topolino” it is!

But how did the Italian publishers get away with copyright restrictions imposed by the Disney Company? By putting their own copyright on the name “Topolino”, which has a double meaning. “Topolino” means “little mouse” and “Topo Lino” means a mouse called Lino.  There is more information at http://www.topolino.it/

Looking out from the gardens was this once proud doorway with FIAT written at the top (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) – once proud because FIAT is no longer based in Turin but now forms part of the US Chrysler Corporation (Sic Transit…)

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To return to the statue(s) in Pontremoli’s forlorn play garden – I’m thinking of writing to Disneyland to see if they can help spruce things up a little for the children in this part of the world. It’s so sad that this once happy and proud little corner of Pontremoli has been reduced to such a sorry state – a hang-out for alcoholics, stray cats and this elegant collared dove:

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/the-magical-steles-of-pontremoli/ – 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.