Attics in the Street

One of Bagni di Lucca’s most successful ventures is the quarterly ‘soffitte in tavole’ (attics in the street) sales of second-hand and antique items. There are also craft stalls.

The cornucopia of little treasures is well-filled. There’s everything from furniture to clothes, from old postcards to kitchen items, from ancient bed-warmers to canvases:

The weather last Sunday, although crisp, was sunny and the stalls were well-attended. I almost fell for a mandolin from Catania, Sicily as I thought it was thirty euros. I looked again and realised that it was three hundred instead. I managed to bargain it down to two hundred and I’m sure it was a bargain at that price – I just don’t go around with two hundred euros in my pocket. Instead, I managed to get an old Dinky toy for five euros, which can’t be bad.


The dates of the next ‘soffitte in strada’ are as follows:



See you there?




Christmas Count-Down in Mediavalle

As another prime minister, this time leader of Europe’s third largest economy, has shot himself in the foot over yet another referendum I wonder whether the traditional method of Parliamentary voting through one’s representatives is going out of fashion if one wants to change the government…..

Something that is not going out of fashion or be decided by a referendum, however, is Christmas despite the past efforts of certain English councils, to appease practising atheists and those of other faiths, to have it renamed ‘winterval’. I remember the occasion  when my own former place of work decided not to have a Christmas tree in its foyer. The first person to complain about this new ‘regulation’ was our receptionist who came from India. She was quite livid about it and the Christmas tree was put back in its proper place.

Christmas is not just for Christians. It has become a world-wide celebration of hope in the coming year, a gathering together of families and communities, a celebration of faith in the Earth. The only humbug thing about Christmas are those nice zebra-striped boiled sweets.


Christmas in Italy, especially in the mountain villages, is something not to be missed. The ‘presepe vivente’ or ‘living crib’, where the village streets provide a perfect scenario for presenting old traditions and crafts and the birth of the baby Jesus himself, is particularly special. We have been privileged to have been role-players in one particularly spectacular one at Equi Terme. There are many more, however, closer to home.

Every year in the comune of Bagni di Lucca there’s a circulating one which each year chooses a village out of Granaiola, Monti di Villa and Pieve di Monti di Villa. This year it was Pieve di Monti di Villa’s turn but on the same day I could have gone to at least five others within an hour’s drive from our house. Moreover, there was a great Christmas market at Borgo a Mozzano with a re-enactment of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) throwing the devil off the Ponte Della Maddalena. To top it all there was a magnificent guitar recital by a great virtuoso at the convent of Saint Francis. Doubtless there was more happening but how on earth could I fit it all these activities?

I started with the Christmas market at Borgo. This was the beginning of the afternoon so the crowds hadn’t arrived yet. There were stalls to please all tastes for Christmas gifts.

My next stop was the Presepe Vivente at Pieve di Monti di Villa. I found this beautifully organized and very well-attended. It was good to meet many friends too. I couldn’t stay on for the actual nativity scene for I’d promised to be at a concert.

See how many old village crafts you can count. Needless to say some of them are still being carried out to this very day. Have you prepared your garden for spring planting? How well stocked is the winter feed for your goat? And who hasn’t got a friend who can cheer you up with some folk music. (There were no less than four bands that afternoon). And as for the food on offer… tasty and home-grown, especially the cheese!

Our living crib villages have got it absolutely right. The crib should be just for one day and it should start from mid-day and finish in time for dinner before it gets too dark and cold. Full marks and more for the presepe vivente di Pieve di Monti di Villa. It was absolutely brilliant.

It was then back to Borgo a Mozzano for the market and the concert. The high street was now very well attended. I had to miss the Saint Nicholas procession, however. (He chases the devil and throws him from the stupendous mediaeval ponte Del diavolo). A concert of John Dowland and J S Bach played by Nuccio D’Angelo, one of the world’s great guitar virtuosi (he’s even played in Darwin Australia and all over the USA, of course) could not be overlooked!

This was the programme:


Within the beautiful setting of the convent of San Francesco the church grew colder and colder but Nuccio’s expressive playing more than warmed up the capacity audience. I particularly enjoyed his use of baroque ornamentation.

His transcription of Bach’s Lute suites for guitar (which involved quite a bit of re-tuning) was close to miraculous.

An encore was requested but although Nuccio jokingly said ‘you’ll have to wait for it next June when it’s warmer in this church’ he provided us with another Bach meltingly beautiful sarabande.

There are still twenty days to Christmas. Will I have the energy to make it to that day when there is so much happening just in our little valley? And I haven’t even mentioned the light shows and street parties and the best fun and games to warm up a month which is getting even ccccccccolder!

Of Angel Staircases and Angelic Seafood in Livorno

I recently discussed with a friend what we considered to be the most neglected towns and cities in Italy. Neglected, that is, from a point of visiting them rather than having them badly looked after.  I consider Livorno one of the most neglected cities in Italy, especially as it happens also to be Tuscany’s second largest urban centre and one of Italy’s major seafood centres. Until quite lately it was also neglected in terms of its appearance too. But things are changing.

I’ve written quite a bit about Livorno. I won’t repeat what I said here but would suggest you read my posts at:

and at:

Our day at Livorno had begun with the visit to the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ (do see my previous post). More was to follow. In particular, there was a trip to a sumptuous villa with fabulous paintings by that greatest of Italian impressionists, Giovanni Fattori. I’ve visited this extraordinary place twice already. Depending on your taste-buds you can either call villa Mimbelli an elegant example of La Belle Epoque, or a supreme case of O.T.T. vulgarity. The villa was built by Architect Vincenzo Micheli between 1865 and 1875 for Francesco Mimbelli, a rich merchant and his wife, Enrichetta Rodocanacchi. If nothing else, the villa just shows what wealth flowed into Livorno.

(PS The Mooreish (moresco) room above is the smoking chamber for men only. I originally thought it may have been a harem.)

The grand staircase is decorated with charming ceramic putti. There were very differing views in my party about if they would allow this sort of thing in their residence:

There are some interesting, somewhat eclectic paintings on the first two floors:

The finest paintings, however, are kept on the top floor whose modest decoration and lower ceiling height show that this must have been the servants’ quarters.

Livornese Giovanni Fattori’s paintings of military manoeuvres and battles during the Italian war of independence show his supreme skill in capturing horse anatomy and the dynamics of the drills themselves. He is, indeed, the painter that dragged Italy into the new world of impressionism and French trends. The term macchiaioli (macchia=stain) is used to describe this Italian version of ‘plein-air’ and light-infected painting. Other paintings on this top floor included examples of some of the Livornese painters who followed Fattori’s technique.

Here are some fine adornments for their lords and masters:

We didn’t have much enthisiasm to explore the exotic gardens surrounding the villa (which also have specimens of palms from the Canaries) because of the deluge that was raining ‘a catinelle’ (= cats and dogs) upon us. So the brave act of one of our group to fetch the car enabled us to drive to a very particular restaurant for lunch; but not before taking a walk on the spectacular Terrazza Mascagni and gazing on an even more spectacular seafront view. What a passionate backcloth for that couple having their wedding photographs taken!

Cacciucco is Livorno’s most famous dish. It’s a fish stew/soup like no other and has featured not only in many famous recipe books but, more recently, also on TV.  In London’s Seymour Street there’s the unmissable Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli for some of the best Italian food in town. (Giorgio Locatelli has won ‘best Italian restaurant’ award twice already too). Locatelli with art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon decided they’d track down the cacciucco in Livorno:

If you slide to 47 minutes. 46 seconds of this video of the BBC programme ‘Italy unpacked’:

you’ll find out more about where, what and how and how we ate!

After lunch the weather brightened up a little and we decided to explore a little of Livorno. Despite the almost blanket bombing of World War Two, we came across some delightful corners in this cosmopolitan city including the new fortress, ‘la nuova Venezia’, the aristocratic via Borra, the fabulous market building, the Inigo Jones-designed cathedral in the main square, the statue of the four moorish slaves, the sanctuary of Saint Caterina and much else including that inimitable Livornese drink, Ponce, (punch) a sort of caffé corretto with rum and cognac introduced by English sailors to the city they called ‘Leghorn’.

Just look at these pictures to entice you to Livorno:

I, at least, am sure that relegating Livorno to a city not worth a special journey is a big mistake!









Aulla and Saint Caprasio

“The destruction was terrible. The only building to survive in any form at Aulla was the church of San Caprasio and the old palace of the dukes of Modena”

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(Aulla in 1945)

So writes Kinta Beevor in her adorable memoir “A Tuscan childhood” (1993).


Aulla was even more strategically placed than Sarzana in WWII, controlling the railway lines from south, west and east. Bombing raids by the allies started in 1943 shortly after the abortive September armistice when Germany moved in whole armies and occupied Italy as a foreign power.

After this time Aulla was virtually deserted when citizens fled to the safer areas of the surrounding mountains as “sfollati” (evacuees)

The real damage to Aulla, however, was not caused by the allies but by a mortar shell fired by a group of partisans which hit a German munition train with devastating results, flattening the town and killing over 600 Germans and 150 allies.

Bombs still remain to be disovered in and around Aulla to this day. Indeed, only in March this year an unexploded one had to be detonated at a safe distance from the town.

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If it’s not bombs the town has suffered from then it’s flooding as this photograph, from  the disaster of October 2011 when two citizens died, illustrates. Not a very lucky town it seems…


So what’s the point of visiting Aulla today? Not much, people might say except to change trains. This is what would have been my thought but because of the late arrival of my train from Bagni di Lucca I was unable to catch the ‘coincidenza’ to Sarzana. No coincidence at all! Also no ‘coincidenza’ that the station bar, with its delightful model railway running overhead, had been closed down and cleared only days previously? (See my post at for pictures of the model railway and bar).

No coincidence that this super-modern station did not even have a gents or ladies!

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The new Aulla station is an absurd white elephant built some distance outside the town to accommodate the re-aligned La Spezia-Modena railway which has now become a high speed track.

As I had more than an hour to wait I decided to catch the bus to see what Aulla could offer, at least in terms of bars.

My first impressions were expectedly disappointing. Large concrete palazzi, erected in the most unimaginative styles, marked the area where the old attractive town would have been. It was market day so I decided to wander around the stalls which, at least, were not disappointing.

Then I thought there may have been some part of old Aulla still standing. I gazed up at the hill overlooking the town and dominated by the fortress of Brunello where Kinta had spent her idyllic childhood (see my post at for pictures and a description of the fortress).

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Indeed, around the old railway station, which bombs had failed to destroy, there were some streets that gave a hint of how old Aulla must have looked like.

I was particularly interested in seeking out the church (formerly abbey) of San Caprasio.  I was glad to visit this witness to Aulla’s great past as a major centre on the ancient Via Francigena pilgrim route.

The church and monastery were founded in 884 by Adalbert I of Tuscany and first dedicated to the Virgin. In 1050 it was re-dedicated to San Caprasio (the only church named after this saint in Italy) , a holy hermit whose body was brought here from the Lérins islands off the coast of Provence in order to save it from being despoiled by the Saracens.

Through the ages the church has undergone several modifications and now presents a largely classical appearance.

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Beside it, however, there are substantial remains of the original monastery with ancient columns and vaulting.

In the chapter house there’s an interesting little museum conserving all that was saved from the ravages of WWII.

Where is San Caprasio buried? Archaeological excavations in 2003 have revealed the saint’s tomb with a reliquary containing his bones.

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Other pieces of interest in this well-ordered museum include recreations of a mediaeval abbot, monks and pilgrim, sculptured capitals, coins, ceramics and a stone gospel.

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So if you’re stuck in the concrete and marble desert of Aulla’s new high-speed bar-less and toilet-less railway station don’t hesitate to catch a bus to visit Aulla. The town contains more riches than you might have imagined!

New Chairs out of Old at Borgo

When finishing eating at il Pescatore restaurant yesterday we were given a delicious piece of cake. We said, ‘but we haven’t ordered this.’ ‘Our gift’ replied the waitress. ‘It’s Borgo a Mozzano’s festa della Madonna today.’

Another festa della Madonna? We decided to take a look. The Fiera or market was starting up. Stalls selling a variety of handicrafts, second-hand goods and some food were spread out along the high street.

There were some good idea for making scarecrows:

Who’s the real one here?

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I especially liked these feline headrests suitable for long journeys.

There was also an exhibition of chair art which was amusing and gave us ideas of what to do with our less attractive chairs.

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This chair, for example, was inspired by memories of childhood.

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Here’s a nice garden chair:

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Here is a Fibonacci sequence chair:

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Here’s a Finnish one:

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This one is a philosophical chair, good for pondering on the meaning of life:

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What do you think the following chairs are evocative of?

There was an art show with pastel pictures by that doyen of artists, David Finkbeiner, in the local library. The pictures were somewhat difficult to photograph because of the glass reflection, however:

One finds out many things happening by chance in Italy. Even walking through a familiar town like Borgo can bring pleasant surprises. Behind the main street with its stern tall houses we walked down an almost countryside-like lane.

That’s the fascination of life: discovering the unfamiliar in the familiar.


A Great Pick-Me-Up

There are two main fiere paesane or fairs held in Bagni in Lucca: one at the start of the summer on St John the Baptist’s day, which was yesterday, and one at the end of summer on 24th August which is Saint Bartholomew’s day. The high street is closed to traffic and get filled with lots of stalls.

Unless one is in a shopping frenzy there’s not much else happening apart from meeting friends and having an ice-cream. I think they could liven thing up with some music, for example.

I took a look at yesterday’ fair, which was well-attended and returned home with a washing-up cloth specially to dry the cats’ bowls.

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More significantly, on Saturday 27th of June there will be a procession at 8.30 PM at nearby Pieve di Monti di Villa to celebrate the village’s patron saint who is, indeed, St John (the Baptist). The religious part will be followed by refreshments and dancing in that lovely Italian combination of sacred and secular.

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More importantly for liqueur makers is the fact that St John’s day is the day to pick one’s still green and unripened walnuts to make the digestivo known as nocino much favoured in mediaeval times (and still today!) for curing various ailments.

Here’s one recipe I picked up for making nocino:


  • 30 green walnuts to be picked on St John the Baptist’s day. Green walnuts may be difficult to find in the market so just take a walk in the woods around Bagni di Lucca or find a friend whose got a walnut tree they’re willing to share with you
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 whole cloves
  • 1-inch piece of vanilla bean
  • Zest of one lemon, cut into strips using a vegetable peeler
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 litre vodka or grappa


  1. Rinse and dry the walnuts. Cut them into quarters with a sharp knife. Don’t wait until the shell gets too hard or else you may find you’re cutting your fingers as well!
  2. Put walnuts, spices, zest, sugar, and vodka or grappa into a large glass container. The spirits should cover the walnuts. Cover and shake to mix well. Store for six weeks, shaking the mixture daily. The nocino colour will get progressively darker.
  3. When you are ready to bottle, remove the walnuts and solids with a filter. Strain the liquid through several layers of cheesecloth into glass bottles. (Coffee filters can also be used). The nocino will be somewhat bitter at first but will become more palatable over time. After a year it should be a great digestivo and help to while away those winter colds, stomach upsets, lack of motivation, general depression…. You name it and a little glass of nocino will do the trick. Those mediaeval monks should know!

(A nice place near us to find green walnuts with our three cats)

Incidentally, the nocino is a DOP from Emilia Romagna. The place to go and wallow in its taste is in the third week of July at Castelfranco Emilia’s big Nocino fair near Modena. I must try to get there this year!










Tree and Canvas Oils

Although there are some very good wines in the Lucca region, our area is especially noted for its (olive!) oil. Some of the world’s best oils come from the trees planted on the hill slopes north of Lucca and, in my opinion, are of a higher quality than those found around Florence. This is largely because in the late eighties of the last century a series of terribly cold winters devastated the olive groves around that city and it takes at least twenty years for an olive tree to start producing really good olives. The Lucca area’s winters are somewhat tempered by its greater proximity to the sea and so there are more ancient olive groves here than in most other places.


(Ancient olive tree outside Valdottavo’slower church)

(Interestingly, olive trees belong to the same family as ash, lilac, privet, jasmine, and forsythia, the last of which is at the moment in full bloom – see Debra’s post at  . You can also read more about the olive in my post at ).

Olive groves also abound further up the Serchio river valley. My own modest collection of olive trees at Longoio are about five years old now and have started to produce small but spicy fruit. Above an altitude of 500 metres, however, the tree is difficult to cultivate.

The Valdottavo valley has a micro climate conducive to the production of high quality virgin olive oil and there’s a “Festa dell ‘olio” every year in this elegant little town which boast its own art nouveau theatre and several flashy fin-de-siècle houses built by returning emigrants who struck it rich in the Americas.


We covered the festa last at year at

and decided to revisit it this year with friends.

Apart from booths selling the wonderful liquid there are other attractions at the festival, which lasts two days.

There’s a refreshment tent, (the headquarters of the local band on other occasions):


a display of motorbikes and agricultural equipment,


a stage for shows, demonstrations on how to prune olives, some nice flower stalls including one selling bonsai olive trees,

some unusual dogs including this persian greyhound


and an art exhibition.


This year’s exhibition was dedicated to Giuseppe Pierucci who specialises in post-impressionist evocations of the countryside around us. I feel his paintings are a cut above the usual landscapes produced by local artists and show real feeling for the ambience and sensitivity to the rapidly changing colours of our part of the world.

Take, for instance, this view of the little Romanesque church of San Martino a Greppo surrounded by lavender fields.


Or the lovely oratory of San Graziano.


Here are some more luscious landscapes by Pierucci.

On a more sardonic note are these two exquisitely executed statues, also by him.

The first one, illustrating the present state of Italy, is particularly poignant.


The second illustrates what Alan Bennett said Britain excels at – (hypocrisy!)


I’m glad the festival continues and hope that visitors to it will gain ever more respect of the virgin oils this valley produces and be able to taste the difference between counterfeit virgins “produced in the EU” and those with an actual name of provenance e.g. the groves around Valdottavo.

PS I got told off for suggesting we include this festival next year – I somehow doubt it’ll have much to do with extra virgin oil.