Animal Encounters

Italians love animals. Or do they? I’ve had some embarrassing moments with animal-derived food: ‘carne equina’ – horse meat a speciality at a restaurant, to which I’d been invited by trusted friends. Blackbird pie, (or was it thrush pie?) was offered to me once as a great delicacy. (I failed to count whether there were four and twenty of the poor little creatures baked in it).

I suppose it’s the same the whole world over. There’s succulent boiled dog in Korea while the inhabitants of the gracious Palladian city of Vicenza are denigrated as cat eaters. As they say, ‘vicentini magnagati’. However, we’ve also all heard of krauts, frogs, choc-ice and bananas used as ethnic slurs.

Incidentally, with regard to the Vicentini there’s a well-known piece of doggerel written in Venetian dialect, and referring to the various cities of the former ‘Serenissima Venetian republic, which goes:

 “Veneziani, gran signori;  

Padovani, gran dotori;  

Visentini magna gati;  

Veronesi tutti mati;

Udinesi, castelani,  

col cognome de furlani;  

Trevisani, pan e tripe;  

Rovigoti, baco e pipe;  

i Cremaschi, fa cogioni;  

i Bressan, tagiacantoni;  

ghe n’è anca de più tristi:  

bergamaschi brusacristi;  

E  Belun? Pòreo Belun  

te sè proprio de nisun!”


In a previous post I did mention that learning standard Italian is only one’s first step. Move yourself outside (or sometimes even within) Tuscany and, even if you’re fluent, you might catch less than half (or nothing at all) of what you hear. So here’s my tentative translation from the Venetian language as I’m learning it from the web page at

“The venetians are great lords

The Paduans are great doctors

The Vicenza people eat cats

The Verona inhabitants are all mad

The Udine lot are all keepers of castles and have the surname of furlani (the furlana is a fast and furious dance from Friuli in 6/8 time and appears especially in such works as Tartini’s solo violin sonatas).

The citizens of Treviso eat bread and tripe

The Rovigo lot are winos and pipe smokers

The people from Cremona are thick as two planks

The people from Brescia can’t be trusted  

And there’s worst: the Bergamo residents are atheists

And Belluno? Poor Belluno

They’re nothing at all”.

 Actually I haven’t found any Vicenza recipes including cat meat although, oddly enough, in Dickens’ Pickwick papers (chapter 19) Pickwick tells  Sam Weller off for telling a grisly (or gristly?) story about a cook who butchered cats and put their meat in his pies.

It’s true to say, however, that the Vicentini, like so many other Italians in the starvation conditions of the last war, did resort to eating cats. This sad fact was brought home to me last night when an intrepid BBC reporter, entering into the last pocket of IS resistance in Mosul, noticed there were no cats left and was told by the inhabitants that they’d eaten them all, as indeed, they’d also cooked carpet fibre to survive.

With regard to human cruelty to animals there’s absolutely no excuse regarding what happened recently in the nearby sea-side resort of Viareggio. The council had drained, refurbished and refilled a swan lake in the western pine-park. They’d also supplied the area with a peacock and peahen. Last week the peahen was found drowned and a scandal occurred as a result – anyone knows that peacocks don’t have webbed feet and should not be placed in an area where there’s a lake deep enough for them to drown in. The widowed peacock became almost a satire for the peacock-strutting town council. Indeed, the Italian word ‘pavoneggiare’ means to walk around showing oneself off in a pompous manner.

Other people commented that the Viareggio council members proved themselves to have a brain even smaller than that of a peacock. But I think that’s unfair on these beautiful birds who screech only because they suddenly look on their claws and see how ugly they are compared to the rest of their ‘pavoneggianti’ selves.

Dogs are ever more popular in Italy, although, since having a dog as a pet is a relatively new thing, many four-legged friends seem to be treated as fashion accessories. The Italian word for mongrel is ‘meticcio’ or, more directly, ‘bastardo.’ Every summer many dogs remain suffocated in their owners’ cars or are even abandoned on holiday and I remember this self-explanatory poster particularly well.

Actually brits are amazed at how easily Italian canines can gain entry into such places as restaurants, bars, hotels and supermarkets where they would be banned in so-called animal-loving UK. Cats are even more accepted. In 2014 we had just become servants to a new kitten, Cheekie, who travelled with us in the Maremma. Quite by chance we chose a hotel whose owner adored cats and had pictures and mementoes of cute felines plastered all over her reception area. While we were busy exploring Etruscan ruins or enjoying Mediterranean beaches, Cheekie was having a whale of a time being pampered and cared for in our hotel bedroom quite without charge by the hotel-keeper.

Hunters claim they are protectors of nature and great dog lovers. Yet I recollect two sad stories involving dogs belonging to people I know. Some years ago, in the village of Brandeglio, a beagle belonging to an English lady disappeared and was later found dead. My vet carried out a post-mortem on the poor animal and found that it had been poisoned. The poisoner has still not been apprehended although it is known who he is.

Yesterday I met a friend from Montefegatesi, a brilliant photographer who was collecting some prints from the local photography shop. He showed me one of them: it was his dog who he discovered dead shot through with several pellets from hunters illegally going for deer.

The world is truly a Manichean universe mixing good and bad in an unending chess-game battle. To conclude on a happier note, however, a little deer was found recently drowning in a small canal within the walls of Lucca. Deer in Italy, like foxes in the UK, seem increasingly to look for food within an urban setting. I just wonder how this little dearling managed to get to where he was. Fortunately, he was saved. The saviour was none other than the now world-renowned tenor and impresario Mattia Campetti (whose productions I have described in such posts as ) and the great rescue was filmed, adding yet another feather to Mattia’s cap as not only a brilliant musician but a brave rescuer. Perhaps Campetti should consider singing the part of Max in Weber’s ‘Der Freischutz’?

(Video courtesy of Giancarlo Monsalve Leyton)




Are you ophidiophobic? Then don’t read this post!

Summer, which is barely two weeks away, is also snake-breeding-time in our part of the world. There are eight different species of snakes in Tuscany but luckily (for us) only one is poisonous. The viper or vipera is easily recognized by its almost triangular head and particular skin pattern. Its greatest concentration is in the Maremma in southern Tuscany.

Providentially all snakes are shy animals and will only react if you tread on them. Unfortunately this is an easy thing to do especially in the ever-lengthening grass and undergrowth of this season. The non-poisonous snakes are called ‘bisce’ here.

So don’t go around in sandals or even barefoot on the Tuscan hills. Wear a decent pair of ankle-length boots.

A couple of weeks ago we were dining at Santina’s, a highly recommended trattoria at Sab Cassiano and famous for its tortelli, when someone drew our attention to these snakes.

Yes, it’s the season of love for snakes too! Bet you’re not so contortionist in your love-nest……..

I didn’t get much closer to work out if they were of the poisonous variety but the two were certainly having a truly kinky time as this film will also show,


If you want to know more about snakes then there’s a useful page at

And if you’re bitten by one then check out the remedies on my post at


PS If you are an acute sufferer of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) then I suggest you move either to Ireland or, if you wish warmer climes, emigrate to Sardinia – both snake-free islands thanks to saintly intervention.





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.


Elysium on Earth

In these lovely spring-time, true-blue, wall-to-wall sunshine days there’s no better place to go than to visit the stupendous display of ‘giunchiglie’ or wild daffodils that grace some of our appenines.

There are two mountains which at this time are filled with vast spreads of these delightful, heavily scented flowers which are also interspersed with several other wild floras. One is Monte Croce which I have described in my post at:

The other is the Prato Fiorito (literally the flowering meadow) which is the whale-backed mountain overlooking Bagni di Lucca.

Yesterday I could not resist immersing myself in wild daffodils. Taking the road from Bagni di Lucca to Montefegatesi I branched off at the sign to Albereta and reached, via a somewhat bumpy road with hidden culverts, the starting point of my walk to the flowering meadows of Prato Fiorito, which is marked by a crucifix.

I following a fine little footpath.

Soon I reached the intoxicating expanses of the jonquils which, more correctly, should be called by their Latin name ‘Narcissus Poeticus’.  It was a joy to be there and the air was so sweet and the views so clear.

Wordsworth’s famous lines were quite apt  for the flowers were

Continuous as the stars that shine

and twinkle on the Milky Way,


Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

tossing their heads in sprightly dance.


Again, since these flowers are correctly called in English, ‘poet’s narcissus’, (or sometimes ‘pheasant’s-eye daffodil’) I could take these lines from Keats’ last sonnet which came to mind as my brain and all my feelings became ever more inebriated by the powerful scent of the narcissi spread around me, and embracing my whole being in a variation of the Elysian fields for I seemed, indeed

awake for ever in a sweet unrest, 

and felt, too, that I wanted to

live ever—or else swoon to death.






Cherry Ripe (Soon)

It’s that time of year when the hills are alive with the sound of strimmers and lawnmowers. Yesterday taking advantage of the fine weather we’ve been having, with fresh mornings building up to a not over-hot mid-day, I tackled my own grass-growing problem.

I found that the problem lay not in cutting the grass but rather in not cutting it for my ‘orto’ was so full of beautiful wild flowers that it was truly transformed into an earthly rainbow.

I solved the problem by leaving patches of wild meadow about the place which will also please the butterflies.

My various trees are all beginning to flourish.  The olives promise a good harvest this year:

It’ll also soon be cherry-time,

Which reminds me of that gorgeous song with words by Robert Herrick and music by Charles Edward Horn. Horn was also a singer and performed in Stephen Storace’s ‘The siege of Belgrade.’ Storace’s sister Nancy, incidentally, was the singer specially chosen by Mozart for the part of Susanna in his ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’. But I digress…

(Cherry seller from ‘cries of London)

Here are the words of the song followed by my favourite recording of it:

Cherry ripe, cherry ripe
Ripe I cry
Full and fair ones
Come and buy
Cherry ripe, cherry ripe
Ripe I cry
Full and fair ones
Come and buy

If so be you ask me where
They do grow, I answer there
Where my love whose lips do smile
There’s the land, or Cherry Isle
There’s the land or Cherry Isle.

Spring into Life

Do not expect to drink mountain spring water from your tap even if you live half way up an Italian mountain. When we first moved to this area in 2005 our tap water was horribly chlorinated. Later the chlorine was reduced but disaster struck when our menagerie was added to by two gold fish ‘Tira’ and ‘Molla’ (‘Push’ and Pull’ named after this adorable Italian cartoon character called ‘Tiramolla)’

The poor finny fellows died shortly after their tank was filled with tap water.

We wondered what this water was doing to our insides too. Fortunately, we have two nearby sources of spring water which will surely guarantee a longer life for us. One is just up the hill from us on the path leading past our house. The other is off the main road accessing the Controneria which we use when going to and from Bagni di Lucca.

We take on average six bottles and fill them up at this hose pipe connected to the spring water supply every time we go past…

There used to be an old TV advert test where viewers were asked to see if they could taste the difference between butter and a certain brand of margarine.

We can certainly taste the difference between official GAIA tap water and our lovely Refubbri stream water. Some people may object that there may be a dead goat sometimes above the water supply but we prefer anything to that chlorinated concoction served from our tap.

Incidentally, spring water makes all our boiled dishes taste better too and as for a cup of PG tips – it goes down the gullet superbly!

Th ultimate test is, of course, feline. We’ve tried testing GAIA water with spring water and our official trio of cats prefer the real McCoy to GAIA. They even resort to drinking rainwater rather than touch a drop of the GAIA stuff.

Water is truly the most valuable resource on our planet and truly defines our world. It’s more precious than anything else and I can foresee the time (sadly) when in future ages people will pay the earth for it. As for bottled mineral water transported in plastic bottles from sources so many kilometres away – I suggest we keep away from it as far as possible for that too truly is spoiling the planet with diesel transportation fumes and plastic bottles.


Italy’s Eel-Pie Island

In Italy, Pasquetta or Easter Monday is traditionally a time to go for a journey ‘fuori le mura’ – outside the walls, which here doesn’t just mean getting out of one’s house but out of one’s town which, like Lucca, is often surrounded by defensive walls.

We chose a local coach firm, largely to experience this aspect of Italian traditional life.  We crossed the Apennines through Renzi’s greatest achievement – an alternative Autostrada del Sole route (variante di Valico) opened in December 2015. It traverses the mountain range almost entirely through tunnels and has cut the journey time from Florence to Bologna by almost an hour. It’s fine on speed, not so good on panoramas. Luckily the old autostrada route has been kept for more scenic travel.

We then travelled through the lush Emilia-Romagna lands with their rows of San Giovese grapevines and dramatic cloud formations.

Our first stop was Ravenna which should by all rights deserve at least a couple of days to visit decently. Although we felt short changed on mosaics we did, at least see some of the extraordinary sights of this city which, at one time in its glorious past, was capital of the Roman Empire.

Theodoric’s’ mausoleum dating from 520 AD is an amazing feat of engineering with a solid stone roof carved out of one stone block weighing tens of tons and originally transported to cap the structure via a ramp.

The Arian baptistery with its beautiful dome mosaic is unique in the world for being the only architectural evidence of a heresy which believed Christ to be literally the son of God i.e. born from the creator and, therefore, subservient to him without any hint of the Trinity as expounded in the Nicaean creed and which is recited by most Christians today. (There’s a tablet inscribed with the Nicaean creed in Bagni di Lucca’s ex-Anglican church, now library).

Dante’s tomb is surely the holiest secular shrine in the Italy and it’s a moving experience to see where the major formulator of the Italian language and the author of the Divine Comedy now rests.

Although bashed about a lot in the Second World War Ravenna retains many characteristic town corners including a lively main piazza.

The biggest event of the ‘scampagnata’, or Italian Easter Monday trip, is, of course, the lunchtime meal which in this case took place in a vast restaurant with no less than five halls. It was quite amazing how quickly and how well we were served with appetizing food. I sometimes think that if cooks and restaurateurs were elected to run the country Italy would turn out to be far better administered! Our lunchtime company was very congenial and remarkably well travelled too.

After lunch we headed for the valli di Comacchio which is an extraordinary area of wetland – probably the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe, approaching the Danube delta in dimensions. A continuation of the Venetian lagoon, the area is flat, often marshy, filled with immense brackish lagoons, canals, dykes, clearly a bird-watcher’s paradise and, above all, famous for its eels.

The main town, Comacchio is the centre of eel fishing and production and is a charming place in its own right with a highly photogenic triple bridge and some delightful traffic-free streets.

Half-way along what must be one of the longest porticoed streets I’ve walked along is the entrance to the eel manufactory where eels are dried and canned. The old factory is now a museum with interesting exhibits showing the boats and basket nets used. Among the photographs were stills from a Sophia Loren film I have yet to see, describing the romantic life of an eel-canner and appropriately entitled ‘La Donna del Fiume’ ‘(the lady of the river.’)

It was then time to return home. Since we’d joined the coach at 6 am in Fornoli by the time we reached Bagni di Lucca close to midnight we were ripe for bed-time, falling swiftly into a dream-world where Theodoric, Arianism, eels, lagoons and La Loren were collaged together in ever unbelievable sequences.


Lucca: a Tree-Lined City

Lucca is famous not only for its walls but for the trees which surround them. Many of the trees are built on the ramparts themselves. Sadly several have suffered and had to be cut down and replanted in recent years.

The same fate is regrettably happening to the trees which surround the circonvallazione, or ring road, which encircles the walls. Happily there is an ongoing project to replant the ones that have been felled with lecci or holm –oaks. Limes and planes are also being replaced.

Despite the changing arboreal landscape it is still a great pleasure to drive around the walls of Lucca, especially when the trees are fresh with their new spring leaves.


May Lucca still remain what poet Gabriele D’annunzio described as

…la città dall’arborato cerchio,
ove dorme la donna del Guinigi.


…the city with the tree-lined circle

within which sleeps Guinigi’s wife.



(Guinigi’s wife in Lucca cathedral)



Cat Walks in Longoio

Hi all you cats out there. Do your owners servants let you go on walks with them? If not complain! However, I should say that if you live in those horrible places full of traffic then your adorers are probably wise in not letting you follow them wherever they go. We are lucky, however, for where we live there’s only one road to cross and that has just one tractor a day on it. We can hear it in time and so can avoid the fate of so many of our compatriots.

After this road it’s all fun and games, Cheeky has a propensity for climbing up trees and she’s clever in coming down them too – just by reversing.


Carlotta is persevering and just walks and walks. I’m getting a bit long in the tooth now (what teeth I have left) and so I’m happy just to blaze the trail, have a good rest and let the others release their feline energies.

It’s so wonderful to sniff new smells, experience different sounds and generally have a nice sleep after our epic journey from my devotee’s house in Longoio to the little paradise field. I think we are quite lucky cats after all!