Let the People Sing

Campo Tizzoro does not immediately ring a bell as one of Italy’s historic towns. Situated between the passo dell’Oppio and the passo delle Piastre on that alternative and very scenic route from Bagni di Lucca to Pistoia it does not claim much attention at first sight. Yet it’s significant for three main reasons.

First, the battle of Pistoia was fought here in 62 BC between the conspirator Catiline, who tried to overthrow the Roman republic and its senate, but was soundly defeated by Macedonian legions under the command of Gaius Antonia Ibrida, as the historian Sallust describes.

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Second, Campo Tizzoro became a major metal industry centre when the Società Metallurgica Italiana was founded here in 1910. The centre started manufacturing munitions (rather like Woolwich’s Royal Arsenal.) In fact, the armaments factory still stands although now converted into a small business enterprise centre. The large concrete bullet-like guard posts still stand to remind one that this was once a thriving manufacturing centre.

Campo Tizzoro was fundamental to the Italian war effort and the allies knew it. This is why the place boasts (if that is the correct verb) some of the largest air-raid shelters and bunkers in Europe. A state secret until 2000, these immense underground chambers are now under the care of a local historical association and can be visited upon appointment.

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Third, Campo Tizzoro was the setting yesterday of an important rassegna corale, or choir festival, in which our own choir took part.

The festival took place in the parish church of Santa Barbara which is situated on a hill by Campo Tizzoro. The church was built by the architects Marchetti and Lavini during the nineteen-twenties in a Pistoian neo-Romanesque style. The exterior, with its zebra marble stripes is rather more impressive than the interior which we found has terrible acoustics and is rather bare.

This was the programme of the first choir: Campo Tizzoro’s own parish choir.

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The arrangements were by the choir master and were suitably novel. These included two original compositions by Maestro Gilberto Valgiusti: a hymn to the church’s dedicatee Saint Barbara and a ‘Salve Regina’. Further pieces included an arrangement of the ‘Exodus’ film theme with words added. Unfortunately, those ghastly acoustics did not do the pieces and singers adequate justice in my opinion.

The second choir, the gruppo Canova from Florence, entertained us with pieces from a composition by their own Maestra Elisa Belli, ‘Tre giorni di Luna – Turandot.’ It’s a ballad opera based on Carlo Gozzi’s story of the ice princess, more famously set, of course, by the great Puccini himself. Elisa Belli has written other operas, including one based on Romeo and Juliet, which have been performed in Florence’s parks.

It was then our turn to round off the festival. This was our programme:

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We’re not boasting but our performance received the highest praise with people in the audience standing up and shouting “Bravissimi”. Certainly, we managed to conquer the acoustics of the cavernous church and our choir master was, again, pleased with our results.

At the end of the concert all choir masters were presented with a commemorative tile plaque.

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Here’s Andrea walking away with his:

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We then proceeded to the best bit of the festival, the rinfresco or evening tuck-in.

For this we journeyed to Pracchia, which is now the nearest railway station (excluding the Aulla line of course) to Bagni di Lucca. Pracchia is on the old Pistoia – Bologna line which, until the opening of the Apennine tunnel in 1934, was the only way of connecting the cities of Florence and Bologna.

Indeed, the nearest railway station was once even closer to Bagni di Lucca than Pracchia for in the twenties a metre-gauge railway was built from Pracchia through Campo Tizzoro and San Marcello Pistoiese to Mammiano near the spectacular pedestrian suspension bridge (see my post on that at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/26/suspense/)

Regrettably, this metre gauge railway, which would today have been a real tourist attraction, was dismantled in 1965 for all the wrong reasons (road traffic, diminishing passenger numbers, slow speed etc.). Fortunately, large stretches of it are now being restored as a cycleway, rather as been done for similar closed railway lines in the UK.

The evening meal was superb. The choirs were seated at three incredibly long tables in a hall decorated with festive streamers. The meal consisted of antipasto followed by lasagne and rice with leeks. Roast beef, chips and salad then succeeded and the whole gargantuan repast was concluded with a spectacular fruit pie dessert.

Everything was washed down, obviously, with local wine which was surprisingly good for this mountain area.

There was a raffle and the first price went to one of our own tenors. (Inside the package is an automatic pasta making machine).

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All choirs then joined together in an impromptu rendering of Verdi’s moving chorus from Nabucco, ‘Va Pensiero’. Surely this piece is the Italian equivalent of the UK’s ‘Jerusalem’ and, like that hymn, is the country’s unofficial anthem, so superior, in both cases to the official ones.

The Campo Tizzoro rassegna corale has been going strong since 2004. How can the parish afford to feed and entertain such multitudes of choirs? It’s all thanks to the sponsors who advertise in the programme and also provide food and raffle ticket prizes. Well done to them and the organizers! Long may the rassegna continue.

Have choir will travel and, what’s more, meet like-minded people, enjoy great hospitality and pass the time in the most delectable way. If you can sing why don’t you join your local choir?

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).

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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…

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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 https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/on-or-off-the-rails-to-pontremoli/ 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 https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/carinthia-in-aulla/ 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!

Florence’s Magical Toyland

Florence is, of course, known not only for its beautiful buildings, wondrous art collections and its historical importance as the birthplace of the renaissance but also for its wealth of interesting shops. One of my favourite shops, combining toys with model-making, is in Via Cavour. It’s called Dreoni and started out in 1923.

The shop is a veritable Aladdin’s cave and continues to open out into ever more unfolding chambers and unexpected galleries. It’s a great place to bring families of all ages together since there is bound to be something which will interest both the most anti-shopping hardened male and the most discriminating female shopper.

(Lego my hand you croc!)

I was particularly intrigued by the train sets which comprise those elite items: Rivarossi (now combined with Lima and Hornby) and Marklin.

Here is a 00 gauge Rivarossi version of the iconic “Settebello” train which used to run on Italian railways between 1952 and 1992.

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No other country had, at that time, known such style and comfort in train travel. The greatest designers and architects were involved in Italian State Railways’ project, including Gio Ponti and Giulio Minoletti and, apart from the luxury, top speeds of 160 km were reached on the main run between Milan, Florence and Rome.  Particularly in the antiquated and under-invested British railways of the fifties and sixties it must have been a time-travel-experience for British passengers to journey in the panoramic lounge of the “Settebello” (the winning card, incidentally, in that popular Italian card game, scopa)!

At least we can now recapture that excitement in these finely wrought models. I feel like I really want to buy myself another train set after my mum ignominiously gave my own away when she considered I’d outgrown it!

There is something in Dreoni’s for everyone, from the smallest children to those who still conserve a child-like spirit within themselves. From Meccano to Lego, from Pinocchio to the latest fantasy characters it’s got it.

Indeed, while in the shop we almost forgot the serious business of why we came to the city of the lily yesterday – the visit to an important exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

Never make rigid plans when planning a trip to Florence (or, for that matter, any other city). You’re bound to miss out on perhaps even better pleasures if you do!

While some of you may be desperately waiting to enter Dreoni’s portals you can still, in the meanwhile, explore the shop’s web site at http://www.dreoni.it/dreoni_infinity/cms/

Going, Going, Gone

London is, of course, famous for its museums. It’s great that, despite efforts by previous goverments, the national collections still remain free, except for their specialist exhibitions.

Apart from the great institutions, there are what I would term “pseudo-museums”. One knows the ones – they generally relate to highly offensive subjects like torture and capitalise on the less discerning public’s fascination with the darker side of human nature and history. Starting from a certain dungeon the fashion has spread to Italy where the medieval high rise town of San Gemignano apparently has three of these blots. Regrettably, the trend has hit Lucca, as anyone going down the via Fillungo will know. I avoid these exploitative “museums” like the plague. In fact, I have fantasies that their perpetrators would be infected by the same mediaeval pox they gorely publicize. Perhaps, I’m being unfair…we all have to make a living, somehow.

In London, however, what is even more deplorable than these “musea” are the true museums that have disappeared altogether in the past twenty years. I point to at least three wonderful places which have been taken away from the enjoyment of the discerning visitor.

The museum of mankind, which concentrated on social anthropology, had magnificent premises in Burlington house which gave ample scope to fascinating exhibitions which even managed to re-created south Indian craftsmen streets and simulate earthquakes in Japan. I used to take my multi-ethnic college classes, when a lecturer in the great wenn, on a regular basis with immense success. Now that museum’s quite vanished, closed down in 1997.How sad for London’s increasingly cosmopolitan population.

The museum of the moving image, otherwise known as MOMI, illustrated in a lively way the history of the cinema from early Victorian experiments through the first flea pits to the glamour of Hollywood palaces, with diversions to Soviet and French films. We would be diverted by role-playing guides and the whole experience remains unforgettable in my mind. This fantastic museum shut its doors in 1999. Again, how sad!

Even in the centre of theatreland, in the very area where Nell Gwynn sold her apples, museums dedicated to the stage do not seem to be able to survive for long. London’s theatre museum, for so long wished for and finally opened in 1980, closed in 2007. Again, how terribly sad and such a waste!

The list could go on but it would be too heart-breaking. The fascinating museum of labour history, for example, in London’s east end closed in 1986. ( I am, however, happily informed that it will re-open soon somewhere in the North of England).

Another wonderful museum which closed was the North Woolwich railway museum which finally closed its doors in 2011. This was a museum we were particularly involved in as we contributed some of the old enamel advertising placards as seen here:

The museum had been opened by the then Queen Mum in 1986 and I still have the letter she asked her Secretary to write to us when we informed her in 1999 that the museum was first threatened with closure.

Regrettably, it is doubtful if we shall ever see this museum open again. The station itself is closed as a result of the new dockland extension under the river to Woolwich arsenal and the remaining track, which was to have been used to run vintage trains, has now been taken over by the consortium used to built London’s crossrail link.

If you are in London please try to enjoy Woolwich’s firepower museum, the Kirkaldy testing museum, the Fire brigade museum and the Imperial war museum for these are just a few of several other museums in London which, even  in the hundredth anniversary of the great war, are scandalously threatened with closure. They just may not be there when you next visit this marvellous, ever-changing world city.

Terminus of Lost Content

Why is it that railway stations don’t have the glamour often associated with certain airports? True, some stations have achieved a kind of cult status. For example, Rome’s stazione termini has appeared in at least one classic film and quite rightly, for it is a supreme example of what modern architecture should be like. Yet, again, the area around the station, particularly near the piazza vittorio emanuele, is incredibly seedy and the haunts of a passing population of refugees, pimps and prostitutes. Certainly the area around kings cross station, London, has had some improvement and the restoration of st pancras station has done a lot to resurrect these wonderful Victorian cathedrals of transport to their former glory.

But would you ever consider making a film on victoria station or even waterloo (although there is that great kinks song, “waterloo sunset”.)

It was there for a very pleasant surprise when we started our journey to Birmingham from Marylebone station in london which is the last of the great metropolis’ termini to be built and inaugurated in 1899. It is a station a cut above the rest in class, clientele and architecture.

There are some nice shops and a stall even selling that DOP  English product, the Cornish pasty. Marylebone is also associated with the quintessential English poet and lover of Victorian architecture, John Betjeman. There’s a plaque to his memory on one side of the characteristic pub in that station.

It’s clear that the majority of passengers departing from marylebone station are lucky travelling to such charmed places in Metroland and beyond like amersham, chalfont and bicester.

Clearly, Marylebone, seems a much loved railway station and has none of that kind of temporary decrepitude that so many other stations have in london. From its impressive glass Porte chochere at the entrance to its timber ticket offices it exudes the atmosphere of past belle epoque days when there seemed to be more time, more elegance and more joye de vivre.

Lucca’s Tallest (and Biggest) Building

Italian architecture isn’t, of course, all about Renaissance palaces and Romanesque cathedrals. It’s also about industrial archaeology – buildings that once had a productive purpose but have now been left to decay. There are some fabulous areas equal to, if not surpassing, places like Ironbridge in the UK. Anyone who has done the route known as the “Via delle cartiere”, the road which leaves Collodi to climb to the pass which leads to Bagni di Lucca will know what I mean. Some of these old cartiere (or paper mills) have been adapted to the latest paper manufacturing techniques (much of the industry there is now concentrated either on recycling paper or manufacturing bog rolls) and others have been modified to provide residential accommodation. The fine brickwork and elegant arches of these buildings, designed more for industrial purposes than for beauty, create their own kind of beauty based on historic functionalism, years before Le Corbusier had anything to say on the matter.

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Several people have asked me what’s the colossal building they pass, if travelling by train, at S Pietro di Vico station. This building resembles a mammoth US mid-west granary and is so huge that it can be seen miles away. It’s on one’s left just past the EsseLunga roundabout if travelling to Lucca by car. It’s actually the tallest building in Lucca province, taller than the highest of its campanili and towers.

For years I’d gone past this building without really knowing if it was in use or even what its purpose was. Recently, I decided I’d make a detour and take a good look at it. Here are some of the photos taken of it. The building if not beautiful is, at least, very imposing and almost ancient Egyptian in scale.

But what was this building used for? I managed to find out the following from local inhabitants.

It was a flour mill. The company of Fratelli Pardini started business at the start of the last century and flourished until the start of the 1990’s when it was bought up by the Cesillo group which, after the most incompetent financial management, declared bankruptcy in 1994. Since that year the building has been allowed to decay miserably and is now in an advanced state of abandonment. I tried to gain entry into the complex but would require strong wire cutters to do so and possibly a hard hat to protect myself against any falling concrete.

The mill had its own branch line, to assist the distribution of supplies and manufactured goods. This can still be seen today forking out from the main track at S. Pietro a Vico which, incidentally, is the oldest station on the Lucca to Aulla line having been opened in 1892. (It took until 1956 to complete the line!).

There have been plans to convert the mill into offices but these have come to nothing. One thing, however, is sure,: it would take a mammoth effort to demolish it and explosives aren’t an option given the proximity not only of the railway line but also residential property.

Happily, Lucca’s ancient heritage is being more and more revalued today. It would, however, be a pity if its old industrial zones were to be totally ignored and neglected. I can think of yet another site near the mill, the Cucirini Cantoni textile mill, which has been abandoned. And yet these sites could be made into attractive tourist attractions rather like those in the north of England. A good sign is that already some abandoned mines in Sardinia have been reopened for tourism most successfully. Let’s hope that these wonderful relics from a more confident age will find new uses soon. To take just one example from the UK: that former cathedral of power, the Bankside generating station, is now the very popular venue for the Tate Modern in London.

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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