An Etruscan Bay

There’s nothing more tedious than having to return to one’s home in one fell swoop after days spent in a glorious part of the world.

Crossing a bridge on our return we noticed some paddlers and swimmers in the river below and so decided to join in the fun. Unlike our own bracing Lima the waters were warmish, probably because they had been fed by nearby volcanic springs (which we were told had been assaulted by hordes of holidaymakers).

Here, instead, all was peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed time with natural hydrotherapy and tiny fish biting our dead skin off us while the glorious Maremman countryside encircled us.

That was not the only water we dipped into on our return to the Val di Lima. The bay of Baratti (I prefer to call it a cove) is a beautiful corner of the Tuscan coastline and so unspoilt. It also has the added bonus of an important Etruscan necropolis behind it. We didn’t make it to the acropolis but were able to admire a tumulus that somehow reminded me of New Grange in Ireland. Indeed, I was confirmed in my supposition by the excellent guide who’d visited it.

It was in this tomb that the well-preserved Etruscan chariot, now on display at Florence’s archaeological museum, was found:


Among the other tombs there was a perfectly preserved temple tomb, only discovered quite recently.

The beach was very near and after negotiating a strand of seaweed we found with water warm and clean and surrounded by some lovely umbrella pines.

We played with the idea of spending the night on the beach but the thought of our cats missing us enticed back onto the road homeward bound. So we decided to tuck into a delicious italian-style take-away fish supper at San Vincenzo before setting off for Longoio:

08162016 706

A Magic Pool

We took a flight to a tropical island a couple of days ago. Using the latest technology our rocket took just thirty minutes to get there. We then went through a rain forest to find a magic pool with lovely fresh cool mountain water flowing into it and surrounded by stones carved by an ancient race of giants and used as their pillows and chairs.

There was no-one else there apart from some sylvan river goddesses who appeared from below the blue pool. They advised us to keep the place secret otherwise we would be torn apart by savage hounds that would protect the nymphs against unaccepted humanoids who violated the sacred purity of their arcane playground.

07042016 035

Now believe this or not as you like. But we all have our dreams and that morning our dream became a reality, albeit a surreptitious one….


PS we were home for lunch and the hounds didn’t touch us!

Florence’s Magic Railway: Part One

There’s a delightful railway route from Florence over the Apennnines which takes in some very sweet small towns and also some major cities. We discovered this route some years ago when the first part, which goes from Florence to Borgo San Lorenzo, had still not been reconstructed after being damaged by the Germans in World War Two. It had to take over fifty years to get the trains running on the rails again (in 1999). It was well worth the wait for not only does the route pass through some spectacular scenery but has also become a well-used commuter route to and from the Mugello region of Tuscany.

The full route takes one to Ravenna with its awesome Byzantine basilicas, mosaics and, of course, Dante’s tomb. One can, however, stop at some beautiful places en route. Faenza, we visited some years ago when we had to go by train round Pontassieve. If you’re into pottery and renaissance crockery (Faenza is where we get the word Faience from) go there for the museum is fabulous, the eateries are great (especially the flat unleavened bread called Piadina) and the town is absolutely charming.

We only had an afternoon to travel from Florence yesterday but visited two places which we found very rewarding.

Florence Railway station is one of Italy’s seminal modern buildings. Desiged by a team headed by the great Michelucci to replace the old station (designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel of Clifton Bridge fame) and completed in 1934 its amazing glass roof is an evocation of the city’s Arno river.

The station also conserves a sad memory (like so many other Italian Railway station – remember my post on Milan’s railway station at )

This time it’s platform 16 where a poignant memorial has recently been erected to remember the thousands of victims of man’s intolerance to man who were deported to the Nazi death camps between 1943 and 1945. It’s only respectful to give a minute’s silence to this exterminating railtrack.

To return to our journey: first, for old time’s sake, after a plesant journey through the appennines

we alighted at Marradi, famous for the biggest and best chestnut festival in the whole of Tuscany. The town is homeland of the great Italian poet Dino Campana (who was born there in 1885 but who sadly ended his days in a lunatic asylum and is buried in the Badia of Scandicci near Florence in 1932).

Marradi looked a bit empty without the October chestnut pageants but its was still very pleasant to walk around its old streets

We also visit the chestnut museum. I was amazed to find also a section on the chestnut industry in Australia. I’d never thought there was one.

Our second stop, was a wonderful surprise…but you must read tomorrow’s instalment to find out what surprise!




PS Warning. The magic railway line starts at platform 17 at Florence’s main-line SantaMaria Novella station. What the authorities don’t tell you is that it’s a long way down from the starting platfrom of all the other railway lines and requires a ten minute’s walk to get there!


A Gushing Post

With the amount of rain that has fallen over the past week lovely waterfalls are appearing everywhere. Thank goodness the local administration had the foresight to place weirs and broaden the valleys of some local torrents last summer. We thought they’d overdone things but not a bit of it!

Here’s the scene near us where we come to fill our bottles with thankfully unchlorinated fresh mountain torrent water.

There is something so magical about the rushing of waters. Truly water is life itself!


More Than Gushing Streams

When the works on the Refubbri stream bed began in summer we thought that this would be an example of overkill: the old stream bed seemed to be sufficient in our eyes to contain any raging torrential floods, (consult my post at to see the works being carried out.)

After two days of persistent and often heavy rain, however, we changed our minds. This was the scene at Refubbri bridge yesterday morning:

The way forwards on in Italy is to carry out more of these hydro-geological scheme else the country could literally crumble and wash away. One has to realise that living in Italy means living in a geologically much younger country – no Cambrian rocks here as in the UK. Mountains, for example, are formed by tectonic plates folding the rocks and not created by upraised ancient plateaux being dissected by watercourses.

As always, too, there are no climatic half-measures in this peninsula. After the rain comes the sunshine with true blue skies and they are here to stay for at least another week. Here’s this morning:

10302015 008

Great! For today we’re off in our secret costumes to take part in the biggest Games and Comix festival in Europe (I believe there’s a bigger one in Japan). It’s at Lucca and for further information see ).

We were last here in 2013 (see my post at ) and it’s always brilliant fun, that is if you don’t mind the huge crowds!).

For our costumes then see

This year Sandra’s keeping hers yet again a secret. Will let you know photographically when the secret’s out!

10302015 003

Sarzana’s Stupendous Fortresses

Sarzana is sited in a very strategic position between three regions of Italy: Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna. Just look at the map.


The town controls the route across to Parma; it’s a gateway to the Ligurian Sea and is also at the entrance of a pass leading to the Lombardy plain. It’s not surprising then that Sarzana has been fought over by several powers in its one thousand year history.

It was, therefore, with the greatest interest that I decided yesterday to take a train there and visit the town and its fortifications.

Sarzana is an absolute delight. Whether you’re into Medicean fortifications, speciality shopping, gourmet restaurants, or architecture from Romanesque through baroque to art nouveau Sarzana has all these and more to show.

A few facts: Sarzana is a comune in the province of La Spezia, Liguria, and is easily reached from Bagni di Lucca by rail on one of two routes:

Bagni di Lucca-Aulla (change)- Sarzana. This journey has lovely views of the Serchio valley:

Bagni di Lucca – Pisa (change) – Sarzana (Nice views of the Apuans and the coastine)

09272015 261

Sarzana is first mentioned in 983 but the growth of the town stems from 1202 when the administration moved from Luni (the fabulous abandoned Roman town – have you visited this wonder – a Tuscan Pompeii, almost?) to a new site near the river Magra.

At first part of the Pisan republic, Sarzana was conquered by the Florentines before being annexed by Genoa in 1572.

All these political machinations have resulted in the building of two of the finest fortresses in the area. Note that it’s a fortress, not a castle. What’s the difference? A fortress tends to develop from the sixteenth century onwards, thus rather later than a genuine castle. A fortress is aware of the rise of fire power and, thus, has lower, more slanted, walls. It also has Vauban-style bulwarks, big storage areas for gunpowder, platforms for cannons and complex defence systems for the principal entrance.

Our Lucca is, in a sense, a fully-fledged fortress town while Pisa’s walls still reflect the pre-firepower era with its high walls which were built to withstand nothing more menacing than siege ladders and arrows.

09272015 268

Sarzana is, indeed, a true fortress town with the actual fortresses only a part of the total fortifications scheme. However, in the nineteenth century the worthy Sarzanesi decided to demolish most of their walls leaving only the turrets at each corner of the town which were then sold to privates to build their own dwellings on. Here are some examples of what they came up with:

Sarzana has, in fact, two fortresses: one in town called ‘Firmafede’ (firm faith) and one on a nearby hill with an extraordinary triangular shape called ‘Sarzanello’. I had only time to visit the town fortress thus giving me a good reason for returning to this delightful town!

The town fortress whose plan is this:


is particularly interesting for its main features, best described by my photos, which include:

Two large courtyards including a parade ground

Eight turrets including the central one enclosed within one of the courtyards

Complex entrance defences including two barbicans.

Underground passages beneath the towers.

Huge areas for soldiers’ quarters

A (now dry) moat.

(Please note, if you want to see rusty suits of armour or cannons etc. you’ll be disappointed. Firmafede fortress hasn’t got much else to offer except its marvellous architecure and stupendous views).

The fortress was given in 1814 to the kingdom of Sardinia which later that century was the propulsive force behind Italian unification.

Interestingly, for Bonaparte devotees, a branch of the Cardolingi di Borgo Nuovo family acquired the name of Bonaparte and settled in Sarzana in the thirteenth century. In 1512 one of their members moved across to Ajaccio Corsica and…the rest is history.

Indeed, Napoleon had a particular love of Sarzana and stayed there during his Italian campaigns as this plaque on one of Sarzana’s high street palaces proudly proclaims:

Napoleon also made it the capital of one of his Italian cantons. Sarzana continued its defensive importance during WWII when it was the centre of strong anti-fascist partisan activity. Fortunately, it wasn’t devastated like some other towns (e.g. Aulla) and so luckily we have an almost perfectly preserved fortress town for everyone to enjoy and appreciate.

There’s a lot more to Sarzana than its two fortresses of course. But you’ll have to wait for my next posts to discover what they are!

In the meanwhile here’s the Sarzanello fortress I’ll be visting next time I’m in the area:

09272015 088

Cabling London

Often criticised, London’s transport system served us well and we were more than satisfied with the ease we could get from a to b. Certainly, the oyster card helped very much and there is now a contactless system in operation. We used, underground, overground trains, buses (including the jump-on-and-off “Boris” bus), the Croydon tram, the riverbus on that vast but so under- used thirty-lane motorway called the Thames, and yesterday we even tried a “flight” over the capital.

The cable-car system, financed by the Emirates airline company but administered by Transport for London, was opened in time for the country’s 2012 Olympic games to connect the O2 sports hall on the Greenwich peninsula with  the edexcel centre on the river’s north bank. Rising to a height of over three hundred feet and with 34 constantly circulating gondole the system  offers superb views over the city’s fast developing docklands area.

Although not an alternative to the London wheel, which provides the classic views over the city’s most famous landmarks, the telepherique is an added bonus for a city lacking the kind of high hills like the pizzorne which give eagle-eyed views over the urban landscape of Lucca..

It‘s just a twenty minute journey there and back in a gondola, which comfortably holds eight passengers, and the views extend from the Ally Pally in North London to the Crystal palace tower in south London,  and from the great river’s estuary to the isle of dogs. Don’t expect to see Big Ben, however!

At the end of the “flight” we visited the aviation centre where we could “fly” a plane of the Emirates fleet, have pictures taken of us in exotic locations the company flies to and even arrange for jet liner pilot training through a fully equipped simulation training cockpit.

Great fun was had by all and it was certainly a good way to keep an otherwise temporary, even “white elephant” project, continuing as yet another novel London transport system.

A Nice Way to Spend a Sunday Afternoon

The Bocca Del Serchio (mouth of the Serchio) remains one of my favourite places. It’s the spot where our river, after its trials and tribulations through gorges and canyons and its entry into the plain of Lucca, slows down and meanders through the final stretch towards the sea where its still fresh-water mixes with sea-salt. Sunday was a great day to visit the mouth – sunny and gently windy.

Leaving my vehicle at Migliarino I first walked down the river path enjoying the wind-in-the-willows feeling of the place. Each boat pier is clearly numbered but there were no boats messing about on the river.

On the river’s other bank is the San Rossore natural park. I’d like to swim across to it in summer. There was a distinct background roar which, at first I thought was planes landing and taking off. Then I realised it was the sea! I thought of those lines from Shelley’s poem “Love’s philosophy.”

The fountains mingle with the river

And the rivers with the ocean,

The winds of heaven mix for ever

With a sweet emotion;

Nothing in the world is single;

All things by a law divine

In one spirit meet and mingle.

Shelley loved the Serchio and even had his own boat on it. If you click on (which is my other post on the same subject) you’ll see his poem on this boat.

The first part of the beach was strewn over with bamboo canes, branches and twigs brought down by the Serchio during the winter storms.

The river’s wavelets arriving on the coast became progressively larger as I strolled down the beach. On one side the horizon, on the other the backcloth of the Apuan Alps, at one’s feet a sandy beach strewn with natural sculptures – what more could one want?

See the mountains kiss high heaven

And the waves clasp one another;


Perhaps one wanted a dog? There were several people taking advantage of the weather to stroll their dogs which came in all shapes and sizes. I was particularly taken by this breed I’d never seen before. The owner described it to me as a mastino Napolitano.

01192015 055

This breed forms part of the class of truly large dogs and is descended from the hunting mastiffs kept by the Assyrians. It was the Neapolitan Bourbon kings’ favourite hunting and defence dog and was even enrolled into the Bourbon army.

Despite its huge size and its defensive use the Mastino Napolitano didn’t seem at all aggressive, indeed seemed most docile and lay back towards me.

On my return from the beach I passed a happy group of fishermen, one of whom was “knitting” a new net. I asked him how long it would take to finish. “Just another day,” he replied.

It was great to be here far away from the world’s cares and from an Italy which is at present without a president – another Napolitano…..

The Lady of the Woods

It’s relatively unusual to find even the humblest chapel without an arcaded loggia either in front of it or on its side. These delightful features were not just added to embellish the building but served a useful purpose as a shelter for travellers who, apart from the occasional mule-ride, would generally travel on foot. An important route out of our province of Lucca to that of Pistoia takes one through a narrow gorge in the Val di Lima and passes by the village of Casoli.

To cross the Lima a bridge was built at the gorge (or stretti di Cocciglia as they are known as) called the ponte Nero (black bridge) and in 1532 a chapel dedicated to San Rocco was inaugurated at its entrance.

The chapel looks very unassuming from the outside although it has some finely carved features around its entrance:

Inside the chapel (or oratorio – literally prayer house – where travellers could obtain spiritual succour as well as physical shelter, through the recitation of prayers for a safe journey) is an ambitious 16th century fresco depicting the crucifixion.


The area is amazingly diverse. Below, the straits provide both refreshing swimming in the summer and exciting white water rafting.

A path lead up to the beautiful village of Casoli and there is a delightful track coasting the Lima torrent.

In 2006 when I first visited this part of the world I met a lady who lived all alone in a little house in the forest by the Lima. I haven’t met her since. I wonder where she is now?