Two Triestine Castles

It was the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa who laid the foundations of modern Trieste. She decided that the city should become a free port – a gateway between East and West – and planned that part of the city which to this day is called the ‘Città Teresina’. The picturesque grand canal, the church of Saint Anthony and all those other churches, temples and synagogues serving different religious communities sprang up and are testimony to the immense religious tolerance this city has been famous for.

Maria Teresa also took down the walls of the old town built around the cathedral and the castle which dominate one of Trieste’s hills. We decided we’d take the bus to the top of the hill. First, we passed the old Roman theatre.

At the Piazzale della cattedrale the view was already extensive. Before San Giusto stands the remains of a Roman basilica and, indeed, the base of the cathedral tower is built on a Roman temple. The cathedral itself is fascinating. Basically it’s two churches banged into one so it has two apses, one of which has magnificent byzantine mosaics, and double aisles too.

The best thing about San Giusto, however, is its magnificent rosone or rose window.

We almost thought we’d come to the conclusion of our Trieste town visit but were encouraged to visit the castle where we were promised the best views of Trieste bay. This was quite correct!

We enjoyed visiting the armoury, the dungeons now filled with roman statuary and walking along the bastions themselves.

It was difficult to tear ourselves away from this wonderfully windy spot. A slight bora – Trieste’s notorious wind which blasts its way through the mountains from the east and is meant to drive people mad – was starting up and we needed to make our way back home.

But we still had to visit the haunted Miramare castle.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. The walk to it is via a dramatic piece of coastline.

Thanks to contemporary drawings and designs the interior has been restored with all the original fittings and furnishings making a visit to the palace a truly time-warping experience.

Miramare was the scene of some of the most passionate and most tragic episodes in the history of the Hapsburgs. It was built by Emperor Franz Joseph’s younger brother the archduke Maximilian. This young man was one of the brightest sparks in an otherwise staid and stuffy dynasty. He reformed the Austrian navy, rebuilt Trieste port, went on several expeditions, issued liberal reforms and fell in love with Charlotte, a Belgian princess.


Still on his idealistic bent Max took up Napoleon III’s offer to restore the empire in Mexico. Despite his best intentions he failed to attract support from Juarez and his rebels and was executed at Queretaro in 1867 – a scene dramatically illustrated in Manet’s famous painting.

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Understandably Charlotte, now called Carlotta, became insane after the incident and spent much of her later life under care or, as they now say in Italy, ‘in una struttura.’  She died in 1927 having regained some of her sanity.

The palace was subsequently used by the emperor himself and his wife Elizabeth. Nicknamed Sissi, Elizabeth was a paragon of beauty with a highly fashionable sixteen-inch waist, and always kept her weight below fifty kilos. She was also Europe’s best female equestrian and adhered to a strict regime of exercises and walking. Sissi preserved her skin by sleeping with a slice of veal and strawberries on her face.  Her shampoo was a mixture of cognac and eggs and she took over three hours every week to wash her flowing locks. She would also take her bath in heated olive oil. Anybody tried it out there?

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After producing a male heir in the shape of Rudolph, Sissi never again slept with her husband and instead entertained a sequence of handsome aristocratic lovers (including an English noble) within the velvets and brocades of Miramar’s love nest, well away from the stiff formalism of Vienna’s imperial court which she could never stand.


But tragedy did not end here. Her son, Rudolph, unhappy with his marriage to Belgian princess Stephanie, fell desperately for the baroness Mary Vetsera. Opposed to the liaison by his autocratic father he and Mary entered into a murder-suicide pact and their bodies were discovered in the family’s hunting lodge at Mayerling on 30th January 1889.

Actually the mystery has never been properly cleared up. Some say that Mary Vetsera died as a result of a botched abortion: she was just eighteen at the time. Others say that she shot Rudolph first. There is also a murder theory by a jealous third party. The facts, hushed up when they occurred, were never fully revealed and the Mayerling “incident” remains one history’s great mysteries. (Incidentally the wonderful Macmillan Ballet danced by London’s Royal Ballet takes another yet another slant on the story).

As if the death of his son, the crown prince and heir to the throne, were not enough, Emperor Franz Joseph had to witness his beautiful Sissi murdered in 1898 by Luigi Luchesi, an Italian anarchist near Geneva. We visited Sissi’s tomb in the imperial Hapsburg vaults in Vienna way back in 1991.


Franz Joseph died in 1916. At least he was spared seeing the break-up of the thousand year old Hapsburg Empire. His son Charles succeeded him but gave up the throne after World War One when the old empire was carved up between the newly emerging countries of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. In 2004 Charles was, unusually, beatified by Pope John Paul II in spite of the fact that he had ordered the use of poison gas in the Great War against Italy. He is now known as “the blessed Charles”.

One would never guess all these tragic and often weird events wandering through the luscious rooms of Miramare (literally “Sea view”) and traipsing across the summer palace’s exotic gardens. I hope that in some way this beautiful setting gave solace to Austria’s last imperial family so often beset by calamity and recriminations.


No wonder, however, that the castle od Miramar is haunted…….


Festa della Repubblica Italiana

Italy’s seventieth Republic day yesterday came and went with nothing much happening in Bagni di Lucca except more rain. Three years ago there was a good concert at the Teatro Accademico (see my post at ) but if there was an event in our comune I missed it because nothing was publicised.

Watching on RAI 1, however, I saw the impressive parade of armed forces (including, of course, the carabinieri) which this year was amplified by mayors from all parts of Italy, and the public services including nurses and fire-fighters, some in historic costumes.

Towards the end of the parade the Bersaglieri (Italian for marksmen – bersaglio means target) with their helmets adorned with black capercaillie feathers did their incredibly fast march past (180 steps per minute – a jog in fact) which must be difficult especially if you are playing a tuba!

Finally, the President, after greeting a group of children who presented him with a tricolour painting, entered his Lancia Flaminia preceded by the cuirassiers in their gleaming armour and went towards the Quirinal palace whose gardens are specially opened to the public on Republic day.

The proceedings were accompanied by a persistent light rain but, as one of the commandants said of his troops ‘a soldier never gets wet.’

Napoleon meanwhile was sheltering from the Bagni di Lucca rain and probably thinking ‘this is weather for the ducks’.

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The freccie Tricolori, the nickname given to the national aerobatic squadron of the 313th group of the Italian air force, crowned the morning with a spectacular fly-past painting the skies with the Italian tricolour.

The three colours in the Italian flag have been interpreted in several ways. The white could stand for alpine snow, the green for the land itself, and the red for the blood poured in securing a united Italy. The actor Roberto Benigni affirms that the three colours go back to Dante who in his Purgatory writes:

..sovra candido vel cinta d’uliva
donna m’apparve, sotto verde manto
vestita di color di fiamma viva. 
And down, within and outside of the car,

Fell showering, in WHITE veil with olive wreath’d,

A virgin in my view appear’d, beneath

GREEN mantle, rob’d in hue of living flame (RED):

(Carey’s Translation)

 Theologically the colours stand for green = hope, white = faith, red = love.

The most important point about Republic day is that it celebrates the time when Italian voting not only became free of totalitarian shackles but also when the franchise was doubled by the inclusion of women for the first time. The referendum of 1946 established the Italian Republic and the monarchy had to go into exile until 2002. (The vote was 12, 717,923 (54.3%) for the republic and 10,719,284 (45.7%) for the retention of the monarchy, a close-run thing it seems to me). Before that time women were largely deemed domestic factories for producing children, feeding their lords and masters and keeping the house clean.


(2 July 1946: one of the first women voters in Italy)

Although the representation of women in politics and industry is still far from satisfactory in today’s Italy it certainly has made major strides since 1946 – both the minister for defence and the leader of the Italian equivalent of the House of Commons are women.

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(President Sergio Mattarella in centre with Senate Leader Pietro Grasso to his left and Chamber of Deputies leader Laura Boldrini to his right)

Perhaps next year I’ll make it to Rome for real in time for Republic day although I’m sure I won’t get as good viewing as I obtained yesterday on the ‘panel’. (TVs are no longer ‘boxes’ these days unless you haven’t changed yours in years…).




Italian Underpants?

The recent visit of the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, to Italy was only controversial in so far as Italian prime minister Renzi decided to have all nude statues on the route taken by Rouhani through the Capitoline museum covered up with panels ‘so as not to offend the sensibility of the Iranian president.’

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The majority of Italian citizens were not amused and neither was most of Renzi’s government. After all, these statue represent some of the most wonderful examples of Italian art and culture.

Cultural appeasement is the next worse thing to iconoclastic destruction of ancient monuments such as is happening right now to such important sites in the development of civilization like Nineveh, Babylon and Palmyra.

At the same time, western culture has not been immune to such ridiculousness. In the past Michelangelo’s great ‘Last Judgement’ in Rome’s Sistine chapel (did the Pope show Rouhani that painting at their meeting?) was almost ordered to be destroyed because of objections to the large number of nude representations in it. It was only when Daniele di Volterra, detto il braghettone, (big underpants) was brought in to paint the standard loin-cloth over the various genitalia displayed that the painting was saved for posterity. Fortunately, in the fresco’s recent restoration braghettone’s work has been removed to reveal once more ‘private’ parts in all their full, pub(l)ic glory.

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(Underwear designed by Il Braghettone)

Anyway, how can you walk around historic Rome without coming across a nude statue every five minutes?

In more recent times, Victorian women were not encouraged to make journeys to Khajuraho’s temples and Orissa’s black pagoda because of the large number of sexually explicit statues on them. In fact, sexual union is symbolic of spiritual union with the Godhead as expounded in Advaita Vedanta (non-dualist Hindu religious philosophy).


(Non-dualistic philosophy expounded at Khajuraho)

Similarly, the Capitoline Venus, shaded from the Iranian president’s eyes, represents the goddess of love in all her procreative loveliness. It’s not just a statue of a posh tart.


Is India supposed to give health warnings to the many visitors that visit its gorgeous temples?

Is Bagni di Lucca supposed to put veils, cloths knickers or brassières around its lovely nude statues in case some may be offended?

I think not!

Sir Kenneth ‘Civilization’ Clark made a clear distinction between the nude and the naked. For nudes go to museums and art galleries and for the naked enjoy your naturist beach, the closest one to us being just south of Migliarino. A tad cold I feel at this time of year, however…

PS What’s just as bad is that Renzi invited the head of Iran to a state banquet without any wine being served. Now can you imagine a meal in Italy without the liquid gold of fermented grapes? And some wines here are derived from fruity Iranian varieties like Shirazi! At least when Rouhani visited Paris the French president just invited him to take tea… probably not P(arental G(uidance) Tips, however.


Not Palmyra?

There was a time when mare nostrum (which is the term the Italian government used for its efforts to control illegal immigration from North Africa and to save lives on perilous rubber dinghies) was truly “our sea”. Magnificent cities ordered the Mediterranean’s coasts. Trade was intensively carried out and our Tuscan museums, (especially Florence’s Museo Archeologico), are full of the most beautiful artefacts from all shores of this most prodigious inland sea, one which has been essential to the way our civilization developed into what we are today.

Volubilis in Morocco, which we visited early in our married lives, was a supreme example of the wealth and glory of these Mediterranean urban centres.

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Timgad in Algeria we never did visit. Perhaps hopefully one day we will: one doesn’t hear much about Algeria these days. Maybe that is a good sign.

During our honeymoon spend in Tunisia we saw the spectacular amphitheatre of the city of El Djem, another witness to the erst-while grandeur and central focus of these Mediterranean cities.


I never got to Libya’s Leptis Magna. A friend did and waxed lyrically about its grandeur.

Ptolemaic Egypt was overshadowed by the supreme achievements of the ancient pharaonic dynasties. Who could ever destroy the cosmic majesty of the pyramids or the temple at Karnac as “idolatrous”?

Approaching the eastern part of the Mediterranean coast I was privileged to wander among the majestic ruins of Baalbek, just before the Lebanese civil war which, luckily did little to ruin this most wonderful of Roman cities.

Jerash I saw more recently – indeed it was just last November that we wandered around that magnificent circular colonnade which is one of the wonders of this stupendous city.

Petra of the Nabateans is beyond words to describe. Again we managed to see it last year and its supernal vision changed our whole consciousness.

On the Turkish Aegean coast, which we reached during our epic Morris traveller journey in 1991, we saw ever more magnificent Hellenistic and Roman cities:

For each one I wrote a little something which I felt summed the atmosphere each city imparted:


 On fiery hills, in summer’s blanching heat

the city, lizard-like, basks on scorched stones.

Athena’ s temple ranks its columns’ feet

and unlimbed sculpture melts with shards and bones.


Fanned out by arduous slopes, the theatre seats

spread round a stage whose backcloth is the sea,

where vanished plays of heroes’ mythic feats

once spoke to men and charmed the immortal She.


With parchments cast to winds and altars gone

do I yet hear the songs of ancient days

when censers burned and golden statues shone

and unremembered poets hymned their lays?


Below bare mountain’s late meridian sleep

Asclepion’s spring flows past the goats and sheep.



We might have met among the olive groves

that clutch this slope like lovers’ fast embrace

and walking to unknown thalassic coves

I would have kissed your bright selenic face.


Your house still stands among entrailing plants,

the doorway open to a silent room,  

while from the theatre imagined chants

perfume the air and take me to your tomb.


I spread my arms upon your cosmic dust

and recollect the love which might have been

so vast, so big with hope, so full of trust

that now is past, untasted and unseen.


I sit upon the empty marble chair

and feel your warmth while I caress your hair.




Rose-spider icicles in summer’s heat,

are caught by incandescent webs of snow

as mountain’s blanched lagoons caress bare feet

and waken hearts with hot seducing flow.


Upon the hill a metropolis spews

the monuments of weird disjunctive time

while sediments of calcareous ooze

deposit wedding castles in the slime.


White boats of the universe sail deep blue

above gold honeycomb of fallen walls;

alone, the stones converse with me and you

and actors play to empty theatre stalls.


The city, sleeping on dusk’s goat-browsed hills

returns to silence while a song-thrush trills.



I kiss warm lips in evanescent blue

and stare into white eyes of unnamed hopes,

at marble beauty breathing life anew

amid high-columned squares and altar slopes,


Within dark perfumed temple of delight

I touch your olive skin and stroke your locks

and walk deserted streets while evening’s light

falls down upon the town and mountain flocks.


Half-finished statues lie inside the gate

like wishes unfulfilled, like love unmet

for your enfolding grace am I too late

within your breast have suns already set?


Cicada night now stirs with silver rain

as life attempts the meaning of its days.




Amid scorched stones, the sordid root sprang here

in heaps of monoliths and pediments,

and drowned a childlike earth in blooded fear,

emasculated priests and bare laments.


Where is your gold and silver now, great King?

That burnished stroke has crumbled into dust

the temple votaries no longer sing

and all your treasury is turned to rust.


White columns’ tempest-shaken marble staves

against a broken sky, a raven screech

across the ether of uncoded waves:

this is the city wrecked upon a beach.


And yet what brilliance shines upon these stones

above dusk graves, beyond the vanished bones.




Your letter didn’t speak about all this;

how could it, when you were concerned to kill

false gods, emasculate seducing bliss,

and clean the world for God’s almighty will.


For were you blind to library’s facade?

or fail to enter in and read its books

and did you think it was one big charade,

just like the world, full of illusioned looks?


Yet when you walked this marbled colonnade

and heard the pagan theatre audience cheer

and saw Diana’s shrine in dusky glade

had you no fond regrets, had you no fear?


Can people, wrapt in pleasure, be mislead

when Christ forever reigns and gods are dead?




In golden summer’s turquoise sunset dreams

we walk enclasped along white-sanded strands.

A burnished sea laps evening’s dying gleams;

alone, we fly to magic-carpet lands


or dive into green waves, discover walls,

Atlantis colonnades, protean shrines,

submerged enmarbled city shopping malls 

and mermaid woods of salt-encrystalled pines.


Embraced by diamond suns, the seaweed pools

unwrap algaeic triton’s arcane rites

while votaries swim past in silver schools

illuminating oceanic lights.


Returned from whence we came in primal birth

we land anew upon this Mother Earth.



I look through horse’s eyes upon the hill

that flamed those early nights with magic fire

and filled my mind with strange prophetic thrill,

seducing beauty, unsurpassed desire.


A resined wood perfumes the darkened room,

hushed legs climb down steep rungs into white light.

Was this the way they sealed a city’s doom,

dismantled hearts and caused a nation’s flight?


King Priam’s gold melts with the setting sun,

the face of Helen’s etched across this sky,

on dying plains a battle’s lost and won,

in song of birds I hear a city’s cry.


The walls unloose their fabled tale of war

and love upon a distant, foreign shore.   

My heart is aching when I consider that I could have seen the jewel of all Mediterranean ancient metropolises, Palmyra. I passed so close to it on my hippy trail all those years ago and never visited it!

Now threatened (and perhaps, as I write, being bulldozed) by dark forces of barbarism and ignorance a place where “ignorant armies clash by night” Palmyra was founded as a caravanserai stop on the desert between Damascus and Baghdad.

From thence it developed into one of the wealthiest cities within the influence of the Roman empire. Under its great queen Zenobia it seriously challenged the power of Rome and extended an empire from Turkey to Egypt.

Zenobia, whose name derives from the Arabic Zeynab (as in Zeynab Badawi, BBC’s brilliant world news correspondent), was such an alluring woman, said to be even more beautiful that Cleopatra, that when she was finally captured she was allowed to parade as a captive through Rome in golden chain and then given a luxury villa near Tivoli to spend the rest of her days!

The Arabic influence on Palmyra was strengthened when it was conquered by the Umayyad dynasty and became a flourishing centre of Moslem civilization. Yes, civilization – people who preserved the greatest of Roman and Greek learning and developed the sciences of astronomy and geography when the northern border of the Mediterranean sea were being invaded by hordes of barbarians from central Asia and were only able to save their former great learning by the skin of their teeth..

Palmyra was truly the crossroads of cultures from Egypt, Greece, Persia, and Rome. It was a cosmopolitan city with taste, magnificent architecture, prodigious wealth and a highly elegant way of life. Among those who graced its intellectual life was Cassius Longinus who wrote that highly influential treatise on literature “On the Sublime”.

Are we now to see all this wonder and extreme beauty destroyed before our very eyes on our television screens? There’s one part of me that suggests “let me go there and tie myself to one of the columns of the great temple of Bel and let me die in the truth of what is beautiful rather than live in an iconoclastic world which has already seen the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the Lions of Nineveh.

I do not exaggerate when I say that the latter days barbarians, who are driving out hundreds of thousands of innocent people from their homes ,who are instilling punishments worthy of the darkest days of our own sadly recent history, who are demolishing not just a Greek, not just a Hellenistic, not just a Roman but a Moslem city, are also demolishing a part of all of us who derive the majority of our ethos and culture from those very life-giving, world enhancing roots that have made the planet we live on – for all its terrible imperfections, its abuses, its injustices: a positive place in which to live, to love and to treasure.

Another set of lines seems to come out of me at this moment to add to those already written above – I am just SO ANGRY about what’s happening out there……



Zeynab, your golden chains which trailed Rome’s streets

now tie me to your heart, stricken by fear

that nothing will destroy the world’s deceits

disposed upon civilization’s bier


I shall walk your colonnades in dreams,

tread as a phantom upon your theatre’s rows

open unseen doors and allow sunbeam’s

light upon that exquisite desert rose.


As temples collapse and creeds disappear

as statues crumble and pediments are smashed

and ignorant armies rejoice and sneer,

is all we care for eternally trashed?


We cannot stand and wait and watch and weep

Can lives really end in endless sleep?

Here is Zenobia (Zeynab)  herself having a last look on Palmyria. The painting is by Herbert Schmaltz and is in Adelaide’s art gallery in Australia.


Are we to join her too?

At least we can join a performance of Tommaso Albinoni’s opera “Zenobia – regina dei Palmireni” from 1694  given in this performance at  Damascus in 2008…….happy times….

It’s so sad to realise that of Albinoni’s fifty+ operas only two survive complete, most having been destroyed when  the scores held into the Dresden Library were burnt by firebombing. Since Albinoni was reckoned to be the equal of Vivaldi and Gasparini, if not better than them, then this surely is another tragic loss. When will we ever learn to preserve what is truly precious!.


Grado: Freud’s Favourite Seaside Resort?

A disadvantage of living on a more or less permanent basis in Italy is that one can become a little lackadaisical about sightseeing. It’s almost as if one thinks “ah well I live here now so don’t have to cram in all my visits as I used to have to do when I could only spare a few weeks each year to come here.”

When does the exciting holiday finish and boring every-day life begin after one’s settled in Italy? I hope the holiday aspect has never completely finished for me – actually I’d call it exploration rather than holidaying. But the fact is that, in my first couple of years here, I completed quite a few “tour” trips. This was with a company called “Mediavalle Viaggi” whose web site is at

We didn’t have a car then so these trips were excellent ways of swanning  around Italy. We visited Naples, Caserta, Rome Lake Garda, and Verona, for example.

Looking through my photographs from April 2007 I found out that I’d been on a two-day journey to Grado and the surrounding area.

Grado lies north of Venice and has its own lagoon between the Isonzo River and the Adriatic. It’s divided into various districts: Borgo de foraIsola della SchiusaColmataCentroSqueroCittà GiardinoValle Goppion – ex Valle CavareraGrado PinetaPrimero. Until 1918 Grado was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Each district has its own characteristics, ranging from ancient historic centre enclosed within a former Roman military camp or castrum to modern seaside resort.

The beautiful lagoon has thirty islands in it and covers an area of ninety square kilometres. Among the islands are Isola Maggiore, where old Grado is located, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, l’Isola Della Schiusa and Isola Della Barbana, the scene of an important annual religious festival which takes place on the first Sunday in July when a flotilla of colourfully decorated boats filled with pilgrims reaches the island’s sanctuary.

Other parts of the lagoon are natural protected parks and are prime territory for birds and bird watching.

We stayed in a hotel by the beach. It was still too cold for bathing but it was lovely to walk down the extensive and deserted sands. I was in good historical company: Sigmund Freud (in one of his letters of 1898 he describes a two and a half hour journey through the most desolate lagoons to Grado’s beach where he was able to collect sea shells and urchins) and Luigi Pirandello were visitors to Grado.

Like so many other Italian seaside resorts Grado has a historic centre well worth visiting. There are two main churches: Sant’Eufemia with its baptistery and Santa Maria delle Grazie. These churches have conserved their old byzantine-Romanesque features and have some lovely features including delightful mosaics.

The old town is a quaint warren of narrow streets and, despite the inroads of tourism, still preserves much of its ancient atmosphere. The port area is great for messing about in boats.

Perhaps we should return and take further coach trips to visit more of Italy. Apart from the drastically early start for these trips – we met up at Bagni di Lucca at 5 am to start this one – it’s a pleasant way of seeing new places in convivial company without the hassle of car driving, parking and the rest of the palaver.

PS I am informed by Sigmund Freud authority Professor John Forrester, who kindly sent me a copy of the whole letter in which Freud mentions Grado  that there is only that one reference to Grado in his letters. I don’t think Freud, therefore, ever returned in spite of the nice shells and sea urchins he found there. Grado just didn’t appeal to him that much.

Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

There’s always a frisson in stumbling across a Roman Villa. In England my visits to four of the greatest of them:


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and Fishbourne


– the greatest palace north of the Alps, in size larger than Buckingham palace and equal in area to the Emperor Nero’s Golden House – have always been major occasions and helped to re-connect me to one of the greatest empires the world has known and within whose boundaries I’ve spent most of my life, whether it be England, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco, France, Egypt, Spain or Jordan.

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My nearest Roman villa happens to be the Domus Romana in Lucca (see my post on it at It is, however, not strictly a villa but, as its name implies, a town house. To be a true Roman villa a countryside location is essential for these villas flourished on the products of the agricultural lands which surrounded them. Furthermore, a classic Roman villa always had its private baths as an integral part of the whole.

Massaciuccoli contains our nearest proper Roman villa.  In the 1930’s archaeological excavations began in earnest below the little town’s parish church and uncovered the impressive termae placed in a stupendous location with wonderful views over Massaciuccoli Lake and stretching to the coast.

More recently, controversial excavations have taken place on the town’s main road leading to Massa. I say controversial because they were only possible when the local school closed in 2000. The building was promptly demolished to much protest and the dig began.

The villa belonged to the Venulei family from Pisa who struck it very rich and was divided into two sections. The part on the hill above composed the Venulei’s private holiday quarters and corresponded to the Latin concept of otium, or idleness. Under the protestant work ethic we’ve inherited a distorted view of this concept which has become a saying: “idle hands make the devil’s work”. In Roman times however, it was a much prized concept centring on intellectual and philosophical musings and eschewing manual and business occupations. These came under the umbrella of negotium from which the Italians get their word for shop, “negozio” and we get our “negotiation”.

The negotium part of the Venulei’s villa was carried out in the lower part where agricultural products including wheat, wine and olives were processed and where a classical version of a traveller’s inn (or “auto grill” as my lively teenage girl-guide put it) was set up providing refreshment and washing facilities for journey-worn itinerants going to and from Rome on the main Via Aurelia.

A large arch has been erected over the excavations which have revealed much in the way of pottery, coins, decorative fragments and the general plan of the huge villa complex of how life must have been conducted almost two thousand years ago.

The most notable item found was, as in the case of the Britannic villas, a lovely mosaic. Formerly the floor of a frigidarium of another set of baths it depicts mythological animals, dolphins and masques.

The mythological animals are known as hippocampi. They were the sea god Poseidon’s own special marine equines and pulled his chariot across the waves.

Happily these animals are alive and kicking today! Our sea horses belong to the hippocampus family, in fact.


While I was there last Sunday the villa was also well and truly alive with a young school-group engaged in a project about the Romans and getting very noisily excited about it.

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The museum is only open at week-ends in winter (although the mosaic can be easily seen from the outside through a corner glass panel). It’s named after Guglielmo Lera who was a well-known and respected historian and writer from Lucca and who died as recently as 2004. The newish bridge across the Serchio between Fornaci di Barga and Bolognana has also been dedicated to his memory.

I wonder how many of us will have anything dedicated to or named after him/her, apart from a gravestone or plaque, when we pop it….

Abandoned Cities and Empty Beaches


Roselle is an abandoned city between Paganico and Grosseto. Within its confines are Etruscan walls, a Roman amphitheatre and forum, villas with beautiful mosaics and marble intarsioed floors and much else.

We had the site virtually to ourselves. We walked for about a mile around the cyclopean walls only to discover that we’d only covered a fifth of their circuit. It’s not surprising that, once, people used to think that these walls were built by giants!

The statuary in the forum area seemed at first to be part of a modernist exhibition, so clean and white it was. Then we discovered that these were the original statues of the Bassi family who were top people in the city around 100 AD.

The site of Roselle was spectacular with extensive views all around to the Maremman mountains and the broad valley of the area’s main river the Ombrone.

Cicadas racketed, wild flowers bloomed and the sun did not shine so fiercely.

At the top of the hill were two Roman cisterns and an artisan area with remains of pottery kilns.

We found out that Roselle was founded in pre-Etruscan times and that there are remains dating back to the prehistoric Villafrancan period (the same era that produced the steles we saw at Pontremoli). Roselle survived well into mediaeval times when it was finally abandoned because of encroaching malaria from the plains surrounding it: the old Roman irrigation system had broken down and the anopheles mosquito started to breed ever more furiously. Strangely, we didn’t come across any remains later than Roman. Perhaps they are still to be discovered beneath all that undergrowth.

The sea now awaited us: the unspoilt coast of the regional park of the Maremma with its miles and miles of umbrella pine-fringed natural beaches. We had intended to reach Marina di Alberese but the car park there was full, so one of the girls directing motorists suggested that we head towards Fonteblanda and a special secret beach whose name translates as “enjoy yourself”.

With its mixture of rocks and sand it was the perfect haven to relax after our morning’s archaeological walk. The views stretched to Monte Argentario, the Isola del Giglio and Talamone.

We had a quick look at Talamone which, apart from its choc-a-block full marina, still presents the appearance of an old fishing village dominated by the castle and its walls.

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Then we headed back to Marina di Alberese. On the way we met up with some docile long-horned cattle characteristic of this part of the world:

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Continuing along a dirt track we came across this:

If only more of Tuscany’s (and Italy’s coastline) were like this! The umbrella pines almost came from a lost world and formed a wonderfully cool natural canopy under which to walk. The beach stretched for miles: it wasn’t at all crowded, even in this holiday period, and romantic strolls into the sunset could truly be taken on it.

The au naturel  feel stretched to the bivvies beach combers had built. We felt transported to some exotic island in a Pacific Ocean and not the usually crowded summer Mediterranean coastline.

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