An Evening Dedicated to Chifenti

The indefatigable Marco Nicoli, journalist for ‘La Nazione’, event organiser, founder of the Mammalucco cultural association and general all-rounder, in collaboration with the comune of Borgo a Mozzano, presented an evening dedicated to the history, sights and people of Chifenti as part of the new ‘Borgo e Bellezza’ series of events.


Here are the other participants:

The great symbol of Chifenti is, of course the Ponte delle catene, the chain bridge designed by the great Nottolini who went to England to study engineering with none other than Thomas Telford. The event was on the Chiffenti (south side of the extraordinary bridge, one of Italy’s greatest nineteenth century engineering feats.

08032016 059

Because a suddenly precipitous thunderstorm fell upon us in the late afternoon bringing much needed rain, but also causing a few electrical problems, the evening was somewhat delayed but it finally got off to a good start after an inaugural speech by Borgo a Mozzano mayor Patrizio Andreuccetti. (Yes, Chiffenti is in the comune of Borgo – the bridge doesn’t just span the Lima River but unites two boroughs.)

The show consisted of reciters, the great Walter, ex-barber of Ponte a Serraglio on guitar, a big screen and some splendid lighting (when they finally got it to work).

Chifenti’s history dates back to the ancient Etruscans and Ligurians. Of mediaeval remains there are traces of a castle on the hill above Chiffenti where the original settlement was located. The construction of the Brennero road brought Chifenti down from its original hilltop location to line the important route north. Eventually, after the washing away of the old stone bridge built by Castruccio Castracani ,and dating from 1317, the pioneering chain bridge was commissioned in 1840 by Carlo Ludovico from Lorenzo Nottolini who’d travelled to the UK to study the construction of the Clifton Suspension bridge in Bristol and Hammersmith Bridge in London.

Badly damaged by Gerry, the bridge was restored in 1953 at which time it was open to all traffic whether vehicular or pedestrian. (Now you dare drive a car, or even a scooter, across it!).

Chifenti centre now became that familiar piazza known as piazza del ponte d’oro (square of the golden bridge) so-named because the new bridge cost a small fortune to build.

08032016 039

The speakers were all excellent with the unflagging Morena Guarnaschelli reciting the part of Mrs Stisted whose husband encouraged the building of the Anglican Church, now library, at Bagni di Lucca. Mrs Stisted’s reminiscences were fascinating. She remembered logs being floated down the Lima tied together into rafts which became thus both transport and merchandise. In those days it was the only way to transport huge tree trunks down-river to supply the ports of La Spezia and Livorno in the building of their ships. The job of manoeuvring the rafts down the river was both a specialised and a dangerous craft.

08032016 025

Chifenti church was also described in some detail. Recently restored, it has some beautiful features like the tabernacle for the holy oil made by a pupil of the great Lucchese sculptor, Matteo Civitali.

08032016 026

And then on to more recent times. Characters from the world of sport and commerce made an appearance, many of them remembered still today when the Piazza was filled with shops and industries and was a true social life hub. Happily, the bar Tintori  together with some shops (flower and gardening outlets, one of whom supplied nice floral displays for the evening) still exist but they are but a faint recollection of what the piazza once was like in terms of activity.

It was a great little evening beautifully presented (once the technical difficulties wreaked by the thunderstorm had been sorted out) and was a wonderful example of how a community can come together and present entertainment and instruction in a lively and fascinating way.

For me the highlight was, apart from some amazing photographs from the archives, certainly hearing for the first time Walter, our retired hairdresser and barber from Ponte a Serraglio, singing and playing his guitar. Not only did the memorable Walter play local and self-composed songs – he proved himself a master in renaissance guitar music and even played a lovely version of ‘Scarborough fair.’

Well done to all concerned. It was a truly memorable very well attended evening and we hope one of many more to come. This is truly what our community needs!

The programme continues. Here are future appointments. Don’t miss them!



PS I’ve written quite a few posts about Chifenti. If you’d like know more about Chifenti do see my posts at:

Saint John the Baptist Blesses Pieve di Monti di Villa

Church processions in Italy, celebrating the patron saint of a particular community, are, of course, not just religious manifestations. They are also displays of social cohesion and solidarity – occasions when emigrants return to their place of birth, re-establish family ties, bring their own new-world born children and join up for exchange of news and gossip and generally have a good time.

This is precisely what happened at Pieve di Monti di Villa’s Festa patronale yesterday evening.

I entered a village with streets decorated with hundreds of candles and made my way to the church whose façade and campanile would be later outlined by a myriad electric lights. Perhaps before electricity came onto the scene after 1950 there might have been candles on that building too but I’m glad that that fire risk has now been removed.

As you’ll know by now if you read my previous posts on the subject a Pieve was once the only church allowed to perform the sacrament of baptism. That’s why a Pieve is grander than other churches and also because it’s often placed in a central location with regard to other villages. Our own Pieve for Longoio is that at Controni and there’s a wonderful, now sadly unused one, at Sala on the opposite side of our valley.

Now, of course, baptism can be performed at any consecrated church.

Pieve di Monti di Villa’s church was originally dedicated to Saint Julia and dates back to the 12th century. In the thirteenth century it comprised a vast area under its jurisdiction including the now ghost village of Bugnano, Lugnano and the still flourishing villages of Granaiola, Montefegatesi, and Tereglio, It also looked after the hospice for travellers at Cabbi whose ruins I still have to find. The Pieve was rebuilt in 1446 and modernised between 1760 and 1766. Of the original construction it’s only the apse which still remains. Despite all these modifications the church is a very cohesive building and rather beautiful.

Certainly, the adjoining priest’s lodging has an elegant loggia of the twelfth century.

At first I thought the state of Saint John the Baptist ready for transport on his palanquin looked a bit like a re-make of saint Rocco. There was the raising of the cloak off one leg as if to show off the putrefying sore which kept everyone away through its pestilential smell and the saint was cloaked with a fine mantle instead of the animal skin which I always thought the Baptist donned. There seemed to be a dog which brought a piece of bread to the saint since no-one else would approach him. On closer inspection, however the dog turned out to be a sweet lamb, a symbol of the sacrificial Christ.

The Mass was impressively celebrated by young Don Emanuele Rosi who has a fine voice and is certainly a fluent and persuasive preacher. A sad tinge entered into his sermon when he stated that the two old parish priests, who formerly officiated for Corsena and this area for over forty years, had at last found their final accommodation in a clerics’ retirement home. This meant, he said, that soon there would be just two priests officiating the whole of our Valley of Lima. The crisis of vocations is well-known in Italy. Just twenty years ago Lucca’s seminary had around two hundred seminarists. It now has three, two of whom are from outside Italy.

Deacons help. One can get and become a deacon if married. But if one is unmarried and becomes a deacon then one is not allowed to marry, I think that’s wrong. The church needs all the help it can for new recruits to its officiants. Already the local nuns (all from southern India) at Bagni di Lucca Ponte’s children’s nursery help out. In case you didn’t know, deacons can do everything a fully ordained priest can do at a Mass except consecrate the host during the Eucharist, which is done beforehand by the priest.

The relevance of all this for non-religionists is that a village Festa needs a patron saint to set it going and the patron saint has to be blessed by the priest before anything can begin.

There was no shortage of choir members, however, who sang excellently under the direction of Maestro Cipriano Nesti.

After the kissing of Saint John the Baptist’s reliquary the congregation began to get ready for the procession.

This was the order of the procession:


The procession was beautifully picturesque, winding its way through the candle-lit streets of this delightful mountain village with further torches held by the local populace.

The procession ended where it started, at the church, after a long circuit lasting almost an hour round this long and quite steep village – the same village where that wonderful living crib for Christmas 2013 was held.

The strange juxtaposition of readings from the gospels about Saint John, congregational chants, the clanging of the bells personally swung by the campanari up on the top of the campanile, (i.e. no rope are used, the men themselves ring the bell Quasimodo-style) and the almost Fellinian marches played by the fine Corsagna wind and brass band reminded me of the incredible mixing together of so many elements in Italian life from sacred to secular, from pagan divinities to Christian saints into an amazingly coherent syncretism.

The proof of the pudding, is of course, in the eating and the convivial meal at around 11 pm, consisting of farro, pizzas, salami, pasta fritta, coconut éclairs and a dozen other cakes all washed down with whatever drink one might choose from coke to wine, was a tasty ending to a great evening out in the wilds of the Italian Apennines.

I just hope more young people might consider the rather austere but clearly rewarding job prospects of the priesthood for without these clerics a village patron saint Festa might so quickly become a faint memory, a bit like in Longoio where I live and some other surrounding villages.

Actually, of course, it’s not a matter of finding a job: it’ a vocation……

A rather wild thought: wouldn’t it be amazing to stage Wilde’s “Salome” in an Italian translation by a theatre group here!

PS. Two reminders. It’s Bagni di Lucca’s turn to celebrate its patron saint, St Peter, this Monday at 9.00 pm at the Parish Church in Corsena and…….it’s Opera time again in Barga. Full programme at  :

Barga opera unmissable! Thanks friend from Coreglia for reminding me about that and the appearance of great singer Roberta Invernizzi and her master class. I’ll be attending Handel’ pasticcio opera “Catone” this Friday.


Strawberries at Montecarlo and Mediaeval Times in Pescia

There’s a phrase in Italian that aptly sums up a summer in Italy: “l’imbarazzo della scelta” – literally “the embarrassment of choice” but more colloquially rendered as “spoilt for choice”. There are so many sagre (food festivals), music festivals, mediaeval fairs, traditional saints’ days and special visits that even in our little area one has hard decisions to make on where to go, particularly at the week-end. For example, last Sunday we had to choose between a flower, a strawberry and a mediaeval festival.

As it was, the flower event took priority, as described in my post at .

But as I love eating strawberries, I would have equally liked to go to Montecarlo’s strawberry fair.


Montecarlo’s strawberry fair was described as “a celebration of the strawberry, a fruit loved by old and young alike and an excellent source of vitamin C, an anti-inflammatory cure and an excellent aphrodisiac which enhances one’s love life immensely.” (Mmm must try that recommendation out…)

There were stalls selling strawberry risotto, strawberry sweets with honey and yogurt, strawberry milk-shake (naturally) and caipiroske, an alcoholic drink, originally from Brazil but with a Russian twist to it, made from limes and strawberries.

Here’s a recipe I found for it which will make up as a consolation prize for not having attended Montecarlo’s “fragolata”.


  1. 1/2 lime, cut into quarters
  2. 1 heaping cup strawberries, hulled
  3. 1 tablespoon sugar
  4. 2 ounces vodka
  5. Ice
  6. 2 ounces chilled Sprite or club soda (optional)


In a cocktail shaker, muddle the lime with all but 1 of the strawberries and the sugar until the berries are juicy. Add the vodka and enough ice to fill a rocks glass. Shake briefly to chill, then pour—don’t strain—into a chilled rocks glass. Stir in the soda and garnish with the reserved strawberry.

This could well be my favourite drink this summer!

download (3)

We did however manage to see something of Pescia’s mediaeval event. Pescia is an undeservedly neglected city which I love visiting.

Not only is it the centre of the area’s flourishing horticultural activities but it has many interesting sights including a painting in San Francesco church which shows probably the closest representation of what the saint looked like.

download (1)

On Friday 1 and Sunday, May 3 Pescia (PT) plunged back into a medieval atmosphere,


The city’s four rioni (or  districts), Ferraia, San Francesco, San Michele and Santa Maria, each with its own coat of arms, celebrated with street theatre, stalls, shows, music, mediaeval combat,  performers, arts and crafts, flag-wavers.

The Sbandieratori procession was suitable impressive:

There was also the opportunity to fit oneself out with helmets and chain mail:

Pescia is divided by a river into two clearly marked sections. The main part is on the right side and has an attractive historical centre and two interesting museums.

It’s a pity that the city of Pescia isn’t better known except to those who reside in the Pesciatina Svizzera, an incredibly attractive system of valleys north of the city which are full of villages, just as interesting as those in our Val di Lima, and include an extraordinary church decorated with strange primaeval figures at Castelvecchio.

 download (2)

It’s possible to visit the Svizzera Pesciatina without having to go all the way round to Marlia if one has a 4 X 4 or trail bike and good weather. Head for Lucchio, continue through Zato and then, via an unmetalled and often muddy road, point towards Pontito where one meets tarmac again. (I’ve mentioned Pontito with reference to that great character Lazzaro Papi in my post at ).

Pescia’s mediaeval fair comes in a May week crowded with events, the principal one of which is when the city celebrates the Holy Crucifix.

This was the programme for this year, largely centrered around Pescia’s grand cathedral

30 April: Holy Mass and anointing of the sick.

1 May: Holy Mass and renewal of marriage vows

2 May: Luminara and procession. This is similar to the Luminara in Pisa and Lucca where electric street lighting is switched off and buildings are silhouetted by thousands of candles. Prizes are given for the best candle display to encourage citizens to “light up”. I must see this one next year…

3 May: distribution of blessed bread. Holy Mass celebrated by Monsignor Fausto Tradelli, Bishop of Pistoia. Offering of Holy oil.

4 May: Holy Mass in commemoration of the dead.

Of all these events we only managed to catch the Bishop’s Mass on 3rd May:

The rioni were also represented by standard bearers:

I am looking forwards (dreading even?) the avalanche of events this part of the world will present for the summer. That’s the advantage, I suppose, of living here: what one misses this year one can catch up with the next.

05032015 257

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.

It’s Patron Saint Day again in Mozzanella

In the days before modern advances in medicine illness mortality rates were obviously much higher. Of all diseases the plague was the most destructive. The population of Siena was reduced to a third of its former number, for example, by the Black Death of 1350.

The only way out of this appalling health picture was for richer people to abandon towns as quickly as possible and for poorer people to pray to San Rocco (Saint Roche) to deliver them from their bleeding pustules and painful expiration.

San Rocco, patron saint of illnesses, became one of the most popular saints of all time and still has a devoted following today, especially among those afflicted by rare conditions. According to tradition, Saint Roche had a very eventful life, eventually dying in a prison around 1380. He, too, fell a victim while healing the sick and had to retire to a cave since his plague sores were beginning to make him stink unpleasantly. The only companion he found was a dog who would steal bread from his own master’s table to bring it to Saint Roche. This delightful animal story is represented in many statues depicting saint Roche and in banners celebrating him.


Here is the banner of Saint Roche from the church of Mozzanella for he, too, is the patron saint of the picturesque hamlet which is situated outside Castelnuovo di Garfagnana on the road to Corfino.

08172014 032

We were there yesterday to visit a friend who participated in the celebration of Mozzarella’s patron saint. Strangely, the church is dedicated to San Salvatore (The Saviour) and not San Rocco. The hamlet, therefore, has an official patron saint besides having a moral one too.

At the end of the Mass, celebrated in the charmingly decorated seventeenth century church, San Rocco’s bread was blessed and distributed among us. Each loaf had the imprint of Saint Roche on it. We took some home with us and it made delicious cheese and salad sandwiches (although I am sure San Rocco would have been glad just to eat the bread as it came to him from the faithful dog’s mouth).

The procession weaved its way among the twisting alleys of Mozzanella. It’s incredible how such a small place, which might be missed if one blinked, possesses such rich liturgical items.

It’s the hamlet’s big day of the year and, besides the sindaco of Castiglione, also attracts relatives of its inhabitants who may have come many miles to attend the occasion.

Pride of place in Mozzanella must be this gorgeous “Maestina” or shrine, which has four sides each one containing a beautiful little bas-relief including Saint Roche himself.

I don’t know what San Rocco’s doting dog was called but it must join that panoply of inspiring pets who have saved humans by dedication beyond the call of duty, among which canines I would also rank Beddgellert’s dog (in Wales) very highly.

Afterwards we attended a “rinfresco” in the garden of one of the houses in this most attractive village and were charmed by the hospitality of its inhabitants.

We’ll certainly be back to Mozzanella next year, if not before…



The Most Holy Crucifix Blesses our Valley

Italy abounds in religious processions centred on a town’s patron saint or holy relic, especially in the south. Recently there was a news item in which the priest leading a procession in a Sicilian town was heavily ticked off for allowing it to halt and get the Saint’s statue to bow before the house of a well-known mafia chief (who had apparently also helped to sponsor the event).

San Cassiano’s Festa Triennale del SS Crocifisso (Feast of the Very Holy Crucifix, celebrated in grand style every three years) has fortunately no such shady associations. It is a very moving festival of the religious and community spirit of the area, bringing together not only the inhabitants of the surrounding villages but also relatives who have emigrated to the Americas and northern Europe. For an anthropologist the Festa is a complete vindication of Durkheim’s concept of “collective effervescence” and the identification of God with Society.

The intermixing and fusion of the sacred and the secular can be felt throughout the three days of this wonderful occasion, both for San Cassiano and for the entire Valle di Lima.

This was the programme:


The High Mass I attended on Sunday was brightened by the glorious singing of the San Felicita choir from Lucca who sang organ-accompanied plainsong with a delightful alternation of men’s and women’s voices.

I returned in late afternoon for the Vespers where the most spectacular part of the celebration takes place. The fourteenth century and wonderfully expressive crucifix, which normally resides in a side chapel to the right of the high altar, has been positioned above the altar on a pedestal placed on a trolley on a carmine-covered “railway”. A cable then lowers it at the slowest of paces, just like a San Francisco cable-car, until it reaches the safe hands of the bearers who place poles through the pedestal and carry it with the maximum care (low entrance door!) out of the church into the bright sunlight. For the sun always shines when the crucifix is brought out – even yesterday when storm clouds broke out in the morning and were threatening for much of the day. No-one can remember the procession ever being cancelled because of bad weather!

The order of the procession is as follows:

  1. The various local associations and religious guilds
  2. The holy host held in a beautiful ostensory
  3. The crucifix itself born by around twenty bearers with further bearers in their white and red costumes (signifying their adherence to religious self-help associations)
  4. The band of brass and wind instruments playing various religious songs.
  5. The people following on.

The route taken by the procession is a symbolic “beating the bounds” and is meant to instrumentalise the imparting of blessings by the holy crucifix on the entire parish area for good crops, fertility and avoidance of pestilence and war. It’s virtually like a gigantic house blessing.

I returned in the evening to witness a fabulous fireworks display over the illuminated church of san Cassiano.

07282014 107

It’s wonderful that these events can still happen in the difficult times Italy is still passing through. True, there may be fewer people present than once – so many have emigrated. All the features of the ancient rites are there, however, as is the very Italianate sense of solemnity and jollity of this glorious event.

I do hope I shall still be here in three years’ time to witness this great communal outpouring again! It is so very special and shows that Italians have an innate sense of organisation and order when it comes to their village celebrations that the government they labour under would do well to emulate.

Here are a few video clips from this event:








We are such Stuff as Dreams are Made of

The Italian word “Palio” can be applied to many different events. The most common use of the word is in the “Palio of Siena”, the famous horse race which takes place in the central fantailed and sloping square of this city between the various contrade or districts (all seventeen of them) at different times.

The element of competition between a town’s districts enters into the majority of palii, of which there are at least fifty-four listed in Italy (seventeen in Tuscany alone!)

It’s the form the competition takes which is the distinguishing factor between the various palii. They can be cross-bow competitions, as at Gubbio, or lance tilting as at Arezzo, or boat racing as at Pisa’s Palio (which I describe at

Gallicano’s Palio, which is of more recent origin, dating from the early 1980’s, is essentially a competition of costumes, choreography and floats between the three rioni, Monticello, Bufali e Borgo storico, of this central Garfagnana town.

The aim of the different rioni is to win the cencio or “rag”.

The “rag” is a not very large piece of cloth designed with the colours belonging to all the “rioni” or districts. It’s a symbol of the town and embodies its creativity, enthusiasm and passion.

It is also a symbol of a community who share a magic stage in which the creativity of this town (population less than four thousand!)  produces a fantastic show that in my opinion has few equals anywhere in the world.

All this is the result of hard work from each rione which starts almost as soon as the last Palio has ended. It involves every one of all ages and skills, from the design of the amazing costumes to the electronic wizardry of the floats to the planning of the themes. The Gallicano Palio, in short, involves everyone and everyone is involved in the Palio.

I have been a couple of times before to this Palio and have always admired it. This year, however, the Gallicano Palio seemed to have taken a considerable step forwards, almost as if to affirm that those two recent years it didn’t take place because of economic difficulties were over and that the future now looked bright again.

Any couturier or fashion-designer would be stunned by the inventiveness of the local people to make up expensive-looking costumes with the cheapest of materials and make them up in a highly imaginative and inspired manner.

Each year a theme is assigned to the Palio. This year it was “The Zoo is here”. Each rione developed its own interpretation of the word “Zoo”.

For Borgo Antico it was the zoo of our lives, imprisoned in our own little worlds, unable to even look up at the sky anymore and subjecting ourselves to stereotyped and obsessive behaviour

Gallicano’s symbol – its cockerel.

For Monticello it was the story of the evolution of animals on this planet and the huge force of the earth, as sadly demonstrated last year when this area was devastated by an earthquake in mid-June and flooded out in mid-October

(The Serchio flood as represented last night)

(and last June’s earthquake)

For Bufali it was the way that the internet has somehow created a human zoo, a parallel world in which we meet in a virtual reality but must be able to use it in a positive way, not denying what is true reality.

A lot more could be read into the ways the different rioni interpreted the zoo theme set to them. Clearly, there was a philosophical interpretation on the vast warm, open-air stage floor but for me that interpretation was transformed into a glory of colour, movement, joy and sheer ecstasy.

I could not believe that such artistic force could come from what is essentially a mountain people living in a harsh environment on the fringes of the main centres of Tuscan culture.

The Notting hill carnival was nothing compared to it in terms of grace, beauty, and imagination. It was also happily nothing compared to Gallicano’s Palio in terms of the presence of forces of order. I only spotted one policewoman at Gallicano in an event attracting thousands.

At the end of this absolutely superb spectacle I could not help being reminded of the following words from Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. They did sound so apt for this occasion.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Incidentally, the true meaning of the word Palio derives from Latin pallium which means a cloak and points back to the woollen cloak a competition winner would be awarded. In Siena this cloak becomes transmuted into a standard painted by a famous artist and celebrating the Virgin.

For, of course, behind all these competitions there is a celebration of a saint. In the case of Gallicano, it’s Saint Iacopo (Jacob) the town’s patron saint who, from somewhere on high, must be admiring the complex working relationship between faith, community, culture and art which make such events still possible in a country like Italy.

PS Gallicano’s symbol is the Gallo (Cockerel):

07202014 149

A few more snippets follow: