UFOs Return to Garfagnana

Monte Palodina, near Gallicano, makes a great walk and one which I have done several times (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/26/a-supernatural-mountain/ ). It is also known as one of the most mysterious places in the Garfagnana, indeed in Italy, and fully worthy of an entry into the X-files.

Earlier this month, while enjoying a Campari soda and free buffet (from 5.30 pm) at the AGIP service station in Chiffenti, my attention was drawn to an article in the local Il Tirreno newspaper. Translated it said:


Last summer the cameras of the Italia Uno channel series  “Mysterious Italy” came to investigate the mysteries of Monte Palodina, the  scene of numerous UFO sightings and weird forest creatures.

Case studies and testimonials in time are so numerous as to define Palodina an Italian equivalent of ‘Area 51’. (Me: remember the Edwards Air force base and the Roswell incident?) On December 30, 2015 at around 10.00 pm five people who were in the village of Trassilico in the municipality of Gallicano, spotted two red balls at a height of about 50 meters.

One ball was huge, the other smaller in size and appeared to be part of a single body. Two of the five tried to photograph these unidentified objects but it was useless. In one case the smartphone was out of juice while in the other the downloaded photo came out totally black. The two spheres from above the village entrance flew very slowly towards Monte Forato, above Monte Albano. This is a case that will be widely discussed and will help make Monte Palodina even more mysterious.

The last sightings of unidentified flying objects date back two years ago when a giant illuminated “cigar” and a fire-red disc appeared in the sky above Trassilico.

Now don’t just say it was a load of balls. I would be most interested hearing from you if you have seen recent sightings of UFOs in your area. In particular, if you stay in any village near Monte Palodina like Trassilico or Vergemoli, do keep a look-out. You never know!

Here are some photographs of what to look out for in case you weren’t sure.

They could be standard flying saucers:

Or spherical, as in the recent case of Trassilico:

Or even cigar shaped:

Warning: some people have been allegedly abducted by the occupants of flying saucers. A case happened at Avery Hill near where I lived in South London. Be careful… As world-renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking said:

“I think contacting an alien civilization would be a disaster. The extraterrestrials would probably be far in advance of us. The history of advanced races meeting more primitive people on this planet is not very happy, and they were the same species. I think we should keep our heads low.”



Travelling with One’s Mind

The greatest comics and games festival in Europe (in Lucca!) was blessed this year by wall-to-wall sunshine and the opening up of new spaces which gave this real-fun event a more spread-out and less crowded feeling.

I’ve already described how the festival started out from a negligible event in a sports hall back in 1966 to become the international fixture it’s now, in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/a-question-of-style/.

This year the theme of the festival was ‘sì, viaggiare’ – yes, travel – both with conventional transport and with one’s mind, I presume!


We arrived at just before midday to immerse ourselves in the contemporary make-believe of this mediaeval fantasy city.

Sandra came dressed as ‘Spider cat’. If you haven’t come across a spider cat don’t be surprised: it’s a new creation courtesy of Sandra’s fertile imagination. The idea came to her not only from Spiderman but also from Italian ‘Topo ragno’ which translates as ‘spider mouse’ but which in fact refers to the shrew, so belittled by Shakespeare et al. The main characteristics of a spider cat are its ability to combine the best features of cats – intelligence, ability to have more than one life, craftiness and an affectionate nature – and of spiders – ability to move quickly, fine craft in making webs, capacity to see many things at the same time and complete disregard of gravity.

Spinning silkiest webs,

enmeshed in enchanted strand

you leap into Space

I came dressed as a descendant of Genghis Khan, thanks to my trip to Outer Mongolia in 2008. Our outfits proved a not negligible draw and, if we’d asked for royalties for photographs that were taken of us we’ve be rather well-off by now!

Lucca comics and games is, of course, a brilliant people-watching event and costumes were very varied indeed ranging from children’s fables to science fiction characters and from Japanese manga to western classic tales.

The stalls selling everything from collectors’ item comics to the latest video-games were incredibly extensive and, also very well-attended!

What were our highlights? First, the weather, principally because last time we were at the festival in 2013 it was a miserably drizzling day. Second, the people and participants who were, as ever, courteous and bent on having good clean fun. Third, the special events. We selected a manga drawing class in the Japanese village in the new gardens opened behind the beautifully converted monastery of Saint Francis (see our post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/magisterial-monastery/ when we were present at its inauguration). Our teacher, who runs courses in the Academy of Manga art, was excellent and even enabled me not only to reach the correct proportions in drawing humans but also introduced us to drawing characters in action.

There were lessons in Japanese, quiz shows and much else. I realise we’d barely scratched the surface of this event but better to select a few things well than many just superficially!

There were several exhibitions of Japanese photography and paintings.

I was particularly intreagued by the one on cafe maids:

Among other areas there was even an opportunity to enter the Tardis!

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I wouldn’t mind getting one of these for Christmas:

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The exhibition highlights, as usual, were in the imposing Palazzo Ducale facing Piazza Napoleone where three very interesting displays were on show.

The first presented the work of the French artist Bonvi and his comic strips based on a somewhat politically uncorrect Nazi soldier during the last conflict. It was a French slant on something that became the essence of that long-running British sitcom ‘Allo, ‘allo.

The second exhibition was more serious and displayed the work of Emmanuele Luzzati with the theme of Jewishness in faery tales. The depictions of Jewish festivals were particularly poignant and the 3-D cut-out drawings were most effective.

The third exhibiton concentrated on Napoleon and Waterloo:

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At this stage darkness had descended upon the fun and games at Lucca’s big annual event and, at the end of a long day, our legs were beginning to feel it. After a delicious cassata at that fabulous ice-cream shop in piazza Cittadella (the piazza in which the house where Puccini was born is situated) we wended our way to our car which, thanks to the clever intrigues of immigrant parking bay finders, we’d managed to park amazingly near one of the city gates. So ended yet another totally memorable Lucca Comics and Games for this year. See you there next year?

Eyeless in Lucca

Accessibility for differently able visitors to historic towns in Italy can be a problem. So many of this country’s most beautiful places are on hills with often impossibly steep alleys and a plethora of steps. Certainly, to modify these towns and improve the sightseeing experience of e.g. wheel-chair users would involve difficult decisions to make with that intractable conservation body, “le belle arti”, which determines and dictates the smallest modification to artistic and historic monument (of which Italy has over sixty per cent of the world’s!)

If the town is flattish then the problem is undoubtedly greatly diminished and Lucca has been making considerable efforts since last year to improve accessibility, especially for wheelchair users. Typical examples include sloping down pavements to pedestrian crossings and more ramps to access public buildings as at San Giovanni.

I’ve often wondered what those dimpled tiles used on slopes to pedestrian crossings are and thought they may have served some purpose to avoid slipping in icy or wet weather. Not at all! Returning from a concert the other night we walked from near piazza san Martino to Porta Elisa and noticed steel markings of various designs embedded in the pavement, some for a considerable distance.

When we observed a partially sighted person using the grooves in these steel markings as a guide for his special cane we realised that both these grooves and the dimpled tiles we often saw were, in fact, a form of street braille language (“plastic pavements”) to give information to registered blind persons as to such features as street crossings, access to buildings, danger areas and so on.

The system was perfected by an Italian company and goes by the name of LOGES which stands for  “Linea di Orientamento, Guida e Sicurezza” (line of orientation, guide and safety)   Lucca is hard at work,  together with several other Italian cities within the European union, to make easily accessible routes for partially sighted persons within its  beautiful walled city.

There are two routes already completed. They are:

  1. The area around cathedral square
  2. The route from Piazza Antelminelli to Porta Elisa

The route from the station to the cathedral is at present under construction.

The system is based on two codes: a base code and four second level codes. The first code deal with direction and places where to stop at road crossings. The second level codes have extra information including showing access to public buildings, difficult intersections, sudden changes in street level etc.

Fortunately, for the present, both my wife and I have reasonable vision but we regrettably have presentiments of what could easily happen to us in the foreseeable (forgive the pun…) future. There is a history of glaucoma in my family and my mother suffered months of blindness before she sadly died in 2009. (In fact, she’d started learning braille). My wife suffers from incipient macular degeneration and is taking appropriate steps for it.

Around us we know or have known people whose sight has been seriously affected just in the past few years. Our old friend (both relating to the years we have known him and to his age – 99 this year!) Sam is a case in point, and there’s a blind person in our choir. (Churches with their interminable altar steps and steep staircases to the organ loft and singers’ gallery are particularly unfriendly places for visually-impaired persons, even if they are supposed to enter a building within the sight of God (!))

How does the street braille system work?

Here are some examples from a factory making the tiles, which can be either in stone, steel or that wonderfully durable terracotta the Italians are so good at making since Roman times.

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Help doesn’t stop there for visually impaired people. There’s a Lucca project called “The Walls for all”, relating to its wonderful tree-lined walls, funded by the Fondazione Banca Del Monte di Lucca. It’s a collaboration between Pisa University’s Engineering Department, the Institute of Science and Technology (ISTI), Pisa’s research centre CNR and Lucca’s section of the National Union of the Blind and Partially Sighted (UIC). The objective is to allow people with visual impairments to move independently in urban environments. Lucca’s walls were chosen as a test site, and after a trial on the San Donato Bulwark in 2011, a hi-tech path of about 1.5 km from San Salvatore bulwark to Santa Maria bulwark, is currently under construction.

The system consists of a smart white cane (“Smart Dog”) built in fiberglass and equipped with appropriate electronics, from a location identified by a pair of buried cables connected to a transmitter and an Android smartphone on which there’s an application which communicates via Bluetooth with the smart stick.

Thanks to this equipment partially sighted and blind people can move independently via a vibro-tactile signal generated from the “Smart Dog” when the receiver, placed at the lower end of the stick, is located within a distance of some tens of cm from the underground cables transmitting a 10 kHz signal. The user’s location is also determined using GPS technology.

Eventually, added information will be added e.g. historical information about the sites on the wall, places to eat, public facilities etc.

When we were irresponsible teenagers we pretended to “see” what it was like to be a blind person and we chose one of our mates as a guinea pig, fitted him up with a pair of dark glasses and gave him a white stick. We were both shocked at the helplessness of our friend but were also encouraged by the amazing helpfulness of strangers.

Of course, we felt somewhat guilty afterwards about the deception we’d tried on the public but it is a fantastic thought that very soon there could be in place the technology to allow partially sighted or blind people to independently enjoy cities like Lucca. After all, we could, some of us, be in the same boat one day… and Handel whose music we’d heard the evening we observed the pavement signs spent his last years in darkness.

Mooching around Ghivizzano Bassa

Ghivizzano has two parts to it: alta (high) also known as Castello and bassa (lower). There could be no wider difference in aesthetic attraction between the two parts.

Ghivizzano Castello which, as its name implies, has been built around the foundation of an old castle is a picturesque place to visit retaining even a long vaulted street, once part of the defence system. I’ve described this part of Ghivizzano in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/ghivizzano-arts-castle/

The sprawl that constitutes the major part of Ghivizzano bassa is typical of much of the “cementificazione” of modern Italian outer urban centres. There appears to be little attempt at zoning industrial, commercial and residential quarters and American ranch-type villas adjoin warehouse blocks and industrial plants. There seems to be even less effort at any attempt to plan the road system logically so often one finds oneself at a dead-end or a road that peters out into a gravellous waste or stops at the border of a ravine.

Having said this, Ghivizzano bassa is, unfortunately necessary to our modern way of living and there are at least two places of interest for those reliant on our consumer age. First is the car bodywork (carrozzeria) which was formerly next to Bagni di Lucca’s Conad store. It has moved to more ample quarters at Ghivizzano and is easily reachable by taking the first right before the bend ends after the first stretch of straight road succeeding Calavorno. Thanks to the obsessive habit of Italian drivers to tailgate one the rear of our car was unceremoniously bumped into and not only created some damage in its bodywork but also a mechanical fault (gears and starter motor) which, happily, thanks to the dextrous owner of the establishment was quickly rectified.

We shall, however, have to leave the car there in the near future to restore our Cinquina to its correct appearance. Fortunately the tailgater admitted full liability (they couldn’t really do otherwise…) so no complications beyond the standard bureaucratic jungle will have to be faced.

Another place which is a little more difficult to find is Euroarredamenti. Look out for the sign which is placed exactly at the turn off to the right. It may be worth one’s while to sift through what Euroarredamenti have to offer as they are temporarily closing down so as to move all their showrooms on the ground floor.

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The upper floor at present shows off its range of bedrooms but will soon be devoted to a dance floor and dentistry (!).

The lower floor has a decent range of kitchens one can choose from provided one’s house is large enough to accommodate them (which ours definitely isn’t.)

The prices have been lowered to clear off old stock and bargaining is also admitted. So, despite the ease in which one can get lost in the one-way systems, dead-ends, weird roundabouts and strange chicanes, it may be worth to take the risk and explore what lower Ghivizzano and its industrial estate has to offer.

Lucca’s Very Own Snakepit

A recent email from the Mario Tobino Foundation inviting me to the opening of an exhibition of medical and scientific instruments from Lucca’s ex-mental hospital of Maggiano prompted me to memories of our first visit to this eerie place. We entered the unguarded confines of the former lunatic asylum without any problems and suddenly heard strange voices murmuring from one corner of a vast courtyard dominated by a hemi-circular building. Were there any inmates still lodged in this edifice? Not really. We walked on further and discovered that the voices came from a group of pensioners playing cards in an old folks’ recreational club which was still active within the hospital’s grounds…

Later we managed to see the interior of the psychiatric institution as part of a guided trip. Maggiano was one of the spookiest but most worthwhile sights we’ve seen in and around Lucca.

The idea of segregating lunatics from the “normal” population first took hold in 1772 a little before Lucca’s Napoleonic occupation at the start of the nineteenth century when an ex-monastery was commandeered for this purpose. One set of cloisters was dedicated to the immurement of males and the other to females. Here are aerial shots showing clearly the two cloisters:

These cloisters are still there today and form some of the largest and most gracious courtyards in the province. There is also a fine chapel where the insane would gather regularly to get priestly solace.  The original monastery was enlarged with the addition of the hemi-circular building we saw from the outside and which housed the kitchens with its large ovens and washing tanks still extant.

Lucca’s mental hospital began to be shut down, in line with all others of Italy’s mental institutions (except for those housing criminally insane or dangerous inmates) in 1975 according to the still much-discussed Basaglia law which favoured the integration of mental patients into the wider society instead of segregating them, apartheid like. Lucca’s “Manicomio” finally shut its doors in 1999.

Maggiano is also a place of pilgrimage for admirers of doctor and writer Mario Tobino (after whom the foundation is named) who worked there for over forty years. His best book “Le Libere Donne di Magliano (location name changed for privacy reasons), was translated into English as “The Mad Women of Magliano” by Archibald Colquhoun and vividly describes the alternative world created by psychosis with its own strange but apparently totally logical rules which transform the world into an arcane surrealist actuality, rather like some of our own worse dreams.

Here is a photo of part of Tobino’s living quarters showing the desk where he wrote his prize-winning books on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and also two pictures of him in the hospital grounds.

Mario Tobino has been criticized by some as being a better writer than a psychiatrist but it must be remembered that he appeared on the hospital scene when psycho-drugs like largactyl had not yet been developed, where the usual form of restraint was the straight-jacket, where the response to severe disturbance was a sequence of electroshock treatment and where the answer to extreme mental confusion was a lobotomy operation.

Tobino left the hospital in a much more humane condition. Lobotomies were cut out and the use of the new generation of tranquillisers reduced the need for electro-shock treatment. Most of all, Tobino encouraged patients to express themselves through painting, singing and writing as forms of curative therapies.

I thought of “the Snakepit”, that terrifying film-noir from 1948 starring Joan Fontaine and based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi autobiographical novel, which echoes the history of Maggiano before and after the arrival of more compassionate doctors and more effective care.

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(Still from the film, with Joan Fontaine in a straightjacket)

During our visit to the haunted, empty and dilapidated wards of the institution and to its former arts studio we saw evidence of strange graffiti on the walls and other creative expressions of the hospital’s former inmates. It was difficult to take photographs of the interiors since these were severely discouraged. Indeed, one of the group we were with complained about this quite strongly and I thought for a moment he might be detained within the walls because of his outburst, but fortunately he calmed down after a little while and this was not deemed necessary by our escort.

At its height Lucca’s asylum for the insane was a veritable town with one thousand two hundred patients who, together with doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners, made up a total population of two thousand.

Unless one is particularly squeamish or has had bad experiences of  such places I strongly recommend a visit to one of Lucca’s less well-known attractions and Italy’s oldest mental institution. Situated a few miles to the north west of the city at Maggiano visits to it can be booked at http://www.fondazionemariotobino.it/content.php?p=vis.

Certainly, the exhibition at Lucca’s newly restored San Francesco campus will be worth seeing.





Semantic Spoons from Mozzanella

Computer programming has come a long way since the days when the major programming languages were machine code and assembler 360 and programmers wore leather caps, goggles and white coats.

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Already in the 1980’s, in the pioneering programme “The Mighty Micro”, Chris Evans of the BBC introduced the public to a second generation of programming languages and, in particular, to Basic. Those, of course, were the days before the Internet, digital photography and MP3 files – in short before today’s exploding multimedia computing age.


As an I. T. lecturer in London I introduced people of all ages to HTML, (hypertext mark-up language) which helped them to build their own web sites. Today, things have gone far beyond that; the Semantic web, organized by the world wide web consortium, otherwise known as W3C, aims at providing common data formats on the web with the use of semantic content in web pages. This will eventually provide a unified structure facilitating the interchange of documents and data which once were unable to communicate with each other. Clearly, HTML in this situation has its limitations and a whole spectrum of new programming languages have been developed and are for ever in course of development including RDF, OWL (web ontology language), XML and SPARQL.

If anyone reading this thinks all this is beyond their ken it’s beyond mine too and beyond most people’s on this globe except for those gifted with the highest minds. Rigorous logic and creativity combine in these super-brains to lead us into the ever-expanding fields of knowledge and relationships which enrich any positive use of the web.

One person able to comprehend the implications of the semantic web and contribute significantly to its development happens to be one of my oldest friends in this part of the world. Danny Ayers, who lives in the charming village (or hamlet even?) of Mozzanella in the central Serchio valley near Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, has been a major figure in this field for some years and has a significant number of volumes he has collaborated in lining his shelves.

Teleworking is, of course ideal for this kind of programming occupation and the contrast between a community which, until relatively  recently, knew no television or even phones, where agriculture and pastoralism remain a major feature, and the state-of –the-art activities of Danny are all the more startling.

Apart from programming, Danny is well into music-making using both digital and analogue instruments In addition to synthesisers he has six guitars, other plucked instruments, a drum kit and keyboards arranged in an impressive array and making an even more impressive sound.

The impetus for getting all this stuff together and working is Danny’s recently completed move to a new house in Mozzanella. As he states, “the fact that the new house has a lot more sunshine seeping through its windows than the old and that the views from it are absolutely superb makes a great deal of difference to the creative spirit.”

Just because one is a wizard at programming the semantic web doesn’t mean that simple rural crafts are neglected. In the afternoon that I visited Danny he completed a wooden spoon most useful for dealing with scrambled eggs and presented it to me complete with my initial on it.

I’ve just realised that I’m writing all this on Danny’s birthday and that he has reached one of those birthdays which end with a zero on the age (plus a one, I’m informed.).

So Buon Compleanno Danny and long may you thrive on the semantic web and in carving both spoons and axe handles!

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The Big Screen Comes to our Mountain House

My local plumber/electrician came yesterday evening to fix my central heating thermostat. We have a number of radiators which we use to heat up the house before the log fire really starts up on cold nights. The thermostat wasn’t fixed – the problem was with the boiler. It wouldn’t switch off the radiators, even if the thermostat was disconnected, without me changing it back from its winter to its summer setting.

Anyway, so far there has been little need for a winter setting here. The temperatures remain well above average for this time of year, which is worrying when global warming is a concern.

Instead, we have had days and days of rain. In his sixty years of living here my electrician friend couldn’t recollect anything like it. Today there is a sort of amnesty in the weather but there are still many clouds around. When are we going to get those rather colder, crispier but so much more pleasant days that characterise this late autumn season?

Here is today afternoon’s weather picture – we’re near the top left.


Tomorrow’s is like this


 But from Friday onwards we might even get enough sun to dry our washing outside.

With such unpredictable weather there’s not much long term that one can do outside except go on shorter walks and do a bit of gardening. Indoors, however, the possibilities are endless. I have just completed a scheme that enables me to see world live TV, our photographs, interesting things from Youtube etc. in the comfort, not just of our sofa downstairs, but also of our bed.

When I first came to Longoio broad band was promised but all I got for the first few years was a very slow phone line internet connection with a modem. Eventually, under a regional scheme, Wi-Fi internet was decided upon and the difference in reception has, of course, been astonishing. For one thing, I am actually able to write a post for my blog in reasonable time – indeed, to have a blog at all.

In my house there’s a satellite dish on top of our upper terrace which receives the signal from the direction of Crasciana and wires it down to a telephone/modem.

From here it could have gone straight to my laptop. I chose, instead, to get a router which beams the signal to a wide area of the house. Not the bedroom, however.

For this reason I got myself a repeater so the signal can reach those parts the router couldn’t.


I then invested in a dongle which plugs into the HDMI socket on one of our two TV’s. This enables chrome casting which means that anything that is compatible, either on my laptop or on my tablet, can be beamed directly onto the “bigger” screen. It took a little doing since I had to struggle to get the IP addresses right for all these gadgets to communicate with each other.

Finally, success took place and I was able to “cast” the brilliant 1956 version of Orwell’s 1984 with Edmond O’Brien as Winston Smith, and including Donald Pleasence and Michael Redgrave, on my bedroom TV using my tablet as a remote control – hopefully,  I haven’t installed a telescreen as well!

This morning I was able to watch for the very first time in my life the ground-breaking Monitor film by Ken Russell on the life of Elgar which, over fifty years later, is still so very moving. I followed this with two rather less well-known Elgarian snippets – the march he wrote for the Empire Exhibition, held at Wembley in 1924 and his cantata “The Banner of Saint George”.

The problem is that I find that what I can see through any of my windows is more interesting than most things on TV anyway!

So, no matter what the weather will throw at me this winter I don’t think I’ll be bored! Perhaps I’ll say a prayer of thanks to the patron saint of the internet and computers (yes, apparently, there is one!) Saint Isidore of Seville who was able to acquire and disseminate the widest amount of learning, especially in his encyclopaedia for which he is famous. Called the “Etymologiae” and written in twenty volumes, it put together many books for classical antiquity which, otherwise, would have been lost to us. And he did it all without the help of routers, repeaters or chrome casters!