From Bagni di Lucca to Auschwitz

Today, as you’ll most probably know, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Bagni di Lucca was not exempted from the worst horrors of the last war. Although it narrowly avoided being bombed to smithereens, a fate that Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, further up the Serchio valley, had to suffer (see my post on that at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/vecchio-castel-nuovo-and-the-fury-of-war/ ), it became one of two ‘collecting centres’ (the other being at Socciglia where a memorial stone marks the place) for undesirable members of the human race which 99% of the time meant those of Jewish descent.

(The memorial at Socciglia yesterday)

(Trans: “This place knew the inhuman suffering of patriots and the incarceration of civilians waiting to be deported to Germany and a more tragic fate. We entrust the memory to future generations so that they may travel more decisively on the paths of peace”).

Under the abomination of the racial laws promulgated by Mussolini in 1938, largely a propaganda gambit to please his new ‘pact of steel’ ally Herr Hitler, Jews were marginalised by Italian society into what became ghettos. The irony is that the word ‘ghetto’ originates from a district in Venice, Italy largely inhabited by Jewish people.

The ‘Regio Decreto 17 Novembre 1938 Nr. 1728’  minimized civil rights for Jews, excluded them from schools, forbade them to hold any public office, greatly limited their travel, stripped them of their property and assets. Eventually, at the height of the Italian civil war of 1943-45 (when the partisans and allied forces fought against the puppet ‘social republic’ of Salò set up by Hitler under the pretended governorship of Mussolini, ‘rescued’ from imprisonment at the Gran Sasso rifugio), people of Jewish origin were rounded up and incarcerated in local concentration camps to await their transportation to the death factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen and Belzec.

To the honour of the vast majority of  the Italian people the laws were unpopular and even prominent fascists like hero Italo Balbo opposed them. Italy’s Jewish population had lived in the country for centuries and were fully integrated in the life of the community. Merely thinking at random of some great Jewish Italians one recalls the names of Rita Levi-Montalcini, Italo Svevo, Lorenzo da Ponte, Natalia Ginzburg, Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman and Castelnuovo-Tedesco to be fully aware of the incredibly high contribution this community has made to the enrichment of Italian life and culture.

By 1943, however, Italy was in the grip of teutonic brutality and effectively in the hands of field marshal Kesselring. Having had to abandon the Gustav line between Rome and Naples Kesselring set all his hopes on the Gothic line stretching from Viareggio to Rimini and crossing the spine of the Apennines among which Bagni di Lucca is situated. (For more on the Gothic line see some of my posts on it at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/secret-mission-across-the-gothic-line-a-success/ ,

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/war-and-peace/ ,

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/17/il-castellaccio/.

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The concentration camp for Bagni di Lucca was situated in the now derelict and crumbling walls of the old Hotel delle Terme behind the church of San Martino, above the present Hotel delle Terme. Three children, Luciana, Paolo and Liliana, with an added-up age of less than three years were the first to be killed with another thirty children and teenagers when they arrived at Auschwitz. They died in front of their parents, their grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. In all, the total number at Bagni di Lucca taken to the extermination factories was one hundred and twelve. Only five managed to return to Italy alive. The Bagni di Lucca Konzentrationslager contained not just people from Bagni di Lucca but also from many other parts of Italy. The prisoners stayed there for six months without proper food, no heating and few clothes and passed what was one of the hardest winters the area has ever suffered.

I took these photographs of the derelict hotel yesterday and had to be very careful to avoid things falling on top of me. If you ever go there do wear a hard hat (I really should have worn my crash helmet).and watch out for the trapdoors leading to the cellars and hidden under the foliage. They are rotten through and you might have a long way down to fall. I wonder with a history like that would anyone want to buy it up and restore it? Perhaps it should be left as it is as a memorial to some very dark years at Bagni di Lucca:

 

Throughout my hour there tangible feelings of a terrible evil and of a great sadness almost overpowered me.

The prisoners from the ex-albergo were transported by train to Lucca and thence to Florence. From Florence they went to Milan where they were housed in that city’s notorious San Vittore prison near Piazza Aquileia.

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They were then taken to Milan central station where they left for the gas chambers from the infamous ‘Binario 21’ (platform 21), still there to this day and now turned into a monument to the victims of the Shoah. It was utilised for mail trains before being used for its sinister purpose between 1943 and 1945. It’s below the main station platforms and can be entered from a side door. (Binario 21 is visitable as I did some years ago. The web site is at http://www.memorialeshoah.it/italiano/adv.html ).

(Platform 21 at Milan Stazione Centrale)

There’s a word now inscribed in concrete on one wall which sums it all up:

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I don’t need to translate that…

Figures show that 7,680 Jewish people were deported to the death camps, representing over 17 per cent of the total Italian Jewish population – a relatively low (!) percentage when one considers that 85 per cent of the Jewish population in Lithuania were exterminated.

To return to Bagni di Lucca: some of those deported died on the train journey to Auschwitz. Crammed like sardines into cattle trucks, Angela Ferrari, for example died aged just 26.

Was there anyone brave enough to stop this happening to them? Yes. The number would have been much higher had it not been for Don Arturo Paoli who only died last July aged 102 and who is on that great list of ‘the just of all nations’.

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It is my eternal regret that I only found out recently about this man from Lucca who collaborated bravely with DELASEM, the Jewish resistance movement, to save over eight hundred Jews in this part of Italy from entering the extermination camps. At least, however, we know a close relative of Giorgio Nissim, the organiser of DELASEM, from Pisa.

Who were the five from Bagni di Lucca who survived? Among them was Leo Urbach, Liliana’s father who had to suffer the killing of his wife and two children Liliana, aged less than two and his son aged five before Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops on January 27th 1945. (That’s why we have International Holocaust Remembrance Day on that day).

Liliana was born in Bagni di Lucca on 19th October 1942. She was taken from there on 23rd January 1943 to Milan.  On 30th January she left Binario 21 at Milan station, reached  Auschwitz-Birkenau on February 7th 1943 with her family and died on 19th  February 1944. There was one witness to their leaving Bagni di Lucca: a little girl who later recollected:” I just remember that it was cold and they had few clothes on, all in dark colours. But it wasn’t us who’d taken their clothes. The soldiers had taken them and they were now leading the children, dragging them by holding their little hands.”

What memorials are there to the Shoah as experienced by Bagni di Lucca? In Fornoli there’s the peace park with this memorial to little Liliana, inaugurated in 1999.

It’s next to the primary school where in all probability Liliana would have gone had she lived.

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In the park there was this graffiti scrawled over a water pump box:

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Amor Vincit Omnia (Love conquers all)

Behind it was the old Ponte delle Catene over the Lima. Built by the great Nottolini in the nineteenth century it seemed to me that both it and the graffiti had a message to say about loving each other and building bridges.

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And yet the killing, worse, the genocide, still goes on: by fanatics just across the sea from us and by the sea itself. Since last year over 3,000 people, including a shamefully large number of children, have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats handled by unscrupulous people-smugglers .

Meanwhile, the sinister and decrepit façade of the old Hotel delle Terme has nothing to show on it that this was the last sight many people would have had of their beloved families and their beautiful country.

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This, in my opinion, is a scandal that must be rectified as soon as possible. Here is a building that, more than any other in this area, witnessed man’s brutality to man and people pass by it without realizing what purpose it was used for. A memorial plaque should be placed on it now because if we don’t remember……..

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Ash pond reflects clouds

silence by the little wood

a stork takes to flight.

 

Twisted iron bars

concrete minds

rusty furnaces:

 

Resurrection’s castle

is a heap of crumbling concrete

 

 

(Written when I motorbiked to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2001)

 

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Have a Swinging Time!

‘All that glisters is not gold – often you have heard that told’ as the message states in the golden casket, where the the Prince of Morocco expects to see his beloved, Portia’s picture but instead finds one of a skull.

The first of the new ‘swing’ trains entered into service on our Lucca to Aulla line on 22nd March this year. Built in Poland by the Pesa Company they are meant to replace the old FS ALn 663 class of trains which were getting a bit long in the tooth. Indeed, passengers often had to open their umbrellas on wet day as rain water would seep through the roof! Moreover, increasing mechanical problems were causing more and more late arrivals, departures and, worst of all, cancellations.

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(FS ALn 663 class of diesel railcar)

The new trains promised a new era in railway travel on our line which I would, in terms of the scenery through which it passes, count as one of the great train journeys of the world. Spectacular viaducts, stratospheric bridges, two very long tunnels and much else make this line (which was started in 1892 but only completed in 1959) also one of the great engineering feats of FS (Ferrovie dello stato) Italian state railways. Surely this line deserved the best trains to run on them?

We’d hoped that the new era would descend upon us with the introduction of the ‘Menuetto trains’ some years ago. Built by an Italian form, Alstom, in their factory at San Giovanni near Milan the Menuetto gave us much hope. However, there were problems with loading gauge (some of the tunnels were not high enough), signalling and mechanical reliability.

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(Menuetto)

Again we were saddled with increasingly ageing FS ALn 663’s for several more years until the arrival of the ‘Swing’ diesel railcar (the electric version of this is called ‘tango’). Unfortunately, there have been major problems with the ‘swing’ trains too.

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(Swing)

First there are problems relating to the line in terms of signalling which have caused delays and even cancellations.  Correct timing is essential on a single line railway and the delay in the arrival of the up train can clearly have severe effects on the down train too.

Second, there have been problems with the actual carriages themselves. Doors have failed to open or close and in one case a door actually fell off. I was involved in one problem on a train journey to Aulla the other week. I’d just moved from one seat to one nearer the door when I heard an almighty crash behind me. I looked round and saw a steel bar on the seat where I’d formerly sat, one of its points impaling the exact position where I’d been! I discovered that this bar was a curtain rail on as it has sliding hooks on it (with as yet no curtains, as there were no curtains anywhere in the train to pull and protect aganst the summer sun). The bar had fallen from just above the window frame when it had been positioned.

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(Where the curtain rail should have been)

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(Place where the curtain rail was now missing)

I’m not sure whether this was a one-off situation. I think however that one should be a little wary of where one sits in these trains and, certainly test the curtain rail beforehand!

Reading a recent copy of our local paper ‘Il Tirreno’ I note that FS, Italian State Railways, intend to have these problems ironed out by the middle of November. So let’s hope we return to a swinging time by then and not be ironed out ourselves…

Let the People Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s Andrea walking away with his:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Aboard Please!

There are two main similarities between the Italian train system and the British train system (quite apart from the much greater pleasure a journey on an Italian train is able to give one when compared to much of British Rail – or whatever they call it now) and two main differences.

The two similarities are that the track gauge is identical (or almost – there’s a half-inch difference between the two which did cause a spot of trouble when the Channel tunnel was built) and that the trains in both countries travel on the left rather than on the right. After all, the British did invent both the standard rail track gauge, based on the diameter of a standard cartwheel and the direction of operation, which they still use for all vehicular traffic on their own roads. This similarity has caused accidents for idiots in Italy trying to negotiate a level crossing when the gates are down (if it’s a double track, that is).

The two differences are that Italians use rail-tracks to number their train arrivals and departures. “Binario Uno” mean track one – and not platform one, which classification the British use. I prefer the Italian system. It makes more sense.

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After all there can only be one track but a platform could have two sides to it. (Shades of “Brief Encounter”?).

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The other difference is that in the UK the platform is very much more raised than in Italy so that it’s rather easier to board a train. In Italy there is often a bit of mountaineering to be done to climb upon some trains since the platform is at a considerably lower level.

I thought of this last point when we escorted what Dickens would call “the aged parent” to Bagni di Lucca station the other day. There was no need to worry. The new style “swing” trains, which are rapidly taking over from old stock which should have been discarded years ago, have low-slung entry sliding doors (which must be operated by pressing a green button) and immediately give onto a large base area from which you can rise to a higher level only if you want to.

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(Inauguration of new Swing Train)

I suppose everyone reading this post must realise that, as all good citizens, one must have a valid rail ticket before boarding a train and that this ticket must be validated before the start of the journey.  At Bagni di Lucca that increasingly rare human species, the ticket issuer, has long been extinct and, instead,  there is a state-of-the -art machine which issues tickets. It may be worth reaching the station at least a quarter of an hour before the train arrives as the machine is quite slow in operation and there may be a queue of people attempting to use it. It may be an even better idea to come to Bagni di Lucca station without even thinking of boarding a train just to do a test run on the machine, which has both language and payment options.

In theory it’s even possible to use this machine to buy a ticket to the coasts of Sicily or the wilds of Calabria but I’ve only tried it for tickets as far as Rome.

After buying the ticket it must be validated by placing it in a yellow stamping machine, otherwise dire punishments could await one.

I have to add that as a responsible citizen I’ve always bought my train ticket at Bagni di Lucca, even though I have found that ticket inspectors also seem to be an endangered species. But they can suddenly appear.

In an unfortunate incident which occurred to one of my friends the ticket machine at Bagni di Lucca was out of order (it can happen sometimes) and the passenger boarded the train without a valid ticket. A particularly officious ticket inspector was on board, asked to see my friend’s ticket and, when my friend (who is fluent in Italian) tried to explain that the ticket machine at Bagni was out of order, refused to believe his explanation and threatened a minimum fifty euro fine.

What could my friend have done? What I’ve done if the ticket machine is out of order, or if the validating stamper doesn’t work, is to go straight to an operative on the train and state my case. It’s always worked. It seems that now, however, it might be a good idea to take a photograph of an out-of-order ticket issuing machine just in case…

If one doesn’t know how to operate a ticket machine there are plenty of unofficial “helpers” around. When in Rome I tried to obtain a ticket for a somewhat circuitous route. A young man (not a railway employee) was there to assist me and get a valid ticket issued in time for me to catch my train. I felt the small tip I gave him was well worth it. He remained there waiting for the next befuddled passenger to ask for his assistance.

This is an example of unofficial “black work” in Italy which could land both the unofficial assistant and the confused user in trouble but it is certainly widespread. Another unofficial “black work”, this one literally, are the car-space indicators from regions south of the Mediterranean who will find a place for your car to be parked in the centre of (e.g. Pisa) often using the partly-used ticket of a previous occupier. At least (it is to be hoped) your car won’t be broken into or damaged while you’re away glorying in the sights of the city.

Since a significant majority of Italians have an official and an unofficial work a blind eye is usually cast on these practises and it would only be the most martinet of visitors to this country to report these cases to the “forze dell’ordine”.

I do hope, however, that the authorities see sense with my friend and that they will discard the threatened fine. I am glad to say that in our case the train guard was very courteous toward the “aged parent” – indeed the majority of Italian railway employees share the same attitude, thank goodness.

 

 

A Swinging Time between Pisa and Bagni di Lucca

At last, after too many years of train travelling between Pisa, Lucca, Bagni di Lucca and beyond on worn-out, and dirty rolling stock, we have been introduced to a “swing” era. For that’s the name given to the new multiple-unit diesel trains which are replacing the old stock which has more than passed its useful life.

Some years back there was hope that the three-unit Minuetto trains would signal a start of a new era of train travel on this highly picturesque route. The ALn class of rolling stock in both diesel and an electric forms and named “Minuetto” (perhaps because they came as combined three-unit carriages with a distributed propulsion between them – minuets are in ¾ time, don’t forget) were originally commissioned by Trenitalia, the national rail company, as substitutes for the ALn 660 and AL 801 diesel and electric railcars which dated back to the early 1970’s.

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Unfortunately, the Minuetto was not a success in this part of the world. Although its interior furnishing was futuristic and a marked improvement on what we had to put with in the smelly over or under-heated Al 660s, the Minuetto suffered from three main faults. Firstly, the control software was unreliable and breakdowns were not infrequent. Secondly, the railway line between Lucca and Aulla is so tortuous that there was abnormal wear on the train’s wheel flanges which had to be frequently replaced. (The same problem arose on all other mountain routes the Minuetto served, especially in Aosta and Sicily). Thirdly, the seating capacity was insufficient for many journeys. All these faults led to the withdrawal of the Minuetto on our line in 2007 and we were condemned to returning to travel on the old stock.

We then had to pass several more years with the out-dated trains which were increasingly subject to mechanical failures, progressively filthier seats, a certain amount of vandalism and even rain seeping through the carriage roofs which drenched quite a few of us!

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When, therefore, the “swing” made its first appearance it seemed to us truly a vision from another world!

The first Swing started service on the Lucca-Aulla line on 22 March this year and scored an immediate success with staff and passengers. It certainly could not have been otherwise!

The features of the new train include special seating for less able passengers, electric sockets for use of PC’s two toilets on each carriage, one designed for disabled passengers, open space connections between carriages (instead of narrow dangerous interconnecting passages) and the facility for trains to expand from three to a maximum of six carriages as traffic requires.

We travelled on one of the new trains the other day and had a truly swinging time. The seats are not only comfortable but they are clean and there’s even an electronic route map showing our journey’s progress. Above all, our ride was incredibly smooth and quiet. The windows are large and one can actually see through them and admire the wonderful terrain of rivers, mountains forests and villages through which the line proceeds.

The Lucca-Aulla line has a long history (which I’ve already described in other posts. See, for example, https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/minuets-are-back-very-soon/ ). Started at the turn of the last century, it was only completed in 1959 and provides a magnificent alternative route between Lucca and Genoa. Indeed, the line was built for strategic purposes in case enemy action might  have put the much more exposed coastal route out of action.

There can be even less reason to travel to Pisa or Lucca by car now unless, of course, one is going to a late show. Last trains from Lucca depart shortly after 9 pm. Perhaps something can be done about this?

And what about train travel to Florence? An electric version called “jazz” has been introduced on the Lucca-Florence line and when the track doubling is completed journey times should be considerably cut.

Italy is investing heavily into its railway network and train travel in this country is considerably cheaper and generally much more pleasurable than in the UK.

We are sure we’ll have a swinging time with the new trains for a long time to come!

Come and enjoy one of the great train journeys of the world on the Lucca to Aulla line, now in luscious comfort.