Where Venice’s last Doge died, where Napoleon stayed and where Sting played

The Veneto region of Italy is famous for its beautiful Palladian villas which did so much to influence the typical eighteenth century English country house. We have visited a handful of these villas on previous trips to this region and knew what splendours to expect. However, we were quite unprepared for the glories of the Villa Manin which is near Passariano on a secondary route from Udine to Trieste.

The villa owes its sixteenth century origin to a Friulian Antonio Manin who, having lost territories in Dalmatia as the Venetian republic’s power diminished, decided to concentrate on land and expanding his agricultural domains.

In succeeding centuries the villa was added to with barcòn (Venetian for service wings), a classical portico and, most astonishingly, a monumental exedra consisting of two semi-circular arms, almost horse-shoe shaped, which embrace the front area of the villa.

The Villa Manin has been the scene of the most disparate events. In 1796 Napoleon stayed with his first wife, Josephine Beauharnais, whose amorous entreaties in such gorgeous surroundings he could not possibly have refused. (Or did he?)

Here too Napoleon signed the treaty of Campoformido (or Campoformio) which brought the Serenissima republic of Venice to a tragic end after almost a thousand years of independence. Indeed, the last Doge died here in this bed:

In subsequent years the villa went through highs and lows until, in the second half of the last century, it had fallen into a sorry state of decay and was sold by the last of its noble owners to the region of Venice in 1962 for the equivalent of £ 70,000, on condition that it be restored to its original glory.

After years of restoration the villa has reached something of its former splendour despite the fact that most of the original furnishings have gone.

The exterior is dazzling and owes its present appearance largely due to the architect Domenico Rossi who brought in some French influence in the neo-classical design. Next time we’re in the area we must visit Udine where the cathedral’s façade is also by Rossi.

The interior has some very fine features. The chapel is in a typically ornate baroque style and houses the ancestors of the Manin family.

The villa’s ‘garage’ houses some fine examples of old carriages and landaus.

The Villa’s park, designed by Ziborghi in an English landscape style influenced surely in part by Capability Brown, is huge and one could spend a whole day just walking around it.

This sweet little sign says ‘please don’t tread on the grass here, the narcissi are just about to be born’.

The villa’s piano Nobile has rooms painted by Dorigny, Amigoni and Oretti with some youthful contributions by Tiepolo before he became the greatest of eighteenth century decorative artists.

Today the villa has new life as a centre of restoration of works of art particularly those damaged by the terrible Friuli earthquake of 1976 in which almost a thousand people died. It also holds art exhibitions ranging from Sebastiano Ricci to Kandinsky, The one we saw during our visit had as its theme World War one which in 1917 raged only a few miles away from this seemingly idyllic arcadia.

The Villa is also a sort of Italian ‘Woburn Abbey’ with pop concerts given by such groups as Kiss, Iron Maiden, Radiohead and Sting. Pity the Stones didn’t choose this place instead of Lucca -there would have been much more room and I might have even been able to get a ticket!

There’s also a very atmospheric bar and restaurant, an adventure trail for children in the park and very helpful staff.

Indeed, I was not only impressed by the prodigious villa itself but also by the almost National Trustian way it was managed. I do hope that more of Italy’s magnificent country houses will emulate Villa Manin in bringing new energy into properties which could so easily have crumbled into dust.

Spring Beans

Photographing oneself by the road-sign of this French town has become a truly old-hat activity.

In Italy the equivalent word for this interfering sexual accessory is ‘preservativo’. So if, for example, you are an avid jam maker in Italy don’t go into a shop and ask for a ‘preservativo’. You might just get a funny look. The correct word to use in this case is ‘conservante’.

Talking of humorous town names we came across a real ‘Faggiolo’ last month while doing our peripatetic tour in a remote corner of Friuli- Venezia-Giulia.

The ‘Faggiolo’ town and its environs should appeal to any fans of this idiosyncratic fellow:

Or, indeed, anyone who managed to escape as a kid from the good manner of ‘The Eagle’ comic and became a fan of the ‘Bash Street kids’ instead.

This one of course!

I’m not telling you precisely where it is (as I don’t want to cause a traffic jam) but the place and its environs are highly tempting parts of an equally tempting part of Italy which has its own language, as these bike signs in Italian and the local lingo confirm. (Italian comes first and Friulian comes next. If you speak Italian see how many words you can translate).

This reminds me that I once met a Japanese student who learnt Friulian as he was enamoured of endangered languages (Perhaps I should soon include English ‘as she is now spoke’ among these…) He loved Italy, except, that he had to travel with his charming Friulian girlfriend who translated for him when outside her native region into Italian. (I’m now researching on what ‘preservativo’ is in Friulian.)

PS Did you know that Italian is only one of twenty-six officially recognized national languages in the country – to say nothing of the languages brought in by the the recent high tide of immigration into the country?). If you are in Tuscany then you’re truly lucky – the local language is as close to Italian as you’ll get in Italy. Thank poet Dante for that.

Here are Italy’s official languages:

Anyway, I will postpone meandering further on this subject except to feast your eyes on Beano/Bean, a delectable and slightly neglected part of Italy which (fortunately, perhaps) has no ‘Mr Beans’ – signori faggioli – or ‘Desperate Dans’ in it. In compensation, it has some of the most appetising and attractive corners to be found anywhere in ‘il bel Paese’, including, not too far away,  the winner of the most beautiful borgo (town) for 2017

Incidentally, ‘preservativo’, if you were desperate for one in Friuli, is known as “budiel di Flandre”. Wonderful how we transpose our ‘French letters’ with reference to one of our other beloved European regions and countries……

PS Why is it both ‘Beano’ and ‘Bean’ on the town road  sign? ‘Beano’ is the Italian name for the town and ‘Bean’ is the Friulian name. (Compare Cardiff – English –  and Caerdydd – Welsh).

Two Carnivals at Bagni di Lucca and More

It’s Carnival time again in Italy!

It’s the time to have a last fling of fun and games before traditionally plunging oneself into Lenten fasts, sack-cloth and penitence.

Bagni di Lucca this year has two carnivals.

There’s a first for the Bagni di Lucca Villa Carnival. It’s called Carnevalvilla. Together with the parish of San Pietro in Corsena, the Red Cross and the local tourist association all streets will be pedestrianised on Saturday, February 6th, and a fantasy world created to appeal to children of all ages. We are promised Umpa Lumpa with sweet distribution, Mago (Wizard) Cilindro, face painting with Sissi, and Masha and her bear plus, of course, the usual stalls selling handicrafts, fripperies, toys etc.
02022016 021Then there’s the very successful carnival at Fornoli on 14th February which has now run for some years:


Of course, if you’re more ambitious there’s the fabulous Viareggio carnival which runs every week-end with its imaginative floats poking sophisticated fun at Italian politics and everything else in Italy which doesn’t exactly work to plan.


The Venice carnival, which began at the end of last month, is yet another incredible option but be warned: it can get very overcrowded and booking is essential. What is also essential there this year is the inspection of what’s under the mask you’re wearing. Security is tight in the light of recent tragic events in France and elsewhere.


There will be carnivals throughout Italy. Depending where you are check out the list at:


Carnivals from time immemorial have served a double purpose:

First: that of having a good time before the Lent (quaresima) season of atonement where one is supposed to give up something. Two years ago I gave up smoking (it was only a few roll-ups anyway) and now actually try avoiding the fumes of that weed wherever its noxious vapours hit my nose. (Incidentally, new anti-smoking draconian measures have been instituted in Italy today. Just chucking a dog-end in the street could land one with a serious fine or even in the dog-house). Last year I also started my wine-free days in the week (but have forgotten which days they are now). This year I will be giving up bottled water in restaurants since it clearly adds to food-mileage and plastic pollution. (Anyway, there’s no need for bottled water in my part of the world where the local stream can supply the best drinking water possible. It’s the restaurants which are the real culprits and now they are realising that more and more customers are quite happy with tap water).

The second purpose of carnival is flirting at masked balls. Images of Casanova and Don Giovanni creep into one’s consciousness. Anyway, Carnevale comes suitably close to the traditional Easter wedding season so I’m sure that there will be plenty of romance flying in the air especially as February 14 is happening right in the middle of the festivities!


PS To order your own personal carnevale costume there’s this shop in Fornoli you might like to try. It’s next to the vet there:

Italy’s Second Rome

Mosaic-making is the one art which can be said to be truly universal, From Sumerian and pre-Columbian civilizations up to the present day it has flourished and produced many exquisite masterpieces. Moreover, it is also one of the most durable of creations; where paintings have faded away and statues lost their limbs, mosaics have retained their original colouration and faithfully transmitted their vibrant glory to the present day.

Roman mosaics, with their different gradations of tesserae sizes and techniques, are spread throughout Europe and North Africa (where the finest examples can be found). From England’s Lullingstone Roman villa just outside London

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through Sicily’s Piazza Armerina


to the incredible examples in Tunisia (which we visited on our honeymoon)

surviving mosaics just show how universally their technique was spread throughout the known world.

Mosaics continued to be composed after the fall of the Roman Empire and some of the most splendid examples are to be found in Byzantine art, particularly at Ravenna (which we must revisit as soon as possible!) In Sicily, where we stayed in the winter of 2011-12, the superb examples in the palatine chapel of Palermo, Monreale and Cefalù are unbeatable.

Lucca, of course, has its own mosaic masterpiece in Berlinghieri’s work on the façade of San Frediano.

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After a lull during the Baroque era mosaics came back to their own again in the nineteenth century and it would be difficult to find a modern church in Italy without at least one example in its interior.

Aquileia is now a modest fishing village with  around 3,500 inhabitants situated in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region of north-east Italy but once it was Italy’s largest city with a population of over 100,000. Indeed, it was called the “Second Rome”. Attila the Hun laid it waste in 452 and its citizens fled to an island in the Lagoon to found one of the Mediterranean’s greatest maritime powers, Venice. Aquileia was rebuilt and became a Christian patriarchate in the 6th century. In 1420 the Venetians conquered it but later Aquileia was seized by the Austrian empire, within whose confines it remained until 1918 when it became part of the new kingdom of Italy.

Abundant traces of Aquileia’s rich history remain to this day and I was glad to visit it in April 2007. From Roman times are the remains of the main street and the port area, now to be found ten miles inland since the lagoon is slowly silting up. The archaeological area  is excellently documented.

In Aquileia’s ancient patriarchal basilica is one of the world’s largest mosaics dating back to the 4th century AD. It represents scenes from the Old Testament and is filled with Christian symbolism. For example, the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale and subsequently ejected by the sea-monster  refers to Christ’s death and His resurrection after three days.


There’s a battle depicted between a cock and a tortoise explained by the symbolism of the cock singing at dawn as the light of Christ and the tortoise as the symbol of hell or Tartarus.


The depiction of fish and crustaceans is both delightful and accurate. The species depicted can be easily recognised on today’s fish stalls.

The fish is, of course, the well-known Greek acronym of ichthys, meaning Iesus Cristos Theou Uios Soter (Jesus Christ Saviour, Son of God). That’s why fish used to be customarily eaten on Fridays in Catholic families to symbolise Good Friday and Christ’s eventual resurrection three days later, i.e. on Sunday.

In 1998 the archaeological site of Aquileia, together with the remains of the patriarchal Basilica complex, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Behind the basilica is a small war cemetery. It was from here that the Unknown Soldier was taken to lie at the front of the Altar of the Nation (colloquially known as the “wedding cake”) in Rome’s Piazza Venezia.

Aquileia and its surroundings are lovely, if somewhat melancholic, places to visit. Their rich past and present desolation prompts one to musings on the transience of civilizations and peoples.

PS Our Serchio valley has its own Aquileja (spelt with a “j” instead of an “i” – perhaps same derivation from “Aquila” meaning an eagle?). It’s of course, in a very different environment among verdant hills far from the flat, formerly malarial, plains of Veneto’s Aquileia, but just the sound of its name evokes for me fond memories of my visit to what was once the largest city in Europe.

Seaview Trieste-Style

Described by “Lonely Planet” guide as “the most underestimated of Italian tourist destinations”, Trieste is a truly fascinating place to discover, not least because of its location at the crossroads of three worlds, the Italian Mediterranean, the Mittel-European Austrian and the Slavonic Balkans.

It was also James Joyce’s favourite place and Italo Svevo’s too (who was taught English by Joyce before setting out to our London borough of Greenwich to run a paint factory – but that is another story.)

Trieste could be described as Vienna-by-the-sea. Its impressive buildings do have a strong taste of classic Ringstrasse architecture.

But Trieste is also typically Italian with its narrow winding streets in the old town and its beautiful cathedral dedicated to San Giusto.

Trieste has the reputation of being the original caffé centre of Italy. When the Turks had to retreat from their siege of Vienna in 1683 they left behind a bag of….coffee beans and Austria and Italy were hooked on the dark liquid. Of course, if the Turks had won we’d still be hooked but then Italy and Europe would be full of minarets rather than campanili! The best place to drink il Caffè is, of course, the magnificently historic San Marco Caffè.

Just outside Trieste is probably what must be one of Europe’s finest preserved 19th century summer palaces: the Schloss Miramar. 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.  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?

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).

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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 succeed 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.

All my photographs date from my last visit to these fairyland places in April 2007. I must return soon and find out more!

Lest We Forget

May 23rd 1915 marks the hundredth anniversary of Italy’s entry into World War I. I have already given the background to this entry in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-the-great-war-from-an-italian-perspective/ .

As that ominous date approaches I recollected my visit, in April 2007, to the military memorial of Redipuglia in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. Dedicated to the memory of more than 100,000 Italian soldiers who died during the Great War it was built during the fascist era to replace a less colossal cemetery just to the front of it.

It was that same fascist regime which almost lost the memorial to the Yugoslavs in the bitterest fighting that marked the close of the Second World War. The cemetery is, in fact, situated in the province of Gorizia, a town which has been divided between two countries since 1945 as a result of that fighting. Several other Italian cemeteries have not been so lucky and one has to cross over into Slovenia or Croatia to visit many of them, something more easily done now than during the existence of Yugoslavia.

The Redipuglia monument is the centre-piece of a large memorial park which includes several parts of the karst battlefields. These were the scene for some of the fiercest battles fought and include the Isonzo war theatre comprising twelve battles between 1915 and 1917 which ended with the disastrous defeat by the Austrians at Caporetto.

The huge size of the Redipuglia memorial makes it easily the largest military memorial in Italy and one of the largest in the world. It was an incredibly moving experience to be there.

I went to the top of the memorial where there is an ossuary dedicated to sixty thousand soldiers who died without a name and slowly walked down the colossal stair ramps (twenty two steps in total) casting an eye on some names which somehow rang a bell with me.

In all there are 39,857 names referring to the identified bodies of soldiers. I found the constantly repeated inscriptions “Presente” referring to the soldiers’ morning roll call particularly touching. Truly these soldiers are always present with us, “lest we forget”.

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It is really shocking to realise that 60,330 soldiers are buried here without a name to identify them!

Interestingly, there is also a woman, a Red Cross nurse, buried at Redipuglia: Margherita Orlando, who died in the Spanish flu epidemic which followed the war’s end and claimed even more victims that those who fell in combat.

At the monuments base is the porphyry tomb (weighing 75 tons) of Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia-Aosta, commander of Italy’s Third Army – a sort of symbolic gesture (which he wanted) of a general leading his soldiers even beyond death.


Every November 4, in the presence of the President of the Senate (replacing the President of Italy who observes at Rome’s Altar of the Fatherland – or Motherland?) there is a commemoration, on the lines of our own tribute at London’s cenotaph, in remembrance of the 689,000 Italian soldiers who died in the First World War.

The great stone stairway down which I walked, and which forms a kind of gigantic shrine at Redipuglia, is placed directly in front of Sant’Elia Hill, which housed the previous war cemetery and which was also the scene of bitter fighting between 1915 and 1918. I found this previous war cemetery particularly touching as it was designed by the serving soldiers themselves rather than by a totalitarian regime which would drive Italy into yet another disastrous war.

The area between the two cemeteries contains relics of the fighting including trenches, tunnels, munition, machine gun nests and various examples of WW1 firepower.

The dedications set up by the survivors are themselves particularly poignant and, although this previous cemetery lacks the impressiveness of the new one designed by architect Giovanni Greppi and sculptor Giannino Castiglioni, it is for me even more moving, giving a closer impression of how feelings ran about the bloodiest conflict mankind has known.

It is both ironic and unbelievable that Mussolini’s monumental masterpiece was inaugurated in the same year that he began negotiating a “pact of steel” with his great admirer, Adolf Hitler.


When will we ever learn, I wonder.

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.