Iced Up in Lucca

At a relatively early age I discovered what made the big difference between Italy and the UK (apart from the weather). It was the quality of the ice-cream. (The wine came later). The summit of ice-cream making in our London suburb was when the van turned up with its enervating chimes and we rushed to get our wafers or cones with something, either ghastly pink or off-white, with a chocolate flake stuck on top.

It was lickable but paled very significantly as the taste buds were awakened into extasies by ice-creams in Italy with their incredibly varied flavours and taste of natural ingredients.

Ice-cream reached the UK in the seventeenth century when Charles I imported an Italian chef to make it for him. The “royal” prerogative was largely broken when a Italian-swiss ice-cream maker named Gatti set up the first ice-cream stall before Charing Cross station in 1851. From then on the British public, regardless of class, have been hooked on this wondrous dessert.

Sadly, however, just as (in an episode of that immortal comedy series, “Yes Minister”), the British sausage had to be re-named, according to European Union rules, as the “emulsified high-fat offal tube”, so the average British ice-cream, which contains well above the permitted E. U. level of fats and oils, should be re-titled the “hydrogenated vegetable oil iced slab”. Or am I becoming a little unfair?

Returning to Italy and, in particular, Lucca: until a few years ago we used to patronise a couple’s ice-cream shop in Via San Paolino. Apart from the excellence of their product, what was interesting was that this couple had given up work in a UK insurance office to enter into a business in which not only did they lack experience but also where they were in stiff competition with the natives.

However, just as Italians emigrating to Glasgow struck it lucky opening up fish ‘n chip shops (a fact celebrated in Barga’s summer festival) so why shouldn’t Brits have done the same with ice-cream in Italy? It’s a difficult act to follow and our friends did it excellently before moving to pastures new in France.

Yesterday at Lucca, enjoying Saint Zita’s day, visiting her uncorrupted corpse (a sign of sainthood apparently) exposed in a glass case near the entrance to San Frediano’s church and appreciating the city’s unique amphitheatre square ablaze with flower stalls

(see my post at for more of that event) we decided to taste some ices at Gelateria Veneta in Via Fillungo no 136.

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Our taste buds were certainly not disappointed. In fact, we thought it was the best ice-cream we’d licked for a long time. The prices for our cones were reasonable and, if we wished, we could have indulged in even more gluttonous pleasures, including an amazing looking banana split.

It may seem strange to have the Venice region as an originator of ice-cream. Surely the tradition started further south? Venice, however, was amply provided in its hinterland with all the fruit trees it could have wanted to make up a great variety of flavours. The Alps just north, supplied all the ice it wanted, even at the height of summer, before modern refrigeration took over that task. Moreover, Veneto’s location made it an excellent focal point from whence ice-cream seller invaded the Austro Hungarian empire and its capital, Vienna (until 1866 the Veneto region was part of this empire) besides spreading across the whole of northern and central Italy.

The recipes followed are those originating from the Zoldo valley in the Dolomites (hence the name “zoldano” ice-cream) do not use milk and specialise particularly in fruit sorbets.

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There are in fact four branches of the Gelateria Veneto, including the yoghurt place by the Rex hotel near Lucca station. The other three are within the city walls, one appropriately sited in Via Vittorio Veneto near san Pietro gate.


There’s more information at their web site at

When the weather really heats up you’ll know where you’ll probably find us if we’re in Lucca…

An Eternal Kiss

Every European city with its great art galleries has, at the very least, one must see-painting. Who could leave Paris without seeing the Mona Lisa for example or London without visiting the National Gallery’s Leonardo Cartoon?

Vienna, too, has its unmissable work. It’s not in the main gallery of the Kunsthistorisches Museum but a little way outside the Ring and a letter D tram takes one there.

We didn’t take this tram as it might have landed us in Lapland!

Unlike so many of the world’s most famous paintings this one can be clearly seen in peace and quiet without crowds of people round it trying to have a peep. The gallery where this painting’s located is in a fairy-tale palace surrounded by magic gardens with magnificent views over the ex-imperial capital.

The Belvedere was built in the first half of the eighteenth century under the direction of Prince Eugene of Savoy who was the commander in chief of the Hapsburg army at the battle of Zenta in 1697 when the Ottomans were defeated at the gates of Vienna and where large swathes of Europe avoided being converted to Mohammedanism. The architect of this magnificent palace was not the ubiquitous Von Erlach but Johann Lukas Von Hildebrandt, another architect who had studied in Italy.

The Belvedere’s entrance hall has great atlas-like figures which cover the fact that they had to be placed there to support the upper floor which was subsiding while the palace was still being built. It’s an elegant solution to a difficult problem.

The elaborate frescoes and canvases which decorate the state rooms and the chapel were painted by Italian painters Solimena, Carloni and Fanti.

The Belvedere’s setting is enchanting with its gently gardens giving broad prospects towards the city of Vienna. The gardens were a bit colourless at this time of year. However, we must return in the spring and admire the parterres and waterfalls at greater length. Like the privy garden at Hampton Court, the gardens are being restored to their original elaborate baroque splendour.

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At the time of our visit this December the palace grounds were enlivened by one of Vienna’s traditional Christmas markets.

But what special painting did I come to see? I am, of course, referring to Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”, a painting which has been given cult status so that it even appears on shopping bags, T-shirts and tea-cloths. Ah, the price of fame!


Klimt (1862 –1918) started off as a decorative painter much in demand for beautifying the interior of the new buildings that were being erected on that most wonderful of European boulevards, the Ringstrasse, which took the place of the demolished city walls and enabled Vienna to finally expand beyond its narrow confines. Increasingly exotic influences began to permeate Klimt’s works which originally were in the mainstream academic tradition. In particular, Klimt’s visit to Ravenna, where he came in contact with its fabulous byzantine mosaics, stimulated his artistic vision into something more ethereal.

The Belvedere has one large room dedicated to some of Klimt’s most wonderful paintings including the iconic “Kiss”.

There are, of course, many other extraordinary paintings at the Belvedere but I thought “better to see one painting slowly than many quickly..”

In this painting one can see most clearly the way this symbolist painter fuses figurative and decorative elements. It’s as if underneath all that luscious gold leaf there lies another, more literal painting. There is a great feeling of japonerie in the figures’ composition and a strangely paradoxical three-dimensional flatness.

Of course, I’d seen the painting in its countless reproductions but when one perceives the real thing before one’s eyes it’s as if experiencing this iconic painting for the first time. The physical effect of the canvas is overwhelming: I felt my knees melting and my whole being transported into a Stendhal-effect-like universe.

There’s absolutely no doubt. A world of virtual reality will never ever be able to replace reality itself and we must not mistakenly be taken over by that virtuality. These stunning paintings have to be seen in the flesh, or at least in their oil and canvas.


PS Incidentally, the highest price paid for any painting was in 2006 when Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold at auction  for $135 million. I wish I had that money to spend!



Horse-Riding at its Finest

We’d first seen the equestrian ballet of the horses of the Hofreitschule (better known as the Spanish Riding School) some years ago in the vast spaces of the Wembley enclosed stadium in London. Although, I enjoy the occasional canter I’m not a passionate horseperson but, thinking that while in Vienna we should visit the horses and their trainers in the original location, I booked two tickets on-line from our hotel. The prices can shock all but the most devoted lovers of dressage as they rise to euros 300 for a show that lasts a little more than an hour. I managed, however, to find two standing room tickets for a little under euros 30.

The Spanish riding school is not named after anything particularly Spanish about the training but after the fact that the original horses came from Spain. The present horses, as most of us know, are Lipizzaner and are bred at Heldendorf in lower Austria. The original Lipizzaner came from Lipizza which is now in Slovenia.

The show came fully up to our expectations. The elegance, colouring and precision of these magnificent beasts are awesome. This training was required when firepower was invented. The horses’ movements are not for attack but are to display their dexterity in getting out of difficult situations on the battlefield and under firepower. With the advent of guns and cannons, the cumbrous armour of knights and the cart-horse proportions of their steeds became quite useless. What was needed now was full flexibility and control of the horse and this is how the amazing routines of this riding school were developed.

In 1729 the great architect Fischer von Erlach designed the present beautiful winter riding school which is where the displays take place.


The highlight of the show came when the horses displayed levades,






and caprioles.


There was a ban on taking photos during the display. Clearly, flash photos would have distracted rider and horse but I noticed many people taking non-flash photos so I decided I’d include a few of my own.

We were glad we managed to see this great Viennese tradition. Its original setting adds everything to the event.

It’s Christmas Eve!

Christmas Eve. It’s arrived at last, suddenly, stealthily. What to do? Where to go?

Tonight, for us, it’s definitely an ascent to the Grail Mountain, and the gleaming white former Passionist monastery, where a Teutonic maestro holds a musical academy of the highest quality and where midnight mass will be celebrated with the greatest compositional embellishments.

(For more details on Montegral see my post at

It’s also the last day for Lucca’s Christmas markets and, of course, for presents shopping. But today I think we’ll concentrate on preparing our Christmas repast as tomorrow morning we’ll be singing with our choir at Ghivizzano castello at 11.00 am High Mass.

Also to do is organising the photographs of our recent trip to Vienna with the Lucca Philharmonic orchestra.

If one’s got barely a day in the wondrous city of Vienna the best thing to do is not to see again those things one had visited on one’s one and only previous visit. 23 years ago we’d descended into the imperial vaults, admired Schonnbrunn palace and walked under the arches of Saint Stephen’s cathedral. This time we decided to visit new things.

We took no. 1 tram to the Ring and crossed a park with the following features on our way to the Albertina.

The Albertina holds one of the finest graphical collections of any world museum in a lusciously gracious baroque environment.

There are over a million prints and drawings stored including renowned drawings by Albert Durer. Who can’t remember seeing this hare before?


Here is a design for Leonardo’s own last supper.


But the Albertina is even more than this. The Batlinger bequest paintings, ranging from Monet to Picasso, have enriched the Albertina since 2008. Indeed, it’s one of the most important European collections of International Modernism. I couldn’t miss this as it wasn’t even there in 1991.

There are Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists like Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Signac.

A further focus is on German Expressionism with the “Die Brücke” and “Der Blaue Reiter” artists groups, as well as outstanding works by Oskar Kokoschka, Rudolf Wacker and Herbert Boeckl.

The Russian avant-garde, Suprematism, Constructivism and Neo-Primitivism with Chagall, Malevich, El Lissitzky, Exter, Rodchenko and Goncharova form the centrepiece of the collection.

Concluding the exhibition is a whole roomful of Picassos.

I loved this Modigliani:

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And this eerie Delvaux from 1958 really set my mind thinking:

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These were paintings that really hit the eye. I was less impressed by the Miro exhibition in the same museum (apart from his early works) but then some are born to like this painter and others are not.

The Albertina is lovingly presented and it is hard to visualise the severe damage this beautiful building was subject to in the last months of WWII. Fortunately, the actual collection was kept in safety and that is the important thing. It’s a definate must-see if you are visiting Vienna.




Where god Lived

Twenty-fifty years ago, in 1989, the Berlin wall fell. For us it meant one thing – that, finally, we had the possibility of visiting freely all those place in Europe that had been out-of-bounds unless one was in an organized group. Here was truly touring freedom. It’s hard to realise today, when practically all these countries are now part of the European Union, just how hard travel restrictions were to some European destinations when the infamous wall was still standing.

Our route took us first through Germany to Prague and for the next couple of weeks we travelled in what was once the dual crown of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. The cities of Prague, Budapest and the forests of Transylvania were all on our itinerary and, of course, Vienna.

Our car, which is still with us, was a maroon Morris traveller – just the right car to use because of its relatively simple engine mechanics. Here it is in front of the Esterhazy summer palace at Fertod in Hungary in 1991, the place where among many other works Haydn wrote his “farewell” symphony – a subtle hint that, at the end of summer, the musicians wanted to get away from this isolated spot and back to their homes and families near the winter palace.

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Visits to famous composers’ homes abounded on that trip and, especially in Vienna, we made it a point to visit as many of their dwellings as possible. Here is a picture taken outside Mozart’s place near St Stephen’s cathedral in 1991, which also happened to be the two hundredth anniversary of his death.

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 Here is the same spot 23 years later when we accompanied Andrea Colombini and the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra to the hallowed Musicverein:

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On this occasion we didn’t re-visit Mozart’s only remaining Viennese residence, where he lived from 1784 to 1787 and where he composed, among many other works, the Marriage of Figaro (indeed it was then called the Figarohaus – now it’s just plain Mozarthaus). It was after closing hours anyway. Back in 1991 we remember that it was just one apartment among several others grouped around a rather dilapidated courtyard with neighbours’ washing unembarassingly hung down from the windows.

We have since learnt that under a refurbishment in 2004 the courtyard has been completely altered with the installation of a lift. Of course, this allows less able people to visit the house but I am sure that we would miss the much more “authentic” atmosphere of that old courtyard. Today the house from the outside looked much refurbished and rather clinical.

When young I never wanted to visit Vienna because I felt the city had actually contributed towards Mozart’s death by not properly realising his god-like talent. I have since discarded this simplistic view. There was, in fact, an epidemic at the time of Mozart’s last month and unfortunately, he caught the bug as well. As for Mozart’s near-destitution in his last year we can all reach that state if we spend more than we earn!

Anyway, Mozart died on 5th December 1791 at the age of thirty five and, because of the fear of the epidemic spreading, he was given a quick burial in St Marx’s cemetery (which we remember as being near a motorway flyover). Again, digging through our archives of what was clearly the key trip in our lives, here is a picture of Mozart’s (presumed) grave in that cemetery.

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We live, anyway, through our works and Mozart will live as long as people are around with ears to hear and appreciate this musical God.




Lucca Conquers Vienna with Music

Vienna at Christmas time is particularly magical. In this ex-imperial capital the elegant streets are beautifully decorated with fir trees and bright lights, the festive season’s christkindlmarkt spring up by the cathedral, next to the belvedere and several others of the city’s famous buildings:

I, therefore, without hesitation, seized the chance of accompanying the Lucca Philharmonic Orchestra together with its choruses and soloists. Complimentary tickets were supplied thanks to the generosity of orchestra director and conductor, Lucca’s major musical energiser, entrepreneur and Puccini festival organizer, Andrea Colombini.

At 5 am on 19th December, we set out from our little mountain village of Longoio to reach one of three coaches carrying a total of 200 musicians, of which 75 were orchestral players, technicians and assistants, to start the 560 miles from Lucca to the Austrian capital.

Fourteen hours later we landed in south Vienna – it was clearly a long journey but certainly not a tedious one. Scenically, the route was very varied and the company was most convivial. I’ve never known a fourteen-hour coach journey go so quickly!

To attend a performance in the Musikverein is something I’d always dreamt of doing. To do so in the context of a concert by an orchestra I have praised as being a veritable asset to the city of Lucca is an added bonus as, indeed, was the very special occasion which prompted the orchestra to play at the Musikverein.

This was the second time the Lucca Orchestra has played there after last year’s successful Christmas concert. The difference this time was that the occasion was not promoted from Lucca but was a result of an invitation from the Musicverein itself, so happy with the sound the ensemble made last year. Since the Viennese public are particularly discriminating about matters musical this was, indeed, a great honour for Andrea and his band of musicians. In this sense, I felt that Lucca had conquered Vienna through the heart (and not by political machinations as it had been conquered by Metternich when he installed Maria Luisa, of the Bourbon dynasty, at the 1815 congress of Vienna.)

Would the musicians from Lucca live up to the occasion again? Certainly! Not only did they do so but they exceeded all expectations. In the words of the director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Vienna Colombini’s Musicverein concert projected a positive and joyous image of Italy which could only increase confidence in the country’s talents.

This was the programme (and may I say how well produced was the actual written programme with full words of all the items sung and excellent biographies of the artistes):

img518 And these were the performers:


 Here are those who helped to make the event possible:


Verdi’s Sicilian vespers overture confirmed the stature of the Lucca orchestra from the very start. The sound was cohesive, well-balanced with a particularly impressive brass section. Of course, music lovers must know that the Musikverein golden hall has probably the finest acoustics of any concert hall in the world, due largely to its shoebox shape and the overwhelming use of wood in its interior. What seems marble is scagliolaed wood. Even the golden caryatids are of wood. This wood causes resonances in which one’s whole being seems to vibrate in tune with the harmonies produced. Truly, the Musikverein Goldener Saal (designed by Theophil Von Hansen and first opened in 1870) is a giant casket dedicated to the supreme aspirations of the greatest sounds ever produced outside heaven itself.

The first vocal item from “Madama Butterfly” confirmed the high level of the singing which would permeate the whole event. It was a clever move to introduce “Italian” items into the program, here in the form of the aria from Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier”. (I wonder if the orchestra will consider playing the same composer’s “Aus Italien” in their next visit to the former Hapsburg imperial capital?).

The orchestra reaffirmed its mastery in the playing of “La Traviata’s” prelude from Act 1 – a most sensitive performance.

Richard Strauss resumed with a melting performance of his song “Zuewignung”.

Lucca’s greatest son, Puccini returned with the heart-melting set of two solo arias and duet from the end of act 1 of La Bohème. The stature of the choir asserted itself in the famous humming chorus from “Madama Butterfly.”  But the real coup-de-theatre came with the finale of the first part of the chorus which is that incredibly difficult thing to pull off: Musetta’s waltz and the whole of the finale of Act 2 of “La Bohème”. The children’s choir (not just boys as stated in the programme but including the girls as well…) of the Capella Santa Cecilia di Lucca were quite enchanting with their appearance and, although it was a concert performance, it was so vivid that the imagination stretched to the visualization of the Café Momus itself. I look forwards to Colombini staging opera, in the near future I hope…

The second half of the concert kicked off with the “Carmen” entr’acte played at a cracking pace which the orchestra showed it was able to fully sustain. The ubiquitous toreador’s song concluded the French element of the concert.

Perhaps the finest singing was sustained in Cavaradossi’s heart-rending aria from “Tosca”, “E Lucevan le stelle”, beautifully sung by Mugnaini.

Pieces from those two lesser stars of Italian verismo, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, followed. There was a wonderful Mozartian interlude when rising star Sonia Bellugi sang with panache the immensely difficult Queen of the Night aria from Vienna’s greatest ex-resident of all time (and the world’s?) , Mozart.

Mugnaini’s rendering of “Vesti la Giubba” had, by this stage in the evening, reduced us emotionally to pulp. The emotional high was sustained by “Vissi d’arte” and the official end of the programme concluded with the most celebrated items from “Turandot” including the reappearance of Lucca’s finest children’s chorus in the item “La Sui Monti dell ‘Est”.

At this stage it would not be an exaggeration to state that several of the 1,800 members of the audience present were showing lachrymose symptoms. The music played hits at the heart and only the most sang-froid characters or robots could possibly remain unaffected.

The audience clearly couldn’t face the streets of nighttime Vienna in this fragile state and the encore was appropriately “O Sole mio” in a highly inebriating interpretation with the entire soloists combining to raising our spirits again.

Clapping was long, culminating not only in a standing ovation for the brilliant performers but also by that slow hand-clapping which signifies that the highest of the audience’s expectations had been reached and extensively overtaken.

The combination of that wonderful golden palace of music, its sanctum sanctorum where the greatest composers have been played (and played) under the baton of the greatest conductors,  Vienna’s Musikverein, so well-known from its New Year’s day concerts, together with the Christmas atmosphere and the energizing presence of prodigious and sonorous ambassadors  from Italy, and particularily from Lucca, made us feel especially light-headed and happy at the end of this event which can only bring both praise and hope to an Italy struggling towards a cheerier future . When Andrea asked me how it went I had no difficulty in saying that he and his musicians had transported us all to seventh heaven. I’m still there now, thinking about that enchanted evening when Lucca swept Vienna off her feet.

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PS If you missed this wonderful concert do not despair – there will be a replica concert at Lucca’s Giglio on Tuesday 23rd December. It was also filmed and the film will soon appear in cinemas. I’ll keep you posted when and where.