Great Romanesque churches in our part of the world

If I had to write a ‘good church guide’ to the churches in the comune of Bagni di Lucca I’d definitely choose the first four on the list below. The remaining three are in nearby comuni and a little planning will be able to include them. For example, starting from Bagni di Lucca it’s possible to do a circular tour across from Benabbio to Villa Basilica and return via Collodi and Marlia with a little detour to the Brancoleria and its superb Pieve of San Giorgio.

Do I have any particular favourite? That’s rather like asking me what pasta shape I prefer! They are all superb and anyone who misses out on them in our part of the world is missing out a great deal. If I had to choose one, however, it would be Villa Basilica’s transcendent Pieve – so fine!

Accessibility to these architectural and spiritual treasures depends on two factors:

  1. Times of church Masses. Easily checked up on Lucca’s diocesan web-site at http://www.diocesilucca.it/orari.php?cod_ana=390
  2. Knowing the right person.

Here’s my list then:

NAME AND LOCATION DEDICATION STYLE AND AGE ACCESSIBILITY MY POST ON IT
Santo Stefano di Bargi San Stefano Largely Romanesque with 18th century vaulting Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/from-pieve-di-controni-to-eltham-palace/

 

Pieve di San Cassiano San Cassiano Largely Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/symbols-of-eternity/

 

Pieve di Vico Pancellorum San Paolo Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/yes-of-course-it-must-have-been-at-vico-pancellorum/

 

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2017/05/21/vico-pancellorums-secret-language/

 

Pieve di Sala Santi Quirico e Giulitta Romanesque Poor https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/a-castle-and-a-pieve/

 

Pieve di Popiglio Santa Maria Assunta Largely Romanesque with fine renaissance features Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/17/proud-popiglio/

 

Pieve di Villa Basilica Santa Maria Assunta

 

Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/noble-villa-basilica/

 

Pieve di Brancoli  San Giorgio Romanesque Good https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/lions-and-dragons-of-the-brancoleria/

 

Recently I took two friends to visit San Cassiano and Vico Pancellorum.

We were shown around both pievi by well-informed locals who play a very active part in their communities: Pietro for San Cassiano (contactable through Santina’s trattoria) and Claudio for Vico Pancellorum,  president of the ‘Risveglio’ village association.

San Cassiano church is built on the site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana and is full of carved symbolism which dates back beyond even the Templar knights to times lost in the mists of occult pagan customs.

At Vico Pancellorum Claudio pointed out all the fine details of the pieve which still conserves its original Romanesque apse, (unlike San Cassiano).

Unfortunately, the apse’s windows are blocked by much later outbuildings used for storage. How wonderful it would be if those excrescences were demolished and light shone onto the altar.

The same argument might be said for the organ which blocks the light from the western windows. However, it is a fine seventeenth century organ supported by a fine loft from which, sadly, thirty years ago four angel heads were stolen. Could they not be re-carved from old photographs?

Vico is a wonderfully mysterious borgo and a great walk can be had by going from the Pieve up to the top of the steep town.

and returning through fragrant woods.

As the Italians say: ‘c’è l’imbarazzo della scelta’ – ‘there’s the embarassment of choice’ in this richly beautiful little corner of our awesome planet.

 

The Mists of Time

Rain returned yesterday and for the next few days it’s going to be very damp and misty. It’s a good time, perhaps, to look back at photographs one’s taken ten years ago of this same part of the world.

Sometimes it’s easily recognizable where the photographs have been taken, sometimes it’s not. The village must be somewhere near Corfino by the views from it but is that stretch of water Lago Pontecosi?  And what about these amazing mill wheels?

Already mysterious mists of time are descending onto pictures I’ve taken here.

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From the snow’s embrace

a crocus thrusts forth its bud:

when will spring arrive?

Christmas Count-Down in Mediavalle

As another prime minister, this time leader of Europe’s third largest economy, has shot himself in the foot over yet another referendum I wonder whether the traditional method of Parliamentary voting through one’s representatives is going out of fashion if one wants to change the government…..

Something that is not going out of fashion or be decided by a referendum, however, is Christmas despite the past efforts of certain English councils, to appease practising atheists and those of other faiths, to have it renamed ‘winterval’. I remember the occasion  when my own former place of work decided not to have a Christmas tree in its foyer. The first person to complain about this new ‘regulation’ was our receptionist who came from India. She was quite livid about it and the Christmas tree was put back in its proper place.

Christmas is not just for Christians. It has become a world-wide celebration of hope in the coming year, a gathering together of families and communities, a celebration of faith in the Earth. The only humbug thing about Christmas are those nice zebra-striped boiled sweets.

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Christmas in Italy, especially in the mountain villages, is something not to be missed. The ‘presepe vivente’ or ‘living crib’, where the village streets provide a perfect scenario for presenting old traditions and crafts and the birth of the baby Jesus himself, is particularly special. We have been privileged to have been role-players in one particularly spectacular one at Equi Terme. There are many more, however, closer to home.

Every year in the comune of Bagni di Lucca there’s a circulating one which each year chooses a village out of Granaiola, Monti di Villa and Pieve di Monti di Villa. This year it was Pieve di Monti di Villa’s turn but on the same day I could have gone to at least five others within an hour’s drive from our house. Moreover, there was a great Christmas market at Borgo a Mozzano with a re-enactment of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) throwing the devil off the Ponte Della Maddalena. To top it all there was a magnificent guitar recital by a great virtuoso at the convent of Saint Francis. Doubtless there was more happening but how on earth could I fit it all these activities?

I started with the Christmas market at Borgo. This was the beginning of the afternoon so the crowds hadn’t arrived yet. There were stalls to please all tastes for Christmas gifts.

My next stop was the Presepe Vivente at Pieve di Monti di Villa. I found this beautifully organized and very well-attended. It was good to meet many friends too. I couldn’t stay on for the actual nativity scene for I’d promised to be at a concert.

See how many old village crafts you can count. Needless to say some of them are still being carried out to this very day. Have you prepared your garden for spring planting? How well stocked is the winter feed for your goat? And who hasn’t got a friend who can cheer you up with some folk music. (There were no less than four bands that afternoon). And as for the food on offer…..so tasty and home-grown, especially the cheese!

Our living crib villages have got it absolutely right. The crib should be just for one day and it should start from mid-day and finish in time for dinner before it gets too dark and cold. Full marks and more for the presepe vivente di Pieve di Monti di Villa. It was absolutely brilliant.

It was then back to Borgo a Mozzano for the market and the concert. The high street was now very well attended. I had to miss the Saint Nicholas procession, however. (He chases the devil and throws him from the stupendous mediaeval ponte Del diavolo). A concert of John Dowland and J S Bach played by Nuccio D’Angelo, one of the world’s great guitar virtuosi (he’s even played in Darwin Australia and all over the USA, of course) could not be overlooked!

This was the programme:

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Within the beautiful setting of the convent of San Francesco the church grew colder and colder but Nuccio’s expressive playing more than warmed up the capacity audience. I particularly enjoyed his use of baroque ornamentation.

His transcription of Bach’s Lute suites for guitar (which involved quite a bit of re-tuning) was close to miraculous.

An encore was requested but although Nuccio jokingly said ‘you’ll have to wait for it next June when it’s warmer in this church’ he provided us with another Bach meltingly beautiful sarabande.

There are still twenty days to Christmas. Will I have the energy to make it to that day when there is so much happening just in our little valley? And I haven’t even mentioned the light shows and street parties and the best fun and games to warm up a month which is getting even ccccccccolder!

How to Live Well in Yunnan

Some of the farmhouses in Yunnan would shame even the finer ones in our own little area. We were able to visit the farmhouse of a family in Shangri-La province and were bowled over by its grace and magnificence.

A Tibetan-Yunnan province farmhouse consists of an ample two or three storied building with the animals generally kept on the ground floor, a large courtyard which is high-walled in with an entrance portal  and some smaller buildings built on each side of the courtyard.

The dimensions of the main house are truly vast and the decoration is simply miraculous. Just the wood used to frame the house comes from mammoth-girthed pines. The beams and windows are particularly intricately carved.

In summer the main house is used to accomodate up to four generations sleeping around a fire whose smoke leaps up through a hole in the ceiling in a mediaeval style reminding me of the arrangement at Penshurst place in southern England. In winter the smaller rooms on the sides of the inner courtyard are used to house the occupants because it’s easier to keep them warm.

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The furniture, cupboards and chests of the large mansion, a sort of piano nobile, are elaborately carved and beautifully painted. I have never seen such wonderful rural carvings before except perhaps in Nepal.

The floor planking is something to die for…

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It seems that, like the Tyrol, wood-carving is an activity that happily passes away the long winter nights and is also used to represent the prestige and standing of a family. At the very least, it shows just how much people in this area delight in objects of beauty and elegance.

The latest trend is to enclose the inner courtyard with a huge conservatory-like structure. This means that the area can keep warm even in the minus 15 centigrade temperatures of winter and, with the use of solar panels (which are truly expanding investment now in an ever more-eco conscious China); life becomes ever more comfortable in an area which has always been noted for its extreme climatic conditions. I’m not too sure whether these super-conservatories enhance the nobility of these houses but they certainly help conserve heat.

In every case we were treated with true courtesy during our visit.

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan, China

Our journey from Lijiang to Zhongdian took us through one of the most extraordinary geographical phenomena on our planet. For three hundred odd miles three rivers take parallel courses separated by mountains reaching over 20,000 feet in height and forming some of the world’s deepest gorges, only to suddenly diverge and take very different routes. The three rivers are the Salween, the Mekong and the Yangtze.

We have already been to the estuaries of two of the rivers, indeed canoed on one of them. The Mekong, after crossing Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, emerges in Vietnam’s South China Sea (which we’d visited in 2014 and 2015), the Yangtze empties into the East China Sea near Shanghai, the mega-city we’d landed at and started our journey which would eventually take us to Tibet. The Salween we’ve never seen although we knew it finished up in the Indian Ocean near Moulmein, Burma and its old pagoda made famous by that haunting Kipling barrack-room ballad which starts:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

(Kipling was captured by the beauty of the Burmese girls) and famously sung by Australian Peter Dawson.

The distance between the estuaries of these three rivers covers thousands of miles yet they all start and flow for hundreds of miles close to each other in parallel courses. It’s a phenomenon that has always intrigued me ever since I spotted it in my school atlas.

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It’s no easy matter to get from one river to another even when they run in parallel. Mountain ranges over twenty thousand feet high separate one watercourse from the other. It’s possible in some cases to swing oneself across on a rope cable slung across the world’s deepest gorges like some locals but I didn’t have time to try this transportation system out.

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(Courtesy QB news)

The whole area is called the ‘three parallel rivers of Yunnan protected area’ and is a UNESCO world heritage site. The region is not just a geographical marvel: it’s also what UNESCO describes as “the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth” and “an exceptional range of topographical features – from gorges to karst to glaciated peaks — associated with the site being at a ‘collision point’ of tectonic plates

The most astonishing feature is the sudden acute hairpin bend the Yangtze takes to turn from its southerly course, northwards and finish up as China’s main river and the world’s third largest. We were unable to get to this mythical riverine bend but here’s a picture of it we found on a shop poster:

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Our stops on this journey included climbing up  a rather rickety tower with an even wobblier spiral staircase, the top which did, however reward us with magnificent views of the young Yangtze:

There was also a stop at a market where I found some unusually-shaped pears. They were truly not pear-shaped!

We also stopped at a local village and were introduced to one of the families there. The large square draped hat of the elder lady of the family told me that the family belong to the Yi ethnic group.

Let these photographs of their house and village speak for themselves. That’s yak meat drying from the beams by the way:

As a stark reminder of China’s rapid modernization were these pylons which would eventually take another railway into Tibet, this time routing from the east through Chengdu.

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No doubt the time will come when one will be able to get a cheap return ticket to Lijiang from St Pancras station London.

The journey to Zhongdian was remarkable for its scenic beauty but it was also very tantalising. I could have spent months just exploring the three parallel rivers area. But if one lifetime is not enough to visit Rome then I wonder how many reincarnations on the Buddhist wheel of samsara are needed to explore China.

 

Nuts About Chestnuts

Castagnate (chestnut feste) abound at this time in our part of the world. They are places where one can meet up with friends, enjoy products made from the chestnut (including, of course, roast chestnuts themselves!) and they are also places where old memories are remembered and traditions revived.

If Dr Johnson demeaningly said of oats that they are ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ then more proudly and happily one can say of chestnuts in Italy ‘they are a fruit which today give pleasure and joy through festivals and the many food and drink products they are the basis of but which once supported the entire population of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.’

Where would one be without marrons glacées, chestnut jam, necci (chestnut pancakes made with chestnut flour), mondine (roast chestnuts), chestnut cakes (delicious!), and pan di legno (literally ‘wood bread’) chestnut bread?

It is sobering to think that without the chestnut tree many Italians, especially ‘gli sfollati’, those escaping from the second world war-ravaged cities into the woods, would have literally died of starvation. One of my favourite books is intrepid traveller Eric Newby’s ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ (made into a film in 2001 starring Callum Blue) where he describes his experiences as a British soldier. Having escaped from an internment camp in Italy Newby manages to survive in the forests of the Apennines surrounding us and where he met hospitality from the locals and his future wife too. Sadly Eric died in 2006 – I would have loved to have met him! Now I won’t even be able to meet his wife, Wanda who died last year. For, when asked if there was one thing he couldn’t travel without, Newby replied: “My wife.”

There are so many castagnate happening now and they are all as unique as the little villages where they take place.

Last Sunday, for example, there were the following to choose from near us and this is just a selection!

Our favourite one has always been the one at Lupinaia in the comune of Fosciandora (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/new-chestnuts/ on that one. Bagni di Lucca was supposed to have its castagnata soon  but, regrettably, it has had to be cancelled this year. However, there are still the following to get to:

You’ll still be in time for the castagnate at Bolognana and Trassilico on October 16th. the ones at Mont’Alfonso Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Careggine and Pieve Fosciana on October 23rd, the Pontecosi castagnata on October 30 and the Lupinaia one on 13th November. There will be others in our area of course. You’ll just have to look out for them!

We’d never been to the castagnata at Cascio, so plumped for that one this year. The weather however, looked ominous with very stormy, dark clouds. It turned out, indeed, to be a somewhat wet castagnata but visitors were out in droves, the umbrellas added a colourful touch and, luckily, the locals didn’t postpone the event.  For when it rains in Italy it’s truly a serious thing and, unlike the UK where precipitations seems more the norm, rain in Italy tends to completely reschedule open-air events.

We queued up to get our tickets and I obtained an excellent platter of local products including biroldo – a sort of blood-sausage -, pecorino cheese, bread, crisciolette (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/whats-a-criscioletta/ to find out what those scrumptious items, unique to Cascio, are), wine and water, and even managed to find a dry spot under the ruins of the fortress. The views from this part of town are stratospheric.

Meanwhile, the serving department was busy at work.

This year the chestnut roasters were saying how lucky they were to have a warm toasting fire before them. It was getting a bit nippy with all that rain! Last year, evidently, they were complaining how unnaturally hot it was at this time of year and what a sweaty job roasting the caldarroste.

Cascio has a charming church dedicated to Saints Lawrence and Stephen. It contains a sweet Della Robbian Madonna:

The village’s gatehouse had two fine local photographers displaying their art.

The ciambelle (doughnut) makers were busy at work.

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Two wandering minstrels gave us a medley of favourite songs including that perennnial ‘volare’ by the great Domenico Modugno and now almost sixty years old!

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The upper part of town had the necci makers hard at work with their ferri (waffle irons) and there was also a desert course included.

A sign tempted to a metato (chestnut drying hut) deep in the surrounding woods where further goodies awaited us including a delicious liqueur made out of chestnuts. I was told that I could find places that sold it in and around Barga.

All-in-all it was an exhilarating day with the rain diminishing in the afternoon. Congratulations to all the Casciani for their great efforts to make this Castagnata another success in their annual calendar of events.

 

 

 

A Parenthesis of Violoncellists

The violoncelli recital at Bagni di Lucca’s Teatro Accademico last Thursday was a great way to start September off for Sebastian Comberti and Raphael Wallfisch’s partnership is wittily magnetic. Now for the first time they were able to display their supreme talents in Bagni di Lucca Villa and not in an attractive, but slightly remote village in the adjoining valley.

The violoncello is, of course, another Italian invention from that country which has produced some of the world’s outstanding stringed instruments. Developed from the violone (the English equivalent would be the bass viol) its rapid entry into the world of instrumental music was helped (as explained by Sebastian) by the Bolognese invention of wire strung cat-gut strings which enabled the instrument to be enhanced with thicker strings and sustain a louder, more consistent and mellower sound. Today, apart from the baroque cello, the majority of cello strings are made with a steel core.

The two cellists played with a supporting spike at the end of their cello (not usual on baroque celli) but Wallfisch’s was considerably longer so that his arm and hand position was somewhat different from Comberti’s. I think this may emphasise the fact that the cello is really a part of the family of those ‘da braccio’ (arm-held) string instruments which include the violin and the viola.

Technicalities apart, it’s the sound that counts and in the intimate acoustics of the Teatro it was ravishing. The evening was introduced by deputy mayor, cultural ‘assessore’ (and our family doctor) Vito Valentino and consisted of a variety of pieces with the main emphasis on that great rococò Lucchese Luigi Boccherini. The choice of this composer was particularly appropriate since Wallfisch plays a Gagliano instrument dating from 1760 and, therefore, of the same era in which Boccherini, himself a distinguished cellist, lived.

During the evening the violoncelli propagated themselves to three and even reached four with the addition of two further members and students of the summer course for budding world cellists held by Comberti and Wallfisch at Tereglio.

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I particularly enjoyed the foursome playing a diabolical study by Piatti which, predictably led to this piece being replayed as an encore.

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To hear the incredibly high quality and realise the international provenance of the students attending the summer courses at Tereglio don’t miss out today’s (Sunday) concert in Tereglio’s parish church at 17.30 (5.30 pm for followers of Captain Mainwaring…). You will certainly not be disappointed and for encouragement there’s a very nice selection of locally backed cakes at the traditional ‘rinfresco’…

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(Boccherini playing on outside Lucca’s Conservatorio, named after him, but using bronze strings.)