Elysium on Earth

In these lovely spring-time, true-blue, wall-to-wall sunshine days there’s no better place to go than to visit the stupendous display of ‘giunchiglie’ or wild daffodils that grace some of our appenines.

There are two mountains which at this time are filled with vast spreads of these delightful, heavily scented flowers which are also interspersed with several other wild floras. One is Monte Croce which I have described in my post at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/05/17/if-there-is-a-heaven-it-is-here/

The other is the Prato Fiorito (literally the flowering meadow) which is the whale-backed mountain overlooking Bagni di Lucca.

Yesterday I could not resist immersing myself in wild daffodils. Taking the road from Bagni di Lucca to Montefegatesi I branched off at the sign to Albereta and reached, via a somewhat bumpy road with hidden culverts, the starting point of my walk to the flowering meadows of Prato Fiorito, which is marked by a crucifix.

I following a fine little footpath.

Soon I reached the intoxicating expanses of the jonquils which, more correctly, should be called by their Latin name ‘Narcissus Poeticus’.  It was a joy to be there and the air was so sweet and the views so clear.

Wordsworth’s famous lines were quite apt  for the flowers were

Continuous as the stars that shine

and twinkle on the Milky Way,

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Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

Again, since these flowers are correctly called in English, ‘poet’s narcissus’, (or sometimes ‘pheasant’s-eye daffodil’) I could take these lines from Keats’ last sonnet which came to mind as my brain and all my feelings became ever more inebriated by the powerful scent of the narcissi spread around me, and embracing my whole being in a variation of the Elysian fields for I seemed, indeed

awake for ever in a sweet unrest, 

and felt, too, that I wanted to

live ever—or else swoon to death.

 

 

 

 

 

Venus’ Harbour

The ‘Cinque Terre’, that dramatic piece of Ligurian coastline which incorporates the little towns of Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, almost desperately clinging onto the rugged coastline to avoid being swallowed by the sea, are easily accessible from Bagni di Lucca and are rightly very popular (sometimes I think too popular) with walkers traversing the footpath connecting the five places.

Porto Venere is actually a sixth town on the list, so the ‘Cinque Terre’ should more correctly be called the ‘Sei Terre’. However, since Porto Venere doesn’t have a railway station and is reachable by bus from La Spezia it’s often left out. This is a great pity for Porto Venere is one of the most beautiful places on earth and it was only this week that I first visited it after ten years of making Italy my principal residence. How strange!

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I arrived at Porto Venere after taking a train from Bagni di Lucca and changing at Aulla for La Spezia, which is worth a day to itself: see my posts on La Spezia at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/la-spezia-again/

and

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/

I then took the 11P bus to Porto Venere from Viale Garibaldi which is just ten minutes from the station. Parking must be a headache in Porto Venere and the road to it is twisty and often narrow. The greatest hazard, however, is not the road itself but what you can see from it: the views are so spectacular that you could be easily distracted and plunge to your doom over the often steep sides!

The whole public transport journey from Bagni di Lucca to Porto Venere takes a little over two hours if you study your connections well. My return journey took me via Viareggio and Lucca involving a couple of changes but I was glad I didn’t use my own transport.

From ancient Ligurian beginnings Porto Venere became part of the great Genoese maritime republic and shares many of the republic’s characteristics:

Massive fortifications crowned by the Doria fortress:

Narrow alleys called ‘caruggi’:

Beautiful Romanesque zebra-striped church architecture:

San Pietro

San Lorenzo with its miraculous image of the Madonna:

And the most delectable seascapes including the island of Palmaria, separated by the stretch of water known as ‘le bocche’:

Not leaving aside Byron’s favourite haunt, the cove where he would forget his club foot which made him limp embarassingly and swim his disability away in the lovely waters of the bay of poets:

There is something quite magical about visiting normally tourist-infested haunts in mid-winter when there only a few hardy souls about. There may not be many bars, restaurants and souvenir shops open but the freedom from crowds is surely something to be enjoyed.

It’s great that we have these wonderful places, so different from our mountain haunts in their seascapes, at such a close distance from the Val di Lima. What other country, I wonder, has so much variety packed in so small area of territory?

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PS Fellow blogger Debra Kolkka has written extensively on Porto Venere. For example, see her post at https://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/portovenere/

There’s also a pretty good web site for Porto Venere at https://portovenere.a-turist.com/index

 

 

 

 

 

View from a Watch-Tower

Amazingly warm and clear days are still with us in the heart of winter. I checked the long-range weather forecast and it seems that the rough weather will finally reach us in February.

It’s an ideal time for walking as the air is crisp and I took advantage of it to reach the top of Monte Bargiglio where there is an old watch-tower erected by the Republic of Lucca. I’ve described this structure at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/the-eye-of-lucca/ and it’s worth looking at that post as it shows the tower before recent work on it was completed. The views from the tower remain as spectacular as ever but the entry to it has changed considerably and I’m not entirely sure whether it’s for the better.

I appreciate the replacement of the old wooden rails which prevent one from descending into the depth of the steep ravine on one side.

I do miss, however,  the raw reality of the entrance to the old watch-tower where one could take pictures of the surrounding views through the little windows.

Instead, there are now well-graded steps leading up to a purpose-built metal structure which incorporates a staircase and a viewing platform. It’s quite impossible to go down to the interior although certainly the panorama from the platform is splendid.

This wasn’t just my view (sorry!). Shortly after I had arrived a party of three came and pronounced the same judgment. On the other hand, new signage and conservation of this primeval internet communication hub has eased the access to it.

Restoration of any monument involves often highly debatable decisions. How far should one go? The Arthur Evans reconstruction of parts of the palace of Knossos in Crete using inappropriate material such as concrete is definitely passé but will future generations regard the viewing ‘platform at the Bargiglio tower a little over the top?

 

Our Christmas 2016

“Pasqua con chi vuoi ma Natale con i tuoi” is a familiar Italian adage meaning ‘spend Easter with whom you like but spend Christmas with your own.”

Our own are us two, our cats and ducks (and two goldfish to be on the complete side) and that’s the company we spent our Christmas with.

First we opened our presents (which are strictly either utilitarian or chocolaty).

Then Sandra set busy preparing Christmas lunch.

After the hors d’oevre which consisted of home-made bread crostini with salmon and liver pate a la fiorentina:

we plunged into scrumptious oven-baked lasagne:

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This was followed by quails and a variety of vegetables including fennel and mushrooms. Delicious!

We finished off with mince pie and cream.

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After a little festive rest after lunch we went for our traditional Christmas walk with two of our cats Carlotta and Cheeky. (Napoleon is over seventy cat years old so we made an allowance for him).

The evening finished with us watching the Moscow ballet production of the ‘Nutcracker’ as performed at Lucca’s Giglio Theatre (see my post on that at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/12/08/nuts-about-ballet-in-lucca/ )

The Christmas period in Italy has been so mild that it hardly seems winter at all – rather a harbinger of spring. I wonder if winter will really make itself felt later on, however…

 

A Perfect Day

What’s the definition of a perfect day?

First, perfect weather like we’ve rarely had it this so late in the year.

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Second, perfect company: people you really feel at your ease with.

Third, a perfect walk to appreciate the beauties our blue planet can offer to the entire cosmos of creation.

Aren’t the winter beeches and silver birches fabulous against that cerulean appenine December sky!

Fourth, perfect food. And, since it was also the feast of the Immaculate Conception, our host wittily quipped it’s also the feast of the immaculate confection.

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The bignole came from a patisserie I’d never suspected of producing such wonders. It’s called Da Pino and it’s located at Calavorno, a place one usually sweeps through in search of more romantic locations. I savoured their chocolate truffles and also their cherry liqueur bomba. Truly it’s a mouth-watering explosion of flavour. Be careful though: the cherry has its pip like all true cherries. So don’t get too stoned eating them…

Finally, a bustling Christmas mercantino di Natale at Fornoli where one meets half of one’s little world of friends.

That’s my definition of a perfect day:

 

 

Hills unfold blue waves:

The sun on my face breaths love:

Contentment of life.

Mighty Senators of the Forest

On my way back from Vagli’s Tibetan bridge (see previous post) I came across one of Italy’s own noblest green-robed senators of mighty woods (to adapt a phrase from Keats’ ‘Hyperion’). This senator was a tiny seedling when the New World was just discovered, and has given hope and nourishment to generations of families in the areas of Roggio, Puglianella and Roccalberti. It still belongs to the descendants of those families. For me it is one of the loveliest living beings upon this earth and something to truly kneel before in awe and adoration. No wonder our ancestors worshipped trees (and some of us still do!) There are many religions and cultures which give praise to these verdant giants thankfully, for without them we would not only be deprived of their fruit and wood but, most importantly, of their life-giving oxygen.

The Bread of Life in our part of the world is not just the Divinity but the Castagno, the chestnut tree, which has supported so much of the population with the flour made from its fruit.  This magnificent tree, a little outside Roggio, is half a thousand years old and is truly an immense power emanating a mystic strength which I felt throughout my whole self as I touched it.

There are many other such colossal beings in your area and perhaps, if you live here, you may have your own favourite Castagno. Just feeling it and putting your arms round it will fill your whole existence with new life and energy because the tree is one of the highest manifestations of life itself.

Here are some of pictures of that ‘Castagno monumentale’ di Roggio taken the other day.It’s 86 feet high and its circumference is 33 feet.

Which reminds me – have you already been to your Castagnata if you live in this part of the world? Yesterday I was at the delightful one at Cascio. If you weren’t there you’ll have to read all about it tomorrow….

A Tibetan Bridge in the Garfagnana

If you live in the Lucchesia you don’t have to go all the way to Tibet to cross a Tibetan bridge. Since the summer this year you only have to go as far as Lake Vagli which is reached on the road leading left from Poggio, north of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana.

I love the thrill of highly strung pedestrian suspension bridges and, of course, we have our own in Val di Lima which I’ve described at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/ravioli-and-suspense-in-val-di-lima/ so I was keen to try out the new one at Vagli.

In Tibet suspension bridges are usually made of strong chord and are used to provide a short cut across the many deep valleys of that country divided by such rivers as the Mekong and the Brahmaputra which originate in the Himalayan snows before descending into the plains of India and Indo-China.

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(A bridge in Tibet)

There are already two bridges in the Vagli valley plus the dam that was built shortly after the last war to provide hydro-electric power and drinking water for Pisa and Livorno by blocking the river and forming a large lake which effectively encircles Vagli di Sotto. Vagli’s mayor thought it would be a good idea to add a third bridge to carry across a mountain trail and provide an added frisson for ramblers in the area.

(Vagli Dam dating from 1947)

It was an idea which brought over two million visitors to the area in summer. Such was the demand to see and cross the bridge that crossing it had to be restricted to visitors just for the week-end. So it was a bit of a disappointment when I reached the bridge on a Thursday and found the gate to the lakeside path leading to the ‘ponte Tibetano’ closed.

Fortunately, I had two allies in my side. First, the lake of Vagli was practically dry. Because of the lack of summer rainfall most of the inhabitants of Pisa and Livorno had drunk its contents! In theory it would have been possible for me to get down towards the lake bottom and thus circumvent the fence. Then I met two kindly officials who said that since I’d come all this way to cross the bridge I could, with their approval, carry out my plan.

The scene before me was totally spectacular – one of the most astonishing days I’ve passed for a long time. The almost emptied lake was breath-taking with its grey, lunar-like, landscape and I could make out some of the old buildings and roads and bridges which would have led to the now submerged village of Fabbriche di Careggine. The lake had last been emptied for maintenance in 1994 – a sight I’d experienced (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-exquisite-alpeggio-of-campocatino/ on that supernal experience). There were promises that the lake would be emptied this year but because of the water shortage the importance of having some sort of reservoir was essential.

Reaching the bridge I approached a monument park and was particularly moved to see that the wonderful dog Diesel, killed by islamists terrorists last year, was commemorated by a marble statue to him with the words ‘honour and respect’ inscribed on it. To read more about Diesel and other heroic dogs (and cats) see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/06/22/of-simon-the-cat/.

The bridge, itself is a political statement for it honours the naval squadron of which the two Italian Marò (marine fusiliers) so wrongly accused of the murder of two Keralan fishermen in 2012 and who are still undergoing the almost unbearable stress of a legal case (I know I’ve been through one in my own minor way).

Crossing the bridge was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Quite alone, hundreds of feet above an almost dried-up lake I crossed to the other side witnessing the most wonderful views of the Apuan Mountains around me.

I returned to Vagli without missing the ancient mystique of the Romanesque church of Saint Augustine.

Vagli di sotto is itself a charming, quiet place with a beautiful marble and stone striped parish church and silent alleyways whose main inhabitants seemed to be a variety of cats.

Vagli di Sotto’s Tibetan bridge is less dippy than the one in Val di Lima and its foot-walk is made up of wooden slabs rather than reticulated steel plates so it’s quite possible to take a dog across it provided, of course, that the owner doesn’t suffer from vertigo!

If you go there aim for a week-end and don’t expect to see the lake as dry as I found it. Within twenty days I was told it’ll be full again.

(A Beleagured Mermaid – where has my lake gone?)

Which reminds me – we have no water to our house today unless we go down to the stream!

Mountain Magnificence

Today it’s started somewhat cloudily and the temperature has fallen to below twenty degrees centigrades. One shouldn’t complain, however, since September and October up to this point have had balmy, sunny weather, great for walking.

I met up with some friends at Roggio last Wednesday, a small village above Vagli di sotto and its artificial lake. I realised I’d been there before, in 2012 and instantly recognised the church of San Bartolomeo perched on top of the compact village. In fact, the big village festa is on the 24th of August, the same time that Bagni di Lucca has its Saint Bartholomew’s fair. Perhaps next year I’ll try to be at Roggio instead on that day.

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Incidentally, Roggio is famous for two things. First it is supposed to have the best porchetta (a savoury, fatty, boneless traditional Italian pork roast) of any place around. Second, it has a particularly strong connection with south-east London (where I was born and bred) since so many Roggiani emigrated there. Evidently, if one is in London it’s possible to attend a Roggio festa there on August 24. I must find out exactly where it takes place. Tulse Hill, Lewisham or even East Dulwich?

We decided we’d take our walk before having lunch which is always a good idea unless one brings a light packed repast. The unmetalled road opened out onto a beautifully extensive ‘alpeggio’ (pasture) and a magnificent scenario of mountains spread themselves before me. I recognized most of them. To the right was the Monte Pisanino, the highest of the Apuan range at a height of 6384 and one which I’d climbed back in 1994.

The dip in the range was the Focolaccia pass where there’s the rifugio Aronte, the oldest of the mountain refuges, dating back to 1880. I remember spending the night on the lower slopes of the Pisanino (it was summer but at over 1000 metres the nights are still rather chilly…)

In the morning of that summer of 1994 I carried on skirting the path round the Roccandagia which is the cliff-like mountain rising above Campo Catino, another alpeggio which now has become a popular summer resort with its characteristic little stone houses. We went to a festa there in 2015, described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/15/the-exquisite-alpeggio-of-campocatino/ which also mentions my adventures and a poem I wrote on Monte Pisanino. Cheese-making was one of the crafts being demonstrated and there were other activities and an exhibition. It was a truly fun day out.

I could see all these places so clearly in the crystal clear air on our walk. It was a truly wonderful (and slightly nostalgic) experience.

We passed a cottage which seemed to have been recently deserted. It was a sort of rustic Marie Celeste and eerily sad to explore. The ghost of its previous inhabitants still seemed to haunt it.

For lunch we returned to La Guardia restaurant which I would thoroughly recommend for its special feel, the very friendly atmosphere and the great food.

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We were treated to antipasto, primo and secondo but no-one could manage a dolce so we all plumped for caffé macchiato instead.

It was the best idea possible to have done the walk before such a deliciously gargantuan lunch!

The only disappointed was that we missed the sale of some excellent porcini mushrooms to some clearly more cunning visitors.

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We then visited the village of Roggio which stands at a height of 2814 feet. The view from the church was spectacular, taking in the whole of the Vagli valley and beyond to the Apennines. It was lovely to see that many of the houses had been roofed with the traditional grey stone slates in a Welsh-like manner, rather than the more modern red tiles,

We explored a stretch of the Sentiero Del Fungo which is an old mulattiera (mule-track) connecting Roggio with Casatico. I remember doing this track with Sandra in 2012 and reaching Casatico.

By this stage, however, we felt that one longish walk was enough so returned back to Roggio after a little distance.

We said goodbye to each other and I jumped back onto my scooter. The Sentiero Del Fungo, however, still tempted me so I decided to risk it on two wheels. Apart from a few muddy tracts it was in reasonable shape I knew the woods around me would be full of mushrooms but a day would have been necessary to fully fathom out where they were.  On the way there were useful signs telling visitors what mushrooms were to be avoided if one wished to live another day. If in doubt all of them!

To walk the distance to Casatico would definitely have taken ‘un’oretta’ which means anything from over an hour to almost two.

Casatico was a tiny place, a hamlet, in fact and a road from it led back to Camporgiano with its imposing fortress, now in private hands and its ceramics museum, for ever closed and no-one to tell me who had the key to it. Next time I’ll try to phone 0583 618888 and make a proper date. Another number was also suggested:  Signor Sarti on 338 28 79741

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I passed some nice pumpkins, two imposing railway viaducts, one of which has a footpath along it and then re-entered the very familiar countryside around Bagni di Lucca and home.

 

 

Autumnal Cat-Walk

Cats love walking and wandering. Tiny video cams placed on felines have shown how long distances even urban cats will walk. Stories of cats travelling hundreds of miles to reach their original homes are legion. One of the most amazing is that of Jessie the Australian cat. When her ‘owners’ (I use quotes because it’s actually cats who are the real owners) relocated from Ungarra on the South Australia coast to Darwin in  the Northern Territory in 2011 they thought Jessie had settled in well in her new home. That is until she disappeared and was found again back in her old home in Ungarra some months later! That’s a distance of over two thousand miles she’d cat-walked!

It’s therefore quite natural for cats to love walking with their servants. Here in Longoio it’s pure heaven for the feline breed since I can choose footpaths that run through miles of woodland without any trafficable roads. True, there are some bigger animals like boars and foxes lurking in the forest but a cat’s talons and intelligence can defend it from such predators.

A favourite walk I do with my cats is a six-mile one which takes one from our  village to a place called ‘la fredda’ and thence to a trail which used to run all the way to the oratory of Sant’Anna near Pieve di Monti di Villa but which has been disrupted for some time by a landfall.

I did this walk again last Tuesday, for which walk repeatedly done is ever the same? The seasons see to the changing colours, the different fragrances, and the varying landscape appearance so that the walk is never the same.

Napoleon slept it off at home. After all he’s well over fifty in cat years and likes his post-prandial nap.

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Carlotta, however, is in her twenties and Cheekie (the one with the smudgy face) is a rampant teenager and they quickly joined me for a walk.

One just walks and my twosome on this occasion had plenty to do. They stalk each other in the long grass, peer over the edge of rocky waterfalls, sharpen their claws against tree trunks, climb up beeches, sniff at whoever or whatever has come before them on the path, chase fallen leaves and at the resting point in the walk flake out (like me) only to wake me up and tell me it’s time to get home and have some tea (cat-tea, of course, that is with cat biscuits and pâté).

Do Carlotta and Cheekie realise how lucky they are? This area is truly their feline natural habitat. They become like miniature lions (which they are, of course) and the grass becomes their savannah where they look, listen, stalk, sniff or just relax in the beautiful autumnal sun we’ve been having.

Probably they don’t realise how lucky they are but my cats make me realise how lucky I am to be where I am and to walk the lonely paths with them. I’ve experienced walking with a dog for a very long distance over high mountains (it was the Himalayas in fact) in earlier years.

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When Dolma, a Lhasa Apso, died prematurely because of a stupid error caused by someone who was actually close to me I completely broke down. The experience has stayed with me as an impairment on my consciousness ever since. I feel I am physically unable to cope with the death of a dog because the link between dog and man is somehow rather closer. As I wrote about her:

What death equates with unsaid testament

of lucid eyes and golden fur’s extent?

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What I love about walking with my cats, however, is their independence and also perhaps the knowledge that they trust me to take them to places which are safe just because I’m there with them. I hope that’s true.

Enough of this. Let’s enjoy some pictures taken of Tuesday’s walk with Carlotta and Cheekie.

Vernal Woods

There are no better walking months in our part of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines than May and September-October. The mornings become ever fresher and by the time the sun warms up at mid-day one is well within the beautiful beech forests that shade from excessive heat.

I was invited to a walk yesterday which normally should have taken four hours but which somehow lengthened itself partly because, I admit, I was not in the best state of fitness, but also because there was so much to admire and see on our excursion.

The Apennines are probably some of the best walking country anywhere in Europe and my delight at being able to join a friend to tread the footpaths in an area which was quite unknown to me was unexcelled.

The first part of the walk took us from a point a little above Coreglia Antelminelli at a height which was already above 900 metres (2952 feet). We proceeded through unmetalled forestry roads traversing the most wonderful beech forests whose trunks shone silvery in the slanting sun beams.

At one point we met up with a forestry worker who was thinning the beech forest. Beech is all very fine but too many trees will completely cut out sunlight from the forest and impeded the growth of indigenous flowers and grasses. The worker informed us that beech forests were planted mainly after the war and that few trees were over fifty years old. Previously this had been pasture land but poverty, the seduction of emigration and the lure of the paper mills had caused a massive depopulation of the area after the last war and, consequently, the abandonment of pastureland and fields used to grow cereal crops. There was also the problem of drainage. Blocked channels and torrent would eventually lead to landslips – the bane of so much of Italy.

Beeches are fine if kept thinned but there are two trees which have proved to be rather more dangerous for the area. The first is the fir tree whose shallow roots cause devastation in the case of high winds. My friend pointed out to me a whole area which had once been populated by Douglas fir but which has been flattened by the hurricane of last February. The Acacia is an aggressive tree, again relatively recently introduced but which is the area’s equivalent of the rhododendron in Wales. Another problem is of course finance. So much more money should be spent on maintenance of Italy’s forests for Italy is, indeed one of the most wooded countries in Europe. A third of Italy is forest – almost three times as much as the UK!

Our route took us to a little plateau called Il Pretino standing at 1215 metres (almost 4000 feet) whence considerable views could be had both of the Tuscan side of the Apennines and the Emilian side.

Normally humans are rarely seen in this area but it’s now the mushroom season and, sure enough, we met several people in search of the prized porcini (cep) mushrooms which should normally abound in this area. I’m not sure whether those who say that it’s a bad season so far for mushrooms this year say this just to discourage others from coming and picking these valued natural commodities of the Italian Apennines!

We carried on towards another pass – the foce di Fobi – following footpath no 38 (why footpaths aren’t similarly numbered in the UK is beyond my ken). Here more splendid views unfolded before us and there was even a table where we had a picnic of dates.

We then traced our way back to the starting point through a wide un-numbered and unmetalled forest road wending its way more wonderful beech forests now scattered with that one-time sustainer of human life here – the chestnut.

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Through various vantage points in our ramble I was able to see well-known mountains to me at quite different angles: the Prato Fiorito, for example, which rises behind us in Longoio:

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The Apuans on the other side of the Serchio valley were slightly hazy but they still presented a wonderfully jagged silhouette in contrast to the gentler contours of the Apennines.

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I was particularly fascinated by the almost dry torrents which had, as pointed out by my friend, an almost Japanese flavour.

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Man can make very beautiful botanical gardens but the ultimate gardener has to be Nature: As Wordsworth so aptly wrote:

One impulse from a vernal wood may teach you more of man, of moral evil and of good, than all the sages can.