Spring into Life

Do not expect to drink mountain spring water from your tap even if you live half way up an Italian mountain. When we first moved to this area in 2005 our tap water was horribly chlorinated. Later the chlorine was reduced but disaster struck when our menagerie was added to by two gold fish ‘Tira’ and ‘Molla’ (‘Push’ and Pull’ named after this adorable Italian cartoon character called ‘Tiramolla)’

The poor finny fellows died shortly after their tank was filled with tap water.

We wondered what this water was doing to our insides too. Fortunately, we have two nearby sources of spring water which will surely guarantee a longer life for us. One is just up the hill from us on the path leading past our house. The other is off the main road accessing the Controneria which we use when going to and from Bagni di Lucca.

We take on average six bottles and fill them up at this hose pipe connected to the spring water supply every time we go past…

There used to be an old TV advert test where viewers were asked to see if they could taste the difference between butter and a certain brand of margarine.

We can certainly taste the difference between official GAIA tap water and our lovely Refubbri stream water. Some people may object that there may be a dead goat sometimes above the water supply but we prefer anything to that chlorinated concoction served from our tap.

Incidentally, spring water makes all our boiled dishes taste better too and as for a cup of PG tips – it goes down the gullet superbly!

Th ultimate test is, of course, feline. We’ve tried testing GAIA water with spring water and our official trio of cats prefer the real McCoy to GAIA. They even resort to drinking rainwater rather than touch a drop of the GAIA stuff.

Water is truly the most valuable resource on our planet and truly defines our world. It’s more precious than anything else and I can foresee the time (sadly) when in future ages people will pay the earth for it. As for bottled mineral water transported in plastic bottles from sources so many kilometres away – I suggest we keep away from it as far as possible for that too truly is spoiling the planet with diesel transportation fumes and plastic bottles.


Venice in China

I’m now able to make more sense of our epic journey to China and Tibet on my return to Longoio. Perhaps my blog should, as a result, be renamed ‘From London to Longoio to Lhasa and beyond…’

We’ve seen a country which totally amazed Italian traveller Marco Polo in the thirteenth century and continually surprises first time visitors (like us) today. If you haven’t been to China then I can safely say your world view is unacceptably incomplete.

It’s easy to get away from the high rise and urban bustle of Shanghai. This megalopolis, the largest city in the world with a population of over 24,000,000 (almost three times the population of London), does have some very beautiful gardens (which we discovered on our return visit), China’s best fine arts museum and noodles more. It’s also situated in a flood plain which is intersected by canals and rivers bordering some of the most attractive ‘water’ villages’ in China.

One village we visited was Zhujiajiao. Placed on a tributary of the Yangtze, its waterways and lagoons make it a sort of an oriental version of one of the smaller islands of the Venetian lagoon.  Zhujiajiao’s main activities have been fishing and rice growing but increasingly it’s become a popular week-end venue for Shanghai city-dwellers and many of its inhabitants live off the tourist trade. There is a wide variety of shops selling everything from fish to silks to handicrafts and umpteen scrumptious eating places.

Despite this, Zhujiajiao still conserves its traditional charm. The river town’s architecture is truly what one imagines picture-book Chinese villages should look like and Zhujiajiao also has some beautiful temples and civic buildings. In some respects it reminded me of Hội An in Vietnam which I’d visited in February 2014. Both towns have a rich past stretching back almost two thousand years and are definitely must-see places in their respective countries.

As with Venice one of the graceful features of Zhujiajiao are its bridges, the most well-known one of which is Fangsheng Bridge (Setting-fish-free Bridge). It is also the longest, largest and tallest stone bridge, with five openings in the Shanghai region and dates back to 1571. It somehow reminded me of a bridge familiar to anyone who travels to Lucca from the upper Serchio valley:

zhujiajiao-canal-town03The combination of canals, bridges and buildings is to my mind irresistible. I loved Zhujiajiao and, walking its enticing streets, realised that China does now care for its immensely rich heritage as much as its incredible economic changes and modernisation.

Let a small selection of our pics speak for themselves:

The White Death Hits Bolognana

I came across this monument a few days ago when I decided I’d go through the town of Bolognana instead of by-passing it as is usually done.

It clearly refers to a great tragedy where several workmen working on a hydro-electric project lost their lives. This kind of death, which is all too common in Italy, is called ‘morte bianca’ – white death.

I need to find out more about what happened back in 1939. Perhaps the tunnel the workmen were excavating to channel the water down to the hydro-electric station collapsed upon them or they were blown up in a misaligned dynamite explosion.

Whatever the reason for the terrible accident the monument, which is divided into two parts – the original one and the much later one dedicated to victims of work-related accidents in general – , moved my emotions considerably. I thought the peace dove particularly beautifully done.


PS I have since been told that my hypothesis was correct. A tunnel which should have brought water from Gallicano to Turrite Cava Lake collapsed killing ten young workmen on the ENEL project. It was the night of 24th November 1938. All victims came from the local area. The original monument was erected in 1942. Although restored in 2015, I still think it needs a bit of gardening around it to bring it back to its full glory and dignity again.

PS When you get your next ENEL bill a good idea to avoid cursing it is to think of the past sacrifice of so many young men in bringing you an electricity supply.




Sea Fever

Ocean liners have right of way wherever they go except when they meet the most beautiful woman on the high seas. They then turn off their engines and as a sign of respect and adoration they give three blasts on their horn.

This stunning woman (for all ships are feminine ‘she’) has been a recurring theme in my life ever since I met her while still at infant school. It was a time when Italy was still considered by many ignorant brits a country of spaghetti eaters and mandolin players, a country accused of cowardice which reputedly built tanks with one forward and three reverse gears, a country of aye-ties and poor emigrants. When the gorgeous lines of Italy’s true flagship first entered the Thames estuary and sailed into London she was instrumental in changing rudely stereotyped perceptions of Italy. Italy could stand proud and erect with her ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ as ambassador to its ‘bel paese’ throughout the world.


(Regrettably a negative attitude between Italy and the UK still occasionally happens today. For example in yesterday’s news I heard that UK schools have been asked to distinguish between Neapolitan, other Italian and Sicilian-origin schoolchildren in their registers! The Italian ambassador in London, with true English sarcasm, reminded UK’s education secretary that Italy has been one country since 1861. See https://www.thelocal.it/20161012/english-schools-criticized-for-differentiating-between-italians-sicilians-and-neapolitans )

To get back on-board. The triple-mast ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ was built at Castellamare di Stabia and launched in 1931 as a twin Italian navy training ship to the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’. Her dimensions are as follows:  length‎ 331 ft. (including bowsprit) and height‎ 177.2 ft. Her top speed‎ with ‎sails is 10 knots and with engine, 12 knots. There are 26 sails and fully unfurled they cover an area of 30400 square feet. The total crew is 450 men (and now women too).

What happened to her sister ship? War reparations forced Italy to give the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’ to Russia who promptly demoted her to a tramp merchant vessel, painted her a dirty grey colour and finally (accidentally?) caused her demise in a fire on board which completely destroyed her.

Together with my wife the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ sailing ship remains one of the two most beautiful women I have ever met.

Here are some photographs taken of Sandra with an officer of the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ one year after our marriage.

And here is this wonderful ship in London again in 1985:

And in 1987.

Then I did not see her for a long time and was truly missing her. In 2014 I did manage to catch a sight of her in the Darsena of La Spezia during a special open day (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/). She’d gone in there for a complete overhaul and looked vulnerable and a little sorry for herself stripped into her nakedness:


When I heard that ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ had been re-launched this year and would be moored for a few days at Livorno I truly had an attack of fever, sea fever. I had to see her and be with her again. Fortunately some friends were also interested and in uncertain weather we motored to Livorno.

There was already an umbrellaed queue waiting at the Medicean port gates in the driving rain. On board we were able to visit the main deck and the steering cabin where we met the commandant Curzio Pacifici (what an appropriate surname!).


Suddenly the rain accelerated into a storm precipitating with violence on the ship and on the horizon I could see a tornado brewing. What must it have been like to be on a ship like this rounding Cape Horn, I wondered. Truly, the wind, the rain and the louring clouds, ink-black, added to the dramatic effect. It was unforgettable. Imagine having to reef the sails climbing up the masts in this sort of weather in the high seas!

It was difficult to leave this gorgeous ship. I really must have got that sea fever badly. As John Masefield wrote:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.




PS If you read Italian there’s an interesting web page on the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ at





Thinking Twice About Your ENEL Bill….

Pian Della Rocca, previously dismissed by me as being of little interest in a post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/08/03/rock-hard/ in favour of the much more picturesque old settlement of La Rocca which lies above, is worth a second look. The monumental hydro-electric generating station referred to in that post is a major contribution to Italian fascist architecture as well as being part of one of the country’s most ambitious hydro-electric schemes.

Amazingly built in 1942 when Italy was in the thick of the Second World War and when the Gothic line was being constructed nearby, Pian della Rocca’s generating station lies opposite the village’s only bar (good coffee, friendly service and sports and newspapers to read). I suspect Pian Della Rocca was built to house those working on the project.

The Francis turbines (invented in 1848 by English engineer James Francis and using centrifugal force to generate their energy) use the waters of the Turrite Cava torrent, which is a tributary of the Serchio River, to generate electric power. There is an example of one of these turbines in the grounds of the station:


If you go towards Fabbriche to Vallico you’ll see the dam holding back the waters of the Turrite Cava which form a lake. Both these and the waters descending down in a huge tube towards Gallicano are used at Pian della Rocca’s generating station.


It’s not often realised that the majority of the villages in our area only received electricity in the last fifty odd years. The channelling of torrents and natural underground waters into a complex system of tunnels and reservoirs, begun before the last war but only completed in the 1960’s, form part of a great scheme of harnessing water power in an environmentally friendly way. Indeed, the whole scheme was awarded the Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS) certification in 2007.


The Pian della Rocca generating station was thoroughly overhauled and restored by ENEL in 2011 at a cost of 23,000,000 euros.

Although not open to the public (I’ve made a request to visit it, however) the main building is the work of one of Italy’s greatest art nouveau architects, Ugo Giovannozzi. Not only that, but the beautifully proportioned structure, if not quite in the class of those ‘temples of power’ mentioned in architectural historian and erstwhile school-mate Gavin Stamp’s book of the same name, is certainly one of Italy’s most beautiful ‘pievi di potenza’ (parish churches of power).

Giovannozzi (Florence 1876 – Rome 1957) has been completely revalued in recent times. Of his most significant works are several of the spas at Montecatini, in particular the well-known Tettuccio establishment.

Rocca’s station’s main hall is characterised on its exterior by three statues by Angiolo Vannetti, a sculptor from Livorno. (I’m sure the central reclining lady must represent the Serchio river). Angelo Vannetti (Livorno 1881 – Florence 1962) was one of the greatest art nouveau artists in Italy. Later his work developed into a variety of art deco and his statues are to be compared favourably with the work of Aristide Maillol. He studied at Florence’s Accademia delle Belle Arti and was particularly influenced by trends in French and Belgian art.



In the 1920’s Vannetti worked extensively in the Far East, especially in Vietnam. Recently a beautiful statue of his in Tripoli called the source of life – a nude lady representing water with a gazelle symbolising the union of the two provinces of Libya, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania – was seriously damaged by (inevitably…) jihadists in 2014.



Vannetti worked closely in conjunction with art-nouveau architect Giovanni Michelazzi. Anyone who has visited the horticultural gardens near Florence’s Piazza delle Cure can’t have missed this lovely Vannetti sculpture of a pair of deer:


Michelazzi himself was for long neglected so that several of his buildings were wantonly destroyed in those vandal years of the sixties and seventies. However, he embellished Florence with some of its finest liberty style buildings. Who hasn’t admired this glorious house, casa Vichi, when passing near the church of Ognissanti on the northern lung’ Arno in that city, for example?


So make it a point of not by-passing even Rocca on your way from Garfagnana to Lucca on the Lodovico road. There are some of the most startling treasures to be found in the most unassuming location and that is for me one of the greatest pleasures of life.



And don’t complain too much about your ENEL electricity bill! Some of it must surely have been gone on not just on keeping your house lit up but also in maintaining ENEL’s beautiful engineering architecture in our area, another wonderful neo-classic example of which can be found just outside Ponte a Moriano:


A Magic Pool

We took a flight to a tropical island a couple of days ago. Using the latest technology our rocket took just thirty minutes to get there. We then went through a rain forest to find a magic pool with lovely fresh cool mountain water flowing into it and surrounded by stones carved by an ancient race of giants and used as their pillows and chairs.

There was no-one else there apart from some sylvan river goddesses who appeared from below the blue pool. They advised us to keep the place secret otherwise we would be torn apart by savage hounds that would protect the nymphs against unaccepted humanoids who violated the sacred purity of their arcane playground.

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Now believe this or not as you like. But we all have our dreams and that morning our dream became a reality, albeit a surreptitious one….


PS we were home for lunch and the hounds didn’t touch us!

Water, water all around and ……..

20160525_123341 20160525_123347 20160525_123405       For some time in Longoio we used the liquid supplied by Gaya the water supply company. We were not enamoured of its taste as it seemed over-chlorinated and sometimes the water coming out of the kitchen tap looked almost white. Things came to a head when we bought our first two goldfish and filled their tank with tap water. The poor Pisceans died within a day.


(The luckier successors: Tira and Molla)

Fortunately, an alternative and safe supply of water came to our attention when a spring water tap was installed near the Refubbri stream on the way down to Bagni di Lucca from Longoio.

The supply used to be well-hidden by woodland but after the massive rechannelling works carried out by the province last summer in order to prevent further landslides and floods the tap looks quite the centre of attention.

I always stop there to fill up water bottles, not just for the fish tank but also for cooking and especially to make a nice cup of tea. Although never quite tasting like a cup of tea in England the spring water is excellent and I’m sorry for anyone who still has to suffer the over-chlorinated water from Gaia. That’s ok for bathroom use but my fish have proved it’s not pukka. Furthermore, I tested my cats on it by placing before them before a basin filled with tap water and one filled with our local spring water. They soon chose the spring water…

Let me emphasise its local spring water at 0 kilometres transport. I’d never go so far as to order spring or mineral water in a restaurant. I don’t approve of supporting traffic pollution caused through transportation of that apparently fashionable commodity…

Forging Ahead in Val di Turrite Cava

Each valley branching off from the Serchio River, running through the Mediavalle and Garfagnana, has its own character and none more so than the Turrite Cava valley.

The first part of this valley skirts an artificial lake, goes past a recommendable restaurant, il Laghetto, before plunging further into the depths of the Alpi Apuane and reaching its main centre, Fabbriche di Vallico, well worth visiting for its noble houses and stunning location.

‘Fabbriche’ derives from the word ’Fabbro’ meaning ‘ironsmith’ and the area used to be well-known for its forges, many of which were still in operation until the last quarter of the twentieth century.

The art of forging was first brought to this area in mediaeval times by ironworkers from Bergamo in North Italy. They took advantage of the plentiful local supplies of chestnut wood and water to build up a considerable industrial presence. The forges made a variety of objects from gates and railings, to agricultural implements, to kitchen items such as griddles used to this day for cooking necci (chestnut pancakes).

I stopped to take a look at the largest of these forges at Gragliana a little outside Fabbriche di Vallico. This is the last one to close and has the largest forge hammer in Europe.

After the heavy rains we’ve been having recently the torrent feeding the iron forge was in full spate and the waterfalls produced were quite magnificent.

I tried to locate the forge hammer but was unable to do so. Perhaps it was in one of the buildings, now disused but locked.

There was a narrow bridge over the torrent. Everything looked quite overgrown. I felt, however,  that a little tidying up would make this ferriera a truly interesting industrial archaeological site for visitors.

After the forge the valley rises up into expansive upland pastures and reaches the village of Palagnana. From here I hoped to reach the top of Monte Croce to enjoy the flowering of yet more Narcissi Poeticus just as I had enjoyed them last week on the top of the Prato Fiorito. Unfortunately, the clouds came to envelop an initially blue sky and it started to rain.

I managed to get back to Bagni di Lucca Ponte via Pescaglia, passing other attractive villages, just as the rain turned to ferocious hail. I sheltered and recovered in the Monaco bar there with a welcomed glass of Campari.

Today I’ll make another attempt to visit the top of Monte Croce…

Every Man Must Have His Shed

Our Orto (allotment) is now raring to get off to a good start this year. According to our catasto (land survey ownership plan) we’ve got nine bits of land scattered about. Most of them are in the forest, a little distance away, and I still can’t make out their exact position.

Fortunately, we have two fields that are just a short walk from our house. They did require considerable clearing of brambles when we first started on them in 2007 but they are now looking a lot more presentable. As they are termed agricultural a land tax is payable for them, unlike the forest bits.

I particularly love our little bit of territory at this time of year when the fruit trees are full of blossoms.

Yesterday I started to prepare an area of soil for planting. Those grasses have really deep roots but they must be got rid of.

I think I’ll keep the toms where they were last year. I’ve been advised to wait another couple of weeks before planting them.

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The water reservoir needs a bit of filling up, however. Just a little bit of rain please!

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Fortunately, our thousand-litre tank is full to the brim. Perhaps we should get another one as last year we truly had a drought.

I think the sacrecrow needs a bit of attention after the winter winds. However, he still looks pretty scarey!

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The cardoons, as ever, have survived the winter.

There are some sweet wood anemones replacing the daffs.

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The shed (every man should have his own shed in my opinion) is looking OK.

Essential supplies have been kept in a secret location.

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I’ve mown our grass tennis (badminton really) court but haven’t put up any net so far.

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The trees are still busy sprouting out their leaves so there’s not very much shade at present although the views remain beautifully extended.

I replaced the pansies with geraniums yesterday, too.

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The olives have withstood winter bravely and we hope to collect a few more this year (we’re talking about November).

There’s nothing like spending a pleasant spring afternoon in one’s allotment, especially before the summer heat starts up in June.


The Ravishing Camellias of Compitese

Pieve di Compito is a lovely place for a visit with its gentle hills and mild micro climate. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (e.g. at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/thankyou-camellia/ ) camellias arrived here in the early nineteenth century, largely thanks to English ex-pats who chose to stay among these hills during the torrid Tuscan summer in the plains. The camellietum can be visited any time (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/one-hundred-roman-farms-and-one-thousand-camellias/ ) but it’s when the festival takes place during the March week-ends that it’s possible to visit the gardens of the historic villas and truly take in the wonderful ambience of this extraordinary plant without which no-one would have been able to drink their favourite cuppa in this world.

Yesterday was a true-blue almost paradisiac day for the last week-end for the Camellia festival of Compito. One leaves the car at a parking and catches the local shuttle bus service to this absolutely delightful valley, for the roads are narrow and only locals are allowed to use their vehicles. Alternatively, of course, one could bike there.

This year the displays were as wonderful as ever and the exhibition centre was beautifully decked out with a display illustrating Tokyo life fifty years ago. Thanks to Yoko Himada, president of the national association for Italian-Japanese cultural exchanges, there were examples of tatami (mats for sitting on), zabuton, (square cushions), yonomi (tea-drinking cups), nuribon (lacquered trays), jimonos and kyusu (ceramic teapots).

There were also contributions from Pilnitz, the great German Camellia centre near Dresden.

What was missing was any contribution from London’s Chiswick gardens’ own display (so beautifully described and photographed by fellow-blogger Fran at

Two hundred years of Camellias at Chiswick House

Luckily, Sandra had a leaflet from Chiswick which she’d visited just over a week ago and hopefully, thanks to her conversation with an administrator of the Compitese festival there might well be a closer connection between Chiswick and Compito for there needs to be!

Here are some of Sandra’s photos taken in the Camellia greenhouse in Chiswick Gardens the other week:

After all, it was Robert James of Essex, who is supposed to have brought back the first live camellia to England in 1739 and made Europe aware of this heavenly plant.

From thence the plant spread to Germany’s Pilnitz and, of course, to the Compitese via those English ex-pats.

This year we added a climb up the watch tower at the top of the village to gaze on some of the most spectacular views of Lucca we have ever seen.

We also took a look inside the Pieve di Compito itself with its fine baroque details and organ.

The whole village is filled with picturesque house and noble palaces and there is a particularly delightful stream traversed by ancient bridges which runs down one side of it.

It seemed, to us, truly a delightful place to live it.

The highlight, however, remained the Camellietum, beautifully restored after a huge landslide destroyed part of the valley in which it flowers.

Each section of the Camellietum, which contains over six hundred varieties is named after a famous Tuscan composer: Geminiani, Guido d’Arezzo (who invented the system of calling notes by do, re mi ), Mascagni, Catalani and, of course, Giacomo Puccini.

If for some fame comes by having a square named after them then I feel a camellia named after one would be the ultimate accolade on earth: there were camellias named after several great Italians including Eleonora Duse and Puccini for example.

A lovely girl with camellias in her hair approached us and asked us if we should like to listen to her recitation of some poems on Camellias. She was, in fact, a volunteer of the camellietum but for some minutes she became transformed into a dryad of the woods before us.

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The Compitese Camellietum has been recently received an award as one of the world’s great gardens. For me it is one of the utmost delights in our whole area. To see these wonderful varieties of camellias rising up with their multifarious blossoms among the Mediterranean pines of the Pisan hills in all their divine beauty is surely one of the most glorious sights to encounter on our planet.

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