Wine, Wine and Wine

The vendemmia (grape harvest) this year is reckoned to be a good one in our area of the Luccan hills. The wet start to June may have been a blessing after all and there was certainly plenty of sunshine afterwards! A couple of days of heavy rain a week ago did little to spoil the grape and it was all go at a friend’s vineyard the other day.

The men were picking and transporting the juicy products of what virtually defines the Mediterranean character. The women were stalking. (Not us, I hesitate to say but removing the grapes from their stalks, ready for the mulching machine which in this case was a piece of industrial archaeology manually driven as traditionally done).

I remember when rather young I was taken on holiday with my parents to Italy. I was particularly sad to return to a drizzly and grey UK. ‘Why does everyone look so glum in Britain after Italy?’ I asked in my childish philosophy. Before they could answer me I replied to myself ‘it must be the wine they have over there!.

Despite political and government strictures, every part of the world has their own consciousness expanding (or liberating?) products. Sadhus in India wouldn’t quite be sadhus without their ganja, South American Indians wouldn’t be quite the same with their coca leaves, Britain wouldn’t be Britain without its warm beers, and Italy certainly wouldn’t be Italy without its vino.

In all cases there is a social etiquette regarding these godly gifts. Like the ambrosia of ancient gods these substances should be taken in in company and in moderation. Italians seem to know the exact balance between enlightened joviality and drunken disorder – something certain northern European nations could learn from.

Anyway, enough of moralizing. La vendemmia is a great social event and, with a fine day before us, we started in the cool September morning gradually heating up to a lunchtime climax when the work was virtually finished. Just the time to gather round the table, wipe off the sweat and de-hydrate with, of course, a glass of vino which in my friend’s vineyard has improved by leaps and bounds since he first started on his venture of creating the human equivalent of heavenly drink not those too many years ago.


PS I hope you are making your elderberry wine in those parts of Europe not blest by the grape!


Goodbye Lio!

The grapes are clustered juicily on their stem. The vines are ready for their vendemmia but the hands that tended them for so many years will never pick them again. Those hands have gone to another vineyard, God’s own.

Lio Lucchesi, long-term resident of Longoio, after a short illness died on the 15th of this month. I attended his funeral yesterday.

The smaller the community the greater the impact of that fate we must all attend at the end of our lives – the one-way journey to a land so distant that no face-to-face meeting can possibly be attempted while we who remain have their legs still firmly on this earth.

Lio was one of the first locals I’d met when I arrived in Longoio and I found him a convivial person with a very racy sense of humour. Often this humour was, I feel, used to disguise a rather more serious person. It was perhaps a mask for covering some of the pain in his life. One aspect of this may have been his batchelorhood. I was surprised at this since Lio had an endearing way of getting along with women of all ages. I just wonder why he never found the right companion or whether he never had the certainty of choosing the right one. He would have made a very good father.

With Lio I embarked on several organised coach journeys covering different areas of Italy and often lasting some days. I was keen to discover new parts of the country, especially when I decided to settle here permanently here over eleven years ago.

One of the journeys I remember was to the north-east part of Italy and beyond.  We visited Trieste where this photograph of Lio was taken on the waterfront of that wonderful mittel-european city:


We also visited the battlefields and war graves on the eastern front. This was taken in the bar near the monumental Redipuglia First World War memorial.

This one shows a somewhat dubious Lio on the little train that rushes at break-neck speed through the immense caves of Postumia, formerly Italian but now in Slovenia.

There are doubtless other photographs, including some of a trip to Naples and the royal palace of Caserta but I’ll have to spend more time looking through the photographs I have.

My wife and I last spoke to Lio last summer when he was resting from his labours on his beloved vines. He spoke cordially to us and especially thanked us for having time to talk to him. The jokey sense had been somewhat diluted and I felt that a shadow had already fallen on him. Lio had previously jested that he’d sold his vineyard but I’m glad he still kept onto his passion until the very end. For some days Lio was confined to his bed in Longoio’s Piazza dell’Amicizia. Relatives then took him to ‘la Vigna’ (appropriately translated as, ‘the vineyard’), a large house a little distance outside Longoio towards La Serra.

Around 6 am on the 15th of this month Lio’s condition worsened and a Misericordia ambulance was called. Shortly after ten on the same day he’d left us for ever at ‘la Vigna’

The funeral was well-attended with many relatives and friends being able to be present. (Italian funerals occur rarely more than three days after the death of a person because Italian undertakers do not embalm the body). Something I found strange, however, and which our local parish priest, Don Franco, also noted, was that there were quite a few people waiting outside the church where there were still many seats available. I recognised two of them as being Jehovah’s Witnesses, for which attendance outside a Catholic church is normal in the case of funerals, but I couldn’t believe everyone waiting outside the church was of that persuasion. Never mind. At least they were near Lio for his last journey.

Goodbye Lio old boy! You’re another one of that traditional country-man stock which is literally fast-dying out of our part of the world taking away some of the history of this part of the world for ever. We’ll truly miss seeing you again and we’ll always wish we’d recorded some of the traditional songs you used to sing in the piazza of Longoio – those improvised ‘stornelli’, for example, which you would sing and make up with delicious gusto.

For how long will your chair remain empty now and for how long will your grapes have to wait for devoted hands to pick them now that you are in the hands of God himself? God only knows, dear Lio!




No Sour Grapes Here

It’s that time of year again here in still very sunny (and hot) Tuscany. La Vendemmia, or the grape harvest, isn’t just an important horticultural operation, it’s a big social event where families call in their relatives and friends to help out with the picking and all join together for a big harvest lunch.

It’s a fitting conclusion to the summer season and takes place at slightly different times depending on where one lives. Yesterday I visited friends who have a vineyard in the Compitese area south of Lucca but those closer to Bagni di Lucca will have to wait another week before their vendemmia starts because not only are they in a more northern latitude but also because their vineyards are at a higher altitude.

Other factors in deciding when to vendemmiare is the grape variety. It’s better to collect white grapes slightly earlier than red ones and also to decide whether to have a passito wine i.e. a wine made with over-ripened grapes with higher sugar content.

I love vendemmiare. All one needs is pair of secateurs (always remember where you put (or lose) them) and a hat to protect oneself against the often fierce noon-day sun. Then take a row of vines and start snipping away. Don’t forget, bunches of grapes have a funny way of hiding themselves behind vine leaves so always return a second time and, sure enough, you find some that you’ve missed.

The next stage is to carry the bunches of grapes filling the bins or ex-supermarket bags to the mulcher. A wheelbarrow is useful here as bags of grapes can become quite heavy!


It’s very important to keep the white grapes separated from the red for obvious reasons.

The mulcher I used was a grand little machine which automatically separated the stalks from the grapes themselves. The juicy liquid was collected into a large tray which was then lifted over into the fermenting vat. No dancing around in a large vat with one’s unsocked feet here! Such practices are now considered old-fashioned.

When it’s too hot to work then it’s surely lunchtime which we had in a traditional open-sided barn. Although very tempting, it’s useful not to drink too much wine at this stage. There’s an afternoon shift too!

The general opinion was that, despite the heavy rains at the start of June, this has been very good year for the Vendemmia. True, since we haven’t had any proper rain for weeks some of the grapes appeared ‘passite’, or shrivelled but it is from such grapes that, in Pantelleria, the famous ‘passito’ wine is made since the passito grape has a much higher sugar content for its size. Furthermore, rain at this time of year just as the vendemmia starts could cause serious problems of mould on this god-like fruit which has given joy to so much of humankind since earliest times.


(An ancient Roman Vendemmia – not too much seems to have changed)

What better way to experience Italian (and international) friendship than joining in a Vendemmia. I’m sure, if you’re in Italy, you’ll find one to join in with. It’s truly a highlight of this country’s September which, in Lucca, is full of good things. (Just check out the city’s site at to see how much happens in September including, of course the unmissable Holy Cross procession on the evening of the 13th of this month, one of Italy’s truly great pageants).


Who knows? Perhaps one good thing that might emerge through of global warming is that the Vendemmia may become a regular social event in Sussex or Kent, as hop-picking (as described so specifically by George Orwell) once was.

More About Liliana Urbach from Silvana Bracci

I was moved to discover this comment made by one of my Facebook (and real-life too!) friends, Silvana Bracci, (sister of the great wine expert and Bagni di Lucca Enoteca – wine shop – owner, Guido Bracci), to whom I give sincerest thanks. I felt her comment should be also translated into English so that it could reach a wider public. The note deals with the story of Liliana Bracci. Those of you who have read my post at will understand more about Liliana’s situation. Indeed, I thank Silvana again for allowing me to share this tragic story on my blog and for being the first to appreciate my post for yesterday which included a section on the same subject:

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Silvana writes:

I found a note written in 2011. I was telling the story of Liliana Urbach (1942-1944), the only citizen from Bagni di Lucca who died in Auschwitz. I wrote it because many seemed to have forgotten about her. I myself knew about her only at the end of the nineties thanks to a journalist from the ‘Tirreno’ newspaper and from a report by Lucca’s Resistance Institute, when Bagni di Lucca dedicated a Peace Park to the little girl. However, little was said about the incident. An expert in history even said to me that it was an exaggeration to define the Bagni di Lucca Cardinali villa as a concentration camp (the old Terme hotel) as if it were somewhat exaggerated by a particular ‘political’ viewpoint. Not so, there are documents to prove it.

I’m again publishing the note because I’m satisfied with it: in recent days some primary school classes have gone to the park to remember Liliana. Teachers, thanks so much!


26 January 2011 19:54 Article

Tomorrow is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and I want to remember a story from Bagni di Lucca. It’s the story of Liliana Urbach and her family.

The Urbach were Jews who’d fled from Vienna to avoid racial persecution. Leo Urbach, and his wife Alice and his son Kurt 4 years old, arrived in my country in 1942, and took lodgings in Via Vittorio Emanuele, Ponte a Serraglio, Liliana was born here on October 19th 1942 and was registered as a citizen of Bagni di Lucca.

The family felt tranquil. They were “free internees” with many personal limitations, but were not prevented from working, and Leo was a watchmaker. Other Jews sheltering in the municipality had the same conditions: no radio, monitoring of correspondence, no political activities, minimal relations with the rest of the population, twice daily reporting to the police. But they were alive…

In late 1943, after an order of November 30, Jews in the Lucchesia began to be rounded up, and a provincial concentration camp was opened at Villa Cardinali at the Terme Calde of Bagni di Lucca. It was a transit camp for inmates and aimed at their deportation to the death camps.

The Urbachs were arrested and taken to the concentration camp at Villa Cardinali. In January, a convoy set off with about ninety Jews, including Leo, Alice, Kurt and Liliana Urbach. They were taken to Florence, then Milan. From here on January 30th of 1944 they left by truck for Germany. Leo, pushed by his wife (who told him “get out, they won’t do anything to me and the children!”) jumped from the truck and fled. He was later recaptured and interned in a prison camp, from which he was freed at the end of the war.

Alice, Kurt and Liliana, arrived at 6 am on February 6th at Auschwitz.  By noon they had already been murdered in the gas chambers.

Liliana was 15 months old. When I remember her, I think of the fact that she never managed to attend school, never kissed the boy of her dreams, never got her driving license, never was awed before a flag …… she didn’t die in her bed while the children knocked back their tears so as not to scare her. Maybe she didn’t even die with her mum, because the Nazis often divided their prisoners by age. I hope she wasn’t frightened and that her brother Kurt took her by the hand.


Thank you so much Silvana for sharing!

I would like to know what happened to Liliana’s father Leo. And was there ever a photograph taken of Liliana? It must have been quite unendurable for Leo to realise that he’d lost his wife and children contrary to their last words to him. Anne Frank’s father was also in a similar position after the war. When one of us survives a terrible situation and our loved ones perish we clearly must feel unimaginably devastated. Primo Levi, another survivor, found his situation unbearable as anyone realises who has read his poignant book about his experience in ‘Se questo è un uomo…’ (If this is a man).  Indeed, I’m quite sure that this fine author’s – we’d met him when he came to England to attend an opera based on his libretto which had been translated into English – suicide in 1987 was to be explained by another survivor, Elie Wiesel’s words: “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”.

The truth is we all die a little bit more when we hear about atrocities perpetrated by humans on humans for ‘whoever kills a person unjustly it is as though he has killed all mankind. And whoever saves a life, it is as though he had saved all mankind’.  (Quran 5:32)

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Olive Picking

The Compitese is an area extending from the eastern slopes of the Monte Pisano, the hilly range that separates Pisa from Lucca (as Dante wrote in his Divine Comedy “Il monte per che i Pisan veder Lucca non ponno.” – The hill placed there so that the Pisans can’t see Lucca –  like a barrier placed between Siamese fighting fish to prevent them fighting each other).

The Compitese descends onto a marshy plain which was once occupied by a large lake, Lago Bientina. This lake has been largely drained by the construction of a canal by the engineer Manetti in 1859. Today, however, in keeping with wild-life policy parts of the lake have been reclaimed as wetlands resulting in a protected area known as Padule di Bientina, a favourite breeding ground of migrating birds and a heaven for bird-watchers.


We visited friends at San Ginese di Compito last Sunday and were invited to an al fresco lunch in luxuriant sunshine. A sommelier treated us to wines from the Trento region.


Somewhat later than planned we made our way to a hill village in the Pisan Mountain called Ruota (literally wheel) where our host has an olive grove.

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We’d been to Ruota before to take part in its attractive living crib last Christmas (see my post at ) but were not aware that the place is also famous for some of the best olive oil produced in Tuscany. In November the fruit is in full maturity and now’s time to collect it.

Many hands make light work. With sheets to collect the olives and with a special machine to shake the olive trees and encourage them to drop their precious fruits we collected a fair amount of olives. The problem was that the grove has over 180 trees and we only managed to do barely half a dozen of them!

No problem. The occasion was mainly a social rather than an agricultural one and doubtless we’ll be back during the week to help out collecting the fruit from this sacred tree whose oil was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece and which remains a symbol of fertility, wisdom glory, abundance, purity and peace.

A Local Vendemmia

Yesterday morning I helped out a friend with his vendemmia, or wine harvest. I found that the entire red grapes had been picked so I was set working on the white grapes instead.

The vineyard extends along the entrance to the Camaione valley at Bagni Ponte and, like most vineyards in this part of the world, steeply climbs up a hill, enabling the vines to get the maximum of sunshine without the rows obscuring each other. This is particularly important in a mountain area like ours where the average temperature is rather lower than the standard Tuscan vineyard.

Armed with a set of secateurs I started collecting the clusters on the vines. It was difficult not to put some of the grapes in one’s mouth, so deliciously sweet they were.

The clusters were put into plastic baskets which were then carried to a hut where the grapes were stripped from their stalk and prepared to make the mosto or must. The amount of red mosto was quite considerable, although not as abundant as some previous years. However, the grape quality was very good as the vines had been fed recently by an abundant amount of rain.

In the hut there was an example of an old-style wine press:

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My friend’s wine quality has improved considerably ever since he bought the charming villa and surrounding vineyards. I’ve never tasted any of his white but, judging by the grapes I picked, it should be very palatable when matured.

La vendemmia is a very sociable event in all parts of Italy and family and friends are called in to help up with the grape picking.

Judging by the number of olive trees my friend has planted there could well be an olive harvest in a few years time.

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One harvest which I didn’t attend this or any other year is the spaghetti harvest. If you are curious about this one just click on the video below:

Fiery Combats at Coreglia Antelminelli’s Festa Medievale

How did I spend my birthday yesterday? In the morning I went down to the orto with ten litres of desperately needed water for the few tomatoes and courgettes which are surviving the prolonged drought.

Later I was joined by my wife followed by one of our cats, Carlotta, and we relaxed by playing a game of boules. Carlotta joined in the fun though I was lightly reminded of the game of croquet with flamingos in Alice in Wonderland. Carlotta was very good at estimating which boule was closest to the winning post.

After a light birthday lunch (it’s difficult to eat anything more than light in this weather)

we were given the most wonderful weather present in a rainstorm. We rushed out just to feel the cool water drip over us and have our first shower for some days. Sheer bliss!

It’s medieval festa time in Italy and we decided to visit the one at Coreglia Antelminelli and meet up with friends there.


There were stalls and even a mediaeval dentist who we definitely wanted to avoid even though he seemed cheaper than your standard high street one.

Everything was beautifully organised. Entrance was free and we only paid for what we wanted to eat which in our case included an antipasto and a sweet.

Every mediaeval festa has it special highlights. For Coreglia Antelminelli these were four groups of Sbandieratori or flag twirlers. Their virtuosity and choreography were of the highest standard. As everyone knows Gallicano’s Sbandieratori always win national prizes for their displays but even Coreglia’s own group, mainly consisting of girls, was excellent.

A somewhat fiery combat between two knights then took place.

An amazing act involving a fiery girl followed.

Some wonderful bird of prey were on proud display:

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Stories were recited:

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Fortunes were told:

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And, to top it all the evening ended with an absolutely spectacular fireworks display.

We didn’t hold a birthday party in our orto this year. It was just as well since our village hadn’t had water for two days and it was still uncomfortably hot at 5.00 pm. Instead, we had a glorious time just with ourselves in the morning and with one of our cats and, in the evening, with our friends in the fabulous pageantry of Coreglia Antelminelli’s superb Festa Medievale.

Again, crowds were just the right number and the navetta (shuttle) service ensured that there were absolutely no traffic jam when we returned home around 1 in the morning to arrive at a village wonderfully cooled by the storm.

There are plenty more mediaeval feste in Italy. There’s, of course, our local one at Gombereto and the highly picturesque one at Nozzano Castello but what we saw last night would be a hard act to follow.

It’s easy to miss the feste. There are just so many of them! Apart from the local tourist office you could start looking on the web at



(Photographs also by courtesy of Alessandra. Thanks!)


Three Great Eateries to Try Out

It’s official! The much loved Borghesi restaurant in Bagni di Lucca, Villa is reopening after a hiatus of over two years. With the cooperation of ex-councillor, Lions club member and president of Bagni di Lucca’s  University of the third age,  Fabio Lucchesi, who owns the premises and his wife’s family Borghesi, the original founders of the restaurant and who originate from our very own Longoio there will be an opening this Saturday.

Borghesi is not just a restaurant: it’s an institution which dates back to heady Edwardian days when the British contingent would also use it as their favourite tea rooms.

I am quite sure that the Borghesi resurrection will be wholly successful and we look forwards to sampling its excellent kitchen in the very near future.

Well done to all those who are putting all their efforts in ensuring that Bagni di Lucca does not lose its historical places of refreshment and conviviality. Already the Circolo dei Forestieri, which we sampled last week when we participated in the Unitre’s end of term lunch, is living up to its reputation for good, reasonably priced food in an elegant ambience.

While on the subject of historical eateries we bumped into an amazing restaurant dating back to the seventeenth century and situated quite near famous oak I described in my last post. It’s Toti’s cantina situated in Via del Carraia in Gragnano near Lucca, which, as every wine-lover knows, is famous for its superb vineyards.

In Italy one can always tell if the restaurant is a good one by the varied number of people of all classes and trade congregating in it: from farmers to executive to builders. Good food knows no elitist barriers in Italy unlike what often happens in other countries.

The antica cantina restaurant is, in fact, a converted wine cellar and there are still relicts of casks and their gigantic hoops.  The cellar dining area is a little dim but is particularly suitable for evening meals.

We chose the lighter room near the entrance

and plumped for the workers’ lunch which was as follows:

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We picked the rice with artichokes, penne with asparagus and garlic spaghetti.

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 For second dish we had home-made hamburgers on asparagus cream, saltimbocca alla Romana (saltimbocca, Roman-style: veal, prosciutto and sage, rolled-up and cooked in dry white wine and butter) and grilled beef with a mixture of vegetables including roast potatoes bean and agretti (the edible leaves of salsola soda, also known as goat’s beard in the United Kingdom).

Agretti is a kind of greens originating from Tuscany and I’ve never found it abroad. It’s delicious!

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This excellent repast was accompanied by water, excellent red house wine from Gragnano and finished with coffee.

All this came to ten euro each and, as is usual in Italy, tipping was completely optional.

We can assuredly say that we haven’t eaten so well in a restaurant for a very long time.

At week end and evening there is a more extensive a la carte menu which is thus:


More details are as follows:


 To get to Toti’ follow the road from Lucca to Pescia and turn right where it says Montecarlo.



Volcanic Baths in Saturn(ia) and Go-Karts in Civitella

Next day’s itinerary took us first to Scansano, famous for its Morellino wine. The hilltop town is also very attractive and we enjoyed a welcome break here.

There is an interesting museum with a collection of Etruscan items and a section on wine-making.

I’d seen a picture of the cascatelle of Saturnia (little waterfalls) and was determined we should include this on our itinerary. The cascatelle are fed by hot thermal springs and emanate a smell of bad eggs. They are very curative for a variety of ailments (mainly back-ache) and also very relaxing

The “little waterfalls” were gushing and despite the number of people enjoying the warm waters we too found a place and for about half an hour I had the pleasure of a hot waterfall pouring over me.

The waterfalls are free which is not the case with Saturnia terme, an exclusive hotel and golf course complex we skirted on our way to the actual town of Saturnia, which is quiet and attractive.

The borgo of Saturnia should not be missed – it has a good section of Roman road – part of the Via Clodia – going through its Etruscan-era gate:

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Near Saturnia is a jewel of a hilltop town, Montemerano, happily free from those busloads of tourists that infect those other attractions of Tuscany like San Gemignano.

The parish church is quite beautiful and contains a number of valuable pictures including a Lorenzetti.

The church also has a quaint Madonna called the Madonna della gattaiola or the cat-flap Madonna. The story goes that a priest needing a new door for his house found a plank of wood with a discarded portrait of the Madonna on it. Being also a cat owner the priest decided to use the panel with one small modification, – a round hole in the bottom right of the painting which one can still observe today to serve as a cat-flap. This is surely a prime example of a picture that is admired for something that is missing from it!


Our journey now took us towards the coast. We wanted to experience the fun of crossing the two tomboli that have roads on them out of the three that connect Monte Argentario to the Italian mainland. In one of the two lagoons a windmill had been built.

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Orbetello is a fine old town and famous for the pioneers of Italian flying boats.

Monte Argentario is a beautiful place. Once an island, it now hosts marinas and a surfeit of time shares and parking is a real problem….it’s not quite our place we decided.

Before returning to our hotel we looked into Civitella Marittima (marittima means that the place is in the Maremma, not that it’s near the sea), a nearby hill town. Here the inhabitants were celebrating the Palio of the carretti – or hand-made, non-motorised go-karts This is another example of the inventiveness of Italian palios.

I realise that the idea of the Palio is also to release tension between the various parts of a town and avoid such shameful phenomenas as Britain’s (and the USA’s) regular inner city riots. Setting off steam in this way is a great way also to attract visitors and turn the different elements of the town into a real community.

We wandered around looking at the stalls and eating Donzelle. These are not maidens but a variety of delicious fried bread.

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There were the usual artisan stalls and some less usual fashions displayed.

Returning to our base we realised that this was to be the last night in this area before proceeding next morning to Florence.