A Ducal Palace Press Conference for Bagni di Lucca’s 2014 Arts Festival

“Conto alla rovescia” is an often-recurring Italian expression. It simply means “count-down” and it’s definitely count-down time for the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival which officially opens on July 4th at 6.30 pm with a grand and entertaining evening of jugglers, circus and music for everyone.

Yesterday we were in Lucca’s sumptuous ducal palace in Piazza Napoleone to attend the Arts Festival press release conference. Introducing was the festival’s seminal figure, Jaqueline Varela, with her fluent and persuasive style, in the centre of the table was Mayor Massimo Betti of Bagni di Lucca and to his left was Jake, Jaqueline’s other half.

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The progress this Bagni-di-Lucca shaking event has made since its incredibly successful debut last year could be seen in the choice of location and the presence of our commune’s first citizen. Few places can match the opulence of the magnificent state rooms of Lucca’s biggest palace and it is significant that the festival now has strengthened the official imprimatur of the commune’s administration.

Incidentally, the superlative frescoes in the ducal palace are not there to glorify the reign of Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon’s sister, over Lucca. Quite the opposite: Luigi Ademollo painted them in 1820 by command of her successor, Maria Luisa di Borbona to affirm the virtues of the restoration and condemn the vices of the former empire. Such is the power of art!

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Among the audience were representatives of all the major Italian and English language newspapers and magazines of the province and region. Questions were asked and were all satisfactorily answered. Would there be any differences in year two of the Arts festival as distinct from year one? The winning formula would be pursued of course – a balance between formal and flexible organisation. There would, however, be an effort to involve Bagni di Lucca Villa more in the event. After all, Villa does have more than its share of empty shops – I am particularly thinking of that delightful venue which used to be at the Piazzetta and, of course, the precarious future of the circolo dei forestieri.

Further venues at Ponte would be opened, including the Casino, and greater emphasis would be paid to involving all sectors of the public at all degrees of artistic interest or involvement by introducing more art and sculpture courses.

We know now that after the “strepitoso” success” of last year’s “first edition”, the Bagni di Lucca Arts Festival can only grow from strength to strength. The energy is vibrant, the enthusiasm is strong and the creativity is flowering.

Concentrating on the primal instinct of artistry which lies in every sentient being we can now build the festival into something which will continue to form a major part of Bagni di Lucca’s identity and its already very attractive calendar of events.

For further information about the festival and its events do click on its web site at:




From Tallis To Garibaldi

Most of my working life has been spent in Greenwich, now upgraded to “Royal” status because of the former presence of a monarch’s palace there.

In fact, Henry VIII was baptised in the local parish church of Saint Alphege where I attended a lunchtime piano recital given by students from the Trinity College of Music.

The royal palace was replaced by the seamen’s hospital which in turn was occupied by the royal naval college. This has now moved outside London and its premises, probably the finest renaissance buildings in the UK (and designed by Wren and Hawksmoor) are now the campus of the University of Greenwich.

The recital included works by De Falla played by Sofia Sarmento from Portugal and Schubert’s complete Moments Musicaux played by Italian Filippo Di Bari.

I thoroughly enjoyed hearing both young performers and wish them well in their future careers. St Alphege, of course, has a long and noble musical history since the time when that “father of English church music” Thomas Tallis, was organist there. Part of that organ’s keyboard has survived to this day.

Greenwich, although so familiar and pleasurable to me only disappointed in one respect: the ghastly new display of the famous tea clipper the “Cutty Sark”. How anyone could submerge her fine hull in a glass and steel cocoon, completely destroying her fine line is anybody’s business.

From Greenwich we made our way to the Italian Institute in Belgrave square where an unusual musical recitation, “Garibaldi in London” was given composed by Marcello Panni who has worked extensively as composer and conductor and has written several operas staged at La Scala, Florence, Rome and Bonn.

Garibaldi was memorably quoted by Tennyson as “having the divine stupidity of a hero” and was both feted and feared by the British establishment: feted because of his romantic exploits in uniting cultivated Britons’ favourite country of exile, and feared because, as Queen Victoria correctly said, he was also a revolutionary.

The music was lively in a sort of post Weill-jazzy idiom and aptly described the ambiguity of Garibaldi’s one and only visit to the British Isles in 1864.

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The recitation did not include one incident which I recollect was depicted in the “Illustrated London news” of the time. On his way to the Crystal palace to address working men’s associations Garibaldi passed my old school, Dulwich College watched by hundreds of enthusiastic boys. Seeing the horses in some difficult when approaching the steep hill leading to the palace the Dulwich boys tied ropes onto the carriage and helped pull Garibaldi’s retinue along College road for quite some distance.


Her Majesty’s Goose at Kew

We decided to visit Kew palace. Whether one wants to visit the Royal botanical Gardens (world heritage site since 2003) or not, one has to enter it to arrive at Kew palace. But who wouldn’t want to see these fabulous gardens at any time?

A visit to the Royal Botanical gardens at Kew and its Palace is a delightful way to spend a sunny afternoon in London. (And London has been particularly sunny while I was there). As life members of the Arts fund we were able to enter them at half price (and Kew palace for free), which is a considerable saving since the standard admission charge is £15 – a far cry when to get past the turnstiles one placed just one penny in the slot – not centuries ago but as recently as 1971 (if I remember correctly). This means that the admission price has increased at least 30,000 times! Having said this, a visit to Kew was worth every penny, inflated, decimal or not!

Kew has not only the largest collection of plants in the world; it has the best example of Victorian iron and glass building in Decimus Burton’s  palm house, the best example of chinoiserie in Sir William Chambers’ (he of Somerset house) pagoda, indeed the best of so many things.

From the Victoria entrance we headed for the palace which was actually used not so much as a “palace” (it’s only the size of a large house) but as a nursery for King George III’s children (of which he had fifteen who survived sired off Queen Charlotte who died here in 1818).

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On our way we spotted a goose that had chosen a slightly exposed nesting place. Perhaps she enjoyed classical architecture!

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A detour to the water-lily house revealed the most delicate wonders:

Kew palace must be one of the smallest of royal palaces and was George III’s favorite residence. For me the highlight was its herb garden which was beautifully laid out and provided some of the remedies which the king’s physicians tried on his madness, (remember the film starring the incomparable Nigel Hawthorne?), which has now been diagnosed in retrospect as bi-polar syndrome.

Nearby were the kitchens with a delightful vegetable garden outside which also grew artichokes.

The King’s bathroom would definitely be in need of an upgrade should any royal visitors take up residence here again.

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All the palace rooms were delightfully presented and our visit was made much more alive by costumed attendants:

Kew palace was once also the scene of fetes champetres including this one which featured a giant swan..

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It was clearly the scene of much music making – some of which continues today:


We found the palace very well-displayed but the only thing I wished for was that the brick work should have been stripped of its red paint to more clearly expose its unusual (for the UK) Flemish bond which has also given the building the alternative name of the Dutch house.

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Back in Kew Gardens we explored the tree walk which was only opened in 2010. It was definitely not for vertigo sufferers since there was also a slight sway on it but what a great way to climb trees without the effort or the possibility of breaking one’s neck!

My visits to Lucca’s botanical gardens, still continuing to be very delightful, will never be the quite the same again although, at least, I’ll be more able to afford its entrance fee of three euros!

In the evening at the Punch tavern in Fleet Street we enjoyed a Beckenham historical society supper together with the company of an old school mate. Let us say that the company was rather better than the food…although the beer made up for that.


From Longoio to London


When I packed my suitcase on the 10th of this month to attend a family event in London I was made to realize that I’d left out an important item but as he had no passport I had to leave Napoleone behind.

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Stansted airport’s architect must have been partly inspired by Liverpool street station’s architect as the roof supporting piers declare:

Anyway, both of these ports of entry into the UK are worthy of its great history of engineering skills in a way which Heathrow airport and Victoria station are not!

What is less worthy are the train fares in the UK. Either one spends six pounds on a terror Terravision bus or twenty-four pounds on a railway single ticket! When I gasped at the price for a thirty-six mile train journey the ticket issuer agreed with me saying it was disgustingly high and would only please the likes of share-holders. However, since there were major traffic hold-ups around London (I’d taken an early (6 am flight) from Pisa to save on fares and, of course, arrived just in time for the rush hour!) I took the train instead.

I was glad to see that there were still station platform whistle-blowers around.

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Not having visited the UK for three years, but having been born and having lived and worked in the great wen for most of my life, the culture shock was only slight. The countryside was beautifully green:

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Liverpool street travel centre was helpful and suggested that with my time in London I should get an oyster card, a sort of travel debit card. Indeed, as I write this now all money seems to have been banned from changing hands between passengers and conductors on London’s public transport system. No wonder they are closing down most ticket offices…

No, this is not a picture from Banaras but from a North London inner suburb I was travelling to, quite near Neasden town centre. How could “Private Eye” have belittled that place with its marvellously executed Hindu temple?

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If one has just five days to spend in London then one should clearly spend them wisely. On our first evening we attended a triple bill at the Royal Ballet (booked beforehand, of course).

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The evening was an absolute delight. First was Ashton’s “The Dream” based on Shakespeare’s “Midsummer night’s dream” with music by Mendelssohn and arranged by Lanchberry. A modern minimalist piece followed with transcendental music by Arvo Part. The final ballet was a hilarious take-off of a serious Chopin piano recital with the wandering thoughts of the audience, whether they be malevolent or romantic, actually personified in the ballet. I realised that, in Italy, not only was I missing live Wagner but also a great dance company.

Covent Garden’s foyer always has some interesting ballet costumes on display:

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 It’s amazing to think that this area was a working fruit and veg market until well into the nineteen-seventies (indeed, the opening scene of Shaw’s Pygmalion takes place there). I wonder what happened to that extraordinary venue called “Middle Earth” where I heard Captain Beefheart and the Pink Floyd perform. Here is a historic picture of the market’s last vendor:

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Covent Garden station still has lifts instead of escalators and two of these were being replaced. So to return home we decided to take the Piccadilly line from Green Park and hopped on a bus to get there. Armed with my oyster card public transport in London was no problem and on the front seat of the top deck of a new “Boris” bus I got nice views of London by night.

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The best thing about the Boris Bus is that you can board and alight without difficulty as the rear end of the bus is a hark-back to the old days of the Routemaster. Here are the two compared:

It seemed almost unbelievable that I had started the day so early in a remote Apennine valley, making sure the ducks and cats were adequately catered for with food and water and finished up in the upper stalls of the royal opera  house delighting in the performance of the best ballet company of the world.

Must do this more often. I thought.

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(Stephen McRae as Oberon in “The Dream”.)


Eagle Castle

Ladies, imagine walking through a thick forest, climbing up a steep hill and then coming across a ruined castle and falling in love with it.

This is how the castle looked like when first found:


Imagine, then, having a rich husband who not only will buy up the hill but also provide sufficient funds to restore the castle to its former grandeur.

Imagine finally that the castle and its location take off successfully, not only as one’s own home, but also as an exclusive holiday resort and conference centre.

This, in brief, is the story behind the Castello dell ‘Aquila (Eagle Castle) which lies just to the north of the Garfagnana in that castle-ridden area called Lunigiana.

The Castle overlooks the mediaeval village of Gragnola which is on the railway line going all the way from Lucca to Aulla. Its origins go back to the times when pilgrims would travel along the via Francigena to reach Rome and it is first mentioned in 1366. The families that owned the castle came from branches of the Malaspina. Its founder-builder was Galeotto di Fosdinovo (1352-1367) who was succeeded by his son Leonardo I (1393-1403). The family died out in the first half of the fifteenth century and was succeeded by Lazaro, son of Antonio Alberico Marquis of Fosdinovo. This family, too, died out in the first half of the seventeenth century and the castle was abandoned to the elements until rediscovered by the current owner who hails from the Veneto region.

We have visited the castle on two occasions. The first was in June 2006 when I and a supply teacher took our class from IPSIA (technical college), Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, on a visit to the castle. The students were particularly impressed on hearing that only two years previously a skeleton with an arrow through its throat had been found  and was now on show:


The second occasion was in winter and the castle, again, did not fail to amaze.

The views from the castle are quite sublime, encompassing the Apuan and Apennine ranges.

The guests’ rooms are tastefully furnished with many antique pieces.

There is a great hall and a chapel which are used for conferences, mediaeval banquets, marriages, concerts and other events.

When I was a kid I used to read the “adventure” series by then popular children’s author Enid Blyton. I was particularly gripped by “The castle of adventure”. It seemed to me that, visiting the Castello dell ‘Aquila, I had truly come across the prototype of such a castle!

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For more information on the castle see its web site at: http://www.castellodellaquila.it/castelloaquila/.

How to Get Rid of Excess Fat in an Enjoyable Way

We’ve had two days of rain now – very welcome for our plants but not brilliant for getting around. So I was glad that last Monday I took a trip around the Luccan hills on my scooter

Lucca’s hills to the north of the city are the home to some of the best olive oil and wines in the whole of Italy. They are divided into the ranges to the east of the river Serchio and those to the west.

The eastern hills rise quite steeply and merge into the Pizzorne, the plateau precursors of the main Apennine ridge of sedimentary rocks. I know this part quite well so was keen to explore the western hills which are the precursors of the metamorphic Apuan range. Few river valleys have such different geological formations on opposite banks!

The western hills are pure heaven and have some of the most wonderfully gentle landscapes I have ever seen in Italy, surpassing, in my opinion even Chiantishire. There are delightful wooded lanes,and extensive views towards the Apuans:

There are beautiful Pievi – here at Santo Stefano::

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 Great vineyards:

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Lovely olive groves

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And the best long-views of Lucca I have ever seen:

There is indeed so much to enjoy and explore here that I feel I have neglected this area for the more dramatic parts of the Lucchesia further north.

One place stopped at was Mutigliano, a delightful village which has an unusual feature I’d visited before without realising what it meant.

Last summer I’d gone with two friends to a sagra, or festival, “dei Rigatoni” (a type of pasta) just outside Mutigliano. It was great fun, both for the food and the dancing.

(For more information on the sagra click on


This time I wanted to explore more of the area around where the summer sagra is held. The dance area looked quite different now.

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There were two forlorn eagles, one of which had lost a wing, perched on columns,

There was a Roman-style “altar” sculpted (by Bacelli) with delicate mourning figures:

There was also a collapsing monument with difficult-to-decipher writing on it (but which I later discovered was General Diaz’ proclamation of the great Italian victory concluding World War I at Vittorio Veneto).

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I realised I was in a “Parco della Rimembranza”, a park set up to remember the fallen of World War I and where the beautiful holm-oak woods surrounding the entrance amphitheatre symbolised those who died, but had no grave, in that four-year-long massacre. This memorial was laid out in 1924 by the new Italian fascist government who also designed another similar memorial, this time in an urban setting, in Piazza Verdi just inside Lucca’s Porta Sant’Anna (and which – after much heated debate – is being restored to its original glory).

Strangely, although the Mutigliano memorial park appeared so neglected, its forlornness added to the tragic poignancy  of that conflict from which, clearly, the fascist government hadn’t learnt any lessons when it plunged Italy into a second world war in 1940.

I do feel, however, that, as a token that this year is the centennial commemoration of the Great War, the eagles could be cleaned up and the missing wing replaced.

I plunged into the woods and my spirit was immediately raised by the beauty of the trees.

At odd intervals very good signs explained different aspects of the forest flora and fauna. Some of them had three-D effects and all were good for learning the correct Italian for animal species.

(Moscardino means a Dormouse)

At other intervals there was a fitness activity with indication of how to use it according to different levels of competence – an open-air gym in effect. I tried one or two of them, the only one around to do so, and thought this was quite an enjoyable way of helping to lose some of that “spare tyre” accumulated through the rinfreschi we’d been offered at the start of the week.

Through the woods I could see a large building which once had been the summer holiday camp for orphans of the war…

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Lucca, therefore, has two Parchi Della Rimembranza, both inaugurated on 8th June 1924 by Costanzo Ciano who had collaborated in heroic exploits with poet D’Annunzio in WWI (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/superman-or-satanist/). The one in Lucca commemorates fallen soldiers from the city and the one in Mutigliano commemorates those from the countryside who died.

I wonder how many of us will remember the parks’ original purpose, whether we  hit the dance floor at the ”Sagra dei Rigatoni”, or exercise ourselves in the surrounding woods, or whether we wait for our bus in Piazza Verdi in Lucca?

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Back to the Star

Last Sunday afternoon I moved from the morning’s battle front in the Brancoleria, described in my post at


to the peaceful atmosphere of the Sanctuary of Migliano in the comune of Fosciandora, where I joined my choir of San Pietro e Paolo di Ghivizzano to celebrate the month of May, which is also the month of the Virgin Mary.

I read my post when we sang on the same occasion last year and found that it was a fair description of what happened this year too!  So if you haven’t read that post, which also tells you about the miraculous history of the sanctuary, I suggest you click on:


It will hopefully be just the same for next year as our choir has contributed to the Marian festivities here for some years now.

The only differences this time were that before the Mass there was a lucky dip for a local charity organisation (il sogno) which gives support to differently able or problematic children. Their web site is at http://www.onlusilsogno.org/

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and that after the Mass refreshments took place indoors and were largely confined to the choir and co-workers. It was my second big tuck-in in one day. How can one resist such delicious spreads without spreading out a little oneself!

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I noticed that work was well under way to convert the old friary into a centre for the charity’s beneficiaries.

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I also took some more pictures of this delightful place, in particular of its fabulous carved wooden doors which also include a panel describing the famous Volto Santo in Lucca cathedral.

And this beautifully sewn standard:

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Sorry, no pictures of the choir this time. I must get them to pose after the Mass next year when we sing at the sanctuary again! It was great to be there and realise that this too had once been a war zone when the allied forces advanced to this point in the last months of 1944.

How could such peaceful places have once been theatres of war – I thought of my wonderful trip, long ago, to that massacred, tortured country which is Syria today.