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:

http://artfestivalbagnidilucca.org/?page_id=1781

 

Off-Roading in the Pizzorne

Today’s midday temperatures in Lucca are due to surpass thirty-five degrees centigrade. I was in the city this morning and it was getting hot, hot, hot. What to do? I decided my return home would be via the Pizzorne, a mountain table to the north of Lucca reaching above 4000 feet. The average drop in temperature for every 100 metres one rises is (on average) about half a degree. So could I expect the Pizzorne temperature to be around twenty degrees below Lucca? Well not quite, as heat radiates from the ground and Lucca is not yet at sea level.

However, reaching the Pizzorne via Matraia the temperature was around ten degrees less than Lucca, which made it feel very comfortable!

From le Pizzorne it’s possible to do some great off-road biking or even land-rovering. Starting from the little church near the Aldebaran restaurant by the fountain in the centre of the Pizzorne meadows, if one goes right one ends up at Lugliano and if one goes left one finishes up at Corsena, both of which are villages near to Bagni di Lucca.

I’ve often done both roads but this time, because of heavy winter rains, they were more than usually deeply rutted and I had to be very careful about where my wheels were going. All the same, I made it to Corsena within an hour.

The first part of the route takes one on a track to the right of a stream which, not surprisingly, is called Pizzorne. At a particular point the track crosses over a cement bridge to the left side and continues alongside the stream.

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The road then diverges and sweeps through some wonderful chestnut forests with good views over both the Val di Lima and the Serchio valley.

There are various landmarks to look out for.

This shrine:

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This cross

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Then one spots Corsena’s houses and very soon one’s ass is saved from becoming too sore with the bumpy ride by the miraculous appearance of tarmac. Three cheers for macadam!

The route can also be happily done by mountain bike or even walked. It’s very pleasant whatever transport one use.

One spot of advice – don’t hazard it in winter. The Aldebaran restaurant is usually closed and the road can become as muddy as a rugger field.

There are no restrictions about off-roading this route except as far as hunting and mushroom collecting off ifrom it are concerned. It’s important to know about restrictions. Off-roading in the Prato Fiorito road from Albereta requires a special forestry commission pass and if one is caught without it fines can be tough.

Looking at the maps it’s difficult to know what is a tarmacked and what isn’t a tarmacked road. I’ve been caught out in several occasions because Italian detailed maps are so unreliable and one map often contradicts another. My definition of heaven would be Italy covered by Ordnance Survey maps but, alas, this is still some miles (forgive the pun) away.

What’s the best route to take? Corsena or Lugliano? Sometimes the Lugliano route is easier going than the Corsena one. This happened a couple of years ago when the Corsena route had a lot more landslides and rock falls. For sheer interest the Lugliano is better as one passes the Hermitage of Saint Bartholomew. One can also cut across to Boveglio at one stage and pass by the sanctuary of the Madonna of the snow.

Whatever one decides to do it’s better to go with someone who knows the route, either because they live in the area or because they’ve learnt it from (sometimes) bitter experience.

One of my favourite rides is to go from Lugliano to the Pizzorne and then returned via Corsena as a loop.

It’s much more fun than doing the standard boring Serchio valley routes to Lucca, especially if one’s not in a hurry and wants to stop and have a great cool picnic in the shade of centuries old chestnut trees. But beware; it’s not for the standard saloon car!

 

Insect Man Re-discovered in Bagni di Lucca

The AGIP petrol (gas) station bar at Chiffenti serves free tasty tit-bits from 5.30 PM on most days. If I’m there, I always try to fill my vehicle tank at around that time and then order a Campari soda, dig into the various culinary offerings and read the local papers freely available on the bar’s tables.

A couple of days ago I was looking through “Il Tirreno” there when I spotted a snippet about a surprise find in the Old Protestant cemetery in Bagni di Lucca. Prof. Marcello Cherubini, president of the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, had re-discovered the tomb of a person whose eminence in the field of natural history must rank very close to that of Charles Darwin himself. Indeed, in 1883, Charles Valentine Riley, the American entomologist and artist, wrote: “No branch of natural science has more fully felt the beneficial impulse and stimulus of Darwin’s labours than entomology“.

Alexander Henry Haliday was an Irishman who laid the modern foundations of the science of entomology or the study of insects.

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Frankly, I’d never heard of him before but digging deeper into the facts I realised what a pioneer he was.

Haliday was born at Holywood, Co. Down, Northern Ireland in 1807 and died at Lucca in 1870. He is particularly noted for his studies on the insect orders of Hymenoptera, Diptera and Thysanoptera, but he worked on all orders of insects and various fields of entomology.

Haliday, who was fluent in Italian from an early age thanks to having Italian relatives, the Pisani family, divided his life between Dublin and Lucca. With some entomologists, including Camillo Rondani and Adolfo Targioni Tozzetti, he founded the Italian Entomological Society. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Belfast Natural History Society and the Royal Entomological Society of London.

Haliday was one of the most distinguished natural scientists of the nineteenth century. His contributions were in the development of three areas: taxonomy, or species classification, synonymy (re-naming of species) and biology. He established new orders such as the thysanoptera (mostly bad insects who prey on plants and can transmit infectious diseases) and new families such Mymaridae and Ichneumonidae or Hymenoptera (which include good insects such as bees).

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I am by no means a specialist in insects but clearly I realise Haliday was a very great person in his field. His extensive correspondence with British and continental entomologists is preserved in the library of the Royal Entomological Society and in the Hope Department Library of the Museum of Natural History, University of Oxford.

Insects don’t just mean cockroaches, scorpions, earwigs and all the other creepy-crawlies that infest our houses. They include some of the most beautiful (and useful) members of the animal kingdom such as butterflies, bees and dragonflies.

Hopefully, Haliday’s tomb, which is now in course of restoration, will return to its former glory. Examining it the other day I realised that the main problem was the way the iron railing surrounding it had broken the monument’s stone base in various parts.

It will be great to be able to read the tomb’s inscription more clearly and (for those not provided with a classical education) have a translation from Latin. From what I could remember of Latin it says how industrious Haliday was in expanding the field of knowledge in the natural sciences.

I would add that Haliday loved Italy and became one of that select band of people from the north of Europe who fitted in perfectly with their southern European companions. Evidently, his strict northern Irish upbringing was soon loosened up and he enjoyed every positive pleasure which Italy could offer including good company, good opera, good food and drink.

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Haliday’s obituary includes this passage which aptly sums him up:

“He was our first entomologist. His ideas of classification and tabulation were so logical, his Latinity so classical, and his knowledge of whatever he touched so masterly that I fear we shall be long before we look upon his like again.”

Happily the bulk of Haliday’s insect collection is now in the National Museum of Ireland and can be viewed as we did when last in Dublin. (See http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20494392?uid=3738296&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104121723617 for more).

What an honour for Bagni di Lucca that this great man should find his last resting place here! May Entomologists (and non-entomologists) from all over the world now flock to this eminent Irishman’s tomb and pay homage to him for establishing the study of insects in modern terms.

If you wish to contribute to the restoration of tombs in Bagni di Lucca’s Protestant cemetery do contact Angela Amadei, the librarian, at the English church library at Bagni di Lucca. It’s worth doing this if you are paying tax in Italy as, under the ART BONUS scheme, you can get 65% of what you’ve paid within three years.

 

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PS There is a lot more information about Haliday’s life at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Henry_Haliday

 

 

Bagni di Lucca’s Wedding Bells

Places where marriage ceremonies, both civil and religious, may be performed have widened considerably over the years.

High flyers may like this setting:

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Those who are in a hurry to get away to their honeymoon destination may prefer this vehicle combination:

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If both spouses are Pisceans then this could be an option:

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If you love getting to the top of things, especially mountains, then you could emulate this Nepalese couple who got married on Mount Everest’s summit.

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Bagni di Lucca comune doesn’t offer these options. Instead it offers a delightful location amid verdant hills and picturesque villages in a beautiful part of Tuscany.

There are three sites currently available where civil marriages can take place. They are:

  • The comune (or town hall) of Bagni di Lucca
  • The casinò (or ex-gambling hall) of the comune.
  • The circolo dei forestieri (or foreigners’ club)

There is talk of adding a fourth – the old English church (now turned partly into a library).

All venues are old and atmospheric. Bagni’s town hall has a nice feel to it and the council chamber is used for the ceremony.

On the walls are various paintings including one showing Christopher Columbus discovering America and then finding that a Lucchese had already got there before and was selling him a plaster-of-Paris statuette, for which local industries are famous. (See the museum at Coreglia Antelminelli at http://comune.coreglia.lu.it/index.php?option=com_inform&view=article&id=56)

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The town hall’s back garden could do with a spruce-up, however. Perhaps a rose garden might be in place here.

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Last week I was present with a friend as one of the two witnesses required in Italy at a civil marriage ceremony in the town hall. Witnesses don’t have to be residents of Bagni di Lucca.  This was the first Italian civil marriage ceremony I have contributed to, although I have on two previous occasions helped out in arrangements afterwards.

The ceremony was performed by the mayor Dr. Massimo Betti wearing his mayoral tri-colour sash, and was both solemn and charming. Solemn because there are quite a few articles in Italian law relating to wedding partner obligations that have to be read out – it’s not just a matter of “will you etc.”.

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An interpreter was present and at the end we confirmed that we had heard and understood everything that was said and contributed to signing the marriage certificate.

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The newly-weds were then applauded and also given a special hand-made-paper wedding certificate and flowers from the mayor.

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(PS I’m wearing the same tie I wore at my own wedding…)

In all – including the photographer – there were seven people present in the town hall, one more than at our own wedding which took place in the last century at Caxton Hall, Westminster, London.

A quiet wedding, certainly but clearly one very important day in the lives of the couple. Coincidentally, the mayor told them that he had two relatives living in the midland city where they hailed from. Wonders never cease!

For more information about how one can get married in Italy do contact Lisa Redgrave whose web-site is at

http://www.hitchedinitaly.com/aboutus.php

and who has already arranged many such wedding ceremonies with the greatest of success.

 

Secret Mission Across the Gothic Line a Success!

When I accidentally entered into the time warp which would transport me back to the same part of the Brancoleria area in Mediavalle, but seventy years earlier to the day, I realised it was going to be a tough mission as a secret agent for the allied forces. We had to negotiate the German front on the Gothic line, take with us a group of displaced local villagers, known as “gli sfollati”, and make contact with partisan groups who were waiting for an allied attack on Mount Pittone. The whole area was heavily mined.

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My knowledge of the Gothic line on the right bank of the Serchio was already extensive, covering the area of the anti-aircraft trenches above Domazzano which I had visited on a previous mission (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/olive-oil-persian-cats-and-the-gothic-line/) and the underground fortress below the crypt of Anchiano Parish church. I knew nothing, however, about the Brancoli part of the line.

First, under heavy defence, the camp padre blessed our mission and gave a reading of the Good Centurion:

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One thing on our side was the weather – the crispest, clearest day one could wish for May, with views stretching as far south as the Volterra hills which seemed suspended in air and with the most gorgeous wild flowers inspiring us with hope.

But many more things were against us: the desperate nature of the German divisions which had suffered continuous withdrawal of seemingly impregnable lines. The Gustav line, for example, had been evacuated only a few months previously and both allied and Russian forces were ready for a pincher movement on Berlin. Yet the Fuhrer was still betting on his latest secret weapon, the development of the first nuclear bomb in a surreptitious laboratory in the heart of the Third Reich.

We managed to take an undercover forest route to reach the old castle of Pittone which Gerry had now converted into a massive bunker using the mediaeval, square cut masonry

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We were caught by surprise by a German patrol that surrounded us and made us march along a precipitously narrow footpath with sheer drops down onto the railway below. Gerry had brought in a train loaded with tons of TNT and was ready to blow up all lines of communication for the advancing allied forces if needs be. “Keep on moving”, shouted a burly SS officer.”

We were herded into a cave which turned out to be another secret bunker and exited onto another dramatic ledge with the view of Piaggione below us.

I’d never realised that there was a sort of pre-gothic line, if you like, or that the gothic line had been divided into several smaller lines. Later we were to discover that Gerry had abandoned the main gothic line which cuts just below Borgo a Mozzano with the anti-tank wall I was to learn would be still highly visible over seventy years later on the new road to Lucca. It took our capture by enemy forces to realise these points but it was too late.

It was sickening for us to see the enemy forces enjoying their cup of ersatz coffee while we were parched in the day’s increasing heat. (Actually, it was them who were sickened by the evil-looking potion!)

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We continued up an incredibly steep stretch of exposed, rocky mountainside and I was glad that we’d managed to cut ourselves walking sticks and were wearing some decent boots – any little slip could have precipitated us hundreds of metres down into the Serchio valley to our doom.

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We noted than each bunker had a reference number which must have appeared on the axis maps. I wish we had better maps ourselves!

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But what was to be our doom today at the gunpoint of fraught SS officers? Were we to be placed in the internment camp at Cocciglia? Were women to be separated from men, Jews from gentiles, old from young? And then? Not those infamous railway lines!

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We finally reached the top of the hill and found ourselves before a chapel. Some of us fell on our knees and prayed to God for deliverance. It seemed somewhat futile.

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Then we heard gunfire. In the thick forest below us German machine gunners and riflemen appeared to be retreating. Had the Yanks arrived to save us? Sure enough they had! A whole squad of well-armed and mobile US “buffalos” (or rather white buffaloes to distinguish them from their darker black buffaloes who later we knew would have served with such distinction at Sommocolonia near Barga) –the US 92nd infantry division, part of the Fifth army, had captured the German bunkers and driven the remaining axis troops out of them.

We crouched for cover. “Friendly” fire was also a probability but we knew who would win the close-range gun battle. The Germans were captured to loud cheering from us.

Then the time warp brought us back as quickly as it had taken us away back to Sunday 25 May 2014. All soldiers both axis and allied were lined up before the chapel.

 

The dead and wounded were brought in.

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The auxiliary and rescue service were praised and lined up.

Then all the soldiers from both sides came together for Peace.

Speeches began and I realised that earlier that day I’d voted in the local European elections. “Whatever one may say about the EU, it has been instrumental in preventing war in Western Europe for the past seventy years. Let us hope that atrocities as were committed at Sant’Anna di Stazzema will never ever be repeated”, said the day’s organizer.

We were fed and watered in the grandest style and in the most exquisite rustic surroundings under the shady beech and holm oak trees in a part of the world which had returned to its naturally peaceful self.

Never again. Truly, never again may war scar this beautiful Lucchesia!

This was Italy at its best and most characteristic. Amazing vitality in history re-evocation groups which had come from both north and south of the Apennines, from both east and west parts of the Gothic line, which stretched from Viareggio all the way to Rimini, had gathered and performed their part superbly. They knew their stuff – even the gun battle which had liberated us at the end was reconstructed from oral testimonies of war survivors. Listening to the older people around me I heard even more stories of valour and courage, of treachery and suffering.

This decorated dog looked suitable panted out after the climb:

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I wonder what this old lady thought about it all. What memories the morning’s events must have stirred in her!

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It was all very moving as this country had been occupied by the most ruthless of Nazi-fascist collaboration and suffered a bloody civil war in a way which luckily the UK, despite the blitz and the doodlebugs and rationing, had never had to endure.

The hope is that it will never happen again. We must remember this in 2014, the seventieth anniversary of Italy’s liberation from Nazi-fascism, as we remember, too, the hundredth anniversary of the First World War which lost sixteen million lives and for which war there are today no living witnesses.

And, within another few years, there will be no living witnesses to world war two (which alone in this area was responsible for the loss of over ten persons per thousand inhabitants…).

We shall only have the incredible dedication of passionate volunteers, such as I met yesterday, in organising, to the highest perfection,  a day which gave us everything we could have desired: a magnificent and thrilling walk in the most wonderful scenery, the most stupendous views, the deepest historical impact of WWII we could have gathered, more present upon our senses than any book could ever have given us and, to cap it all a delicious all-fresco meal of all the best food that this part of the world could possibly offer: Farro (spelt) soup, biroldo, lardo, pasta, hams of all types, cakes of even greater variety, vino in prodigious abundance, great, great company from both spectators and actors alike and the background music of Glen Miller and his immortal band too!

 

Superb! Well done to the Brancoli branch of the Gothic line committee. Truly, I count this as one of the best Sunday mornings I’ve ever spent in Italy, indeed, anywhere.

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And more was to follow on that Sunday if you read my next post…

 

 

 

Post Haste

Italian banks generally receive a bad press from ex-pats, largely because of inflated charges, incomprehensible paperwork, haughty staff and frequent bank take-overs causing considerable confusion.

Throughout the ten years that I have used the Italian banking system I have had no particular cause to make complaints. That’s because I opened an account with Bancoposta, the Italian post-office bank, and have stuck with it.

Every Friday, at Bagni di Lucca’s Villa post office it’s possible to book an appointment with a financial advisor who will take the time to look at one’s options, advise on good investments and even reduce any charges one still might have to suffer.

Thanks to this financial advice my current account at Bancoposta has not had to endure charges which could well be in excess of one hundred euros annually with some Italian bank accounts.

How does one avoid charges, which with a UK bank account in credit, would never be imposed? Three things are needed, out of about twelve possible options. I chose to pay a regular monthly amount into my current account, set up a direct debit for at least one utility and open up a regular monthly savings account. I could also have chosen to buy personal injury insurance, use an electronic pass on Italian autostrade, in addition to other options. In this way I have saved on charges which would normally amount to around fifty Euros per annum. Every Euro helps…

Some people might argue why have an Italian bank account anyway? It’s their decision, of course, but I’m quite happy to have an Italian account with the post office since Bancoposta hole-in-the-wall machines are quite common and will not involve surcharges, debit cards can be used in places where credit cards are not accepted (e.g. Lidl), and cell-phones can be regularly topped up without having to buy special cards.

As for investments, I have been pleased with my Bancoposta inflation-linked investments which, though modest, are at least safe.

Some people complain that post office service is often slow and sometimes unfriendly. Of course, this may depend on who’s serving you but if one goes to the post office first thing on Monday morning then clearly one is asking for trouble. Any time after 12.00 AM (the Bagni post offices close at 1.30 PM) may often find one the only customer in the building.

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People living in and around Bagni di Lucca are very lucky with post offices. There are three of them at Villa, Ponte and Fornoli respectively and they are all dedicated post offices.

Let me explain. In my former residency in Woolwich London SE there used to be one main post office and a fine Victorian building it was too. I imagine Royal artillery cadets from the nearby barracks used it to post and receive letters to and from their loved ones, before going on dangerous duties in the Empire.

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Even General Gordon of Khartoum, who was born in Woolwich and was trained at the military school there, must have used its facilities.

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That building has since been demolished (as, sadly with General Gordon’s birthplace in Woolwich – such is the care taken over the past in that part of London) and the only way one can get to a post office is by walking through a large department store which, apparently, has a “post office” section.

Three cheers for Bagni di Lucca’s three post offices,then!

Bad and Good

 

Things appear to getting more and more extreme in the world. I’m not just talking about climate change or increasing income inequality but about people. They seem to either become kinder or become less kind (to use a euphemism).

The other day I happily experienced the kinder person. I’d just been to the comune to ensure that my papers were in order, jumped on my scooter to arrive at the new filling station only to find that my documents including my Italian ID card, a considerable amount of Abu Dhabi currency (goodness knows why I had to bring it with me) and, worst of all, my all-singing, all-dancing electronic UK passport, just recently renewed, had vanished.

I did the stretch of road between the comune and the filling station four times at a snail’s pace realising much to my horror that there were many drains, some without even their grills on and mysterious kerb cavities in the pavement (sidewalk). I told some of my shopkeeper friends about the lost documents and they very kindly agreed to have a look-out for them. I also informed the Polizia municipale.

No sighting of my precious documents for a whole day gave me a feeling that I had ceased to be even a number.

I passed a gloomy evening at home scanning through web pages related to UK passports, ready to report the loss and horrified to learn, not only of the length of the wait for a new one, but also of the costs!

The worst agony was to convince myself that this was a symptom of senility. I have been to some of the dodgiest places in the world from Calcutta to Mexico City and was proud never to have been parted from my passport! How could this have happened in Bagni di Lucca of all places!

Next morning I decided I’d have to start again with my documents. At least they could be replaced; there are things in life which sadly are not able to be replaced. I first went to get new photographs taken at Pastrengo. There were six of them, making me look suitably miserable and haggard. I then crossed the road to have a reviving cappuccino at Paolo’s friendly bar in the same place of Fornoli.

At the second sip my cell phone rang. It was the local police. “Hello, are you Mr Pettitt?” the voice asked. “A lady had found your document wallet and brought in to us”.

“You’ve brought me luck”, I said to the girl who’d served me the cappuccino, and rushed to the station rather quickly as it was about to close for the day.

Everything was there in the wallet including those Abu Dhabi dirhams. I signed the form declaring that the goods had been returned to me intact and asked for the lady’s phone number.

I profusely thanked her. “It’s happened to me too so I knew how you were feeling. In fact, I came to your house but found you were out so I left them with the police,” she replied.

How kind some people can be! One thing led to another. The finder lived in a village some little distance away from Bagni. But her friend, also from the same village, worked in a shop in Bagni. I went to Azalea land in Borgo a Mozzano and bought a really flamboyant azalea, left it with a thank-you note with the friend and visited an acquaintance for a spot of vino.

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There I heard another passport story which did not have such a happy ending. I’ve also heard yet another forlorn lost passport tale. For a moment it seemed that losing or having one’s passport swiped was a relatively common occurrence and not due to advancing age. I felt happier for that though, clearly not for the victims I knew!

I received equally good news the next day. The person from Essex will not be coming this year. Those who know that story will understand.

For the rest, I will not quote an Essex joke realising that someone from Essex might just be reading this!