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”.)


Lucca’s Place of Judgement


In E.M. Foster’s novel, “A Room with a View”, much of which is based on the author’s own experiences in Italy,  the cockney landlady, Miss Bartlett makes this comment to her young guest, Lucy Honeychurch:

“Tut, tut! Miss Lucy! I hope we shall soon emancipate you from Baedeker. He does but touches the surface of things. As to the true Italy–he does not even dream of it. The true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

I’m now entering into my tenth year of residence in Italy. During this time I have found something of the true Italy, if not always by very patient observation, then by immersing myself into the swimming pool of Italian life, both in leisure and in work.

In the field of education I have experienced teaching the third years of secondary education, just before they enter into the various Licei which divide up Italian youth, the boisterous energy of the technical colleges, the more relaxed pace of the adult evening classes, the intensive pace set by private profit-making institutions, private pupils in ones twos and threes, elegant and intelligent courses run in business environments… Indeed, in the field of education my experiences, though shorter, have been much more varied that in the UK where, for the most part, I taught in a community college.

Of hospital experiences, luckily, I have had few, apart from hungry hornets and surreptitious scorpions. Now, however, thanks to an individual I shall not name but merely describe as coming from Essex I shall be having a new experience, that of standing trial and taking part in the Italian legal system

On Monday I wanted to find out where I would have to defend myself and it was quite near to the palace where that extraordinary golden bedroom can be found and where Lucca’s main art gallery is situated – the palazzo Mansi in Via Galli-Tassi.

The tribunale di Lucca is a very pleasant building, originally designed by the great architect Giuseppe Pardini in the nineteenth century, and expanded in more modern times but still in Pardini’s neo-classical style.

The corridors are long and filled with interesting old filing cabinets.

The interior courtyard has beautiful views over the Pisan Mountain.

There is an old photograph showing building work in the last century:

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I asked for some information and was directed to a particular department. This department stated that it was not their responsibility and that I should go to another department on the second floor. This department re-directed me to a room further along. When I reached this room I was told to go to another section as a form was required for the information I required. When I reached that section it was… closed. In other words, an excellent simulation of the circumlocution office as described in the great Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit” and also hinted at in the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case in “Bleak House”!.

When I returned home I realised that the tribunal also has a web site and information can be requested through an application form. Perhaps I’ll try that now.

In case you don’t know why on earth I should be present at the tribunal then it’s not necessary for you to know. If you do know then that’s OK. If I know that you know then that’s even better. If you know that I know that you know then that’s the best of all…


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!


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/.

Immaculate a Capella at Loppia

During the Christmastime of 1984 BBC’s Radio 3 produced a wonderful set of broadcasts with the title “Octave of the Nativity”: ten liturgical reconstructions of the Masses for that season, with introductions by Cormac Rigby. The Masses reconstructed dated from early plainsong to the most complex high renaissance polyphony and included choirs from the continent. The high Mass from St Peter’s Rome, however, did not feature the Sistine Chapel choir. Upon enquiry I found the reason why that choir wasn’t asked to sing was that it was not considered of “recordable quality”. The BBC was correct. I still have in my possession a vinyl record of the Vatican choir dating from the 1960’s and it sounds absolutely terrible. Much of the reason is that it sings like a collection of operatic soloists rather than a homogeneous entity and the respect due to period performance practises are absolutely nil. I wonder if it has since improved.

In the 1970’s British choirs brought themselves up-to-date with genuine performance practise – for example, reducing formerly mammoth numbers in Handel’s Messiah – and spawned a number of smaller vocal groups. I particularly enjoyed the Consort of Music under Anthony Rooley and Harry Cristophers’ the Sixteen.

It would have seemed on the borders of impossibility to imagine that, in this current age and place, in one of the remotest valleys of Central Italy, I would have been able to hear a local vocal group that could compete successfully with the stratospheric standards of the greatest English choirs.

In the immaculate setting of the Pieve di Loppia (for more on this marvellous building do see my post on it at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/the-loppia-lo) the “gruppo vocale Gli Stereotipi” (web site at http://www.stereo-tipi.it/Stereo_Tipi_Gruppo_Vocale/Home.html) performed a recital of music ranging from the strictest renaissance a Capella, through baroque pieces, visiting the English shores with Purcell, the German heartland with Rheinberger and contemporary America with Whiteacre to finish up in South Africa.

The group consists of Lia Salotti, Serena Salotti, Valentina Simonelli, Giulia Manfredini, Andrea Salvoni, Morando Bertoncini, Martino Biondi, Gioele Tomei.

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I have been involved in music making with several of these members: in particular, Lia Salotti who runs the Civic School of Music at Borgo di Mozzano (Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Scuola-Civica-di-Musica-MSalotti-di-Borgo-a-Mozzano/283857698298922) who got us up to scratch for the memorable concert we gave at the convent of San Francesco at Borgo for Christmas 2012.

I was stunned again at Loppia by the near-perfection of the Stereotipi’s performances. Period stylistic practises were fully adhered to, difficult enharmonic changes were steered through with aplomb, and the togetherness of the voices was extraordinarily pleasing.

Moreover, the introduction of a theme to the recital “From Dawn to Dawn” was genial. Each piece described the journey from dawn to noon to evening and night, waking up the following morning in a resurrection of life itself. The Stereotipi realise that every recital can be even more effective if it has a coordinating theme to lift it into almost philosophical as well as musical heavens.

Here is their rendition of Rheinberger’s “Abendlied”

Several members of the group have visited and studied in the UK and it showed. In particular, I noted the beneficial influence of such groups as the Cambridge Singers. Here are the Stereotipi in one of their star items, Lotti’s “Miserere”:

I am so glad that one of the Stereotipi’s members, Andrea Salvoni, is our choirmaster with our San Pietro and Paolo di Ghivizzano choir. He knows what he wants from us because he has achieved it singing with the Stereotipi, one of the finest “gruppi vocali” I have heard in Italy so far.

Hearing the high standards of the “Stereotipi” (which title I find a playful use of the word since they are quite the opposite of stereotypes!) I do not feel that brits need suffer from culture shock when they listen to these singers upon return to Italy from Evensong in one of the great English cathedrals. More and more choirs and vocal groups in Italy are approaching “recordable quality”, thanks to the much higher standards of musical training, and this country should be proud of that. Only recently I received a comment about our own choir from stern critic, Francesco Cipriano, the editor of LuccaMusica music events magazine, where he affirms “some choirs from the remotest villages in our mountains can stand comparison with and even in some cases surpass many northern choirs”.

It’s true that DOC music should be played or sung to best effect by DOC musicians. But if Italy, with Colombini, can produce a very valid rendition of Elgar or Vaughan-Williams then the Stereotipi can produce an effective performance of a Purcell anthem too.

It remains obvious, however, that when it comes to their own music Italian musicians have now got the idiom very much more fluently under their belt than musicians from other countries. I expect Vivaldi today to be played by the likes of Fabio Biondi and certainly I’ll be glad to hear more Monteverdi and other Italian madrigalists from the excellent “Gli Stereotipi.”

Do look out for their next recital (consult their web site) and help to ensure the venue gets packed as it deserves to be (and shamefully wasn’t at Loppia, probably because of poor publicity) when these guys and dolls are performing!




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.


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).


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.


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: