Local Healing Waters

I can only think of one other European country where baths play such an important part in the lives of its citizens – Hungary. Those who have not been to the Gellert baths in Budapest (or any of the smaller ones throughout that country) are surely missing one of the great world experiences!

The two major baths (or terme) in ancient Rome were the baths of Diocletian (now transformed into a national museum and a church) and the baths of Caracalla (now an open-air theatre). The Romans loved baths and were ecstatic when thermal, healing waters were discovered in their new conquest across the channel and founded Aquae Sulis (today’s city of Bath).

The love of natural thermal baths continues in Italy to this day: within a morning’s drive from our house we can reach Montecatini terme, Monsummano terme, Terme di San Giuliano and, of course, our own Terme di Bagni di Lucca.

A recent “impegnativa” (prescription) from our doctor gave us twelve sessions at the terme di Bagni di Lucca to help alleviate certain personal ailments, courtesy of the Italian National Health system.

The Terme di Bagni di Lucca is only a quarter hour’s drive from our house and is situated near the top of a volcanic hill which dominates the town. Within the bowels of this hill are hot thermal waters with special medicinal properties which, since mediaeval (or even Roman?) times have encouraged all those in search of panaceas for their ills to visit the spa.

Perhaps the most famous of cure-seekers is the great sixteenth century French essayist Montaigne who wrote extensively about his experiences here, greatly praised the waters and finally found solace in them from his pains.

The Bagni di Lucca thermal waters complex is made up of the “Jean Varraud” baths (named after the Frenchman who re-developed them at the start of the last century) and the “Ouida” well-being centre (named after the formerly best-selling author who stayed here in the nineteenth century and who is buried in the protestant cemetery) which offers beauty treatments and health programmes. Of these programmes I have only tried the amazing mud baths.

The thermal spa is characterized by two natural steam caves: the Great grotto and the Paolina grotto (named after Napoleon’s sister who regularly visited it). Their temperatures range between 40 ° and 50 ° C, and are ideal for skin care, arthropathy, relaxation and body purification.

The healing waters of Bagni di Lucca, which flows out at a temperature of 54 degrees from their main source deep within the bowels of the volcanic hill continue to have a major world reputation for their extraordinary regenerative and healing powers. The water’s main ingredients are bicarbonate and calcium sulphate.

This morning we will again visit one of the two grottoes. Entering into their natural sauna atmosphere the body begins to sweat profusely. After twenty minutes one is called out (if they have not forgotten you!) to go and relax on a camp-bed in a separate room where helpers tuck one in a blanket. This is a most important part of the treatment: a “reazione” or reaction sets in after a few minutes where one’s body seems to enter into total oblivion.  A tisane is served and then, again after around twenty minutes, one gets up and returns to the changing rooms to dress  and, hopefully, face another day with greater confidence, at least in one’s bodily purity….

The baths of Lucca may not have the fin-de-siècle opulence of Montecatini terme and some of the décor and apparatus may be criticized as needing modernization or restoration but it has its own peculiar charm and when it comes to the nitty-gritty itself, the waters, then there is nothing to beat it!

Here is something a (very) local poet wrote about them:



Virgin spring so chaste and pure

heal my ills in this sad world,

deliver me from obscure

thoughts as yet unfound, unfurled.


You rise from bowels of earth,

seeking daylight on this hill,

climbing from volcano’s girth:

let me drink and have my fill.


Long I’ve sought far and wide

the remedy that will cure

body and soul, the inside

and outside, ever impure.


I’ve come here to slake my thirst,

my desire to reach wholeness,

my wish to know what comes first

in my life’s implicitness.


The forest trees know my thought,

the roebuck and badger feel

my steps and the snares I’ve caught:

they do not betray or steal.


Skylarks ethereally sing

in the cloudless skies of May

and the ecstasy they bring

melt this clumsy, mortal clay.


Within the small, marbled cave

I breathe embalming vapour

which can touch and kiss and save

like the word of my Saviour.


I sit upon the same slab

the Emperor’s sister sat.

Perhaps he who wrote Queen Mab

came here for platonic chat.


His head crowned with daffodils,

his arms about his beloved,

his walks across streams and rills,

his pen on lines yet unsaid.


The flowers in blossomed fields

open petals to my heart;

their scent of paradise yields

only Him who can impart


the redemptive touch that knows,

that removes life’s bitter sting

for now earth’s blood once more flows

and makes my soul newly sing.


Heal me then you youthful springs:

drown me in your warm embrace,

take away all evil things

and restore my heart, my place.

Another New Year’s Eve…

How that first year in Longoio seemed so much longer when compared to this 2013 which has flown so quickly before us. And, no doubt, 2014 will speed by even faster? Time seems to fly at an almost exponential rate the older we get. Why? Is it because new experiences become matter-of-.fact, jaded? Is it because we gradually do fewer things with our lives? Is it perhaps some perceptive function in the ageing brain? Who knows? I’d like to know!

Many things have changed this year. Even more things have changed since I first settled here in 2005. Some of them have altered for the better: communications by road to Lucca are much improved with the new “variante” and, further up the Serchio valley, three new bridges have made connections between the east and west parts of the valley easier. Train communication, however, has become worse with the same weary rolling stock that I first encountered eight years ago.

Other things, too, have clearly not changed for the better: the halcyon days before “la crisis” hit in autumn 2008 seem vague dreams now when once fewer people had problems about “making it to the end of the month”. One did not have to count one’s centesimi so assiduously then. In the Bagni di Lucca area many hopes have been dashed and, already, several “newcomers” have packed up their bags and returned to their countries of origin. Others are waiting to get a decent selling price for their houses – something which, in my opinion may not happen for a very long time!  In my own experience I have lost ten friends to this trend.

In addition to the continuing economic difficulties the area is now hit by ecological ones: 2013 been a year of increased seismic activity, with a particularly scary earthquake tremor in January, and the abnormally heavy rainfall has created landslides and flooding throughout the region. Forecasts for 2014 (at least as far as the weather is concerned – they can’t predict earthquakes, not even in Japan…) are not very hopeful and are exacerbated by the increasing rate of global warming with concomitant climate change…

It’s important, however, not to let these considerable snags get to one. I’ve noticed an increased withdrawal by many inhabitants, more bickering, less patience. It’s not a good sign.

A great man from South Africa has gone from us this year but another great man from South America is now with us. In his words: “these are times of light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience and rebellion, times of being a pilgrim people, and times of being a people adrift… In our personal history, too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows…If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us, and around us.”

Let us hope that the never-ending worries the Italian people are having to bear will not turn them from their naturally solar and friendly character to that darkness which finds no exit to light and love.

Meanwhile further photographs from that bright, hopeful first year here at Bagni di Lucca reveal how we welcomed in the new year 2006 in its gorgeous casinò…

May 2014 be full of light for you too!

A New Hub?

Yesterday morning I was invited to the Terme di Bagni di Lucca by “Grapevine” editor Norma Jean Bishop to view and participate in an exhibition which could promise a bright new regenerative future for the whole of the comune of Bagni di Lucca. The project called “The Hub”, and created by Carla Romani, concentrates on the development of certain environmental and cultural features of the area administered by the comune with a view to revaluing them and making them more accessible to all those living in or visiting the area. The end result would be a continuously renewing process applied to Bagni di Lucca and its hinterland which (like so many other parts of crisis-stricken Italy) sorely needs a way forwards which does not present impossible targets but which relies instead on existing time-tested resources.

The beauty of the project is that the means to carry it forwards is all there – there is no need to build new structures or find new metaphorical oil-fields: just the will to fully realise what is there today and what is truly possible in the foreseeable future.

Here is a summary of the key points of the project:


Mission: economic development using local environmental and cultural heritages

  1. Finding new paper products and restoring old techniques
  2. Animal husbandry (such as cashmere goats which also clear the underbrush), environmentally-compatible techniques
  3. Promoting growth and sales of local agricultural products (along with an International marketplace)
  4. Vico Pancellorum and other villages, preservers of ancient Latin dialects: a cultural centre for linguistics studies
  5. Restoring spa offerings and health and well-being programs
  6. Better programming of theatrical offerings, along with possibilities for musical studies
  7. Pellet production and forest husbandry
  8. Attention to historic gardens and areas of special scientific interest such as the Prato Fiorito, coordinated with Pescia and perhaps the UK
  9. Centralizing children’s programs, perhaps through Collodi’s Pinocchio associations.
  10. Bringing together various groups involved in church and art restoration
  11. Twinning with cities and international relations
  12. Improving traffic flow and creating more pedestrian areas
  13. Recuperating and restoring old buildings for public use
  14. Tourist information centres operating on a year-round, full-day schedule

It was good to meet up with Carla and with other persons interested in the project, and several points above were discussed. For example, with regard to no. 11 Norma Jean proposed Fontaines de Vaucluse, because of its artistic restoration of the paper factory along the river and because Petrarch lived there. She declared it “a lovely little model for Bagni di Lucca’s recovery.” I have already suggested a further twinning with a noted Welsh spa resort in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/well-well-well/

Of course, this project (like all projects!) needs three things in this order:

  1. Enthusiastic and committed involvement by dedicated and well-informed people.
  2. A guaranteed source of funds.
  3. A positive feed-back from local populations at the results obtained, resulting in increased participation.

Money is forthcoming but only if the will to use it appropriately and efficiently is forthcoming too. Bagni di Lucca is a complicated area in terms of its population. Permanent residents present only a fraction of the total population one sees in summer due to its largely holidaying flavour. Yet there are many permanent local occupations which could either be re-instituted or developed. The above list points the way forwards especially with regard to cashmere goats and pellet manufacture.

Other parts of Europe have successfully pulled their socks up on these matters so why shouldn’t Bagni di Lucca do the same?

You are cordially invited to the exhibition which will remain open until January 6th when the whole spa closes down for the winter period. As far as we are concerned we’ll be there every day until then – not just for the exhibition but also because we’ve booked ourselves in for sessions at the Grottina where the volcanically heated waters, producing a natural sauna atmosphere, will help us to remove some of those culinary impurities gathered during the Christmas binge and make us forget that outside another meteorological perturbation is pouring even more rain on (sunny…?) Italy.

Christmas Lunch

At my last lesson this year with my business English class I asked my students what they would be eating for Christmas day lunch. The first course for most would be invariably tortellini in broth, although some favoured lasagne. The second, main, course would consist of various types of meat including lamb and roast beef, but never turkey which in Italy is considered a rather cheap meat fit only for fast food outlets. One student said his family always had fish for Christmas lunch which I and the rest of us thought rather strange since, traditionally here, it’s the meal on Christmas Eve that is taken “lean”, that is with fish replacing meat. Another student, who is a vegetarian mum, said she always prepared her own meal for Christmas since the rest of her family were meat-eaters.  I asked her if she found difficulty in being a vegetarian in a country which is seemingly predominantly geared for non-vegetarians. No, she replied, saying that there were so many purely vegetarian dishes in Italy. I thought about this and realised she was right. Polenta with mushrooms and many different types of pizza came to mind. One doesn’t always have to rely on nut roast here!

Most of my students said they would have their Christmas lunch either at home or with their respective in-laws. Two, however, would have their meal at a restaurant since around twenty family members would be involved. This was not always the case but Granma, who would have supervised such a meal, sadly was no longer with them and so they decided that a restaurant location would be the best catering alternative.

The trend, however, due to the continuing “austerità” is now to increasingly have Christmas lunches at home. Indeed, the most popular presents in Italy for this festive season have been food mixers, automatic pasta makers and bread machines! Another trend is that of going to “zero kilometre” markets to source one’s food. “Zero kilometre” means, of course, that the food is local and isn’t transported hundreds of miles on polluting trucks or flown on even more polluting freight planes from distant locations. No strawberries grow locally at this time of year so why get them from Australia? The true pleasure is to wait until fruits come into season here!

Coming to our own Christmas lunch – we had a wonderful lunch this year – it’s our ninth here! But the photographs I’ve dug out show that even back at our first Christmas in Longoio, December 2005 we had a crackingly decent nosh . A picture is worth a thousand words so here they are!

Of Long Noses and Necks

Children’s books are meant to be universal. Or are they? It is sometimes said that Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t travel well in Italy and that Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio” similarly doesn’t do too well in the UK.

Certainly, the Walt Disney versions of the two immortal stories display greater divergences for Pinocchio than for Alice, making him a less objectionable character than the original, perhaps to satisfy an Anglo-Saxon market. It must also be remembered that in the original Pinocchio version the puppet came to a sticky end by being executed. No blue-haired fairy had entered the story then!

I suspect that the different ways these books are supposedly received in the two countries has more to do with adult attitudes than with the children readers.

Of the two books the moral dimension is rather more emphasised in “Pinocchio”. Three dictums above all, resound: “Children, obey your parents!” “Children – school is good for you!” “Children always tell the truth!” In fact, most of Pinocchio’s misadventures arise from his neglecting these precepts. Alice, on the other hand, can’t stand reading books without conversations or illustrations and most of the characters she meets in Wonderland seem to turn moral judgements on their heads. Alice is forever questioning their principles and actions: why should she have her head chopped off? Why do Tweedledum and Tweedledee have to fight? …and so on?

In short, Alice’s two adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-glass are a self-realisation, through (very logical – the author was primarily a mathematician) nonsense while Pinocchio’s adventures are a self-realisation through common-sense by an author who was very sensitive to the role young Italians would have to play in the new nation. Thus, Alice is a real-life girl who successfully vanquishes attempts to turn her into a “puppet” at others’ mercy while Pinocchio starts off as being a  marionette (puppet with strings on) at the pull-and-push of one and all but who (happily in the final book version) embraces his true identity as a real boy.

Pinocchio has become irremediably embedded in Italian converse. “Don’t be a puppet!” “Your nose has grown!” are two expressions derived from the book which one often meets in everyday conversation. The fact is that Italy had been a nation for less than twenty years when Collodi’s tale was published in 1881 as a serial in Il Giornale per i Bambini, the country’s first children’s newspaper. Emphasis on education was essential for a young Italy to mould itself into a modern state –to create Italians literally speaking the same language (and not their local dialect) for the first time. De Amici’s’ Cuore, published not long after Le Avventure di Pinocchio in 1886, is another classic example of this moralistic-adventurous-nationalist trend in children’s literature in that age.

If the Lake District is marketed as “Wordsworth” country then surely the area around Bagni di Lucca should be “Pinocchio” country. Carlo Collodi’s mother worked as a housekeeper at the palace of Collodi over the Trebbio pass from Bagni, and from which place the author took his pen name (his actual surname was Lorenzini).

The Pinocchio Park in Collodi, often slated for not being an up-to-date theme park, should rather be regarded as a memorial to the author and his most famous character. Bagni di Lucca features in a roundabout way in the book as “il paese dei balocchi” (Toyland or the garden of pleasures) since in Collodi’s time it was the demi-mondaine centre of fun and games, particularly gambling. This allusion was acknowledged in its festival with the same name, earlier this year at Bagni di Lucca and organized by its indefatigable resident journalist, Marco Nicoli .

If Alice and Pinocchio are supposedly to be distinguished by children’s different cultural emphases the real test would be to get children from Italy and the UK to read (or re-read!) these books and then have them discuss them. It would be a most interesting debate!

Incidentally, it was during our first Christmas season here in 2005 our local Teatro Accademico put on a lively Pinocchio musical from which I took these photographs:

The Big Belly comes to Lucca

He writes:

Amen; so be it! So let’s do it! For now, let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illnesses! I also want to keep the deepest secrecy: a word that I underline three times to you that no one must know anything about it! ….. The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in a bad humour. At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart; I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this, I will put him in a muzzle and straightjacket……Will I finish it? Or will I not finish it? Who knows! I am writing without any aim, without a goal, just to pass a few hours of the day.

He did finish it, of course. That big belly belonged to Falstaff and the music is the miraculous one of an eighty-year old Giuseppe Verdi who writes younger and fresher music at that age than many ever could achieve at twenty, and who remains ever young in this, the two-hundredth anniversary year of his birth.

The freshness of yesterday’s performance at Lucca’s Teatro Del Giglio was sustained by a youth orchestra that was fully up to the challenge. If they sound so well now then this is surely reassuring for the future of Italian orchestral playing which has not always been the country’s musical strong point.

For, of course, the most important character in Verdi’s opera is the orchestra – commenting sometimes sarcastically, sometimes stentorianly, sometimes sensuously on the singers. It would be quite possible to follow the story just listening to that orchestra without the singers – it’s almost as if Verdi is proving that those so-called “barrel-organ” accompaniments he is accused of by sniffy critics never really were in his line and also, that there is an alternative to Wagner….

In Falstaff the composer breaks into new ground, laying before us a blueprint for all future operatic discourse in the century to follow. At the same time, there are many points where Verdi parodies– for example in Ford’s jealousy scene – those various stylistic effects which made up the blood and thunder of the operas written, as he put it, “in the galleys”. Indeed, the best Verdi parodies are not just to be found in the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas but in the man’s music itself.

As Italian verismo got its kick-off from Carmen so, listening to the orchestra, I truly believed Puccini could never have made the move from Edgar to Manon Lescaut and La Bohème without completely assimilating Verdi’s language. I cannot imagine the café Momus section in La Bohème without Falstaff’s Garter Inn scene (in this production with the ladies enticingly showing off their highly positioned stocking supports…). What utter virtuosity and brilliancy there is in Verdi’s late orchestral writing!

In that respect Puccini is truly Verdi’s successor – what a year 1893 must have been for opera lovers. For not only on the 9th February at Milan’s La Scala was Falstaff first performed but, later the same year, Puccini’s Manon Lescaut premiered at Turin’s Teatro Regio!  The following year Gustav Mahler, no less, conducted Falstaff in Hamburg, the same year of the opera’s first Covent Garden production.

To return to the Lucca performance: the singing of all the main characters was absolutely appropriate to their personalities and the singers delivered with verve in their voices and svelteness in their balletic movements. Everything, from the quickness of the ensemble patter songs to the sublimest of lyrical moments was as perfect as it can be in this imperfect world. The all-too brief love interludes between Fenton and Nanetta, which the opera’s great librettist, Boito, described as sprinkling sugar on an apple pie and scattering the whole comedy with that happy love without concentrating it at any one point brought me close to tears with their sweet intensity of emotion – surely, some of the most affective honey duets Verdi ever wrote.

Those who say they can’t find any memorable tunes in Falstaff should listen again; they just aren’t awake enough to the quickness and exhilaration of this, one of humanity’s greatest examples of its intangible heritage.

The late afternoon’s (it was a matinee – much to be preferred in Italy when evening performances start after nine) mood was infectious, with the audience truly captivated.  “Tutti gabbati” – we’re all duped – that gloriously bucolic (and, at the same time, academically correct) fugue for the finale surely signifies that not only is Falstaff game for a laugh but that the audience, too ,is conned into believing every part of the story, drawn into the illusory magic of opera. And, as Falstaff learns from his being conned, so we too – and willingly as well – are drawn into that undefinable exotic and irrational incantation, truly wishing to believe every part of the cosmic game.

And of magic there was aplenty in the Giglio’s co-production: in the costume colours, Elizabethan in inspiration but not stiff farthingales, instead, sensuous draping folds; in the scene of the oak Erne (Boito and Verdi’s English knew only double syllables for that word) which transported us into a thrashingly midwinter’s nightmare and then out again into a glorious midsummer dream with multicoloured and tasteful lighting effects.

Image projection supported this dream. How thankful we can be that digital technology can so easily help cut impossible costs in an increasingly finance-challenged art form and produce ever more startling effects. And how grateful that we have an amazing youthful talent of singers and instrumentalists in this part of the world bringing a zest for life to the truly life-enhancing creation that is Falstaff!

Precipitous Sassi

The village of Sassi, with around two hundred inhabitants, is yet another example of how varied settlements can be in Garfagnana. It is situated on the east side of the Apuans and is reached via the hill route alternative between Gallicano and Castelnuovo

Sassi was built in the shelter of a rocky cliff and on one side has a drop of about 470 metres plunging into the Turrite Secco valley, one of the tributaries of the Serchio.

The first evidence of the village dates back to 849.  Countess Matilde di Canossa (who was also responsible for the construction of Borgo a Mozzano’s Ponte Del Diavolo (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/10/13/in-for-a-penny/) visited Sassi in 1168.

On July 28, 1524, Ludovico Ariosto, the famous poet and governor of Garfagnana visited the fortress of Sassi to assess its condition and vainly prevent it from being demolished by Duke Ercole II for economic reasons.

Some of the houses are quite noble-looking (or “signorili” as Italians like to describe them) and point to a considerable period of prosperity when the town passed under the domination of the Este family and became a strategic defence post.

The site of the largely demolished fortress is occupied by a beautiful church: that of San Frediano. Its origins are rather uncertain but, again, its construction may be due to that remarkable lady, Matilde of Canossa around the twelfth century.

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With a campanile that dominates the whole valley and looks out on one side onto a sheer drop in to the valley of the Turrite Secco it’s said that one can count one hundred church steeples from Sassi’s tower but we didn’t even begin counting them!

Unfortunately the church was closed when we first visited it in December 2007 and it was only at the charming mediaeval Festa in July 2008 that we managed to get a look in. The remarkable panelled painted wooden ceiling, built in 1788, is very impressive but the whole church is in dire need of restoration. In fact, since the building of a second church closer to the centre of Sassi in 1820, San Frediano has largely become redundant as it is difficult of access for less-able persons and also subject to frequent lightning strikes.

However, it’s really worth seeing this church when open.

Near the village is the church of Our Lady of the Snows which commemorates a miraculous event when it snowed in summer (well it nearly did last summer here – or rather it hailed!)

No Room at the Inn in Equi Terme

I have not counted the number of “presepi viventi” (living cribs in Italy: sacred representations of the Nativity night of our Saviour with living characters rather than models and statuettes). There are so many of them and they are all so different. Of course, some presepi viventi are more elaborate than others while others remain quite modest.

Without personally having visited all of them, this list would certainly contain the best of Italy’s presepi viventi:

Greccio – Rieti

This is the place; of course, where it all began in 1223 with Saint Francis (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/12/04/christmas-crib/).

Morcone – Benevento

Probably the best of the Neapolitan traditional ones – it’s a “presepe” within a “presepe” since the place itself is particularly picturesque.

Tricase – Lecce

This is reckoned to be among the best in all Italy and is in Puglia.

Custonaci – Trapani

Definitely the finest living crib in the Sicilian tradition with 160 characters.

Genga – Ancona

In terms of area this is the largest living crib in the world and takes place in the caves of Fracassi.

Equi Terme – Massa Carrara

This was quite simply the best in Tuscany with an unbeatable scenario of caves, torrents and picture-postcard village. Alas, this year it just won’t happen since, because of the earthquake last June, the public authorities have deemed the whole area unsafe for all. This means that we can’t take part in the beloved crib in which we took the roles of characters as diverse as one of the Magi to the Roman governor

Venegono Inferiore – Varese

Since 1972 this has been a major living crib in Lombardy.

Visciano – Napoli

Another super-duper Neapolitan traditional living crib.

Canosa di Puglia – Bari

A beautiful location and another lovely Puglia living crib.

Forino – Avellino

Yet another Neapolitan-style living crib.

San Biagio – Mantova

Seventeen years ago this living crib was started in a small quarter of this beautiful city and is worth seeing if you are in those parts during Christmas…

Vaccheria – Caserta

If you’re into Capodimonte figurines and the eighteenth century then this is the one to go for. It extends for over a mile in Vaccheria which is near the largest royal palace in Italy at Caserta…

Pietrelcina – Benevento

Devotees of Saint Padre Pio will flock to this one which attracts over 18,000 visitors annually. It is sited in the place where the stigmatised saint was born.


As we won’t be able to go to Equi Terme this year we’ll visit the living crib at Barga (which we haven’t been to for a few years as we were occupied in acting our parts at Equi Terme)

Through the efforts of Enrico Cosimini, a great lover of “barghigiane” traditions (including bell-ringing), the City of Barga’s Living Nativity, has continued to truly live even today.

It’s on December 23rd and these pictures of it were taken in December 2006 when we last visited it. Spot the various crafts including the figurinai that sold plaster-of-Paris statuettes in the four corners of the world, the grinders, the washerwomen, the smiths, scribes, millers, quarrymen, miners, the weavers and, of course the Roman soldiers, the Holy family and the animals…

The height of the celebration is the journey of that Holy Family for the census and a night at the Inn at the foot of Barga’s Cathedral.

Here’s something I wrote about that inn some years ago:


I might have shut the door right in their faces,

it wasn’t simply “no room at the inn”,

they just could not afford our three-star prices.

But her dear face was full of grace within


(I really could not turn my eyes away)

and my dear wife did think the humbled groom

quite downcast, so she said “If they would stay

inside the stable (it’s our warmest room –


we fondly care for all our animals)

they’d really favour us”. So that first night

our sweet Lord slept on clean straw by the stalls

and we never saw a midnight so bright.


Our place has long since gone; a gift shop’s there

and theme motels now answer to one’s prayer.


See you at Barga?


PS. If you like reading my blog I would be most grateful if you could please  nominate it for the Italy magazine competition at http://www.italymagazine.com/italy-blogger-awards

Mille grazie!

Carolling in Bagni di Lucca

The Christmas carols known to most Italians do not make for a large list. Apart from the ubiquitous “Tu scendi dalle stelle” – words and music written in 1732 at Deliceto in Foggia province by Neapolitan priest Don Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, (now canonized and a “Beato”), founder of  the Redemptorist missionary order – there is not much that follows apart from “You’d better watch out” and other modern American imports. A place is, of course, found for “Silent Night”, known here as “Astro del Cielo”, but I have yet to come across an Italian equivalent of “100 best carols “(Rutter and Willcocks) or “the Oxford Book of carols” (Dearmer, Vaughan-Williams and Shaw) in Lucca’s music shops and there is not a tradition of Carol concerts or services as in the UK.

This is a pity as I am quite sure there are some very attractive carols to be found in all regions of Italy. In particular, I am attracted to the zampognari tradition when shepherd came down from their pastures to praise the baby Jesus with their bagpipe tunes. I have found no local shepherds practicing their bagpipes while watching over their flocks today although I have come across a local duo who will play upon request and special events.

The drone accompaniment of the carol, “Tu scendi” is characteristic of bagpipes and it would be great to hear it with this accompaniment. “Zampogna” is the bagpipe and “Zampognaro” is the bagpipe player. It is the arm rather than the mouth that is used to pump air into the wind-sack. The Italian equivalent of the Scottish variety where one’s lungs supply the air is, in fact, called the “cornamusa” and is equivalent to the French “musette” which Bach imitates in that delightful piece of the same title in his notebook for second wife Anna Magdalena:

There are several other pieces from those two sublime pinnacles of western music, Bach and Handel, imitating the Zampogna tradition: the pastoral symphonies from the” Christmas Oratorio” and “Messiah” are the best-known. But the imitation of the Zampogna occurs throughout western music (even Beethoven’s Symphony no 6’s scherzo has one, for example).

Here are pictures of both types of Italian bagpipes:

Although there were no bagpipes in Circolo square, Bagni di Lucca yesterday there was an enthusiastic local choir from Corsena church performing under the baton of Ennio, the ex-trout man, (see Anna Blundy on him at http://journalisted.com/article/7ily – I once gave Ennio a CD of that Schubert quintet…) and the well-mittened hand of the choir’s Hastings-hailing accompanist.

Here are some snippets from what they sang:

The singing was welcomed in the scenario of Christmas stalls including that of magical local artist Kety Bastiani and, of course, the Alpini with their feathers which, incidentally, are not always black but which are coloured according to rank: crow black for privates, brown eagle for NCO’s and white duck for higher ranks.

PS The sunset yesterday was particularly poignant for me, especially as I came home to the entrails of Bianchina, my free-range rabbit doe, eaten by a hungry fox while I was away and leaving three just-born mewling kits (name for baby rabbits) which our local friend from Mobbiano has taken away to see if they will feed from his doe who also has given birth.

End of free-ranging rabbits then?

Christmas Window-Shopping

I realised yesterday why so many Italian villages are hill villages – it’s warmer up here because the sunbeams last longer. Temperatures at Longoio, which is 1878 feet above sea level, rose above twenty degrees and I was actually sunbathing!

A sharp shock awaited me when I descended into Bagni (at a height of 492 feet above sea level) at 3 PM to see something of the Christmas festivities. It was rather cold since the sun had already set behind the hills. Despite this, there were still quite a few people around although the pro-loco chairperson complained of a “lack of movement”. The Alpini (see also Debra Kolkka’s post at http://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/amazing-alpini/) had their refreshment stall with focaccie, necci and vin brulé and so did the Red Cross.

On the Circolo dei Forestieri staircase was a photographic exhibition on the famous local industry, now a shadow of what it once was, the figurinai or plaster-of-Paris statuette makers. Puccini, basking in the glory of the triumph of his La Boheme in Paris was visibly moved when he met a boy figurinaio outside Notre-Dame.

Inside the circolo the crib exhibition was rather more limited than those in previous years (which had included examples from as far afield as Caltagirone in Sicily). There was an interesting use by a local restorer of discarded furniture which had been repaired and “framed” to reflect its stylistic period.

This imposing piece of furniture was once used to store  Bagni di Lucca’s demographic data.

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The town’s high street shops are making an effort to attract people to at least look at their windows. As a shop keeper once remarked to me “we are the unsung heroes of Bagni di Lucca”.

Yesterday, however, I got the feeling that Christmas is becoming an increasingly hard time for families to enjoy. The economic crisis has now lasted over five years and shows few signs of ending.

Although a recent article in a British newspaper states that Italy has four advantages to its acclaim when dealing with the crisis – one, the lowest credit card debt in Europe; two, a surprising family wealth of property; three, a traditional saver culture; four, a strong feeling for the family which acts as a restaurant, hotel and interest-free loan issuer for its members – all these are being gradually eroded as savings are being eaten into, as family property is being increasingly taxed and increasingly difficult to sell, as credit cards are being used more and more to reach “the end of the month”, and as the greater mobility required to find jobs, especially abroad, is weakening traditional family ties.

Anyway I’ll be down to Bagni di Lucca, for today it is yet another religious Festa – that of the Immacolata when the nearest thing to UK carol-singing takes place in its streets.