Scrabble or Scarabeo?

How wonderful it is to wake up to a morning that promises clear skies: this is the view from our bedroom window the day after the day after (i.e. today, December 27th). It was really worth waiting for – a pity Christmas day wasn’t like this.

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Boxing Day, too, was truly weather for the ducks and, apart from them, everyone else stayed indoors, watched DVDs, did their best to avoid cabin fever and played what in Italy are called ”giochi sociali” – i.e. games where you don’t have to exercise prehensile thumbs and avoid conversation to play!

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Incidentally, at least in Italy this year, giochi sociali have outsold all those games consoles!

Our favourite is “Scrabble” and, of course, chess. When particularly mentally lazy we enjoy Chinese chequers too.

We prefer “Travel Scrabble” even if not travelling because the letters are well secured to the board and thus don’t tend to fly around. We are not brilliant Scrabble players and the days when a seven-letter word (the maximum length allowed in our version) appears on the board are truly red-letter ones.

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Incidentally, “Scrabble” was invented in 1938 by an architect named Alfred Mosher Butts. Butts worked out how many points should be given for each letter by counting how often particular letters are used in the English language. The original game was called “Criss-Crosswords”. But Butts was not a successful salesperson and in 1948 James Brunot, a lawyer, bought the game’s rights. Brunot simplified the rules and renamed the game “Scrabble”.

We also have another word game called “Scarabeo” which is an Italian variant of “Scrabble” and was created in the late fifties by Aldo Pasetti.

However, an exact Italian version of “Scrabble” has now come out and tournaments in this country are played using Scrabble (with Italian words of course!)

Parenthetically, Pasetti was accused by “Scrabble” of breach of copyright, but was acquitted by Milan’s Court of Appeal in 1961. So now it’s perfectly legal to play the “Scrabble” Italian –style. If there’s a travel version of this game (which surely must have different letter frequencies in Italy) then we’ll buy it for next Christmas!

It would be nice to have a “Scrabble” tournament among aspiring Italian language learners instituted in Bagni di Lucca (already famous for its historical games such as “Biribisso” and also for its summer open-air Burraco tournaments).

The only snag about “Scrabble” (apart from finding the last letters one picks from the bag are X and Z and that there’s no location free on the board in which to place them) is losing the blasted letters. EBay has helped in the past but yesterday we found we were four letters short. How frustrating!

However, if one is bored by the weather there’s nothing to beat a good board game!

I’m Dreaming of….

The first snow of the winter has fallen. No wonder all our cats were trying not just to get on our bed but into our bed as well! At first I thought the snow might have fallen earlier than ever this year but looking back at photographs the same time in 2005 it seems snow had already fallen at this moment in the month then.

The village of San Gemignano huddles together below the lowering slopes of the Prato Fiorito, now no longer an inviting place of flowers and picnics but almost like an ambiguous gigantic white witch.

Further delving into that first November’s photographs spent here reveal that we had already adopted cats (or rather some cats had adopted us). Of the kittens found in a wood pile below us two are still with us and were sleeping on our bed last night. The smudgy faced one unfortunately disappeared earlier this year without trace and the lovely longish-haired one, despite valiant efforts by the vet, did not survive.

What to do when it’s difficult to do anything because of the weather? There’s nothing better than reminiscing by leafing through one’s older photographs. Plus ça change?

A Constitutional

The most pleasant walks here start literally from our doorstep. We took the opportunity yesterday of a “window” in the recent stormy weather to stretch our legs and do a much-needed “constitutional” i.e. a walk taken regularly to maintain or restore good health. Our route took us past our “twin” village of Mobbiano to join a little road past the local cemetery which eventually reaches our nearest store run by a lady called Giovanna. We turned off before, however, and walked past a little chapel dedicated to Saint Joseph. It is used once a year for a local Festa but otherwise remains firmly closed.

Our path joined up with the old mulattieria (mule track) which was once the only route to the village of Montefegatesi before the present road was built after the last war. The big stone paving largely remains and is a testimony of the care and labour used to build these old roads.

We tried in vain to look for mushrooms but instead were amply rewarded with chestnuts which liberally strewed our path and which we selected for home roasting. Before us were the mysteriously misted slopes of the Prato Fiorito mountain.

There is a lovely mill which we crossed on our return leg. Although it is no longer used for its original purpose of grinding chestnut and wheat flour (few mills remain today, sadly) it is bookable for holidays and is even served by a bus stop!

The church of San Rocco was used until the 1970’s when it was abandoned, desecrated and despoiled of its ecclesiastical furnishings. Since then its roof has caved in and the former church has been taken over by trees and creepers – a real pity as it could have been used for other purposes (e.g. bus shelter?) now that Saint Rocco as protector against the plague has been put out of business, supplanted by modern medical science.

We reached the village of San Gemignano with a church whose tower strongly reminds me of perpendicular ones in the English countryside.

We then returned home via a beautiful tree-lined avenue skirted on one side by vines glowing in the late afternoon sun. (Our village of Longoio is on the top left of the last photograph).

There’s no excuse for not taking a constitutional on a daily basis here. It’s as good as attending your local gym and a lot more visually appealing!

Theme (Park) for Today

I sometimes think that theme parks are the preserve of places that have, in a sense, lost their original “theme”. One may clearly visit Florida to see its major theme park attraction, Disneyland, but does one really visit Italy to see Gardaland?

True, theme parks exist in Italy. Some of them, like Gardaland, are worth a visit if you have children – others, like Pinocchio’s giardino at nearby Collodi, may not turn out quite in the way one imagined a theme park.

There are natural and man-made theme parks in this country that have existed ages before Walt decided to “invent” them. I’m thinking of the towns and cities with their “centri storici” and often spectacular locations, from Venice to Palermo, and certain Italian roads, like the Amalfitana hugging the Tyrrhenian coast or the Gardesana along that lake.

In earlier centuries eccentric princes and counts built their own theme parks, such as the extraordinary monster one at Bomarzo or the more recent Tarocchi park in the south of Tuscany.

Who needs more theme parks in a country which has, sometimes disparagingly, been described as a single giant theme park? Bored kids (or adults) perhaps.

In our current peregrinations in Northern Italy we constantly come across sites extraordinary for their beauty, their audacity or their weirdness. They are our own – free entry – theme parks.

Here are three we encountered yesterday:

The cloisters of a remote abbey.


I had visited this abbey by bicycle many years previously and was very glad to see it again. Its cloisters are so peaceful they make one almost think one has chosen the wrong career in life. I was pleased that they were still well looked after but it was not always the case as old photos from the 19th century show. The cloisters would then have not been the idyllic place they are now since they’d been messed about to provide housing for local peasant families.

Nearby were some houses which were still somewhat messed about but which, if placed in another location, would have been turned into luxury housing.

The engineering skills of a previous generation.

Before us we saw an almost sheer rock face. We couldn’t understand how our road would surmount it since no straight long gallery was marked on the map. At last we got the solution when five short tunnels stepped up steeply before us, one perilously above the other. Each tunnel turned out to be a hair-pin bend carved into the rock leading us, corkscrew-like, ever up and over.

It was a driving experience to last a lifetime and a tribute to surveyors who could have so accurately judged the gradient and the angle of the switchbacks, and to the wretched navies who built this amazing road (as witnessed the old photographs we saw).

Most astonishingly, this is called the pass of a hundred days – with minimally sophisticated technology they managed to do all this in exactly that time span. War has a way of concentrating the mind and the hands, especially when it is a war against Italy’s traditional foe – the Austrians.

The funicular to an impregnable stronghold.


This castle has hosted the likes of Longobard kings, Hapsburg emperors and even Dante himself. We didn’t fancy a long walk up in the searing afternoon heat. No problem. A funicular took us aloft with the ease of a lift to the sixtieth floor in an office skyscraper. And what awaited us at the castle was even more spectacular.

That was yesterday. What other free entry theme parks anticipate us today, I speculate?

Cinquina, Bambina Mia

FIAT (Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino) scored not only a big hit when they first brought out their 500 in 1957 (in Italy “Nuova Cinquecento or “Cinquina”, in Australia “Bambina”) but, with the first truly-affordable-car-for-families, revolutionized Italian social life.

The Vespa scooter had increased mobility after the war (and also allowed courting couples to escape the observation of their elders, thus modernizing behaviour) but the arrival of the Cinquina changed family life itself, enabling flexibility of transport through the peninsula. For example, it was not unusual for Sicilian emigrant workers in Milan to travel regularly the one-thousand plus kilometres to their native island to visit relatives during the summer holidays – and all on a (initially 479 cc) rear-mounted engine, 1.84 metre wheel-base, non-synchromesh gear-box and, of course, no air conditioning!

For this change in Italian social habits we have to thank Dante Giacosa, born 1905 and who died at the age of 91 in 1996, the pioneering car designer who created the first “popular” car in Italy: the FIAT Topolino back in 1936 to provide a national equivalent to the Volkswagen of Germany and who went on to design the first 500.

The Cinquina went through four models series. I’m sure non-technical readers won’t want to have all the intricate details of the changes so I’ll just summarise the main points and differences.

The Nuova (New) 500 series was manufactured between 1957 and 1960. It has two features eventually dropped in later models: one, suicide doors (or “coach doors”, as car-makers prefer to call them since they are hinged from the back), two, a convertible sun roof which folds all the way to the back of the vehicle and is facilitated by a frame.

One of my students in my English class at the paint factory owns a 500 from this series. Brilliantly red in its original colour, the Nuova 500 was used for her wedding; the rear-hinged doors allowing much greater ease of entering and exiting from the car and showing off the bride and her dress to perfection (as the photographs on her office wall demonstrate). The extended sun-roof, too creates, a spectacularly visual marriage which later series cannot quite capture.

Incidentally, my student’s car has also been awarded the “Targa d’oro” by a meticulous committee from the FIAT 500 club – to which we also belong – who judge a vintage car on the genuiness of its parts and the authenticity of its restoration.

The 500 club is very sociable and meets up regularly in our area for rallies, run-abouts or just show-offs. Only two weeks ago the club members ran their cinquinas up on Lucca’s wonderfully wide walls and drove round them in a concours d’elegance!

The D series was built between 1960 and 1965 and looks very similar to the Nuova except that it has a more powerful 499cc engine and a shorter sun-roof which doesn’t fold up all the way to the back. Interestingly, this was the first model to be assembled in the Antipodes where it first got its local name “Bambina”.

The K series is an estate version of the D and was also made between 1960 and 1975. In Bagni di Lucca a Giardiniera was recently re-sprayed from grey to navy blue by its misguided owner. Although the new colour is OK, it is not original and, therefore, has somewhat affected the car’s vintage value. I should be surprised if it will be awarded a “Targa d’oro” now.

The F, or Berlina, series was built between 1965 and 1973 and is the one our very own Cinquina belongs to. We’ve had our FIAT 500 (1968 vintage) since Christmas 2008 and it’s taken us to the most wonderful places– in 2009 to Sardegna and in 2012 to Corsica. After these valiant efforts it needed a bit of maintenance. Fortunately, I found a good carrozzeria in Bagni di Lucca who helped a lot.  Here are some pictures, taken yesterday, of our lovely and loveable car after it went in for some re-spraying, welding and general over-hauling last month. Doesn’t it look delicious!

If you’re interested in using their services the carrozzeria has now moved to the first right turn on the big bend that leads from Ghivizzano to Pian di Coreglia and thence, left at the first crossroads. The details are as follows:

Via Nazionale, 78
55025 Piano di Coreglia – Ghivizzano (Lu)
Piano di Coreglia – Ghivizzano
Lucca / Tuscany
tel.+39 0583 86698
fax +39 0583 86698
cell.3463996940 – 3475146058

Series after ours include the Fiat 500 L or Lusso (1968–1975) and the R or Rinnovata (1972–1975) which had an updated 594 cc engine and fully-synchromesh gearbox. But by this time the Cinquina’s production days were numbered. FIAT brought out the new 126, not so popular in Italy as the 500 but once a staple in the eastern block countries, and the last 500’s of the old breed rolled off the production line in 1975.

But the 500 lived again in a reincarnation of the boxy 500 of the 1970’s and, more recently, in the Fiat 500 (Type 312) first produced in 2007 in which designer Roberto Giolito pays homage to the great Dante Giacosa’s original design, harking back to a rear-mounted engine and a retro-design, evocative of the car that changed Italy’s way-of-life  and epitomising its rebirth after the deprivations of the war:  the wonderful “Cinquina”.

The Tuscan Underground

The Tuscan underground isn’t an alternative life-style movement or a revolutionary cell or even another rapid-transit system. It’s just a way of telling one that what one sees on the surface around here is only half (or even less than half) the story – a sort of tip of the iceberg, if you like. In particular, the karst area of the Apuan Alps has some of the largest cave systems in the world. At least two of them, the Antro Del Corchia and the Grotta Del Vento are easily accessible to non-speleologist with full tourist facilities and, in the case of the Grotta Del Vento, up to three different tours to choose from.

These labyrinths are truly spectacular with magnificent limestone features including stalagmites, stalactites, underground rivers and bottomless abysses – indeed, a quasi-Vernian journey to the centre of the earth. There are many other cave systems in this area, some still waiting to be discovered and some rather more modest in scale.

As a non-speleologist I’m wary of finding myself literally in the dark in a situation where I can’t find the exit! However, there are some caverns I love exploring. One of them is popularly called la Grotta delle Fate but more officially known as the “Buca di Castelvenere”. and can be accessed by foot, either from Cardoso or from the road between Vallico di sotto and Vallico di Sopra. The path is a pleasant, mostly woodland, walk with, above you, the soaring cliffs of Monte Penna which would, if better signposted, tempt rock-climbers or hang-gliders from all over the world.

Some of the old chestnuts along the path have quite amazing distortions

The cavern of Castelvenere, locally known also as “Capelvenere”, “Casteltendine” or “Cascaltendine”, opens, at a height of 650 m., on the south-eastern side of Mount Penna’s south-eastern side. In the Turrite Cava valley tributary on the right bank of the down flowing Serchio. Archaeological excavations have revealed artefacts dating back to at least the Etruscan age showing that the cave was once the centre of a fertility cult connected with the stream that flows out of it. Women who wished to become pregnant would take part in a ceremony involving the waters in this mysterious and evocative place.

Some of the finds from here are on display in the archaeological museum in Castelnuovo di Garfagnana’s Rocca Ariostesca – they mainly consist of amulets which the celebrants would wear and then throw into the waters to be blessed. images (1) The walk to the Buca di Castelvenere can be combined with the footpath leading to the top of Monte Penna (easily recognizable from the Serchio valley because of its almost sheer southern and northern flanks – a sort of Pietra Bismantova for these parts) where you come to a big metal cross from which there are marvellous views all along the Serchio valley. On the way up you pass through the delightful alpeggio of San Luigi – a summer alpine pasture where delicious sheep’s cheese is produced at the local farm. If one feels energetic one can also take the path to the top of Monte Palodina which starts from the same place.

Another cave that can be visited is the Tana che Urla on the path up from Fornovolasco to the Monte Forato. It’s useful to know where these are as they can make an excellent refuge and a way of avoiding being struck by lightning when a sudden summer storm rises up! PS All the above photos were taken in July 2005 – when I first discovered these beautiful places.

From Ink monitors to Ink cartridges

At our primary school we had ink monitors whose job it was to fill the inkwells on our desks at the start of the morning’s lessons. We then were able to dip steel-nibbed pens in the blue-black solution and start scrawling on our exercise books. We got marks as much for neat handwriting and absence of ink-blots as for content. At secondary school we graduated to fountain pen: ball-points were strictly taboo. At university I inherited a German Olympia typewriter with a keyboard layout which has hampered me ever since. When I did my second degree in business computing I decided to buy my first computer – an Amstrad PCW8256. (I still have it and it still works and, moreover, thanks largely to it, I did complete that dissertation). The next major change took place in the later 90’s when the first PC landed on my desk and internet connectivity arrived. The 21st century has seen me graduate to laptops and (perhaps one day) tablets.

It seems incredible that my word-processing equipment was once limited to the sophistications of HB pencil and rubber (sorry…eraser). At least it was low-energy consumption – a system to return to in an energy crisis – with no glitches, apart from that ever-breaking lead point.

It isn’t just digital word-processing that has changed things for me and others like me. The advent of digital photography and its ability to store, delete or modify images has literally made a “world” of difference. And, of course, access to information data banks through the world-wide web has enabled one to investigate, verify or dispute facts and figures in an instant. As for music: in fits of sentimentality I occasionally drag out some old vinyl from its sleeve (what wonders many of these are), clean the gramophone’s diamond stylus, place it on the groove and hold my breath for any new scratches that may sound. It’s all so different now! At this moment on youtube I’m listening to Michael Haydn’s Requiem in C minor since it is supposed to have influenced Mozart’s own. (Judge for yourselves from its opening on – another fact verification).

What you don’t know you don’t miss. But if the tools are there why not use them! In this respect there is a big difference between a “technophobe” and a “technorefusenik”. I helped to combat the former species when teaching I.T. to the retired at evening classes. The joy of my young-at-heart students (careful.. I might become one of that category soon) at being able to email long-lost relatives in Australia or creating a web-page on their favourite hobbies (cactuses and castles were particularly popular) was catching. For the first time students realized true mastery of the technology for their own development …and fun.

A “technorefusenik” is another matter. We are fast approaching a time when to reject the new technology will virtually be like snubbing society itself. That’s OK if one consciously wishes to set oneself apart through personal conviction. But, if teaching or learning or administering or publicizing, having that attitude is just plain self-immolation.

I think I would find it very difficult to live miles away from my country of origin if I didn’t have access to digital technology. Some activities like booking a low-cost airline ticket would be just plain impossible, quite apart from missing out on the joys of internet radio, emailing and all the rest of the caboodle.

Historians yet to be born will perhaps wonder at the paucity of bloggers in the seventeenth century (I number Pepys among them) and their profusion in the twenty-first, why there were fewer photographs in the twentieth century and so many more after then. The rise is truly exponential and, I suppose, future studies will appear on our times as seen through blogs. The confession, the diary, the memoir and the blog (short for “web log” if you still didn’t know) are all transforming manifestations of a basic human impulse to bear witness to one’s life and age – whether it is recorded in clay tablets or on a hard drive it really makes no difference. Hopefully, there will still be the reading technology around to make sense of it – perhaps Babylonian cuneiform might yet be a feasible alternative in that case!

Anyway, my cat, Napoleon, thinks all this is a load of purrfect nonsense!