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.

A Geographical Expression?

Another twist to the continuing Italian government shenanigans is announced today:  “Forza Italia”, recently re-founded from within the PDL (Popolo della Libertà), after stating that it would continue to give support to the government coalition has now placed itself in opposition to it. This means that the present junta has a majority of only seven votes and the crisis will certainly deepen. In the relatively sedate English political climate this situation might merit a long chapter in the history books but in Italy it is cynically shrugged off. And now we find B himself has had his “decadenza” decided for him (“decadence” might even be an appropriate translation although strictly the word means “stripped from office” – as a senator).

One of the things to be realised in living in Italy is that this country has been experiencing an endemic political crisis ever since it was “unified” in 1861, except for a period of around twenty years when someone called Mussolini decided to step in. Indeed, the average life expectancy of an Italian government is around ten months.

Just the mention of Benito’s name makes me prefer the continuing crisis although, clearly this is not good when it comes to working out one’s contributions to the state and the local administration. The latest “imposta” (“imposition” is an apt translation) is something called IUC (Imposta Unica Comunale) – a tax on one’s main house -which will hit us in 2014. Yuk I say to that!

These “imposte” are tirelessly being re-conjectured and revised in the wake of continued political “fibrillazioni”. This word, constantly used in the news programmes, literally translates as “heart seizure” but doesn’t mean that politicians continually suffer from cardiac attacks (although we, as citizens living here metaphorically sometimes do when we see what antics Rome gets up to) but that the government is constantly in danger of expiring.

As in the UK “Downing street” is used as another appellation for “Prime minister” so in Italy different parts of the perishing government bodies are classified by where they reside. For one’s benefit, when listening to RAI news, here are the most important of them:

Roma: the current occupying power in charge of Italy and residing in Rome.

Montecitorio: the lower house or chamber of deputies (camera dei deputati)

Quirinale: official residence of the Italian president

Chigi: official residence of the prime minister (presidente del consiglio) – at present Letta.

Madama: the upper house or chamber of senators

Villa San Martino, Arcore: Home of Silvio Berlusconi

Palazzo Grazioli: the Rome residence of B.

Il Cavaliere: alternative nickname for Berlusconi (the others used may be too rude to print here). It does not mean “cavalier” (although many would deem B’s actions as such but refers to his erst-.while senatorial title).

To come down to our little world of Bagni di Lucca: the sindaco (mayor) is a member of “Scelta civica” (“civic choice”) which is a centre-right party set up in the wake of Monti’s “technical government” and which still forms part of the present government’s coalition. (Indeed, the majority of Italian governments have been fragile coalitions).

We are now living in Italy’s second republic. The first one (which had rather more permanent political parties) came to an ignominious end in 1993 in the wake of disclosures of widespread corruptions and bribes which would have made Watergate seem like a little tantrum in a local rural parish council meeting.

When I ask my fellow Italian citizens to explain to me something about Italian politics their eyes turn to heaven and they exclaim “I don’t think I know very much more than you do.”

The fact is that, although it is rather more than what the Austrian nineteenth century statesman Metternich termed “merely a geographical expression”, Italy is not yet a country in the mature sense of the word (although economically it was in the boom years of the “miracolo” of the sixties and seventies in the last century).

Clearly, Italy will not disintegrate like that other artificial entirety Yugoslavia, primarily because its vast majority of individuals were brought up on one religion. Roman Catholicism and the Italian language is written using one alphabet, but it will take a hell of a long time for Italy to integrate itself into an truly efficient nation. Perhaps it needs a third republic?

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Italian Crumble

Italy is crumbling. I am not referring to the political situation which is still obsessed by that arch-crumbly B himself but to the geo-climatological picture. The cyclone which has hit Sardinia, in in its own way as devastating as that which recently massacred the Philippines, is yet another bomba d’acqua or “water –bomb” flagellating this martyred country. No year passes here now without a major hydrological disaster. 82% of all the land surface of this beautiful country is presently at risk.

Just take the last four years.


A river of mud in September devastated the town of Ravello, on the Amalfi Coast. The streets were completely flooded with water and sludge. One loss of life. In October, Prato was hit by a powerful wave of bad weather. Over 100 mm of rain fell in a few hours. Three Chinese women died after their van got stuck in an underpass. In Veneto, just a month later, a flood caused more than a billion Euros damage, with about 140 square kilometres of land flooded and three deaths.


In March Puglia and Basilicata, were flooded by rivers like the Bradano and Agri causing economic losses of more than 80 million Euros with further damage in Taranto and Foggia and hundreds of hectares of agricultural land and roads under water. A father and daughter were drowned in their car. In November Genoa and its province had 400 mm of water fall in a few hours. The death- toll was six. (Genoa is now apparently the Italian city most at risk from future water bombs). A few weeks later, heavy rains and violent storms swept through the province of Messina with three dead and hundreds made homeless.


This time it was the turn of our nearby province of Massa and Carrara, where 200 mm of rainfall fell in two hours, and that lovely stretch of coastline, Le Cinque Terre. No dead fortunately this time but many landslides, blackouts, whole areas buried under a metre of water for days and over 13 million euros in damage just to business. There was a further flood in the Maremma in November with six dead in all and nearly 700 displaced.


Poor Sardinia! Six months’ worth of rain fell in less than six hours… A national emergency has been declared. What a different picture now from the land we visited to attend a relative’s wedding in 2009. We still don’t know how many dead there are but thousands of people are now homeless and the government is contributing an initial tranche of 20 million euros in emergency aid. It’s still raining there as I write (and here too!)

I have not even begun to describe the horrors of the many earthquakes Italy has suffered in the past few years: notably L’Aquila and the Modenese! (See also my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/06/24/i-feel-the-earth-move-under-my-feet/)

And as for the economic situation, with one of the highest percentages of young people in Europe still without any chance of a job and small and large businesses folding up everywhere (largely because of that infamous word – outsourcing)…

The last things this tormented country needs are a crumbling government, administrative corruption advancing to equatorial African proportions, organized international criminality, an under-funded educational system and a lack of resources to protect the urban and rural landscape from future (and apparently even more frequent and disastrous) water-bombs.

Italy is a geologically young and very fragile country. Anyone who lives here must know that – we have all been personally affected or, if we have been lucky, we know friends who have been less so…

In addition, three catastrophic factors will cause even more harm to this beautiful part of the world:

  1. Climate change. Cyclones are caused when cold air meets warm air. With the warm air becoming ever warmer…
  2. Countryside drainage neglect. Because of rural abandonment large areas of this country no longer have that intensive loving care to the land that their forefathers lavished . Drainage channels are clogged, houses are built on flood-plains…
  3. Cementificazione (Cementification). Every year an area in Italy the size of the commune of Rome is put under cement with insufficient planning control and often quite illegally.

One of the tests of knowing whether you’re still in the right place after eight years is to ask yourself “Do I still follow English news?”

I’ve largely stopped doing that eons ago. It’s what’s happening here that concerns me most now. Any ex-pat who is still switched onto Sky Sport all the time and doesn’t watch and follow Italian news and current affairs programmes (largely because they still haven’t bothered to become fluent in the language) is living literally in cloud-cuckoo land.

I know I still love this country and will have its name engraved on my heart à la Browning because, despite reading the regional papers during my orzato lungo macchiato at my bar in the morning, and despite following the most disturbing reports, investigations and debates on Italian television I shall want to be here since Italy offers in compensation much more than the water-bombs, the earthquakes, the corrupt political scene and the economic mess can try to take away from it.

I know this intimately and crossing the Ponte a Moriano bridge yesterday morning I felt and saw it with my own eyes:

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My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky:

So was it when my life began;

So is it now I am a man;

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

(William Wordsworth)

Town-planning Elisa-style

One of the pleasures of carrying out often boring, but necessary, errands in Lucca is that one can slip inside the walls and, swanning around, discover (or rediscover) delightful things.

Yesterday, I had to bring my scooter to have its service tagliando (service) – necessary under guarantee – carried out. An hour to kill (horrible phrase)? Not if you’re in Lucca! The first thing that gave me intense delight was a liberty (art-nouveau) style villa on the avenue surrounding the city’s formidable bastions. (In my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/08/01/art-nouveau-lucca-style/  I describe more about the art-nouveau wonders Lucca can provide).

I then entered the walled city via a gleaming white gate, the Porta Elisa, begun in 1809 and completed in 1811. 11192013 008 The Porta was one of the latter additions to the gates of Lucca’s walls. It was a part of a grand scheme of town planning which foresaw the building of a colonnaded processional avenue all the way to the newly formed Piazza Grande (now known as Piazza Napoleone) created by demolishing a large area in front of the Palazzo Ducale (including three mediaeval churches!)

The Porta Elisa also became essential since an entrance on the east side of the city was desperately needed (there had been no entrance on this side before since it was facing the direction of Florence by whom the Luccan had been constantly in fear of being attacked. For the porta Elisa, too, a convent (Convento del Carmine) and a church (chiesa dei Cappuccini) were demolished.

These urban renovations were typically French in their attempts to transform Lucca into a minor capital of Napoleon’s empire but were not much appreciated by the local populace who didn’t want the character of their beloved city so radically altered. Fortunately Elisa’s reign did not last long enough to completely turn Lucca into a Tuscan Paris!

For the five-hundredth anniversary of the completion of Lucca’s walls the Porta Elisa has been completely overhauled and restored and now looks like the mini-triumphal arch it was projected as and is, in my opinion even reminiscent of the visionary architecture of Boulée.

.Its inscription can now also be easily read. Latinists please help! 11192013 009 Inside the gateway the only bits of the processional way to have been completed are on the left and form a nice exedra and arcade reminiscent of the Rue de Rivoli.

Returning to the walls is the delightful church of Santa Maria della Rosa which dates back to 1309 and was so beloved of that highly misunderstood saint who has enrolled most of her devotees from abroad, largely from Spain – where her heart is preserved – and from London’s Irish community. Indeed, saint Gemma is known as Lucca’s unknown saint – the inhabitants seemingly far preferring to place their devotions in saint Zita whose ugly mummified face can be seen in the San Frediano basilica – see my post for Gemma at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/saint-gemma-galgani-mystic-saint-or-mental-patient/and my post on Zita at at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/from-flour-to-flowers-festa-di-santa-zita/ .

One of the lunettes of the aisle would make a delightful christmas card.

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Just inside the church on the left is the part of the pew occupied by Gemma at church services. It’s cordoned off out of respect and the label says she used to sit here because moving nearer the altar would warm her heart too much through God’s fire. There is also a passage quoted from one of Gemma’s marvellous ecstasies so dutifully written down by her family members. A great pity such girls today would be recommended for intervention by social services – how mightily we have fallen into an ordered, health & safety and rational society!

Incidentally, the old Luccan Roman walls, of which only fragments exist outside, are best seen inside the church. They form part of its left wall!

Ouside the church is the house where Gemma, in the words of the memorial tablet, received her creator’s embrace in 1901.

I them proceed via  a pedestrian passage through the walls where, in the fosso, a couple of ducks were paddling and back to the garage to retrieve my perfectly serviced scooter and  drive back home to the cats, ducks, rabbits and a nice hot vegetable soup.

The Best Views of Florence

Florence’s “green chain walk”, already introduced in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/the-enchantress-well/, provides a welcome escape from the atmospheric, but sometimes claustrophobic, depths of the Oltrarno’s via de’ Bardi.

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That great diplomat of the art market, Stefano Bardini, had his mansion in this area but it was largely used to display, in appropriately enticing arrangements, works of art he had selected for his prosperous international clientele.

On his death in 1922 Bardini donated his collection to the Italian state and since then it has been one of Florence’s alluring “collector’s museums” (together with those other greats, Museo Stibbert, Villa I Tatti, Casa Rodolfo Siviero, and Museo Horne) – places containing the personal choices of affluent art lovers, collectors and dealers.

Bardini’s domestic life, however, largely took place in his Villa which is way up the Costa San Giorgio – one of the steepest streets in Florence and where Galileo was put under house arrest (“e pur si muove”). 11082013 208 The most pleasant way of reaching the villa, though, is through an entrance off the Via de Bardi which accesses the spendid gardens which now, after years of oppressive neglect, have been restored to their former glory. The gardens would provide an outstanding visit in themselves – the wisteria avenue around May is a stunning sight.

The villa, too, has been restored to its former charm – thank goodness Florence is now realising the cultural wealth it possesses and is at last revaluating those of its formerly neglected treasures – and contains no less than three separate exhibition spaces: that for special exhibitions, the Annigoni museum and the Fondazione Roberto Capucci.

In case you didn’t already know, Roberto Capucci is regarded as one of the greatest fashion designers of the twentieth century and has dressed women celebrities in the world of cinema, theatre and high society. Among his most famous outfits is the one worn by Italian scientist Rita Levi -Montalcini on the occasion of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to her for medicine in 1986. image Born in 1930 in Rome, Capucci attended the Academy of Fine Arts where he studied with Mazzacurati, Avenali and de Libero. In 1950 he opened an atelier and presented his first creations at the residence of Giorgini, the founder of modern Italian fashion.

At 26 Capucci was already considered the best of Italian fashion designers and was particularly appreciated by Christian Dior who, in a “Vogue” interview called him “the best creator of Italian fashion “. Many honours and recognitions followed.

In 1968 after time spent in France and the USA Capucci returned to Italy and his workshop in Via Gregoriana, Rome. In the same year he designed the costumes worn by that greatest of Italian actresses, Silvana Mangano, for Pasolini’s film Teorema.

In 1970 Capucci presented his collection in the grotto of Rome’s Museum of Etruscan Art at Villa Giulia. He revolutionized the tradition of fashion parades, with models wearing boots with low heels, no makeup and their own hair. His other dress innovations include the inclusion of decorative elements and rigid structural material and even stones and straw.

In 2005, Roberto Capucci created his foundation with the aim of preserving its archive, which consists of 439 historic costumes, 500 signed illustrations, 22,000 original drawings, and an extensive photo library and media centre.

In 2007 the Villa Bardini in Florence opened the present Museum of the Roberto Capucci Foundation, in which exhibitions are held and a busy teaching schedule is carried out.

In April 2012, Roberto Capucci launched his competition for young designers with the aim of promoting fledgling talents – just what Italy needs today with so much youthful genius going wasted because of lack of appreciation and funds.

Enough of the background. Let my photos of these absolutely superlative dresses speak for themselves. The colours, the flow of the lines, the sheer creativity of design is awesome and, in itself, should make a visit to the villa Bardini essential for art lovers whether they be interested in fashion or not – after all some of the most stunning fashions in Florence are to be seen on the old master paintings one admires in the galleries themselves!  In Capucci’s own motto inscribed on one of the walls:

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(Trans:Make beauty your constant ideal.)

And if one needs to reconnect with the “real” world after the fabulous fashions of Capucci then all that is needed is to step out on the Villa Bardini’s panoramic terrace to gaze on the most splendid views Florence can offer. Thing of beauty are joys forever…..

Of Sanctuaries and Service points

Although it is possible to by-pass Lucca on its southern flank using that stretch of the Autostrada del mare which goes from Capannori towards Pisa Nord there is no confirmed outer circular road such as one finds in other medium to large Italian cities like Padova, Parma and, of course Rome (whose Grande Raccordo Anulare has become the subject of a very intriguing and successful recent film “Sacro GRA” by Gianfranco Rosi.)

Of course, the nineteenth century layout of a road encircling Lucca and allowing one to view the walls magnificently, produced the first ring road round the city but, as anyone knows who hits it, especially at peak times, it can be very trafficked indeed.

A beautiful and unofficial “southern” by-pass to Lucca is that which goes from Porcari all the way through to Montuolo. It’s a great route to use from “my” paint factory and I can use any number of side roads to get into Lucca if I want to.

The road, which weaves its way through delightful villages like Verciano takes a little navigation to follow but it’s a great alternative to the usual Via Romana and Via Pesciatina. There are some interesting wayside shrines on the way – the piana equivalent of the Maestine one finds in the mountains – and some of them are quite delightfully frescoed.

There are also some very fine liberty-style houses too.

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It’s a trend that many Lucchesi are rediscovering the old farmhouses here. In particular the fienili, characterised by their aerated brick openings once used to allow the wind to dry the hay, have often been converted quite skilfully into houses.

I don’t know what the Italian regulations about zoning are. There are some incongruous placements of factories next to churches and houses next to industrial plants in many places which truly spoil that rural feel. Perhaps the regulations are tighter now. Although not having the scenic drama of Garfagnana or the Pisan Mountain the piana lucchese is a beautiful part of the province and should be safeguarded against encroaching urbanization. I particularly hope the view of the magnificent sweep of Nottolini’s aqueduct (mentioned in a previous post) will always be preserved.

We took this road yesterday to reach the suburb to San Concordio where, in via Della Formica, is one of the most useful shops we know in Lucca – “Lucca service”. Ever been hankering after a replacement beaker for your food mixer? Could that handle ever be found for your pasta machine? Might your vacuum cleaner ever be restored to its full sucking glory? If these are question you sometimes ask then “Lucca service” is the shop you’ve been looking for in terms of spares, service and repairs.


Etruscans V Celtic

How northwards did the Etruscans spread their civilization? I’d always thought Tuscany marked the northern borders of these perplexing people. So it was quite a shock when, having crossed the main watershed of the Apennines to descend into the Po river plain, we saw a sign pointing to an ancient Etruscan city, Misa: a place which flourished between the fourth and fifth centuries BC and which was eventually destroyed by a Celtic invasion.

The site museum was still closed for its afternoon siesta. There was a couple having an aperitif at the museum’s bar. He’d come here for a concert by a ‘fifties singer, Luciano Virgilio, who to me was completely unknown. She was smitten by the Etruscans and had dragged him to the archaeological site. We conversed about Etruscan things – she certainly knew her stuff, although a lawyer by profession and even pointed out to me that the language closest to ancient Etruscan language was modern Albanian.

The site itself did not look very promising – just a flat field which, in my opinion, would have made an excellent rugger pitch. There seemed to be nothing to see.

Then we started walking and wonders began to unfold. First, the foundations of a city gateway – then a necropolis with cassoned tombs, several of them crowned with the Etruscan egg – symbol of re-generation and eternity – the same egg held up by the reclining young man we’d seen in the tomb of the banquet at Tarquinia just a few days before.


There would have been more tombs to view but many of them had been covered over again to preserve them. Archaeology is essentially a destructive science: it kills the thing it loves, like so many of us tend to do.

The late afternoon was still rather hot but we persevered across the site to come across the Etruscan city itself, grid-planned with main and side streets and serviced by drainage channels – a system the Romans would take over and claim as their own. It was the clearest Etruscan street plan we’d ever come across and the best preserved city of the living we’d seen so far – the Etruscans are largely known to us only through their cities of the dead but they were a people whose love for life, its beauties and its pleasures, were far more sensitive than the heavy Roman moral universe which engulfed them. It’s, therefore, somewhat one-sided that most of what the Etruscans left are their necropoli but, them this is the fate of so many civilizations – we only know about them through their funerary monuments.


But the greatest discovery still awaited us: a sign pointed to the Acropolis; we crossed a wooden bridge over the main road, began to climb and found ourselves in front of the exquisitely carved podium of a temple, one of several to crown the site. I mounted the same steps used by the priests over two thousand years previously to divine augurs of the future by examination of a sacrificed animal’s entrails (usually the liver, as Italians today judge their future state of health by the condition of the same body part).


We returned to find the museum open and further surprises awaiting us in its excellent collection of finds and an exhibition on what the Etruscans ate and how they prepared it.

There were several outstanding exhibits – the best ones being, undoubtedly, the bronze statuettes of finest craftsmanship.

An old photograph of a museum case carried the ominous caption “the museum before its destruction.” So even this quiet spot had been scourged by the red-hot rake of WWII… Yet much still remained.

This Etruscan site of Misa should have been highlighted to a far greater extent. As the girl had emphatically told me it was a unique site both for its street plan and for its northerly location. As it was, we almost missed it – the second time round. For we’d been there once before, in the pouring rain, with the museum closed, not bothered walking and seen absolutely nothing.

Italy has such a plethora of ancient cities and archaeological sites that a surfeit of them can so easily cause indigestion both to the visitor who explores them and the authorities who are supposed to look after them. Nonetheless, each one has something to offer us and something to teach us. Misa is yet another of these learning experiences and its location among the Apennines is quite beautiful. We are glad we found it again perhaps drawn to it, as the girl suggested, by the Etruscan gods.

Vulci Vandals

A lady we met the previous day at the Baron’s tomb and who was none too impressed by the bathing at Tarquinia Lido tipped us off as to where to find a really nice beach ”au naturel”. Between perfumed pine forest and clean blue sea, having checked out of our hotel, we spent a very pleasant morning before starting our homeward journey.

But the great Etruscan city of Vulci still awaited us. The archaeological park provided us with a treat: its sacred lake is a truly romantic spot and we enjoyed a wonderfully cooling swim in the torrid afternoon.

We returned to the park’s entrance to join a group of visitors who wanted to visit its main attraction: the Francois tomb – one of the largest of all Etruscan burial chambers.

The tomb is indeed grand and displays all the architectural features of an Etruscan palace but the paintings, which formerly adorned its walls, are now in Rome, in the Villa Albano – perhaps just as well since they would have almost disappeared by now if they had been left there.

This is a reconstruction of the tomb with its paintings as it would originally have appeared:


We’d passed a picturesque castle on the way to the tomb and determined to explore it.

Vulci castle was built on the site of an ancient abbey destroyed by the Saracens. It was used first, as a safeguarding point for pilgrims on the Via Francigena to Rome, defending a bridge – in cooperation with the Knights Templar – called the Devil’s bridge (reminding me mightily of the Devil’s bridge near us at Borgo a Mozzano), and lastly, as a customs post for the papal states as it is close to the borders of the old Grand-duchy of Tuscany.

Within Vulci castle was a disturbing exhibition about the number of stolen goods American museums (especially) are willing to buy at Christies and the like. The worst offender was (not too surprisingly) the Paul Getty museum.

Things, however, are changing since museums are now insisting on the provenance of the items in auctions as, without knowing where the item was dug up, any archaeological insight it may give is absolutely useless. To the merit of several museums, if the items they have in their possession are known to have been stolen, they are returned. Many of the returned goods were magnificently on display in the castle’s exhibition.

There have been plenty of thieves (or tombaroli) in Etruria since the Romans first got in on the act by stealing the unique filigree gold from the Etruscans’ tombs. There can hardly be a significant world museum that hasn’t got something nicked from Vulci which was one of the most important Etruscan cities – and the looting still goes on today in less organised countries: I hate to think what’s happening to Egypt’s treasures right now.

However, I retained the impression that, despite improved detective investigative methods, archaeology is riddled with similar dark dealings as those involved  in drug and human trafficking.

Vulci castle was a truly wonderful farewell to the sights we’d visited in this magical part of Italy during our little holiday. We’ll be back, no doubt…

Etruscan Faces

Italian painting starts in Tarquinia. A UNESCO world heritage site, the Etruscan necropolis contains wonderful frescoed tombs dating back to the ninth century BC and giving us quite detailed insights into the life and times of those mysterious people – in particular what they looked like!

Unfortunately, time and crime have reduced many of the tombs to a pale shadow of what they were but enough remains to give us a good idea of the pleasures to be expected in these celebrations of the after-life, which, to the Etruscans was to be full of good things: banquets, hunting, sex, fishing (and so, incidentally, telling us something about what the good things in their lives were too).

The necropolis is on the same hill as Tarquinia and we reached it with a twenty minute walk from centre of town which was bustling with a lively market in its gorgeous central square festooned with stalls, churches, the town hall, a lovely fountain and an excellent baker, among a million other things.

At the top of Tarquinia was a belvedere ornamented by little painted majolicas overlooking what DH Lawrence described as “one of the most delightful landscapes I have ever seen.”


At the city of the dead itself, what looked like entrances to air-raid shelters were, in fact, modern constructions protecting access to the tombs which were first discovered in the eighteenth century and which continue to be discovered today. We managed to visit about twenty of them, not having time to see all the other two hundred-odd painted ones and the thousands of unpainted ones.

Each tomb is well-documented with a sign which gives you its name, when it was discovered, its main features etc.

It’s incredibly difficult to take pictures of the tombs’ interiors since each one is protected at its entrance by a thick glass door which reflects any flash and which, if taken without flash, subdues the often vivid colours. So you really must take everything you see in and store it in your mind’s eye to get the true picture.

What pleasantly surprised me about the tombs was the fact that this major world heritage sight was still administered within human proportions. What I mean is that, whereas other places, like Stonehenge, are overwhelmed by massive car parks, catering establishments, exhibitions and the rest of that culture-commercial paraphernalia which so takes away from my enjoyment of the purity of the site itself, Tarquinia necropolis still manages to preserve that atmosphere of domesticity and intimacy which so pleased DH Lawrence when he visited it and where he wrote those unsurpassable descriptions of its paintings.

I recently looked at an ancient photo of me and my parents at Stonehenge. We were sitting on one of those fallen great stones, eating sandwiches and next to us was our pet dachshund. Those were the days! I don’t think I’d ever want to go to that place again if I can’t eat my sandwiches on one the stones or touch them with my hands…

We’d seen the city of the dead. Now we were off to see the city of the living and it was not the Tarquinia we had just come from. The Etruscan Tarquinia lies on a long ridge lying behind the Necropolis and the “modern” town which interposes itself between it and the sea.


Etruscan Tarquinia is not sign-posted, has to be searched out with some difficulty and, then, is only accessible via a “white” i.e. un-metalled road. We arrived in the middle of a landscape, gentle and arcane, and started walking. After about twenty minutes a sign pointed us to the Ara della Regina, or Queen’s altar. This where the stupendous winged horses we saw in the archaeological museum were found.

I was quite amazed by what I came across – the walls and podium of the largest Etruscan temple ever (dedicated to that percursor of the Virgin Mary, the goddess Diana) with cyclopean blocks (hewn from a local calcareous stone called “macco”) miraculously put together and a magic silence over all, apart from the plaintive bleating of a flock of sheep led through the tall grass by a shepherd and his dog, just like three thousand years ago.

As I sat on the unfathomable sanctum sanctorum of the temple’s fallen magnificence I felt a strange force entering my whole being – so much so that I could not tear myself away from this mysterious spot for some time.

Eventually, I did manage it else I would not be writing this!

We returned to another spectacular sunset framed by the arches of an ancient aqueduct.


In the evening we attended a more modern religious sight when the Assumption of the Virgin was celebrated at Tarquinia’s lido. She took to the sea in a ceremony evocative of that ancient Etruscan ritual painted on one of the tombs we had visited earlier.

Plus ça change…


Etruscan Places

It could have been Cecina or Follonica or Baratti or any of the seaside towns that dot Tuscany’s Etruscan coast. Instead, it was Tarquinia, just over the border into Lazio.

There is an intuition that leads one on. And so yesterday, early, we headed out to Tarquinia to spend the beach and sun part of our holidays.

There has been talk for a very long time of completing a Pisa to Rome motorway to provide a direct link from Genoa to the capital and relieve traffic on the Autostrada del Sole but (thankfully) nothing yet has been done to further despoil the extraordinary country through which the strada statale 1, the Italian equivalent of the UK’s A1, passes. DSCN3666 Much of our journey was through the maremma which for centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire declined into a malarial ridden coastal plain. Italy is so ridden with hills and mountains that it was strange to drive through miles of gently undulating scenery with the mountains as a distant cornice – it gave one a feeling of expansiveness.

We passed the old customs post which once demarcated the frontier between the grand-duchy of Tuscany and the Papal states.


We were now in Lazio and shortly saw to our left, on a gentle hill the walls and towers of Tarquinia.

We entered through the wide barriera di San Giusto which, I felt was contemporary with the change of the city’s name from Corneto to Tarquinia ordered by Mussolini back in 1922 to extol the glories of Italy’s classical past.

But this was no ancient Roman glory praising the virtues of obedience and discipline – Tarquinia is that city so lovingly described by DH Lawrence in his “Etruscan places”. I hadn’t realised (or rather I’d forgotten) this but remembered that Lawrence had compared unfavourably the seriously militaristic ethos of Rome with the life-enhancing, peace-loving culture of the Etruscans – that still highly mysterious people whose domain stretched north to Florence and south to Rome itself and whose language is still largely undeciphered.

Having sorted out our hotel in the more modern part of the city we returned to visit the Archaeological museum – one of the greatest collections of Etruscan finds in the world. The palazzo is splendid architecture going from gothic into early renaissance and built for the town’s bishops – it’s worth going to the museum just to see it. From the top there is a wonderful enclosed terrace with gorgeous views towards the sea. DSCN3794 As for the the museum, it is quite stunning but also quite disturbing. Surely those rows of sarcophagi draped by the out-stretched figures of ancient Etruscans should not have been brought here but allowed to rest in the coolness of the necropolis tombs which lie just outside the walls? How would my own immediate ancestors have liked to have their graves dug up and the Carrara marble epitaphs put on display in a museum and be ogled at by international tourists. As Lawrence says in that marvellous posthumous travel book of his, “Etruscan places”: “museums are wrong”. DSCN3675 Be that as it may, without museums a lot more of what the Etruscans left behind would have been lost for ever. There is so much to learn here, so much to gasp at. The day after our visit the winged horses, which once decorated the tympanum of a temple (and have now become the symbol of Tarquinia), and the joyful painted tombs with their frescoes recovered by the strappo technique from the mausoleums they one adorned, stand out foremost in my mind’s eye. But there was so much else, including some rather dainty earthenware confirming Sir Richard Burton’s hypothesis of the sotadic zone.

Tarquinia is a proud and at the same time, amicable place. We loved wandering around its people-friendly streets after our dutiful museum visit. For supper we chose a somewhat unconventional place – the old city abattoir where a social and film club offered us a (mainly vegetarian!)  buffet supper and where we decided to give the film a miss for there was something rather more enticing just above us. By the abattoir was the 12th century fonte nova where we drank the freshest water while witnessing a gorgeous sunset looking out over the bay and Monte Argentario.

Santa Maria in Castello is a church whose title describes it exactly as being within the confines of the old castle. It is Tarquinia’s oldest and loveliest church and has an interior built in an almost Norman form of Romanesque architecture. I especially enjoyed the way that the arches supported one set of vaulting each on the aisles but combined in twos to support the main nave vaults.


The font was of the old full-immersion type and there was plenty to dazzle the eye including the cosmatesque floor. DSCN3935 The ear was dazzled too, for that evening in Santa Maria was to be a concert by a string quartet extracted from the Abruzzi symphony orchestra and a soloist on the piano. Rachmaninov’s Romanza was followed by that almost Turkish-delight flavoured string quartet no, 2 by part-time composer (he was a chemist by profession) Borodin in an exquisite performance.

After a short break, where we attempted to cool down from the accumulated heat of the torrid day outside in the church square dominated by a watchtower, Chopin’s piano concerto no1 followed. The fact that a string quartet did not detract from the absence of the original full symphony orchestra scoring of this enchanting work proved to me that Chopin did well to concentrate on the solo piano for his mature compositions.

Walking back through the picturesque streets of Tarquinia by night, and hearing the different Lazio accent of the people, we concluded we’d had a great day one in our mini-holiday and decided we’d visit the beach first thing the next morning.