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Welcome!

We bought a house.

I am not sure why we bought a house.

We were in Italy and one or other of us said “It’s nice here, shall we buy a house?”, and the other agreed. So we did.

A couple of years later, we not only have a house, but have spent (fairly) vast sums restoring it to it’s former glory and now it’s all ready to move into. It is an old farm house, so “glory” is probably not the right word. Certainly old though. “1649” says the plaque on the wall. That’s old. Mind you, when the cement render was taken off the stone walls, we found another, similar plaque. So maybe there is, or was, a plaque maker locally happily turning out date plaques to order.

Certainly old though.

It’s not so easy to take a photo of the front of the house. One more step back and you are tumbling down the hill!

We call the house “Casa Lupini”. (House of the Lupins) Nobody else does, so it’s no good arriving in the village and saying “Dove e Casa Lupini?” It is just that on some maps the area where the house is is written as “Lupini”. The parish is, however, called “Rupini”, which means, we are told, steep slopes, or something like that. Not in any dictionary that we have found yet. Our parish church is way over the hill, in the main town of Bagni di Lucca, Ville.

We are on a hill overlooking Ponte A Serraglio, one of a couple of dozen or so villages that make up Bagni di Lucca, an old spa town north of the city of Lucca in north-west Tuscany. The house is in Bagni Caldi, a part of the commune that had several hot spas renowned for a variety of healing properties. There are now just two working ‘Spas’ within walking distance, both at the luxury end of the market, but there are another two nearby currently being restored. I have looked everywhere (not really everywhere – there is a lot of fairly inaccessible woodland) but have yet to find a spring of our own, but there is an interesting-looking water tank on the lane up to the house. Dry, though, and filled with builders’ rubbish.

In our Architect’s office there is an old print of Ponte A Serraglio in 1792. It shows a few buildings around the bridge, a couple of spas and, quite prominently up on the hill above, our house plus two smaller ones. One of the smaller ones is on our land, now overgrown but still recognisably two rooms over two animal sheds. Given more resources than we currently have it could be made habitable. The other is more mysterious. Walking to what I thought was the end of our land through unkempt woodland, you come to a platform that overlooks (or would if there were no trees) the road along the river Lima as it leads into Ville (The main part of Bagni di Lucca). The ‘platform’ has supporting walls that may be the remains of the second building. Then again, it may not. It turns out that this is not the end of our land after all, we extend quite a way past it. My feeling is that you might be able to follow the path, such as it is, and arrive at the little chapel, or refugio, above Colle, the little village over the hill above our house.

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Sometimes it doesn’t have to make sense.

I don’t really know what Italians think of England. To read the newspapers, or watch the TV, you might get a picture of a rather staid, grumpy, sad and, particularly at this time (B****t) insular and divided people – not much joy around. Sometimes, ordinary folk belie the clichés.

Today is ‘Jack in the Green’ Day, here in Hastings. I don’t think anyone quite knows what it is all about. Let’s be a little pompous and say that it is a modern interpretation of an assortment of May Day and Beltane traditions. In reality, though, it is just ordinary folk enjoying themselves for no particular reason.

The eponymous ‘Jack’ is accompanied and protected by his Bogies, dressed in green rags. (We love dressing up in Hastings) There are Green Men, of course, and Green Ladies. Pheasant feathers, tophats, bird and animal skulls and large collections of badges adorn the many costumes. There are drummers and Morris Dancers, chimney sweeps, milkmaids, a hobby horse and May Queens. There are ravens and great big figures of… great big figures and men covered in plastic flowers. It’s all very bizarre. The narrow streets, bedecked with bay leaves and coloured ribbons, are crammed with folk from near and far and many house and shop windows along the pavements have imaginative scenarios laid out for the amusement, puzzlement or horror of visitors.

A long procession wends its way through the Old Town, taking on fuel at the many pubs ready for the long climb up to top of the West Hill, where ‘Jack’ is mocked, taunted and, eventually burned, all to the accompaniment of more dancing of the Morris – or strange interpretations thereof – fiddle and concertina playing. Much beer and cider is drunk and music in all its forms is played late into the evening. Stalls and tents sell all manner of arty-crafty stuff and traditional Sussex foods such as tacos, hamburgers and samosas. Buckets are filled with coins for the lifeboats.

And, just to confuse further, there are 15000+ motorbikes in the carparks along the seafront celebrating something else entirely in a completely different set of pubs.

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UXB!

We have had three visits now from members of the Corsini family, a branch of which lived at Casa Lupini until 1952,  throughout the Second World War. (Some of the wider family still live in and around Bagni di Lucca). Nowadays Bagni di Lucca seems a peaceful place, a forgotten corner of Tuscany, but during the war, there were battles and skirmishes up and down the valleys and both Axis and Allied forces were here and hereabouts in numbers, at one point exchanging control almost weekly. Of course now, some 75 years later, the collective memory has embroidered the truth of events through generations of re-tellings. It is difficult for we outsiders to picture and understand the travails of the local people here as the different armies came and went, as neighbours, acquaintances and perhaps even family co-operated with or fled from one side or another. In our case, though, one former resident, who was a boy during the war, is still with us and has visited the house with some of his, now middle-aged, children and grandchildren.  We have, therefore, some immediate tales.

Three tales from our house.

Bomber planes would appear suddenly and very low from over the hill right behind the house and drop bombs on the land. The bombs would roll down to the village (Ponte a Serraglio) below, and explode, presumably aimed at destroying the bridge. One day the family were on a terrace above the house when a bomb was dropped just a few metres from where they were working. Instead of rolling down the hill and exploding, it buried itself in the soil to a considerable depth, did not explode and the family was unharmed. The bomb remained buried and mute until years after the war when a UXB team was clearing the area. A narrow escape for both family and house.

When the Germans (Austrians?) were in control of the area they would come up to the house in search of food. The family dug out the ‘muck pit’ outside the animal shed and constructed a store into which they put their maize and potatoes. They then covered it over, put the muck back on top and denied all knowledge.

The Germans (Austrians?) would come up to the house in search of able-bodied men to take off to labour camps, perhaps to help construct the Gothic Line. There were three families living in the house at the time. When they heard of a recruiting party the men would hide in the animal shed and the Germans would be confronted by a very fierce Nonna who would rant and rave at them until they gave up and left.

We also learned that – this was before the lane up to the house was built – the family constructed a primitive funicular to haul buckets of provisions etc. up from the village below, putting rocks in one bucket to propel another bucket up a rope to the house. Nowadays you can see more sophisticated versions of this arrangement connecting hillside houses in the area to the roads below.

 

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The Population Hereabouts

Last autumn (2017) our carefully groomed (reckless exaggeration!) grass path to the pool was attacked by unknown assailants. Much of the turf was grubbed up. The attack continued into the new year and was blamed on Cinghali (wild boar) digging around looking for the little plant bulbs that proliferate in the soil beneath the grass. We decided to catch the culprits red-handed (red-hooved??)and set up a night-time wild-life camera. We did get a picture of a small boar’s evil face and snout, but, much to our surprise, we found that our nocturnal visitors are many and various. Below are a few of the pictures that show identifiable animals passing by at night. These are in addition to the sheep, goats, humans and many cats that also use the path in the daytime when we are not in residence. They include deer, badgers, crested porcupine, foxes and, of course, a boar. Our suspicions, re: path destruction, are shifting from boar to badger.

 

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Logging on

Travelling around Bagni Di Lucca and the Garfagnana at this time of year you cannot help but notice the woodpiles stacked (mostly) neatly by houses, roadsides and at odd places in woodland.

Three years ago we had three trees that posed a danger to the house chopped down and, as part of the deal, cut into logs and stacked at the back of the house. Unfortunately, lumberjacking skills do not necessarily extend to log stacking and we, amateurs at best, could not find a cover substantial enough to stay put as winter gales whip around the house. By this summer, the pile was looking decidedly close to collapse. The possibility of burying passing squirrels under a pile of logs was ever-present.

This late autumn we tempted a relay of friends to Casa Lupini with promises of grape-picking and wine-making in the Tuscan sunshine. We neglected to mention that the vendemmia was neither extensive nor long-lasting and that they would have plenty of time for log shifting. We talked enticingly of design and construction, of using only natural materials, of being at one with the wood burning fraternity, of off-grid winter heating and cooking… It worked! They fell for it. One of our guests was an epic DIYer, another an Architect who had actually read Norwegian Wood and so we constructed a brand new, sturdy, exquisitely designed wood shelter of our own and shifted the logs from the old pile.

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So, if there is a category for foreign seniors in the ‘Artistic Impression’ section of the Bagni Di Lucca woodpile competition, I reckon we are in with a chance.

 

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How boaring!

I think I have revealed previously a heritage that includes a propensity for rolled and striped lawns. Grass, not as God intended but tamed and domesticated. An effect, in domestic terms at least, that can only be achieved by frequently and regularly repeated mowings using a mower equipped with a reasonably heavy roller. Now, in our fifth year at the house, we have finally achieved an acceptable compromise with Italian grass seed and turf and our especially ferried-out English motor mower (How I yearn for a sit-upon mower) and allow ourselves a tinge of pride as we gaze upon a freshly mown green path from house to pool.

We arrived at Casa Lupini, as we do these winter days, after dark. As we drew up in front of the house, the car’s headlights picked out some turfed-up turf on the path to the pool. Our travel weary brains did not fully compute what had happened. Come daylight, the extent of the damage was revealed. This year we have defended ourselves against attacks from Deer, Goats and Sheep with a degree of success only, now, to be tormented by the Cinghiale (Wild Boar). The footprints were unmistakeable. They had rooted around and dug up great patches of our carefully nurtured grass. Why? We wondered. What, on earth were they looking for? Was is pure vindictiveness? We had cleared the fallen apples, a favorite food, that had attracted them a few years ago. We had no chestnuts. The squirrels had left only a pawful of inedible walnuts. There are no funghi around, no truffles. We turned back the sods and tried to tread them back in. The next morning revealed a further visit undoing our attempted repairs. Not content with just ruining the pathway, they had also wandered carelessly over the rest of the land and decided that several other patches need a good ploughing!

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Cinghiale, of course, are increasingly bold visitors over much of Europe. In Tuscany they are shot at and, occasionally, run into on country roads. In all of Italy, with a population estimated at over a million, they are thought of as pests, causing millions of euros worth of damage to vineyards in particular. In Genoa and Rome they are frequently sighted in the streets and suitably armed hunters are being deployed. Cute as the striped piglets may be, the adults have sharp tusks and teeth and can be huge (150+Kg), very fast moving and dangerous to anyone and anything in their way.

Papperdelle – or in our part of Tuscany, Polenta – with cinghiale ragu may represent a part of the solution but is hardly likely to dent the population. In the UK they had been hunted to extinction but are now farmed – with escapees likely to thrive.

Don’t mess with these pigs, however they mess with you!

 

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Warm Water

Removing the family home to Hastings has taken up a fair amount of our energies in the last couple of years. We have just enjoyed (endured?) our third Green Man Day, a sometime revival of pagan customs still relevant in this part of the world. Relevant insofar as it attracts a great many revellers, green revellers, from around the county. Many villages and small towns have similar festivities, much in the manner of the villages around us in Italy.

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Why Hastings?

Our daughter’s flat is nearby the New River canal that runs hidden and largely forbidden through North London, before ending at a basin by Sadler’s Wells. Now, of course, Sadler’s Wells is known as a dance theatre and Mr Sadler and his wells are long forgotten, as is the neighbouring Islington Spa. Idle curiosity discovered that the waters of these once flourishing establishments were from ‘chalybeate’ springs. Not knowing the term (chalybeate) I looked it up and found that other springs with a similar mineral make-up (containing much iron) existed at Dudley, Tunbridge Wells and Hastings. We knew of the elegant terraces of Tunbridge Wells but neither Dudley nor Hastings had, hitherto, entered our lives. Not long afterwards, an outing to Rye extended into a quick look at nearby Hastings and its mysterious chalybeate spring nestling, hidden away in woods across the main road at the top of Alexandra Park. And so we discovered that there is more to Hastings than its battle. The Old Town, with its houses of every type, age and size tumbling jumbled down the sides of a valley between two high downland hills, took our fancy. And that is where we found our not-too-decrepit early Georgian converted boarding house and commenced restoration of same.

So, talk of springs and spas brings us to Bagni Caldi, our home from home in Italy. Its waters too are described as chalybeate. Here, we are on the side of a hill that is said to give rise to dozens of springs some of which are warm and none of which are on our land. At the bottom of the lane that leads up to our house is the Spa San Giovanni.

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It looks far smarter in a photo than up close and personal in real life!

I quote from the www.bagnidiluccaterme.info website

Bagno San Giovanni is remembered in a parchment of 1307, Domenico Bertini probably built it employed by the Republic of Lucca when rearranging the Thermal Baths.Its name comes from a tradition that the population used to bathe in the waters on the feast day of San Giovanni the 24th of June.It orginally had three small baths, but because of the requests to cure oneself it was enlarged. There was one spring that filled six bath tubs at 38°C/100°F, each bath tub had a name and was for different classes of people: i Cavalieri(knights), i Cittadini(town-dweller), le Donne(women), gli Ebrei(the Jews) and i Servatori(servants). In this period the bath tubs where lined with marble and there was a room to cure the hydropsy patient, with single tubs alongside the large tubs Prof. Bruno Cherubini wrote in his book,“I Bagni di Lucca” that from San Giovanni there is one of the best views of the Lima Valley, it was here that Heine was inspired to write the famous page of Reisebilder. Michel de Montaigne says that this water was type of ointment for the skin and it was mostly used for immersions. The thermal bath of San Giovanni has been recently restored. Christoph Martini on a visit to Tuscany describes the bath like this:

“The fourth thermal bath called San Giovanni in a high and plesant landscape, shaded by high trees, embellished by hedges which makes a nice pathway for walks. This bath is divided into three rooms: one for men, one for women and one for the Jews.”

There is, in the front of the restored building, a small outlet from which the waters escape (The little arch in the photo above), ending, as far as we can tell, at the little tap in the wall opposite the footbridge across the river Lima. In the winter, especially after rain, the steam from the water covers the roadway as it overflows into the road drains.

It is, as often commentated elsewhere, an odd situation to have restored not just this spa, but others too, with no tenant or buyer apparent. In a few years time, the Spa Giovanni will be in a worse condition than it was before the restoration works carried out by the Commune a couple of years ago. Perhaps the Hastings approach of hiding the spa away, never mentioning it, and letting nature take its course until it is completely overgrown, is a better idea, certainly less expensive!

 

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Who is this guy?

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He has a curly moustache, a beard on his chin, bushy eyebrows and curly hair, is made of terracotta and seems to have been buried in mortar. He is not very big, his face is about 100mm long, top to bottom. We found him lurking in the long grass at the top of our plot where he had a fine view over the lower Lima valley and along Garfagnana valley to the marble mountains of the Apuan Alps.

As I strim (see previous post), I muse. Our house is on the side of a hill. A hill which contains, I am led to believe, a great many hot springs, most of which have been diverted to the several spas that nearly neighbour our plot. Springs that have been used from time immemorial to ease and pamper, heal and soothe the bodies of the populace hereabouts, plus those of visitors from far and wide. We have no such spring on our land, or none that we can find.

This higher part of our estate (Dream on, Mr. P!) where our little chap was found has, under the soil, several remains of building work. The more cynical among you may suggest a dump for some builder chappy, but the more romantic, and that includes me, may think that a little building once sat there. There is also a terracotta roof tile securely sat amongst the grass that refuses to be lifted. Obviously (Please restrain your scepticism) the cap to a hot spring diverted elsewhere for a small fee paid to the farmer, on whose land we sit, by a capitalist spa owner wishing to fleece some passing noblemen.

So, I have a picture of a little mini-spa of spectacular curative properties, in Roman – or shall we say Etruscan? – times sat on our hillside and over the door a terracotta mask of a Roman water god. Fortunately, my knowledge of Roman water gods is non-existent. I don’t have to trouble the truth.

You, of course, may think that a recent owner picked it up at a local Brico and stuck it on a brick before his wife decided she didn’t like it and chucked it away.

So, unless you recognise the chap, I shall dream on as I strim, and you will wonder at my gullibility.