5th-13th August 2017- Diary of a short holiday in Tuscany and Piedmont
Day One - Extremes of getting to and from Puccini Festival
A dangerous Italian heatwave tipped me into the early stages of heat exhaustion on the autostrada between Milan to Lucca. We could not get the air conditioning to work in a rented Fiat and it was over 40 degrees. Heat exhaustion can develop very suddenly as the core body temperature fails to cool down by perspiring. I owed a lot to the BBC who the day before had reported an Italian government health warning to treat the heat that day seriously. Since I developed this very fast in the Sahara once (and I had been carried away away by Italian medics for emergency treatment) I was wary.
I forced a ‘pitstop’ risking our party not getting to The Puccini Festival, that evening. I needed to change to cotton clothes, eat salty crisps (one loses essential salt in heat) and drink bottles of iced tea. Happily, my treatment regime worked and we got the car’s air conditioning working. Less than an hour later, I was able to take over driving from my husband (who needed a siesta) and we were soon speeding through Tuscan scenery reminiscent of Renaissance paintings. We passed Carrara, a vast marble quarry, still in mass production, where the marble for Michelangelo’s ‘David’ came from. By asking around in Italian, my husband located our quaint but affordable AirBnB flat in delightful, walled Lucca, the home and birthplace of ‘the opera maestro’, Giacomo Puccini. He was son of the organist of Lucca’s Duomo. Clearly, Giacomo was clearly surrounded by ‘romance’ all his life.
We made it, relieved and amazed - us women in long evening dress - to Torre Del Lago’s lakeside red carpet and the open air opera set for Puccini’s ‘La Rondine’ (a grand white staircase). We found ourselves among ultra elegant, chic and bronzed Italian women under a silver moon over the lake, where Giacomo Puccini wrote its music. He had great difficulties with the ending and wrote several. On stage the ending is unconvincing, the central ‘diva’ looking frustrated on the white staircase fails to throw herself off - unlike Tosca. The dreamy setting reminded me of the watery set of Madama Butterfly also composed here. We moved forward at the start of Act II for a splendid crowd scene typical of the bohemian side of Puccini, and privately justified this upgrade by reminding ourselves that we had come a long way in one day, through a shocking heatwave.
We got lost, past midnight, driving back from La Rondine to Lucca, in a diabolical slimy sea mist, fighting a longing for sleep (having been awake for 23 hours). We turned, in error, into an industrial estate and found the car surrounded by ‘ladies of the night’ lurching scantily dressed towards the car, out of the diabolical sea fog. It was surreal and alarming. We had not yet mastered the car’s central locking, so we did a rapid U turn and prayed to find the right way home. Definitely it was an encounter with the side of Italy that is hidden and unromantic, even sad.
Day Two - The Romanesque
We fell in love with Lucca, Puccini’s home town, an adorable walled medieval town. Lucca is definitely the location for the perfect long musical weekend (flying to Pisa and taking the train). It has constant concerts and pedestrianised streets, affordable food and gorgeous Romanesque architecture. Definitely a trip for the ‘bucket list’.
My priority was to see The Basilica of San Frediano, the exquisite Romanesque church founded by Finian, prince-monk of Ulster. In the 6th century, he went to Rome (via Lucca) to take the Bible (in Latin) back to Ireland. He retired to Tuscany to become a cave-dwelling hermit, only to be appointed Lucca’s Bishop which was then dominated by ‘smelly’ barbaric Lombards. He converted many of these Lombards to the Christianity and then founded twenty two churches, many of which are still there, in some form today. Some achievement for an Irishman, in Italy.
My husband and I specifically wanted to see the pulpit of San Frediano, in this year of Luther’s posting on the university noticeboard of Wittenberg. This is where Pietro Vermigli, known in English as ‘Peter Martyr’ Italian co-founder of the Church of England preached.
Appointed Prior at San Frediano in the early 1540s, Pietro Vermigli gave such a persuasive series of educational lectures on the true meaning of St Paul in ‘Romans’, that he inspired sixty noble Lucchesi families to give up their mansions (what a sacrifice!) and to flee to chilly Geneva. These noble Lucchesi families became the backbone of The Swiss Reformation. One of the noble families was Diodati, a name forever connected to the Italian translation of the Bible. Some of the Swiss Diodatis moved on to England, as physicians. Charles Diodati, John Milton’s close Calvinist friend, came from this Lucchesi family line. Byron lived in the Diodati’s villa on Lake Geneva where ‘Frankenstein’ was created.
Vermigli himself fled via France to England, where he was made Professor of Divinity at Oxford, by Cranmer, under Edward VI, championing education and, no doubt, a great supporter of grammar schools.
The interior of San Frediano is pink marble supported by superbly crafted Roman columns from ‘Luca’ (alias Lucca), the Roman town of the first triumvirate (involving Julius Caesar). The church is unforgettably beautiful and feels oddly like a spiritual home. The Romanesque font (1150-1250) is full of lively images. This is God/Christ giving the Word of God to mankind:
Font reliefs are typical of the Romanesque, like portico of round arched doors, often showing Christ in glory. Ely, Durham and Tewkesbury Cathedrals are all Romanesque or ‘Norman’ which is a variant of Romanesque (a mix of Roman arches and Byzantine).
Day Three ‘Musical Dreams’
We saw the Pisan Romanesque ‘Piazza of Miracles’ (Piazza dei Miracoli) in Pisa. I realised that the gravity-defying Leaning Tower of Pisa (how did it hold on for centuries?) is a perfect, if small campanile, or bell tower, now anchored by hundreds of tonnes of lead hidden in the ground, minus its over-weighty bells.
The Baptistery at Pisa (right above) is a mix of Pisan Romanesque and Gothic, a building spanning the period when lower round arches (Romanesque) gave way to the higher pointed arches (Gothic), around the mid 13th century. Its architect had imitated what was thought to be the tomb of King Solomon, seen by the Crusaders in Palestine, but it was actually an Islamic building.
The most stunning interior is none of the famous ones (the Leaning Tower, The Duomo and the Baptistery, which are all impressive) but that in 14th century Composanto Monumentale, Campo Santo or ‘Old Cemetery’ which is built on a shipload of earth brought from ‘Golgotha’. Damaged in World War Two, many of the wall frescoes are faded but restoration work is going on. We were astonished by a medieval fresco (‘Last Judgment and Hell’ above) probably by Buonamico Buffalmacco, depicting Heaven and Hell, with the Devil, with a transparent stomach, digesting sinners. In the middle left, are some noble women who had nearly made it to Heaven, but are now being sucked back as if by a giant vacuum cleaner or magnet, into Hell. I was reminded of this painting while watching the film ‘Dunkirk’, a week later, as troops scrambled to get on rescue ships, many failing.
There was a notable marble on a sarcophagus of highly indeterminate gender, which we eventually realised, close up, was a beautiful woman:
That afternoon, I went alone to inspect the interior of Puccini’s comfortable, if small ‘Villa Puccini’ at Torre del Lago (Tower on the Lake) on the lake where the Maestro hunted duck, about twenty miles from Lucca. The sea at Viareggio, is close too.
It is where he wrote his major works. In spite of being opera’s first multi millionaire, Puccini lived in a comfortable but unpretentious lakeside Villa which he built when this was an undeveloped vicinity. He spent his money on fast cars and on a seagoing yacht which he skippered off seaside Viareggio (or at least he had the right captain’s hat for it!). I was astonished at the false medieval Tuscan ceiling in his drawing room, its ancient ‘bottle’ windows and original furnishings - and especially by his own black upright piano, with tilting candle holders.
Unexpectedly, I found myself alone the Maestro’s tomb, a pink marble coffin, for a few minutes, in what used to be his sitting room converted into a chapel. The Resurrected Christ was depicted in a window was on my right. I worked out that he had been buried by his family against the back of his own upright piano, as if they were one. He composed his works on this upright piano at night, using a specially designed table for the score, while his Bohemian friends sat around the room drinking and playing cards. Sadly, no photos of the interior were permitted (but it is not to be missed). I felt terribly moved by this house and came home musically ‘inspired’. When playing the piano, I think of this house and lake and somehow the output sounds a bit better. I expect he found he enjoyed the same effect, much magnified, by living there.
An opera singer had commented in the guest book in Villa Puccini: “How could one man produce so much beauty?”. The answer is surely partly that he was reflecting the beauty all around him which was God given (+ great Italian art). I studied his leather hunting boots (showing small, neat feet). I thought about how he was not really a bohemian, but an aspiring Tuscan gentleman-hunter not without serious flaws and a troublesome wife from Lucca. I must read the most recent biography of Puccini (which I fear may put me off his music).
Day Four - Fish and the Sea
We left Lucca and toured the corniche roads of the glamorous Italian Riviera to see how the Milanese fashion house elite spend their summers e.g. in rocky and romantic Rapallo and prestigious Portofino. This is where the Taylor-Burtons lingered in a less over-populated age (the Sixties). We were put off by the amount of polluting traffic which make this beautiful rocky coastline more like the Edgware Road in London than a marine paradise. Do the elite have no idea about real adventure, real nature or surely, about real pleasure?
In Genoa, we were guests of a very friendly nascent church in a fish restaurant ‘of the people’.
Collectively, we ate our way through about a thousand dead (but delicious) seas creatures (seafood = ‘la dolce vita’ in Genoa). I even enjoyed fresh squid, which is not at all rubbery.
Then, I drove rashly and confidently through central Genoa, following our guide, on a moped, as if filming our own scene from ‘Roman Holiday’ to see a panorama of the city and an Italian ice cream. Only two summers ago, I was scared of driving on a private road over there, let alone in a city centre!
We arrived in Val Pellice, the main Waldensian/Vaudois valley, west of Turin, through ‘corn as high as an elephant’s eye’ and found out AirBnB accommodation: one was a castle suite for £40 a night, with a Countess in residence.
Day Five - Heidi and the goats
We had a splendid meal in a formerly ordinary restaurant in Torre Pellice (clearly with a new skilled chef).
We showed a young English girl, her father and our friends the beauties of the Cottian Alps in Angrogna (Valley of Groans), spiritual refuge of the ancient Waldensian (Protestant) church. We enjoyed hearing her and her father sing unaccompanied psalms in Pra del Torno’s ancient Waldensian church - the heart of their faith. They saw their 13th century Waldensian Bible School. An hour later, she became a perfect ‘Heidi’ in a stable of angelic goats whose milk gives wonderful cheese. She tickled their chins which they loved, watched by a patient and appealing horse which was surprisingly happy to be penned with them.
How does the horse does not tread on the little goats and kids all around? Later, I gave an instant dinner party, using a fine bone china dinner service that I discovered too late last year in this flat (Air BnB) in our villa, once the abode of one of Garibaldi’s Generals.
Day Six - Turin, art and food
We saw drawings by Da Vinci and Michelangelo in Turin’s (Dukes of Savoy) Royal Library which are rotated every six months (so one can go more than once).
I liked an amazing Renaissance drawing of Christ having been taken down from the Cross, by St John and the Marys with perfect perspective:
We found out where Turin Opera House is situated -Teatro Regio Torino, Turin’s opera Company, is currently receiving top review at the Edinburgh Festival for its production of Verdi’s ‘MacBeth’. I posed with ‘Wisdom’ (a classical and Biblical concept that I have always hankered after) in Turin’s University Faculty of Science and Arts:
Almost by accident, I bought a fantastic Piedmontese cookbook in Turin’s Piedmontese bookshop’ (photo above right) which is transforming my cooking at home (a pepper and anchovy starter recipe is attached below). The combination of novel techniques simple ingredients is the PIedmontese secret (and certain herbs). We spoke with a local Piedmontese man about the politics of Turin and he lamented the EU which he saw as ‘dominated by Germany’. So much for all Italians being keenly ‘pro-EU’. Possibly, the more Piedmontese one is the less globalist?
We dined with Waldensians farmers, whose geniality is the salt of the earth. Their humour reminds one of colourful French comedians of the 1950s. We talked with them about local wolves and their haunts. We were informed that shooting a wolf can put a local farmer in prison. Such is ‘re-wilding’ the Alps today. The fears and feelings of local shepherds or farmers are less important than these top predators. I guess that is fine until someone (and not just sheep) gets injured, or killed?
Day Seven - Piedmontese Nobility
We had a free tour of the medieval Piedmontese Castle by a Countess and met her chic mother, a woman of perfect casualness and charm in the Italian style, dressed down but crowned with superb white hair. Proof that hair is one’s crowning glory? We were shown the standard, if second rate 18th century portrait of the Duke of Savoy, which he gave to whatever castle he visited, around 1740. I found out that the Countess’s grandfather was sadly killed (by the British) in WW2, when a submarine commander in the Adriatic. At one the point this family, who had owned the castle since the 12th century, lost it but then they managed to buy it back in the 1930s. Keeping it now from the ravages of mould and falling down, is a labour of enduring love. Their attachment to this castle is purely historic. I wonder if they can get grants?
Day Eight - Paramount Mountain
Suddenly, there were crystal clear blue skies. It was the day for the Alps and Paramount Mountain: 11500 foot Monviso, Piedmont’s Stone King, normally elusive and hiding itself in cloud. We took a shuttle bus from Crissolo up Monviso (the highest peak in The Cottian Alps) to minimise the terror of risking the road up to Pian del Re.
We then climbed Monviso (the highest peak in Cottian Alps).
This view (left) is from near the top of the sizeable mountains surrounding MonViso. We are seeing here the pyramidal peak of Monviso, which is a further stretch beyond any other peak.
We found the trickling source of the great River Po which rises on Monviso and a beautiful lake at its base (already thousands of feet high). It this sign saying “Qui nasce Il Po”.
We heard the whistles of marmots, large Alpine rodents which live alongside nimble ibex, on these bare slopes. To be given such a rare sight of the majestic, pyramidal mountain, only 400 feet shorter than the Eiger, was a rare opportunity: we gladly took it with both hands.
On the way down, we had an Alpine lunch. I tasted delicious Barbera, a red wine from Asti near the top class Le Langhe wine growing district of Piedmont. It is Paolo’s favourite Italian wine - and now it is mine. Barbera d’Asti is available from Marks and Spencer at £9.50 a bottle but mostly one must pay £18-£20 for a bottle of the best Barbera which is Barbera d’Alba. We drank it with real and creamy Alpine polenta.
This is a picture of my husband, from PIedmont, with its iconic ‘Stone King’:
It was a very busy and ‘social’ holiday. Here are some things I will always recall:
Driving around Genoa like a native...
Basilica of San Frediano’s Roman pink marble interior...
The view from Lucca’s ‘wall walk’ at night….
Hearing my husband (who previously despised Italian opera) consider getting us a seasonal pass to Turin’s Opera House….
Puccini’s inspiring house and his romantic after effects on me….
Seeing Monviso close up….
Tasting Barbera for the first time.
Needless to say, a return trip to Piedmont, Lucca and the Puccini Festival is now on ‘the bucket list’. One must also see nearby Bagni di Lucca, resort of preference for the 19th century England and the Romantic Poets. Italian opera and arts festivals certainly add a certain ‘something’ to any holiday and can be strongly recommended. Most major cities in Italy have active opera houses.
Recipe for Piedmontese Peppers and Anchovy (starter)
Oil lightly with a good Italian olive oil a few yellow and red peppers. Place them on an oven tray in the oven at 180 degrees for 30- 45 mins, turning periodically. Wait until they seem to collapse, wrinkle and wither (the peppers have then been fully steam cooked) Take them out and cool them. When cooler, with your fingers strip off the outer skin and take out the core and seeds. Do not wash the seeds out, because this will remove the pleasant oily texture. Cut into strips. When completely cool, place small bits of anchovy on each slice of pepper and serve with fresh bread as a starter. (The scorching and steaming can also be done over a gas burner with heat proof tongs, but it is rather time consuming and complicated).