Thursday, November 16, 2017 and similar services can be superior to hotel stays—if you take a few precautions

Hotels and hostels have traditionally been the preferred resting place for travelers in Europe and elsewhere. The advent of the Internet has made it much easier to sort out the various options, with multiple competing sites available to seek out, review, compare and reserve accommodations. And now the advent of sites such as (air bed and breakfast) and is moving the accommodations from larger buildings to private homes, with great success—better prices for travelers, income opportunities for home owners—and new risks.
Photo courtesy

In a recent post, I analyzed the benefits of staying in an agriturismo, and now I’d like to examine the much newer option of booking a room or an entire house through Airbnb, HomeAway or other similar services.

Saving money and meeting authentic residents of the country being visited seem to be the main benefits, and many guests at vacation homes express great satisfaction with the experience.

Brian Fanciulli
I’ve rented mansions in Italy for a pittance,” said Brian Fanciulli of La Crosse, Wisconson. ‟I’ve stayed on a five-acre property on the side of a volcano in Hawaii for a week for the average nightly rate of a room at a resort.

You have a wide variety of amenities to choose from and aren’t restricted to the boiler-plate hotel rooms. You can have a house with a full kitchen to save money on meals. A garage. Privacy! A place that is more amenable to having guests over. You can get character and charm. You get variety. You can stay in places you might never be able to own yourself. You get to immerse yourself in the neighborhood.

Often the owners of these places are very engaged with their renters. We stayed at a beautiful apartment in Ortigia and were welcomed by a lovely family who owns the building. They offered to walk us around town and show us some if their favorite places, introduce us to some of the locals, and they even offered to help us track down relatives, as I mentioned my family emigrated from a nearby town 100 years ago.”

Anthony LaMesa at the Cape of Good Hope.
However, it is imperative to approach a stay at an an Airbnb armed with words of advice from seasoned travelers. Anthony LaMesa from the Cape of Good Hope is a frequent traveler all over Europe and much of the world, and he often stays in hostels, hotels and Airbnbs.

Airbnb can be a great option in Italy,” he said. ‟It is helping a lot of people to secure a livelihood in small villages and less-touristed cities—but you also have to be careful.”

Operators of small venues have fewer regulations and less oversight, and they also have less to lose than hotels do if they have major issues. Problems can include mold, damaged appliances, amenities missing, noisy locations and limited check in times. Some travelers have also encountered cleaning fees that are not advertised up front, making the stay not such a great deal after all. One of the worst problems can be insect or rodent infestations.

Search for bed bugs by inspecting the mattress seams under the sheets and looking for any blood- or rust-colored stains on the mattress cover and linens, LaMesa said. ‟It’s very common for bed bugs to infest tourist apartments, because of the high turnover. And it’s really hard to eliminate them if they hitchhike in your clothes or luggage.

If there are major problems with the listing, make sure to report them within 24 hours of arrival to the host via the Airbnb messenger (not WhatsApp or SMS), so the problem is documented. Send pictures, if possible. That way, if the issue isn’t quickly fixed, Airbnb will give you a refund and allow you to leave. If you don’t do this within 24 hours, Airbnb will assume that everything was fine.”

Research by carefully reading the reviews. Most frequent bed and breakfast users agree that’s the most important advice they can give, and read them with a critical eye. Because guests sometimes develop friendly relationships with the owners, they may be more reluctant to be as harsh in their criticisms as they would with a hotel or hostel.

Read between the lines with Airbnb reviews,” LaMesa said, ‟because their reviews tend to be a bit inflated in terms of positivity. Hosts will often find a way to get critical reviews—especially the ones mentioning really bad stuff like bed bugs or rodents—removed. I recently stayed in an Airbnb with bed bugs, and Airbnb took down my review mentioning them, because they said I wasn't allowed to write ‘Airbnb told me to leave for a hotel,’ despite that being exactly what they told me to do.”
A couple can stay at the "Farm of Giustina" near the train station in Montecarlo, Lucca, for only $40 a night, delicious breakfast included, and receive guest services superior to those of a concierge at a fancy hotel.

The protection provided by Airbnb generally prevents travelers from being scammed. All transactions go through the Airbnb website, never directly from the guest to the host (in fact, in-person cash exchanges are forbidden under Airbnb rules). You’ll pick a place you’d like to stay and request a reservation. Once you request a reservation and agree to the house rules, you submit your financial information to Airbnb, which Airbnb will then charge. But they won’t release your money to the host until 24 hours AFTER you check in, which gives time for both parties to agree everything is going according to plan.

If you have a customer service issue with Airbnb, you’ll be assigned a case manager,” LaMesa said. ‟The problem is this case manager could then be ending their shift, so you'll be sent to a new case manager who won’t read the notes from the original ones—and you have a real nightmare on your hands trying to get anything resolved quickly. In this case, be nice, but extremely assertive. And use Twitter’s direct message feature to get Airbnb’s social media people to make your case marked as urgent.

If the host doesn't have a ‘security deposit’ on their listing, they have only 24 hours—or until the next guest checks in—to make a claim against you for any ‘damage,’ and some hosts will invent damage. If they have an actual security deposit on the listing –it must have been there when you booked—they will have 14 days to make a claim against you. If a host does come asking for money for some ridiculous reason (i.e. asking €500 for a broken Ikea table that cost €50 and was already broken when you arrived), make sure you stand your ground when communicating with Airbnb, which will ultimately decide what, if anything you have to pay. The same goes when requesting money from a host for broken or missing amenities, or problems during the stay.”

One other important piece of advice from LaMesa regards extended stays. If you stay for 28 days or longer, you have a special ‘long-term cancellation policy’ applied to your booking, which means you can’t leave early without paying for the entirety of your first month,” he said. This is a big deal. Even if the host has a ‘flexible’ cancellation policy, if you book for a month or more, you’re covered by this more restrictive policy.”

Fanciulli is also well-traveled, using mostly HomeAway (formerly VRBO), and he chipped in with additional advice. It’s important to note that there are major differences in definitions and expectations for certain creature comforts in Italy versus the United States,” Fanciulli said, making the following points:
  • The first floor (1° in Italian) means the second floor in Italy. The ground floor is zero. This can be important for those who are stair-challenged, as elevators are rare and often small and precarious in older buildings.
  • The number of rooms usually refers to total rooms, including bedrooms, living areas, kitchen, etc. Bedrooms don’t necessarily have closets or doors. A living area may qualify, for the person listing it, as a bedroom. Look for clues about things like this in the reviews.
  • The second B in B&B often gets lost in translation in Italy. Unless explicitly mentioned, there will be no breakfast. However, I have found it to be common that if there is a kitchen, they usually leave you well stocked with things to munch on.
  • If you’re driving, parking should be a top consideration. If you’re staying in a city center, forget it or be prepared to park outside the wall or whatever designates il centro.
  • There will be no air conditioning unless explicitly stated. Italy gets hot in the summer. I opt for ground floor rentals in old buildings during hot seasons as they’re usually within thick stone walls and stay naturally cool. Upper floor apartments, while tempting for views, can be miserable in the heat. You’re going to spend most of your time out and about, so opt for practicality and function over views.
  • Quiet’ is a relative term. Bring earplugs.
  • Beds are rarely the spring mattresses we’re used to in the US. A typical Italian bed is foam on a board. I don't think there is a such thing as a box spring in Italy. Spare beds are often futons or something of the like. If this is an issue, ask before you book and look for clues in the reviews.”

Armed with solid information and by taking a few precautions, your experiences at vacation home can be even better than at a hotel stay.

I’ve actually had more issues with hotels than I have ever had with vacation rentals,” Fanciulli said. ‟Overbooking. Bad rooms. Noisy neighbors. Poor service. Accommodations being nothing like what the website represented.”

If you research a listing well—read most of the reviews, message the host before booking with any questions and negotiate the nightly rate if you feel it’s too high—and are prepared to be an advocate for yourself if things go wrong during your stay, you can have a pleasant Airbnb experience in a unique property,” LaMesa added.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Staying at an agriturismo can show you Italy up close and at its finest

If you are traveling and want to stay overnight in an Italian city, you stay in a hotel, or maybe a bed and breakfast. But for a country vacation, an agriturismo is often the best choice. Staying at an agriturismo combines the best of Italy’s spectacular rural beauty with hospitality, luxury and value.

The word agriturismo combines ‟agriculture” and ‟tourism” and is a style of vacationing in farm house resorts that was written into Italian law in 1985. An agriturismo is an independently owned farm that the owners have converted into partial use to accommodate tourists. That means that the owners are primarily farmers, and your room is in the farmer’s house or in an old outbuilding converted into guest rooms. With space outside to roam, an agriturismo vacation is suitable for an entire family, although it can also be suitably luxurious or romantic for a couple to enjoy.

They are all over the range of places to stay, from rustic and really funky to posh and good enough for any elegant wedding,” said Kimberly Breeze, a Californian who now lives in Florence, Italy.
Colorful grapevines in Umbria.

An Italian agriturismo will often serve foods to guests prepared from raw materials produced on the farm or at least locally. Despite the rural nature of the lodging, one might expect a rustic experience; yet many agriturismi (the plural form of agriturismo) feature rather luxurious accommodations as well as swimming pools.
The Casolare dei Fiori, where Lucy and I stayed for two or three months a year from 2010 to 2015, near Montecarlo.

If we stay anywhere but our own holiday home in Italy, we always go to an agriturismo,” said Daniela Condon of Bradford, United Kingdom. ‟We prefer quiet places with a pool, off the beaten track, very comfortable, unfussy and unpretentious country surroundings, wonderful food made with local often organic produce, very fine wine and very good value for money.”

Tuscan hills and fields. Photo courtesy of Massi "The Driver" Mori.
The informality can also be a plus. You can often call just a couple of days in advance and still be accommodated. You are usually welcomed by the establishment’s actual owners, not a paid employee, and you get a close-up look at an Italian farm family in action. One of the most memorable aspects of an Italy vacation is the people you meet—and you are much more likely to develop a relationship at an agriturismo than a hotel. At most of the farm-stays we’ve experienced, the owners have been super friendly.
An agriturismo is absolutely the best way to get the complete Italian experience,” said Colleen Lee of Townsville, Australia. ‟I found mine in Tuscany years ago and go one or two times a year.
Ancient grapevines in Umbria.
Another aspect we love about agriturismi is that each is unique—from the products the farm produces to the types of rooms and the meals offered. The grounds and rooms have been developed to match the personal tastes of the owners. Some offer meals and others don’t. Some owners speak only Italian but have found ways to communicate essential information anyway.
We also like the privacy; many times we’ve been the only guests, especially during the off-seasons. Some people have the misconception that because a meal is sometimes provided, everyone will be sitting together at dinner, but this is not so. If there are other guests also dining at the same time, they will generally be at a separate table—unless you invite them to share yours, which is not a bad idea. Don’t forget, it is people that usually prove to be the most memorable part of a vacation.

This is the best way to travel in my opinion,” said Lisa Castrignano of Monte Rinaldo, Le Marche, Italy. ‟They are a good value and it is nice to get to know the owners. We have met good friends this way as we have returned to several for years. We do try and find one that offers meals so we don’t always have to drive someplace.”
Sheep farmer in countryside near the Casolare dei Fiori.
The cost can run about 50 to 70 euros a night for a two-person unit, which often includes a mini-kitchen. Breakfast is sometimes included, but not routinely. Some agriturismi include dinner in the price, while others make it available at a reasonable rate. However, the savings from having a kitchen can be substantial. Excellent homemade Italian food can be purchased at bargain prices at a local rosticceria, macelleria or large grocery store (see How to eat well in Italy), which can help keep your food budget more manageable.
Youll get the chance to discover a different Italy—hidden places, great food , great wines, amazing landscapes,” said Adrian Tudor of Roermond, Netherlands.

My family has an agriturismo in Sicily, and I can say that staying in agriturismi is getting more and more popular,” said Dora Moscati of Siracusa, Sicily. ‟But if you really want to meet the family or take part in activities, you can’t book just two nights. You have to stay at least a week to share cooking, making marmalade or limoncello or visiting the orchard. Only with slow traveling can you really enjoy an agriturismo experience.”
Old buildings in the remote hilltop village of Lucchio.
Agriturismi are everywhere in Italy. Just go to Google maps and type in the name of a city and then agriturismo if you don’t believe it. They won’t all have the word agriturismo in the name. Some say farm, fattoria, podere or tenuta, which all mean pretty much the same things. However, because they are farms, they are often not located near train stations, so it is easiest to be traveling by car. Otherwise, it will take some searching to find the few that can be easily reached by public transportation.

‟Read the info really carefully, Breeze cautioned, to see how far they are from any services and what is open seasonally, such as restaurants, bars, pools and other features—especially determine the distance from the nearest town. E-mail them directly if you need more info. My biggest beef is the pool in the photos is usually only open June to September.”

Some agriturismo owners will pick you up and take you to the train stations, but then you are dependent on both the schedules of the proprietor and the train. Lucy and I have done this in our earlier years of Italy travel, but we don’t like to be so restricted and now almost always go by rental car. Some farms are extremely remote and must be reached on long dirt roads winding into the hills. If your vacation plans include frequent day trips, avoid these, but if it is peace, quiet and isolation you seek, they are perfect escapes.
You can reserve an agriturismo on most of the popular booking sites. The website has a good filter to help narrow down the amenities. You can also just find them on Google maps and contact the owners directly Most of them have their own web sites.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

See the world through the talented eye of cousin Stefano Lotumolo

Stefano in Rome, Italy
When I first met Stefano Lotumolo in the spring of 2012, he was 24 years old and a farmer, working in his family’s fields, as have countless members of the Seghieri family through the centuries. The family grows flowers and shrubs, common crops in San Salvatore, where Stefano lives with his parents Michele Lotumolo and Fiorella Seghieri and three sisters. Fiorella is my fourth cousin. Her nonno Bruno Seghieri and my nonna Anita Seghieri were second cousins, born only four years apart in San Salvatore.
Stefano at his art exhibition.

I could sense some restlessness in Stefano’s soul five years ago. He wanted to work in Spain, or maybe the United States, or maybe Australia. We talked about the possibility of him spending the summer working with us in Gig Harbor, but that didn’t work out. In the next couple of years, he did take trips to the U.S. and Australia—but that didn’t get the travel bug out of his system. It only made him more eager to see the world.
This photo, taken in Indonesia, was part of Stefano's gallery exhibit in Altopascio in October.

Two years ago he took a leap in the dark and struck out on a long journey, traveling mainly on his own to 24 different countries on four continents. He bought a single lens reflex camera for his travels and now has an collection of photos that rival those of National Geographic. He put them on display at a gallery in Altopascio in October with the goal of sharing his experiences with his home community and also to obtain donations for an orphanage in Tanzania that he visited during his voyage.

I’m super happy to show people how I’m seeing the world,” he told me. ‟This way people can know a new culture while staying on their couches.”

While Stefano’s main passion is to travel, experience new cultures and grow as a person, his wanderlust spawned a new hobby of photography.
This photo of Stefano was taken just a few hours before his exhibit opened to the public.

A display at the entrance to the gallery explained Stefano’s motivation: ‟Almost two years ago, exactly on November 2, 2015, my life changed. I left the security of my home for the rest of the world, knowing little what to expect, accompanied by a tingling in my chest and a shiver in my legs. I had read in a book that when you upset your own life and leave your mind free, the limits disappear and you are able to do anything; in this way, my passion for photography emerged. I had never before held a single lens reflex camera in hand, and today I’m not able to imagine going anywhere for more than three days without my faithful traveling companion. I hope that you will notice this connection in my photos. Photos serve to freeze a moment of life, to carry the five senses and perceive all, with the eyes, with the nose, with the mouth, with the hands—to capture it all in one’s pocket. I hope I am able to transmit to you my emotions, to make you travel with me in streets unknown, countrysides you’ve never seen, other cultures, infinite colors . . .”

The places he visited were Tanzania, Dubai, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Holland, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Malta, Greece, Morocco, Poland, Czech Repubblic, Austria, Slovenia, Hungary, Madagascar, Reunion Island, Mauritius, South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya. He also went back to Kenya and traveled within Italy.

Stefano in Tanzania
He earns money for his travels by working on the family farm and saving all he can. He sold photos at his show, but that money is going to the charity Associazione Onlus Impruneta Africa, an organization dedicated to HIV-positive orphans which operates ‟The Village of Hope” near Dodoma, the capital of Tanzania.

I sold a lot of photos during the exhibition,” he said. ‟I don’t have a web site for my photos yet, but I’ll arrange that next year after the next big trip that I’m going to start next week.”
Stefano's next route, beginning in Iran and hopefully ending in Japan.

Yes, Stefano is about to embark on another grand voyage of five months that he hopes will take him from Bologna to Iran (for 15 days), Nepal (one month), India (20 days), Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Brunei, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Taiwan, China and Japan. He will ocassionally be posting photos and updates on

Monday, October 30, 2017

The junkyard outside our house has been transformed into a courtyard -- and a gray water sewer?

We saw the west side of our house for the first time Friday. Really. We bought the house two years ago, we’ve lived in it for eight months, and until now, we never saw the west side. We also never knew that our kitchen sink drains directly into the downspouts straight down into someone’s garden—the garden that now hosts Montecarlo’s biggest celebrations, such as the annual wine festival and the haunted house for Halloween.

These are things that sometimes happen when you have a house that was built in the 14th century.
Our house, in the middle, viewed from the courtyard on the west side. That's our terrazza, with the laundry out, on the top floor. Note the downspout that goes down from the roof just below our terrazza and exits directly above the ground.

The east side of our house fronts on via Roma, the city’s lively main street. We can walk outside and within a minute we can be sipping an espresso or ciocolatta calda, dining at Italy’s finest trattorias, restaurants or pizzerias, savoring gelato, sampling wine and stuzzichini (appetizers) or shopping for groceries, shoes or fine Italian clothing. It can be a little loud outside our windows during a festa, but it’s a happy noise.

The east side is a totally different world. From our terrazza, we look over a renaissance-era brick city wall and see the plain of Lucca—groves of grapes, olive trees, rolling hills, the jagged Apuane Alps, the mountains that separate Lucca from Pisa. We can see Lucca in the distance, and the beginning of the Garfagnana valley. Because of the city wall and our position on a hilltop, no one can see us because the nearest house with a view over the wall is a mile away.

Between us and the wall is a private garden, which, when we bought the house, actually was a junk yard. It is owned by a wealthy family that is slowly renovating a huge house that borders on the garden, possibly to make a hotel—we don’t really know. Juri, our downstairs neighbor, said the work has been going on for years. Two years ago, the garden contained piles of bricks, scrap metal and wood and trashed appliances—not a pretty sight, but then we could just raise our heads and look over it all if we wanted. And there were periodic signs of construction on the house and a gradual rearranging and removal of the junk.
The garden/courtyard in October of 2017

We came back this fall to find every scrap of rubble removed and the entire area leveled. A dead tree in the middle had disappeared and gravel had taken the place of the patchy, scrubby weeds. It’s not exactly a garden yet, but it’s definitely a neat and tidy courtyard, It has large scenic photos on the walls of some of the area’s best vineyards, and we were told that it had been opened to help host Montecarlo’s 50th annual wine festival in September.

In the last few days, we’ve seen workers bringing in the metal framework for the house of horror for Montecharloween, and that’s how we finally got a view of the west side of our house. We walked by and saw that the entryway open for the workers, and we went inside with them. We were pleased to see that our house stood out among the half dozen others adjoining the garden, because we had collaborated with Juri’s family to paint both the east and west sides a cheery bright yellow. We enjoy the fresh look of the east side each time we approach from the street, and it was nice to get a few minutes of pleasure and pride by looking at the west side.

The enjoyment was tempered, however, by the discovery the previous day that our sink—including our dishwasher—was draining directly into the garden. Juri had come up to ask us not to use the little sink outside on our terrazza to wash dishes, because it drained into the garden right outside the ground floor of our shared house. We were confused, because we never use that sink. We knew it drained directly into the gutters. Why would he be telling us not to use something we already didn’t use? And then it dawned on me. What if the kitchen sink did the same thing? It only took a moment for all of us to discover, with horror, that it did.

How long has it been doing that?” Lucy asked. ‟Always,” Juri said. ‟We just didn’t know it, because the garden has been overgrown for years. Now I put a sidewalk outside the house, and the garden has been all cleaned up.”
This view from the ground of the courtyard shows the large house in the middle that belongs to the family which owns the courtyard. It may not look like it from the outside, but gradually it is being refurbished.

Fortunately, the soil is fairly absorbent, and the water drains straight across Juri’s sidewalk before forming a small puddle that dissipates fairly quickly—but I see a few grains of rice in the puddle, residue from our dishes. Now I’m thankful that we weren’t here for the wine festival and that we’ll be gone before Halloween. Imagine what a brutta figura this would have made if our kitchen scraps had coming pouring out among a crowd of celebrating tourists and city officials.

Juri will have his idraulico—plumber—see what needs to be done to join the kitchen drain with the bathroom drain (which, we are certain, properly flows into the sanitary sewer system), and it will be fixed by time we come back in the winter. The next time we’re in Montecarlo and the garden is opened for a festa, we’ll be able to enjoy the event and the view of our house proudly.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Padule di Fucecchio ‟marked for death” by soldiers who carried out their brutal orders in a dawn attack

Part 3 in a series on the Slaughter at the Swamp of Fucecchio.

Peasants living in the Padule di Fucecchio had no warning on the fateful day of August 23, 1944. German soldiers armed themselves with machine guns, rifles, pistols, grenades and cannons at 5 a.m. By dawn, they had advanced into the huge swamp from all directions.

Pellegrino Cardelli, 40, and his wife Evelina Quiriconi were working outside their house in the Capannone neighborhood just before 6 a.m. ‟We heard loud voices in a strange language,” Evelina told Ponte Buggianese Priest Giulio Tognarelli, one of the first on the scene after the massacre. ‟Were they Germans? I warned Pellegrino to hide, but he didn’t believe me at first.”

Evelina walked down the lane a little farther. ‟Then there was no doubt, it was the Germans,” she said. Pellegrino fled into the bushes, but Evelina had approached too closely. Two soldiers grabbed her by the wrists and dragged her screaming to their commanding officer.

Her desperate cries brought the attention of other people in the neighborhood,” Tognarelli said. ‟but they weren’t permitted to approach. The soldiers were all around, searching in the canals, looking behind bushes, walking through the fields, with rifles and pistols ready to fire.

They told Evelina that an Italian spy had informed them that everyone in the Padule is a partisan, that the peasants all support the partisans, keeping them informed—that the peasants in the Padule are either helping voluntarily or being paid by the partisans for their services, and now the soldiers have come to execute their orders. All Italians in the Padule are marked for death.”

The soldiers speaking to Evelina were not exaggerating. General Eduard Peter Crasemann and Captain Josef Strauch, having been wrongly informed that between 250 to 500 partisans were hiding out in the center of the swamp, gave both signed and oral orders to kill all inhabitants. The German word used, vernichten, can be translated ‟kill, destroy, exterminate, annihilate.”

Some of the soldiers didn’t strictly obey the orders. If they had, Evelina wouldn’t have survived to tell her story. But that evening, Tognarelli said, Evelina found Pellegrino lying dead, ‟his flesh torn apart by ferocious gunfire.”

Similar events were taking place all around the edges of the Padule, and in many cases, the soldiers were even more brutal. In some homes, the inhabitants were ordered outside, lined up and shot dead—including women, children and elderly men. In all, 175 men, women and children were slaughtered; 25 were under the age of 14, and 62 were women. Only two were partisans.

Sixteen people from the Malucchi family from Cintolese were among the dead, including three children, Franca, 8; Norma, 6; and Maria, only 4 months old. In another location, 92-year-old Faustina Maria Arinci, known as Carmela, who was both deaf and blind, died from a live hand grenade placed in the pocket of her apron.

Most of the dead had previously left their homes in the surrounding villages to live in the Padule, a place considered safe because it was away from the inhabited centers, and the Germans rarely entered it. Ironically, the slaughter took place almost entirely on the more populated fringes of the Padule, Had there been partisans hiding out, they probably would have set up camp in the center, where the Germans never ventured.

Dozens of witnesses survived, and their stories have been well documented in books and military investigations conducted afterward by both British and American forces.
The "Casin di Lillo" has been restored as a landmark to
remember the massacre that occurred in 1944. A marker
on the side notes that it was the site where the Germans killed
a father and his 10-year-old son.

Giuseppe Fagni testified: ‟It was day, maybe around 7 a.m. We heard shooting from over in the canal. A dozen of the Germans were in the threshing floor of the Silvestri house. A voice in Italian said that we all had to come out of the house. Some were already outside. Some refused to go out. The Germans began to fire, shooting three people. Others were standing behind or to the sides.
Color photos by Lucy Spadoni
They shot Annuziata and her baby. They entered the house and shot at the women in the kitchen. They shot Gino Romani to death and my father-in-law, who was only wounded and fainted. Then they shot one of their own soldiers, a German, by mistake. They killed him. Some went towards the swamp with their guns. Others turned back and carried away the dead German and said that we had killed him. They killed Antonio Mazzei with the butt of a rifle. Inside the house the show would make you faint. Ada Silvestri, wounded, died a little later. Also dead were Giuliana, a 16-year-old girl, and her father Angiolo, a paralytic. Armida Silvestri died, and Gelsomina Silvestri too. Next to Gelsomina were her dead children, Giuseppe, 9, and Rosella, a year and a half old. (Source: R. Cardellicchio, L’estate del ‘44. Eccidio del padule di Fucecchio, 1974).
Some of the survivors who testified at the trial against Crasemann and Strauch. Bottom row, third from left, is Baroness
Poggi-Bianchini, whose large estate had been occupied during the war by the Germans.
 Source of the photo:“Summer ‘44” by Riccardo Cardellicchio.

When the massacre ended around noon, the soldiers claimed to have killed 200 ‟partisans.” That evening, while grief-stricken survivors were gathering up the bodies of their loved ones, the Nazis were having celebrations in Ponte Buggianese and Larciano. The Baroness Poggi-Bianchini, whose home was occupied by Nazi officers, said, ‟The day after the eccidio, the command organized a great party and the military band played around the castle until late.” They sang, laughed and cried out: ‟Vittoria, partigiani tutti kaputt.”

Part 4 coming soon . . .

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Our first excursion to the Padule di Fucecchio begs a return visit

Where would I rather be--the library or here? 
Tuesday was a spectacularly clear day in the Valdinievole. Sometimes a haze hangs stubbornly in the plains below us—exhaust from the paper mills and the burning of olive branches, most likely—and we see Lucca and the hills and mountains only indistinctly. Other times, the air is crystal clear. It was nearing 75 degrees F. outside, and yet, there I was, sitting in the library in Ponte Buggianese, researching the Eccidio del Padule di Fucecchio for a blog entry.

Looking at a map, I realized I was only a few miles from the northern edge of the Padule. Suddenly, it occurred to me: I have never actually been in the Padule. Why should I be in the library researching when I could be studying the very place where the slaughter had occurred? Days like this in late October are rare, even in Tuscany.
Birch trees on the edge of the Padule di Fucecchio. All photos by Paul and Lucy Spadoni

Three barchini
I hopped into our rented Fiat 500 and drove past Anchione and turned east. Soon I was bouncing along a dirt road which grew progressively more primitive. I passed an orderly copse of birch trees, and soon I was driving on a clay road next to a wide ditch. There had been no signs, but undoubtedly this was the Padule. I parked and walked along the grassy shore of the muddy canal. Herons and other birds flew by, some singing songs I had never heard before. I startled two bullfrogs on the opposite bank, and they splashed into the slow moving water, gave a few powerful kicks and then submerged. The swamp was alive with water bugs. I found three boats tied up to the shore, one almost half filled with water and attached by a rusty chain. The other two looked swamp-worthy and had long bamboo poles in them for propulsion and navigation.
Tall grass with large tassels on top make good hiding places for wildlife.

Trails led off in two different directions, imploring me to explore them—but I couldn’t. I felt this experience had to be shared, so I drove home and told Lucy. I knew she had plans for the day. She is working on two quilts she’s making for children we support in Africa, and she also has to finish a novel we’re reading for the English book club in Lucca. We are only here for another few days. Never mind all that, she said, after I told her of my discovery—apparently, my powers of seduction are irresistible.

Lucy finds a duck blind and captures
one of the duck decoys.
Camera in hand, we returned and followed both trails through the tall grass and along the shores of canals. We found more boats—I later read that they are special canal boats called barchini—a few abandoned cabins, some duck blinds used by hunters, and many ducks—both real and decoys. We saw a pond in the distance, and I crept up slowly so I could get a photo without scaring away the waterfowl. I must have been very stealthy, because none of the 20 or so ducks even looked my way—and that’s when I realized they were all decoys, set out by hunters. We did later see real ducks, however.
The ducks on this pond were not at all scared of me. I could have waded right in and picked them up, I think.

The thick grass around us prevented us from seeing very far; it was at least 10 feet tall in places. But wait, why was the grass moving over there? We could hear rustling and see the
An abandoned cabin
grass being disturbed about 20 feet away. Herons nesting, perhaps? Wild boar rooting? Deer eating? I might have heard a snort, like that of a deer or boar, but it might have been something else. The rustling stopped and started several times, but after five minutes, it ceased entirely. I grew tired of waiting and we moved on.

Both trails eventually dead-ended, so we went back to the car and tried a different road. This time we found a park, the Casin di Lillo, on the edge of the Padule. It has a public boat launch, places to sit and more trails. We found a cabin with a
More barchini at the Casin di Lillo park.
memorial plaque attached; this was the place a man and his son had been shot down by German soldiers during World War 2. For now, we were the only humans there, although before we left, a man rode up on a bicycle. Many more barchini 
were chained up. Possibly during the summer months, the boats are available for public use. Someday we’ll return to find out—and explore those other trails as well. As of yet, we’ve seen only a few of the 50,000 acres of the Padule and only a half dozen of the nearly 200 bird species present. This is definitely a place deserving to be revisited.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Padule di Fucecchio is a place of danger--and protection--for humans and animals alike

Part 2 in a series on the Slaughter at the Swamp of Fucecchio

The Padule di Fucecchio is the largest marsh in Italy, consisting of nearly 2,000 hectares (50,000 acres), and it is located in sections of the provinces of Florence, Prato, Pistoia, Lucca and Pisa. The largest part is in the Valdinievole area, but it also includes areas south of the Pistoiese Apennines, between Montalbano and the Cerbai Hills.

An airone cenerino, or brown heron.
photo courtesy
Most of it is now a protected nature preserve, noted for the abundance and variety of flora and fauna that are studied and guarded by governmental research agencies. It is part of an important migratory route for birds, and more than 200 varieties have been documented there. A Ministerial Decree in the European Official Journal in 2013 records that the Padule was declared a ‟wetland of international importance” by the international Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

photo courtesy
It has also played a crucial and strategic role for rulers throughout the centuries. Since it is so difficult for enemies to traverse, it provides an easily defensible boundary. In fact, it is famous for that fact that General Hannibal Barca lost an eye when he tried to cross the Padule in the Second Punic War.

Tito Livio, in ‟Ab Urbe Condita, Book XXII,” said that Hannibal, in his march towards Arezzo, took the shortest route through swamps where the Arno had spilled over its banks in those days, although he had the opportunity to take a longer but more comfortable route: ‟He ordered first into the swamp the most experienced soldiers, the Spanish, Africans and Gauls. The horsemen came next, and Magone, Numids and some of the Gauls protected the rear.” The Gauls, ‟particularly talented” warriors, checked to make sure that the column kept moving, because otherwise those who were sick or too tired to continue may have been left behind.

This is the artist Henri Paul Motte's idea of what it might have
looked like when Hannibal and his elephants crossed the
Rhone. More likely, historians say, the elephants swam across.
But making their way through the Padule would have
been more difficult.
‟Those going first carried the army’s insignia through the deep streams of the river, almost swallowed and submerged by the mud,” Livio continued. ‟The Gauls slipped and could not rise from the whirlpools and eddies. Others, stunned by fatigue, died among the mules lying here and there. (They) endured for four days and three nights, being everywhere covered by the waters and being unable to find any dry place where to lay their tired bodies. They piled up their luggage and even their dead mules so they could lie on them and keep out of the water, or they moved on in search of anything that emerged from the swamp so they could rest. Hannibal, already suffering from the sudden and continual changes in temperature, advanced on the only surviving elephant to keep himself taller than the water, lost his eye.”

Just how he lost the eye is not clear. Some believe he lost it as a result of contracting conjunctivitis or malaria. The author Petrarch wrote of the ‟great Carthaginian” that ‟one eye had left in my country, stagnating in the cold time of the Tosco river.” Various popular stories portrayed orally in the area report that it was lost because of an attack carried out by a band of inhabitants of the area, who used a long barrel to carve it out. That story is also reported by Curzio Malaparte in his ‟Maledetti Toscani.”

In passing through the Padule, Hannibal lost almost all of the few elephants that remained after he had crossed the Alps. Polybius described the death of one of Hannibal’s favorites: ‟He died there, bringing to the men a fall, but one advantage: sitting on him and their packed luggage, they remained above the water, so they slept for a small part of the night.”
The Padule di Fucecchio in more recent times. Many canals have been made to improve the water flow and reclaim land.
photo courtesy

In later times, the Padule was used as a hunting and fishing resort for the wealthy Medici family of Florence, who maintained a castle nearby. The Florentines even dammed up some of outlets to raise the water level and improve the fishing. The dams were subsequently removed, but the Padule remained a marshy and malarial area visited mostly by hunters and fishermen—and it also gained a reputation as an excellent haven for bandits and fugitives from the law.

All of this may cause one to wonder: What interest did the Germans have in going into the Padule at all? The answer is actually quite easy to deduce. It would be the perfect hiding place for partisans, and in fact they did use it for just that. For the most part, the Germans kept clear of the Padule, fearing surprise attacks.

Photo from archives of Ponte Buggianese.
Realizing this, the peasants living in the surrounding communities used it to avoid harassment from the soldiers. Many of them knew the area well and could find dry areas to graze their animals, stores their goods, hunt for wildlife or even plant crops, away from observation by the soldiers. Some still maintained homes in the villages and built shelters in the Padule to store their food and equipment. Others built crude shacks and moved their entire families to the swamplands for safety.

Frustrated and fearful by surprise attacks such as those orchestrated by Silvano Fedi in Pistoia the previous year, the Germans were anxious to strike at the partisans before suffering further losses and causalities. In October of 1943, Fedi and five other partisans attacked a Fascist armory near Pistoia, making off with large quantities of arms, ammunition and other supplies. Another time he attacked the Ville Sbertoli prison, freeing 54 prisoners, most of whom had been incarcerated for political reasons.
Notice the lack of roads in the center. That is the heart of the Padule di Fucecchio, although much of the area around it is swampy as well. Many canals and raised roadbeds have been made over the centuries to make it easier to travel through it, but much of it can still only be visited by boat.

The Germans had received faulty intelligence reports that as many as 300 partisans were using the Padule to hide out and store their arms. General Peter Eduard Crasemann had earlier been part of a patrol attacked by partisans at the Passo di Porretta, and he was under pressure to create a safe zone for the fighting retreat of troops to the south. Crasemann issued orders on August 22, 1944, to destroy the partisan camp at all costs, and the officers and soldiers under him interpreted this as carte blanche approval to annihilate anyone who came between them and the partisans. The slaughter was to commence at dawn the next day.

Continue to part 3