Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Cousin Agostino Spadoni another victim of Nazi wartime cruelty

Agostino Spadoni
Being an unwilling martyr is not a great way to become famous, but two Spadoni relatives in Ponte Buggianese had the misfortune to enter the local history books in this way. I already wrote an extensive account of Italo Spadoni, killed by Fascist loyalists in 1924. Now it is time to pay homage to Agostino Spadoni, killed in the summer of 1944 by German soldiers who could best be described as Nazi terrorists.

Paul & Agostino Spadoni
I recently spoke with the grandson of Agostino, born in 1949, who shares the same name. In truth, I had first met Agostino nearly 20 years ago. He and his son Alberto run the real estate company Agenzia Spadoni Compravendita, which has offices in Ponte Buggianese, Montecatini and Monsummano. However, until our most recent meeting in April of this year, we didn’t know how we were related, nor did I know that Agostino was the grandson of the Agostino who had been slain by the Germans.

Members of the Fanucci family
still live next to the bridge.
One of 11 children of Emilio Sileno Spadoni and Maria Carolina Meucci, the elder Agostino was born Oct. 3, 1871. His father was sindaco, or mayor, of Ponte Buggianese from 1896 to 1903. Agostino was a farmer, living on the west side of the river Pescia, while his fields were on the east side. However, he only had to cross the Ponte della Guardia, a bridge located just 30 meters from his home, to reach his fields. Agostino’s first marriage, to Amabile Rosellini on Feb. 9, 1899, resulted in four children before Amabile passed away in 1909. Two years later, he married next-door neighbor Isola Fanucci, and they had eight more children.

Agostino is the ultimate example of someone minding his own business but being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Italy had joined World War 2 on the side of Germany in 1940, and from that time on, the Germans gradually took over nearly complete control of Italian law enforcement agencies. German soldiers commandeered the homes and factories of wealthy Italians and demanded that farmers turn over their animals and farm produce to supply the army with food.

While the majority of Italians, Agostino included, simply tried to ignore and avoid the occupying forces, a few cooperated with the Germans to increase their fortunes and chances of survival. Still others joined the Resistenza, which is an umbrella term for those who opposed and fought the occupying Germans and the Italian collaborators. Members of the resistance were known as partigiani, partisans. In Ponte Buggianese, the partisans did what they could to disrupt the army by attacking munitions storehouses and occasionally taking pot shots at soldiers.

This resulted in a type of paranoia among the Germans, who likely feared that every Italian civilian might secretly be a partisan or at least a sympathizer. They reacted to attacks by partisans by rounding up random Italian citizens and executing them in public to install fear and deter further attacks. The philosophy was often espoused that for every German soldier killed, 10 Italian civilians should be sacrificed.

Agostino Spadoni’s death came shortly after four partisans had opened fire on two soldiers who were passing by in a motorcycle and sidecar. The soldiers fled and reported the incident to German headquarters in Ponte Buggianese. German officers ordered what the Italians called a rappresaglia, a reprisal. In this case, the German soldiers did not round up civilians but just went house to house, killing at random and stealing food and wine.

Soldiers entered the home of Marino Quiriconi, 35, and his wife Bruna, arresting Marino, sacking the house and lighting it on fire. Seventy-three-year-old Agostino lived nearby, and hearing the commotion, he went to render aid. He never returned. His wife found him in his field, about 50 meters away, dead from a gunshot wound to the head. About six weeks later, the German soldiers were given permission to clear the way for their retreating soldiers by engaging in a wholesale slaughter known as the Eccidio del Padule di Fucecchio. Some 174 civilians were killed on the day of the massacre. Agostino and others killed in the area during the weeks leading up to the slaughter are sometimes numbered among the victims.

The Ponte della Guardia, taken from the yard of the former home of Agostino Spadoni.
In an effort to discover more details about the Agostino’s death, I went to the two homes closest to the bridge this April and made inquiries. I found a building that still housed relatives of Isola Fanucci, Agostino’s wife. The elderly people living in the house confirmed that Agostino had lived in the home closest to the bridge and that Isola had grown up in the second closest home. Agostino’s former home is no longer owned by the Spadoni family, they said. They also confirmed that Agostino’s farmland had been just over the bridge on the other side of the river.

I suspected that Agostino Spadoni from the real estate agency might be the grandson of the martyr Agostino, as the ages seem to fit, and it is common in Italy to name a grandchild after the grandfather. I paid a visit to the agency to check on my theory, and Agostino confirmed that he is indeed the grandson. Since my research at the church archives had already placed the elder Agostino in our family tree, all that remained was to add in the data from the 1900s that Agostino provided me.

As is the case with Italo Spadoni, Agostino is not a close relative. He is my 12th cousin once removed. His late father Giovanni would be in my generation. But still we feel a bond, for besides sharing a surname, our ancestors grew up in the same village, and undoubtedly some were acquainted with each other. Agostino the grandson was 5 years old when his nonno was killed, and though we are separated genealogically and geographically, my research and interest in both Italian and family history has drawn us close. I share a portion of his sorrow for the tragic moment of his grandfather’s senseless death.


Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Looking back on a very special year of living la dolce vita in Padova

We recently had the chance to revisit some places dear to our hearts in Padova and reminisce about the year we spent there that served as a launching pad for our ongoing adventures in Italy.

In 2001-02, I took a leave of absence from teaching high school in Gig Harbor to teach fifth grade at the English International of Padua. Experiencing life in Italy had been an ambition since my teen years, but I had to wait until I was in my late 40s to realize this dream. With Lucy and our two youngest (and reluctant) daughters, we packed up more than a dozen suitcases and moved to Padova in the fall of 2001, about a week before the tragedy of 9/11. Our story is told in my book An American Family in Italy: Living la Dolce Vita without Permission. Since that time, we’ve had more than enough adventures in Italy for me to have written one or two more books, but the truth is, we’re having too much fun. I don’t want to sit still long enough to write more books!

We lived up there! Photo by Rosemary
Meanwhile, my brother and his wife arrived in Vicenza just a couple of days before we were scheduled to leave Montecarlo for our other life in Washington state, so we decided to meet up in Padova. We went back to look up at our top floor apartment on the edge of the Arcella district. It still has a terrific glassed-in balcony that we enjoyed on days both cold and warm, but the mailbox labels indicate it is no longer owned by Massimo Maggiore, whom we rented from, nor is his mom Gianna living in the adjacent apartment anymore. Then we walked around the Prato della Valle, a 90,000-square-meter elliptical square that is the largest in Italy. It is surrounded by a canal and two rings of statues. Roger and Rosemary danced to the music of a street musician, and we lunched at one of the piazza restaurants, probably not the most economical of choices, but the pasta alla carbonara that three of us ordered proved to be possibly the best any of us had ever tasted.

Fratelli! Roger and Paul at lunch in Padova.
Angela, the rudder who keeps
the EISP on the right course.

Later, Lucy and I went alone to peek in the windows of our old church, International Christian Fellowship, pastored at the time by two dear friends, Steve and Patti Gray. Sadly, they are no longer with us.

My favorite reminiscence came on a visit to the school where I had taught. Suzye and Lindsey also frequented the school to do their online high school classes in the computer lab. To my surprise, my friend Angela still works at the school, though both the school and her responsibilities have multiplied in the ensuing 20-plus years. Shortly after I left Padova, the school added a high school, and she oversees programs there as well.

Angela told me a story that I should have included in my book, because it actually happened during the year I taught there. I had been hired by the late Lucio Rossi, a shrewd businessman who founded the school and did not always follow protocol 100 percent. The very fact that he hired me, an American without a work permit to teach in a certified British-Italian school, is an example of how he sometimes skirted regulations to his advantage.

In my old 5th grade classroom.
I have fond memories of Lucio, a lively and excitable character who found us an apartment and bought us a washing machine and oven when he learned that they were not included. He paid me with cash, warning me not to tell the other teachers how much I was being paid, because he was paying me extra so I could support my family. How nice! Yes, so I thought, until the end of the year when I learned from Angela that he was actually paying me less! Well, that was a part of “Lucio being Lucio,” Angela said, and I have absolutely no resentment, because without him we never would have able to live in Italy during that special year.

Fond memories! A photo from 2002 in my classroom.
While I primarily taught 5th grade, I also taught journalism and information technology in the middle school, which was under construction during my year there. Some of the classrooms were completed part way through the school year, and Lucio was anxious to move students into the new building, even though the construction had not been approved by the building inspectors.

Roger, Rosemary and me at the gelateria
where I took my 5th grade class to celebrate
the last day of school in 2002.
You can’t move classes in without approval, Angela reminded him. But true to character, as Angela related to me, Lucio said it would be okay. Which it was—until the inspector showed up unexpectedly. Angela received an urgent phone call from Lucio: “You have to evacuate the middle school.”

“I said, ‘Okay,’ when?” Angela explained.

“Right now!” he answered. And so she did, telling teachers and students to grab their things and get out, to move to the elementary school, presumably. But she couldn’t tell them what was going on, as she and Lucio didn’t want to advertise the fact that they had been illegally occupying the building.

“Unfortunately, we still got in trouble, because teachers left all their materials on their desks, and there were other obvious signs that classes were being held there,” Angela said. “But this was the way Lucio sometimes ran things in the earlier years of the school. Now that we’ve expanded, we have to follow all the regulations scrupulously.”

Which means that even if I wanted to, I could never go back to teach there again. No, I’m happily retired and yet still plenty busy, so I’m quite satisfied simply to enjoy the nostalgia.

Friday, May 5, 2023

A special day: A trip in the swamps of Fucecchio in a guided barchino

I’ve visited the Padule di Fucecchio on bike and on foot a number of times in the past six years, but today Lucy and I took our first boat ride through the canals. Thanks to the friendly members of the Association Volpoca, we were escorted in a small boat with a super quiet electric motor from the Casotto di Lillo on the west side to the Porto delle Morette on the east side and then back again.

Guido and Franco, our guides.
When we arrived for our gita in barchino, we were greeted by Patrizio, who welcomed us with caffè, fruit juice, biscotti and a friendly demeanor. He helped us into our small boat, which was piloted by Franco, a life-long resident of Ponte Buggianese. Another local resident, Guido, guided another boat with two Italian women. Along the way we heard and saw fish, rabbits and uncountable varieties and numbers of birds. The swamp, which comprises about 4,400 acres, is the largest inland wetland in Italy. It hosts as many as 200 species of birds, though many are only passing through on their migratory routes from Africa to Northern Europe, so not all species can be seen year-around.

Lucy looking out at Le Morette, the protected area.
We took two breaks to walk around and watch the birds from viewing platforms with a set of binoculars provided by the boatmen. Probably the most impressive site was the Garzaia, a cluster of trees that is home to up to 15 different species of birds, with hundreds of nests packed together in close proximity. Our guides said the birds make their nests in the same area for protection against predators. If the parents leave their nests to feed the young, there will always be someone nearby to chase away intruders. It’s the avian version of neighborhood watch.

The Garzaia in the Padule di Fucecchio.

The Garzaia is home to herons, night herons, little egrets, the rare squacco heron, the marsh harrier, numerous species of ducks, a family of storks and interesting migratory birds such as the black-winged stilt and the osprey. Our guides told us that when the birds all come back in the evening to roost, the site resembles a group of heavily decorated Christmas trees.

We learned that a large portion of the Padule is privately owned, by perhaps as many as 200 different people, but it also includes a publicly owned and protected area, Le Morette, that is closed to the public but can be seen from a raised viewing area. Homeowners and associations such as Valpoca have contributed money to dig canals though central areas of the Padule to make it easier to access by boat. While hunting is allowed in the privately owned areas, it should be noted that the hunters are the primary contributors to the care and maintenance of the swamp.

The entire trip took more than two hours, and at a cost of only 30 euros per person, it is a real bargain. The weather was absolutely perfect, sunny, around 74 degrees Fahrenheit and with a mild breeze. Afterwards we were provided with pizza, more biscotti and a variety of drinks, all included in the price. And they gave me a green cap to shade my eyes. And speaking of one’s optical organs, this kind of outing—in my eyes—tops any tour of museums, churches or even architecture that Italy can offer.


Tuesday, May 2, 2023

The always interesting challenge of renewing a permesso di soggiorno

Obtaining or renewing one’s permesso di soggiorno is always an adventure, as the procedure seems to differ from place to place and year to year. Since Lucy is not an Italian citizen, when we purchased our home in Montecarlo in 2015, we went to the Questura in Lucca in the spring of 2016, and within about two months and four visits, we obtained her permesso, good for five years. After that, we registered her residency in Montecarlo, and she received her carta d’identità.

Lucy in 2016 with her permesso di soggiorno.
Her permesso expired in 2021. We didn’t really notice at first, because it was filed away in a safe place. If Lucy needed to show proof of identity, we just used her American passport or her Italian carta d’identità, which does not expire until 2027. Because of Covid, we had not gone to Italy in 2020 or the spring of 2021, and that probably contributed to our lack of awareness that her permesso had expired. However, we were here twice in 2022, and we could have tried to renew it then.

Well, in any case, we had to go back to the Questura to see what we needed to do. I knew there might be some procedure to make an appointment through the post office or online, but we decided to take our chances by going directly to the Questura, which had worked fine for us in 2016. We arrived around 11 a.m., which we learned in later trips was a good idea, because by then the crowds from the early morning had mostly been served, and we were almost the only ones in sportello 1, which is the permesso line for nonimmigrants. I showed the clerk the expired permesso, and she gave us a list of what we needed and an official appointment, which was for April 14, about three weeks later.

We gathered all the documents, which included copies of our passports, Italian identity cards, a certified estratto of our marriage registered in Pescia, and proof of our residency and stato di famiglia from Montecarlo. We also obtained a marca di bollo at a tobaccaio and paid a fee at the Montecarlo post office. The last item on the list was proof of reddito, or income. For this I printed out Social Security benefit verification letters for both of us, which I translated myself with some help from Google and DeepL Translate.

On our return trip, the Questura was packed, and the line for sportello 1 was long. We had arrived about 40 minutes before our appointment because I had heard from others that even with an appointment, they had to wait in line with everyone else. I figured that if we got in line early, maybe we could get in before our appointment, but that didn’t look promising. In fact, there were still many people ahead of us even as our appointment time was nearing, and when the clerk finished with one person, she just took the next person in line, without checking to see if anybody had an appointment.

An official looking man came into the crowd to talk to someone, and I thrust my appointment paper in front of him as he began to pass inside. He took it with him and brought it back a minute later, saying that we would be called soon. But about 15 minutes after our appointment time, we still hadn’t been called. When the clerk from line 1 finished with the next person, I jumped in from the side and showed her my appointment document. She moved us to the head of the line, explaining to the next person that our appointment took precedence.

She checked each item off the list, and things were looking great until she came to the last item, the proof of income. The documentation was insufficient, she said. I don’t know exactly why, but it seemed that the translation was not acceptable because it was not done by an official translator. Why this should be important for a financial document I don’t know, as numbers are the same in Italian as they are in English.

She told me to go to my bank and get an estratto of my account. “How much money do I need in the account?” That’s not important, she answered. But then she said that Lucy could still get a permesso good for five years. If we had the proper documentation of income, it would be good for 10 years. This was on a Friday, so we had to wait until Monday morning to go to our bank in Pescia. I told the clerk there that we needed proof that we had a checking account, and then we rushed back to the Questura with the document.

Not good enough, the clerk said. The document just shows we have an account, but not any income. Go online and print out some of your monthly statements. So on Tuesday we went back, but there was a different clerk this time. I was not optimistic, and my doubts were well founded. First, she did not like the fact that the statements I’d printed were from my American bank account, but I had no choice in that, because that’s where our pensions are deposited. I transfer money to our Italian account when needed, but only once or twice a year, to avoid excessive transfer fees.

Then she told me it was too late anyway, because the permesso was already in the process. I think it’s quite likely she could have found our application and changed it to 10 years if she had tried, but it was obvious she didn’t want to. I could have raised a fuss, but we were still on track to get a permesso for five years, so I decided not to rock the boat. My Italian is adequate but not great, and we had given it our best shot. Supposedly we will get a phone call when it is ready, though when we got Lucy’s permesso in 2016, the phone call never came.

One bit of advice I can pass on to anyone else in our situation: It is probably best to try getting an appointment online or at the post office. On the days we came at 8:30 a.m., the doors to the Questura were closed and people were forced to wait outside. Every so often, a clerk would open the door and call someone’s name. When a customer would open a door to exit, the Questura employees would make sure no one entered without an appointment. However, around 10:30 to 11 a.m., they stopped guarding the doors, and pretty soon everyone pushed inside and formed lines. This is how we got in, and we learned that it made no sense to show up too early.

There is a sign on the Questura door explaining how to make an appointment. We did hear several people complaining that they had called to make an appointment, but nobody ever answered the phone. The sign also includes a very long email address. Whether the people who were called inside had made an appointment by phone, email, post office or other government website, I don’t know. The purpose of this account is to share what we experienced, not to give authoritative directions on the best way to get a permesso. It’s pretty obvious I’m not qualified to do that.

Sign on the wall outside the Lucca Questura building.

Anyway, it appears we’ve once again stumbled through the process successfully enough. Even though it could never be classified as a pleasant experience, I have to say that I get a certain degree of satisfaction being able to negotiate though the bureaucracy. It’s like a game, and while getting a 10-year permit would have been equivalent to hitting a home run, I’m still happy to settle for a solid double this time. Maybe next time I’ll get a little more lift and knock it out of the park.


Monday, May 1, 2023

Friendly cousins another benefit of our sweet life in the Valdinievole

Simone Corrieri and David Del Terra.
Among the reasons Lucy and I chose Montecarlo as our home base in Italy, the opportunity to meet distant cousins was surely high on the list. Since both of my dad’s parents were from Montecarlo, I have numerous cousins here on both sides of the family. Many I have met only once or twice, but two who have gone out of their way to make us feel more at home are Claudio Del Terra and his son David.

Simone performs songs from his first music album at the Medieval Risto Bar in Pescia April 29.

Claudio has invited us to his home in the past, and he and David sometimes stop by our home while they are out riding their bicycles together.

Neither of them speaks much English, which is fine with us, as we need plenty of practice making conversation in Italian. Claudio is the son of the late Gianfranco Del Terra and Marta Michelotti.
Claudio’s grandmother was Rina Spadoni, a first cousin of my dad, though he never had the chance to meet her. If you are trying to figure out the relationships, Marta is my second cousin, so Claudio is my second cousin once removed.

David's mystery novel
Claudio and his brother Marco are both urban police officers. Claudio’s son, David, is a multi-talented young man who has studied music, philosophy, and religion, and he currently teaches philosophy and religion. We first met him when he was 13; watching him develop and mature over the years has been enjoyable. A couple of years ago, he dropped by and gave me a mystery novel he had co-written, “Un Ingombrante Segreto.” I didn’t realize at first that he was a co-author, because the book was the joint product of a writing class he had taken with seven other students, and thus his name did not appear on the cover. However, I have since read and enjoyed it very much. It is set partly in Montecarlo, and it tells the tale of two convicts who become friends in prison. When one is released, he investigates the other’s crime and uncovers “an unwieldy secret,” which is how the title of the book could be translated.

Moderator Franco Donatini interviews Simone.
Now David has added to his curriculum vitae his collaboration for writing the music for the title song on the recently released music album of Lucca poet Simone Corrieri, “Squallido Paradiso.” Lucy and I had the privilege of attending a presentation of the album at a coffee bar in Pescia last week. Corrieri had previously published a book of his poetry, and this is his first effort at combining poetry and music. We listened as Corrieri explained the background of the songs and then performed them, with David accompanying on electric piano, along with several other musicians who had contributed to the album. Afterwards, Corrieri signed the inside jacket of the CD we purchased from him. We now listen to the songs in our home and think back on the pleasant evening when we watched David play and met Corrieri and the other contributing musicians.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Beautiful Bavaria has much to offer

Leavenworth is a city in Western Washington that successfully rebuilt itself from a dying ex-logging town into a thriving faux Bavarian tourist attraction—one that Lucy and I enjoy visiting at least once a year. But as a change of pace, last week we visited the real thing, a Bavarian village on the edge of the Alps in Southern Germany.

Taken from the resort above Schliersee,
which we reached by cable car.
How can I describe Schliersee, a village about the size of Leavenworth but 100 percent authentic Bavarian? I could say that Schliersee is about equal to Leavenworth x 4. The mountains are taller. More buildings are decorated with paintings of Bavarian themes. Roofs are of red tile instead of composite shingles. And, of course, all the signs are in German and everyone speaks German. I’m not saying that the people of Leavenworth have done a poor job of creating an imitation Bavarian village. Quite the contrary. It’s just that one can only go so far in blending the cultures of two regions, and being in an true Bavarian village is an experience that can’t be equaled.

Extreme Bavarian theme.
What did we like best about our week-long getaway? Our favorite experiences were taking a cable car above the city for a great view of the lake and village below, and then riding down on a kind of mini roller coaster with individual four-wheeled sleds in a winding chute. A lever allowed us to control our velocity. We also visited a living museum that shows how people in the Alps lived and worked in centuries past. At the Markus Wasmeier Open-Air Museum, we saw restored wooden buildings, traditional farm animals, costumed workers and craftsmen sealing barrels with hot resin for their still active brewery. We strolled through Schliersee and along the lake shore, visited two ski resorts and hiked to two waterfalls. We took a scenic ride in a small but very modern commuter train that runs up the valley to the farthest village in the valley, Bayrischzell.

We lodged in the classy Karma Bavaria, a hotel that has a partnership with Wyndham, so room costs were covered through our Worldmark membership. We visited the spa, sauna and weight room regularly, and Lucy and I competed in a friendly game of 9-pin bowling in the game room. Perhaps the best part is that we were able to combine our vacation with a visit from Lucy’s cousins, Eduard and Els Bonnist (brother and sister) who are second cousins once removed. Eduard and Els drove down from their homes in Amsterdam and also lodged in the Karma.

Will we come back again? Probably not. Our lives are already split between Gig Harbor and Montecarlo, and we don’t need the complication of adding another country. It’s enough of a challenge trying to develop and maintain friendships while living in two different countries, not to mention that we’re still learning Italian. In addition, the whole time we kept thinking how much Bavaria reminds us of our own beautiful Western Washington, with its snow-capped mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, hiking trails, and yes, even its own Bavarian village—which, by the way, will have an alpine roller coaster and climbing wall opening this summer. And we’ve already booked eight days in Leavenworth at our Worldmark condo with our family this June.

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

We get a two-for-the-price-of-one experience at the Pontedera Cineplex

Every once in a while, we get the urge to go out to a movie, and today was one of those days. We usually prefer American movies that have been dubbed into Italian, because the voices are clear and free of dialect. We have nothing against Italian movies, but the film makers want them to be authentic, so many of the characters have regional dialects. It is already hard enough for us to follow the dialogue even when the characters speak clear and plain standard Italian.

We also prefer movies that have quite a bit of action with uncomplicated conflicts between the characters, so Creed 3 was a perfect choice. The website of the Pontedera Cineplex said that today only, at 4:30 p.m., the movie would even be shown in English with Italian subtitles, so we’d be able to completely relax and enjoy the film. I felt a bit guilty that we wouldn’t be practicing our Italian listening skills, but the timing was perfect, as we are currently enjoying a mini-vacation in a condominium in Colleoli, just 20 minutes from the cineplex.

We’ve noted before that movies are not a very popular form of entertainment here, and thus we weren’t surprised to find that we were the only two people in the theater—not the first time this has happened. Once the movie started, we noted right away that there were no subtitles and the film was in Italian, not English. I went out and let the cineplex personnel know, and soon the lights came on and the film stopped. After about five minutes, a very apologetic employee came in and said the projectionist couldn’t figure out how to show the English version. No problem, we said, we’ll just watch in Italian, and we did just fine; the dialogue was not overly complex, and the movie was well done. Plus, we were given free tickets for another movie as compensation.

We had a memorable encounter some years ago when we were once again the only two people at an afternoon showing of Son of Mask, this time in Arezzo. The movie was pretty bad, and when it was only two thirds done, the film stopped and all the lights went on. We waited for about ten minutes, and then someone came in and told us it was over. We argued for a bit, because even though we couldn’t understand all the dialogue, it was obvious that the plot hadn’t reached the climax. But then we considered how awful this movie was (later I found out it received eight nominations for Golden Raspberry Awards, including worst sequel, worst actor and worst director), and we decided to go. On the way out, we mentioned that the film wasn’t over, but we didn’t mind leaving anyway. Again we were told that it really had finished. No, we said, it didn’t, but it was OK. Just as we got to the door, the manager came hurrying up to us and said, yes, we were correct, the film wasn’t over. He was sorry, please, we must go back and watch the rest. We didn’t want him to think we were upset, so we returned to watch the rest. After all, how could the theater personnel live with themselves if they thought that they had offended 100% of their afternoon customers?

Monday, April 10, 2023

Our first real Pasquetta in Tuscany

Boating on the Padule on Pasquetta.
For the majority of the past 12 years, Lucy and I have celebrated Easter Sunday while in Tuscany—but this is the first time we really participated in Pasquetta, an important Italian tradition celebrated on the day following Easter. Pasquetta—literally “little Easter”—is a civil holiday, with little of a religious nature. However, some maintain that it is celebrated with an almost religious fervor because it is so deeply ingrained in the culture. Traditionally, it is a day for Italian families to venture into the countryside for a day of picnics and outdoor fun. Most factories and stores are closed, though many restaurants remain open.

The reason we’ve not celebrated Pasquetta is that our family here consists of just Lucy and me. True, I have a large extended family in Tuscany, but Pasquetta celebrations usually involve the nuclear family. My closest relatives are third cousins, and even then, I’ve only known them for a few years, so we’ve never really been involved in this important tradition beyond watching families meander down the picturesque streets of Montecarlo.

The difference this year is that we went to an advertised event called Pasquetta in Padule at the Casotto del Sordo near Massarella. Because of my affection for the Padule di Fucecchio, I had ridden my bike to the Casotto del Sordo about a week ago, not really knowing what to expect. To me, it had basically been just a dot on the map on the edge of the Padule. I have since learned that this little shack was built in 1923 by a man who had returned badly injured from World War 1. Among his injuries, he had lost his hearing and had been given the nickname Il Sordo, meaning “the deaf.” Now the Casotto is managed by an association of hunters, fishermen, landowners and local residents concerned with maintaining and improving the ambiance of the Padule. This swamp had once been a vital source of sustenance for the community, but in the later 1900s, it became somewhat of a dumping ground. Now there are several associations committed to cleaning it up and helping the public understand its importance to the ecosystem.

The Association Il Padule sponsored the Pasquetta event, which included food, drinks, scenic walks and boat rides. The group has built several other buildings adjoining the Casotto that were used for the preparation and sale of the food, and members have also added a covered outdoor eating area with picnic tables and benches. When we arrived in mid-afternoon, the parking lot was nearly full, and some 200 people were picnicking, lounging in the grass, playing football and volleyball, walking on the shores of the Padule, and lining up for rides in the barchini, which are small boats piloted by members of the association. Lucy and I took a stroll down to the canal while we watched ducks swimming and a number of large white and gray birds flying by. I wish I could say what the birds were, but I’m not great at recognizing bird species, especially in a country where I was not raised.

Not my photo, but this is a Pittima Raela,
taken in the Padule. Photo by Enrico di Gregorio.
I read online that bird watchers and biologists performed a study of the Padule during Covid times. I used Google to translate a portion of the report: “39 species were recorded (a true biodiversity record) for a total number of 12,783 birds, among which the Alzavole (6,012) stand out, the rare Ibis (234), the Pavoncella (1455) and the Moriglione (749). There have been sightings of rare species such as the Bittern, the White Stork, the Spoonbill, the Flamingo and the Ferruginous Duck, and for the first time a small group of wintering night herons was also found (25).” Most of these birds are not found where I grew up in Western Washington, so I don’t feel so bad for not recognizing them.

Ciaccini and espresso
We did not pay for a boat ride this time, but it is now on our list for future adventures. We did sample a very regional snack named ciaccini, something we’ve never heard of before. I spoke to one of the volunteers, who confirmed that while it exists in other regions, it would be called something else. A ciaccino consisted of a very thin and round slice of fried dough, about the size of a pancake, seasoned with salt, olive oil and perhaps a few spices. For 3 euro, we each received two ciaccini affettato (with finely sliced prosciutto between them). Probably the most enjoyable part of the afternoon was the people-watching we did while eating and enjoying our tiny cups of espresso—old men standing close together while swapping tales; men, women, boys and girls playing calcio; little boys beating stalks of bamboo with wooden sticks; families dining and boating together; girls running and screaming; couples walking hand-in-hand. I have little doubt that we were the only non-Italians in the group, and that’s just fine with us. This is why we come here—to experience the Italian lifestyle that exists far from the touristy cities. For us, now, Pasquetta is more than just a word.

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Day trip to Pesciatina Svizzera: A favorite activity worth repeating

Someday I need to write a complete blog or even a magazine article about the Valleriana and the 10 castle cities located there, but for today, a brief mention will have to do. This valley, also called Pesciatina Svizzera because of its resemblance to the Swiss Alps, draws us back again and again. It is especially appealing to visit on a clear day like today.

Historically referred to as Valle Ariana but later shortened to Valleriana, the valley rises up from an elevation of about 200 feet above sea level in Pescia to the highest town of Pontito at 2,444 feet. At various places along the way, one can view many of the picturesque cities, also called castles because most cities were walled during medieval times, and the entire city was referred to as a castle. Before today, Lucy and I had only visited three of the cities, but now we’ve added a fourth to the list, Castelvecchio.

We picked up our friends Kjetil and Laila around 11 a.m. and arrived in Castelvecchio a little before noon. We took a step back in time while taking a half hour stroll through the sloped and slanted stone streets, admiring red tiled roofs, an amazing variety of doors—both ancient and modern—and the patchwork stone and brick walls of homes built mostly between 1300 and 1900. We saw tidy homes with neatly kept yards scattered among homes and yards that were crumbling ruins. The most recent census shows 146 inhabitants, but one can imagine that during better times the city housed up to 1,000 residents, many of whom went out of the city during the daytime to hunt in the woods, gather chestnuts or work in their hillside farms.

Some traveled even farther down the valley to work in the numerous paper mills that were powered by the current of the river Pescia. Production of paper in this area began in the late 1400s and reached its peak in the 1800s because of the valley’s strategic location near both the mountains above and thriving centers of commerce such as Lucca, Pistoia, Montecatini and Florence on the plains below.

Of the cities we’ve visited, we can’t really pick a favorite. They’re all fabulous, really. Pontito is the highest and one of the least populated (50 inhabitants), so if you want to see a particularly peaceful and weather-worn village, it’s the place to go. Vellano is the largest, with a population around 270, and it has the most activity, including a mining museum, a popular annual festa to celebrate chestnut snacks, and the highly regarded Trattoria Manero. We’ve also been to San Quirico, population 200, which is no less interesting and beautiful than the others.

Pontito taken from below.
I forgot my camera in the car, but Kjetil took some great photos, and I have borrowed some to post here. After our stroll, we went to La Pieve, one of my personal favorite restaurants. It has a pranzo di lavoro, in which customers can enjoy a complete lunch for 13 euro (prior to Covid, it was only 11 euro). Though relatively remote, the place was packed, more so today than other times we’ve dined here. Despite the crowd, service was prompt. We enjoyed a leisurely meal in good company. And with six more castle cities to explore in the coming years, we’ll surely be back for more sightseeing and dining pleasure.

Pranzo at La Pieve.