Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Cascate del Mulino: Is it real, or perhaps just an exaggerated fairy tale?

Please don’t tell Rick Steves about the Cascate del Mulino! A few years ago, I saw photos on the web of people enjoying this picturesque hot spring, and I could scarcely believe my eyes. This couldn’t be real—a fantastically beautiful public spa-park, naturally occurring. And the cost per hour? Nothing, niente, nulla, totally gratis. Ah, there must be a catch. The water is probably too cold, or just lukewarm. Or maybe it’s scalding hot. Or you must walk two hours up a steep trail to get there.

Nope, not only is the park real and easily accessible, it’s every bit as stunning in real life as it appears in the photos. In addition, the water temperature is nearly perfect. Many spas I’ve used in the United States are heated to 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, making them pleasant for the first 10 to 15 minutes but unbearable for longer use. One can easily enjoy the warm pools of the Cascate for hours, moving from one basin to the next to experience different levels of water depth and force of flow.
Few people had arrived before 9 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday in early spring.
The park is a delight to the eyes whether one bathes there or not. The larger falls tumble down a 20-foot drop next to an abandoned stone-walled mulino, or mill. Bamboo trees reach out and sway over the many layers of smaller falls, while swallows dip and dive just downstream from the bathing pools. The warm falls have been enjoyed by Italians, Romans and Etruscans for at least 2,000 years. The hot springs were said to be created by the god Jupiter, who threw lightning bolts at fellow god Saturn during a quarrel, missing him but striking the ground instead and causing hot water to spring forth ever since.

By around 9:30, the pools became more populated.
Anybody recognize the gorgeous blonde in the center?

Cascate mean waterfalls, and the cascading water provides a relaxing massage far superior to the jets in a standard hot tub, which usually concentrate their action on a single side of the lower back. Conversely, the falls at the park strike various level of the back and extend all the way across, from shoulder to shoulder. For a truly vigorous massage, one can stand under falls that plunge from as high as five feet (but be prepared to be fully drenched there). For a more relaxing massage, the lower falls drop only a foot or two, and other pools allow bathers to just drift, float and soak up the heat and goodness of the mineral-rich waters.
In the afternoon on an unusually warm first week of spring, the crowd was moderate. But three months later, the place will be packed!
I came on a Monday during the first week of spring on an unusually warm day in the low 70s (about 21 C), and I shared the space with two of my daughters, a group of their friends and about 60 other people. We stayed for two thoroughly enjoyable hours. Because visitors are prone to move from pool to pool, we would have been able to try nearly every little basin and waterfall if we had been so inclined. I’ve heard that during the summer, the park can be seriously overcrowded, and also that the water flow decreases in August, so it’s best to go in spring or fall and to avoid weekends.

The temperature dropped dramatically overnight, but Suzye and I returned the next afternoon to see what the experience would be like on a 50-degree day. A smaller crowd is the first difference we noted. We shared the prime area with somewhere from a dozen to 20 people, and once again we stayed for two hours. Walking to and from the car in a moderate and chilly breeze, especially when we were wet, was obviously unpleasant, but once we emerged ourselves in the water, we judged the cold-day experience well worth our time. On the third day, we arrived before 9 a.m. on a sunny day, and the falls were nearly empty, though they were gradually filling when we left a half hour later.

The reason for the Rick Steves comment is that his popular videos on American public television and his books and website have brought hordes of travelers to places such as the Cinque Terre and Civita di Bagnoregio. It’s likely that if he featured the Cascate del Mulino on one of his shows, it would be overrun with Americans, forcing the Italian government to begin charging and regulating crowds.

I wish I could accurately report the temperature of the water, but I didn’t bring a thermometer. I thought I would be able to look it up easily on the Internet. However, this turns out to be not as simple as it may seem. Many websites report the water to be 37.5 C., or about 98 to 99 F. However, I’ve been in many hot tubs in the U.S., which usually range from 99 to 104 F., and the temperature in the stream is definitely lower than that. Further research indicates that the 37.5 degrees that others quote is the temperature of the water when it emerges from the underground hot springs about a mile upstream in Saturnia. I would guess it has cooled to the low or mid 90s at the Cascate del Mulino, just right for staying submerged for long periods of time. For those who want higher temperatures, a trail leads to the stream above the waterfall, and the pools there are warmer.

The snack bar, which also has a bathroom and showers. 
The park is open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, but there is no lifeguard on duty. Parking is free, and there’s a snack bar which has bathrooms. Showers can be used for a small fee. The snack bar is not open year-around and at all hours, though, and when it’s closed, so are the bathrooms and showers. I’ve also heard that when the parking lot is full, people park along the street and are fined by the Carabinieri for doing so.
Friends hang out and socialize.
My 30-something-year-old daughters loved it. “I’d give it a 10 out of 10,” Lindsey said, “but next time I’d bring an inflatable bath pillow to cushion my head. A fluffy bathrobe to don after leaving the water would make it a perfect experience.”

Suzye practices her hula hooping techniques on the beach.
“I loved everything about it except for some creepy dudes in Speedos who invaded my space and that of my friends,” Suzye said. “Getting warmed and massaged by the different waterfalls and watching the grass and bamboo sway in the breeze is so pleasant, so relaxing.”

Not everything about our experience was perfect. The rocks are moderately slippery and sometimes sharp, so it’s advisable to wear water shoes or sturdy sandals. I went barefoot, but I had to move very slowly and carefully to avoid hurting my feet or falling.  Also, there are little reddish wriggling worm-like insects in the slower moving pools. They are harmless fly larvae, but this can be a major turn-off for some people. You can avoid them by staying in the faster moving streams.

Some people also dislike the smell. The water is full of minerals, including calcium carbonate and Sulfur, and the latter has a distinctive smell which may remain on your body even after a shower. While many believe it is extremely healthy to soak in mineral baths, scientific research to verify this is scant. Others believe that the mud along the river bank is good for the skin, and they cover themselves with it. One point on which scientists agree heartily is that lowering one’s level of stress is very healthy. Relaxing in a warm stream with friends in the middle of nature’s beauty certainly does that, so you should try it for this practical reason, if the warmth, beauty and pure pleasure are not enough to attract you.

Read also: Another free hot springs, the Fosso Bianco in San Filippo . . .

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Museum of Madness—sad though compelling mixture of insanity, reality and genius on display in Lucca

My guest blogger is Lucy Spadoni, the Broad herself, who is much more attuned to and appreciative of art than I am.

Did you ever go to a Haunted House at Halloween? Moans and groans. A prostrate body—seemingly dead—who suddenly looks at you? Clawlike hands reaching for you from behind a screen? You scream, you squirm, you laugh and enjoy getting to the end after 15 minutes of madness.

Different scenario. You lived maybe half a century ago. You are depressed, or a wife whose philandering husband wants to rid himself of you. Maybe you hold money or property that another family member wants, or you are genuinely sick with a mental illness like depression, anxiety, bipolarism or schizophrenia. Someone takes you to a building, signs some papers, and you are trapped in a madhouse, maybe for life. You become a number, you have no possessions, maybe even no clothes, with no escape, no laughter, no future.

Lucca had such a manicomio for more than 200 years. Located at Maggiano to the east of the city, it housed as many as 1,400 patients at a time; counting nurses and doctors, the total population approached 2,000. Other insane asylums were scattered throughout Italy before a law was enacted in the late 1900s that eventually led to the disbanding of all but asylums for the criminally insane.

A marriage of art and mental illness is the topic of a popular exhibit in Lucca called the Museo della Follia, or the Museum of Madness. It is the brainchild of Vittorio Sgarbi, a politician, art critic and historian, cultural commentator and television personality. The display runs from Feb. 27 to Aug. 18 in the Ex Cavallerizza in Piazzale San Donato. It is not a haunted house, per se, but its displays of artwork by living and deceased artists depict what it would have been like to have been committed to an asylum. Guests journey through black corridors with lighted exhibits of paintings, murals, photos, sculptures and writings to feel the frightening reality of the people who lived and worked in asylums.

Vittorio Sgarbi, looking at faces of mental hospital
One senses bleakness, despair and the claustrophobia of souls locked naked and alone in cells the size of walk-in closets “for their own good.” Visitors to the exhibit can read pleading letters that were never sent and see photos of patients’ faces—some with sad and defeated eyes, others with hopeful smiles—and sculptures that depict a feeling of being among the living dead. One patient painted himself with a distorted and indistinct face, expressing the idea that he didn’t know who he was. Forbidden possessions that patients hid under their beds are on display to show that patients wanted something of their own to remind themselves and others who they once were.

The face of a sad, poor girl. The number given a person scratched on walls and possessions to show others that he exists. Electric shock treatments. Pills that numbed patients into insensible zombies. A wooden corkscrew that was used on a patient to force open his mouth to take his medications. A steadily dripping sink with a broken handle so it can never be shut off.

Some patients did get better and were released—oh, the memories they must have had. It was not entirely hopeless. Some therapists, notably Mario Tobino, the head psychiatrist at Maggiana for 40 years, experimented and started giving the patients paper and paint to express themselves. The resulting art is displayed. Some of it is macabre, some startling beautiful, some grotesque in its reality, some genius.

Other works on display are from noted contemporary artists. Some had difficult lives but have used their art to keep themselves sane in their own way. They paint their past or paint self-portraits shown with haunted eyes and a later time with eyes clear. Some sculptures were done alone in caves for the person’s own benefit. Some sculptures were made with natural materials to get across their idea of what’s inside. Much of the art is stunning, and just as impressive is the artistry of this well-crafted exhibition itself.

Outside the museum is a sign that reads “Come in, but don’t look for a path. Bewilderment is the key.” 
Elena explains the symbolism in
one of the central works of art.

A recorded audio guide is included in the price of admission, but we were escorted by one of Lucca’s most knowledgeable tour guides, Elena Benvenuti. She has spent days studying the exhibit and compiling a virtual textbook of notes. She helped turn our bewilderment into understanding. One of my relatives had depression in the 1960s. This person was treated with shock therapy, now known to be horrible but of no benefit. I wish I had understood then what was endured. Mental illness is complex and baffling, but compassion, knowledge and an appreciation for artistic expression make it worth the effort to understand.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A day of flowers, scents, tastes and sights make up our Festa della Donna

Perfumes were common in Roman times,
and there are even surviving recipes detailing
the ingredients needed.

One doesn’t have to be a woman to enjoy the Festa della Donna, though it certainly helps to have a woman handy with whom to share the celebration! Lucy and I went to two events last Friday that were advertised as special events for women (which mentioned that men were also welcome), and we thoroughly enjoyed them both.

Travertine stone in Lucca that has been there
for more than 2000 years, placed by the Romans.
In the morning, I went out into the woods to cut off some sprigs of mimosa, which I carried back for some of the female shop owners in Montecarlo—being careful to save the biggest and best for my own favorite donna. In the afternoon, we attended an unusual tour directed by Elena Benvenuti of Discover Lucca with Elena. The itinerary followed that of a typical exploration of the Roman roots of Lucca, but it also included special aspects on the role of women in Roman society as well as sensory experiences that allowed us to smell, taste and feel ancient society along with the usual visual and auditory aspects of a tour. We learned about Roman walls that have survived for two millennia, the history of the anfiteatro and teatro and the discovery in 2010 of the buried ruins of an important Roman house, now called the Casa del Fanciullo sul Delfino, or the “house of the child on dolphin.”

Our guide to the Domus Romana.
I’ve written about Lucca’s Roman ties more completely in A journey to Lucca’s Roman roots, but to enhance the current experience, Elena gave us all samples of perfume, drinks and a dessert that were common in earlier times to help us jump back to the past. With the assistance of Elena and a presentation by archeologist Lucia Giannicchini, we learned about perfume, hair styles, clothing, social life, occupations and other aspects of women’s lives during ancient times. Women in Rome were citizens, and while they could not vote or hold political office, those from wealthy or powerful families were free to study, write and exert influence in less direct ways.

Three of us on the tour were not completely fluent in Italian, but that turned out to be advantageous once we reached the Roman house, because our little group had the full attention of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable English-speaking guide. Dressed as Caesar, Marco was a font of information on Roman society.

Two balls were placed in Lucy's hands . . .
That same evening, Lucy and I attended a performance of magic and an apericena (a dinner of appetizers) in San Salvatore’s Bar Boccaccio, and once again we were part of a small group—about 15 people—enjoying a first-class show. Before the spettacolo started, the magician spent time at each table performing card tricks, and even though we were inches away from his hands, we have no idea how he possibly could have done the things he did.

She closed her fist, opened it, and suddenly there were three!
The DJ playing music at dinner recognized that we were not native italiani, and after asking where we hailed from, he played God Bless America to make us feel welcome. We then were treated to a clever display of sleight of hand. Lucy was pulled reluctantly on stage to help with foam ball tricks. Each time she opened her fist, the number of balls that appeared differed from the number that the magician had previously placed in her palm. She still refuses to tell me how she did that! The ball trick and most of the others were completely mystifying, but we did figure out how a few others might have been performed. We have no idea how the bar could have made any money by hiring a magician for an intimate crowd for only the price of aperitivi, but it made for a stimulating and gratifying end to our Festa della Donna celebration.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Tuscan beef is impressive, but we are still learning how to pick the right cuts

Luigi Bianchi hangs prociutto in his butcher shop.
Ordering meat in Tuscany is an art form that we have far from mastered. In fact, we’re rank amateurs of the lowest levels. We know the difference between suino (pig), vitello (calf) vitellone (bull), tachino (turkey) and pollo (chicken), but that’s about it. The problem comes when Lucy uses one of her cookbooks, and it tells her to use beef round steak, or chuck steak, or sirloin, or brisket or tenderloin. What is the corresponding cut in Italian? We have no idea.

It’s true that we can find equivalents on the Internet, but we rarely think of this before we go to our usual supermarket, Esselunga. This morning we took a walk to San Salvatore, and passing our favorite macelleria, owned by Luigi Bianchi, we decided to order some meat from him for making beef stroganoff. We knew it would be more expensive than the supermarket, but Luigi is practically legendary for serving the finest meats. Luigi is also extremely personable, and his kindness sometimes draws us to stop by even when we have nothing in particular to purchase.

We met Luigi on one of our first stops in San Salvatore, back in 2011 when Steve and Patti Gray were helping us make our initial move into the Casolare dei Fiori. Luigi’s shop is often busy, but he’s never in a hurry, giving each customer his full attention. We noted that the locals would sometimes ask him for advice about how to cook and serve certain cuts, and he always had ready answers that would sometimes turn into longer discussions about various other food-related topics.

Luigi occasionally sings when serving his customers, but even when he doesn’t sing, his voice has a melodious quality, and he sometimes repeats words for emphasis and just because he likes the sound. “Tre fette, sottili, sottili,” he might say in a voice that is not quite singing, but almost. Three slices, thin, thin.

So, having no idea of what to ask for, we told Luigi that we wanted a good cut for cutting up and frying in a pan without water. We had caught him at a time when his equally likable son Matteo was also in the shop, as was a middle-aged lady waiting behind us. What followed was a minute-long discussion between Luigi, Matteo and the other customer about the names for different cuts of beef and where they were located. We watched as Luigi sliced off three steaks amounting to 670 grams (about 1.5 pounds) of what he explained is called groppa in the Tuscan dialect.

The cost was 13 euros, which I thought expensive but paid for without hesitation. Certainly, we could have found something less expensive at Esselunga, but we wouldn’t have known if it was the right meat, and we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of interacting with Luigi and Matteo.

Back home, I looked on the Internet for a translation of groppa. Google translate said “croup,” which was no help at all. Then I looked at diagrams of meat cuts and still didn’t find it on any of the examples. Doing a word search combining groppa and vitellone, I found an article that explained that each region in Italy uses completely different words to describe cuts of meat, kind of like regional dialects on steroids (the dialects, not the meat). I also found that Italians and Americans have different shaped diagrams for beef cuts.

Italian bovine
It seemed that we had received what most commonly is called scamone, “a high grade of beef with little fat that is ideal for grilling.” But the description of scamone was followed by this explanation: “Il termine scamone è forse il più conosciuto ed è utilizzato a Milano e Verona. A Bologna viene definito fetta, a Firenze melino, mela o groppa per i genovesi è punta e cassa del belin, mentre per i napoletani è la colarda. A Palermo viene chiamato sotto caduta mentre a Torino è il sottofiletto spesso.” Basically, this says that every region has a different name for the same cut of steak (and Florence has three different names for it). Luigi used one of the Florentine names.

American cow
The meat selection problem is further complicated by the fact that the cow diagrams I found online have different versions in Italy than in America. The scamone, or groppo, seems to be close to what the American diagram calls sirloin, or maybe even tenderloin, but it also seems to overlap a little with the round. However, I doubt that Luigi would have given us round steak, which is not good for grilling, so I presume that we have either sirloin or tenderloin, and thus the price is not at all out of line. says the average price of sirloin in the USA was $8.31 a pound in 2018, so our 1.5 pounds would have cost about $12.45. We’ve found overall meat quality in Italy to be superior to USA meat, and Luigi’s meat to be superior to that found at the supermarket. So that’s some fine beef stroganoff we’re going to be enjoying this week!

 Postcript: The stroganoff was superb, not only because of the quality of the beef but also because we used fresh Italian pappardelle and locally sourced mushrooms and onions. There's nothing quite like eating a Russian delicacy with Italian ingredients. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Spadoni-Seghieri families looking to hold another reunion in August

Michele Spadoni and his seven children in his home at
Christmas (early 1950s).
Notice to members, relatives and descendants of the Spadoni and Seghieri families from the Italy’s Valdinievole area: A FAMILY REUNION is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in Sehmel Park of Gig Harbor, Washington. This reunion is a spin-off from the reunions the Gig Harbor Spadoni-Seghieri families held for many years during the lifetimes of Michele Spadoni and Anita Seghieri and their seven children and many other relatives. This large extended family gathered at least three times a year (July 4, Christmas Eve and Christmas morning) shortly after the family moved to Gig Harbor in 1914, but these gatherings gradually reduced in frequency and eventually came to an end after the departure of the last of Michele and Anita’s children in the early 2000s.
Michele Spadoni and his grandchildren in the early 1950s.
Anita Seghieri Spadoni
Since then, one reunion was held in 2012, and now some members of the family felt it was time for another and started a Facebook page called “the Spadoni family reunion.” Anita Grumer (daughter of Clara Spadoni McCabe) has rented Sehmel Homestead Park Pavilion for the day of Aug. 3 for a potluck festa. Those attending will be asked to contribute in an amount to be determined to cover the costs of the park rental. It has been suggested that a committee be formed to plan the agenda.

Learn how Guido "Frank" Spadoni of Tacoma was connected
to the other Spadoni families. He was co-owner of Spadoni
Brothers Fuel in 1915 with his brother Sabatino "Sam" Spadoni.
In addition to the Gig Harbor families that traditionally attended the old gatherings, other relatives throughout the United States, Italy, France and indeed the rest of the world are invited to this reunion. In recent years, I’ve become involved in genealogy and have discovered connections between the Spadoni families of Gig Harbor, Tacoma, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco and Eureka—and many more still living in the Valdinievole, which includes the cities of Ponte Buggianese, Buggiano, Montecarlo, Pescia, Chiesina Uzzanese, Montecatini and several other nearby cities. I’ve also connected with many Seghieri families in other cities in the United States, Italy and France.
This photo taken in Montecarlo around
1905 shows members of three Seghieri
families, including one that migrated
to California. Two of these men lived
out their lives in Gig Harbor.
We realize that most of these relatives live far away, have never met their distant Gig Harbor cousins and that traveling to Washington state would be costly. However, it is likely that some of the Gig Harbor families would be willing to open their homes to host distant visitors, which would help foster new relationships (pun intended) and reduce costs for visiting families.

This Michele Spadoni (left) founded a large
extended family in Seattle. His brother
Pietro (right) settled in Oregon.
Frank Bannon and Annette (Spadoni) Bannon will repeat a fascinating presentation they previously made for the Gig Harbor Historical Society several years ago on the historical roots of Italian families in Gig Harbor, and I will supplement with information that explains briefly how the various branches of the Spadoni family worldwide are connected, and I’ll do the same with the Seghieri branches. The Natucci family, originally of Montecatini Terme, married into both the Spadoni and Seghieri families in the United States, as also did the Donati family of San Romana in Garfagna. These connections will also be explained.

Pietro Seghieri, who lives in San Salvatore, demonstrates how
he used to cut wheat for the family's harvest.
I will also give a short history of life in the Valdienievole, starting from around 1300 to the present, attempting to describe the typical lives of our ancestors and the hardships they endured to survive and bring future generations into the world. My research has traced our Seghieri line back Giunta Seghieri, our earliest known ancestor who was born around 1255 in Montecarlo. On the Spadoni side, I’ve made connections back as far as Bartolomeo Spadoni, probably born around 1430 in Marliana.

Narciso Spadoni moved from Borgo
a Buggiano to Chicago in 1905.
At this point, the reunion agenda has still not been developed, thus the need for committee members and other volunteers. Undoubtedly, we will need help in many areas, including photography, name tags, collecting information on each person to add details to the family tree, planning for meal coordination, cleanup and possibly games and other activities. Our traditional family gatherings were primarily relaxed social events, with few planned activities. However, since so many people will be meeting for the first time, it may be better to have a more fixed agenda. Anyone interested in helping should make this known by joining the reunion Facebook page and offering their services (or contact me or Anita).
This reunion in 2016 in Montecarlo brought together Seghieri families from Italy, France and the United States.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Hopefully it will be a monstrously good display of magic!

What is the matter with my fuzzy brain?! Yesterday we took a hike down the hill to the Bar Boccaccia in San Salvatore, near the train station. It took us 25 minutes to walk down and another 30 to go up. We are hoping to do this fairly regularly to help keep our creaky bodies in shape.

Theoretically, exercise should help the brain, too, but maybe it just deprives my brain of much needed oxygen, because I made another memorable language blunder. While eating brioches, we saw a flier for a magic show to be held at the bar March 8, and we decided we’d like to attend.

Bar Boccaccia, which by the way is almost directly across from
the last house Nonno occupied before he left for America.
The flier didn’t specifically call it a magic show, it just said a magician would be performing, so when I asked the cameriera if I could make reservation, I hadn’t really thought through what I was going to say. What came out of my mouth was, “Posso fare prenotazioni per due per il mostro magico?” I meant to say mostra di magica, which would have been acceptable. Spettacolo di magica would have been even better, because a spettacolo is used for a performance. A mostra is more like a display, something that one would use for a photo or art exhibit.

But what is a mostro magico, the thing I said? A magic monster, which I realized about two seconds after the words popped out of my mouth. Luckily, I was holding the flier in my hand, so the cameriera understood what I was trying to ask. Reservations for the spettacolo are not needed, she said kindly, without even a snicker at my gaffe.

The fear of making mistakes like this could discourage me from speaking Italian, but I decided some years ago to just open my mouth and live with the words that come out. One has to willing to practice in order to learn, and as much as I cringed when the mistake occurred, as time passes, the memory will gradually become less painful and more just an entertaining anecdote. Lo spero!