Earthquakes in Umbria

I’m always wasting time looking at webcams. There’s one (solar powered) which has been watching Castelluccio di Norcia for years. When I visited last, in 2012, I walked up to the camera site so that I could take a photo from the same vantage point.

Castelluccio was a curious place full of eccentric people. It’s probably the thin air at that altitude. But the village was devastated by last year’s earthquakes and had to be evacuated. The villagers are campaigning to get the roads reopened to regain access, but it will be years before their homes can be rebuilt.

Here are my photo from Summer 2012 and today’s webcam view.





(Here is what the webcam installation looked like in 2012.)






Is there no end to the degradation of the Trivago woman?

The first time I saw her, I thought she was remarkably pretty, but felt that it was a pity that she was so badly green-screened onto an image of a hotel room. I also wondered if it was effective advertising. I don’t think people generally like to be lectured at.

Incidentally, the company has made many country-specific versions of the advertising. I’ve seen the German and Italian ones, both presented by men. Perhaps they thought that Germans and Italians would especially resent being lectured at by a woman. Although the Germans have had a lot of experience of it. I haven’t seen the American version — also male — but I hear that it’s widely loathed.

Anyway, for the UK one they’ve had her do several versions of basically the same ad, but dressed differently. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll be they don’t make the male actors do that. Then there was one where there was a mosaic of her repeating the ad in about 30 different costumes.

But now there’s one where they’ve dressed her like Shirley Temple and made her tap dance. A grown woman.

(Incidentally, I’ve tried their website and never found a better hotel deal than on the main booking ones.)

A Whiter Shade of Pale

I don’t much like Google’s data-slurping, and have set my default search engine to DuckDuckGo, but I’ve continued to use Google’s maps. (I do also use Openstreetmap, and even Bing Maps sometimes.)

But, maybe it’s my old eyes, but Google’s map colour scheme is now so washed out that I find it almost unusable. Road edges are light grey on a white background, for example. I’d imagine that someone who is genuinely vision-impaired would find the product totally useless.


To check that the problem wasn’t with some “feature” of Firefox, I tried Chromium (the slightly-less snooping-enabled version of Google’s Chrome) but the maps looked the same. However, my internet searches revealed that there is a High Contrast extension for Chrome, and it works perfectly.


I couldn’t find a similar add-on for Firefox. There are configuration settings for Accessibility, but they affect all sites, and only work if you have a high-contrast desktop theme. Firefox is adopting a new framework for extensions, supposedly compatible with Chrome, so maybe High Contrast will become available.

But the question remains: what do the Google map developers think they’re playing at?

Trust Us, We’re the Government

The Transportation Security Administration in the USA licenses two companies to design luggage locks which can be opened without damage by TSA agents if they need to search a case. The TSA has a set of master keys — the correct one to use should be indicated on the lock, for example, saying “TSA002”. If the agents need to open a case which has an unapproved lock, they will break in.

I have no idea how many master keys have been issued, but they are in use at 450 airports, so the number must be in the thousands. And are all TSA employees so well-rewarded and motivated that they are incorruptible? No.

TSA-lockTherefore, I imagine that professional criminals got copies of the keys as soon as they were issued, if not before. But then the Washington Post innocently published a photo of the master keys, which allowed smart amateurs to code up a 3-D printer file. You can now download it and print your own, working, master keys.

Now, anyone with an interest in security would have predicted this exact outcome when the idea of a “secret” key for everyone’s baggage was suggested. A security mechanism with a “back door” which can be opened by officials can always be opened by criminals too.

And guess what the security agencies are always asking for? A “back door” into secure computer products. Of course, they say, access would only be granted to highly-trusted officials. Nobody else would know the secret codes. Absolutely not.

The lock on your luggage is supposed to prevent the contents being stolen, or at least, to keep them private. (One TSA agent was sacked after he left a note in a passenger’s suitcase, congratulating her on her ‘sexy” underwear.) The little lock icon in your browser’s address bar indicates the same purpose: you can reduce the risk of criminals stealing from you, and you can keep your browsing private.

For some people, it’s more than that, a matter of life and death. If you lived in, say, Saudi Arabia, you would really, really want your communications to be secure. They crucify or behead bloggers there.

Every time the CIA or GCHQ or the like try to lobby politicians, asking for back doors to be made legally compulsory, security experts point out the stupidity of the idea, and the weakness of the argument in favour of them, which usually amounts to “Wooo! Terrorists!”. Just the other day, the French government responded to their spooks to say that back doors were out of the question. But they always come back.

In the UK, there’s a new government-approved standard — Secure Chorus — for voice encryption. And guess what: it doesn’t so much have a back door as a gigantic back hangar door that you could fly a jumbo jet through. It’s not compulsory though. Yet.

Traditional intelligence and policing work is hard. It can work, but it needs time, manpower and loads of money. The intelligence agencies will keep asking for back doors because they think it would make their job easier. Collateral damage to citizens is not a consideration. Just look at the tens of thousands of thefts per year in American airport baggage handling.

Nation Status

I was in Barcelona for a few days recently, my first visit. It’s an exciting and vibrant city, full of culture and history; and rich in facilities and activities for the many tourists.

Signs and notices are usually in both Catalan and (Castilian) Spanish, and often in English too, for tourist purposes. Being interested in languages, and unfamiliar with Catalan, I was intrigued with its differences and similarities compared to other languages. Some words are like their Spanish equivalent, but others are like the French and others like the Italian. (I don’t know any Portuguese, but I’ll bet there are parallels there too.)

Catalan is treated as the first of the two official languages in the region, a reflection of Catalan nationalism, and I saw lots of examples of “l’Estelada”, the pro-independence flag, on apartment balconies and elsewhere.

Fine. Why not? If they want independence, why can’t they have it? After all, there was a referendum or something.

Coat of Arms of CataloniaBut I got to thinking. I’m generally an anti-nationalist, because nationalism is always based on myths about history, ethnicity and identity, generally with right-wing flavouring and a dash of xenophobia. The whole idea is “WE are not like THEM” and that’s always flat wrong. Really, we’re all alike. Fascists love nationalism, of course. It’s a great tool for persuading people to do as they’re told.

I grew up in Northern Ireland, and became utterly disillusioned with all forms of nationalism at an early age after witnessing its effects. I have absolutely zero emotional attachment to either a “British” or “Irish” identity, and I think that an avid devotion to either is a sign of inadequate personal development. Meaning in life should come from within, not from an imaginary relationship with thousands of people you’ve never met.

So why didn’t I instinctively group Catalan nationalists with the bigots I knew from home? Why did Catalan nationalism seem benign? In one word: ignorance. Mine, that is. I had no idea that opinion in the region is split roughly equally between those who favour independence from Spain and those who oppose it; and I still have little understanding of the issues which are argued.

I’ll try to learn my lesson and not assume that everyone else’s nationalism is harmless, although, of course, it might be. I’ll remember my ignorance and not rush to judgements. And watch out for fascists.

A Day In… Pisa

Many people visit Pisa only to see “It” and miss some of the other interesting aspects of a town with a history as long and distinguished as its neighbour and rival, Florence. I’ll try to point out some features, although it will be impossible to avoid mentioning It.

Pisa’s Galileo Galilei aiport is the largest and busiest in Tuscany, and is often a starting point for tourists, so I’ll start there. The airport is very close to the town centre, which would be an easy walk if you didn’t have luggage.

As it is, there are two public transport methods. The airport’s own train station runs a shuttle service into Pisa Centrale (from where there are many onward connections) but even given the very short distance of the run, the frequency is low. If you happen to arrive near a departure time, it’s very quick and convenient, but usually you’ll get to town faster by bus. If you do decide to use the train, in one of those delightful jokes that airport designers like to play on passengers, the ticket office is exactly at the opposite end of the terminal from the train platform. Pisa Centrale

Buses depart from the front of the terminal and you can buy a ticket in the terminal or from the driver. The urban ones which will take you into town are orange, operated by CPT. If you were heading towards It, the destination to look out for is Pietrasantina.

If you are arriving in Pisa by train from either the Lucca and Florence direction or the coast at La Spezia, it’s worth knowing that the station one stop before Pisa Centrale, Pisa San Rossore, is closer to It  than the central station. However, I’m going to make the main station my starting point.Piazza Vittorio Emanuele

In recent years there has been a lot of work to tidy up the area around the station and the route to the old city centre, which had previously been seedy in the traditional Italian manner. If you depart the station on foot by the main road facing it, Viale Antonio Gramsci, you quickly come to the newly-landscaped Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II. Admittedly, it’s basically a traffic roundabout with underground car park, but looks quite nice.

Once on the opposite side of the circle, you can depart via Corso Italia, which is probably Pisa’s most upmarket shopping street. (Including a branch of Feltrinelli, where you can buy English-language books.) By the time you’re about 500 metres from the station, you will have arrived at the river Arno, at the end of the “middle bridge”, the Ponte di Mezzo. To your left is the loggia of the post office where you can take a break in the shade. Ponte di Mezzo

Crossing the bridge, you’ll find yourself facing a statue of Garibaldi, hand camply on his hip. Carry on up the narrow street on the right side of him. It’s Borgo Stretto, literally “tight-fit village”, and it’s a very well-preserved medieval street, particularly atmospheric at night. (If you are there at night, there’s a very lively pub with microbrewery beers, Orzo Bruno, down one of the alleys to the right from Borgo Stretto. Go down Via Mercanti and look to your left at the first junction.) Palazzo dei Cavalieri

Borgo Stretto itself becomes Via Gugliemo Oberdan (still pedestrianised) and reaches a junction (you’ll see a Deutsche Bank dead ahead) with Via Consoli del Mare going left. Go left. In a very short distance you’ll emerge on the open area of Piazza dei Cavalieri, with Pisa’s second-most important set of buildings, of the Knights of St. Stephen. The last time I was there, the piazza was being re-paved. I’m sure it’s very nice now. The intricate decoration of the Knights’ palazzo is unlike anything else I’ve seen. Piazza dei Cavalieri

Exit the square to the left of the building with the arch, up Via Corsica, and at the end of that bear slightly left into Via dei Mille. At this point, you have a choice. You can go straight ahead, down Via Luca Ghini for about 20 metres and visit the botanic gardens, or turn right onto Via Santa Maria. In that case, straight ahead you will first see the dome of the cathedral, and then you’ll emerge into the open with It  dead ahead.

There is a complication if you want to ascend the leaning thing: you have to book your visit in advance, because the number of people on board is strictly controlled into separate time slots. In high season, you will probably have to wait at least three hours for a slot, but if you are super organized, you can book ahead on line, a maximum of 20 days prior at It’s a pretty hefty €18 for the tower alone, and even 20 days ahead you might not get your preferred slot. From museum cloister

If you do have to wait around for your booked time, you can visit the cathedral, baptistery or the mausoleum, or the tourist market (which is surely one of the tackiest in Italy), or sit around on the grass and watch other tourists being photgraphed while pretending to “hold up” the thing. You can also buy a ticket to visit the museum on site, the Opera del Duomo, which has some interesting items (such as artefacts which show that some of the medieval builders were Muslim) but the best part is the museum’s cloister, which is peaceful and gives photogenic views of It  which most tourists don’t see.

Once you’ve had your fill of the “Field of Miracles” (I’ve knever known if the name is something religious or just that it’s a miracle that the slanted thing is still standing) you could depart on the east side down Via Cardinale Pietro Maffi. When you arrive at the little square of Largo del Parlascio, there is a good view of the old city walls to your left, and the Roman remains of Nero’s bath dead ahead. Santo Sepolcro

Bearing right, you can head back towards the Arno on Via Carlo Fedeli, but take a detour left onto Via Santa Caterina and then right through the park of Piazza Martiri della Liberta, after taking a peek at Santa Caterina’s church if you wish. Across the park, at Via San Lorenzo, you can take any of the streets toward the river. If you want to go back down Via Oberdan and Borgo Stretto, the junction is to your right.

The other antique sites in Pisa are mostly churches. Among my favourites are three which lie near the south bank of the Arno, Lungarno Galileo Galilei and Lungarno Gambacorti. If you cross Ponte di Mezzo, go left for about a hundred metres until you see an angular, pointy thing to your right. That’s Santo Sepolcro, which is octagonal and allegedly based on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and may have links to the Knights Hospitallers. Inside you can see a bust of Santa Ubaldesca and her bucket. Santa Maria della Spina

Going back to the Lungarno, and back past Ponte di Mezzo, just before you reach the next bridge you will come to the spiky gothic Santa Maria della Spina (St Mary of the thorn) which holds an actual thorn from Jesus’s Crown of Thorns (supposedly). The whole church was lifted from the riverside onto the embankment in 1871. sant'Agata

Carrying on, the road becomes Lungarno Sidney Sonnino after the bridge, Ponte Solferino. About 150 metres ahead, you will see the trees around the church of San Paolo a Ripa d’Arno. The church once belonged to the Knights of St. Stephen. Behind the church is a little pointy building, the Sant’Agata Chapel.

From St Agata, you will be separated from the river by a high brick wall. Follow it for a few metres and then turn right down Via della Qualquonia. This becomes Via Venanzio Nisi and leads you to a bit of greenery where it meets Via Nino Bixio. Turning left on Bixio will lead you back to Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II near where you started. The railway station is off towards your right.

A Day In… Lucca

The railway station is on the South side, just outside the city walls. Some arriving buses will also deposit you there, but some come in to Piazza Santa Maria, inside the walls on the North side of the old city. It should be obvious which stop you’re getting off at!

If you are driving, don’t even attempt to park inside the walls. There are car parks, but always very busy. Better for the blood pressure to park just outside the walls: there are car parks at the NW, NE, SW and SE corners of Lucca.

If you’ve come by bus and disembarked in Piazza Santa Maria, you’re right next to the main tourist office (WC available), but there is also a smaller one at the railway station. Departing the station on foot, you’ll see the city walls right away, and you have a choice of pedestrian access under the walls (you’ll see the paved paths), or the gate, Porta San Pietro, further to the left.

Piazza NapoleoneThe heart of Lucca (although not dead centre) is Piazza Napoleone, yes, named after that Bonaparte, who conquered the Republic of Lucca in 1805 and installed his sister Elisa as ruler. The piazza is very large and regular and surrounded on three sides by shady trees. The fourth side is the Palazzo Ducale, which today is the provincial government office, so not accessible to the public. However, you can wander into the courtyards.

In July, the piazza hosts a music festival, with some big-name mainstream acts (2015 will have Robbie Williams, Bob Dylan, Snoop Dogg, Elton John and others) but unfortunately the seating and stage fill up the square and ruin the look in the daytime, and it’s all closed off except to ticket-holders in the evenings.

DuomoContinuous with Piazza Napoleone is Piazza del Giglio, facing on to the Teatro del Giglio. If you exit the piazza on the side opposite the theatre, theatre to your right, you are on Via del Duomo, leading to the Cathedral and Piazza San Martino. Take a look at the façade. It’s all wonky and asymmetrical.

In the portico of the Duomo is a nice Labyrinth carving, and inside is a famous wooden crucifix, Il Volto Santo, believed by some to be a genuine death-portrait of Jesus, brought to Lucca by mystical means in the eighth century. Actually, it’s mid-medieval.

In the crypt (admission fee) is a famous Renaissance tomb with a marble effigy of the young and beautiful Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her grieving husband.

Near the Duomo, or at least, in the nearby SE corner of the walled city, you’ll find the Botanic Gardens (admission fee) but just before you reach it you’ll cross over an ancient water-supply channel, Il Fosso. Remarkably for a city-centre water course, the water is clean and there are fish in it. Villa Bottini and its gardens lie alongside the water channel.
Villa BottiniIf you follow the water, you’ll eventually see an arch on your left, entrance to Via Fillungo, Lucca’s poshest shopping street (also the focus of the evening passaggiatta). About half-way down, it passes the Piazza Antifeatro. You can only see the Roman remains on the outside walls of the buildings, but of course, you have to go in as well.

On the opposite side of Via Fillungo to the amphitheatre is Piazza San Frediano and San Frediano church, the best feature of which is the gold mosaic on the façade. Although the church is dedicated to the Irishman Fridianus, who was an early bishop of Lucca, there is also a glass case holding the mummified body of Santa Zita, the city’s local saint. She is often appealed to in order to help find lost keys.

Palazzo Pfanner gardenPassing the church on Via San Fred, and then taking a left at the end, onto Via Cesare Battisti, the first on your right is Via degli Asili where there’s the entrance to Palazzo Pfanner. (They usually have a billboard outside which you can spot from the end of the street.) Pfanner was a rich brewer from Austria who bought the former home of the Controni family. You can choose to buy a ticket either for the classical garden alone, or for house plus gardens.

San Michele in ForoWhen you come out, follow the Via degli Asili in the same direction you were going, taking a left bend, then stright on, and you’ll come to Piazza San Michele and the most striking church in Lucca, in my opinion, San Michele in Foro. It gets the “in Foro” epithet because it’s supposed to be the site of the Roman forum. The square is a nice place to idle in as well. (For more Latin lingo, there is another church called Santa Maria Foris Portam, Santa Maria Outside The Gate. It was outside the Roman walls, but is now enclosed in the later ones.)

Torre GuinigiFrom San Michele, follow the line of cafes to the left of the church and turn left up Via Santa Lucia. Take the first right, Via Buia, which becomes Via Sant’Andrea. You’ll come to the entrance to Palazzo Guinigi, which has the famous tower topped by oak trees. A lot of steps, and there is an admission fee.

I’ve not yet mentioned visiting the most conspicuous feature of Lucca: the city walls. At least they are easy to find. From anywhere in the city you’re near a gate with ramps or steps up to the “Passeggiata delle Mura”. It’s six kilometres round the complete circuit, so a walk will take around an hour. However, it’s very cheap to rent a bike for an hour, and you could zip round the walls and have extra time to explore elsewhere.
Lucca WallsThere are a couple of bike places on Piazza Santa Maria on the North side and one on Corso Garibaldi on the South. They take your passport or driving licence as security, and you pay on return. There is a variety of machines available as well as normal road bikes, including tandems and side-by-side designs.

Apart from the circuit of the walls, shaded by chestnut trees, there are arrow-shaped bastions every few hundred metres, which provided the defenders with vantage points to view (and shoot) along the line of the walls. They all follow the same basic design, but there are a couple of oddities. San Frediano, in the middle of the North side, was never finished, and is cut off short. You can see the foundations of the planned arrow-head in the grass opposite it. San Columbano (Columbanus, Irish saint) in the centre of the South wall still has its gun turret, which has been turned into an expensive restaurant.

UnderworksSeveral of the bastions have pedestrian gates cut through, but San Martino, on the North, next to Piazza Santa Maria also gives access to that section of the defensive underground works within the walls. (The similar part of San Columbano bastion is sometimes open for special exhibitions.) From the litter and extensive graffiti, I guess there is an active underground night life, but it’s peaceful in day time.

What I’ve described so far would easily fill a day or more, and of course, you’ll be spoiled for choice for lunch or dinner, but I have a couple of suggestions if you have more time, or you just want to get out of the city, leave the people there behind.

TempiettoRunning from the South side of the city there is a substantial aqueduct, built in 1822 to supply fresh mountain water to Lucca. To find it, exit the city from Porta San Pietro and keep straight on until you reach a footbridge over the railway. On the far side of the tracks, bear left onto Via Lorenzo Nottolini (parallel with the railway). There’s an S-bend, but it’s still Via Nottolini. At the same junction as Via Porsicchi on your right, there’s another little road, Via Tempietto, at the end of which you will be able to see the “Tempietto” itself. It looks like a round Roman temple, but it’s actually the terminus of the aqueduct.

Unfortunately, the Tempietto is in bad repair and is boarded up and fenced off pending works, but you can still hear water running. The aqueduct itself is attached to the back, and there is a grassy footpath alongside. Very very soon, you’re among gardens and vineyards and it’s peaceful and quiet, even though you’re so close to the city.

I’ve followed that path twice, once on foot and once by rented bike, and I’d recommend the walking. On a bicycle, you have to follow a narrow tyre rut, or else concentrate hard on avoiding it. On both occasions, I only went as far as the A11/E76 motorway, where Mussolini’s engineers brutally chopped the acqueduct in two to allow the road through. There is an old footbridge, and you can rejoin the aqueduct and follow it all the way to Monte Pisano (where there’s another Tempietto, apparently).

River SerchioThe other way to get to the countryside is to go North from the city to find the river, the Serchio. This involves walking out of Porta Santa Maria and crossing the roundabout. The road, Borgo Gianotti, runs through an unremarkable modern part of Lucca, but once you’ve crossed the major junction you’ll see a car park to your left, which give motorists access to the river park (the big structure on the right side of the road is a farmers’ market). You might first want to carry on to the road bridge to get views up and down the river. It’s impressive; wider than the Arno in Florence.

Actually, you can walk along the river on either side, but access is easier on the South, Lucca, side. On the North bank is the village of Monte San Quirico and turning left at the end of the bridge, you can either find a gap between the riverside houses, or go beyond them to the official Via delle Piagge footpath.

If you wanted a longer walk, you could carry on down the river on the San Quirico side to the footbridge, which is about two kilometres away. At that point, you are West of the old city and would have to go South and East; about another two and a half kilometres. In my case, I simply retraced my steps, returned to civilization, and had a gelato.