You might think he's doing something else. But in reality, he's learning how to sit/stay, and not doing a very good job of it (he eventually learned how to do so beautifully ... sort of ).

sabato 13 marzo 2010

Pauline at the Baths

A couple of weekends ago, we decided to leave the Three Stooges with Zoe’s Mom and Aunt Betsy and take the waters in Bagni di Lucca. Zoe’s Mom is eminently trustworthy and wonderful; Aunt Betsy, equally wonderful and trustworthy, lived briefly with Tillie a hundred years ago.

Bagni di Lucca, a sleepy town running along the narrow valley of the Lima river 17 miles north of Lucca, has hot thermal waters. The ancient Romans put it on the map; allegedly Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus sat in the grotto (or, perhaps, swam; it’s unclear) after agreeing to form the Triumvirate in 56 B.C. Following the Barbarian invasions people left the valleys for the safer hills. It wasn’t until Countess Matilda of Canossa (c. 1046-1115) built the nearby “Devil’s Bridge” to allow people to come to the waters that bathing resumed. She also left money for a pool for the indigent to benefit from the curative powers of the waters. Those who have taken these waters read like a Who Was Who: Frederick II (enlightened 13th century King of Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor), Castruccio Castracani (14th century lord of Lucca), Franco Sacchetti (writer, a contemporary of Boccaccio’s), countless Gonzaga, d’Este, a handful of Medici – all princely ruling families during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Montaigne visited twice in 1581 seeking relief from kidney stones, and wrote about it in a diary.

It’s in the 19th century when the place really becomes the East Hampton of its time: Josephine Beauharnais (Mrs. Napoleon Bonaparte), Pauline Bonaparte (sister of), Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her husband Robert, Lord Bryon, Charles Montesquieu, Heinrich Heine, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Johann Strauss, countless European major and minor royalty, even a north African in the personage of the Viceroy of Egypt (Mehemet) -- to name drop just a few -- came to sit/swim. This was helped by the fact that gambling was allowed here. The Casino opened in 1839; gambling had been allowed on and off since the 1300s as a way to finance the baths and provide for the visiting indigent.

The place plunged in popularity in those years leading up to World War II.[1] Now it rests on its laurels, and attracts young couples, families, and budgeteers. People decidedly not famous. Here it’s possible to have a spa experience and not break the bank.

We stayed at Antico Albergo Terme ( , a simple, no-frills three-star hotel positioned directly above and over those grottoes, one of which is known as la Grotta di Paolina (Pauline’s grotto). Pauline Bonaparte came frequently to Bagni di Lucca to take the waters, and sat (or swam) often in one of the caves. She suffered from gynecological problems, and it was thought that these waters had – like most waters – a salubrious effect. If it helped her, we’ll never know. We do know that she never had more children.

The very colorful Pauline Bonaparte (1780—1825) spent a lot of time in this part of the world. She was, they said, very beautiful, uneducated, and wanton in her ways (two husbands, countless lovers – including, some suspect, her very own brother Napoleon).[2] She was his only sibling to follow him into “exile” in Elba (scare quotes, as being exiled in Elba could only mean Heaven). There, locals say, she liked to swim naked in the water (there’s a lovely beach in Elba called “Paolina” with a little beach hut serving wonderful salads).Thought of her as we sat sweating in her cave.

Afterwards, we dined in the hotel’s cozy little dining room, with all the coupled youngsters in love, elderly couples who had, over the decades, made love a habit, and other budgeteers. Highly audibly present was Sofia, a six-month old miniature pinscher from Genoa. That night, we were served a regional specialty, a simple yet delicious soup of farro and lentils. (Farro, Emmer wheat, was Republican Rome’s staple grain until Sicily’s wheat fields were conquered. We can suppose that the Triumvirate or, perhaps, the less exalted members of its entourage would have eaten the stuff back in 56 B.C.)

The following morning, Sofia was at the breakfast table yapping up a storm (“Does she yap like that often?” I asked her person. “Only when she’s around people,” was the response. Looks to me like Sofia’s going to be doing a lot of time in solitary.)

One of the hotel staff came over and told Sofia that she was annoying others, and would have to leave the breakfast room. After the staffer was out of earshot, her person said, “Why is it ok if babies cry, but dogs can’t bark?”

Here’s a variation on that soup theme.

Minestra di farro e cannellini (Bean and farro soup)

For the beans:

2 lbs. dried cannellini beans
Small handful fresh sage
1 red onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, finely minced
1 celery rib, finely minced

For the soup:

4 T. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
Handful of fresh sage
1 sprig rosemary
1 bay leaf
1 red onion, chopped
2 vegetable bouillon cubes or 1 c. broth (chicken or vegetable)
¾ lb. farro (a.k.a. Emmer wheat)

Put the dried cannellini in a bowl, cover with water, and let rest at least four hours, or overnight. Put the cannellini, with its soaking liquid, into a large pot. Add the sage, onion, garlic, carrot, and celery, and cook on a really low flame. Stir occasionally. Cooking time is about 45 minutes or slightly more.

In a terracotta pot, heat the olive oil, and add the garlic, sage, and ½ the rosemary sprig. Cook on a low flame for about 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Then add the chopped red onion, and continue to cook, continuing to stir constantly, for another 10 minutes.
Return to the beans. Remove the sage, and then purèe the mixture either in a food processor (hit “pulse”) or, better yet, a food mill. Add this pulse to the terracotta pot, and cook for about a ½ hour, stirring somewhat frequently. Then add the bouillon cubes (or broth), the farro, stir frequently, and cook until it’s done (at least a half hour). Take the remaining sprig of rosemary, and chop the leaves. Strew over the soup just before eating.

Serves a whole lot of people, dogs included.
The portrait of Pauline Bonaparte is by Robert Lefèvre (1755-1830). You might want to check out her most famous portrait at

Dogs detecting bedbugs, who knew?

[1] Nobel Prize poet Eugenio Montale wrote a lovely poem called “Bagni di Lucca.” It begins: “Fra il tonfo dei marroni/e il gemito del torrente/che uniscono i loro suoni/èsita il cuore. (Amid the blended/sounds of chestnuts thudding/and the stream that moans/the heart hesitates.”)Collected Poems 1920-1954, revised, translated and annotated by Jonathan Galassi, New York, 2000.
[2] See Flora Fraser’s Pauline Bonaparte: Venus of Empire, New York, 2009. It’s a well-written read about a highly vacuous woman. She doesn’t mention Pauline skinny-dipping in Elba.

1 commento:

  1. Love the soup recipe; sounds like one of those incredibly hard-to-find tasty, but healthy, recipes