The Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa at dusk
Like mamma used to make

Arrived in Pisa to lowering grey clouds and enormous puddles on the runway. Just as well I’m from Scotland and prepared for just about anything, weatherwise.

The first port of call was a whistlestop tour of the Piazza dei Miracoli with my hosts for 5 days, Rossella and Luigi.

Rossella is director of social services for Empoli and – as of a few weeks ago – San Miniato. I’ll be interviewing her on Tuesday. For now, though, it’s pizza in a secluded little Italian town apparently in the middle of the country, half way between Pisa and Florence, where I learn a valuable lesson. Never, never, never, not EVER, request a cappuccino at the end of an evening meal. If the startled look on the waitress’s face hadn’t been enough, I was worried Luigi might fall off his seat in shock. Cultural acclimatisation indeed!

Sunday 24 May – Sant’ Andrea to the core
A special day in Fucecchio
Part of the Sant’ Andrea contrada in the historic parade – Rossella’s son Guido is one of the flagbearers

As it happens, today is a special day in Fucecchio. A historic parade in the morning, in which all districts in the immediate locality take part, is followed in the afternoon by Fucecchio’s annual palio – a horse race between 12 contrade or teams, one from each district. As I’m staying with Rossella and Luigi, and they belong to Sant’ Andrea, then obviously that is a no brainer. Especially coming from Scotland. Overnight, I’m Sant’ Andrea to the core.

The bragging rights associated with winning the palio are immense and it appears to be the foundation for local feuds that run like sores for years. Rossella tells me feelings between contrade can be so entrenched they make Romeo and Juliet look kind of Fucecchio lite. Teams of people sleep in the horses’ stables overnight in the lead-up to the race to prevent anyone nobbling them – Rossella’s daughter and son, who were out all night on Saturday as part of the preparations, assured me this is true – and it’s certainly true that on the day there does seem to be a particularly prominent carabinieri (police) presence.

The horses are ridden bareback, which seems well above and beyond the call of duty. It’s evident the race is pretty unencumbered by rules, as these get in the way of a good spectacle. And spectacle is what it’s all about, as it took more than 5 hours to complete two heats and a final. Anything goes, almost literally, except that the race can’t get under way until all participating horses but one are between two lengths of rope, all in line, and all facing forward. If that isn’t the case when the rope drops, it’s a false start. I lost count of the false starts after I reached eleven. Just about all of them were because the rider for the Torre contrada was targeting the favourite, for Massarella, by pushing, barging and generally winding up both horse and rider, and preventing the race getting under way.

It wasn’t even subtle or inventive cheating, just the same repeated moves. Not that the crowd seemed to mind. At home I think we’d have got fed up and either demanded Torre’s disqualification or left early and boycotted next year’s event (“We paid to see horses race, not NOT race”). Not the Italians. Luigi, who can’t bear the palio precisely because of the endless delays and never goes, explained later Italians like a show, and that’s much more important than any competition. As the starter has no authority to discipline any of the riders, it all goes on indefinitely until the offending rider decides to stop messing about.

Under starters’ orders, but a long way from the off
Finally under way – 5 hours after we arrived

Sant’ Andrea made the final, but we didn’t win. I didn’t see where we finished. We’d been waiting so long by then that by the time the dust settled, the final positions had ceased to have much meaning. Unless you were rooting for the Querciola contrada, which won for the second year running.

But Massarella definitely go into next year’s palio nursing a whopping grievance. Cancel all leave for the carabinieri, I’d say.

Casa di Ventignano
With Leonardo Granchi and Cinzia Pieraccini in the admin office at Ventignano

For the first three days in Tuscany I’m being accompanied by Irene Milani as my interpreter. I had the impression from our email exchanges that we’d work pretty well together – and so it’s proving. If you’re reading this and need Italian translation any time, let me know and I’ll send you Irene’s contact details: she’s focused, fun and easygoing all rolled into one and the perfect person for a project like this. I can thoroughly recommend her.

Casa di Ventignano is a unique specialist centre for young people with autism, aged from 8 to 25. The leadership team of Cinzia Pieraccini and Leonardo Granchi explained the aims and objectives of the centre, how it works, and where it fits into overall provision in Tuscany. Their initiatives are pioneering, innovative and inspiring – from using circus skills workshops to develop physical coordination, to arranging for people to come into work even if the centre is closed.

I was particularly struck by how far they manage to be aspirational for all the young people they deal with, but totally realistic and down to earth at the same time. Support looks very different to what I’m used to at home: therapy, psychological or psychiatric intervention, social and employment programmes are all available according to need in one location, with a highly trained, multi-skilled team who communicate well with each other and have an ongoing relationship with all the young people they support.

Sabatina Benelli, who heads up the gardening team at Ventignano
Sabatina and Andrea on garden duty

The emphasis is on equipping everyone who passes through the centre with the skills they need to integrate in the world outside, from being able to visit the coffee house with a friend to understanding what it means to earn a salary.

The benefits are evident in the self confidence, social confidence, and openness of the centre users. I could happily have spent several days there.

Caved in this evening and bought an Italian/English dictionary. Had to look up the word for “notebook” before I could ask the shopkeeper for the other things I needed. I don’t think I’m going to need to say “eyebrow” very much.


Up to 50 vegetable boxes a day are packed to order
Some of the team

First thing this morning Irene and I went back to Ventignano, as yesterday we were too late to see the vegetable packing operation in progress.

This time we were able to look around the wooden shed from which the whole business operates, see how tasks are allocated and timetables drawn up, and how centre users are integrated into the team and supported to develop their skills. Samanta, a psychologist and one of the project leaders, explained how it is expanding and their plans for the future.

Best view from an office window – ever
San Miniato

From there it was a trip to San Miniato – surely one of the most beautiful of the Tuscan hilltop towns. It was great to meet up with Franco Doni, who I know previously from a visit to Norway, and who is now director of social health for the Lower Valdarno, which includes the whole of Florence. His former office, which he’s about to leave as part of his relocation to Florence, must have one of the most stunning views I’ve ever seen from an office window. How he ever got any work done I don’t know. Rossella joined us as her new job includes several responsibilities that were formerly Franco’s. We had a long discussion about the integration of different services, and they were very informative about how health, social work and education communicate and coordinate different aspects of care around the person being supported.

Over lunch, I was quizzed about Aberdeen Angus beef by a cafe owner specialising in local meat dishes, which was somewhat unexpected. I’m used to explaining haggis and Nessie to people from overseas, rhapsodising about the Edinburgh Festival, and discussing the finer points of kilts and bagpipes. But I can’t say I had the facts about beef farming at my fingertips. As always, if unsure, issue a general invitation to visit Scotland and see for yourself – are you reading this, Scottish Tourist Board? My invoice is in the post!

We met Dr Marino Lupi, president of Tuscany’s autism services organisation Autismo Toscana, in his surgery in Fucecchio. A family doctor akin to a GP, Dr Lupi has a wide circle of connections and has been instrumental in establishing the Ventignano centre. I was very grateful to him for sparing the time to talk to us about the changes and challenges, and how things are developing. It added a valuable dimension to my understanding of the way the system is working.

No visit to Italy is complete without ice cream, and I simply had to try the one developed for an international ice cream congress in the Netherlands, no less. It was an impressive concoction and I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take a photo of it, but by the time I remembered I was supposed to be recording everything, it was long gone. Take my word for it – like chilli in chocolate, spicy ice cream tastes pretty darn good.

We rounded off the day joining Franco, his partner and their young son for supper in Florence. By this time, I was feeling guilty making Rossella work so hard in English (although I’m pretty proud of now being able to string together a couple of simple sentences in Italian), and anyway however open you are it can be difficult to move a friendship on if you’re relying mainly on smiling and waving your hands a bit. On the journey to Florence we discovered we could both communicate much better in German, and after that there was no stopping us.


Entrance to Bottega di Geppetto early years centre
Paper rose made and sold at Centro Cerbaiola, and presented to me by Antonio, 22

Early start this morning, as we were squeezing in a visit to Bottega di Geppetto, the early years service for preschool children. Some of you will have heard of this already, as had I, but it was good to meet up again with Barbara Pagni, who showed us round. I’d also met Barbara before, in a former job, and I know the reputation of the work they do. Seeing where it all happens was a bit of a bonus.

Of course preschoolers aren’t the Life on the Edge of the Cliff age group, but in terms of rounding out the picture about diagnosis of difficulties and early intervention it proved to be really informative. And having the chance to play should never be passed over!

Next stop was Empoli, and the office of Annalisa Monti, director of the Institute of Child Neuropsychiatry since 1985. Spent a fascinating hour with her: she has a deep knowledge of programmes and therapies worldwide, and strong opinions on current thinking. I’d love to follow up with her again when I get home, and if there’s a chance to come back for one of the conferences she was telling me about I would leap at it. She’s a busy lady – the phone ringing off the hook throughout the meeting was enough to indicate that – but I think, and hope, we both felt a good connection had been made.

Actually, that’s one of the things I’ve become aware of. Initially, people have been uncertain about what this project is all about – but 5 minutes in, and I can see the light bulb moment as they realise just what it is I want to talk about. After that, without exception they’ve fallen over themselves to help in any way they can. I don’t know if there’s much more I could have done to make my aims clearer ahead of these meetings, but it’s something to reflect on for the other trips I’ll be making – the level of goodwill and cooperation, once you reach the right person, has been exceptional so far.

In the afternoon, Rossella had arranged a tour of two adult daycare centres for me, Il Papiro and Centro Cerbaiola. Not surprisingly, given the first cohort of young people with a proper diagnosis and support background are really only now making the transition into adulthood, services for adults are less developed and largely for those who are still placed in the category of “handicapped”. The centres were welcoming and the projects operating on similar principles to Ventignano in focusing on relevant work and community connections, but the sense was different. I didn’t pick up the same feeling of aspiration, personal individual development or therapeutic intervention – despite many staff being clearly skilled and highly experienced. There are more questions I need to ask about this to make sure I’ve properly understood what the objectives are for these centres, but they are meeting an important need.

Making mosaics at Il Papiro: a traditional local art
In the art room at Il Papiro

It was sad to say goodbye to Irene – she’s been such a key part of everything I’ve done so far, and I can tell from the reactions of people I’ve been speaking to that they’ve been as impressed as I have. I think we definitely have to meet up again, by hook or by crook.

Sad, too, to be spending my last evening with Rossella’s family – they’ve been exceptional hosts and I really hope we’ll meet again too, in Italy or in Scotland.

Packing my bag feels like taking a massive step into the unknown, as tomorrow I’m heading to a strange town with no-one planning to meet me and no interpreter lined up – the people I’m seeing confirmed the meeting quite late, and didn’t answer my questions about whether an interpreter was necessary. I’m assuming therefore that it won’t be, but you never know…

Sitting on a railway station, got a ticket for my destination…

After a final coffee with Rossella in San Miniato, she dropped me at the neuropsychiatric clinic in La Badia. Cinzia had been keen for me to visit her here, where a lot of work around diagnosis and considering the right level of support is carried out. It was a bit of a squeeze, as it meant rearranging plans for Bologna, but I’m glad I did.

I had the chance to observe Cinzia in action with a young girl aged around 3 years, who had been brought to the centre by her father for diagnostic assessment. The meeting was streamed to the computer in a separate room, where Leonardo talked me through what was taking place from a psychological viewpoint.


Afterwards, I was able to speak to Cinzia about her views on the assessment, what she’d been looking for and observed, and what her corresponding recommendations for support might be.

The centre at Badia, which also houses adult neuropsychiatric services, is part of an old building, but some of the young people from Ventignano also come here, and I appreciated the chance to have a look around before Leonardo gave me a lift to the station.

Again, I’m certain we’ll keep in contact.

I may still not have found the right moment to use the word “eyebrow”, but I’m obviously starting to blend in, as I was asked twice, in Italian, about the destination of the train – and yes, I was able to understand and answer both times. I like this language!


Next: Emilia Romagna