Ciao, Italia: Final Italy Update

We spent our last day in Lucca shopping and packing and eating. For dinner we consumed three kinds of local cheese from the fridge accompanied by a huge green salad and lots of onion focaccia from the best focaccia bakery in town. It’s special because the oven has steam and the resulting bread is so tender.

We often took a shortcut through this historic site in Lucca.

Taking a short cut through this park in Lucca after afternoon shopping.

I have a red duffel bag that folds into a tiny pouch. It has been from Australia to Peru to Italy with me and never lets me down. This time it is coming home filled with beans, olive oil, tuna, seeds for the garden, a couple of leather purses and lots of other goodies. We had to call a cab to take us to our car on the edge of Lucca simply because of the bean and oil poundage!

We took the highway past Pisa over to the coast and headed for Rome. We passed sheep and sheep and more sheep there in pecorino country.  The views of the hill towns and the sun sparkling on the ocean were something to remember. After a perfect panini at an Auto Grille, we meandered through the seaside town of San Vincenze and down narrow roads between coastal farms before getting back on the highway where the ocean views kept improving.IMG_1475

And then we were at the airport Hilton in Rome. Sterile but convenient for our morning flight home. We missed our cozy Lucca apartment. Sigh….

Last Italian breakfast at Rome airport. The pink stuff is mortadella. I love having thin slices of bologna with my cappuccino. That never happens back home.

Last Italian breakfast at Rome airport. The pink stuff is mortadella. I love having thin slices of bologna with my cappuccino. That never happens back home.

Some final musings…

We learned that we can have a really good time in the rain!

It was an amazing trip and we love crowdless winter travel. Lucca would be so different with summer crowds and English heard everywhere.

Folks are warmer and less stoic in Tuscany than in Umbria where we stayed a couple of years ago, but Umbria, Italy’s green heart is a beautiful place.

Next time we want to bird watch, visit national parks, hear some gypsy guitar, spend some time on the coast and in the chestnut forests of the Maremma. Sounds like we’ll need at least a month.

We know we will return to Italy, but yesterday, Paul said our next international trip should be Botswana. I like his thinking. We’ll start putting spare change in the jar for that trip right now.

Lunch in the Garfagna: Italy update #11

Local products.

Local products.

On Sunday we took a beautiful drive up to the Garfagnana, a mountainous region of Tuscany north of Lucca.  We could see the white marble cliffs of Carrera and later the snow-covered Alps from the road that followed the Serchio River.  The air was clear and crisp and the sky intensely blue.

We stopped for lunch at l’Aia di Piero in Castelnuevo. This market sold all local products and had five tables in the corner. They gave us a choice of three dishes, no menu. I had a thick farro soup, Paulo had lasagna with creamy béchamel sauce and the bread was nutty and brown.  A platter of local cured meats, cheeses and sweet and sour pickled vegetables followed.

Quarters were close and the stone room was chilly. We sat on backless stools and the ancient fur-clad woman behind Paul leaned on him throughout the perfect Sunday lunch. We bought some jars of good Italian tuna to bring home then walked around the corner for coffee and cake and a good look at the Serchio which runs right through the small town.

The corner of the Castelnuevo shop where we had lunch. That's Paul's shoulder with his leaning friend behind him!

The corner of the Castelnuevo shop where we had lunch. That’s Paul’s shoulder with his leaning friend behind him!

Back in the car we crossed the river and meandered through steep little villages passing couples walking off lunch on the narrow roads and groups of old men in front of bars. Timeless pictures.  We made our way to Borgo a Mazzano in search of yet another 12th century church thinking it would be open since it was Sunday, but once again the interior eluded us.

We arrived home to see the full moon rise.  Buona notte from Lucca.

Five Things to Like in Lucca: Italy update #10

ONE. The weekly outdoor market in Lucca is the place to buy clothes, shoes, paper towels, toys, produce and just about anything else you need. We strolled and shopped the entire market on a closed street. It was about the length of two football fields and had vendors on both sides.  We bought tablecloths and a bottle opener. At the very end of the market, there was a roast chicken/fried veggie food truck. We couldn’t resist sharing a yummy short skewer of peppers, pork and chicken. Just a few bites each to to prep us for lunch.P1040277

We rambled on through town enjoying the sunshine, stopping to take pictures in the circle of tall buildings built right on top of the old roman amphitheater. Did I tell you there was an entire roman town under Lucca? Much of Italy is built in layers.

The piazza built on top of the old amphitheatre.

The piazza built on top of the old amphitheatre.

TWO.  While window shopping, we saw a weaving shop with the loom right there and gorgeous goods in the window. We went in and stayed for half an hour, chatting with the proprietress/weaver and her miniature Lassie dog. Lucca was the end of the Silk Road way back when so making fine thread, yarn and fabric is a tradition. The loom was loaded with blue and cream silk thread that would become a fine table runner.  It was a beautiful shop and we moved a good bit closer to our duty free limit in there!skeins

THREE.   In 1910 Felice Marche and his family came down from the mountains above Lucca bringing chestnuts and coal with them. They started serving chestnut cakes and red wine on a stone table and never left. Da Felice Pizzeria is still in the same family and in the same spot since 1960. You can stand or sit on the stools at the bar and the middle of the room will be full of people lined up to order at the counter. They spill into the street when it’s busy.

Crispy chickpea crepes, cecina, at Da Francesca.

Crispy chickpea crepes, cecina, at Da Francesca.

Da Felice serves pizza in quarters, halves or whole; savory, crispy, chickpea crepes called cecina; and for dessert, the traditional and slightly sweet chestnut flour cake folded and filled with fresh ricotta. We ordered all of the above with red wine and even managed to snag a couple of stools. Paul polished off half a pizza margherita while I polished off the local specialties.

Chestnut flour crepes filled with lightly sweetened ricotta.

Chestnut flour crepes filled with lightly sweetened ricotta.

We enjoyed watching several families with small children crowd in for warm cecina to ward off the cold and chatted with a South African woman whose husband was a visiting professor at the university in Pisa. Cozy place.

FOUR.  I loved the ceiling of a bedroom chamber at Palazzo Mansi, one of the National Museums in Lucca. The Mansis were a merchant family, another Silk Road connection, and seem to have done well for themselves. The flowers and stone are part of the painting too. The whole thing is supposed to induce sleep. It is so sweet, I think it would.

The bedroom ceiling designed to induce sleep.

The bedroom ceiling designed to induce sleep.

FIVE. Finally, the Boccherini Music School on the piazza facing our apartment building. From the terrace or an open window we heard beautiful music floating through the air. Luigi Boccherini was a composer from Lucca. His work in the 1700′s greatly influenced the development of string quartets and quintets.

Statue of Luigi Boccherini in front of the Boccherini Music School, Lucca.

Statue of Luigi Boccherini in front of the Boccherini Music School, Lucca.


Puccini and the Hamburger Tower: Italy update #9

We spent a couple of days touring the three national museums in town, one of which is Puccini’s birthplace, and several churches.

The Duomo di San Martino, Lucca. You can see the bell tower from Puccini's attic.

The Duomo di San Martino, Lucca. Puccini could see the bell tower from his attic.

We always enjoy the amazing art and history of Italy’s museums and churches but we especially liked Puccini’s apartment. We loved his scribbled notes on the draft of Tosca, a letter from a director asking what Puccini’s notes about metronome time on the score meant and a note from a friend urging him to get off his duff and start working again. The apartment contains his trademark overcoat and white silk scarf and even the Steinway used to compose his greatest works.

Terra cotta statues line the garden at the Guigini Museum.

Terra cotta statues line the garden at the Guigini Museum.

When we left the Musee Guinigi yesterday, restaurants were starting to close for the afternoon. Panicked at the thought of missing a meal, we ran to ran to Gigi’s and they took us in. Antipasti was artichoke hearts baked in a small terra cotta casserole with sun dried tomatoes, pimentos, tiny black olives and olive oil. Heavenly!
Last time we were at Gigi’s I seen a simple hamburger steak with spinach and roasted potatoes on the side. That simplicity appealed to me so I ordered the same – or thought I had. What arrived was the first vertical food we’d been served on this trip. At the top of the tower was a pile of spinach with yummy home made lemon mayo.  Below that, melted fontina topped the perfectly cooked burger that sat on a tomato slice and a piece of rustic bread.  I don’t know how they did it, but the burger was medium rare inside and absolutely crispy on the outside. It was so good that we ordered another one for Paul. Pasta took the back seat this time and we couldn’t have been happier.
The spinach, lemon mayo burger tower!
The spinach, lemon mayo, burger tower!

I Feel the Earth Move under my Feet: Italy Update#8

We were on the rooftop terrace off our third floor apartment hanging up our laundry (like many here, we have a washer but no dryer) and the building started moving under our feet. We think it lasted more than a minute. If we’d been inside we’d have seen pendant lights and curtains swinging. People were pouring into the streets and chattering excitedly below us.

The view from our terrace.

The view from our terrace.

When the motion subsided, the minerally smell of stone grinding against stone wafted through the air. We finished hanging the laundry and calmed ourselves. Since the building was still standing, we decided to stay put in the apartment for a bit. This was my third earthquake, but it was hubby’s first and he did not like it one bit!  He even felt a little queasy from the motion. Later we learned that the earthquake had measured 4.2 at the epicenter 25 miles away.  No serious damage, just a little excitement for Dana and Paolo!
Paolo decided a nap would help him recover from the mini-trauma.  My adrenalin was pumping, so I headed out to walk off lunch.  I finished my shopping at Prospero, the bean store, and walked the streets of Lucca until dark carrying three kilos of beans. I picked up dinner on the way home; a slab of runny local Gorgonzola, freshly baked bread, pears and a bottle of prosecco. When I asked the proprietress at the fruit and veg shop for pears, she wanted to know when we would eat them. I told her and she selected two that were just the perfect ripeness for eating that day. 
I love Italy!


Adventure in Florence: Italy update #7

We arranged a guided walking tour of Florence this morning. It was cold but sunny so a nice day for walking. First stop was the renaissance Davanzati Palazzo. It was fascinating to learn how the 1% lived in the 16th Century. Our guide was a terrific art historian who grew up in Italy and the U.S. He gave us a new appreciation for the Renaissance period, the Medicis, Michelangelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s Dome and all things Florence. We are inspired to return.

As a chicken fan, I couldn't pass up a shot of this door knocker with roosters!

As a chicken fan, I couldn’t pass up a shot of these roosters in Florence!

I recommend the tour company, Walks of Italy. We signed up for a tour that could have been up to twelve people, but no one else reserved and we had a private  half-day tour. Walks of Italy never cancels, even if only one person reserves. That’s good service.

Our guide left us about 1:00 and we stayed at the Galleria dell’Accademia for a bit longer. We were in the gift shop perusing the David umbrellas and keychains when every traveler’s nightmare struck. Paolo realized his backpack was gone. He thought he’d left it on the airport style security belt at the entrance, but no luck. The security people at the museum were concerned and kind, doing a quick search of all possible places it could be and then worrying that someone had picked it up and walked out with it. One of the guards had P. mentally retrace his steps (this suggestion is more positively received when offered by a security guard rather than a spouse). Aha! The coffee shop where we had stopped with during our morning tour seemed the likely place to leave a backpack.

We quickly made our way back to the Duomo and circled the church square looking for the right cafe. We found it and were greeted enthusiastically at the door by the women who had made our cappuccini earlier. They produced the bag as soon as they saw us. One of them told Paolo he should be more careful or someday he would leave behind his head.  I agreed!  With mille grazies said, we ran back to the museum to let them know it was found. They were delighted when Paolo returned holding his pack in the air for all to see.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

Walking back to the Duomo once more, we noticed people and their dogs. The dogs were often dressed at the height of fashion just like their human companions. We even saw a shop specializing in doggie wear. Fleece, down, cashmere and rhinestones; they had it all. Didn’t see many mutts either, only purebreds with outfits. Hardly a naked dog anywhere!

We lingered in the Duomo after lunch soaking it all in.  Late that afternoon we admitted to each other that it was time to go and joined a bus full of commuters headed to Lucca.  During the ride we realized that our faith in human nature had been taken up a few notches by the staff at the museum and our friends at the coffee shop. It was a nice feeling.

The one hour trip took 90 minutes due to rush hour and the bus was heated to about 90 degrees so we were really  happy to see the walls of Lucca. We rolled our suitcase across town in the refreshingly cold air, glad to be home. We put our feet up and watched Hillary Clinton’s great stateswomanship (is that a word?) as she testified on Benghazi before the Senate Committe. We consumed a bit of local fresh cheese and wine as we cheered her on and you guessed it, made a plan for dinner!IMG_1343

Antica Drogheria for the third time!  The food there is typical of the region, reasonably priced and delicious. When you stay in a town for two weeks, it’s nice to be a “regular” at a couple of places. I had local Tuscan steak sliced hot off the grill.  It was served on a bed of fresh arugula and topped with parmesan and olive oil. They even present the steak bone so you know exactly where your tagliatelle of beef comes from. We shared a side dish of Lucca red beans cooked with rosemary and sage.  The beans were some of the best I’ve had and I have eaten tons of beans.

The restaurant was packed and the people watching was excellent. We were the only Americans and loved guessing what the Italians around us were talking about. The crowd appeared all at once so the service was slower than usual. We noticed that the waitress never lost her cool and nobody got angry or impatient; just enjoyed friends, wine and the food as it came.  A good lesson for all of us.

A Room With a View: Italy Update#6

On Tuesday morning I got serious about tracking down the bean store. We combined three different directives from Italians on the street, in Italian, and arrived at Antica Bottega di Prospero. They were putting up the shutters for lunch closing, but kindly let us in. It’s a beautiful store that sells Luccan olive oil, black rice, vinegar, honey and all the heavenly dried things you could ask for; mushrooms, pasta, spices and barrel after barrel of local dried beans and lentils. Seeds for the garden too. We stocked up on a variety of things, including sorano beans, and may go back for more once I develop a packing strategy.

Beans, honey and black rice from Antica Bottega di Prospero, Lucca

Beans, honey and black rice from Antica Bottega di Prospero, Lucca


Arugula, onion, parsley and greens seeds for the garden

Arugula, onion, parsley and greens seeds for the garden

Beans purchased, we drove into the hills north of Lucca in search of a restaurant called Cecco in Pescia. I’d read that it had served some of the same menu items for 100 years including the ancient sorano beans. The drive went splendidly until we arrived in Pescia where it took us a while to find the tiny street. But alas, no restaurant. I asked someone and we learned that it had recently closed.  A hundred years and they had to close now?

We grabbed a panini in a bar and headed to our next destination, San Gennaro. This tiny town’s claim to fame is a small 12th century church. We drove up narrow winding roads with steep drops off the side hoping to see a beautiful terra cotta statue of the Archangel Gabriel attributes to Da Vinci. The photos looked lovely. The church was locked so I knocked on the door of the diocese office next door. A priest in a hurry said no visitors and closed the door quickly. No angel for us, but here’s a photo for you.

Pieve di San Gennaro Angelo di Leonardo da Vinci

It was sunny so we drove up and down the seriously steep inclines and hairpin turns. No guard rails and views that took my breath away!  It made driving in the Appalachians back home seem quite tame. Tucked away among those hills where there are rivers, so lots of water for manufacturing, are factories that produce tissue or toilet paper. It was a surprise to find them there!

Back in Lucca, we had an uneventful dinner at a place called Nonna Clara chosen mostly because it was close to home. They gave us a small plate of farro in tomato sauce that was delicious, but the rest was only okay. The weird thing was a huge, and I mean huge,  photo of Grandma Clara’s hands making ravioli. It probably started as sepia but had taken on a blue cast over time. A picture of blueish-brown hands magnified so many times you can see every follicle and age spot is not a good thing to have on a restaurant wall! The giant ravioli filling didn’t look so good either. Unfortunately we had ordered before we noticed it. At least the waitress was nice. I don’t have a picture for you because I never want to see Nonna Clara’s hands again!

On Wednesday, on the way to get our bus to Florence, we learned something at Trattoria Gigi. When meat is sliced into nice thin strips it can be called tagliatelle, like the pasta. I ordered farro and bean soup and Paolo order what sounded tagliatelle pasta with Parmesan, grilled chicken and arugula. He was surprised when he was served a beautiful plate of arugula with Parmesan shards and sliced grilled chicken. It was delish and a perfect accompaniment to my soup.  We made short work of it and P. ordered pasta with boar sauce for his real lunch!

For eight dollars, the Lucca-Florence bus dropped us a 10-minute walk from our hotel although it took us 20 minutes to figure out it was only 10 minutes away. After checking in at the Hotel Europa on Via Cavour; a simple, clean and recently remodeled pensione in walking distance of everything, we took a stroll and had coffee in an upscale pastry shop across from the Duomo. Coffee and tiny fried rice balls, a delicate dolce, provided an excellent pick me up. As it got dark, the sky turned an inky blue and the moon came up over the Duomo. Wow!IMG_1304

We had a great dinner at Pepo on Via Rosina. Elizabeth Minchili’s iPhone app, EAT FLORENCE, led us to that one. Thanks Elizabeth!  The decor was a perfect blend of rustic and modern and we felt at home immediately. Antipasto was four crostini typical of Tuscany; tomato basil, mushroom, warm chicken liver pâté and tangy arugula pesto. That great opener lead to an a remarkable dinner of Ossi bucci and sliced pork roast with truffle sauce, salad and crispy, creamy roasted potatoes. We shared dessert, semi freddo, a kind of light ice cream with chocolate drizzle.

Back at the hotel we could see Brunelleschi’s Dome from our window… a room with a view.