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.

Arrivederci Roma, Ciao Lucca! Italy update #3

Friday was a travel day and the sun came out for the drive. It’s not easy to say goodbye to a great hotel like the Raphael, but we picked up our cute little Fiat 500 at the Rome airport and headed north. Avoiding the autostrada, we took E80 and A12 along the Tyrrhenian and then Ligurian coast from Rome to Pisa, then inland to Lucca.

It was a pleasant drive through the Maremma region of Tuscany, spaghetti western (you know those old westerns made in Italy) territory with snow covered mountains in the distance. Paul prefers to drive and liked the peppy little car. His stick shift technique came back to him right away. Lunch was a quick and delicious pizza at a truckstop. Why don’t truckstops in the U.S. have great food like this?

Lucca, in northern Tuscany, would be our home for the next 12 days.  We found our way into the walled city at rush hour with the help of the iPhone map and went straight to the parking lot our landlady had recommended.  Only registered locals can drive in from the city’s outskirts so we left the car and rolled our bags through the cobbled streets to meet Mrs. Sonia, our landlord.

Cobblestone streets and my favorite red boots.

Cobblestone streets and my favorite red boots.

She showed us three ways to get in to the building at 7 Via del Suffragi and gave us seven keys; one for the big front door of the building, one for the little front door, one for the back door around the block, one for the miniature elevator, one for our apartment door and two for the bicycles. She also took Paul outside to show him the fuse box because the power will go if you plug in too many things in Italy. Since I use a hair dryer, we are especially at risk!

Mrs. Sonia also shared locations for the best bakeries for bread, sweets and focaccia (yes, three different ones), the best pizzerias, a restaurant for dinner just 57 steps from our building and the location of the only market in town open 8-8. This was important since almost everything in Italy closes from 1:30-4:30.

After the orientation, we set out to find the bar that will be “ours” for the next 11 days. In case you haven’t visited Italy, a bar is open at 7 a.m. for coffee, pastries and a splash of grappa to “correct” the coffee if needed. You can stop there at 10:30 for a small cheese sandwich and even at 1:00 for a light lunch with or without wine, a mid-afternoon coffee later and then wine or fruit juice and a snack on your way home at six. You can see that it is essential to find a home bar quickly. Ours is old with cases of pastries and sandwiches, a deluxe coffee machine, a ciocciolato calda machine (hot chocolate) and rich wood shelves filled with wine and local chocolates with hazelnuts. Very cozy on rainy afternoons.

We also found a small market for bread, butter, cheese and wine and a butcher with prepared foods and local sausages within a few blocks. We put in a some supplies and then had dinner at Ristorante All’ Olivo (57 steps away). Really nice restaurant with food that was on the fancy side. It was only 7:30 so we were the second couple there. The house wine was excellent and the food delicious but we were a bit tired and would have fared as well with peasant food. We finished with vin santo and biscotti for dipping and slept like the dead.

Our apartment is newly built into the attic of an ancient building. Winters are usually cold and sunny in Lucca — except for this year. Everyone we meet is sorry for us but we are having a darn good time. The sidewalks are wide so there is no fighting for umbrella space. The apartment is charming and fitted out well so we are quite comfortable. It’s # 359405 at vrbo.com if you’d like to see it. Saturday morning we awoke to rain on the skylight and a 9 a.m. visit from our exuberant building super who came to make an adjustment to the terrace door. I stayed in bed and he and Paul communicated with hand signals and loud talking and got the job done. Then Paolo (he’s already becoming Italian) was off to our bar for cappuccino (uncorrected) and a croissant while I stayed home with my hot tea.

We finally emerged looking for lunch and the monthly outdoor antiques market.  We found lunch at the Antica Drogheria. It began as a drugstore in 1895 and is now a restaurant featuring traditional and local foods. Paul had his third pizza Margharita in as many days and I had a big bowl of farro in brodo (broth). Farro is a local grain that I love. It came in a puréed bean and vegetable broth with fruity olive oil on top and crispy crackers made from pizza dough. Manna from heaven. Drogheria will see us again!

Farro and beans in broth with fruity Luccan olive oil on top.

Farro and beans in broth with fruity Luccan olive oil on top. Nothing like it on a cold rainy day!

Our little folding umbrellas deserve medals of honor on this trip! We re-bundled ourselves and walked across town to the antique market. It is open air and spills from a large piazza onto side streets. The hearty vendors braved the 45 degree rainy afternoon but not many customers did. We didn’t last long and were soon headed to our bar for restorative cappuccini. Refreshed, we did a bit of shopping and headed home. We took the grand staircase to the fourth floor because groceries and two adults can’t fit into our building’s tiny elevator. In Italy, you don’t complain about the size of the elevator. You are just thankful to have one at all!

The quality of prepared foods in Italy is excellent. We’d brought home ravioli filled with fresh ricotta and spinach, English peas with proscuitto and homemade tomato sauce. When dinner time rolled around we started with local olives and dried sausage. For the main course, I had my ravioli with the buttery, winey peas for sauce and Paolo had his with the tomato sauce. A lovely meal rounded out with a $7 bottle of good red wine. This is the life!