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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
It’s Monday and we aim to find one of the three tourist info offices in Lucca. We started at “our” bar but today was its closing day so we moved on. Every business chooses a closing day in Italy so you have to check before you plan to go. In Lucca, at least a third of the shops and restaurants seemed to be closed on Monday. Many of the big churches were closed too. I guess the priests are worn out from Sunday! From the signs we’ve seen, it looks like Wednesday is a popular closing day too.
It was almost was 11 and we’d skipped breakfast so found a bar down the street for cappuccino and a couple of small sandwiches that cost just a Euro each. Perfect snack to hold us until lunch around 2 and very tasty. We found tourist office #1 but it was closed for winter, so we continued on to #2. Unfortunately it was closed too, but had a sign directing us to the open office.
Our philosophy about Italy is to enjoy every minute. We don’t mind the wrong turns, afternoon shop closings or closed tourist offices because we love just being there. So we kept strolling, enjoying the sun, people, cats and dogs. Although every dog had on a designer coat, we left ours behind choosing vests, sweaters, cameras and my scarf of course instead. Women in Italy wear scarves all the time and I brought a bunch so that I could blend in. We got lucky at the third tourist info office receiving advice on the museums and monuments in Lucca and the best way to get to Florence. Turns out both bus and train will deposit us at the same convenient spot in Firenze but the bus is faster, about 45 minutes, because it is direct.
Mission accomplished we headed down the main east-west street across town in search of pizza and a bean store I had read about months before. Paolo has been pizza-less for 48 hours and beans are my weakness. There’s a store somewhere in town that has all the wonderful varieties of dried Italian ones that are hard to come by back home. I brought an extra suitcase and it will be filled with food when we leave. I think I get my beanaholic condition from my Dad who loves them too. Friend Barbara Swell, http://logcabincooking.com , tells me the Sorana bean smells like bacon when it cooks. Is that dreamy or what? I must find them! The bean store eludes us so far but we won’t give up.
Many of the pizzerias seem to be closed so we duck into a trattoria called GiGi on the Piazza Carmine that was on my list. Two bites into our salads we’d forgotten all about pizza. For the main course, I had a thin veal cutlet lightly breaded and sautéed, covered with a fresh tomato sauce with capers. Paolo had rigatoni with a ground veal/beef ragu, probably veal and beef. He started out with water but switched to vino rosso once he tasted the melt in your mouth ragu. From now on you can assume that we have wine with meals. That will save lots of typing. GiGi is cozy and welcoming and good. We lingered and enjoyed every bite. The bench just outside Trattoria GiGi in Lucca.
A quick stop at the all day market and we were back home resting our tootsies after four hours of walking on cobblestones. We toyed with the idea of using the washing machine down the hall, but since that required standing up, it never happened.
About 8 p.m. we returned to Drogheria (see update #2) to resolve Paolo’s pizza craving. I had it too by then. We started with prosecco and paper thin slices of bresaola with arugula and Parmesan shards then moved on to pizza. Copy this into your browser for more info on the antipasti.
Pizza fix satisfied, the day can end.
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.
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!
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!