Feels like Home. Really!
After traveling for seven months, Italy seems more like home than anywhere we have been. I know it shouldn’t, seeing how we were in English speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand or South Africa for months, but it does. It’s hard to explain. Maybe it’s because we know we’re closer to the states than we have been in 7 months. Maybe it’s because the season and weather are similar to what we would be experiencing back home. Maybe it’s because we are staying in a little town that seems so very similar to San Luis Obispo in temperament with laid back locals, shops that close early and open late, and maybe because the downtown is best enjoyed by foot. Who knows? But it feels a bit like home.
Lucca is a town of about 70,000 in the region of Tuscany, about 50 miles west of Florence, and 25 miles east of Pisa. It is a quaint little city in spite of its numerous inhabitants, feeling more like a town of 2,000 than 70,000. The reason? The 800 year old “walled village” that sits in the center of Lucca. Lucca is an ancient city, described by locals and tourists alike as two separate cities. One city is “inside the wall”, and the other “outside the wall”. Hmmmm… how do I create this image for ya? Imagine an ancient brick wall that is 30 feet tall and 60 feet thick, in the shape of a 4 kilometer jagged oval encircling and protecting the inner city from once-plundering hordes. Interrupting the wall are battlements, entrances for bikes, pedestrians, cars and tour buses, while on top of the wall is a lovely paved and grass bordered path, strolled by grandparents pushing strollers, well attired joggers and cyclists, field trips of 11 year olds, lovers holding hands, families on holiday and the locals just walking and enjoying one of their numerous cigarettes (more on this later). The wall dates back 800 years, and has never repelled even a lone trooper. Lucca was a rich city for 100s of years, thanks to a booming silk trade that made it rather interesting to even folks like Napoleon who was one of Lucca’s proud plunderers. There is easy access to the top of the wall from the inner city so you can enjoy the views while you stroll atop it. Within the wall is a walking city, inhospitable to cars and trucks, but a great friend to bicycles, scooters, and of course walkers. The streets are charming, the churches are magnificent and the history just swallows you with every step. Simply sitting around in a café, enjoying an espresso, while facing one of the many piazza’s, courtyards, or shopping streets is a noble pastime.
A good friend from SLO, Judy King and her family have been staying in Lucca for months and were there to greet us when our bus arrived in Lucca. We had just missed Alex Crozier, Judy’s better half, who had gone back to San Luis Obispo to resume his responsibilities as the Women’s soccer coach at Cal Poly. He was here in Lucca playing with the men’s club team (ouch). The kids, Bo, Dan and Angie are all attending Italian schools, playing on Italian soccer clubs and learning the language from a fire hose.
Our apartment is inside the wall and we all easily walked to it, even with our giant bags. Chiara, our super helpful (and cute) property manager was there as well to give us a walk through. The walk through stunned us. Our place “The Residenza Mansi” was huge and perfect. It is on a quiet street, on an upper floor, overlooking everyday life in the small courtyard behind it. It has four bedrooms, two kitchens, a sitting room, family room, dining area, laundry room, a gaggle of bathrooms and everything you would ever need including four bikes and cooking accessories galore! I recommend renting the Reseidnza Mansi yourself. The web site is nice, but it doesn’t do the place justice.
We cycled everywhere and even tuned the bikes up when we needed at the resident shop for very little cost. We hung out, shopped, strolled, ate, found a nice little skate park, and could catch the train to anywhere in Italy, just by walking or riding our bikes the short distance to the train station. We had heard that Lucca was a fantastic place to call “home” while you trained your way to some of the major Italian cities and that is exactly what we did, heading to Modena and Maranello, Florence, Pisa, Rome and Venice. Lucca was a little slice of heaven and we will come back here for sure.
Parker and I trained our way to the Ferrari Museum in Maranello Italy. We passed through Prato and Bologna on our way, but two hours later, there we in Modena, waiting for cab to Maranello. This day trip was totally worth it, seeing some of the most notable Formula One cars ever, Parker’s favorite car, the Enzo, and a bevy of other beauties. We even saw a Scaglietti making its way around Fiorano test track which was fun to watch.
Florence and my Mom
We asked my mom, “Grandma Patty”, to come visit us while we were in Italy. My mom loves artwork and we could think of no better gift than to share some of the beautiful art history we knew we would see. We had enough bedrooms in Lucca, and one more person was no big deal at all for the small day trips we would take. She had never been in Italy before, and after some gentle prodding and an OK from her doctor, she was committed. Mom flew into Florence and I picked her up in the airport without incident, (that is if you don’t count that she missed her connection and Paris and arrived 9 hours late). Mom and I spent her first three days in Florence, visiting museums, cathedrals, palaces, and shopping in between those. We walked everywhere and we wore each other out. We hadn’t spent much time alone with each other for as long as we could remember and we had a great time touring by ourselves. It was our first time to Florence and mom had a list of places she wanted to see. I think we saw everything on the list, and we walked everywhere, never really needing a cab or a bus. We visted the Duomo, the Croce Cathedral, Santa Maria Novella Cathedral, the Uffizi Museum, the Academy Museum, the National Museum at the Bargello, the Duomo Museum, the Piti Palace, and the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
Our hotel was close to the Duomo, and we could see the bell tower and dome from our room windows. It drizzled every day for most of the day, so lines and tourists were relatively light. Florence is an incredible place to experience Italian Renaissance art. We visited the sarcophagus of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galileo, all in the Croce Cathedral, and we saw Michelangelo’s David at the Academia which produces an involuntary a gasp in everyone I watched see it. We saw countless Italian Renaissance and Flemish paintings at the Uffizi, walking through the sculptures in the Piazza del Signoria from Ammannati, Giambologna, as well as Donatello and Michelangelo (which were actually copies), just to get in line.
Perhaps the most incredible place we visited was at the Pitti palace. The gardens were incredible and one could take hours to stroll it if they were so inclined, but the rooms are what blew me away. There are rooms at the Pitti palace that house an Italian Renaissance Museum with pieces by Francesco Fusini, who is my new favorite renaissance painter, blending beautiful Flemish light study with Italian and religious subject matter. But it wasn’t Fusini’s glorious work that made the Pitti stand out. The rooms themselves were the real prize. These rooms were painted in the 1600s to look as though they contain the most incredible and detailed molding and architecture on the ceiling and second floor. As you view the ceiling, you gawk at the incredible molding, balconies, and skylights. However, it’s all painted, and none of it is 3 dimensional. I found myself looking past Fusini’s work, staring at the ceiling and the incredible work of those artists. These rooms and this Fusini exhibit were coupled with the most insane jewelry and ceramics museum you can imagine. This museum does the best possible job relaying to the visitor how much wealth the Pitti and the de Medici families had. Wow. Wealth hasn’t been worn like this for hundreds and hundreds of years.
After our Florence visit the kids and Carol were thrilled to see Grandma Patty in Lucca and we would all head out to Rome and Venice in a few days after chilling from some days in Lucca. Pisa is a slight 30 minute train trip from Lucca and Mom wanted to check that out as well so we did a half day trip to see the tower. It was worth a half day to see the Duomo, the Baptistry, and the leaning tower of Pisa. We all scaled the tower, toured the Duomo, and watched people taking the silly photos of their buddies holding up the tower. The place was quite over run with tourists, but nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to see the tower in person when you’ve seen images of it your entire life. The only real thing of note during our visit was our search for some initials of one of Grandma and Grandpa’s friends, Harvey Lorenzen (sp?), who carved his initials in the tower during the 2nd world war. We think we found them – but couldn’t be sure. Generally, this isn’t a place I would recommend spending oodles of time. Do it in a day, or better yet a half day and don’t stay there.
Rome must be one of the most photographed places on earth. There were “aha!” moments all over the town, seeing things in real life that you’ve only seen before through 1,000s of photographs. We were blown away by seeing St. Peters, the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and all the fountains, but the thing that set Rome apart for us was the Roman architecture that is still standing and the 2,000+ year old ruins that are barely standing. The Coliseum, The Forum, Circus Maximus, and what we thought was the most spectacular, the Pantheon, were all hard to fathom. We couldn’t imagine that people were so advanced as to build all this 2,000 years ago. We hung out in the Coliseum for quite a while absorbing it all, which is impossible. It was a major event for all of us to be inside the structure and imagine what it must have felt like for a spectator or a competitor, or for a carnivore’s lunch for that matter.
The other thing about Rome that should be said: It is a big city with lots of people and it is a bit dirty. Scooters abound and share the road with the numerous tour buses and a whole lot of cars. It was a bit like New York City to some degree, in its frenetic quality and errrr…cleanliness. Like New York, we had heard that we had to watch out for crime in Rome, but I guess we were lucky because we found none, excepting a poor vendor getting steamrolled by the Polizia for selling counterfeit purses. We liked the place, but were ready to head out after a scant few days.
Our hotel was pretty old and haggard and was on the third floor of an old building or “palace”. It had an old elevator that sometimes worked and held at most 4 people holding their breath.. The Oceania was the hotel’s name, and while the people working there were quite nice, the place itself was pretty bad and doesn’t warrant a recommendation. Five beds in a tiny room, with stained carpets, not a single chair or dresser, and the shower was essentially the entire bathroom, not in the bathroom. It was the bathroom. There was only a continental breakfast, and you couldn’t log on to the internet until 9:00am (if it was working) so you didn’t disturb guests, or apparently the noisy people eating breakfast. I just shrugged my shoulders when I was scolded for trying to get on too early in the morning. Oh yeah – the Oceania was hugely expensive as well.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Rome visit and something I highly recommend is the “double decker red bus” tour. It is a great way to see the city and we did it all the way around. The bus makes 12 stops around Rome in a big loop. If you sit in the top of the bus for the entire loop you will get your bearings straight and see all the major sights. Pick it up at the Train station. There are always a few waiting there. A funny thing happened while we were making our loop. We were driving straight into St. Peters Square and we noticed what appeared to be 10,000 people and two jumbo monitors displaying *gulp* the pope. Yep, the pope was speaking to the masses while we drove by in our tour bus. We heard him say “President Bush” and “USA” because he had just returned from his trip. Upon reading the fine print, it appears that a papal visit was included in the price of our bus tour.
Venice was fantastic and we all loved it. We stayed in a fantastic place right on the Grand Canal, and while the floors slopes a bit just like the building, everyone had their own bedroom, and we had a nice kitchen, dining room and living room. We could hear the boats going by day and night. We grabbed a three day pass for the Vaporetto (or water bus) so we could get around easily, but really only needed it when we were trying to cover ground from one island to the other without enjoying the neighborhoods. Venice isn’t nearly as big or overwhelming as Rome is, and much of it can be easily walked. In fact, it seemed to us that on these walks the real Venice can be found. We ran into churches that held Caravaggio and Peter Paul Rubens artwork, and we were just strolling. The tiny canals and the little shops, and the people who work in them are the story it seems. There aren’t that many people living in Venice any longer and the ones who do must really love it. There are tons of tourists, and getting anything done is hard with the transportation being a huge limitation. Venice population has declined by half in many years, with many accommodations be used as pure rentals or vacation spots. The people who live here full time, must really love what this city has to offer.
Saint Marks Square and Saint Marks was a highlight, feeding pigeons with the boys, and viewing the incredible work that makes up the Catherdal and Clock tower. The food was pretty good (we had heard otherwise) and the people were very very nice.
We took a water taxi one night for an evening tour of the canals. We literally walked out of our door, walked 10 feet to our dock, whistled at a passing wooden taxi, and a driver picked us up. We toured the canals for an hour, drank a great Brunello and watched the sun wash the beautiful buildings in what felt like a warm farewell wave to Italy.
The trains in Italy are incredible. They can take you virtually anywhere you want to go in Italy or get you started to just about anywhere in Europe. They are clean, convenient, safe, on time, and not very expensive. There are many choices as well. A). You can ride in a regular Trenitalia train with no reserved seats. These trains stop in every city along the tracks and take their time. B) You can take an “IC” that has reserved seats and doesn’t stop at every stop. C) You can take the Eurostar which moves at 200kmph and stops only at major stops. On the Eurostar, you can sit in 2nd class (coach), or 1st class. As you might imagine, the prices increase as you move up the service classes. From Lucca, we would need to take a regular train that would connect with a Eurostar in Florence or Milan. We found that the best way to organize train travel was to investigate departure and arrival times on the Trenitalia web site, write down the train numbers, times and dates, then show up at the train station with all your information and then simply hand it to the person behind the counter. This worked flawlessly and was super low stress, with the only exception being that our train from Milan to Zurich simply vanished with the comment “sopresso” next to it, which it turns out means “deleted”. We boarded a train with the same destination a few hours later because the Trenitalia help desk told us our seats were still valid, which was true, except a group of Singaporean tourists had those same seats on that train. Oh, you mean the train number changed? They forgot to tell me that. Oh well, we hopped from seat to seat as we were booted by the real “occupants” until we reached Zurich. It seemed to all of us that America is so backward when it comes to train transportation. Imagine how an all electric high speed nationwide rail system would be. If this high speed rail system was integrated with rail systems in major cities (real rail systems like major Europe cities) it would be incredible and have incredibly powerful impact on the environment.
It seems everyone in Italy smokes cigarettes. I know this is a gross over statement, but we were shocked by how many kids and adults were smoking. It seems a national pastime. Imagine this: A bus load of junior high school kids exit their bus in Lucca for an “inside the wall” tour, and as soon as their little converse hit the gravel, they all, (and yes I mean all), whip out packs of smokes and start puffing away, along with their teacher. I swear to god it’s true. Mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters, all smoke. Inside, outside, upside downside. Walking, driving, riding bikes or skateboards. These people love their cigarettes and treat them as just another incredible fashion accessory, but more on that later. It must be true that the Italian people think they look more interesting or sophisticated when they are smoking. With their cigarettes gently resting between index and middle finger, their hands wave vigorously, leaving wispy translucent patterns of smoke in the air, not unlike a stunt pilot at an air show performing his grand finale. It truly is a beautiful and interesting fashion accessory. NOT. How do you think it looks on us? Yeh, no so nice, eh?
No actual smoking was done in this photo
Italians are beautiful. Now maybe that’s as big an overstatement as my smoking hyperbole, but I believe it. These could be the best looking people on earth. I have been abused by my family members for even thinking this, but I think it’s true. These people are just damn good looking. Now maybe it seems so, because we spent a week in Turkey, where I found the opposite to be true, but we all found ourselves ogling passersby with mouth agape, because they were just so damn beautiful. The men, the women, the kids are all beautiful. Blonde hair and blue eyes, red hair and green eyes, brown hair and brown eyes, all shapes and sizes. Ya know, maybe they aren’t really that good looking. Maybe it’s just that they dress so much better than everyone else, and they carry themselves with such royal aplomb. We would sit at cafés and watch passersby in layers of color coordinated clothing; orange pants, red pants, green pants, or brown, with contrasting or subtle hues of shirts and sweaters on top of that, capped with great hair and subtle earrings and perfect glasses, with cigarettes in graceful outstretched fingers. And that’s just the men. The women were even more beautiful, but I think they’re just trying to keep up with the men. By the way, there are as many men’s clothing stores as there are women’s, and their selection is fantastic. Now I’m not implying anything here, but people kept trying to talk to me in Italian. I must look like that ugly Italian second cousin they keep squirreled away in a house attic in the Tuscan hills somewhere. Seriously, it’s probably just the sense of style Italians have, but it just looks so darn good on them.
Bye Bye Grandma. Arrivederci Lucca.
We had a great time in Italy and it felt so much like home, we’re all pining for it. It was great to see Grandma enjoy herself so thoroughly in Italy. We were sorry to see her leave, and had our saddest goodbye of the trip, but we were happy to know that she had a great time, packing so much into her 18 days with us. I think we were also sad because we realized out time in Lucca was coming to a close. Bye bye Grandma! And Arrivederci Lucca!