Basking Under The Tuscan Sun
As I drive the 550 kms from our home to our rented villa in Lucca, Tuscany, I am thinking of how lucky we are to be having this holiday as a family. Its not often that we go out on family vacations anymore. What with the kids living 16,000 kms away on the other side of the earth, one a doctor with inflexible holidays and another a student with fixed terms, family vacations are a thing of the past. Happily this time we are joined in our trip by my son’s best friends. One, we know for 16 years, the other for 8. Both are very dear to all of us, in effect they are my pseudo-kids. We are also joined by my daughter’s best friend, a lovely young lady very dear to me and her boyfriend whom I got to know on this trip.
I am a bit nervous about the drive as this is the first time I have driven such a distance in one day. I am following my husband’s car and that brings its own challenges (he speeds and I don’t). We drive through the Grand Saint Bernard tunnel, down to Genoa and then along the coast. The drive is easy except on either side of Genoa where there are narrow roads through many tunnels and I am tailgated by Italian drivers who drive one foot behind me in narrow tunnels at 100 kms/hr even when I have no place to go! I am a nervous wreck at the end of it.
We reach our rented villa just outside the walls of Lucca in about 7 hours, which includes 3 short breaks. I am rather tired but secretly proud of myself but am brought down to earth by my husband who complains about my not keeping up with him!! Oh well, one cannot please everyone…
Our home for the week is just opposite the train station. It has 4 bedrooms over three floors, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen, a nice backyard and a long enough driveway to park our two cars. After a quick tea, my husband and I drive to the nearby supermarket (very conveniently open until 9pm) and stock up the fridge.
Sunday 3rd July 2011 – A drive through the Garfagnana region, north of Lucca
Our first stop is to see the 11th century Ponte Maddalena or the Devil’s Bridge which is near the town of Borgo a Mozzano. Legend says that the Master Builder, fearing that he would not finish the work in time, made a pact with the Devil. The Devil agreed to help him to build it overnight in return for the soul of the first person to cross it next morning. The villagers then tricked the devil by sending a dog across the bridge the next morning! I love bridges and this is one of the most unusual ones I have ever seen.
Next stop is Bagni di Lucca. On this Sunday afternoon, it is very quiet and we don’t really know what the touristic sights are. We wander aimlessly for a bit but its so very hot and we are flagging in no time. We settle to eat our first gelato of our trip. I choose a mix of Chocolate Fudge and Creamy Crunch. Its delicious!
We drive next to Barga, a quaint hilltop town. After having lunch, we climb up to the Cathedral (11th-16th century) at the top of the hill. The views are fabulous. The pale limestone building is quite charming and the interior austere.
We then wander around the town, stopping to admire a couple of old chapels and some art galleries. We meet quite a few people from Scotland. They tell me that a number of Italians from Barga migrated to Scotland in the 20th century and now the second generation comes to discover its roots in this old town. I do not know any Scots; I thought they were a taciturn lot based on characters from the books that I have read. Instead I find myself chatting with three sets of friendly, even garrulous strangers from Glasgow; my ideas take a 180 degree turn!
We drive next to Castelnuova di Garfagnana. I am pleased to see that it is market day. My very recently bought Merrell sandals which I love have a broken strap and I want to buy inexpensive replacements until I can buy myself another pair. I immediately find a 20 Euro pair in the market which are surprisingly comfortable. While shopping, I set my camera down (senior moment!) and when I realise that my camera is missing after 5 mins, I panic! The kids all try to help me find it but I am distraught. Thank you Julian for spotting it on top of a shoe box!! I scold myself thoroughly for being so careless.
We are all tired now and happy to head home. My husband cooks a home-cooked meal while the kids entertain us with music and conversation. We are not yet used the heat and find that it has zapped our energy. We decide to take it easy the next day.
Monday 4th July 2011 – Lucca and the beach at Marina di Vecchiano
After a slow start, we set off on a walk on top of the ramparts around the town. Its approximately 5 kms long and is pleasantly shaded in most parts.
We don’t quite complete the walk; we are thirsty and head towards town. Our first stop is San Michel Basilica which is built over the old Roman forum. It is mentioned first in year 795 and was subsequently rebuilt in the 11th century.
I really like this intricate patterns of this 13th century facade of San Michele.
Lucca was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman town in 180BC. In the 1st century AD a grand amphitheatre was built here which could sit 10,000 spectators. Now the amphitheatre is gone but this unique oval Piazza Dell’Anfiteatro shows the exact size of the amphitheatre and four arches lead into it, just as they did in the old amphitheatre (which would be 2 metres below the surface of the road if it had survived).
After wandering in and out of small streets admiring the Casa and Torre Guinigi with its garden on top, the Torre dell Ore, the Ducal Palace and other sights of Lucca (all from outside only), I end up in front of the Duomo di San Martino (11th-14th Century). Its a beautiful cathedral and I sit inside quietly for some time lost in my own thoughts.
After lunch and a rest, the kids want to go to the beach. We drive up to the Marina Di Vecchiano which is about 30 mins drive from Lucca. Its a lovely beach and by the time we reach at 5pm, people have started to leave. The boys jump in to the cold water and frolic like seals. Unfortunately it soon starts to rain and we leave in a hurry. Its a good beach, I am happy to recommend it.
Tuesday 5th July 2011 – Cinque Terre
After having been warned about the difficulties of parking in Cinque Terre area, I decide that we should train it there. The open tickets all the way to the last of the five villages costs only 11 Euros. Tired, I left it all to my daughter the previous night but what I didn’t realise is that these slow trains would take a good 3 hrs to get us to that area (only an hour by car). We take the train at 10:30 (difficult to get the boys going before that) and spend too much time waiting on platforms.
We finally get off at Riomaggiore with a sigh of relief. We are all hungry but can’t find a sandwich place close to the station so it has to be a sit down meal. We are all impatient to be off but I am happy with my pasta with fresh pesto, its quite yummy! We then walk on the Via Dell’Amore, a 20 min walk along the Mediterranean towards the next village, Manarola. The afternoon is hot and my dodgy ankle has been playing up since morning, I can only place it in one certain angle to walk pain-free. So its rather slow going. The scenery is amazing.
Manarola looks more vibrant (the colours and the ambiance) as compared to Riomaggiore.
We head towards the sea. There is a rocky cove where many young people are swimming and children are jumping off high rocks into the sea below. Its very pleasant to stand watching the frolicking youngsters.
In the foreground is the rock they jump from; if you look carefully you can see one kid climbing up.
I had intended to walk to the next town but the blue-route walk is closed for maintenance. We still walk a short way up the path to take pictures of beautiful Manarola perched on the cliff.
Then comes the most frustrating part of the day. We go back to the train station and find to our dismay that the next train to the further villages are an hour away as per the timetable and the information screen on the platform. We go back to the information counter to ask about boats when what do we see but a train coming by! We ask if this would stop at the next village and on hearing yes, try to run to catch it but miss it by seconds. When we come back to the info counter we are told that the boats would have just left too. Nothing to do but wait on the burning hot platform for a long time. I am normally super organised; I would have researched time tables, decided how much time to spend where etc but I get accused of being a holiday Nazi. This time I had decided to go with the flow as the kids like flexibility but then….. Oh well, as I said before, one cannot please everybody. And today I feel frustrated.
We finally take the train to Vernazzo. The kids have to give up their idea of hiking to the next village; we are restricted by the long train ride back to Lucca. Vernazzo’s beach is lovely and full of families enjoying the sun. The boys decide to go for a quick swim. They go across to what looks like a beach on the other side but is just a rocky outcrop; its also farther than it looks. We wait a bit worriedly for them n case we miss the train. They take a shorter route back by clambering on rocks and have cuts and grazes all over when they return. We run to the station (or hobble, as the case may be) and make the train in time.
Wednesday 6th July 2011 – Drive in Chianti region
Today’s plan is to enjoy a drive through the countryside in the Chianti region and finally end up in Siena. The Autostrada takes us past Florence and we exit towards Greve in Chianti. We start with Le Cantine de Greve for some wine tasting (yeah yeah, its before noon but its a holiday!). Its all very well organized and automated. You load a card with money and then insert the card in machines which offer tastes of different wines. The price of tastings vary between 60 cents to about 2 Euros, depending on the cost of the wine. The youngsters enjoy picking random wines to taste and we end up with a couple of bottles to take home.
Greve’s triangular Piazza is nice but rather sleepy. We check out the church and sit down to lunch in one of the restaurants lining the piazza.
We then drive to see Montefiorelle, just 2 kms from Greve. Its a sleepy little hamlet with pretty stone houses, very quaint. The views from up here are very pretty. The church is closed so after a short wander in the hamlet, we are ready to leave.
I had wanted to drive the Route 222 based on internet recommendations. And it is indeed beautiful. There are rolling hills, olive plantations and vineyards, cypresses and umbrella pines, hamlets perched on hills and hillocks and interesting looking towns. I think this route deserves far more time than we allocated it, I would have enjoyed a more leisurely drive stopping often. For another time.
We finally arrive in Siena. This is my third visit here but the kids have not been here before. I am quite happy to just wander the streets looking for photo opportunities while the youngsters take a more close look at places.
The 12th century Siena cathedral is a wedding-cake confection from outside and an artistic wonder from inside. Today, while the youngsters tour the inside, I am content to sit in the square and enjoy people watching.
The Piazzo del Campo is impressive as always and we enjoy our gelato and the buzz in the square. Both my previous visits were in the summer, under a hot afternoon sun when my energy levels are at their lowest. I determine secretly to come back in low season during cool weather for there is much to see in this beautiful city. I especially like the colours of this city – Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna are some of the most used colours in my palette (I like earth colours) and I love that the pigments originally were made from the earth of Sienna.
Thursday 7th July 2011 – Florence
This will be my third visit to Florence, one of my favourite cities in Europe. The last time we stayed here for four days and I think I popped in and out of every church and museum, bar just a few. On this short day trip I just wanted to see a couple of things and enjoy the busy ambience of the city. We take the 9am train from Lucca. It takes about an hour and costs only 11 Euros return. Compared with trains in Switzerland, it is very inexpensive for the distance.
Our first stop is the 13th century Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. I wanted to see again Ghirlandaio’s Tornabuoni Chapel from the 15th century which is surprisingly well-preserved. The stained glass windows and the frescos are as beautiful as I remembered it. Photographs are not allowed inside, so click here if you want to see this details of the frescos.
The exterior of the 13th century Duomo is one my favourites in Europe – I adore the colour scheme. The queue to go inside is not too long. I don’t like the interior as much as I like the exterior but the frescos of the dome are indeed beautiful.
The Bronze doors of the Baptistry by Lorenzo Ghiberti, dubbed the Gates of Paradise by Michaelangelo, are amazing, perhaps the most beautiful doors ever. I stand spellbound looking at the lifetime achievement of the artist, a labour of love for 21 years – the whole lifetime of my son, in fact!! Each panel is detailed, perfect in every way.
Our boys have in the meanwhile decided to spend the day busking. They have found a place near the Uffizi, my husband SMSes me, so I head off to admire the youngsters. They have spread a guitar case in front for coins and in spite of the ambient noise which makes them hard to hear, they have had a small admiring audience. I pop myself against a centuries old pillar and listen to them with maternal pride. I have two unlikely sons in this threesome – one is a six-two blue-eyed curly-mopped handsome angelic-devil (or devilish-angel, depending on the day!) and the other a six-four blond Jesus look-alike with silky long hair! And I, a dark, short and dumpy woman, look at them affectionately as My Boys! Maternal affection knows no skin colour..
There is an Indian tour group passing by and one man stops to chat with me, saying that he likes this thing in Europe, this music in the streets. I smile and say yes, isn’t it lovely and add with pride that one of them is my son and the others almost so. He looks at me with amazement and asks ‘Why are they asking for money then?’. That’s when I realise that to Indians who are used only to street side beggars who may or may not sing, the concept of busking is a strange one!! They make 11 Euros or so today, enough for some iced tea and gelato.
The sound quality in the video above is not good due to street noise. If you want to listen to their music, click here.
Even a lightning visit to Florence is not complete without admiring the Ponte Vecchio. I look through jewellery shop windows with deep longing – and then scold myself thoroughly for not outgrowing my deep desire for bling. The scolding is of no use. I still WANT it all. With saintly self-control I walk away with nothing.
Piazza della Signoria is one of the most impressive squares anywhere. You see the Palazzo Vecchio in the centre, with a copy of David in front. To the left is the fountain of Neptune and to the right, the Loggia dei Lanzi.
My last visit is to pay homage again to Michaelangelo and so I walk under the hot afternoon sun to the Basilica of Santa Croce. It is only a km from the Duomo but I don’t deal well with the heat. I am not my enthusiastic self; I walk lethargically past the resting place of greats like Galilieo, Rossini and Marconi..I finally stop in front of Michaelangelo’s monument and thank him for all the joy he has given me.
This then is the end of our little Tuscan holiday. The drive back is uneventful and I am happy with the cool night breeze in Switzerland.