The Italian Job – Day 9

Lucca in the rain

The last day of our hols, and we headed off to Lucca, a very picturesque town about twenty minutes from Pisa. Although the temperature had dropped from the unseasonable highs of earlier in the week, we headed out under blue skies and wandered through its streets, before arriving at, and climbing, Guinigi’s tower. Only 220 steps to the top of this one, and on top, are some trees adding to the splendour of the views.

We both very much liked Lucca, small and pretty, and not crammed with tourists. But as we wandered the streets, we glimpsed the skies out over the distant hills looking very dark and foreboding. Five minutes later, we felt a drop, then another, and, as it was mid-dayish we wisely took shelter in a small restaurant just before the heavens opened.

We’ve been lucky with the weather, and have enjoyed the sunshine we’ve been missing back in the UK, but it is always a shame when it rains on your hols. Anyway, within an hour the showers passed and we headed on to Pietrasantra, a very “arty” town full of sculptures (and once again, blue skies and sunshine.)

We then hopped on another train back to Pisa, and headed for our “last supper”. As we meandered back to our apartment across the bridge, looking one way saw beautiful blue sky and a setting sun, looking the other saw angry dark grey clouds above the mountains.

We got back to our apartment, ready to pack, and heard the rumble of thunder, followed by the thud of heavy rain on the roof. Perhaps it is the gods telling us our time here is done, and we must return from whence we came!

The Italian Job – Day 8

Far from the madding crowd

As I said in an earlier post, the ideal time to see Florence was 30 years ago.

Today, we went back into Florence, beginning our day by climbing Giotto’s tower, the magnificent tower at the side of the cathedral, affording magnificent views across of the duomo itself and the city and its surrounds. We had to ascend 414 steps to reach the top, but it was worth the breathlessness of the climb to have one’s breath taken away by the view.

We had pre-booked the ticket, and only had to queue for 10 minutes to reach the base of the tower, but the rest of the main square, the Pont Vecchio and all the streets in the vicinity were absolutely packed. Florence is lovely, but it is over crowded (and I accept that we, too, are a part of the problem.) So after we descended from the tower, we headed south, across the Arno river to the Rose garden, an oasis of peace and tranquillity. Having bought some filled foccacia sandwiches to take with us, we sat amongst the greenery and beautiful flowers (Italy in April is a couple of months on from England, it feels, looks and smells like early summer) for a couple of hours. Heaven on earth, I rather imagined that I was the gentleman in the statue, head tilted skywards, eyes closed, enjoying the kiss of the Italian sun on my cheek.

In the afternoon we bade “arrivederci” to Florence and took a train back to Pisa, our base for our last two nights. This evening, after a delicious pizza meal, we ambled back to see the leaning tower, where our trip began a week ago. At 8pm, unlike midday when we were here before, the space, whilst not quite deserted, was certainly empty and we got to view the tower, and surrounding buildings, in almost splendid isolation.

It was a very different experience seeing the iconic tower in the fading light; with no crowds it was a far more enjoyable and peaceful experience and I was surprised in the difference a few hours can make. I am loving the “Italian Job” and our journeys across Tuscany, but I have been surprised at how busy some places have been (this is mid-April, not high summer) and the positive difference it can make when you escape the throng, and enjoy the landscape far from the madding crowd.

The old buildings and architecture have been a joy to behold, but I do also have a soft spot for an old car. And not just expensive, flashy sports cars, I like the old workhorses of the day. Two years ago, in a mid-life crisis moment, I bought myself a 30 year old Peugeot 205 (sadly, a diesel, not the hot-hatch GTi) off eBay that I have got back on the road. On this trip, I have enjoyed seeing some boxy old Fiat Pandas from the early ’90s, and then this evening, parked up all on its own, I saw an original Fiat 500:

A wonderfully stylish, tiny little car, with a small air cooled engine that was the height of Italian chic in the sixties. You can see its lineage in the modern Fiat 500 that is so popular on the roads today, but I would trade ten of the modern version for an original like this.

They are tiny, so to give a bit of scale, I had to have my photo taken next to the car:

I’m not sure I would actually fit in it, but as stylish and delightful to my eye as any fresco or facade we have seen on our trip!

The Italian Job – Day 7

Spag Bol and Porticoes

Growing up, in England, in the ’70s and early ’80s the food was bland. boring and beige. Most meals revolved around potatoes in one form or another and any accompanying veg had been boiled for far too long, turning it into a tasteless mush. Although I remember nothing of it (we left when I was about 18 months old) my family had spent several years in Malaysia and so, when we returned to the UK, we did eat quite a bit of rice, but I soon realised we were an outlier, and many people would describe any rice dish that wasn’t Rice Pudding – a creamy, sugar laden, sweet dessert – as “foreign muck.”

Probably because of living overseas, my mum was a bit of an early adopter when it came to new food trends and I reckon in was in the mid-eighties, my early(ish) teenage years, that a new meal came into vogue and made it on to my dinner plate: Spaghetti Bolognese. I loved it. Until I moved to London for university, spaghetti was the only pasta I knew, and bolognese the natural accompaniment for it. Across the country it became affectionately known as Spag Bol. I don’t think the youth of today (and by youth, I probably mean anyone born after 1980!) quite comprehend that pasta was new and novel (and to some, a little bit frightening and threatening) to many of us, and we didn’t encounter it until early adulthood.

So, as soon as we had decided we were going to Bologna, I determined that I must have spaghetti bolognese in its native city. Now, of course, no such dish actually exists outside the UK, but the closet thing on the menu was Tagliatelle Ragu. And with Tiramisu (I was in my twenties when I first encounted this delicious “pudding”) and coffee to finish, it was the perfect meal, in the perfect setting, with the perfect company.

Bologna itself was a beautiful city, I really enjoyed our visit. I was beautiful, but it was a “working” city more than a tourist city, and this gave it a greater sense of authenticity. It has a beautiful square, with beautiful basilica, but it is primarily famous for its porticoes – covered walkways. It has a the largest covered walkway, with 660 porticoes – covered archway, leading to the Santa Maria de san Luca, a church atop a hill just outside the city limits. We didn’t start at the beginning, instead taking the bus to Arc de Meloncello, and began our walk to the top from there, portico number 285. It took about 30-40 minutes to reach the top, but the views along the way, and from atop the hill, were stunning.