Under The (Hot) Tuscan Sun

Wednesday 14-Jul

Is it actually necessary to get out of bed at 6am for a 9am flight? “Yes” was the answer to that, given that took a full 90 minutes to get from the door of the airport to the departure gate, with the queueing to “drop off” bags (you might as well not bother with on-line check-in, except it saves a pound or two in Jet2’s demented pricing scheme). Then there was queueing for Security Pantomime, whose purpose is to calm nervous passengers, not make the flight safer. Everything was taken out of my backpack and individually X-rayed, including dangerous SD memory cards the size of a postage stamp. Then they made me take my belt off – a thin leather one. Risk?

The flight itself was uneventful but passed quickly enough that I didn’t get bored. Pisa Airport is medium sized. I was caught out by one of the little jokes that airport designers like to play: the airline ticket desks are next to the train station, but the train tickets are sold at the furthest point possible, at the opposite end of the airport. I missed my “optimistic” train and caught the “likely” one half an hour later.

At Lucca, the first thing to happen was that the handle broke on my wheelie suitcase, making it very hard to wheelie. By the time I got to the apartment, a 15-minute walk in 35C, I was drenched in sweat. Mr & Mrs G were waiting for me at the door, and showed me round. Formalities completed and them departed, I stripped off and put my shirt in the sink. It was that wet.

Some recovery and cooling later, I went out for an explore. As I’d unpacked, I realised that I’d forgotten to bring my phone’s charger, so the first stop was a phone charger shop, which, miraculously, I chanced upon almost immediately.

Late afternoon, it was still quite hot, and I came home for a late siesta, heading out for dinner around eight, very early by Italian standards, but I hadn’t had proper food all day. However, my nearest promising restaurant was full of Americans (the fact of their being Americans was not a problem, I merely mention it).

I wandered round checking out displayed menus, as you do, and then settled for a quite expensive, touristy joint on the Piazza Napoleone. Excellent food though. Though it was still early (before eleven) I had had a very busy day, so it was home to bed.

Thursday 15-Jul

The forecast was that the heatwave would last through the weekend at least. Only one thing to do: live with it. That was why I was out before nine in the morning so that I could walk to the supermarket while it was still cool. I’d located the store from the Gooogle satellite view, and had even tried out part of the route using their Street View. You can only see what’s outside the city walls. Inside, it’s largely pedestrianised, and Gooogle, being Californian, never thought of that.

I wasn’t intending to buy much — given that I’d have to carry it the fifteen-minute walk back — just some essentials so that I could cook dinner for one night. One night out, one night in. How does that sound?

After bringing back the booty and stashing it, I went out again to get a bit more of the sights and sounds of Lucca. Around midday though, I returned home for an extended siesta/lunch break. I actually slept a little.

Late in the afternoon, I went out again and, having mused deeply over my options, bought a ticket for Crosby, Stills and Nash on Sunday. About 90% sold out from the on-line seating chart the girl showed me. I’d decided to give Seal, Paolo Nutini, Simply Red and Placebo a miss. Actually, I quite like Placebo, I confess, but I feel that a Placebo audience really wouldn’t be my scene. I won’t wear black and I have no hair to dye black, for example.

Set up for concertI knew I’d probably go down and find out how much you can hear from the wrong sided of the barriers for some of the other concerts. Maybe for all of the performances. Apart from CS&N where I bought a ticket in the cheapest unreserved seats.

I spent the next couple of hours exploring more, buying my first gelato, and generally taking it easy. Back by about seven for the adventure of using a strange kitchen for the first time.

Friday 16-Jul

I had a lie-in and didn’t go out until about ten-thirty. The roadies were setting up for Seal that night. Hot work. Just took a short walk and some photos. back home for a wee before going out for a pizza lunch.

After pizza, I went up onto the nearest section of city wall, where there was shade from the trees and a nice breeze.

Lucca’s walls, started in 1518, but not complete until 1650, are the distinctive feature of the town. Trees, mostly chestnut, shade the complete circuit of the road that runs round the top, apart from a couple of stretches at corners. The ring is 4.5km and I’d walked right round once before, although not on this trip. Not continuously anyway.

You can go round on rented bicycles, tandems and other variants (such as the bike with a child trailer). There are also 2-seat and 4-seat 4-wheelers. Everybody gets to pedal.

WallsThe tops of the walls were turfed over and planted over a hundred years ago. At the bastions, the raised edge wall is less than two metres thick, with a domed, grassy top; and they’re completely unprotected. One step up, two across, and you’d be plummetting to the ground. I like the fact that there’s no fuss, no barriers, no warning signs. In Italy, responsible people are trusted to look after themselves.

Actually, I’m not too comfortable with heights, and although I did sit on the wall-top, I was very conscious of tthe distance down and the absence of a defined edge.

When you look at the walls, you can see what a huge, hundred-year labour it was to build them. And they never defended the city once. Lucca eventually lost its independence through some aristocratic, dynastic horse-trading. The moral of the story is that no wall can defend you from your own ruling classes. Guillotines are better.

I returned to the apartment in late afternoon, and went out later in search of the “Irish Pub”. By then, the barriers protecting the gig were in place around Piazza Napoleone, requiring diversions. Everything was set up to ensure that non-ticket-holders could see nothing at all, which seemed petty.

The Irish Pub, McCoullough’s, is outside the walls, about a 15-minute walk from “home”. When I pushed open the door and went in, the black-clad members of staff looked at me in surprise. It turned out that the place closes in the afternoon and doesn’t open again until eight-thirty. It was now seven-thirty, upsetting my plans of a pint before dinner. Instead, I returned to the city centre for some people-watching and a little further exploration.

Around nine, when I thought that some of the Americans might have dined and departed, I checked out Trattoria Leo, which I’d seen on the Internet — it’s just around the corner from the apartment.

There were a couple of free tables, but they were waiting for reservation customers to turn up. However, they kindly gave me a table anyway. Bird in the hand. I enjoyed the meal — and half a litre of wine — but the night was still young when I finished.

So I decided to walk all the way back to the pub, which turned out to be a good idea. The male barman seemed to be a rock and blues fan (black beard and long hair too, so he looked like one) and that was the soundtrack to the evening. Not all of it was exactly my cup of tea, but not too bad. I had two cups of Guinness, not tea, as well.

Saturday 17-Jul

ArchiesI went out for a couple of hours in the morning to a corner of the city that I’d noticed from the map as not yet having had a visit, the vicinity of the Madonna della Stellario, at the head of the “canal” that was once fed by the city’s medieval aqueducts.

At the city gate at that end of town, San Jacopo, there was a huge itinerant market. All the same kind of stuff in the hundreds of stalls: mostly cheap clothes and underwear.

A Carabinieri car was patrolling the walls; the first time I’d seen that. The road on top of the walls is closed to normal motorized traffic, of course. The cop car had a web address on it. I’m not sure what to make of that. http://www.carabinieri.it if you’re interested.

There was also a trio of Segway machines zipping round (presumably rented?). I’d previously only seen those elsewhere moving sedately along pavements. On the open road you can get quite an impressive speed.

I went back to the apartment and made myself a quick lunch, staying indoors for the hottest part of the day, but I went out later to my nearest bastion on the wall for some cool breeze. Actually, that one, San Frediano, technically isn’t a bastion or “baluardo”. All the others are arrowhead-shaped, but S Fred, in the middle of the North-facing wall, is rectangular, and is therefore a “piattiforma”, a platform. I have no idea about the defence logic behind that design decision.

The church of San Frediano has the highest tower on that side of town. Very conspicuous, but I hadn’t yet visited. I likes it. A wedding was about to start, but there was plenty of time for a touristy visit. In fact, I was going to wait for the bride to turn up and take a photograph, but she was late and I got bored and went off to the big supermarket for some more supplies. I timed the walk back: 12 minutes. Handy enough.

A self-catering night: moderately good result.

Rather than stay in for the night though, I decided to go back to the Irish Pub to establish myself as a regular. What a shock. Different staff, different music: dull, generic pop-rock. The barmaid from the night before was there, but on the wrong side of the bar. I thought you’d really have to love your place of work to go drinking there on your night off.

At first, I wasn’t entirely sure that it was the same person: without glasses; more makeup; slightly drunk; and wearing a tiny, wee, short, little miniskirt instead of the jeans. She and her companion were both dressed in black, but it wasn’t until the third “girl” arrived that I realised they were on promo duties.

I was right on the point of finishing my pint and leaving. The music was getting to me, and anyway, it was coming up on midnight, when in came a tall, striking drag queen. (If you imagine Vince from the Mighty Boosh in full stockings and suspenders gear, you’ll get an idea.)

Then eighties disco music came on and the three mini-skirted lovlies began to distribute merchandise. It got a lot livelier in the pub right away, so I ordered another Guinness and settled in again. The nice barmaid gave me a little teddy bear. (Or maybe it’s a monkey. Hard to be sure.) I shall treasure it always.

Sunday 18-Jul

Waking up a little late and somewhat the worse for the previous night, I wasn’t out of the house until about eleven. There were a few clouds in the sky (a new development) but it was still very hot. I considered returning home for lunch, but changed my mind and had a bowl of pasta and a beer.

The number of ways to get round the walls seems to increase. The day before, I’d seen a little electric scooter. The different species of bicycle would keep a taxonomist busy. There’s a variety of tandems, for example, from the normal two-adult model, through ones with a lower rear saddle for a child, then there’s a three-wheel design which has a smaller child’s bike attached to the back of an adult’s one. And one step further is to have a child trailer, seated or pram-like.

I solved the mystery of San Frediano being a platform, not a bastion. It would have been a bastion, but was never finished. In fact, I’d seen the solution without realising it on the way back from shopping the day before. There’s a big mound opposite the platform, and I wondered why a good vantage-point for attackers had been allowed to remain. But from above, on the walls, it’s clear that the mound is triangular: it must be the foundations for the arrowhead part of a bastion that didn’t get made. Instead, the “neck” was left as the “platform”.

I’d checked out the arena for the evening – Crosby, Stills & Nash – and tried to guess an optimum seat from the unreserved ones. With “doors” at seven-thirty, but start time not until nine-thirty, I was in a quandry about how early to turn up.

Back home for a siesta anyway. I had sufficient supplies to make a light meal for dinner. I’d have to eat far too early for any restaurant to be open!

Adopting the neurotic approach, I went out before seven-thirty and found the entrance. There were about 25 people waiting already, increasing to about a hundred before the barrier was opened. I was one of the first through and claimed a good seat. Of course, I had to wait around for a couple of hours, but the unbooked seats did fill up very quickly, so I felt justified.

I happened to be sitting near where there WASN’T an entrance to the reserved seats, and witnessed literally dozens of people coming up and asking the security man “how do you get in there?” and he’d direct them to the entrance. A little bit of what site planners call “signage” would have helped, but what really struck me is how gormless people are. I like to think that I look alert, interested and quite amiable when I’m out and about, but a lot of other people seem to be living in a world that baffles them entirely.

As I was waiting, for some reason Woodstock came to mind, with the CSN link and the sly thought that the piazza was very un-Woodstock, with everyone sitting in rows of chairs. Eventually then stars came on stage to happy cheering, and launched into the first song: Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”!

I enjoyed the music well enough, although I certainly didn’t get as excited as some people. CSN have some good songs, although as well as their own music, they played a fair number of covers, by such well-known artists as the Beatles, the Who, and, er, Neil Young. But the harmony vocals were occasionally ragged (and once, out of tune), and the playing only passible. Stills, in particular, played lead guitar in a number of the songs, and I wondered if he had once been good and advancing age had lost him some mobility and accuracy; or if he’d always been average. Crosby announced that he’d been sick, and thought he might not be able to do the gig, and he didn’t look all that well. Nash is the member who has aged best: craggy, but fit-looking. There’s something more affable about his personality too.

That was the first seated gig I’ve been to since I can’t remember when, making it a slightly odd experience, but one I’m glad I had the opportunity for.

Monday 19-Jul

I headed out in the morning, more or less at random until I realised that I was going in the direction of the Botanical Gardens, so I thought “Why not?”. There’s a 3 euro enrance charge, but there was no-one in the ticket hut. I looked around, honestly I did, but there was no sign of anyone, so I walked on in. Then a phone in the hut began to ring, and I walked away a little quicker.

I’d seen the gardens from the walls above, and pretty much knew what to expect, including some pretty big trees dating back to the original planting – such as a large sequoia from 1822. Imagine what they’re like after a couple of thousand years. There’s also a towering gincko biloba. I have one at home. It’s knee high.

TunnelAt the large pond (incidentally, there’s a narrow wooden walkway across it with a handrail on just one side. You never see that in the UK.) a slim woman with long hair was posing by the waterside, deliberately I’m almost sure, and got included in my photo. As I passed, she made some comment in English about the big fish, and sure enough, there were black koi the size of spaniels surging around under the water. We had a bit of a conversation then, and at first I thought I was being chatted up, but then she mentioned “my husband” and eventually extracted herself and went off.

From the gardens you can access what I thought was probably the only open tunnel into the base of a bastion, with magazines and guard rooms. It was illuminated only by light streaming in from the ventilation shafts, every twenty metres or so, and pitch black in between. Quite an adventure.

I came wandering back in the direction of home after midday, with an objective in mind: I’d seen a baker’s shop in the vicinity with a couple of big foccacia loaves in the window, and I really fancied a bit for lunch. However, I’d forgotten to note the street and completely failed to find it again. I had to buy ordinary bread from a more general-purpose store. It wasn’t bad though.

I wondered about the woman spontaneously speaking English to me. I didn’t think I looked English. Perhaps she thought the well-dressed Italian man would inevitably speak some English; or maybe she’s the happy sort of soul who speaks to everyone without worrying if they understand.

In July, of course, there was a substantial population of tourists, and different languages are all around. I heard one dumpy, middle-aged woman effortlessly switching between Italian and Glaswegian, and I’m pretty sure that a couple of Indian guys (a skinny, bearded “swami” type and his young disciple, it looked like) were conversing in a bastard mix of Italian and Hindi.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I’d guess that the commonest foreign language I heard was Dutch, with German and English a bit behind, and French after that. Most tourists, naturally enough, were non-local Italians. You can’t tell by looking, of course.

Well, if you saw someone in badly-chosen clothes, worn without grace, and you guessed that the person was English, you’d usually be right. But the average English visitor isn’t very much different in dress and demeanor to the Dutch or Germans. Flip-flops are a give-away: almost nobody apart from English and Americans wear them. The Dutch and Germans have proper hiking sandals and the French and Italians wear a variety of elegant and sometimes impractical footwear.

But with the unusually hot weather, the usual national dividing lines of dress have become blurred, with t-shirt and shorts a much more ubiquitous choice than would be the case otherwise. My view that short shorts are almost always a poor fashion choice has been amply confirmed, particularly by ladies of all ages. Here’s a simple rule: unless you have very, very thin thighs, don’t. I can’t believe that everyone is staying in hotels with no mirrors.

The majority of Italians do see the heat as a reason to modify their wardrobe, but not to lose all sense of propriety. While a few slum it in vest and shorts (I suppose there was always that sweating strain present, particularly in the South — think of the Sopranos or Goodfellas) most take the new climate in their stride. The striding is often done with espadrilles, wedges and clacky mules. Also, you can cycle in any kind of shoes, apparently, with no impediment whatsoever. And a short, floaty, Summer dress. So romantic.

In the evenings, many of the women tourists do wear dresses, long or short, because it IS a romantic city, with the little narrow streets and jolly pavement trattorias and time-worn stones. But the guys, oh dear: largely the same shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops from earlier in the day. There’s something significant about male and female attitudes in that observation, but I can’t quite articulate it right now. For the girls, I think “disappointment” might come in to the completed exposition.

I made dinner at home, although by the one-in, one-out rule I should have been dining out. Actually it was a simple affair, with salad and olives and bread, which I realised greatly reduces the amount of dish-washing. And with wine, more than ample for my needs.

Tuesday 20-Jul

I went down to the railway station and got a ticket to Florence. It was a longer trip than I’d remembered, about an hour and forty minutes, arriving at just after eleven. Ten euros and forty cents, return.

I’d arrived by rail in Florence a couple of times before, but it’s a complete different experience when you have no bag to pull or no place to be. Much more relaxed. First stop was the cloister at San Lorenzo, which is still an oasis of peace in a tourist-infested city. It’s still free to get in (the church and Michelangelo’s library demand a ticket) San Lorenzobut the ticket desk is now in the entrance, so you need to NOT buy one to get past.

After that, I went to quickly check out the cathedral and then the main square, the Piazza della Signoria. They were stll there. I loitered for a while in the loggia with the sculptures (it’s where Helena Bonham-Carter has her panic attack after the knife fight in front of her). Down to the river then, through the Ufizzi courtyard. The queues were horrendous: I was glad I’d already been in a couple of times.

Across the Ponte Vecchio with an objective in mind: since it was now after noon, I bought two panini and a bottle of water for lunch, and a ticket into the Boboli Gardens to picnic it. It’s now an astounding ten euros to get in. I’ll do it this once, I thought.

When I found a nice spot, shaded, but it was still very hot, I had a sad accident. The paper bag for my sandwiches had eroded from the moisture in them and my “caprese” one fell on the gravel path. Both halves of the sandwich fell butter side up (except there was no butter) but two of the three big slices of tomato fell out. I ate the recovered sandwich with three mozarella and one tomato. I only got one tiny bit of grit.

I explored the gardens. I’ve always loved the view from the little formal “Garden of the Knights” at the top, with the view out across country (to Arcetri, where Galileo lived out his permanent house arrest). But there was no shade and it was too hot to linger. I learned a new Italian phrase when I heard someone else too hot complain about the “sole nudo”, the naked sun.

After the gardens, I walked through familiar streets to nearby Piazza Spirito Sancto. My longest stay in Florence was in that area, and it coincided with some sort of festival which involved the entire square being turned into a bar. Happy days. There are two trendy restaurants at opposite corners which are always crowded: they’re in the Internet guides. I’ve eaten several times in both, and got food poisoning once.Centre of Florence

I realised then that I couldn’t go to Florence without visiting Galileo and his clever daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. (You have to read Dana Sobel’s book to find out why, and where). Santa Croce is the opposite side of the old town, back on the North side of the river. This time, I crossed by the Ponte Alle Grazie, hoping to spot one of the resident coypu that I’d seen on several previous visits. Sadly, no coypu. I hope they’re still there.

After the famous dead and Brunelleschi’s curious little cubic chapel for the Pazzi, I decided that the main sight I still wanted to refresh was the square of Santissima Annunziata and the foundling hospital, Spedale degli Innocenti. I’ve always thought it was desperately sad to think of the wooden “carousel” were a poor mother could anonymously “post” her unwanted child.

It was hot all day, and in spite of drinking a litre and a half of ice-cold water, I was thinking it was time for home, when I remembered “Il Porcellino”, the piglet. It’s an ironic nickname for the full-grown wild boar immortalised in bronze at the Mercato Nuevo. Actually, I was confused initially and went to the Mercato Centrale (which isn’t), but I remembered a holiday near the pig where I stayed above an Irish pub, and with those clues I found my way back. I always rub the pig’s nose. It’s an old custom, or a charter, or something.

And that really was it. The heat had been blasting all day, and I had blisters and it was after six, meaning that I’d spent seven hours on the hoof. I got to the train station and boarded the slowest train imaginable back to Lucca. It was almost nine by the time I got back to the apartment, but after soaking my feet in the bidet for a while, I had sufficient energy to cook a very tasty dinner.

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