Holiday Diary – Final Week
The third week started. In the first two weeks I had only made one excursion, to Florence. I had expected to get away more, but the heatwave had sapped my “get up and go” and actually, I’d been quite happy pottering around Lucca. But with the possibility of actual rain in the forecast for the end of the week, (I was almost looking forward to the novelty of rain in Lucca) I felt I’d better go somewhere and see something.
Based on my experience in Florence, in that arriving in the morning made me tired and footsore by six o’clock, I planned to get the train to Pisa after lunch. I knew they departed every half-hour or so.
Everything went to plan, and I was soon on the way to Pisa. When I’d looked at the maps before leaving for Italy, I’d seen that there was a station in Pisa much closer to the cathedral and leaning tower than the central station, but Gooogle was useless again in showing how a pedestrian might get from the station platform onto the right road.
It was with a slight dubious feeling therefore, that I got off the train at Pisa San Rossore instead of Pisa Centrale. But as I’d hoped, it was all perfectly straightforward, and soon I saw the dome of the baptistery, which led me to the right place.
Pisa is unusual in Italy in having a large open area enclosing the cathedral, baptistery and bell tower (the one that’s been falling down since before it was finished). They call it the “Campi dei Miracoli”, the Field of Miracles. I don’t know if that’s some religious reference, or if the miracle is that the tower is still up.
I’d never been up the tower. On my first visits to Pisa, it was closed during the work to stabilize it. I did come on a day trip once the works were complete, but at that time ran into the problem of the ticketing system, which was what happened on this occasion too.
Basically, the demand is so high and the space so limited that they have introduced a booking system where you must book a place in advance, and it costs you €15. On a typical high season day like this one, the first available slots were more than three hours ahead, at six. I decided not to bother. Some other time.
But I took some photos. My gimmick isn’t to have someone appear to “hold up” the tower, which is what a lot of the tourists do. I take the photos with the tower straight and the cathedral leaning.
I bought a guide book with a map fron one of the many, many tourist crap stalls, and navigated to some of the other sites that I wanted to see. Down to the river first. Mark Twain wrote in Florence something to the effect that the Arno would be quite plausible as a river, if only they’d put some water in it. Well, I’ve seen it down to a trickle in Florence as well, but in Pisa, there’s no denying that you’ve got a real river.
My guidebook said that the octagonal church of San Sepolcro across the river was a Templar church, leading me to have a look out of curiosity. You know, Da Vinci Code and all that. But the sign outside said it was built for the Hospitallers, the Knights of St. John, and that was what the volunteer guide also told me when he jumped on me at my entrance. Actually, he was very good, and told me stuff that was interesting and not covered (even incorrectly) in the guide book.
Once I’d seen the sights on that South side of the river, I was quite close to Centrale station. I could probably have planned that better, because I was not ready to come home yet. I went back across the half-way bridge, the Ponte de Mezzo and at the guidebook’s suggestion went up Borgo Stretto, which is a very picturesque medieval street. I was heading for the Piazza dei Cavallieri, Knights’ Square, which is probably Pisa’s second most striking set of monuments. (None of them leaning). The intricate decoration on the façade of the Palazzo dei Cavallieri is very unusual and impressive.
That was my quota of sightseeing for the day. I returned to re-cross the river, and followed Corso Italia, Pisa’s most upmarket shopping street, down towards the train station. There was a train back to Lucca in about twenty-five minutes, getting me back home by seven.
On the train, a young couple sat next to me. I’d seen them sit smoking on the platform until the very moment the “doors closing” alarm sounded, and then they’d jumped on, hauling luggage. The train’s schedule was back to San Rossore, then just two more stops before Lucca, at San Giuliano Terme and Ripafratta. Not exactly an express, but not stopping at every cowshed in the countryside. I couldn’t understand much of what the couple beside me were saying, which is usual for normal, fluent Italian, but I thought they had an accent that was different to what I was used to.
At the stop at San Guiliano, the boy asked me if this was the train to Pisa Airport. Actually, I didn’t catch it at first and had to ask him to repeat it, but another passenger heard and said “No, this train goes to Lucca.” In a panic, the pair got up and grabbed their cases, but as they got to the train exit, the train moved off.
But the story might have had a happy ending. I’ll never know. A few minutes later, the train stopped at a tiny halt where there was a two-car local train on the opposite platform, heading back to Pisa. I saw the conductor help the couple off, and the last I saw of them was when they ran down the ramp to the underpass to get to the other side. I hoped that they’d allowed enough contingency in their plans to still get to the airport on time. (The train between the central station and the airport only takes about three minutes, but they only run every half-hour, which isn’t nearly frequently enough. They should replace the big train with one of those little robot ones, like at Birmingham airport.)
The unscheduled stop didn’t affect the arrival time in Lucca, and I walked back to make dinner.
The sky was overcast when I got up. In fact it was quite dark. I had breakfast and was getting ready to go out when it got very dark indeed; I heard loud thunder; and very heavy rain started to fall.
I had normally kept the roman blind on the big window half-closed or lower to help keep the apartment cool, but now I had to raise it up completely in order to be able to see well enough to walk around without falling over things.
I opened up the windows too, to watch the rain. It was almost continuous, like a waterfall. I wondered if the drains would be able to cope with it. I hadn’t noticed until then that the narrow, brick-paved street outside the front door was slightly V-shaped, with iron drain grilles every ten metres or so. A river ran though it, but it was draining nicely.
The street was too narrow to get a good view of the sky, and I couldn’t see the lightning strokes, but each flash lit up everything. The storm lasted for over an hour before it became brighter and the rain abated. I decided to give it fifteen or twenty minutes to see if it really had stopped for good, and sure enough, within that time it started up again, although not so severe, but carried on for another hour.
By that time, it was after mid-day. The rain hadn’t quite given up, it was still enough to discourage unnecessary excursions. I had enough food to make up some kind of lunch, although I had hoped to go out and buy bread. I had a real craving for oily, salty, rosemary-flecked foccacia.
But the rain let up and the sun came out, and it was getting dry. I was able to take the short walk to the Piazza Antefeatro, which, as well as a bread shop, has so many touristy souvenir shops. I was going to buy some rubbish to take home to the family. In one, I handed the shopkeeper two fridge magnets I’d picked off a carousel. He came over to it to check the prices, and somehow, with him rotating it and me pointing, I managed to knock two off, which hit the floor and broke. Embarrassed, I said nothing, and he said nothing, so I paid him for my purchases and slunk off.
In another shop, specialising in football items, I bought an Inter scarf for my dad. I know that Fiorentina is the most successful local team, but their scarf was gaudy and cheap-looking, and I knew Dad wouldn’t ever wear it. So it was one-nil to the more dignified Milanese.
I bought the foccacia bread, brought it home and made a huge sandwich with just salad and mayo. Paradiso.
After lunch, I was going to go out and see more of the freshly-washed town, but before I could move, on came the heavy rain again, and much thunder. It wasn’t until about half past five that the sun came out again. I went out for a walk, but the thundering started again before I got to the end of the street. No rain though. There seemed to be more tourists than usual, probably all taking advantage of the dry break all at once.
I had planned to go out for dinner later. I really fancied a pizza. (I’d only had one since arriving, and it was just a plan margarita at lunch.) But if the thunderstorms arrived again, I’d have to stay in and make something. I counted off the items in stock and decided that it would have to be either a risotto or a big salad. Not so bad. But I had no wine, which at least would make it seem like a proper meal. I went into one of the little antiquey provision shops and bought what was probably overpriced wine. The owner was nice enough to take the remains of my change, 76c against the odd 90c on the bill rather than give me loads of metal.
Thus fortified, I came home again. The rain did start, fairly heavy. I’d decided that I’d give it until eight-thirty before writing off my pizza plans. At least the storms did make it on the national eveing news, proving that they were beyond the normal. The forecast said that the would clear the area by about noon the following day (heading East across the Adriatic).
And so it was, I stayed in for the evening and did my own dinner. With wine.
The weather forecast said that thunderstorms would still occur in the region in the morning, but there was nothing like that in Lucca. It was a beautiful day with a solid blue sky — just a few fluffy white clouds near the horizon. Actually, I hadn’t known the word for thunderstorm — temporale — and had originally skipped over it when reading the forecasts on teletext, assuming it was something to do with temporateness. But the danger of them reoccuring now seemed to have gone.
I hadn’t made any plans for the morning, half-expecting not to be able to go out, but I quickly decided that I would try to find the aqueduct which I hadn’t seen while on the rented bike. In fact, I realised that I had turned in the wrong direction once over the footbridge, and I now had a better idea of where to go.
I walked through town to the South gate. Piazza Napoleone was back to normal, and looking much bigger without the concert infrastructure. Work had started to take the stuff down on Wednesday when I was heading off to Pisa, but the last task was just finishing, with a forklift loading stacks of pedestrian barriers into a truck. And good riddance.
I went out of town towards the station, and crossed the footbridge. Without bicycle, this time. Then I noticed that there was a narrow metal channel welded to the steps on one side, like a rain gutter. But I realised at once, with a laugh, what it really was. For pushing your bike along, so that you didn’t have to bump it up and down the steps! (And have the chain jump off.) I would know the next time.
It was about a ten minute walk on the wrong side of the tracks. Actually, it wasn’t a dodgy area or anything, just a bit of normal, modern Italian town. There were no tourists about. Eventually, I saw a street name “Tempietto” — little temple — and I looked down it and there was indeed a bit of monumental architecture at the bottom of the street. Not so “little” either, a big, round, neoclassical lump, in quite bad repair, with scaffolding up it and barriers round the base.
I walked around it, taking a few photographs, and at the opposite side, was surprised to see a whacking great aqueduct sticking out of the back of it. It receded, dead straight, into the distance, towards the mountains. I could actually hear water falling inside the “Tempietto” but couldn’t see what was happening.
The aqueduct and the neoclassical terminus were built in 1822, when Lucca was still an independent state, ruled by the Bourbon duchess Maria Luisa (who had been “given” Lucca when the Congress of Vienna carved up the defeated Napoleon’s empire. The perks of being an aristo, eh?) Her name is at the top of the inscription on the Tempietto. The architect, Nottolini, gets a mention on the last line.
There was a gravel footpath alongside the bases of the aqueduct arches, and I began to follow it. Very soon, I was beyond the suburbs and in flat, open countryside, a mixture of fields, allotments, wildflower meadows and copses, with the tall columns of cypresses here and there. It reminded me a little of home. I mean my actual home, that bit of flat, swampy land near the shores of Lough Neagh. Well, just a bit. The rugged mountains in the near distance were a bit of a giveaway.
The aqueduct above me carried on. A spectacular piece of civil engineering. In the distance, I could see that there was a major road cutting across the line of the aqueduct — I couldn’t see the road itself, but I could see the vehicles in the gaps between trees — and decided that I would walk that far. At one point, there was a tap attached to one of the pillars, and an official sign giving the mineral content of the waters from the aqueduct. Two gentlemen were filling big plastic bottles. One loaded them into the basket on the front of his bicycle, while the other put them into a wheelbarrow.
At another location, there was a crack across the head of an arch, and a rain of drops was falling. Clearly, there was still water in this aqueduct. That was why I was surprised when I reached my end marker, the autostrade. There was a modern but rather decrepit footbrige over the motorway so that you could continue your walk alongside the acqueduct. But the highway engineers had sliced a section out of the aqueduct to get the road through!
I couldn’t see any special equipment to move water from one side to the other, just naked ends either side of the missing segment, but I assume that there must be something happening, else how could there be an approved tap at the other end?
I walked back, enjoying the countryside experience. Passing the back of the railway stion on the way out, I’d noticed that there was an underpass linking the platforms, and I was able to cross the tracks that way rather than by the footbridge.
When I re-entered the city at the pedestrian gate at San Colombano, I heard the sound of a chainsaw. Council workers were giving a short back and sides to one of the trees from the arcade round the walls, presumably to make it safe after storm damage.
It was after noon, time to go home and rest my feet and make some lunch. But on the way up through town, I took the opportunity for a walk around the courtyards of the town hall, built for the previous ruler to Maria Luisa, Elisa Buonaparte, Napoleon’s sister (That’s why the big square outside is Piazza Napoleone). During the festival, it hadn’t been accessible, but was now open again. It was designed as a palace, but makes a really impressive town hall.
After lunch, I went to the supermarket for the final lot of supplies. Although much of the sky was blue, there was a large mass of black clouds boilng up to the North, like the scene from ‘Ghostbusters’. Over the supermarket, in fact. Nothing much happened weather-wise though, except for a spattering of rain drops as I walked home. I made it in record time just in case, but that was all there was of it.
I still packed a raincoat when I went out later, but it wasn’t needed. The same for the evening. I did set out to do the previously-planned pizza. I even went into a place with a big sign outsize that said “Pizzeria”. But I got seduced by other items on the menu and picked a primo and a secondo instead.
My neighbours at the next table were much more understandable than the usual Italians (or Dutch, or Germans): a father and two little girls, possibly about four and six years old (I have no idea of children’s ages), Rosa and Luna. They called their father “Papolino”, Little Daddy. He looked at the menu and asked if they would like a nice risotto, but to little enthusiasm. OK, he said, what do you want to eat? Pasta? Fish? Meat? “Carne!” They wanted meat. So he ordered them a steak each, with salad and fries.
When the food arrived, Daddy cut up the steaks and I could see that they were a bit bloody, but both children tucked in. The older girl asked for some balsamic vinegar on hers, and of course, her sister had to have some too.
The fact that I could follow what was going on, although I couldn’t understand absolutely everything, proves that my Italian is probably equivalent to a three-year-old’s. Which seems about right. Would you let a three-year-old wander around Tuscany on his own?
My own meal was very good, and very good value at just €26 for two courses and wine. Oh, yes, I had to have wine. When I came out, a little unsteady, I had no idea where I was, having wandered at random looking at restaurants before dinner. But I just wandered more at random in the medieval streets until I heard many voices and followed that sound. It was a crowd loitering at the fountain next to the wonky cathedral, so I knew exactly where I was and was able to walk stright home. Straight-ish.
I got up early, well, fairly early and caught the train to Viareggio. My ultimate destination was Torre del Lago though. The train lines between Lucca, Viareggio and Pisa form a triangle, with the Lucca-Viareggio leg, more or less East-West, being the shortest. Torre del Lago is close to Viareggio on the Viareggio-Pisa line, meaning that I had to change trains. I had about a forty-minute wait.
Officially now, it’s Torre del Lago Puccini, which seems a little superflous to me, like George Best Belfast City Airport. It’s the town where the composer Puccini bought the villa from his ill-gotten gains, and wrote several of his operas. I wasn’t exactly sure where the lake and villa were in relation to the train station, but was pretty sure that if I headed East, I’d at least come across the lake. Actually, there was a roadsign on the big straight road in that direction “Villa Puccini”, which was a bit of a giveaway.
It was a good twenty-minute walk though, but eventually I arrived at the lakeside, with a marina and restaurants, and Puccini’s villa. And a honking big, huge outdoor stadium. I’ll bet Mrs Puccini wasn’t delighted when they built that to ruin the view. I know we usually use the word “stadium” for a sports arena, and this one is for operas, but believe me, it’s a stadium. The view of the lake is otherwise pretty. It’s a nature reserve as well.
I didn’t go into the villa, now a museum, due to lack of inerest, really. For me, it was enough to see the place, and imagine how it was 150 years ago, when a newly-successful musician chose it for his base. I walked back to the station. Having taken a note of the times of trains back, I didn’t have to wait too long, and was back in Viareggio in a short time.
Viareggio is a huge seaside resort, and I wanted to see the sea. On a similar basis to the Torre approach, I set out walking in approximately the right direction, and similar to before, it took about twenty minutes to get to the shore. There really seems to be a problem with railway stations being nowhere near the attractions.
I had a good idea of what I was going to find. Italophile I certainly am, but I do not like the Italian approach to the seaside. Every centimetre of beach is allocated to an umbrella/sunbed concession. All you can do is book your place in the serried ranks. It’s not my idea of a day at the seaside. Everyone was in swimming costumes and most people were sunbathing. Haven’t they heard of skin cancer? Or the fact that exposure to sun turns your skin into wrinkly leather by the time you’re forty?
I was really overdressed in a shirt and trousers, but I didn’t care. I took off my shoes and walked along the edge of the surf. It felt good to set the feet free after pounding all the pavements. But there was nowhere shady to sit apart from under a paid umbrella, and when I’d had enough, I just walked back up the beach to the first road, lined with places to spend money, all quite classy-looking, I have to admit. None of your bucket and spade shops with inflatable items hanging outside.
I saw some trees across the road and headed that way still barefoot — ouch! hot road! — and sat on the kerb while I dusted the sand off my feet and got the shoes back on. There was a train back to Lucca in forty minutes, which I should easily catch. Off I went.
When I took my seat on the train, I found a paperback book on the floor, entitled ‘Zappa’, by Bjarne B. Reuter. It appeared to be a novel, not anything to do with Frank Zappa, but since it was in Danish, I couldn’t be sure. The opening line went: Linje 2 skramlede ind på endstationen og stoppede med et metallisk hviin. Which, using my amazing powers of translation by guesswork and analogy, has a train arriving at the station and stopping with a metallic whine. Quite appropriate. I left the book on the window ledge.
The train on the way out had been non-stop, but the one back stopped at a couple of stations, one of which, Nozzano, had a classic medieval hill-town with a defended tower. Worth a visit if you were touring the area by car. Or didn’t mind the kilometre walk from the station.
Back in Lucca, I heard some music in Piazza Napoleone. It turned out to be a large busking ensemble called “Hande Hoop” (which I think is Dutch for “Hands Up”?). They were very good, but I was too weary to stay and enjoy them. I was going back home for a rest.
I was recovered enough to go out for a short pre-dinner walk. I went up to the wall and along to Porta Santa Maria. There was a wedding couple posing for photographs, and a vintage saloon car waited for them. But they didn’t take the car, they ambled hand-in-hand down Via Fillungo among all the locals and tourists, as far as the piazza in front of San Frediano church, where they stopped for more photos.
I left them there and carried on, circling San Michele and coming back to my own street. Actually, my apartment was just round the corner from the equivalent of the registry office, so I saw weddings quite often. There’s a little park across the road where they often go for photos. On this occasion, I didn’t see the happy couple (although there were a few people in smart clothes in the park) but their transport was parked outside: a cabriolet Beetle (the original Beetle, not the modern thing). It was black and had been decorated with sweeps of white lace or net. It looked great.
After a delicious, home-cooked meal, (if you ever get the chance to experience that chef’s work, you should jump at it), I went out to Piazza San Michele, more or less at the end of my road, where there was a free concert, featuring a sopranjo with a Korean name which I forgot immediately, and a tenor. They did songs from ‘Figaro’ and ‘Turandot’ and similar, were very good, but before the whole day began to look like an episode of ‘Morse’, I moved on to the Irish pub.
The first thing that happened was that the barman with the poor musical taste recognised me and declared that the first pint was “his” in honour of me headbanging at the rock night. The particularly pretty barmaid I’d noticed on my first night looked at me and smiled too. Over the obligatory black Guinness t-shirt (classy one with the Guinness label as on a bottle done in silver) she was wearing one of those girl waistcoats that is cut under the bust. Is there any other garment that screams “look at my breasts!”? (Other than low cut ones that allow you to actually look at the breasts.) The other barman was one of the vocalists from the band night, and the other barmaid was perhaps technically more beautiful than mine, but I was not swayed.
The whole bar team was a happy team and “my” barmaid danced while she worked, while I tried not to stare too much. The original hairy barman joined them and at one point he and the other heavy metal guy spontaneously did a dance routine together to one of the songs. It was camp and funny, and full of good humour and joy. To tell the truth, I’ve never been in an Irish pub in Ireland where the ‘craic’ was so infectious.
The transvestite from last time came in, in the same leather skirt, but this time he had gold roman sandals with long laces crossed, and a sparkly top. Frankly, I thought it was a bit overdressed for the occasion. I realised that he never spoke to anyone and never bought a drink. He would just walk around the bar, look up at the television screen, watch anything that was happening. I guess it’s a lonely life.
Mr. Barman (who reminds me of “Mike” from “The Young Ones”) told me that there would be a big party, starting around midnight. Well, I had my free pint, and then bought another, and then when that was finished it was midnight, and when I ordered one more, I was given two. “Happy hour” said the PBM, which I think may be the only English she knows. I watched as two of the staff put the cash till into a bin bag. (What?) At that point, the music playing was of the disco variety, and I was just thinking how much “I Feel Love” sounds like Elizabeth, when I saw the hairy, musical barman of my first visit. Only this time, he and two colleagues were dancing on the bar. Wearing just biker boots, pink boxers, pink fairy wings and tiaras. Oh, and they had wands. You can’t be a fairy without a wand.
That was pretty surreal, given that I was well into the fourth Guinness, and four is about my limit. An actual girl in a black and white check minidress and white fishnets got up with the fairies, but I wasn’t sure if she was planned or just a passing exhibitionist. The guys gamely continued to prance for quite a while, but eventually I had to call it a night and come home while I could still walk.
I didn’t feel TOO bad in the morning, but then I slept straight through until after ten. I didn’t feel much like going out though, and just pottered around, had some lunch, and then went out for a Sunday stroll later.
It was hot enough out to encourage me to stick to the shady side of the streets. I’d realised that in writing this diary, the weather featured strongly, what with the heatwave, followed by the deluge, and then a return to what was reported to be normal Summer weather. Well, this time, it was a return to clear blue skies and hot sunshine.
There was a part of the city which I’d seen while walking the walls, but hadn’t inspected closely: a set of arched arcades on the West side. I made a point of leaving the wall walk this time and going for a closer look and some photos. A long series of arches diminishing towards a vanishing point is probably a bit corny, but I like it. I once won a photographic competition with one, a contrasty black and white photo of the arches next to the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, for once inexpilicably empty of tourists.
After that I chanced upon the Villa Bottini. You’d think with all the walking around the city I’d done, there wouldn’t be any major features that I’d have missed, but that was one of them. Villa Guinigi with the museum (and Fender exhibition) and Villa Bottini are the two remaining “country houses” which were built outside the original medieval walls (although not far outside, so they were hardly country retreats). When the 16th century walls were built, both villas were enclosed within the city. Villa Guinigi lost the majority of its gardens, but somehow, Villa Bottini retained a substantial walled garden. Perhaps the owners remained solvent enough not to have to keep selling bits of it off.
The house was open to visitors because it was hosting another of the music related exhibitions: photographs and artwork by and of musicians. Shots of Iggy Pop, a doodle by Devendra Banhart, that picture of Kim Gordon with a gun. But the rooms themselves were more interesting, with original fresco over every available surface.
The gardens aren’t as well-maintained as the official Botanic Gardens, which are nearby, but you do get an idea of what the original renaissance environment would have been like.
I then walked back into town, loitered for a time at Piazza Napoleone, and bought a gelato on the way home. Italian gelato is translated as “ice cream”, but it’s not really much like British ice cream. Somewhere between ice cream and sorbet. I’m not an addict, but I like the occasional one. I always have two flavours, no more, no less. You can have as many as you like, but that’s just a mess. Two is a good number. I prefer the fruit flavours, usually combining a tart one with a sweet one. Lemon and melon, for example.
I was planning dinner at home and a quiet night in. None of the excess of the night before.
I was up and out bright and early for my second-last day in Lucca. While having breakfast (coffee and a croissant, that is) I saw on the local television news that there was an old photo exhibition in the tunnels at San Colombano bastion, not normally open. (The other item was entitled “Traffic Revolution” and was about the introduction of a roundabout in one of the neighbouring towns, San Concordio. The pun works in two languages.)
There were only a couple of dozen big prints of early-to-mid 20th century images, but quite interesting. I liked the concept of having car and bike racing round the walls, as happened in the 1930s and 1940s. When I came out and went up on the walls, I tried to imagine how it would have been: narrow for two cars to overtake, and unforgiving trees lining the track instead of crash barriers.
I had thought of getting the train away again, this time to Pistoia, which is on the line between Lucca and Florence. My map of Tuscany has three symbols for towns: worth a journey, worth a detour, and worth seeing. Pistoia only gets the middle category. I’d never been there, but had seen it in pictures. Big, stripey cathedral and baptistery, I remembered.
But on reflection, I realised that I didn’t really want to go; that I was seeking to “justify” my time, as if you needed to do that when on holiday anyway. The decision was made then: my last two days would just be about enjoying Lucca.
In the late afternoon, I went into the city centre (that makes it sound like a conventional, modern city) with the intention of buying an English paperback for the flight home. Lucca has a couple of big bookshops with English and other foreign-language books, although not a huge selection. I eventually bought an Alan Bennett in Edison (I’ve also shopped in the branch in Perugia). Once I found it. I’d been past many times, but had never needed to store the location in my brain. But I had a vague recollection and got there in the end.
That was one mission completed. The other thing that had been bugging me was that I hadn’t seen the river. I knew that Lucca had a big river, the Serchio, but I didn’t know where they kept it. Of the maps I had, none of the detailed city plans showed it at all, and the large scale map only showed me that the river runs to the North of town. But I picked one road that seemed to be going in the right direction from the Piazzale Martiri Della Liberta (“Martyrs of Liberty”, a nicely ambiguous memorial, depending on whom you thought died for “liberty”. In socialist Spoleto, there’s a street commemorating “Martyrs of the Resistance”, which nails it more specifically.)
I was walking through one of the older parts of the more modern town. I liked that better than the modern, modern Lucca around the railway station. This was a little run down and seedy, but full of character. It was about twenty minutes’ walk when I came out of the built-up area, and just past the open space of the farmers’ market, there was the big bridge across the river. And it is a big ‘un. Actually wider than the Arno at Pisa I’d say, but more of a curving through the countryside sort of river than one easing into the sea as at Pisa.
There’s a park on the Lucca side of the bridge, where you can park your car and walk or cycle along the banks. On the other side, it’s the end of Lucca and the start of Monte San Quirico. There’s a strip where you can walk along the elevated banks, but the houses come right up to that. Actually, it would be a superb place to live, with just the river and greenery ahead, but Lucca in the very handy middle distance.
I walked back the way I’d come, and since it was after seven o’clock by that time, paused only for ten minutes on a bench on the walls at San Frediano to marvel at the joggers passing by. Then I walked home to make dinner. Since it was my second-last night, I cooked as much as possible of the remaining food in the fridge. Isn’t there a television programme where they give people a set of random ingredients from which they have to cook a meal? Well, it was like that, but it was fine. I’d be eating out the last night. For sure.
For some reason, I woke up very early, although getting up was a little more leisurely and it was after nine by the time I left the house. I’d checked the weather forecast the night before, and it had said it would be cloudy, with a maximum temperature of 25°C. Surely a technical error? But no, it really was cool when I went out, with the amount of blue sky reducing over the morning until after eleven it was totally overcast.
It was unusual to be able to sit or stand anywhere without having to worry about being blasted by the sun. I didn’t do much other than stand or sit. Last day was officially a lazy day.
Lucca has some picturesque street names. Apart from the ones named after saints or named after the churches named after the saints, there are some with family names, presumably after the prominent family in the area at one time. (Streets named specifically after a famous person use the full name, as in Corso Guiseppe Garibaldi or Viale Giaccomo Puccini, although it will normally be referred to as Viale Puccini.) Then there are obvious references to something that is or was there: Fountain Street, Orange Tree Square. But then there’s Peacock Street, Street of the Angels, Cock Court, Street of the Witches and Street of the Golden Keys.
I bought sandwiches for lunch at Coachworks Street, then walked down Long Row before turning into Dark Street and heading for home.
The shops which close in the middle of the day generally open again at half past three, and that’s when life starts to return to the city centre. By about an hour later, it’s probably the busiest time. I was out and about and decided to go down to the station to buy my ticket to the airport. You see, there’s always one.
There’s always somebody ahead of me in the queue whose transaction is complicated somehow, and takes much, much longer than normal people. Actually, I can’t imagine what it is that’s happening. It’s like doing airport checkin: you hand over your passport and booking, the desk person taps a few keys, prints out a boarding pass and hands it to you with your stuff. AND THAT’S IT. Yet somebody up ahead is taking AGES to process.
The first time I got the train from Lucca, it was a black North African family, everyone in modern European clothes except the young father, who wore a skullcap and colourful pyjamas. He was perfectly fluent in Italian, but something… something was causing a delay. Another time it was two elderly nuns. When I eventually got one move from the ticket desk, the guy in front of me had a question about connections to Milan the next week. But he was a normal person and it was all sorted out in seconds.
Using the machines is far quicker, but for my time in Lucca, there was one broken and one that would only take coins. But this time, the broken machine had been upgraded to two new ones with colour screens and the ability to communicate in five languages and accept credit cards. Sorted.
Ordinary tickets in Italy are effectively “open” until you activate them by punching them in one of the yellow validation machines, and then you have to use it within six hours. There’s a heavy fine if you’re caught travelling with an unpunched ticket (because you could have been intending to re-use it), although on none of my trips to or from Lucca had any railway operative asked to see mine. The local fares are so cheap it probably doesn’t pay to have many inspectors working.
I came back and made a stab at packing. Not very organised. Later on, I changed and went out for dinner. I mentioned previously that I’d had a pizza dersire subverted by other things, but this time I was determined. I looked at the menus of a couple of places and they were all right, but just didn’t hit the pizza spot I was looking for. I came to a place called Lo Skianto, near the main gate on the South, Porta Santa Maria. In fact, since I often took advantage of the shade in the loggia above the gate I had seen the place, and noticed that the painted banners above the windows said “Birreria”, “Osteria”, “Pizzeria” and “Pub” and thought that if it could combine those functions it couldn’t be bad.
Inside, the decor was rather pub-like, with dark-stained wood panelling, but what really decided me was that the menu outside listed about twenty or thirty types of pizza, not to mention calzone and stuffed foccacia. I settled on a spicy “Inferno”, with a carafe of wine. Happy.
It was only a little after ten when I left, but with a long day ahead, I simply returned to the apartment. Before going to bed, I left a couple of bags out for the bin men and bin ladies.
Mr & Mrs G were to meet me at the apartment and collect the key. (And make sure that I hadn’t stolen or broken anything, of course. I’m a model guest, though.) The handle on my cheap wheelie suitcase had broken on the way from the railway station when I arrived, but over the time in Lucca, I had implemented a repair. That’s a story in itself, which I shall probably tell: a tale of improvisation, ingenuity and scavenging. And not a little stupidity.
But the suitcase obediently wheelied almost all the way to the railway station, a 15-minute walk across cobbles, kerbs and similar unsuitable terrain. But just as I crossed the final road, the handle pulled out of its socket. My repair to the other end was still perfectly solid, but that didn’t help. Fortunately, I had a plan B: the cycle lock which I’d found in the street could be used to dag the case by the other, fixed handle. That worked.
I got the Pisa train, the earlier of two possible ones. Pisa Centrale station is fairly large, with over a dozen platforms accessed by an underpass. All with stairs, not ramps. I suppose the connection “train travel – luggage” never occured to the architects. I don’t know how people in wheelchairs get around it. The airport train departs every half hour, but takes less than five minutes to reach the other end. You could almost walk it.
I was an hour early for check-in, but found a seat and passed the time trying to hack in to the paid wifi networks. I’m not sure how their “login” works: if you’re not logged in, the only thing your browser will show is that login page. I thought it might be DNS tomfoolery, but direct queries to their server gave me the right addresses. Oh well, it kept me amused.
After checking in, and getting through security (much more sensible than Belfast on the way over) there was more time to fill. The airside at Pisa doesn’t have much in the way of shops and restaurants — they could learn a thing or two from Stansted or Gatwick — but I bought a cheese baguette. Jet2.com wouldn’t be feeding me, of course.
The inbound flight was delayed by about an hour, causing the departure to be delayed by about the same time, but at last, the plane taxied out and I took a final long look through the window at the marble mountains of Massa-Carrara. We crossed the coast right over Torre del Lago (Puccini) and I was able to see how far I’d had to walk from the train station to the lake. And then, Italy was gone. I was on my way back home to the rain and grey skies of Ireland. I wasn’t very happy about it.