Sunday 24th June
I’d spent three whole weeks in Lucca, two years previously, and apart from a few day trips out by train, all my days had followed much the same pattern, which could be summed up as “being idle in Lucca”.
I did that again. I walked up to the San Frediano platform on the walls. It had been my regular spot to get some shade. After a strenous hour or so of sitting still, I reminded myself of my normal route back to the apartment I’d had. It didn’t look as though it was currently occupied.
I walked at random in the city. During the previous visit, I’d covered pretty much every square metre, including going right round the walls, both on foot and by bicycle. So nothing was novel, but happily familiar.
One minor excitement was on one of the bastions — I think it might have been San Paolino — there were young people who I guess might have been art or photography students. One group was photographing a pretty girl in full evening dress, and long gloves, in crimson; while the other included a band of them in costumes, which I vaguely recognized as anime or manga chracters. The girl with blue hair and cat ears? A cadaverous warrior with long white hair, a black trenchcoat and a huge katana? I don’t know.
Late in the afternoon, I returned to the hotel to freshen up before going back out for dinner. I picked a trattoria at random and ordered a ‘primo’ — a pasta dish — and a pizza. I don’t know if an Italian would do that, but it worked for me.
Monday 25th June
I wanted to make use of the car, rather than pay to have it rust in the car park. What attraction is near by? I remembered Collodi, from a holiday more than ten years previously, made famous from being the pen name of the creator of Pinocchio. There’s a Pinocchio theme park, which I’d be sure to avoid, but the villa has an impressive garden which is open to the public. A bit of work on the internet showed that it was only a half hour away. In practice, the first half of that was very suburban, traffic-plagued travel. Still, I got out into the country on the way to Collodi, in Pescia province, not Lucca.
I got to the town and made a small diversion by following the road signs to “Villa Basilica”, on the assumption that it meant “Villa, Basilica”. I mean, I knew there was a villa…
A brief excursion to the village of Villa Basilica and then I came back and found the large car park at Collodi. Gardens, then.
They’d opened a butterfly house since my previous visit, included in the price of entry. It was very, very hot and humid, like a sauna. This seemed to make the butterflies very active, and I didn’t manage to take any decent photos of any of them. I was grateful to get out into the open air.
I spent a couple of hours, exploring and sitting in the shade alternatively. The main focus of the garden is a great descending water feature. In one of the pools I saw a small snake swimming. That was probably my highlight.
It was only early afternoon by the time I’d had my fill. Pescia is almost adjacent, and it’s one of the well-known towns of Tuscany that I’d never seen. Off I went. Following the signs for “centro”, I came to Piazza Mazzini, with plenty of parking. It’s not actually the historic centre, which is on the other side of the river, but it’s only a sort walk across one of the bridges..
The river and the mountainous setting is very attractive. You couldn’t “holiday” there for more than a half day, unlike Florence or Lucca, but it’s nice for a visit. Or, actually, you could live there. Seriously.
I drove home via the toll-paying autostrada instead of the suburban roads. It cost me €1.30
In the evening, I walked into Lucca for dinner, and had a really nice one. Afterwards, I went up beyond the end of Via Fillungo, the posh street, where the Guardian-recommended hostelry De Cervasia sells craft beers. I tried a couple: Brùton (pale) and Tainted Love (dark). Not a beer expert, so I can’t really judge. I’m sorry I don’t pray that way.
Tuesday 26th June
With the Wednesday being the day of travel to the mists and rain of the North Atlantic, I was going to stay in town. The temperatures were high thirties again, giving the “taking it easy” option more weight. I took a book and took to the shade.
My reading was interrupted by the sound of car horns: a vintage and classic car parade was circling the walls.
Even in very hot weather, I don’t seem to feel the need to drink a lot (it’s the lizard in me) but I’d lifted a little glass bottle of fruit juice from the hotel’s breakfast bar, and even remembered to bring my Leatherman tool in order to open it. Note to self: your particular Leatherman model does not have a bottle opener. I had to use the pliers to peel the edges of the cap up.
When I’d had the fruity contents, I put the bottle upside down on the grass beside me, thinking that the scent might attract flies if the open top was upward. But when I looked after some time, the bottle was full of ants. And beneath it, where the dregs must have dripped, there was a heaving mass of more ants. I edged away a little. I even considered abandoning the bottle when I left, instead of responsibly taking it to the bin as intended.
But by the time I was ready to leave (to buy a bite of lunch) all but three of the ants inside had gone. Perhaps it had got hot inside. I just had to shake the stragglers out onto the grass and go.
In the afternoon, I walked back to the hotel and asked to borrow one of their bikes. The availability of bikes had seemed like an asset when I booked the hotel, but the constant heat had made cycling unattractive. Even though it was after five, there was really very little dimunition of the temperature, but felt that a circuit of the walls by bike was a milestone I’d like to meet.
But I didn’t head for the walls straight away. I took the road parallel to the railway and came to the acqueduct. Actually, I’d missed the terminal of it by a hundred metres, but there was access to the path along its base anyway. On my previous stay in Lucca, I’d walked it, and found that you left the city suburbs behind very quickly, with countryside and farmland on all sides.
Walking had been more relaxed than cycling, to be honest, because there was just one deep wheel rut, about the width of your hand, and you had to either concentrate on keeping in it, or bump over the rougher parts of the path. I went as far as the motorway. There’s an old, rusty pedestrian bridge that allows you to follow the acqueduct for a while longer, but I didn’t fancy carting the bike over it. The shorter bridge at the railway station has a metal gutter alonside the stairs to allow you to wheel your bike smoothly, but this one did not.
I turned back and covered the same route, except carrying on to the “Tempietto” at the city end. They didn’t do industrial buildings for their water or other services in the nineteenth century, they built a classical temple in stone.
Then I rode back to the cycling-friendly underpass system that gets you from the railway station side to the city walls. There are modern tunnels under the railway and the main road, and then a sort of postern through the side of the Santa Maria bastion.
It was still pretty hot, even at six o’clock, and some segments of the pathway round the walls were straight-on to the sun and not shaded by the trees, but it was still an easy ride. After completing the circuit, I came off the walls and cycled in some of the quieter parts of the old town, before going back to the hotel to hand back the bike.
Later that evening, I took a final stroll around the city before having a ridiculously large calzone pizza for dinner. Then I walked the short distance to the Irish pub for a final pint. I know it was a mid-week night, but the place seemed to have quietened down since my previous stay in Lucca. One thing that did cheer me up was with the transvestite chap, who back then would wander in, sadly walk around the bar watching what was going on, and shortly depart without ordering anything. Now I could see that he was having a half-pint and chatting to other regulars.
Wednesday 27th June
I waited until the morning before pcking, figuring that it wouldn’t take long to tip everything into the suitcase. I paid my bill and got in the car. I had a half-day to fill before my flight, and hadn’t been able to think at first of what I could do with the time. But just the day before, it had come to me: Torre del Lago, Puccini’s home. On my previous stay in Lucca, I’d gone there by train, and then a kilometre walk from the station. Driving would be relative luxury. It would be about a half hour from Lucca, and then afterwards just another half hour to Pisa airport. Easy. I set the satnav for what I thought was the correct address, the long road which I had once walked to get to the lake, Via Giacomo Puccini.
Actually, it’s “Viale”, not “Via”: “Avenue” instead of “Road”. So what happened was that the satnav directed me into Viareggio. There was quite a lot of traffic, and the voice directing me was telling me to take left and right turns every fifty or hundred metres as though I was going stepwise across a grid. Something was not right.
At this point, I’ll mention that the particular voice is that of Naoimh Tuohy from Westport, who won a competition on Today FM to be the ‘voice of Ireland’. She’ll say things like “After two hundred metres, bear left onto the motorway. That would be the big road, there.” or “Sharp right. Oooh.” Anyway, Naoimh clearly wasn’t getting me there, but after accidentally driving twice round a carpark, I found a place to stop and corrected my error. It was simple from then on.
Actually, it was lucky, in a way. Previously, I’d only seen “the strip” at Viareggio, the typical beachfront scene, but I’d managed to get lost in the part of the city along the river, and that looked a lot more characterful and interesting. It might be good to know if I’m ever in the area again.
In a few minutes, I was driving into the car park at Torre del Lago Puccini, to give it the full name. Slightly excessive, I think. Just on the corner of the carpark is a large modern restaurant, and I had to smile at the near life-size figues of the Blues Brothers outside. Perfect for opera fans.
The lake area wasn’t busy. I took to a seat under the shade of a giant maple (I think), which I guess was probably full grown when the man himself lived there. When I got bored of sitting, I took a turn around the grounds of the modern amphitheatre which has been built to host opera festivals. I’m sure it’s a modern marvel but it’s an ugly, blue monstrosity. I don’t buy the argument that using modern materials as they are designed to be used gives an integrity equal to, say, a Roman building made from stone in the only way they knew.
When I came back to the shady spot, there were two groups of young teenagers, one Italian and one Chinese. Much innocent fun was had between the two over instruction in gesture and broken English over how not to lose your gelato in the heat. It is a minor skill to lick it and control the melting, of course. The Chinese were total novices.
I held out as long as I could, but eventually, I had to go to the airport. The Hertz girl who took back my car got into the driver’s seat and, before even taking the key from me, immediately turned down the visor mirror and checked her hair and makeup. Ah, Italy.
Airports are tedious. There’s no getting away from it, but I had no particular delays and an uneventful flight. The landing though, into torrential, blustery rain, was quite exciting. Ah, the Irish Summer. Welcome home.