Friday, June 14, 2013

There’s a handsome new face at the reception desk this morning. It’s Fabrizio and Patrizia’s younger son Riccardo, fresh out of high school. He’s as friendly as everyone else in the family, and equally efficient in handling my hotel bill. We talk pleasantly for a few minutes as he runs my credit card through and prints the receipt, and when I ask for a small favor, he says he would be happy to store my luggage in the corner behind the desk to allow me a few more hours to sightsee before moving on.

There’s a special exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi called “The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460” that I want to see before I go. It’s an impressive collection that includes Filippo Brunelleschi’s original wooden model for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. That object is the fundamental starting point of the Early Renaissance, along with the bronze panels Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti completed for a competition to determine which would be commissioned for the doors of the Baptistery. Those panels are here, too, each depicting the “Sacrifice of Isaac” from the Old Testament. There are nine large rooms in all to digest, with major works by Donatello, Lippi, Masaccio, and Della Robbia, among others. Coming here has been an afterthought, of sorts, but a welcome one.

I return to the Hotel Davanzati and walk up the flight of stairs one last time to claim my bags. Riccardo kindly arranges for a taxi to pick me up downstairs, and before long, I’m on the 11:38 AM train to Lucca. By accident, I’ve picked one of the slower Regionale trains, which makes more stops along the way, but perhaps the extra time will do me good. I need to clear my head after an intense five days in Florence. I have another week in Italy ahead of me and I want to enjoy it.

It’s half past one when a cab driver drops me off at the door of the Hotel Palazzo Alexander on Via Santa Giustina in Lucca. It’s a quiet residential street and a pleasant place to stay, if a bit worn around the edges. I’ll be here for the next two nights, mainly to explore an antiques market that opens tomorrow morning. The rest of today is my own, and I feel no need to rush.

I’ve been here before, on my first trip to Italy in 2008. I combined it then with a day trip to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, the cathedral, and the Camposanto. It had started out with unseasonably cool temperatures, a driving wind, and torrential rain, but by the time I arrived in Lucca in mid-afternoon, the sun was splitting the clouds and the air was warm and breezy and fresh, as it so often is after a storm. I spent the time I had wandering the streets, walking the city’s walls, enjoying a late lunch at a café in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and climbing the Torre Guinigi to stand under the shade of the oak trees and to see the hills of Tuscany roll out like a carpet before me. On one of the rooftops, someone had written in large, block letters: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS? And for me it was there, captured in a moment now five years gone. It became one of my fondest memories from that trip, and I always knew I would come back.

I meander up to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro to take some pictures, then down Via Fillungo to the square by the church of San Michele in Foro, where there are people lounging lazily on the steps eating gelato. The shops have reopened following their afternoon slumber and the town is gradually crawling back to life.

Later, I walk into Trattoria Canuleia for dinner, which is just steps away from the curved walls of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and ask for un tavolo per uno—a table for one. It appears dark and nearly empty inside, but the waitress leads me out through the dining room to a shaded courtyard in back where there are a dozen or more people dining merrily under a canopy of umbrellas. There are white and aqua tablecloths and potted flowers on the tables, and there is a warm glow coming from the lamps that line the edge of the stone patio. It has the charm of a secret garden, and I’m grateful for the impulse that led me here.

There is a woman seated at the table next to mine and she’s likewise dining alone. Within minutes, she leans over to ask if she can join me. I nod readily, and she carries a glass of wine over to the seat across from mine. Her name is Diane and she’s from Melbourne, Australia on the last leg of her trip to Italy. As I work my way through a bowl of chilled zucchini soup with fresh mint and ricotta cheese, and then a dish of cabbage with buffalo mozzarella and sundried tomatoes, we talk about our travels—all the places we’ve been, and those we’d still like to see. She has a cheerful disposition and a lovely lilting accent, which reminds me of another Australian woman I once met on a train between Assisi and Arezzo.

When we part at the end of dinner, I’m sorry to see her go. Solo travel has its rewards to be sure, but it can be a hard and lonely business sometimes, which is what makes sharing an unexpected meal with a sociable stranger so comforting.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Three years ago, I spent a wonderful morning wandering the streets of Arezzo during their famous Fiera Antiquaria, an antiques market that’s held in the city on the first Sunday of each month and the Saturday before. I bought a pair of Italian paintings that day that hang on the opposite sides of my living room window at home in Vermont. Hoping for more good luck, I’ve come to Lucca where there’s a similar fair this weekend.

It’s been a constant refrain on this trip, but once again I’m getting a late start. It’s ten o’clock by the time I sit down for breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, and I feel compelled to apologize to the hotel’s manager, who smiles warmly despite the inconvenience and offers to make me a cappuccino to go along with my bacon and eggs. He’s a very nice man.

When I tell him of my plans for the day, he says that the antique dealers and their wares are spread out along a chain of piazzas, and he circles the map to get me started—Piazza Napoleone, Piazza del Giglio, Piazza San Martino, and Piazza San Giovanni. It sounds like a treasure hunt, and I’m hoping to find where X marks the spot.

It’s a perfect summer’s day as I wander through stalls crammed with books and linens and china and urns, but what I really want I spy from the start. It’s a 19th century oil painting of Florence, probably intended for tourists on the Grand Tour. It depicts a group of boaters on the Arno, with the imposing tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the red dome of Santa Maria del Fiore dominating the city skyline in the background. It’s reasonably affordable as it is, but it’s large and the condition is only fair. I can’t imagine how I would be able to ship it home without damaging the paint surface on the canvas, and even if I could, I’m afraid of what it would cost.

I ponder this for a bit and ask for advice from a helpful Brit who owns a gallery in town. It seems I can mail the painting to myself easily enough, but that requires a skill in packaging I simply don’t have, not to mention the materials themselves. Moreover, it would be difficult to find a local shipping company before I leave for Pisa in the morning. It is the weekend, after all. There are art dealers who handle such things, of course, but that would require the formality of Italian export laws, which treat antiques as cultural assets. He says that it could both time consuming and costly to acquire approval. Inasmuch as I like the painting, I decide not to risk it in the end.

I’m disappointed, but when I don’t see anything else to tempt me, I opt to walk away empty handed, and turn my focus to other pursuits.

I go shopping in the upscale boutiques along Via Fillungo, and visit the church of San Michele in Foro and the San Martino Cathedral. I stop for some macadamia nut gelato at De’ Cotelli, and climb the Torre dell’ Orologio for the postcard views. And, of course, I walk along the city walls, alongside joggers, and bicyclists, and families with strollers. It’s too beautiful of an afternoon to be caught indoors.

By 7:00 PM, I’m back at the church of San Giovanni for a concert, at the suggestion of Diane the night before. One of the great composers of Italian opera, Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 and has remained a favorite son ever since. The daily concerts that are offered during the Puccini e la sua Lucca festival appeal unapologetically to the tourist crowd. Lasting just an hour, they are the perfect pre-dinner recital, and the musical selections are largely arias and duets from accessible and well-known operas, including Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and Turnadot. Still, the soloists are first rate and I enjoy it immensely, with one exception.

There is a woman in the row in front of me who insists on videotaping the entire event on her cell phone, probably for bragging rights back home to impress friends and family with her cultured taste. It’s like having double vision, seeing the performers singing live in one eye, while a tiny video simulcast plays in the other. It’s beyond annoying and it would never be allowed at La Scala in Milan or at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but here in Lucca there is a benign and relaxed tolerance for such things.

Because it seems fitting, I have dinner afterwards at Paris Bohème in Piazza Cittadella, so that I can sit facing the city’s bronze statue of Puccini. The night air has grown chilly and I wish I had thought to bring a jacket. I have a bowl of carrot soup and a satisfying plate of tortelli lucchesi in a rich ragù of Chianina beef.

On the short walk back to the hotel, I find myself humming “O Solo Mio,” the encore sung by the two dueling tenors at the concert tonight, to the rousing applause of the audience. It seems appropriate, for indeed, “what a wonderful thing a sunny day…”

Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole,
n’aria serena doppo na tempesta!
Pe’ ll’aria fresca pare già na festa…
Che bella cosa na jurnata ‘e sole.
Ma n’atu sole
cchiù bello, oje ne’.
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
O sole
O sole mio
sta ‘nfronte a te!
sta ‘nfronte a te!