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!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

I’m traveling to Pisa today and the train ride is a short one—only thirty minutes. I sit back and enjoy a relaxing breakfast at the Hotel Palazzo Alexander, knowing that there’s no need to be there just yet.

I saw the Leaning Tower and the sites in and around Piazza dei Miracoli on my first trip to Italy back in 2008, and I’m not planning to go again. I’m visiting for a very different reason this time, to see the Luminara di San Ranieri, a festival held every June 16 in honor of the city’s patron saint, a 12th century troubadour who traded in his music for a deeper commitment to God. Tonight, in a tradition that dates back more than 300 years, over 100,000 candles will be lit along the banks of the Arno. Despite the inevitable crowd, I’m looking forward to it.

With plenty of time to get there, I decide to linger on in Lucca for nearly half the day. I visit the medieval church of San Frediano, stroll through a local flea market where I donate a few Euros to an animal shelter that has a cage full of adorable kittens, buy a hand painted Christmas ornament with the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro on it as a souvenir of my stay, and walk along the walls one last time, past the lush gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner to Porta San Gervasio and back.

It’s two in the afternoon when I arrive at Pisa Centrale and phone the Hotel Bologna to arrange a ride on their free shuttle bus. By half past, I’m settling into a nice single room, with a tall ceiling and a striped bedspread in warm tones of orange, yellow, and red.

Later, when I walk out to Lungarno Gamacorti with a dish of gelato in hand, there are preparations for the night’s festivities already underway up and down the banks of the Arno. There are street vendors selling balloons and candy and roasted nuts. White wooden frames in decorative shapes and patterns (called linen) have been attached to the buildings along the riverbank, and there are workmen in a dozen or more boom lifts, stretched high like a giraffe’s neck, hoisting candles into place. There are also platforms in the river itself, from which fireworks will be launched at the end of the night.

With hours to go before dark, I decide to go shopping along Corso Italia, Pisa’s equivalent of High Street. At the insistence of an old woman behind the counter at Catherine di Rofrano Patrizio, who speaks no English but communicates exceedingly well in gestures, I buy an aqua wrap dress with a low V-neck because she thinks it brings out the color of my eyes. I also pick out a simple coral sun dress from Vuerre, since it matches the Murano glass necklace I bought in Venice. As I’m in the dressing room trying it on, Avril Lavigne’s “Wish You Were Here” is playing on the store radio, and it makes me think of someone I miss, someone who’s going to like this dress very much when he sees it.

Damn! Damn! Damn!
What I’d do to have you here, here, here
I wish you were here
Damn! Damn! Damn!
What I’d do to have you near, near, near
I wish you were here

What was it I said, that solo travel is a hard and lonely business sometimes? It is.

I follow Corso Italia all the way down to the train station and back before stopping for a casual dinner in Piazza Chiara Gambacorti. I order a caprese salad and a plate of ravioli in a walnut cream sauce, and while neither are particularly good, the lively atmosphere more than makes up for the food. There is a flag with a Pisan cross hanging from an open window, a man on stilts walking about in red and black polka dot pants, and a cluster of balloons representing an odd mix of pop culture icons—from Smurfs and Barbies and Winnie the Poohs, to Spongebob Squarepants and Tweety Bird.

I head back to the hotel for a fresh camera battery, a new storage card, and a small tripod. By the time I reach the riverbank again, the crowd has swelled and it’s growing claustrophobic. Teenagers have taken positions high on the cement embankments, so I work my way over to the Ponte Solferino, where I’m fortunate to find a prime viewing position midway across.

By 9:30 PM, the sky has deepened into a rich cobalt blue and the candles on the palazzos are twinkling like a thousand strands of Christmas lights. It’s a beautiful sight, and for a moment I am tempted to walk all the way up to Piazza dei Miracoli to see the lanterns hanging on the Leaning Tower, but the thickness of the crowd makes moving virtually impossible.

Eventually, I work my way down to the Ponte di Mezzo and across to the other side to get a closer view of the candles, but it’s an unnerving crawl in an increasingly boisterous mob. I’m grateful to be back in place on the Ponte Solferino by the time the fireworks start at half past eleven.

It’s been a unique experience being here tonight, much like visiting London during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, or standing on the Rue de Rivoli in Paris for the final laps of the Tour de France. I’ve been fortunate enough to do both, but no one throws a party quite like the Italians, with the same mix of ancient tradition and unbridled joy. It says a lot about a people to watch them celebrate.

I may have missed the infiorata in Spello this year, but I’m glad I made it to Pisa.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

As I lay tucked in bed this morning with the shutters drawn, I consider my situation. I have two days left at the Hotel Davanzati and I had hoped to make two day trips, one to Pisa and Lucca by train, and other to Siena by bus. I have deferred as long as I could based on the unseasonable and increasingly unpredictable weather, but this truly is the end of the road. Whatever happens, I will have to make the best of it.

With a sense of resolve and the anticipation of disappointment, I flip the latch on the shutters and pull them back away from the window. As I lean out to get a better look, the cobblestones on Via Porta Rossa appear little more than damp, and the sky overhead is showing patches of blue. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

I don’t exactly know why it’s so important to me that I see these places bathed in sunlight. Like any traveler, I’ve experienced my fair share of rain. I do have an innate and nonsensical tendency to worry about the weather, but it rarely disrupts my plans in the end. Heck, I survived the torrential downpours that fell across England last summer, and had a mighty good time in spite of it all.

But Italy is somehow different. Anyone with any common sense expects dreary weather in Britain. It’s all part of the mystique. Is it even possible to imagine Brontë’s Wuthering Heights without the windswept moors and the dark, foreboding sky? Yet when it comes to Italy, and Tuscany in particular, the image in my mind’s eye is quite the opposite, constructed from picture postcards and pieces of Hollywood film. That book by Frances Mayes that they turned into a movie was called Under the Tuscan Sun, after all, not Under the Tuscan Rainclouds. I’ve been sold a bill of goods and I am here to collect!

I am confident all the way through my bowl of cereal and two breakfast pastries, optimistic on the walk to Santa Maria Novella train station where I buy a ticket to Pisa Centrale, and hopeful as the train pulls away and heads west, shortly after nine. Halfway there, sitting behind a young Italian woman who talks fast, loud, and incessantly on her cell phone, I notice dark clouds creeping in across the sky.

By the time we arrive, every trace of blue has been swallowed up by the storm. It’s raining so hard and the wind is so fierce that on the long walk to Piazza dei Miracoli, my umbrella is wrenched inside out. I take refuge first in a doorway and then, along with a host of other wet and weary tourists, in a gift shop facing the square.

When it becomes clear that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon, I run across to the ticket counter and buy a pass that allows me to enter five major sites: the cathedral and baptistery, two small museums, and the Camposanto. I pass on climbing the famous “Leaning Tower,” not only because it’s expensive, but because I just might slide off the side to an untimely death in this weather.

I enter the Museo dell’Opera first, and after looking out of the window to observe two things—first, that the tower really is smaller than one would expect, and second, that it really does lean—I pass the time pleasantly, surrounded by beautiful works of art, including a case of illuminated manuscripts written in square notation for Gregorian chant.

Heading clockwise around the square I stop next at the Museo delle Sinopie, which displays the preparatory drawings that were used to create the frescoes on the walls of the Camposanto. These were discovered underneath only after much of the structure was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid in World War II. Then come the baptistery and the cathedral itself, or “Duomo.”

It’s a lovely Romanesque church begun in 1093, but the central pair of bronze doors in front has been removed for restoration and the space covered with unattractive sheets of unpainted fiberboard. When a woman steps in front of me to take a picture, I reposition myself so that I can use the span of her multicolored umbrella to block it from mine. When life gives you lemons… make lemonade!

I enter the Camposanto last, eager to see the restored frescoes that were once damaged in the war. It’s a cemetery made up largely of stone sarcophagi. There is a large rectangular cloister with delicate stone tracery on the windows, and a grassy central courtyard, planted on the periphery with roses of pink, red, and yellow.

The frescoes that stand in relief against the brick wall are fragments to be sure. They are snatches of scenes that once depicted “The Ascension” and “The Crucifixion,” along with other Bible stories. But they are beautiful just the same, with attention paid to the small details of life that I find so appealing. In one, two carpenters use a cross-cut saw to slice boards from from a larger beam. In another, a woman in a brocade gown of pink and blue holds a squirming dog on her lap, as it gently bites her finger. And finally, there is St. Michael the Archangel, who stands with sword in hand at the center of what can only be described as “The Last Judgment.”

I should have seen that coming! How many does that make this week?

Still, my penance may be over at last because as I wind my way back out to the cloister and across the courtyard, I spot a feeble ray of sunshine coming from the sky overhead. The storm has passed, the clouds are breaking.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I arrive in Lucca on a direct train from Pisa San Rossore station. I haven’t eaten lunch yet, so I’m starved. For me, the first order of business isn’t to admire the city’s fine medieval walls, which I pass under at Porta San Pietro. Instead, it’s to find my way to a restaurant called “Buca di Sant’Antonio,” which I had read about online. The problem is, the only map I have is one produced on my inkjet printer at home and the morning’s rain has reduced it to a smeared and sodden mess. As it is, I have no hope of finding Via della Cervia. I would ask someone for directions, but the streets at this hour are eerily quiet.

Opting for the safety of numbers, I decide to head towards Piazza dell’Anfiteatro instead. It’s the main public square, a discernable blob on the map, and there are bound to be dozens of restaurants nearby. When at last I reach a curved section of wall, I know that I’ve arrived. I follow it to the left and enter through a deep gate lined with bicycles.

Inside, the piazza follows the oval imprint of an ancient Roman amphitheater. I stand and admire the jigsaw architecture and the uniform colors of the space — red tiled roofs above, shades of yellow stucco with green shutters below — before sitting down to eat under the awning at “Roma Bar.” I’m told that the pasta with sage butter is gone for the day, so I settle for tortellini and a mozzarella and tomato salad instead.

Once my stomach is comfortably full, I head off to find the Torre Guinigi, which as it turns out, doesn’t require a map at all. As I head south, away from the piazza, I can see the brick tower, with its famed oak trees on top, looming high above the surrounding neighborhood.

The climb up is an easy one, on wide stone stairs. From here, under a canopy of green, the city of Lucca lies at my feet, surrounded by the Tuscan hills. I can see the oval pattern of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and behind it a striking mosaic on the façade of the Basilica of San Frediano. When my eyes drift down to the jumble of rooftops below, I discover a message scrawled in chalk that reads: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS?

Perhaps it’s an existential question, a plea for understanding. Maybe it’s nothing at all. In the here and now, however, I know my answer and it’s Italy.

Back on the street, it’s late afternoon and Lucca has awakened from its official midday slumber. The shops have reopened and tourists are beginning to file into Via Fillungo. I stop at Moka Bar for two scoops of gelato — lemon and pineapple — which I eat while window shopping.

I make my way back to Porta San Pietro and climb the steps there to reach the top of the wall. I decide to walk as far as my legs will take me, past the Cathedral of St. Martin and the botanical gardens. As I go, I hear the persistent “ching, ching” of bicycle bells. This comes not just from children who seem to delight in ordering others out of the way, but from everyone, despite the ample width of the gravel path.

Cyclists clearly take priority over pedestrians, and they are more ubiquitous here, and more dangerous, than Vespas in Rome. An extended family whizzes past and no sooner does the father ask the grandmother how she’s faring, then she topples over onto the grass, striking her head on the ground. I stop and offer the use of my cell phone to call for help, but thankfully she seems fine, just a little dazed.

About half way around, I climb down from the wall and meander through the center of town, back to where I began, past boutiques and bookshops and store windows filled with pastries, past the church of San Michele in Foro. By now, the sky has turned a brilliant shade of blue, made deep by the setting sun.

When I reach Piazza Napoleone, I stumble into a raucous celebration in honor of the local Carabinieri, Italy’s military police. Flags of red, white, and green are flying from every window, but oddly enough the song the band is playing is none other than “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It is an odd juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar.

I’m tempted to linger and to watch. But it’s getting late and I have a train to catch.

On the journey back, in a nearly empty car, I lean my head against the window and watch the world go by. My iPod is in my lap and a track from Il Postino is playing in my ear. The morning’s rain seems a long way away.

It’s been a good day, after all.