Saturday 1st July Bellagio to Como by bus, then train to Milan
We are leaving for Milan today, while Debbie and Mike stay on for an extra day with Allie. We’ve really enjoyed our time in Bellagio, in spite of the wet start, and would have liked to have spent a few more days here, as we didn’t get to do everything we wanted.
Having considered all the possibilities of getting to Milan, including getting a boat down the Eastern leg of the lake to Lecco, we opted for a bus from Bellagio to San Giovanni railway station in Como and a train to Milano Centrale, the closest station to our hotel, Charly Hotel. The bus travels down the steep West side of the peninsular that separates the two legs of the lake. Dianne had sussed out the bus stop, but not where to buy tickets. At the car ferry, we were directed to the San Remo Bar, across the road, so Dianne waited at the bus stop while Murray bought tickets. There was a couple waiting at the bus stop with baggage, so we figured we were in the right place, and the bus was the sort which took baggage. Half right – when the bus turned up, it had under-floor storage, but not for the likes of us, so we had to lump the bags up the centre steps and sit them on seats. As it turned out, this wasn’t a problem, as the bus never filled right up.
On the trip, which was quite picturesque, with views across the lake to the mountains, towns and villages, and down the steep slopes on our side to villas and villages clinging to the mountain, Murray managed some pretty good photos through the large and clean side window. With trees and mountain behind, there was very little reflection to spoil the photos.
Out on the lake we were being followed by one of the very flash Kris-Kraft style wooden speedboats, making almost as good a time as the bus. A telephoto shot allowed us to check if Mike, Debbie and Allie were in the boat. We later found out they hired a boat just like this, but not this one. The road was smooth, but winding, and just wide enough for two vehicles most of the time. The road was 50 to 100 metres above the water, and the banks so steep it was hard to get many photos of our side of the lake. It would be a really good road to walk, with care. On some of the steeper slopes, pine trees, up to 50 metres tall, and very straight were clinging to the earth.
By the time we passed through a long tunnel into Como, the bus had about 20 passengers, most of whom got off in the CBD. The bus drove along the waterfront, passing the Navigazione Como wharf, and completing our loop at the station. There was a train at the station, but not the right one as several were listed for our platform, and ours was running late. When it arrived, we were right up the wrong end, and had to jump on the first class carriage, and make our way along towards second class, but by the time we got to the second class, it was very crowded (it’s Saturday) and Dianne only managed to get a seat by asking a backpacker to move her bag. She and her partner couldn’t manage to get it up onto the rack, so she had to nurse it all the way to Milano. Not happy, Jan. Murray managed to find space for the two bags at the end of the first class, and was offered a seat by a woman who preferred to stand. It was interesting to contemplate what would happen when the ticket inspector arrived, as the compartment filled up, with a lot of people, only a few of whom had first class seats. The situation didn’t arise, and no tickets were checked, either in the train, or on arrival.
Milano station is a massive structure, with high arched marble ceilings, and a grand façade with heroic sized statues, but it isn’t particularly pretty. Possibly Mussolini had something to do with the design, when he was making the trains run on time. Exiting the station, the first thing we see are two long flights of stairs, and we were not in the mood (and didn’t have the ability) to use them, so further searching discovered escalators, which involved more walking, but no stairs.
We found ourselves out in the immense square, with maps.me telling us our hotel was to the left, less than a kilometre of level walking, so we set off. Our first impression was the number of African men lounging singly and in groups in the park, and a police vehicle with half a dozen armed police keeping an eye on them. On our walk to the hotel we saw a fair percentage of people on the street were African. Just before we got to our street, we passed a local bar, with aging Italian men occupying the pavement tables, and further along, on the corner, a group of Africans talking animatedly – two cultures side by side, but not mixing.
Charly Hotel (A$138 per night for 3 nights) was halfway down the block, in a well-renovated building with a nice courtyard garden, and an annex reached through an electric gate. As usual, we were in the annex, but it was quite nice, on the ground floor, with a heavily barred window over the street. The room was spacious, with a good bathroom and air conditioning. As it was now well past lunch time we headed back to the station to look for Bistrot, a well-known self-serve chain with Italian food. It looked pretty good, but not particularly cheap, so we settled for Burger King next door, with a massive drink included with the meal.
We also arranged our train tickets for our trip to Lucca. After checking on the internet we knew which ones we wanted, but there was an enormous line at the ticketing counter, so we plucked up our courage and used a ticketing machine with a credit card, which was surprisingly quick, despite having to co-ordinate two different trains.
We then decided on a one-day, 24 hour pass (4.50 euros) on all forms of public transport in the central area as our best bet for getting around Milan. Got a transport map, with Metro lines drawn wide in various colours (turns out to be trams in blue, and buses in magenta) and go looking for the Metro line which will get us to the Duomo. In typical style, the Metro, which is nominally in the Centrale Stazione, is a long walk away, through corridors, across large spaces, up and down stairs, but when we get to it, apart from a false start at the turnstiles, it works, getting us to the Duomo in quick time.
At the Duomo, we walk around the square, take photos in the hot afternoon sun (it’s now back in the early 30’s C ) look at the queues for the tour and decide we are not in the mood.
Walk through the nearby Galleria Vittoria Emanuele arcade, a fancy cross-shaped building with high arched glass ceilings, and all the product names beloved of the rich and famous and wannabees. We decide this is not the time or place for any shopping we might want to do, so plot a course to the Porta Genova canal area and the Porta Ticinese market. Our ATM Public Transport Routes map tells us we can get a Number 1 tram from right at the end of the Galleria, so find a tram, but work out it is going the wrong way, so get off and look for a stop for the other direction. We find we are in front of the famous La Scala Theatre, but are not impressed with the outside of the building.
A series of trams gets us to Porta Genova, where we walk down the closed end of a fairly ordinary canal, cross over a pedestrian bridge and walk towards Porta Ticinese where more interesting canals runs south and south west. The area looks quite interesting, with lots of people sitting in restaurants along the canal. There are boat trips along the canal, but we’ve already seen enough to get the general idea, so just walk for a while before catching a #3 tram back to the centre, then a #1 back to our stop near Charly Hotel where there is a Carrrefour Express supermarket, where we stock up with lunch and evening meal supplies.
Sunday 2nd July Milan, Italy
After breakfast, supplied by the hotel, we take reference photos of our home tram stop timetable, then get the #1, getting off outside the now-familiar La Scala. Walk through the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele to the Duomo, and walk all the way around it, taking photos of the Duomo and the notable buildings, and the remarkable brick spire nearby. We see a street performance of humans dressed up as very realistic Transformers characters, walk past an unusual old circular building, and find the very flash shopping street, Via Della Spiga, and walk through to find ourselves at the ancient gateway over the #1 tram route into the city. Consulting our map, we find that we can take a bus, the #61 all the way to the Castello Sforzesco from here. The bus is probably faster than the tram, but bone-shakingly rough on the cobbled streets. We consider lunching at one of the cafes on the semicircular street in front of the castle, but find no inspiration, so carry on into the castle, finding it free for all normal access,
This is probably the largest castle we have seen in terms of footprint area. The walls are seriously high, and there is an interesting tower with an expanded central section with a pitched roof. The two conical roofed circular towers at either end of the front façade are particularly impressive, with walls of large stone blocks cut to give a deeply textured appearance. We walk through the main courtyard to a second keep, then out the back over a deep moat into an extensive park. From the castle we look across a decorative lake and lawns to the impressive city gate, Porta Sempione, with a landmark triumphal arch called Arco della Pace (“Arch of Peace”) dating back to the 19th century, and topped with a bronze equestrian group. We walk all the way to another semi-circular road beyond the arch to find a stop for the 10 tram, transfer to the 19, which takes us back to the Duomo, where we catch the #1 back home, with Murray getting off early to visit Carrefour, Dianne staying on longer for a shorter walk to Charly Hotel as she is exhausted after all this walking in the heat with her ankle.
Debbie and Mike have arrived, and we arrange to go to a restaurant they used when they were staying in Milano recently. It is a few blocks away, so we walk there, have a fair meal in an almost deserted restaurant, and walk back via the tram route to show Mike and Debbie the stops, and where to buy transport passes at a “Tabacchi” shop.
Monday 3rd July Milan Duomo visit and Night Photos
We want to explore the Duomo today, and have seen large crowds waiting in the hot sun in the middle of the day, so go early and are in at La Scala by 10.11, after having to find a bar with a “Tabacchi” sign a couple of blocks down to buy our new transport passes. The crowds at the Duomo entrance station don’t look too bad, but we find we have to buy tickets at the Duomo Shop, where there is a large crowd. Fortunately the attendant at the queue ticket machine tells us that the over 65’s get their own operators, and the queue is very short and we are out in no time with our 16 euros each, Type A (Elevator) tickets, rather than the cheaper tickets where you have to walk up stairs to the roof. Back at the Duomo, there is about a half hour queue, and a security check with metal detectors and bag search. The interior of the Duomo is fairly plain, although the columns are interesting with the tops decorated with statues standing on flanges. The stained glass windows were very large and colourful, and the ceilings intricately figured. One statue was interesting, depicting a man with extreme muscle definition, almost like he had been skinned.
When we finish the ground floor and crypt of the Duomo, we have to exit and walk to the far left corner where there is another, longer queue and security check for the lift to the top of the building. There are steps up into the lift, which is supposed to hold 8 people, but for some reason they are only loading five plus the driver. Getting to the top, we have to squeeze past people coming down, and find ourselves on the lower section of roof over the aisles at the eaves level. From here we can look down on the terrace of the Michelin rated restaurant we found by mistake when we looking for somewhere to have a drink with a view, and along the full length of the building, through multiple flying buttresses, all heavily carved in white marble. The roof itself is clad in large marble tiles, about 80 cm square, with raised edges at about a ten degree slope, fairly safe for walking when dry. We are surprised to find we are allowed to walk the full length of the building to the front where a set of narrow steps and a spiral staircase lead to the very top of the main roof. It is an interesting climb for Dianne, with people coming down as she is trying to go up.
From the top, there are wide views over the city and north to the Alps; close views of the scores of small spires and statues decorating the roof, and the Madonnina, a gold-plated statue of the Madonna on the highest spire, and one of the main features of the cathedral. There is a lot of scaffolding on the main spire, but you can see a carved marble spiral staircase rising another 20-metres which may be available for the intrepid or well-heeled in the future. Compared with the relative austerity of the interior, the exterior, seen from the roof, is a riot of decoration. In lots of places the stonework has been replaced or repaired with brilliant white marble. A close-up of the Madonnina shows a wind direction and velocity instrument clamped onto her spear. This roof walk was much better than we were expecting, and was one of the highlights of our Milan visit. Retreating from the roof, we have to force our way between people arriving from the walk-up alternative, and in the lift there are only four passengers, possibly to balance the queues at the top and bottom.
Before carrying on to the Museum of the Duomo, we go looking for a drink and a rest, and find an outdoor café in a large shady portico. We revel in the slow service which allows us to rest and cool down a bit, and settle for two lemon soda drinks, nominally 250ml, but by chance are 500 ml, not bad value at that.
After recovering, we go to the Duomo Museum which was inaugurated in 1953 and houses around 200 pieces, all connected to the Duomo Cathedral. We see examples of the gargoyles and statues which adorn (if not infest) the roof, in marble, plaster and terracotta, plus the armature for the statue of the Madonnina, presumably modelled in clay and cast in bronze, and intricate wooden models of the entire cathedral, as well as tapestries, overhangs, graphics materials, paintings, and stained-glass windows. The museum also has a passage to the courtyard of the adjoining Church of San Gottardo with the high and intricate brick bell tower.
Following an extensive period of restoration, the museum was re-opened in October 2013. We check the Duomo queues several times for Mike and Debbie, but don’t see them, so head for home on our usual #1 tram.
In the late afternoon Murray spent some time trying to follow suggested fixes for the multiple letter typing problem on the useless Acer Aspire S7 computer this is written on, without much luck.
We head back into town later to get some night photos, and are back at the Castella by 8.14 courtesy of the #1 tram, hoping for some night illuminated photos, but the sun is still high in the sky, so we settle for some photos of the west side, now well-lit by the setting sun. We catch the #1 back to the Duomo, and spend a lot of time looking for some likely restaurants we had seen in the afternoon, but find them closed, so settle for a Maccas , following the signs until we find it right on the Piazza Duomo. We order take-away using the electronic selection and payment system, and Murray waits while Dianne finds a table upstairs. We order one Big Mac, get two, but cop it sweet, sitting at the window looking straight at the Duomo as it brightens up as the sun sets and the lights take effect – so much for looking for fancy places to get a good view – this was as good as any.
We take photos all around the Duomo and surrounding buildings, take night photos inside the Galleria, and in the tram on the way home, and call it a night.
Tuesday 4th July Milan, Italy to Lucca, Italy
The four of us are heading to Lucca today. We have a two week homeswap there, and Debbie and Mike decided to rent an apartment nearby for a week, then spend a week in Rome. They leave early in the morning as they have to meet their landlady at 2pm.
We have booked seats on the 12.10 Intercity train to La Spezia, arriving at 15.21 (29 euros each) then tickets on the 15.40 regional train from La Spezia getting to Pisa San Rossore at 16.45, then changing to the 16.55 train to Lucca (9.10 euros each) getting us there at 17.17 – quite a complicated itinerary, but we chose it rather than going to Florence then back to Lucca because part of it was more scenic, going along the coast; we would be getting the train from Lucca to Florence when we leave Lucca anyway; and it was also cheaper. According to maps.me, our route takes us almost directly to the west coast at Genoa then follows the coast south to La Spezia, touching on the coast at Santa Margherita, the takeoff for Portofino, then right along the shoreline till Sestri Levante before cutting inland to come back to the coast at the northern end of the Cinque Terre at Monterosso before taking an inland route to La Spezia, avoiding the lower Cinque Terre villages. This program depended on reasonable, but not split-second timing, but it all went pear shaped when the train left Milan 15 minutes late and continued to lose time on the way.
Italian Railways had thoughtfully booked us two seats in a row of three (the only seats not in a row of 2!) against a bulkhead, facing backward, so it is not a great sightseeing trip. At Milan station, we are conned by a helpful older man who lifts the bags onto the high steps for us, which we appreciated, then continued to shepherd us to the far end of the carriage through the crowd, and even put the bags up on the racks (which we didn’t need, and didn’t ask for). Murray thanked him, but he held out his hand. Murray found about three euros in change, but he wanted five. Fortunately we had a five note. We had been conned, but he was definitely helpful. We will be more careful in future – not all helpers are like our German man in Bellagio.
Leaving Milan, we saw very little except high rise apartments, no sign of any of the known landmarks, but did get a glimpse of a massive brick building with a three-tiered tower with multiple columns. The countryside has wide green fields, possibly rice, corn and wheat, and a large river. Near the coast we come to mountains, with hill villages, and pass through tunnels into Genoa, the first major stop. After Genoa, we get glimpses of pretty coastline, with beaches, headlands, boat harbours, coastal swimming pools, and coastal pine trees, a lot of it seen between gaps in apartment buildings.
We arrive at La Spezia 25 minutes late, 6 minutes over the 19 minute window we had allowed, but at least the train we needed to catch would have been on the opposite side of the same platform. Fortunately, there is another two-decker Regionali waiting on this platform, and the electronic sign indicates it will leave at 16.24. There is some confusion because the platform has 4N and 4S and there are two trains already there, but logic tells us it will be the south one, and we get on, confirming with others that it is the Pisa train. We get jump seats at the entrance to be with our bags for a quick change at Pisa San Rossore, and Murray can take photos on either side of the train. We see more glimpses of the coastline on the way south and get some surprisingly good photos in the short time between tunnels and electricity frames.
North of Carrara, we head inland, cross a large river and see foothills with higher bare mountains off to the east, and some interesting classic hill villages perched on peaks. Getting closer to Carrara we start to see the marble quarries, with switchback roads up the mountains, terraces of cut marble which look like a city from a distance, and white scree slopes of marble debris. Murray fires a lot of shots out the windows, and takes advantage of stops at small stations to shoot through the open doors. Last time we were here we got only a few blurry photos. After Carrara, the land flattens out and is suitable for agriculture, with a lot of maize planted. On the hills, the land is looking drier, with more olive groves than we have seen in the north.
We make enquiries with the wrong local woman in the train, who tells us there is only one station at Pisa, whereas we thought there were two, and we were getting out at the first one, so we are not quite prepared when the train does stop at San Rossore. We are undecided what to do, but Murray can see a train line branching off in the direction of Lucca on the other side of the station, so we give it a go. When we get out, see that the sign does say Pisa San Rossore. Most of the time we can rely on what the locals tell us, but obviously not this time. We see that there is only an underground connection with steps to the other line, but notice a lift, and try for it, but it is very slow to react, so we drag the bags pell-mell down the steps into the tunnel. We can hear a rumble above us, figure it is the Lucca train, so we run up the steps, Dianne bumping her bag up, and arrive at the surface just as the train stops, and jump in at the closest door. It is a very new and flash metro style train, with plenty of seats, and it looks like it is the right train, as the only stops on this line lead to Lucca. We send an SMS to Silvia to let her know we are running late (which we later find she never received as it was a home phone number)
The train travels up a valley, with low, scrubby hills, corn planted on the flats, and some olive trees on the hills. There are higher, bare mountains in the distance and some historic ruins on the closer hills. The train terminates at Lucca station, and we walk through and out onto the street, with our tickets still unchecked since we left Milan. It is hard to believe they think the honour system works, and they must have heavy penalties to ensure compliance.
Because we are running late, we look for a taxi, find there is one loading but no others in sight. We wait for a while, decide it is fruitless, and start hauling our bags, following maps.me across the main road to the nearest gate in the wall (the whole old town is surrounded by a wall that you can walk and bike on) and through the narrow streets and alleys. There is a large crowd in one of the major streets as there is a music festival on, so we avoid it, but manage to keep on track to find our street, but the pin on the map doesn’t find our address. We ask an employee at a nearby hotel, and he points us in the right direction.
We are pleased to find we are not too late, and Silvia, our host is still waiting for us when we ring the buzzer about 6pm. Silvia has already stayed at our place two years ago, and we’re only now getting around to using our credit. We are shown into our new home on the first floor of a very old building, part of a continuous facade of 4 to 6-storey apartment buildings. This building was once a church, and we have a religious icon above our door.
The apartment is small, with two large, high ceilinged rooms, a very low and narrow kitchen off the living room, and a similar bathroom off the bedroom. The living room has a table with four leather stools; there is a long sofa and coffee table, and three chairs, so we will have plenty of places to sit. There is plenty of cupboard and drawer space, so we are able to empty and store our bags for the first time.
Silvia runs us through operating instructions, marks up a map with local important information such as bus station, supermarkets, eating places, the village fountain for drinking water, the electronics store for a new cord for our essential Ipad, tourist info, explains the TV and Disc player, and tells us we may have an overhead fan by the end of the week. The door lock is interesting, as is the microwave and washing machine, a Euro mini-machine which looks like a normal front-loader, but is only half the depth.
Both rooms have very large windows, with interesting shutter and locking mechanisms, and we are told we can leave these open during the day as security is not a problem. We ask about mosquitos and she shows us a box full of electric vaporizers, so we know we have a problem.
After she leaves, Mike and Debbie, who arrived by an earlier train via Florence, come around to check out the apartment, and we have quite a good meal at Trattoria Da Leo (70 of 594) Via Tegrimi 1, off the Piazza del Salvatore, two blocks away, one of the restaurants recommended by Silvia. Mike tries out one of the local specialties – panzanella- marinated bread with onion, tomato, basil, oil, salt, pepper and vinegar.
After, we check out their apartment, a few blocks away on Piazza san Giovanni, passing the venue for the concerts that are held nearly every night during the Summer Festival. The Stones are playing here later in the year, but on the grass because this venue is not big enough. The apartment is much grander than ours, with a historic painted ceiling, period furniture, and smart kitchen, but our price is much better (free versus 1,000 euros for the week).
Late at night, after being bitten, Dianne deploys as many of the anti-mozzie devices as she can find power points for, and we have a relatively hot, if mozzie-free night with the windows and shutters closed.
Wednesday 5th July Lucca homeswap
Our major exercise today is to do the washing and visit the supermarket. Having found the drying rack for the washing, we are able to spread the spin-dried washing out in the lounge room while we are away. We follow our marked-up map north and east, via a zig-zag path, and find a slope to get us to the top of the wall, but not down the almost vertical brick outer wall, so have to walk east on the wall to find a sortie passage through the wall, rather than a gate, called Sortia san Frediano, which connects to a foot path across the wide grassy perimeter to the main ring road, Viale Carlo Del Prete. We take a long walk along the ring road under the shade of an avenue until we see a line of stacked shopping trolleys indicating a large supermarket.
The supermarket has everything we could possibly want, and we have to temper our enthusiasm, as we only have the big daypack and two shopping bags to transport our purchases. We get fruit, salad vegies, milk, cereal, butter, fly spray for the mozzies, bread, salad dressing (such as it is), sugar, yoghurt, Coca-Cola, and take a risk, which later pays off, on a 20 Euro charging cord for the IPad. We pack much of the weight into the backpack, and the bulk into the shopping bags. Cross, with difficulty, the ring road, which, although being one-way clockwise, is very busy, and walk on a gravel path all the way to the Porta San Donato, which is right opposite our street, but there is no direct way through, and we have to zig-zag north through the narrow alleys before turning south and east to our home. The photographic record shows very little of this trip, owing to the hardship nature of the expedition. We will try harder to find a suitable supermarket within the walls before we do another supermarket shop.
In the evening, we walk the streets, taking photos of the buildings and facades lit up by the afternoon sun, but return to the apartment too early for any night photos of illuminated buildings. We close the windows and shutters, and spray savagely, and have a relatively mosquito-free night, but Dianne doesn’t get a lot of sleep.
Thursday 6th July Lucca Homeswap
Murray gets up early, leaves the apartment by 8AM to give Dianne a chance to catch up on sleep. Walks to the nearby Piazza del Salvatore to top up the water bottle (which may have been a big mistake, but Silvia told us how good the water was, and we’ve seen a lot of people filling up bottles there), then to the wall at the Via Scesa St Agostino, where there is a ramp, but no gate, and walks clockwise around the wall as far as Porta San Jacopo, at the north east corner of the wall, getting photos of the bastions and fortifications, passages through the wall, views north west over the new town to the mountains, and down into the streets, piazzas and gardens in the old city. Near the Porta San Jacopo, a canal running strongly with clear water passes under the wall to emerge as the canal which runs north to south in the middle of Via del Fosso in the eastern half of the city. A look at the district map shows a large river, Fiume Serchio coming in from the north and turning west just north of Lucca, well within walking distance. Murray suspects this canal has been diverted from the river, and considers a walking expedition to find the source. He returns to the apartment after following Via del Fosso to Piazza San Francesco, diverting through the Piazza Anfiteatro, a slate tiled flat expanse with a large bronze face sculpture in the centre. It was once a Roman Amphitheatre, surrounded by three to five-storey buildings in a continuous ellipse around it. There are restaurants all round it, but no shops, so Murray continues into the shopping area of Via Fillungo, eventually finding a good bread shop, Forno a vapore Amedeo Giusti Panifico in Via Santa Lucia, before heading back to the apartment.
In the afternoon, after a bread, tomato and salami lunch, we retrace some of this expedition on our way to the station, taking in San Michele Church, and exiting via the Porta San Pietro, a much easier trip without all the crowds when we arrived. At the ticket window, Dianne is trying to show the woman attendant that she has worked out the itinerary and all she needs is tickets, but we fall at the first hurdle as the train Dianne has chosen from Florence to Salerno is with Italo train, a high speed train run by a private company, and she cannot help us.
We walk back toward Baluardo San Colombano, the bastion directly north of the station, and find a concealed passage through the wall, then upstairs to the top of the wall, and find a ramp which takes us down to lawns with pathways behind the main cathedral of San Martino. We look at the large circular fountain in Piazza Antelminelli, just north of the cathedral, then walk north along Via del Fosso to where the canal takes a turn to the right, looking for the restaurant we want to book for tonight, but have trouble finding it as we are looking in the wrong place, in Piazza san Francesco, when it is around the corner in Via del Fosso. Continue on Via della Fratta toward the Piazza Anfiteatro for some afternoon photos.
In the evening we dress up and return to Via del Fosso 94 to eat at the Osteria Verciani “Il Mecanate a Lucca” (71 of 593), recommended by Mike’s brother. They ask if we want to eat in the “garden”, and we are taken through an alley to a group of tables under market umbrellas in the same Piazza san Francesco where we had been looking unsuccessfully in the afternoon. The “garden” consists of a perimeter of potted grape vines, but the area is in the shade of a building, and quite pleasant. We are the first customers to arrive, right on the dot of 7.30. We order sparkling water and a small house white wine carafe, and sit for a while before ordering grilled rabbit for Murray and tortellini with meat sauce for Dianne, plus a side order of roast potato, which they do very well around here. The restaurant filled slowly until a table of at least 20 Americans arrived. One couple who enquired either left or were turned away, and the seating was almost full by the time we had finished. We talk briefly to an English couple on the next table who were just finishing a week here, all in the old city which kept them interested.
We finished the meal with cheese cake for Murray and peaches, honey and ricotta cheese for Dianne. The bill came to exactly 50 Euros, plus some change for a tip. Food was OK, but nothing special. It was still light, and we only had the small camera with us, so we didn’t hang around for the illuminated monuments, walking home on Via Buia so Dianne could check out the location of Da Felice, the recommended pizza take-away.
Friday 7th July Lucca Homeswap
We’re up and about by 8AM, trying to beat the heat, with a view to walking some of the wall and calling in at the Tourist Office and the bus station. Debbie & Mike are hiring bikes and riding it, but Dianne’s leg is not up to bike riding yet. Headed for the Via Scesa Sant’Agostino ramp up to the top of the wall, but got off-course and sidetracked by an open gate which Dianne can never resist. It took us to a vacant block with ruins of an arched building right in the north-west corner of the wall. Under the arch is a larger than life sculpture of a gorilla and young in small pieces of cardboard fixed together. We find this is a Biennale exhibit, and there are more cardboard animal sculptures in a tunnel leading into the wall under Baluardo Santa Croce, one of the large broad-arrow shaped bastions. We find a maze of arched spaces under the wall, some empty, others with installations. A wide, straight passage with a high arched ceiling which looks like concrete leads to voids open to the sky and openings high in the wall, and a final narrow, curved passage with a high arched concrete roof leading outside the wall to a walking track across the grass. One of the most interesting things we’ve seen here so far.
It is a bit late for us to find a way to the top of the wall, so we check out a moat-like structure in the open ground in front of the walls, and walk to the Porta San Donato we used on our return from the supermarket. The map tells us the Tourist information booth is further south, and we find it in a massive gate house ruin inside the walls. It has been renovated with glass walls, but still shows where the drawbridge operating structure had been. There was a lot of information available, but the staff couldn’t offer any helpful information on possible excursions to nearby small villages unless we had a car, so we collect maps and information and push on to the bus station which we can see further to the south.
At the bus station, we can see there are many bus trips to choose from, and the fares are reasonable, but we see nothing which can form a plan to see the hinterland without a car. At the bus station, we climb to the top of the wall on a cleated ramp, near Porta Sant’Anna to start the wall walk, passing four bastions and the major gate at Porta san Pietro, and the tunnel we passed through on our way back from the station.
We decided it was getting late for our lunch meeting with Mike and Debbie, so descended from the wall at the Botanical gardens, where the canal along Via Fosso takes a bend where it meets the wall. We cross a major blank area of the map by walking west on Via del Giardino Botanico, then head north on Via della Rosa to pick up Via san Andrea which becomes Via Buia, where we meet a guy coming the other way with a Manly T-shirt on. When we look up, realise it is Mike. Wait for Debbie to turn up after a ticket printing expedition, then into Pizzeria Da Felice (14 of 594) which is famous for its simple pizzas. They just make margherita (cheese and tomato) and you buy a slice by weight, for just over a euro, which you can either eat there or take-away. We also tried the local specialty, cecina (chick pea slice) which we thought was only OK. The service was quick in spite of the crowds, as this is a local institution.
We walk with Mike and Debbie as far as Piazza san Michele 34 to see the shop, Buccellato Taddeucci, which their cooking class recommended as the best place to buy the local specialty, buccellato, which is bread from an ancient recipe which is lightly sweetened and spiced, and filled with sultanas, raisins and aniseed. We will come back later to buy some. Take photo of interesting food shop, and interesting local transport.
Return home to rest up for our big dinner tonight. Mike’s brother raved about the restaurant Gatta ci Cova (6 of 593) (The Restaurant of the Cat -from the décor, not the menu, strangely enough). It is outside the walls, on Via Nicola Barbantino 338, in what we would consider comfortable walking distance, but there is a bit of a question hanging over its exact location, and a taxi shared 4 ways is rarely excessively expensive, so we walk to Mike and Debbie’s place and Mike calls a taxi on Skype, an interesting experience in itself. After a couple of transfers, we get a positive response, with a taxi arriving soon, so we wait for it in the Piazza.
Unfortunately the taxi turns up at the far end of the Piazza, and a tourist looking for one must have thought it had been sent from heaven. Fortunately, before he can climb in, Dianne gets to the taxi driver to ask him if he had come to a booking, He admitted he had a booking for #12, and the situation was resolved. The tourist is probably still looking for another taxi. Apparently there are only 25 of them in Lucca, not enough for summer, but too many for winter. The distance to the restaurant by road is at least twice the walking distance as we have to follow the system of one-way roads in the old city, possibly made more difficult by the Summer Music Festival, which has a performance almost every night.
The trip is still pretty quick and we arrive right on the dot of their 7.30 opening, always a bit embarrassing, but we settle in with drinks, three bottles of frizzante mineral water and white wine for Dianne. The restaurant is certainly up-market, with an adventurous menu, with small, but well-presented servings, the sort which push you towards the three courses if you don’t want to go to bed hungry.
Entrees are a stuffed onion for Dianne, spaghetti for Debbie, tuna sushi with clams for Mike, beef strips for Murray. Dianne tries Mike’s entree for a main, the rest must have been OK, but didn’t rate a photo so they remain a mystery. Dianne had the dessert tasting plate which was probably the best choice. These descriptions are definitely Murray’s – unfortunately we didn’t take a photo of the menu for their description of each course. Overall, we decided that although the food was “interesting” the flavours weren’t that special, and it probably was not worth the extra you had to pay for it. We left pretty early after the restaurant called a taxi for us, and we had a much quicker trip back to Piazza San Giovanni, either through better taxi driving, more direct one-way roads for the return direction, or relaxation of crowd-control barriers. We had brought the big camera with us, so we could take some night shots after we left Mike and Debbie. By 10.30 we are in the main Piazza san Michele, which, in spite of having the most ornate church in the town, is not floodlit. There is enough ambient light to get the detail of the facade, but it does not have the dramatic effect of floodlighting, with everything else dark. We get some good interior photos in the church, move on to our “home” Piazza, del Salvadore, where the restaurant we used on our first night is very busy while everything else in the Piazza is closed or closing. We walk east from the square along Via Buia, as far as the Torre Guinigi for a night photo through the haze from the street lights. The full moon is visible at times when a street faces the right direction. Back on our block on Via Santa Giustina, we get a photo of Dianne in the deserted street, outside our door at 11PM.
Saturday 8th July Lucca Homeswap
Today, our only fixed plan is to lunch with Mike and Debbie, at Trattoria Da Giulio in Pelleria (44 of 594) which is out of the tourist melee at the northwest corner of the wall, not far from our home. Like the cow from Minsk, we immediately start off heading the other way to the north east corner, so we can walk another section of the wall. On the way find Basilica San Frediano, with its marble tower and the gilded mosaic of Christ and the apostles on the facade. Walk the fashionable Via Fillungo to near the wall, see another Biennale cardboard sculpture in an arched space under the wall, this one of a Star-Wars style walking battle robot. Took the ramp to the top near Baluardo (Bastion) San Martino, then walked the straight section of the wall, stopping at Platforma san Frediano for photos of a group of colorfully costumed bombardiers setting up what looks like a live-fire exercise with historic canons.
At Baluardo San Croce, we can look down on our lunch restaurant. We are early, so walk past to the top of the Porta San Donato, take photos of the gate and the previous gatehouse, now the Tourist Information Office, but once a massive part of the city defenses, then climb down a nearby ramp to take another quick look at the tunnels we discovered under the baluardo (bastion). We wait for Mike and Debbie in the air-conditioned restaurant. We are surprised that Mike and Debbie are late, but it turns out they are waiting outside what looks like an empty restaurant for us. We get heavily into the fizzy water; order some good but not fancy food, including vegetable soup for Murray, bean soup for Mike and Debbie. The restaurant is interesting, very low-key outside, but very large and well-appointed inside and prices are reasonable. The rogue’s gallery in the ante-room shows some faces familiar to Westerners, and a lot probably familiar to Europeans, so it must have enough appeal to get people away from the more obvious eating areas. One of the appeals is that it serves the typical food of the area.
After lunch, we show Mike and Debbie the tunnels under the baluardo, then retire back to our rooms to plan expeditions we may want to take. Later we venture out to check the scene, find that it seems to be the wedding season, with a major crowd of wedding guests outside San Michele, and other brides with photographers rampant around the town. We now have a detailed map of the area north of Lucca, and are inclined towards an expedition to Bagni di Lucca after reading the blog of an Australian who lives in the region for six months of the year. Also arrange to meet up later in the week with Marilyn, an Australia visiting Lucca at present.
We have begun a bit of a ritual most nights, going down near the sound stage where there is a (ticketed) concert every night. Concert starts at 9.30pm, and by 10pm you can get close enough to hear what is happening. We have quickly realized that most of the singers attract a young crowd, and are not our cup of tea. Usually stop at our favourite gelato place, Veneto, to have a great gelato with three flavours for 2.20 euros
Sunday 9th July Lucca Homeswap
After reading a recommendation, we have booked the restaurant at Villa Bongi (54 of 593) in the nearby mountains at Montuolo for 1.30pm, so in the morning Murray decides to do a walk to see if he can find the Aquedotto (aqueduct) del Nottolini near the train station, and check out possible trains to Fornoli, the station nearest to Bagni di Lucca. The Aqueduct proves elusive, as Murray climbs the Overpass at the railway station, rather than finding the more obscure underpass, and even after walking a couple of blocks, can’t see any clues to it. Back at the station, he can’t find much information, except on the printed schedules, of trains to and from Lucca, where you can work backwards on the arrivals to see which trains from the north left Fornoli for Lucca at a reasonable time in the afternoon, and what trains left Lucca at a reasonable time in the morning. Maybe this is all the information available to the public, but it makes arriving at and leaving from minor stations complicated. Even finding out the northern trains all originate from Aulla Lunigiana takes some research. The net result is we can get back to Lucca on the train even if we miss the last bus.
We are now more familiar with the taxi ordering process, and are wary of hijackers, and are down in the square early, only to find the taxi comes in our end of the square, and we are the first people he sees. It’s only about five kilometres to Villa Bongi, but it is a fair way up the mountain, by roads too narrow between the stone side walls for two cars to pass, so it is an interesting drive. We arrive early, pay the 25 euro one-way fare (glad we’re sharing it between two couples) bid our taxi goodbye, and hope we will get a result when we call for another.
We are shown onto a verandah shaded by an awning, not cool, but pleasant enough, with a view down to the valley and across to mountains on the other side, which are less heavily wooded and have farms and villages. Distant views are obscured by a blue haze, and we cannot see the bare, high mountains we know are to the north. The meal and the setting are not cheap, but it is an interesting experience, so we enjoy it, Dianne with the tasting menu starter “sampling of four appetizers from the sea 16 euros”, Mike with “tartar of beef breed Garfagnina with crispy rye waffle and egg yolk marinated with berries 10 euros”, Murray with the “Farro soup Lucchese style 8 euros”, Debbie with the “seasonal leaves and flowers salad with fresh pear and gorgonzola cheese 10 euros”. The special of the day was striped piglet with crust made of home-made something (can’t remember the exact wording, but I think it was crushed, home-made bread sticks). Three people wanted this, but there was only one left, and Dianne turned out to be the unlucky one to get this – the meat inside may have been OK, but the majority of the meal consisted of the dry, almost inedible crust, and nothing else on the plate. Other mains were – Murray “Villa Bongi famous Biancostato out of the bone marinated and smoked beef ribs cooked at low temperature 15 euros”, and “pan-roasted duck breast glazed with chestnut honey 17 euros”. Apart from Dianne’s main, all the dishes were quite good, but nothing special. We all decide that we’re not all that impressed with fancy eating in Italy, and hopefully will find better in France. For about 75 Euros a couple, it makes the taxi fare pretty marginal.
Our taxi arrives very promptly, and we have a long chat to the driver while we wait for two trains to cross the level crossing we hadn’t used on our way out. It is he who tells us about the seasonal taxi problem. Because of the train hold-up he makes pretty good time into town, but is alert enough to miss a cheeky bloke who darts out from a side street. He asks us if he could let us off at the main gate, as he is now late for two pickups. Being good folks, we say OK, as it is not far to Mike and Debbie’s apartment from here. We have a longer walk, but it is always pleasant to walk in the old city. On our way we take “night setting” hand-held photos of the interior of the San Michel church, before going back to the apartment to plan tomorrow’s expedition.
Later in the night, we hear a lot of drumming in the vicinity of the Piazza san Michel, and go down for a look, and find a parade of marching musicians and flag carriers, who brandish the flags then throw them into the air and catch them as they march, very like the performance of flag carriers at the Palio in Siena, with different districts competing. We follow the marching route for a while then cut through to where the teams are assembling, in the Piazza san Martino, outside the big cathedral with the unfortunately placed tower. We do some stills and video, take photos of ceramics in shop windows on the way back home, and get ready for tomorrow’s expedition.
Monday 10th July Lucca Homeswap to Bagni di Lucca and return
We are breakfasted, packed and down at the bus stop by 7.30 AM, and confirm that we need the A10 bus at 7.54 from the designated stand. We buy one-way tickets, which we later regret, and are almost blind-sided by an Iveco minibus with no real signs on it waiting at our bus stop. As a precaution, as there is no-one in the bus, we ask, and find out that it is, indeed, the 7.54 A10 bus with all-stops to Bagni di Lucca, and we leave on time,
Our route takes us almost all the way around the walls of Lucca, giving us photo opportunities of the walls, gates and bastions we haven’t seen before, then peel’s off to the north through suburbia which doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. Further out, the road runs beside the river, but there is a levee wall of stone higher than the bus, so there isn’t a lot to see until the road climbs to the top of the levee, giving views of river-flat farms with hay rolls and hills beyond with trees and cleared land. There are farms, woodlands olive groves, cypress, and tiny clumps of housing, possibly villages, on the slopes.
The main river, Fiume Serchio now runs beside the road, green and placid, lined with trees on the far bank. As we get into what is becoming a gorge, there are separate pools with mild rapids between, and the banks become steep and rocky. At a bend in the river we can see old and new bridges and there is a massive quarry with the remains of benches stepped up the mountain, and a derelict crushing and screening plant below it.
We pass a new concrete arch freeway bridge, then enter an area of dense timber without housing, and with stronger rapids in the river, before we pass what has to be some kind of weir, as the river loses its rapids, and picks up a border of algal scum, and has a large flock of egrets along the edges. The mountains get higher and rougher and we start to see towns in the valley, and villages up to quite high on the mountain.
We pass a large dam on the river with level control gates, and a long, quiet stretch of the river above it. Across this part of the river is the three span arch bridge, the Ponte del Diavolo (also known as Ponte della Maddalena), with a very high, thin arch at the far bank. We manage some surprisingly good photos of it from the bus. Not far past this we do a loop through Fornoli to the train station, then drive up the right bank of the tributary which leads to Bagni di Lucca. We had planned to get out at Ponte a Serraglio, and the spectacular view of the river and village here confirmed it was a good choice. We took a lot of photos of the sunlit village reflected in the river, walk down to a weir, and across a long pedestrian suspension bridge with no supporting wires, which depends on the curve in the deck, and its strength, to stay up. We completed the loop back to the stone arch bridge, had a last look at the village, then Dianne bought a pastry (breakfast), and we started walking steeply uphill towards the village of Colle, as described in the blog, written by the Australian woman, which gave some suggestions for exploring around here.
A lot of the walk is on public roads, although there are stepped shortcuts across the zig-zags which look a bit rough for Dianne’s foot. We reach the spa at Bagni Termi, take a flight of steps shown on maps.me, to get back on the road, and continue the steep climb to the top of the ridge. Murray, who has been feeling a bit off, has recovered in spite of the climb, and we have to make a choice whether to go along the ridge to see what the village of Colle is like, and risk having to backtrack, or head down the road to where a well-marked track branches off. We decide on the road and track, and come down into Villa, the central village via a shady bush track which leads into narrow, zig-zag streets down through the village.
We see a swimming pool, and head for it, hoping it is the municipal pool, but miss it and get as far as the main road, and a park where we sit to regroup. Murray goes down to the river, where there is a modern suspension bridge, and a riverside walk as used by Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Dianne goes looking for the swimming pool, which turns out to be a hotel pool, the Municipal one being higher up the hill. We consult our map and walk a circular route to get to the street above the swimming pool, to find we could have come in lower. At this stage Dianne’s foot is hurting, and she’s hot and bothered, and she thinks swimming will help both problems, so in spite of the price (7 euros entry plus 3 euros for lounge chair) Dianne decides she wants to swim, and wants a lounge chair, and wants something to drink. These aims turn out to be mutually exclusive. Having bought a drink she finds you cannot drink near the pool, the lounge chair is therefore of little use, and the indoor pool, covered by a steel frame with a canvas cover, is not heated, but the air inside is pretty hot from the sun, and the outdoor pool is freezing. The final indignity was being sprung for swimming without a bathing cap, but at least she got a swim in first. She’s arranged to meet Murray in town in 1 ½ hours.
Meanwhile, Murray walked the town and river bank, taking photos of the river, the bridges and the town, which was actually pretty ordinary by Italian village standards. The highlight of his day in Bagni di Lucca was a large cappuccino for only 1.20 Euros, and a use of the flash loo at the restaurant.
When Dianne returned to the park to meet him, we walked uptown to find a bus ticket seller and a small supermarket. Murray was keen to see a historic suspension bridge, so he decided the best move was to take the bus back as far as Ponte a Serraglio, and walk to the historic suspension bridge from there. Dianne was later to say she wished she had had more to say on the choice of bus stop, and had looked at the map to see how far it actually was. At Ponte a Serraglio we decided to buy a bus ticket back to Lucca as the protocol of buying on-board is still a bit vague, but are five minutes late for the Tabacchi shop, which is closed for the afternoon break. We look around the town, then start walking down the main road to where the bridge is shown on the map, but it is a lot further for Dianne’s sore foot than we thought, and she is not happy. Eventually we got there, and Murray took photos and Dianne consulted the bus information we had. Murray had a stroke of inspiration, and walks beyond the far side of the bridge to find a bar open on the main road down that bank of the river. We are in luck – get two tickets to Lucca, and confirm the bus stops on our original side of the river. We had to wait ten minutes, and are very pleased when the bus stops. On the way back, we know where to look, and get some better photos of the Ponte del Diabolo, and other features.
Back at the Lucca Bus Terminal, we decide to go straight home, so didn’t catch up with Debbie and Mike, who are leaving in the morning. Murray starts to feel a bit sick with a bout of travellers’ diarrhoea, which curtailed our activities for the next couple of days.
Tuesday 11th July Lucca Homeswap
There is no photo record of Tuesday, but we go to lunch at Osteria San Giorgio (30 of 594) with Marilyn, an Australian from North Ryde who was on the Trip advisor forum for Lucca, asking if anyone wanted to have lunch with her. She has only been overseas once before, and liked Lucca, so has arranged to stay here for three weeks, but is having a hard time. She had an allergic reaction to mosquito bites, and had to go the hospital. She’s fairly quiet, and doesn’t know anyone here, so eating out is not much fun for her. She’s also not very athletic, and is really suffering from the heatwave, so exploring is also not an option, which doesn’t leave a lot left to do. Murray doesn’t have a lot for lunch, and spends the afternoon in bed as the diarrhoea gets worse, and he has a very high fever during the night with hot and cold sweats. Dianne hears drumming again, and goes for the nightly passagio, and gets more photos of people dressed in exotic costumes, including some with enormous crossbows.
Wednesday 12th July Lucca Homeswap
With Murray’s condition not improving, Dianne spends a fair bit of time finding out what doctors are available in the town, then goes to check out where the surgeries are. Finds there is a woman doctor available from 10am, but with unknown English capability, while a man with reported good English is available from 4.30 to 5.30. She also finds there are no appointments, just first in first served. We consult our trusty self-help chart, and decide that with high fever and very frequent watery stools that Noroxin is the go but we don’t have any. We do, however, have Zithromycin, purchased for the stronger SE Asian bugs, so figure that will do, and Murray has his first dose at 2PM. After a while, the fever starts to settle down, so looks like we’re on the right track. From (frequent) past experience we know that starving the bug does not work for Murray – he just gets weaker. Dianne very rarely gets sick when he does. Murray does very little at night, while Dianne goes for take- away pizza, and checks out the music scene down at the sound stage. There is no repeat of the night fever, so can relax, although Murray is still very weak, taking lots of electrolyte and panadol.
Thursday 13th July Lucca Homeswap
After lunch Murray is feeling powerful enough to take on a trip to look at the Aqueduct of Nottolini, which is located on the far side of the railway station, and extends a few kilometers to where the water was originally collected from the mountain. Having failed to find it on his quick look across the railway, Murray calls up Google Earth, and finds that the Aquedotto stands out very clearly, with the temple-like cistern at the Lucca end of it only a couple of blocks from the train station.
To make the expedition easier, we decide to take a bus from the bus station which is quite close to our home, but through confusion of Linea Verde, with Plaza Verdi, we wait for a green (Verde) line bus, and miss the right bus because it only has a cardboard destination sign, and Murray doesn’t have time to check the map, and the driver doesn’t respond positively to a request for the Aquedotto, even though his route takes him under it twice. As the next bus is an hour away, we decide to walk, climbing over the same overpass Murray tried before, but immediately walking east to intersect the Aquedotto.
It is quite impressive when we get to it, a structure of continuous broad columns up to 15-metres high with 400 arches supporting the aqueduct, which stretches for over 3 kilometres. The columns have brick corners and ties about a metre apart, with the voids filled with rubble and mortar. It is not Roman, but was begun in 1823, but is still worth the walk to it, and along it for half a kilometer before returning to the cistern which is scaffolded and out-of-bounds.
On the way back we find the underpass at the railway station which cuts a bit of distance off the return trip. Puccini, famous for La Boheme, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, among others, lived in Lucca, and the Puccini museum is not far from our place. Take a photo of his statue on the way home.
Out soon after to meet up for dinner with Helen, whom we met with the Australian walkers at Bellagio. We have another try to find the Undici Undici bar (also called Bistrot 11-11) on Piazza Antelminelli with a view of the cathedral. We tried to find it one night, without success, because we were looking for the name 11-11. Dianne had excellent pasta. After dinner we walk the streets for a while before returning Helen to her apartment.
Friday 14th July Lucca Homeswap
Today we have a big day, as we’re climbing two towers (both with more than 200 steps) and looking at the Botanical gardens. We start off at the Guinigi Tower, which is part of a larger building, and has a ticket office in the building where we can buy the combined ticket (6 euros each). There are about 200 steps to the top, so Dianne has to take it pretty easy, stopping at intervals where there are openings which let in a bit of breeze. Near the top, there are several floors with vaulted brick roofs, and the last part of the stairway is a narrow steel structure which brings you out onto the roof of the tower, which has a central garden bed about a metre deep, with trees planted in it, and a walkway all around. The sky is quite cloudy for a change, inhibiting photography, but we take advantage of the view to get panoramic videos and detailed photos of the whole town and the mountainous hinterland.
The weather hasn’t improved, but Dianne wants to walk more of the wall, while Murray wants to get back to the apartment to close the windows before it rains. On the way back, he detours to the outside of the walls for gate pictures, and to the church with the colourful mosaic, and gets lost in the back streets, and only just makes it home as the rain starts. Dianne is not so lucky as she detoured to the pizza shop, and the supermarket, and gets lost closer to home, getting soaked on the way, as the rain comes down quite heavily for a short time.
From home, after the rain has taken up, we walk across town to the Botanic Gardens, taking in some new sights. Do a fairly quick walk-around, as there is not a lot to see, but the passages under the city walls, the sequoia tree, the very colourful frangipani, the cacti, palm trees and the ancient, propped-up cedar of Lebanon are interesting.
On the way back home, we are still feeling powerful enough to do the second tower, Torre delle Ore (the Clock Tower), which has only a tiny office in the base, and the steps start straight away. The centre of the stair well is protected by vertical tensioned wires, and there is space for the wires and weights which drive the historic clock mechanism, which is being refurbished. The mechanism is in remarkably good condition, hard to tell if it is new or reconditioned. The bells are still functional, but disabled to prevent the riff-raff playing with them. We get more photos from here, and the sky has cleared to a line of cumulus above the mountains.
In the evening we have a drink with Helen at Caffetteria Turandot with a view San Michele church. It is very pleasant in the early evening when it has cooled down, with music drifting across the square. We go to dinner at Trattoria del Gigi in Piazza del Carmine (33 of 594) – just about the worst meal of the trip. Dianne has something with fried vegetables – bottom ones soaked in fat. Murray has a very fatty fried fish.
Saturday 15th July Lucca-Pisa-Carrara-Viareggio-Lucca
We have seen the carrara marble quarries from the train, so decided to see them close-up, and have booked a tour with cavedimarmotours.com (40 euros each) for 2pm, starting from Carrara Avenza railway station.
Seeing the tour doesn’t start till 2pm, decide we’ll have a quick stop in Pisa on the way, as haven’t done as many day trips as we planned due to Murray being sick, as well as lunch time social engagements that kept us in Lucca. We walk to the railway station, having failed to sort out a local bus connection. Dianne gets tickets from the ticket machine while Murray lines up at the ticket window just in case, but the system works and we are on the 9.30 train (3.50 euros each), although it leaves later than that. We talk for a while with a young Swedish couple across the aisle who are on a short holiday, heading for the Cinque Terre on some sort of rail pass. The train starts late, and is delayed along the way several times, so we are glad we left plenty of buffer in our timetable.
Pulling into Pisa San Rossore station, we can see the tower and Duomo relatively close, but make a last minute decision to stay on and go to Pisa Central, and have a look at the main part of Pisa and the Arno River on the way to the Tower. The map shows we have a pretty straight shot down a shopping street to the river, which is big, but pretty ordinary.
Look for something for breakfast, and find a nice, touristy restaurant (Pasticceria Salza) with tables in the narrow but busy Borgo Stretto street leading toward the Tower. Have a very touristy (and nice) snack of two drinks and two pastries for 17.50 euros.
The streets and buildings are interesting, particular a very large piazza, and the crowds are building by the time we first see the tower.
At the site, the crowd is very large, but we manage to get some decent photos of the Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistry and the green lawns around. The site is in pretty good condition apart from scaffolding on the Duomo, but this is to be expected. We have been here twice before, the first in 1976 when we climbed the tower. Subsequently it was closed, and work was done to stabilize it, and it is now open again. We take some time finding the route to the station, and Murray goes ahead with the money to sort out tickets. The station is un-manned, so we are at the mercy of a ticket machine, which works OK, but will only take cards, so Murray has to shout across 50 metres to Dianne to confirm the PIN number. We sort it out in plenty of time, and are on the 12.30 train (5.60 euros each) to Carrara Avenza without incident. Our train carriage has a particularly noisy mob of Americans, not necessarily students, and their noise level may be accentuated by drinking wine in the morning.
At the station, we search in vain for a WC, even though we have seen them at stations on the way. Even after buying a drink, we can’t get a response from the kiosk, so we have to hang in. While we are looking a little further, our guide turns up. He is a wild man, a bit like Gerard Depardieu’s brother, and he is a bit irritated because some of the other members of the party have masterminded the instructions he gave them, and have turned up at his home instead of the rendezvous. Dianne has been told she will get to a loo when the party has been sorted out.
We do a tour through the lower town, past half a dozen major manufacturers of dressed marble and other raw material from around the world. We are told that this is the major trading centre in the world for marble and other natural stone products, and also the major manufacturing centre for the specialised tools used to quarry and dress marble.
The vehicle is a diesel Landrover (Not a f!/$@&!;:ing Jeep) according to a sign on the windscreen, with a long wheel base, neither old nor new, with seating for 8 passengers. It is a typical mine vehicle with communications, possibly a transponder, as the roads are steep, narrow and rough, and used by 20 tonne trucks 24/7. Not today, however, as there is no sign of active quarrying anywhere we look.
We pick up two passengers at the highway, Estonians, she living in the US, and proceed through the main town at a good pace, with the driver pointing out the marble statues in parks, marble fascia on buildings, marble window trims.
Once through the town, we climb up the valley, still on tarred public roads, to the base of operations at a major souvenir shop, where we meet the missing other passengers, a Swiss couple and their teenaged son. Here we do a loo stop, Dianne buys a couple of exotic marble (non-Carrara) polished eggs for the grandchildren, and we don our hi-vis vests and pretty rough hard hats, and proceed into the quarrying area proper.
We get into a lower gear and probably 4WD, climb up to where marble is being cut, but not today. We are told that the blocks are cut using a steel wire with diamond encrusted steel rings every 50 mm, separated by either springs or plastic spacers, or both. The wire is about 5mm diameter, the rings about 10 mm diameter by 10 mm long. There is a sample of the wire coiled up around the gearstick. The wire is powered by an electrically driven machine with a rubber cushioned driving wheel. The machine is mounted on notched steel tracks and is drawn away from the cut to take up slack as the marble is cut away. An interesting aspect of the process is that it starts with a vertical hole about 40 mm diameter being drilled at the end of the cut, and horizontal holes are drilled at floor level to intersect this hole. Murray asks if special equipment is required to make this intersection, but our guide just says if the driller wants to eat tonight, he makes them intersect. Must either be a black art, or there is proprietary information involved. Drilling at ground level to hit a target 40mm across six metres away is no mean feat.
With the holes drilled and successfully intersected, the cutting wire is fed down the vertical hole, and presumably fished out with a hook on a long rod. The two ends of the wire are joined to make a loop, which is passed around the drive wheel of the cutting machine, set up in line with the bottom hole, and tensioned. A water hose is directed down the hole and cutting commences, continuing until the cut is complete, and the cutting wire can be re-routed to do the other two sides, but the sequence to produce a full square block is unclear, but presumably wedges are used to support the block until the final cut is completed.
Where we are, there is an incomplete block, which must have been flawed, as the block has broken away before the cut is complete, showing the curved path of the wire. The wet cutting process has left a lot of white marble mud on the ground. This later figures on our backpack, and shoes, and is difficult to remove.
We move on to another site, this one with a rusty chicken wire fence at the edge of a sheer drop, and good views of the other quarries and out to the coast. It is unusual to be on a mining bench where the floor is flat and polished, and extends right to the edge of the cliff below. To get an idea of the scale of the whole operation, which has over 300 active quarries, some working faces 100 metres high, you have to compare the faces with the top-of-the-line Cat excavators and front end loaders. Down below, or up on the mountain, they look like kids’ toys.
On the switchback descent, we follow the course of the opening car chase scene from the James Bond “Quantum of Solace” movie. The guide explains that nothing is wasted on the site. Apart from the world’s most flash retaining walls from monster blocks of Carrara Marble, the fines are processed for toothpaste, Jiff household cleaner, facial scrubs and Dianne’s calcium supplement. There was a rumour, apparently false, that L’oreal of Paris was buying the entire site. Other coarser material can be found in crazy paving, Terrazzo flooring.
There are a lot of photos taken, as the place is very photogenic. There are a surprising amount of flaws and voids in the deposits, but our guide insists that the material doesn’t get better as you get deeper into the mountain. While the marble is supposed to be white, and in large faces can be blindingly so, there is a lot of colour, possibly orange from iron, and a fair bit of grey, not as grey as limestone, but certainly not “white”.
We later read that there used to be at least 650 quarry sites, but about half of them are abandoned or worked out. The prized yield has been “Statuario” a pure white marble, but there is none of this left now (none of which our guide tells us – his story is much more upbeat). In some places, rectangular caves have been produced, but caving is difficult and expensive and is only undertaken because the particular quarry has run into a boundary, and can’t go any further. Our guide tells us that dating back to when the House of Austria (also called the House of Hapsburg) owned the duchy, quarries were allowed to operate tax-free as a make-work project, and money was raised by a toll on the road to the port. The road has changed, a rail line was built, but didn’t survive the introduction of powerful trucks with powerful brakes. The tunnels for the rail still form part of the road down the mountain. Before the new road was built they used to get 700 trucks per day through the town. Apparently the tax-free status still remains, resulting in Carrara being a very poor community.
We drive all three of the major valleys before returning to the souvenir shop to drop off our safety gear and have a last minute shop. Unfortunately the others are serious shoppers, which runs us past the departure time of our first-choice train. We drop off the others at the rendezvous point, then carry on into town toward the station. The guide avoids the bait of “where are you going after you drop us” from Dianne, who is hoping for a lift towards the beach, and we are dropped off at the station.
We have decided we may as well go the whole hog, and have a look at the beach town of Viareggio as well. Get the train (3.50 euros each) at quarter to five. At Viareggio maps.me tells us it’s isn’t all that far to the beach, so we decide to walk, as we can see a reduction in the height of the apartment buildings in the distance. On the way, we buy pizza to fuel our walk, but it is a lot further than we figured. At the beach, there is a wide boulevard, a park, and a wide, brown sand beach dotted with a million umbrellas. It is the weekend, and the locals are out in force. There is a small surf running, but the water is a fairly brown shade of green, and, even though it is really hot, swimming doesn’t seem an option.
We walk the length of the beach as far as the breakwater of the boat harbour. There are a lot of larger yachts in the boat harbour, and an enormous power boat with a plastic shroud, probably for export. All the cheaper small boats were lined up along a canal between the breakwater and the marina. We walked the length of the marina, then back to the front boulevard. By now we are very hot, and absolutely exhausted, and don’t like the idea of walking back to the train station, so decide we might be lucky and get a bus back to the station. We notice that the bus company is the same as in Lucca, and in a flash of inspiration, try for a bus to Lucca, and find that the Lucca via Autostrada bus is just leaving. Manage to get tickets, and settle down into air conditioned comfort. The bus leaves almost immediately, and takes us on a convoluted route to get onto the autostrada.
From high up on the coastal mountains we get some surprisingly good photos of the coastal plain, the large lake and associated wetlands. A long tunnel takes us through the mountains and into the Lucca valley, and we drive through the outskirts of Lucca direct to the Piazza Verdi bus station quite close to home.
After recovering, we venture out for a meal. Consider the Osteria Beralla, but when we get there decide we aren’t in the mood for wild boar etc, so settle for a random choice in the Anfiteatro -Old Charlie’s, Spaghetti Carbonara for Dianne, Bisteca Maiale (pork) for Murray, plus the usual Prosecco and Aqua Minerale Frizzante.
Sunday 16th July Lucca Homeswap
Today is a day of tying up loose ends, packing in the morning and cleaning up the apartment, and doing the last of the washing. After, we head down to the Cattedrale di San Martino (3 euro entry), to find a market in full swing in Mike and Debbie’s square. This cathedral, started in 1204, looks a bit strange on the outside because the tower was built first, and the third arch in the portico had to be made smaller than the others to fit in. Unusually, we had to pay to get into the cathedral, so made sure we took photos of everything. The artwork was particularly good, a bit over-lit in some cases, and there was good sculpture. The basic structure was fairly plain, but the roof was well decorated, including a massive fresco in the dome over the altar.
After, we lunched at home, on take-away Frigio chips and chicken wings, bought by default because Pizza da Felice was closed, and we felt a bit sorry for a struggling new business. After lunch, we walked to Palazzo Pfanner (5 euros each) to look at the gardens featured in the “Portrait of a Lady” movie. The gardens are well manicured, and very pleasant, with lots of brilliantly clean white marble statues, a large circular pond, with a single spout fountain, extensive lawns, a bamboo grove, and a back gate onto a tunnel through the city wall. Photography is made difficult by passing clouds on the first windy day we have had. The Palazzo itself is pretty ordinary, in muted grey and brown colours, with a large, but not particularly pretty, covered grand stairway to the first floor. On exhibit were a period kitchen, dinner setting, afternoon tea setting, painted ceilings and trompe l’oeil painted walls, and some bizarre medical exhibits from Snr Pfanner’s long and distinguished medical career.
After, we take a late afternoon photo of the San Michele church, finish our cleaning and packing, then at night, drop off our garbage for the garbage fairies. Have a drink at Caffetteria Turandot on the square, then catch up on our list of recommended restaurants with a very good meal at the Gli Orti di Via Elisa (32 of 594), one of the best meals of the two weeks. We should have tried this one earlier in the week. Murray decides 30km is not too far from the sea to have fish, typically bream-like fish, which are probably farmed.
We’ve enjoyed our homeswap in Lucca, and not having to pay for accommodation, and having access to a kitchen (though we didn’t do any cooking, but could use fridge, microwave, make sandwiches etc) enabled us to take it easier than normal, and eat out more often. We have previously seen a lot of Tuscany, especially further south, which is another reason why we were happy with Lucca. However if we didn’t have a homeswap here, it would not be our first choice of where to stay, as there are a lot more interesting towns in closer proximity further south.
We set the alarm for 7AM, in the full knowledge that we are not going to get a good night sleep with an early start hanging over us.