Pensieri vaganti (I) …. Wandering Thoughts (I)

Early morning walk

La mattina – Morning

I love the smell of morning in Italy. Even in a large city, I love it. Yes, even the morning exhaust from cars and buses smells different in Florence or Rome, not as offensive. In Lucca there is less exhaust, but more of that Italian morning smell: The scent of the brick walls, the paving stones, and the iron bars on the windows, all warming under the creeping sunlight, stretching out lazily to embrace it, letting go of the heavier odour of night; the aroma rising from the burbling Bialetti espresso makers of all sizes whooshing on gas stoves in kitchens everywhere; of Cimbali machines in bars, breathlessly providing ‘cappucci’ or macchiati to the bar patrons spilling out into the street so that Italy can continue chugging along for another day (seriously, how else have they done it all these years…?); that heavenly ‘come hither’ scent of fresh bread from open doors of the panifici (bread shops) and alimentari  (grocery stores).

Morning leaves

There is a freshness in the air which is different from that in Canada; the green is sharper in the morning, the sun on the poplar leaves shimmers brighter. Even the cars grazing your hip as you walk in search of the ‘perfect’ focaccia seem more benevolent in the morning sun. I realize that it’s all in my head, but, then again, there are many truths under the intense Mediterranean sky. ..  So, who knows?

 

 

Cani e bambini

Let’s talk about dogs first. Remember? The ones that trot along beside their owner as he or she pedals a bike on Lucca’s wall, or through the narrow, congested streets filled with lucchesi, studenti, and turisti. 

**Panier-pooch

I’ve yet to mention the ones who ride comfortably in the wicker or plastic baskets attached to the handlebars of their owner’s bike; these pooches (and, yes, these are little dogs), often ribbon-adorned and perfectly coiffed, look very 18th century-regal as they zip by the poor schmucks who are hoofing it beside them and dodging pesky Fiats and Audis and Mercs. I keep expecting a tiny paw to rise up and twist delicately back and forth, in a Queenly wave, acknowledging the plebeians all around.

Then there are the wee canines settled comfortably in their owner’s bag while shopping (ah-huh, grocery shopping). My personal favourites were spotted in a small Coop (Co-op) grocery store in Florence: The twin-canine-carrier was wrapped a tracollo, diagonally across the mistress’ shoulder and ample bosom, while two adorable curly, white heads poked out of opposite sides of the cloth snuggly, pointing their wet noses at any especially appetizing cheeses and afftettati (sliced meats) they were passing, hoping their mistress would get the hint.

**Is that for me??

It is typical for dogs — of any size — to be brought into most shops, banks, bars, and restaurants.

 

 

 

Even churches. In Lucca I watched a man walk up to the altar to take communion carrying a well-behaved Fido in his arms. The priest placed the host on his tongue (the man’s…), smiled at the pooch, then patted the gentleman on the arm. This led me to believe that this was not a new event — but certainly one of which Saint Francis, at least, would heartily approve.

*********************

Now, with all this gadding about town, your pet needs a vacation!

Obviously, many people in Italy believe this. In the cities visited since arriving here, I’ve seen many people and their pooches touring the ‘must-see’ sites, churches included. I can tell either by their accents/dialects, or by the lost and confused look on their faces, that these are not locals. They have arrived in their car from other cities, from other parts of Italy, with their favourite pet in tow. You wouldn’t leave your child at home — how could you possibly leave your pet? Many hotels and agriturismi accept dogs as part of the family: in other words, you want the business, you accept the four-legged member.

***Mamma, why didn’t you take me??
(My own reproachful Sam. . .   Oh, the guilt.)

My zia Morena, my aunt, was ahead of her time, I now realize. Twenty years ago she would go nowhere without her little dog, Sisi. The car was equipped with a special collapsible pet dish, water bottle filled with clean water, blanket, snacks. . . all the necessary accoutrements to make Sisi’s life more pleasant while on a journey, regardless of its length. And they never went very far. (The little beast also ate from a crystal desert dish at home, and only food that my aunt cooked for it, but let’s not dwell on that.) On outings in the Garfagnana hills with my aunt and uncle, we humans had to fend for ourselves in the thirst department and hope that an adequate bar came into view around the next bend. At the time it annoyed me that we would have to stop every hour or so to let Sisi drink and pee, but perhaps I was just jealous. What embarrassed me most at the time, however, was the way zia would sneak the little ball of white fur into a restaurant and hide it under the table. Of course the waiters knew. They chose to look the other way and indulge an overprotective mamma and her baby. The beginning of the slippery slope, I now see. These days it is common to see a dog lying by his master’s chair at restaurant or bar. No one bats an eye, just wags a tail.

*********************

Children have always enjoyed a special status in Italian culture, especially since the 50’s and 60’s when the post-war economic boom allowed almost all levels of society to spoil and indulge their offspring, to dress them in those exquisitely-made, delicately embroidered outfits one sees displayed in store windows and sold at exorbitant prices, to buy them extravagant strollers and high chairs made by Peg Perego, Inglesina, Chicco. But now Italy’s birthrate is the lowest in the EU. And with good reason. Most young people cannot find permanent work, regardless of level of education and qualifications. With very little permanent, stable work available, it is difficult to plan for a future, to plan to raise a family. With a lack of children, both younger and older folks are turning to raising dogs. It seems to me that man’s best friend has replaced children where none of the latter are available. Who else can a nonna or nonno spoil if their own child cannot, or refuses to, provide a grandchild? The same is true for younger people trying to satisfy a parenting instinct. Italians need to lavish love and material goods on some form of bambino; if none are available, the four-legged variety will have to.

**********************

Witnessing all this Italian dog devotion can turn a visitor’s head as well. In Lucca there are a hefty number of foreigners who have decided to call this walled city home. Soon after my arrival, I read about two such people, both retirees, who, once established here, decided to have their dog brought over from Australia. They used a special service that sends an employee to accompany your pooch on the plane. Upon arrival, the companion hands it to the Italian representative in Milan or Rome, who then transports your pet to you. After reading about the couple in a monthly English publication in Lucca, I recognized them on their morning walk on the walls, and then again, in town later that morning. I approached them and asked if they were the people in the article (with picture) that I’d read and indeed they were. The pet in question seemed very happy to be with mom and dad once more, and a more dog-friendly city he could not have hoped to land in!

 

** I didn’t have the chutzpah to take photographs of many of the situations I speak of in this post. I must confess that I relied on the internet for these two cuties.

***Our dog Sam, Mr. Guilt-Trip. Photo courtesy of dear friend Shirl.

Buona notte!

Dark rooms and sinks and all kinds of things…

Lucca has no dearth of churches, as I’ve already highlighted. At one time it officially boasted ninety-nine of them within the walls. It is also a city of villas and palazzi, both in the city and in the surrounding countryside. In the summer several of these host concerts of varied musical genres (classical, jazz, Italian folk) often in sumptuous gardens. There are the Villa Bernardini, Villa Grabau, Villa Torrigiani, Villa Mansi to name but a few, all with their particular history, culture and beautiful grounds.

Palazzo Mansi, carriage

In the spirit of seeing how the other half lived in centuries gone by, I visited three palazzi within the city walls — each one . . . er.. . unique. The first was the Palazzo Mansi (not to be confused with villa Mansi mentioned above). It is categorized as a National Museum. The reasoning for this, quite frankly, escapes me. This palazzo, dating back from the late sixteenth century, is just inside the city walls on the western side of the city.

 

A stone staircase takes visitors to the second floor into a world of ponderous, dark and heavy tapestries, and painted walls and ceilings — not one square inch of stone or marble left to breathe on its own. Baroque at its most lugubrious. Besides feeling claustrophobic, I

Rooms within rooms within rooms

felt sorry for the underlying structure, which might have been interesting or beautiful. No way of ascertaining. And it wasn’t just one room: one led into another which led into another which led into another.

From one brocade and damask nightmare to the next — until I reached the Bridal Chamber, sporting the original silks and bed hangings. A different incubo (nightmare).

Palazzo Mansi, bedroom

I kept thinking of the poor terrified bride of days of yore, made even more apprehensive by these sepulchral surroundings.

 

 

Costume detail, Palazzo Mansi

Lest I sound unappreciative of my roots, let me state that the visit was not a wholly negative experience. One of the more pleasant attractions was a room displaying various types of cloth made in Lucca over the centuries. Within the same display were period costumes, exquisitely ornate and delicately embroidered with gold and silver thread. What work it must have taken to create these clothes!

Costumes, Palazzo Mansi

Among the ‘lighter’ sections in the Mansi family home is the Pinacoteca, the art gallery, which offers several rooms with paintings, mostly by lucchesi artists, and including an unexpected Bronzino (Ritratto di don Garcia de’ Medici bambino).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guinigi Tower with trees

The ticket price to the Palazzo Mansi also included entry to the Palazzo Guinigi, an austere, soul-less ‘house’, built on what was then the outskirts of the city. It is considered one of the oldest buildings in Lucca, built in the early 15th century by ‘il signore Paolo Guinigi’.  Most visitors associate the Guinigi name with an unusual, but famous tower in the centre of the city sporting seven Holm oak trees on the very top (planted in the 14th century). The Palazzo Guinigi, like the Palazzo Mansi, is also now a National Museum. In this case, appropriate.

Palazzo Guinigi, back view

The large, rectangular building, which was perfectly suited to be a museum (but not a family home, in my humble opinion) had a good selection of art ranging from local Etruscan and Roman artifacts, through to Medieval and Renaissance art. Statues, paintings, and a great deal of wood intarsio panels. I wandered around the cavernous spaces solely in the company of a museum official, obviously appointed to make sure I did not abscond with one of the eight-foot crucifixes hanging

Palazzo Guinigi, Crucifix

from various ceilings. Apparently, I was the only visitor in the building, as I had been in the Mansi abode. So I explored, while the official followed me into the various rooms and sat on her ‘official’s’ chair, and read her novel. Not a bad gig, I suppose, if you like the book you’re reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Palazzo Pfanner, staircase

The next day I had a much more pleasant experience in the Palazzo Pfanner. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Hmmm… that name doesn’t sound very Italian to me.” Well, you’d be correct. It’s not. The building itself dates back to the 17th century, but it acquired its name after Felix Pfanner, an Austrian with Bavarian roots, was hired to be Lucca’s prime brewer. His beer soon became very popular and with fame, his coffers grew. He began acquiring more and more of the building in which his brewery was located until it became his completely — and was renamed the Palazzo Pfanner.

The air was much lighter in Herr Pfanner’s home; for one thing, there were windows not hidden by heavy cloth panels. The frescoes on the walls and ceilings were benignly insipid, as befitting typical 18th century decor: Perfect for a warm sunny afternoon in Lucca. The house — and I — could breathe much easier.

Felix Pfanner’s son became a well-known and much respected medical doctor, psychiatrist, writer, and philanthropist in the city. The displays of his medical instruments (including his amputation kit…) and his wide selection of medical texts from centuries gone by, were very interesting, if sometimes frightening. Perhaps the most unsettling component was the realization that

Specula (18-19th century)

instruments relating to women’s gynecological and reproductive health have not really changed all that much over the past 150 years. . .

 

Palazzo Pfanner, cucina (kitchen)

Staccio

What I loved most, however, among all the sumptuous rooms and interesting medical artifacts, was the humble kitchen. I swear it was my grandmother’s kitchen. And my great aunts’. I have been in these kitchens, I’ve sat by the hearth, I’ve watched my nonna use the staccio, the large sieve to de-clump the granturco, the corn flour, to make polenta. And the sink — that wonderful, simple, stone sink. I’ve washed dishes in there before, I’ve filled pots with water, I’ve stood beside it. In my relatives’ homes it exists no more; everything is stainless steel, as in most of our own modern kitchens. Yet here I was back at nonna‘s old house at the top of much narrower, much more worn stone steps. Not so grand to be sure, but recognizable and comfortable just the same.

Palazzo Pfanner, acquaio (sink)

 

Palazzo Pfanner (back view) & giardino (garden)

When I exited and descended the grand staircase once again, I immersed myself in the large, structured garden, bursting with peonies and roses, and gravel paths lined with potted lemon trees.

Palazzo Pfanner, giardino

The paths led to and from a spirited fountain surrounded by white marble statues; more statuary interspersed among the potted lemons gave the area a rather classical, yet festive air. There was also a large bamboo grove on a shaded side of the garden and beautiful lawns upon which to walk or play on. Wrought-iron benches scattered on the grass invited visitors to sit and rest, and enjoy the delicious spring day. Which this visitor certainly did.

When I left I felt I had gone back into a time I almost remembered. . . had almost lived in. . . And in which I had washed dishes.

 

               Buona notte!

Aren’t You Lonely?

Morning run

I am never alone here. From my living room I am entertained by the constant stream of people parading on the wall in front of me. People with their dog, their mother, their best friend. Their cell phone. Old men, high school students, in packs, going to classes, old ladies hunched over and frail, wearing their tuta, their jogging suit, laboriously putting one foot in front of the other, determined that this not be the day they will give up.

My family in Italy, especially the older members, are uncertain as to how to approach this me who wants to be alone, living in a walled city a half hour’s drive away from them.

You couldn’t find a place to rent in Viareggio?  Probably. I didn’t look.

But you don’t have any family in Lucca…  Exactly.

They look at me, confused. What do you do all day? Aren’t you lonely? What do you eat?? This last question from my zia, my aunt, who will be 81 in May and who still sees the little girl with dark eyes and dark ringlets, not the woman in her 60’s who is quite capable of shopping, cooking or, if need be, ordering food in a restaurant. But she’s cute, and the last remaining member of that generation so I try to be patient.

As for what I do all day, I don’t really even try to answer. They would simply think me  stranger than they already do: I look out my window, I walk and walk and walk.. .  drinking in the smells and the sounds and the constant living that goes on around me. And I write some of it down.

(So you don’t do anything worthwhile. . .   Ah, right.)

They are used to my strange North American ways of thinking and of doing things — I enjoy eating fruit without peeling it first; I prefer to have dinner or go to a music practice before 10:00 pm; I don’t believe I have to wait 3 hours after eating to go into the ocean to swim. . .  all manner of baffling abitudini and beliefs to which they give the old Tuscan primal shrug. But this one is stumping them.

My husband, daughter and family back in Canada understand this need I have to spend some time here on my own; it’s not so very long, after all. Only the grandchildren are not as understanding about my decision to ‘abandon’ them: I get the evil eye every time we Skype. They insist that maybe — just maybe —  if I could bring home pizza, focaccia and bombolone*  (the real deals!)  then they might forgive me. Maybe.

My family in Italy, however, has a more difficult time with the fact that I’ve left my husband and family to spend time here. They have always lived here, they’ve had only one home. They don’t understand, no matter how much I’ve tried to explain over the years, how difficult it is to grow up with one half of you always residing across a continent and an ocean, 9,000 km away. They don’t understand the desire to simply live here again for a while, to experience just an inkling of what it might have been like for me, if my parents — or I, for I too had decisions to make in my early twenties —  had made different choices. They smile, at a loss, despite being very happy to see me.

And I love living here again, weaving myself into this crazy tapestry. Life is so different, at least in Lucca. It is lived on the street, out in the open. On my frequent outings I witness people calling out to each other as they walk by or stop to chat and ask about the kids, the spouse, the elderly parents; I am privy to loud conversations from the open windows above me; enjoy smelling what is being prepared for pranzo, lunch, often still the main meal of the day. I watch, as though at the theatre, as people lean out from their window or stand on their terrace to have a heated conversation with a family member, an old  friend — or the plumber who was supposed to come by yesterday but who got side-tracked by another job, or had to lend his camioncino, his truck, to his cousin Beppe . . surely you understand, signora.

The line between private and public can be rather porous in a small place such as Lucca. Within the walls, the city takes on the identity of a small town, where most people know each other or, at least, have seen each other most of their lives, spent their early school years together (le elementari), possibly high school (liceo). Even I, having been here now for a few weeks, am sometimes greeted by shopkeepers with whom I’ve done business; they ask me how it’s going as they stand in front of their shop for a smoke and a bit of sun, or we both breathe a sigh of relief now that the G7 craziness is over (meno male!).  A few regulars on the walls during their daily morning constitutionals, are now saying Buongiorno to me as I pass by. They have come to see me as one of the crowd. 

Easter Sunday at the mercato on the Passeggiata lungomare,
Lido di Camaiore

And crowds there are. Especially on holidays and feast days. Pasqua (Easter) was spent with the family in Lido di Camaiore, a relaxing half hour train ride from Lucca. After an amazing pranzo of tortelli (Tuscan meat ravioli), roast lamb, roast chicken and various desserts — not to mention wine — we went for a walk along the passeggiata lungomare, the promenade along the ocean, the place where I spent hours playing after school, when I was a child. To my horror, there was an extensive (and I mean that in the l-o-n-g-e-s-t of senses. . . ) mercato artigianale (craft market) along the passeggiata — all manner of stalls selling crafts or leather or clothing or local food specialties, as if one needed more food on a feast day in Italy! There was a glut of people; it seemed as though half of Tuscany had decided to come to the coast that day. And many had done just that, taking advantage of the beautiful hot, sunny weather to open up their summer homes — or to come look for accommodation for their month of beach time in July or August.

Crowds on via Fillungo on Pasquetta

Yesterday was Pasquetta, Easter Monday, and Lucca was chock-a-block with visitors, both visiting family members and tourists, all crowding the streets and the walls. Here too there were banchi (market stands), but they were very few, thank goodness. Many of the regular shops were closed for the day, but the gelato was flowing freely especially given the beautiful hot (windy) day. Visitors took advantage of the hot sun to laze a while outside San Michele in Foro before resuming their itinerary through the dark, medieval streets.

Tired tourists outside San Michele in Foro

So, no — no chance of  feeling lonely, even in the crowd. As much as one can feel very alone in a large group of people one doesn’t know or simply doesn’t feel comfortable with, I don’t get that feeling here. I am simply part of the stream.

At night, I am also not lonely. For one thing, I am usually done in by constant activity during the day so that by evening, I feel quite content to stay home and cook myself a simple meal, sip a glass of wine, and either continue to write, or watch Italian police shows on TV, usually comedic in tone, with hapless, yet endearing principal characters. On the street below my apartment there is a constant stream of people passing by, talking either to a companion or a cell phone — and let’s not forget the grandchild living in the apartment below mine, who calls out loudly for his nonno. The grandfather in question is usually standing below on the sidewalk, or getting in or out of his car; these can be long-running conversations, as those with a demanding two-year old are wont to be.

On the nights I do venture out, the streets are always well lit and full of people young, old, and in-between, laughing or complaining, hands directing their own personal symphony, more often than not, gelato in hand.

Nightly crowd at Porta dei Borghi

On those nights, as I head back to comfort of my bed, I pass below one of the two remaining doors left from the Medieval walls (Porta dei Borghi). Just past the arch I find myself confronted by wall-to-wall people, everyone with beer or wine or glass of liquor in hand, purchased at either of the two bars which face each other in that tiny section of road. These are mostly young people, from late teens to forty-year olds, but there are usually older folks there as well, Everyone is talking or laughing — I see very little complaining here. As I weave through the crowd, I think to myself:

No, I am never lonely here.

Lone man on baluardo

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bombolone alla crema

*bombolone: another one of those “There-are-no-words!” items. Basically they are a doughnut-like** confection with either crema or cioccolato in the middle. They are best warm from the oven, and people will line up (im)patiently if they know that a certain bar or pasticceria, carries them at a pre-set hour. For example, my favourtie place in Florence, at a strange junction called Due Strade, warm bomboloni are paraded out at 4:00 pm., just in time for merenda, snack time. Alas, not a specialty of Lucca, I am sad to say. (Although. . . although. . . perhaps today I may have discovered a place. . . I will keep you posted!) They can be found and enjoyed in Florence, Viareggio, San Gimignano, and many other Tuscan towns, especially in summer.
**(By the way, don’t let the word ‘doughnut’ throw you: these are NOTHING like North American doughnuts. Really — you must believe me.)

 

Buona notte!

 

 

A lot of heart — not only Heart of Darkness. . .

Front page, Il Tirreno

Just a quick follow-up after all of the G7 commotion. First of all, my apologies to Rex Tillerson, whose name I refused to write correctly even though I’ve been hearing it and reading it ad nauseaum in the past few days. Denial runs deep.

Secondly, I was not crazy!  Meters away from my apartment at Porta San Jacopo, the demonstrators, behind a large mesh shield, advanced toward the phalanx of helmeted police officers behind their wall of shields. The antagonisti, as the press called them, were outside the walls, trying to get into the historic heart of the city, but were pushed back by the men in blue. A few people were hurt, some were arrested, but all in all, after some tense hours, everyone left knowing they would make the headlines across Italy and, perhaps, on a few international newspapers as well. Mission accomplished.

10:30 am – via Fillungo

Yesterday the city was still deserted, and the same sharp-shooter-outfitted-annoyingly-persistent helicopter flew over us for a few hours in the morning. (That poor pilot must have done something awfully heinous to deserve the assignment of flying over the same few square meters for hours at a time. At least the sharp-shooters perched on the sides of the helicopter had guns and were looking — and feeling — important.) All in the past: The final press conference was held at noon at the church of San Francesco, not far from here. By 6:00 pm, most of the city was back to normal and restrictions were lifted so that everyone could go back to just being lucchesi, whether by birth, or by love.

And love it we do, for there is much to love in these ‘few square meters’.

 

 

City map of Lucca

Cattedrale di San Martino

Lucca’s historic centre is not that large. One can easily walk from one end to the other in 15 minutes. Yet, within the confines of its walls there are about 100 churches. The best known ones are the Cattedrale di San Martino, with the beautiful tomb of  Ilaria del Carretto, sculpted by Jacopo della Quercia; the Basilica di San Frediano and its distinctive mosaic facade; and  Chiesa di San Michele in Foro which is the hub and heart of the city, easily recognizable by its distinctive pillars. There is also San Giovanni, a mere steps away from the cathedral, now an Oratorio used exclusively for nightly music concerts. These are not the only large churches — and there is much more to recommend them — but they are the best known and most visited.

I had explored all these churches before: My aunt was a nun with the Suore Dorotee and taught at their Istituto here in Lucca for many years, so we would come to visit religiously, so to speak.

 

San Martino, Interiore

 

Ilaria del Carretto in San Martino

As is often the case, though, with each visit one notices something new, so it is like entering them for the first time. As well, with the passing of time we become atuned to different things, we value experiences differently. Our perspective in our later years is is funneled through a clearer lens, I think: this is as sharp as it is ever going to be. That was my reaction to the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in San Martino. I remember visiting it years ago with my aunt, and thinking it beautiful, but this time, it entered me in a more

Faithful friend

personal way — a common reaction for me during much on this trip. She was so young, twenty-four, I believe, and had just given birth to her second daughter. Yet, here she is lying forever lovely and life-like, a sweet, sad dog waiting expectantly at her feet. I wanted so badly to get close enough to run my hand over the delicate folds of her robe, stroke the pooch’s head, tell him it would be all right. Knowing that it wouldn’t.

 

San Frediano, mosaico

In San Frediano I found a surprising gem — a tender and strangely moving wooden sculpture from the 16th century by Matteo Civitali.

“Annunziata” di Matteo Civitali

It is a very unique representation of Mary’s reaction to the news that she has been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. Her right hand is raised in disbelief — almost in a pleading “Stop!” Her face does not show a great deal of emotion, but it is as though she were in shock, waiting for the news to register. . . or go away.

 

Santa Zita

San Frediano is also the resting place of Santa Zita, a humble servant in the house of the Fatinelli, in the 13th century and the patron saint of this city. She was born and died in Lucca and her body — yes, it’s her actual body — now is on display in a side chapel of the basilica.

 

 

 

There is no doubt that these churches, and many other important ones in the city, are most impressive. The few details I’ve shared here do not do them justice. However, one of the aspects of Lucca that most fascinates me is that I often come across churches embedded in the city blocks I’m passing, with nothing to make them stand out as churches until I see a priest, or nun, or a clutch of people exiting. It is only then that I take a closer look and see a small plaque or poster beside the door, identifying it as such. As I look more carefully, I usually notice a crucifix carved in stone above it. I love to go into these tiny places of worship because they are typically much simpler, less imposing and ostentacious; they speak of true faith, not show. They hold a silent spirituality that allow even the most skeptic and Church-angry among us, to hope: I must admit, it is lovely to feel that little spark again, be it ever so fleeting. Along with the other-worldly quiet, it is not unusual in these tiny, seemingly insignificant chapels and churches, to find a little artistic gem, there only for those who take the time to enter and look.

 

*******************************

 

Puccini’s piano (for Turandot)

Aside from churches, Lucca is filled with music. It is, after all, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini and Luigi Boccherini, among others. Walking along via Fillungo, one of the main shopping streets in the city, I often go by the Liceo Artistico Musicale (a high school specializing in music). I and the other passersby are routinely serenaded — and very well! — by students practicing their instruments. The same is true when I pass by the Istituto Superiore di Studi Musicali Luigi Boccherini, fronted by a handsome statue of the composer himself, playing the cello. There is a great passion for music in this city, especially among young people, and it is wonderful to have it wash over me even in the most mundane of circumstances, like going to pick up milk.

Early draft of the beginning of Puccini’s La Boheme, scribbles and all!

Puccini, of course, is everywhere. I visited his birth home and was fascinated by — and found great solace in — all the scribbled corrections and jotted ideas on some of his musical scores. It was comforting to know that regardless of the age one lives in, regardless of the level of technology one has access to, and regardless of one’s chosen medium, editing is an artist’s cross to bear!

Costume from Act II of Turandot– Metropolitan Opera production, 1926

I also loved seeing some of the costumes used in the early productions of his operas, especially the sumptuous gown for the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of Turandot in 1926.

San Giovanni — music concerts

Speaking of Puccini and music. . . I spent a heavenly Friday evening at the Oratorio San Giovanni. From April to September there are nightly concerts featuring Puccini and other composers.   On Friday our own hometown hero had been paired with Mozart: A concert made for my particular heaven. The resident accompanist for this season is Diego Fiorini, a wonderful pianist who entertained us with a couple of  solo pieces. His rendition of the Ouverture to the Nozze di Figaro, was truly masterful and I could see everyone in the church itching to jump up to show our collective appreciation. Since the majority of the audience were of Nordic or North American origin, we demurred. . . and contented ourselves with thunderous applause.

 

Puccini & His Lucca Music Festival — Oratorio di San Giovanni

The soprano was Rosa Perez Suarez, whose voice reminded me of la Callas. She was very good, but lacked the confidence and strength of a more seasoned singer. The tenor, however, Simone Frediani was far beyond anything I or any of the other audience members (judging from their enthusiastic reaction) anticipated. He was by far the darling of the evening. His voice filled the cavernous space of San Giovanni and his strong, high notes in Recondita armonia, and E lucevan le stelle (both from Tosca) had our ears ringing — but in such a glorious way, his voice reaching down into the  deepest part of our soul.

This Friday, Good Friday, Antonella is coming from Florence to stay with me. We will be attending a Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at San Michele in Foro. It will be another musical treat, I’m sure.

**********************************

Now, you must be asking yourself: How does this woman keep up this pace? Riots, churches, statues, mosaics, mummified saints, scribbled sheet music, sumptuous costumes, hours and hours of walking — not to mention, healthy doses of Puccini and Mozart. . . How does she do it?!

 

Tagliatelle ai moscardini, at Gigi Trattoria, Piazza del Carmine

Well, folks, she eats. And she eats well. And washes it all down with very smooth Tuscan wine. (Now, now… no whining. I can hear you, all the way from here!)

 

O.K. Enough of this dilly-dallying. Time for a gelato!

         Buona notte!

Under Siege

The G7 Foreign Ministers are holding talks today in Lucca. These meetings will go on until tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday April 11. Much of the city is off limits to both cars and pedestrians: There is a ‘yellow’ zone, a ‘green’ zone, and a ‘blue’ zone, that no one can either enter or exit without a special resident’s pass. Even at that, people are being asked not to go out of their homes, if they have chosen to remain in the city. Many businesses and restaurants have closed for the duration of the G7 talks. Some have taken advantage of this forced closure (forced in the sense that it makes no sense to stay open, since there would be virtually no customers…) and  have elected to offer their workers and extended ‘ponte‘, a long weekend. In other words, instead of reopening on Wednesday, they are prolonging the closure until next Tuesday, Monday being Pasquetta (Easter Monday), and already a holiday. Most merchants, restauateurs, and service providers are losing at least two-days’ worth of business, some much more than that. A few had already closed yesterday, Sunday, anticipating a decrease in clientele. Lucca is not even making money on hosting the ministers and their entourages, for the majority of them are staying in Forte dei Marmi (the jet-set section of the Versilia) and are being bused or driven into Lucca each morning.

Like many others, tourists and residents alike, I was to leave the city early this morning, but a few health issues have grounded me for today and possibly tomorrow — the very days I wished to escape. Which brings me to cite a line from a beloved (at least in our family) philosopher of the last half of the 20th century: Lennon’s ‘Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.”  Go John! So here I was this morning, poring over the special map I was given to help govern my movements over these two G7 days (were I to be foolish enough to remain. . . ), checking out the blue, yellow, and green zones, trying to ascertain whether there was an alimentari (grocery store) I could access in order to get a bottle of milk and some fruit, to tide me over until this G7 libeccio blew past.  I found a likely place and headed — tentatively — into the demilitarized zone.

Deserted street

As I carefully inched my way into the ‘white’ section (no restrictions) I found a city that appeared deserted. I will admit that it was fairly early in the morning, around 8:00, but usually, by then, the city is already buzzing: People heading to work, others nipping into churches for early morning mass, parents dragging their children and their heavy backpacks to school, bands of teenagers heading to their high school classes, and folks crowding into the various bars to have their morning cappuccino or macchiato and un cornetto, the Italian version of a croissant.

Today there was very little action. All schools in Lucca are closed until Wednesday because of the meetings, so there were no children or boisterous teens teeming through the streets. Many shops and businesses were closed, so fewer people stopping at their favourite caffe’ for the Italian version of breakfast. The wall, too, was quiet; very few people walking or jogging or dragging their dogs. I must admit that it felt eerie. The road in front of my palazzina looked like a

Via de’ Bacchettoni, deserted

completely different place. Usually the street is lined with parked cars; today, due to parking restrictions, nothing.

Even the demonstrators have been restricted to one street. Their intention was to march down most streets in the centre to protest the G7. Whether they will actually follow the rules, of course, is anybody’s guess. So far I’ve not noticed any running or yelling or police chases — and my building happens to be surrounded by the yellow zone. All relatively quiet thus far, on the Eastern front  —  and I hope that’s how it stays.

*****************************

It is early afternoon now, and there are more people out on the wall, ignoring what is being discussed, argued, and manipulated in the Palzzo Ducale, in the historic centre of the city. It seems that people are wanting to take all the fear-mongering of the past few weeks with a grain of salt. The sun is out: How bad can it really be? I have had a two-hour nap and am feeling better — well enough to venture out again for a short walk and sit in the sun. If things get out-of-hand, I can simply roll myself down the grassy embankment that covers my side of the wall, and be at my front door in seconds.

Now, whether I can get the key to exactly the right position in the key hole so it will turn and open the portone (the main building door) on the first or second (or third) try. . . well, that remains to be seen.

5:00 pm.

I have returned from my walk in the sun and wind (the wind always picks up here in the afternoon). On the wall, students with a free day were out in droves on bicycles and bike carts, racing each other, egging each other on loudly. The wind finally won the silent battle we were fighting and I descended into the city for a while. Even in the afternoon many businesses and caffe’ were closed tight. People I spoke with, who had kept their shops open, were there to defy, in a way, this heightened fear that was being instilled in the lucchesi (citizens of Lucca) by the media and the authorities. Yes, there was risk of violence — there is precedence enough when one looks back at other similar gatherings — but many feel that we shouldn’t simply give in to it and run away. Everyone who has stayed hopes that the demonstrators who were bused in during the afternoon will make their point peacefully and that cool heads will prevail when hot heads get out of hand.

Annoying and persistent helicopter

More disconcerting than the possibility of future violence, however, are the large black vans with tinted windows going in and out through the porte, the ‘doors’ in the walls linking the old city with the new — not to mention the large blue police vans and smaller light blue police cars careening through the streets, blue lights flashing. Not chasing anything in particular, it seems, just making their presence known. Even more disturbing is the lone helicopter which has been flying over the city for almost two hours, a city which has been declared a no-fly zone for the duration of these talks. Again, I assume this annoying, buzzing mechanical bird is police or military in nature. It hovers quite high and then swoops in low, deafening.

***************************************

When I returned to the apartment not long ago, I turned on the TV to catch up on the latest news. Among other G7 updates, there was an item that, amid this international hoopla, spoke to me in a very personal way. The story was of a visit to Sant’Anna of Stazzema by US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, and Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative, as well as the Head of European Defence Agency. It spoke to me because my father was one of the first on the scene, that horrible day of August 12, 1944, when 560 people were killed. They were mostly women and children (130 of the latter), and older men who, because of their age, were of no use to either Fascists or Nazis, and did not feel the need to hide in the mountains like many of the younger men.

Like my father. He was 19 at the time, and the Germans had been coming door to door in the towns and villages along the Gothic Line to round up able-bodied men to send to work camps. My grandmother and father always told the story of the Germans at the front door and my dad jumping out of a window at the back of the house. He went to hide in the mountains near Stazzema with a family friend, who had been in hiding for some time already. On that morning, they woke up to see a great plume of smoke rising from the area of the tiny village of Sant’Anna, which had become a centre for resistance fighters. The two of them made their way down the mountain and when they arrived they found the place razed to the ground, and a horrid stench of burned flesh in the air. Every person and every animal had been massacred, their bodies then placed in the Church, to be burned.

Dad had never spoken about that event with me. Not once. I found out about it by accident in 1981 when he and I, alone in Italy for a few weeks, visited an old aunt of his. A friend of the family came over when she heard my father was at the house. It was her husband that had taken Dad under his wing when he fled to the mountains. It was the two of them who had climbed down to Sant’Anna together and found the aftermath of the massacre. Afterwards, when we were alone, I asked him about it. He still didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to leave me with any of the horrible images that had been ground into his own memory from that day. But what he did say horrified me even more: The massacre at Sant’Anna was not the worst event of the war for him. The worst, apparently, was when he came upon the train station in Viareggio, just after it had been bombed. I can’t even imagine.

***************************

It is now almost 9:00 pm and the helicopter has finally left. My ears are still ringing. It got very intense here for a few hours: I heard what I thought were a couple of shots over to the north, followed by police cars, sirens blaring, speeding along the ramparts. When I looked out, the wall in that area was full of people standing up on the ledge, looking down at something happening below.  Others were just meandering along the path as though nothing had happened, which I took for a good sign, so I relaxed a little. Perhaps not shots after all.

Dani on a more relaxing day. . . Oh, wait — yesterday!

Maybe I can sleep tonight.

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

 

Buona notte!

Lucca!

Buongiorno!

This morning I woke up to to a red globe inching its way over the walls of Lucca. . . Buongiorno!

The sun has been greeting me this way since I moved into my sparkling white apartment on March 26. Each morning since then I have been pinching myself to make sure I’m awake: Am I really seeing this?? These walls have served as a focal point in my life, the most solid and reliable base on which to anchor my disjointed identity. And here they are — the view from every window of my new residence. It is temporary, I realize, only for the next few weeks, but right now, they are mine.

Region of Tuscany: Province of Lucca is near the top left

I first saw them when I was two or three years old, on my first trip to Italy — for, by an ironic twist of fate, I was not born here, but in Canada. The plan was to settle in one of the nearby cities, possibly Viareggio or Lido di Camaiore, where our family was actually from (Lucca is simply our municipal hub, how we identify ourselves to other Italians, i.e. we are from the provincia di Lucca — as opposed to Siena, Florence, Pisa, etc). I don’t have a clear memory of that first experience. What I do remember is my nonni, my grandparents, and all my aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins. . . this whole world of family I had never met before, and of which I was immediately an integral part. And, having met them, I certainly didn’t want to leave them again — but leave I had to, several times. And through those years of comings and goings, the walls of Lucca have always represented home to me.

After the Second World War, my father decided to leave this land, to go exploring, to see the world, to have adventures. Or so he said. He had witnessed horrible things during the years in which the front was stalled in our area, north of the Arno River (the German Gothic Line) and, I suppose, he felt the need to get away to a place where he would not always be reminded. Whatever the reason, he left. He first went to Venezuela — his first adventure — and returned a year later to marry my mother. Soon after, in one of those snap decisions he became known for, he decided to try Canada instead. I mean. . .  why not? Despite the desire to leave Tuscany as a young man, his dream, like that of most immigrants, was to return to his homeland with his family. Unfortunately, when he tried to re-establish himself in the Lucchesia, (area around Lucca), he found he could not reintegrate, for reasons that remain unclear to me. After several failed attempts, the last of which was in 1965, he finally made peace with his adopted land.

Which brings me back to my walls.

These ramparts are impressive. Massive. Solid. They are the newest incarnation (1550 – 1650) of a series of walls erected to protect this proud city-state from a host of enemies, among the most contentious being the neighbouring state of Pisa. They are a minimum of 100 feet in width, equipped with eleven heart- or ace-shaped bastions which

Walls of Lucca: walkway under bastion

could house armories, stables, storage rooms, and even kitchens to help keep the troops in mint dying condition. Surrounding the ramparts, the land was cleared to the length of a cannonball trajectory; this was done in the hope that these newly discovered implements of destruction would not be able to reach the protective walls, let alone penetrate the 100 feet of brick-encased dirt. Ironically, no one even tried. To this day, the walls remain untested in war. Lucca has been fortunate, indeed: It remains one of the few cities or towns in the area that escaped bombardment in WWII. I’m certain that the forward-thinking city fathers that judiciously planned to keep Lucca impenetrable in the 16th century, are also taking full credit for this 20th century coup.

Promenade and shade trees

In 1799, the walls were officially demilitarized. Maria Luisa of Bourbon assigned her royal  architect to turn the top of the ramparts into a promenade for the citizenry. The walkway was lined with shade plants, mostly chestnut and plane trees, sometimes in double rows, as though awaiting military review. With the advent of cars, the promenade was expanded to a two-lane road, with paths and trees alongside. As a child, I remember cars speeding beside me while my mother and I strolled along the paths on top of the walls. Now the only vehicles one typically sees are of the municipal variety: trucks for garbage collection and tree trimming, industrial lawn mowers, and police vehicles. There are also a few cars which come and go to the Villaggio del fanciullo (an orphanage) which sits on the wall, directly across from my palazzina, my apartment building. The rest of the 4.5 km. span is reserved for the enjoyment of people: joggers, strollers, power-walkers, cyclists — not to mention, dogs and children. The tops of several bastions now host a parco giochi, a playground for kids and families to enjoy, as well as a couple of restaurants and bars.

Fido takes a … jog.

There is much to entertain me as I walk that beautiful promenade each morning: the view of the ancient city on one side, and emerald fields on the other; the wisteria in full bloom along terrace railings; the men, women, and students, all gesticulating as they make their point — and there is always a point to be made. . . !  One of the most amusing sights, however, (or horrifying, take your pick), is that of a man or woman, often older, riding a bike gently along the road, while Fido, on a leash, gets his exercise by running alongside. Efficient.

 

Field outside Lucca’s Walls

Among the benefits derived from the zealousness of the 16th century planners are the expanse of prati which surround the historic Lucca. Thanks to this overpowering cannonball paranoia, the perimeter of the city is left with verdant fields, sometimes interrupted by remnants of an extensive moat. The area has not been built on in 500 years (the anniversary was in 2013). This peaceful view ensures a very pleasant walk. Even the more modern cityscape beyond the prati seems too remote to really affect the sense of calm one experiences.

 

Mowing the Wall!

This peace I speak of has been less obvious in the past few days for there has been a great deal of activity on and around the walls. Huge lawnmowers and an army of weed-whackers have been out in force, trimming everything to within an inch of its life. The lawns and slope leading up to the walls were mowed just after I moved in, but not with the zeal I’ve witnessed since Monday. Blame it on the G7. Yes, the Foreign Ministers of the G7 countries are meeting in Lucca from Sunday, April 10 to Tuesday, April 12. This is just one of nine cities in Italy being subjected to heightened security, very restricted traffic and parking, and armies of lawnmowers. The minesterial meetings will culminate with the actual summit in Taormina, in Sicily, at the end of May. The Lucchesi are none too pleased. These meetings will cause majour traffic upheaval in this ancient city where travel is already hindered by labyrinthine streets the width of a corridor. I, like all other visitors, have been issued a special ‘pass’ which states that I am a temporary resident here — in case any official takes issue with my presence. I suppose it would be a good couple of days to take the train into one of the nearby cities. And hide.

 

Apparitions in passing. . .

As I was making my way around the walls this morning, I was stopped short by the sight of a figure sitting at a picnic table on one of the bastions, Baluardo La Liberta’. It was my father. He was sheltered by early morning shadows, ball cap on his head, left elbow resting on the table, hand holding a cigarette between thumb and index finger, his whole body leaning in. His right hand gripped his right knee, elbow pointing away from his body — much like the stance of Judas in Ghirlandaio’s Cenacolo. It was my father the way I’d seen him sit on countless of occasions as he contemplated his abundant vegetable garden — his pride and joy —  from the picnic table in the backyard of the family home. It was my father. . .  Such a strange sensation, this apparition. For me it was simply more proof that body language is not only genetically imprinted through family lines, but is painted with far broader strokes; in this case it seemed a direct result of more general lucchese genes. I got the impression that I might encounter many of my fathers, were I to remain here on a permanent basis.  I fought the urge to get closer, to get a better look at this old man, so content in the shadows. After a few seconds I took a deep breath and continued on my way. I felt as though I’d seen a ghost. And who knows, perhaps I had: papa’ come home to rest.

Buona notte!

 

Vecchio e nuovo. . . Old and New

Most of us spend our lives taking our surroundings for granted, to some degree — always chasing the next minute and forgetting about the one we are in. Sometimes we live in a place for years and don’t notice the obvious, or we visit a place over and over and feel we know it, but miss an important gem. And yet. . . once in a while we strike it rich, and the old is made new again.

The last two days before I left for Lucca, Antonella and I had a chance to spend time in Florence’s historic centre together. On Friday, she met me in town after her classes and we had a few hours to enjoy Firenze before heading back home for dinner. She had lived in the heart of the city for a number of years and was able to flesh out many of the sights I was already familiar with, and point out buildings and places that held a special place in her heart. Through her I also discovered new treasures. My cousin was shocked, for example, when she realized I had never been to Officina Santa Maria Novella, in via Scala, acknowledged to be the oldest pharmacy and perfumery in Europe, possibly the world. It dates back to 1612 in its present location, although the Domenican Monks had been growing herbs and using them for effective salves and balms since the 13th century. 800 years of doing business is not a bad recommendation!

Entrance — Officina di Santa Maria Novella

Officina Santa Maria Novella

I had walked by it many times in the past week and on prior visits to the city, but had not noticed it.  Mind you, there is not much to notice from the street: just a grand door which could have been the entry way to any well-appointed apartment or business.

But inside was a whole other world, perfectly restored and maintained: lovely frescoes, especially in what used to be the chapel, beautiful woodwork, and many pharmaceutical and scientific artifacts from the last 800 years, kept as museum pieces behind glass doors.

 

Profumeria - Ufficina di Santa Maria Novella

Profumeria – Officina di Santa Maria Novella

And the smells. . . such heavenly smells wafting from the perfumery — smells for which one pays through the nose, so to speak. By all accounts, well worth the expense.

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday we went to see Ghirlandaio’s Cenacolo (Last Supper) in the refectory off the cloister of the Church of Ognissanti. Our visit happened to coincide with FAI — Spring Open Days — a weekend  in which 670 cultural and historical sites all over Italy are open and free to the public, an event that has taken place for 20 years. Most sites have volunteers on hand, often students, who act as docents, who are there to answer questions and offer explanations if requested. When we visited the Cenacolo, the volunteers were older gentlemen who, over the years, had acquired a great deal of knowledge about the treasures of this church; over time they had quietly followed many tours and listened intently as the guides spoke in depth about the works on display. These gents were eager to share their knowledge and opinions with us and happy to have found two visitors so willing to participate in a conversation about about art and history.

Entering the refettorio, we were immediately struck by the quiet beauty of Ghirlandaio’s fresco which covered the

Cenacolo by Ghirlandaio

wall at the far end of the large hall. I imagined the monks eating breakfast, lunch and dinner in that space, with that image to contemplate. Were they as appreciative of it as we were as we approached? Or did they come to take it for granted as we do so many beautiful things in our life, simply because we see them or experience them all the time: The way the morning sun slants through the fir branches on your morning walk; the way a child’s hand quietly slips into yours as you prepare to cross a street. . .  Moments all too soon gone. So many things taken for granted. But in this particular moment, neither one of us was taking the image for granted: The symbolic birds and fruit trees; the design on the ends of the tablecloth; Judas’ defiant stance before the figure of Christ; St. John, laying his very feminine head on Jesus’ breast. . .

On an adjacent wall, on the right of the entrance, was just as large an image — an outline of the painting we had just studied, a full-sized drawing. This, we learned, was the sinopia, Ghirlandaio’s  preliminary sketch of the work. There were some differences in what he ultimately painted, but many of the details were the same. What struck us most was that it had been recovered by accident after the flood of 1966, when the Arno overflowed its banks on November 4 and 5 of that year. The Angeli del fango (Mud Angels) were Italian and foreign volunteers who descended on the city to try to salvage as much as possible of the priceless art and books which had been damaged — many destroyed — by the flood. Those working on the Cenacolo discovered the sinopia attached to the back of the painting. No one, until that time, knew it existed. These ‘angeli‘  were able to extract it by strappo, which literally means, by tearing it off the back of the damaged painting. As you can see by the video I have provided, it is not nearly as dramatically violent as it sounds, but very risky nonetheless. With the elderly FAI volunteers in the refectory, we had a lively conversation about the strappo, the sinopia, and the ultimate fresco. We left knowing much more than before — even Antonella, who had visited the work on many occasions.

Upon leaving the refettorio, we decided to take another tour of the Church (Ognissanti); I insisted on walking the longer way, around  the perimeter of the cloister, to look at the frescoes I’d not had a chance to see before. There was restoration work going on (of course!) and a sign caught my attention:

Giotto is sorry!

           “Giotto is very sorry for the ‘undelayable’ work in progress”

It seems that even 800 year old painters have a good sense of humour and a healthy sense of the sarcastic, as do most Tuscans. Old and new — a revolving door!

After leaving the church we meandered towards Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, past the cathedral, the Baptistry, and the hoardes. Our goal was a little Sicilian bar called Ara’ just around the corner from the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. This tiny cubbyhole of a shop serves many Sicilian specialties, among them arancine, balls of rice stuffed with various delicious fillings. John and I discovered these little bombs when we visited that unforgettable island in 2002.

Buona, l’arancina!

Here you see Anto enjoying her arancina, making the Italian sign for “It’s good!”

Naturally, the bar also serves homemade cannoli, perhaps Sicily’s best-known dessert and culinary export (Please, forget what passes for cannoli in Canada. Just put it out of your mind.) Below you can see just how committed I am to my new role as blogger: Here I am sacrificing myself in the name of cultural pedagogy and sampling one for you, my friends. I started from the side dipped in crushed almonds; the green you see are the crushed pistachios on the opposite end. The crema filling had just been made and was still warm. As my wise daughter once said in a moment of  similar culinary ecstasy: There are no words.

Buoni, i cannoli!!

Feeling refreshed and sated, we walked past the Accademia and its lines of waiting visitors to San Marco, at the end of the block, again a church and monastery neither Antonella nor I had ever visited. The volunteers at Ognissanti had insisted: We must go there. Simply must! Being the perennial good students, Anto and I obeyed. It turns out it was worth the time to visit the beautiful fresco-adorned cloister, and the rich paintings in a side room, almost all by Fra Beato Angelico.

Of particular interest was the adjacent monastery, where each cell was decorated with its own fresco by the same

Monastic cell: fresco by Fra’ Angelico

painter, depicting a scene from the life of Christ. Cosimo de’ Medici il Vecchio had his own cell there, larger than the rest, of course, with three steps leading to a private chapel; a quiet place of reflection and prayer.

 

 

 

Savonarola’s folding chair

Even more interesting to me was the living quarters of Girolamo Savonarola, vicar at the convent of San Marco, the controversial preacher who ruled Florence for a time, and railed against the tyranny and excesses of the Church. Whereas all the other cells were empty, Savonarola’s still had his writing desk, his ‘folding’ chair, and other personal items. I could not help but think of  what he must have felt the last time he left these objects, with a clear understanding of what was to be his terrible end.

Illustrated book from Library of Convento San Marco

 

Our last stop in the convent was the magnificent library, an awe-inspiring room in which were displayed a number of exquisitely decorated books. A bibliophile’s version of heaven.

 

 

When we left San Marco we were in desperate need of an espresso and a change of scene. The latter came in the form of a stroll through Piazza Santissima Annunziata, designed by Brunelleschi; both Antonella and I were saddened to see its state of disrepair and neglect and hoped it would soon get a much needed face-lift.

To our delight, in the piazza we found a little fiera (fair) where they were selling croccante (peanut and almond brittle) and fresh, warm brigidini, a light, sweet confection, a specialty of Lamporecchio in the province of Pistoia, Tuscany. If you click on the picture you will better see the machine above the cellophane bags, the conveyor belt that drops the warm brigidini into the large bag below. A mesmorizing process.

Brigidini (in cellophane bags) and croccante (on the cart)

These items are staples at the fiere or sagre of the area. As you can see, they are a temptation to most locals. . . even those who have made it their life’s work to resist such earthly pitfalls!

Porchetta toscana

Another local specialty is porchetta, (the picture should speak for itself. . . ) and one can find it at many marketsand fairs. It can be sliced to take home or most vendors will happily make you a panino to munch on as you stroll by the other stalls.

 

 

After leaving the piazza, with a croccante alla nocciola (peanut brittle) in my purse (a treat I remember so well from my very tender years lived in the region), we finally had our caffe’ macchiato at a nearby bar and rested a few minutes. Next door we found a pizzeria that made and sold cecina (a flat, chickpea ‘pizza’ of sorts)  which, again, can only be found in some areas of Tuscany.

Cecina!

Obviously, we had to buy a few slices to share with the girls that night at supper. . .

 

 

 

We were heading back through the throngs of Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, when it began to threaten rain and then make good on the promise.  As we dashed from one awning to the next, I asked Antonella if she had ever been to the ‘Lorenzi’ store, on via de’ Cerretani, just down from the cathedral. She looked at me as though I had been dipping into the limoncello a bit too enthusiastically, and asked what I was talking about. I suggested to her that I was neither matta (crazy) nor drunk, and how could she live 20 years in a city and not have noticed a store with our name on it. I’d known it was there for at least that long. This back-and-forth went on for a while until we dashed in the protective entrance of that very shop. Yes, she had walked past it hundreds of times, but had never noticed the name. Something new for her! The shop sold beautiful leather items, pens, umbrellas, scarves — none of which I’d ever bought. Given the rain and given that I’d always wanted to purchase something from that shop, I dragged Antonella inside and bought a small, light, 8 Euro brolly. I announced to the shopkeeper that we were Lorenzis, and was he, indeed, a bonafied specimen of same? The dapper gentleman replied that, yes, he was, but from the Pistoia area.

Ah. . .  Alas, not one of ours.

As Antonella and I headed back home, we were tired, but much richer, for we had both learned an important lesson: amid the well-worn, one can always find something shiny, new, and precious.

                                     Buona notte!