All good things must come to an end.
Cliché, I know. But is it true? In the case of my time in Lucca, sadly, yes. The day I left was sunny and warm and though my bags were packed, and my well-ordered, temporary existence dismantled, I was not ready to leave. I kept looking longingly at the Walls from my glass doors, at the fortress that had kept me secure for the past month, like a comforting embrace; at the people out there walking and cycling, still able to enjoy an experience that I was about to leave behind. In a perfect world I would be back next year, possibly for a longer period. But this is not a perfect world we live in and most good things do come to an end, cliché or not.
John had arrived almost a week before and I had been able to introduce him to some of the charms of my recent home-away-from-home. He had been to Lucca with me several times in the past but took in with gusto, the experience of ‘living’ there, even if only for a few days. He accompanied me to the fountain in the piazzetta to fill up the large water bottles and I was happy to have him there to help me lug them home. In the morning he followed me to the Conad, the local miniature supermarket, to pick up milk, bread, cheese–our needs for the day–, like me, dodging the pallets stacked high with the merchandise with which clerks daily replenished the shelves, an early morning dance I had been caught up in for almost a month. Now I was dancing it with him. John has traditionally been the shopper in our family, but in a reversal of roles, in a side-stepping of routine, it was I who was teaching him about the places to go for best selection and best prices, teaching him the easiest way to get back home, pointing out ancient, tree-topped towers and dark, narrow alleyways along the route.
After almost 40 years of marriage, it was a strange sensation to introduce my husband to my living space, my routine, my city: This is how I do things here. He loved it all, as I knew he would, and was respectful of the little world that I had built without him in the previous month and was now sharing. And I was eager to share — but I was also possessive of my little piece of turf, did not want it altered in any way. If there were systems not as efficient as they could be, if things could or should be tweaked for maximum ease and logic, I didn’t care. It all made sense to me. It was only mine for such a short time and I was comfortable with it the way it was. We are all of us, such creatures of habit.
On that last day, John was soon loading the suitcases into our rented car as I made a careful sweep of the apartment to ensure that nothing was left behind. It was then time to hand over the keys and say goodbye to the place I had called home. My room of one’s own. My room with a view.
We exited through Porta San Jacopo and drove by stately villas outside the walls. Soon we were on our way to Camaiore which originated as Campus Maior in Roman times, through narrow, tree-lined roads, by tiny towns that were behind us in the blink of an eye, through the Valfreddana, an area between tall mountains, that gets very little sun and warmth, and a fair amount of snow (hence its name — Cold Valley).
Once in Camaiore we found parking beside the small playground near the hospital. It is a relatively new green space that used to be the site of my parents’ school — and my school, for a year. It was grade two, under signora Trezzi’s perpetual scowl, that I cowered behind a dark, sloped, wooden desk armed with inkwell for my unfamiliar nib. I shudder every time I think of it.
But on this sunny day, I walked through the park as children shrieked and played, and into the hospitalin search of my zia Clara, my great aunt, now 97 years old. And there she was, in many ways as she always had been: tall, thin, and ready to laugh and hand out kisses and hugs. She was always very emotional and affectionate, unlike my nonna, her eldest sister by 18 years. My mother and I lived with zia Clara for a time when I was little and I have wonderful memories from that period. After much kissing, hugging and tears, she began singing La casetta in Canadà, a popular song in Italy in the 50’s and 60’s. I joined her, surprised that she remembered many more of the lyrics than I did: I can only hope that some of her genes have been passed along to me!
Soon after our impromptu duet, we noticed that she was becoming a little anxious. It was almost lunchtime: Would the staff come and get her? Would they know where she was? Would they find her?? Routine. So much of life is our comfort in routine. We gave her more hugs and kisses and directed her wheelchair back to the common room where, as we walked down the hall, we could hear her regaling everyone with the details of her nipote, her niece, who had come all the way from Canada to visit her. Every time I see zia Clara, I think it might be the last and that thought tugs at my old heart strings. But every time, she surprises me.
After more final goodbyes in Lido di Camaiore — my aunt, my cousins, my second (and third!) cousins, we headed to the autostrada. Road trip!
We love road trips — especially at the beginning. There is that feeling of open road, adventure, the two of us in a car, navigating the unknown. Kind of like marriage. In Italy that ‘unknown’ can refer frustratingly to road signs. Does it mean here? No! Turn here. . . I think. What the. . .? Where are we supposed to. . . ? Huh??? I derive great solace from the fact that Italian road signage can be as frustrating to those who live there as to those of us who visit. Being in the passenger seat with various family members and friends is always reassuring: The signs are specifically designed to raise the blood pressure of every driver, not just residents. Unfortunately, that little bit of schadenfreude does not help in the blow-by-blow of driving in an unknown city.
The autostrada, however, is wonderful. It is well-signed, and, unless you are traveling on one of the many Italian public holidays, a very efficient way to achieve your destination. As a bonus, one has front row seats to one of Italy’s greatest spectacles: the Jedi pilots in their Star fighters, flying nose to butt, at only-God-knows-what-speeds. It is a fluid, elegant dance that demands admiration for its beauty and grace, despite the great danger it poses. We, lowly mortals, admire and keep driving along at our steady, if embarrassing, 120 km an hour. Every once in a while, we check our speedometer for there must be a mistake. Surely the car has stopped moving, we must be stalled — this observation based on the speed with which other cars are whizzing by us. . . Finally, reassured that we are still in the running, we soldier on.
Our destination was Perugia, in the neighbouring region of Umbria. As is common in similar travel experiences, our love of road trips diminishes as we enter the destination itself, with its tiny, convoluted streets, obviously not made for Fiat Puntos. After a few close calls (and I do mean centimeters close. . . ) we were directed to the free parking lot at the foot of the hill on which sits Perugia’s historic center, a center we had tried — insanely — to navigate. We unpacked the gear we would need and took the MiniMetrò to our rental accommodations.
The apartment was beautiful and spacious, with a wonderful view of Perugia and the surrounding countryside. Like Tuscany, Umbria is a region of verdant, rolling hills and neat parcels of farmland. We were fortunate to face east again, so the sunrises on the three days of our stay were stunning.
It was lovely to wake up just after 6 am. and pad out to the living room to wait for the sun to peak over the low-lying hills and slowly add colour to the buildings perched on the cliff face. Once the show was over, it was time for our morning cappuccino. The day had officially begun.
Perugia is a beautiful city draped over the top of a hill, much like a Dali painting. Buildings, fountains, and narrow streets flow down slopes, on every side. The only flat surface we found was in Piazza d’Italia, on the North-West side of the city — a small and relatively uninteresting area, but with great views from its terrace.
The focal point of the city is Piazza IV Novembre, home to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo and the Fontana Maggiore.
The wide steps of the Cathedral play host to young people, mostly university students, who gather in the sun to hang out, laugh, and unexpectedly burst into boisterous song. The crowd grows on Sundays, when the students are joined by local families and, of course, tourists. The gathering provided an enjoyable theatre experience on a bright, if cold, afternoon as we sipped prosecco at an outside table at a café across from the church: Young people, carefree, their books momentarily forgotten, children shrieking and running around the piazza under the watchful eyes of parents and nonni, and, of course, dogs, lots of dogs.
Across from the church stands an impressive building, the Palazzo dei priori. It is now a national museum, the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, where I spent a quiet afternoon immersed in regional art and artifacts ranging from the 13th to the 19th centuries, as well as special temporary exhibits. The building itself is a work of art, inside and out.
Just behind the piazza is the start of the Via dell’Acquedotto. In 1254 the city commissioned the 3 km aqueduct to be built from Monte Pacciano to what is now Piazza IV Novembre. In the early 1900s, it became a popular walk, and so it remains to this day.
Il mangiare (food)
We were charmed by Perugia’s many, terraced vicoli that meandered down from the main street and in which we discovered, quite by accident, a wonderful restaurant, Al mangiar bene. As we strolled down a sloping, dark alleyway, steeped in romance and history, we noticed several people outside an inconspicuous restaurant door, waiting for it to open. Intrigued, we continued our stroll, then doubled back. By then the establishment was open and full, but they were able to find a place for us at the end of a long table already in use. What a find!
The atmosphere was relaxed and the food locally sourced and deceptively homey. The bread? Divine. We shared a tagliere of local cured meats, cheeses and interesting oddities: humous dip, frittata, and a local variation of the Sicilian specialty, arancina. After the antipasto, I decided to order an Umbrian dish, gnocchi alla norcina, a sauce made of bits of sausage, tartufo (truffle), panna (thick Italian cooking cream), and white wine… sigh. John ordered the tagliatelle al cinghiale (wild boar). Both delicious choices which were accompanied by an excellent vino rosso della casa, a local wine. We opted for no dessert — how virtuous! — but then succumbed to the charms of Sandria, a beautiful pasticceria back up on the main drag, rich in dark, polished wood — and the best hot chocolate outside of Spain.
This out-of-body chocolate experience was fully-appreciated, but came as no surprise, as Perugia is well known for its chocolate confections. Baci Perugina — a chopped hazelnut melange topped with a whole hazelnut, covered in chocolate, wrapped in a love message and then, finally, in iconic silver/blue wrapping– have been exported the world over for almost a hundred years, but are now the property of Nestlé and are not made in Italy at all.
The local workers displaced by this takeover have been producing their own ‘baci’ under the blue Vannucci label, which local merchants sell alongside the ‘imposter’ versions. The locals are very proud of their original product and of the fact that they are continuing the tradition.
And for the chocolate junkies among you, keep in mind the annual (October) chocolate festival in Perugia which attracts thousands of visitors each year. Just saying….
One of the most fascinating aspects of this city is the underground fortress, the Rocca paolina. It has a riveting if confusing history (which you can discover by reading the link provided), but even without the story, the place itself is beautiful and full of meaning. Arches, alleyways, niches, remains of private homes, and large gathering spaces now used for exhibitions. . . all buried and slumbering under the thriving city above, and finally coming to light in the past 40 years. Quite literally, the old fortress is being dug out of the ground, an ongoing project. It is now a juxtaposition of old and new: eerie lighting illuminating ancient brickwork and roads, strange modern sculptures hiding in corners, escalators, a few shops, bright market stalls at Christmas, interactive displays providing information on study programs of the University of Perugia. . . Around every corner, the unexpected, the eclectic.
Old dogs. . . ?
The unexpected can be also be found in the most sedate of places in Italy, where routine and rite seem to have been set in stone for thousands of years. On Sunday morning we returned to the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, where Mass was almost finished. We sat in a pew not far from the young organist, to take in the the last of the service. I love to listen to Mass being said in Italian — or even French, for that matter. There is something about the language and rhythm which elevates it for me to a musical experience. Perhaps it takes me back to my first remembered exposure to the Catholic rite, of going to Mass with my mother in Camaiore — the dim lighting in the old church, the incense, the singing. The spectacle. Whatever the underlying reason, I find Catholic rituals in Italian to be soothing.
On that Sunday morning in Perugia, as the worshipers walked up to the altar to receive the host, the organist began playing the Communion song. Within a few bars, I turned to look at John, one eyebrow raised: Was this haunting music soaring up into the cupola of the cathedral not by Italy’s own Ennio Morricone? Was it not the iconic melody from Once Upon a Time in the West? Was it not achingly beautiful even though it was being played on an organ–albeit, a stunningly gorgeous instrument, in this cathedral– but an instrument I’ve despised since birth?
This was not within the realm of my expectations. I had to take stock, think it through. Figure out where I stood, how I felt about this unforeseen musical experience, regardless of the fact that it made my soul soar. There is no lack of sublime church music, much of it written by Italian composers over the past thousand years and more. Was there no other suitable choice to accompany these worshipers, on this particular Sunday, than this iconic piece, exquisite though it was, composed for a spaghetti western in the 1960s?
I found myself treading and floundering through juxtaposition and parallel: Sublime music written for a religious institution, often brutally violent; sublime music written for a film, that is brutally violent. Here I was, having to participate, yet again, in that ageless debate (even if it was only with myself): Does art stand alone, outside the context of its creation, outside of its relationship to its creator, or is it necessarily tied to both? After some musing, my answer, in this case, at least, was Yes. As I sat in contemplation of what Humankind is capable, both destructive and noble, I let the music soothe and lift me until all those preconceived associations, those vivid, disturbing images, melted away and I was simply present in the moment, in that beautiful space.
With a little reevaluation, routines and expectations can be altered. An old dog can, indeed, learn new tricks.
Another teachable moment–and several more clichés–brought about by travel.