Day trip from Florence: Lucca

by Amy Knauff

I’d always heard good things about Lucca, a small town in northern Tuscany, but only after a decade of living in Italy did I finally manage to visit. I was not disappointed – in fact, a few months later when my mom came to visit, I insisted on taking her there too (and it turned out to be one of her two favorite towns in Italy, along with Orvieto).

Lucca is not a major tourist destination – the crowds are bigger in, say, Siena or Pisa – because it doesn’t have any famous sights to see. But that was exactly what I was looking for: something slightly off the beaten path, with some interesting things to see and do, but mostly just a charming town to walk around in and relax.

In fact, it’s the perfect day trip from Florence (it takes between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hours on the train, €7.20-11) as you can pretty much see it all in one day, at an easy pace.

Here’s how I would spend a day in Lucca:

Exit the train station into the piazza in front (Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli), and stop by the Lucca Tourist Center to pick up a map for €1. Cross the piazza and at the main street, Viale Regina Margherita, turn left. Walk up the street – on your right, you’ll see the old wall surrounding the historic center of Lucca. A little ways up the street, at the traffic light, you’ll see an entrance in the old wall. Cross the street and walk through the arches and you’ll be in the historic center. It takes 10 minutes or so to walk into town.

Head straight to the Guinigi Tower, which opens at 9:30 am (entrance at via Sant’Andrea, 45, cost is €4). This is the most important tower in Lucca, and you can pick it out from anywhere in town as it has a few oak trees growing out of the top of it – a pretty unique sight. It was built by the Guinigi family, who were rich and powerful merchants in the 14th century. There are 230 steps to get to the top. It’s worth it for the gorgeous view of the whole town and the surrounding hillside.

 

Your next stop should be one of the many bike rental shops in town – try Tuscany Ride a Bike on via Elisa, 28. Head over to one of the entrances to the ancient Roman wall that encircles Lucca, and take a ride around on top of the wall. Yes, that’s right – on TOP of the ancient Roman wall. Lucca no longer needs protecting, so the top of the intact wall has become a park – it has grass and trees growing on top of it, and a biking/walking loop that goes all the way around (4 km). You’ll see locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, or reading on a park bench. Cycling around the top of the wall high above the town gives you a great view and a feeling of freedom.

After an athletic morning, park your bike and have a hearty Tuscan lunch. I liked Osteria Baralla (via Anfiteatro, 5 ) which had a charming atmosphere and great food. In the cooler months, try one of the filling Tuscan soups like ribollita or the farro (spelt) and vegetable soup.

After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon biking around town. By the way, even if you’re rusty on a bike, this is the place to practice: the historic center has little to no car traffic, it’s flat, and the whole thing is non-stressful. Plus it seems EVERYONE in Lucca is always riding a bike – grannies, little kids, and everyone in between. I saw a local woman smoking, talking on a cell phone, and window shopping all at the same time as she biked slowly through town.

san frediano lucca

During your ride, stop off and visit the Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (Piazza Antelminelli); inside you can see the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her husband, Paolo Guinigi, and made by Jacopo della Quercia (the church is free, but a visit to the tomb is €2). Also stop by the town’s other two main churches, Basilica di San Frediano with its gold mosaic façade (Piazza San Frediano) and the Romanesque San Michele in Foro (Piazza San Michele).

If you’re an opera aficionado, the Puccini Museum, his birth home, is worth a visit (Corte San Lorenzo, 9, for €7). And if you’re visiting Lucca in July or August, DON’T miss the Puccini Opera Festival in the nearby town Torre del Lago (http://www.puccinifestival.it/).

 

End your sight-seeing at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This stunning oval piazza is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. In the same curved shape of the ancient amphitheatre walls, there are now shops, restaurants, and apartments. The buildings are new, but inside some of the shops you can see pieces of the ancient structure. Have a late-afternoon coffee at one of the tables in the piazza as you take in the atmosphere.

After returning your bike, stop by Pizzeria da Felice (via Buia, 12) for a snack to tide you over for your train ride back to Florence (open until 8:30pm most nights). This humble hole-in-the-wall is a tiny place with only a few tables, but don’t be fooled: it has the most amazing cecina I’ve ever had! Cecina (also called farinata in some parts of Italy) is typical of Liguria and northern Tuscany: a simple savoury, flat, pizza-shaped “torta” made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Eat it straight away, hot from the oven, topped with salt and pepper, and pair it with a cold glass of the house wine. It will be one of the simplest, but best, snacks you’ll have in Italy.

 

Estate Romana: Roman Summer events

by Amy Knauff

Tourism tends to slow down in Rome during July and August, as travelers get scared off by the notorious hottest months of the year and would rather head to the seaside or more northern locales.

Despite the heat, I actually think July and August is a great time to visit the city. The crowds have thinned out, the summer sunlight makes the city look gorgeous, and it’s easy to do as the Romans do to avoid the hottest time of the day: get up early to do your sight-seeing, go back to your accommodations for a post-lunch siesta, then go out again in the late afternoon when it’s cooled down a bit, staying out until late at night enjoying the long days and cooler evening air. If you really aren’t used to the heat, consider booking a place with air-conditioning so you can get a good night’s sleep.

The best part of the Roman summer is the variety of festivals that are held in July and August. Many of the art exhibits at galleries and museums across the city are winding down in June or early July, but the outdoor music, dance, and theatre festivals are starting up. Here’s a rundown on the most interesting not-to-miss festivals in Rome:

LUGLIO SUONA BENE, 25 June – 2 August

This literally means “July sounds good.” It’s a series of concerts that take place almost every night, often in the Auditorium but also at other venues across the city. Some of this year’s biggest acts are Massive Attack, Robert Plant, James Blunt, Herbie Hancock, Simple Minds, Keith Jarrett, and Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. http://www.auditorium.com/eventi/5707901

FESTIVAL DI CARACALLA, 24 June – 9 August

This is one of my personal favorites – the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma moves their opera and ballet performances outside to the Terme di Caracalla, with the stunning backdrop of the ruins of the ancient baths of Caracalla. This year the Terme will host ballets Swan Lake and Robert Bolle and Friends, and operas La Bohème and The Barber of Seville. www.operaroma.it/ita/caracalla.php

NOTTI D’ESTATE A CASTEL SANT’ANGELO, 1 July – 7 September

The Castel Sant’Angelo hosts jazz and classical music concerts on the outdoor terrace (with fabulous views of the city, by the way) on Wed and Fri-Sun. They also have guided evening tours (also in English) from Tues-Sun, where they show you normally “off-limits” parts of the castle, like the prisons and the Passetto di Borgo. http://www.castelsantangeloestate.it/

FESTIVAL MUSICALE DELLE NAZIONI, 4 June – 5 October

All summer long there are classical music performances (both solo musicians and ensembles) in the ancient Teatro di Marcello, an amphitheatre that looks like a smaller version of the Colosseum. http://www.tempietto.it/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=1

ESTATE ROMANA ON THE TIBER AND ISOLA DEL CINEMA, 21 June – 30 September

One of the Estate Romana’s most popular venues is along the lower river banks of the Tiber, where stalls selling artisanal goods, clothes, gourmet food, etc, are set up along with “pop-up” outdoor bars, restaurants, and pizzerias. It’s a fun spot for aperitivo or late-night drinks. On Tiber Island, an outdoor cinema has been set up with both mainstream films and independent films (all in Italian, though!). www.facebook.com/estateromanaturismo, http://www.isoladelcinema.com/

ROMA INCONTRA IL MONDO, 2 – 31 July

Rome Meets the World is a “world music” festival featuring international and Italian acts, held nightly in the lovely Villa Ada park in northern Rome. http://www.villaada.org/

I CONCERTI NEL PARCO, 6 – 31 July

In another big park, Villa Pamphili (between Trastevere and the Vatican area), outdoor concerts are held throughout July. There’s a variety of international and Italian musicians, with this year’s lineup including Mayra Andrade, the Tango Spleen Orquesta, and an orchestral version of Pink Floyd’s album The Dark Side of the Moon. www.iconcertinelparco.it/#

VILLA CELIMONTANA JAZZ FESTIVAL, JULY & AUGUST

This is a pretty important Italian outdoor jazz festival that takes place in Rome every year, but  unfortunately they still haven’t announced the dates or concert schedule for this year! I do know that it features concerts on a near-nightly basis and an outdoor restaurant/aperitivo area so you can eat or drink during the shows (you must book ahead). www.villacelimontanajazzfestival.com

GLOBE THEATRE, 8 JULY – 7 SEPTEMBER

Yes, Rome has a Globe Theatre – it’s a copy of the one in London, set up in Villa Borghese park. It opens every summer for performances of different Shakespeare plays (in Italian). This year’s plays will be Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Much Ado about Nothing. At the end of the season there will be a “Shakespeare Fest” with theatre, cinema, and music to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. http://www.globetheatreroma.com/

IL CENTRALE LIVE, 1 – 26 JULY

At the Foro Italico in northern Rome (near the Olympic Stadium), the smaller Stadio dei Marmi hosts a series of outdoor concerts of mostly Italian pop stars. Wildly popular (in Italy) Franco Battiato, Alex Britti, and Gigi d’Alessio will perform this summer. There’s also a bonus tango performance by Argentine dancer Miguel Angel Zotto. http://centralelive.it/

ROCK IN ROMA, 3 JUNE – 2 AUGUST

At the Capannelle Hippodrome in the south of Rome (it’s not well-connected by public transport so you’d be better off taking a taxi here) is a rock festival. The rest of this year’s lineup features important names like Franz Ferdinand, Placebo, and The Lumineers, plus some Italian favorites like Caparezza and Paolo Nutini. http://www.rockinroma.com/

¡FIESTA!, 13 JUNE – 24 JULY

Also at the Capannelle Hippodrome, the ¡Fiesta! is an “international festival of Latin American music and culture”. Remaining concerts will be held by Gente D’Zona and Eva Ayllon, and on the other nights of the festival (Wed-Sun) there are DJs, dancing, and Latin American food. http://www.fiesta.it/

What will the future hold for Italy’s artisans?

by Steven Brenner

One of the things I love about Italy, and especially living in a small town in Italy, is interacting with small, traditional  businesses on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s part of my own family legacy – I grew up in a small town and I can remember riding my bicycle at 8 years old to my parent’s grocery store, which had been my grandfathers.  I remember learning math by counting back the customers’ change (this was before the cash register did the work for you and you had to actually use math!) and I remember playing downstairs in the spooky stock room on the conveyor belts.  I also remember when the big supermarkets came to town and my parents struggled, eventually having to sell out altogether.

A few years ago I asked my mother what that was like – to witness that change.  I wanted to know if they’d seen it coming, and what they’d done to hold it at bay.  At that time my wife and I had been in business for a while and it had been almost 30 years since the family store had been sold.

My mother answered that the hardest part wasn’t selling the store, nor was it the worries about money.  It was the lifestyle change.  It was knowing that their whole way of living was coming to an end.  My father had been the butcher in the store.  My mother worked at the cash register.  They had employees that were like family and an apartment above the store where sometimes these employees lived.  They knew their customers well and their customers knew them.  It was hard to accept that people preferred shopping at a big, impersonal store just to save a few bucks, but now, 3 decades later, it’s pretty clear that this way of life is not only here to stay, but it leaves no room for anything else.

I’ve seen this change almost everywhere in the world I’ve visited.  Everything seems to be falling into the hands of very few big businesses.  Italy has resisted somewhat, thanks to having such a strong tradition of small business, and perhaps from having such a bloated bureaucracy, making it hard for any business to strive here.  But slowly, slowly each and every town in Italy has been infiltrated by a large grocery store chain (Despar, Sidis, Coop, etc.) and the Eatalys will sadly shoulder out the same shops that created the romance of local products.  Eventually I’m sure even Starbucks will conquer the Bel Paese as well.

A few years ago I wrote about a tour I’d been on in Florence that focused on the artisans of the Oltrarno and how their trades were dying out.  It’s a subject that fascinates and saddens me in equal measures, a subject I wish I could do more to expose.  Maybe I’m just romanticizing the quaintness of daily Italian life, but those who visit Italy, and love it, certainly share the love for the old-fashioned.

I can’t be the only one who mourns the loss of Main Street.

Here in Orvieto, we buy our vegetables from Franco, the farmer who comes to town twice a week and sells his produce in the Piazza along with the cheese guys and the honey guy.  When a locket we’d bought our daughter didn’t close correctly, we stopped at the jewelry shop below our apartment and Massimo graciously fixed it – refusing any money.  And when I’ve needed belts adjusted or shoes fixed, I’ve gone to see Federico, the cobbler, who also insists that it’s such a small thing to do, that there’s no reason to pay.

Federico is a unique case.  He’s young – 26 years old, and not from Orvieto.  He didn’t grow up the son of a cobbler.  Instead, he got interested in shoe making and working with leather, and looked on-line for a school where he could learn the trade.  Having struck out, he went door to door around Rome, asking each artisan if they’d take him on as an apprentice.  They all refused, from a combination of not having the volume to justify the expense, but perhaps also because they felt their work was a secret that shouldn’t be shared with just anyone.

In the end, he found someone who was open to sharing his craft and Federico worked for free for a few years, learning how to work the leather, a bit like Daniel in The Karate Kid – with small, repetitive jobs.  Now he owns his own “bottega” in Orvieto where his American wife and his mother both work.  He handcrafts beautiful shoes, bags, belts, wallets, and whatever else sparks his creativity.

The fact that this young guy is reviving an old trade that’s literally at risk of extinction in the next few decades, is already worth supporting.  That he’s also been successful at it – in a town where other artisans are sadly closing shop only to be replaced by chain lingerie stores – is indeed the cherry on top.

I consider Federico a friend – the same way I consider many of the shopkeepers friends.  They’re the people who make up the backdrop of my life, and we’re connected, of course by commerce, but also by something more than that.  If you’re in Orvieto, you should swing by Federico’s shop on Via Garibaldi.  He’d be happy to show you what he does, whether you’re buying or not.  To him, it’s an art, and his customers are friends.

What to See on Barcelona’s Montjuïc Hill

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

Many people who visit Barcelona may overlook Montjuïc. Often overshadowed by the over-the-top Modernista sights that the city is known for, Montjuïc offers visitors a respite from the tourist-filled streets, not to mention a great view of the city. What’s event better is that many of the sights on Montjuïc are free, making for an affordable and laid back day of sightseeing in Barcelona.

While Montjuïc has everything from recreational areas to museums, many of the sights that remain today are a result of 2 major events – the 1929 Worlds Expo and 1992 Summer Olympics.

A Fortification High Above the City

Long before these 20th century events, the hill was anchored by the Montjuïc Castle. Not your typical castle, the star-shaped fortress dates back to 1640 has served as a defensive fort, a prison, a military museum (which was inaugurated in 1963 under Francisco Franco) and now a municipal facility.

Only the shell of the original structure remains, but the Montjuïc Castle is still a worthwhile sight to explore, especially for its commanding views overlooking Barcelona and its harbor. And if you happen to visit in the summer, you can catch a movie in the moat during an open-air film festival at the castle.

Barcelona as the World’s Stage

The 1929 Barcelona International Exposition put Montjuïc on display for the world to see. This was Barcelona’s second go at hosting the Worlds Expo (the first was in 1888), and Montjuïc was chosen as the site because of its availability of space.

Planning began in 1905, led by Modernista architect Josep Puig i Cadafalch, targeting 1917 for the event, which was postponed more than a decade due to World War I. As you may expect, the Worlds Expo had a huge urban impact throughout the city – buildings were remodeled, metro lines were extended and the funicular that is still used today to reach Montjuïc was constructed in anticipation of the event.

That year, 20 countries participated in the Worlds Expo, each with a dedicated week to “show off”. While many of the pavilions and sights were never intended to be permanent and were torn down shortly after the event, a few exceptions remain today.

Starting at the top of the hill, the Palau Nacional was the grand exhibition hall for the event and is now home to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) with an impressive collection of art from the 10th to the 20th century. As you descend down the hill, notice the grab bag of architectural styles and elements, from the neoclassical columns (representative of the Catalan flag) to the Venetian towers that flank the entrance of the exhibition area (modeled after St. Mark’s in Venice). Even Plaça d’Espanya at the bottom of the hill drew its influence from St. Peter’s in Rome.

The Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe housed the German exhibition during the Worlds Expo. This decidedly modern building is one of the most significant pieces of architecture from the 20th century, promoting the idea that “less is more”. Simple in form, the structure includes a “floating roof” and furniture that Mies van der Rohe designed himself. Like other pavilions, the original structure was torn down but later rebuilt in the 1980s following Mies van der Rohe’s original design.

By contrast, the elaborate CaxiaForum across the street is an example of Barcelona’s Modernista architecture designed by Puig i Cadafalch. Formerly a textile factory, it now serves as a free museum and cultural center. Other sights that remain from 1929 include the Magic Fountain, with nighttime water and light shows that still wow crowds, and the Spanish Village that was designed to show off different styles of the country’s architecture. When you reach the bottom of the hill, you won’t be able to miss the Las Arenas Bullring, which was turned into a shopping mall after bullfighting was banned in Barcelona in 2010.

Let the Summer Games Begin

The 1992 Summer Olympics was a good excuse to spruce up Montjuïc for a new wave of visitors. In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium that was originally built for the 1929 Words Expo.

In fact, the site was chosen because it already had a stadium. Originally built for the 1929 Worlds Expo (for games between the participating nations), the Olympic Stadium was also intended to host an anti-fascist alternative to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which never happened due to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It was also used as a staging area for cars during the Spanish Grand Prix in Montjuïc in 1975.

The exterior you see today is original, but the interior was completely rebuilt to accommodate 65,000 spectators for the 1992 games, and the stadium has since been served as a venue for events ranging from football to concerts. Fun fact: Michael Jackson performed a concert at the stadium as part of his Dangerous Tour in 1992.

Other sights in the “Olympic Ring” include indoor arenas, swimming and diving pools, as well as the 446-foot tall Communications Tower. Designed to resemble the body of an athlete, the tower was used to broadcast coverage of the games around the world. The 1992 Olympics hosted athletes from 169 countries and was such a hit that Barcelona soon became one of the most visited cities in Europe after Paris, London and Rome. Also nearby is the Olympic and Sports Museum, celebrating the 1992 games and Olympic history, and the Fundació Joan Miró contemporary art museum dedicated to Barcelona’s homegrown artist.

Getting There and Around

There are several different ways to reach Montjuïc, whether you choose to start at the top and work your way down or vice versa. Most of the sights are within walking distance of each other, but there are also several bus lines (#50, #55 and #193) that run through Montjuïc.

  • Take the L2 or L3 metro line to the Paral-lel stop, then follow the signs along the path to reach to reach Montjuïc Castle (it’s about a 15 to 20 minute uphill walk). Alternatively, you can take the Montjuïc Funicular (covered by your metro ticket) from the metro station to the top of the hill.
  • Take the L1, L3 or L8 metro line to the Plaça d’ Espanya stop, which drops you off at the entrance of the Worlds Expo area.
  • Alternatively, there’s also an aerial tramway (which was intended to be a tourist attraction for the Worlds Expo but didn’t open in time) that runs across Port Vell between Montjuïc and Barceloneta. While a little pricy, it is a novel way to reach the hill with great views as you cross the water.

For more useful tips about Barcelona from Jessica, check out these posts, from her blog:

Modernista Barcelona in 6 Hours

Rambling Down La Rambla in Barcelona

Where to leave bags for the day in Rome

When you rent a vacation rental it can often be a problem what to do with your bags before you can check in (usually around 3pm) and after you check out (normally around 11am) when you’re leaving the city later in the day.  I just discovered this service, near Termini station, that will not only store your bags for a small fee, but they’ll come and collect them at any point in Rome (station, B&B, apartment, etc) and will deliver them to you where you need them next.

Bags Free
Via del Castro Pretorio, 32
email:  info@bags-free.com
(+39) 366 26 76 760 (office hours are 8:00am to 8:00pm every day, holidays included)