Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Advice From A Friend

Michael at Rakestraw Books in Danville has the best sayings.  I made him write this one down.  

Words to live by.  Words to remember.  And speaking of words, get a copy of The Day The Crayons Quit, and of This Book Has No Pictures.  From Michael, please - if you don't shop at the local stores, pretty soon there won't be any local stores.   

Friday, September 19, 2014

Chrono Bike

If you're in Lucca you really should rent a bike and head for the countryside.  It is in the most beautiful part of Italy - take it from someone who has spent a lot of time biking around Italy.  And it's a bike mad town - even the grocery store has a bike in the window.
And if you're going to rent a bike, there's only one place:  Chrono Bikes.  
Right near the Porto San Pietro, they have fabulous Pinarello bikes, outfitted with Campy or Shimano.  If you're a biker, you know what I'm talking about.  If you're not a biker, take my word for it - these are great bikes.  Normally you can't rent bikes of this quality.  If you just want a cruiser to ride around the medieval  town (no cars allowed, altho there seem to be some anyway) they rent those too.  Altho not this fizzy polka dot model....if I were in the market for a town bike, this would be it.  So retro.
I know the bikes are fabulous because I spent the last week riding one, and there was a time (okay, more than one) when I came into a corner a little hot, and I was sure I would lay the bike down, and be listening to my helmet buzzing across the pavement.  Didn't happen.  Not because of my skill, because the bike stuck to the road.  Great bike.  Scared the pee out of me, but that bike saved my bacon.

The guy who owns the store, Paladino, can just look at you and know what size bike you need and exactly how high the seat should be.  

Gets it right first time.  Our friend Michael accidentally got on Paladino's bike instead of the one Paladino had set up for him.  I should tell you that Paladino is a lot taller than Michael, and Michael came back from his test drive saying "Well, either we have to lower the seat, or I'll have to cut off some of my anatomy..."

Paladino cracked up.  So did we.  Got Michael on his own (much shorter) bike, and we were off.

Here is a true fact about biking in Italy:  You Will Get Lost.  

You will have a lovely map, with the names of lots of small towns   You will stop at an intersection to look at the road signs pointing to lots of other small towns.  Unfortunately the towns on your map and the towns on the roadsigns are not even remotely related.  

And none of the street names are on the map, but that's okay because there are very few street signs unless you're inside the walls of  Lucca.  So what.  Wing it.  I promise you'll have a great adventure. 

No matter which way you go the scenery will be spectacular.  
Just try to stay off the Autostrada.  If there's a toll booth, Do Not Take That Road.  Aim for the smallest roads you can find.  They're usually going uphill, but that's where the beautiful small towns are, unspoiled by tourists (so far).
There is something called the Hills of Lucca  and Montecarlo Wine Route - if you're in a car take it.  If you're on a bike, follow the route Paladino has marked on your map...if you can.
Follow these signs.  Usually uphill.  
On teensy roads with no cars I did surprise one goat, but he surprised me more.  And no, this is not the goat.  Be nice.

Because Lucca has no big hotels, no fizzy resorts, the countryside around Lucca isn't overrun by tourists.  So the little towns have real cafes for real people, not souvenir stands full of plastic Pinocchios and postcards, and busloads of tourists.  Just real people living real lives.
We ride into a tiny town just as the church bells are ringing and people are walking to church, as they have for hundreds of years (okay, okay, not these exact people, their ancestors.  Point taken.)

They were ringing real bells in an old stone tower, not the recordings you get in the touristy areas.  It's near Sant'Andrea in Compito.  I know that compito is homework - is she the patron saint of homework?   And has this patron saint thing gotten out of hand?

We ride thru San Quirico, and joke that he must have been the patron saint of nerds.  Quirico, quirky...

Downhill from the church there is a babbling brook:
with an old stone bridge spanning it - just wide enough for two oxcarts to pass. 
The road across the bridge goes nowhere.  We don't care - we are exploring.

Here is another true fact about biking in Italy - if you are passed by some guys who look like they're training for the Tour De France, you're on the right road.  We got passed a lot.  We tried to follow a lot of really fast riders.  And eventually, hot, sweaty and happy,  we made it home.
If you're not up for a road ride, you can ride the 3 mile loop on the top of the walls.  Everyone else does, two wheels:
or four - with two steering wheels - yipes!  Who's driving?
Dads with kids perched on tiny plastic seats - no seat belts.  no helmets...and one hand is clearly busy...usually the other hand is holding a cel phone.  No idea how they do it.  But it all works.
Even the florist delivers by bike.

Go.  Stay in Lucca.  Rent a bike from Chrono and ride.  Take some friends.  We can't wait to go back.  Thank you Mike and Carolyn for the inspiration, for finding the apartment.  Thank you Paladino for the great bikes.  We had a blast.

Monday, September 15, 2014

It's Not What You Think

So I'm sure you were vastly amused by the story of me washing our clothes with bleach...well, it gets better.

At home, the automatic dishwashing soap comes in a little packet that you drop in the soap holder, and flip the flippy closed.   So that's what we did with our teensy automatic dishwasher.
We were on our second load of not very clean dishes when I saw two slightly rumpled but still tightly wrapped packets of soap lying on the bottom on the dishwasher.  Oops.  Now we unwrap them.  At least we're not washing the dishes with bleach.

All the comforts of home - an Apple computer:
(that only speaks Italian)

and a dryer that's a bit different than we're used to:
It's nearly as fast as my Fisher Paykel.  Since clotheslines are illegal where I live, I'm getting one.  
The kitchen is compact:
but has three coffee makers,

A tiny refrigerator, 
full of yummy things from the local shops. 
A minuscule freezer, maybe six inches deep: 
 just big enough for a small bottle of gin.
But the best bakery in Lucca is right next door.  
And with piazzas full of cafes and restaurants every block or two, and that great bakery, who could ask for anything more?

A World Lit Only By Fire

For days there have been cranes putting up iron frames for candles around the windows, doorways and arches of buildings and palaces.  And there are a lot of palaces here.  And arches.
It's the Festival of Volto Santo, and Lucchese from all over the world have come home.  Tonight there will be a candlelight parade, complete with relics (they leave the jeweled cross in the church, however...I think it's an insurance thing).  There will be fireworks you can see from the top of the walls.  Markets in every square.  And if we think it was crowded before, we are told, just you wait.

Guys on ladders and in cherry pickers are lighting candles all evening...
...and our normally crowded street is so dense we can hardly step out from our doorway.  
Believe it or not people are actually biking in this traffic.  I was nearly decapitated by a cyclist when I stuck my head out to see if it was safe to step out.  Michael jokes that bikers in this crowd are either deadly - or dead. 
 The church around the corner glows
The cross leads the parade
Followed by the candles
Along the route the street lights have been turned off, and the procession is by candlelight.  It's eerie - a world lit only by fire.  In these narrow streets it could be 600 years ago.
Except for the flashes from the cameras.  And the costumes.  I don't think they had backpacks in the 1400s.

Lisa's cousin Fioruccio and his boyfriend Paolo take us up on the walls to see the fireworks.  The explosions echo off the walls, the earth shakes.  Now we know what it felt like to be under attack here.
They are spectacular - palm trees and waterfalls of stars that go on and on, white circles of fire that explode in the air to reveal red hearts inside, layers on layers of colors.

It's after midnight when we get home
and find there was a big party in the alley next door.  Glad we saw the fireworks, sorry we missed the party.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Newly Wed and the Nearly Dead

You know you're in a hotel that caters to old people when:
-the first treatment on the spa menu is an age-defying facial, and:
-the make-up mirror in your bathroom is about 12x magnification.  Great for people my age...if you're able to bend over to get within two inches of the mirror.  Otherwise it's all a blur.

It is stunning.  Most of the guests are old, with a few dazed honeymooners thrown in.
And Il Pelicano has a great back story.  Michael Graham, a Brit, was the only survivor of a plane crash in the African bush.  He jumped out of the plane and trusted the trees and bushes to break his fall.  Those who did not jump died.  I think there's a life lesson here.  Patsy Daszel, an American socialite, read the story in the papers, and wanted to meet him someday.  

Some years later, he went to a party in LA, under duress (I suppose after surviving a plane crash what you really want is a good nap.  Or a stiff drink.) She was there and was being courted by Clark Gable.  It was love at first sight.  Between Patsy and Michael, not Clark and Michael.  Good to clear that up.

So when Patsy and Michael were looking for a place to settle down, a friend - a prince, of course - showed them this wild piece of coast, down a twisting road from the fishing village of Porto Ercole (which of course has now become a retreat for wealthy Romans).  A retreat, a place for friends to relax and recharge - and perhaps recover from an indiscretion? or an unpleasant divorce?  

It is still a retreat - one of the Aga Khan's wives - ex, I think - is here.  Grumpy and beautiful.  And old.  I'm guessing the first ex based on her age, but I could be wrong.

It is now the lap of luxury.  Within two seconds of checking in we have booked extra nights.  A swim in the sea,

and thank goodness we did, because the next day the sea was closed.  Too rough.  

Wally dives off the bottom rungs of the sea ladder and nearly becomes the human Costa Concordia.  The scratches down his tummy bear witness.

As we are sipping Prosecco on our terrace a super moon comes up across the sea.  Magic.
Sunset - 
and dinner at their Michelin starred restaurant...   

Every request, no matter how trivial or ridiculous, is met with "Yes, of course!"  And yet Mrs Ex Aga Khan is still grumpy.  I wonder what her life must be like if she can't be happy here. 

The next morning the sea is too rough for swimming.  We drive into Porto Ercole for lunch and a walk down memory lane.  We rented an apartment here years ago.  No posh hotels, a small fishing harbor.  The charm remains.
A jellyfish - a medusa in local parlance - pulses in the shallows of the harbor.
On the waterfront we eat Fritto Misto...
 ...and spaghetti vongole with the locals and the rich Romans.  It's easy to tell them apart,
Some time in the night we have an unwanted visitor.  A mosquito the size of  Fiat.  
 Happy Anniversary, my darling.  In paradise.
During the night there is a spectacular thunderstorm.  Seems to be a theme for our anniversary - when we were in Positano at La Sireneuse for an anniversary, there was a thunderstorm that knocked out the power.  Must have been a common thing, the generator kicked in within seconds.  Here the power stays on, and we stay up and watch the lightning fork down to the sea. 

Next morning when it's time to leave we have breakfast on the terrace overlooking the pool under gray and threatening skies.  By the time we're driving away the rain is streaming down and all the dining is indoors.  Lucked out again.

If you have a chance, go.  Il Pelicano is a magical place.