Flower farms

Saturday morning, Jim, Ilene, and I headed to Massarosa, a small town about 30 minutes from Lucca. Once a year the farms of Massarosa open up to visitors. We visited a farm growing lotus flowers, one for saffron (but the flowers were not blooming currently), and one for lavender. Yes, these are farms for flowers!

Lotuses at “I Campi di Ninfa”

Next stop – a lavender field

And other beautiful flowers too!

Sunflowers – no, then yes!

We had a wonderful visit to Massarosa but were disappointed that the sunflower fields were not in bloom. So we headed back to Lucca on the Autostrada. Ilene saw two fields of bright yellow sunflowers and I jokily asked Jim if we could go find them. He said yes and we were off on another adventure… trying to find fields of sunflowers that we had seen 10 minutes ago on the Autostrada. Ilene and I were overjoyed to be completed surrounded by sunflowers – more than either of us had ever seen. Thank you Jim for being so very patient on our pursuit of all of these flowers. Ti amo!

Thanks to Ilene for the great “people” pictures in this post and for going with us on this adventure. You can read more about Ilene and Gary, her husband, on their blog called “Our Italian Journey“.

La Foce, Etruscans, birding, and more for my Birthday trip

In 2015, I was planning our next trip to Italy and discovered La Foce, a beautiful villa and garden set in the valley called Val d’Orcia. I added it to our list of things to do, but we never made it there. The garden was opened only certain days and hours, and we just couldn’t squeeze it in. The next year, I tried again with a similar result. I’m not sure how many times I tried, but the logistics always got in the way. So as my birthday was approaching this year, I decided that we would visit La Foce. There is a Bed & Breakfast on site with a two-night stay required and a tour of that fabulous garden included. I booked it!

First stop: A very unique wine tasting

We left Lucca early on my birthday and drove 1.5 hours to our first stop – a winery called Podere Il Carnasciale. This is a very small “cult” winery that makes a thousand cases per year, using a very interesting grape called the Caberlot, a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot. We met the winemaker at a nearby cemetery (you can’t make this stuff up!), and he led us on multiple gravel and dirt roads up the mountain. He showed us their oldest vines (planted in 1985) then led us to the barrel room. We didn’t do a traditional tour and tasting, but instead had our first ever barrel tasting. Their 2020 vintage is ready for bottling, so we tasting wine directly from 4 out of 6 barrels of their different vineyards of Caberlot. Although they were all Caberlot from the same year, it was interesting to smell and taste the differences that comes from different locations. What a cool experience! You can read more here.

Pienza, hilltop town of Tuscany

Pienza was a modest village until one of the villagers became Pope Pius II. He transformed his village into the “ideal city of the Renaissance” and we saw many tourists enjoying the atmosphere, sites, and panoramic views. In three years a central square was rebuilt with the Town Hall, the Papal Palace (Palazzo), and the Cathedral (Duomo).

La Foce – finally!

“La Foce is a large estate in the Southern Tuscan region of Val d’Orcia, midway between Florence and Rome. La Foce lies on the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome. It has been inhabited continuously for many centuries. The Villa was built in the late 15th century as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the Via Francigena.

In 1924, Antonio and Iris Origo bought the dilapidated estate. The villa was restored by the Origos in the 1920s. The fine gardens were designed by the English architect Cecil Pinsent. The Origos employed 25 families and started a school to teach and ensure the well-being of some 50 local children. They also built 35 dwellings in the 1920s to 1930s for tenant farmers.

The book War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo is set at this estate, which at the time contained 57 farms on 7,000 acres. [The book is based on Origo’s diary during World War II and tells of the day-to-day experiences and struggles that occurred as the war was fought all around them. I read this book a few months ago.]

Descendants of the family still own the property today and operate it as a resort.” [excerpts from Wikipedia]

The Cypress Tree is a common feature of the Tuscan landscape.  These very tall evergreen trees produce leaves that are dark green in color, and maintain this color throughout the year.  They are also a symbol of the Italian landscape. A typical element of a Renaissance painting is a landscape in the background; if you look closely, you’ll notice that the landscapes look remarkable like today’s Tuscan landscape including the ubiquitous cypress trees.  Today you will find many photographs taken of the landscape, including a few of the S-shaped streets lined with cypress trees. One of the best examples is on the La Foce estate and was part of the landscape directly outside of our room! I took pictures several times throughout the day to see how the light impacted the scene. The yellowish color is from the spring wheat that was ready for harvest. I’d like to return when the wheat is brilliant green.

View from our Bed and Breakfast

Our garden tour was scheduled for 11:30am on Thursday and it was already very hot. Although I had seen many pictures of the gardens, I was surprised at the impact of the combination of the formal gardens with the gorgeous landscape of Val d’Orcia. It was simply spectacular!

Thursday afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Lago di Montepulciano, a nearby lake with park. They even had birdwatching tours available and I had booked a tour for 4pm. Why they would have such a tour at 4pm is beyond me… To date, our birdwatching experiences in Italy have not been nearly as productive as those in America; there are simply fewer birds here. So with tempered expectations, we made the drive. We met a lovely young woman who is continuing her studies in Environmental Science and she took us on a personal tour of the lake, including quite a large hide. Cost of the tour was €5 each! And here are my best pictures:

Last stop: Chiusi, Tuscan town with rich Etruscan history

Before the Roman times, the Etruscan people lived in Italy (Tuscany and a bit beyond) from roughly 750BC to 90BC. The Etruscans were an advanced civilization with rich mineral resources and as a major Mediterranean trading power. Archaeologists have discovered a lot of artifacts from the civilization, mostly where they buried their dead. Jim and I started getting interested in learning more about the civilization and can’t resist visiting archaeological sites and museums. While in Chiusi, Jim went on a tour of some tunnels underneath the Cathedral. The Etruscans had created this series of tunnels to collect rainwater, which, filtering through the layered sandstones and sediments of the hillside was channeled into wells and then drawn for domestic use. The Romans also used the tunnels, but skipped the filtering aspect, so many people got sick. [I skipped this activity because it involved lots of steps and I’m still very slow on steps.]

After Chiusi, we headed home to Lucca. It was a great birthday adventure! Thanks for reading this lengthy post, and I hope that you enjoyed learning about some of the smaller, less touristy locations of Italy.

Chiesa Di San Salvatore in Mustolio, Lucca

Lucca is known as the city of 100 churches. The bigger ones are opened frequently and welcome visitors most days. And the rest seem to be opened at random days and times. When we see one of the smaller churches with an open door, we take the opportunity to step in and see what’s inside.

Yesterday, the door of Chiesa Di San Salvatore in Mustolio was opened and we popped inside. It is a smaller church made from simpler materials (brick instead of marble, two colors on the windows, etc.). I came home and read more about the church THEN had an opportunity to visit again today. I always find it more meaningful when I understand the history and context of what I am seeing.

It’s relatively easy to find dates of constructions and renovations, but I like to get a better sense of the story of the churches that I visit. The Wanderer’s Guide to Lucca by Brian R. Lindquist describes a period of colorful history of the church and its interactions with two larger churches in town: San Michele and San Frediano:

“During the early 1100s San Salvatore was a source of conflict between the churches of San Frediano and San Michele. At that time the canons of San Frediano were becoming a powerful group. They built a magnificent new church and began acquiring widespread property, in the process alienating not only the officers of other churches but at times the Bishop and even the Pope. At the same time San Salvatore was available and had acquired sufficient wealth to be worth a takeover. It was located between San Frediano and San Michele, but closer to the latter and, therefore, the Canons of San Michele saw themselves as the rightful proprietors. In the traditional method of negotiating such disputes, street fights broke out between the two claimants. Stones were thrown, holy services disrupted. The dispute went on for years. In 1140, his patience at an end, the Pope issued a bull granting the church to the monastery of San Frediano. Popes come and go, but grudges live on. The dispute drew the censure of successive popes, until it was finally settled in favor of San Frediano, which had established firm ties at the Vatican; the prior of San Frediano would soon after be appointed a Cardinal.” (Bold is my emphasis)

So, the next time that there is a disagreement in your church, be thankful that there aren’t street fights, thrown stones, and disrupted church services to resolve the differences!

Today the church is the under the care of the Confraternita di Misicordia (Fraternity of Mercy) that provides ambulance service (free of charge!) and other services to the Lucca community. The church has an active congregation and the only non-peaceful interruptions are the ambulance sirens.

The Lintels

The most treasured pieces of artwork of the church today are outside. Above two of the doors are lintels, carved horizontal supports of stone across the top of a doors. These are considered “narrative lintels” as they each tell a story, both related to St. Nicholas. Most of these narrative lintels have been removed and placed in museums. There are only nine remaining on churches in western Tuscany and this church has two of them! These lintels are more than 800 years old and are still in good shape.

The lintel on the right front door tells a story in three episodes:

  1. A pagan king sat at a table with his queen and others. He is being served a drink by a young man whom he had captured and enslaved. St. Nicholas appears and grabs the young man by his hair.
  2. St. Nicholas delivers the young man to his mother and there is a lot of celebrating.
  3. Similar to the first episode, but this time the young man’s father is at the head of the table.

The second lintel is considered to be even more valuable, but I couldn’t find it on my first visit. I wandered around the church with Google Street View and found it on the side of the building…  today there is some construction materials in front of it and an ambulance next to it. Oh boy…  The carving on this lintel represents “the miracle of the washing” of the newborn St. Nicholas who stands up in the tub where two women are washing him.

Two crucifixes

There are two wooden crucifixes in the church from the 1300s. Both of have been restored and repaired several times.

We have probably visited a dozen churches in Lucca – some large and grand and others much simpler. Each one is filled with beautiful artwork that was created to be placed in this (or another) church. Beside admiring the artwork, architecture, and contemplating their history, I take a few minutes to pray for those that serve and attend church there. I am thankful that I have the time to stop and explore them as we wander the city. And that I can share all of this with you.

My experiences with the Italian Health System

When Jim and I started seriously considering moving to Italy, we investigated the Italian health system. It is as different from America’s as you can get…  The Italian constitution states that “The Republic safeguards health as a fundamental right of the individual and as a collective interest, and guarantees free medical care to the indigent.” And we learned that Italy has a highly rated medical system – second in the world, according to Wikipedia! I want to use this blog post to share my personal experiences with the medical system, including my recent Total Knee Replacement surgery. No pretty pictures in this blog post…

Year 1 (and 2!) – Private Medical Insurance

We applied for Elective Residence Visas to allow us to move to Italy. One of the many requirements was to show that we had Private Medical Insurance because the Italian Government recognizes that there are many actions that must be taken before new immigrants are eligible to become part of the Italian health system. During a pre-move visit, we signed up for a plan that covered major and unplanned medical expenses – similar to what we would call catastrophic coverage in the USA. The coverage values seemed low to us (€30000 each) but our lawyer said that it seemed adequate to him. The annual cost was €1614 for both of us. We expected not to use the insurance, but unexpectedly Jim needed hernia surgery. I wrote about this experience in one of my earlier blog posts. We had to pay all costs at the hospital but the insurance reimbursed us for all of it! Because of COVID, we still weren’t able to sign up for the Italian medical system as our insurance was getting ready to expire. We renewed the policy and used it one other time, with the same results – all costs covered with no deductibles. During this period, we paid the full cost for our prescription medicines, but they cost us less than half of the co-pays that we had in America with our health insurance.

Participation in the Italian Health System

Once we became official residents, we were able to sign up for the Italian Health System and received our coveted Tessera Sanitara cards. We had read many places that this insurance is “free” but also read that there were costs involved. It turns out that the Constitution and the laws state that it is “free” but with the kind of visa that we have, we were required to make a voluntary contribution for the insurance. LOL! The first of many bits of confusion regarding the Italian Health System. We pay €2788 per year for this “public” insurance.  We selected a primary doctor that speaks some English and has an office close by.

Working with our primary doctor

I don’t actually visit our primary doctor frequently. After my initial visit and a review of my medical histories, he provided prescriptions for my regular medications and encouraged me to use WhatsApp to send further requests to him. So, whenever I need a prescription for medicine, a referral for a special visit, or a medical test, I simply send him a message with WhatsApp. He writes the prescription and leaves it at the pharmacy in his building and I pick it up that day or sometimes the next. Very easy and efficient but a bit impersonal! Many prescriptions cost nothing, some have a co-pay up to €20.

When it is time for a visit to our primary doctor, I send him a message via WhatsApp and he tells us when to come. Usually that day or the next. When you enter the waiting room for several doctors, you simply ask the group of people waiting “L’ultimo per Dottore Morotti” or “Who is the last person waiting for Doctor Morotti?” Someone should acknowledge that they are the last and you sit down and wait your turn; you need to remember who was last, so that you can enter the doctor’s office after that person finishes. When the next person enters the waiting room with the same question, you acknowledge that you were last and they now know where they fall in line. When the doctor is ready for the next patient, he simply appears at the door and says “Chi è il prossimo?” or “Who is next?” This sounds like a wonderful and informal approach, but seldom works as smoothly as it should. They typically are confused by my pronunciation and there are often disagreements about who is actually last or next. This approach is so characteristic of the Italian culture… I giggle to myself every time I watch it in action.

Once it is your turn and you are in the doctor’s office, you share your questions, requests, concerns, problems. There is no nurse, no unnecessary blood pressure readings or weigh-ins and frankly I can’t remember him actually examining me.  He fills out needed forms and prescriptions and hands them to you.  At the end of any visit to a doctor, they give you a one-page summary of the results. You wait while they type and print it or simply hand write it. The doctor may keep some records for their patients but the expectation is that you maintain your own records. There is no charge to see your primary doctor. Once I needed to pay to have a specific form completed and I had to pay €50 for the administrative costs. He took out his credit card machine and I gave him a credit card… no billing department needed! A specialist visit typically requires a payment of around €30.

Working with a private orthopedic doctor

When my knee started hurting in November 2020, we still weren’t covered by the Italian Health System so I went to a private doctor. Once we were covered, I continued to see the same doctor as I had a lot of confidence in him. His office is run a little closer to an American doctor’s office. He has a receptionist who checks you in, accepts the payment, and schedules appointments. This doctor speaks some English and his receptionist speaks English very well.  During an early visit he reviewed my Xrays and MRIs and said that my right knee was in terrible shape. I would need a total knee replacement within a year or two. I was definitely in pain but had no idea that my knee was so bad. Jim had struggled for years with his knees and visited the same doctor. The doctor said that mine was much worse and I would “get to go first”. My initial visit was €130 and included a cortisone shot.

The cortisone shot helped a lot and I was back to walking the streets and wall of Lucca pain free. About six months later the pain started to return and we were getting ready for Derek and Dani’s visit to Italy. I had plans for lots of fun activities and did not want to be in pain for their visit! I returned to the doctor and got a second cortisone shot (only €50 this time) and was pain free again. The doctor indicated that I should plan to have knee surgery in 2022. But the bad news was that the cortisone shot lasted only about a week… After an exchange of emails, we targeted February 2022 for the surgery. I was in pain during their visit and skipped a few of the activities, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying my time with them.

Surgery – private or public insurance?

We had planned to use our private medical insurance because the doctor is a private doctor. But then we learned that we could not renew the same private medical insurance policy because we were now residents; that kind of policy is only for non-residents. So, we asked our insurance company for a similar policy for residents. Bad news, cost was higher and all pre-existing conditions were excluded. I had heard horror stories about people waiting many months for knee operations using the public insurance and was in too much pain for that. I visited my primary doctor to ask how long it would take to get a public orthopedic doctor and get the surgery scheduled. I explained my situation and he confirmed that my orthopedic doctor was the best in Lucca and said that he would certainly accept my Tessera Sanitara (i.e., the public insurance) for my surgery. Another moment of confusion – could my private doctor use the public insurance for the surgery??? I contacted my doctor and waited anxiously for the response. Of course, they would accept the Tessera Sanitara. Certainly no one would be expected to pay the full cost of the surgery! Confused but happy!!!!

Time for surgery – Total Knee Replacement

I won’t provide the full story of the surgery and recovery. If you are familiar with this surgery, you’ll know that it is particularly painful and a difficult recovery. Instead, I’ll provide a list of some of the similarities and differences between an Italian and American hospital visit:

Different – my hospital is a 9-minute walk from my apartment… if I could walk that far. It likely took Jim 12 minutes to drive there…

Similar – pre surgical tests and meeting with the anesthesiologist scheduled a few days before surgery

Different – bring your own crutches, pajamas (no gowns provided!) and all toiletries

Similar – bland food. Even the pasta.

Probably similar – no visitors because of COVID

Different – minimal pain meds. I received intravenous acetaminophen (Tylenol) several times a day. When the pain got bad, I insisted on a stronger pain medicine and received “something like” morphine. Two times.

Similar – high quality staff (doctors, nurses, aides, therapists, etc.).

Different – 6 nights in the hospital versus 0-2 in America

Different – cost for doctors, surgery, hospital, Xrays, physical therapy in hospital, etc. was €0.

Recovery – Total Knee Replacement

From the moment I heard the word “surgery” I started worrying about all of the steps in our apartment. We live on the 3rd, 4th, and 5th floors (with the ground floor designated as zero). There are two different sets of stone steps before reaching the elevator then once you reach our apartment, we have four more sets of stairs. Some have just a few steps… one has 12 steps. There are two ground-floor Airbnb apartments in our palazzo complex that are owned by our neighbors. We rented one of them for my first two weeks home from the hospital. The apartment was perfect for those initial weeks, including a front door that opened directly onto a paved road for my first walks. Most of the streets in Lucca have cobblestones, so a paved street seemed like a luxury.

Given that my knee would hardly bend, it was not easy to get into our Mini Cooper. My doctor referred me to Marco, a physical therapist who comes to your house. He comes 3 days a week and I do need to cover the cost of these sessions. We have had several friends visit us and provide meals. A month or two ago we met a woman who recently moved to Lucca. It turns out that she was a nurse in America and worked at a hospital in Reston, Virginia that we visited more than we would have liked. Joanne visited us nearly daily, giving me my blood thinner injections, changing the bandages, and answering my stupid questions.

I have now moved back to my apartment. Marco walked me to my apartment from the rented Airbnb. He gave me instructions on how to tackle each set of stairs. My days are now filled with PT exercises, time using an automated knee bender, and walks around town. I’m also trying to pick up my daily chores. The weather yesterday was unseasonably warm so after our walk, we stopped for a Spritz at PuntoZero, a café across the street from our apartment. Allesio surprised us with a candle in our Aperitivo snack.

I have months to go before I am fully recovered but I feel very blessed by the good medical care that I have received and the many family members and friends that have supported me through texts, phone calls, visits and meals. And most of all the help provided by Jim all day and all night.

A rather plain church but… oh, the history!

I’ve heard that you can see parts of Lucca’s Roman Wall inside of the Chiesa della Rosa (Church of the Rose) but it is seldom open to visitors. So I was excited to be able to go into this church for an evening service. The façade is so simple and the building is so low that it does not even look like a church. But this little church is just bursting with history!

First the legend that explains the name… During Roman times, shepherds would bring their sheep to this area outside of Lucca’s wall to rest and get water. One young shepherd who could not speak was surprised to find a bright green bush in the middle of winter. He went to investigate and found a beautiful blooming rose. He picked the rose and brought it to his father – and miraculously he could speak! News of the miracle spread and a wealthy family built a small private chapel here so that they and others could always remember the miracle that occurred here.

In 1309 (yep… a long time ago!) a request was made to the city to expand the chapel to make a small church. The document said that there was a beautiful fresco of the Madonna and Child in the private chapel and that it would be moved to the altar after the church was built. The fresco was called “Madonna, holding a Rose, and with St Peter and St Paul“. When it was moved (very difficult for frescos!), St Peter, St Paul, and parts of a few angels were lost, but the fresco is now on the altar of the Chiesa della Rosa. This fresco is now believed to the oldest piece of art in Lucca.

One of the walls of the church is the original Roman Wall of the city from the first century BC. This was a common practice at the time that saved the cost and work of building one wall. You can easily see the original stones, huge blocks of limestone, on the left hand side of the church’s interior. Several small portions of the walls have been discovered throughout Lucca, but this is the only substantial portion that is available to be seen today.

As is common, the church has undergone multiple renovations over the centuries. The interior is a delightful mix of styles with very intricate windows on the right hand side.

In May 2019 we rented a small apartment for a month that was on the same street. I stopped several times to look at these windows from the street and couldn’t make sense of them. The building just doesn’t look like a church from the outside – too small, no grand façade, etc. This evening with the lights on inside of the building, the light shines through the beautiful blue glass and it clearly looks like a beautiful but small church.

When you look closer at the exterior carvings, you see many beautiful carved roses at this Church of the Rose.

Every time we go down this street, I will remember the stories, art, and Roman walls that are hidden in plain site.