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.

Our first visitors from America!

At the end of September 2021, Derek, our son, and Dani, his girlfriend, came to visit. It’s been 18 months since we’ve seen Derek or any family member, so you can imagine that we were quite thrilled to see them. We had a wonderful time with them and visited some new sites and some familiar ones.

Pickup in Rome. Derek and Dani flew into Rome and were set to arrive early in the morning. So Jim and I drove down the day before and stopped at Tarquinia, an hour north of Rome on the coast. The city is known for their Etruscan tombs and Etruscan Museum. I’ve seen a lot of Etruscan stuff, but I was surprised at the beauty and quantity of these tombs! In this necropolis there are 22 different underground tombs that you can look into with beautiful painted walls. Each tomb has a modern building covering the tomb with steps going down. Lighting was not good (to protect the paintings), so I’ve included one from the town’s museum, which was moved for accessibility and protection. I’ve also included a picture of a decoration from one of their temples. Keep in mind that these are from the 4-6th centuries BC!

The next morning Derek and Dani arrived on time. After more than a few hugs we were off to Sorrento where we planned to spend 5 nights.

Sorrento, Amalfi Coast, and Capri. None of us had ever been to this region so we were excited to explore the cities, the views, and the sites. While approaching Sorrento Jim stopped for a view of the city… the view was a great first impression, the traffic not so much!

We headed to Capri Island the next day… joining a boat trip from Sorrento, went around Capri, a short swim break and then a stop at one of the marinas. We visited the town of Capri, filled with shops selling beautiful (and overpriced!) souvenirs. Jim and I enjoyed wandering through the small streets while Derek and Dani headed to another marina to check out some of the boats. The wait to see the famous Blue Grotto was over an hour, so everyone on our boat agreed to skip it. Instead the captain stopped at two of the lesser known, but equally beautiful grottos, and Derek, Dani and many of the others jumped into the water to check them out.

The next day we headed to Pompeii where we spent hours wandering through the city. “Pompeii is a vast archaeological site in southern Italy’s Campania region, near the coast of the Bay of Naples. Once a thriving and sophisticated Roman city, Pompeii was buried under meters of ash and pumice after the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The preserved site features excavated ruins of streets and houses that visitors can freely explore.” (from Google) I was struck by the size of the city and how well preserved everything is. There were so many details here and there that really gave you a sense for life in an early Roman city. I definitely want to spend more time here.

And the next day we had another boat trip planned – leaving from Sorrento and going along the Amalfi Coast. My knee was too sore at this point, so Jim and I opted to stay in Sorrento while Derek and Dani headed back to the boat. They had a great time, seeing several small towns and popping into the water at a few swimming spots. Each evening of our trip, we had dinner at one of the restaurants that featured local delicacies and a good wine list.

Chianti. We had planned for one more day in the Sorrento area, but we were all ready to move along. So we headed towards home, stopping for a night in Castellini in Chianti. This small town holds special meaning for Jim and me. In 2016 we stayed here and used it as a base to explore this part of Tuscany. One evening after dinner as we wandered through the town, we paused to look at the available real estate in one of the realtor’s window. That was the evening that we realized that living in Italy would be affordable for us and planted the seed to “retire in Italy someday”. At the time, we expected that to be a decade or so away, but why wait???

We were in Chianti, so naturally we visited a winery and some of the nearby towns.

Next stop, Lucca! Derek and Dani were likely tired of hearing us talk about what a wonderful city Lucca is to live in and they now had an opportunity to check it out. They stayed in Lucca for a week… we spent quite a bit of time in town, but also used it as a base for day trips. I’ve included some photos of our time with them, but they also visited a nearby cave in the mountains, took a cooking class, and visited the Irish Pub (in Lucca???) multiple times. You’ll need to ask them if Lucca lived up to the hype from Jim and me…

Derek and Dani then left Lucca and wandered around Europe for another two weeks, visiting Prague, a small German town, a few places in Switzerland, Chamonix, and Milan.

It was wonderful to spend time with Derek, to really get to know Dani, and to show them some of the aspects of Italy that we enjoy so much. We are looking forward to future visits from our family and friends!

“Val d’Orcia”, the Southern Tuscan Countryside

A month or so ago Jim told me that him and Pasquale would be heading to Montalcino for “Benvenuto Brunello” on 21 November and asked if I’d like to go with them. Pasquale owns a local restaurant and is a wine sommelier. Jim and Pasquale love to talk about wine, shop for wine, and drink wine. At this event they would be tasting the recent releases of Brunello di Montalcino, considered to be amongst the best wine of Italy. Nope… no interest in a 2.5-hour drive there, tasting a bunch of wine, then a 2.5-hour drive back all in the same day.

Two days before the big event, Jim asked again. He suggested that it would be helpful to have a “designated driver” but I protested – they don’t actually drink the wine; they taste it then spit it out. (Hence my lack of interest in attending.) But then Jim said that they would still be absorbing some of the alcohol into their system and they planned to taste a lot of wine. So, I agreed to go. And I started planning some places where I could drive to see some of the beautiful scenery of southern Tuscany known as “Val d’Orcia”.

At 5:45am Pasquale came to our house, I got into the backseat and tried to make a bed in the back of a Mini Cooper. 2.5 hours later I woke up as we were close to Montalcino and was excited to see fog (oh, cool pictures!). Then realized that there was A LOT of fog. Perhaps I would get some cool pictures later in the morning?

We had breakfast and coffee, they headed to their wine tasting which started at 9am (another reason for my lack of interest in attending) and I took off for a leisurely morning of driving around the countryside to look for beautiful scenery. I stopped about 3 minutes later and took my first pictures – with the edge of Montalcino on a hill top and layers of fog. Perhaps it was going to be a good day after all!

Montalcino with layers of fog

And a few minutes later, I took a picture of showing all of Montalcino with some wispy fog.

Montalcino, famous hilltop Tuscan town

In the meantime, Jim and Pasquale stopped for another coffee and had the opportunity to enjoy the foggy valley.

My first destination was Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta, a small chapel in the countryside. This is one of the locations that photographers love and I was inspired from pictures like this and this and this. Although it was longish walk to get there (which sounded painful with my bad right knee), one of the pages showed a great spot where a photographer with a long lens could get great views. Not happening with this fog, so I prepared myself for the 15-minute walk and was “welcomed” by a gate that made it clear that you were to walk and not drive to the peaceful chapel.

Within a few minutes I found myself on a dirt “road” with plowed fields on both sides covered in fog. And no people anywhere to be seen. It was a little eerie…

And then I finally reached my destination, but it did not look like the pristine “inspiration” photos that I saw. We are talking major constructions!

So, I spent some time, played with some different compositions, and came up with a few nice pictures of the chapel with a foggy, dreamy feeling. On the way back, I did see two different couples who were likely envisioning the perfect Instagram shot. I just gave them an update on how much further and let them discover the construction on their own.

Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta (rear)
Cappella della Madonna di Vitaleta (front)

I then proceeded to drive around the countryside stopping often to take pictures of the beautiful landscape. There were so many beautiful scenes… it really was so lovely to just take them all in. Here are a few more shots that I took – click for full size.

I planned to head to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo. Jim and I had seen it twice before, even attending one of the services where the monks chant throughout the mass. But this morning I had made too many stops, so I needed to head back to Montalcino to meet Jim and Pasquale. Here are a few pictures from those prior trips.

Abbey of Sant’Antimo in 2014, another foggy day
Abbey of Sant’Antimo in 2015, on a sunny day

I headed back to Montalcino and found Jim and Pasquale. They had tasting 60 wines! We started the long drive home and they chatted about this wine and that wine. Until they fell quiet and rested. The day was a success – they enjoyed many of their old favorites, each discovered a few new ones, and noted those that they did not like.

We look forward to more visits to Montalcino, hopefully for a longer stay next time!

Dinner in a vineyard!

Ilene and Gary were invited to a dinner in a vineyard and asked if would like to come along. Of course! The winery is located outside San Miniato, a small town about an hour from Lucca, so we decided to spend the night there so that we could enjoy the dinner without the concerns of a longish drive home. The town is long, narrow, and perched on a hill. We enjoyed lunch then wandered through the town. I usually research towns before heading there, but I focused mostly on the winery, so was pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful seminary, cathedral, and tower. And the views of the Tuscan landscape!

The seminary was started in 1650 and continually expanded until 1713. The exterior has beautiful fresco, including 30 sets of religious “mottos” (not quite scripture quotes). I was particularly pleased to find a sign that had the translations of these mottos in four languages, including English. I can imagine that the students spent time outside memorizing each and contemplating the meaning of them.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta e San Genesio required quite a climb, but was well worth it. The exterior is quite plain but the interior art, architecture, and marble are beautiful – and the ceiling is gorgeous! While inside the Cathedral, we realized that the walls were fake marble (or should I say “Faux Finish”) but while reading about the Cathedral I learned that the columns are also fake. I also read “On the 22 July 1944, an artillery shell from the United States military went through the church via the rose window on the southern side of the transept, and exploded in the right aisle, killing 55 people. The cathedral was full of citizens who had been gathered in the churchyard by the Germans.” So sad! Next time, I’ll remember to research the towns properly BEFORE heading there…

The Cathedral was quite a climb, so I skipped the next climb up to the Rocca di Federico II. Jim took my camera with him and took some beautiful pictures of the tower and the countryside. This tower served as a lookout to watch those moving between Florence and Pisa. During World War II German soldiers detonated charges inside and it was destroyed. It was rebuilt in 1958.

Time for the dinner that we had traveled here for! The vineyard is called Pietro Beconcini Agricola. They grow several types of traditional Tuscan grapes but also Tempranillo, a Spanish grape. After owning the property for about 7 years, the owner still couldn’t identify some of the grapes on his property. A DNA analysis showed that it was Tempranillo. The thinking is that a pilgrim from Spain left some seeds on the property as they traveled the nearby via Francigena path. Because the grapes were growing nicely on his property, he decided to plant additional Tempranillo vines. They now sell three wines made from Tempranillo – Fresco Di Nero (an Early Harvest wine), IXE (their mid-priced wine) and Vigna Le Nicchie (their Prephylloxera wine). Jim is always hunting for Prephylloxera wine, so this made him very happy!

The Festa Del Tempranillo was held for three nights, with some of the tables set up within the vineyards. We each received a glass of the three Tempranillo wines and typical Tuscan food, including some some slices of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. The wine, food, live music and beautiful setting made for an exceptional evening.

Special thanks to Jim and Ilene Modica for sharing some of their pictures with me for this blog post. I suggest that you check out Ilene and Gary’s blog at Our Italian Journey. She’ll be posting about our trip to San Miniato and the dinner… and I’m sure that you’d enjoy reading a different version of the same story!

Fields of flowers – or not!!!

Tuscan summers are a bit too hot for me but for a field of flowers, I will grab my camera gear and face the fiercest summer sun. They always seem to lead to adventures as well…

Update on 1 August 2021 – Ilene has posted about flowers in Tuscany with pictures from our joint trips. Be sure to check out her blog called “Our Italian Journey” and the posting about the flowers. If you’ve ever considered an extended trip to Italy, you could learn a lot from Gary and Ilene!

Massarosa – lotuses and lavender

This small town is about 30 minutes from Lucca and has several farms that grow flowers commercially. Visitors are encouraged to discover these locations, take photos, and enjoy the spectacular scenes. Jim and I set off one Saturday morning for Massarosa to find lotuses, lavender, and sunflowers. I was very pleasantly surprised when this gorgeous lotus field was less than five minutes down a paved path from the parking lot!

Then we head off to find sunflowers using their published map. We found two fields, but we were toooo early and none of the sunflowers were blooming yet.

Next stop… lavenders. Well, this also proved to be a bit difficult. But after driving down impossibly narrow streets and across fields (that I THINK that we were allowed to drive through), we discovered a most wonderful field of lavender.

I was so excited about our new discoveries that I returned with Ilene, a friend from Lucca, just a few days later. She was wowed by the lotuses, then we set off to find the lavender again. This time, I would turn before “those greenhouses” that Jim and I saw and he was certain that we would easily find the lavender farm again. We wandered through even more backroads and across another field, had a few close calls with parked and moving cars until I declared “There will be no lavender today!” When I returned home, Jim informed me that I should have turned AFTER “those greenhouses”. Perhaps we will try again…

Castelluccio di Norcia

Ilene’s landlord told her about this very small town in Umbria that also has fields of flowers. I was blown away at the pictures posted on this town’s website. I left one picture on the screen and Jim thought that it was a painting, not a photograph.

I recognized that these are professional pictures, most likely taken during the very best year from the best vantage points at the best time of the day. But if I could see these fields and get a few pictures – even if they weren’t quite a beautiful as the published pictures then I would be very happy. (To be clear, I did NOT take the pictures above. They are from https://www.castellucciodinorcia.it/fioritura-castelluccio-di-norcia/)

So plans were made to travel to Umbria with Ilene and Gary. The drive would be about four hours and we would stay at a town nearby for one night. The first afternoon/evening we would find the fields of flowers and enjoy the flowers with the afternoon/evening light. The second morning, we would return to the fields of flowers to see them again in the morning light. And of course, we planned to stop at a few quaint towns for our lunches.

We set off on Wednesday morning on time. The ride was pleasant, driving through Tuscany and into Umbria. We stopped in Montefalco, a small town that specializes in a wine called Sagrantino. We wandered through the town, ate pizza and sipped on Sagrantino. Along the way I spotted a field of sunflowers, Jim stopped, and Ilene and I popped out of the car to snap a few photos. I finally got my sunflowers!

We arrived in Norcia, the nearby “larger” town, where we would be staying for the night. We drove to the hotel using Google Maps, only to learn that the check in was at a different location and our rooms were at a third location. The town was small, so it was just a small annoyance. We checked in, relaxed for just a few minutes, then we were heading to these picturesque fields of flowers. I knew that the drive would take about 30 minutes and we would be going through mountains. It was quite a challenging drive, but Jim seems to take the crazy driving in stride. We saw many beautiful scenes, but no where to stop along the narrow roads. At this point, I was hoping that the drive was worth it!

We finally arrived and Ilene declare “This can’t be it!”. We got down into the valley, near where the other visitors parked and walked into the field. Here’s one of my first pictures:

Yep… a few poppies and a few purple flowers and lots of brown/yellow/greenish grass. We wandered around a bit and found some nicer areas, but we were all disappointed. We chatted with an English-speaking visitor and she confirmed that this year was just not as beautiful as other years. I tried to stay positive that it would be prettier in the morning light.

So, we returned the next morning and the light was better. We walked to a few different areas and saw a bit of the beauty that we were expecting.

We also enjoyed watching a shepherd command his sheepdog to move the sheep across the road. Once the dog got started, it took only a few minutes to move the entire herd. Fun to see in “real life” – not an exhibition or show, really moving sheep around!

Mandatory selfie in field by Ilene… We had a lot of fun!

Norcia, as described by Jim

When JoAn told me that we were going to visit Norcia in Umbria, it did not register that this was the one of the cities that was almost complete destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. I remember seeing the devastation in the news and thinking how can they recover?

On arriving in Norcia, we were following JoAn’s directions (with the aid of Google Maps) and we ended up driving through the city looking for our hotel. Not thinking about the earthquake, I was surprised by all the new construction work going on. Later as we walk around the town the realization that we are walking on streets that were completely filled with rubble five years ago started to set in. There are still many buildings boarded up and reinforced. There are parts of town that are fenced off. Outside of town there many temporary buildings for shops, restaurants and homes. In town we see the remains of the cathedral where restoration is years away from completion.

But to my surprise, I did not sense despair. The atmosphere is one of survival and hope. Even with COVID, the resiliency of the people is evident. Many shops and restaurants have reopened in the city. There are streets where the restoration is completed. In the main piazza next to the ruins of the Cathedral there was a big screen setup to watch the Euro 2020 soccer tournament.

When we see news stories of similar destruction around the world it often seems far away. But this visit brought the reality of physical and human impacts into focus. I would like to visit Norcia again to see the progress and support the people in a small way.