The Siena Duomo and Learning Italian

The Beauty of Italy… the Siena Duomo

We took a day trip to Siena a few weeks ago with Brian and Victoria, an American couple that lives in Lucca. All of us had been there before, but Siena is such a lovely town we all wanted to return! There were some tourists in town, but not nearly as crowded as our earlier trips. My favorite church in all of Italy is the Siena Duomo (Cathedral) so I’ve included pictures from this trip and earlier ones. Here are a few pics of the exterior taken in pre-COVID 19 days:

It’s sounds rather odd, but one of the most striking elements of the Duomo is the floors. The floors consists of 56 individual panels, fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. This picture shows how the original designers planned out this masterpiece:

I took pictures of the earliest panel – number 2 in the above diagram. The She-Wolf of Siena (center) with the emblems of the confederate cities probably dates from 1373 (then restored in 1864). And one of those confederate cities is Lucca!

The pictures below are of the Piccolomini Altar. Piccolomini was a very wealthy patron of the church, born in Siena in 1439. The original intent of this altar was to serve as his tomb. But by the time that he died in 1503, he had become Pope Pius III (for less than a month!) and was buried in the Vatican. When the altar was being built, Michelangelo was a rising star, so was contracted to do 15 statues for it. However, he then received much better offers (including sculpting the David), so was only involved in the 4 larger statues at the bottom. And, out of the four, he only completed one of them himself. I’ve included closeups of all four statues. Which one do you think that he completed himself? (The others were completed by his students.)

Unfortunately the most beautiful room of the Duomo was closed during this visit due to coronavirus. It is the Piccolomini library which was built in memory of him and to conserve the rich collection of manuscripts he had lovingly collected. The “books” in the library are illuminated choir books, but it’s hard to notice those books with the brilliant frescoes on the walls and ceiling. Here is a picture I took from an earlier trip:

One of the original stained glass windows is now in the museum next door, where you can see the detail close up. The window was made between 1287 and 1288 by Duccio di Buoninsegna and in considered one of the most important windows in Italy. “The stained glass window depicts the Death of the Virgin (bottom), her Assumption (center) and Coronation (top). On the two sides of the Virgin of the Assumption , the 4 patron saints of the city of Siena are depicted , namely San Bartolomeo and Sant’Ansano on the left and San Crescenzio and San Savino on the right. The 4 corners of the stained glass window depict the 4 evangelists seated on the throne and their symbols (the eagle for Saint John, the winged bull for Saint Luke, the winged lion for Saint Mark and the angel for Saint Matthew ).” Only 4-6% of the glass has been replaced over the centuries, so this really is THE original!

So that was a lot of info on one church, but I did say that it is my favorite in all of Italy. And I didn’t even talk about the incredible pulpit and the artwork of Donatello!

Everyday life in Lucca… learning the language

Both Jim and I are working hard at learning to read, talk, and understand Italian. Understanding the spoken language is the hardest. I started studying the language in 2017 but started and stopped multiple times since then. I took a 12-week adult education class in America, used the Memrise app for vocabulary building, had several weeks of full-time classes at the Lucca Italian School and have used several tutors via Verbling and now in person. This patchwork of methods and starts/stops has brought me to a point where I can communicate with shopkeepers, ask simple questions to people on the street, and have casual conversations with friends from our local church. However, I still have a lonnngggg way to go. 

We watch one show on TV several times a week called “4 Ristoranti“. The host takes the owner/chef of four restaurants to visit each of their restaurants, they all judge each others’ restaurants and then select a winner. VERY formulaic. Perfect for learning the language. I know when the host will describe how the restaurants will be judged and try to understand more of it each time. I know when they will all guess the amount of the check and I listen for the amounts. And we get to see restaurants all over Italy. 🙂

Our primary studying method is using online tutors. We started during the lock down because that was the only available option. Eleonora, my tutor, is Italian but now lives north of Jerusalem in the Palestine State. She teaches German there! I meet with her twice a week for an hour each time. We are reviewing some of the grammar that I studied earlier, but it sticks with me more the second time – and when I have opportunities to use it on a daily basis. I’ve also started meeting with a local tutor for an hour a week for more conversation practice in person. So to prove that I can speak a bit of Italian, here is the request that I made to my tutor to get the photo below: “Scrivo nel mio blog sullo sto imparando dell’italiano. Posso fare uno screenshot della nostra lezione?”

Jim studied for a few weeks at Lucca Italian School and then quickly forgot much of what he learned. He now studies with an online tutor three times per week and is making a lot of progress quickly. His tutor is Italian but currently lives in Helsinki. 

Within a few years of becoming a resident, we will need to take a test to demonstrate that we can speak basic Italian. But we want to be ready much earlier than that… in order to really become part of the community, we need to be read, talk, and understand Italian!

Gardens, Sunflowers, Beaches and our Apartment

The Beauty of Tuscany… gardens, sunflowers and beaches

Yes, we made a few more day trips from Lucca. 30 minutes from Lucca is a town called Collodi. Carlo Lorenzini, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, is from Collodi, so there are LOTS of Pinocchios in the shops, restaurants, streets, and even a Pinocchio amusement park for the kiddos. This kiosk sells two different Pinocchio designs: Italian and Disney!

There is also a beautiful and historic garden in Collodi, considered to be one of the most beautiful gardens in Italy. Despite the heat, we explored many of the paths and wandered all the way to the top.

Our church had a going-away picnic for one of our families. Naturally there was lots of food. We stayed through sunset and after dark; singing songs, sharing stories, and even a short skit. The Poot family will be missed by our church! On the way to the picnic, we passed a beautiful field of sunflowers and Jim stopped to let me take a few pics.

Everyday life in Lucca… setting up our apartment

We rented a beautiful furnished apartment in the center of town. It had all of the basic furniture, such as beds, kitchen table/chairs, couches, tables, and lamps. But it was far from “move-in” ready. We needed to buy lots of household items, like dishes, pots, pans, linens, TV, etc. As we did that, we slowly morphed the apartment into a home that really meets our needs. So here are some “before” and “after” pictures of our apartment.

The TV Room: The website description of the next room says “A long corridor, furnished with a sofa to be a warm and cosy reading-corner”. We weren’t quite sure how to use this space with a low & slanted ceiling and consider many options. Our current setup is one of the most useful rooms of the apartment – a reading-corner, bookcases to separate the room into two parts, and a very comfy TV view area. And Jim had lots of fun lighting this area… One “before” picture and several “after” pictures for this space!

The Altana: Our favorite room… up the steps in the kitchen leads to a square room with large windows on each side, giving us a 360° view of Lucca and the surrounding mountains. We mostly moved furniture from other parts of the apartment to set up this room. And bought a great piece of art from a local artist… Jim again had fun with the lighting. One “before” and one “after” picture:

We still have a lot of decorating to do. We visited the local antique market a few weekends ago and found some fun items. They are held monthly so more treasure hunting ahead for us. There are also lots of local artists here that we are discovering. Italians say “piano, piano” which means slowly, you’ll get it, don’t rush. We are trying to learn this concept!

Day Trips and Driving

When we arrived in Lucca in March, we planned to rent a car for a week to buy stuff for our new apartment and pick up wine we were storing in Florence. Three months later, it finally happened. And we were able to take some fun day trips as well. This blog post will describe our adventures with plenty of pictures. And give you a bit of insight into the fun and challenges of driving here.

The Beauty of Lucca… so many nearby day trips!

You probably aren’t interested in our trip to IKEA or stocking up on heavy and bulky foods at the supermarket. So, I’ll focus on our day trips to Florence, Bolgheri, and Cinque Terre.

Florence: Jim and I walked through the biggest tourist areas in Florence: the Duomo/Cathedral, Palazzo Vecchio/town hall, the center court of the Uffizi museum, and across the Ponte Vecchio/old bridge. I estimate that the tourist crowd was about 5% of the usual size. Many stores were closed and museums are starting to open, but with limited hours. It was a great opportunity to take pictures of some of Florence’s great sights, but it was also quite sad. For example, there are usually big crowds in front of the gorgeous Gates of Paradise and you could never expect to get a picture without bunches of strangers… not now. Ponte Vecchio is usually packed with tourists looking at overpriced gold jewelry in the shops that line both sides of the bridge… not now.

We had lunch with Rebecca of Grape Tours. We met Rebecca and Pierre, her husband, in September 2014 when we went on their four-day Tuscan Wine Tour. And we’ve stayed in touch since. We are signed up for their Sicily Wine Tour in October. There is still room on the trip for you to join us! We had lunch at Le Volpe e Uva, a great place for wine and food, one block off of one of the main tourist areas. Seek it out!

We also picked up that wine that had been stored for a few years at an enoteca by the train station and bought a few more bottles to show our appreciation. Our wine cellar is growing again, but it will NOT get too large!

Bolgheri: Bolgheri is a small coastal town about an hour from Lucca with numerous wineries that make some of the best and most expensive wines of Italy. The two “biggies” are Ornellaia and Tenuta San Guido (Sassicaia). Several years ago, Jim and I visited Ornellaia; this week we went to Chiappini, a family-owned organic winery that is next door to Ornellaia. We went with Pasquale, an Italian friend of ours, who knows many of the family of these small & great wineries. The wines were delightful and just being at a winery was wonderful. We tasted several wines than bought a few bottles. We ate lunch at a local enoteca and enjoyed some yummy gelato with views of Bolgheri out to the sea.

Cinque Terre: When planning vacations to Italy, we often considered visiting Cinque Terre, five fishing villages perched high on the Italian Riviera. In fact, we even did a puzzle of one of the villages. But each time, we concluded that it would be too crowded. Those villages are packed with people coming to see some of the scenic views in Italy. Well, they aren’t too crowded now! So, off we went with our friends Victoria and Brian to visit two of the towns – Manarola and Vernazza. They had been several times before and talked about how nice to visit without the heavy crowds. There were tourists visiting, but not too many.

Our first stop was Manarola. We wandered through the city, then ate lunch at Nessun Dormire and enjoyed a slow meal of bruschetta with pesto, salami, cheese, melon with prosciutto, and a local white wine – with THE most incredible view.

Manarola

After Manarola, we jumped on the train that goes between the five villages and we got off at Vernazza. Typically the trains run every 20 minutes, but now are running one per hour. We wandered around Vernazza and stopped for some delicious Italian gelato. We visited the town’s main church and wondered if it would be difficult to concentrate on the service with such spectacular views out the windows!

Vernazza

Everyday life in Lucca… car rentals and driving

We don’t have a car in Lucca, so get around town via walking and bicycling. Plenty of food stores, restaurants, clothing stores, pharmacies, etc. are very close by. But after staying in Lucca for 3 months, I was ready to wander a bit further.

So, we rented a car for a week, starting June 8th. We requested a standard SUV through the local AVIS office so that we’d have plenty of room for some furniture that we plan on buying.  Jim walked about 20 minutes to the car rental place, was given a mid-sized crossover, and returned to our house.

Our apartment building has a parking lot and we are allotted one space – quite an unusual feature inside the walls of Lucca. To get to our parking lot you need to drive through a ZTL, a zone that is tightly restricted to residents and others with specific needs. Because of the coronavirus, the rules have been relaxed through the end of August, so we didn’t need to get any special permission to drive through our ZTL. On our second trip to Italy we got two tickets in Florence for driving through the ZTL and did not want to have to pay the big fines again!

Jim has driven a lot in Italy and is quite comfortable doing so. I’m the navigator and am quite comfortable in that role. In fact before last week, I had never driven in Italy. But I drove around the outside of the Lucca walls (lots of traffic circles and relatively heavy traffic) and once to Pisa on the autostrada/highway. I would say that the drivers are more aggressive here than in Virginia, the lanes are narrower and there are traffic circles everywhere! Oh, and if you are looking for the pictures of that tower, we went to Pisa for the shopping – there is an IKEA there! After our first (of several!) trips to IKEA, the car was stuffed with furniture, household goods and more stuff!

For now, we plan on renting a car as needed. We can use our International Driver’s License for one year then will need to get an Italian driver’s license. The test is MUCH harder than in America AND it is in Italian. Most ex-Pats study a lot for 3 months to take the test, then end up taking it a few times before passing.

Coronavirus update

In the town of Lucca, there was one new case of COVID-19 for the week ending June 14th. We are learning to live with the virus. In town most people have masks on, around their neck (to allow quick replacement) or stashed on their arms (???).

Stores are very careful to follow the rules. Masks and hand sanitizer are required and many stores allow only one customer at a time, so queues on the street on common. Some stores take your temperature before letting you enter; a nearby supermarket even uses an infrared sensor! In more open area such as the Walls of Lucca, about 25% of the people are wearing masks and the others only put them on as needed. There are a few areas of town where young people gather during the evenings and they not do proper social distancing. ☹

Our church met face-to-face for the first time on Sunday, being very careful to leave lots of space between family groupings. After the service, we went outside to chat with each other. It felt great to be doing something as normal as going to church!

And one final picture from Lucca… the moon next to a church’s bell tower:

Spring flowers & shopping for food

Friday morning, May 15th, Jim was in the altana and he called for me to come upstairs quickly. I panicked and rushed upstairs, ready for any kind of emergency, and he pointed to this beautiful double rainbow. The lower one ended on the Lucca wall. How beautiful is that!

The beauty of LuccaSpring Flowers!

undefinedWe’ve been allowed to walk on the walls of Lucca since May 4th, so we’ve had a chance to enjoy the spring flowers across town. Before May 4th, my goal was to get in at least 3000 steps per day; now, most days go well over 10000 steps.

I’ve been enjoying taking pictures, so this blog post will be a lot of pictures with a description for each.

These decorated balconies are in the Anfiteatro, one of the famous piazzas of Lucca. And you can also see a few signs that say “Andrà tutto bene!” meaning “Everything will be all right!”. Very encouraging during these days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Another decorated balcony; this one on Piazza San Michele. Soon the businesses on the ground floor will be open and the piazza will come back to life!
Beautiful roses next to one of the many old churches.
Horse chestnut trees are clustered in several locations around Lucca’s wall. This picture was taken on Festa della Mamà (Mother’s Day) with many families enjoying their time on the wall.
Palazzo Pfanner “is a palace and a garden in Lucca, Italy, now converted into a museum of art and artifacts. The building dates to 1667, and is notable mainly for its fine garden.” This wide view is from Lucca’s wall and I especially like the large tree on the right side; I think that it is a Stone Pine tree. The benches on the wall near Palazzo Pfanner are highly sought after!
And here is a closeup of Palazzo Pfanner’s fountain surrounded by statues, lemon trees in big pots, and lots of other flowers. You can also see the Guinigi Tower with its oak trees planted on top of the tower!
From the wall, we can also see Lucca’s Botantical Garden, including this pond with lots of water lilies. One of their prized specimens is a Cypress tree from Florida. There are about a zillion of these near my son’s house. Nice to see one here!
And a closer picture of some of the flowers in the Botanical Gardens.
This view from the Walls show one of the Liberty-style homes that are commonly found right outside of Lucca’s walls. This picture was taken near one of the gates which has lovely pink roses lining the road.
Beautiful flower garden on the wall
This is the back of Palazzo that we live in. It has a small garden with beautiful white roses. You can’t see our apartment from this view.
Behind our Palazzo’s garden and parking lot is this carriage house. It used to be horse stables but now is one or maybe two beautiful large apartments. I love all of the flowers on the windows. You can walk or drive through the brown doors to get to our parking lot. And the whitish tower with windows (next to the green tree on the right) is our apartment.

In past years, there have been several flower festivals/events. I’m disappointed that they weren’t held this year, but am looking forward to them in the future. And are enjoying all of the signs of Spring throughout Lucca.

Everyday life in Lucca… shopping for food

Everyday life in Lucca is different than in the United States. Some things are much better (plentiful fresh food available daily), some are worse (the bureaucracy!) and some are just different. Part of the reason that we moved to Italy was to experience these differences… In this and upcoming blog posts, I’ll talk about some of these differences. Last month I talked about the trash and recycling; this month, it’s shopping for food.

In Virginia, Jim and I had adopted some Italian food shopping habits. We went almost day to get food and purchased mostly fresh and unprocessed food (fruits, vegetables, meat, cheeses, etc.). We typically went to Harris Teeter with an occasional trip to one of the other nice supermarkets – Wegman’s, Giant, or Balducci’s when we wanted something special. We especially appreciated that many of the stores were open 24 hours and usually at least one open on holidays. It’s different in Lucca.

Some larger cities in Italy have everyday markets, such as the Central Market of Florence or the smaller and more authentic Sant’Ambrogio. Lucca has several weekly markets, but most of them haven’t been active during the coronavirus restrictions and aren’t very convenient to where we live. So we have found a set of small markets that we frequent regularly. On a given day, we may go to a few of these shops. Not very efficient, but the food we buy is local, fresh and delicious!

Coronavirus Update

The coronavirus infection rates have been under control and reducing for
several weeks. On May 4th some of the restrictions were lifted and more changes are expected on May 18th. At times it can be confusing to understand the rules and how they all interact. There are decrees set at the country level (i.e., for all of Italy), rules at the regional level (i.e., for all of Tuscany) and further clarifications and interpretations at the commune level (i.e., for
Lucca). Oh, and they keep changing… I belong to several Facebook groups for English speakers in Lucca and we all try to hash out what this all means for us. So here’s my summary of past and upcoming changes:

·        Never closed: food stores, pharmacy stores, gas stations, and other stores that sell true essentials (like wine stores!)

·       May 4th: parks opened, restaurants could begin carry out and delivery (including gelato and coffee!)

·        May 18th: most other stores that sell merchandise can open

·        June 1st: restaurants for dine in, hairdressers, barber shops, etc.

Breaking news! the June 1st openings have now been moved to May 18th. Not sure what I’m looking forward to most – dinner out or a haircut! And we can finally start decorating our apartment. 

Jim and I remain healthy and are vigilant every time we go out. 

Coronavirus update, Lucca walls and the trash

Coronavirus update

Several people have recently asked me about the status of the coronavirus emergency here. The worst is over now for Italy and the restrictions are slowly being lifted. A few examples:

  • Restaurants have been allowed to deliver food to your house. Starting today, we can pick up food at the restaurant but need to pre-order and they will tell us when to pick it up so no crowds form. Rumors are that we’ll be able to go to a restaurant starting May 18, but all tables need to be at least 2 meters apart. Traditionally they are only inches apart, so the restaurant capacities will be far decreased.
  • Food stores, pharmacies, gas stations and other true essentials have never closed and we are experiencing very few shortages. Starting this week, book stores, stationary stores and children clothing/shoe stores could open. Apparently, the kids are running out of clothes that fit and supplies needed for online school! Rumors are that most other stores will be opened by May 11th. Yesterday I saw many storekeepers preparing their stores for reopening.
  • Moving about is quite restricted today. When we leave our house, we need to fill out a form stating where we are coming from, where we are going, and why. Police can stop anyone to check the paperwork and we see police patrolling every time we go out. Legitimate reasons include going to work, shopping for necessities, health care, and taking trash out (see below!). We can now take walks with a dog, small child, or by yourself, but need to stay within 200 meters of our house. Fortunately, the area around our apartment is gorgeous and I have enjoyed these walks. I expect that these restrictions will be relaxed over the next several weeks. One rumor is that we’ll be able to travel freely within our region starting May 4th. That would mean all of Tuscany is open to us… but I’m not counting on that!

We get daily updates of the number of people infected, in intensive care, recovered, and deaths – for all of Italy, the region of Tuscany, the province that we live in and the city we live in. In the city that we live in (Lucca, population 88,000 in the city and surrounding areas), there have been 202 people diagnosed with the virus, 13 are currently in the hospital and 14 have died.

So, it is around us but not too bad. Neither Jim nor I have been sick since we arrived. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we didn’t get it, so we wear masks when we go out in case we are carriers and don’t realize it. And masks are now required for anyone outside of their homes.

The Beauty of Lucca… its walls!

Lucca is one of the many “walled” cities of Tuscany. The walls were built to defend the city from warring parties, generally other cities such as Florence and Pisa, and occasionally other countries. Since the days before the Roman Empire, Lucca has had multiple walls to address the city’s expansion and changing threats. This aerial map shows how Lucca expanded since the Roman Empire days:

Lucca Expansion since the Roman Empire

The reddish square represents the Roman town of Lucca, laid out in a very orderly grid fashion. The Roman wall was about 7 meters high and 2.5 meters wide. There are few traces remaining of the Roman wall; only one portion is available to see above ground.                              

The greenish area was surrounded by a wall during the medieval period, which was finished around 1270. This wall originally had several gates, two remain today. Porta dei Borghi is close to our apartment, so I’ve enjoyed taking pictures of it on walks and from our apartment. Wouldn’t it be cool to live above the gate?

Porta San Gervasio originally had a drawbridge and moat, but both are gone today. Fortunately the starry design underneath the archway and some of the artwork remain. I took this picture in 2019 during one of our visits. It feels odd to be walking through the town and see a gate in the middle of the city!

Porta San Gervasio at dusk
Porta San Gervasio at dusk

The yellowish area of the map represents the expansion of Lucca during the Renaissance era. The walls built during this era still go completely around the historic district of Lucca today. They are 4.2 km around, 30 meters wide at its base, 18 meters at the top, 7 meters in height, and were completed in 1650, after over 100 years of constructions. These walls are so wide because they needed to be wider than a cannon ball could be launched. Fortunately, the walls were transformed into a public park in the late 1800s. Today, the Lucchese people and tourists walk, bicycle, picnic, exercise, and relax on the wall. As I mentioned in my last post, the walls are now closed because of the coronavirus. Too many people were gathering on the walls as they have done since the 1800’s. These walls are one of the biggest attractions in Lucca. I’m sure that future posts will include lots of pictures taken from these walls.

Everyday life in Lucca… the trash and recycling

Everyday life in Lucca is different than in the United States. Some things are much better (plentiful fresh food available daily), some are worse (the bureaucracy!) and some are just different. Part of the reason that we moved to Italy was to experience these differences… In this and upcoming blog posts, I’ll talk about some of these differences.

Where we lived in Virginia, we kept 2 very large bins in our garage. Twice a week, the garbage truck came to pick up trash from one of the bins and once a week, they picked up the recycling in the other bin. It’s different in Lucca.

They are very serious about recycling and we need to separate all recycling into four categories: paper, multi material (including plastic and metal), glass, and organics. Because there are no garbage disposals here, any wasted food goes into “organics”. This can get smelly quickly! There are long lists that tell you exactly where to put every kind of waste. Whatever remains goes into the non-recyclable.

When we first arrived, the apartment had a container for organics, but we just used separate bags for each. Last week, we purchased our very own fine recycling bin for the kitchen. Much better now!

There are sets of recycling bins on the street that match these categories. The openings are quite small, so trash and recycling goes out daily. To open the bin, you need a card that is registered to us. Our realtor spent weeks working to get our card for us (and lent us one in the meantime). You need to use your card each time you open each bin, so that they can track exactly who is using which bins! I just read that “the citizens will pay for the actual amount of unsorted waste produced and conferred to the islands.” How is that for being serious about recycling???

I plan to continue posting to my blog every few weeks, highlighting something that I find beautiful, a bit about how everyday life is different than in the United States, and some personal updates. Let me know if there are topics you want me to write about!