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.

Mini-vacation to Florence

With the Covid pandemic coming under control, the Government has relaxed some of the restrictions. We wanted to visit Florence for several reasons, so we decided to head there for Saturday and Sunday (May 8 & 9, 2021).

After our first trip to Italy, Mike M. asked me if I had been to Piazzale Michelangelo. It sounded so wonderful, but no… we hadn’t visited it. I vowed that I would visit it in the future and we have now done so many times now. On Saturday, it was our first stop of our mini-vacation. From this grand piazza, you can see all of the gorgeous city of Florence. And we even listened some live blues music while enjoying the view.

I had read that the Irises were in bloom and so we searched for this special garden and found it (along with a lot of other people). The Irises were spectacular!

We enjoyed a nice lunch at the restaurant right next to Chiesa Santa Croce (with brown umbrellas in photo below). This is one of our favorite piazzas in Florence, so it was nice to return. We’ve been trying hummus whenever we see it on the menu and especially appreciated all of the fresh vegies as dippers. Although hummus isn’t considered a traditional Italian dish, chickpeas are used in many different dishes here. My favorite is cecina.

We walked around some of the main sights of Florence and were pleased to see that there were more people now on the streets and around these sights. Here’s a few pics of the unique and beautiful Florence duomo. Gotta love that dome – no one still knows for sure how it was built and why it is still standing!

I wanted to spend some looking at and reading about the sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi so was a bit disappointed that people are still being kept from this open air exhibit. I suppose too many people could gather in the area… It was built between 1376 and 1382 and the various sculptures have been exhibited in the space since then. I like the two lions on the steps: the one on the right dates from Roman times, the other on the left was sculpted by Flaminio Vacca in 1598 and was originally placed in the Villa Medici in Rome before being moved to the Loggia in 1789. The history here is mind boggling!

For dinner we ate at Cantinetta Antinori, our favorite restaurant in Florence. Antinori is one of the biggest wine producers in Italy and the restaurant is located in the family’s Palazzo. Because the COVID rules allow only outdoor dining, everyone was sitting in the Palazzo’s courtyard. It was a delightful setting, great food, and tastes of many of their less well-known wines.

Apparently I was tired of taking pictures, because I have none for Sunday! But it was a lovely day… We went to Mosaico, an English-speaking church that we’ve visited before. Then visited a friend that has recently opened a store/bistro that sells Italian and French (yep, French!) cheese and wine. We enjoyed visiting with Rebecca, savoring many new and interesting cheeses and buy several items from the shop. When you next visit Florence, be sure to stop in at Formaggioteca Terroir.

Coronavirus Update

Tourists are now allowed back into Italy! Yay! We are still waiting for some of the specific rules, but generally tourists will need to prove that they don’t have COVID before entering. We are still wearing masks in public (inside and outside) and haven’t heard much discussion of the relaxation of these rules. Restaurants are opened for outdoor dining but starting June 1st, we can eat inside, at least for lunch. This is important because we’ve been having lots of rain, so the restaurants have hustled to get tables available outdoors with umbrellas.

Italy got a slow start in distributing the vaccines, but the pace is definitely increasing. I have received two doses of Pfizer and Jim is scheduled for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine on June 7th.

Despite the improvements, we have a conservative travel plan for 2021. We plan on exploring various parts of Italy in 2021 and then to visit other European countries in 2022.

If you are planning to visit Italy, please let us know. Lucca is a great city to visit and to use as a base for many days of exploring Tuscany (Florence, Siena, wineries, hilltop towns, beaches, etc.) as well as Cinque Terre. If you can’t make it to Lucca but will be spending some time in Florence, we can come for a drink or a meal. Italy is looking forward to the return of the tourists! We are looking forward to visitors too!

Yellow, Orange, Red but when White???

Each week Italy assigns a color to each region based on the latest coronavirus data… the colors identify the set of restrictions that will be in place for the week. We felt quite fortunate that Tuscany (our region) was Yellow for five weeks. We used the time to do a bit of exploring in Tuscany, including a morning of birdwatching in a nearby park, a visit to a beautiful Abbey, and a wonderful lunch with friends in a nearby town. But then we moved to Orange – meaning no travel outside of your town (except for essential activities), restaurants closed (except take out and delivery), and all museums closed. The rumors have been flying that we would move to Red this week… and so we asked the question that we’ve asked before “What do we need to do before we turn Red?” BUT… we stayed Orange for at least another week. Whewwww! We have a new Government in place (sorta like a new Administration for the US Federal Government) so I’m expecting some of the baseline rules to change in the next few weeks. And dreaming of becoming a White zone.

Vaccines are now being given throughout Italy and Tuscany is doing a great job of getting them into people’s arms. The Government has published a multi-phase approach to distributing the vaccine and we are in the second phase. It will start when the first phase is done – and they are not yet predicting when that will be. So we wait… Execution of the plan has been slower than expected due to delays in the distribution of the vaccine.

Abbey of San Galgano

I have been looking forward to visiting this Abbey for several years. Before moving to Italy, I joined a Facebook group called Paradiso…Toscana that is primarily used for posting beautiful pictures of Tuscany. I kept spotting this Abbey and dreaming of visiting it one day and taking pictures of the wonderful architecture of the ruins of this Abbey. It is about a two hour drive from our home… we zipped down the coast then through very twisty roads to find the Abbey in the countryside.

We visited this Abbey with Brian and Victoria Rice, American friends who have been living in Lucca for a few years. They have learned to expect a bit of a history lesson during the drive to each destination… This Abbey was built during the 13th century. Saint Galgano lived and worshiped in a nearby hermitage, so when the Abbey was built it was named after him. In the 1500s some people removed and sold the valuable lead roof. Hence we have a beautiful and unusual ruin today! Brian took a very cool video that gives you the sense of the building without its roof. I particularly like the carvings that were scattered across the ruin. The head is thought to be a likeness of the last architect in charge of building the Abbey.

Above the Abbey is the Hermitage of Monte Siepi. At the center of the round chapel is the stone where San Galgano stuck his sword as a sign of having definitively left his weapons to start a new life faithful. Archaeologists have confirmed that the sword is of the style and material used during his lifetime. Scientists can’t say the age of the metal for sure, but there are no indications that the metal is not from that time period AND they have confirmed with ground penetrating RADAR that the handle and blade are intact. Yep! Another Sword in the Stone!

Monteriggioni and some wonderful pasta!

After our visit to the Abbey and Hermitage we headed to Monteriggioni, a VERY small walled town nearby, known for its medieval fortifications and watchtowers. The walls are quite impressive when approaching the town. You can usually walk along the wall’s perimeter on an elevated walkway. And from there, you can enjoy the beauty of the Chianti countryside. The walkway was closed during our visit, so we will need to return in the future!

We ate lunch in one of the wonderful restaurants in town and I had a most unique pasta dishes. It was called “Aperto Raviolo” which can be translated to “open raviolo” – not sealed like normal and only a single raviolo (plural is the more familiar name of ravioli). It was stacked up similar to a lasagne with ricotta filling between the pasta layers and served on pumpkin sauce. Game on! I wanted to make this at home. That day I started my Internet searches and found several similar dishes that gave me further inspiration. So I made a stacked raviolo with ricotta filling and embedded a parsley leaf INTO the pasta; I served it on top of asparagus sauce with crushed hazelnuts and parmigiano reggiano. Time consuming (like 3 hours!) to make but surely a lot of fun!

Anniversaries

Tomorrow is the one year anniversary of Jim’s retirement. March 9 is the one year anniversary of our arrival in Italy. Not what we expected, but still no regrets.

Not beauty, but war…

In my blog posts I’ve been showing and talking about the beauty that surrounds us during these early days of retirement in Lucca, Italy. But the last few weeks, Jim and I have been exploring and learning about the local World War II activities. Within an hour from our home, there were many battles fought and much sorrow. We’ve taken two trips to nearby villages to see and understand more:

The Gothic Line at Borgo a Mozzano

Between 1943 and the summer of 1944, the commanders of the Nazi forces constructed a 32K kilometer (20K miles) defensive line from the Adriatic Sea to the Tyrrhenian Sea, as a last stronghold against the invasion of Northern Italy. The defensive line was known as the Gothic Line or Green Line. At Borgo a Mozzano (about 30 minutes from our home), bunkers, anti-aircraft emplacements, communication trenches, and antitank ditches are still well-preserved. We visited a museum and two bunkers during our tour that was led by a very informative and engaging guide.

The museum was stuffed full of artifacts and interesting documents.

This map was copied from the Nazi commanders and taken to the Italian partisan fighters and Allied troops. The dots show locations of bunkers. Without this map, the Allied forces would have been in a very weak position. With it, they broke through the line.

Our guide told us stories about many of the local individuals that lived through WWII, including several that he had interviewed for a book. Anna Maria was the person that brought the map from the Nazis to the partisans, risking her life. She was 18 years old at the time.

Here is our guide in front of one of the bunkers, explaining how they were built, hidden, and used during the war. We went through two of the bunkers. Most of the bunkers are not opened to the public. These two are available only through guided tours.

A beautiful medieval bridge located in Borgo a Mozzano. You can read the legend of the bridge here.

Sant’Anna di Stazzema

In 1944, Nazi officers were given orders to round up Italian partisans in the Tuscan region. On August 12, about 300 Nazi troops surrounded Sant’Anna di Stazzema, a small village in the Apuan Alps. This remote village had been flooded with refugees that were gathered here to hide from the Nazis. The Nazis found them, rounded them up and shot them. Some people were herded into basements and killed with hand grenades. Before burning the village to the ground, the Nazi soldiers murdered hundreds of women and elderly and 116 children, the youngest of which was just 20 days old. The precise number killed is uncertain, but the most commonly cited number is 560 people.

The massacre, perhaps the most egregious war crime committed by the Nazis on Italian soil, took place as the Nazis were retreating up the Italian peninsula. Some historians say the killings were in retaliation against Italian partisans resisting German occupation; others maintain it was an unwarranted act of intimidation.

The Nazis burned all of the buildings in the town, but the church has been rebuilt.

A child’s artwork in the church says “I can do some things that you can not. You can do some things that I can not. Together we can do big things.” (my translation) Maria Teresa in Calcutta

A steep and long (for me!) path leads to a memorial. Along the way there are plaques showing the story of the Passion of Christ and corresponding depictions of the massacre. Very powerful…

At the end of the path is an Ossuary Monument in memory of the victims of the massacre. The monument is a large tower 12 meters tall with four arches, a tombstone holds the names of the dead that have been identified, and many other features to help us remember.

This lists the names of all known victims. There were entire families killed, so many of the victims had the same last names. There were also signs in the church and museum that showed pictures of the children and pregnant women who were killed that day.

The view from the memorial was gorgeous. You can see the Tyrrhenian Sea, seaside towns, beautiful mountains and forests.

And some updates on life…

  • We are still working through the process of becoming residents. Jim has an appointment next week that will bring him very close. My next appointment is in December.
  • Once Jim gets the card showing that he is a resident, we can buy a car. We can drive for one year with our International Driver’s License after becoming a resident. Then we need to get an Italian Driver’s License, which is very challenging, especially because the test is in Italian. And for the first year, it is considered a Provisional license with extra restrictions, like you can only drive a car with a very small engine. So… we plan to buy a car, but a small one. For example, my Mini Cooper had an engine that is much larger than we are allowed here!
  • The government changed the rules to control the coronavirus last week, including requiring everyone to wear a mask whenever in public – inside or outside – with just a few exceptions. But then the number of new coronavirus cases started to rise very quickly. We are expecting new rules again today or tomorrow. Rumors include online school only, closing restaurants, 10pm curfews, etc. I don’t like it, but I fully support taking whatever actions are needed to get it under control. The number of new cases per day:
  • The weather has changed here. So far, October has been usually cold and wet. The last few days (and this coming week) have been gorgeous. I’ve been posting early fall foliage pictures on Facebook, although the trees are still mostly green. And I’ll end this blog post with a picture taken one evening last week, after a storm when the sun burst through the clouds.

I am touched that you take the time to read my blog posts. If you have things that you’d like me to write about, please let me know! JoAn