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

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: