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.
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!
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.
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: