Saturday morning, Jim, Ilene, and I headed to Massarosa, a small town about 30 minutes from Lucca. Once a year the farms of Massarosa open up to visitors. We visited a farm growing lotus flowers, one for saffron (but the flowers were not blooming currently), and one for lavender. Yes, these are farms for flowers!
Lotuses at “I Campi di Ninfa”
Next stop – a lavender field
And other beautiful flowers too!
Sunflowers – no, then yes!
We had a wonderful visit to Massarosa but were disappointed that the sunflower fields were not in bloom. So we headed back to Lucca on the Autostrada. Ilene saw two fields of bright yellow sunflowers and I jokily asked Jim if we could go find them. He said yes and we were off on another adventure… trying to find fields of sunflowers that we had seen 10 minutes ago on the Autostrada. Ilene and I were overjoyed to be completed surrounded by sunflowers – more than either of us had ever seen. Thank you Jim for being so very patient on our pursuit of all of these flowers. Ti amo!
Thanks to Ilene for the great “people” pictures in this post and for going with us on this adventure. You can read more about Ilene and Gary, her husband, on their blog called “Our Italian Journey“.
In 2015, I was planning our next trip to Italy and discovered La Foce, a beautiful villa and garden set in the valley called Val d’Orcia. I added it to our list of things to do, but we never made it there. The garden was opened only certain days and hours, and we just couldn’t squeeze it in. The next year, I tried again with a similar result. I’m not sure how many times I tried, but the logistics always got in the way. So as my birthday was approaching this year, I decided that we would visit La Foce. There is a Bed & Breakfast on site with a two-night stay required and a tour of that fabulous garden included. I booked it!
First stop: A very unique wine tasting
We left Lucca early on my birthday and drove 1.5 hours to our first stop – a winery called Podere Il Carnasciale. This is a very small “cult” winery that makes a thousand cases per year, using a very interesting grape called the Caberlot, a natural crossing between Cabernet Franc and Merlot. We met the winemaker at a nearby cemetery (you can’t make this stuff up!), and he led us on multiple gravel and dirt roads up the mountain. He showed us their oldest vines (planted in 1985) then led us to the barrel room. We didn’t do a traditional tour and tasting, but instead had our first ever barrel tasting. Their 2020 vintage is ready for bottling, so we tasting wine directly from 4 out of 6 barrels of their different vineyards of Caberlot. Although they were all Caberlot from the same year, it was interesting to smell and taste the differences that comes from different locations. What a cool experience! You can read more here.
Pienza, hilltop town of Tuscany
Pienza was a modest village until one of the villagers became Pope Pius II. He transformed his village into the “ideal city of the Renaissance” and we saw many tourists enjoying the atmosphere, sites, and panoramic views. In three years a central square was rebuilt with the Town Hall, the Papal Palace (Palazzo), and the Cathedral (Duomo).
La Foce – finally!
“La Foce is a large estate in the Southern Tuscan region of Val d’Orcia, midway between Florence and Rome. La Foce lies on the Via Francigena, the ancient road and pilgrim route running from France to Rome. It has been inhabited continuously for many centuries. The Villa was built in the late 15th century as a hospice for pilgrims and merchants traveling on the Via Francigena.
In 1924, Antonio and Iris Origo bought the dilapidated estate. The villa was restored by the Origos in the 1920s. The fine gardens were designed by the English architect Cecil Pinsent. The Origos employed 25 families and started a school to teach and ensure the well-being of some 50 local children. They also built 35 dwellings in the 1920s to 1930s for tenant farmers.
The book War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo is set at this estate, which at the time contained 57 farms on 7,000 acres. [The book is based on Origo’s diary during World War II and tells of the day-to-day experiences and struggles that occurred as the war was fought all around them. I read this book a few months ago.]
Descendants of the family still own the property today and operate it as a resort.” [excerpts from Wikipedia]
The Cypress Tree is a common feature of the Tuscan landscape. These very tall evergreen trees produce leaves that are dark green in color, and maintain this color throughout the year. They are also a symbol of the Italian landscape. A typical element of a Renaissance painting is a landscape in the background; if you look closely, you’ll notice that the landscapes look remarkable like today’s Tuscan landscape including the ubiquitous cypress trees. Today you will find many photographs taken of the landscape, including a few of the S-shaped streets lined with cypress trees. One of the best examples is on the La Foce estate and was part of the landscape directly outside of our room! I took pictures several times throughout the day to see how the light impacted the scene. The yellowish color is from the spring wheat that was ready for harvest. I’d like to return when the wheat is brilliant green.
Our garden tour was scheduled for 11:30am on Thursday and it was already very hot. Although I had seen many pictures of the gardens, I was surprised at the impact of the combination of the formal gardens with the gorgeous landscape of Val d’Orcia. It was simply spectacular!
Thursday afternoon we drove 30 minutes to Lago di Montepulciano, a nearby lake with park. They even had birdwatching tours available and I had booked a tour for 4pm. Why they would have such a tour at 4pm is beyond me… To date, our birdwatching experiences in Italy have not been nearly as productive as those in America; there are simply fewer birds here. So with tempered expectations, we made the drive. We met a lovely young woman who is continuing her studies in Environmental Science and she took us on a personal tour of the lake, including quite a large hide. Cost of the tour was €5 each! And here are my best pictures:
Last stop: Chiusi, Tuscan town with rich Etruscan history
Before the Roman times, the Etruscan people lived in Italy (Tuscany and a bit beyond) from roughly 750BC to 90BC. The Etruscans were an advanced civilization with rich mineral resources and as a major Mediterranean trading power. Archaeologists have discovered a lot of artifacts from the civilization, mostly where they buried their dead. Jim and I started getting interested in learning more about the civilization and can’t resist visiting archaeological sites and museums. While in Chiusi, Jim went on a tour of some tunnels underneath the Cathedral. The Etruscans had created this series of tunnels to collect rainwater, which, filtering through the layered sandstones and sediments of the hillside was channeled into wells and then drawn for domestic use. The Romans also used the tunnels, but skipped the filtering aspect, so many people got sick. [I skipped this activity because it involved lots of steps and I’m still very slow on steps.]
After Chiusi, we headed home to Lucca. It was a great birthday adventure! Thanks for reading this lengthy post, and I hope that you enjoyed learning about some of the smaller, less touristy locations of Italy.
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.
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 beautyof Lucca… Spring Flowers!
We’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.
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!
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.