This does not need a description!
It is a 2 hour flight from Athens to Pisa, and it went by very fast, since I made a friend with the young lady who was sitting next to me. She was from Australia, but of Greek descent, and traveling to meet a family that she is a Nanny for, in
Italy. Charming girl!
Arriving in Pisa, we kind of milled around a bit, not finding the rental cars right away. Back inside we went...and then back outside. You basically need to hop on a bus that says Rental Cars and pray that
it will take you to the right place. It did! And soon we had our little car. The lady from Avis was very friendly and helpful and could speak English very well. Here's the thing...for all the Italian I am learning to sing, I
just cannot speak it at all ~ partly because I haven't spent any time learning it, and partly because the only words I know are from songs, and partly, because my mind is still filled with Greek words, and I tend to mix German and French in with THAT! I
am one confused girl! I now desire to truly learn to speak Italian.
Dealing since our arrival at the Athens airport with a plumbing problem back at our house in Markham, we had a frenzied passage through check-in,
security, and boarding, poor Aris trying to make phone calls and send emails and make sense of the situation. Water backing up into the sink, and not a nice colour. Septic system not working properly... so far this year, it's been the furnace
twice, and now this! All is resolved now; the septic has to be opened up and emptied/cleaned. Always when it is long distance, it's so crazy!
We were exhausted by the time we reached Pisa and wanted to head to
our destination of Lucca, but not before we saw the infamous Leaning Tower, so round and round we went (a couple of times ending up in the same roundabout) until we found it. A wonder of the world, it did not disappoint, and we knew we were in for the
time of our lives to have our feet on Italian soil and to be treated to seeing the art, architecture and the cuisine that is celebrated world wide. Yes I'm a singer and I am mostly interested in the music, but believe it or not, an Interior Designer
is educated in the antiquities and I have longed to see these places for over 25 years, since first being exposed to the history of this beautiful and special country.
Only about 35 minutes away, we were soon in Lucca and THIS
was what it was all about! I had never even heard of this town before, and suddenly I was in Puccini's birthplace, a walled city with all of the modernities but still retaining everything about its Italian beauty and authenticity.
We walked, searching for a restaurant with nice chairs (?? Why, you ask? Too many hours in planes and automobiles and such!) We sat down at a nice spot and were made to move because we were at a table for 5! And we were moved to the
back of the area, on tiny little chairs with no cushions, and smokers beside us. (Sorry smokers, Euro cigs are just not that nice!) I wanted the Caprese salad and they served it with a twist, the whole tomato just partially cut through and with
great wedges of buffalo mozzarella tucked into it, a huge sprig of basil on top and on a cutting board. Some nice bread was also brought to us, and this time, not just olive oil, but also the requisite balsamic vinegar, the real stuff! We
devoured it! Our menu choices were made out of a desire to eat something truly authentic and Aris chose Gnocchi and I chose the special, a fresh pasta dish with ground sausage and truffle oil. We ended up swapping part way through and let me
tell you, the Gnocchi was absolute heaven! It was served in a cradle of crispy cheese and with a cheese sauce. Aris liked my noodles better and I liked his Gnocchi better. I would go back there, just for the Gnocchi! We did not order
any wine at all, satisfying ourselves with water. By the way, we fast learned that bottled water comes two ways, Frizzante and Naturale, as we picked Frizzante by mistake while we were in Pisa. "No Frizzante for me, para kalo!" (Oh, that's
Greek.) "Naturale, per favore!" That's better.
Our hotel was great, all of the staff were pretty much fully bilingual and patient with our Italian efforts, helpful with maps, where to shop, where to eat, and where
to find Puccini's house. The next morning, after our hotel breakfast, we had to put money in the parking meter outside of the walled area, and then we took a lovely walk atop the wall. It was built in the early 1500's, to keep marauders out. I
am sure it did the trick then! We then found a spot to sit and have another coffee, and I ended up ordering a tray of cheeses and honey, which came with some small pieces of bread. The assorted cheeses were sweet, creamy, peppery, and spicy,
all going very well with the bread and honey.
We found Puccini's house easily and made sure to take the important photos! Any singer would want that. I gazed up at this handsome man and told my husband that if I'd
been alive in a different time.... (but then I remembered about Mozart!) haha. I had once commented to Aris that I would have wanted to be Mozart's muse, (or one of them) and he replied by saying that as it happened, an elixir he once took for
his deafness actually had made him immortal, and here he was, in the flesh! Um, no, I said, "You are Beethoven, then!" At least he tried, and we had a good laugh!
Tuckered out, we headed back to our hotel
and guess what, Aris snoozed. But it wasn't long before we mustered up our energy again and went walking some more. This time, we explored a Cathedral and then wandered the streets, looking at all of the shopping. For dinner this time, a
pizza was in order! So we found a very small place that a tiny patio space and sat there. Pellegrini's! The pizza was mouth watering, with artichoke hearts, funghi, olives and ham. No PakiTaki to take home this time! We then
wandered back to the square in front of Puccini's house and grabbed a gelato, sitting and admiring the composer once again. A little kid that was part of a tour actually climbed up and sat on his lap. I had wanted to do that! But figured
it would somehow be disrespectful, not to mention inappropriate for a 50 year old woman to do..
After our relaxing little stay in Lucca, we had been planning on heading for more relaxation and some hiking, in Cinque Terre, a wonderful
coastal setting where there are 5 uniquely different villages all set upon the cliffs, and within walking distance of one another. The photos I've seen have been inspiring and for years I've wanted to go.
It wasn't in the cards for us today
though! A thunderstorm awoke us and while it was only to last for about half the day, we had already started talking about skipping Cinque Terre, because through our web searches, we had not been able to find a room!
we packed up our little Fiat and hit the highway for Florence. We did not have a reservation here either, but figured that we'd find something in short order. What really happened is that we arrived in the city at around 11am and figured
we'd park the car and walk about a bit, inquiring in a few hotels to see what we could get. The first one was a no, so we walked a few blocks. The second one said yes, and the rate was a reasonable 75 E, but we would have had to switch rooms after
the first night. Then we moved the car, as it had been in a delivery zone. Heading closer to the Centro, we found two things out fast: You cannot drive your car into the Centro and once in, there is really nowhere that you are permitted
to park. Oh, and the third thing, no rooms!
Back we went from whence we came and parked (probably illegally again; the first illegal spot just happened to be directly outside of the police station!) next to a little park,
and walked again. By this time my head was crying for caffeine! Up a few stairs and one was closed. In a lovely door and voila! We found availability and booked for 2 nights in Hotel Cellai. The lady behind the desk named Shona,
was from St. Andrew's Scotland and spoke to us with a lovely lilt - we felt like we were home indeed.
Hotel Cellai is a super little boutique hotel, as mentioned in the previous note, no worn out seating here! I wanted
to spend time sitting in the bar and lounge just to soak it in, but Aris wanted to go to our room. He can always fall asleep, and I cannot. I should have left him there and gone down to the 'Honesty Bar' to have a sip and to type some emails.
(Yes, I'm doing some work still, long distance!).
Now, I don't even know where to start in terms of how I feel, being in Italy for the first time in my life. It's a little overwhelming! And I say this because
of the emotion I feel, setting eyes upon so many important and sacred things, all at once. We walked through several small streets to get to the heart of Florence where the Basilica stands.
It is the famous Cathedral
of Saint Mary of the Flowers. I did not expect the sight I was to behold, coming around the last corner. Up arose this incredible wall, the side of the Cathedral, so high it took my breath away. And so ornate, that I couldn't believe my eyes,
at the workmanship. Walking almost all the way around, I had no words, I could not speak to my husband, I was choked up. Such a weird feeling, when your throat closes and the eyes fill with tears but they just sit there, not quite falling.
Such beauty! Such glory! Three kinds of marble were used to create the incredible colours, the white Carrara, green from Prato and red from where else, but Siena. Of course! The Italian flag is formed with these three precious colours,
their earth, the rock upon which the great country is built. Lit up at night, it almost looks like a drawing, with water colours added. The walls are three to four feet thick, as is evident when one gets to see the construction of the rose windows.
We walked around the entire building and then went inside. It is massive, again overwhelming, and one must be ever so quiet. You must be covered properly, and cannot use flash on your camera, but you
can certainly take your time to gaze at the artwork, the sculptures, the windows, the altar, the crucifix, and the memorial candles.
We then made our way downstairs where there is a very well preserved site of the original
church, the Cathedral of Santa Reparata, with old mosaic, tombs carved in bas relief, and even what appeared to be the Saint's relics in a glass box. Incredible that a massive new Cathedral was built directly on top of what appears to have been a humble,
underground space. We conjecture that it was likely not underground initially, but that the area around it was possibly built up. The Wiki site has a good read about it:
Lunch was to be found down a side street
just around the corner from the Basilica, unfortunately with no view of the basilica building. Dell Olio "Tuscan Chic" is in a shady spot and has welcoming chairs, and the menu looked enticing. We decide to share only two things, a Caprese salad,
and a fresh pasta dish with sliced truffles and tossed in a light oil sauce, with pieces of smoked goose hidden underneath. A bit salty, I really liked it though. Aris was horrified when I cut the pasta into bite sized pieces. Sorry, to
all Italians, to whom this would be considered sacrilege! I will try not to do it again.
We walked and walked and walked, and stepped into a few other churches to look around, and later that evening ended up in a large square
where we had dinner. I don't know why, but we were at a Polish restaurant in the middle of Florence. haha. What did I get? A GIANT grilled pork chop, at least an inch thick, which came with what was supposed to be caramelized
onions, (but which were actually pickled red onions), and I quite enjoyed it. We shared some fries at this meal and they were excellent too. The square we sat in was the Piazza del Repubblica and a great arch was within my view.
That was enough for us, the end of our first night in Florence and the bed was beckoning. In store for us tomorrow would be the climb to the top of the Duomo, something we needed to recharge our batteries for!