Tuscany towns – cookies and more

The great thing about being in Tuscany turned out not to be just the heavyweights, Florence and Pisa, but the other wonderful little Tuscan towns around the area. We made it to two others that were perfectly charming and not as overwhelming – Lucca and Volterra.

Lucca is one of the best preserved medieval towns in the whole province. It managed to survive the centuries of war and destruction that most other areas suffered under, and as the regional capital for many decades, it has a lot of lovely buildings, churches, and piazzas to enjoy. It is also now known as the place where most European toilet paper is made – this was the most exciting thing for the kids, although we didn’t make to the TP factory… But we did eat lunch in an old Roman amphitheater, wandered the winding streets and fortified walls, and ate some disappointing gelato.

Volterra was my favorite. Although we arrived on a rainy mid-morning, we spent a few hours wandering this hilltop town boasting more ancient churches and adorable twisty alleys. It’s known, among other things, for its alabaster and some unique cookies called Ossi di Morto cookies (bones of the dead). They were surprisingly similar to the texture I would imagine dried up skeleton bones would actually have… After a delicious lunch at a cafe, it was time to go.

We also managed to fit in a day at the beach. The air and sand were hot, but the sea was cold, cold, cold. So, of course, only the Cayas were in there (well, B and the kids), and a random other kid from Northern England who was so happy to swim with someone else because his parents refused to go in. Soon we headed back up over the Alps, just in time for a last snowstorm of the season.

Florence: Art pilgrimage for all

Florence. I spent years studying the art, architecture, religion and philosophy coming out of the Renaissance and beyond. And going to see it all in Florence was a literal pilgrimage. A boon for the soul.

Of course, it would have been soooo much better if I actually remembered anything about that art, architecture, religion and philosophy – but it was an amazing place nonetheless.

We saw all the top sites you can imagine:

  • Santa Maria Novella church, one of the first major basilicas in the city, filled with art from many famous painters
  • The Florence Cathedral and Brunellschi’s dome, an engineering feat that is even more breathtaking in person
  • Uffizi gallery, housing the most important Rennaissance art collection in the world
  • Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, particularly close to my heart from my opera singing days.

I’ll let the art below speak for itself. But what about some of the other highlights from our Florentine adventure?

  • When we stopped to eat some gelato on the shores of the Arno, we saw a guy cycling down the road, and his paper liquor bag broke, shattering what seemed to be a nice bottle of champagne in the street. I said ‘Aw, that really sucks’ a little too loud, but he heard and agreed ‘Yes, it does really suck,’ and proceeded to pick up all the broken glass. I thought that was nice.
  • BigB wanted some authentic biscotti, so we stopped at a market stall where he asked for ‘one of each flavor’, which the girl interpreted as ‘one of each flavor for everyone in the family’, meaning we got about 2 kg of biscotti. Which seemed like too much at first, but we managed to eat it all within a couple of days anyway, so I guess she knew what she was doing.
  • J was really into the art at Uffizi. She stood and stared at nearly every painting for the first hour, it was amazing. Until it turned out she was actually just trying to process all the Jesus paintings from the early periods, and finally said ‘Why are they just painting the same thing over and over?? I’m tired of Baby Jesus and dead Jesus.’ I think that sentiment is actually what started the Renaissance in the first place, so… hooray for that lesson?
  • BigB was also really into the art at Uffizi, but his interest took the form of photographing close-ups of every single marble bust in the whole place. I mean, I like marble busts too, but this was unhealthy. How many statues of Sophocles does one museum really need, and why do we need photos of each of them? The answer is ‘Probably 3, just in case’.

Too soon, it was time to go. I feel like we could have spent weeks wandering the city, but we had to get home and start eating biscotti. Don’t worry, Florence, we’ll be back.

Italy: From the Alps for a piece of Pisa pizza

Over the Easter holidays, we took a trip to Italy with my parents. We piled into our rented van and headed out, destination: the west coast of the boot, where we had rented a little villa for the week.

It’s easy to misjudge how close Switzerland and Italy really are. I think we might actually be able to see Italy from our house… Even moreso, it’s surprising how much a change in temperature and terrain you can see in just a few hours. We drove up around Lac Léman and through the Saint Bernard tunnel (we didn’t see any real Saint-Bernards, but we did see a few statues, with the brandy barrels and everything!). Traffic was good, and we made good time. And before we knew it, suddenly we had climbed over snowy alpine peaks, through dry Italian savannas and arrived at a rocky coastline peppered with tunnels. Italy really likes its tunnels. It seems like the entire coast is tunneled straight through rock.

We spent the night in Arenzano, just next to Genoa, and enjoyed an evening walking the coast and breathing the Mediterranean sea air. However, we quickly discovered that when you take 4 adults and 2 children with picky eating habits and all with a tendency to not make decisions, you run into issues of finding and acquiring dinner. We wandered around town for a while, and most places were either not open yet or unsuitable for one reason or another, until we finally settled on Lebanese take-out. In Italy. And then LittleB almost threw up in the park. So we spent the rest of the night in our hotel room, watching the live-action Scooby Doo movie (the sequel) dubbed into Italian. In other words, it was a classic TheCayas vacation evening.

The next day we made a quick stop in Genoa and ate probably the best gelato ever. Then we spent some time overlooking the city from the Spianata Castelletto, until we were almost literally mobbed by several tour groups and swarms of tiny flies. We also managed to nearly get our rental van stuck in the parking area, when the corners of the narrow Italian streets were too small for us – but with some careful spotting, my dad managed to climb the wheels over several large curbs and get us free. On to Viareggio.

The villa we rented was in Torre del Lago, which turned out to be quite a sleepy little village but we discovered it is famous for two things: 1) It was the summer home of Puccini, who would write his operas in a little tower beside the lake, and continues to be celebrated with a huge opera festival each summer. But we missed it, being there too early. And, 2) Torre del Lago is apparently a famous gay beach, with huge crowds coming in the summer to enjoy all the bars and shows along the coast. We missed this too, being too early. We only saw a couple of mostly naked Italians on the beach and what could have been a few trans ladies, but otherwise it was pretty deserted.

We had picked the area since it was a good home base for visiting the rest of Tuscany. In particular, it was only about half an hour from Pisa – which was on our must-do list, so we checked it out on our first day. As it turns out, Pisa is quite small, and there’s not a lot there except for that crazy tower. And it is seriously leaning, folks. I mean, I knew it was leaning but it really defies sense. But we had a good time wandering around, taking pictures of all the tourists trying to take one of those “holding up the tower” photos and all the pigeons that sit on statues’ heads (that makes me giggle every time). We tried to find lunch, but as usual, our family herd is not good at that sort of decision making. We ended up eating at a generic fast-food kind of pizza place, BUT it was called “Pisa Pizza”, which you can imagine, led to many jokes about “eating a piece of pisa pizza”. It continues to this day. Worth it.