A Visit to the home of Puccini

Trip Start Aug 22, 2011
Trip End Sep 29, 2011

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Friday, September 23, 2011

11 Sept. 24 – Saturday

When I woke up this morning, it was with the sad realization that I'd be leaving the Cinque Terre today. I've had a fantastic time here and I feel very much at home in Monterosso. During breakfast many of the same people were there, including the nice couple from Australia.  The couple from Denver were also there and they'll  be leaving today also, to head for Venice.  The overwhelming opinion of just about everyone I’ve spoken with over the last few days (both those at the Hotel and others) is that everyone wishes they had booked a longer stay here.  This is one location where Itineraries get thrown into the sea and people just relax and enjoy the town and the beaches and quickly adapt to the local "laid back" lifestyle.

I paid the bill for my room and had a short visit with Hotel owners (when they weren’t busy dealing with others).  They complimented me on the fact that I got along so well with the other guests, which I thought was very nice.  We talked a bit about local politics and one item of interest in the local paper was the fact that the Mayor of Monterosso is under investigation for corruption (is there anywhere in the world that doesn't occur).  Before leaving the Hotel, I  "donated" my Italy 2010 Guidebook to their small Library, and they seemed pleased with the offer

The Taxi showed up on time at 10:40 for the short ride to the station.  As I drove down the hill for the last time and past the familiar shops and people, I felt a wave of sadness.  Throughout my visit here, I’ve felt like a "local" and part of the daily life in Monterosso.  I’ve been used to watching other anonymous people drive by in Taxi’s, but now I was in that position.  During the ride, I passed local people that I had dealt with greeting each other as they started another day, as well as other tourists heading to the beach or their touring locations for the day.  I didn’t want to leave!

I arrived at Platform 3 at about 10:50, and the couple from Denver arrived shortly after.  They would be on the same train at least as far as Viareggio, where we would both be changing to different trains. The train arrived right on time at 11:03, but when I boarded I was told by the Conductor that this wasn’t the correct train and I should get off.  I tried to find which car the couple from Denver had boarded and finally saw them through the window arguing with a Conductor.  They appeared to be “trapped” and unable to get off.  When the Conductor moved to another car, I “took the Bull by the horns” and released the door from the outside.  They grabbed their luggage and disembarked quickly.  A few seconds later, a female Conductor walked up and berated me for “holding up her train”.  If they’d get their act together and bring the correct trains in at the correct time, these things wouldn’t happen.  It was much the same situation yesterday coming back from Santa Margherita Ligure.

About five minutes later, the correct train arrived and I boarded and found my assigned seat (reservations were compulsory on this route).  The compartment had six seats, but only three were occupied by a couple from the U.S. and a woman from Genova who was travelling to Bari (she could speak English so we had a short visit).

When I arrived in Viareggio, there was only one train on Platform 8, so I assumed that was the correct one and boarded.  The trip to Lucca only took about 45 minutes or so.  I spent much of the trip standing to get photos of the gorgeous Tuscan countryside in the sunlight of a beautiful September day.

The train arrived in Lucca on a “side track”, and not one of the main ones.  When I exited the front door of the station, I had no difficulty spotting Hotel Rex across the street and was glad that I had booked a Hotel with such easy access.  I’ll only be here for two nights, so don’t need to be in the heart of the city.

The Clerk at the front desk was more business-like than what I’d been used to in Monterosso.  After recording my Passport details and generating a code for the internet, he showed me to Room 11 which was through a small hallway behind the front desk.  The room is clean and comfortable, but the décor is somewhat “dated” so it’s slightly different than that of Villa Steno.  There’s a small sitting room with a TV, Bar Fridge and Couch just inside the door, with a small bathroom to the left.  The bedroom is located up a small set of stairs in a Loft.  I can’t recall ever staying in a Hotel like this before.

Lucca is a city located in the northern part of the beautiful Tuscany region.  It was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman Colony in 180 BC.  At one time, Lucca was the second largest city state after Venice.  One of the distinctive features is the large medieval wall which encircles the old part of the city, which is now largely a pedestrian promenade.  The city was captured by Napoleon in the 1800’s, and he installed his sister as the “ruler”.  It’s also the birthplace of a number of famous Opera Composers, the most notable being Giacomo Puccini who wrote many famous Operas including "La Boheme" and "Turandot". Some of his arias are very well known in popular culture, including “O mio babbino caro” (from Gianni Schicci) and “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot).

After a short rest, I got my gear organized to do a “walkabout” in the city.  It didn’t take me too long to find a passage leading through the huge medieval wall and into the main part of the city.  It was about 15:00 by this time and I was starting to get hungry to went to find somewhere for lunch.  The first place I tried appeared to be open, but when I sat down the Waiter told me they were closed.

After wandering through various parts of the city, I ended up in one of the squares with a large Church.  There was a better selection of restaurants there. There was also a large street market set up next to the Church, selling everything from Handbags, Jewelry and food items to electronic gadgets.  I decided on Restaurant Turandot (coincidentally the Opera which features one of my favourite songs, Nessun Dorma).  I ordered Lasagna, Caprese Salad, Wine, Ice Tea and Coffee.  The food was reasonably good and the service adequate but not enthusiastic (I didn’t leave a tip).  I’m having a difficult time “warming up” to Lucca, as it’s so different to what I experienced in Monterosso over the last few days.

After lunch I continued exploring various side streets around the Church, and getting more photos.  During that time, I heard the loud clamour of drums coming from the front of the Church, so quickly moved to that area.  There was a small Band playing different types of Drums and wearing period costumes.  At the beginning they “drummed” a group of well dressed dignitaries into the Church, and then gave a small performance in front of the Church before marching off into one of the side streets.

By this point, my back was starting to hurt and it was awkward moving around through the large crowds, so I decided to make my way back to the Hotel.  I managed to find the exact route that I had taken to get into the city, so it didn’t take long.  I had a much needed shower, and took some time to get caught up on E-mail and other things.  I’ll try and do some laundry tomorrow, if the Laundry is open on Sunday.  That should last me until I fly home on Thursday.  I’ll also have to buy my ticket for the trip to Rome, so will probably do that tomorrow as well.

I spent the latter part of the afternoon resting and catching up on computer records.  I had considered not having dinner tonight as I had such a late lunch, but by 20:00 I was starting to get quite hungry.  I asked the Desk Clerk for recommendations, and he suggested Trattoria Pizzeria da Francesco, which is just a short walk from the station.

I located the restaurant easily along a quiet side street, but was very suprised at how busy it was, as it’s located in a somewhat “industrial” area right along the rail tracks.  However, it seems to have a “loyal following” and everyone in the restaurant was speaking Italian.  As far as I could determine, I was the only tourist in the large crowd. I was given a table in the outside patio at the front (there’s another one on the side, which I didn’t discover until I was leaving).  I wasn’t thrilled with the seating assignment as I knew I’d be sitting near smokers, but under the circumstances I decided to hope for the best.

I waited about 20 minutes before the waitress finally had time to take my order (she was so busy with orders that she was literally running back and forth).  From my table, I had a good view of the two Pizza Chefs and the wood-burning Oven, and it was interesting to watch the activity.  They were working continuously!  I learned that the attractive waitress was actually from Romania, but she conversed in both English and Italian with equal ease.  I ordered the Quattro Stagione Pizza, wine, water and eventually Coffee and Gelato.  The Pizza was about equivalent to a “medium” at home but it was thin crust so the size was just right.

When I got the bill, I noticed that I hadn’t been charged for the Coffee or Gelato, and I questioned that.  She told me not to worry about it.  I was instructed to pay in the back and when I went to the rear of the restaurant, there was an employee sitting at a small table next to the Bar with an older printing type adding machine (I was surprised that he didn’t have a Croupier’s hat).  Taking care of the bills seemed to be his total job function.  There was another kitchen just behind him, where Pasta and other food items are prepared.  For a full meal (including Wine water and the Coperta), I was shocked that the total bill was only €10 but I gladly left a €2 gratuity.   

I walked back to the Hotel and had a short visit with the Desk Clerk.  It turns out that he’s familiar with B.C. as he used to work on the Cruise ships so has been in port in Vancouver, Victoria, Nanaimo and Port Hardy.  We visited for about 20 minutes and about midnight, I excused myself and went back to the room.

A few thoughts that occurred to me while dining this evening.  First, I’m amazed at the number of people here that still smoke (especially younger people).  For some reason, the culture here has been slow to adopt the non-smoking philosophy that’s so prevalent at home.  Secondly, I’ve been somewhat annoyed with a few things here since arriving, but after speaking with the Waitress and the Desk Clerk I’m starting to get used to this area to some extent.  The culture here is definitely different than the Cinque Terre, but I’ve found that talking to people in new places tends to help me to become comfortable with a location and to become familiar with the people.  I’ve found that initial impressions are often incorrect.

11 Sept. 25 – Sunday

After reading some of the comments on Trip Advisor, I was somewhat curious about what type of breakfast would be provided at Hotel Rex.  I envisioned a couple of stale Croissants and some watery juice, but was pleasantly surprised.  The Hotel provided a fairly elaborate breakfast selection including Cereals, two types of cold meats, cheese, bread, fresh Croissants, Yogurt, numerous types of fruit jellies and marmalade, coffee, tea and juices.  It wasn’t hard to fill up with that selection!

I decided my first order of business today would be to get some laundry done.  That would also allow the Maid some time to clean the room.  The helpful girl at the front desk provided directions to the Lavanderia and insisted it would only be a 10 minute walk (it looked a lot farther than that on the Map).  As it turned out it wasn’t too much longer than 10 minutes, and the Laundry was easy to spot.

It was a small facility with two small Washers, one large and four Dryers.  They had instructions in English and Italian, but I didn’t see any soap dispenser.  It occurred to me that perhaps the soap was added by the machine as was the case with the Laundry I used in Stresa a few years ago, and this turned out to be the case.  A yung lady entered while I was puzzling the soap issue and confirmed that soap and softener would be added automatically.  That was indicated on one of the signs, but I hadn’t got that far yet.

The machines only took Tokens and all I had was €20 notes so that’s what I had to buy.  A wash was four tokens in the small washer and eight in the large machine, and the Dryers were one token for 10 minutes.  The wash took about an hour and I allowed 20 minutes for a dry.  Unfortunately, when I took my Tilley Vest out of the Dryer, I discovered a noticeable green stain on the front, and realized that I’d left some medications in one of the pockets.  I’ll have to wash that again when I get back to the Hotel.

Just before the Dryer was finished, a young Italian came in and proceeded to stuff each of the small Washers with an incredible amount of clothes, including sheets.  He could barely get the doors closed!  I suggested that perhaps he should consider using the big machine, at which point he asked if I was an expert on laundry.  I percieved the comment to have been intended in a humourous note, so wasn't offended.  I mentioned that while I don't profess to be an "expert" on the subject, I've done a fair amount of laundry in my 60+ years, so have a good idea how this is supposed to work.   When he saw that I was a Photographer, he provided his business cards and asked me to either have coffee with him or contact him later, as he’s publishing a book on Lucca and needs photos.

On the way back to the Hotel, I stopped at a small Bar on the corner by the Laundry and had an Espresso (it was only €1).  As I was walking back to the Hotel, I noticed a nice looking German Sheperd wearing two collars wandering around aimlessly, and he looked like he was hot and thirsty.  There was a small “moat” running along the wall, so water was available.  He followed me for awhile, and I thought about bringing him back to the Hotel and getting them to call Animal Control.  I hope someone eventually takes him to his owner.

One thing I’ve noticed especially this morning is that there a LOT of people on bicycles, and many bike rental shops in town.  One of the favourite activities here is apparently riding along the medieval wall, and if I had more time I might give that a try.

Back at the Hotel I washed out my Vest and got some Computer work done.  The Maid has been through the room, so I can sit without interruption and cool off while I work.  I want to re-check my train connections to Rome tomorrow on the net, but don’t want to activate the internet connection until I have a Blog entry ready to go.  I’m really surprised they have such a cumbersome system for internet access.  The girl at the desk mentioned that even if the customer has arranged a four hour connection, if the computer is turned off you lose any remaining time and have to get another password.

At about 15:00 I made the short walk to the train station to buy my tickets for tomorrow (the Hotel is in a darn convenient location!).  I was glad to see that the ticket office was open on Sunday and I booked the train departing at 10:32 (which was the original plan – there’s one change in Florence).  I was also getting a bit hungry by this time so I stopped at the small Bar in the station for a Proscuitto Crudo & Mozzarella Panini, Fanta and Coffee.

After lunch I had a look at the station to figure out which track I’d be departing from, where the Sotto Passagio was located, etc.  I briefly spoke with a young couple from New Brunswick (their MEC Backpack gave them away).  They were heading for a Villa somewhere near Portaio to meet friends.  This was their first trip to Italy.  I noticed that they hadn’t validated their ticket, but unfortunately the train arrived and they boarded too quickly, so I hope they don’t get fined.  On my way out of the station, I helped an elderly Italian lady by hauling her heavy wheelie bag down the stairs (she obviously isn't used to "packing light").

After checking out the station, I headed through one of the portals in the wall for a look at another part of the city.  I thought it would be a good idea to get some further photos in the late afternoon light.  I spent an hour or two just wandering around taking photos, and hopefully some of them are good.  At one point I noticed an elaborate procession which involved a pickup draped with cloth and fitted with a large Umbrella, and a figure standing in the back that was dressed in religious robes.  There were two others in the back assisting him.  There was a Police car in the back to control traffic.  The truck stopped at a small Church, which had a large crowd gathered out front.

They were obviously not native Italians so I asked one of the female Police officers standing nearby which Church it was, in order to get some idea what this occasion was.  She “snapped at me” in a very unpleasant manner, and first corrected my imperfect Italian.  She gave the name of the Church and then said that it was a celebration of a group from Sri Lanka.  I didn't want to try asking for more information, given the unpleasant tone so far.  I was somewhat upset about this event, and it definitely put another “negative spin” on my visit to Lucca.  At that point, I was ready to take the next train to any other nearby city, and never return here.

By the time I got back to the Hotel, it was about 18:00.  The Clerk that I’d been speaking with before said that if I was going to da Francesco for dinner again tonight, I’d better go right at seven before it gets busy.  I watched TV for half an hour and had a short rest, and then got ready for dinner.

However, I got a huge surprise when I went down to the Lobby.  The weather had changed drastically and there was now a torrential downpour of Biblical proportions happening, along with thunder and lightning.  There was ankle deep “rivers” flowing in some parts of the streets.  The Clerk offered an Umbrella, but the Hotel units were somewhat “in need of repair” so I went back to the room and retrieved my trusty travel Umbrella.  

By the time I’d walked about half way to the restaurant, I was wishing I’d used my Rick Steves Rain Poncho instead.  The Umbrella helped to some extent, but my right sleeve and both pant legs were soaked by the time I reached the restaurant.  I arrived at the same time as several others from the Hotel, and we were all seated inside right away.  The two other couples were seated in one of the back dining rooms, which I hadn’t even noticed last night.  The attractive waitress took me back there and gave me a tour of the other dining rooms. My conversations with her were definitely one of the "bright spots" of my visit to Lucca.

I was seated beside a very proper British couple from Bath and we had a nice visit, although they were both somewhat hard of hearing.  I ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara, Insalata Mista, Wine, Water, Coffee and Gelato.  It was an excellent meal, and just about the right size.  Eventually the British couple left and they were replaced by a couple from Boston.  The husband had been born in Lucca and could speak Italian.  When I paid the €19 bill, I provided a €3 tip, and I explained to the Owner that I was very pleased with the service provided by the young Waitress (this was a different Waitress than the one I'd been speaking to earlier).  I thanked both Waitresses (including the one from last night) and headed for the Hotel.

The attractive blond Waitress said she hopes I return to Lucca, as she will probably still be working at the restaurant.  She told me a bit about how bad life is in Romania, and mentioned that her Mom and sister also work at the restaurant.  Before leaving, I told both Waitresses they were doing a great job and shook hands with the girl from Romania.  I also complimented the Pizza chef.

The walk back was considerably “drier” as the rain had mostly stopped.  When I got back to the Lobby, I had a short visit with the Desk Clerk and also a couple from the U.S.  The husband was also a photographer (Nikon D40) and we talked about that for a few minutes.

Back in the room, I got my Camera bag packed, my ScottEVest loaded for the trip tomorrow, charged my Cellphone and updated my computer records.  My experiences in Lucca have been somewhat “mixed” and the city just hasn’t resonated for me.  Perhaps it’s just that it’s late in my trip and I’m suffering some degree of “travel fatigue”.  I havn't given up on it totally and may get back here someday, and if so I'll be looking forward to dining at the da Francesco restaurant.  Visiting Lucca with a Rick Steves tour would probably help me appreciate the history and character of the city much more.

I sure hope the Hotel in Rome has a less complicated system for internet access.
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