Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Cell-ular Life and the Flatulent Dragon

We awoke to our first cloudy day in Tuscany. Our genial host tells me that it will clear up and be sunny within the hour, as usual. Hmmm, I wonder if it's his gentle way to acknowledge our early arrival for breakfast. After a restful night's sleep we are indeed up and ready to go a full hour earlier than what has become our norm. This is a very relaxing and low stress place, and perhaps the main reason we chose the hills to the city this time. City living in Paris two weeks ago was great, and the almost magnetic pull from the other side of the front door exciting. Here we know the city in the valley waits, but now it waits for us.

Wednesday - September 30, 2009 - Florence, Italy

Sure enough, the clouds are gone and we have a dazzling ride down the hill to Firenze. Today we hope to see the Michelangelo crucifix in Santo Spirito church, then spend some time walking around the cells of San Marco looking at frescoes. It was from San Marco that Savonarola was summoned the day he was taken to the X-spot in the Piazza Signoria. I hope it's kind of creepy. Other than that we have no plans, and it feels great.

South of the river Arno, this oldest part of Florence is quiet with very narrow streets, little traffic, and small woodworking shops where artisans/craftsmen were busy at work. We watched as they built ornate window frames and doors from new wood and old designs. If you owned one of these 300 year old homes and had to replace a rotted window sash, this was the place to come. There are many large old buildings that have been converted to apartments if the brass intercom and door bell plates are an indication.

Entering the piazza Santo Spirito we thought for a moment that we were in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The blue sky and sienna colored stucco-like front of the church is quite a change from the green and white marble to which we had become accustomed. It was in the morgue of the hospital associated with Santo Sprito that Michelangelo surreptitiously dissected corpses to learn the mysteries of the human body. He was not a doctor, but I guess you don't have to be in order to reverse engineer something. These experiences allowed him to sculpt the veining and musculature beneath the skin as precisely as he did (At the time dissection was a major crime). To show his thanks he carved a wooden crucifix and gave it to the monastery, and this is the reason for our visit.

Unfortunately, the Holy Spirit apparently takes Wednesdays off from the mortals and the sign in front suggested we return on Thursday. Sorry, can't; but another day perhaps - a good reason to return to Firenze. Not even mildly disappointed, we walked back along the Arno watching the crews ripple their way through this beautiful city.

San Marco (which I had been calling San Marco Polo just so that Kat would correct me each time) was not that high on my list of things to see (what's another monastery), but I was intrigued by the Savonarola connection. Kat had the good sense to put it high on her list, so off we went. We had walked by the front of this museum a number of times and not realized it. The facade is kind of dirty and dumpy, not very inviting at all. Once inside however it is fantastic, and I deserved a good dope-slap for being a little negative.

If you apply a thin layer of very smooth plaster to a wall or ceiling (like in the Sistine Chapel) then paint it while it's still wet, you have yourself a fresco. One of the finest fresco painters ever was Fra Angelico (1400-1455), and this is the friar's monastery. It is peaceful around the open cloister and easy to forget that the city swirls just on the other side of the wall. The ground floor is filled with altarpieces and paintings that look as fresh as the day they were painted 600 years ago. It is remarkable. Fra Bartolomeo (1473 - 1517) carried on the work of "Friar Angel" and created the moving portrait of Christ (Ecce Homo) and the signature portrait of Savonarola. They are remarkable.

Upstairs you find the monk's bedrooms, lined on either side of the hallway that runs around the cloister. In the far corner are the three room suite used by Savonarola and the guest suite used by the Medici family (Cosimo - Lorenzo the Mag's grandpa - built the place). Many of the cells, as the bedrooms are called, are decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico. Returning to your bedroom after a day of meditation and prayer to sleep beneath these masterpieces became easy to imagine. I, (along with everyone else), took a few pictures but they don't come close to conveying the beauty or vitality of the artwork. What a wonderful peacefulness you experience during the visit.(I wondered if the monks ever switched cells for a little variety.)

I was pleased to feel a little chill run up my spine when I entered Savonarola's study and next door bedroom. I was alone and it met my expectation for creepiness. On the walls are portraits and paintings (including the burning in the square), and there are glass cases filled with some of his personal possessions. What really caught my eye was the very uncomfortable looking hair-shirt girdle he wore as a sacrifice (and speaking of sacrifice, I'm glad that went out of style). I have such mixed emotions about the guy. He was admired by many people who at the time thought the church had strayed too far from it's fundamental teachings and beliefs. I like that. But, he took the Osama-like one step too far when he convinced otherwise reasonable people to go all jihad and even chuck some of their artwork and books into a big barbecue pyre in the middle of the square. Perhaps hanging and burning was a tad extreme, but how else do you rid yourself of such a dominating negative personality? I did open and close the inside wooden shutter and wondered if I was mimicking something he had done many times. Like I said, a little creepy.

A nice walk in the dazzling sunshine was the perfect counterpoint to our museum visit, so we grabbed some walk-about sandwiches and headed to the beautiful Piazza SS. Annunziata. It is a very quiet square surrounded by beautifully proportioned three story buildings. The one that interests us the most is the Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents), which was designed by Brunelleschi, of Duomo fame. Back in the day, mothers who were unable to care for their newborns, brought them to this building and placed the child on a lazy susan sort of device built into one of the walls. This maintained the anonymity of the mother. The wheel is gone, but the barred portal remains. Very touching.

Firenze is a great city to just wander about and that wandering brought us to the church of Santa Maria Novella. Everyone who has arrived in the city by bus or train walks by it (as we had many times) on their way to the major sites. We decided to have a look inside and it was a treat. It is big and cool to the touch. There are a lot of reasons to go in, but I'll elaborate on just a few. On one wall is an amazing fresco called "The Trinity" by a young artist named Masaccio (27 when he died). So much of the art of the period is flat with people lined up as in a family picture. This work is a 3-D wonder, recognized as the first of it's kind. Standing on the floor of the nave you look up into the painted chapel. Really remarkable.

We walked around the altar looking at the fresco Ghirlandaio's studio did with the two little characters credited to Michelangelo - his first work on plaster.

That was good but what tickled my funny bone, more than any other sight in Florence was the fresco by Filippino Lippi called "St. Philip at the Temple of Mars", located behind the altar to the right. With righteous indignation the human St. Philip mocks the god Mars, and brings out his pet dragon who farts in the face of the god's son and kills him. So much for false gods. The spectators are holding their noses. The brown cloud rises. Somebody has a real sense of humor here.

We had seen and experienced enough, and since we were right next to the bus station grabbed the #7 at it's origination and headed back to Fiesole. It was still early so we decided to walk up to the Church of San Francesco for the view. Let me reiterate the word up. No gentle staircase like at the Piazza Michelangelo the other day, this is an old fashion stone street torture walk, straight up. I was not amused when Kat told me that a little 70 year old lady (with a cane) was about to pass us on the right, I only wondered how they would get the ambulance up here. We never made it up to the church, stopping instead at the beautiful little park/overlook where there are benches - enough said. We parked there and watched the late afternoon sun settle over the Duomo and the Florentine valley, then sink into the horizon. It was worth the walk.

Our senses were sated. We had eaten well, slept well, seen everything (just about) that we had wanted to see, heard Gregorian chanting, and felt at peace with Florence.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Oozing Through the Uffizi

Oh Glorious Day! The Tuscan countryside puts one in such a peaceful frame of mind, and we are glad we chose Fiesole as our resting place. The cool early morning has given way to a warm, clear, bright blue skied day. Our little hotel has all the amenities we desire; a pleasant breakfast with barely acceptable croissants (we've been spoiled in France), a very quiet patio for journal writing, and a nearby church to serenade us with it's bells. There is an old olive tree across the street whose silvery leaves glisten in the sun. Our host tells us he remembers that tree from when he was a child. Unfortunately I can't remember any trees from my childhood. Our culture doesn't encourage that kind of attention.

Tuesday - September 29, 2009 - Florence, Italy

On the way to the square we stopped at our local tabac to buy round trip bus tickets and was rewarded with recognition by the husband and wife proprietors as regulars. It doesn't take long around here. We felt so carefree as our only time constraint this day was the 12:45 Uffizi Gallery ticket pickup. We hopped off the bus at the Duomo around 11:00 so we had plenty of time to stroll through the Bargello (a five minute walk from the Uffizi).

The Bargello (old police station) is a small, easy to navigate museum dedicated to Renaissance sculpture and on this morning was sparsely populated (nice after the crowded streets we navigated to get there). It is a rectangular pietra serena stone building with a sun drenched courtyard that is perfect for some serious contemplation.

We climbed the long stone staircase and entered the Donatello room. The rug runner on the floor led us directly to the object we sought: the David. Don's bronze statue is jarring in contrast to our remembered image of the same subject by Michelangelo. This one looks a little coy and lacks some of the steely determination you see at the Accademia. I don't think I'm being a "girly-man" when I say this statue is beautiful. Davide is wearing a flowered hat and some fancy boots and resting one foot on that big, bad, bruiser Goliath's head. Plus he's got a nice butt.

Directly beneath this room on the bottom floor are the other two works we wanted to see: Michelangelo's Bacchus and Giambologna's Mercury, and that's where we headed.

The Bacchus is a cool work. It appears the young man has not been bashful about sampling the grape while posing, and seems to wear a stupor-induced smile upon his face. There is an eerie resemblance to Donatello's David upstairs. We know from our reading that Donatello's David was installed in the Medici palace while Michelangelo lived there, and that Donatello was a pop icon to Mike. In any event this work makes you smile and brings life to the word Bacchanalia.

We wanted to see the Mercury just to gauge how close it came to the FTD (Florists Telegraph Delivery) logo. The answer is not much, but each has the cool little wings on the ankles and helmet. It is amazing that the statue doesn't fall over as it balances on cupid's breath. There is so much to see in the Bargello, but we have discipline and pass masterpiece after masterpiece on our way back into the Florence sunshine. We are sticking to our strategy that less is more.

With a half hour to kill we walked to the Piazza della Signoria, and grabbed some delicious tomato and mozzarella cheese takeaway sandwiches. We ate them as we strolled past the Loggia and it's statuary, seeking out "the spot." A marble and bronze disk that is engraved in Latin: "Here Girolamo Savonarola and his Dominican brothers were hanged and burned in the year MCCCCXCVIII" (a long way of saying 1498)". This was the X that marked the spot of the Bonfire of the Vanities. Very cool indeed.

Our visit to the Uffizi (ooh-feet-see)is the fulfillment of a life quest and we were getting excited. One time we got there on a Monday - closed; another we arrived too close to the closing time - sorry. The last time, we arrived early, queued in the shorter of the two tickets lines, only to find that we our line had purchased the right to walk through the Pallazzo Vecchio next door - foiled again.

This time we bought on-line before we left Virginia and had an electronic voucher safely in hand. We queued at the ticket pickup door (number 3), presented the paper, received our tickets and smugly headed to the entrance (door number 1). In the time it took to walk there our confidence was fading and we fully expected the door to slam shut due to a strike or some natural disaster. It didn't. We glided through the metal detectors, and entered one of the finest art museums in the world.

We were not alone. Perhaps spoiled by our experiences at the other museums, the Uffizi felt claustrophobic. They meter the number of people who enter by time but on this day it didn't seem to have the desired effect. We were part of the sludge of people that oozed it's way through the various salons and pooled in front of every major piece of work. The slow progress seemed timed to an inaudible dirge playing somewhere.

Like everyone else we wanted to see Botticelli's "Allegory of Spring" and "Birth of Venus."

They are larger than expected and hang within meters of each other in the same warm and dimly lit room. The mob (of which we were a part) slowly slid across the face of the plexiglas shields, straining to discern the details in the paintings. This was difficult because the paintings are under-lit and almost melt into the walls. Where were the light, lively, vibrant scenes we expected? It was a tad disappointing to see them in person, over the shoulder of other people.

The next salon contained DaVinci's "Adoration of the Magi" and "Annunciation", two more big hits. Though better lit and slightly easier to see around the packets of people the pieces themselves left no lasting impressions. I wondered if we were burning out, or that our expectations were so high nothing could meet them. Maybe.

Nah. I still felt the thrill of standing before Michelangelo's only easel painting: The "Doni Tondo", Holy Family. It is bright, dynamic and full of energy and enthusiasm.

And I got a real kick out of the mug-shots of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. These were breakthrough paintings in the early years of the Renaissance. The first signs of humanism; real people as subjects instead of saints, holy people and holy themes. These were the shoulders upon which future Renaissance painters stood.
To get away from the crowd for a bit, I stood at the window that overlooks the Arno and was rewarded with what has to be one of the best views of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Just below was the "secret" covered walkway that connected the Palazzo Vecchio on this side of the river to the Pitti Palace on the other. The Medicis used this to travel back and forth, high above the common folks. One of my favorite pictures of the trip.

Leaving the Uffizi we made our way back to Santa Croce to pick up our leather boxes, and were glad to see the gold inscriptions were correct. We really wanted to stay outside for a while so we decided to walk a little way up the Arno and just enjoy the sights and being together. We watched a couple of crews on the very placid river. Before we knew it we had walked to the bridge that crosses over to the Piazza Michelangelo - a trip we had planned to take by bus. Time and distance evaporate when you are doing something you like with someone you love. That's been the story of our retirement.

The trek to the Piazza could be challenging - it looks like it's a long way, straight up. Thankfully there is a gracefully inclined tree lined walk with big steps that allow you to make good forward progress before the next vertical assault on your calf muscles. The Piazza, with a bronzed copy of the manly David in the middle, presents a spectacular 180 degree view of Florence across the river. It was remarkably clear and we could just make out the little village of Fiesole (our temporary home) high upon the hillside beyond. Beautiful.

My guess is most people stop their upward trek there (it was fairly crowded) but after enjoying the view, we kept climbing. Up we went to the deserted, peaceful and beautiful church of San Miniato. The doors were open and welcoming. We joined about 30 other people inside, some meditating, some walking around the altar, others peeking into the various chapels. It is a beautiful church, part of a still functioning Benedictine monastery. Right at 5:30 the monks in white cassocks entered and mass began. The beautiful, soothing sound of Gregorian chanting filled the air. We felt privileged to be there.

There was little left to do but grab a bus and head back down into the valley and up the other side. We were so peaceful and grateful for the day. Dinner was in the little Vinandro restaurant on the south side of the square. We ate inside where it was warm and homey. The food was excellent - artichoke ravioli in Parmesan cream sauce for me, gnocchi for Kat, and a few glasses of local wine. With our hotel just a short walk away we reflected on what a glorious day it had in fact been.

The pictures of artwork came from public images on the web as neither the Uffizi nor Bargello allow photography. Ed

Monday, September 28, 2009

Can You Say - Fiesole

Ah, Florence; we finally return. The genesis of this trip was late September, 2007. Kat and I were sitting like two hobos on the steps of the Duomo waiting for the newlyweds (Ed and Alicia) to make their way from the Accademia and David. For all our trips here it seemed we had never left enough time in the city to do what we wanted (like getting into the Uffizi), and wondered what it would be like to come to Firenze all by ourselves and spend a few days living in Michelangelo's world. He was a Tuscan by birth, and a Florentine at heart. We decided right then to make it a mission and here we are glad we didn't put it off to another day (as we are wont to do since retiring).

Monday - September 28, 2009 - Fiesole, Italy

Fee-ah-sew-lay (Fiesole) sits on a hill just north of the pietra serena and terracotta city of Firenze. The only thing that separates these two completely different worlds is a short bus ride. We picked this little town because we wanted to be near the city but not stay in it (for a reason I can't articulate).

The drive from Lucca to the outskirts of the city was pleasant and easy. Those last few miles through the city and up the hill to Fiesole however, were something to behold. A couple of things were on my mind. First you are not allowed to drive into the center of Firenze unless you are staying there or have a business reason. To enforce this the city has installed a number of cameras that take a picture of your license plate if you stray onto the wrong street and magically transmit a nice fat fine to your car rental company. You have no choice but to pay it (It amazes me that the Italians have figured out how to do this so efficiently). The second was the locals drive like maniacs in this city. After Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this is the worst city I've driven in. Left sided Ireland was a breeze in comparison.

As you crest the hill the road opens onto the very pleasant Fiesole town square bordered by a bus stop, a church, and a museum. It was love at first sight. We had no idea where our hotel was (Villa Bonelli) so it was a pleasant surprise to see a sign for it shortly after we passed through the square. It seemed to be pointing directly up an almost vertical cobblestone alleyway that looked about 3 inches wider than my tiny Skoda with both mirrors folded in. I dropped Kat off at the bottom and searched out a parking spot on the main road. There were none and I'd wager that there are still none. I buzzard-circled for a while but realizing I couldn't drive forever screwed up my courage, folded in the mirrors and made my way up this "street." The clutch in this poor little diesel vehicle cried for mercy. There is no place to stop on the street, never mind park, so I negotiated a 12 point turn and headed back down. Halfway down I encountered my lovely wife who had us checked in and was in possession of directions to a real parking lot.

So children and grandchildren (or whoever is reading this and wants to stay at Villa Bonelli (which is quite lovely by the way)) do what we should have done at the start. As you exit the main square of Fiesole turn left at the gas station, follow the blue signs, and park your stallion in the big (free - 2009) parking lot down the road a few hairpin turns. Grab your stuff and hike up the road until you see an impossibly steep set of stairs on your left; take a deep breath and start climbing. At the top of the stairs you are directly opposite the little cobblestone road upon which Villa Bonelli is perched. The walk probably won't kill you if you take your little 5 day suitcases like we did. If when you read this you use a cane or walker, stay in Florence - it's worth spending the inheritance, and the kids shouldn't begrudge that.

Our host was gracious and helpful, and showed us to a comfortable room with a view to the north that the Florentines would never see from their valley. It had an interesting shower/bidet combination that I found fascinating for some reason. Like a peanut butter and mustard sandwich. Who would have thought to combine the two?

Armed with a good map of the town, we made our way from our aerie to the local tabac for bus tickets, then to the town square and bus stop. As luck would have it (for the first and only time on this trip - more later) we were 20 seconds early for the departure of the four times per hour bus to the center of Florence. It was crowded but we found seats opposite an older couple who were gabbing away in French. We smiled, they smiled. After I made some comment to Kat the gentleman mentioned they were also Americans, and asked where we were from. Us Virginia, they Montreal. (See what I mean about the Canadians being a little "prickly" about the US/Canada thing). They were very nice, had been renting a villa in Fiesole for almost a month, sorry to see it ending. The bus we were on goes right through the middle of the city before heading to the station and was a favorite for pick-pockets, he told us. It gets very crowded as you approach the Duomo. In fact he had his wallet taken from his belly/fanny pack on this very bus shortly after their arrival, and had quite a time recovering from the episode. We thanked them for the forewarning and I felt to make sure that my money and credit cards were securely lodged in one of my front pockets (tipping off every watching pick-pocket, and wondering if our new found friends were conspirators).

We exited the bus into a throng of people, moving as a mass around the Duomo being bumped and jostled as we went. I could see how a quick fingered lifter could work his magic, and were thankful for the forewarning.

We immediately headed to the nondescript Casa Buonarroti (because it closes early), the home of one of Michelangelo's nephews. It has been turned into a museum and is not that easy to find. It was deserted and quiet and the perfect place to begin our experience.

What we sought was the first known work of the 14 year old boy artist - a small bas-relief sculpture of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus at her breast (generally called "Madonna of the Stairs"). It was on the wall of an unremarkable room on the second floor. The mother is seated at the base of the steps her child protected in one arm while her other hand seems to hold the cross on which her son will one day die. The look on her face tells us that she knows and accepts the future, and the sacrifice that each will be required to make. It was a moving experience to be alone in the presence of this sculpture. The "Battle of the Centaurs", the other major work in the museum, though much more complicated, intricate, and dynamic paled in comparison.

Leaving the Casa we headed to the piazza Santa Croce where we fulfilled the last major task we had set for ourselves in Italy: we ordered initial-engraved leather boxes for Jonathan and Danny (grand-kids numbers 7 and 8). They would be ready for pickup the next day. Excellent. So unless the kids decide to have more grand-kids for us, Luciano Leather has seen the end of our business. It's been a good run.

At the top of the square is the beautiful church of Santa Croce, marbled on the outside with the same green and white banding used at Santa Maria della Fiore. It seems so compact and clean and beautifully proportioned, with none of the traffic congestion, or diesel fume cloaking of it's more famous neighbor up the street. Of course it doesn't have a big dome, but we don't think it needs one. What it does have inside this very large church are some pretty cool tombs. We're generally not that into tombs, but our bud Mike is buried there and we have to admit he's got quite the impressive one. His neighbors include Galileo and Machiavelli (hero to one of my less scrupulous bosses when I was still employed), and a nice memorial to Dante (of Divine Comedy fame who is probably still laughing because he was banished from Firenze and his body is not here - who knew he'd be so famous?). We pass the heavenly frescoes of Giotto and linger only at the evocative "Death of St. Francis", for frescoes are for another day.

With so much success under our belts we decided to back-fill a little behind them. A short walk along the square was a small restaurant named "SO" that was ... just right. Our waitress was a feisty young woman named Sandra who treated us like family. She seemed particularly pleased when I acquiesced to her recommendation for a beer to accompany our lunch. It also, was just right.

Since we had limited our browsing to specific works of art we still had room for two or three more and those we found at the beautiful Duomo museum. The main draw are Ghiberti's gold clad "Doors of Paradise" which, until the mid sixties and the flood, were displayed on the baptistery across from the Duomo (now copies adorn the doors where crowds gather to gawk at them behind a large plexiglas screen). We stood alone with eight of the ten panels that were on display. It amazes me to think that the man worked for 50 years on their creation, and never got bored.

Farther along we found the hauntingly beautiful carved wood statue of Mary Magdalene which the aged Donatello carved as one of his last works. Switching from bronze and marble to wood (notoriously difficult to carve) may have been what did him in. She looks like a waif or a wretch perhaps, not the full spirited and bodied woman who was there at the last moments of Christ's life. The impact of what has been taken from her is evident. It is startling.

Finally we found what had drawn us here; Michelangelo's pieta. We felt we had spanned the lifetime of this great artist in the course of 6 hours. After viewing his first work earlier, here was his last great work, one he envisioned would be on his tomb. It is situated in it's own alcove and you can walk around it and even take pictures. The relationships between the figures change as you circumnavigate it. Michelangelo, his self portrait in the guise of the hooded Nicodemus, looks down on the dead Christ figure, and the sorrow is palatable. Christ's body is smooth and polished, where Michelangelo's face emerges from the rough stone an unfinished and imperfect human. You can see the cracks on Christ's long (and large) left arm that were caused when Michelangelo took his hammer to it in anger, or frustration or perhaps because he could simply sculpt no longer. It is a powerful and moving piece.

There are so many magnificent works in the three places that we visited and we saw very few of them. We've determined that if you try to see too much you end up really seeing nothing. People watching as we slowly walked around the Duomo, we could see our number 7 bus to Fiesole just departing about 20 seconds ahead of us. We caught the next one and sardined our way on along with school children and workers returning home after their day in the city. Since Fiesole is the last stop, there were only six of us, all tourists, left at the end. The square was quiet, the evening was warm, and the lights of Florence twinkled beneath us to the south. Quite nice.

Walking back to our hotel, we meandered through the local museum's outdoor sculpture exhibition. Some of the pieces were pretty dramatic and thought provoking (and a world apart from what we had been looking at all day). If you are over 18 you can see a couple of the works by clicking here and here. We wondered what the little kiddies thought as they walked by on their way to school. Probably that they are more well adjusted than the US kids of the same age.

Our day ended with a quiet dinner across the street from the museum at a restaurant called Fiesolano according to the sign but Perseus - a Rick Steve's recommendation that we had been looking for, according to the bill. The food and wine were very good and sitting outside on this beautiful evening was ideal. We were, as the French say, "complêt", as we headed off to the Villa Bonelli, our Tuscan retreat.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ilaria of Lucca

Travel day today. Breakfast in Ireland , Lunch in France , and dinner in Italy , all in all a pretty good day. When you travel you collect a lot of little memories that never fail to bring a smile to your face. The Irelands are charming and the people make them that way. A small memory: while on the Dublin bus to Kilmainham gaol I watched an older woman (dressed in black) sitting, eyes closed, deep in communion with her memories. As we passed each Catholic church on the route she blessed herself. The two of them must have traveled that route many times.

Sunday - September 27, 2009 - Lucca, Italy

The cold (not cool), blustery walk from the hotel to the departure lounge did more to awaken us than the 4:30 call from the front desk. The deserted airport of a few hours ago was now buzzing with activity. There were surprisingly long lines at the security checkpoint and two little vignettes are worth note. In front of us were a couple of burly lads who were having a lively discussion about whether or not they could bring their open, over-sized Guinness beers onto the plane. They (rightly) decided they could not, so their solution was to consume them as they walked. The trail of vapors that emanated was remarkable. The second was my lack of foresight in not removing my belt before going through the ultra sensitive metal detector. This resulted in my first, very thorough, male-on-male pat down. Lesson learned.

The cool damp behind us, we touched down in the land of perpetual sunshine. Provence. Having lost an hour to the time gods, we grabbed a quick bite at the Nice airport, rented our car (a Skoda, whatever that is), and headed East. We could probably have taken a flight from Belfast to Firenze, but renting a car in Italy is financial suicide. Plus the ride along the French Riviera, and the Italian Ligurian coast is breathtaking as you tunnel through the finger hills that stretch into the Mediterranean. As we passed familiar landmarks we were reminded of the last time we made this trip with Ed & Alicia. More good memories.

We followed the very well marked roads right into Lucca, the quintessential medieval-walled town. Besides being a convenient laundry stopping point, what drew us to this little Tuscan beauty was the church of San Martino. There was a very old crucifix (700 AD) and a not so old marble topped sarcophagus (1400 AD) that we had read about and really wanted to see. But first we had to find our digs for the evening. Another first for us, Sogni d'Oro or "Golden Sleep", was our affittacamera for the evening. Fabio, (the rooming house manager maybe?) greeted us warmly, gave us keys for our room and the front door, some directions to the lavanderia, a map of Lucca and was gone in sixty seconds. Though nothing like our hosts in Trim, we were good with it. Our room (with private bath - we went first class) was upstairs next to a communal bathroom and cozy little kitchen.

Refreshed, we headed to the wall and entered Lucca via Porta Elisa, a pleasant ten minute walk away. It was crowded and being a Sunday afternoon, filled with families and kids, and a smattering of tourists. There is a Roman amphitheater with a beautiful oval square (oxymoron), that through the centuries has been built around and over. There are gates which mark the entrances once used by gladiators and beasts. It is neat and a nice place to get away from the promenade that carries on all around. Just to the side is the very dramatic church of San Michele where the Roman forum once stood. Atop is a huge bronze statue of the Archangel Michael with movable wings. The story is that back in the day, the crowds around the front would gasp in religious ecstasy when, at the invocation of the priests, the archangel's wings flapped divinely.

Lucca is Puccini's home town and since he is one of my favorites (Madame Butterfly hooked me about 35 years ago) I had to go check out the old homestead. Not much to see, a statue, a bronze plaque and everyone around the block looking to make a few bucks off the name.

The belle of the ball is the church of St. Martin, which looks very similar to the cathedral in Pisa with it's colonnaded facade. When you look at the front you see that the three portal arches are asymmetrical - the one on the right is not quite in tune with the music. The whole front right side of the church appears to be covered by the side of the campanile. In fact the bell tower was there first and the church was built later which makes me wonder why they didn't just build a few more feet to the left. On an outside pillar is a carved labyrinth where for more than 800 years mortals have tried to map their way to salvation. I couldn't resist giving it a try. Inside, in a small octagonal marble temple is the Volto Santo; a cedar crucifix that was said to have been carved by Nicodemus, the man who helped take Christ down for burial. It is dark and dusty but magnificent. Plus anything mentioned specifically in Dante's Inferno is worth a peek.

In the opposing nave is the pay-for-entry tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, who died during childbirth at the age of 26. She was the wife of a local dandy, who buried her somewhere else but had the tomb carved because he loved her and maybe just to show off a bit (he was very rich). The reason we are so interested is that the carver, a fellow named Jacopo della Quercia, was the man who inspired so much of Michelangelo's work, half a century later. Like Mike, his goal was to sculpt the precise moment of transition, and looking upon this masterpiece you wouldn't be surprised if at any moment she awakened and lifted her head from the soft marble pillow. She has such a delicate countenance. (The famous painter John Ruskin after seeing her wrote: "It is impossible to tell you the perfect sweetness of the lips and closed eyes, nor the solemnity of the seal of death which is set upon the whole figure. It is, in every way, perfect--truth itself, but truth selected with inconceivable refinement of feeling.") It alone was worth the trip to Lucca.

Outside in another square there was a large tent where some kind of cooking/baking fair was in progress. Pre-teenage children were busy shuttling the freshly cut breads and pastries to the crowd which thronged around the tent. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the attention of one of the little rascals. I guess our recent trip to Ireland where everyone queues patiently had left an imprint on me and I was definitely at a disadvantage. We hadn't really eaten anything substantial and the aromas coming from the tents were driving us to distraction.

It was only 5:30 and like most of Italy, the restaurants don't even open until 7:30 and don't really get into gear until 9:00. But sometimes you get lucky, and we did. Down a quiet little side street nestled a small Trattoria (Ristorante L'antico Sigil). Perfect. We had a wonderfully relaxing dinner; some good wine complimenting the stuffed ravioli and country pasta. While waiting for the check our waitress seated a young couple at the two empty places of our table for four. That is one of the things we enjoy about traveling, the unexpected chance encounters. They were Danish, and a delight to chat with. We tried to think of all the famous Danes we knew, but other than "great", I had nothing. Kat came through with Niels Bohr (the atomic theory guy - she amazes me every day).Wishing we could have stayed longer (we had a date with some laundry) we bade them a pleasant evening and headed back to our rooming house.

The lavanderia was right where Fabio said it would be: out the door to the left, then 3 right turns. With good commercial washers and dryers it took the appropriate amount of time (remember Ballycastle) and was not very expensive. Lugging our laundry around really helped us feel like locals. Lucca turned out to be the perfect stopping point on our journey. We easily settled into the relaxed Tuscan lifestyle, with full bellies and freshly laundered clothes.