Village Italy Tour

Day 12 Wednesday May 25, 2005
Lucca, Villas, Segromigno in Monte

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I sprang out of bed at about five to go running. I put on my gear, did my stretching exercises, and went downstairs. It was a little before 6, and no one was at the desk. The front door to the hotel was bolted so that no one could enter or exit. I located the bolt and let myself out. From the outside there was no way to secure the door behind me. I just had to hope that there weren't too many early-bird burglars in the neighborhood.

I did two laps around the city on the top of the wall. The paths were mostly empty. Some people out were out walking their dogs, and a few joggers were out to beat the heat. I noticed one guy with a tee shirt that said, “Farmaci: usare con cura.” I had the distinct impression that he had done his share of using senza cura. When I was finishing the second lap I got off at the wrong ramp. I asked a local gentleman pushing a bicycle up the ramp near Baluardo San Frediano where Porta Santa Maria was, and he told me that it was the next exit from the wall. I got back on the wall and easily found the ramp that I wanted. In actual fact I was a little closer to the hotel at the first one, but I would have had a hard time finding it from that direction.

More Dachshund chronicles: As I finished the run I realized that I had seen approximately thirty or forty dogs in Lucca and not a single cat. I also think that Lucca must be the Dachshund capital of Italy if not of all of Europe.

Breakfast in Lucca.

Suburban (i.e., outside the wall) Lucca.

On the wall I saw an Italian (at least she did not look like a tourist) woman wearing shorts. In my forty or so days in Italy she was the first Italian whom I had yet noticed wearing shorts.

Breakfast in Lucca was excellent. The hotel offered four choices for cereal, sandwich stuff, yogurt, juice, coffee, and lots of choices for bread. They even had Twining’s English Breakfast Tea, breakfast beverage of the gods. Best of all they had one of my favorite foods – canned peaches. I helped myself to seconds. Sue was late, so I sat with the Doggetts.

The tour group was not scheduled to assemble until 10 a.m. This kind of lethargy had been unheard of on our previous tour of Italy. The agenda for this day was to see a couple of the four hundred villas that surrounded Lucca. Our guide for the tour was Claudia, who often chummed around with the lady who was the proprietor of one of the most elegant villas, the Villa Grabau.

On the way to Villa Grabau we passed several other villas, including the Villa Reale, which is where Napoleon’s sister lived when she ruled Lucca. Evidently Napoleon gave the town to her as a present in the 19th century. Many of the people who live in the villas in the 21st century opened them to the public for at least a few days per week in order to receive a reduced tax rate.

Claudia leads the group up to the Villa Grabau.

Airing out the top floor of the villa.

The Villa Grabau was owned by Francesca Grabau, who lives there with her husband Federico and her mother, Annadora, who has her own little house. Federico and Francesca live on the second floor of the main house in the summer and the third floor in the winter. We never saw them. The first floor, which is open to the public, is really a museum.

The estate was breathtakingly beautiful. It had both an English garden and an Italian garden, many huge trees, bamboo, and hedges at least thirty feet high. Two overworked gardeners kept everything in A1 condition. To me the coolest place was the theater, which consisted of a lawn surrounded by huge hedges and a raised area at one end. The last served as the stage. Hedges have been arranged to provide for side-stage areas and even a prompter box. The design was very clever. They actually have put on small plays here. During the severe winter of 2004-2005, however, a large tree fell down and ruined some of the hedges on the left side of the stage. Francesca was evidently very upset about this.

There were some tall trees on the grounds.

I mean really tall.

Those are not Liliputians walking among the trees.

Claudia told us that her favorite place in the villa was the lemon house. In Lucca they place the lemon trees in big pots. It is too cold to leave them out in the winter, so they bring them into the lemon house. The place was pleasant enough. I took a lot of pictures. One of the most outstanding features was a large ficus plant, which has sent out long runners up to the ceiling in many places. It has tried to drop down roots from the ceiling. This gave the whole place an interesting feel. Claudia said that sometimes she wished that she was a lemon tree. For some reason all of the women seemed to love the lemon house. Claudia told us that they have now been renting it out for weddings and other festive occasions.

The garden stage: the prompter box is in the foreground; the right side stage is in the back. At this point I had shot over one thousand photos on the trip.

A small bamboo grove on the grounds of the villa.

Next Claudia showed us a very weird statue. It was a turtle with something on its back. The something had a lion’s head on the front side and a human head on the rear (at least from the turtle’s perspective) side. On the front it had legs and wings. In the rear below the human head it had an elephant’s trunk. Claudia passed out a sheet of paper that purported to explain all of the symbolic representations of each of the elements of the statue. She also said that Annadora did not believe any of the symbolism and claimed that the statue was actually pornographic.

The lemon house.

The group enters the lemon house.

Fronds from a ficus plant hang down from the roof.

A lemon pot.

How in the world do they maintain these huge hedges?

At one time the main house was “guarded” by ten stone lions. However, nine of them were recently stolen while Francesca was away on vacation. The police were of little help, so Francesca hired a private investigator. He found one in the south of France, and, after spending a good deal of money, Francesca got back all of her lions. When we were there she was in the process of trying to decide what to do with them. She no longer kept them on display. The estate also possessed some dogs carved from stone that performed a similar function. They used to be kept outside, but now they were safely in the house. We saw them.

After taking about one hundred photos of the garden, I joined the group as it entered in the main house. The walls in the first room that we entered were painted to give the surprising and stunning effect that they were covered in curtains. On a table in the center of the room were several photographs, including ones of Francesca’s father with Nasser, and a partial score of one of Puccini’s operas signed by the author. On the table there were also brochures describing this and other villas. I took one. Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” was playing on the sound system while we were examining this room.

The bizarre statue.

The tail of the statue.

The fountain behind the villa contained a lily pond.

The rear view of the villa.

Looking toward the fountain from the villa.

I found the adjoining library particularly interesting. It had hundreds and hundreds of very old books, among which were a set of tomes on the natural history of birds and quadrupeds, something by Jules Verne, an encyclopedia of hunting, and – the pièce de rèsistance – Napoleon’s code translated into Italian.

After the visit to the main house we were granted an informal interview with Annadora, who spoke good English. Her father was an ambassador with the Italian government. I did a little mental arithmetic and deduced that his foreign service must have occurred during Mussolini’s time in power. Years ago she had divorced Francesca’s father and married a world-renowned photographer. They traveled to India, Tibet, Afghanistan, Ceylon, Singapore, China, and seemingly everywhere else. When both of her husbands had died, she asked Francesca if she could move into the villa. Francesca and Federico built her a house of her own. It even had a little gazebo (which is where she entertained us with peach juice, potato chips, and trail mix) and a swimming pool. I accidentally dropped a couple of chips in the gazebo. I was careful to pick them up. Everything on the grounds was immaculate.

Patti snaps a photo of a flower bed behind the villa.

Sue near the entrance to the villa.

Tom finds his element.

No roaring from the lions.

Annadora’s digs.

Annadora also let us visit her beautiful house. She had hundreds and hundreds of statues of elephants. Most were gifts from her friends. Her day-to-day furniture was exquisitely beautiful. The TV set looked out of place, but it was a good reminder that she was a real person, not a character in a story. She showed us a black and white photo of a beautiful young woman in a bathing suit. She identified the subject as “me yesterday.”

I took a picture of the front gate as we exited. It occurred to me that Grabau did not sound like any Italian name with which I was familiar. I looked up the villa in the brochure. Sure enough, the Grabau family were from Germany. Great: wealthy Germans who got even richer doing the bidding of the Fascists. Oh, well. You don't get to pick your antecedents.

Annadora’s gazebo.

The sign at the main gate to Villa Grabau.

A house near the villa.

We then drove to the Fattoria Mansi Bernardini, which is in a little town called Segromigno in Monte, for lunch. Along the way we were forced to come to a halt by a car that was parked so as to leave too little room for Mario to negotiate. Claudia jumped off of the bus and tried to find someone to move it. Failing that, she noticed that the keys had been left in the car. She climbed in and parked it in a nearby driveway. After she got back on board the bus, she told Mario that she deliberately did not set the hand break.

The sign for the fattoria (farm).

This was a lazy dog, but they also had at least two lively ones.

A splash of color on the grounds of the fattoria.

Clarabella and No-name.

Claudia told us that two of her oldest and dearest friends lived at Fattoria Mansi Bernardini. She asked us if we wanted to meet them. She had brought a present for them in a paper bag. They turned out to be two donkeys named Clarabella, who was twenty-six years old, and No-name, her son, who was seventeen. The present was day-old bread. They both came running up to the fence when they heard Claudia’s voice. Clarabella didn't want to share the treat. She positioned herself between her son and the bread and kicked at him mule-style with both back legs. He deftly avoided her hooves and devoured his share of the bread. Even when the present had been completely consumed, neither of them was partial to being petted, at least not by me.

The goldfish pool.

Lunch, which was served outdoors at round tables, was extremely good. We had peanuts and olives as appetizers. I may have slightly exceeded my share of each. Then we had a delicious pasta with basil. The secondo was turkey, very small potatoes, and peas. This was followed by a salad. The dessert was ice cream with blueberry sauce. There was, as usual, plenty of wine.

Even more dachshund chronicles: A female went from table to table and person to person looking for handouts. She found a soft touch in Cecile Churchill. At one point another dog, who was obviously half dachshund and half Scotty or some such, meandered in. The two dogs started barking, growling, and snapping at each other. The proprietors had to separate them and send them both away.

I learned at lunch that Mario had driven the bus when Rick Steves brought his family on this tour in 2003. I asked him if Rick Steve’s kids had drunk as much wine as we were consuming. Mario reported that he had had to make several side trips to get cokes for the kids when everyone else was drinking wine.

Blaine, the expert on table etiquette, and Claudia.

Blaine and Claudia Ebsworth told the people at our table of their experiences with their kids on a trip to France. They wanted to eat every meal at McDonald’s. Evidently one such establishment had run out of hamburger. That did not stop them from serving Big Mac’s with no meat.

Blaine disclosed his secret for knowing which were your bread and drink and which belonged to your neighboring dining companion. He said to join your thumb and forefinger in a circle and extend your other three fingers. Then set your hands on either side of your plate. The left hand forms a “b” and the right a “d”. This is your reminder that your bread is on the left and your drink is on the right. Q.E.D.

I remarked that this excellent algorithm would not work for Italians because the Italian word for bread was pane, and the word for drink was bevanda. So I spent a minute or two contorting my left hand into a “p” and my right into a “b” in order to uplift the level of culture in Italy. Several people took photos of my machinations.

Blaine and I spent the rest of the luncheon exchanging Geek talk. We are both dinosaurs. He told me that his area at Texaco spent $200 million on Y2K projects. We also commiserated about dealing with IBM.

At the end of lunch, my camera started acting up again. This time it said that the battery was low. Whoops. Maybe it wasn't the camera. Maybe I forgot to charge it that morning. I just hoped that it would function properly on the planned hike in Cinque Terre in a couple of days. I nursed high hopes for some stunning shots there.

On the drive back to Lucca I asked Nina why Italians don't wear shorts. She agreed that they didn't, but she said that she didn't know why not. She asked Mario, who replied that of course Italians wear shorts. Nina rolled her eyes. She then told me that Italians were paranoid about breezes on their necks. They will often wear scarves to ward off “cervicale.” Nina told Mario that Americans don't believe in cervicale. He was astonished at our stupidity. Nina also told us about Tavernella, a cheap Italian wine that comes in a box. I learned to my surprise that the correct way to pronounce Levanto, our home base in Liguria, is to place the accent on the first syllable.

On the drive back to the hotel we found ourselves following a car that had the door on the driver side open six inches or so. The lady who was driving it was smoking with her right hand and holding the door with her left. She also had a dog in the car – not a dachshund.

Mario let us off at Porta Santa Maria again. As soon as we arrived back at the hotel, I went to the desk and asked the lady for the discount cards for the concert. We four Connecticut residents then took a passeggiata on the wall. This was Sue’s first occasion up on the wall, but I had already been around it five times – once in 2003, two loops on the bike, and two jogging that morning. We got about halfway around and then exited at Baluardo San Columbano. My purpose was to get a look at the interior of the Duomo di San Martino (which I had missed because of time constraints in 2003) and then to buy tickets for the concert. We all agreed to meet at 7:30 at the hotel to get some supper.

I entered the Duomo at 6:15 even though it was scheduled to close at 6:30. There was also a mass going on. To make things worse, I neglected to bring the guidebook with me, so I did not know what I was looking for. This lack of preparedness was unusual for me. I only stayed for about ten minutes, but I did manage to find the very impressive Last Supper by Tintoretto.

Lucca has scores of picturesque churches.

I strolled over to the nearby San Giovanni church, which is where the concert would be held. The tickets for the concert only cost 10€ each. I was a little taken aback that the charge was so little. The concert was scheduled to start at 9:15. It only took me a couple of minutes to buy the tickets. I decided to sit for a while in the piazza and listen to the opera music that they were playing over their sound system. It was quite a pleasant experience. Then a helicopter roared by. Obnoxious noises such as these seldom seem out of place in the United States, but to me it just seemed almost obscene to punctuate the tranquil atmosphere of Lucca, not to mention the soothing arias, with the cacophony of military aircraft.

We ate supper at a little bar with outside seating that was just up the street from the hotel. Tom had located it earlier in the day. While we dined the waiter spent the time closing down the place and talking to a friend of his. It was not even 8:30! Lucca really seemed to roll up its sidewalks early. This was hard to understand. I had my worst pizza of the trip (although to be fair it was inexpensive and not all that bad). It had anchovies, and the taste was a trifle too strong, which was contrary to my previous experiences with anchovies in Italy. Everyone else liked their meals well enough. Sue especially appreciated her ravioli stuffed with cheese and sage. I might have just gone to the (pizza) well once too often.

The area near San Giovanni.

We had plenty of time to make it to the concert by the starting time of 9:15. We arrived at the Piazza San Giovanni well before nine. For once Sue was more nervous than I was. She thought that the concert started at nine. We spent the extra time taking photos and watching the swallows chase mosquitoes. We saw other flying creatures that seemed to be smaller that the swallows, fewer in number, and more erratic fliers. Sue identified them as bats. She was determined to get a good shot of one of the tiny things with her movie camera. She may have been successful, or there may have been a tiny bit of dust on the lens. She managed to trace their origins back to the bell tower of the Duomo.

We went in to church a little after nine. Only about five people were seated. We sat in the second row on the left side. The church, which was really Spartan compared to the showpieces to which we had become accustomed, could have held 100-200 people easily. However only fifty or sixty chairs were set out.

The church of San Giovanni just before the concert. The bats came from the Duomo’s tower, in the upper right corner.

The concert did not start until 9:35. The announcer, who wore a sports coat, pants, and shoes of various shades of orange and who even had a little bit of orange hair and an orange goatee, introduced the program in perfect English and Italian. The group that was to play was known as the GAMS ensemble. I assume that they are a subset of the GAMS orchestra. The first violinist and concertmaster was named Antonio Aiello.

The first piece on the program was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, which was performed by a string quartet with a bass added. Sue and I both enjoyed this quite a bit. The announcer sat in the first row on the right, just a few meters from me. He seemed to have some kind of a close connection to the group. At the end of the piece he clapped very loudly and for quite a long time. He also stamped his foot. It was good, but it wasn't that good.

The second piece was an earlier divertimento by Mozart that required that the group add two horn players. The piece had six movements including two minuet-trios, a form that seemed outmoded to 21st century American ears. The playing was fine; the piece was OK; but at this point in the evening – after 10 p.m. – it was difficult to concentrate on listening. Sue and I both nearly fell asleep. At the end there was quite a lot of applause, once again led by the clapping and stomping of the announcer. The group took several curtain calls, but there was no encore (and no curtain for that matter).

Sue and I both felt very sleepy by the end of the performance. The walk through a Lucca deserted by all but a few very nervous cats was somewhat invigorating. Nevertheless it was nearly midnight by the time that we returned to the room.

Notes: Unless I am much mistaken, the size of the average car in Italy had increased considerably in the previous two years. I had no recollection from 2003 of so many station wagons and SUV’s. I have seen almost no Smart cars in 2005. Some of the difference may have been attributable to the fact that we have not yet visited the largest cities, and we won't get a chance to until the last day in Milan.

Lucca has a Deutschebank office. I did not remember seeing offices for any other foreign banks in Italy.

We have seen a lot of Nutella, a paste made from hazelnuts that tasted vaguely like chocolate.