On our schedule today is the medieval walled city of Lucca. A bike ride on the ramparts around the city is also on the agenda, but after getting lost – wrong turns become a built-in expectation from now on, as we are taking the scenic route – time becomes compressed, so we abandon those plans in favor of walking. Our hostess would really prefer that we stay together as a group but I cannot be contained and so I follow the first shiny thing that winks in my direction. Karin follows her own squirrel. And we’re off. Karin and I continuously verbalizing to no one in particular, “Oooo, look at that, look at this.” We are captivated by all we see and suddenly on our own. We do not mean to be disrespectful, we simply have our own internal compasses.
Our meanderings take us down streets centuries old with shops, markets and more than a few reminders of our current time. One shop that catches our eye is the Gelateria. We duck in for our very first cup of gelato on Italian soil. I opt for caramel and dark chocolate. Karin gets hazelnut and coffee. We both swoon and roll our eyes in ecstasy. Then Karin produces a candle and lighter to adorn my cup of awesome, designating it my first official birthday cake. I make a wish and blow out the candle.
As we walk away from the gelateria I start to drip gelato. A lot. Great globs of dark chocolate slide down my wrist. We turn around to retrieve napkins. Karin spots a dispenser at a closer gelateria and grabs a couple to which she is greeted by a stern, “grazie!” So, you can’t just grab someone else’s napkins like all of Lucca is an Italian food court. Noted. We won’t make that mistake again.
We wonder on. And on. And on. We duck in every church we can, take copious amounts of photos of streets and alleyways, and of cats and bicycles next to windows full of flowers or doors hundreds of years old.
Finally we find ourselves at the edge of the city by its great wall. There is a ramp and some steps up to the ramparts that circle the city. We ascend to see what there is to see.
We spot a beautiful garden and decide to head back down. The Palazzo Pfanner is an ancient palace that is still occupied by some of the remaining family members. Parts of the house are open to the public but we opt for the gardens only.
We are greeted by Greek gods and goddesses, lemon trees, pebble pathways and a huge marble fountain. It is peaceful, serene. We sit a while after exploring the grounds. There is a couple near us. They have rearranged two garden chairs to accommodate their positioning toward the sun. The woman drops her tank top straps, puts her feet up on an additional chair and cracks open a book. The gentleman stares intently at a magazine. They are at the beach.
Karin situates herself on a bench in front a large stand of bamboo and digs out her journal and pencil. I sit beside her for a moment restlessly. Then I’m off to hunt for tiny bits of magic to photograph. Flowers. Empty chairs under a bough of jasmine. The alliteration of ivy covered archways.
On the off chance we got “separated” from the group we are to meet at the Anfiteatro Romano, a giant piazza, it’s now time to head in that direction.
We arrive early enough to grab some wine, I mean lunch, of course. A gentleman by the name of Gherardo greets us and waits on us, and happens to be the owner. This seems to be somewhat typical. There is such a sense of integrity of service here. Many restaurants are worked tirelessly and lovingly by the owners.
Caprese and vino rosso for me, pizza and vino rosso for Karin. Molto bene.
As we complete our meal others begin to arrive at the piazza.
I have found that retreats or group adventures often turn into cat herding for the facilitator. This trip will be no different and perhaps even more challenging as there is so much beauty and interest to drive us all to distraction. Five of us are together. Two more join us as one heads to the bathroom. Another sees a purse in a store window and is drawn by a force outside herself to go touch it. Another joins us. The first is back from the bathroom. Two wander toward a view of the piazza with the most flowers. Another heeds the call of the handbags. The flower photog returns. And so it goes.
Miraculously we assemble and make our way back to our car. Not before several have to attend to physical needs so strong they are willing to squat over a porcelain hole in the floor. This will become a hot topic of conversation and an extreme sense of pride, a rite of passage from tourist to traveler.
At last we are underway. But late. As soon as we reach our villa we are left with less than 30 minutes to freshen up and reassemble for our special dinner in the olive grove.
Our dinner reservation is for 9 pm. That’s how they roll here. The menu was minimal but complex. A fish menu and a meat menu with all the courses. I have no idea what I ordered but it is delicious. The folks next to me have crawdads on steroids. Or mini lobsters. Or some beautiful Italian named crustacean. My own meal is risotto with marinara but the marinara has bits of seafood in it and I’m not so much a seafood gal so I spent a lot of time spearing a few grains of rice at a time. But there is wine, delicious reds, persecco, another white. And then there is dessert. 13 individual apple tarts with a scoop of vanilla gelato and a dusted strawberry on top of each. Mine has a candle in its center. Happy birthday is sung first in English and then I am treated to it in Italian.