Italian countryside

People have been living in Italy (and all of Europe) for a long time. When you drive through Italy you don’t see very much wilderness, a bit in the mountains. In central Italy, where we were driving the countryside is low, rolling hills with some higher hills and mountains. Everywhere you look it is green fields with houses dotting the countryside. It is still”natural” but a man-made version of natural.

I guess you call that rural, but it is more like America was rural a long time ago because most of the farms are small and the rural areas don’t seem to be dying like they are in the US. Large-scale agriculture makes food prices go down but there is such a large cost in other areas that it doesn’t seem like it is worth it.

Driving in Italy

We were worried that the driving might be hard having heard of the aggressive Italian drivers. They are aggressive but overall the driving has not been bad, you just have to get used to their style. On the freeway, more correctly “payway” since they are toll roads (but no toll house cookies — the toll houses are all automated), people follow pretty close when they don’t think you are driving fast enough.

I read once about someone who got a ticket on a French freeway for driving too long in the left lane, which they reserve just for passing. I don’t think that is true here since I have seen people linger in the left lane, but more often they move up close behind you, pass, and quickly move back into the right lane. When I passed in a slower American style once I had a BMW right on my bumper flashing his lights.

They drive pretty fast in these little hill towns and walled towns even though the streets are narrow. There are no sidewalks and so the  pedestrians have to watch out. But there seems to be a compact between the pedestrians and the drivers, the cars are aggressive but they give way if you assert you right.

I was talking to a friend who lived in New York once who said that NY drivers look for a certain rhythm and look in pedestrians. If they see it they know the pedestrian is a New Yorker and knows the rules of walking and they will be able to predict accurately what they will do. It seems like something similar is going on in the Italian towns.

Castles and Forts

Every walled town is essentially a fort. For higher security or a smaller investment they would build a castle, or castelina (small castle I think). The larger ones seem to be called roccas. We have seen a lot of all of these.

Many of these castles have large, cavernous rooms. I was reading the sign on one of these and they said the room was divided into two floors using wood structures. One huge room was divided into two living floors and each “floor” room itself was divided three rooms, which made them of reasonable size.

I had never heard that before but it makes a lot of sense. You build the big rooms in stone which is strong and good for defense but then you build the smaller rooms out of wood which is easier to work with and easier to change. And the wood structure is protected from the elements. Very sensible and it makes the large rooms more logical.

Lucca has a wall all around but was never attacked, maybe because it had walls. The only time the walls were used was to prevent a flood from flooding the city. And now, they use it to bicycle on.

Hill Town Fatigue

There is a something very appealing about walled hill towns. There is nothing like your first hill town, for us it was Orvieto (on a previous trip). I have seen several hill towns described in travel books as the perfect hill town. You need to have walls, of course, complete if possible but few are. They have the twisty, little streets, churches, beautiful views. We stayed in a near-perfect hill town in Croatia.

We started this trip with five days in Spoleto which is a very nice hill town. Later we spent three days in Urbino which is the only hill town in Italy (they say) which doesn’t have urban development around it, although there seemed to be a little.

But there is a sameness about the hill towns and the streets are awfully steep when you walk around, and space is always at a premium. And there are usually lots of tourists at hill towns because everyone likes them. Anyway we decided to skip Siena. It just seemed like it would be too crowded and too much the same.

We enjoyed the Adriatic beach towns that we stayed in, especially Senigallia, so we decided to drop off the car in Siena and immediately take the train to Lucca.

Hill town pix:  the steep alley up to our hotel in  Urbino:

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Urbino:

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Urbino:

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The hill town of Castelina in Chiati, near Siena:

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Lucca Brava

Charlie: We decided we didn’t want to go to Siena as originally planned (see previous post). We had heard good things about Lucca as an under-appreciated city to visit and there was a NY Times travel article about it. It turned out to be a good choice.

Lucca is fairly large, about 80,000, but the Old City is small enough to walk around it. Since it is not one of those damn hill towns, all the streets are flat and people ride bicycles a lot. We see bicycles parked all over, usually old ones, since they are just used to get around the city. This means there are fewer cars. The whole feel of the city is calm and we love to just walk around. Despite not being a hill town they do have a wall, but, since they are not a hill town, they have more space so the wall is a standard 20-foot wall on the outside but on the inside is a large berm the height of the wall and 40 feet wide. There is a biking and walking path all around the wall, which is 2.5 miles around, and there is a large green space area all around the outside of the wall. It is quite pleasant to walk around the wall and see the city. We rented a tandem bicycle and biked around the wall this morning.

Lucca has some impressive churches and is filled with lovely piazzas. Here is the facade of the Duomo:

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and an interesting circular piazza:

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Market in Lucca:

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Grass chair and table at the market:

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And Lucca even has Old Charlie:

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We have a nice little hotel (Albergo San Martino) which has eight rooms, six double and two suites, that was just remodeled, just remodeled, they finished last week. In fact, we checked into a room with no shutters and when we got back from lunch it did have shutters, newly installed. The Michelin guide said the staff is young and energetic and they are, and they speak English (and French and German) and are very nice. The rooms are in a yellow-orange theme and are quite pretty. The breakfast is quite good and visually appealing with the same orange theme in the dishes.

Entrance to Albergo San Martino
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Bathroom of our first room

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First room

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Bathroom of our second room

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***

I have always liked the Michelin green guides. One thing I like is they are not afraid to give an opinion. All sights are given 0, 1, 2 or 3 stars. Three stars is worth a journey to see and two stars is worth a side-trip to see. At least that is what it used to be, I just checked mine and now *** is highly recommended, ** in recommended, and * is interesting. They mention some sites with no stars at all but do not give an interpretation of that. I used to joke that it meant that if you were driving by, and your head was already turned in that direction, then you should look at it.

The * system is quirky It is common to have a * church with a ** alter, sometimes even a *** window although a two-star spread in a site in uncommon, except in whole cities. Rome, of course, is *** and so, of course, St.Peters, and so, of course, is Michelangelo’s Pieta inside it, but St. Peters also contains ** statues and * angels and the porch and facade have no stars. In an interesting turn, the dome is ***, but the summit of the dome has no stars but it does have a *** view.

I was touring France some years ago with my family and the two boys quickly learned the Michelin star system. We would stop at a church and if it was only one * then they would stay in the car and my wife and I would tour the church. They would get out to see a ** church.

I don’t like the Michelin guide as much as I used to though since my values have changed. I am not so interested in seeing particular things as just seeing what is there at a place. I sometimes say I haven’t seem everything but I have seen one of each type of thing. This is, of course, not literally true but it is close enough to being true that it is a good working guide.

Michelin only likes specific attractions, buildings, paintings, statues, views, etc. But if you go into a little housewares shop and get a souvenir vegetable peeler that you will use almost every day and you have a pleasant interaction with the shopkeeper and you try to explain what you want in Italian and she corrects you in a good-natured way, Michelin does not give that any stars but it is a *** experience for me.

Hotels, as we mentioned before, have one to five stars. It seems more common to have a five-level rating scale than the Michelin 3 (and a half maybe) level scale. As you know, especially if you saw Ratatouille, Michelin also rates restaurants with one, two or three stars.