Viva Italia

Leaving the banging pots and Si flags in our wake, we looked forward to a much slower pace in the land of great food, people who wore their hearts on their sleeves and small cars. Our flight and trek to Lucciano, a town of few permanent residents, was uneventful. Our drive to the Airbnb – which had a too-good-to-be-true posting – felt a little like we were stuck in a movie. The two-lane roads boasted cars that were much too small for a person of average height, though I obviously didn’t have any trouble. Once we got closer, we saw more children playing on the streets, groves of olive trees, windy roads and beautiful quaint homes. We pulled up to our residence for the next week and were grateful that the Airbnb posting was true to form. We received the bottom floor of a house that looked towards the valley of Quarratta. In the distance, there was a beautiful mountain range and rolling greenery, with cottages that beckoned at least a moment of appreciation. In the yard of the house, there was an olive orchard, where I tasted a raw olive for the first time…that will definitely be the last time. We were welcomed to the house by the owner’s friend, and through signs, smiles and stereotypical hand gestures, met the owner’s mother who lived on the 2nd floor with her two dogs. When we came inside the house, we experienced small-town hospitality at it’s finest – on the kitchen table was a basket of Barilla pasta, homemade tomato sauce and a bottle of wine to get us settled in. Before we could stop talking about it, our neighbor down the street brought over a couple of cucumbers and homemade tomato sauce from his garden too. Vivek was too tired for a meal, and opted for a nap instead. After ages, I had a fully-equipped kitchen and a few fixings, so I couldn’t help but make myself some pasta and pour out a glass of wine. Looking out into the valley, through the open kitchen window, as I sipped on wine with my delicious home-cooked meal, I thought to myself, not bad, Italy, not bad at all.

Lucianno was a quaint endearing town, with Olive trees at every turn, roads wide enough for only one car to pass through, and children running up and down the steep slopes. Most of the next few days went by slowly, with many naps, movies and staring out into the valley. Lazy afternoon drinking in pajamas became a frequent affair, and one day seemed so especially normal that Vivek lit his cigar that he’d been saving as he caught up with his reading. We explored the nearby lawns and drove to Quarrata to buy fresh groceries and have gelato.

After a few days of living like a local on holiday, we realized we were running out of time and visits to Cinque Terre and Florence were a must. After some research and debate on which of the coastal towns was most feasible, we focused on getting ourselves to Manarola. It was a 3 hour drive, but we had set our minds to complete a round trip in one day. We were not disappointed at all. With a small trek from the parking lot to the coast, we made our way down sloping cobble streets through tall stone buildings with picturesque flowers hanging from the balconies. The path was not terribly wide, but it split to a higher level where others were hiking on the naturally uneven but artificially terraced land that gave Cinque Terre it’s fame. It is known for its unique terraced cliffs where residents grew grapes, olives and crops – a fairly novel and labour intensive concept in the world at the time. The colorful houses were also terraced, creating the cascading block of colors on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. We saw many tourists and visitors, including a group doing a photoshoot of a model in a flowy gown on the crab-ridden rocks at the bottom of the cliff. The day ended with more gelato on our walk back to the car, a trend for our visit to Italy.

We heard about the walled city of Lucca from one of the locals, and decided to make another day trip. We had seen the aqueduct on our previous drive to Manarola, so we hopped in the car for the short drive over. The parking lot was outside the walls, and the way into the city was through tunnels inside the wall itself. In these tunnels were a variety of art installations, the largest of them being an imposing hollow bust of a nameless someone. Once through the wall, we were in the old town which was fairly small, and navigable by foot or bicycle. We opted for the latter and rented a pair for a few hours. We rode through the cobblestone lanes and alleys of the old town, admiring the old architecture of small buildings repurposed as eateries, cafes and gelaterias. The old cathedral had an imposing clocktower that was unfortunately closed that particular day. We also rode around on top of the wall, which was now a promenade for people to stroll and jog on. Within it, lay the art installations, As we rode through one of the small arches, we stumbled upon a large open space that used to be an amphitheater, now a large courtyard with outdoor seating for those wanting to partake in a meal or a drink. As our time on the bicycle rentals ran out, we decided to see what else was within driving distance, and to take the scenic route back, which happened to have lots of bridges.

A short, scenic and windy road lead us to the Ponte della Maddalena. The original bridge was built almost a thousand years ago. It was an imposing stone structure with a large arch in the center to allow for boat traffic underneath. The arch, however, was not centered and gave a bridge a strange lopsidedness that strangely added to its charm. We continued down the road to avoid the highway and have a bit of a drive through the mountains on our way back. We then passed a slightly more modern, but considerably more precarious looking bridge, the Ponte Sospeso di San Marcello. This is a pedestrian bridge that connects two sides of the mountain over a river and valley. Until recently, the bridge was the longest pedestrian suspension bridge. Being a steel-cable bridge, it had a tendency to sway and bounce when one walked across it. The mesh walkway and railings meant that you could see exactly how far you would fall, and the overall experience was quite unsettling. Nonetheless, we made our way half-way over the bridge just because we could, and enjoyed the sky changing colors as we did.

Florence, a place that you hear about in movies and books, is as beautiful as one can expect. However, we had done little planning during peak tourist season and could not get into any of the museums or galleries, as they were all sold out. So our time was filled with strolling by ancient monuments and bridges and buildings. Still, the architecture, with small but elegant restaurants and narrow cobble streets, made our trip worth it. The old town of Florence is fairly walk-able other than the massive throngs of tourists that we had completely not accounted for. In order to avoid a life-changing amount of money being spent in tolls and congestion taxes, we learnt that one must park outside the city in designated parking lots. This did make the strolling around town a little easier. Amongst the architectural marvels we came across the famed Ponte Vecchio, yet another bridge, but this one with building on top of it. Amongst locks professing undying love, the bridge had buildings that mainly consisted of shops selling a multitude of wares – from expensive jewelry to, of course, gelato.

One day it turned out that Lucciano was an odd mix of a quiet town and large spirit. As we tried to find a post office that would mail our postcards to family and friends near and far, not only were the roads blocked, but most of the shops were closed. It was the annual car rally that zipped through the town. Young and old were standing outside their homes, cheering. It was the most people we had seen during our time there. Vivek was really excited and reminisced about the Safari Rally he used to watch in Kenya years ago. We immediately parked the car, listened for the lack of loud engines, and ran across the street to occupy a spot which was a precarious vantage point for watching cars go around two corners.

Though a short visit, our visit to Italy was one of the most relaxing. We came to the point where we just needed to catch up with ourselves in all the chaos and disorientation, and this was a perfect place to do that. Also, we ate a lot of gelato, we even learnt how to say gelato in multiple languages, a highlight for me.

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