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Alps to volcanoes: Grindelwald, Lucca, Tuscany, Rome and Pompeii

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Mar 7th, 2012, 07:28 AM
  #1
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Alps to volcanoes: Grindelwald, Lucca, Tuscany, Rome and Pompeii

My 18 day trip has come and gone, and now that I just booked a Groupon for a week-long cooking trip to Italy for June, I realized that I needed to catch up and write my trip report from last summer (if I can remember all of it that is!). I received so much help from everyone here - and thank you all for the time you took to answer my questions - and would like to pass along some more info to other Fodorites.

The trip: my husband and me, my 17 year old son (DS) and non-twin 17 year old daughter (DD). Given that 13 days of this 18 day vacation was going to be spent in Italy, we bought "Learn Italian in Your Car" and Michel Thomas Italian and listened to them whenever went anywhere. It was amazing how much Italian we picked up this way and I found that I could use basic phrases to get my point across when I needed to. People were pretty good-natured about our attempts and it was actually fun to be trying out our Italian. Only one mishap when I asked for directions and understood the entire answer...except for forgetting which word meant left and which right. I asked again, but got the cold shoulder from both people in the shop. Oh well, I'll just work on remembering those for the next trip!

Our itinerary: June 28 - July 15, 2012
Grindelwald, Switzerland - 4 nights
train to Lucca, Italy
Lucca - 2 nights with a short visit to Pisa
drove to Tuscany
Tuscany (agriturismo near Pienza) - 3 nights
Montepulciano - 1 night
drove to Orvieto where we spent a good part of the day
train to Rome
Rome (apartment) - 6 nights with a daytrip to Pompeii+Archeological Museum in Naples

Jump in anytime if you need other info than what I have included. I'm not going on my next vacation until I finish this report!
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Mar 7th, 2012, 08:08 AM
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We are devouring Rome reports....so just waiting.... No pressure....
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Mar 7th, 2012, 08:16 AM
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OK "LoveToRome"!
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Mar 7th, 2012, 09:37 AM
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Living where we do in central Pennsylvania, we can fly overseas from many different airports: WDC, PHL, Newark, Harrisburg, Baltimore, even JFK if need be. This time, based on price, we left from Washington Dulles and had an uneventful trip down. I had done some research and had found that the Dulles Crown Plaza Hotel would allow us to leave our car there for $40 a week, a real bargain. We left our car in their garage and jumped into their free shuttle to the airport. By the time we survived an hour at the check-in area, the long security lines and getting through the airport to the gate, it was already well over 2 hours and boarding had just begun. I’d hate to see what would have happened if we had run into any snags. The flight was fine and on time.

June 29
We arrived into Zurich at 8 a.m. I love that airport. Exit, cross a tiny street and voila! The train station! I had spent hours reading and deciding what type of Swiss rail cards to purchase and finally settled on Half Fare cards which were easy to buy at the airport. (Had I decided sooner, I think I could have bought them before leaving home for a better price.) We had to go to a special office (a few doors to the left of the ticket counters downstairs in the Zurich train station) to buy the passes and tickets for our ride to Grindelwald and then for the 4 legs from Grindelwald into Italy, and the woman was very helpful. [I’ll jump ahead a little on this point. She was helpful, but I unfortunately realized a couple of days later that she had inadvertently forgotten to apply the pass discount to one set of tickets because there was so much going on with our complicated transactions. Once I realized, I went to the station in Grindelwald, showed all my tickets and receipts and the agent there refunded me the difference. That was quite a relief!]
I recorded that the Half Fare cards each cost 110 CHF and the tickets from Zurich to Grindelwald were each just under 40 CHF. Adding up our total ticket costs, including some mountaintop travel, we each saved only about 8-10 Swiss Francs. Not a lot, but it bought us some extra chocolate!

Back to the train station…I’ve reported before that the luggage carts can be wheeled directly onto the escalator at the Zurich train station. They stay put, but we love seeing how people try to hold on to them for dear life when going down. We calmly stood behind our laden cart, the real pros. (We’re not always pros as you will see, so we have to enjoy it when we can. ) We had the choice of running for the next train or waiting for the following one so we chose to wait and get something to eat. We love the food store (might be called Migros) on the top level of the station and went on up to check it out. We then discovered a Bretzelkoenig stand and bought pretzel and baguette sandwiches. Really very good. Once it was time for the train, we boarded, chose some seats and, despite the rain, enjoyed the scenery as we approached Berne, Interlaken, and then Grindelwald.

Note – when choosing seats, check above for a card to see if they are reserved. We didn’t think to look and after a bit some people came and showed us we were in their seats. We had to move and as the train was more crowded then, it was harder to find seats together. Luckily we took the advice of many on Fodors and we each had a carry-on piece of luggage so moving about was a lot easier than it would have been had we been using larger sizes.
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Mar 7th, 2012, 10:34 AM
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Of all the towns in the BO, Grindelwald is my least favourite. It is too crowded and far too many cars for my taste. Too many souvenir shops.

I'll take Wengen any day.

Hard to believe you only saved 8-10 CHF with Half-Fare Card. I usually save about 250 CHF.

Tschuss,
Pepper von Snoot
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Mar 7th, 2012, 10:38 AM
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I didn’t know what to expect in Grindelwald. I had heard that it is dreadfully touristy with many busses and fumes, and mobs of people, but what we arrived to was a cute alpine town just past the end of the railroad tracks between some mountains with one main street of small shops. There was a parking lot with 2 busses and no hoards of tourists to be seen. (We had an extra treat the next day. It had cleared up and the same street had a gorgeous backdrop of the Alps which made it even more enchanting.)
We headed to the right from the back of the station and quickly came upon our hotel – the Bel-Air Eden.

http://www.hotel-belair.ch/index.php?userlang=en

The owner seemed a bit gruff, but instead of our expected family room with a double bed, bunk beds and 1 bathroom, he gave us 2 double rooms directly across a tiny hallway from each other, so complain? No way! The rooms were a bit plain, but spotlessly clean, comfortable and a lot roomier than we had expected. One of the rooms had a large complete bathroom and huge cupboard which locked, and the other had a tiny bathroom with toilet and shower, with the sink in the room. Each room was advertised to have Wi-Fi but we were only given a code for one room. My son wasn’t too happy about that but at 39 CHF a pop, we told him to come to our room to use my iPad. I had booked a room with balcony on the south side facing the Alps and now we had 2 rooms with balconies for the price of the family room. Again, it was overcast, but we looked out to a stunning view of chalets and open fields with no buildings between us and the view.
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Mar 7th, 2012, 10:57 AM
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Hi von snoot - it appears we were writing at the same time! Thanks for adding to my trip report.

I agree, I love Wengen too, but Grindelwald was also charming, especially when it cleared up and the Alps appeared. We didn't care about the shops when we could look up and see the mountains! We just ignored the shops we weren't interested in and went directly to the chocolate shop! It wasn't too crowded (and the shops were mostly empty) as I said above, although since Wengen is car-free, I agree that I would expect more cars in Grindelwald. We didn't see as many as I had been expecting, so that was a plus. We were either lucky or you were unlucky, or most likely, something in the middle.

For people interested in doing what I will soon be writing about, Grindelwald was a great base, but Wengen would work too and is very charming and Swiss. We stayed in Lauterbrunnen on our last trip and loved it there too - a good choice for that particular trip and what we had planned.

It is too bad we didn't come out more ahead on the Half Fare card, but it would be misleading to make any assumptions without knowing how many train trips one makes before deciding whether it is a worthwhile investment or not. Obviously for PVS, it made a lot of sense. He must have ridden many trains. We did not ride as many so would have been fine even without any pass, but as I said, we are always happy to have some extra money for chocolate...especially Swiss chocolate! It's good to do your homework before buying a pass - decide on the train trips to be taken, check the prices, explore all of the passes and get the one which saves the most.
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Mar 7th, 2012, 11:10 AM
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Hey LuvToRoam - are you going back to Rome? If so, I hope I finish in time since Rome is at the end!
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Mar 7th, 2012, 11:43 AM
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September 5th we are on a jet plane outta here (Waukesha, WI-flying out of Chicago direct to Rome). We have decided to park ourselves in Rome for our entire vacation...17 glorious days. We have rented the apartment we rented last year on our weather/strike abbreviated trip to Rome. We get useful tips from just about every trip report we read. Our weekly hour ride to Moms house just flies by as we read the reports I print out of the escapades of fellow travelers (and travel lovers).
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Mar 7th, 2012, 12:00 PM
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Thanks for starting the report...be sure to finish soon as we leave for Rome in 2 weeks!!!
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Mar 7th, 2012, 12:29 PM
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Will do Klondike! That gives me some incentive to keep on going! Are you going anywhere else after Rome?

luv - which apartment do you rent? You'll see we stayed on via Governo Vecchio and loved it!
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Mar 7th, 2012, 01:34 PM
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This might be a good place to talk about the best travel tip I ever followed. Because European hotels don’t often have many electrical outlets, I bought a 240V power strip to be able to charge our various iPods, iPhones, ipads and cameras at once. All we needed was one outlet and we were set to go. In one place in Italy, there was no extra outlet, so we unplugged a lamp, used its outlet, and plugged the lamp into the power strip to be able to turn it on. Here’s what I bought:

http://www.amazon.com/VCT-USP600-Wor...sr=1-1-catcorr

Be careful to check that whatever you plug into this is good for 240V. Camera and phone chargers should have 220 or 240 written somewhere on them, so check first. However, we did plug in a small rechargeable battery charger without thinking to check first. After a while the light went out so maybe we burned it out. Sure enough, it only said 120V. The batteries worked anyway, but we’ll be careful to check from now on.

Anyway, we set it up and looked like Mission Control with all the wires and chargers!

Moving along…We always take a 2 hour nap the first day in Europe and our first day in Switzerland was no different. This works great for us in combating jet-lag and making it through the first day. It’s hard to get up afterwards, but we did and got out into the town for a walk to the other end. It was still dreary, but the rain had stopped. We passed a beautiful church at the far end and explored its cemetery for a while before heading back. We checked out some of the shops and decided we were too tired for a big dinner so we got some food at the Co-op, ate dinner on our balcony with our view, and played some games we had brought along while listening to some far-off cowbells.
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Mar 7th, 2012, 02:04 PM
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June 30
Wow – the thunderstorms last night were amazing. The thunder and its echos were really loud. How did my husband sleep through it?

A wonderful breakfast buffet was waiting for us when we went downstairs. Breads, cheeses, cereal, cold cuts, fruit, etc. My kids are always happy when breakfast is included, and given the prices in Switzerland, so were we that they could eat an unlimited amount each morning. It was another chilly, overcast day so we started with a morning walk through town. We didn’t get far when we saw the roads being repaved and the efficiency was unbelievable so we stopped to watch for a while. The first vehicle chopped up part of the road as it slowly made its way down the road, while another tiny one followed closely with a big spinning brush to fill in the ruts and sweep up the mess. You’d never see that back home! It would takes weeks, maybe months!

That afternoon, we walked to the other end of town once again and went to the Pfingsteggbahn – the cable car up to Pfingstegg at 1391 meters, up in the clouds. We bought a booklet of tickets to the Rodelbahn, a little toboggan ride down a metal track, twisting and turning around trees and cows for 736 meters. We had a hand break to slow the sled, but it was possible to go pretty fast. The view of Grindelwald, other villages and mountains was beautiful.

From there we hiked a bit and found a spot to watch at least 10 hang gliders take off in intervals, catch the currents and sail around the mountains, and finally glide way down the valley into Grindelwald. It was quite a process to launch each one. We took the cable car back down, walked back and decided to go to the Derby Hotel Restaurant for dinner on the way back. I opted for the potato rosti with a fried egg on top and it was delicious. On the way out, we ran into a friend of my son’s in the other end of the restaurant (!) Turns out he was on a tour with a music group and they were there having dinner. The chaperons were very suspicious that some adults were talking to their group until they realized that we really did know this young man. Our hotel was across the street from this hotel so my son hung out with his friend for a while then met us back in our room. Small world!
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Mar 8th, 2012, 04:48 AM
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July 1 - Grindelwald
Today started our longer days, and luckily, the weather finally started to clear up. After breakfast and our trip to the Co-op to pick up chocolate (had to keep up our strength you know ), we started the 25 minute walk through some pretty, residential areas to Grund where we caught the ‘longest cable car in Europe’ up to Mannlichen. We passed over chalets, wood piles carefully stacked for the winter and of course, cows. Loved those cowbells! We followed the signs to the Panoramaweg, the flat trail that skirted the mountains all the way to Kleine Scheidegg. We’ve taken this walk before and love how serene it is. The views, the wildflowers, the cows in the distance, the huge group of tourists behind us that threatened to overtake us every time we slowed down. Well, that last part wasn’t our favorite part, but didn’t take away from the beauty of it all.

At one point, there was a rock garden, complete with many stacks of rocks. These rocks were piled up one at a time into skinny towers, some a stack of small rocks, others with larger rocks. We saw several more the rest of the day at random spots along the trail, but could never find out if or what they meant. Does anyone know the significance of these stacks?

We arrived into Kleine Scheidegg to see a St. Bernard. How quaint! I looked for the alpenhorn player (there was one there the last time I was there and I was able to give it a try and produce a pretty good sound), but he wasn’t there that day. When I turned back, there was that big group of tourists posing around the St. Bernard for a group picture. OK, the dog was a prop, not so customary after all, but it had been fun for a minute. We bought some ice cream at the Movenpick stand and continued out the other side of Kleine Scheidegg up the Eiger Walk. We got to a man-made lake of sorts and DH and I continued up the Eiger Walk while the kids waited by the lake. They had had enough. The Eiger Walk was pretty steep but we pushed on up to a little hiking hut museum – the Mittellegi Hutte - near the top, where we sat on some rocks to just take in the view. We were above the tree line now and could see the glacier on the Eiger mountain and the end of the tracks where the train entered the mountain to continue on up to the Jungfrau. We sat and watched the trains coming and going through Kleine Scheidegg and up into the mountains. We hiked back down, collected the kids and headed for the Rostizzeria for some bratwurst, rosti and apfelstrudel. The same guy was there who was there in 2006, but to get him to talk I had to use a secret weapon – I told him I saw his picture in a Kleine Scheidegg brochure and from then on he was all smiles.

On the way back to Grindelwald by train, we met a tour group from India. They were on a typical whirlwind tour, staying in hotels away from the main sights and jumping from place to place each day. They were jovial group and a lot of fun to talk to. We loved hearing about India and their impressions of Europe and the US. They had spent yesterday on top of the Jungfrau…totally engulfed in the clouds...with no chance of adjusting their schedule to catch better weather. What a shame that they hadn’t seen a thing. It just goes to show that when planning time in this region, it pays to add a few extra days to maximize the chances of having a good day for mountain top visits.
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Mar 8th, 2012, 11:47 AM
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July 2 - Grindelwald
Today was the day to go up to First, leaving by gondola from, once again, the far end of Grindelwald. Our Half Fare card gave us a discount on the trip which included the First Flyer and Trottibikes back to Grindelwald. The trip up took us higher and higher above the clouds to a spectacular view of the Alps. Once at the top, we started the hike to the Bachalpsee, a beautiful alpine lake high in the mountains. I’d say that the hike was fairly easy, with a few steep sections here and there. The paths were wide with small rocks, but it was also possible to take some narrow packed dirt trails up the sides of some of the hills. The wildflowers were everywhere. There were the typical types – bluebells, forget-me-nots, daisies, but in addition, some looked like ragged cotton balls, others like balls of thread. Despite the no bikes signs, we did see a couple of people making their way to the lake by bike. There were benches by the lake so it was possible to just sit and look at the Alps’ reflection in the water. The breeze would stir up and the reflection would disappear, then all was calm and the mirror image would return. Enchanting! As the wind picked up more and more, we decided to head back along the same path.

Back at First, we were ready for our Flyer ride. Each person is strapped into a harness with a strappy seat and zip-lines down to Shreckfeld, 800 m below. We waited and waited for the wind to let up, but it only increased until finally, the Flyer was closed for at least four hours. That was a disappointment for everyone waiting on line, but we decided not to wait and took the cable car down to Shreckfeld where we walked among dozens of cow, taking pictures of many of them. From there, we could have taken the cable car down to Bort, another tiny stop along the cable car route, but we chose to hike down. It got steeper and steeper as we progressed, but at least we were on a “paved” road (well, it was flat and wide, obviously for cars, but again had the little rocks embedded in it.) We didn’t see another person the entire way to Bort, but since we were following the cable car route, their shadows passed us by several times.

Bort is not a village, just a stop to get on or off the cable cars or for the restaurant, where we had more ice cream. It is also where we could pick up our scooters – the Trottibikes – for the last leg of today’s trip. These scooters are not motorized, just regular kids-type scooters in varying sizes with hand brakes. There is a path to start out and later we joined the road, all the way into Grindelwald. I wasn’t sure about this once I got on mine, but quickly got used to riding it and it was an exhilarating feeling! So much more fun than riding the cable car back. I highly recommend doing this! Once back at the station, we turned in our bikes, got a refund for the Flyers and went back to the hotel.

Dinner was fondue – possibly the most expensive meal of the trip! Imagine paying $35 per person for fondue! Well, we had to have it and it was delicious. Worry about the credit card bill later became our motto! Switzerland was just amazingly expensive this year.
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Mar 8th, 2012, 01:39 PM
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July 3 – Travel day
We were all up at 5 to catch a 6:19 a.m. train, the first of 5 to get to Lucca, and changing at Interlaken Ost, Spiez, Milano, and Florence. We tried to remember to validate each ticket, but forgot once. A sign in the train said there was a 40 Euro fine if not validated, but it turns out that if you have reserved seats (which those were) then there is no need to validate. We were safe. The next question is that when we tried to validate another ticket, we didn’t see a mark and thought the yellow box wasn’t working. We tried it a few more times until we realized that the machine was making a depression each time. Was it validated? Was it over-validated? Luckily, no one came to check our tickets on that leg. The last train from Florence to Lucca was a Regional train and it was uncomfortable and hot. We were glad to arrive in Lucca.

The first thing I noticed out of the station was a hot pink moped. Wow! They sure know how to show off their motorscooters! We walked 5 minutes to the main San Pietro gate to the city and another few minutes to our hotel, the Universo Hotel. I had reserved a corner room for DH and me, but despite reserving and confirming, it “wasn’t available”. Instead, we got one of the front rooms with a tiny wrought iron balcony overlooking the square. This was the second time the room we reserved was not available on this trip, but no biggie. Room 64 was nice and we did enjoy the balcony.

The reason we selected this hotel in the first place is that jazz trumpeter Chet Baker used to stay here when he was in Lucca. He always stayed in the same room. My son also plays the trumpet and he thought it would be cool to stay in Chet’s room, so we booked Room 15 for him (and my daughter). There were pictures of Chet sitting in the window with his feet propped up on the window sill playing the trumpet. We got a picture of my son in the same pose.

Now it was time to explore. Lucca was a mass of pedestrian streets, mostly a ZLT zone, so there weren’t many cars. It’s surrounded by walls upon which there are biking paths, trees and grassy areas. We stuck to the streets, checking out churches, Tony Cragg’s sculptures (they are really cool looking like piles of discs which from certain angles reveal a face), gelato places, and wandered over to the Guingi Tower, built for the Guinigi family who was one of the most important families in Lucca’s history. As we climbed the 230 steps (I read that – didn’t count!) to the top, we admired the stairwells which were decorated with 15th and 16th century paintings of the history of Lucca and the Guinigi family. This tower is probably most famous today for the trees which grow on top and is said to be the city’s most important symbol. The view from the ‘park’ on top was wonderful and we could see thousands of red-tiled roofs, little patios squeezed between them wherever there was space, the walls surrounding the city and the mountains beyond. As the sun started to go down, everything just started glowing red and was beautiful.

Dinner was eaten outside at outdoor restaurant Centro Storico. I got mixed bruschetta (the 4 types were tomato, pate, asparagus and white), pasta with ham and cream sauce and mussel soup which was incredible. DH got had the 15 Euro special of pesto spaghetti scallopini and salad with 1/4 L wine. This place didn’t accept credit cards, so I walked back to the hotel to get some cash.
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Mar 9th, 2012, 08:51 AM
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Here are my Switzerland pictures from this trip:

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?...7765993&type=3
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Mar 9th, 2012, 01:56 PM
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Great report....thanks for posting. We're going to Italy in May so really looking forward to reading that part -- enjoying Switzerland too as its on my "definitely wanna go" list. your pictures are great, so beautiful, and looks like you guys had a great fun!
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Mar 10th, 2012, 08:58 AM
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Coll - thanks! Where are you going in Italy?
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Mar 10th, 2012, 09:38 AM
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July 4 – Lucca and Pisa

We love hearing the church bells everywhere each time time we go outside!

Nice breakfast buffet at the Universo Hotel. The kids loved the fresh pastries (OK, the adults did too!), and we all enjoyed eating out front overlooking the square.

We picked up a car at Hertz and drove to Pisa for the morning, surprised when we passed an enormous sunflower field. We tried to find the free parking lot in Pisa we had read about, but ended up going in circles so finally just pulled into a lot and paid to park.
We did the typical touristy pictures and then paid a 6 Euro admission to enter the church and Camposanto. I’ve seen the question on Fodors asking about dress to enter churches, and on this day, paper capes were being handed out to people whose shoulders were not covered appropriately. We spent quite a while in the church admiring the paintings, sculptures and ceilings. The raised panels on the outer doors were especially beautiful.

The Camposanto was an early cemetery and now houses frescos, some early tombs, some Roman sculptures and a couple of exhibits of other treasures. The kids enjoyed the carved skulls on the floor stones. After making our way past the hundreds of souvenir stands, we bought the requisite gelato and drove back to Lucca, stopping for some sunflower pictures in the field we had previously passed. Once back in Lucca, we parked outside the walls in a free parking lot (noted on our map of the city) and rented bikes (3 Euro/hour) near our hotel. We rode the paths on top of the walls getting great views both inside and outside the city, rode down some ramps to some churches in the city, and finally rode through some of the pedestrian parts of the town. The bikes were in great shape and we all enjoyed touring like this.

We had dinner at Trattoria Rusticanella 2 da Lucca as recommended by many Fodorites. Outdoor tables were set up in an alley across the street from the restaurant and we had the perfect spot to people watch while we ate. The food was awesome as had been described: DH and I shared cold cut platter, and also had bruschetta, a calzone, and delicious steaks. DD had olive mushroom spaghetti and DS had pizza. We were all happy and full by the end of that meal. If you go, look inside the door of the restaurant and see the huge side of beef waiting to be carved and hanging salamis.

During our ride, we had seen some signs for a free concert given by a choir from Baltimore at the San Martino Church. Since we only live 1 1/2 hours from Baltimore, we went to investigate. They sang the perfect music for that setting and with the echos in this huge church, it was beautiful and sometimes haunting.

Lucca is known for opera so next we went to the San Giovanni Church just about next door to see Romeo and Juliet. The accent was so heavy we couldn’t understand it, but that didn’t matter at all. The costumes, music, dance and especially the setting were beautiful!

It was a busy day, but we never felt rushed. It was easy to fit in all that we had planned for this day, but we were definitely tired by the end.
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