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Trip Report From the Riviera to Rome: Two Terrific Weeks in Italy

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Greetings, Fodorites! I don’t often post because most of my questions have been asked and answered, but I often lurk and am especially fond of the trip reports, which have given me so many good ideas. I’m going to try to put together an account of my recent trip, and if there’s anything about it that’s entertaining or helpful, I’ll be very glad.

As we all know, the hardest part is deciding what to leave out, and after some difficult choices, I settled on four nights in Santa Margherita Ligure, two nights each in Lucca and Siena, and five nights in Rome. mr fan is an amiable companion but takes no interest in planning so within the usual constraints of time and money, I have complete freedom of choice (and complete responsibility when things go haywire).

We set out from JKF on a Thursday night in mid-September. Our Delta flight was on time and we had a layover of an hour or so in Amsterdam that was a good chance to have some coffee and stretch our legs. It was also a fine opportunity to double-check on what I (mis)read online about our departure gate but I didn’t do that, so when we strolled up to the wrong gate at boarding time, there ensued a frantic dash to the other side of the airport, a sweaty, anxious affair that concluded with our arrival at the proper gate, which hadn’t started boarding yet (and we sat on the runway for an hour and a half, for good measure).

I must commend the Schipohl staffers who helped us along, steering us through passport control without making us beg for mercy. At JFK, by contrast, a seemingly unprovoked worker announced to our security lineup, “It’s a process. I can’t help you.” Okay, then.

Vincenzo, the driver our hotel sent to meet us at the Genoa airport, didn’t seem bothered that we were nearly two hours late. He provided a friendly, interesting narrative of the passing sights during our hour-long drive to Santa Margherita, and I hung on every word because my Italian isn’t nearly as good as I’d like it to be. People seem to understand me when I speak it, but I’m lucky if I can follow half of their replies. I’ve studied intermittently for the past dozen years with books and CDs and websites but the only conversational practice I get is in Italy, for a couple of weeks every couple of years. I anyone has a suggestion—short of taking a class, for which I haven’t the discipline—I’d welcome it.

The Hotel Helios turned out to be everything I’d hoped for. The online reviews weren’t consistently glowing—some found it old-fashioned and overpriced—but I was enchanted. mr fan and I are unaccustomed to luxury and usually stay at small B&Bs but I thought that a grand hotel in a resort town would be worth the splurge. And so it was. True, our room was small but our balcony was not, and the views were spectacular. I had the lovely pool all to myself both times I used it and the breakfast buffet was sumptuous. We paid 250 euro per night, or about $300, which is about twice as much as we usually spend, and I considered it good value.

As soon as we’d unpacked we set out to take a look around Santa, and it is very charming indeed. After a long walk along the waterside esplanade, we ventured up to Villa Durazzo to poke around the pretty gardens and admire the views from the hillside. Some guys were setting up fireworks that I (alas!) slept through later that night. We pressed on to dinner at Da Alfredo, a casual place near the hotel, with friendly service and unremarkable fare. I had the trofie and mr fan the lasagna but truth be told, we weren’t especially hungry. I enjoyed the wine more than the food, and we stopped off at the hotel bar for a nightcap to ensure sweet dreams.

Next time: exploring the Portofino peninsula.

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    Wonderful start to your report.

    Just to commiserate a bit, I also have studied Italian for decades, on and off...classes, CDs, YouTube, etc, and can speak the language somewhat....but when native speakers reply, it's difficult to understand! But, it's so rewarding to even complete the simplest conversation in Italian, I still keep trying!

    My most memorable experience in Italy was when, molti anni fa, I bought an oil painting in Florence, completely in Italian. The proprietor and I even bargained a bit! I still remember him, 20+ years later.

    Looking forward to more of your report.

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    fan, I recommend log onto italki.com and for free this links you up with as many Italians as you want to chat to. You then use skype to chat when you want with whom you want. All you have to do is "share" that is spend half the time in English and half the time in Italian.

    I use it every week and chat to some very interesting people and, in a friendly way we correct each others' language.

    I do it weekly and find visiting italy pretty easy and I almost get their jokes. :-)

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    If anyone has a suggestion—short of taking a class, for which I haven’t the discipline—I’d welcome it.

    Almost twenty years ago, when I was contemplating marriage, which comported a move to Italy, I audited an intensive Italian language course at the university where I worked. However, I found that a course, especially one focused on literature, doesn't help much with conversation. Two things I found especially helpful were watching Italian-language films, and paying various Italian graduate students (or their spouses) to spend an hour having conversation with me.

    Still, my comprehension level still left a lot to be desired when I moved here. I remember telling a friend that I could understand about 30% of what I heard, but it was mostly the prepositions.

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    Ciao, tutti! sundried, thanks for the welcoming encouragement. Calabria, what a sweet memory to treasure. I made a purchase in Florence, too, when my Italian was even more primitive than it is now; the shopkeeper, who spoke no English, wanted to include mr fan in our conversation and asked if we should continue in French. Haha, no, grazie, not unless you want to confound us both. I was so flattered that he thought we knew French.

    bilbo, that's a wonderful-sounding suggestion. I especially like the element of sharing; I'm always reluctant to impose on anyone to offer me a little Italian lesson (especially busy, working people). And conversational practice is clearly what I need. Thanks!

    bvlenci, I am in awe of people who move somewhere they'll be compelled to speak a second language every day. I spent a year in London and even though it's (more or less) the same language, I felt like a foreigner every day. (I hasten to add that it was a great experience and London vies with Rome as my favorite destination.) Thanks for confirming that classes aren't necessarily as useful as one could wish (and for confirming me in my laziness). Watching Italian movies is my idea of homework! And that 30% remark is a hoot. I get very excited when I can latch onto even the little words in a torrent of Italian.

    Next part coming right up!

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    Originally, I'd planned to go to the Cinque Terre on Saturday and get it over with. Sorry to make it sound like a chore! Like everyone else, I was seduced by the gorgeous pictures but having read so many horror stories about the crowds, I was anticipating a struggle. And I just wasn't yet ready for that, so I figured we'd do better by nursing our jetlag with some relaxing boat rides around the peninsula.

    We started with a 15-minute trip to Portofino, and it is indeed a lovely approach by ferry. I thought we'd just take a quick look around and catch the next ferry for San Fruttuoso but we ended up spending a couple of hours. The uphill walk up to Castello Brown is very pleasant (we contented ourselves with the free views from the garden and didn't enter the fortress), pausing along the way for a browse around the cemetery adjacent to the church. Then onward to the lighthouse and the little bar with panoramic views, a chance to catch our breath and sigh with happiness.

    After a 30-minute ride to San Fruttuoso, we opted for more drinks on the beach rather than a tour of the abbey. I think the ride to Camogli was about a half an hour also; all of the ferry trips passed so quickly and happily. The approach to Camogli was just as beautiful as Portofino's, if not more so. Growing closer to the pretty pastel buildings spread all along the mountainside felt like cruising into a watercolor painting.

    If I had it to do over, we'd have lingered in Camogli for dinner but we had reservations back in Santa and so contented ourselves with a ramble along the seaside. The evening passagiata was starting while the fishermen were still hauling in the day's catch, and the ragazzi were scrambling about with their footballs. It looks like a lovely place to stay, and I'm glad we caught a glimpse of it.

    We found the train station with no trouble but the ticket office was closed and we couldn't figure out how to confirm the next departure time. A resident, spotting our obvious confusion, volunteered her help in perfect English (very fortunate, since my Italian vanishes in moments of anxiety). This was the first of many such kindnesses we encountered. Even the most jaded ticket-taker in the most heavily trafficked tourist trap was no less than civil to us, and most were much more than that.

    Back in Santa, we dined at Ristorante Antonio. I should have asked to be seated in the garden; the long, narrow dining room has tables on either side and a distracting lot of to-ing and fro-ing in between. The waiter was reluctant to allow us to share an antipasto of buffalo mozzarella so I ordered and ate a dozen marinated anchovies, to mr fan's abject horror (he's allergic to them). They were as tender as a baby's cheek, so unlike the hairy little monsters I'm used to. My seafood lasagna and his swordfish were good but not great, so we skipped dessert in favor of gelato.

    During last year’s trip we made a point of eating gelato every day and what a good plan that was. This year we were usually too stuffed from our extravagant meals to work it in, and if I have any regrets, they would involve not having been able to eat more. We brought home a few extra pounds—we usually break even, what with the constant walking—but it was entirely worth it. One of the first complete sentences I learned in Italian was "Abbiamo mangiato molto bene" (We have eaten very well), and I said it a lot.

    Next time, three of the Cinque Terre.

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    Great report!

    For listening practice, I use the News in Slow Italian podcast. The intermediate level is quite slow, but the speakers in the advanced episodes speak quickly and closer to what you may hear in ‘real life’. It’s challenging, but typically you already have the story context to help fill in the blanks.

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    You may also find your favorite film or book in full Italian on Youtube. For instance I am 7/8 ths of the way through Harry Potter in Italian. While RAI radio is worth having on in the background to get your ear-in.

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    jmct, that slow reading of the news sounds like just the thing for me. Relatively short, self-contained items would probably work best with my incredible shrinking attention span. And obviously, the slower the speech, the better. Thanks!

    bilbo, I don't think I'd do too well without subtitles. I delight in watching The Simpsons when I visit Italy but even though I can follow the plots because I've seen the episodes many times, I can't actually tell what they're saying! Nevertheless, RAI radio sounds like an easy (and presumably free) way to practice listening, even if most of it goes over my head.

    For other aspiring readers of Italian, I'd like to recommend Jhumpa Lahiri's "In Other Words", in which she writes of the passion to study Italian that led her to uproot her family from the US and move to Rome. It's a dual-language edition, with the safety net of English on the facing pages. She writes so feelingly and with such insight about what it's like to search for self-expression.

    Coming soon, a day in the Cinque Terre, the magnet that drew me to the Riviera.

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    bvlenci, duly noted! And everyone, thanks for the thoughtful suggestions. It's really nice to talk to people who care about such things.

    Well, it was lucky that we got our ferry rides in on Saturday because on Sunday the seas were too rough and the services were suspended. We'd looked forward to viewing the Cinque Terre from the water but our disappointment was only momentary—there were so many other things to delight in.

    The train ride from Santa to Monterosso was a brisk 50 minutes and punctuated by marvelous views of the sea. I'd intended for us to take the ferry from Monterosso to Manarola, the train to Corniglia, and then to walk to Vernazza and Monterosso. I thought I was sufficiently curbing my greed by leaving out Riomaggiore but in the end we had to sacrifice Corniglia, too. Oh, well, more to come back for. It would have been more efficient to have proceeded directly to Manarola but I didn't realize that the ferries weren't running till we'd gotten off the train in Monterosso.

    So we roamed around there a while, following a path into the hills for another cemetery stroll (I don't usually seek them out but I find them hard to resist when I happen upon them). Neither the town nor the trains were crowded, to my immense relief. The train fare of four euro is a time- and energy-saving bargain, and we were soon in Manarola.

    Vernazza and Manarola are the towns I'd heard deemed the most beautiful, just as the Cinque Terre and Amalfi Coast have their respective advocates. Me, I think they're all gorgeous and couldn't choose between them. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between their churches: the interior of Manarola's San Lorenzo is white and bright and full of light while Santa Margherita in Vernazza is dark and stony and moody (I was reminded of the Game of Thrones' Iron Islands; it looked like a place to worship their Drowned God).

    We reluctantly passed Corniglia on the train from Manarola to Vernazza and arrived to a much busier scene than we'd found in either of the other two towns. Still, I'm sure it was nothing like the peak season. We drifted around the narrow streets, where the boats were parked for their protection, and watched the waves slap against the breakwater. mr fan had to repeatedly wipe the spray from his camera lens, and we were suddenly glad not to be aboard a ferry.

    After a couple of restorative drinks at a harborside bar, we took a turn about Castello Doria, not undertaking the climb, and headed for the Blue Trail to Monterosso. We would have been glad to pay the 7.50 euro fee—the hike was worth that and more—but the ticket-taker had just departed and some other tourists said that he'd told them it was okay to hike for free. So in a way, Vernazza bought us a round at their seaside bar, and we were grateful.

    Wow, this trail—what an amazing experience, and definitely a highlight of the trip. mr fan and I are fit and enthusiastic walkers but we're not hikers, so the rugged two-mile stretch was a real workout for us. I'm glad we did our other sightseeing first because I was pretty worn out afterward. We started at 5 pm and finished at 6:45, taking many short breaks along the way. Every five or ten minutes someone would pass in the other direction, and we'd exchange greetings and encouragement. I felt concerned for the ones we passed toward the end of our walk; they'd be finishing after dark, which must have been tricky.

    We didn't mention it to each other while we walking but afterward we agreed that there were some dodgy-looking spots where the guardrails were missing. We've since looked at the short video that mr fan shot, and I felt more nervous watching it than I did walking it. I gather that the trail was closed later that week on account of the danger of landslides, a possibility raised by the heavy rains from earlier in September.

    "Exhilarating" mr fan called it, and I think that's exactly the word. Looking down over the cliffside at the sea, admiring the other towns from a distance, smelling the green, green fragrance of the trees and the lovingly tended terraces of grapes and olives—well, I felt intensely alive and so thrilled to be surrounded by such extraordinary natural beauty. I can see why people come back here, year after year.

    Toward the end of the trail a farmer popped up to sell us a taste of limoncello. I'd read about him in other trip reports; he's quite the character. The limoncello was most refreshing but I turned down the wine he urged us to purchase. I'm sure it’s great but I wasn't clanking down the trail with a couple of bottles.

    We had a lively ride back to Santa—our trains were delayed and then there was a breathless race to the connecting train's platform—but it all turned out fine. I was chiefly concerned with missing our dinner reservation but I should have known that it wouldn't matter that we turned up late. We ate at Vineria Macchiavello, and it was our best meal so far. We sat in the quiet street and ate a meat-and-cheese antipasto followed by steak for mr fan and chicche for me, which the menu conveniently identified as gnocchi. They were little green and white balls of deliciousness, served with tomato sauce and pecorino in a generous portion that even I and my hearty appetite couldn't finish.

    Next, a rainy Monday in Rapallo and Chiavari.

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    Okay, so it turns out that Rapallo is pronounced ra-PAHL-o and not RAP-a-lo and Chiavari is KYAH-vah-ree and not kee-ah-VAH-ree, as I'd thought. Italian pronunciation is usually obvious, but not always.

    We'd had such a scramble with the trains the night before that we would have been willing to just hang out at our glamorous hotel had it been a warm and sunny day. But it was overcast, with showers a sure thing, so we decided to go a-roving.

    Rapallo is a mere five minutes from Santa and we easily found our way to the funicular. What a lovely, tranquil ride up the side of the mountain, surveying the greenery and the brownish-red tile roofs and of course the brilliant sapphire-blue of the Ligurian Sea. At the top, the church of Montallegro is well worth a gander, with countless shiny ex votos from grateful petitioners.

    I was miffed to have missed the next ride down the mountainside, but as mr fan reminded me, we weren't on a schedule. It can be hard to remember that. There's a little snack bar where the funicular stops, but mr fan and I were still full from the breakfast buffet and content just to linger at the mountaintop. (Okay, we lingered with drinks. Mine was an Aperol spritz, which I’d “discovered” last year in the Veneto, and now it’s my taste of Italian vacation.) We had a silent ride back down—it lasts only 7 minutes and the cable car accommodates a maximum of 12, so unless you get stuck with a rowdy crew, it's a peaceful little ride.

    We rambled along Rapallo's waterside esplanade, taking time to admire the castle and its fortifications, before heading off to Chiavari, a 10-minute ride. I'd wanted to stop off in Zoagli to take in the gorgeous seaside vistas, but the threatening-looking skies put us off so we rode directly to Chiavari.

    It’s neglected by the guidebooks, and it was this forum that raised the possibility for us and alerted me to the fact that many of Chiavari’s streets feature porticoes offering shelter from sun and rain, making it an ideal destination for a drizzly day. While I was waiting for mr fan to finish photographing some or other street scene I realized that we happened to be standing right next to the Antica Osteria Luchin, a much-praised, family-run restaurant (“dal 1907”). I hadn't planned on eating lunch but having found it without looking seemed like an omen.

    It was almost 2 pm, which I gather is about closing time, but we were warmly welcomed to seats amongst the tables along the thoroughfare, so perfect for people-watching (and comfortably covered by the portico). Our waiter was a young man with blond dreadlocks. We probably could have conducted the meal in English but I wanted very much for it to be in Italian, so that's how we rolled. Fortunately, the menu was short and within my grasp. Toward the end of our meal, we saw young dreads approached by a family. One of the ragazzi simply clamped himself to dreads’ leg—so sweet, the child was in such adoration of his hero.

    Whatever it was that we ordered for an antipasto turned out to not be available, so we had a tray of pork instead, which was utterly fabulous. (Sorry, I'm not good at identifying meats and cheeses. My gift is for devouring them.) Luchin does a thriving takeout business, so maybe it wasn’t surprising that when we both ordered the rabbit, it was likewise spent. We ended up with the homemade ravioli, which simply melted in the mouth and was served with a flavorful mushroomy ragu. We polished our plates with the chickpea-flavored bread and made easy work of a bottle of the house wine. What a blissful way to spend a rainy Monday afternoon, surrounded by the hum of Italian street life and eating the most wondrous food!

    By the time we finished lunch it was really pouring, so after a wet walk through some lovely botanical gardens, we headed for the train. Back at the hotel, I did most of my packing for the next day’s departure (it always takes longer than I think it will) and when I’d finished, the rain had stopped so I had a chance for a long, leisurely swim—my last of the summer. The saltwater pool was colder than I’m used to but the only hard part was jumping in. (Like so many other aspects of life!)

    It seemed decadent to be tucking in yet another meal but of course doing decadent, self-indulgent things is part of the joy of vacation. We dined at Il Patio, where English was spoken at all the adjacent tables—rather the opposite of our Luchin lunch. mr fan and I love eating outdoors, so we were happy to be under a big umbrella and watching the passing parade—and being watched by a couple of Benetton mannequins in the window opposite us, who regarded us with the undisguised contempt affected by models everywhere. They were the only unfriendly Italians we met! I had a nice crunchy box of fritto misto and mr fan had the swordfish, which he said was even better than Ristorante Antonio’s. The skies opened up as we were settling the bill so we raised our umbrellas and scuttled back to our room before taking a last drink in the cozy confines of the hotel bar.

    Tomorrow: Trouble in transit.

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    Thanks, zoecat and sundried. I'm still trying to bask in the vacation glory now that I'm back to being a desk jockey instead of a freewheeling gawker and glutton.

    Hotel Helios is located right across the street from the train station, which is very convenient—less so the 72 steps between the street and station. There is no ramp, so we had to haul our bags up the stairs, which really wasn’t as tough as it sounds. Our train to Pisa, where we would connect to Lucca, was delayed by an hour but we passed the time pleasantly, chatting with people on their way to the Cinque Terre—all of them American couples of a certain age, like us.

    Upon arriving in Pisa, we discovered that our train to Lucca had been cancelled. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that a strike was in progress; I didn’t hear “sciopero” in the announcements but I might have missed it. I guess what threw me was the concept that some trains routes could be part of the strike and others not; I would have expected an all-or-nothing situation.

    All was pandemonium in the station’s main hall; there were at least 100 anxious travelers in the line for inquiries. I managed to buttonhole a Trenitalia agent, and I can’t for the life of me imagine why he didn’t explain that there was a strike going on; is it possible that he didn’t know? He told me that the next train to Lucca would be in an hour and that it was too bad we already had tickets or we could have taken the bus.

    Which is what we ended up doing, so I guess I can credit him for having planted the alternative in my mind. We waited for the next train, which was also cancelled, and then started asking directions to the bus station. It would have been nice if it were attached to the train station and if the bus had departed directly from the bus station, but these were each separate locations. But they weren’t far, and it was a good chance to practice my Italian.

    We waited what felt like a long time at the bus station while a woman conducted an angry-sounding exchange with the man at the only available ticket window. Uh-oh, I thought, this guy is not going to be in the best of moods. When our turn finally came, I bought the tickets and asked where to board, to which the clerk replied, “Crispi.” Noting my blank expression, he patiently drew a little map on a yellow Post-It note: here’s an intersection with a church, there’s the stop on the right-hand side. Grazie mille!

    So off to Crispi, where a growing crowd was forming along the narrow sidewalk. As we gaped helplessly at the signs, a daytripper confirmed that we were in the right place; she was going to Lucca, too. Then she showed us a yellow Post-It note with a map—the patient clerk had drawn one for her and who knows how many others!

    So here comes the bus and the inevitable boarding skirmish. I was nervous that it might fill up before we could stagger aboard but mirable dictu, not only did we get inside but also we snagged the two flip-down handicapped seats. This enabled us to keep our luggage out of the way and under control. Bittersweet was my realization that we were older than almost all of the other passengers. (I used to always be the youngest!) The half-dozen standees appeared to be young and able-bodied, so we sat in righteous comfort.

    The hour-long bus route took twice as much time as the train but it was a pretty ride through the rolling green hills. I was just thinking how fortunate it was that we hadn’t had to wait for the bus in the rain when I realized that, haha, it was actually raining.

    Ours was the last stop, so no danger of missing it, and we piled out and into the light rain. Now, I had directions to our B&B from the train station but not the bus station, and a dozen people were already waiting at the taxi stand without a cab in sight. A quick consultation under the umbrella with the guidebook led to a plan. (I suppose I could have done that back on the bus, but I was busy rejoicing in our seats.)

    mr fan had the impression we were going the wrong way. He’s going to be reading this trip report so I won’t tell you my private reaction to this sudden burst of instinct on his part; let’s leave it to the imagination. So I stopped at a bar and asked a silver-haired gentleman in a smart suit where we might find the station, and he said that if we could wait for him to finish his coffee, he’d walk us there. Could we? How could we not!

    What a fine introduction to Lucca and the Lucchesi. The silver-haired gent and I had a nice chat as we walked, starting in Italian and ending in English, as most of my extended conversations do. He’d been to New York last year and loved it, which is always gratifying to hear. (I sometimes think everyone, including the rest of America, hates us.) He explained that everywhere in Lucca is within walking distance of everywhere else, and we quickly arrived in the train station vicinity, where he pointed toward the building.

    I hardly want to tell you what came next; my excuse is that the station is set back a bit from the boulevard so it’s not as readily apparent as the several people I asked seemed to think it was. We rolled up and down the same stretch of sidewalk until we finally had a breakthrough and even after that, finding the B&B wasn’t as easy as it looked on paper.

    So here we were, late again. I thought our host seemed a little annoyed but mr fan didn’t think so, and afterward I realized I was just projecting my own discomfort on to him. Our B&B, Al Porto di Lucca, is as graciously elegant as its website promises. The house is decorated in exquisite taste with antiques and family heirlooms, and our suite with a balcony overlooking the garden proved spacious and comfortable. The threadcount of the sheets and towels was in the upper registers, too, which is always a happy surprise.

    The rain had stopped while the silver-haired gent and I were talking, and it turned out to be the last time on this trip that we needed our umbrellas. mr fan and I took a break from unpacking by settling down on the balcony with some limoncello from the parlor’s honesty bar, and my spirits rose accordingly. Our late arrival curtailed today’s browsing around town but there was time enough for a promising ramble before settling down to dinner at Buca di San’Antonio.

    I’d asked to be seated outside but when we showed up early, I was glad to be shown to a little table next to the bar—there was still a dampness in the air, though the rain was done. We were also given a welcoming glass of prosecco and a plate of meatballs and some wonderful little fried things that I couldn’t identify but ate gladly. The waiter said that we could eat in the bar as long as we departed by a certain time, or we could go to the patio, as planned, and stay as long as we liked. I appreciated the option—the interior is lovely; the place is a former stable that’s decked out with shiny tools—but mr fan and I agreed to make a leisurely affair of the meal outside.

    And that worked out very well. We had lardo for an antipasto, and for those of you (like me) who haven’t encountered it before, it’s just what it sounds like: a plate of pig fat, gloriously seasoned, juicy, and crackly. The very thought of it makes my mouth water. mr fan settled on the lamb chops and I chose the baby goat, served with a curious and tasty little bean pudding. A splendid meal, and a triumphant conclusion to a somewhat trying day.

    Next: A sunny day in lovely Lucca.

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    Enjoying your trip report very much! Hoping for updates. I've never been to that area in Italy, but always happy to read about new places and it sounds lovely--and delicious--from your description.

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    Thanks, lizu and Dayle! This part of Italy was new to me, too. There are so many regions that I have yet to visit that I always feel like I should try somewhere different even though I long to revisit the favorites. For this trip, we spent the first week in new-to-us places and the second week in familiar scenes, and it worked out very well.

    You’d hardly know it from this trip report but museum visits are among my favorite activities and today we’re finally going to do that. But first, an excellent breakfast, at which our charming hostess brought out one dainty after another from the kitchen and provided my first creamy cappuccino of this trip. Then our host outfitted us with bikes for riding around the walls.

    This was our second highlight, after the Cinque Terre hike. It’s funny, we’re not hikers or bikers but these two mildly athletic pursuits were among the most fun things that we did—maybe because they’re so different from our everyday life. The B&B is just outside the walls and a short distance from an entry point to the wonderful park situated along the ramparts, where people walk, bike, jog, and exercise their dogs. Last year we biked the walls of Ferrara, a thrilling experience; this shorter but unbroken circuit of 2.5 miles was likewise enchanting.

    There were people hard at work, setting up the stage for the coming Saturday night’s Rolling Stones concert. Every other shop window in town featured a sign with the band’s logo, and some also displayed stylish, inventive versions of the famous leering mouth on frocks, shirts, shoes, and bags. There was a time when I would have been bitterly disappointed to have missed this show by just a few days but now I was just relieved to have avoided the inconveniences that come with thousands of concertgoers.

    Back at the B&B, we returned the bikes and opened a bottle of prosecco on the balcony before visiting the combination-ticket attractions Villa Guinigi and Palazzo Mansi. The former is a fifteenth-century building that houses an absorbing range of archeological artifacts as well as a lovely picture gallery. We had it entirely to ourselves! I feel like I could look at pottery shards and rusty coins all day, every day but the truth is, I lose focus after a couple of hours. mr fan is subject to “museum feet”, a leaden sensation that’s relieved immediately upon our exit. So we do our best to indulge each other and strike a compromise.

    At Villa Guinigi we had some friendly chat with the lady who sold us tickets, and we were accompanied by a guard as we roamed from room to room. I wasn’t paying any attention to him (or mr fan) except to offer a smile of recognition from time to time; I was much too busy studying the exhibits. Afterward, mr fan told me that the guard had been mumbling to himself the entire time and beckoning us to move on to the next room—which mr fan was nothing loath to do—presumably to be sooner rid of us and to get back to doing nothing. I hadn’t any idea, I was so utterly and happily oblivious to anything but the Etruscan jewelry, the medieval sculpture, and the portraits of saints and their gruesome martyrdoms.

    On to Palazzo Mansi, formerly the home of a wealthy 17th-century silk merchant and now an exhibition space of beautiful rooms, decorated with tapestries and frescoes—really, a fascinating window into how rich Tuscans used to live. There were a few more visitors here but we mostly had the rooms to ourselves. These museums were so delightful and low-key (and the tickets so cheap!) that I was well satisfied with our afternoon.

    We’d scoped out this evening’s restaurant, Canuleia, during our walk about town. Behind the unprepossessing exterior was a lovely garden where we ate foie gras, bistecca alla fiorentina, and guanciale (pork cheek), concluding with a round of vin santo and biscotti. The women who greeted and served us were so attentive and nice (I can still hear their cheerful responses of “Prego, prego!” echoing around the garden). Afterward, a slow walk back to the B&B through the mostly empty streets and past the walls, now rendered especially magical by their darkness and stillness.

    Next: a glimpse of the leaning tower and a taste of Siena.

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    Sure enough; it was the climax of Lucca Summer Festival 2017. I gather that most of the shows take place in Piazza Napoleone but this one, on 23 September, was set up along the walls. It must have been spectacular.

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