Beneath the Walls of Lucca

When describing Lucca to people who have not yet had the good fortune to visit the city, le mura (the walls) are the first feature I mention. But underneath the walls is a whole other world.

Underneath the walls of Lucca.

Underneath the walls of Lucca.

The walls hold important historical significance, having originally been built as a defensive structure during the Renaissance (replacing the earlier Roman and Medieval walls). Today, they serve as a park and gathering spot for city dwellers and visitors and as a symbol of the city. They are also strikingly beautiful. Embracing the centro storico (historic old center), the walls were built with three portas or large entryways into the city (today there are six) and with 11 baluardi (baluardo in the singular, meaning a rampart or bastion). Each baluardo juts out from the narrower section of the wall and provides a direct line of sight from one to the next - a tactical advantage when defending against invaders. Today, the baluardi provide extended green spaces, filled with playgrounds, benches, and statues. At least, that's how it appears from the top of the walls. Underneath, however, is a  much more mysterious place.

Beneath Baluardo Santa Croce, an exit through the walls.

Beneath Baluardo Santa Croce, an exit through the walls.

In Renaissance times, the portions of the bastions lying under the walls, cavernous spaces with vaulted ceilings, would have held soldiers, horses, and the materials needed to wage battle against an invading army. The soldiers needed a way into these spaces from the city as well as a way out on the far side of the wall - such a passageway through a bastion is called a sortita ( like the French word "sortie" or exit).  To prevent the invaders from using the sortita as a route into the city, they were designed as narrow, twisting passageways that could be easily defended. The passages were at one time mostly abandoned, but one by one, each sortita has been restored, and the result is breathtaking. 

The gate at this sortita leads to the spalti (green spaces) outside the walls.

The gate at this sortita leads to the spalti (green spaces) outside the walls.

In contrast to bright Tuscan vistas, fellow walkers, trees, statues and bicyclists - the typical sights when atop the walls - I am often alone when in a sortita or with only a few other people around. In the sortita it is quiet, cool, and dimly lit. The views are of intricate brick and stonework, arched passageways, massive wooden doors and iron gates and - sometimes - art. Yes, art. 

While these underground rooms and passageways are beautiful in their own right, the restored areas are now also used as spaces for exhibitions and events. On my most recent visit, tucked inside several of the sortite, I found paper sculptures from the Cartasia Biennale d’Arte 2016 exhibit. A pair of giant apes, multicolored spheres, head-in-the-sand ostriches, and the hoodie-covered head of a young man were among the paper art on display.

Yes, these colorful spheres are made of paper. According to one guide, they represent the cannon balls that were once stored here.

Yes, these colorful spheres are made of paper. According to one guide, they represent the cannon balls that were once stored here.

Cartasia Biennale d’Arte is a biennial exhibit of paper as an art form (paper production is a leading industry in the area around Lucca). The artists represent countries from around the world and their work is beautiful and infused with social and political meaning. During the exhibition, the paper pieces are displayed above ground throughout Lucca for two months. Afterward, the artwork is moved to the spaces under the walls, in part to protect the fragile paper construction from the elements. This unique “museum” is free and always open. The next exhibition will be held from July to September 2018, at which time the theme will be “Chaos and Silence.”  

The curves and stonework, shadows and light, all add to the beauty of the underground passageways.

The curves and stonework, shadows and light, all add to the beauty of the underground passageways.

Silence is the music of the sortita. The restoration work included adding lighting, which shows off the beauty of the inner walls, illuminates the way through the passages and casts shadows that add to the atmosphere of the underground space. Aside from viewing the artwork and coming across an occasional other visitor, I spent my time simply wandering the halls. Of course, just like the aboveground walls, a sortita has a utilitarian function: It provides another way for pedestrians to enter and exit the historical center of Lucca.

For me, the wall above and the sortita below are examples of something I appreciate about Italy: preservation of the past in a way that enhances the present.

-post by JG (with an assist from JB)

At the end of a passageway is a beautiful wooden door.

At the end of a passageway is a beautiful wooden door.

An Introduction to Verona

Travel poster from the 1930s

Travel poster from the 1930s

My idea of a perfect trip to Italy involves time spent in my home base of Lucca along with a visit to a place that is entirely new to me. On my latest trip, that place was Verona.

Verona, in the Veneto region of northern Italy, is less well known to visitors (at least to American visitors) than nearby Venice. The two cities have distinctly different characters and it's fun to experience both of them when visiting the Veneto region. Verona may not have Venice's famous canals, but it has a charm all its own and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most of the historic old town is nestled into a bend of the Adige River, with some of the old city lying just across the river.

Historically, Verona was a Roman settlement. It has a long history of rule by various invaders (Visigoths, Longobards, Venetians, as well as by France and Austria), all of whom influenced Verona's art, architecture, and culture. Parts of the city were destroyed over time - by floods, earthquakes, conquering armies and, most recently, World War II bombs. Fortunately, many reconstructions  maintained much of the structure and character of the old city.  It is still possible to see everything from Roman ruins to Medieval and Renaissance structures. But Verona is not just a living history museum; it is a thriving city combining history, tradition, and modern life (including some high-end shopping).

With just three days in Verona I barely scratched the surface, but I did find much to love about this historic, thriving city.

Some highlights:

The fountain in Piazza Bra with the Roman arena in the background

The fountain in Piazza Bra with the Roman arena in the background

Piazza Bra and Piazza delle Erbe are  beautiful spaces, full of activity and history. Piazza Bra is remarkable for the beautiful arches that mark its entrance and the well-preserved Roman Arena (amphitheater), which dominates the piazza. The piazza is lined with cafes and includes a green space that provides a perfect oasis of calm in the busy square.

Piazza Erbe is the place to feel the city's Medieval vibe. It is a thriving marketplace and the busy hub of the old city. Here you will find beautiful old buildings, the tall Torre Lamberto, and the ornate Palazzo Maffei.

While these piazze are the two main squares, there are many smaller ones that are also lovely. In fact, I think the piazze of Verona deserve a future post of their very own!

Busy Piazza Erbe

Busy Piazza Erbe

The city of Verona, viewed from an opening in the Ponte Scaligero. 

The city of Verona, viewed from an opening in the Ponte Scaligero. 

The River Adige flows through the heart of the city. Its bridges (ponti), including the Ponte Pietra and the Ponte Scaligero, have interesting histories, great beauty, and provide wonderful views of the city. The river also defines the city boundaries and helps make Verona a very walkable city. 

Verona is full of arches. Some are grand portas (doorways) through old city gates, others are small and mark entry into a piazza or a small vicolo (lane). Strung from them often are stunning light fixtures or cascading plants, which give the city a graceful air. 

There were more interesting churches than I could see in a short visit. The two I visited - the Chiesa del Duomo and the Cathedral of San Zeno - were architectural masterpieces filled with fascinating art and history.  . 

Cathedral of San Zeno, Verona

Cathedral of San Zeno, Verona

I can't talk about Verona without mentioning the fabulous dining. There is great variety in the dishes found here, and lots of seafood. My friends and I had several fabulous meals, including grilled shrimp, delicate pumpkin-filled ravioli, and a fabulous guanciale di manzo (beef cheek). The local white wines were similar to those of Bologna (slightly fizzy Chardonnay and Trebbiano) and there were full-bodied reds too (Amarone and Valpolicella). And of course there is great gelato to be enjoyed! 

Fine dining at Ristorante Torcolo, Verona. 

Fine dining at Ristorante Torcolo, Verona. 

That's just a snapshot of my quick visit to Verona - there is so much more to see and experience that I can't wait to return!   -Post by JB

Happy New Year 2018

Happy New Year! Felice Capodanno!

The Duomo, Florence

The Duomo, Florence

The start of a new year is always a time of reflection – of looking back to the past year and ahead to the year just beginning. It’s also a time to catch your breath after the hubbub of the busy holiday season and to appreciate the lengthening daylight hours as we head toward spring.

This year, we at Two Parts Italy are doing our post-holiday rest and reflection at home in New Mexico. This is quite a change from last January when we launched this blog live from Italy as we celebrated the new year in Lucca. What an exciting way that was to start a new project and a new year!

In the past year we’ve written 75 or so posts, about Italian regions and cities, markets, foods, language, culture, music, travel and, of course, Lucca – one of our favorite places. And what adventures we had in 2017 – studying Italian in Italy, traveling to new places (Verona! Bologna! Pistoia!) and rediscovering others (Florence!).

We also traveled to (and wrote about) places in the U.S., and we've offered up recipes and general travel tips. We have enjoyed every minute of the adventures and the writing. All of the past year’s posts, organized by topic, can be found by clicking on the “Index” tab at the top of the page. We hope our older posts might provide you some distraction during the long days of January and February and inspire you to plan some travel. Here are a few of our favorite photos from our 2017 blog posts:

Looking ahead, we will start this year with a post about the beautiful city of Verona, a place we visited last fall. We also have new travel adventures planned - in 2018 Judy will travel to Hawaii, Italy, and Croatia. Joanne embarks on her first ocean cruise in February, which will take her to Barcelona, the French Riviera, and Tuscany. After that, she plans to spend almost half the year (spring and fall) in Lucca with a hope to see some of you there!

Lucca Italian School

Lucca Italian School

Looking even further ahead to spring of 2019 – we hope you will join us on a Two Parts Italy travel experience. We will be taking a small group to Lucca for a week of language study and adventures in and around Lucca. Five mornings will be spent in small group classes at our favorite Italian language school. Afternoons will center around getting to know Lucca through cooking, wine, music, and culture, as well as exploring this marvelous medieval city. We'll leave some time for shopping too! If you've dreamed of studying Italian in Italy, or just want an introduction to the Italian language in the midst of a great trip, please join us! Individualized classes can accommodate all levels of Italian language learners, from beginning to fluent. Look for details and pricing for the 2019 trip this spring.

We want to thank all of you, our readers, for your support and encouragement throughout this year and for traveling with us through the blog. We appreciate your feedback, your reactions, and especially hearing that we’ve inspired you to travel to Italy. We also appreciate that so many of you have “liked” us on the Two Parts Italy Facebook page and that you share our Facebook posts! Best of all – we loved meeting so many of you in Italy this year, talking about your love of Italy, sharing a glass of wine, a caffe, or a meal, and comparing adventures. Italian travelers are the most interesting people! Here's to a 2018 full of good health, good friends and good travel!

Merry Christmas to All

We here at Two Parts Italy want to wish all of our readers a wonderful holiday season!

This Christmas, Joanne and I both are staying in New Mexico, which has a holiday spirit all its own. Here is a bit of what Christmas here looks like:

Luminarias, which are called farolitos in northern New Mexico, adorn an adobe building in New Mexico. These simple paper bags are filled with sand and also contain a votive candle, providing a magical glow on Christmas Eve. 

Luminarias, which are called farolitos in northern New Mexico, adorn an adobe building in New Mexico. These simple paper bags are filled with sand and also contain a votive candle, providing a magical glow on Christmas Eve. 

Here's a closer look at luminarias - these light a walkway.

Here's a closer look at luminarias - these light a walkway.

A Western style Christmas tree at the Sierra Grande Lodge in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Mini cowboy hats, lariats and handkerchiefs decorate the tree. The lodge is owned by Ted Turner Expeditions.

A Western style Christmas tree at the Sierra Grande Lodge in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Mini cowboy hats, lariats and handkerchiefs decorate the tree. The lodge is owned by Ted Turner Expeditions.

A nativity scene, made by a local Native American artist, is a traditional Christmas decoration in New Mexico. 

A nativity scene, made by a local Native American artist, is a traditional Christmas decoration in New Mexico. 

Merry Christmas! Buon Natale!  

           -post by JG

 

Holiday Travel

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The holiday season – especially the weeks just before Christmas and through the New Year - is one of the most joyful times of year for me.  There is nothing better than spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day with my family. I love it all – the decorations, the cookies, the music, the chaos of kids opening gifts. There is nowhere else I want to be on Christmas Eve (unless perhaps I can take the whole family to Italy with me).

But I also love to travel during the holiday season, to experience the many ways that Christmas and the New Year are celebrated in other places. European Christmas markets enchanted me several years ago on a Christmas Market cruise. The markets along the Rhine River in Germany and in Strasbourg, France, are enchanting, a real storybook Christmas. The market booths were colorful and filled with gifts, decorations, and handcrafted toys. There were also gingerbread, eggnog, mulled wine, and, my favorite, kartoffelpuffers - potato pancakes, cooked outdoors and served with sour cream and applesauce. For me, the scent of those cooking will always be synonymous with a German Christmas market.

Cologne, Germany, Christmas market

Cologne, Germany, Christmas market

I also loved celebrating the New Year and Epiphany in Italy. At Christmas, Lucca and Florence are filled with lights and fanciful window displays. Each church has a presepe di Natale  (Christmas Nativity scene), some small and some, such as the outdoor one near the Duomo in Florence, with life-size figures. In Lucca, I watched the arrival of the wise men on horseback and listened to a reading of the Christmas story on the night of Epiphany. These solemn celebrations were countered with the exuberant arrival of Old Befana. (To read more about Epiphany in Italy click here  https://www.twopartsitaly.com/blog/2017/1/5/three-wise-men-and-a-witch-epiphany-in-italy)

Christmas decor at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

Christmas decor at the Grand Bohemian Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

Holiday travel in the United States is wonderful too. One of my favorite trips took me to Asheville, North Carolina, a in December. At the holidays, a host of special activities make Asheville a perfect destination. The Christmas atmosphere begins in the lobby of the Grand Bohemian Hotel (a definite splurge) decked out from top to bottom with lights and greenery. The Grand Bohemian is in Biltmore Village, just a few minutes by car from downtown Asheville. This area has a quaint village feel, top-notch dining, unique shops, and a festive holiday vibe complete with carolers.

The Biltmore house, as seen from a horse-drawn carriage on the estate grounds.

The Biltmore house, as seen from a horse-drawn carriage on the estate grounds.

Asheville is also home to the Biltmore estate, the largest privately owned house in America. And what a house it is - 200+ rooms, 35 bedrooms, 43 bathrooms, and 65 (count them) fireplaces. There are exquisite rooms, a vintage kitchen, glass-roofed winter garden, and even an indoor pool in the basement. Imagine living here!

The estate grounds are expansive with open fields, gardens, a conservatory, stables, and river views. Visitors can hike, watch a blacksmith at work, or take a horse-drawn wagon ride to see the outer portions of the property. There is also great shopping in the gift shops and good dining opportunities.

One of many beautifully decorated rooms at Biltmore House.

One of many beautifully decorated rooms at Biltmore House.

The Biltmore is fabulous in any season, but it really shines at Christmas. Each room is elaborately decorated and filled with greenery, there are countless Christmas trees, elaborate floral arrangements, and mantels overflowing with Christmas spirit.

The special evening candlelight tour includes a guide sharing much of the home's history, roaring fireplaces, flickering candles, and choir performances in the winter garden.  Reservations are required for these special evenings.

Asheville is also host to the National Gingerbread House Competition, held at the Omni Grove Park Inn. This year is the 25th annual competition with the houses on display through January 4. The inn, a massive stone building set in the hills on the edge of town, is fascinating to see. And the gingerbread creations – wow! They range from simple children’s creations to architectural and artistic masterpieces in gingerbread. Gingerbread and Christmas go hand in hand and this was a perfect holiday activity. It was fun listening to the oohs and aahs of the visitors, each one picking out their favorite creation. Below are a few of my favorites.

This year I will spend the holiday season at home in New Mexico, I'll enjoy my hometown celebration and time with my family, but you can bet that I'll be remembering past holiday travel and daydreaming of future holiday adventures. I hope you enjoy the holiday season too - whether at home or away.                                                                              -post by JB