Friday 15 November 2019

A long overdue visit - worth the wait!

Since moving to Italy, I have always dearly wanted my sister, Rachel, - as well as my brother-in-law, Andy, nephew, Joe, and nieces, Naomi and Hannah - to see and experience where we live and how we live our lives here. But as a family of 5 with hectic lives, getting here had always proved too difficult. Somehow, the loss of our dear Mum last year made this seem even more important - if there can be any positives to losing someone you love, perhaps it's bringing you even closer and strengthening the bonds with those you love who are still with you - so it was with great excitement that, thanks in no small part to some generous help from my lovely Dad, we managed to come up with a plan for the entire family of Penningtons to come and spend the October half term week here - squeezing the five of them into our home with only minor adjustments to the normal layout.

Despite a decidedly mixed forecast for the 9 days they would be staying with us, we were relieved that at least the start of their visit promised some good weather - and it was in shorts and t-shirts that we excitedly greeted their arrival.

A sight for sore eyes! So lovely to find these three (and their parents!) at the airport!

There was even some sunshine left at the end of the day when we got back from the airport.

And sunshine for the first morning of their holiday.

Breakfast al fresco!
It is rare these days for us to have visitors who haven't visited us before, so it felt a refreshing change to be able to plan activities for the week with ease, knowing that they hadn't already been anywhere or seen any of our area - a completely blank slate, if you will.

The sunshine and warm temperatures continued into the first day of their visit and, knowing that there was a chocolate festival happening in our favourite hilltop town of Montecarlo, and that it was likely that the fortress would be open to coincide with the festival, we decided to head there. 

The chocolate festival itself wasn't quite as interesting as it might have sounded to the kids - for those with refined tastes and deep pockets the artisan chocolates on sale at the various stalls would I'm sure have been delicious, but using up the week's spending money on expensive chocolates didn't seem like a great idea, so we simply walked around the pretty little town, admired the views, took in the scenes, and then made our way to the fortress.

It was a perfect day for Montecarlo - as you will see from the photos (for most of which I should thank Rach), the late autumn sunlight showed off the mediaeval town to its absolute best, and the views from the ramparts of the fortress were stunning.

Love these people!

The crowds gathered in the streets below for the chocolate festival.

As the sun began to drop and the town continued to fill with throngs of festival-goers, we decided to make an exit from the crowds and pay a quick visit to the Quercione or witches' oak on the outskirts of the town before heading home.

The tree - which became a national monument in 2012 (not that you would know it - frustratingly there is no information about it onsite whatsoever) - is more than 600 years old and provided inspiration for Carlo Lorenzini (aka Carlo Collodi) when writing the story of Pinocchio. The gang were suitably impressed with the enormous and unusually shaped tree, providing a nice end to the first day's sightseeing.

The witches' oak.

The second day of the Ps' visit was fine and dry, if a little cooler than the first. We knew they wanted to visit Lucca and, knowing that the enormous Lucca Comics festival was about to start, we decided we should get there before the city became overrun with cosplayers and comic fanatics.
Hazy, but a bright start to the day.
Lucca never disappoints, and it was easy to fill an entire day wandering the streets, visiting some of the churches, and dipping into the small but perfectly formed Domus Romana museum. We first visited the museum with Mum and Dad back in 2014 and enjoyed it so much we recommend it to everyone who visits us. The museum was opened in 2012 following the discovery of part of a Roman villa beneath the palazzo in which it is housed. Back in 2014 the curator told us of the frustration of the archaeologists and curators of the museum at having had to surrender all of their finds to the Italian authorities in Rome, and only having replicas to display to their visitors. It was with great interest and excitement therefore that on this occasion the curator told us that that very morning they had taken delivery of all of the original artefacts following a long and drawn out process of having had to apply to the authorities and fight to get them returned to the museum. They hadn't had time to put them all in the display cases yet, but the guide got a couple of pieces out to show us before hurriedly putting them safely back in their packaging. We were thrilled for the museum and delighted to have been there on the very day of return.

By the third day the weather had turned, but we togged up in slightly warmer clothes (for Stuart, Andy and the kids it was still shorts weather, but with long sleeved tops on hand) and headed out for Montecatini Alto. We drove to Montecatini, parked up and went to find the funicular that shuttles up and down the hill to the smaller, prettier, Montecatini Alto. Having been on the funicular before, Stuart and I opted to save some money and increase our step count by walking up the hill while the Ps made the journey on the little cable-operated railway. At first it seemed it would be an easy walk and it was a little while before we stopped to wave as the little train passed us. Soon after that, though, it became clear that we had slightly underestimated the steepness and length of the climb - fine if done at a leisurely pace, but with the knowledge that the Ps had already arrived at the top and would be waiting it was quite a fast-paced march and by the time we eventually came to the top of the track we were dripping in sweat despite the cooler weather!

We had a gentle stroll around the streets of the village, which thankfully was sufficiently interesting without its usual views - which today were obscured by cloud and mist rolling in. Despite the cloud and mist it was mild enough for an ice cream stop to refuel before all 7 of us set off on the walk back down the hill, once again at a fast pace but this time in an attempt to beat the rapidly approaching darkness!

The next day was similarly grey, cloudy and damp. We decided to have a slightly less hectic day and limited our excursions to our own valley, in the morning popping up to Vellano, calling in to see David and Sarah who gamefully welcomed us all into their home and supplied us with coffee and drinks, then stopping for a longer visit and walk around Castelvecchio and Pietrabuona (for the obligatory views back across the valley to our house!).

Vellano in the mist

Not such a great view this morning

Exploring the streets of Castelvecchio

The Romanesque church in Castelvecchio

Spot our house!


The lower part of Pietrabuona from Pietrabuona Castello

We also called in to see our Aussie friends James and Ludmila as they needed some help with their car - they were delighted to meet the family, plied us with drinks and snacks, and even the stray cat Marcello came and made friends with everyone.

Marcello wasn't shy to make new friends!

While on the subject of furry friends, we were incredibly proud of our boy Reggie - while a little nervous at the start, he relaxed with his new friends more quickly than we have ever seen him do before and was rewarded with tummy rubs from three different sets of hands, often all at the same time!

The next day was properly wet. We decided that a visit to the pretty town of Vinci and its Leonardo-themed museums would be the best option and we also hoped to be able to do the short walk from the town to the birthplace of Leonardo through the olive groves in order to stretch our legs a bit after several days of relative inactivity.

By the time we arrived it was raining and on the chilly side (compared to previous days), but we had come prepared and so we togged up with waterproofs and once we had bought our museum tickets we disregarded the advice of the lady in the ticket office (who suggested that since it was so wet and potentially slippery underfoot we should drive to the village of Anchiano rather than walking) and we strode out on the path from Vinci up to the hamlet of Anchiano. It wasn't long before we arrived at the museum somewhat damp but otherwise intact and in good spirits. We spent a little while there watching a short film about Leonardo that did little more than confuse us (not very informative, and rather odd) before heading back down the footpath to the town to visit the main museums showcasing the great man's inventions and his anatomical work. By the time we had finished touring the museums the light was fading as well as our appetite for information, feeling somewhat over-saturated from looking at display after display after display!

On Day 6 we were rewarded for having been patient during the damp, grey days with a bright and sunny day - the perfect day for a slightly longer walk. We had always planned to do the pretty and varied walk from Pescia to Collodi with the Ps, and this was the perfect day for it. There was no need for waterproofs today, and barely even the need for long sleeves.

The walk starts from a side street in Pescia then winds its way through olive groves over the hill before dropping down into Collodi on the other side. We had been hoping to surprise the Ps with the sight of the ostrich that lives in an enclosure next to the path as it emerges in Collodi, but today it was clearly feeling too shy.

We arrived in Collodi at lunchtime so found a restaurant where we had a spot of lunch before setting back off on our walk. We attempted to find a path that would take us back to Pescia on a slightly different track, to turn it into a circular walk, but in the end we weren't confident enough to be sure we had found the right path and with daylight hours now being limited, we decided to err on the side of caution and simply retrace our steps. This did mean that we arrived back in Pescia with enough daylight to do a quick tour of the town. Rach hadn't seen any of the town (Andy and the kids had seen a bit of it with Stuart while Rach and I went to do the supermarket shopping on the first day), so we walked around the main points of interest, visiting the cathedral, the church of San Francesco, the town hall and the main square before ending up in Bar Pulta for ice creams and refreshments.

November 1st, All Saints Day, is a public holiday in Italy and on Nov 1st and 2nd (All Souls Day) the tradition is to take flowers and visit the graves of departed loved ones. The cemetery in Collodi, therefore, was a riot of colour and the smell of lilies filled the air.

Villa Garzoni and Collodi Castello rising above it.

Following the day of lovely weather for our walk it was back to the wet stuff, with heavy rain on the menu. We had already earmarked the weekend for a visit to Pistoia because we knew there was a vintage car show being held in the city which we had a sneaking suspicion would be of interest to Joe! So after much indecision about what us girls could do while the boys looked at cars we decided that we would all head to Pistoia together, then Rach, Naomi, Hannah and I would wander around Pistoia armed with umbrellas and waterproofs before fitting in a visit to the Pistoia Underground museum that starts from the site of the city's old hospital and follows the course of the ancient Brana river that runs beneath the streets of the city. Unfortunately, the museum, which usually runs some of its tours in English, had so many bookings from Italians that weekend that all tours were to be run in Italian only, but there were printed handouts giving some information in English and I did my best to translate some of the important points of interest on the tour - I think (I hope!) the experience was still interesting for Rach and the girls.

By the time we had finished our museum tour, the boys had also finished their tour of ancient mechanics so we all met up in the main piazza to do a little more wandering before making our way back to the cars and home.

Carob, "grandparents' sweet".

Such a colourful display outside a grocer's shop.

Under the streets of Pistoia, following the course of the old river. The holes in the vaulted ceiling are where rubbish (used and therefore contaminated pottery) was thrown from the hospital into the water course.

Crockery used by the old hospital in mediaeval times. The black ones were for patients suffering with the plague or other seemingly incurable affliction and were single-patient-use and disposed of when the patient died.

The colourful facade of the 16th century hospital.

Town hall.

The final day of the Ps' visit was also forecast to be wet so it was another challenge for us trying to decide what to do. So many of the lovely places to visit here are outdoorsy that it can be hard to come up with rainy day activities. That, combined with the fact that we had just ticked over into the start of November and many of the places to visit in the area are only open during peak holiday season, which runs from the spring until the end of October.

Anyway, we did eventually find out that the impressive Villa Torrigiani and its gardens would be open - in fact, it was the last day of the season for them and from the very next day they would be closed until next spring! We've visited the villa's gardens on a number of occasions and know them to be very pretty, but we had never before ventured into the house, so this time we decided we would ask for the tour of the house as well and were rewarded with an interesting tour around the 7 rooms on the ground floor of the house, the upper floors being closed to the public due to the house still being used by its owners.

After the tour of the house we explored every corner of the gardens, spirits only mildly dampened by the rain, before heading home and spending the evening going out for a lovely meal at Nerone, our local restaurant and pizzeria in the village. A perfect way to draw the visit to a close.

Soggy sisters.

Double tummy rubs can't be bad!

It was with heavy hearts that we watched our visitors pack all their things away and then accompanied them to the airport. For me, it had been absolutely lovely having them to stay and it felt so very special being able to spend so much good quality time with them and to show them our little corner of Italy. Hopefully the flavour of Tuscany we were able to give them will be enough to lure them back again soon. In the meantime happy memories of a wonderful visit.