Sunday, May 24, 2009

Driving Me Crazy

For my 50th birthday, I set myself what I considered an impossible but important coming-of-age challenge: to drive in France.

I have been now doing that comfortably for over ten years. Alas, I wish I could say the same about Italy. Every time I go there, and drive, I wonder if Ihave lost my sanity entirely.

And yet, when we left Florence for a slow Saturday drive to Rapallo, it was almost perfect. We were out of the door of our hotel at 8AM. Thankfully we were not weak from hunger, as the price for theone night's parking probably would have crushed me otherwise-- some 50 euros (about $75!). The reason for the early departure was to get to Lucca as early a spossible to try to snag a decent parking place as this walled medieval city is totally closed to cars. Yes, you can rent a bike or a Segway at the city gates, but Segway and Dachshund do not go in the same sentence.

The drive was relatively easy and Lucca is right off the A11 highway-- no twisty, turny, nasty little roads. Since our directions were inprecise (welcome to Italy) we decided to follow two tour buses and tooth the southern most exit for the city. Who knew there were two Lucca exits? This worked so well that we followed one of the buses straight into the bus parking lot-- and got the last automobile space left. Notonly that, but it was free. Or you could say that parking the night before cost 25 euros and parking in Lucca cost 25 euros if you wanted to make yourself feel a little better about it.

Every time I plan to go to Lucca, I think I will take pictures and write about it. Every time I go, I find there is nothing much to photograph and not a lot to write about. It's a very cute medieval town. It is not nearly as crowded as Florence. The shopping is not as good but the ice cream is.

There is a three story UPIM department store (sort of Target for Italians) and lots of tiny food stores that sell olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemoncello. We sat at the table at a cafe, mostly so I oculd use their toilet, and paid $10 for two coffees. There were a few hidden squares of such perfection that you swore you wanted to live there forever. (Then I remembered I'd sworn the same thing about Provence and gone so far as to buy the house.)

Back in the car after our stroll, we connected easily from the A11 to the A12, direction Genova. Even before we got to Carrara we were discussing Michaelangelo in our amazement that giant blocks of marble are lined up like soldiers in yards of their shippers, waiting to be made into bathroom floors.

Shortly thereafter, we were off the highway and into the sienna and umber colored houses of The Italian Riviera. We were shocked at how many house-ends (is that a word?) were painted in tromp l'oeille, with fake windows and shutters and even flowers. We picked our way carefully through town, doing our best to not crash the car, kill any motorcyclists or cripple the pedestrians. It was a relief to finally pull into the driveway of the Excelsior Palace Hotel.

This is one of the most grand hotels on the Italian Riviera; one we booked online at a summer specialof about 220 euros which was a fine bargain for our twin-bedded room with balcony overlooking the harbor and sea. Breakfast not included. We did spring for lunch on the terrace and ate Ligurian pesto.

The carte at the Lord Byron restaurant was one of the most interesting I have seen in Italy as it was the first to put a calorie count next to each entry. Or should I get cute and say 'entree'? You might expect that lasange had over 500 calories per serving, but who knew that the linguine with pesto and clams had 150 calories more than the plain old pasta twists with pesto? I got the dietic pasta and was amused to see haricot verts mixed into the pasta-- now why didn't I ever think of that?

Our orignal intention was to have a room service dinner on our terrace, but after spending $100 on lunch, and seeing nothing else to intrique us on the room service menu, we walked into town. Although touristy, Rapallo has many nice food shops so we were able to buy a few bottles of rose lambrusco-- this hard to find-- as well as dinner. We got a picnic to go for 13 euros and then paid 12 euros for a taxi back to the hotel. Who ever said life was fair?

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