Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Torre Guinigi Lucca

One of big tourist attractions of Lucca is the Torre Guinigi, it is perhaps most recognizable for the Holm oaks growing on the top, giving the idea of a mini-park suspended at 44.25mt above the city skyline like a medieval skyscraper making it a symbol of power over terracotta roofs and the other edifices.

The tower dates back to the mid 14th Century when it was added to the Guinigi Palace, home to the Guinigi family wealthy silk merchants who became rulers of Lucca. Building towers were very fashionable at the time as a way of displaying the wealth and power of a family, the craze led to higher and higher towers being built until a height limit had to be enforced by cities. These towers often became the main targets of attack during disputes, therefore in Lucca only a few towers remain. 

Torre Guinigi is a wonderful example of Romanesque-Gothic architecture. The beautiful terracotta bricks are artistic.

Climbing to the top is not for those who suffer from acrophobia, as the final part is literally a glorified ladder, though bear in mind that the original staircase was external. The 230 steps are also made easier if you have a gym membership, however, on reaching the top you are rewarded by the wonderful 360-degree panorama of Lucca and its magnificent Renaissance walls with the extraordinary backdrop of the Alpi Apuane.  

Torre Guinigi - Via S. Andrea, Lucca, Tuscany, Italy

Hours: 9:30am - 4:30pm
Admission: €4 for adults, €3 for seniors and children from 6-14 years

Photos for this post were taken by my dear friend and intrepid traveller Michelle Sullivan.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pizza Versus Pizza - What is a real Italian Pizza?

Enjoying pizza in Naples
Pizza is probably with Pasta the best know Italian food export loved by everybody around the world. Visitors to Italy expect to find pizza and pasta on every menu right along the length of the peninsula. However one of the great joys of Italian cooking is that it is regional. Naples is the home of modern Pizza but around Italy and beyond it has been adapted and sometimes the resemblance to its original archetype is pretty remote (i.e. pineapple pizza). Since medieval times throughout Italy, a large variety of baked bread dough fare topped or stuffed with cheese, vegetables, anchovies and whatever the locals had to hand, have been enjoyed. They have different names but they are a variation of focaccia, a mediaeval word that means something cooked in the fire (foco/fuoco).

Lucca is my city but I am married to Enzo, a Neapolitan and must confess that I now seldom eat pizza outside his native city, but you may ask what is the difference? Before I try to explain  here is a little bit of history:

Pizza Margherita in Naples
The Neapolitan legend tells us that a pizza maker in the city, Raffaele Esposito from the Pizzeria Brandi, that still exists, created the Pizza Margherita for Margherita of Savoy, the Queen consort of Italy on her visit to the city on 11th June 1889.  The Margherita is still probably the most eaten pizza around the world. The fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil reflect the colours of the Italian flag of red, white and green made this dish an important symbol of the recent unification of Italy.
The pizza, as we think of it, was unknown outside the Naples region before the 19th  century.

Over the years I have tried to pinpoint why pizza in Naples is so special?
The main difference lies I think in the dough and the cooking.

Pizzeria in Centro Storico in Naples
A Neapolitan Pizza has a much thinner dough, the topping is placed in the middle leaving the edge free so it rises in the cooking forming a "cornicione" frame. An international pizza (and often a general Italian Pizza) is made from a much drier firmer dough and the topping covers the whole pizza. The cornicione is also good but everybody prefers, of course, the middle, so I leave it to the end. In the old times when nothing was thrown away, the rule was to cut the cornicione  first, eat it then enjoy the rest. Most pizza purists in Naples still stick to the old rule like my brother in law.

Neapolitan Pizza marinara
Italian pizza capricciosa
I have occasionally asked the pizza man in the pizzerias around Italy at what temperature they cook it. The average temperature is about 260C (500F) but not in Naples where a perfect Neapolitan pizza requires 480C (900F). In order to reach and keep this temperature safely the oven must be built in a different way and is required to have amazing insulation, the trick being the insulation is created by using generous amounts of volcanic material beneath the baking surface and in the dome (not so easily available in other parts of the world). The volcanic rocks have fantastic properties, first they store heat and keep the temperature stable, secondly, they do not crack the oven, a potential occurrence with ordinary brick ovens at high temperatures.
The high temperature means the pizza will stay in the oven seconds rather than minutes.

Neapolitan pizza oven
I have heard tourist complain about the Neapolitan pizza's being soggy but remember this is where the dish was invented and they know how to do it. I love the fact it is not dry. It is a pizza, not a biscotto.
One can still buy in the morning a small pizza to eat while walking to work or school. It is called Pizza “a portafoglio” (like a wallet) because it is easily folded twice and eaten.

Enzo remembers that in his time in Naples Pizza there were only traditional pizzas that I’m going to list in a minute, so to get something different he used to go with his friends on a pilgrimage to a place called Elettroforno in Piazza San Luigi where they could get a rectangular slice of pizza with a soft airy base.

Traditionally in Naples, there were only a few toppings:
Marinara: Olive oil, sieved tomatoes, oregano, garlic.
Margherita: (created in honor of Queen Margherita): Olive oil, sieved tomatoes, mozzarella (or fior di latte), parmesan cheese, basil leaves.
Ripieno (also called calzone): Shaped like a raviolo, stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, salami.
Capricciosa: topped with a bit of everything: olives, tomatoes, prosciutto, mushrooms. Every pizzeria has their own variations.
Quattro stagioni (Four seasons). The pizza is divided into four quadrants, each vaguely representing each season of the year.

Now Neapolitan pizzerias, influenced by the development of pizza outside Naples are widening their menu and you might find quite a few new pizzas (still not as many as a rest of Italy). A couple of them have become established, first of all, Pizza con salsiccia and friarielli (Neapolitan sausages and bitter greens) then mozzarella di bufala e pomodori del piennolo (buffalo mozzarella and a bunch of small tomatoes from the Vesuvius area that keep fresh in the winter). These ingredients are only found in Naples.
My sister in law loves one made from broken cocchè on top (deep fried potato croquette with mozzarella inside). Enzo is not convinced.

Outside Naples apart from their historical focacce, Pizza has taken different directions. In Sicily,  they now have a classical Sicilian Pizzas often made with extra semolina flour in the dough and the wonderful “sfincione” in Palermo, which has an airy light dough as a base, a perfect street food.

Pizza al taglio in Lucca
In Rome Pizza also developed as Pizza al Taglio, baked on large trays and sold in square slices as a takeaway by the weight. The base is more firm and heavy. They have thousands of variations of toppings.  Enzo, says he survived on Pizza al taglio during his national service in Rome a thousand years ago.

Whatever Pizza you choose Buon appetito!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Montecarlo Wine Festival

September brings a softer light even though the days are still hot, that intense heat has gone and all eyes are turned toward the vines to choose the moment for the Vendemmia or wine harvest. The Tuscan hills abound at this time of year with feste celebrating their wine.
Montecarlo is no exception; this hilltop medieval town (not the quartier in the Principality of Monaco os loved by  Ferrari owners) perches on the top of a hill between Lucca and Pescia near Le Mura Villa Tuscany, has a month long festival to celebrate this elixir of Life.

The wine around Lucca may not have the long history of their Chianti neighbours but their reputation is growing year by year with vineyards winning international awards for their wines. Some produce organic wine and there is a choice of red, white and bubbles, which is rare for this area. The prosecco type wine is dry and sophisticated, it has even been awarded a prize in France. It is produced by  Buonamico, one of my favourite vineyards. I also love their reds and white wine.  I see  Buonamico has been noticed by celebrity Michelin starred Chef Gordon Ramsey, who has found a pearl of a white wine to serve at his Mayfair "Maze" restaurant in  London:  The  Montecarlo doc from the Buonamico estate.  It seems this foodie Celeb, famous for his bad temper on Masterchef has found our little paradise and enjoyed the fruits of our hills.

Montecarlo makes a stunning setting and the long trestle tables with their benches give  a wonderful view of the twinkling distant lights of Montecatini Alto and the full moon  to create the perfect setting to celebrate this year's grape and to sip one's chosen wine and enjoy a plate of crostini and my absolute favourite pasta fritta (I can never work out how fried dough can taste so good).  You can, of course,  also a enjoy a full meal, including the famous Tortelli Lucchesi.

However, don't sit down and relax before taking a stroll around. This little town has everything: a castle, the sweetest bijou theatre and views to take your breath away plus lots more ,but that is for another post!

The wine festival is every year from the end of August to the middle of September. Look at the website for the comune di Montecarlo for details.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lucca, A Bicycle For Every Trade.

Anyone need A Wedding Photograph.

Lucca is a city of bikes, I think this is a purely practical decision on the part of its citizens as cars are banned except for residents from the old town. It seems bikes have been a trendy way of getting around for a long time and we have lost some of the best models. Previous generations adapted bikes  for every profession. During one of the large markets in the Borgo Giannotti, here was a line up of historic bikes.

Milk Bicycle

Knife Sharpener

A priest on a Bike and Sweet Delights

Anyone Need A Lamp ?

A Fresh Cup Of Coffee or Bicycle Repair 


Friday, May 26, 2017

Spring and Summer Tuscan Storms create art

In Tuscany, we have thunderstorms during the warm months. These downpours keep our part of northern Tuscany green and cool down the air during the hottest months. The other benefit is the wonderful skies they produce. I always tell my guests Le Mura to enjoy the show. The other day Enzo went out with his pocket camera and captured some wonderful images just after an early evening downpour. 

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            I know I post quite a few pictures of our view but I never tire of its beauty.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Saint Festivals Lucca- Santa Zita

Spring is a wonderful time to visit Tuscany with all the spring blossom and then the wildflowers painting their first canvases on the hillsides.

Lucca has several Saints protecting the city. One of the most loved by the Lucchesi (the name for Lucca citizens) is Santa Zita. She is celebrated on 27th April, when the Piazzas around the magnificent Church of San Frediano where she rests and is venerated are planted with magnificent blooms and the famous amphitheatre is filled with colour as stalls sell plants for the locals to decorated their terraces and make Lucca a city of flowers for the summer months. The flower that symbolizes Santa Zita most is the daffodil and it is traditional to gift a bunch to commemorate this modest saint.

What is the story, that led this simple local peasant girl to sainthood? Like all the stories of Saints, versions vary slightly but the core of the story is always the same.  Zita was born into a peasant family just outside Lucca; she was a good pious child, always trying to please God. As a young girl of 12, the Fratinelli Family took her into service. Zita wasn’t distracted by the bright lights of the city and tried her best to serve her master and mistress, however, she was aware of the poverty. In order to help the poor, Santa Zita ate less and gave her excess rations to the needy but this wasn’t enough, she, therefore, stole excess bread and legumes from the kitchen. Her employers were unaware and indeed she was very much loved by her master and mistress for being a loyal servant. Perhaps a jealous servant tipped off her master that Zita was stealing, but when he saw the servant girl holding her bulging apron in front of her he asked her what she was carrying, the shy pious girl replies flowers and leaves and indeed as she opened her apron flowers fell out. This is the reason the Saint is celebrated by botanical offerings. Santa Zita has become the patron saint for housewives and domestic staff.

The colours abound around San Frediano and the church is full of people on 27th April paying tribute to this tiny mummified figure lying in her chapel. It is part of the miracle that the body has never decomposed. As an aside, it is said that her little toe is missing as it was given as a relic to a visiting British Bishop.  

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lucca Centre Of The World

Lucca this week became the hub of the world as the chosen city for the meeting of the G7 foreign ministers. The walls of this beautiful city must have seemed like a good natural security ring to protect our auspicious guests. The city wasn’t totally united in their welcome to the G7,  as residents were forced to move their cars out of the city and show passes or documents to reach their homes as large tracts of the city were cordoned off. 

Bars and businesses closed and lamented the loss of customers but for those of us allowed into the area, we had a unique Lucca experience.The only customers at the few bars open inside the cordon where policemen after a quick pick me up during their pause. The deserted city full of police felt rather eerie and the seagulls swirled around in menacing agitation disturbed by the drones. 

The weather was perfect and on Monday evening after 2 hours discussing the big issues of the moment in the beautiful setting of Il Palazzo Ducale, the ministers were given the chance of a quick walk around the city. They could enjoy the almost deserted streets and piazzas under the most beautiful evening light.

We can only hope that the architectural beauty of our city helped them come to wise decisions.