Sunday, June 11, 2006

Day 3 Lucca - San Miniato

Woke up in good time, got cleaned up and had a breakfast of bread, cherry jam, nasty orange juice, really nasty coffee and a curiously tasty 'jam cake' which was shortbread topped with apricot jam with more shortbread piped on top and baked.

We set off for the Cathedral. We stopped off at San Frediano's Basilica dedicated to an Irish priest who first built a church there. It was a real bonus. There was a beautiful mosiac front and the rest looked like it was fashioned from marble chunks stolen from Roman buildings and stuck on the front. Inside was a marvel, although our hangman game was ruined by St Zita who lies complete and grossly unembalmed in a glass box on an altar. They also claim to house a drop of Christ's blood chipped off the Volto Santo statue at the Cathedral.

Unfortunately the Cathedral didn't open until 9:30. We went back to the hostel, checked out and set off for a ride around the city walls, it was an absolutely beautiful trip - it's easy to understand why the bike rental places do so well. Plenty of people were jogging, riding, walking and taking their dogs and children around the walls. It was heavenly - topped off when we stopped to watch the local fire brigade practicing their abseiling skills on the walls.

After our tour the Cathedral had opened so we went in. The book shop guy wouldn't stamp our passports and sent us to the ticket lady who tried to send us back to the bookshop guy. After a little negotiation they agreed that no-one would stamp our passports.

The Volto Santo statue said to be carved by Christ's apostle 'Nicodemus' (not one of the 12 I sang about at school), was enclosed in a grotesque dome thing and wasn't as gory as I'd been led to believe. There was a cool statue of San Sebastian (everyone's favourite saint) although his arrows had been removed revealing little holes in the white marble. He was wearing natty little drawstring underpants which I suspect were an afterthought.

Overall the Cathedral wan't all I'd hoped it would be. It had plenty of sarcophigi (is that a real word?) but lacked the over the top splendour of some of the Spanish churches as well as the welcoming feel. Maybe it's me. The Via Francigena isn't well known here and I feel a little like an interloper amongst the expected coach tour groups. Perhaps I just wasn't in a church mood. The pretty church of St Michel in Foro was fine, but again uninspiring inside despite pillars upon pillars on the facade.

We left town and immediately saw a Via Francigena sign and map - woohoo! Unfortunately it didn't tell you which way to go. Boo! We stopped and I was about to ask a burly bank security guard for directions but when he saw me get off my bike he ran inside. Ran!

After a couple of wrong turns we set off to Porcari. Altogether now "Por - cari, wooo-oo, Por - cari, wooo-oo, no wonder my happy heart sings, my bike has given me wings". I was glad to get through to the other side so I could stop myself from singing that every time I went past a sign.

At Altopascio we stopped at a roadside pizzeria for lunch. It was fabulous. A choice of half a dozen 12" pizzas sat behind the counter. We each ordered a slice of funghi and got a 1/4 pizza each for almost no money. He heated it up and we sat down and ate. He gave us plastic cups for our bottled water and sliced our slices into 4. It was divine. The store also sold wine by the bottle and in tetra paks, including little lunchbox sized wine boxes like Ribena. Cool.

A short but mean hill to Galleno was fine and we soon arrived at Fucecchio stopping for ice creams at a bar. This was our intended end point but as tomorrow looks like a big day with multiple climbs we decided to press on. Quickly we came to a bend and I turned for San Miniato but as the next sign said Fucecchio Lou didn't believe me and after some piddling about we resumed our route. We were in San Miniato much faster than I expected but quickly realised it was San Miniato Basso. Basso means low, we wanted San Miniato Alto. After another little bit of route confusion we set off on the climb.

A big tower way up on a hill was our assumed destination. It turned out to be a tower built by Frederick II but the Germans mined it in WWII and it was largely destroyed, but the locals rebuilt most of it in the 50's as an act of pride.

My legs felt like pudding! I really didn't think I had a climb in me. I remembered Betty's magic potion and added some to my water. Lou had some too. It tastes like sherbet lemons, which is nice and it did give me a good sugar boost, but sadly I was not instantly transformed into a Columbian. I climbed slowly, with lots of stops for water and for potion. I was projectile sweating and it seemed to get hotter as we got higher. I was determined to cycle up although Lou was walking some sections. After a final bend and some ribbing from builders I was at the top. WooHoo!

There was a really impressive building that boasted it was the information centre for San Miniato and of the study of medieval times. Inside it had old newspapers and dead pigeons. That was odd as it seemed reasonably new. We carried on to a square by the church, where there really was a tourist information bureau, but it was closed for siesta or whatever the Italian equivalent is.

The map outside showed us where the monastery was and we set off but immediately the road forked and we weren't sure. I asked some blokes in a bar "Dove il strada di San Francisco?". They looked confused and one said something about not speaking Italian and then, in a heavily accented voice, "Do you speak English?", I replied "perfectly!" and his German chums laughed. They suggested I tried California but could be of no further help. I picked a road and we soon saw a sign to San Francesco. It was up another very steep but very short pathway. We carrien on walking up but when I saw a group of half a dozen panniered-up cyclists below I insisted we pelted up to the monastery at full speed to ensure we got a bed.

A delightful woman ushered us in and we left our bikes in a courtyard/cloister which had a lovely garden in the middle and a small window out onto Tuscany. Fabulous. Our 3 bedded room was clean and functional. After a shower I picked up 8 more insect bites in seconds before re-applying repellant. We walked into town in pouring rain which was wonderfully cooling.

The tourist information woman was helpful, marking all the restaurants in town on a map, nut none opened until 7:30. We picked up 3 postage stamps, the full inventory of an unpleasant bar, then set off in search of a beer. I stopped at a pharmacy and showed the pharmacist my most hideously swollen bite, which was on my leg. She laughed and gave me cream.

We found a functional bar with a glorious patio window view, but the wind kept us almost cold. We'd outrun the thunderstorms on the bikes, although we'd seen the lightning behind us and heard the thunder. We wrote our postcards whilst drinking sangiovese and eating freebie pizza bits.

The menu outside the Osteria L'Upupa looked great, but they wouldn't let us in until 7:30 exactly so we mooched about. At 7:31 (we didn't want to seem too keen) we went in and I ordered onion risotto and pasta Napoleone, I ordered fagiole al fiasco too. I chose Napoleone pasta because the town houses Napoleon's death mask, having been home to several of his relatives.

Lou had smoked fish pasta and veal and a salad. We had house sangiovese which was deliciously gluggable cherry flavoured stuff, light but good. An English couple shouted ever louder at the waiters until they fell out with each other and didn't talk at all which was a relief to everyone.

The food was divine. The staff were friendly and helpful and had an Italian-English dictionary to help us with artichokes and whatnot. We got slightly sloshed. Overnight there was plenty of noise outside but I didn't care. I was sleepy.

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