Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why is Lucca so Lucky?

Driving through the imposing medieval walls into the small Tuscan city of Lucca, we asked ourselves three questions:

Why does everyone look so happy?
Why is everyone on a bike?
Where is all the tourist hoopla?

Over the course of our three-day break, we found answers to all our questions.

First, everyone looks happy because they live and work in one of God’s green acres. According to Forbes magazine, Lucca is the second most idyllic place to live in Europe (after Patmos, Greece) and “has all the charm of Tuscany without the crowds … This is a quiet, though classy town, with lawyers and housewives peddling the narrow cobblestone streets past thousand year old churches and made-in-Italy fashion boutiques.” OK, that explains the contentment but …

Why does everone ride a bike? Because the busses don’t fit through the walled entrance and because most of the perfectly preserved historic centre has been pedestrianized. Locals and visitors alike find it more fun and easier to wiz around on bicycles. Bike rentals are everywhere and prices are reasonable (inquire at the tourist office). A highlight for visitors is to cycle the 4 km circuit around the broad, tree-lined ramparts.

But what about the tourist hulabaloo? As Lucca is a classy town and seems to appeal to a more discerning kind of tourist, the “tour bus, fake handbag and warped post card” options you find all over Florence and Pisa are in short supply. We did find lovely and fairly priced Italian linens in a shop called Butterfly on the Piazza S. Frediano and our daughter was able to find beautiful but affordable Italian paper and notebooks at the tobacconist on Via Santa Croce. Cultural offerings including churches, museums and ‘climbable’ bell towers were equally impressive and uncrowded.

Finally, we were delighted with our hotel and the restaurants. Thanks to the suggestion of Italian friends, we stayed at the mid-priced Hotel Ilaria, which was a great recommendation. This hotel benefits from an excellent location, charming staff, and lots of freebies including parking, WiFi, bicycles and drinks and snacks. Our rooms in the annexe, a former 14th century church, were large, nicely appointed and dead quiet. Rates include a generous buffet breakfast.

The best meal we had was at the Buca di Sant Antonio. This romantic restaurant has been a Mecca for the great and the good since 1782. The food and service were excellent. Also good was the Antica Locanda dell’Angelo where we feasted on budget busting truffles. We had a tasty €10-a-head lunch at Ristorante Gli Orti di via Elisa and the Café di Simo, with its belle époque interior, is a great place to see and be seen.

All in all, our three days in Lucca was hard to fault on any count. This town is indeed lucky, and we’ll be back.

Photo from Rex Maximillian's photo stream on Flickr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take a Two Minute Trip to the Arctic

Who knew freezing your butt off could be so much fun?

When I heard that National Geographic had opened a store on London’s Regent Street, I thought:
It will be worthy
It will be well done
But exciting retail?
I doubt it.
Well, I was wrong.

Yesterday, on the way to look at kitchen counters at John Lewis (speaking of worthy but boring retail) I stumbled into the Nat Geo emporium and had a blast – literally.

Of all the things to do and see in this huge, glossy, dare I say it, sexy store, it’s hard to beat taking a spin in the testing chamber where you can try out your expedition gear in simulated extreme weather conditions while a thermo camera takes a pictures of your body’s temperatures. Even though I was in street clothes, the friendly member of staff was happy to let me have a go. Oh yes, it was super windy and cold but where else in London can you take a two minute trip to the Arctic?

In addition to the testing chamber, the store is filled with nifty products that would be great to have whether you are venturing down the block or around the globe. I found the shoes, boots, bags and backpacks particularly seductive. As you would expect from Nat Geo, there are inspiring pictures everywhere, a gallery, a space for presentations, a section for children, and a groovy looking café (the only busy place in the store) with world food and music.

It’s hard to imagine that this enormous store filled with relatively esoteric stuff will make lots of money but as an exciting retail destination and as an expression of the brand, it is a runaway success. In the guest book for the store’s current special exhibition on Finland, a young visitor, who obviously had a great time on his visit, put it this way: “I LOVE National Geographic” and that about sums it up.

The National Geographic store can be found at 83 – 87 Regent Street. There is another store in Singapore.

The photo of the testing chamber taken by Philip Meech & Tim Kavanagh is from the store’s website.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Is Your Hand in my Pocket Because You're Glad to See Me

Yesterday, the UN ranked Norway the best place to live based on education, wealth and life expectancy which reminded me that I had an instructive email from Gary languishing in my inbox about the need for travellers on the road to be vigilant with valuables ... even in the best place to live in the world!

Soon after we rendezvoused with our friends on arrival in Oslo, one of them somewhat randomly mentioned multiple signs they had seen mentioning the need to stay vigilant about pickpockets.

Ah well, our friends don’t travel that much, I thought, and haven’t endured multiple “pickpockets are working this area” announcements at innumerable London tube stations. Isn’t that sweet (and maybe a bit naïve) that Marianne is concerned about such things?

The next day we had decided to join the tourist crowds, which we occasionally do, and go to see the astounding sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s most well known (and randiest, if you take a moment to study his work) sculptor. Vigeland Park is a huge outdoor museum, and we enjoyed ourselves, despite, or maybe because of the steel grey weather. Recommended, in spite of the crowds.

Heading back to our apartment, we decided to make use of our OsloPass, which afforded us free travel on the entire trolley system, we headed to the station just outside the park gates. I was a tourist among tourists – cargo shorts, backpack, water bottle, camera. Waiting for the trolley, I took this random picture of a couple of people, one of whom (not facing me) would become more important.

The crowd built up, so by the time the train came, there were a couple of dozen of us waiting to get on.As we scrummed to board the train, said guy, newspaper in hand, thoughtfully motioned me and my backpack ahead of him. Interesting I thought, because I had seen him talking earlier to his friend, the guy who was now in front of me. Maybe they’d had enough of each other. No biggie.

Slowly, the guy in front of me stopped, and even backed up a bit, appearing to be waving others in ahead of him. Meanwhile the guy in back kept moving forward, jostling me and poking me with various elbows and knees. Was he just impatient or was that…a hand in my pocket? Suddenly, Marianne’s words came back to me as my mind spun with visions of spending the vacation cancelling credit cards and replacing driving licenses (after all who cares about the cash?)

What I did next came directly from my amygdala – no cerebral cortex involvement, I assure you. I screamed loudly “Hey, give me back my wallet!” and grabbed his newspaper arm (having understood the purpose of the paper now). Tellingly, he did not react at all, which was probably better for both of us, since I was ready for a fight and he was 20 years my junior. Everyone looked at me and waited to see what would happen. By that time I realized that he had not been successful – my wallet was still in my pocket. I know I should have dragged him to the local constabulary, but I was so relieved that I let him go and he melted into the crowd.

SO there is a moral to this story, which by the way, is not about Oslo, since it could happen anywhere. Yes, it’s about being vigilant, but more than that, it is about what a wonderful idea it is to make a scene. Acting like an obnoxious American has its advantages, and it was clearly the right thing to do here. Lorraine tells me that women, especially are taught not to call attention to themselves, even in such circumstances. I can tell you that the vacation would have been a very different one.
The image is from Viegland Park (thanks to and pickpockets or not - I really want to go there!

Friday, October 02, 2009

Thank You American

I need a flight. That was one of my first thoughts after hearing that my aunt Anne had died. I need to be in North Carolina, not London, so I called American Airlines.

I explained to the woman on the other end of the phone, I don’t remember her name, that there had been a death in the family and I understood most airlines had special “bereavement” fares. It felt disrespectful even to ask. Someone has died, so can I get a cheap ticket please. But the American Airlines representative handled it all beautifully. She explained that the airline understood that there were times when a passenger was not able to book in advance. She checked availability on the next morning's flight, quoted a fare that I would have received had I booked way in advance, reserved a nice aisle seat at the front of the plane, processed my credit card and sent me my e-ticket, all in a matter of minutes.

I’ve said tons of ugly things about airlines in this blog. Still, I thought I’d use this chance to thank American for being so nice about one of the saddest requests I’ve ever had to make.

FYI – American Airlines has a daily non-stop from London Heathrow to Raleigh Durham Airport with a terrific new terminal where I cleared US Customs and Immigration in less than 10 minutes. Right now, I can’t think of a nicer or more efficient place for foreign nationals to enter the United States.