Slow travel – Lucca, Italy

If you’ve pounded the cobbles, jostled with hordes of tourists, wilted in queues for the ‘must-sees’ and yet remain in love with Italy, consider Lucca in Tuscany as a slow travel destination or base for your next experience of la dolce vita.

Ignore the current herd mentality: ‘Tuscany is done to death. Florence is overcrowded. Chianti is expensive and overrated’. Head to Lucca for an experience that is quintessentially Italian, in a city that is very liveable for residents and tourists alike.

Yes, the scenery in the surrounding countryside is jaw-dropping – olive groves, vineyards, peach and cherry orchards. And yes, the medieval buildings, churches, and monuments are awe-inspiring. It’s the essence of Lucca and its citizens (Lucchesi), the ease of getting around, and its proximity to other transport hubs that differentiate Lucca as an ideal destination.

Lucca is defined by le Mura, an ancient 12-metre high, 4.2km stone wall that surrounds the historic centre of the city. Originally built to protect citizens from invading Pisans and Florentines, the wall is now a tree-lined promenade and wooded park for the Lucchesi and invading visitors. On any day, the wall resembles a treadmill of strollers, amblers, dog-walkers, runners, and cyclists. On its grassed and wooded bastions, locals engage in cross-fit, yoga, board games and any number of other activities.  It’s a venue to meet friends, sit, read, and for those with time on their hands, to while it away. Drop down from the wall into il centro and you’ll discover a maze of cobbled streets, lanes and piazze. There are myriad shops, bars, delis, restaurants, trattorie, pasticcerie and gelaterie. Of course, there are also supermarkets, banks, pharmacies, and the usual trading establishments you would expect to find in a thriving city. After all, unlike many of Italy’s other, more touristy cities, the Lucchesi live and work in their historic centre.

Lucca is not however confined to its historic centre. Outside the wall and beyond its pastured fringe, a tree-lined ring-road spills traffic to nearby residential, commercial and agricultural areas, and to all the services essential to support the city.

The Lucchesi are a paradox of professional and polite yet warm and friendly, parochial yet cosmopolitan, and laidback yet conscientious. In the hotels and restaurants and in many of the shops, staff speak sufficient English to easily accommodate visitors. They know when you buy a coffee that you’ll likely want to sit at a table outside, and they don’t charge extra for table service, which is common in many of Italy’s busier tourist cities.

Getting about is easy. Walking or better still, cycling is the most convenient way. In fact, the centre of Lucca is limited to residents’ vehicles and in much of the centre, vehicular access is prohibited. Whether you’re an accomplished cyclist keen to take advantage of the fantastic cycle routes on offer outside the city, or a novice hoping to master a few laps of le Mura and pick up dinner from the deli, there are bike shops that can rent or sell you the right bike for the job. Lucca is a city of bike users and bike aficionados.

Options for activities in Lucca are plentiful. Shopping ranges from high-end designer stores to farmers’ markets. Take in some of the sightseeing, festivals, shows, exhibitions, and concerts on offer. There’s something for everyone. Take a language course or a cooking class. Don’t be surprised, when you’re out for dinner, to find there’s a free concert in the piazza you’re dining in. For the more active, there’s hiking, mountain biking, equestrian, and cycling.

Within an hour of Lucca and an easy day trip by train or car (or by bike for the fit), you can visit the vineyards, wineries and olive oil producers in the hills of Lucca and in Monte Carlo; the seaside resorts of Viareggio and Versilia; the spa towns of Bagni di Lucca and Montecatini Terme; the mountain towns of the Garfagnana; or Pisa (and its famous tower). Many are worthy of at least one night’s stay, if you have the time.

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Florence and all that it offers, Siena, the hill towns of San Gimignano and Volterra, and the Italian Riviera cities of La Spezia (the southern gateway to the Cinque Terre) and Portovenere are within easy reach by train or car. You will almost definitely want to consider making more than a day trip to these.

Venture further afield by car or by public transport; trains hub out of Pisa and Florence, and both cities are serviced by international airports.

If you’re looking to immerse yourself in la dolce vita, Lucca is an easy and relaxed destination to do it from. Expect the unexpected, take the time to observe the locals, soak up the atmosphere and experience the culture. Do as little or as much as you like; you just might not want to leave lovely Lucca.

Big thanks to guest blogger – Niki McNeilage from Wellington who is spending a few months living in and experiencing the charms of Italy, Spain and France.

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Denerau, Fiji – where the living is easy..

This was our ninth, yes ninth trip to Fiji in twelve years – that’s how much we love this country and its beautiful people. Over the years we progressed from the more child-friendly islands and resorts to seeking out those hotels and resorts that allow a little more peace and tranquility. This visit we tried The Westin Denerau which was a very affordable option when compared to some of the “no-children” resorts.  If you really do have to bring the kids though, the next-door Sheraton Lailai Kid’s Club facilities are available to them.

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Some people enjoy travelling to exotic countries and staying in modern, minimalist hotels and resorts but I must be a bit old-fashioned – I enjoy seeing some authentic and original cultural features and lush tropical surrounds to make me feel like I’m not at home.  That’s not to say that the Westin is any way old-fashioned or that their facilities and services are not top notch. Up until late 2005, the Westin was known as the Sheraton Royale which confused quite a few people as the Sheraton Fiji was right next door.  Situated on the resort coast of Denerau just 15 km’s from Nadi Airport, it is an ideal destination for those who want to leave New Zealand and be sitting in a deck chair some 4-5 hours later – the perfect “drop & flop” holiday – no time-zone changes, no jet lag. We always book a transfer through the travel agent to ensure an air-conditioned ride, but taxis are plentiful and cost around NZ$30 each way. Denerau is a gated island entered via a security post over a small bridge, so is safe and secure day and night and why it is such a perfect place for families as well as couples.

More recent years have seen the Westin add an excellent spa facility nestled into its park-like tropical grounds.  Located just across from the main hotel entrance, the spa and facilities offer a gym, lap pool, steam room, Jacuzzi, private treatment rooms and studios/suites designed as “adult only” facilities.  Guests staying in the main hotel can use all of the facilities at the spa, but with the surroundings being peaceful and serene, you don’t often see children there!

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It’s a pretty special experience driving up to the traditional Porte cochère of the Westin for the first time.  Met by the perennially smiling Fijian porters who overflow with “bulas” (the Fijian hello that you will hear at least 50 times a day), you enter the lovely traditionally decorated (and mercifully cool) lobby to be checked in for your stay.

fiji porte cochere

Another few bulas later and you are guided to lovely cool, spacious rooms with lots of traditional artwork, very large, comfortable beds and good bathroom facilities and toiletries.  Each room has a nice little deck or balcony area where you can sit with your morning cuppa or a G&T at the end of a hard day of relaxing – but you don’t really use them because there are so many better places to sit and watch the sun come up or go down.  Rooms range in price seasonally but can start at NZ$300 per night which includes full breakfasts.

Close to both Sheratons are small convenience stores that sell soft drinks, ice creams, and other basic groceries and for other supplies, you can take a short trip down to the Denerau Marina where there is a mini-supermarket.  The Marina is an interesting assortment of shops and restaurants that seem to be different every time we visit, so I’m not sure of its financial viability given that most of the hotels provide for all of your needs.

Something we enjoyed immensely at dusk, was sitting at the Waterfront Bar at the Sheraton Villas and watching the fruit bats fly across from Denerau Island to the mainland.  It was hard to imagine where they all go for the night but I imagine if you shook one of the coconut palms, a few may fall out!

We’ve always had excellent breakfasts at Fijian resorts and most have a feature theme night from Asian or Seafood to traditional Fijian cuisine ranging from NZ$45-$100.  The latter will usually include a very good cultural display with fire dances and traditional dancing.  The Fijian people are so naturally good-natured that they always look like they are enjoying themselves immensely and they really can sing!  Food and alcoholic drinks can be pricey in Fiji but are usually of good value and quality – probably comparable to eating out in New Zealand.  There are some cheaper options to be found like the Mexican Mamacita’s at the Wyndam, the Pizza & Fish and Chip Bar at the Radisson or the Golf & Racquet Club pizzas or curries.

Memorable meals were those at the Kitchen Grill (the name belies the casual formality) where we reserved seating on the sandy waterfront in front of the main restaurant.  Luckily the weather has never disappointed us and so the balmy evening breeze and your toes in the sand is a magical experience – so do make sure to take your shoes off!  After dinner, a stroll along the waterfront pathway which connects each of the hotels means you can pop into another hotel for a night cap, some live music or just enjoy a bit of post-meal exercise and people watching.

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If you want something really, really special or want to really, really impress – leave the kids with the wonderful Fijian babysitters, put on your best bib and tucker and take yourself off to the Ports O’ Call at the Sheraton.  Don’t forget your wallet because this one will set you back financially but you will never forget it!  Formal white-jacketed waiters, the baby grand piano in the background, impeccable silver service and an atmosphere reminiscent of the 1920’s with food to match the occasion make for a unique evening.  Even if you are full to bursting after the Lobster Bisque, Truffle Risotto, or Beef Wellington, do make room for dessert.  Bombe Alaska is delightful but for sheer showmanship, try the Flambé. A masterful gentleman will prepare your dessert from a mobile trolley where he will peel oranges, bananas and other fruit with unbelievable skill before setting it all alight in a whoosh of good Brandy.  Crepes and cream complete a “heaven on earth” sort of dish!  Apart from dessert, a definite highlight is that when you leave the restaurant, most of the staff gather at your table to sing the Fijian farewell song “Isa Lei” in voices that make you think they must be professional choristers working at their second job!

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Places to eat;

  • Meals at any one of the restaurants or bars at the Sheraton Villas or Sheraton Fiji can be charged back to your room at the Westin.
  • Other hotels within easy walking distance include the Hilton, Sofitel, Radisson or Wyndam and all take cash or credit cards.
  • Take the Bula Bus – day passes NZ$5 pp (or walk if you are keen) down to the Denerau Marina where there are many restaurants and bars.
  • Walk across the road to the Denerau Golf & Racquet Club for a pizza or curry – they have a big screen for any major sporting events (especially the rugby).

Things to do;

  • Watersport activities are available at the Sheraton Fiji and include windsurfers, Hobie-cats, paddle-boards, and snorkels. They were free when we went but I believe there is a small charge now if you are not a Sheraton guest.
  • Paid water activities include the banana boat at the Sheraton Fiji and a host of scuba activities ranging from the bubble-makers course in the hotel pool to full days out snorkeling or scuba diving on the reef.
  • A myriad of tours on land and sea that can be booked at any of the hotel’s activity desks. Very popular are the Island-hopping cruise where you get to swim, eat and snorkel at various island resorts or the evening dinner cruises.  This is a great way to check out other potential destinations for your next holiday.
  • 18-hole golf or tennis across the road at the Denerau Golf & Racquet Club – but do book your round or session in advance and yes, they do hire out shoes and equipment.

Must do;

  • Visit the Fiji Rum Company and sample some of the amazing flavoured rums and liqueurs that are being developed using local sugar cane produce and native labour. Take home a bottle of the coconut rum as it not only makes a great liqueur but a delicious ice-cream topping for a dessert treat!
  • If you are a gardener like me, the Garden of the Sleeping Giant created by actor Raymond Burr (Ironside & Perry Mason) holds one of the largest collections of Orchids in the world and is surrounded by native forest and beautifully landscaped grounds, lily ponds and a huge collection of flowering plants. Every time I go to Fiji, I see a flower that I haven’t seen before. Priced at around NZ$18pp you receive a complimentary fruit drink at the conclusion of your tour.
  • Have a meal at the Ports O’ Call Sheraton Fiji to remind yourself what it is to be treated like you are the most special diner in the restaurant.
  • Any one of the beautifully named treatments at the Heavenly Spa – I tried the aptly named “Passage to Fiji Paradise” a full body exfoliation followed by a coconut milk bath and warm stone wrap. By the time the treatment finished with a massage, I almost had to be woken from a deeply relaxed state!

Bula vinaka – I love Fiji! Liz

 

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Česky Krumlov – a fairytale town

Most travellers know the Czech Republic best for its beautiful and historically intact city of Prague.  Many do not venture further into this vast country unless they are driving to one of its four neighbouring countries (Germany, Austria, Poland or Slovakia) or taking a tour of this most interesting of regions.

After a memorable stay in Prague we reluctantly left the city on our way to Austria, but decided to break the trip in Česky Krumlov as 2.5 hours seemed about the right distance to drive in a day.  The countryside was punctuated by large stretches of forest, field and smaller villages with unpronounceable names but outside of the city, life seemed quite simple and agrarian. There were many hop orchards, unsurprising for a country with the highest beer consumption in the world!  I had decided on a stay at Česky Krumlov, having read that it was quite untouched by time, had a UNESCO World Heritage rating and that there was a 7+ hectare Rococo styled garden within the grounds of the 13th-century castle – all magnet keywords for me.

(Left-hand image from Hotel Konvice website)

As soon as we reached the town perimeter, we knew this had been a good choice. Dominated by the large castle built over a solid rock-bridge on a promontory of the river, the town is a typical medieval combination of narrow lanes and alleys, tall terracotta-roofed buildings and a “chocolate box” view around every corner. The architecture of the town developed between the 14th-17th centuries and shows the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque influences typical of these periods. The Vltava River forms an almost moat-like circle around the town and its hairpin “S” shape is best viewed from the castle bell-tower (around 160 steps – small entrance fee). This is the land of “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame, a Bohemian Duke (not King) who embarked on a journey braving harsh winter weather to give alms to the poor. Considered a saint and martyr after his murder, the Czechs celebrate his feast day on 28 September.

Able to drive to the door of our charming boutique accommodation Hotel Konvice on Horni ulice 145, we were able to leave our bags and drop the car to a nearby carpark with a nightly charge of around NZ$12.00. Now, this hotel was a great choice – a 16th-century building with a stunning lobby area full of curved stone ceilings, views to the castle and a somewhat “shabby chic” style. Each suite or room is individually decorated and our room (Chamber 11), contained 2 bedrooms, the master with a view to the bell-tower and a very well equipped and spotless bathroom. The hotel is a member of the Schlosshotels & Herrenhäuser – Castle Hotels & Mansions, a select group comprising romantic castle hotels, historic country homes, manor houses, estates, inns and restaurants in Austria, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Breakfast is included in your stay, with a small but excellent continental range and is served in the restaurant just off the lobby. We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the Restaurant Konvice with their signature goulash and dumplings, followed by a delicious honey cake and their homemade plum and cherry spirits – a sure way of warming the cockles of your heart! The Czech beer range is huge, it is well priced and so popular that many Czechs drink beer with breakfast. Staff were friendly, the surroundings warm and comfortable and dotted with antiques – this was a fairytale hotel fit for a fairytale town.

Our visit list included the Castle and gardens – one of the biggest castle complex in Europe, and can take quite a while to get around – but it’s worth it.  We were all fascinated (and a little sad) that the dry moat area around the land side entry to the castle has a bear pit that currently houses 4 brown bears. The Castle has bred bears for the defensive moat since the 16th century and a castle family crest contained the emblem of bears holding up shields. We walked over the stone moat bridge that had replaced the old timber drawbridge into the first of a series of courtyards, each emanating or developed during a distinctive period in history. The IIIrd and IVth upper castle courtyards contained Renaissance paintings depicting mythological scenes from Greek and Roman history on their facades and are the work of Renaissance court painter Gabriel de Blonde. The Castle preserves its famous Baroque theatre, built in 1680. It is one of few such court theatres to retain its original stage machinery, scenery and props but due to its age, is only used three times a year to perform Baroque opera under false candlelight.

One of the many advantages of visiting Europe in the Winter months is that we did not have to vie with the hoards of tourists who descend on this picturesque village at other times of the year.  A downside for some travelling in Winter through Europe is that gardens are not as vibrant as in Spring or Summer and many of the statuary or ornamentation is covered against frosts. An advantage I see in viewing gardens, or in fact countryside in the Winter is that you just plain see more. With so many deciduous trees in Europe, the structure of the view or vista is revealed to a greater extent in Winter and there are some Chateaux, Villas or Castles that you may never see from the roadways during other seasons.

We paid around NZ$25 for a family pass to the museum and tower and entry to the gardens is free. There are a number of very good guided tours of the castle interior in English, with family prices at around NZ$36.  The castle is open almost every day, year round (excluding Christmas and Boxing Day) but check this website for all information on open dates, times and tour times.

Would we go back? Without a doubt and this time, I would like to study the Castle and grounds in much more detail.

Happy travelling, Liz 🙂

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