Viareggio: A perfect day at the beach except for the long arm of the Italian Nanny State

Viareggio is a beach town just a short 20-minute train ride from Lucca. We were fortunate to be able to go on a weekday, even if that weekday was a Friday, as the guidebooks say this place is mobbed on the weekend. I can see why. It’s the closest beach for Florentines to visit, the beach is sandy and shallow (to a point), and one can rent chairs, umbrellas, or awnings for the day. The only downer was that it was a “red flag” kind of day. Understanding the precise nature of the danger was difficult due to language issues. At one point I heard the word “fins” but after cycling the city streets of Milan, I am afraid of nothing, including sharks. “Currentes” were mentioned several times by multiple guards. As this seemed more probable than sharks I schooled Sister Bear on what to do if she got swept out to sea by a riptide. This essential life knowledge proved unnecessary as I was forced to keep the children extremely close by the ever watchful guards who were on my ass all day. I am certain these young men never rode a bike on an Italian city street. More likely they lived in fear of being executed on the spot if an American bambina so much as stubbed her toe on a seashell.

Budget travelers will be disappointed that much of the beach within walking distance of the train station is privately owned. However, about a mile south of the private beach is a public beach which we might have done had we had our own gear. My sisters and our family of four rented an awning with four chairs and a little table for the day for 60 euros or 10 euros per person. If that sounds pricey it was completely worth it to enjoy shelter from the strong hot sun. The day was gloriously hot, the breeze and water refreshingly cool and the girls had a blast, despite being watched over by the long arm of the Italian Nanny State.

making fast friends in the sand

How do we know we're not in Florida? Check out the mountains in the distance

typical rental canopy

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Climbing Torre Guinigi in Lucca

Little bears love to climb. Mine will climb trees, clamber over rocks, or try to scale anything vertical enough that they can proclaim “I’m the tallest person in the world!” So imagine our delight to discover a climbable tower right around the corner from our apartment in Lucca. This beautiful walled Tuscan city has several towers that are easily spotted from various points around the city. Especially good views of towers can be had from the ramparts, which form a broad flat park along the top of the city wall. But there’s nothing like the view from the top of a tower.

Torre Guinigi is special not only for the spectacular views it provides but also for the fully grown oak trees at the top. Entry fee is 4 euros, but you can buy a combo ticket that also gets you into the botanical garden for a couple euros more. The 230-step climb itself was not strenuous for the little ones, though my mom declined to try, since they are mercifully broad and safe unlike some medieval towers.

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A short few steps up a ladder and you step out into the shade of the trees.

There’s a coin operated binocular for better viewing but it’s really too tall for the little ones. pay binoculars
But no worries as the panoramic view can be enjoyed without it.
view from Torre Guinigi Lucca

Cinque Terre: Beverages and Bathrooms with a 7 year old in tow

The following is a guest post courtesy of my sister, Aunt Kat.

There will be pee.

Our day trip to Cinque Terre started with 3 short train hops. In the movies there would be a flashback of me being on the train clutching my 7 year old niece’s hand while we watch her father run to catch train 2. Sadly he didn’t make it.

So the adventure begins with my parents and sister (aunt Karebear) camped out at the cafe in the train station at the last of the 5 towns, Monterosso, while we wait to see if Papa Bear is close behind. The train station has a small touristy cafe with a single stall bathroom. We are in heaven since we can smell the public bathroom around the corner a mile away.

It is very difficult for Sister Bear to remain still and patiently wait for Papa Bear since the ocean is oh.so.close. However, PB has the backpack with her bathing suit. When it becomes evident that PB was probably not able to get another train, Aunt KareBear and I hatch a plan to let SB dip her feet, ostensibly up to her knees, in the ocean. Dummy aunties! Neither of us have our own kids so we were oblivious to the fact that SB would NOT be able to resist the urge to swim even though she was wearing street clothes. So, there stands SB…dripping wet and cold. Suddenly she announces that she’s gotta pee.

Now let’s take a sidebar here to congratulate me for not immediately sending her back into the ocean to pee. I’m not squishy about bodily functions but I have to admit that it never even occurred to me that was an option. It was, however, Grandpa No-no’s first suggestion. In spite of the great big ocean behind us AKB and I truck the darling off the sand, up the stairs and back to our original cafe. Potty break number one.

And with that, we are on to plan B. AKB and I purchase a bikini and beach towel so SB can swim again. The cute little bikini becomes her new outfit du jour since her clothes would remain wet/damp all day. This, for the record, is where the grandparentals bail on us and decide to move on by themselves leaving the aunties on their own with SB. Once SB announces she’s too cold to swim any longer we set off to explore the little town of Monterosso. We spy a little playground right across the street from a sidewalk cafe. Score the first adult beverage for the aunties. If I recall correctly it was noonish. That’s a respectable time for a beverage; and it’s not like we actually were in a bar contributing to the delinquency of our niece; and the child was happily making friends on the monkey bars. The best bonus of purchasing beverages is that you get to use the facilities in the establishment which are always nicer than public ones. So, we all potty in relative comfort and only minor smelliness before moving on to the next town.

Having purchased the local train pass, the three of us head to the next town with SB wrapped in her newly purchased beach towel for warmth. Verrnaza doesn’t have beaches per se but it does have a harbor with lots of rocks suitable for scrambling on. This makes SB happy. We decide to have lunch in Verrnaza with another adult beverage. This makes the aunties happy. Lunch was on a lovely roof top terrace overlooking the harbor. The potty break induced a small bit of panic whenSB locked herself in and then could figure out how to get out. AKB talked her thru it and we all made our way to the train to the next little town.

Corniglia would hold several little adventures. Fortunately we averted what could have been a misadventure when we ran into the grandparentals. They were boarding the train on to the next stop as we were getting off. Grandma suggested we forgo walking the 350 steps up to the town in lieu of taking the little shuttle bus. We bussed up to the top where SB announced she had to pee. Lord, that child has a small bladder. I try the old “lets get gelato and use their bathroom routine,” but the gelato store didn’t have a public WC. They did have beer so the aunties enjoyed another adult beverage until we couldn’t put off the potty excursion any longer and headed around the corner. This potty was a “squatty.” This means no actually toilet so we coached SB on now to squat and pee. A little pee may have made itself onto her bikini bottoms. Or a lot. It’s a good thing Auntie Kat is not squeamish. We washed off the bottoms as best as possible in the sink, put on the soaking wet drawers and headed back down the hill on the little autobus.

By the fourth town, Manarola, Auntie Kat was losing steam. SB was still going strong. As a matter of fact, through the entire 14 hour day SB never stopped talking and she never stopped moving. Even though SB would have liked to scramble on more rocks, the aunties didn’t have enough energy to appropriately supervise her so we settled for visiting another squatty potty, forwent the adult beverages and moved on to the last and final town.

Rio Maggiorre is by far the most touristy of the towns. We had been promising SB that we would try to find her a little dress as she had tired of the bikini 3 towns ago. After suitably dressing SB for the ride home we still had an hour to kill so we settled in at another sidewalk cafe (with acceptable facilities) for some adult and child suitable beverages….sangria for the aunties and fizzy water for SB. Potty breaks all around, we headed for the train and started the journey home.

Once safely ensconced in our rented apartment the aunties enjoyed a well deserved glass of wine while we savored a successful “aunt day” with our 7 year old charge. We all survived remarkably unscathed and will have fabulous stories of our grand adventure.

Cinque Terre Misadventures

Yesterday, my sisters and I walked to the train station in Lucca and purchased everyone tickets to the Cinque Terre for today. Our plan was to train to Monterosso, the farthest town, make our way southeast on foot or by boat and train back from Riomaggiore, the closest town. Our ticket for 2 adults and 2 children involved transfers in Pisa and La Spezzia. It would be almost a 14-hour day trip departing at 8:45 am and returning around 10 pm. For a chance to see the Cinque Terre it would be worth it! Or so I thought.

Yesterday evening Baby Bear came down with a fever and was complaining about a headache and general aches. After I convinced myself it wasn’t meningitis, we gave her half of an adult Tylenol and a lukewarm bath to cool her down. At that point I resigned myself to staying in Lucca with her while the rest of the gang made the trip. (Papa Bear had paid his dues in Milan while i was advancing socioeconomics.) There was a brief moment this morning when I believed that our 2nd class train tickets could be used on another day but the middle leg had assigned seats. I said goodbye to the travelers and settled in for a day of rest and local adventures.

BB and I were planning a little walk when Papa Bear calls and says he missed his train in Pisa. He had gotten off to try to get a refund for my and BB’s tickets and when he went back to the platform the train door wouldn’t open. He described an iconic, if somewhat Hollywood-conceived scene of waving to my mother through the window as the train pulled away. I tried to convince him to take the next train and catch up to them in Monterosso but I couldn’t reach my sisters. One wasn’t picking up (only using wifi plus Viber) and the other’s phone was audibly ringing in the next room when I tried to call her number. Convinced that he wouldn’t be able to catch up with them, he turned back to Lucca. He’s pretty sure that Sister Bear was on the train with the rest of the family but as I write its entirely possible she’s spent the day in a Pisan police office. Or worse.

We passed a relaxing day with a nice bike ride (there is no other kind here) atop the ramparts and, to mix it up a little, outside the city wall, followed by some screen time and a nap. I’ll know in two hours how the family fared and how much cash (and wine) they’re owed for minding our child all day. Or there will be some frantic calls to Pisa to claim our lost child. Stay tuned.

Cycling the Lucca City Wall: Tuscany as Tipping Point

What does it take to get a reluctant 7-yr-old to learn to ride a bike? A trip to Tuscany. In addition to modeling cycling behavior as a daily bike commuter, I (and Papa Bear) have been gently nudging Sister Bear to learn by taking off the training wheels at the park and using our trail-a-bikes for local weekend adventures. Still, the way things have been going, I would have bet that it was going to take the shame of Baby Bear riding independently first to get her over the hump. All signs were pointing in that direction since BB was more willing to try (and fail). Not wanting to push too hard, I more or less let it go and acceded to SB’s request for a Razr scooter instead. As with all of my ambitions for our family adventures, including some unspecified but totally epic cycling tour in the future, I’m finding the joy in the baby steps along the way. Turns out, the scooter was the gateway drug to the bicycle. That, and seeing her friends ride to school. And a trip to Lucca.

Lucca is a walled city in the Tuscan region of Italy. Only residents are allowed to drive within the city walls, which makes the city a pedestrian and cyclist heaven. And then there’s the wall. The top of the wall is about 2.5 miles (4 km) around, and as broad as a two-lane city street in parts. One is able to circumnavigate the small city on bike or foot in a short time, enjoying indescribably beautiful and quintessentially Tuscan views around every turn. Gardens, towers, and villas both inside and outside the city walls all provide a feast for the eyes as one ambles at a leisurely pace along the flat, paved road. Along the way there are small parks, picnic areas, and playgrounds to explore. Crumbling remnants of the older walls satisfy the irresistible climbing urges of the little bears.

view from the Lucca ramparts

We rented a sprawling old apartment in the city with my parents and sisters for the week. I wasn’t in charge of planning this part of the trip but I vaguely recall reading that the place keeps a few bikes around for the renters to use. But as bicycles are available to rent for a few euros per hour, and neither of the girls is riding independently, I figured we’d go out once or twice with the girls on rented trail-a-bikes or perhaps even a tandem. When I asked the owner about the bikes he took me down to the garage and my jaw nearly hit the floor. The garage was more like an interior courtyard, and served at one time as a stable. I immediately dubbed it the Bike Barn. Instead of one or two rusty fixies, there in front of me were no fewer than 20 bikes of all sizes. I confess my first thought was, yes, the streak will live yet another week! Then I noticed the three children’s bikes. Could a trip far from home, billed for months as our next grand family adventure, be the tipping point for Sister Bear learning to ride?

The Bike Barn

To my surprise, she couldn’t wait to get on a bike. I didn’t even have to nudge. I just said, mama is going for a ride around the city to keep my streak going. I’ll be back soon. SB immediately wanted to go down and check out the Bike Barn. As it was getting late I promised we would try in the morning. The next day after breakfast she was ready to go. We put BB on the back of PB’s bike and SB mounted one of the kid’s bikes. Would this actually work? Did I know where the first aid kit was? Did the apartment even have one? Wonder of wonders, she pulled it together and after a wobbly start we were off. Slowly we made our way around the entire city, stopping twice for play breaks. She kept her cool on the crowded path, didn’t fall once, and wants to do it again tomorrow. All the requisite physical skills were there, she just had to want it. For some reason, in this place, at this time, she wanted it.

Sister Bear learns to ride

Cycling in Milan with BikeMi

To what lengths will one go to keep a streak alive? I’m testing this now as I have a little daily cycling streak going on. My workplace is participating in the National Bike Challenge which rewards teams of riders for cycling during the supposedly cycling friendly months of May through September. The system is set up to reward frequent riding rather than longer rides. Every day that I ride at least one mile I earn my team 20 points plus the number of miles ridden. So if I go the minimum, I earn 21 points and on days I bike commute to work and back, I earn 29 points. This has given me the motivation to try and see how many consecutive days I can ride a bike. My personal challenge comes not from fitting cycling into a daily routine, since I’m already a committed year-round bike commuter, but from seeing if I can get on a bike everyday that I’m away from home. I have several trips planned during the challenge period, some domestic, some international. The first of these is a two-week family trip to Italy starting with a conference in Milan, followed by a week with most of my immediate family in Lucca, and capped off by a few days with just Papa Bear and the kids in Florence.

For the first time ever, we’ll be staying almost exclusively in apartments rather than hotels. I’ve already come to appreciate how much better it is to have even a small apartment to relax, spread out, and cook simple meals in rather than being cramped in a tiny hotel room. When I chose the apartment in Milan through HomeAway months ago (pre-Challenge) I knew it was a couple miles and two subway lines away from the conference venue. I figured I’d walk or take public transport and get to see a little more of the city than if I stayed right across the street. Then I did a little digging and discovered that Milan has an extensive bikeshare system called BikeMi. Hey, that little voice in my head said, you can earn a few more points for the challenge if you ride a bike to and from the conference. And so, I decided to try BikeMi, despite never having used the reportedly awesome bikeshare in my own city because I have my own bike.

Fresh off the journey involving planes, bus, walk, Metro, walk some more, settle the family into the apartment I spied a bikeshare kiosk right outside our apartment.

BikeMi station
By the time I went to fetch one they were all gone. No worries, there’s another kiosk by the nearby Metro. OK, ready to go! The family took a photo of me in front of the kiosk for posterity, then went off on their merry way.

preparing for first BikeMi ride
I quickly discovered that BikeMi requires one to register before riding rather than registering on the spot and allowing one to swipe a credit card at the beginning and end of the journeys. Savvy travelers would have read the website and registered in advance. Oops, our Metro station didn’t have an ATM office (the city’s transit authority, not a bank ATM) where the registrations are handled so I took the subway to one that did. The nice man behind the counter explained that I could buy a one day, one week, or one year membership. I figured I would be riding each of three days so I bought the week pass for 6 euros. Registration required a credit card and email address. He gave me a slip of paper with an authorization code and I selected a four-digit passcode.

To release a bike from the kiosk, I entered my registration code and passcode and a sign indicated which numbered spot on the kiosk had been unlocked. I lifted the bike off the rack, adjusted the seat, and was on my way. Wait, I had mapped a route from my original Metro station, not the one to which I had just traveled to register. Registration came with a map of the city with each numbered kiosk clearly marked with a little flag. Great, except I didn’t even really know which direction I was facing and the sun was obscured by clouds. (And I’m an absolute moron when it comes to spatial orientation.) What the hell, I’ll just set off until I can find a street sign or landmark and navigate from there. Except that the streets of Milan are each about 200 feet long and end in some sort of piazza whose name is too small to discern on the map.

The streets of Milan are interesting for an American to negotiate. There are a few dedicated separated bike lanes (with curbs!) as well as some involving no more than a stripe of paint but many roads have no special accommodation.

separated bike lane with bike signal
There are lanes and signals and, presumably, rules but they’re all more of a suggestion than a mandate. As in DC, every type of traveler (driver, motorcyclist, bicyclist, pedestrian) breaks the rules but it seems to be expected here so everyone is more or less looking out for everyone else. In other words, despite the chaos I didn’t really fear for my life because people are accustomed to watching out for other scofflaws and therefore spend less time talking or texting on their phones. (I understand this is a nonscientific survey but for my sanity that’s what I chose to believe as motored vehicles whizzed past me at alarming proximity.) Also, every third traveler on the road is on a bicycle so the city seems to have achieved that mythical critical mass that bike advocates are always going on about. Eventually, after much trial and error I made it to the conference.

The next day, I got to “my” kiosk early enough to snag a bike and set off on the most direct route, confident I would get to the university in no time. Except that one of the “roads” was a pedestrian only zone and another was one way the wrong way. After several course corrections, I was able to use the sun to figure out I was going west when I should’ve been going east. (So I’m not a complete and absolute moron about directions.) After 40 minutes of what should have been a 20-minute ride, I rolled up to the university once again. I was sanguine about these experiences because no one I knew saw me stopping every 10 feet to consult my map in vain and, hey, the extra miles earned me a few extra points for my team!

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Spotted on a minivan in Lorton, VA

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