A night on the town of Benabbio…A visit to an old church…This is why we travel…

As we began the drive to Benabbio…

As thoughts run through our minds that echo “this is why we are traveling the world” we sat on the outdoor cafe of Il Cavallino Bianco Restaurant, (the small white horse, a memory of one of the two owners, Alessandro) in Benabbio, Lucca, Toscana, Italy, waiting for the church bells to ring at 7:30 pm, when the restaurant upstairs opens for dinner.

The café and entrance to the only restaurant within a 1/2 hour drive from Boveglio, Il Cavallino Bianco, quaint and charming, to say the least.

We’ve discovered that Europeans eat dinner later than most of us, stay up later than most of us, nap during the day during a break time enjoyed by many individuals and businesses and awaken later in the morning.

Houses we encountered on our walk.

Clocking the winding hairpin drive from Boveglio to Benabbio takes exactly 11 minutes.  Last night, for the first time making this drive, as Tom maneuvered the Fiat Clio six-speed,  I was actually playing with the settings in our camera (still learning) with no “eyes peeled on the road” and no “white knuckles” hanging onto the dashboard. 

Mustard painted house across from the restaurant.

Perhaps the two of us, like the residents here, are becoming more at ease with the treacherous drive, giving it nary a thought, by rote making their way through the maze of guardrail-free twists and turns.

Arriving in Benabbio too early to dine, we busied ourselves walking around the tiny village, avoiding a few of the steepest hills difficult to manage in our casual dress shoes. 

With Vivienne’s minuscule grocery store still open on Saturday evening, we were anxious to pay our bill from last Monday when we had yet to acquire any Euros (she doesn’t take credit cards). Plus, we were running low on Prosciutto, our new bacon substitute. 

Vivienne’s grocery store, across the street from the restaurant.

Should we buy it before eating dinner and run the risk of it spoiling? Alas, as we stood at the counter, feebly trying to explain how much Prosciutto we wanted, we noticed that the deli meats were in a barely chilled case.  The salty processing most likely preserves it for a period of time, I suppose.  When we arrived at the restaurant, we fumbled in Italian, asking Alessandro for a bowl of ice, keeping it cold as we dined.

A sign in the town square describing the village’s history.

Vivienne had forgotten that we owed her Euro $23.60 for our last order.  Explaining this in Italian was quite the challenge.  When we handed her the cash for the meat, including the extra Euros, she finally shook her head in acknowledgment, gratefully accepting the money.  

We had yet to pay our bill to Alessandro for last Sunday night’s dinner, which we planned to settle at dinner.

Perusing the historic church across from the restaurant, which we’ll now frequent,  occupied a good portion of our waiting time. Although, we’re trying to figure out times for mass which wasn’t posted anywhere, not in the bulletin, not on a sign inside the church and not posted outside the church.

The interior of the church was austere and dark. 

Back at the café to the restaurant we were easily entertained even with the earsplitting chimes of the church bells, again ringing, helter-skelter, the cheering farmers waving as they passed by while riding their noisy tractors, the teenagers hanging outside Vivienne’s store and the locals on a leisurely walk before dinner. 

Above the doorway was the balcony for the organ.

At 7:30, we meandered upstairs to the main dining room, empty at that point. There were little slips of neon pink papers on each table, indicating a reservation. During the week, we’d made a reservation request online which I’d translated into Italian, hoping it would be read. As we wandered to each of the dozen or so tables, we began to worry we wouldn’t have a table.  None contained our name.

The old stone staircase leading to the organ.

A moment later, Alessandro appeared, excitedly pointing us to a well-placed table for two that was specifically ours. The neon pink note didn’t have our name but instead had some type of code. Fine with us.

The baptismal.

Within 10 minutes the remaining tables filled with patrons, leaving walk-ins to be turned away as the decibel level rapidly escalated to the loud Italian chatter among the guests. Again, the three-course dinner was grand, Alessandro remembers my food restrictions bringing salad, meats and vegetables, the finest balsamic vinegar, and olive oil.

The confessional.

Tom enjoyed beef ravioli with Bolognese sauce, Parmesan cheese, fresh-baked bread, and later, unbeknownst to him a huge platter of the finest freshly cooked thin-sliced roast beef (which we shared) and a plate of homemade fries.

Engraved in stone on the historic church. A literal translation from Google Translate: “For Antonio Michelini upright pious priest of this church for years XLV (45) Cappellano,  first parish priest lived industrious and zealous, born in MDCCXCIII (1793) died on October XXVI MDCCCLXIV (1864), the grandson saint with sad desire.  Here is where sleeps the sleep of the righteous conquest memory.”

Toward the end of the meal, Alessandro brought what appeared to be a one-pound chunk of homemade ricotta cheese to the table, mumbling in Italian to take it home, as a gift from him.  Wrapping it in a napkin, we placed it in the bag with the “bacon” all the while smiling so much our faces hurt. 

The church bells rang loudly as we relaxed at the café.

After Tom finished his 23-ounce Italian beer knowing I wasn’t willing to be designated driver on the mountain road in the six-speed Fiat, we asked for the bill, “Il conto, per favore.” 

Moments later, Vivienne, who also doubles as a waitress at the restaurant, appeared with our bill for Euro $33. Where was the bill for last Sunday night?  She summoned Alessandro.

Waving his hands in the air, he said, “Lisa, Luca, Boveglio, no no no!”  He was “comping” last Sunday’s meal due to our connection with Lisa and Luca, the owners of our house. Trying to insist otherwise was pointless. His mind was set. We decided to leave extra each week over and above the tip to cover the cost. 

The last time we had a “comped” meal when we were in Las Vegas with resident son Richard, who seems to get “comped” wherever he goes. And, I don’t recall any restaurant anywhere, ever giving us “free food” to take home.

Hoping to drive back before it was fully dark, we headed out the door at 9:20 walking through the bar on the main floor. The moment Alessandro saw us, he excitedly stopped us instructing us to wait as he ran behind the bar to extract a bottle of Limoncello, a favorite among Italians. 

Tom was wise only to drink this one 23 oz. Italian beer with lots of water on the side.

Tom graciously shook his head while wiggling his hand to illustrate the winding road, all the while saying “Boveglio.” Alessandro and another couple both nodded in understanding, as we all laughed. 

The ride home was uneventful, the almost full moon lighting the way. Tucked in our comfy bed by 10:00 pm, our smartphones in hand to read our books, we languished until after midnight, full from a great meal, content, and on one more occasion, knowing why.