Mediaeval towns: Lucca
If France has its Carcassonne, Italy has nothing to envy with its mediaeval town of Lucca in Tuscany.
We were travelling along the coast of Italy, when attracted by the word "mediaeval town" we decided to visit Lucca. It was summer time and we were desperate to have a dip in the sea. But none of us were disappointed with the detour to Lucca. We were told that you could see Lucca as a day trip from Florence or Pisa. In fact, we liked it so much and there was so much to see that we returned a few weeks later to spend a longer time within its mediaeval walls.
For me Lucca is one of the most wonderful towns in Italy. Its famous walls enclose a place that can be walked or cycled with ease. In fact, the best way to get your bearings is walking or cycling around the top of the walls. The centre is relatively unspoilt and is sprinkled with palaces, towers and almost countless splendid churches. The surrounding hills produce some good quality wines and arguably the finest olive oil anywhere, whilst the beaches and nightlife are but a small hop away.
As in Carcassonne, the city is divided into the old and new town. You can leave or enter the old town by passing underneath the monumental walls, there are several entries. When you walk along its walls in the dark and dank passages and halls you can almost hear the sentries stamp their feet; as you pass through the gates.
Lucca's history goes back to its founding by the Etruscans. Later, in 180 BC , it became a Roman colony. The rectangular grid of its historical centre preserves the Roman street plan, and the Piazza San Michele occupies the site of the ancient forum. Traces of the amphitheatre can still be seen in the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro. The town has a very long and agitated history that can be appreciated in its monuments and streets.
Like its long history, there is a long list of places and monuments to see. But, as usual we were tied down to the" tyranny" of our "little princess" and the "wee hooligan", so we had to content ourselves with taking it easy and stopping every so often to cool down in one of the innumerable Gelaterias for that famous Italian Ice cream!
To avoid hassle travelling we decided to stay in the historical centre. A quick chat with a "mama" and her son was coming to pick us up to take us to our rented room in an apartment. The arrangement might sound weird, a small apartment where you can hire a room with a shower and toilet and you have the right to share the kitchen with the other guests in the house. We got two double beds in a very comfortable room for under 60 euros a night. And for breakfast we just had to go down and cross the road for the freshly baked bread!
The historical centre of Lucca lies within a unique wall system. These walls, built of small red bricks specifically created for their construction, were many years in the making (16th to 17th century). They were built as a defence against the 'old enemy', Florence, but were never in fact put to the test in war. However they have remained intact. From here you can look into the old town, recognising fine buildings and graceful gardens, and sharing a little of the private life of the citizens, on their terraces and in their backyards; or you can look outwards to the peaceful and beautiful hills, olive- and vine clad, which surround the town.
The walls around the old town remained intact as the city expanded and modernized. As the walls lost their military importance, they became a pedestrian promenade which encircled the old town. Today citizens and visitors to Lucca love to walk (or jog, or cycle!) on the wide and peaceful road which runs along the top of the walls. Each of the four principal sides is lined with a different tree species.
If you are an opera lover, you will love to see the Casa di Puccini. Lucca was the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, and every year around July there is a Puccini opera festival. Casa di Puccini .is a small museum with portraits, scores, sketches and the Steinway piano at which Lucca's most famous son composed Turandot.
If you like religious art, there are many richly-built mediaeval basilica-form churches in Lucca with rich arcaded facades and campaniles, a few as old as the 8th century. Even our daughter who at the time was only 5 was bewitched by the stained-glass windows and a baptismal font.
There is also:
• Piazza dell'Anfiteatro. Certainly one for the photo album.
• St Martin's Cathedral. The town's finest Romanesque building whose impressive facade is a triumph of sculpture, carving and inlay work. Home to the exquisite tomb of Ilaria del Carreto as well as Lucca's most famous relic, the Volto Santo.
• Church of San Michele in Foro. This is a must-see. At least, the exterior is - the interior knows that it can't compete with the wonderfully ornate facade.
• Basilica di San Fredian. The facade of the church is decorated with a lavish thirteenth century mosaic; the interior is worth seeing and houses a richly carved baptismal font as well as a shrine to Lucca's saint, Santa Zita.
• The Clock Tower which dates back to 1390
• Casa and Torre Guinigi. Instantly recognisable as 'the tower with the tree on top', this fifteenth century 130 foot high tower may be climbed all the way to the top.
• Museo e Pinacoteca Nazionale. This is housed on the Palazzo Mansi, Lucca. The interior is very rococo in style, the highlight being the bridal suite, oozing silk, mirrors, engravings and gilt-work. There are also many good examples of Brussels tapestry.
• The botanical garden dating from 1820
• Palazzo Pfanner. It has a fine garden with statues, loggia and fountains. A delight to see.
But Lucca is not all about mediaeval walls and opera. Nowadays Lucca annually hosts the Lucca Summer Festival. The 2006 edition saw Eric Clapton, Placebo, Massive Attack, Tracy Chapman and Santana play live in the Piazza Napoleone.
Opening times in Europe are "weird". In common with many Italian towns, most of Lucca's shops close between lunchtime and four o clock. Wednesday is a common closing day and many places in town may well also be closed on Monday mornings.
Parking: It is possible to park in the centre of town, but many areas are closed to non-resident traffic and you may have a long wait for a parking space. Parking outside the walls is not easy either. If you see a space: take it! And pay the fee.
Cycling: One of the best ways to see Lucca is to hire a bicycle for a few hours. The locals use bikes to get around and there is so much to see that you'll likely find yourselves tired from walking everywhere. There are a couple of hire shops expect to pay from 5 euros and hour to 30 euros for the whole day. There are bikes for everybody: individuals, tandems, family bikes where the parents cycle and the children can sit either at the back or at the front, racing bikes, you name it, they will have it.
Shopping in Lucca
Lucca has a splendid shopping tradition that you can sample strolling through its elegant shopping areas. The main one is Via Filungo in the very centre, there you will find some of the oldest shops in Lucca. Notice the beautiful Art Nouveau shop signs when you are strolling. Also Via Roma and Via San Giorgio have some excellent establishments.
Markets: There is an arts and crafts market on alternated Sundays. Lucca's ‘ordinary' market is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
Antique Market: Lucca has the second most important antique market in Tuscany . The market boast a solid tradition of quality and reliability thanks to professional antiquarians of high prestige. The market takes place the third weekend of every month.
Lucca and Literature
Many have been inspired by Lucca's rich history, political intrigue and surroundings.
- Dante's Divine Comedy includes many references to the great feudal families who had huge jurisdictions with administrative and judicial rights in Lucca. Dante spent some of his exile in Lucca.
- The city of Lucca was handed over to Castruccio Castracani until his death in 1328. Under his rule, Lucca became a leading state in central Italy even rivalling Florence. Castracani's. biography is Machiavelli's third famous book on political rule.
- In 1805 Lucca was taken over by Napoleon, who put his sister Elisa Bonaparte in charge as "Queen of Etruria". This affair is commemorated in the famous first sentence of Toltoy's War and Peace.
How to get there?
Lucca is 30 km. Northeast of the Pisa airport and 85 km. west from Florence.
380 km. (3 hours and a half) from Rome's Fiumicino airport. We drove from Lucca to Fiumicino airport. The cost on toll roads was 18 euros plus 25 euros on petrol. The directions from ViaMichelin were right on the spot.
If you prefer to travel by train (Italian driving is rather hectic) Lucca's train station is two blocks outside the ramparts. Lucca is on the Florence-Viareggio line.
Lucca has many specialities. My favourite one is the soup. There are various types of soup depending on the main vegetable used. The dark green cabbage is one of my favourite ones, followed by the pumpkin one. In almost all soups the main ingredient is borlotti beans which can be eaten whole or pureed, olive oil and of course stale home bread to thicken the soup and give it a rich texture.
Necci is another favourite in the Lucca area. Necci are crepes made with chestnut flour and eaten filled with fresh ricotta cheese.