When I mentioned that I was heading to Lucca last week, several people (make that 2) wrote to tell me how much they liked it. And I did tell you that it’s Alan’s #1 most favorite Italian city. This trip didn’t change that; he’d leave Orvieto in a second if his destination was Lucca. So while it’s still fresh in my mind, I thought I’d tell you whatever miscellaneous pieces of information I know about the place.
My first visit was in 2000, the purpose being to see if it was good for biking. The answer, unfortunately, was no. Lucca is in the flat valley that runs from Florence to the coast at Viareggio, and since it’s flat, it’s at the center of a lot of industry, agriculture and large highways. Yes, there are lovely hills around it, but you have to spend much too much time in traffic to get to them, and when you do, they’re really too difficult for bikes. The objective of biking is NOT to spend half of your ride dodging trucks and then be rewarded with vertical climbs. I also made the mistake of staying outside the city walls, and those walls are THE main reason the town is so delightful. (#1 Piece of Advice: Stay inside the walls!!!!!)
Lucca’s main claim to fame is the rampart that totally surrounds the town – and the Lucchesi have every right to be proud of it. When I call it a “rampart”, it sounds like a military defense, and while it was first started for that purpose in the 1500’s, it was never used to ward off invading armies. In fact, the only truly useful thing the wall did in the past was divert a flood in 1812. Today it performs the vital task of keeping the unattractive industrial area separate from the town, thereby protecting the beautiful historic part within.
The best way to get the idea of Lucca is to picture 2 concentric oval-ish 40 feet high walls with the space between them – which could be anywhere from 75+ to 300+ feet wide — filled with dirt, topped by a tree-lined road, soccer fields, a couple of cafes along the way, a park or 2, and some children’s playgrounds.
This town was once under the rule of Napoleon’s sister, Elisa, and I’ve always said that no one tree-lines better than the French. So I can only assume it was her influence that encouraged the development of this impressive 2-1/2 mile road on the top of the wall with either single or double rows of trees along both sides. Most of the trees look mature enough to have been planted during her reign, but there are also stretches with young trees. Paths lead up to the top of the wall every 100 yards or so from within the town, making it easy for everyone to access it, and everyone takes advantage of this gift – joggers, bikers, dog walkers, friends chatting…. and of course, tourists taking photos every few feet.
The views to both sides are lovely. When they were planning for protection from enemies, they set aside a wide empty space on the outside of the walls to prevent anyone from sneaking up on them. Today that’s a wide ring of grassy fields, surrounded by – you guessed it – more perfectly lined trees. If you’re facing north, it’s even more beautiful because you can see the mountains behind them.
Looking into the town from the rampart’s road, there are the back gardens of some of the larger houses, the smaller yards of more modest homes with their ubiquitous brightly colored laundry on the clotheslines, and the bell towers of the town’s churches.
The most prominent – and most famous – point of reference, though, is the Guinigi tower, built by the town’s second most famous family (Elisa’s being the first, of course), during the 14th Century. There’s no mistaking it for any of the other towers, because it has 2 oak trees growing on the top of it. I regret to say that I didn’t take the time to tour it so I could tell you what the trees do with their roots, or how they get nourishment. It really is true that every little Italian town has its own quirky claim to fame, and Lucca has an embarrassment of riches with both the Guinigi tower and The Wall.
There are three major piazze (along with lots of minor ones), and each is completely different. The Piazza San Michele is the central piazza with the large and impressive church of San Michele in the middle, and the main shopping streets going off from it. With this church being so prominently displayed, one might think it is Lucca’s Duomo, but it isn’t.
A bit to one side of the town is the Piazza del Anfiteatro, a large round piazza, encircled by houses and shops and cafes. The plot of land was originally a Roman amphitheater, which was dismantled piecemeal starting in the 1200’s as builders used its stone and marble for other town structures. But a few of the walls of today’s surrounding buildings still have the original stone.
Piazza Napoleone, the third piazza, had to have been designed on the orders of Principessa Elisa. It is by far the most French looking piazza I’ve seen in Italy – a large rectangle bordered by — you guessed it: straight lines of plane trees. Off of this piazza is the opera house. Lucca is composer Giacomo Puccini’s hometown, and they don’t let you forget that.
The Duomo is off to itself on the edge of town. Over the front doors are wonderful bas-reliefs of the different professions: farmers, doctors, butchers, bakers, etc. The outside front has blind arches supported by small columns – no two of which are alike. Some are plain, some are twisted, some have inlays of colored stones, some are sculpted…if something can be done with stone columns, it was done for the Duomo.
Inside is what is always considered one of the Renaissance masterpieces of art — the marble coffin for Paolo Guinigi’s wife, Ilaria. Jacopo della Quercia sculpted her likeness on the top, with her little dog down by her feet. When I first heard of this I thought how romantic and loving of Paolo. In truth, this was wife #2, who had died in their 2nd year of marriage, after the birth of their 2nd child (2 did not seem to have been her lucky number), and he was remarried to #3 before Ilaria’s coffin was completed. Having his wife in the Duomo was much more a show of power for Paolo than a show of devotion for Ilaria. So much for romance!
As for the town itself, the buildings are lovely and the shops are elegant, as are the people. They’re well dressed and speak slowly and distinctly – so much so that I can almost grasp whole sentences instead of just the first 5 words. And because the town is perfectly flat, everyone rides a bike. However we’re not talking about my kind of bikers in black Lycra bike pants and neon yellow tops, riding on skinny tires. In Lucca, you see men in tailored business suits and women in tasteful slacks and cashmere sweaters. These bikes with their upright handlebars, fine leather saddle bags and fat tires are for easy, comfortable transportation – not for working up a sweat.
So that’s pretty much my take on Lucca. I have nothing but good things to say about it. I highly recommend it as a vacation destination. In addition to its wonderful Wall, the town is beautiful, refined, has very good restaurants, lovely shops, pleasant people, and tree-lined streets everywhere. However, you know what my bottom line is. Let’s all say it together: “…..But it’s just not Orvieto”.