One wall, 100 churches and countless brick homes…
A short 30-minutes train ride from touristy Pisa lies a lesser-known, surprising little Tuscan town. An important Latin settlement since 180 BC. Remarkably well-preserved. Dripping with atmosphere. Quietly redefining picturesque. Entirely car-free. And just 90,000 locals. Love Lucca. There’s no way not to!
You see it as you walk across from the train station, but you don’t realise the gigantic proportions even after you’re on it. Only an aerial view can do it complete justice. A massive 16th-century brick wall designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, four kilometres in perimeter, 12 metres high, 60-feet wide, circling an entire medieval city, seven grand gates and eleven impressive bastions at regular intervals. Hold on…this is no ordinary fortified wall guarding the city. In its new 19th-century avatar, its a massive park!
Under the benevolent shade of rows of centuries-old plane, lime, ilex and chestnut trees, smiling bikers, fitness freaks, book readers, dog walkers and doting couples all find their own spot of heaven. Stroll along and take in the sublime views of the city below. Through the simple symphony of the crunching leaves, the delicate breeze blowing your hair across your eyes, and lungfuls of fresh Tuscan air, marvel at the irony of it all. A leftover of turbulent times…now a haven of tranquillity! War to peace, they’ve conquered all.
Its a feast for the eyes…this ‘city of a hundred churches”, as it is tagged because of many ornate Romanesque churches built to proclaim its wealth and importance during the 12th-13th century. Maybe not 100, but I strongly urge you to visit the three most striking ones, all of which have attached brick bell towers. The 14-century Lucca Cathedral (Duomo di San Martino), in the main Piazza San Martino is a marvel of stone and marble with its triple arched exterior and lace-bordered scallops on the upper balconies. Inside, study the many works of art, including the treasured Volto Santo, an ancient cedar crucifix and Christ, the midnight blue-starry frescoed ceiling and the ornate, gilded octagonal temple.
The second one, also in dazzling white is the Saint Michael’s Church, which dominates the wide open Piazza San Michele. Intricate lacy scallops again. This 16th-century wonder has a huge statue of the archangel Michael crowning the gable. Zoom in to see his blue eyes. And the third one you mustn’t miss is Frediano’s Church, dedicated to an Irish pilgrim monk. The most modest facade of the three, but an impressive feature of its own…a large, glittering gold-and-blue mosaic of Christ. Notice the angels with the twelve apostles in a row underneath.
And countless brick homes
Cycle away to your heart’s content or just exercise those legs of yours along the delightful streets of Lucca, staring at every inch until your eyes give up on you. World-class artwork, jaw-dropping monuments…nope. Authentic Gothic-Renaissance styled historical buildings, pretty churches, romantic piazzas, lovely museums and everyday exotic…yes, yes, and yes. Despite a grid plan of cardo (narrow streets from north to south) and decumano (wider streets from west to east), the city is a veritable maze. Wander. Get lost. And go berserk taking endless perfect Tuscan pictures. This is the home of composer Giacomo Puccini…don’t you feel your heart singing?
Find the two iconic stone-and-brick medieval towers. The first is the 44.25 metres high Torre Guinigi, sporting a hanging garden on its crown. This used to be part of a group of mansions and four towers belonging to the most important family of the city, the Guinigi. Climb for the gorgeous views. The other is Torre delle Ore, the 50 meter high clock tower from the middle ages. Still works. Like clockwork.
And finally, to the most delightful spot in town… Piazza Anfiteatro. A small oval piazza with arched entrances in four directions, lined with flower-laden cafes and shaded bars, quaint boutiques, walled in by surrounding houses. Brace yourself…this was once a two-level Roman amphitheatre that accommodated as many as 10,000 spectators. And now, Lucca’s prime property (the houses don’t look that glamorous). Gladiators have given way to international concerts. Now that’s a makeover story.
When you’ve explored to your heart’s content, make your way to the main street, Via Fillungo. Sample ‘Buccellato’, the typical local cake or shop for or buy that local specialty, Biscotti di Prato…sweet, crunchy and almondy, yummy. Grab a chair on the sunny pavement of a traditional cafe. Order Italian coffee, a sandwich and a luscious dessert. Drown in the soft chatter. Drink the atmosphere. Send a mail to your boss that you’re giving up your job and moving to Lucca. Tell me that thought didn’t cross your mind.