Travel memories #4: Lucca, Italy

A group of elderly men play cards on top of Lucca's ancient city wall (photo © Tim Liew)

Where?

Lucca, in Tuscany in the north-west of Italy.

When?

19th September 2005.

What?

In the ancient Roman city of Lucca, a group of elderly men enjoy an afternoon game of cards around a table located on top of the city wall, which was once a military fortification but is now a pedestrian promenade.

Memories

If you are a viewer of BBC’s Top Gear you may remember a recent episode in which Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May had to negotiate their way out of a small Italian town with implausibly narrow streets in three small hot hatchbacks en route to the Monaco Grand Prix circuit. You may even remember a bumbling May driving on to the top of the city wall. Well, that’s Lucca.

Lucca is well into its third millennium of existence, having been established by the Etruscans and colonised by the Roman Empire in 180 BC. Today it is a comune of 85,000 citizens, best known for its fully intact Renaissance city wall. Tourists regularly pass close by it by train or on the road between Florence and its near neighbour Pisa without even knowing it is there.

The city came recommended to us by the man who ran our local delicatessen. When we mentioned one weekend that we were heading to Florence for a long weekend and would be doing the customary tourist pilgrimage to Pisa, he insisted that we should take the slower train back and spend a couple of hours in Lucca. This is a man in whom we had complete trust in his ability to source British and continental cheeses of rare quality, so when he said – in heartfelt and wistful fashion – that Lucca was his favourite Italian city, we immediately pencilled it into our itinerary.

We were glad we did. After spending half a day in Pisa – the Leaning Tower is positively giddying, but the Baptistry at the other end of the Campo dei Miracoli is far more impressive – we alighted in Lucca for a slice of real life in a small Italian city. Away from the chattering hordes of camera-laden tourists of many nationalities which infest Pisa like a swarm of bees, lining up those oh-so-original shots of each other supposedly propping up the Leaning Tower, this was a thoroughly pleasant way to experience an ordinary Monday at the tail end of summer in an unpretentious but rather extraordinary town.

We ambled aimlessly along the city wall, now a rather pleasant avenue skirting the circumference of the old city, completely uninterrupted by a befuddled BBC presenter in a Renaultsport Clio. Couples like us strolled, other locals rolled leisurely past on their bikes, and at regular intervals we would pass small posses of elderly men huddled around tables playing cards or chess.

At some point, we dropped down off the wall to the streets below and headed for the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro at the heart of the old city. The closer we got, the more the roads became a series of narrow labyrinthine passages, where the afternoon sunlight struggled to penetrate the shadows between tall and densely packed buildings. And then, suddenly, we stepped into the oval piazza, formerly the site of the amphitheatre but now a picture postcard collection of apartment buildings, shops and cafes. It was quite, quite beautiful.

We stopped for a coffee and a gelato (it seemed the appropriate thing to do) and sat people-watching for a while, before continuing on to stumble upon a couple of equally lovely piazzas – the Italians really do squares and open spaces so much better than anyone else – and the city’s cathedral, the Duomo di San Martino, which is clearly related to the larger, more garish duomos in Florence and Siena, but altogether more understated and much the better for it in my view. We poked our noses into a few shops, strolled around a bit more, then made our way back to the station to catch the train back to Florence.

In the space of our five-day break we explored the wedding cake decorations that are Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the fourth largest church in Europe) and its spectacular Campanile (bell tower). We marvelled at Michelangelo‘s breathtaking sculpture of David and the world-famous Uffizi gallery. We dodged the tourist-tat sellers on the Ponte Vecchio which crosses the muddy mess that is the River Arno. We gawped at the madness that is Pisa’s Leaning Tower. But this was my favourite part of the entire trip. While it is always great to see the sights, there is nothing more rewarding than visiting something off the beaten track, even if only by a couple of steps. When I think of our trip to Florence, I inevitably think of Lucca and smile.

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Link: Comune di Lucca website

Travel memories

Introduction

#1: Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand

#2: Museum of Modern Art, New York

#3: Dim sum, Shanghai