Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lucca: Old World Charm off of Italy's Beaten Path

First time travelers to Italy usually take a whirlwind tour, as they obviously don’t want to miss the canals of Venice, the incredible art and architecture of Florence; and the cathedrals, monuments, ancient ruins and other glories of Rome. They might even take a day trip to see the leaning tower of Pisa, or even travel further south to Pompeii before taking in the breathtaking splendor of the Amalfi Coast. And well they should, but even multiple visits would barely scratch the surface of the rich culture, history, architecture, art and other treasures offered by the better known Italian cities.

But the same is true for the entirety of Italy, which also boasts of lesser known small to mid-size towns that are rich in these same categories and wonderful charm as well. One of many such places off the beaten path is the city of Lucca in the region of Tuscany, where Susan and I had the joy of visiting a couple years ago. We had spent the better part of the morning in Genoa before hopping in the car and heading south toward Pisa. Our intention was to get to Florence by early evening, which left us plenty of time to take in the scenery on the way down and even stop for a diversion or two.

Highway A-12 descends along the Ligurian coast, offering breathtaking mountain and seaside vistas as you go through the Italian Riviera just south of Genoa, the white marble mountains of Massa-Carrara further south, and the lush green countryside everywhere in between. Before you know it, you are only a few exits away from Pisa. But if you have already seen the leaning tower and the magnificent cathedral it accompanies, you are just as well off to exit at Viareggio and head inland on A-11. At this point you are only a short drive from Florence, which gives you plenty of time to stop and take in Lucca.

Upon entering the city you encounter the first of Lucca’s many notable and stunning features: a huge wall, built in the 16th century, circumscribes the city. It was originally built as a means of protecting the fiercely independent inhabitants of what was a tiny city-state that had an ongoing rivalry with nearby Pisa. It was during this visit to Lucca that I learned the origin of a very strange and rather unkind Italian proverb:

Meglio un morto in casa che un Pisano alla porta!
Better to have someone dead in your house than a Pisan at your doorstep!

I am sure the residents of 16h century Pisa had a similar expression about the Lucchesi, as the rivalry was fierce and the feeling was quite mutual. But bygones are bygones in this day and age, and the Italians are one happy family, so the old wall has since been put to better use. For example, the rampart is so thick that the top of it now serves as a tree-lined promenade, which was built in the 19th century and is today enjoyed by joggers and bikers, or anyone wanting to take a leisurely stroll.

And speaking of leisurely strolls, that is the best way to enjoy Lucca. Just inside the wall, the very kind visitor center employees offer a variety of options for touring the city, including a modestly priced audio tour. Armed with headphones set to the language of your choice, you can take a guided walking tour of the city in as little as two hours or much longer if you like. I suggest you take your time and enjoy the city’s charm for all it is worth.

As you stroll the narrow streets you will quickly realize that the city wall has also preserved Lucca’s old world charm: cobblestone streets amidst beautiful churches, gardens and villas, and palaces built by medieval merchant and noble families. A trip atop the Guinigi tower, which rises above the palace of the same name, offers a breathtaking view of Lucca’s medieval charm. The top of the tower is graced not only with an elegant façade, but also with the shade of several trees planted on the rooftop. Lucca’s many churches, such as San Martino and San Frediano, are also accompanied by imposing bell towers, as well as breathtaking artwork on both the outer facades and the interior walls, much of it underappreciated because it is so abundant.

We thoroughly enjoyed our leisurely stroll through the streets of Lucca. We would have liked to make it even more leisurely, but we had reservations that evening to stay in Fiesole, just outside of Florence. Our brief stop in Lucca whetted our appetites enough to desire a return. Next time I’ll consider spending the night. Among other things, I want to go for a jog atop the city wall, as well as savor the city. If you’d like to whet your appetite yourself, check out one of the many websites that document Lucca’s charm, such as the one at the following link:

Rooftop view of Lucca from the Guinigi tower.


Anonymous said...


This are sounds like it would make a heavenly vacation. I propose that the winers rent a large villa in 2010 or 2011, and hire you and Sue as tour guides!


Leo B. Vadalà said...

Sounds like a plan. We'll have to discuss the details while we are lifting a glass or two. I'm game.

Anonymous said...

I bet we could find a good deal on a Villa if we had 2 or 3 couples. If we found a nice central location maybe we could take day trips to Rome, etc.