Taking a break from the city of Florence afforded us an opportunity to visit nearby Lucca on the train. Located 75km due west and on the banks of the Serchio River in a fertile plain near the Liguria Sea this one time rival to the Republic of Florence lies. This makes it ideal to visit, rent bikes and cycle round exploring. Which is what we planned to do.
The train ride from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Station took just over 2 hours to Lucca Rail Station – located to the South of the city walls. Before long we had negotiated a good price for 3 bicycles in nearby Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli (named after the Iron Baron Ricasoli – former Prime Minister of Italy in the 1860s and also the modern architect of Chianti Wine! – #TrueStory).
5 minutes later we had cycled round to the Porto San Pietro. Built in 1565-1566 this is the ‘South Gate’ and main entrance to Lucca from the Train Station. It comprises of 3 doorways – 2 smaller gates on either side for pedestrians and bicycles and a larger central doorways – built for carraiges and now caters for cars – although it is a tight squeeze. Above this central doorway is a shield bearing the coat of arms of St. Peter ; the word ‘libertas’ and a pair of lions that once acted as part of a drawbridge mechanism – there is a defensive moat along the outside of the walls but the remains and need for a drawbridge are long gone – now covered in tarmac as part of the road.
Once through the gates we took an immediate turn up a ramp and onto the walls.
These City Walls
Unlike the Chinese city of Xian – whose walls have been reconstructed to support tourism – the Walls of Lucca date back to the Renaissance era and remain intact today. Construction of this third wall* was carried out to defend the city but the only real ‘test’ came in 1812 when the Serchio River flooded and the walls protected the city from being submerged.
Originally built as a defensive rampart they are today known as Passeggiata delle Mura Urbane, a street linking the bastions and gates, and is both tree-lined and covered in outdoor art. Fountains, parks and cafes also appear on the ramparts – the Lucchesi refer to it as the polmone verde ‘Green Lung’ of the city.
This transformation began in the 1800s at the behest of Maria Luisa di Borbone, Duchess of Lucca and daughter of King Charles IV of Spain – who wanted them converted for civilian use, although much of that work had already started in 1799 when the occupying Austrian forces removed the 125 cannons from its bulwarks.
We spent the morning cycling round it’s 4.2km length.
*The first wall was built by the Roman Garrison in 180 BC while the second was done by Medieval Tuscan princes in the 11th Century.
We own these streets
After circling round the city on our bikes, like the Jets from West Side Story, we decided to ‘own these streets’ and swooped down the next ramp to explore them.
The city has a number of narrow streets and retains the rectangular grid pattern set down by the Roman Garrison in 180 BC with the Forum occupying Piazza San Michele and remains of the old amphitheatre in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. Lucca has prominence in Roman history as it was the meeting place in 56 BC of three of it’s top citizenry – Julius Caeser, Marcus Crassus and Pompey, otherwise known as the First Triumvirate – rulers of the Roman Republic. This meeting called by Julius Caeser, who was on break from campaigning in Gaul became known as the Lucca Conference – and led to a renewed alliance between the three ‘rulers’ of the Roman Republic and forestalled for a time the inevitable civil war that would lead to the founding of the Roman Empire.
Today the remnants of that Roman Forum have been built over by a church – the San Michele in Foro. Built in 1070 it is dedicated to the Archangel Michael and dominates the square. Nearby is another church with a highly decorative facade – a huge golden mosaic in the byzantine fashion. This is the Basilica of San Frediano – dedicated to an exiled Irish prince / monk who rose to the position of Bishop of Lucca in the sixth century.
The Piazzo dell’Anfiteatro stands in the northeastern quadrant – its cobblestones lie around 3m above the original amphitheatre floor. What once held seating for 10,000 roman spectators today holds seating for a couple of hundred at the various cafes and restaurants that line the piazzo. We entered through one of the four narrow gates and had lunch.
After lunch we split up. The girls went shopping while I decided to take in more of the sights. First up was the Torre delle Ore – the Clock Tower. Located on Via Fillungo – it is the tallest tower in Lucca and offers amazing views across the city and mountains beyond. After paying a small fee the attendant asked how quick I could climb it as it was 10 minutes to the hour and the bells would ring very soon. I would not want to be up there when that happened! Rapidly taking the lens cap off and taking the steps three at a time I bounded up to the belfry like a mad man.
The clock today is not the original but was built in 1754 by Swiss engineer Louis Simon. It is an Italian clock so it strikes on the hour and quarter marks. The mountains you can see in the pictures form the upper valley of the Serchio river and is called Garfagnana. This place holds special significance for our family as this is where Karen’s grandfather, Dante and his family come from. Some of them – the Italian clan – still live here today.
After that there was a small exhibit back in Piazza San Michele for Lucca’s history in the form of movement or movimento – dedicated to old photos and forms of transport.
After that we spent our last hour or so waiting for the train back to Florence by having drinks and even more shopping. But before we departed we had finally stumbled upon the person we were in search of.
In Piazza Cittadella, life is typically Lucchesi – narrow streets with cafes and shops and nothing of particular interest – just a nice looking Italian scene. That is except for its sole permanent occupant. Sitting in a chair in the centre of the tiny square and covered from head to toe in Bronze is Giacomo Puccini. The man we were looking for.
Tosca, Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, Turandot. Four magnificent Operas but they share only 1 composer – Giacomo Puccini, a native of Lucca – born on the street his statue is on.
Without Puccini, there is no opera; without opera, the world is an even drearier place than the evening news would have us think.William Berger
Karen and I were very lucky to visit Lucca back in 2008 – Giacomo’s 150th Birthday where the town was alive with impromptu operas concerts, bunting and feverish celebration for their favourite son. We attended one such concert in an old church.