When one thinks of traveling to Italy what do they imagine? Is it to walk through the Roman coliseum and imagine gladiators fighting? Is it visiting the canals of Venice and sitting in a gondola as you glide down the narrow canals? Did someone watch a movie located in Tuscany and now wants to experience the countryside of Tuscany? Do people go on tours of Italy with family or friends to share the experience or go with a spouse to celebrate a wedding or honeymoon in Italy? Could it be that we are seeking that little piece of Italian history or searching for that essence of Italy that calls to us? Whatever draws us to Italy is real and should be explored. Some people enjoy traveling just by driving the roads and stopping when they want to stop. Others have a list of specific sights to see and nothing else. Yet, for some traveling the roads with an Italian escorted tour or as an individual on an Italian customized travel package will allow them to see the real Italy. We have all heard and imagined famous areas such as Rome, Venice, Pisa and the Amalfi Coast. Yet, how many have heard of towns such as Lucca? Lucca can easily be part of a tour of Tuscany tour that includes Pisa or Bologna. Let me introduce you to the fascinating town of Lucca.
Located in the heart of the Tuscany region of Italy is Lucca, the agricultural center, on fertile plain near the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Serchio River flows just north of Lucca and its ancient walled historic center. Lucca’s history dates back to the Etruscan times although there are traces of a preexisting Liguria settlement in Lucca. Lucca became a Roman city in 180 BC and in AD1081 it was made a free city which lasted until 1799. During the 8-10th century Lucca was the center of Jewish life led by the Kalonymos family. This ended when they migrated to Germany. The 11th century was a time when Lucca was the Byzantium rival for the silk trade. In 1805 Napoleon conquered Lucca and placed his sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, in charge and named her Queen of Etruria. Ten years later she was replaced by the Bourbon-Parma duchy. In 1842, with the death of Charles II, Duke of Parma, Lucca lost its independence and became part of Tuscany. Today, Lucca is known as an agricultural trading center. It produces goods such as olive oil, wine and textiles.
What makes Lucca so special? For most visitors it’s the fortified ring of walls that surround Lucca’s historic center. There have been four sets of city walls since the 2nd century BC. The 3rd set was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci and extended approximately 2.5 miles around the city. The walls, built for defense, were never breached. Today, the walls are 98 feet wide at the base and 40 feet high. They are constructed of brick and have 11 bastions and 3 gates. Four different species of trees were planted atop the walls. There is one species of tree for each side. These centuries’ old trees were planted in order to strengthen the enormous amount of earth used for the wall. Today, the top of the wall is a walking/bicycling promenade. The large area surrounding the outer walls remains undeveloped and is a grass field encircling the walls and historic center. Visitors can enter the walled historic area by going through the main gates or entering through the narrow brick passageways.
Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets can be an adventure. One can opt for a walking map of Lucca or decide to explore the area without the map. It’s easy to get twisted around and lost so for those who have don’t have a good sense of direction I would definitely recommend the walking map. Exploring the streets gives one the chance to see things they might otherwise have missed. High walls and iron gates hide hidden gardens, around the corner might be a small open square or you may even stumble upon the birthplace of Puccini. You may also find yourself walking down the Via Fillungo. This is the main street for shopping in the historic center. Stores here vary from food and wine to clothing. Think of walking through Lucca as being on a treasure hunt. You never know what you will find around the next corner.
There are several must sees while in Lucca’s walled historic center. The Duomo di San Martino was originally built in the 6th century and rebuilt again in the 11th and 13th century. This white marble Duomo sits at the intersection of two main streets in the historic center close to the city walls. The front of the church has two wide and one narrow arch topped by three tiers of narrow columns. Legend has it that the people of Lucca announced a contest for the best column. Many artists entered the contest with their own column. The people decided to use each and every column for the church. The interior of the church holds Lucca’s most revered relic, the Volto Sant di Lucca (Sacred Countenance). This is a cedar wood crucifix made in the image of Christ. According to legend it was carved by Nicodemus and transported to Lucca in 782. The church also houses the sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto, wife of Paolo Guinigi the ruler of Lucca in the 1400’s.
The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is built on an ancient Roman amphitheater. During the middle ages buildings were built around the arena. One can still see parts of the original construction. It was originally built with 54 arches. Look closely for the lowest of four arches and you will see the only remaining original arch. The Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is ringed with cafes, restaurants and shops. In July have a seat, drink a cappuccino or order a meal and enjoy watching the open-air music performances.
Rising high above the buildings of Lucca is the Guinigi Tower. This 144 foot tower is one of the few remaining red brick tower houses in the historic center. If seen from the top of the walls or from nearby streets visitors will see an unusual sight. They will see the rising tower topped by something that looks like…trees. Yes, there is a tree garden, referred to as the hanging garden, on top of this 14th century tower. Visitors can climb the steps to the top of the tower for a closer look at the trees and for incredible view of Lucca and the surrounding Tuscan countryside. The tower steps differ from those of turret steps. The steps are metal, with a handrail, and ascends the tower in a square formation versus those of the circular turret steps.
While walking through the streets of Lucca try and find your way to the Piazza Napoleon. During the Napoleonic era Queen Elisa, Napoleon’s sister, decided to construct a large open square reminiscent of those in Paris. She had towers, shops, warehouses and a church destroyed in order to build her square. Once finished she was still not satisfied. She didn’t like the façade of the remaining buildings so she ordered plane trees planted in order to hide the facades. Today, one enters a large open square surrounded by shops, restaurants and cafes and lined with large plane trees. The center was supposed to have a statue of Napoleon but this was not accomplished before Lucca changed hands. Instead, a statue of Marie-Louise Bourbon sits in the center of the square. During the summer the square is the heart of cultural life and summer concerts and festivals.
Although only a few sights have been mentioned Lucca has much more to offer. Whether seeing Lucca through an Italy customized travel package, an escorted tour of Italy or a self-guided tour of Italy you will not be disappointed. Once you enter through one of the main gates or through one of the passageways you will find yourself in another place and time. The hours will fly by as you explore this beautiful historic area. When it’s time to leave you will ask yourself whether or not you had seen all there was to see and will make a promise to return to the walled city of Lucca in the beautiful region of the Tuscany.