Lucca: it’s always the quiet ones

Some Italian cities manage to be what I think of as Goldilocks cities; big enough to be a living place of activity, bustle and plenty to see, small enough that everywhere is a relatively short walk, and the worst excesses of mass tourism are kept at bay. Typically these cities will not contain Top 10 artistic blockbusters to compare with Michelangelo’s David, but they will be elegant, quite genteel, have a centro storico that is both well-preserved and chiefly pedestrianised, an understated charm, and a good-life ambiance that replaces the desperate rush of major cities with tranquility. Simply spend some time there, and the place will begin to work its magic; as you adjust to the pace of life, you can feel your body and spirit start to relax. After Siena and Florence, Lucca felt like a luxurious Sunday morning of a city, and it was the feel of the city, rather than any box office masterpieces, that won me over to it.

This medium-sized town of fewer than 100,000 souls managed to remain an independent city-state and republic throughout the medieval and renaissance periods, right up until 1799 when Napoleon swept through Italy (thus holding out two years longer than mighty Venice), and the tall, wide city walls that defended Lucca throughout the centuries still encircle the old city, entirely intact. In the few decades between Napoleon and the Risorgimento Lucca changed hands between Parma Bourbons and the Duchy of Tuscany, but its distinct history gives it a separate character from postcard Tuscany. We are away from the lush, golden hills around Siena, and closer to the mountains of Carrara and the famous quarry which supplied Michelangelo with marble. Unsurprisingly, whereas great painting is comparatively thin on the ground, Lucca can boast some magnificent carvings on the front of its frosting-coated churches. Even the type of tourist has changed; whilst San Gimignano draws the Americans, and it sometimes feels like half of Florence are Japanese art students, Lucca has a very large German contingent. The serene and tasteful little squares do sometimes look as if they could pass for Budapest or Vienna.

Having said this, the journey to Lucca begins like a Liam Neeson thriller. I had erroneously jotted down a departure time ten minutes earlier than the train we needed, and every window and ticket machine in Florence station came with a long queue of slow, deliberate and ponderous Chinese travellers. We manage to buy our tickets one minute before the train leaves, and after a demented dash jump on board some five breathless seconds before the doors close. As the train pulls away, I realise I have committed the cardinal Italian sin of forgetting to stamp the tickets on the yellow convalidare machines, which as any fool knows results in a hefty fine. Do I walk the length of the train looking for a capotreno to explain and beg forgiveness? After two tiny-looking stops, we reach Prato, which I know to be a reasonably large city. I take the chance, and to my girlfriend’s horror I jump off the train and race down the platform in search of a yellow machine. There are enough people getting on and off to enable me to -just about- stamp our tickets and get back on board. Of course, by the end of an eighty-minute train ride no capotreno has turned up to inspect our tickets.

After the cities of Prato and Pistoia the train passes through hilly woodlands with ancient towers, churches and clumps of ugly new housing. Around Lucca the classic Tuscan fields disappear and the terrain becomes much more mountainous, and on leaving the station Lucca is noticeably chillier than anywhere we have been so far. Cross a busy road outside the station and you immediately spot those dense, earth-coloured city walls with arrowhead shaped promontories, entering old Lucca via Porta San Pietro.

In the city, the first major square you come across is Piazza Napoleon, aptly named as it all feels like a provinical French town straight from ‘Allo ‘Allo; a classical theatre, pavement cafés, and rows of plane trees.

Our flat, on a quiet street around the corner, is easy to find; the host being away, his aunt Valentina shows us around; an exceedingly old, exceedingly nimble lady who suffers no fools and reminds me of my late great grandmother. It looks to have been renovated recently. The living room door opens directly onto the street and the ceiling is painted with tromp d’oeil flourishes in the Bourbon style, making us wonder if the place was formerly a shop unit. The host confirms that he acquired it from a retired shoemaker.

Looking for lunch, we venture a little further into the city and at the next piazza, are stopped in our tracks by the astonishing facade of San Michele in Foro (the name presumably indicating that this square served as the forum in Roman Lucca). The loggias and marble are familiar from Pisa, the polychrome animal lozenges from San Miniato, but the detail and abundance of the decoration really makes you sit up and take notice.

Three romanesque statues stand guard at the top, a bit more bluff than the usual billowing togas of Baroque church statues, Michael himself staring you down with the sneer of an Italian alpha male as he pins down the dragon, staff and wings oxidised into a green like the marble.

The nearest trattoria, Da Leo, has already filled up with Italian families treating themselves to Sunday lunch, but they have a few outside tables left for stragglers. Despite being incapacitated by the previous night’s Florentine steak, we order big bowls of steaming pasta to stave off the cold. Of our veggie side dishes, the whole fennel bulbs baked in crumbs of parmesan come as quite a revelation. The waitress seems to think we are a bit mad, but it is amusing to hear her stoic schoolmarm attempts to correct (in English) the Italian of the Germanic tables around us. “No, blanco is Spanish. The Italian is bianco.” “No, avec is French. The Italian is con.” Lucca’s classiness is made evident by the fact that this piazza has the first musically competent busker we have heard on the entire holiday.

Rejuvenated by lunch, we dive into the rest of Lucca’s peaceful centre. Via Fillungo is the closest thing to a high street and passes Piazza Anfiteatro, an enclosed oval space which used to house the gladiatorial arena and which I recognise immediately from myriad TV programmes. I expected this famous spot to be central to city life in Lucca, but it’s oddly peripheral, housing a few restaurants, bars and shops that look decidedly tourist-trap. The piazza was filled with slum housing until the Bourbons cleared it, and there is a plaque praising whichever monarch commissioned the job. It is a very odd place to look at, the encircling buildings all standing at such uneven and wildly differing heights give it a ramshackle look.

It is interesting, however, and if you walk around the exterior you can spot vast arches of original Roman brickwork that the existing houses have slotted themselves into. Caesar, Pompey and the other bloke are said to have met in the upstairs room of a tavern around here and agreed to form the first Roman triumvirate, and with a little imagination you can cast yourself back into another world.

As compact as the centre may be, there is no end to the number of stunning churches. You look up the incredible place you have stumbled across and find it doesn’t even mention a merit in the guide book, so well-stocked is Lucca.

One of the smaller churches was low and barely matchbox-sized, with an entirely blank facade, but a side and rear that made it look like a Venetian jewel box of a place. This was Santa Maria della Rosa, and the parish church of one Gemma Galgani, who lived across the road, died young in 1903, and was made a saint a few years later. I found this out from her rather rum Wikipedia entry, which describes her receiving the stigmata, levitating, conversing with Jesus, Mary and other saints and angels, and being found in “states of ecstasy”; I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. The home appears to be kept as a kind of shrine.

Cutting back into the centre, we encounter Lucca’s Duomo. The campanile and apse are from the C11th original, much of the interior is C14th and the striking facade was executed in 1204.

It comes from a pre-humanist world of holiness, crusaders and pilgrims, and it reminded me a little of the great churches in Bari. The facade is weirdly asymmetric, as if it is about to disappear into the jaws of the campanile, but the carvings that decorate it are perhaps the best things in Lucca.

They are much more proficient than the average Romanesque on a church front, but also in a much better state of preservation. Looking at them you realise what a world of difference there is between the real deal and the purely Victorian jobs on the front of places like Notre Dame.

The sculptural hits keep coming, as the Duomo’s piazza leads onto another square with the notable facade of green-and-white San Giovanni, which now seems to operate chiefly as a concert hall for fans of the local hero, Puccini.

As you get lost in the narrow city streets, one of the emblems of Lucca will occasionally pop up in the middle distance; the Torre Guinigi, the standard old Italian tower with the quixotic addition of a cluster of trees sprouting out from a roof garden. We didn’t get around to scaling the tower for a closer look, but the incongruity does force you into a double take.

Churches aside, the striking characteristic of Lucca is its abundance of beautiful vintage shop signs; these are usually gold on black but will often go in for some daring modernist or art nouveau styles.

It is pleasing that so many have been retained, even when the sign has no relevance to the current occupant; some of the original businesses continue to flourish, but more often an artisan stationer will have turned into a designer clothes or shoe shop. None of my guide books even alluded to them but I think they would merit an entire website of their own.

On the Sunday evening, after the exertions of Florence we follow the lead of the locals and stay indoors, having stocked up with fried polenta, battered carciofi and rice salads at the supermarket deli counter, and my girlfriend seems content with my ability to translate around 30% of Masterchef Italia.

Monday morning, and after a coffee/cornetto breakfast in a bar on Piazza Foro, we stroll up Via Fillungo to investigate the Basilica di San Frediano. Unusually for Lucca, its facade schews the loggia arcades for an enormous C13th mosaic of Christ with some big-chinned Apostles, looking for all the world like the clientele of an Irish pub as last orders are being rung. I’m always excited by a bit of mosaic action but these ones are admittedly crude compared to the Byzantine.

Entering the church now costs €3, but it’s something to do. The interior is quite pic’n’mix, Romanesque with a big apse of bare stone, and side chapels all in very different styles.

A huge font that is more like a fountain contains a cycle telling the story of Moses, in which the Egyptians look like Crusaders. Behind it is a colourful terracotta Annunication.

The baroque chapel of St Zita, a maidservant who stole from her boss to give to the poor, displays her ‘incorrupt’ mummy.

The frescoes are, straight after Florence, not the best you will ever see but there is a good one showing the arrival of the famous Volto Santo, to this day in the Duomo, in Lucca; featuring an ensemble cast of the young, the old, the oxen, and the silly thing itself.

There are also good Jacobo Della Quercia carvings, and the tomb of St Richard the Pilgrim, whom the Italians describe as ‘an English king’; he apparently came from Wessex and, whilst passing through Lucca en route to the Holy Lands, died of a fever in the C8th.

There are also some fancy pavement patterns similar to the Islam-inspired patterns so abundant in Pisa, and whose colours remind me of the front porches and snack bars in Herculaneum.

Our appetite whetted, we decide to turn back to the Duomo and pay the €5 entry fee, which one really ought be happy to do after having got so much for free by feasting on the facade carvings.

Inside has more carvings; St Martin of Tours cutting his cloak to share with a beggar, which I’m glad is indoors as the replica on the facade is coated with moss.

The most famous resident is the aforementioned Volto Santo. With that admirably cavalier attitude medieval cities held for the authenticity of their important relics/PR coups, Lucca has always attested that this wood-carved crucifixion was crafted by Nicodemus, an eyewitness to the events at Golgotha, and in the year 742 it commissioned an empty ship, Dracula-style, and sailed it from Jerusalem to the Tuscan coast, from whence two oxen carried it into Lucca on an unmanned cart. Historians reckon that what we see now is a copy of a copy of a dark ages original that, although it doesn’t look typically Italian, could have been Byzantine or Germanic. The Volto Santo doesn’t photograph well, enclosed as it is behind the iron gratings of a tempietto with a colourful glazed roof resembling the churches of the Amalfi coast, but what you see is a horrific, bulging-eyed, outsized, limp puppet of a thing. Before Donatello and Michelangelo it may well have been hugely impressive, and it was a pan-European celebrity in its heyday (it was namechecked in one of the books I read a few weeks later, possibly Don Quixote).

Elsewhere are some good sculpted tombs, including the artistic jewel of the Duomo, Jacopo della Quercia’s tomb for Ilaria del Carretto, the wife of the city’s then ruler, who died during childbirth at the age of 26.

A beautiful piece of translucent white marble has the quality of a ghostly apparition; there’s something of Kim Novak walking in with rebleached hair about it. Even the stock image of fidelity and subservience, the dog resting at her feet, has personality.

Painting-wise there are a few notable works; a Ghirlandaio Madonna & Child is flanked by a group of typically urbane, droll saints, and this far from Venice it’s a surprise to come across a Tintoretto.

After a cheap, unpretentious and very filling lunch menu at Rusticanella, we pressed on and visited the third of the big churches, San Michele in Foro. The interior is not as astonishing as the facade, but enjoyably Romanesque with some good paintings, including a quartet of saints by Filippino Lippi.

As in other cities that have kept their old defensive walls, the top of Lucca’s walls has been turned into a ring of parkland promenade which is much used by joggers, cyclists and dog walkers.

It’s a wonderful place to take a leisurely stroll and it gives you two viewpoints; looking down on the fancy houses of the inner town, and looking out towards the forested hills and the craggy, rocky mountain peaks beyond them. There’s the sense you get in Bergamo that this cosy town is a frontier and the folks on the hill are somewhere less hospitable, which makes returning to the narrow grid of Lucca’s streets feel like an embrace.

The final evening of our Tuscan fortnight was always going to be a melancholy one, and we spend it knocking back local reds and grazing on the generous aperitivo buffets of the bars around Piazza Foro on a cold and sleepy Monday night, before turning in and watching a terrible dubbed film with Michael Douglas. It is telling that in the evenings, the skilled violinists have vacated their busking posts for crusties who butcher Bob Marley. In the morning, after vacating the flat we have a bit of time to kill, and browse the shops drinking in more of those wonderful signs before grabbing some pizza and cecina (a straight-from-the-oven flatbread, made of olive oil and chickpea flour) at Da Felice.

In Pisa, we drop into a bar on the Corso and warm ourselves up with hot chocolates before trekking out to the airport. On the way back to London, there’s one last great overhead view of the Campo dei Miracoli quartet before the sun sets and, as we pass over France, a bonus iconic tower.

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