“Take the train from the Pisa airport,” my instructions read but when I approached the ticket counter, the man shook his head. “No,” he said, “you don’t want to do that. Too long a wait.” He tore a bus ticket from his pile. “2 euros.” After 12 hours on an overseas flight I was too tired to argue and handed over the 2 euros. “The blue bus,” he pointed out the window.
I stumbled on the bus and as we started out on the road to Lucca, I found my cell phone and called my contact in Lucca. We (a group of 4) had rented an apartment in Lucca for the month of May. I was the first to arrive and been directed to call Joel, an American living in Lucca for the summer, who would take me to the apartment, give me the keys and directions on turning on the gas. It turned out train or bus made no difference – the bus station was a few blocks farther than the train station but not an unreasonable walk.
Lucca is a small walled town in central Tuscany. The walls date back to the 15th century and the town was once ruled by Napoleon’s Eliza. Today it is a thriving site, discovered by Germans, Americans and other Italians as a great place to either lease or buy a place and spend your summers in Tuscany. A quiet town, it has still not crossed the boundary to crass rip-offs and over priced trinkets of other tourist towns around the world. Centrally located—you can stay in Lucca and easily make day or overnight trips by train to other Tuscan areas. Florence is an hour and half away by train, Pisa, Sienna, Umbria, and Bologna all can be reached by train in less than 2 hours. The beaches of Viareggio are a mere 20 minutes down the road.
Joel met me at the bus stop and we walked through the narrow cobbled streets to the other side of the town and the wall gate, St. Eliza’s, that would become so familiar to me over the next month. Once outside the gate, we turned left onto Via Castrianni, walked a block and there was my Tuscan escape.
Comfortable and spacious, the apartment had three bedrooms, a reasonably sized living/dining/kitchen area and a large sunny deck off the kitchen. Furnished in early Ikea; I liked to play a game, “What didn’t come from Ikea?” Across the street was the best gelato place in town, downstairs a bar from which I got my morning cappuccino each day, down a few blocks a wine store and the local PAM grocery store, and a two minute walk to the town walls and the nearest Porta (gate) entrance.
I slept, exhausted from the trip—and Sunday morning woke into Tuscan sunshine and a sky so blue, it matched all the photographs I’d seen of Tuscany. I made coffee and breakfasted on the deck, watching large groups of Italian men, dressed in full racing outfits, bicycle through the street, an event that would be repeated each Sunday I was here. Wispy clouds floated by but disturbed neither the sun nor my mood. I dressed and walked to the walls, my first foray into the exploration of Lucca.
Poking around the Porta, I discovered a short incline up to the wide path along the top of the wall that circles the town. I thought I might be alone early on a Sunday morning but the locals and other tourists were out in full force. Families bicycled by, husbands and wives in their forties, fifties and sixties, strolled along. Runners jogged and children escaped from their parents, charging ahead. People walked in both directions, enjoying the sun. On a whim I turned left and began my walk.
Atop the walls, I had a long view of the town and the valley that surrounds it. Every so often I passed another gate, with stairs or ramps down into the town. Homes, with views into Italian life, towers, a nunnery and a hospital came into view. Beautiful gardens flowed by and an art gallery, in a small building on the wall, exhibited a local artist’s work. Benches held men avidly discussing something, a woman completing a crossword, a mother watching her son play, men playing cards. I circled almost twice and then chose to meander down small stairs, leading into the town.
Lucca is a walking and bicycling town. Unless you live within the city walls you are not allowed to drive or park there. I leaned against a stone building as a car navigated the narrow streets. I couldn’t imagine driving here; making sharp turns from one narrow roadway to another, having to pass other cars in spaces where it seemed like there was only room for one.
This Sunday morning, it seems like everyone is on the walls, leaving the town quiet and lonely. Shops are shuttered, restaurants had closed signs but open doors through which I could hear the sounds of a family Sunday brunch being cooked and served. I wander aimlessly, without map, trusting in the smallness of the town to find my way back to the correct city gate and home. I note stores that I will come back to and shop at – small shops with windows stuffed full of cured meats, herbs, pasta and bottles of olive oil, a tile shop, a pizza restaurant that the owner of my apartment had recommended. I turned down Via Fillungo, and discovered the main shop street in Lucca, full of shoe, lingerie, pharmacy and clothes stores, some with designer labels and prices, some more reasonable.
Later I would learn that the third Sunday of each month, a market is held and the town comes alive. Stores fling open their doors; the piazzas erect bandstands with live music and contests, and stalls sell antiques, local produce and crafts. Bicycles abound and families emerge from mass to stroll to their favorite piazza.
The piazzas in Lucca delight me and I return often, to wander their stores or just sit watching as I sipped wine. In the town’s main central piazza, you can see the remnants of the old circular forum walls. In July and August outdoor concerts with headliner acts like Eric Clapton and Tracy Chapman are held in Piazza Napoleone. This May, there was a karaoke contest being held across from the elaborate merry-go-round. Surrounded by benches and elegant trees providing shade, the piazza has a very European sense to it.
With restaurants and small shops circling it, it is a perfect place to while away hours, sipping limoncello(the locally made aperitif).
As in all Italian towns, towers loom in Lucca. The 15th century Tower Guinigi on Via Sant'Andrea is the tallest and the most interesting to climb, mentioned in all the tour guides. Reaching the top, after a climb of 230 stairs on a narrow staircase, I found not only an amazing vista, but a group of Holm trees. I could see the purple hills of Tuscany in the distance, as well as a 360 degree view of Lucca.
Hunger hit me and I made my way down the stairs in search of the good food I knew I could find. I was not disappointed. Restaurants, trattorias and cafes abound in Lucca. The local specialty is tortelli lucchese, rich pasta stuffed with meat and covered in ragu. I also found an abundance of rabbit dishes and good seafood. I ate pizza and drank Moreno beer in the small recommended restaurant, savoring the thin crusted delight.
In Lucca, as in all of Tuscany, you eat well. Italian sausages, fresh and dried pastas, olive oil and fresh produce abound. Gelato and pizza are everywhere. Good cheap sandwiches and pastries can be found in bars; along with of course, good coffee. Besides the limoncello, faro soup is another delicious local specialty, as is a dessert made with chestnut flour. Try Buca di Sant’Antonio; I had a lovely dinner there, spaghetti, chicken, salad and dessert for 25 euros each. They offer a standard menu that includes a fixed price tourist dinner, which is surprisingly good.
After my pizza I was tempted to rent a bicycle but decided that for the day walking was best; I’d save the bicycle for a more energetic tour. Bicycles extend your exploring distance beyond the city walls, through residential and industrial neighborhoods. For day trips beyond your bicycle, into Tuscany at large, pick up the train schedule from the station, which is just outside the walls, a few blocks from Porta Eliza.
I strolled home and already was in love. Over the next month Lucca was the perfect location from which to explore the rest of Tuscany or just laze in the Tuscan sunshine. It is small enough to be quaint and quiet but large enough to provide a true taste of a Tuscan town.
T.L. Reid, MA is a freelance writer and online course creator. She travels the world and calls Vancouver, BC home.
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