February 22, 2015
Lucca is a city that I had by-passed many times. Sure, I’d heard about the magnificent olive oil, jogging around the Renaissance-era city walls (which total about 4 kilometers – a nice little morning passeggiata!), and all the Puccini paraphernalia. But the city never caught my interest like some of its famous neighbors. How many times I’d hiked the trails of Cinque Terre, yet not even a half day had been dedicated to Lucca.
That changed a few years ago, and I’m so glad. Lucca, a city of about 85,000, is found in the northwestern corner of Tuscany, not far from the Ligurian Sea. It shares with many other Tuscan cities the ancient Etruscan heritage, followed by a period as a Roman colony. Lucca was then passed from noble to noble until in 1160 it became an independent republic, a status it enjoyed for nearly 500 years. Lucca was the second largest Italian city state (after Venice) with a republican constitution to maintain its independence over the years. From 1805-1815 the city was governed by Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, whose Villa Reale we read about in one of my recent blogs. Lucca joined the Italian republic upon unification in 1860.
Those walls I mentioned above completely encircle the city and have remained intact even after their military importance waned. They serve as Lucca’s promenade and are topped with towering plane, chestnut and holm oak trees, park benches and a running/biking path. The walls are one of Lucca’s most endearing and unusual features. Also beautiful are the Cathedral of San Martino and the Church of San Michele in Foro and the piazzas of the Amphitheater, Napoleon and San Michele. San Martino’s stunning facade was constructed in the prevailing Lucca-Pisan style and designed to accommodate the pre-existing bell tower. The reliefs over the left doorway of the portico are believed to be by Nicola Pisano. Inside there’s a gleaming marble sculpture, carved by Jacopo della Quercia in 1407 as a memorial to the young second wife of the 15th-century lord of Lucca, Paolo Guinigi. Poor Ilaria died in childbirth at the tender age of 24. Check out her beautifully carved little dog, faithfully lying at the feet of his mistress.
Don’t forget to visit the Casa Puccini, a music school and small museum across the street from the famous composer’s birthplace. It features the Steinway piano on which he composed “Turandot.” Lucca also features fabulous shopping, with a number of boutiques that offer locally-made and sourced items.
Lucca is an easy drive from the Pisa International Airport (see our last Blog) and serves as a great base for exploring this part of Tuscany. Consider combining a few days in Lucca with boat rides and hiking in the world famous Cinque Terre, the five colorful fishing villages splashed along the coast just north of Lucca!