February in northern Europe, and you begin to wonder if there is life on the other side of the grey rain clouds!
One of the benefits of living in Europe, with its cheap airlines, is the option to jump onboard a flight and fly south for a weekend break, not only to some sunshine but also to explore a different culture.
My weekend break recently took me to the Renaissance city of Lucca in Italy, to some sunshine, a few gelatos and some delicious Tuscan wine.
The 90-minute flight to Pisa from Eindhoven was easy, and the train ride from Pisa Centrale station to Lucca even easier and at the amazing price of €3.50.
Although traveling during the “low season” has its downside — museums can be closed and the weather unsettled — it had for me the added benefit of visiting a city with few foreign tourists … almost every one seemed to be Italian.
WALLED CITY OF TUSCANY
Lucca is a walled Roman city in the north of Tuscany, a 30-minute train ride north of Pisa, and a 90-minute train ride from Florence.If you love history, you can’t fail to find something of historical relevance here.
The main shopping street – now lined with fashion stores – was once one of the main roads in the Roman colony of Lucca, providing safety from invasion since the Renaissance era.
Now, it’s the visitor’s entreé to the many medieval churches and the walls surrounding the city.
The 4-kilometer-long invader-repelling wall surrounds the city of Lucca. It never saw battle and in the early 1800’s the walls and bastions were planted with trees. It became what we see today, a delightful place to stroll or ride a bicycle.
On a sunny weekend, it becomes a ribbon-like municipal park. It’s filled with Italians and tourists alike, some jogging and exercising, families taking their children out in strollers, to walk or learn to ride their bikes, locals with their tiny dogs and cyclists testing their skills in avoiding pedestrians.
The fortress wall provides an elevated area from which to look down on the city or to look out on the protected green space surrounding the town, or a perfect vantage point to sit in the winter sun on a bench and enjoy some “people watching.”
The walls have six gates, or points of entry, and once inside you feel the history envelope you. The winter sun finds it difficult to rise high enough to be able to creep over the ancient buildings, so the streets have a chill in them that has settled into the stones.
But when you arrive at one of the open piazzas, you are greeted by unexpected warmth and light.
There you will find people sat with their faces turned to the sun, be it at a café table or seated on the marble steps of a church, stealing the gift of some winter Tuscan sunshine.
CITY OF 100 CHURCHES
The city is blessed – literally – with countless churches, and is known as The City of 100 Churches. The cathedral of San Martino is impressive and dates from the sixth century, with additions in the 14th century.
The front is a mesmerizing selection of pillars in the Lucca-style with carvings of St Martin’s life and a mysterious labyrinth carved into the wall by one of the doorways.
Its claim to fame is the “Volto Santo,” a huge crucifix carved in cedar of Lebanon that apparently chose to be placed in San Martino. Every year the faithful carry its robe in a torch-lit procession replicating its arrival in Lucca, the Luminaria di Santa Croce.
Another stunning church is San Michele in Foro, an ancient building dating from 795 AD with a façade that resembles a wedding cake topped with an angel.
This church is set in the original Roman forum, and the piazza still has that feeling of being the centre of public life, with people meeting for lunch, resting on the seats or steps of the church just watching the world pass by.
Many of the churches are filled with beautiful artwork, so don’t be put off by a closed door.
Some churches charge entrance but some just expect a donation. By quietly easing open a door we found a stunning interior of a now deconsecrated church, chiesa Sant’Anastasio.
Towers were popular in medieval Tuscany and Lucca has one of the strangest looking! Guinigi Tower was once owned by one of Lucca’s most important families of the 14th century. Only one of their four towers remains but this tower, now open to the public, offers a fantastic view of Lucca.
Its appearance seems odd due to the cap of foliage at the top of the 44.25-meter-high brick tower, provided by the seven Holms oaks, symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Once at the top the view of Lucca, its terra cotta roofs and the hills surrounding the city make the short climb worth it.
As you stand soaking up the view, enjoying your bird’s eye glimpse into Tuscan life, you can meditate on the fact this view hasn’t changed in centuries.
ALL ABOUT OPERA
Lucca is all about opera, as it is the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini.
There is a year-round festival of opera dedicated to Lucca’s favorite son, with events held at weekends during the winter in the Oratorio de San Guiseppe and week-long concert series during high season in the church of San Giovanni.
Tickets are inexpensive at €20 for an hour of spectacular music and singing from Puccini, Verdi and Mozart’s operas, which even the uninitiated will appreciate.
The museum based in Puccini’s birthplace is small and features letters, a costume from Turandot and furniture from that era. You can also visit his country home at Torre del Lago, which is a trip of 30 minutes by public transport or car.
The city of Lucca filled our time with walks along the walls, exploration of the city and its ancient buildings, and shopping on the Via Fillungo.
MADE IN ITALY
Via Fillungo is the the main shopping street where you can buy everything from beautiful Italian shoes and leather goods, clothing from chic stores to a tantalizing selection of delicious rainbow-coloured gelato.
Some of our perusing needs were fulfilled by chance, as the city hosts an enormous monthly antiques market every third weekend.
Several of the piazzas are filled to bursting point with gilt mirrors and chandeliers reflecting the sunlight, and highly polished inlaid dining tables, chairs, and cabinets reflect illustrious times and invite you to imagine well-to-do Italian families seated around the table in their palazzos.
Wherever you walk in Lucca history is your companion.
The oval shaped plaza of Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, once a Roman amphitheatre where gladiators fought, is now a delightful place to sit in the sun with a cappuccino. Buildings lining the streets were formerly homes to wealthy dukes, and narrow streets still hold the echoes of Lucca’s Roman citizens.
If you just take that free seat at a table in the sun you can close your eyes and almost hear the past around you.
Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at re-inventing herself! Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News. She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.
Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.
Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.
She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.