Other people’s opinions and impressions can have a marked effect on me. It depends, of course, the weight I give them and how they’ve done in the past. Not having the luxury of travelling for long periods of time, instead snatching a few days here and there, time is always at a premium. So how to spend that time requires thinking about.
When I said I was going to Tuscany, the one place that was repeatedly recommended by friends and acquaintances was Lucca. Way back in 1902, Hilaire Belloc, a writer, had this to say: ‘The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good.’ And most of that still holds true – apart from the uncrowded streets, one of the side-effects 0f cheap and easy travel. It was busy. Very busy. And again, I found myself giving thanks that we’d come off season – not that there is an ‘off season’ in Italy. I can’t imagine the hell it would be at the height of the summer.
The tall Renaissance walls (all 4200 metres of them) that surround the medieval city hold all expectations at bay. If you hadn’t done your homework and realised that the town was really inside the walls, you could lawfully pass it by. Needless to say, I hadn’t done my homework, but the intrepid MI had.
The narrow, cobblestoned streets, soaring church spires, and buildings dating back centuries are all so well preserved that it’s like stepping back in time. Probably the most impressive piazza is Piazza dell´Anfiteatro, which sits on the site of an old Roman amphitheatre, accessible by four arched entrances. It’s a hive of activity with numerous bars, cafés, and restaurants making it an ideal spot for people watching.
The city’s understated elegance is mirrored in the brass mail boxes and ancient intercoms. With about 90 000 residents, it’s somewhere I wouldn’t mind living for a while, if they could fit me in. Most of the locals travel by bike and I’m sure they get royally pissed off at having to navigate the hoards of tourists that descend on the city every day. Mind you, though, if ever a nation was predisposed to patience, it has to be the Italians. They seem to take everything in their stride, no one in a rush to go anywhere. The narrow streets give way to even narrower alleyways with the view skywards impressive enough to cause a few run-ins and stubbed toes, as tourists stumble into each other and over each other trying to take it all in. I’ve never fully appreciated the Tuscan colour palette before and how the sun bounces off the golds and yellows and oranges that make up the mix. What artistic talent I have wouldn’t fill the smallest of canvasses but had I any, I’d have been in heaven.
Trees pop up in the most unlikeliest of places and after an hour or so you realise the truth of the old adage – in Lucca, you really never know what’s around the next corner. Narrow alleys open on to wide expanses, the courtyards of which are crisscrossed with shadows of church towers and steeples. Its history was a tumultuous one. Once a centre for textiles, silk, and banking, Lucca managed to stay independent of Florence and even had its own currency. The kings of Bavaria and Bohemia seized it at various stages, and the Noblese from the nearby cities of Genoa, Verona, and Parma traded it back and forth over the centuries. In the early 1600s, it was taken over by an oligarchy and managed to steer clear of trouble until Napoleon captured it in three centuries later. It had a good run.