LUCCA – LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

For me, Lucca was a love at first sight that grew and grew into total adoration.  Rarely has a town captured my heart so and filled it with joy.  

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Part of its appeal is that Lucca is small, compact and self-contained within its city walls, full of history and beauty at every turn with its rust, ochre and saffron buildings warmed and flushed by the sun.   It also helped that I was staying in a stately villa that had been converted into a B&B that was full of character and charm.  And by chance my stay was perfectly timed to coincide with the dramatic and headily-scented blooming of an enormous magnolia tree right outside my window looking out onto the Tuscan countryside.  Perfection.

My bedroom window

My bedroom window

Everything in Lucca is captured within its walls, and the only way in is through one of the city gates, or “portas”.  My closest one was Porta San Pietro constructed in 1566.  The attractive medieval walls, which replaced earlier Roman ones, completely circumnavigate the town and are wide enough to accommodate promenaders, joggers and dog walkers under the cool shade of plane trees.   From up there you can look down on the town or out towards the Apuane Alps surrounding Lucca.

puerta

Though Lucca is small there is much to see, including churches, palaces, piazzas, art and gorgeous Tuscan cafés and restaurants.  Or you can just wander through the seductive streets of this historic old town.

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I will tell you first about my favourite place, which may not be on all tourists’ lists, the wonderful botanical gardens which are tucked away in a corner of Lucca.  In this calm, secluded spot I wandered almost alone around the plants and trees. 

Rejoicing statue in the Orto Botanico.

Rejoicing statue in the ‘Orto Botanico’.

The garden was created in 1820 by Maria Luisa Borbone for botanical research and teaching at the university which she had also founded.  A member of the Spanish Royal Family who became Duchesse of Lucca after imprisonment by Napoleon, her eventful life is a story in itself for another time.  The garden was a flourishing project for many years, if you will forgive the pun, and became ‘ a centre of ardent scientific research’ and a rich collection of exotic as well as local plants, says its little brochure.   The garden’s activities were suspended during the First World War and curiously not resumed for over 50 years when it was reawakened from its long hibernation.

The Cedar of Lebanon planted in 1820

A Cedar of Lebanon planted in 1820

The beast in the huge tree trunk

The beast in the huge tree trunk

The brochure also explained that a path through the arboretum led to ‘a small suggestive pond’.  Intrigued, I followed the route – past a Cedar of Lebanon with an amazing six metre girth which had been planted in 1820 – to the magical pond with at its centre a Southern Cypress from the Florida swamplands.  The pond is actually an acid bog full of rare plant species (prettily named sundews, osmunds and rose mallows for the botanists amongst you) and cute terrapins.   It is a haven of flowers, water lilies, smells and insects.   But!  It also has a legend – the tale of Lucinda Mansi, a wealthy young woman born in 1606. 

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The atmospheric ‘suggestive’ pond

Lucinda was vain as well as rich, so vain it is said she hid a mirror in her prayer book.  One day she saw a wrinkle on her face and wept in desperation until a handsome young man appeared to her.  He was the Devil and, like the tale of Dorian Grey, he offered Lucinda thirty years of untouched youth if she gave him her soul.  Silly narcissistic Lucinda agreed.  Of course thirty years later the Devil came for his prize and carried her around the city walls in his flaming chariot for all the inhabitants to see and hear her screams (yes, gross) before plunging it into the pond.  They say that if you dive into the pond you can see her ghostly face and on Halloween night hear horses’ hooves in the wind and see the carriage diving into the pond on its way into hell.

What a tale! And what a lesson about ageing positively, or not in Lucinda’s case, a subject I am so interested in.

Somewhat banally, however, we are then told that Lucinda did exist . . . but died of the plague on the 12th of February 1649 and was buried in a friary near the gardens which was later destroyed.

I sat for a long while in this evocative place and felt permeated by calm.  I recalled that Lucca was the birthplace and home of Puccini until he moved to Milan.  Born in 1858, he would have been living in the town when the gardens were a thriving concern.  Did he too sit by this ‘suggestive’ pond and hear music in his mind as its silence fed his creativity?  

I noted in my journal that I was again learning the lesson about the importance of stopping, and being in silence, and how good it is for my soul.  Then I added that, actually, the lesson has been learned, I just need to seek out opportunities to put it into action – or maybe inaction.

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The eye catching upper façade of the Cathedral

 Continuing my tour of Lucca I was also struck by the 6th century Cathedral of San Martino, another striped white church, this time triple-arched with a portico carved by Pisano and a striking upper façade.  The church was full of reflected light making the altar and its exquisite frescoed dome a warm buttery yellow.  

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The cathedral ceiling is a bright sky-blue and sunlight illuminates the stunning stained glass.   There are many artistic treasures to see, including ‘The Last Supper’ by Tintoretto and a sublime tomb carved out of cold white marble.  Here lies the young Ilaria del Carretto who married the Lord of Lucca in 1423 and died in childbirth two years later.  The sarcophagus was carved by Jacopo Della Quercia, whose works I so admired in Sienna, and is considered a masterpiece.     

ilaria

The cathedral also houses the delicate, octagonal temple of the ‘Volto Santo’ or ‘Holy Countenance’, a wooden Christ which is the symbol of the town, venerated since the Middle Ages.    In September of each year the Volto Santo is dressed in golden garments and jewels and carried around the town in a procession amidst great festivities.  You can see the statue’s golden dressings, including a fabulous crown, sceptre and shoes, in the cathedral’s museum. 

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The Temple of the Volto Santo

As I left the cathedral I noticed a labyrinth plaque on its walls which I was drawn to because of my strong interest in labyrinths.  After all my journeys around Europe began as a dream in a labyrinth under a full moon.  Here in Lucca the plaque had an unusual explanation, that the labyrinth is a metaphor for life and that we are always searching for a way out of the darkness of the material world into the light of enlightenment. Elsewhere labyrinths are described as meditative pathways towards our interior.

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Other highlights of my sightseeing in Lucca included the highly decorative church of San Michele in Foro which seemed to have no two columns the same. Called ‘in foro’ because it was constructed over the ancient Roman Forum, the church is in the very heart of town.

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Then there was the lovely oval-shaped Piazza Anfiteatro with some of its original Roman masonry intact, ringed with cafés and artistic shops. With its 54 archways the Italians consider this one of their loveliest piazzas.

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I also became a regular at the famous Forno Amadeo Giusti bakery where everything is made by hand with traditional methods resulting in “soul-satisfying smells and tastes”.  I can vouch for every word of their publicity being true.

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Yes, Lucca was love at first sight. I have already decided to return some day and until then I have my memories and photographs…

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Comments
3 Responses to “LUCCA – LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT”
  1. Bonnie says:

    Again I have enjoyed walking by your side throughout the narrative among the views, smells, and discoveries of this charming place I would otherwise have missed. Thank you!

  2. Din says:

    Such an up beat blog. Up lifting. Want to get on plane to visit.

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