Lucca, Tuscany Tour Review – Streets that Inspired Your Favorite Operas

 

 

There is no shortage of drama in the history of the streets that famed opera composer Giacomo Puccini grew up in.   Strolling the bicycle-friendly cobblestone streets of Lucca, it’s interesting to imagine how the city’s storied history primed the imagination of the town’s most famous son.

 

 

That history was brought alive to us by our stimulating Lucca guide, Carlo Puddu

 

 

The tour began as soon as we walked out the door of the Palazzo Rocchi Hotel when Carlo answered our question as to whether all the buildings had interior courtyards, like the one we were emerging from onto Piazza San Michele. 

 

 

 

The answer was more yes than no, because Lucca law in the Medici times banned any flaunting of wealth that would potentially excite the acquisitive instincts of Florentines.  Lucca was not only an independent republic, but also a wealthy one due to an alliance with Venice that created a healthy and lucrative silk trade. 

 

 

You may have been a silk trader but you couldn’t wear your own silk garments as this was considered ostentatious.  Women also couldn’t flaunt jewelry. 

 

 

Overly cautious though this may sound, it is one of the first wise moves by town fathers that was repeated over history, with some luck added too (i.e. no bombing during World War II), that allows the Lucca of today to present itself so intact. 

 

 

 

When Napolean came to Lucca with 6,000 soldiers the chamber of elders again wisely put up no fight.  It was Napolean’s sister, Elisa, who became ruler of Lucca and made such a significant mark on the city’s face.  Because the church got in her way she got them out of the way. 

 

 

The city that had been known as the “City of 100 Churches” started to lose the churches at each plaza, going down to 43, with only eleven actually functioning today. 

 

 

 

From a tourist’s perspective Elisa is owed a big thank you mainly for her work to establish parks on the city’s walls.   Lucca is a very easy city to be a pedestrian in- or to rent a bike.

 

 

Another big plus of Lucca is the ability to see works by many of the same famed artists that crowds gather to see in Florence, the difference being that in Lucca you can get close to these works and still find breathing room. 

 

 

The same Berlinghiero whose work is seen in the Uffizi made the cross in the Chiesa di San Michele in Foro. The great artist Lippi had come to Lucca and started a school of Renaissance art, and some of his works were moved back in the 20th Century.

 

 

We surely would have missed both the graffiti in the Chiesa San Michele in Foro and its significance if Carlo had not been our guide.  

 

 

He pointed out that the doodles on the pillars were always out of the sight lines of the priests at the altar and were likely pictures of the exotic finds –elephants, fish, etc.—of those who traveled far with the silk trade. 

 

 

 

 

The historic cross in Cattedrale di San Martino should not be missed, nor its impact on getting hotel rooms in Lucca on September 13.  The legend goes that this cross--Volto Santo, the icon of Lucca-- was salvaged by Nicodemus after he assisted in Jesus’ burial and that it was put on a boat with no sailors, and later on a cart with only oxen, no driver.  It is said that Jesus guided the cross to its home in this church in Lucca.  The cross' reputation was such that King William II of England regularly swore the oath by the cross of Lucca with the english knights and crusaders he was launching into battle.  More relevant to you, the tourist, is the celebration every year on September 13 when the city turns off all electricity to recreate the candle lit procession that has been held since 1308 to memorialize the cross’ pilgrimage to Lucca.  This is the peak time of year for Lucchesi expats to return.   It sounds beautiful—but do know to book your room way in advance.

 

 

 

A city with art at its heart since Medieval times, a focus on art continues today—such as in the city’s trendsetting Contemporary Art Museum and galleries that you’ll find tucked away in corners of the walled city. 

 

 

There are two towers that enable you to get a panoramic view of the city, but the park along the city walls is not to be missed. 

 

 

Paris and New York, soon to be followed by Chicago, boast the world’s first elevated linear parks, but any walk along Lucca’s walls shows you quickly that these claims are not quite true. 

 

 

For opera lovers Lucca offers the world’s only “permanent” Puccini Festival. 

 

 

Every night there are performances, and we were able to catch Tenor Mattia Nebbiai and Baritone Roman Martinuzzi performing works from both Puccini operas and those of Mozart

 

 

(For information on the festival visit the Festival website. The city is small and at some point you will inevitably be walking past the museum set up in Puccini’s childhood home and be able to visit if you choose to do so. 

 

We have one regret about our visit to Lucca. 

 

 

Had we known that the Medieval and Renaissance sights are overrun with people dressed in superhero garb during Lucca’s October Comic Book Festival we surely would have liked to come then.  What fun that must be!  Here too—know to book your room ahead of time. 

 

Inside what was once the Roman colliseum of the town where gladiators fought, and is now a touristy restaurant spot

 

To book a tour with Carlo Puddu, find him on the Tours by Locals website or inquire at the Lucca Tourism Offices.

 

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Photos:  Peter Kachergis, unless otherwise indicated

 

 

 

 

 

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