Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Pleasures of Lucca

"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.”
This is the first line in Leo Tolstoy’s novel “ War and Peace”.
This was how I first heard of Lucca, and now that our ship, the Royal Princess, was making multiple runs to Livorno, and hence to Florence, I thought, why not go explore another part of Tuscany, say, Lucca? Lucca was one hour by train from Florence. If I made an early run to Florence, I’d be able to make it to lunch in Lucca, have a meander in the city, then get back in time to the port. This is the fun thing about Europe: that distances between towns with their sights are not as mind-numbingly great as they are in the US.
There were two other reasons why I wanted to go to Lucca. The first was because I had heard that it was a town with perfectly preserved Renaissance walls and some kind of a piazza laid out on the site of a Roman arena, now long gone. The second was that it was the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, the composer of “La Boheme”and “Tosca”. In the days before trains and buses, Puccini, as a young man, walked from Lucca to Pisa, a distance of 15 kilometers, to watch a production of Verdi’s “Aida”. Just my kind of guy.
I already knew the drill to go to Florence from the port of Livorno: Get off as early as possible from the ship, take the #1 bus to Livorno Centrale (the train station) then hop on the 8:00 AM train to Florence. I had bought a through ticket in Livorno, so when I arrived at the Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, I merely switched bays and boarded the train to Lucca.
I was in Lucca at 11:00 AM. Two to three hours tops would be all I could spare in this Renaissance town. It wasn’t enough time (it never is in these lovely Italian towns), but at least I would be able to say, with utter honesty, that I have been to the former “family estates” of Napoleon Bonaparte, namely, Genoa and Lucca.
Outside the train station of Lucca, I started walking across a wide grassy meadow. A short distance away rose its stone and brick walls. They reminded me of the fortifications of Fort Santiago in Manila, except that these walls had trees growing on the parapets. The sun shone brightly and the weather was warm. A brook ran across the meadow, clean and sparkling in the morning sun.
I went through a gate in the walls, one with a marble lion watching over it and found myself treading a path that followed the broad back of a grand church. I met a woman walking a spaniel. We smiled pleasantly at each other. It was so quiet I could hear the birds sing. Tourists? None so far in any great number.
I went round the church, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the graceful fa├žade of what turned out to be Lucca’s Duomo, or cathedral. It was done in the Romanesque style, with numerous arches and statues adorning the exterior. This was one of the most beautiful churches I had ever seen in Italy, quite similar to the duomo in Pisa. Inside was a curious tempietto, or temple-like enclosure, which held a sacred relic, a wooden head of Christ that was supposedly carved by Nicodemus. I did not see the head, or maybe I did not know where to look. Much more visible was a stone sarcophagus in the sacristy. This was in the shape of a beautiful woman with a dog lying at its base. Finely carved by Jacopo della Quercia, this tomb was in itself worth the ticket to get into the sacristy. As it was, the cathedral was already full of the usual complement of grand religious canvases by famous Italian painters.
Across from the duomo was a smaller church, the Church of San Giovanni. This church was built atop the ruins of earlier churches and structures harkening all the way back to Roman times. A walkway brings you down from the baptistery through five different layers of habitation. At the deepest level, excavators had uncovered the mosaic floor of a Roman house.
When I went out of the church, I found that tour buses had arrived, and Lucca was getting crowded. It was time for lunch. I found the Piazza della Amfitheatro in no time at all. This was a curious circular piazza which occupied the space of a long-vanished Roman arena. Just one gate remains of the original structure, but an architect had redesigned the space to get rid of buildings that had been built over it in the ensuing centuries. He restored, if not the amphitheatre itself, the shape of it. Its modern equivalent would be the laser lights that briefly marked the space where the World Trade Center towers in New York used to be. Negative space is what it's called. The difference of course is that those lights were temporary, whereas this piazza was permanent and eminently usable.
In a mood for lunch, I was dismayed by the high prices charged by restaurants located within the piazza. I figured that, for a simple lunch with wine, I would have to fork over more than what I paid for my train ticket from and to Livorno. A little exploration brought me to a little trattoria just outside the Roman gate, where for less than 10 Euros, I had a half-carafe of red wine and a seafood spaghetti. All things considered, it’s funny how a little wine can make one deliriously happy when imbibed in the shadow of a Roman ruin, on a cobblestone street warmed by the Tuscan sun, in the company of travelers from all over the world!
After lunch, the rest of my visit to Lucca involved walking by the house where Puccini was born and admiring a seated sculpture of him on a little square. I marvelled at the other churches in town, notably, the Church of San Frediano, which had a resplendent, mosaic exterior, and the church of San Michele in Foro , another resplendent Romanesque church surmounted by a statue of the Archangel Michael. I was then drawn inexorably into a store, just a stone’s-throw away from Puccini’s boyhood home, where I proceeded to spend time among blue and yellow Italian majolica on display. Disarmed by the friendly proprietor, I bought a bunch of ceramic souvenirs: plates, spoons, even a plant holder in the shape of a baptismal font. All of these souvenirs, except for the plant holder, survived shipment to my house in the Philippines. The restored and repaired plant holder now cradles electrical bills and such. Mine is not to reason why. It must have been the wine.
On my way back to the train station, I decided to follow the walkway that had been laid out on top of the walls that encircled the city. A warm summer wind shook the leaves of the trees that had been planted there. Sometimes I would pause to watch the towers of the city, noting one in the distance where trees seemed to grow from its top. Pigeons cooed. Aside from the rustling of trees, a hot, peaceful torpor lay over Lucca. The atmosphere reminded me of the siestas we used to have in my hometown of Ormoc, before the city became a hellhole of tricycles and general traffic.
Could I live here in Lucca? Yes, I could.
Standing there, that quiet afternoon, on top of its ancient walls, I made a promise that one day I will be back in this enchanting little town in Tuscany.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Florence, Panini & Sciopero


A summer’s day in Florence. Warm, beautiful and sunny.
I had just visited the Pitti Palace, that Renaissance palace brimming with artwork collected through the generations by the Medici and the Bourbons.
I had wandered through the Boboli gardens, from whose highest balustraded park one could drink in a panorama of Florentine countryside seemingly untouched by modernity: no telephone lines, skyscrapers, tv antennae or satellite dishes, just a plain, glorious, wooded Tuscan hillside studded with terra-cotta roofs, stone houses, towers and battlements that could have come straight out of a Boticelli or Gozzoli landscape. It could have been the year 1450 and not 2008.
Earlier in the morning, I had visited the Medici Chapel at the Basilica of San Lorenzo and had been awed by Michelangelo’s sculptures there. The countless times I had pored over their reproductions in art books did not prepare me for their overwhelming actuality. Corny as this may sound, I felt a tremendous vibration passing through my body when I laid my eyes on the familiar figures. Ah, the genius of Michelangelo in creamy, shiny marble! The chapel was not crowded and so I was able to give due reverence to the place.
I also visited the Bargello, a forbidding palazzo with an open courtyard that housed sculptures and ceramics by the likes of Michelangelo, Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia. Really, I came for the bronze that Donatello cast for the Medici, the “David”, just one among thousands of famous works of art in Florence. I sat to rest on the stone staircase and pondered how a city can have a seemingly endless collection of great art when my hometown of Ormoc City, in the Philippines, doesn’t even have a cubicle to display any sort of public art. I could appreciate the fact, not without some guilt, that cultured dictators, like the Medici, had their uses.
Later, I had a lovely hazelnut gelato and tuna panini at the covered loggia in the Piazza della Signoria, right there in the company of Cellini’s bronze “Perseus”, Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women”, the Medici Lions, and on the square, Neptune’s Fountain and across it, that poor guy, Cacus, whose head is forever being sliced off by Hercules. I should mention Michaelangelo’s “David”at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, but it was only a copy. I had just finished my gelato and pannini when a policeman dashed into the loggia and confronted an American tourist, a young girl, who was just about to drink a bottle of acqua minerale.
Proibito!” he said, wagging his finger. No drinking and eating in the loggia. I eyed the girl sheepishly, who shrugged her shoulder and returned a look at me that said: “Lucky you!”
All in all, a lovely day in Florence. Things went swimmingly in this my fourth or fifth visit to this indescribably beautiful city.
So why was I worried? Faced with all this beauty in stone and marble and architecture, why was I in a state of near-panic?
Because, when I went back to the station to take the train back to Livorno, where my ship the “Royal Princess”was docked, I learned that at exactly 12:00 noon that day, while I was happily chatting at the Boboli gardens with three college girls from Georgia, USA, a bus and train strike had suddenly been called by the Italian unions.
In the height of the summer tourist season.
Throughout Italy.
I was familiar with the word.
Sciopero. Strike.
I should have guessed it that morning when I took the train from Livorno to Florence. The train station’s ticket offices were shuttered tight. I wondered why. I thought there was a holiday of some sort. Still, in Italy, you can still buy tickets from the vending machine, and that’s what I did. I fed in my 5 euros. The machine spat out the ticket. I caught the 8:00 train to Florence. No problem.
The train was not crowded. In fact, I had two seats to myself. I felt happy and excited as I watched the Tuscan countryside roll by. The foothills of the Apennines appeared, and a little over an hour later, I was in bella Firenze. What could go wrong?
Well, sciopero, for one. In the matter of strikes, the Italians are almost as bad as the French.
I had been coming to Italy since the ‘90’s. This was the first time I got caught up in one of its infamous strikes. I uttered (to myself) all the Italian cuss-words I learned in the course of my sojourn in this beautiful, but sometimes problematic, country.
Being stranded in Florence would have been no issue for me were it not for the important fact that I had to be in the port of Livorno by 5:00 that afternoon, one hour before the ship sailed at 6 PM. If I missed the ship, there would also be the complicating fact that the next port of call of the Royal Princess was Cannes, which, as everyone knows, is not in Italy, but in France. Not only that, but all my worldly possessions (the ones, anyway, I carried and bought on my travels) and most importantly, my passport, were on that ship.
If I missed the ship, I would be fired. No two ways about that.
I pondered my dilemma. I had two choices. The first was to find where the Princess tour buses were parked and try to hitch a ride back to Livorno. That would take some time, and I was not sure if there would be a seat for me, since this tour was extremely popular among the passengers.
The second? I looked at my watch. Three o'clock pm. No time to lose.
I examined my wallet. Twenty Euros and my Visa card.
I hailed a taxi.
The driver looked young, in his twenties.
Voglio a Livorno,”I said, not caring if my Italian was grammatically correct.
His eyes widened a bit.
Ma certo!” he said. Certainly.
Quanto? How much?" I asked.
Beh, I turn on the meter. Maybe 70, 80 Euros.”
I gulped.
“Ah, you speak English! OK!”
I sat on the back seat and off we went, past the lines of stranded, frustrated tourists streaming out of the train station, through the narrow streets of Florence, and then into the autostrada.
“What is your name?”I asked the driver.
“Thomas,”replied the young driver.
“Ah, Tommaso!”I said.
“No,”said the driver, “Thomas, not Tommaso”.
“But you’re Italian, aren’t you? “ I asked.
“Of courz-o, but my fa-ather named me Thomas anyway, so I don’t have the same name as the other Italian boys.”
I chuckled, and relaxed in my seat. I breathed more easily. 70 or so Euros to Livorno. Painful, but necessary. Thank God for ATM’S.
“Tell me, Thomas, why do you speak such good English?” I asked.
“I studied English in the USA. In San Francisco. I love to go back there again.”
I don’t remember what else Thomas and I talked about. He was indeed in his twenties. I think he couldn’t believe his luck in picking up a desperate fare such as I. I was just happy that he agreed to ferry me to Livorno. I watched the Tuscan countryside roll by. Dark clouds rose over the horizon. I hoped it wasn’t going to rain. It didn’t. The sun peeked through the clouds and through the trees. Large rolls of hay lay on fallow farmland. We passed by another quintessentially old Italian town perched on a hillside. I glimpsed old buildings, towers partially hidden by trees. I saw this countryside depicted in Bellini’s painting of “St. Francis in the Desert”, the one in the Frick Museum in New York. Michelangelo’s sculptures, the Pitti Palace, the hazelnut gelato, the cursed strike: they all seemed to disappear into the blur of cypresses, umbrella pines, the hidden hilltowns, the yellowing stalks on the harvest fields of Tuscany.
An hour later, we were on the outskirts of Livorno. A dark lowering cloud hung over the ugly port. A flash of lightning. How dramatic. How Italian. How expensive.
I made it to the ship, just.