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 façade 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.

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