Arriving in Lucca it’s impossible to ignore the monumental city walls that encircle the beautiful medieval town within. They are massive, as wide as they are high, built of brick and filled with earth, and covering a distance of 4.2km. They are one reason why Lucca remained an independent city state for around 700 years. Only in 1799 was the city defeated, and then only by the all-conquering Napoleon Bonaparte.
Today, it’s much easier to get past Lucca’s walls. We entered through the Bastion San Paolino, inside of which the size of the fortress becomes clear. There was also a large sculpture. Inside the walls, we made our way through narrow lanes before emerging into the large, open Piazza San Michele. Here, the white stone of the magnificent Chiesa di San Michele in Foro was almost luminous against the dark clouds that still threatened following the previous day’s storms.
Lucca has many churches, but few to match San Michele in Foro. The first church on this site dates from 795 AD, the current version is from the 12th century. Intricately carved sculptures decorate its glorious facade, which is crowned by a statue of Archangel St. Michael killing a dragon. This was an important site long before the church was built though. In Roman times the Forum was here and this square was the epicentre of the town’s public life.
San Michele in Foro is not as big as the nearby Cathedral of St. Martin, but it is a truly striking building. Plus, inside it hides something ghoulishly bizarre, the desiccated corpse of San Davino. The remains of the 11th century Armenian pilgrim are said to have miraculous powers. The positioning of the head so that the corpse looks out at people, and a hand raised as if in salutation, is downright creepy.
The church and cathedral, as well as many other beautiful buildings, were paid for by the fabulous wealth Lucca generated as the preeminent silk manufacturing centre in Europe. Silk was a highly prized luxury and fortunes were made, which gave Lucca a reason to build those imposing city walls. Lucca seems like a relaxed and interesting place, and we were already regretting having only come on a day trip from Pisa.
This was doubly the case after having one of the best lunches of our trip in the Trattoria da Leo. A work-a-day sort of place catering to local business people, senior citizens and a gang of workmen, it also served up hearty, local specialities and wines in a jolly atmosphere that made us warm to it immediately. Farro soup followed by matuffi, a peasant dish involving polenta and sausage, made for a preposterously filling lunch that took a while to walk off.
Still, we soon found ourselves at the intriguingly oval-shaped Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro. The shape is a give away, and if you look hard enough you can find traces of Lucca’s ancient Roman amphitheatre. Lucca became a Roman colony in 180 BC and remained a major Roman centre until the fall of the Empire in 476 AD. Although Lucca’s street plan is laid out on the traditional Roman model, there are no major Roman buildings or ruins left.
Lucca is a very easy place to walk around in a day, but as we were discovering you need longer than that to get under its skin. While it’s almost perfectly preserved, my one gripe is the number of cars crammed into its streets and squares. It takes some of the sheen off the history on display. The one place there aren’t any motorised vehicles, but plenty of bikes, is on top of the city walls, now a serene and shady spot to promenade.
We made our way to Bastion San Paolino and back to Pisa, vowing that one day we’d return to Lucca.