Lucca, the Town of Bicycles

8 July 2013

After a pleasant night’s sleep — we can leave our four windows wide open all night, they have bug screens — we awoke to this spectacular view out the kitchen and lounge windows.



Since I had the camera out to capture the view, I thought it worthwhile to record our immediate surroundings as well. (The image of the hallway accentuates its length: it’s really not that long.)





Breakfast, then off about 8am on the approximately 1 km stroll to the medieval town centre of Lucca.


Originally founded as a Ligurian settlement and developed as a roman city from 180 BC, in the 6th century Lucca became the capital of the Longobardo duchy of Tuscia, to then develop in the 12th century as a town municipality.

It was in the 12th century that a decisive moment in the history of the formation of the territory occurred when, in 1186, Enrico VI recognised the rights of Lucca within the limits of the so-called “Six Miles”.

Despite the-ongoing struggle between the Guelfi and Ghibellini factions and the wars with Pisa and Florence, Lucca gained notable fame throughout Europe thanks to its bankers and its cloth trade. apart from brief periods when it fell under the control of foreign powers or of lords such as Castruccio Castracani… and Paolo Guinigi, Lucca remained an independent republic until 1799.

On the 23rd of June 1805, on request of the Senate of Lucca, the Principality of Lucca and Piombino was constituted and was assigned to Elisa Bonaparte (the sister of Napoleon) and her husband, Felice Baciocchi. At the Vienna conference it was decided to create the duchy of Lucca….

The province of Lucca comprised 21 municipalities which, in 1859, formed the division of the grand duchy of Tuscany. In 1860 it was annexed to the kingdom of Sardinia.

Lucca is a walled town. It was a fiercely independent city state and to protect that independence it has a very large and thick boundary wall. The wall is not really just a wall: it’s bricked on both sides and is filled with soil, is about three or four storeys high, and would accommodate about four lanes of traffic on top, if it were all sealed. The centre portion is sealed, but there are grass verges and lines of trees on either side. The total length is about 4 km, and in the evening all (it seems) of the locals walk, run, bike or rollerblade in the magnificent Tuscan twilight. Access to the centrale, or historical centre of town (ie everything within the walls), is via six gates, or porta. Our closest porta is Porta S. Anna, off Piazzale Boccherini.


The extremely old buildings are tall, at least the height of the wall, and packed together in the manner made familiar to us in Trastevere: with just enough room for a Fiat Punto to pass between them when there are bicycles parked on either side of the cobbled street. (And this is why pretty much none of the cars are free from scratches, and every parked car has its wing mirrors folded back defensively.) Essentially, the entire town centre is a giant pedestrian rabbit warren that has cars going through it on occasion.


But mostly bicycles. Everybody rides bicycles — not the road or mountain bikes that we are used to, but what I believe are referred to as ‘comfort’ bikes: like swish, over-sized Raleigh 20s. Many of them are beautifully tricked out, with leather seats and leather-coloured hand grips; and painted attractively; others are neglected work-horses.






There are men in suits on bicycles; there are nonna (grandmas) on bicycles; there are women with perfect hair in stylish summer frocks wearing high-heeled wedge shoes with fashionable handbags slung over their shoulders on bicycles; there are labourers on bicycles; there are tourists on bicycles; there are small children on the back of bicycles with their mothers. And the only cyclists you see wearing helmets are those fully kitted out in Lycra (and not in the historic city centre). Cars, pedestrians and bicycles co-exist in the chaos of narrow streets, dodging and weaving around the blind corners.

Within the walls and between the bicycles, Lucca is a fascinating juxtaposition: 12th and 13th century churches beside similarly old other buildings that now house a wide variety of high-end retail outlets selling clothes, toys (it seems Pinocchio is a local) shoes and leather goods. And it’s Summer Festival sale (saldi) season. “Tutti -50%” (everything 50% off) is a common sight. (I am seriously tempted by some of the divine leather handbags. In a couple of the leather shops the artisan is busy working in the shop, surrounded by the heavenly smell of fresh leather.)

And in amongst all of these there are only three public toilets: at least two of which you must pay to use (60 cents at one; 50 cents at the other). Whilst getting lost trying to find one of these conveniences, we stumbled across both the Museum of Torture and a museum advertising a Henri Cartier-Bresson (famous photographer, for those of you who are not fotografia freaks) exhibition. (Excited!) Note to future visitors to Lucca: Monday seems to be the day most of these things are closed. No matter, we are going back tomorrow to see both.

As I said before, there are a number of medieval churches. The most notable are San Michele in Foro…




…Chiesa di San Frediano, resplendent in its colourful mosiac,…


…and Cattedrale di San Martino (or The Duomo), from the 11th century, the facade seen here in the evening twilight.


From various sources of tourist information, I can share the following about this odd but beautiful building.

It was founded in the 6th century by St Frediano, and renovated from 1060 by Anselm of Baggio (who later became Pope Alexander II). The oldest part of the building in existence today is the facade, which was begun in 1196. The sculptor and architect, Guidetto da Coma, constructed an asymmetrical three-archway entrance, to accommodate the bell tower, or campanile (which was originally built in 1060 as a defensive tower, but expanded in 1261 when the tower was adjoined to the cathedral).

The facade is, apparently, characteristic of Lucca Gothic, and includes green and white marble in the multiple 13th century reliefs that depict — amongst many other things — St Martin, the Roman soldier to whom the cathedral is dedicated, dividing his cloak with a sword to share with a needy beggar. (More about the inside of this cathedral in Tuesday’s post.)

Other notable elements in the northern third of Lucca (middle third tomorrow; southern third the next day) are the Piazza Anfiteatro (amphitheater) and the Torre dei Guinigi.

The Piazza Anfiteatro is an oval-shaped ‘square’, and the orange-coloured buildings that dominate one flank are a popular image in many of the tourist guidebooks. Some of these buildings house locals; I believe others accommodate tourists.




The Torre dei Guinigi is a 45m tall, medieval brick tower — with some trees growing on the top of it. It was well established in the 14th century, and originally was one of a set of at least four, but the others have not survived. We paid our 4 euros each and climbed the (lots) of (very) narrow stairs to the top (with strategically timed ‘photo’ breaks).


On the way up I couldn’t help but think that these rubbish bins…


…were precisely those that are reported to have inspired Dr Who’s Daleks.

From the top of the tower, you get a great appreciation for the crowded chaos that is Lucca:



It’s hard to get a good shot of the tower from below, but here’s my attempt:


From the tower we made our hot and sweaty, sore-footed way home — via the Esselunga supermercato, which ended up in a couple of kilometres of extra walking in order to ascertain its location. (We did find another, smaller supermarket close to the one we were looking for, but it was closed — as are many businesses between the hours of 1300 and 1600. Most frustrating.) We got to Esselunga eventually, and stocked up for the next couple of days. (Interesting to find a make-up counter as well as a large variety of single-malt Scotch on the shelves.)

After a much-needed shower, some more laundry in our teeny-tiny washing machine and, later, dinner, we headed out for a walk on the wall about 7.30pm. For any self-respecting Italian, this seems to be the time of day for a run before dinner — which seems to occur any time after 8pm.

It’s currently Summer Festival time in Lucca, and things were gearing up for a concert (which we could hear part of later that evening). The list of performers for the festival (which appears to last all of July) includes some pretty well-known international names, including Bryan Adams; Mark Knopfler; Leonard Cohen; and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. According to an advertising flyer, the 8th of July was Litfiba (of whom I am ignorant).

The wall offered a few photographic experiments…





Very sore feet by the end of the day. Bed was welcome.


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