Don’t Miss Medieval and Renaissance Lucca — Compact and Comfortable

(This was written following a visit to Lucca in March 2009)If there ever was a place in Italy as cozy as a nest, it is medieval Lucca.

The only city in Italy totally enclosed, Lucca’s thick 16th century ramparts reach high, set off by an encircling park-like strip green even in winter. Its flat, cobbled streets invite strolling in a time capsule rich in architecture from Romanesque to Renaissance, spacious squares, abundant shops and good places to eat.

Three nights there were a relaxing counterpoint at the end of a more ambitious foray.

Renaissance Lucca

Before we could enjoy it, Paolo had to rescue us. Traffic is banned but for hotel check in, small local buses and commercial deliveries. In rain and darkness we drove round and round attracting the attention of police who were neither amused nor adept at giving directions to the Piccolo Hotel Puccini tucked on a street near Piazza San Michele. Finally, we called. “Stay where you are,” Paolo said. “I’ll come and get you.” Within a minute a runner appeared at our junction, waved us around one more corner to his front door, popped open the trunk, grabbed our two bags and bounded in and upstairs. “Take your time. Be comfortable, then you can park the car,” he directed.

Parking the car generally means outside the gates in a huge lot. “Dieci minuti,” he said of the walk back into center. Sure. We’ve heard that before. Torrential rain didn’t fail to dampen our enthusiasm in the twenty minutes it took us to walk back through the Porta Santa Anna, through the quiet lamplit streets.

San MicheleSt. Michael sits atop San Michele and its broad piazza adding to the spirit of the intricate decoration on the arcaded facade of the Romanesque church. Inside the serene nave, worshippers are drawn to a 12th century painted crucifix. We were drawn to the wonderful and bright Fillipo Lippi painting of Sebastian, Jerome, Roch and Helen hanging somewhat casually in the south transept.

Lucca, of course, has other churches that Michelin calls “great” including the duomo being restored, but we found its secular life more interesting during this stay in the town where Puccini was born. His bronze statue was just under our window; his home, though, was closed.

Just walking through Lucca’s streets and admiring its Renaissance palaces now being turned into apartments is a treat. The facades retain their symmetry and many of their window grates. The Roman amphitheater has become a swirl of shops, cafes and benches on which to take a rest, share a gelato and admire a life in which townsfolk meet, greet and chat in iconically animated Italian style, perhaps, after a very good lunch. Ours was at Gigi, a trattoria of character and at least one very good cook. The gnocchi were light, fluffy, enrobed in cream and generously flecked with spek.

We don’t have much of a market on the mid coast of Maine for Italian antiques, but that doesn’t stop us from looking. On via Battistero  we saw a very attractive pair of 18th century Lucchese chests and a little 19th century Grand Tour souvenir of the Temple  of Vesta on which we had passed for price the day before at the monthly market in Arezzo which consumes that city’s hilly old center.

One look caused us to take a deep breath before ascending the long staircase of the Palazzo Ducale to see a comprehensive exhibit of the works of a native Lucchese unknown to us. Pompeo Battoni was born in Lucca 300 years ago and fled to Rome as soon as he could. His compelling technique on behalf of his Pope gave us pause in the four renderings of John the Evangelist, Matthew, James the Minor and Thomas as did his monumental Saint James painted for a church in Messina, removed after the 1906 earthquake and finally restored to its brilliance for this exhibit which began in Houston and moved to London before arriving in Lucca. His acuteness was most telling in the full length portraits of Grand Tour travelers from the British aristocracy compete with their foibles. I listened in with amusement as a fulsome woman with British accent regaled her companions with comments on the eccentricities still manifest in one of the sitter’s descendants.

The 17th century apartments of the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansiare quite sumptuous tainted only by the unfortunate reconfiguration of a fine Flemish tapestry.

We had the sweeping rooms to ourselves preceded only by the guard who lit the fabulous chandeliers ahead. The silk of the bridal suite is testament to the origin of Mansi commercial success in its trade.

Bed in Mansi Palace

All visitors to Lucca should taste tortelli Lucchesi —  egg enriched pasta rounds filled with meat, folded into half moons and finished with dense ragu. We had them twice at Trattoria da Francesco. Any gelateria in business since 1916 seems worth a stop. The fiore di latte at Gelateria Santini proved the point.

Lucca has its share of more upscale dining places. We supped at the pretty if somewhat anachronistic Restaurant Giglio one night where the bollito misto was as traditional as the decor of the room and warmth of the fireplace. A chat with a neighboring diner in the culinary equipment trade led us next evening to the Buca di San Antonio where copper hangs densely from beams in the main room, the portion of pork liver (fegato) is sufficient richness for a week and the translucent, thinly sliced and warmed lardo on crostada is not easily forgotten.

Puccini statue just outside our hotel

Breakfasts at Piccolo Hotel Puccini could be a convivial affair. Paolo Moncini was delightfully expansive on our last morning. He purchased the hotel which occupies the first floor of a villa 12 years ago.

His grandmother, he said, owned a hotel early in the 20th century in Montecatini Terme which became a “white town” during the War and as such a hospital town for the wounded was spared the ravages which Lucca felt deeply. He recalled how his parents moved to Montecatini and harvested grass and mice for their food. Later, the family found cartons of correspondence on reservations the grandmother had saved from early in the century.

Typically, he recalled, someone would write inquiring about availability and his grandmother might reply by saying that she had a “nice room available” and that it would be ”shared with a nice man from Rome.” Baths were shared, too. The correspondence would continue back and forth.

Decades ago when we first traveled to Europe we made reservations by letter planning weeks, if not months, ahead. Now it’s done instantaneously — easier, perhaps, but not nearly as exciting as when the letter on thin blue paper arrived with the colorful stamp from abroad.

Paolo has lived abroad and come home. “In Italy, no one is ever alone. If you need help, someone will be there,” he said. That someone might just be Paolo guiding yet another traveler through Lucca’s lamplit streets.

Filippo Lippi painting in San Michele

Copyright © 2009 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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