The sunlight rains down on us in stair rods. I can smell the sweat on my back. We chase the shadows and savour the shade. The reflected light from the marble underfoot is almost blinding. A Tuscan summer blends exhilaration and oppression in equal measure. An air-conditioned car provides some respite, but that keeps you on the motorway; you don’t want to be on the motorway, you want to be in the towns, amidst the fields or at a vineyard, under a blissful canopy. The walls call you back.
Lucca’s walls are the difference you’re looking for. They surround the city, providing protection and parkland; promenade and shade. They prevent further expansion of its ancient core, forcing the surrounding residential and commercial areas to coalesce in to the same urban sprawl found in any Italian, French or Spanish city. Free of traffic, the walls are a haven for cyclists, and local bike shops take full advantage; families ride bikes hither and yon, avoiding groups of giggling, speeding children.
It is a different world up here, both in rhythm and in perspective: life moves at a slower beat up here compared to the busy core we look down upon. There is no hurry up here, only time well spent.
I could walk around Lucca’s streets for days at a time, stopping only for an ice cream or a sandwich. If it weren’t for the hordes of tourists blocking your every step you could be walking around during the height of the Italian renaissance. The buildings do not flaunt the grandeur which the renaissance set in train; rather, they are the real, humble buildings which marked the entirety of its flourishing.
The dark, old streets lean in to each other: they wind and wend, twist and turn, baffle and bewilder, until you stumble in to a tree-lined piazza and the crew setting up a pop concert. There are streets where the facing walls come so close to each other that I doubt the crevices ever see full sunlight. Darkness breeds in the corners; yet my main memory of Lucca is that of light. Sunlight burning so bright that the shadows were pin sharp, crisp and clear. The ever-pursuing battle between heat and shade; played out every time a foot dares to leave the sanity of indoors and hit the street below.
At the end of the alleyway is an uncharacteristic series of restaurants. Stand too long reading their menu and they shut the door in your face; especially if you wear shorts and sandals. It stands side to side with Americana and soup. The rest of the city offers much much better fare than this. Move on.
A twist and a turn, and you find yourself on unfamiliar ground. This is a living street, residential or commercial, but it feels abandoned. A courtyard and a lost bag of cement, its moisture dragged from the atmosphere. An old lady shouts from above: is she greeting you or sending you away? Push on, in to the darkness, away from the light. The buildings almost seeming to touch overhead. The smell of crumbling palazzi mixes with the never drying puddles underfoot. You are off the beaten track.
A few more steps, a corner turned, and the rush of humanity resumes: a surge of relief combines with the sensation of power a tidal wave of people holds. The quiet of the dark place is replaced by the roar of the crowd. It is confusingly pleasant and disappointing in equal measure. The street behind looks far less sinister, when viewed from the safety of the crowd. A sight familiar across the whole of Europe: romantically decaying buildings, still silently serving their purpose after centuries of anonymity; propped up by the industry of daily life; a lick of paint unnecessary panacea. The old lady was calling out to greet your child; she waves, grinning from a balcony. The child waves back.
There is a butcher’s shop on Via Santa Croce who I would merrily give my wages to for the rest of eternity. Their provender is of such high quality that local restaurants may as well close their doors. We went in search of some meats for a picnic, and ended up with several meals of pre-prepared food: pasta and peas, meat and sauce, bread and cheese. Simple, local dishes filled us with joy.
On the Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi there is a Pasta restaurant which should be franchised at once, so that it may flood every town and city in the uncivilised lands Italy finds itself surrounded by. Some restaurants claim to be welcoming and family friendly; this one manages it in spades. It is at once unpretentious, generous, simple, complex, healthy and delicious, and in all the right proportions.
A tiny hole-in-the-wall sandwich shop, with no seats sits next to an ancient café, with lots of outdoor seating. Which do you choose? My suggestion is the tiny: the list of sandwiches is almost as infinite as the care and the patience with which they are assembled. I never thought of eating a cured lard and anchovy sandwich before that day; I am so very glad I did, sitting on a bench on Lucca’s walls.
Tuscany has so much to offer in literally every direction. Its variety is dizzying; the research to pick where to go and how much time is spent there can be a deep, dark pit in to which entire months of your life can be lost. I would probably never have thought of Lucca had my partner not suggested it.
I want to go back to Lucca in a cooler time of year; the mid-summer heat almost killed us, and made us make less of our trip than we were expecting. That said, we were in Tuscany, and any time spent in Tuscany, as long as it’s outdoors, is time well spent. We ate very well, and we saw some truly awe-inspiring bits of utter normality. That’s what Italy does. If Italy realised how much awe it genuinely inspired in the rest of us, it’s head would not fit through the door; yet these magnificent squares, these rolling hills, topped with Cypress, these labyrinthine walkways, seem quite mundane to them.
As the light fades from the sky the streets fill with the roar of jubilation. Gangs of boys tear through, in search of mirth and mayhem; tourists gawp and wonder: are they in immediate danger or is this normal? A pair of Spaniards are gently mocked. The Italians won a football game; no peace tonight.