Jake’s Sunday Post: Splendid

Jake’s Sunday Post challenge this week is “Splendid,” so I thought I would tell you about the splendid and charming jewel of a Tuscan town called Lucca.

It’s the only town in Italy which is entirely surrounded by walls, and these massively thick walls built in the 16th century to protect the town from invaders, are 4 km around. Today they are very well-preserved, and you can walk right around on top of them, although we didn’t have time to do that.

Our local guide was a diminutive young woman who was so enthusiastic about her splendid town. What she lacked in height, she made up for in energy and verbosity. She kept rising up on her toes as she waved her arms around, extolling the virtues of her home town.  She knew that we had just come from Pisa, and told us that the Pisans and the Luccans have been feuding since Medieval times and were not about to stop any time soon. She made us laugh when she said that compared to the splendour of Lucca, Pisa was just a “dirty nappy town.” This was obviously the ultimate insult. 😆

Her pride was certainly well-founded, as we were to see on our walk around this lovely place. This 13m tall Renaissance entrance, leads to the ‘Piazza Anfiteatro’,  which is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre, dating back to the 2nd century AD.

The amphitheatre was built on an elliptical plan with two rows of fifty-four arcades, and had a maximum capacity of 10,000 spectators. It was of course originally used for the staging of gladiator fighting, of which the Romans were so fond. There is a beautiful fresco painted inside each of the archways.

The town features some of Italy’s finest Medieval and Renaissance architecture and the colourful piazza was restored in 1830. It has many shops and restaurants around it, and is widely used for cultural activities, music festivals, and fairs. The amphitheatre was built on an elliptical plan with two rows of fifty-four arcades, and had a maximum capacity of 10,000 spectators. It of course was originally used for the staging of gladiator fighting, which the Romans were so fond of. During the Middle Ages, houses were built over the ruins, and today one of these three-roomed homes, with each room on a different floor, over the top of the shops, will set you back about 500,000 Euros.

As with most Italian towns, the streets are narrow lanes with very tall buildings on either side. There is hardly room for two vehicles to pass one another, and pedestrians quite often just have to take their chance, pressing themselves hard up against the walls to avoid getting brushed by vehicle wing mirrors. As you can see, the bicycle is the favourite mode of transport.

The town of Lucca  gave birth not only to composer Luigi Boccerini, but is also the birth place of Giacomo Puccini, born 1858. He frequented this coffee bar, “Di Simo Caffe,” and as a young student, used to earn a bit of pocket-money playing piano there.

His family house, is situated off the Piazza Citadella, at no. 9 Corte San Lorenzo, and outside there’s a statue of the great composer, very typically portrayed holding a cigarette in his hand.

Just around the corner is a small restaurant, cashing in on Puccini’s name.

There are so many shoe shops in this town, which was a very big plus for me, and I was thrilled to find my lovely Italian leather boots waiting patiently for me in one of them. 🙂

The Piazza San Michele has a magnificent 7th century church which was built on the ruins of a Roman temple. There are sculptures of the devil on the outside, but of course, the angels all get to reside inside,

except for the Archangel Michael, who is perched right on the very top, keeping watch over the citizens.

We sat for a while at the “Da Gherado Cafe,”  watching the world go by; one of my favourite relaxing pastimes,

and whilst I rested my feet, I couldn’t resist a slice of their delicious “Frutti di Bosco” tart, a fragrant pastry, filled with Chantilly cream and decorated with choice blueberries, blackberries, red currants, raspberries and strawberries. A splendid dessert indeed.

When I went inside to use the toilet, it was up a steep flight of wooden steps, and I was able to sit looking out of the open window, right across the rooftops of the town. I found in Italy that none of the public toilets have seats, which might be acceptable for the gents, but is rather cold for us ladies.  It also took me a couple of minutes to work out how to turn on the tap to wash my hands. You had to step on this foot pedal thingy on the floor; very strange indeed, but I was very proud of myself (being blonde), to be the one to solve the mystery which was baffling  a couple of other tourists too. 😉

We spent a very happy couple of hours in this splendid town of Lucca, before setting off on the long drive to Venice, our last stop on this fantastic tour.

Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera.

Continuing with my Italian trip from last October:

After leaving beautiful Florence, we drove to the Italian Riviera, specifically to see the “Cinque Terre” region, which I’d never heard of before. It’s a National Park and is a proclaimed heritage of mankind UNESCO site. You may remember that on October 25th 2011, this area was hit by torrential rain and flash floods, which caused massive mudslides and devastated many towns and villages there. This tragedy happened only about a week after our visit.

Our coach dropped us off at Manarola, a medieval hamlet perched on a rocky outcrop, and the second smallest village of the five which make up the Cinque Terre. We were met by our local guide, who steered us through the narrow streets and up and down many flights of stone steps. I don’t know how some of the older, less fit members of our group managed it, but “hats off to them,” they all did it without complaining, and it was certainly worth the effort.

Here are some of the houses of Manarola, many of which used to be old mills.

The houses all seemed to have been built on top of one another, a bit like rabbit warrens, with narrow, vaulted passages between them.

Here is a beautiful 13th century church of San Lorenzo, named after the patron saint of the village.

The original inhabitants created terraces for vineyards on the very steep slopes, but because it was such arduous and gruelling work, many lie abandoned these days, as the younger generation are not willing to carry on the tradition.

Although this is a seaside town, many of the inhabitants are farmers because there is really no access to the sea or beach. The sheer cliffs protected the villagers from pirates in Medieval times.

The main street in the town is not very long, and one can walk all the way up and back along it in less than 15 minutes.

Coffee, cake and a sit down were very welcome after all that climbing around, and then we boarded a train to the picturesque town of Monterosso at the opposite end of the Cinq Terre.

This medieval town has wonderful architecture, and is now a thriving cultural centre with very pleasant beaches. Here the locals fish for anchovies and also grow lemons. Their famous Limoncino drink is sooo delicious.

This beautiful town hall, was badly damaged in the terrible floods which swept through the Cinque Terre.

The L’Alta Marea restaurant where we had lunch, served the most delicious seafood.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist, the principal church in the town, is built of black and white Italian marble in a Romanesque style. Next door to it, is the Oratory of the Dead (also black and white), was built by a brotherhood of good works.  Their good work consisted of arranging funerals, taking care of widows, orphans, and the shipwrecked.  Their symbols were a skull and crossbones, an hourglass, and the inscription “death awaits us all.” There is a skull and crossbones above the door.

The inside is very ornate indeed,

with jolly skeletons decorating the cornices.

They certainly did “preach to death” in that church. 😉

We then boarded a boat for the return journey, in order to view the towns from the sea.

At the end of the boat ride we rounded the promontory on which stands the medieval Andrea Doria castle built in 1161, overlooking the Gulf of La Spezia. This is known as the ‘Poet’s Gulf’ because the town of Portovenere was a favorite haunt of writers and poets, such as Lord Byron, Shelley and D H Lawrence.

You can see here, how close to the edge of the sea, some of these dwellings are.

Then it was onto the ferry, which took us to the town of La Spezia, which used to be a fishing village, but now has a large harbour and is the military training base. Fabulous, luxury yachts are built here. *sigh*

We were told that the largest one, which has six decks and four pools, is owned by a very wealthy Russian.

Back on the coach again, we were taken to the Grand Hotel Principe di Piemonte, an historic and prestigious hotel in Viareggio, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where we had a sumptuous dinner in the most beautiful surroundings.

There was no time to explore the town unfortunately, as we left the next morning for Pisa, but that’s a story for another day.