Frankenwalls of Lucca

This post was originally part of the Il Bel Centro blog, before it became a book. I hope you enjoy it!

 The short story? We loved Lucca. The long story is, like the walls of Lucca, is a little more complicated.

The morning of our leaving for Lucca we all woke up a little reluctantly. We'd gone to dinner at our landlord's house the night before, but even though it wasn't billed as a cenone (a huge feast, like we had at New Year’s) we didn't leave until after midnight.  Perhaps that's why we arrived in Lucca, a small city in northern Tuscany, a little cranky. I was fighting a headache, which always makes me short on patience, Nicolas was buzzed from his shot of espresso at the Autogrill, Siena was in the mood to feel like the world was against her, and Gabriel was a loose cannon. Not a good mix. Keith was the sole survivor of the cranky-bug, but our disparate moods did him in, too. Luckily, we had one explosion in the grand piazza, and then we were all in great spirits the rest of the day.

Then we were astonished by Lucca. It is a gem of a city. What we all loved about it are the layers of history exposed in the walls. Lucca has alternately been ruled by Etruscans, Romans (the huge piazza sits above an old Roman forum and another oval piazza was the site of an amphitheater), an Irish Bishop, a German king, the Tuscans, Napolean, and his sister. For two hundred years it was a vibrant center for Jewish life, and at one point it was a major stop on the silk road, rivaling Byzantium. And you can see all this in what we came to call "Frankenwalls". Walls that were quilts of different building traditions sewn together patchwork style. Bricks and round river stones and huge Roman blocks layered around each other. Byzantine windows atop a Florentine arcade. Veronese balconies in French piazzas. It got to the point that we would enter a piazza and burst out laughing, overwhelmed by the kaleidoscope nature of the space. One piazza felt Parisian to us, from the horse drawn carriage to the perimeter of sycamores to the proportions of the space. Turns out it was piazza created by Napolean. And now it houses a market, a carousel, and an outdoor ice skating rink.

Lucca is in the details. Those layered walls, but also the exquisite shop signs and marble friezes above doorways and scattered statuary. Compelling details were evident everywhere, but no where more than on its churches, where every column was different, and there were designs inlaid in the marble that told a story. The Duomo inspired actual awe (and this from a woman who trends toward “meh” on churches). Tall, lofted walls topped with Byzantine arches, marble floors inlaid with designs (including skulls), stained glass, painted ceilings, and chapel that houses an unusual sculpture, titled "Il Volto Santo di Lucca". It is a wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross, said to have been executed by Nicodemus. Who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in carrying Jesus into his tomb. Well, that's what we understood at the time, though my cursory research since then suggests that what we saw is a medieval copy of said statue, since the original was chipped away by relic seeking pilgrims. Still, it felt eerie and curious.

One of my favorite parts of Lucca is the perimeter wall of the city. Somehow, those walls have survived the centuries intact, and are now a pedestrian walkway. One can walk the four kilometers all the way around the city atop these beautiful geometric walls, which Angelo tells me is why some people call Lucca the Carcassone of Italy. My one regret about our visit is that we only walked a small section of the walls. It was so glorious, with its view down to botanical gardens, and the streets of Lucca, that I wish we'd been able to at least approach completing the circuit. Why did we climb down from the walls rather than continuing? Well, for gelato of course. No other reason would be quite so sensible. Even in January.

There was a marvelous bakery that Keith had read about where everything looked fabulous (the samples of chocolate cake suggested the treats tasted as good as they looked). But we were all in the mood for gelato. Afterwards, we walked back to a piazza and got coffee, and then to Pasticceria Taddeucci for buccellato, a specialty of Lucca. It is a sweet bread with raisins, flavored with anise. Frankly, I wasn't expecting much, but it was heavenly. Nicolas who doesn't like anise or raisins loved it as much as the rest of us. The loaf we shared seemed to have dried cherries in it as well, unless they were just tart raisins. In any case, it was sublime, with a slightly sugary crust on the top, a green anise scent, and these plump dried fruit.

We ate well in Lucca in general. Our lunch at Trattoria da Leo was marvelous, and most memorable for Nicolas's ordering a bowl of clear broth with beef and tongue. The boy is really branching out. He and Keith were so enamored of the tongue (which Nicolas preferred to the beef, for its smooth and open feel), I had a bite. Not bad. Like pot roast.  But the truly surprising news is that Siena had a bite! She's always refused anything remotely odd, which I can't fault her for, as I'm usually right there next to her, wrinkling my nose in disgust. Though sometimes even if I try it and love it, like cuttlefish in ink, she'll still refuse. This time, she actually asked to taste it. And pronounced it pretty good. Especially with the vivid green sauce served beside it (parsley and lemon and olive oil and garlic). And Nicolas polished off my salad, which is, frankly, just as surprising as Siena asking to eat beef tongue. Our children are transforming before our eyes. In a non-food related note on the same topic—Siena asked a little girl to play tag with them in the piazza before dinner. The girl had clearly wanted to join, but spoke an Asian language so couldn't figure out how. So Siena approached her. Turns out, for Siena, compassion overrides shyness, which I think surprised her as much as it surprised us. I wish she could take that knowledge into school! She’s already dreading going back after the holiday.

Dinner at Osteria Baralla was even better than lunch. Nicolas ordered tortelli lucchese solely because it was marked as "traditional" on the menu. He had no idea what it would be. Luckily, it was marvelous. Pillows of round meat ravioli with some Christmasy spice that could have been mace, covered with a rich ragú. My orecchiette with broccoli and tuna was good, but not what I was hoping for. One, because it was anchovies, not tuna (the menu had said tuna or tuna eggs, I'm not sure where the translation error occurred), and two, because the broccoli were mashed into a paste, rather than the verdant stalks I'd been anticipating. Siena wasn't very hungry and so only ordered an artichoke and pecorino salad, which she didn't care for as the thinly sliced artichokes were raw. I liked it, up until I ate a part that left my mouth feeling like I'd eaten an unripe persimmon—astringent. Gabe's parpardelle con ragú was wonderful, but the standout was Keith's chestnut pasta with rabbit. It was unbelievable, and had an almost soba-like flavor.

Lucca is a bit of a labyrinth, so even with a map, we got lost heading back to the hotel. Which at least gave us another tour of Lucca at night. One street was particularly crowded, but the others were quiet. And the piazzas had Christmas themed moving light displays, which added a touch of whimsy to those lived-in, crumbling walls. With the assistance of a stranger who saw us wandering in circles, we found our way back. The hotel, Dimora Lucense, was simple, but luckily our bed was far more comfortable than it appeared at first glance.

Unluckily, Gabe started feeling queasy as he tucked in. We finally got him to sleep by falling asleep myself, so Keith filled the shoes for La Befana.

We woke in the morning to shoes magically filled with candy. Which, along with our hotel Nutella-laden breakfast, fueled our reluctant last walk through Lucca’s streets before heading home to Spello.

Have you been to Lucca? How does it compare to other cities in Tuscany? Let us know in the comments! And please do share this post with others!