Lucca is a graceful city with the elegant air of a long, comfortable and distinctive history. One of Tuscany’s elegant capitals, the city is a patchwork of palazzi, towers and Romanesque facades. It is sheltered by thick Renaissance walls that were happily never used for defence and that now offer residents and visitors an exceptional place to stroll. Only half an hour from the Tyrrhenian Sea and the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli, it is one of Italy’s medieval treasures, with an unspoilt centre graced with palaces, towers and over 60 churches.
- Pisa PSA: 30 minutes
- Florence FLR: 1 hour
- Bologna BLQ: 2 hours
- Genova GOA: 2 hours 15 mins
San Michele in Foro
One of the main churches in Lucca is San Michele, built on the site of the old Roman Forum. Dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the facade is beautifully and delicately carved in white, green and pink marbles.
To have a closer look, click on the sketch – or have a look at the beautiful 360 degree panoramic image made by Hans von Weissenfluh for the Tuscany tourism board:
This tower is one of the last remaining tower houses in Lucca. San Gimignano is famous for its towers but once all medieval towns and cities would have had a number of towers. 14th century Tuscany was a violent and dangerous place, and alliances would shift quickly. Any important family would want a safe place to retreat to when their fortunes took a downturn. When a city was conquered the victorious side would often require all towers be knocked down. For some reason most of San Gimignano’s survived – but many other towns have one or two still standing.
Lucca’s tower has holm oaks growing on its top, making for a very unusual sight. No-one knows quite how the trees came to be planted there, but it is not by accident as there is a structured box of earth, now with seven trees growing in it. A 16th century chronicle (Le Croniche di Giovanni Sercambi) already showed an image of a tower crowned with trees, so it’s not a recent development. Today the tower and the sky-high garden can be visited, via a climb of 230 stairs.
I sketched the tower a few years ago while exploring Lucca with a painting course I was running – a very enjoyable couple of hours sitting in the shade of the narrow medieval streets on an already hot day in May.
Le Mura di Lucca is very useful website for information and tickets for visiting places in Lucca. Tickets for Torre Guinigi.
The Roman origins of the city are very visible here, where the medieval inhabitants have occupied and converted the fabric of the old Roman theatre. It’s fascinating to try and trace the various changes that have been made to the buildings.
Built in the 1st century, the amphitheatre was designed to accommodate 10,000 viewers. This shows that Lucca was already a city of some importance. Originally founded as a fortified Roman outpost, the city is set in a strategic position to control access to the mountain valleys to the north. It then enjoyed a further expansion during the reign of Augustus.
The amphitheatre was converted to fortified buildings during the middle ages. The square was occupied by buildings too, probably built with stones scavenged from the amphitheatre itself. These buildings were cleared in the early 19th century under the direction of architect Lorenzo Nottolini.
To get a further insight on the ancient fabric, visit number 45 in the square. This is the old Oratory of Santa Zita and the cellars show what used to be the ground level of the old amphitheatre.
To see a panoramic view of the square, have a look at this photo by Hans von Weissenfluh.
Villas around Lucca
The hills around Lucca have been favoured by the aristocracy for centuries. One of the most famous Villas was bought by Elisa Bonaparte, Napoleon’s sister, after he made her a gift of the city itself. Villa Reale di Marlia, already a sumptuous residence, became a stunning royal residence. It was further enlarged when she also bought the adjacent “Villa del Vescovo”. Today the villas in the hills surrounding Lucca such as Villa Mansi, Villa Torrigiani and Villa Reale, are open to the public. They have magnificent gardens, rococo facades, fine painting and famous guest lists from an era when visitors like Paganini, John Singer Sargent and Matternich found rich reception in their halls and gardens.
Puccini Opera Festival
Torre del Lago, lies between the Lake of Massaciuccoli and the Tyrrhenian Sea and is home to the Puccini Opera Festival (in July and August). It is a favourite destination for opera lovers and tourists who wish to visit the places where Puccini, the most beloved composer of the 20th century lived. The Festival welcomes about 40.000 spectators every year to its open-air theatre.
Check the following website for more information: Puccini Festival