Why travel to Lucca (and here), a Tuscan city about 45 miles (80km) from Florence? Lucca is an old city. When Julius Ceaser along with Crassus and Pompey were here in 56 BCE, the Roman city was over a century old. The enigmatic Etruscans were there before that. And before the Etruscan’s traces of an even older culture, the Ligurians have been found. In the medieval period, Lucca was a rich and important city. Today you will find a modern city surrounding the older (and more interesting) walled city center. And of course being a Tuscan city there is the food.
Lucca is easy to get to. There are several trains daily from Florence and Pisa. Buses also connect Lucca to the rest of Italy. You can fly into Pisa, Florence or Milan. The train from Milan to Lucca is an easy ride. If you feel like braving Italy’s infamous drivers, you can drive to Lucca. There are two exits on Italy’s version of our interstates the Autostrada (driving in Italy) . However be careful in Lucca. Most of the walled city is off limits to non-resident cars .
The political, religious and cultural history of Tuscany, let alone Italy would bring “The Game of Thrones” to shame. It has everything, religious zealots, money, double crosses, intrigue, and sex. With many plot lines and powerful families, Borgia, Medici, Visconti and the House of Aragon to name a few, fact is stranger than fiction. Countless words have been written since the medieval times, no need to repeat them here. What follows is a brief, very brief history of Lucca to help you understand some of the sites you will visit.
Unless you’re an expert on prehistoric Italy you have never heard of the Ligurians, and the Etruscans barely register in your memory. If you are interested in these two ancient cultures, there are exhibits in the Archaeology Museum at the Villa Gunigi, but the signs are all in Italian. Almost everyone has heard of the Romans. We will start there.
In about 180 BCE the Romans founded a city, we know as Lucca, on the site of an Etruscan city. Little remains from the Roman presence, other than the outline of the Piazza Anfiteatro. The Roman (Catholic) Church was in Lucca by the sixth century. The bishop of Lucca, an Irishman named Ferdinando began building a church just north of the ruins of the amphitheater Stories tell of the bishop using stones from the ruins to build the church, which he named San Vincent. When he died and was buried at the church it was renamed Ss. Frediano and Vincenzo . By the 1100’s work had begun on several notable churches and cathedrals in Lucca, many are open for you to explore
With the fall of Rome and Roman law, the medieval period brought much civil disorder, bandits, warlords and minor wars. Rich and powerful families began to build tower houses to display their wealth and to protect themselves in times of conflict. These towers dot the Tuscan villages such as Lucca, where there are several to see and a couple allow visitors to climb to the top. Originally the towers did not have inside connections between the floors. The remnants of outside stairs can be seen in projecting stones on the towers today. The towers usually had a garden on the roof The Van Gunigi Tower still has its famous oak tree grove that can be seen from many spots in Lucca.
Since Roman times there has been a wall around Lucca. As the city grew, the wall was replaced or extended. The wall you see today, unlike most Italian towns, is still mostly intact. Instead of tearing it down when it was no longer needed or effective the city left it as a park. It still serves as a park to this day. With the history taken care of, we can wander the streets of Lucca and explore its sites.
With no obvious starting point for our tour of Lucca, let’s start at the center of the Roman town. A note on names. Translating Porta S Maria to St. Mary’s Gate may make reading easier, but not walking the city. For the rest of this article, I will use the Italian place names.
We will walk in a figure eight pattern, heading north to Porta S Maria, along the wall to Porta S Donato, returning to the center passing Piazza San Michele and ending up on the west side of Lucca near Porta Elisa. Walking the walls to the south and reentering the city at Porta S Pietro, heading north to the start of our tour. That is way too much for one day. I recommend taking three days to see Lucca, especially if your hotel is outside the city walls.
The center of the Roman era Lucca is the intersection of four streets each heading in a cardinal direction. Each street has a different name. Heading north is Via Fillungo, south it is Via Cenami. Heading west is the Via Roma, if you turn east the street is known as Via Santa Croce. We will use this, as well as the gates as landmarks for our tours.(Google Map)