There are certain places around the world that seem to be on every Must-Visit list, featured on TV shows and in movies and attract an unlikely high number of travel writers and bloggers. I’ve never really figured out the reason, but they exist and Lucca is one of those rarefied cities. Locate in Italy’s romantic Tuscany region, I remember first hearing about Lucca while watching an episode of “House Hunters International.” Ever since then, and after thousands of times reading about it, I’ve wanted to visit, to see if it really is as special as the world seems to think. I recently had that opportunity, while visiting Tuscany as part of a Viking oceans cruise of the Mediterranean. While docked in Livorno, one of the optional excursions was to spend an independent half-day in Lucca, an excursion I booked as quickly as I could. It was a fantastic and convenient way to visit this remarkable city and to discover what, if anything, makes it so very special.
Like so much of Italy, Lucca is impossibly old, first coming to life before even the Romans. Surrounded by mountains, forests and farmland, arriving into Lucca fulfills the collective wish for what Tuscany should be like. In addition to its age, it also seems like Lucca has always been an important city. As a hub for trade, religion and scholarship, Lucca has long been one of Tuscany’s key cities and still is today really. One reason why I selected the “on your own” excursion to Lucca instead of an escorted tour was that I wanted time to explore the city on my own and in my own way, trying to discover what makes it tick. The excursion offered by Viking was exactly what I wanted. They provided the transportation, along with a guide who answered any and all questions on the way, but once we arrived we were let loose to do whatever we wanted. It was a chilly morning a week or so before Christmas and I was bundled up as I set off down one of Lucca’s many side streets to see what all the fuss was about.
The layout of the city still reflects the medieval age and Lucca is today perhaps most famous for its fully intact city walls that still encircle it. The Lucca walls though are completely unlike any other I’ve seen before in Europe. Instead of a narrow walkway high atop the city, the Lucca walls are large and expansive, very much a kind of urban park above the city. More ramparts than walls, once the city decided they really didn’t need them for defense in the 19th century, they did something very few other cities managed. Instead of tearing them down, they expanded and enhanced them. They planted trees and grass, which is why today the city is completely encircled by this tremendous green space. It’s remarkable and so rare that as soon as I spent some time walking the walls, I understood why they alone attract so many curious visitors.
Lucca is about much more than just its walls though, and armed with a handy map I was excited to discover more of the city. Nine in the morning though in Tuscany means that I very much had the city to myself, at least at the start of the day. I used that time to do an initial walk around the old town, stopping off for some hot coffee and to try the city’s local bread, a strangely sticky raisin bun covered with a bitter anise glaze. The morning light radiated off the ancient buildings, creating flashes of brilliance, capturing the city in a fiery glow. Walking past Roman amphitheaters and plazas, churches and cathedrals, I stopped into a few to admire the art and offer my respects. In the main square, the market was starting to come to life as stall owners methodically displayed their wares. I felt unsettled though, the city, while beautiful, and I still hadn’t connected and I certainly didn’t understand its meteoric rise to travel and tourism fame. So I did something I try to do whenever I can, I climbed.
I always love getting a bird’s eye view of new cities I visit and I was well rewarded in Lucca when I climbed the 230 steps of the Guinigi Tower. Originally built in the 1300s, this is one of the last remaining towers within the city walls and has one peculiar feature – a garden on top complete with oak trees. But of course the views stole the show, providing me with a 360-degree look over the ancient city of Lucca and the gorgeous countryside surrounding it. I was all alone and quickly got lost in my thoughts, reminding me of why I love to travel so very much. It was then and there that I connected with Lucca, gazing out upon its entirety and feeling the beautiful weight of the centuries. I could’ve stayed up there all day, but the wind and freezing temperatures forced my hasty retreat into the warm embrace of the closest café where I slowly regained feeling in my hands with even more coffee and a fresh pastry.
I sat in that café for quite a while, watching people come and go as the incredibly kind owner welcomed each and every one. Reluctantly, I noticed the time and quickly made my way back to the main square to catch my ride back to the Viking Star. Standing there, I noticed that since my arrival the city had come to life. The streets were packed with people enjoying last minute Christmas shopping, buying dinner table centerpieces, and wandering in and out of local churches to say a quick prayer. In the corner of the square was a mechanical fortuneteller, exactly like the one in the movie “Big.” I couldn’t resist and plunked in a Euro to get my fortune. The card returned was in Italian, but after translating it I noticed a particular line that resonated with me: “You will go far and see much.” It’s a simple line, fairly generic and most likely printed on hundreds more identical slips. But it was a message I needed to read, a message I needed in order to feel reassured. Working for oneself is a constant battle against self-doubt and at that time and in that place, the universe knew I needed a gentle pat on the back and provided me with just that.
I left Lucca that afternoon gazing wistfully out of the coach window, having indeed fallen for the city. But it wasn’t the walls or churches that did it, no, it was something intensely more personal. Lucca became a restorative experience for me, reminding me of why I love this weird job I’ve created so very much and the passion for seeing the world that has been at the center of my identity for as long as I can remember. So yes, do visit Lucca when you’re in Tuscany, but do it for yourself. Do it to discover the power that a beautiful place can have on our souls and do it to remind yourself what makes this weird thing called life so intensely special.