Yesterday was something of a lost day as we discovered that May Day – the European equivalent of Labor Day, squared, when pretty much everything is closed – is a really lousy day to drive on the Autostrade. It is not only commerce that grinds to a halt: highway traffic grinds to a halt as well as everyone hits the road for the holiday weekend. That proved to be bad news for us, as we had gotten a late start and basically blew the rest of the day on what ought to have been a two hour drive from Modena to Lucca.
A word about driving in Italy. A couple of our friends reacted in horror at the prospect of our driving in Italy at all, doubly so since we had made clear our intention of using the Autostrade. This is rather overwrought. For one thing, Italian drivers are no more aggressive than Washington DC area drivers. (This is admittedly a weak statement, like declaring that a PCP-crazed honey badger is no more aggressive than a rabid mountain lion. But the point is that we are used to it.) In addition, Italian transportation infrastructure is quite good. The Autostrada is efficient and well-maintained, though it struggles to handle the volume of holiday traffic. Especially since the authorities ramped up electronic enforcement a few years ago, drivers are pretty good about adhering to the 130 kph (80 mph) speed limit. In the cities, streets are often narrow but the lane signage is good and our GPS easily keeps us out of navigational trouble. So driving has really been quite easy. (That said, it helps that I have Alice in the passenger seat as a full-time navigator so that I do not have to divert my attention from the road to the map display.)
My only real gripe with Italian roads is roundabouts. Generally speaking I have no issues with roundabouts, but Italian road engineers seem to worship them. If you are driving in a city or suburban area you can count on traveling not more than about 500 ft between roundabouts, to the point that it starts to feel like you are on some kind of grand scale go-kart track.
After enduring a series of lengthy backups on the Autostrade – the longest being a good 10 miles, although the word “good” hardly applies – we arrived in Lucca at about 5:00pm and after some casting about eventually located and checked into our flat. Although well-organized and reasonably equipped, it could well serve as some kind of living module on the Space Station, compact to just short of cramped. (The kitchen is by actual measurement 9’ x 4 ½’ in size.) But it’s clean and reasonably comfortable and suits are purposes. Most importantly, it is very close to the heart of Lucca, the old walled city.
We love Italian food – after 2 ½ weeks here, we’d better – but it was impossible to overlook the temptation of an actual Chinese restaurant just down the street from the flat. Called New Hong Kong, it could pass pretty easily as a garden variety Chinese restaurant in any American town. It was perfectly good and a welcome change of pace.
Lucca is not as nearly well known as its famous neighbor Pisa, only 12 miles away. But it is a real gem, an ancient settlement dating back to the Etruscans in about 700 BC. The Romans took it over about 500 years later. Although the city as a whole is home to about 90,000 people, the real attraction is the walled center, a very compact oval-shaped area about 2 ½ miles in circumference. The wall is fully intact in part because of its relatively recent construction; most of it dates from the early 17th century. It’s about 30 feet high and you can stroll atop it around the entire perimeter of the city.
And if you do take that stroll along the ramparts, as we did, you get a number of nice views back into the town.
It was a drizzly morning, and we entered the city through one of about 8 gates, our entrance portal in this case lined with vendors since today was market day. You can see the archway at the right of the photo.
Lucca’s “local boy makes good” story is Giacomo Puccini, the guy who wrote Madame Butterfly and La Bohème. His house is of course a museum. Outside of that, the town — remember, we’re talking about an area roughly one mile by half a mile in size — is crammed with something like 100 churches and a large number of palazzos. We poked our noses into a number of the former and toured around one of the largest and most elaborate of the latter, the Palazzo Pfanner, formerly owned by a German sculpture collector and physician. It is graced by a formal statuary garden (Athena, Hermes, all your favorites) that includes a very large number of lemon trees, every one of which seemed to be bearing fruit today. The guy must have really loved drinking whiskey sours.
As befitting its age, the streets of old Lucca are narrow with tiled stone surfaces and punctuated by large squares, the latter usually lined by restaurants and shops. The side streets offer tiny grocery stores, wine shops, bakeries, and people on bikes shopping at all of the above.
We spent most of the day wandering around the city, variously on and off the wall, breaking for lunch (and of course gelato), looking up at bell towers, and making brief forays into churches of varying ages, elaborateness of decor, and general medieval creepiness. (One had the fully dressed mummified body of some saint or other on display. Great for terrifying your children into following the proper spiritual path.)
There is also a small — very small — botanical garden, which we pretty much exhausted in about 25 minutes, thereby closing out our exploration of the city.
Tomorrow we move on to La Spezia, near the Cinque Terre hiking area on the coast. We’ll pass thorough Pisa along the way, so expect a photo of you-know-what in my next post. However, I caution you in advance that there will be no, repeat no, cutesy forced-perspective photos of one or another of us seemingly holding up the leaning tower. My photography snobbery does extend at least that far.