Until European travel becomes fully open to Americans, here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe.
On a sunny summer evening in Lucca, Italy, I witnessed the simple joy of an old man bicycling with his granddaughter atop the town's wide, fortified wall. Then, on rented bikes, a group of chatty tourists frolicked by. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Squinting at the energy in their smiles, surrounded by dazzling sunshine, it struck me that the sun in Italy seems to have a special glint. It's as if it's telling visitors, "Embrace life!"
Well-preserved Lucca has no single monumental sight, unless you count its welcoming, human-scaled overall feel. Its mighty wall, which long protected this proud city from its enemies, now serves to corral Lucca's Old World charm. Even its mostly traffic-free old town feels more local than touristy (aside from a few cruise excursions from nearby Livorno that pass through each day). Neighboring Pisa has the famous tilted tower you can climb, but lesser-known Lucca is a favorite stop for many Italy connoisseurs. Just a 30-minute bus ride from Pisa and an hour's ride from Florence, it's easy to do Pisa and Lucca in a one-day trip from Florence.
Lucca began as a Roman settlement, and the grid layout of the streets — and the shadow of an amphitheater — still survive from Roman times. As was typical for Roman towns, Lucca's two main roads quartered the fortified town, crossing at what was the forum (main market and religious/political center) — today's Piazza San Michele. The amphitheater sat just outside the original Roman walls.
The city is a bit of a paradox — while it has Europe's mightiest Renaissance wall, it hasn't seen a battle since 1430. My friend Gabriele explained to me the difference between a Renaissance wall and a medieval wall. Medieval walls were thin, because with weapons like arrows and stones, there was no need for thick fortification. But in Renaissance times, the development of powerful cannons introduced the need for thicker, more substantial walls.
These days, locals like Gabriele treat their ramparts like a circular park. And, with plenty of rental bikes available, visitors can enjoy a lazy pedal around its two-and-a-half-mile circuit. It's a wonderfully smooth 20–30-minute pedal, depending on how fast you go and how crowded the wall-top park is. The best people-watching — and slowest pedaling — is during passeggiata time, just before dinner, when it seems that all of Lucca is doing slow laps around the wall.
In its heyday, Lucca packed 70 churches and over 100 towers within its walls. Each tower was the home and private fortress of a wealthy merchant family. Tower interiors were single rooms stacked atop each other: shop, living room, and then the kitchen, all connected by exterior wooden staircases. Rooftops usually served as vegetable gardens, with trees providing shade. Later, the wealthy city folk moved into the countryside, trading away life in their city palazzos to establish farm estates complete with fancy villas.
Strolling Lucca's main drag, Via Fillungo, lets you connect the town's two busiest squares: Piazza dell'Anfiteatro and Piazza San Michele. Between the two, you can get a taste of Lucca's rich past, including several elegant, century-old storefronts.
At delightful Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, you might feel the architectural ghost of the town's Roman amphitheater. With the fall of Rome, the theater (which seated 10,000) was gradually cannibalized for its stones and inhabited by people living in a mishmash of huts. The huts were cleared away at the end of the 19th century to better show off the town's illustrious past and make one purely secular square for the town market (every other square is dominated by a church). While the arena's long gone, its oval shape is a reminder of the city's classical heritage.
Piazza San Michele also has ancient roots. It's hosted a market since Roman times, when it was the forum. Today it's dominated by the Church of San Michele. Towering above its fancy Romanesque facade, the archangel Michael stands ready to flap his wings — which, thanks to a crude mechanical contraption, he actually did on special occasions.
Nearby, the Church of San Giovanni hosts nightly concerts celebrating the music of hometown composer Giacomo Puccini — one of Italy's greatest opera composers (La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Tosca). Puccini's delightful arias seem to capture the spirit of this wonderful corner of Italy.
Just because you can see Lucca in an easy day trip doesn't mean you should. If you have time to simply relax on your vacation, this is a great place for it. Slow down, grab a gelato, and bask in Lucca's genuine charm.