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The Art of Getting Lost in Lucca

“Wherever you turn in Lucca there’s a story to discover.”

That night Lucca seemed more enchanted than usual. It was late, the evening had already become night, the alleys were silent, the shutters closed, few lights shone. Only the high walls stood guard, as every night before. Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, the architectural and urbanistic jewel that makes Lucca one of the most famous Tuscan cities in the world, was our living room. Built in 1830 by the architect Nottolini, it is inspired by the ancient Roman amphitheatre, and that night it’s perfect acoustics were like a siren’s song to us, inviting us to play the guitar and sing, softly, the first words of some old, nostalgic song. Magic and wonder, history, poetry and music surrounded us. 

By walking along the narrow streets that wind and intertwine one inside the other, getting lost and finding yourself again; by entering the shops that in some cases still preserve traces of the Roman Era; by sitting right in the middle of Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, as we did that night, you find the true enchantment of Lucca. The only Tuscan city-state to have maintained its independence until 1847, to have been a crossroads for pilgrims in the Middle Ages, a meeting place for merchants and weavers in the Renaissance, the home of Giacomo Puccini and many other artists, revealed itself in all its beauty and grace. However, I did not know then that this ancient Roman settlement had enriched its palaces, streets and squares with mysteries, eternal love stories, and pacts with the devil over the centuries. Only with the second and third (and every subsequent) visits did I realise how much Lucca’s historical and architectural beauty was a garment too tight for a city rich in legends and with such a unique, proud character. 

Lucca is small, especially its historic centre, but it is like a precious jewel box that has persevered through the passage of time and the centuries that have forged its appearance and the air you breathe, to this day. Almost all Italian cities have centuries of history, wars, popes, nobility and struggles to tell, but some of them have been able to protect their temperament more than others, always transforming themselves but never transfiguring. Lucca is among the few. 

Pass through one of its gates, such as Porta Santa Maria with its statues of panthers and the inscription ‘Libertas’ (the symbol and motto of the city, respectively) or watch it from the top of one of its towers. Lucca is a complex and stratified city, as seen through its intricate medieval alleyways, red Renaissance roofs, bell towers, and the churches ranging from the most austere Romanesque to the most extraordinary Baroque, its aqueducts and fountains, secret gardens of the villas and underground passages, historic cafés and trattorias, and shops and bars where you can have an aperitif. 

The proud and tenacious nature that has always distinguished it can be seen first of all on its walls: more than 4 km long and still dotted with ten bastions. Initially built during the Renaissance, completed a century later and transformed into an urban park by Maria Luisa di Borbone in the 19th century (hard to imagine but incredible to see), they are today a perfect example of the symbiosis between nature and history, all to be explored and enjoyed. Although in the 14th century it had 250 and today only two, Lucca is proud also of its towers: the Guinigi Tower, recognisable by the garden of holm oaks that crowns its top, protectors and symbols of strength, power and nobility, and the Torre delle Ore, the only medieval tower, guardian of a giant, still functioning, mechanical clock from the 17th century. It is on the stairs of the second tower that mystery edges into the history of the city: the legend of Lucida Mansi, a noblewoman of Lucca known for her extreme beauty and vanity and wickedness towards her lovers. 

It is said that Lucida made a pact with the devil not to lose her beauty as she grew old in exchange for her soul at the end of 30 years. Before midnight chimed on the night of 14 August 1623, the desperate girl, unable to cope with mortality, tried to climb the steps of the tower to stop the bell from striking the hour of her predetermined death. She was unsuccessful, and the devil took what was due to him. Since then, on certain nights, a fiery chariot with a beautiful naked woman on board makes three turns around the walls before plunging into the calm waters of the Botanical Garden pond. 

Extraordinary history and ancient mysteries are also folded into Lucca’s churches, starting with the Duomo, the Cathedral of St Martin, whose façade conceals a sculpted labyrinth, specifically on a column of the entrance portico. To this day, there is no solution to this enigma; some think it was a sign for pilgrims stopping on its steps while walking along Via Francigena. 

Lucca reveals itself at every step; it is not in a hurry and does not shout, on the contrary, every stone whispers secrets… like the famous ‘stone of the devil’ in Palazzo Bernardini: regardless of the efforts made to fix it or even replace it over the years, it continues to bend towards the street… or the three marks on the pillar of the leading portal of the Church of San Pietro Somaldi: nicknamed over the centuries as the ‘devil’s scratch’ due to the devil’s fury as he was unable to make a young girl, Gemma Galgani, fall to temptation. In Lucca you will also find a metal trapdoor inside the Church of Sant’Agostino that guards a secret entrance to Hell. 

If one looks carefully, religion and mysteries pervade almost every street and building in Lucca. The small church of Santa Maria della Rosa seems to have belonged to the Knights Templar who also owned a palace and a hospital. Their presence in the city was likely due to the importance of Lucca as a junction of Via Francigena, the ancient road for Christian pilgrims that ran from England through France and Italy all the way to the Holy Land. Not far away, in Vicolo dell’Altopascio, stood the headquarters of the Knights of Tau, founded in the vicinity of the city. 

Wherever one turns in Lucca there is a story to uncover.

The history – and legend – of this city is made up not only of its palaces, churches and walls, but also its restaurants and taverns. Take note of the old school Buca di Sant’Antonio, Trattoria da Giulio and the new entrant: L’Imbuto (1 Michelin Star). Following the trail of novelty and innovation, the Antico Caffè delle Mura, built in 1840 on the S. Maria bastion, is now home to a renowned fusion restaurant. Once again, the magic of Lucca is fulfilled, and the layer of a new era is added to the previous ones, strengthening the pride and noble spirit of this city, just as we reinforced our voices that night in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro.

The path in one’s life is long and can resemble a labyrinth (as the alleys of Lucca itself), but it’s living in faith that one can reach the opening. In the same way, walking through the historic centre of Lucca one could get lost. Still, it is not the destination that matters, but the exploration that rewards and getting lost in Lucca is an exercise worth doing to savour every corner of this charming city deeply.