Lucca: Tuscany’s Less-Traveled Gem
While many a visitor to northern Tuscany will flock to Pisa, and nearby Florence, our recent travels took us instead to the medieval city of one hundred churches, Lucca. In actuality there are only sixty-seven, according to ace local guide and historian Wanda Martinelli, but fear not as you will never venture far in Lucca without coming to one of its infamous churches. What you will also notice, perhaps more so than its numerous churches, are the many towers that punctuate the skyline and dare you to climb them.
There is plenty to see and do in Lucca, and you can easily spend two or three days leisurely strolling it’s narrow, medieval streets, and visiting its churches and towers. It is also conveniently located just twenty minutes from Pisa, and an hour from Florence for an easy day-trip. But once you get inside Lucca’s massive, fully intact ramparts, I think you will become consumed with this gem of northern Tuscany. There is much to see so come along for a few days of visiting the best of Lucca.
Upon arriving in Lucca we decided to enlist the services of local guide, Wanda Martinelli, to show us the ropes. Utilizing a guide early in your visit, no matter where you are visiting, is a great way to get your bearings and learn a little history of your destination. This will inevitably help you as you venture out on your own in the coming days. Wanda is a wealth of knowledge, having lived in Lucca for her entire life. Her enthusiastic personality and expert knowledge of everything Lucca make her uniquely qualified for anything you may want to see and do in the area.
The Churches of Lucca
You simply cannot visit Lucca without venturing into at least a few of its magnificent churches. One of the more remarkable examples is located in what I consider to be the most beautiful piazza in Lucca, the Piazza San Michele. And sitting prominently in the square is the stunning Church of San Michele in Foro. Built in the late eleventh century at the site of the then forum, hence the term “in Foro”, the towering façade and bell tower of this beautiful white marble church strike an imposing figure. Atop the church is the Archangel Michele flanked by two angels. The upper most façade upon which Michele sits appears to be unsupported, and one wonders how it has survived for centuries, certainly a testament to the architects of the day. The intricate detail of the exterior sculptures, and the arched inlays, make this one of the most notable examples of architectural design in Lucca.
Among the numerous other churches in Lucca certainly the San Martino Cathedral should not be missed. Known as the Duomo of Lucca, this Gothic and Romanesque church and accompanying bell tower sit in the Piazza San Martino, and date back to the eleventh century when the cathedral was consecrated by Pope Alexander II. The interior of San Martino contains a number of notable works of art including the Ilaria del Carretto, otherwise known as the tomb of Paolo Guinigi’s wife. The marble sculpted tomb shows the adoring affection of the dog at her feet and dates to 1413. Other notable works include the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints by Ghirlandaio, and the Holy Face of Lucca, which legend dates to AD 742, and is displayed in its own free standing marble chapel within the church.
If you are staying in Lucca then this next church is notable for two reasons. The Church of San Giovanni, located not far from the Duomo of Lucca, is the site of a nightly Puccini concert. Held each evening at 7pm, the concerts last for approximately ninety minutes and tickets can be purchased for twenty euro. Every evening presents a different performance honoring Puccini, and other composers, and you do not have to be fan of opera to fully appreciate and enjoy the show. It’s a very informal evening and you can poke around the church before, during the intermission, and after the performance. I highly recommend attending a Puccini concert while you are in Lucca, and even though I do not consider myself a fan of opera it was certainly an unforgettable evening.
The other reason San Giovanni is notable is due to the ruins upon which the church was built. During the day you can go underground and tour the Roman ruins and the medieval crypt that date back to the first century BC. So now you have two reasons to visit San Giovanni.
The Towers of Lucca
At one time there were a lot of towers in Lucca. I tried to find the exact number but my research yielded mixed results. Suffice to say that at one time there were upwards of a couple hundred tower houses in Lucca alone. Today, there are a few remaining, and along with the church bell towers it makes for a picturesque skyline. If you happen to climb one of the towers you will be greeted with an amazing view of Lucca and the surrounding hills. We climbed two of the towers on our recent visit, the Torre Guinigi, and the Torre delle Ore, otherwise known as the clock tower.
What makes the Guinigi Tower so unique is the fact that there are trees growing from the top of it. You can’t miss it as it’s visible from pretty much anywhere in Lucca. I am always drawn to scenic views from above so this was high on our list of things to see. At about forty meters in height the Torre Guinigi is not the tallest in Lucca, but certainly the most visited. There’s something about those trees growing from the top that draws curious visitors. The 230 steps to the top will soon be forgotten when you see the view. In case you were interested, the Torre Guinigi dates back to the fourteenth century, a time when it was vogue for the wealthy to build towers, sort of a keeping up with the Jones thing. Not to be missed.
Torre Guinigi Visitor Infomation
- Adult tickets – 4 euro
- Can get a combo ticket for both the Torre Guinigi and the Torre delle Ore for 6 euro.
- Children up to 14 years old, groups, students and over 65: 3 euro
Hours vary by season:
- Open daily at 9:30am. Closing time ranges from 4:30pm in the winter to 7:30pm during the peak summer months.
The other tower we climbed, the Torre delle Ore, is actually the tallest in Lucca at about fifty meters high. Its 207 wooden steps will give you the loftiest view of Lucca and a great look at the nearby Guinigi Tower. Like the Torre Guinigi, the Torre delle Ore dates to the late fourteenth century, and although there are no tress growing from its rooftop it does have a functioning clock and bells. If you only have time to climb one tower it’s pretty much a toss-up, so climb whichever one fancies you. I will say that it was neat to be atop the Clock Tower and looking at the folks over atop the Guinigi Tower—great photo opportunity.
Torre delle Ore Visitor Information
- Adult tickets - 4 euro
- Combo ticket - 6 euro
- Children up to 14 years old, groups, students and over 65: 3 euro
Hours vary by season:
- Open daily at 9:30am. Closing time ranges from 5:30pm in spring and fall to 7:30pm during the peak summer months.
- Closed November to December.
So what’s next to see in Lucca? Well, plenty if you have the time. There is course the wall, which at four kilometers long circumnavigates the entire community of Lucca. You can walk on it, run on it, ride a bike atop it, or just sit and people watch while enjoying the view. The current wall was completed in 1650 during the Renaissance and at nearly thirty meters in thickness was designed to protect against the more advanced weapons of its day, namely cannon fire. Originally built in the second century BC the wall was rebuilt and expanded a few times until its present day configuration. Never tested in battle, today it is used more for recreation and enjoyment rather than keeping intruders out.
If you roam around Lucca long enough you will eventually find your way to the Anfiteatro. An oval ring of buildings surrounds the former Roman Amphitheater from the second century, and there are four gateways to the square that once accommodated up to ten thousand spectators. Today the buildings house private residences and a number of shops and cafes with outdoor seating. The center of the square contains a somewhat unique and odd sculpture that looks very out of place to me. The sculpture is either quite new or temporary as I do not see it when I Google photos of the square. Regardless, the Anfiteatro was the historical gathering place of Lucca, and portions of the original structure are still visible as you walk around the exterior of the building.
Inspiration is an awakening, a quickening of all man's faculties, and it is manifested in all high artistic achievements.— Giacomo Puccini
Earlier I mentioned the nightly Puccini concerts at the Church of San Giovanni. Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858, and spent much of his childhood here. Considered a native son of Lucca, the world famous composers house is now a museum and open to the public. We spent some time visiting his home, and it was fascinating to walk the rooms and see the memorabilia that included original manuscripts, his piano, photos, and costumes from many of his operas. In the Piazza Cittadella in front of his home is a bronze statue honoring the famous composer. There is also the Puccini Museum Bookstore located just off the square where the ticket office is located. Books and CD's of his life and music can be purchased as well as tickets to tour his childhood home.
Puccini Museum Visitor Information
- Daily from 10am to 7pm
- Closed on Tuesdays.
- Full price: 7 euro
- Reduced Price: 5 euro, under 18 and over 65
Domus Romana Lucca Museum
Given its historical significance, there is a very interesting archaeological museum in Lucca that you may want to visit. Called the Domus Romana Lucca, this small museum is located beneath the Orsucci palace, which today is the site of the Locanda di Bacco Tuscan Restaurant, and the Relais San Lorenzo B&B. The ruins were discovered during renovations to the palace in 2012, and a visit will give you insight into early Roman life in Lucca. A Roman home and portico once occupied the site, and while most of the uncovered relics were taken by the state for preservation the original brick and mortar of the building remain along with replicas of the finds. Before touring the museum be sure to watch the brief film on early life in Lucca and ask for a guide to take you through the museum. Our guide, Anna, spoke excellent English and was a wealth of knowledge. One can only wonder what else remains preserved and buried below the streets of Lucca?
As you can see, there is plenty to see and do in Lucca. Its medieval streets are very walk-able, and its location makes it the perfect base for exploring northern Tuscany. Being surrounded by its more famous neighbors makes Lucca much less crowded and allows for a stress free visit. If you are interested in day-trips from Lucca you can always take the train to Florence, which is only an hour away. Another easy day-trip is to take the train to Pisa. Located just twenty minutes south of Lucca, many visitors opt for a chance to see the infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa. We did this on our visit to Lucca and it can easily be done in a half day. Another possibility is to head to Cinque Terre. We actually came to Lucca after spending five nights in Cinque Terre, and it can be reached in about an hour and a half. And lastly, if you are interested in a day at the beach, Lucca is located just thirty minutes from Viareggio and a number of beaches on the Ligurian Sea.
I hope you enjoyed this visit to beautiful Lucca. This medieval, Tuscan community is loaded with history, and is easy to reach from major airports in Florence or Pisa. It also has a modern train station making it accessible from almost anywhere in Italy.
Ciao for now.
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© 2017 Bill De Giulio