Three Nights in Cozy Medieval Lucca, Italy

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“You can’t get there from here,” is the punch line of an old joke about travelers in Maine. One of the pleasures of living in France is that you can get there and we do. Each year we explore new areas of Europe. If there ever were a place in Italy as cozy as a nest, it’s the medieval town of Lucca. It’s the only city in Italy that’s totally enclosed; Lucca’s thick 16th century high ramparts are set off by an encircling park-like strip that’s even green in winter. Its flat, cobbled streets, invite strolling in a time capsule, rich in architecture from Romanesque to Renaissance, spacious squares, abundant shops plus good places to eat. Three nights in Lucca were a relaxing constrast at the end of an ambitious foray. Before we could enjoy our time there, Paolo had to rescue us. Traffic is banned except for hotel check in, small local buses and commercial deliveries. In rain and in the dark, we drove round and round attracting the attention of police, who were neither amused nor adept at giving directions to the Piccolo Hotel Puccini tucked on a tiny side street near the Piazza San Michele. Finally, we called the hotel because we were lost and would ever be. “Stay where you are,” Paolo said. “I’ll come get you.” Within a minute, a runner appeared, waved us around one more corner to his front door, popped open the trunk, grabbed our two bags and bounded in and headed upstairs. “Take your time and get comfortable. Then you can park the car,” he directed. Parking the car generally means outside the gates in a huge lot. “Dieci minuti,” he said of the walk back into center. Sure. We’ve heard that before. Torrential rains didn’t dampen our enthusiasm during the twenty minutes it took us to walk back through the quiet lamplit streets to Porta Santa Anna. St. Michael sits atop San Michele and its broad piazza adds to the spirit of the intricate decoration on the arcaded facade of the Romanesque church. Inside the serene nave, worshippers are drawn to a 12th century painted crucifix. We were mesmerized by the wonderful and bright Fillipo Lippi painting of Sebastian, Jerome, Roch and Helen that were casually hanging in the south transept. Lucca has other churches that Michelin calls “great” including the duomo that’s being restored. But, we found Lucca’s secular life more interesting this stay in the town where Puccini was born. His bronze statue was just under our bedroom window. Unfortunately, Puccini’s home was closed. The composer’s operas include La Bohème, Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot, Walking through Lucca’s streets and admiring its Renaissance palaces, which are being converted into apartments, is a treat. The facades retain their symmetry and many of the original window grates. The Roman amphitheatre has become a swirl of shops, cafes and benches, share a gelati and admire the town’s life. You can get a glimpse of where the locals meet, greet and chat in iconically animated Italian style, perhaps, after a very good lunch. We ate at Gigi, a trattoria, filled with character and at least one very good cook. The gnocchi were light, fluffy in a cream sauce generously flecked with spek. Had we known about the glass elevator at the rear of the Palazzo Ducale, we might have foregone the climb up the long staircase to see the comprehensive exhibit of the works of a native Lucchese. Pompeo Battoni was born in Lucca 300 years ago and fled to Rome as soon as he could. His compelling technique on behalf of his Pope gave us pause when viewing the four renderings of John the Evangelist, Matthew, James the Minor and Thomas. His monumental Saint James painted for a church in Messina was removed after the 1906 earthquake. The masterpiece was finally restored to its brilliance for this exhibit, which began in Houston, then moved to London before arriving in Lucca. Battoni’s acuteness was most telling in the full length portraits of Grand Tour travelers from the British aristocracy complete with their foibles. I listened in with amusement as a woman with a British accent regaled her companions with comments on the eccentricities still manifest in one of the sitter’s descendants. The 17th century apartments of the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Mansi are sumptuous. We had the sweeping rooms to ourselves accompanied by the guard who lit the fabulous chandeliers. All of the sightseeing gives you an appetite. Visitors to Lucca should taste tortelli Lucchesi — egg enriched pasta rounds filled with meat, folded into half moons and finished with dense ragu. We had them twice at Trattoria da Francesco. Any gelateria in business since 1916 seems worth a stop. The fiore di latte at Gelateria Santini proved the point. Lucca has its share of upscale dining places. We ate at the Restaurant Giglio where the bollito misto was as traditional as the charming decor of the room. After speaking with a neighboring diner, led us next evening to the Buca di San Antonio, where copper pots hang densely from beams in the main room. We ate portions of pork liver “fegato,” sufficient richness for a week and the translucent, thinly sliced and warmed lardo on crostada was an added treat. Our stay at the Piccolo Hotel Puccini was convivial. Paolo Moncini was delightfully expansive told us he acquired the hotel twelve years ago that occupies the first floor of a private villa. He explained that his grandmother owned a hotel early in the 20th century in Montecatini Terme which…
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