WE FIND IT necessary…life-enabling really, to travel to Tuscany as often as time and money can afford. This year, we travelled around the Lucca/Pisa area, snaking along the narrow streets overlooked by the shimmering ancient ochre towns nestled in distant hills and bordered by orchards of silvery olive trees and rolling vine cultivated valleys with their exclamations of green cypruses.
We began our trip in Montemagno near Calci: a tiny speck of a village perched on the shoulder of a luscious leafy hillside through which a tributary of the Arno tumbled noisily.
After the traffic and pollution and political vitriol of London, this was a first step into what could easily be a distinctly earlier time zone. The road (there was only one) that led to our apartment in Montemagno, made more to accommodate mules, was at a stretch to accommodate our (small-ish) car. There’s a single pizzeria where everyone seems to dine; and a tiny alimentari, tightly packed with a bounty of home made fragioli, dense truffle scented wild boar salumi, jars of exotic Raghus and an enoteca of local wines.
The days ahead held no promise of abstemiousness.
Across the way, a tenth century church, recently modernized… in the fifteenth century and now a crowded cemetery lorded it over the valley.
And a few kilometers below us, the well-preserved shell of a monastery, still functioning after eight hundred years, white against the blue sky, was the local tourist draw.
But this was a place less of ancient wonder, more one of (us) wandering ancients.
Lucca, where we went next, by way of a wedding in San Casciano in Val di Pesa (and a necklace of other pearls: Vicopisano, San Miniato, Greve in Chianti, Pistoia and Montecarlo) is really the place for ancient wonder.
The old heart of the city dates back to the early Roman Empire. It was here that Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassius divvied up their rule of the empire.
But the ocular proof of Rome hardly exists, apart from the cold foundations of a villa that lie below the floor of the main cathedral. Rather, the densely packed buildings of the town embrace the rise of Christianity from the early medieval period to the late Renaissance.
Your encounter with the city starts with its massive, impregnable wall,
watched over by the stone lions of Lombardy
and, never to be left out, the Catholic presence of a pope. It’s so wide two cars (if they were still allowed to drive there) could easily speed along together. Now the wall – all four kilometers of it – is, for the active, a pleasant joggers route; for the rest of us, it’s a place to promenade and peer into the manicured lawns hidden at street level behind their own high walls. At its balustrades, it broadens to accommodate grassy parks with children’s swings and slides. There are benches for the weary and, for the sun-shy, avenues of arched trees provide handy cover.
From here, up high, you can see, looming over the tiled roofs, over the wall itself, a number of towers, like periscopes, with bells ever ready to alert its citizenry to the call to prayer or outside threat.
These towers evolved over the years from martial sentinels to erect displays of status. At its peak, there were over a hundred of these slender, crenellated aerial castles. Height was status. In these towers of power, size mattered. Today, the one that stands out most distinctly is that of the Guinigi tower: several mighty oaks top off a rooftop garden – a garden dedicated to rebirth and fertility
Once you’re within the walls, there are no cars (apart from those of the officials or of the hopelessly lost) So, it’s a walking city.
And everywhere you walk, there are wonders to gawk at: from the stunning little Romanesque churches, built with few windows (an inward facing church, defensive against the memory of a hostile Pagan world)
to the grand lofty cathedrals and churches that dominate the many squares.
Narrow streets (mainly of fashion shops) meander past the dozens of town piazzas, most with their own churches and clutter of cafes, like urban rivers flowing into cobbled lakes.
Beyond the city, interspersed amidst the hundreds of wine and olive oil producing frattorias are a ghetto of 17c and 18c villas; palaces really…vast, elegant buildings set like jewels in jasmine-fragrant beds of ornamental gardens, lovingly tendered by an army of serfs. The word is not loosely chosen. Many of these priceless palaces – Villas Reale, Torrigiani, Mansi etc. are still in the hands of their original eighteenth century owners.
Wars came and went, fortunes rose and fell, the bitter enmities between Lucca and Pisa and Florence dissolved into a united Italy, but the same rich, regal aristocrats remained. To the manor born they were and will forever be…a class way above vulgar distinctions of class.
Just about 20km south of Lucca is the larger, equally stunning town of Pisa, once a powerful Saracen-conquering maritime power and center of silk manufacture. This is of course the home of the famous leaning tower, which is its blessing (who hasn’t heard to the leaning tower of Pisa?) and its curse: Pisa is so much more than a leaning tower.
But what a tower.
Designed by one Bonanno Pisano, construction was begun in 1173 and finished (like pretty much all the major buildings in the region) two hundred years later. Time moved at a different pace then. You see it (the tower that is, not time) as you enter the city; closer than you’d think; bigger than you’d imagined and leaning over so far, you wonder what invisible hand continues to hold it up. It was from the top of this tower that Pisa’s most famous son – Galileo – dropped off a stone in his ‘discovery’ of gravity. Weirdly enough, when you look at the tower through a camera lens, it seems less tilted than it is, as though the camera is succeeding in correcting what multiple experts had failed to do.
Maybe they’d all thought fixing it would be a Pisa cake.
The tower is part of a complex of glistening eleventh and twelfth century marble buildings – the Plaza of Miracles. At one end is a circular, echoing, vaulted baptistery within whose walls secret curving staircases lead you to a viewers’ balcony above.
And, sandwiched between this and the Tower is the city’s dominant cathedral – the Duomo Cattedrale Santa Maria Assunta – laid out in the shape of a Latin cross and decorated throughout with tapestries, paintings and bronzes depicting the life of the Christ. Images to learn from and to pray to…visual expressions of the Catholic mythology.
For most visitors, this is Pisa. And that’s it. A few quick poses ‘holding’ up the tower and they’re back on their buses to Tuscany’s more famous city – Florence.
They’re missing a lot.
The curving Arno, once the superhighway of its maritime might and flanked by the apartments and palaces of Renaissance big wigs (including a Medici mansion) slices the city in two. On the one side, up one of its web of Medieval alleyways is the Piazza dei Cavalieri, built to celebrate the importance and potency of the grand dukes of Tuscany.
And on the other side of the Arno sits the comparative simplicity of a tiny densely carved Gothic church – Santa Maria Della Spina – that was reputed to have contained one of the thorns from His crown.
The two fundamental sides of our universe: Power and religion. Battles and belief. War and God. Money and miracles. Then as now forever twinned like love and marriage.
That said, here, in this region lies peace, not war. Here is where the calm that descends… among these rolling hills, these ochre walls, these ancient places of worship ever echoing with their bells of communion and susurrations of the Pater Noster, these unlabeled bottles of crisp delicate wines, these flashes of hill conquering cyclists, these limitless Bella vistas…