Friday, April 17, 2009

Rustic Lucca with a side of Pisa






I had zero interest in visiting Pisa. I’d read that there was nothing much of interest in the town besides the leaning tower, which most visitors find disappointingly unimpressive in size. But my guidebook (as well as the best-seller Eat, Pray, Love) recommended a visit to next-door Lucca for a genuine Tuscan town virtually free of tourists, so I couldn’t pass up the 15-minute train ride to Pisa.

Once there I immediately hopped on a bus to the Field of Miracles, the nearly-neon green square of lawn with a harmonious collection of regal white marble buildings — a cathedral, a baptistery, and a bell tower (the leaning one). The blank white sky that day made for unimpressive pictures, but that didn’t stop the packs of tourists from insisting that their patient companions devote way too much time to locating the perfect angle to snap a shot of them that would create the illusion that they were propping up the tower.

A once prosperous sea-trading city, Pisa rivaled Florence in power during its heyday. At the peak of its wealth in the 12th century, the city set off with the ambitious project to build what onlookers soon christened the Field of Miracles due to the grand scale of the undertaking. However, Genoa defeated the city shortly after, and now the small grouping of Pisan Romanesque buildings is pretty much the only reason the city remains on the international map.

Today the strip along the Campo dei Miracoli is a bona fide tourist trap. Nevertheless, the 200-foot-tall, eight-story tower, undeniably smaller than expected, is a truly elegant structure with a surprising sense of lightness. It started leaning almost immediately after its construction began, for reasons explained on signs outside the tower and in the guidebooks. (I couldn’t bring myself to read through the engineering technicalities of the explanations. Something to do with erosion and a shallow foundation.) Anyway, various architects (and millions of dollars) have been trying to correct the problem for the past 1,000 years.

In Lucca, my next stop, I looked forward to renting a bicycle to take the 2.5-mile ride on the city’s famous walls, a massive layering of Etruscan, medieval, and Renaissance ramparts. But it turned out to be a religious holiday (Feast of the Epiphany, maybe?) and consequently the bike shops, along with the city’s famous towers, were closed. So I also missed my chance take in the view from the city’s tallest tower, Guinigi, which interestingly has oak trees growing from the roof.

The city seemed vacant that dark afternoon, and I’m sure if I’d visited on a sunny day my perception of Lucca would have been entirely different. I finally came across some life in a plaza by one of the city’s noteworthy cathedrals, where I wandered through a local market and gave in to the temptation to order a fritole, a doughnut-like dessert with melted Nutella from one of the stands. (The newspaper clippings displayed outside indicated its international acclaim! How could I resist?) But I found the heavenly deep-fried mess almost impossibly sloppy to eat and ended up wearing the guilty reminder of my trans-fat indulgence on my jacket for the rest of the day.

By the plaza I spotted one of Lucca's most notable cathedrals, topped with the winged archangel Michael. To my fascination, behind it is a very visible staircase that the medieval clergy would climb to yank a pair of poles that would make the angel flap its wings to the awe of the apparently gullible flock.

When the hour for the passiegetti rolled around, the city’s main avenue, Fillungo, suddenly became almost impossibly crowded with the townspeople on promenade with friends and family dressed to impress each other. The narrow street lined with historic storefronts led to the Etruscan city’s most post-card-worthy site, Piazza Antifieatro, a floodlit, circular plaza enclosed by Renaissance buildings built on the remains of an ancient amphitheatre.

In a more bustling piazza still lit with Christmas lights children ice-skated in a rink. Off to the side I came across a strikingly charming outdoor used book fair. I walked through the stalls and perused the antique books and maps until I came to the end of the merchandise on the gritty yet glowing street corner lined with bicycles and rusty wagons, sighing at the Italian-ness of it all.

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