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Birthday trip to Italy

Lucca day one

View Birthday trip to Italy on ToonSarah's travel map.

View of Lucca from the Torre delle Ore

In the past few years we have developed the rather nice custom of spending our wedding anniversary in Italy, but this year we went to Germany for a change. So when Chris asked where I wanted to go for a birthday break, it had to be Italy. And with several friends having recommended Lucca, that’s where we went.

Our short break in Lucca started the evening before, when we took the train to Gatwick to stay overnight in the airport’s Hilton Hotel. With an early flight it made for a more relaxing start - no need to get up at the crack of dawn and no worries about whether there could be problems with the tube or trains. We had a pleasant meal and beer in the bar and an early night in our comfortable room.


I would like to be able to say that the alarm woke us at 6.30, but the truth is that I had already been awake for some time, as often happens when I know that it is important that I get up promptly!

By seven we were out of the hotel and walking across to the terminal, just a few minutes away. Security was really busy but eventually we were through, and with time to grab a quick coffee and muffin before our gate was called.

We were flying to Pisa with EasyJet and had paid the extra for speedy boarding, allowing us the luxury of two cabin bags! We boarded on time, but the plane was then held at the gate for a while, eventually taking off about 15 minutes late.

We flew out over the south coast, the Isle of Wight to our right. The weather was cold but clear, perfect for taking a few photos as we climbed.

Taking off from Gatwick

Over southern England


The flight went smoothly and the pilot announced that we would be landing at midday, just five minutes late. But as we approached the coast near Pisa the plane banked and turned back out to sea, and we were kept waiting to land for some time, finally getting on the ground nearly half an hour late. But we weren’t in a hurry, and the brief but great views of the city as we came in brought back happy memories of a visit here some years ago.

Pisa from the air

Arriving over Pisa

Pisa from the air

With no bags to collect we were soon on our way to the shuttle that takes you to the central station. I was surprised to notice that this ran on a cable, like a horizontal cable car! At Pisa Centrale there was just enough time to buy our tickets for the journey to Lucca, and a cold drink from a vending machine, before boarding the train. The ride took about half an hour and I enjoyed looking out at the Italian countryside, as I always do, despite the rather dull weather.

Arriving in Lucca we followed the path from the station to the city wall opposite. The path dog-legged through one of the eleven massive bastions (in Italian, a baluardo) that punctuate the wall, climbed some not very steep steps (although with bigger bags this would not be a recommended route!) and led down the other side, emerging near the duomo.

City wall and bastion

We had to pick up the keys to our studio apartment in Via Santa Croce from a B&B in a different street just around the corner, Via del Gallo, which we found after getting slightly lost in the old city’s maze of streets. We had told the owner that we would arrive some time after two; it was 2.15 and the door was locked, with a sign to say she would be back soon, so we stood and waited. After ten minutes however I called the owner and she sent someone to welcome us, at last, and bring us to the apartment. Called ‘Only One Suite’ (I have no idea why, as there are two studios here!), our room was a good size, decorated in a quirky but appealing style, and just what we needed for a few days stay.


Our studio room in Via Santa Croce


We decided to leave unpacking until later, so left our bags and headed out again in search of our first gelato of the trip. The skies might be grey, but it was much warmer than at home and anyway, in Italy I have a personal rule that I must eat gelato every day!

Our route took us past and around the large church of San Michele in Foro, exploring which we left until later. I did however pause to take a photo of a carving on the rear of the apse which caught my eye. I could swear this depicts a lion eating a crocodile and I can’t think of any biblical story or saint to which this could relate. Maybe the stone mason simply liked lions – or disliked crocodiles!

Detail of carving on San Michele in Foro

A few other things caught my eye too – the ornate carvings on an old pharmacy on the corner of the Piazza San Michele, a bizarre plastic chicken suspended from the awning of a nearby café, a pretty pot of cyclamens on the stone steps of an old house.

Façade of an old pharmacy

Lucca details

I had read a recommendation for a particular gelateria, Gelateria De' Coltelli in Via S. Paolino, and it was worth hunting out. A review displayed inside claimed they serve the best gelato in Italy, which may be a rather exaggerated claim (and who has eaten at every gelateria in the country anyway?!) but it was certainly excellent. The flavours are all natural and we liked all that we sampled - ginger, pistachio and pear for me, chocolate, strawberry and pink grapefruit for Chris. This is really a take-away place, but we perched on a couple of stools at a small counter inside to enjoy our ices.


In the Gelateria De' Coltelli

Gelateria De' Coltelli

San Michele in Foro

After the gelati we returned to the church we had passed earlier and went in to explore - with good timing, as a few drops of rain were falling. San Michele in Foro is sometimes mistaken for Lucca’s cathedral, it is so large and imposing. As the name suggests, it stands on the site of the former Roman Forum. There has been a church here since 795, but this building was commissioned by Pope Alexander II in 1070.

San Michele in Foro

The limestone façade is a series of elaborate tiers reaching high above the church. Seen from behind it is in a weird way a little reminiscent of a Wild West town with its false-fronted buildings, as it reaches way above the height of the main part of the church. This is not a deliberate design decision but a result of running out of money having spent so much on this façade – not enough was left for the rest of the building!

Look carefully at the façade – every column is more or less different. It is the work primarily of Guidetto da Como, a 13th century architect from Lombardy, with some sculptures attributed to Diotisalvi. The latter was the original architect of the Baptistery in Pisa, which was later completed by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano.

The statue at the top is about four metres high and is of the Archangel Michael defeating the dragon. According to legend the Archangel wears an emerald ring, which sparkles when it catches the sunlight. No one has ever found the emerald, although some claim to have seen the green sparkle! Certainly though there was to be no sparkle in today's dull weather.

Above the main door

Carving detail - is this a mermaid with two tails?

We went inside – there was no charge to enter and no signs restricting photography, although as always I avoided using flash (not only does it spoil the atmosphere for others visiting a church, whether as sightseers or worshippers, but I also believe it makes for less effective images).

Inside San Michele

The interior is not as ornate as the façade but has plenty worth seeing. The most notable artwork is this 1483 painting by Filippino Lippi depicting the saints Roch, Sebastian, Jerome and Helena. Saint Roch famously survived the plague and is always shown with a nasty sore – he is on the left here lifting his robe to show it off!


Painting by Filippino Lippi

Near the entrance, on your right as you go in, is a statue of the Madonna which looks very like the one on the exterior of the church. This one inside is apparently the original, brought inside to protect it and a replica put outside – although the one outside now looks just as worn as the one inside to me. It was sculpted in 1480 by Lucca’s second most famous son (after Puccini), Matteo Civitali, to celebrate the end of the 1476 plague. We were to see more of Civitali’s work over the next few days. He was born here in Lucca and became a leading figure in the early Renaissance.

Civitali Madonna -
replica outside on the left, and original inside on the right

A comprehensive description of the church on a notice inside (in both Italian and English) was helpful in pointing us towards some of the other major artworks. It told me that the painted cross above the altar dates from the 12th century, and the fresco of the Enthroned Madonna and Child (below) is part of the fresco decorations that once covered the church walls – it was painted in the mid 14th century but modified at the beginning of the 15th when the elaborate throne was added.

Fresco, and bell pull

In the large square outside is a statue of Francesco Burlamacchi, a 16th century politician from Lucca who is credited with having first conceived of a federation of Italian states. He was elected gonfalonier of the Republic of Lucca in 1533, the highest office of the state, and had ambitions to break the domination of the Medici in Tuscany . The intention was that Lucchese troops would attack the Duchy of Tuscany at the same time as anti-Medeci rebellions erupted in Florence, Pisa and elsewhere. But Duke Cosimo got wind of the plot, and then the emperor Charles V intervened in the dispute and asked that Burlamacchi be handed over to him to be executed for treason, having disturbed the peace among the Italian states. He was beheaded in Milan at dawn on 14 February 1547.

Statue of Francesco Burlamacchi

After visiting San Michele we walked back the short distance to the apartment to unpack and settle in properly.


In the evening we returned to the Piazza San Michele to have an apertivo in one of the bars on the square. The rain had come to nothing in the end, and it was just warm enough to sit outside and watch the passing passagiata.

For dinner we went to a restaurant very near our apartment which I seen recommended in several places, All'Olivo in the tiny Piazza San Quirico. We didn’t have a reservation but although the restaurant was full inside there was room on the terrace which was covered and heated with braziers. The meal that followed was really excellent, although it has to be said that the service was a bit patchy - too brisk at first and then really slow to bring desserts (we’d asked for a break of ten minutes, we got 30!)

To start with we were brought some nice bread and a small amuse bouche of a warm chunky tomato sauce with mozzarella and crusty bread. It was perhaps a bit of duplication that Chris had ordered the buffalo mozzarella starter but he enjoyed both nevertheless, while my starter of baby squid with white beans was delicious.

Squid and beans starter

We both ate primi piata for our main course - little ravioli with ragu Bolgnese for Chris, and gnocchi with a tomato sauce and small pieces of sausage for me. After the aforementioned break we were ready for dessert - Chris chose the ice cream with strawberries and Grand Marnier, which he pronounced very good, while I really enjoyed my citrus fruit semifreddo with orange sauce - so tasty!

Desserts at All'Olivo


We had a short stroll through a few of the back streets to let our large meals settle a bit, before walking back past San Michele to the apartment. We’d had a great start to our few days here in Lucca.

Posted by ToonSarah 02:19 Archived in Italy Tagged food restaurant hotel church flight italy details ice_cream street_photography

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Lucca is a place I have always wanted to visit. (Puccini's birthplace, for one thing.)
I certainly agree that the on-camera flash generally makes for less effective photos. For a flash to do any good it would have to be off to one side, held by a second person, as professional photographers sometimes do, but I have never had that kind of equipment.

by Nemorino

I liked Lucca a lot!


by Maurizioagos

I can't think of a lion/crocodile scenario from the Bible either, but the bottom animal looks more like a deer to me with the perspective off. A crocodile would be more toothy and have a longer skinnier snout. And the lion has a face of mustachioed man.

I also agree about the flash, but back when I started taking photos in 1958 and up to about 1986, I didn't have a camera with flash anyway so I had to do without. I feel spoiled now to have a choice.

by greatgrandmaR

Lovely start to your break - I like your policy of having a daily gelato when you are in Italy.

by Albert

Lucca is definitely a lovely place to visit and I can't wait for the rest of your pages to find out what you thought of it

by Easymalc

Thank you all for the lovely comments :) Sorry Rosalie but I still see crocodile, not deer - look at the protruding upper tooth

Don, we will come to Puccini in due course ... And Albert, I had to moderate your comment because you used a different email address - perhaps that's why you're no longer getting the notifications as a subscriber?

by ToonSarah

Lovely blog, but I agree with Great greatgrandmar that is a deer. It has an ear sticking up I don't see it as a crocodile.

by irenevt

Thanks Irene. Maybe it is some mythical beast lol

by ToonSarah

I don't see an ear, but I also don't see a big tail like a croc (or an alligator) would have.

by greatgrandmaR

Lovely pictures and description of your holiday in Lucca, Sarah! I am looking forward for more and I am sure I will love Lucca next month :-)

by Maria Teresa Gama

Thanks Teresa :) Do let me know if you have any questions before you go!

by ToonSarah

I have loads of pictures of the facade of San Michele - always find it fascinating that there are so many different carvings.

by Andrew Lucas

I can imagine so Andrew - I took loads just on this one visit (but then it was just around the corner from our apartment so we passed several times a day!)

by ToonSarah

Lucca looks amazing as does everywhere in Italy! It was on our list but alas we ran out of time so maybe next trip. I love your custom of spending your anniversary in Italy damn I wish we could do that every year haha!!! I also love your tradition of eating gelato every day mmmmmm

by Lindy

Hi Lindy, thanks for dropping by :) Yes, we are lucky having Italy, and all of Europe, on our doorstep!

by ToonSarah

Oh fabulous! I am homesick :-) Wonderful photos, as usual, despite the weather.
The lion eating a crocodile might stand for god (or power, light) fighting the bad. And the mermaid with two tails is, I think, standing for a waterwoman, who symbolises the female as mother of everything and water as life giver. I saw various of those in various Romanesque carvings, mostly on capitals.

by Trekki

Thank you Ingrid - for the nice comment about the photos and for the helpful and interesting ideas about the interpretation of the carvings

by ToonSarah

I love your personal rule concerning the "gelato" ... I would probably do the same!

by Ils1976

I recommend it Ils ;)

by ToonSarah

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