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A birthday in Lucca

Lucca day four

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

Piazza San Michele, after last night's rain

My birthday, and on getting up I found that Chris had brought a few easy to pack presents along to Lucca, including a very pretty silver bangle. And as an extra birthday treat, the rain that had been falling for much of the night stopped as we were getting ready to go out, and patches of blue began to appear in the sky. For the first time on this trip the sun shone on Lucca.

San Michele in Foro in the sun

We had breakfast on the Piazza San Michele again, and took the opportunity to get some photos of the church in the sunshine. But it was cooler than the previous days, so we popped back to the apartment to fetch scarves before starting today’s explorations.

We walked east to the Porta San Gervasio at the end of Via Santa Croce. We were retracing (in the opposite direction) part of the walk we had done on our first day, but nevertheless finding lots to photograph along the way, including re-taking shots from earlier in our visit now that the blue sky and sunshine made the scene more attractive.

Wine shop on Via Santa Croce

Halloween decorations in a shop

We passed the small church of San Benedetto in Gottella, built in the 10th century, and reconstructed in the 13th. It is home to the ancient Confraternita dei Legnaioli (the Confraternity of Carpenters) and we never saw it open during the course of our stay.

San Benedetto in Gottella

The church of Santa Maria Foris Portam was also still closed, as it had been on Sunday, but we could get better photos today of the colonna mozza, or broken column, on the piazza outside. This is believed to have served as the finishing post for a horse race which took part around the streets of Lucca in medieval times.

The colonna mozza, and house detail in the piazza

At the Porta San Gervasio we turned south down the Via del Fosso, with the canal running down the centre and an attractive water fountain where locals come to fill bottles with the mountain spring water.

Porta San Gervasio in sunshine, and nearby water fountain

The city walls

We had thought about visiting the Botanical Gardens, which were just about to open, but peering through the gates they didn’t seem exciting enough to wait for opening time or to pay the small fee charged.

Looking into the Botanical Gardens, and the old gate

So instead we walked up the nearby stone ramp to reach the path which runs along the city walls. Lucca is famous for these walls, which form a complete ring around the city, 4 kilometres, 223 metres long. The top is wide and grassy, with a path perfect for walking and cycling – which both locals and tourists really make the most of. If a city can wear its lungs on the outside, then these walls are indeed how Lucca breathes!

The path along the city walls

On the city walls

The wall that we see today is the last in a series, moving outwards in concentric if uneven circles as the city grew. The first wall was the traditional Roman square shape and was built around 200 BC. The second ring of walls dates from 1100-1200, when city’s perimeter was increased on three sides. The walls lost their square footprint, adjusting to take in all of the existing city buildings so that again almost all the important ones fell within the walls. When the third ring was built between 1400-1500 this expanded the north-east side so that all the main buildings were included. Building work on the fourth circle began in 1513 and took more than a century to complete.

The design of the walls reflects their Renaissance heritage. During medieval times, an attacking enemy’s objective was to scale a city’s walls, so walls were built for height. This gave the defending troops a better view over the surrounding area when on the lookout for attacks. It made them harder for attackers to climb, and easier to defend, as those on the top could throw stones or hot tar or oil at the climbing soldiers.

But the invention of the cannon changed all this. Walls needed to be able to withstand the constant barrage of cannon fire, so became squat and wide. And they became lower, in order to be less exposed. Even the towers were made round to be less vulnerable to artillery damage. Lucca’s walls are the only surviving example of a Renaissance defensive structure in the whole of Italy.

The walls have never actually been used for defence, or at least not from military attack – they did prove useful in protecting the city from the floodwaters of the river Serchio in 1812. They were demilitarised during the Napoleonic era and have been used ever since as public gardens and walk ways. These are enhanced by the many trees, which were originally intended to strengthen the walls and to provide emergency supplies of firewood in case of siege.

View of Lucca from the city walls

The walls have six gates: San Donato, Santa Maria, San Jocopo, Elisa, San Pietro, and Sant'Anna (officially Vittorio Emanuele). Of these, the Porta San Pietro, the Porta Santa Maria, and the Porta San Donato are the original Renaissance gates. Porta Elisa was opened in 1811, named after Elisa Bonaparte, and the remaining two are 20th century additions to facilitate vehicle access.

At intervals along the length of the walls are a number of bastions or Baluardi, many named for the nearest church: Santa Croce, San Frediano, San Martino, San Pietro, San Salvatore, La Libertà, San Regolo, San Colombano, Santa Maria, San Paolino, and San Donato. These were positioned so that from each of them the ones on either side of it could be seen.

City wall from the Baluardo San Salvatore

City wall with Baluardo San Regolo on the left and San Salvatore on the right

Baluardo San Salvatore and the new town

Our walk took in three of these bastions. We started at Baluardo San Regolo, built between 1600-1605. Part way round we passed Baluardo la Libertà (1607), also sometimes known as the Baluardo Cairoli after the bust of Benedetto Cairoli erected there. And beyond that we came to Baluardo San Salvatore, built between 1590 and 1592. The barracks inside this bastion are apparently intact and serve as a changing room for those who use this part of the walls as an outside gym.

The bastions provide larger open spaces; some have picnic tables, some have playgrounds for children, a couple have cafés (although the one we passed was closed, so I’m assuming they may only open for the summer season). In fact, you have all the facilities you expect of a city park but in a rather different shape (!) and with ever changing views as you walk.

View of Lucca with the campanile of San Michele in Foro

Mist over the mountains near Lucca

City view from the walls

Church in the new part of the city

Views of the Torre Guinigi and Botanical Gardens

We both took lots of photos up here, taking advantage of the brighter weather. We had great views of the mountains around the city and for the first time could get a sense of the topography of this area, with Lucca lying in a basin surrounded by the mountains.

View of the mountains from the city walls

Of course there were also the excellent city views, and in addition there were lots of details - a cheerful robin, a fallen branch reminiscent of a snake, and lovely autumn colours on the trees.

Friendly robin, and 'snake'!

Autumn colours

Piazza San Francesco

We had planned to make at least a half circuit of the walls, finishing somewhere around the Palazzo Pfanner so that we could see its pretty garden from above. But soon after we passed the bastion of San Salvatore the skies began to darken, and we could see that it was about to rain, so we descended from the wall, abandoning our original plan to walk round to the north of the city. Just as well, as soon after we reached street level the heavens opened. Luckily we were quite near a café where we could take shelter while the worst passed.

Shops in the Piazza San Francesco

We were near the church of San Francesco and the piazza of the same name. But some rain was still falling, and just west of the piazza is the Centre for Contemporary Art, which was showing an exhibition of photos by Henri Cartier Bresson taken in America, so we decided it was a good time to visit this and check out the work of one of our favourite photographers.

The exhibition was very good, although I was frustrated by the total ban on photography, even of the interior of the building, a 16th century palazzo. I fully understand the copyright issues involved in photographing works of art and had no interest in taking pictures of the works of another photographer, much greater than I, but there were some lovely frescos on the columns of a basement room which I asked permission to photograph and was refused on the same grounds of ‘copyright’.

The Piazza San Francesco

By the time we came out the sun was shining again so we could have a better look at the 14th century Chiesa San Francesco. We didn’t go inside the church but the façade (its limestone rendering added only in the last century I believe) was worth a few photos. I was intrigued by the painting of the Madonna and Child above the central door, as both are wearing ornate metal (copper?) crowns adding a little 3D relief to the image.


The Chiesa San Francesco

In front of the church in the centre of the small piazza is a tall column topped by the Madonna Della Stellario, which was looking great against the now blue again skies.

Madonna Della Stellario,

From here we walked slowly in the direction of the Piazza di Anfiteatro, taking photos as we went of course.

Artist at work in a shop near the Piazza San Francesco

Lemon tree, and vegetable delivery bike

On Via Antonio Mordini

On a house in Via San Nicolao, and locals chatting

Building detail near the Piazza di Anfiteatro

By now it was late enough to justify a lunch stop, and we enjoyed some good salami focaccia sandwiches and a glass each of red wine (a very good local Brunello) in one of the cafes here. Good timing, as there was another very heavy shower while we ate.

After our lunch it was dry again, so we wandered around the streets near the Anfiteatro taking some more photos while making our plans for the afternoon.

In the Piazza Anfiteatro (hoarding for comic and games festival), and another water fountain

We passed an old covered market, part of a former convent, Santa Maria del Carmine. A sign in the arched entrance tells its history in some detail. When the convent was dissolved in the 17th century the building housed various public services, such as a magistrates court.

Mercato del Carmine

In the Mercato del Carmine

In 1930 it was decided to move the Vettovaglie Market from its location in the Piazza Anfiteatro to this site, and unfortunately in the process the church was demolished. Since 2014 the market has been under renovation to remove asbestos, provide better cover and consolidate the structures, including the old bell tower. It certainly appears to need help, from what we saw, as it seems rather neglected apart from the installation of a single large sculptural work in wood. This was unlabeled, but a bit of subsequent digging around on the internet has revealed that it is the work of Franco-Peruvian artist Eugenie Taze-Bernard and is called 'Silent shell, chaotic shell'. It appears to be a legacy of the Lucca Biennial which took place in August and September and was this year (2018) focused on the theme of 'Paper' - so I guess this is not wood, as it appears, but paper!


On Via Fillungo

Torre Delle Ore

The return of better weather prompted us to head for another spot where we could get good city views. It had been dull on Sunday when we climbed the Torre Guigno, so another tower climb seemed a good idea.

The Torre Delle Ore is the tallest in the city at 50 metres. It was built, like the others in the city and elsewhere in Italy, by a wealthy merchant family wanting to show off their status and also be able to defend their home and property – in the case of this tower, the Quartigiani family. It was acquired by the city government in the 14th century after the family suffered political defeat, and in 1390, they decided to house a clock in the tower. It was this decision in part that ensured that this tower survived when many others in the city (there were at one time over 200) were pulled down.

Staircase in the Torre Delle Ore

The tower has 207 steps – fewer than the Torre Guinigi, despite being taller, because you stop on a platform below the bell rather than climbing to the very top. They did however seem a bit steeper to me, especially near the top, and therefore harder work to climb. Or maybe that was the effect of all the delicious meals and gelati I had been consuming?!

As you climb the stairs you can find good excuses to pause for breath in the many informative signs along the way which tell the history of the tower. For example:

Information board in the Torre Delle Ore

There are also small windows where you can start to get some idea of the views to come, and, towards the top, of the clock mechanism. This dates from 1754 when the previous clock (installed in 1699) began to display signs of wear. The city council commissioned a Genevan clockmaker, Louis Simon, who was considered the best in Europe at that time, to build this replacement which is described by the information board as having ‘an Italian-style striking mechanism (that is, which struck the hours and quarter hours)’. The tower was modified to accommodate the new clock, a new bell installed, needed to strike the quarter hours (presumably the previous clock had only struck the hours?) and the clock face restored with the paint being touched-up and a new gilded hour hand fitted.

Clock mechanism, Torre Delle Ore

Once we reached the top the views were fantastic, and we saw even more clearly than from the walls the surrounding mountains that shelter the city.

Panorama looking west from the Torre Delle Ore, with San Michele in Foro in the foreground

San Michele in Foro

The Duomo

Mountains around Lucca

Panorama looking north from the Torre Delle Ore, with the campanile of San Frediano

The huge bells rang while we were up there, chiming the hour at 2.00 pm. We were glad that another tourist, arriving at the top just after we did, pointed out the imminent chiming as we hadn’t noticed the time and I think the sudden noise would have made us leap out of skins!

Bells of the Torre Delle Ore

Lucca in sunshine

After our climb we popped back to the apartment, as it was so close, to use the bathroom and drop off the now unneeded scarves. Then we set off again to have today’s gelati in the same excellent gelateria we had visited on our first afternoon here, Del’ Cotelli. On the way we stopped for more photos in the Piazza San Michele where the bubble blower was again in action.

San Michele in Foro, with bubbles

Bubbles in the Piazza San Michele

After the ices we decided to retrace some of the route we had taken on Sunday morning, to get photos of the duomo and surroundings in the sunshine. We saw more preparations being made for the Comic and Games festival that was to start the following morning, with a graffiti artist decorating a shop window on Via Santa Croce and a giant yellow robot outside San Giusto!

On Via Santa Croce, and outside the Chiesa di San Giusto

We stopped off to get a sunnier photo of Garibaldi in the Piazza del Giglio, and an interesting perspective on San Michele in Foro from the Piazza XX Settembre.

Garibaldi in sunshine, and San Michele from the Piazza XX Settembre

We didn’t go inside the cathedral again but instead concentrated on getting photos of the exterior in this much better light.



Lucca cathedral in sunshine

We stopped outside the small deconsecrated church, the Oratorio di San Giuseppe, on the Piazza Antelminelli next to the cathedral museum, and enjoyed soaking up the sun while sitting on its stone steps and watching the activity in the piazza. The church is all that remains of a Jesuit convent founded in 1518. An exhibit linked to the Comic and Games festival was being set up inside, so we popped our heads around the door but didn’t go in.

Oratorio di San Giuseppe - entrance detail

Building in the Piazza Antelminelli, and birthday photo on the steps of the Oratorio di San Giuseppe

Above the door of the Oratorio di San Giuseppe

Santa Maria Annunziata dei Servi

On our way back to the apartment we spotted the small 14th century church of Santa Maria Annunziata dei Servi. Like others in the city it is now deconsecrated and used for occasional concerts and exhibitions. It too was being readied to host some exhibits for the Comic and Games festival that was to start tomorrow, but we managed to have a brief look around. I tried to stay out of the way of the workers while taking my photos and no one objected to our presence!

Old fresco in Santa Maria Annunziata dei Servi

The church dates from the late 14th century, when it replaced an earlier one on this site. The walls were frescoed in the 15th century but only a few traces remain. Perhaps because of the workers setting up the exhibits we missed noticing a plaque I have since read about which commemorating the beaching in 1495 of a huge whale on the Viareggio coast. The carcass was brought to Lucca and hung on the church wall at this spot.

After a quick look around here it was time to go back to rest up and refresh ourselves before my birthday dinner.

Il Grammofono

Il Grammofono

I had done a bit of research before coming to Lucca in order to identify somewhere a bit special for my birthday dinner and had settled on Il Grammofono. The cuisine sounded a little unusual, a fusion of Italian classics with Asian influences, and there were loads of very positive reviews. Chris made a reservation before we left, just to be sure of getting in, and although it seemed quiet when we arrived it soon got busy, so I think we were wise to book.

Il Grammofono

I really loved it here. The food was excellent as was the service, and the atmosphere cosy. The menu features some very interesting dishes which made a change from the other meals we had eaten during our stay, much though we both love Italian food. As much to preserve my memories of an excellent evening as anything else, I’m going to indulge myself with a much more detailed description of our meal than I normally share!

To start with we were served an amuse bouche – a pumpkin and ginger cream with salsa and croutons which was a bit like a mini bowl of cold soup except that it was served in a huge bowl! This came with an excellent selection of fresh-made breads.

Beef tartare
Rabbit ravioli

For his appetiser Chris ordered the beef tartare, served with a soft-boiled quail’s egg, which he really enjoyed. He followed this with the rabbit ravioli, a dish which has the rather theatrical title of ‘Pink is the colour of passion’. Despite the drama of that name, this was his least favourite dish of the evening, although still good.

Rice paper roll

Meanwhile I had started with the ‘Rice paper roll, BBQ pork ribs and Trapanese pesto’ which definitely leaned more towards the Asian end of the spectrum. The taste was lovely, although the portion a little large for a starter perhaps.

My ‘dish of the evening’ was my main course, another one with a colourful description on the menu: ‘Angus beef picanha in the zen garden, purple potato chips, grilled pineapple and Worcestershire sauce drops’. It proved to be a variation on one of my favourite Italian dishes, tagliata di manzo – a simple but delicious dish of marinated steak cooked very rare and sliced, then served dressed with the cooking juices and marinade, usually with a rocket salad. The Grammofino version added a bit of chilli heat to the marinade, plus chunks of grilled pineapple which really complemented the beef.

Angus beef picanha


We were brought a complementary ‘pre-dessert’ of ricotta cream with pear gel, which was light and refreshing. Chris had the very good cheesecake with pistachio nuts as his ‘proper’ dessert and I had the rather decadent hot chocolate soufflé ‘with a hint of Trapani fleur de sel, on a white chocolate ganache and yellow habanero powder’.

Chocolate soufflé

With a half bottle of excellent local red wine, sparkling water and a grappa each after the meal, this feast cost us €106 without service. I consider this very good value for the quality of the food and service, as a similar meal would cost twice as much at home in London!

We strolled back to the apartment along the Via del Fosso very happy with our night out.

Posted by ToonSarah 07:34 Archived in Italy Tagged churches food architecture history views restaurants italy city cathedral sculpture street_art ice_cream street_photography

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Great photos as usual. Loved the lichen covered snake

by greatgrandmaR

The reflections and the bubbles are wonderful. An off-again-on-again rainy day but you got some beautiful photos and it looks like you had a lovely birthday.

We attended Mass at Chiesa Sta. Maria di Carignano up in the hills near Lucca and had beautiful views of the city from there. It's a very dramatic looking city from inside or outside. Loved your photos of the mountains!

by Beausoleil

Thank you both :) The snake stick is very convincing, isn't it?!

Sally, the reflection photos were a great compensation for the rainy parts of the trip. I would like to have seen the city from that vantage point. It wasn't until the skies cleared on this, our last full day, that we fully appreciated the lovely setting.

by ToonSarah

I'm glad to see what we missed - it rained for a long time and had to go to our next destination.

by Rachel

We were lucky we had three days here so could out-stay the rain! But as you will see, it was back again by the next morning :(

by ToonSarah

Thanks for your great story, Sarah! I am glad for you! :-)

by Vic_IV

Nice birthday trip!
I like that Wine Shop poster on Via Santa Croce.
Red wine is not bad and I love it!
...and the food from the restaurant, I'm salivating. LOL
I wanna visit Italy someday, really.

by FleurdeLiz

Thank you Vic and Fleur :)

Fleur, did you know that if you comment while logged into TP you don't need to provide an email address and your comment doesn't have to wait to be moderated before being visible on the blog? That may be helpful if you plan to check out several blogs here, as I hope you will

by ToonSarah

Not "Grammofino", but "grammofono".


by Maurizioagos

Thanks Maurizio, you’re right of course :) Silly mistake - I’ll correct it. Of course then our comments will look silly

by ToonSarah

Lovely to see the sun out for your birthday. I really like those photos of the men filling their water bottles at the fountains.

by Wabat

And thank you again Albert. The locals certainly make the most of their free spring water supply :)

by ToonSarah

happy birthday to you and what a day ... the birthday dinner sounded excellent, made me feel hungry again and I am reading this in the morning. Your dessert sounded more than yummy! :)

by Ils1976

Thanks Ils, this was a super place to spend my birthday! I like to go away around then - if not on a bigger trip we usually book a few days in Europe or the UK. Who knows what will be possible by this October!

by ToonSarah

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