A love letter to Lucca

Back in 2008 I visited Europe for the first time. I joined a tour from Rome to Paris, and along the way I saw sights that I remember fondly and some that I have been lucky enough to return to and see with new eyes. There is one place that has haunted me the most, and which was always on the tip of my tongue when asked about my favourite place in the world to travel to. The danger with having a favourite place and returning to it is that over the time that you’ve been away you will have changed. Time never stands still, and there is no one out there keeping your memories of a place in pristine museum condition for your return. Once towering trees are shrubby, beautiful old temples blackened with soot. This is what I feared when I insisted that we visit a particular town, that my loving memories would pale in the face of its mediocracy.

We boarded the first of 3 trains in Nice, bade France farewell and crossed over into Italy. The first stop was Genoa, where we had a few hours wait till the second train. We spent it exploring and eating overpriced icecream, and dodging pushy trinket sellers. After they grabbed my arm and started to corner us we stayed away from the tourist centres, and were very careful about our valuables. Genoa is a city still tied to trade, as it has been for so long, and with the streets that still lead to the harbour and old tenement buildings, seems to look to its past, though our stay was too short for me to get a nicer impression.

At a small town that I’ve forgotten the name of we changed to our final train, a local 30 minute one, and descended into the lush valleys of Tuscany. I was glued to the train window, watching out for familiar silhouettes, my pulse rising as I imagined the town plastered with tourists, worn down and without any charm left. Would my partner be disappointed that we’d decided to go here, rather than Ravenna or Venice?

The train pulled in and we dragged our luggage out onto the small platform, orienting ourselves with the partial view of a tower in the distance. Before long we were facing the walls, as tall as I remembered, encircling a town of peeking terracotta roofs and elegant towers, with the hills around the valley in the distance. The path lead through the walls, doubling back with the defensive structures intended to trap invading armies, and then we were in. The old cobbled streets, marble churches, gardens and little shops were just as I remembered them. I had returned to Lucca, and still found it wonderful.

A Lucchese canal

A Lucchese canal

We stayed in an old apartment, decked out with antique furniture and with a window overlooking gardens. From our bedroom window we could look down into the street where locals and tourists mingled and hear the chiming of church bells.

View from the kitchen

View from the kitchen

Within 2 minutes of leaving our apartment we were on the main street in town, where cafes, craft stores, fashion boutiques and fancy beer shops jostle for attention, and tourists jostle for gelato. If you take a detour at the café selling mascarpone gelato, and follow the alley for a while you’ll notice that the wall to your right is curving outwards. There will be an opening in the stone and bricks, and above it the outline of an ancient stone archway. Stepping through you’ll be in a large, circular area rimmed with restaurants, the walls covered with flower filled balconies. This used to be the town amphitheatre when this was a Roman town, but rather than cheer on animal hunts, locals and visitors sip wine and tuck into pasta, watching the sun go down over the rooftops.

The amphitheatre in Lucca

The amphitheatre in Lucca

It’s the first place we visited, and I hope that if I ever get to return to Lucca I can go during the spring festival when it’s filled with flowers.
Roman trivia #1: Lucca is the site of the second meeting of the triumvirate, the ‘secret’ political alliance between Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. 200 senators also came, which would have made it less secret and I’d guess a bit of a burden on the little town.

We spent a few nights in Lucca, only leaving the bounds of the Renaissance era walls to get groceries. On one day we walked the circumference of the town on the walls, which overlook the city and hills around the town and gave us a peep into the gardens backing onto it inside. Most of the path on the walls is lined with trees, with grassy parks and cafes on the bastions, and cyclists and other tourists passing by. It took a couple of hours of strolling, including a short nap in the sun, to complete the circle.

Tree lined walls

Tree lined walls

Then more strolling down the main street and climbing up one of the towers. Guinigi tower was built in the 1300s as a status symbol, along with many others in Lucca and other Italian towns, though few now remain. As well as offering an amazing view from all sides, the tower has a garden of oak trees on the rooftop terrace, where I can imagine hours could be spent with a good book and a glass of local red wine.

Panorama from Guinigi tower

Panorama from Guinigi tower

On one of the evenings we attended the nightly Puccini concert, part of a series celebrating the composer and others from Lucca, that is held every night of the year. It was in Chiesa di San Giovanni, and featured 3 opera singers and a pianist enchanting the audience of tourists with their soaring voices and music. Followed by dinner at a restaurant I’d visited in 2008, which employs people with disability, it was a perfect day. Including the karate class in the old square as we ate dinner.

Chiesa di San Giovanni

Chiesa di San Giovanni

The fine weather couldn’t last forever, so on the day that we visited the botanical gardens we had to dash into the shade of trees and tunnels, coming out to watch fish and turtles swimming in a tranquil pond that, according to legend, an adulterous woman was dragged into by the devil. There were even rare trees from Australia, that felt like old friends after a long time away.

In the botanical gardens

In the botanical gardens

Without plans on most days we wandered around, taking in the charm and flavours of the ancient streets that someone manage not to become stuck in the tackiness of tourism, though there are many tourists. Perhaps because Lucca is so small, bounded in as it is by the old walls, that there is little chance for the expendable, cheap shops and cafes that you can’t get away from in so many touristy places. Walking down alleys with craft stores and old restaurants selling local food on rickety tables, craning your neck to see the towers as you pass by and coming across the amphitheatre that still continues to shape the town after thousands of years, Lucca is unlike anywhere else.

Lucca

Lucca

We left Lucca wishing we could stay longer but looking forward to our next destination, and now as I remember dragging our suitcases along the cobbled streets and through the twisting passages through the walls, I wonder when I’ll go there again. It’s a matter of when, not if.

Colours and tastes of Andalucia

Years ago I was sitting in a jazzbar with a friend, enjoying a live band and chatting away as we finished our meal. On the spur of the moment I ordered a glass of port to round off the evening. The taste was a mix of sultanas and a hint of chocolate and extremely smooth. As I exclaimed over the flavour and urged my friend to taste it, I noted the name on my phone and decided that I had to have a bottle of my own. So began a quest that lasted years. That phone died and was replaced, but the name stuck in my mind. Bar staff were questioned, bottleshops explored, bottleshop staff asked, friends of friends who knew someone put out a word and time passed. It seemed as if it was unattainable. Then one day in a bottleshop across the road from my home at the time, there it was. Despite the gasp-worthy price tag I pulled it off the shelf and took it home. It was slowly savoured, after a nice meal or over a good book.

Then came the time when we were to move overseas and we threw a party, leaving our accumulated bottle selection on the bar. My port was nestled at the back, out of sight, but as the night and drinking wore on it was uncovered and someone assumed it was wine and, well, let’s not dwell on that bit.
Having moved to a new country my search continued, checking the back shelves in the government owned monopoly bottleshops and the menus in bars. It began a habit more than anything else and not a sight was seen.

Which brings us to an early afternoon in Ronda, a couple of hours north-west of Málaga in Spain. Lunch was finished and we had begun our slow wander back to the bus station. We stopped in a tourist shop and found a lovely bowl, decorated with bright red hues and dark grapes that now sits as a contrast to the whites and creams of our Swedish apartment. My partner also wanted a souvenir of the bottle variety, so we investigated a little shop selling wines, cheeses and delicacies. As I glanced around, admiring the local reds, I saw it. A bottle of Alvear Pedro Ximinex Dulce Viejo 1927.

My precious

My precious

It’s now up on the shelf nestled between champagnes, wines and port from all around the world. It seems obvious now that I’d find it in Spain – perhaps if I’d thought of that I’d have visited sooner.

Still aglow from my discovery we crossed the bridge to the new town, dodging tourists, cars, cyclists and horse drawn carriages. We had enough time to sit and bask on the pagoda overlooking the valley and canyon as the guitarist played Spanish melodies behind us. Finally we left, glancing one last time at the view, as he struck up Recuerdos de la Alhambra. It had been the first thing I hear when we reached the platform, so it was fitting that it would play for us as we left for the bus, a sort of goodbye from the amazing views, sun and flowers of Ronda.

Goodbye Ronda

Goodbye Ronda

Back in Málaga we rested for a while at the apartment and planned our final night. After a few sips of wine, we headed out for dinner and finally settled on a place specialising in paella. We continued the night on the terrace of the apartment, finishing off the last of the wine as we looked out over the city.

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The next morning we packed, tidied and cleaned, leaving the apartment in as close to the condition we’d found it in as possible. Then we said goodbye to the lovely little place and wandered town with our suitcases, using up our final hours with slowly perusing shops and windows, and seeing the amphitheatre and fortress for the last time. Down at the harbour we found a seat in the sun and finished off the fruit, chatting, napping and making notes for this blog.
Then the time came for the bus, and we said goodbye to the gardens, horses, sunlight, bustle and citrus-scented streets of Málaga.

Colours of Spain

Colours of Spain

I hope we can return someday, to snack on fresh fish at El Palo, gaze out over the Mediterranean from Gibralfaro and finish off a bottle of local Rioja over a table full of tapas.