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.

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Intrigue and amphorae

Day three of the Rome trip! Before I go into that though, I just realised that the titles of the Rome posts so far have been somewhat anatomically focussed, which was a complete accident. Luckily there were no days that merited ‘The spleen of Rome’. And so, on with the holiday…

Imagine a cafe in the morning sun, just around the corner from the Spanish Steps, from whence comes a constant rumble of chatter and occasional tourists. On a few of the tables set up outside sit couples, mostly tourists, including one couple from Australia that are enjoying a fresh breakfast and sunlight. They are also half-listening to a conversation at another table, where 3 men in suits are having coffee, and in the opinion of one of the listeners, are one step away from nefarious deeds. Some of the conversation went like this:

“Giovanni, I’m not saying they’re crooks, but they understand that sort of business, and we’ve got to work with them that way.”

“This deal just isn’t going to go through, we’ve got to be realistic.”

“What are you asking for bags of money?”

“…just go to the paper and say there’s been a huge theft.”

“I’m more than happy to walk away from 4 million rather than risk…”

Now maybe it was all perfectly innocent, and the Godfather was too fresh in my mind. In any case I am sure I have entirely forgotten the address and appearance of the men, if anything were to come up later.

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

After the mysterious gentlemen had left and I’d almost stopped speculating about it, we headed around the corner to the Spanish Steps. Though overly touristy places can be a turn off, the steps are quite grand, and from the top there was a nice view over parts of the city which we used to plan the next destination. The plan for the day was to find a camera shop, as my partner needed a few rolls of film, and a circuitous loop would lead us to the Spanish Steps, and from there to the Piazza del Popolo. Another grand place, with nice statues and a fountain with an obelisk, from where we could then cross the Tiber and continue to the camera shop. As we neared it, the city around us seemed to drain of tourism and become more of a business and residential district, the first we’d been in since arriving. It was quite refreshing to be away from the omnipresent stalls, crowds and noise.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

After a successful visit to the shop, we continued on and the quiet was suddenly overwhelmed. It seemed to change instantly as we turned a corner, and were confronted by hoards to tour-guides and souvenir stalls and lots of other tourists. As it turned out, we had just wandered up to the Vatican. We had both been there before, and had been to the museum, but as it was on our way we had a look at St Peter’s Square. It was swarming with visitors, with a long queue along one side and folding chairs being cleared from the centre. I have since found out that the day before had been the Pope’s regular visitation, for which modern pilgrims get a comfortable seat.

I had read in a novel set in ancient Rome (this one, if you’re curious) that there was a wonderful view of the city from the Janiculan hill, which sits a little south east of the Vatican. We headed there now, climbing up a backstreet that we soon realised sat below some sort of raised park, on which stood statues and from which would be the views I was after. We climbed the hill, hoping to find an opening, or perhaps loose stones in the wall that would allow climbing, but found nothing. We did however find a small valley on the other side of the road. After climbing through a convenient hole in the fence we were in what looked like an abandoned park, with a worn bench and overgrown weeds, and further down the hill cherry blossoms and a view of the Vatican.

A mysterous pastel church

A mysterous pastel church

Continuing on the road we finally made it to a gate, and turning back in the direction we’d come, walked along the raised park, lined with busts of important men and a giant statue of Garibaldi. We also found an amazing view of the city spread out below us and over the river. To the right we could see the yellow brick ruins on the Palatine hill, and to the left of that a hint of the Colosseum through tall buildings. To the left we could see the dome of the Pantheon amidst the apart buildings, and I could imagine how the view must have been 2000 years ago. Red roof tiles and whitewashed walls, the same warm tones as today and with familiar, worn by the years and still standing amid the forever bustling city.

Rome from above

Rome from above

From the height of the Janiculan hill we descended into Trastevere, a maze of colour, antique doors, locals and a more authentic feeling of Rome than any of the other areas. I suspect it’s becoming more and more well known to tourists, but I hope that the influx won’t take away the feeling of older days and independence from the area ‘beyond the Tiber’.

Trastevere

Trastevere

From Trastevere we headed back to the river, and continued south to Testaccio. As we crossed the river I saw a fountain on a round-about, decorated with amphora, a definite hint that we were headed in the right direction. The suburb of Testaccio is named after a hill, and not any ordinary hill.

The hill began it’s life around 100 CE, when the area was designated as an olive oil amphora dump, and Romans being Romans, each year more amphora were neatly stacked, until the dump was abandoned and gradually the bustle faded away. Soon it was covered in dirt and trees grew on the heights, roots pushing through the hard shards beneath. In medieval times people threw animals down in carts for festivals, and later a city was built around it again and with it came archaeologists who dug down into the strata of pottery to answer questions about the people who had created a hill from scraps. There was no access to the hill, but we walked all the way around it, spotting here and there fragments of pottery on the hill sides, and a bar that’s back wall featured a cross section behind glass.

A hill of amphorae

A hill of amphorae

Time was drawing on so we decided to head back to the hotel, feet now a bit sore from the almost non-stop walking. On the way we bought some supplies from an old-fashioned grocery store, where the till had a wooden drawer and the owner wandered around recommending the best pasta. Soon we were at the Circus Maximus, and not long after we were in the hotel, happily unloading our bags and jackets and having a rest before a home-made dinner of pasta and local wine.

The steps to Trastevere

The steps to Trastevere

The eye of Rome

For our second day in Rome the sunny weather continued and in addition to blue skies and warm skin as we had breakfast in the piazza, we were treated to singing. Firstly from someone who was quite drunk but very enthusiastic and then from the Sunday morning service in the church, which was less enthusiastic and much more harmonious.
We then headed to the Colosseum, where we realised that my partner didn’t have his pass (you can buy a pass to the Forum, the Palatine and the Colosseum that lasts 3 days – very good value) so we trekked back to the hotel, but had no luck. By the time we had returned to the Colosseum the line had lengthened signifiantly, so we decided to visit my favourite monument instead, and return later.

By a hilarious turn of events, it turns out that the reason we couldn’t find his ticket was that he hadn’t had one. My ticket was for two. Not really very funny at the time, as we worked it out a day after it had expired, but once we stopped the face-palming we decided that yes, one day it would be funny.

So, which is my favourite monument in Rome? Some hints: ancient, beautifully made, the building I previously compared the Hagia Sofia to and the only building I’ve been in that I can imagine breathing. Need another hint? It has an eye.
For those that guessed the Pantheon, you are correct! I didn’t think much of it before I’d visited Rome years ago, but since those first steps inside and peering up at the dome, there was no doubt which was the finest ancient building in Rome.

Cat sanctuary near Pompey's theatre

Cat sanctuary near Pompey’s theatre

Our walk there from the Colosseum took us past Trajan’s column, more remnants of the markets and the ruins of Pompey’s Theatre, the site of Julius Caesar’s murder. The last is now a cat sanctuary, and included many felines basking in the sun, wandering around the ancient stones or relaxing on an ancient altar stone.
We soon reached the Pantheon, walking between it’s massive pillars and towards the doorway, and stepping inside looked up and waited for our eyes to adjust to the slight gloom. Looking up at the bright circle of sky in the oculus, you can’t initially make out the details of the dome, but when you can pull your eyes away from the sunlight it’s a wonderful vision. Very ordered and purposeful, as with most Roman art, the squares within squares formed a dome that seemed to be reaching out and upwards, even without the gold and bright paint that once covered it. The openness of the space inside the building makes me think of lungs filling with air.

Light in the Pantheon

Light in the Pantheon

There were of course crowds in there, taking photos and being toured about, but when your gaze is constantly pulled upwards you don’t notice that too much. We spent a while in there, sitting on the pews (it is now a church, which I suppose is why it hadn’t been razed) and staring around, and taking it all in.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The next stop was a gelaterie that had blown my mind during my last visit. I forgot to count the flavours, but I’d guess at least 50, and all delicious. I settled on the creme caramel and profiterole flavours, and it was about as amazing as you may be imagining. And yes, it did include miniature profiteroles.
As I slowly ate my icecream, my partner led us to the Piazza Navona, a busy square filled with artists and tourists. We then went on to Campo de’Fiori, a smaller square full of stalls selling pasta, spices, truffles, fruit and vegetables. We had lunch in one of the restaurants lining the square, and were treated to a very good busking quartet.

Pomegranates in Campo de'Fiori

Pomegranates in Campo de’Fiori

Then we headed in the direction of the Tiber through the maze of streets, and having found her spotted Isola Tibertina. Ancient myths say that the island was formed from silt building up around the body of the last king of Rome, who had been lynched and thrown into the river. I imagine that if everyone thrown into the river had turned into islands, there would be no need for bridges. At some point marble and other stone was added around the shores, giving it the shape of a ship, which you can still make out. Today a hospital sits on the island, near where a temple to Aesculapius the god of healing once stood.

Tiber flowing by Tibertina

Tiber flowing by Tibertina

We made a circuit of the island, along the marble steps that were littered with drift wood or flooded by the Tiber rushing past. Trees have grown up around the edges of the island, and scraps of plastic bags, socks even chairs stuck in the branches give an indication of how high the tide can reach, and how much trash the old river must be carrying. Walking right next to the flow, close enough to tip your toes in, I could see how fast and powerful it was.

Rubbish trees on Tibertina

Rubbish trees on Tibertina

As we crossed back across one of the bridges, I saw an artist next to her display of watercolours, some of which I really liked. We reached the other side of the bridge with a painting that I’m hoping to frame soon, and a recommendation of a place to visit when we hired a car.

Following the river we came across two temples, without any plaques or signs to mark them out. I have since found out that they were the Temple of Portunus and Temple of Hercules Victor, and are in such good shape partly due to being converted into churches. It felt a bit bizarre to have spent so much time wandering around ruins, and then to come across two buildings that seemed almost intact, standing anonymously in a park next to a road.

Temple of Hercules Victor

Temple of Hercules Victor

From here it was a short walk to the Circus Maximus, and approaching from the short end to the west we could take in the size of it. Sitting on remnants of stairs, we imagined how it must have been like to be sitting in the same place many years ago, watching a triumph or race, and being deafened by the crowds all around us.

The Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus

After a relatively short walk back to the hotel via the Colosseum, and a short rest, we went out for dinner. I had found a piazza we hadn’t yet visited, so we headed there, only to find that it was little more than a carpark with a fountain. Getting hungry we walked on and came across the Trevi fountain. It is extremely touristy, but impressive all the same, especially at night when the marble looks golden under the lights.

Trevi fountain

Trevi fountain

Around the corner we found a cosy restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal with wine, though were still hungry when we left. While getting lost on our way back we stumbled across another restaurant, decorated to look like an ancient Roman taberna. In authentic style, the walls were covered in garish frescoes and mosaics, and at the back a harpist played, so we couldn’t really walk past it. The atmosphere outweighed the food and drink, but it was worth it for a taste of old Rome.

After this we slightly tipsily made our way back to the hotel, to rest for another day of wandering.

The heart of Rome

Apartments in Monti

Apartments in Monti

Saturday dawned bright and sunny for our first full day in Rome.
Or at least I assumed it did, as our rented apartment was at the bottom of the lightwell, with one big window, so to get an idea of the weather we had to go outside and peer up past the many floored apartment buildings to the little square of sky. The positive of this is that, as a historical geek, I felt as though we were staying in an ancient insula, albeit one with very good plumbing. Out on the street the apartment buildings reared up above the cobbled streets, the buildings a mix of warm shades from red to yellow, with those lucky enough to have morning sun opening their shutters to let it in.

The colourful Suburra

The colourful Suburra

On the advice of hotel staff we headed to the local piazza, which turned out to be a neat little square with a fountain in the centre, and a church, and cafes facing on to it. In one corner a mother was playing a game of catch with her three daughters, and all the time locals and occasionally tourists were passing by, many headed to the end of the steet, where the Colosseum loomed. Before we could explore the ancient sights though we had a bit of shopping to do, mostly bits and pieces we hadn’t known to pack. A quick trip up the Via Cavour, peering down in the Suburra and avoiding the multitude of salesmen, and it was sorted, and then we set out for the heart of Rome.

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum sits in the valley between the Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine hills, and though only remnants remain today (boo, Pope Julius II, boo) it’s possible to see echoes of what it must have been like. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the ruins, taking photos and pointing out our favourite monuments. Having more time and more knowledge than when I visited last, I was able to spot things I’d missed and enjoyed more little fragments of the past, such as the game boards carved into the steps of the Basilica Julia and an olive tree, a fig tree and a vine planted where the same had apparently stood during Roman times, mostly dwarfed by the monuments around them.

Olive, fig, vine

Olive, fig, vine

To my excitement the Curia, or Senate house, was open (it had been shut for some reason last time) and I almost ran up the stairs and through the thick curtains in the doorway. Inside I was surprised by how bare it was, and I had thought that it had been stripped while being turned into a church, but apparently it had been more or less the same originally. Aside from the exhibition set up around the sides and friezes standing around, it is mostly unchanged, the three low steps still visible, the original marble floors still intact, and its height dwarfing everyone inside.

What struck me most was how moved I was at being there. Even though it wasn’t the site of all of Cicero’s speeches, Octavian’s coup or the murder of Caesar, due to the somewhat infamous Clodius, it was the site of so much history before and after. So many important decisions were made in that space, and so much of the everyday running of the Republic and then the Empire, and for me the space felt almost sacred, and alive with history.

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

We eventually left the Curia for the sunshine, and continued our explorations, admiring the temples and unwieldy cobblestones and making our way up to the Palatine. I hadn’t really had much time to explore this area before, so much of what we saw was new, and generally on a massive scale. The word palace comes from this hill, though the ruins and garden that are there now don’t convey the grandeur of the Forum. While we were searching for the ‘huts of Romulus’, the apparent location of the first settlements during the Bronze age which had been partly excavated by Augustus, guards began to blow their whistles and indicate that it was time to leave. We were all herded out, onto the now slightly darkening streets, and wondered what to do next.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

In order to better fit in with the Mediterranean style of life, we decided to have a rest before heading out, and on the way back bought some groceries for a quiet night in. Also local wine, obviously. When we headed out again apertivo hour was in full swing, and we found a little bar that was just right. As we sipped beer and snacked on little pastries, olives, vegetables and tasty delights, it seemed like the Italians were certainly on to something with their whole eating situation. After a dish of pasta and seafood I was in absolutely no doubt.
Very full and very satisfied, we went back to the hotel to rest and prepare for another day in Rome.

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun

A city of stories

As many of those who read this blog will know, I have something of an interest in ancient history and ancient Rome in particular. As with all cultures in human history they had very different perspectives on some things, and in others were like a mirror to ourselves. Satire, roads, incredible engineering, public baths, the manumission of slaves and a dogged refusal to surrender all fascinate me. Their traces can be found all over Europe and beyond, but the heart of society was in their old, smelly, beautiful and lively capital, spreading down from the 7 hills into the former marshes below and over the river.

Why am I waxing lyrical about Rome, you may ask? Well my first answer would be because it’s a day ending in y, and the second is that Rome was the destination of the mysterious trip last week.

Actually Rome.

I had suspected it, as I’d come up with a list of possible locations try though I might to avoid guessing. Rome was in the top three, so my reaction when we arrived at the airport and looked at the destination of the next flight was a mix of excitement and my suspicions being confirmed. Also being unable to speak very much due to said excitement. Eventually words did return to me and we were able to begin to plan the week ahead.
We had both been to Rome before, myself once 6 years ago and my partner twice, the last being in 2009. We had seen the well known locations and had favourite highlights, so we decided this would be the perfect opportunity to see the other places, that we hadn’t had time for or hadn’t known about, and re-walk our favourite streets and gaze at our favourite monuments together.

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

For the flights out and back my partner had pre-booked seats, right at the front, so we got priority check-in and a front row seat to the goings on of the cabin crew. Heading out we were entertained by a very Italian airhost and the fact that the co-pilot’s surname was ‘Ace’.

By the time we’d landed, got to the city, walked to the hotel and been shown to our apartment, we were pretty tired, though not enough not to want to start the explorations and hopefully eat something. Our rented apartment was in Monti, between the Viminal and Equiline hills, right in the centre of what many years ago was the Subura. In ancient times the Subura was the slum of Rome, the dangerous, dirty mess lurking in the shade of the Imperial Forums and the more middleclass areas on the surrounding hills. You didn’t got there unless you had no choice or had a death wish. Nowadays it’s a maze of twisting streets, tiny piazzas, cars and scooters hurtling around corners and boutique shops. Plus wonderful cafes and restaurants. From the door of our apartment we could stare down the long street to the Colosseum, buttressed with scaffolds but recognisably huge.
It was to this immense and familiar monument that we headed, after having the first of many pasta dishes that we would enjoy that week, at a glittery street restaurant around the corner. Carbed up we continued towards the ancient amphitheatre.

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum is huge, and the size is generally the first thing you notice as you approach and crane your neck upwards to take it all in. Up close you can’t fit it all in your line of sight, despite half of the outer wall being lost to an earthquake a long time ago. I don’t think it’s only the size of the building that draws people, but the precision and grace of its construction. Each arch is identical, the even layers piled neatly on top of one another with the confident grace that for me characterises the best Roman works.
I have to confess that while I’m impressed by the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre, I don’t like it as much as other buildings in Rome. I’ll hopefully get into that when I describe my visit to the Pantheon, in the next but one update.

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

So as we wandered around lit-up monuments, I got a request from my mum to wave to a webcam she had found near the Colosseum. As the directions got a bit confused we wandered some more, staring at security cameras and looking for men in red jackets, until we had to call in a night, it being about 2 in the morning by this stage.

With a last look at the hulk of the Colosseum we turned our backs and heading into Monti, to get some rest before we properly launched our explorations of Rome in daylight.