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.

Advertisements

Things that don’t change

I am happy to announce that my jetlag is over, yay! I have also ceased to giggle at Australian accents, although once or twice I have drifted to the right side of the road. Fortunately only my nana was there to briefly panic and suggest the other side might be better, so no incidents occurred.

The stainglass window in Forrest Chase

The stainglass window in Forrest Chase

This past week was a bit less planned out than next week, so on Monday I found myself at loose ends. My partner had started working so was unavailable for adventures, as were most other people I know, so I decided to head into ‘the city’. I still can’t help but think of it in inverted commas, despite the constant growth. Like a younger sibling, I’ve seen it grow, and grown up with it. From visits to the museum with mum and grandma to see the whale skeleton, to wandering up to 78 Records with my school friends, to working in A. B. Facey House and then after work drinks in new, crowded bars. And like a younger sibling, I have an irresistible urge to condescend, just a little bit.

London Court

London Court

It has grown since I was last there, though is still in flux, with giant stretches of construction sites and cranes peeping among the towers. I suppose some day it’ll be finished, but it won’t happen while the boom is still booming.

Perth from South Perth

Perth from South Perth

I caught the train in from Midland, and for those who know Midland, it is still very much Midland.

Midland train station

Midland train station

Once in the city I wandered, discovering that the final cinema in the city is gone and that otherwise little has changed. One of my favourite restaurants, The Greenhouse, is still there and I had a lovely lunch, which included the finest lemonade and the third best dessert I’ve ever had.

Lemonade

Lemonade

I then did a tiny bit of shopping and decided to catch the ferry across the river, because why not. Once across I took pictures of the city, and then strolled back around the river, with the sun in my eyes and the familiar trees and the walk warming me up.

The next day I had scheduled lunch with my dad, and then dinner at the house of 2 very good friends. I got up, baked an apple pie for dinner, then headed out to see my dad. It was a day and night of food and conversation, and wonderful company, and I finished by feeling extremely replete, and not just in my very full belly.

An apple pie

An apple pie

On Wednesday morning I drove down to Mandurah, where my nana lives, to spend the night. She is my father’s mother, and has lived down there for as long as I can remember. I have many childhood memories of christmas holidays spent at the beach, and lounging around the old house. I can remember the hot bitumen as we ran barefoot from the old red 4wd to the sand, the tides forming new sand banks each time we visited, the slick slatherings of suncream on my skin, the old fashioned music in the car and the sand that built up in the shower as we rinsed off the salt-water.

The summer beach

The summer beach

Creamy mashed potato, the old piano, playing with my cousin, trips to the shops, movies in the lounge and the hours of quiet reading and cards as the afternoon drew on. Years later the furniture has been moved around, the beaches seem smaller and the house still smells and feels the same. A constant, like lamingtons, the wisdom of old ladies and a cup of tea.

I also chatted to my nana about her father, who my father had found more information about prior to my return. She has vague memories of the man, who left when she was 6 (or more likely was told to go my her mother), and then returned years later when she had children herself, not recognising her and demanding to know who was living in his house. Not wanting to disturb her mother, she didn’t identify herself, and he left in a taxi, only to die, probably alone, a few years later. It was just one part of the tragedy of the man’s life, decided in large part when he signed up to the Australian Army in 1917, claiming the age of 18 but in fact 16. My father’s research says that he was sent to the Somme, probably as a reinforcement after the battle of the previous year. What he saw there we’ll never know, but he came back damaged, apparently never able to settle and often on the bottle. My father traced his grave, a bare patch of earth with the small numbered plaque, partially covered in sand. Soon we hope to give him back his name, something that I wish the countless other numbered graves could also receive.

My great-grandfather

My great-grandfather

After I returned home from Mandurah, I drove over to a house where I have spent many days and evenings, and where another man damaged by the war spent the last of his years. Since high school I have whiled away hours at the KSP writer’s centre, writing, talking and working, and this being a Thursday I did what must be done: I went to the Thursday Night Group. The group meets to read out their work, critique that of others and drink wine and prior to moving to Sweden I spent most thursdays there, laughing, chatting and discussing the work that brought us all together week after week. Many of the usuals were still there, reading out new stories or poems, making very poor fowl related puns and kindly pulling apart each others writing. As with the house in Mandurah, it was another constant, unchanging, reliable and often quite silly.

Then finally on Friday I went into the city again, this time with a purpose. Before I moved to Sweden I had worked for one state government agency for about 3 years, so there were many memories and friends there, that I wanted to visit. There were a few doubletakes from those who didn’t know I’d be there, and questions about how I was, how Sweden was and what I was doing. Government agencies in my experience rarely change fundamentally, despite cuts, freezes and policy changes. The day to day goes on as always, and those I met seemed mostly as they had been when I left, if slightly busier. After wandering about surprising people for a while I headed out with a few particular cronies and spent the next few hours in another aspect of government service which is unchanging – the afterwork drink.

Gums in Guildford

Gums in Guildford

Next week I will be even busier, catching up with those I haven’t had a chance to see yet and spending some final hours with my family. Soon enough I’ll be back in Sweden, with Australia again another memory. Then in a year we’ll return, and I hope have a few days without rain.