“I was offered a free villa in Hollywood, but I said no thank you, I prefer to live in Italy.”
– Ennio Morricone
Travel is a privilege that gives us the opportunity to observe, and hopefully learn from, cultures and customs that are not our own; especially when it comes to food traditions. Some places shock us with their infinite array of seemingly bizarre delicacies made from parts of the animal that we dare not pronounce. Palermo, Sicily’s marvellously chaotic capital, is a shining example. Every lunch hour locals gather in clusters, jostling together cheek by jowl on hot, bustling sidewalks to savour the centuries old street food known as pane ca meusa. This arguably mouth-watering sandwich is heaped with a steaming mound of cow spleen, lung, and trachea, all boiled together and fried in pig lard, put on a bun, and sprinkled with ricotta and caciocavallo. Buon appetitio! – some would say. Yet, while I am not about to join those throngs of famished Sicilians in their quest for the perfect spleen sandwich, I have discovered, over the many years spent travelling around this diverse and fascinating island, that the strength of the Sicilian character comes from the unsatiable necessity to uncover beauty in even the humblest of circumstances.
Italy is a place that, for those of us who have fallen for her extravagant charms, buries itself deep within the marrow of our desire to live life with an uninhibited enthusiasm. Italians seem to have perfected the Art of Living Well, in the same way that Australians have patented the nonchalant notion of She’ll be Right Mate, and the English have refined the age-old tradition of How to Form a Line Politely and Without Delay. From the vertiginous, snow-capped alps of Alto Adige in the country’s far north, to the tiny winding, geranium filled alleyways that snake the seaside town of Otranto, on the southern coast of Puglia, and down into the jewel of the Mediterranean that is Sicily, you will find a dizzying array of cultural, regional, and agricultural differences that make Italy one of the most diverse countries on the planet. Yet, regardless of position or wealth, status, or origin, above all else Italians hold sacred the concept of beauty. This inextricable ideal of beauty lies not only in the tangible surroundings of home or place, but it also extends to a full and happy life filled with moments of joy found in the everyday, and of the love and connection to family. You may not ‘have it all’, but you can have a beautiful life. It is this strength of Italian character that continually pulls me back to a country that I fell in love with all those years ago.
“We had never before been to Italy in May, and it is truly the most wonderful month. The Lucchese countryside is a riot of colour and scent.“
― Louise Badger
There are some places I return to again and again during my travels around Italy. Because of family connections in Lake Como, in the region of Lombardy in Italy’s north, I spent many wonderful summers exploring this stunning area. The tiny villages scattered along the lake’s edge resemble resplendent jewels adorning a shimmering cerulean crown, and although my sister-in-law has long since left, I will continue to return whenever life allows. She now lives blissfully ensconced in the Tuscan countryside, on the very edge of Florence, enveloped by gnarled old olive trees and an expanse of secluded countryside dotted with fruit laden apple trees and the occasional visit by obtrusive wild boars. Feeling fortunate to now live so close to a country that I adore, and to be able to visit my husband’s sister in her heavenly home is a joy I prefer not to waste.
With family visiting from Australia, it was the ideal moment to flee to Tuscany for a week of much needed sunshine and a healthy dose of gluten-heavy fare. After a few days of respite, Dan and I caught the early train from Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence, to the perfectly compact and far less crowded town of Lucca, only a stone’s throw from the west coast of Tuscany. Lucca has been high on my Must Visit list for as long as I can remember.
“Italy and London are the only places where I don’t feel to exist on sufferance.”
– E.M. Forster
With Florence in the grip of an unseasonal heatwave we reasoned that surely a town only a mere 30km from the coastline would be infinitely, or at least marginally, cooler that the soup bowl that Florence transforms into when the temperatures soar above thirty degrees. Fortunately, all thoughts of weather quickly melted away once we stepped within the ancient, thickset stone walls that enfold the town. Lucca is encased, like a precious jewel, within the Renaissance walls that were originally constructed during the 16th Century to fortify the city. Now a wonderful but intact vestige they simply encircle the old town, stretching for more than four kilometres, and providing a scenic foot and bicycle path with expansive views over the town below. Lucca’s Mura di Lucca is one of the most impressive, and well-preserved city walls in Europe.
At the time of completion, it was possible to enter the town through only six gates, each strategically located along the wall, and guarded around the clock by steadfast soldiers, ready and willing to defend their beloved city from marauding attacks. Today, there are a vast number of entry points into the town, and on this warm summer morning Dan and I find ourselves simply following the smattering of what we assume to be tourists, with their sun starved complexions and practical, sturdy walking shoes, towards one of the many gateways into Lucca. Entering the historical centre is not simply a matter of turning a knob and walking through a doorway, Lucca’s ancient, sturdy walls must be entered and absorbed; you do not simply pass through the walls, you linger within the enveloping coolness, protected from the unrelenting Tuscan sun for just a few moments until stepping out into a beautifully preserved Renaissance gem of a town.
When I was a girl, my expectations soared. I imagined unrealistic scenarios of wonderful destinations, that for the most part, were concoctions of my illustrious imagination. My mind went into overdrive, envisioning all kinds of made-up realities that were far too extravagant to be poised in any sense of sensibility. I was, in short, a little too big for my boots. I wanted my imaginings to come to fruition and was not the least bit prepared for the inevitable slap of actuality. I had inordinately high expectations that were bound to be reliably shot down. Over the years, with a little more travel experience under my belt, I have learnt to embrace a town or city for the beautifully complicated place that it is, warts and all, as they say. As a travel writer, I am all too aware that the written word, wrapped in the lens of a photographer’s eye, can colour a place, giving it an unrealistic aura of picturesque perfection that can be far removed from the real image. Lucca’s virtues have been slowly revealed to me over the last few years by friends, or friends of friends, who have been fortunate enough to wander within those embracing walls. Yet, there are many things that can cloud a person’s judgement of a place and I am aware that the love for a place can have as much to do with the company one keeps, the weather one experiences, and the food one eats, as it can on the glory of the destination itself. Therefore, with the wisdom of travel, and perhaps a little of age, I travelled to Lucca with lowered expectations. I was more than pleasantly surprised.
Stepping out from beneath the cool embrace of Lucca’s ancient walls, I was greeted by the magnificent Gothic Romanesque façade of the Cattedrale di San Martino, the town’s first, but not only, working cathedral. After the breathtaking splendour of Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore, the square may appear a bit devoid of character at first glance, with its wide-open spaces and multitude of different architectural styles. But if you can find a quiet corner to sit and admire the chalk-white facade, you will begin to feel how the entire scene emanates a kind of soft tranquillity. We sat mesmerised while a group of young local boys transformed the grassy expanse beside the cathedral into their own football field, the monumental starkness of the exterior only serving to minimize the players to toy size.
As the town unfolded, I was still hesitant to believe the beauty that lay before me. It was an exceptional summer morning, and the tree lined street that escorted us to the heart of the town was marvellously quiet, with only the hum of coffee machines emanating from the near-empty bars. Life in Lucca was just beginning to awaken, and coffee lovers in need of their mid-morning caffeine hit were slowly making their way outdoors. Still in a state of walking slumber from our early train journey we headed for the closest bar for a freshly squeezed orange juice with plenty of ice. Coffee would have to wait. Sufficiently hydrated, and in true Italian style, we began to plan our day around lunch. With no itinerary in mind, we trawled the internet until we found Buca di Sant’Antonio, a Lucca institution, that, given its old-school charm and central location, sandwiched between Piazza dell’Anfiteatro and Piazza Napoleone, could easily have fallen the way of the tourist trap. Instead, well-turned-out locals continue to show up for traditional Tuscan dishes and the authentic, small-town ambience. In winter, diners can warm up on the wraparound leather bench beneath the copper pots adorning the ceiling; and in sunnier months, snag a table on the terrace, as we did. We called ahead and made a reservation and were glad that we had as we watched with empathy as disappointed, hungry would-be-diners were swiftly turned away.
“Travelling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.”
– Fanny Burney
Originally captivated by the opportunity to traverse around the perimeter of the wall and onwards through the town itself, we intended to hire bicycles. However, with limited time until our late afternoon train back to Florence, we decided that the easiest way to explore Lucca was on foot. We wanted the luxury of meandering the hidden alleyways, stopping to gaze into shop windows at the array of unique and distinctive pieces, or to sit quietly and admire the extravagant details of the surrounding architecture. We stumbled upon a darling little shop Chocolat Lucca that was brimming with lavish displays piled high with handmade chocolates laced with cumin, cherry, sea salt, almond, and big, juicy chunks of spicy ginger. Carefully considered apothecary jars filled with sweet delights adorned the shop window and antique chocolate paraphernalia were arranged throughout the space. Leaving empty handed was not a logical option, and we chose a selection of decadent morsels to accompany us on the train ride home.
Even the tiniest of Italian hillside towns have a pretty piazza, a sanctuary where the locals congregate in order to while away the evening hours. In Lucca, a town known as the “City of a Hundred Churches”, there seem to be nearly as many piazzas to accommodate these myriad places of worship. Each corner turned seemed to reveal yet another perfectly placed piazza, entwined by golden buildings in a mishmash of architectural styles, and embellished with an ornately carved statue or two. The calm and relatively small number of visitors in Lucca was a welcome reprieve from the throngs of tourists that congested the sidewalks of Florence. Lucca has retained its historic beauty, yet contemporary life has happily made its home within those ancient, protective walls, creating a harmonious balance between old and new.