The Tuscan Province of Lucca

The Tuscan Province of Lucca

The beautiful and historic province of Lucca is an area that reminds us why Tuscany is on the wish-list of most people to visit. Situated on the northwestern coast of Italy, Lucca borders the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, the provinces of Massa e Carrara to the northwest, Pisa to the south, Pistoia to the northeast and Firenze to the east. To the north it abuts the region of Emilia-Romagna.

The capital of the province is the city of Lucca. Located in the Serchio Valley, in a fertile plain near the Tyrrhenian Sea, the city was founded by the Etruscans during the third century BC and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. The rectangular grid of its historical center still preserves the Roman street plan.

During the middle ages, Lucca was an important fortress city and in the 11th century, it became a major center for the silk trade. Within a century, it disengaged from the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor and for the next 500 years, Lucca strove to maintain and often regain its independent status.

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In 1343, the city came under the control of Pisa. This lasted until 1373, when, with the help of the Emperor Charles IV of Bohemia, it became self-governing again. After a brief period of independence, the city became a Duchy once more, under the rule of Paolo Guinigi. During the second half of the 15th century, led by a new Republican government, Lucca succeeded in re-establishing itself and regaining importance on the European front, driven by strong trade and skilled bankers. Between the years 1400 and 1500, the city changed its look, abandoning the medieval towers and erecting the imposing walls that still characterize it today.

Lucca thrived in peace and remained a republic until 1799, when the city was invaded by Napoleon’s troops. The French leader permitted the city to keep its independence until 1805, when it became a constitutional principality ruled by the Emperor’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi and her husband, Felice.

In 1815, after the Congress of Vienna, Lucca came under the control of Maria Luisa of Bourbon, but 32-years later her son, Charles turned over the city’s control to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, causing it to lose its independence. During the second half of the 19th century, Lucca enjoyed another prosperous period of economic development, driven by its thriving textile and paper industries.

Through the 20th century, the city continued on the path of economic development, until the Second World War. Although Lucca was spared from bombings, the city was witness to great turmoil in close vicinity, including the infamous massacre of Sant’Anna di Stazzema.

Much of Lucca’s rich and fascinating history can be found within the city if one simply looks around. There are archeological remains under the 12th century church of Saints Giovanni and Reparata (the city’s first cathedral), as well as the various towers and villas that date from the 12th to 16th centuries. But it is the city’s walls that first catch the attention of every visitor.

It is rather extraordinarily that as the city grew and modernized, the more than 2.5 miles of walls that surrounded the old town were maintained. This was not the case for many other cities in Tuscany, including Florence. As the walls lost their military importance, the top of the walls became a pedestrian promenade, today one of Lucca’s main attractions. The area is beautifully maintained, with grass and trees along the walls, which in essence, have become a park that surrounds the city. Here you will find the perfect place to enjoy a gelato or simply rest from sightseeing on one of the many shaded benches that line the main walkway.

As you cross the walls into the city, you enter the heart of what is commonly referred to as the “city of one hundred churches.” One of the most popular places to visit is the Duomo. It is home to beautiful art masterpieces, such as Ilaria del Carretto’s Tomb by Jacopo della Quercia and the Volto Santo, a wooden crucifix of the Holy Face and the ancient symbol of the city.

Another important house of worship is the Church of San Michele al Foro. It is located in the square of the same name in the heart of the historic center and is set along the most famous street of Lucca, Il Fillungo. Here visitors find the most important and prestigious stores in the city, a must for those interested in shopping.

From Fillungo, you can get to almost everywhere in the town center, so most make their way over to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. As you stand inside the oval-shaped space, you can clearly see that the buildings were constructed around the original elliptical structure of a Roman amphitheatre from 2,000 years before. Many local restaurants and shops look onto the square where, during the summer, events and concerts often take place. Nearby is the famous Torre Guinigi. The roof garden is a popular attraction and was built when the Guinigi family ruled Lucca. They created the garden as a symbol of the town’s rebirth while under their control. Not far away is the National Art Gallery, situated in the 17th century Palazzo Mansi. It contains a highly-praised and impressive collection by Italian artists, especially from the Renaissance period.

Outside of the city, via Francigena passes through the town of Altopascio which was well-known by the pilgrims from the north heading to the crusades. This trail has been revitalized and offers lovely scenery within the quaint town. Just north of the town, travelers reach the tiny town of Montecarlo. This is where the wine country of the province begins. But before stopping at the local vineyards (several offer tastings and visits to their wine cellars), take a tour of the Rocca del Cerruglio. This fortified village was founded in 1333 to defend Lucca against the troublesome city-state to the east – Florence.

Many historic villas dot the landscape of the province, but among the most impressive is Villa Torrigiani. Although dating to the 15th century, restyling characterized the next few centuries and today it stands as one of the best examples of Baroque architecture in Tuscany. The villa still maintains not only the gardens, but much of the original decor and artwork from the period. Its styling was fashioned after Versailles and for many, since it is located only a few miles northeast of Lucca, a visit becomes the highlight of their travels to the province.

The beauty of the province extends also westward to the Tyrrhenian Sea. Along the coast, Versilia is known for its extensive beaches, while the Migliarino-San Rossore-Massaciuccoli Natural Park is known for its dunes as well as it wetlands. The principal resorts of the province are located in Viareggio, Lido di Camaiore, Pietrasanta and Forte dei Marmi. Viareggio is also known around the world for its colorful and vibrant Carnevale celebration, where its outrageous parade of floats is always the most colorful in all of Italy.

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