Lucca & Pisa
June 2023
More photos here


During the COVID years I'd had a guided art history trip to Lucca first postponed and then finally cancelled, and then last October another guided trip there was booked but I had to cancel it when a COVID jab resulted in so much leg pain I couldn't walk. So to lift the curse I've booked a solo trip, in combination with a few days in Pisa to finish a churches page I began before the pandemic.
Wednesday 7th
Afternoon flight, trouble-free journey to Heathrow, short queue at automated bag-drop, and no wait at all at security or at Pret for the veggie New Yorker and mango juice. But then boarding was delayed, we took off late, and arrived about half an hour late in Pisa. (In flight I asked for my usual black coffee and shortbread, and the attendant asked if I wanted English Breakfast or Earl Grey. When I restated 'black coffee' she said 'yes you want it black but which type?' She eventually realised her mistake, but the whole exchange had a weird scripted Monty Python feel.) Then the baggage carousel at Pisa airport jammed and after some waiting and confusion the rest of our luggage started appearing on a different carousel. My hope of catching the 7.20 train from Pisa Centrale was thereby dashed, but by catching the 8.50 I got to meet Ilene and Gary of  The journey flew by, thanks to story-swapping and Lucca gelateria tips, and they also helpfully walked me to my hotel, the Ilaria, where my welcome was equally warm. When I reported on my airport problems the desk clerk said 'Oh you came in at Pisa airport then'.

Thursday 8th
A good quiet night, but having got in late last night too tired  to venture out and eat I sure needed my breakfast. A good sized mug of black coffee, tasty granola, fresh croissants and (gasp!) good fresh orange juice earned the hotel high marks. But the airy breakfast room filled up, and exploration beckoned. But after a slice of apple cake. And some more coffee.

I decided to have an investigatory wander on my way to the Duomo and confirmed my impression that Lucca sure has a lot of churches. The Duomo has an impressive exterior and is famous for the Volto Santo: a crucifix supposedly carved by Nicodemus and miraculously transported to Lucca in 782. It usually lives in an octagonal tempietto in the nave but it's currently laid out in the left transept in a plywood restoration lab. The right transept is a feast tombs for fans of local Renaissance sculptor Matteo Civitali. In the sacristy nearby is the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto Guinigi by Jacopo della Quercia. The altarpiece in there was my highlight, a shining panel by Ghirlandaio.

Across the Duomo's picturesque piazza is Santi Giovanni e Reparata. which has a rather lovely Romanesque interior. but is now deconsecrated and devoted to Puccini concerts. It's north transept is a large baptistery, with some nice fresco panels and considerable archaeological remains below.

Lunch was a mozzarella and tomato panino, with lime and pepper crisps, taken back to the hotel and eaten on the first-floor terrace. Tea was then taken in my room before my traditional siesta.

Afterwards I walked the top of the wall clockwise as far as Piazzale Verdi and then came down to ground level to find some churches. San Frediano was open and I had an hour, but it was not long enough. It's a Romanesque asymmetrical treat with odd chapels and views, and was  a joy for not being busy at this time of evening. The best bit is, arguably the unusual four-bay baptistery, with two more chapels beyond, (see far right) containing a fine 12th-century font with reliefs of the story of Moses, with an odd-shaped cover. Behind it is a lunette of the Annunciation by Marco della Robbia and two fine fresco fragments. A 19th-century monument, to Lazaro Papi. provided an unusual highlight (see right) in the evening light.

After more warm walking east I ended up in L'Oste di Lucca with a pizza bufala with basil and onion and a malty Moretti La Rossa. The bill had to be paid in the sophisto food shop next door, which was odd.

In the evening my room benefited from the sound of a nearby brass band.

Friday 9th
To the church of San Michele first, One of those roughish barely-decorated well-used city centre churches, but old and pretty unrebuilt. On the inner facade is a nice 14th century fresco of the Virgin and Child and to it's left in the corner is a worn Virgin and Child statue made for the façade by the ubiquitous Matteo Civitali, but replaced outside with a copy. There's also a terracotta relief of the Virgin and Child attributed to Luca della Robbia and a Filippino Lippi panel of four saints which doesn't fit its decorated niche well, so I guess it wasn't painted for here.

Heading west and ticking off some more closed churches I ventured outside the walls to find the city cemetery. It doesn't have the reputation of the likes of Bologna and Verona but it did not disappoint. I had a good hour there but it was hot and I was somewhat unnerved by the place closing for lunch. So I headed back, through a different, and worryingly deserted dank and labyrinthine entrance through the wall, picking up a mozzarella and tomato panino and some pear and yoghurt sponge.

Afterwards I went the opposite way around the walls, so got to San Frediano quicker, for a second visit, and the nice man accepted my ticket from yesterday. Another hour was spent inside and San Frediano is set fair for a Best Church in Lucca award. Odd fresco bits, asymmetrical layout, odd chapels and a mysterious Roman pillar - what's not to like. Carrying on anti-clockwise around the mura urbane I came down to ground level and wandered, buying some expensive pear jam and mostardina toscana, and eating at La Piadineria. Their Levante was grilled veggies, hummus (crema di ceci), tomato and rocket in a folded circular flatbread, and molto tasty.

Saturday 10th
This morning I made for a couple of churches I was told would best be investigated on a Saturday, Angeli Custodi and San Francesco, and my luck was in. On my way I found Santa Maria Fuorisportam open and it had the usual Lucca grey stone interior, fresco fragments, a strigillated Christian sarcophagus adapted as a font and placed in a decorated niche, and two altarpieces by Guercino. It also has a somewhat dominating 19th century tomb in the north transept of one Antonio Mazzarosa (see detail right), a reformer and writer who died only a few weeks after unification.

The oratory of the Angeli Custodi had been described to me as 'a scream' , and it did not disappoint - a small barrel-vaulted church, but with the walls, the apse and it's arch all hugely covered in mind blowing large-scale trompe l'oeil frescos, with masses of putti, angels and garlands (see right). San Pietro Somaldi looked open but a red rope a cross the door and big flower action inside presumably presaged a wedding. San Leonardo is a sober pale green box inside, with dark blue vaulting and marble pilasters, but has a surprise large circular chapel, handsome like the best funerary chapels in monumental cemeteries, and presumably is 19th century too. San Francesco is a bit plain too - big long bare box, stripped down and cleaned up for concerts, with an impressive altar-like tomb of a bishop, with the more modest wall tombs of composers Geminiani and Boccherini opposite. The chapels either side of the apse/choir (bare but with stalls) have some nice fresco remains, but that was about it.

The Villa Guinigi art gallery nearby was opening at 12.00, so I killed 15 minutes on the old Mura Urbane and then had the gallery to myself, just me and the attendant, following me around the rooms and making calls. It started to rain just as I left the gallery, of course, and so as I neared the centre of town, and lunch, I was really quite wet. Then a regazzo sitting on a wall got up and ducked out of sight and as I passed spat into the side of my face and ran away laughing with his two mates. A nasty AND stupid ambush, as I was pretty soaked to begin with.

For my last evening I decided on another visit to the cemetery as I'd only seen one side of the old cloister. A certain cavalier attitude to fences was needed to investigate chapels and arcades where dust had been settling, birds crapping and ceilings crumbling, seemingly for decades. It's the most neglected cemetery I've visited anywhere, and the bar of care in Italy is not high. Having slipped through some fencing I disturbed a large ginger cat, who presumably sees very few people, who scarpered even before I could focus my camera.

Today's gelato: a grapefruit and almond crunch cono on the way to the cemetery; today's dinner: a piadina on the way back at the same place as last night.


 The tomb of Ilaria del Carretto Guinigi by Jacopo della Quercia





Sunday 11th
A bit of a long gap between trains to Pisa this morning - one at 10.42 then the next one at 1.12. So I made for the earlier one, which was full so I was standing. When a seat became free by the window next to a young woman she offered it to me, despite her partner standing next to me. A kind gesture, which took away the taste of yesterday's unkind episode.

My room at the Hotel Bologna wasn't to be ready until 2.00, so I left my case and went off to make a start on the church hunting. San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno had been covered in scaffolding on my last visit, way back in 2016, but it was not this time, and I had a brief look inside, as a service was on. The sweet little Cappella di Sant'Agata on the scrubby grass patch behind the church is now a cleaned-up capella on a well-maintained area of lawn, so it's now firmly fenced off. Over the river and through the Arsenale I skimmed the crowds in the Campo dei Miracoli and took a mozzarella, tomato and lettuce panino and a can of LemonSoda into the peace of Piazza Martiri della Libeta, which also has a gelateria on the corner, called Rufus, which later supplied a fior di latte and stracciapera cono, the latter flavour fondly remembered from my last visit. In fact the whole lunch, food and bench, was a replay of the lunches last time. Wandering back I found San Francesco free of the all-covering scaffolding of last time, but the weeds and remaining fencing still looked sad. I ticked off a couple more on the way back to claiming my room for my siesta. I'd booked a double for single use but the room has a double bed and a single bed. Odd.

After my snooze I made a list and planned a route to find some churches that I'd totally missed last time. Santa Maria del Carmine couldn't be nearer to my hotel, it had a famous Carpaccio altarpiece (the centre panel now in the National Gallery), it has been undergoing restoration, due to finish last year, and it couldn't be more covered in scaffolding. More luck north of the Arno, followed by a Filet-o-Fish and finding an impressive procession from out of the Duomo.

Monday 12th
There are many shades of **** hotels, are there not? Here at the Bologna is a step down from the Ilaria - the paintwork is scuffed and chipped in places, the hot water takes a while, and the shower room is tiles not marble. Just like home then. But odder is how the staff here are all male - on the desk, but also in the breakfast room. But maybe they need to be blokes as there are so many machines! Coffee, OK, but also juices, jam and yoghurt too? Nothing else unusual about breakfast except some very loud voices.

Took some better photos and found an open church on the way to the Duomo complex. I'd pre-bought a ticket for today - €10 without the flipping tower, which is €17 more. To the Baptistery to take photos first, then into the Camposanto to get to grips with all the different fresco cycles, admire the fondly-remembered 19th-century tomb figure that looks like Scarlett Johansson, and generally confirm it as a fave place. The queues to get into the Duomo encouraged me to go visit the museum. Which is all cool and modern and dark grey with mostly sculpture, but some nice decorative stone panels and manuscripts, but only the one painted panel. The Duomo was pretty full of tourists, but I managed to wander and get the hang and take photos. Shame the east end is all roped off though. My lunch was the same as yesterday, except the salad was ruccola and the crisps were sour cream rings. And there was added thunder rumbling around and some light rain. Back at the hotel my room was being made up so I sat in reception typing up this stuff.

In the evening I went west, finding San Paolo a Ripa d'Arno open for a proper visit, but it was a but unspecial. I then crossed the river to find and photograph some small churches on the Lungarno. I returned to the hotel, deciding to try their bar's advertised veggie burger, but when I sat and tried to order I was told that they didn't do it anymore, but just left the menus pinned up and left in rooms to cause disappointment. Resorting to the other veggie option I ended up chowing down on vegetable soup with croutons and two slices of margherita pizza.

Tuesday 13th
I had the San Matteo art gallery pencilled in for today, as it was looking like rain, and indeed as I was having my breakfast by an open window torrents and darkness developed. I dashed between overhangs and trees but was well damp by the time I got to San Bernardo, a scruffy and run-down little church now run as a community arts centre. It was open because a volunteer was in to tidy up and stuff, and he was happy to let me look around and tell me how much care the local government aren't lavishing on it.

I was even damper by the time I got to the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, and was surprised to find the attached church open. A mini orthodox service was going on (see right), with a priest in all the authentic gold robes and facial hair, a younger man, and a woman with three little daughters and the voice of an angel. I sat in the darkness at the back, writing the place up, and when they'd finished and were chatting I took a few photos, thanked the man in the golden cope and complemented the woman on her voice. I used the word 'magical' and the younger man agreed with me in English - smiles all around.

The gallery has some real gems, with more medieval content than anything else. So after feasting on gold-ground polyptychs, crucifixes, and many Virgins and Children I left well sated, having seen no more than six other visitors in the couple of hours I was in there.

I went east in the now-mizzling rain to find a few odd churches outside the walls, and two them were open, and interesting! Santa Croce in Fossabranda was a little Brunelleschi-like treat of bare pale walls and pietra serena vaulting (see right) with a nice old gold ground Virgin and Child Enthroned panel in its sudden single side chapel; and San Michele di Scalzi, which was huge with a bare stone and brick interior, no altarpieces, but a leaning tower. In between I photographed a closed church, Santi Jacopo and Filippo, just as a Deliveroo driver pulled up and asked if I was his customer, and when I said I wasn't and told him what I was doing he shook me by the hand and suggested a few churches. I trudged back to my usual lunch and bench in the centre of town and picked up a Grom mango and coconut cono. When I refused a spoon, not wishing to use up plastic, the chap informed me that it was biodegradable, being made from mice. I was a little confused, until I realised that he was saying mais.

In the evening I strolled to find a couple of oddities, including a little rotunda falling to pieces on a busy road junction, called the Oratorio di San Bernardino. For my final gelato I finally tried the place on the lungarno just down the road from my hotel, and of course it was the best of the trip. Apple and ginger sorbet combined with a scoop of vanilla. And the gelaterista was communicative and liked to talk flavours. During a discussion of stracciapera he revealed that he was going to be doing stracciacocco tomorrow and suggested I have a taxi waiting to take me to the airport tomorrow when he opened. He also solved for me the puzzle of the white wooden frameworks shaped like lozenges, stripes, crosses and the like on the fronts of the buildings along the river. On Friday there's a festival where all these buildings are decked out with candles on the frameworks.

Wednesday 14th
Call me a pampered traveller with too much money, if you will, but the Hotel Bologna was just not nice enough. The worn decor, the breakfast and it's reliance on machines (even for jam), the staff in their black-t-shirt blokeishness ... just the whole feel of the place. Sorry, I need home, I think. But then again four nights at the Ilaria were
€830, whereas three at the Bologna were €468.

After a leisurely breakfast, a leisurely walk to the station and the Pisamover shuttle (€5 for what is free elsewhere, like at Gatwick) to the airport and a tediously long check-in, the security queue was not long, but I did get that random wipe down with a piece of paper. I sat in the newish large waiting area next to the old small waiting area after passport control. They announced that they would be boarding by group number (why is mine always nine?) and then there were no announcements until the final call. We left s bit late, got to Heathrow ten minutes early, but waited half an hour for the gate and for about the same time at the carousel. But my reading matter was a book of short stories by Kelly Link including one about a man who gets stranded by bad weather at an airport, sitting at various gates, while flights get postponed and cancelled, for four days, so I should be grateful, I suppose, that my experiences aren't as bad as post-apocalyptic fiction.

To sum up. Lucca I liked, and will come again. It has some likeable (and one lovable) churches,  impressively complete and walkable walls and an atmospheric neglected cemetery. Pisa is just too much of a tourist trap, a one-church town, with all the other big churches closed or in ruins. You can't help but wonder what the city would do if the tower suddenly straightened up.






Trip reading

John Spencer Hill Ghirlandaio's Daughter
I reviewed The Last Castrato, the author's first in the Detective Carlo Arbati series, set in Florence, years ago. This was number two, and begins a few months later with an elderly Brit toff, living the good life in a Guinigi mansion outside Lucca, killing a surprise American visitor with a statue. In the dead man's pocket is a piece of paper with just the word Ghirlandaio on it, and he's also found to be carrying a gun and silencer. As the Brit had been employed as a restorer by the shady art dealer who owns the villa we begin to suspect some dark art deception. As we learnt last time Mr Hill can hardly be accused of a lean writing style, and so when added to this heady brew are the various wives, maladjusted and surly children, and mistresses of the figures involved, who are mostly very hard to like, the sweaty sex and much imbibing of strong liquor, we are in for the proverbial bumpy ride. Arbati is in Lucca for a break, but can he resist helping his colleague, and the pretty American wife of the nastiest piece of work? There is plenty of local Lucca detail, including a visit to the Duomo, and the art chat rings true. There's a truth to the psychology and characters, and joy to be had with period details like Sony Discman CD players, trains with compartments and cameras that use film.
The Villa San Felice seems to be based on a real Guinigi villa in Capannori (see above), currently on sale for €10,000,000.

Guidebook corner

Brian Robert Lindquist
The Wanderer's Guide To Lucca
It's all there is in English apart from those, sometimes OK, guidebooks available in gift shops in the city itself. A good three-quarters of the book is devoted to the churches, but they are weirdly not in alphabetical order, but seemingly grouped geographically, maybe to follow a walk which was not then written. All very odd.


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