When I recently visited the ancient city of Lucca in northern Tuscany, I set myself a challenge – to discover and experience what was truly authentic, and to live every day in a way that reflected the local way of life. I believe that what I learned can be applied to a trip almost anywhere.
Lucca, situated in northern Tuscany, about 20 km from Pisa, is somewhat off the beaten tourist track. It is a walled city whose structure and antiquities have survived through the centuries. An absolute point of distinction is the 4 km of wide, unbroken walls that surround the old city. Atop these generously proportioned walls is a graceful, tree-lined boulevard that affords an opportunity to circumnavigate the old city on foot or by bicycle while gaining perspective on the overall layout. Inside the walls, architectural preservation is a priority, which means virtually every structure is centuries old. This not only makes Lucca an historic place – it makes it impossible to build large hotels or to accommodate buses. In fact, vehicular traffic in Lucca is severely limited, even for those who live there.
The result? An exquisite town of a manageable size, built and maintained on a human-scale, free of tourist hordes and comprised of real neighbourhoods where locals live their lives. Perfect for my quest!
I felt I would have a better chance to live like a local if I were ensconced in the daily hubbub of a real neighbourhood. Finding an apartment in Lucca was relatively easy, and I secured a lovely ground floor flat in a renovated 18th century building.
Upon arrival, my friends and I were greeted by the building's owner, Duccio. To ease our first days in town, our hosts had stocked the apartment with a little food and wine. They provided a map and pointed out the best places to shop for our daily needs. They made a dinner reservation for us at a lovely "local" restaurant, just down the street. This is one of the most important benefits of renting an apartment... your landlord can give you invaluable assistance regarding local services.
The apartment was spacious and clean, with modern facilities. Yet it retained the feel of an 18th century building, with its 20-foot ceilings and 10-foot windows opening directly on the Piazza de Santa Maria Fortisportam. Duccio said he liked to put little surprises in the window for people, so that when they looked up, there would be something there to make them smile. He said this as he tied the lace curtains into high, wide bows and watered the riot of bright flowers in the window boxes... I sensed Duccio knew about living in the moment and putting something special in the everyday.
Wishing "buona sera" (good evening) to our hosts, we made our way down the narrow, cobbled street, passing the young men and women who spilled from the local bar into the alley to visit and smoke and drink. We crossed under a great turreted stone archway, and there sat our destination – Gli Orti di Via Elisa – a casual restaurant frequented by locals.
Here we learned a couple of early lessons about living like a local. First, one must ask for advice and observe what locals are doing. We failed to do that, and as a result, we ordered the wrong items from the menu... Our next lesson was that in Italy (as in much of Europe) one chooses a simple meal in the evening, often having enjoyed a more elaborate one at midday.
Sunday morning began our orientation day in Lucca. I rose early and sprinted down the narrow Via della Rosa to one of eleven ramparts leading to the top of the famous Lucca walls. Once atop, I could not believe the beauty. I could look outward to gently rolling hills, studded with villas amid olive groves, set against a mountain backdrop. Or, I could look in and over the city of Lucca, with its web of terra cotta tiled rooflines going this way and that, punctuated by church spires, domes and ancient towers. On the walls themselves, the early risers were taking their shift, some jogging or cycling while others walked to church.
I headed back to the apartment, this time strolling slowly up the Via della Rosa, taking in every detail. I came upon another gem – the exquisite pasticceria where morning coffee and news flowed freely while people considered which pastry to eat now and which to take home for the family's Sunday lunch. Here I observed the ritual accompanying a retail transaction. While in North America we have become a nation of do-it-yourself shoppers, counter service is an art in Lucca. I watched as customers carefully selected pastries from the grand glass case. The shopkeeper assembled sweet treasures on a small tray, which she then wrapped in gold-hued paper and tied with curled ribbon. Suddenly a mere purchase was imbued with a special quality, like a precious gift. You want to savour the item and the experience, and so you are disinclined to rush around buying more and more... It is the triumph of quality over quantity that one will witness repeatedly in almost every corner of Europe. It is a lesson we can learn there, and I believe it is worth bringing it back home.
I recruited my friends to ride bicycles on top of the walls. This would give us the perfect opportunity to conduct a reconnaissance of the city, while burning the calories picked up in the pasticceria!
Now that the hour had turned to late morning, the complexion of people on the walls had changed. Early morning fitness buffs had been replaced by families with baby carriages, couples strolling arm-in-arm, teenaged friends giggling along, older couples with weathered faces on rickety bicycles. I wondered if there was anyone from Lucca who did not "travel the walls" on a Sunday morning!
We circumnavigated Lucca atop the walls on our bicycles. Our views down into the city changed with every curve of the wall, and when we finished, we had a great sense of where we lived in relation to other things. We understood the size and layout of the city. And we had experienced one of the most wonderful local traditions!
For the balance of our week in Lucca, we engaged in life among the locals with gusto. Mornings began with a trip down the Via della Rosa to our local bakery or pasticceria for coffee and a little something to take us through the morning. While the pasticceria proffered exquisite pastries and sweets, the bakery provided more serious sustenance – dense breads, foccaccia in an array of flavours, and a small selection of eggs, meat and cheese. Our local bakery, "Il Forno di Cei & Cianelli," was apparently in the running for the best foccaccia in Lucca!
Every morning I would sit with my coffee in the generous frame of our front window, looking out over the piazza to the gloriously simple church of Santa Maria Fortisportam. Built in a plain, monastic style like so many others in Lucca, this 12th century church is overwhelming in its simplicity and antiquity. White stucco meets brick, wood touches tile, warm sunshine escorts you into damp shadow... If you sit still, you can feel century upon century of life, right here, with all its joy and suffering.
From my early morning perch, I observed people coming in and out of a small blue door tucked into an unobtrusive corner beside the church. The second story windows were festooned with colourful cardboard cut-outs of flowers and leaves and suns, and I realized this was the local elementary school. On bicycle, by bus, on foot – parents came and went and greeted and chatted and checked their watches and looked up to the window for the wave of a small hand or the pop-up of a tousled head.
When one is a tourist, there is a tendency to see at first only those things that are staged for tourists, marked on maps and in books. This church, that villa, these stores... It takes a little time and patience to stop, sit and observe. When you do, you begin to see beyond, behind and below the tourist veneer. Almost as if by magic, the "real life" of people materializes before your eyes. It's there all along, in front of your nose, but if you don't look you won't see it. Once my "local eye" was found, I started to see daily life in all its lovely rituals and rhythms. Then I fell in love – with a place, with its people.
Living in a neighbourhood, you'll develop a repertoire of local stores and services, places you return for comfort and familiarity (just as the locals do!)
Down the Via Elisa, we came to rely on the "Antica Drogheria," which was technically a dry-goods store but in reality was an outstanding pizzeria, food shop, bar and sweet shop. The establishment was full of locals day and night - picking up daily necessities, meeting over a fresh, fabulous pizza from the wood-burning oven or stopping for a quick espresso or aperitif.
On the Piazza del Salvatore, we discovered one of the most amazing wine stores in the world. From the front door, "Enoteca Vanni" looked like any small wine shop, albeit one with a huge floor-to-ceiling inventory. At the back of the shop, the top few steps of a stone staircase came into view. Going down, we noticed a room on the left with cases of wine stacked on old wooden racks and tables. Some cases were open as if hurriedly put on display for unexpected guests. We passed another room, made a right turn down into a deeper cellar, and continued like this until we lost ourselves in this musty world. Although the shop offered an international selection, we sampled primarily from the local wine inventory, developing a quick allegiance to the light Tuscan reds. In the early evening, the front of the shop would be full of neighbours and other merchants, gathering to sample the latest wines and catch up on local gossip.
We fell in love with the Delicotezze on Via San Giorgio. Its proprietor di Isola Roberto brought together the best local meats, cheeses, olive oils and more. We were advised to taste the "cinta senese," apparently the most delicious ham in the world. An ancient breed originating in the Sienese countryside, the Cinta Senese is a black pig with a distinctive white stripe encircling the body behind the shoulders. The breed lives in a semi-wild state, feeding on acorns, roots, tubers and truffles. We sampled the prosciutto made from the Cinta Senese, and were overcome with its delicate yet wild flavour. Roberto's enthusiasm for local products and his generous manner led us on a gastronomic tour through the deli case... he and his wife also prepare fresh soups and other dishes daily, which fly out the door at lunchtime and in the late afternoon!
If you want to travel like a local in Lucca, you will ride a sturdy old bike, preferably one with a basket or two. I venture to say that this will be true for almost any small city, town and urban neighbourhood in Europe.
We saw everyone and everything go by on a bicycle. Parents with a child perched in a front seat and another one tucked into a seat behind. A businessman in an elegant suit, briefcase in the basket, negotiating a turn while talking animatedly on a cell phone. A young woman in high heels and a floaty polka dot skirt, then an old woman conveying the day's groceries, followed by stylish ladies with cashmere sweaters tied around their shoulders... the world of Lucca swirled around us on two wheels! One evening, we delighted in the sight of our friend Duccio – dressed in saffron coloured pants carrying a bright yellow vacuum cleaner under one arm, while steering his cobalt-blue bicycle with the other.
Although our apartment came with its own bicycles, I visited with Paladino Meschi at his cycling shop Chronos on the Corso Garibaldi. Whether you are a local peddler or a keen long-distance cyclist, Paladino will fix you up with what you need to see the area on a bicycle.
When you travel on foot or by bicycle, and experience a neighbourhood deeply, you cannot help but engage with the people around you. Real conversations take place in the bakery or the meat shop. How are you going to prepare that lamb? Did you know the green grocer just got a shipment of wild mushrooms? There is a rich quality to the character of normal, daily interaction... the sum of small errands, encounters and rituals. When you live like a local, you immerse yourself in their unique micro-culture. I will bet that these small but eminently authentic experiences will comprise the most precious memories of your trip!
We spent the last few days in the blithe routine of a day-to-day existence without the pressure to see or do anything in particular. In this context, I believe we "saw" more than the average tourist. If we felt sad when it was time to leave Lucca, it was because we had made more than a passing acquaintance with this warm, elegant town – we had established a deep friendship, based on real experience. There is no doubt in our minds that this is a friend to whom we will return.