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Posts Tagged ‘Guides in Lucca’

Rooftops of Lucca

Let’s see . . . it was in 2004 that I was walking in front of Sant’Alessandro Maggiore in central Lucca with Alessandro Tombelli, a friend from Florence. He saw one of his acquaintances, Wanda Martinelli, standing with a group of tourists. She was able to wave and speak briefly before moving on with her group.

For the past eight years, our small group tours with Private Italy Tours have visited Lucca and Wanda has always been our constant companion during those visits. A Lucchese by birth, she is passionate about her city and shares an incredible level of knowledge during the day that we spend with her. She has become a dear friend.

It has been in the course of those years, visiting Lucca with and without clients, that I have come to deeply love and respect the history of this incredible walled city. There are so many places to visit and sights to see. This post shares some history as well as impressions of my favorite places within a beautiful, and rightly famous, Tuscan city.

From Roman occupation to Silk-A Brief Overview

It is relatively easy to imagine the most important moments in Lucca’s long history by walking inside the city walls. In 177 B.C. a Roman colony was established along the banks of the Auserculus (Orzieri) river. As with all Roman colonies, there were four gates that permitted access to the city along the two main roads.

It was during the 2nd Century A.D. that a large amphitheater was built just outside the northeast gate of the city. By the end of the 2nd Century, there were over 10,000 inhabitants in the area. The main commerce routes of the city were connected to the Via Cassia (linking Rome and Florence) as well as other roads that lead to the sea (west) or to Bologna (north).

Lucca Street View

It was when the silk trade was established with the Far East that Lucca became enormously wealthy. Numerous families used their fortunes to create incredible country estates in the hills outside the city. (see A Day Near Lucca for further details and information about the villas and gardens.)

From the time of the Romans, through the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance, Lucca has retained the words that represent the spirit of the city: Libertas (Liberty).  The city has never been militarily nor politically subdued until the unification of Italy in the latter part of the 19th Century.

Inside the walls – The Conservative Lucchesi

Ostentatious displays of wealth, with the exception of Lucca’s churches, were forbidden at the time that the growth of the silk trade made the city extremely wealthy.  When you visit the city you will notice that the exterior of the largest family palaces is, architecturally, conservative while still showing, by size alone, the importance of the owners.

The list of these incredible city villas reflects the names of the wealthiest families: Mansi, Pfanner, Micheletti, Bernardini, Diodati-Orsetti to name but a few. The Palazzo Ducale, now the seat of the Lucca Provincial government, was once the private home of Elisa Baiocchi. Who was Elisa? She was Napoleon’s younger sister. In 1805, and already titled the Princess of Piombino, she was given the Republic of Lucca to govern.

Enormously unpopular among the residents of the city, she tore down blocks of buildings in what is now the Piazza Napoleone so that she could enjoy ‘views’ from her palace.

As you stroll the streets of the city, the sheer number of these huge villas cannot fail to impress upon you the incredible power, and financial resources, of Lucca.

Churches, Churches, Churches

Lucca was once referred to as the “City of One Hundred Churches”. Today, the number has dwindled, yet the style, grace and beauty still impress.

Sunset, San Michele in Foro, Lucca

San Michele in Foro

One of the most beautiful churches in the city is San Michele in Foro, built on the ruins of the ancient Roman Forum that once stood at the intersection of the two main streets of the colony. A façade of four levels, with forty-eight individually designed and carved columns surmount the main entrance of the church. High atop the façade, two angles flank a nearly fourteen foot high statue of Saint Michael.

San Frediano

Opening to a relatively large piazza, the façade of San Frediano never fails to impress visitors with its glass, gold and precious stone inlaid mosaic.  The Basilica was built during the 6thCentury and the current appearance of the

Facade Mosaic
Basilica of San Frediano, Lucca

church, very Romanesque in style, was completed in the 12th Century.  Named  for an Irish Bishop of Lucca (Fridianus), the interior of the church is striking in its austere simplicity.

Duomo (Cathedral) of San Martino

This is one of the most visually stunning churches in all of Italy. When the Bishop of Lucca, Anselm, began construction of the building in 1063, little could he have known (even after becoming Pope Alexander II) that the church would appear as it does today.

There are, much like San Michele in Foro, three levels of colonnaded façade. Thrity-seven individually unique columns support the levels above the portico entrance of the cathedral. A copy of San Martino, Saint Martin, adorns the façade. The original sculpture was moved inside the cathedral several years ago.

Volto Santo di Lucca. Within the vast interior of the cathedral is a gold clad “temple”. The contents of this temple were what brought thousands of religious pilgrims as they made their way along the Via Francigena, the main pilgrim route between Canterbury and Rome.

Duomo of San Martino, Lucca

Nicodemus, who helped bring Christ’s body from the cross and tomb, wanted to carve a likeness of Christ while it was still fresh in his mind. He began working on a large piece of Lebanon Cedar, but fell asleep when he prepared to carve the face. As he slept, an angel came and completed the carving for him.  The wooden carving made its way by boat from the Middle East, eventually arriving on the shore of the Mediterranean near Pisa. From thence, it was brought initially to the Church of San Frediano, and then to its current location in the Duomo.

In the 15th Century, Matteo Civitali designed and had built the chapel in which the Volto Santo today rests. Civitali, a well-known Renaissance architect built the structure from Carrara marble and specially forged, gold covered, iron.

On September 13th each year, the entire walled city is lit only by candles as a procession honors the Volto Santo. The sculpture, heavily adorned with priceless jewels, was carried through the city. To protect the aging wood, the sculpture now remains in the chapel. The jeweled decoration remains throughout the period of the festival.

This is truly an astounding piece of art and further underscores the religious importance of Lucca.

There are many more churches to visit in Lucca. For a complete list, see

Churches of Lucca

The Walls of Lucca

Walls of Lucca

There have been three main walls constructed to protect the city of Lucca. The first, during the Roman era, the second in the early Middle Ages and the final – the ones we see today – were completed in 1644. Though designed to protect the city from armies, the structures were never bombarded or scaled.

Today, the wide promenade atop the walls affords visitors and locals alike to stroll in the shade of countless Chestnut trees while taking in views of both the private gardens of villas and palazzi inside the walls as well as the city and hills outside the fortifications.

There are seven gates into the city: Porta dei Santi Gervasio e Protasio, Porta dei Borghi, Porta San Pietro, Porta Santa Maria, and Porta San Donato, Porta Vittorio Emanuele and Porta San Jacopo. If you arrive in Lucca by train, the Porta Santa Maria will be the gate you most likely will use to enter the city.

Piazza Amfiteatro

In the course of Rome’s demise, the amphitheater that once accommodated 10,000 spectators fell into disrepair. The marble façade was taken

Piazza Amfiteatro, Lucca

down, its slabs of marble used for the construction of churches and other buildings in the city. Homes were built around the now empty oval space. What remains today is truly the most unique ‘square’ (piazza) in Italy, the Piazza Amfiteatro.

The area, once notorious for prostitutes and crime, was cleaned up and became the location of the Lucca farmer’s markets. That activity was moved out the city after World War II and the piazza now offers lovely cafes and shops.  It is a wonderful place to just sit, enjoy a pizza and glass of wine for lunch and people watch.

Torre Guinigi View, Lucca

Torre Guinigi (Guinigi Tower)

As the wealth and prestige of the Guinigi family grew, they built a number of city villas along the Via Sant’Andrea and the Via Guinigi. During the latter part of the 13th Century, they built a high tower to represent their status in the town. Typical to that era in Italy, towers were being built for churches and by private families as symbols of economic and political power.

Holm Oaks, symbols of rebirth, were planted at the very top of the tower and remain to this day. The climb is well worth the effort and the view is unforgettable.

The town of Lucca now owns the tower and you can visit. See “If You Go” for details about open times and entrance fees.

At Long Last, Puccini!

Puccini, Statue with Family Home
(Left Background)

A visit to Lucca would be incomplete without paying homage to the city’s most famous ‘son’, Giacomo Puccini. He was born in 1858 into a famous musical family. His famly home, in the center of Lucca, has  recently reopened after a lengthy and complicated restoration.While Domenico Puccini, his grandfather, was the most famous of the family’s musicians, it was Giacomo enormous talent (and ego!) that Italian’s love.

Creator of such favoirte operas as La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot, Puccini’s fame brought him great wealth during his lifetime. In 1891, to find some quiet away from the city and his demanding schedule, he built a lovely home at Torre del Lago, about fifteen miles from Lucca and closer to the sea. From 1900 – 1921 he lived there with his family. He died in 1924 and is buried in a chapel at Torre del Lago.

Even if you are not interested in Opera, a visit to Pucini’s home – and the bronze statue of him that sits in front of his home – is a rewarding and informative experience.  See “If You Go” below for further details about the Puccini home in Lucca and visits to Torre del Lago.

A Stroll Through Lucca

There are many afternoons when, while the shops of the city center are closed for a long lunch, I have walked the shadowed lanes of the city. While church facades and famous family towers loom overhead, the ancient cobbled streets harken to a peaceful past, of successful merchants and of political stability.

Whether in the spring of each year, when Camellia blossoms burst from gardens in the area or in the fall when a golden shower of leaves accompany an evening stroll around the top of the tree-lined city walls, the ‘feel’ of Lucca is one of ease. Unlike Florence, Rome and the numerous other large cities of Italy, Lucca affords visitors both peace and time; gifts indeed from a city built on the premise of liberty and wealth.

IF YOU GO:

Lucca is easily reached directly off of the A12 Autostrada between Florence and Pisa. If you are visiting Florence, and do not have use of a car, trains run nearly every hour from both Pisa’s and Florence’s train stations. Round trip fare in second class averages Euro 10.40 per person.

Information and schedules can be found at: www.trenitalia.it

From the train station, exit the main doors, and turn LEFT when you arrive at the main circuit road that surrounds the city walls. You can cross the street at a traffic light at the Porta San Pietro (Gate of Saint Peter), the first large city gate you will see within the city wall.

Once inside the city gate, veer to your left along the street and turn right at the second street – the Via Vittorio Veneto.  This street will bring you into the Piazza Napoleone and the Palazzo Ducale. From there, you can easily navigate the city.

Guided Tours of Lucca and surrounding country villas and estates

Wanda Martinelli is the best guide in the region. She can be reached directly through her web site,

Lucca Tours

Whether you seek an escorted walking tour of Lucca, or a full day or more exploring the city and countryside, Wanda and her team offer the finest services available. I cannot recommend them highly enough!

Church Entry times:

San Michele in Foro

Summer (May – end of October):  9:00-12:00/15:00-18:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00

Tel: +39 0583 419689

Basilica of San Frediano

Summer (May – end of October):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12.00/15:00:18:00

Tel: +39 0583493627

Duomo of San Martino

Summer (May – end of October):  8:30-18:00
Winter (November – end of April):  9:00-12:00/15:00-17:00

Tel: +39.0583.494.726

Torre Guinigi

Web Site: Torre Guinigi

Entrance tickets: Euro 3.50 per person

Opening hours:
March: 9:00-19:00
April-May: 9:00-21:00
June-September: 9:00-24:00
16 September-31 October: 9:00-21:00
November-February: 9:30-18:00

Tel: +39.0583.316.846

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Hillside near Lucca

Wealth, born of the silk trade between merchants in Lucca and the Far East, provided the means for a fortunate few families to build spectacular country estates in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains. Lucca is a city famous for its incredible wide wall, the understated elegance of its palazzi, city villas and churches.

The city was founded by Roman settlers in the first century B.C. From that time onward, the town grew in importance.  In a future post, I will provide more detailed information about the city, its history and culture.

I first met Wanda Martinelli, now a dear friend and guide from Lucca, during a visit with another friend from Florence. She is a true Lucchese, born and raised in the area of these lovely villas. She is a passionate and appropriately proud guide whose level of knowledge about the city and the country villas near Lucca is unmatched. Wanda is available for private tours of both the city of Lucca as well as any of the country estates in the area.

See “If You Go” below for information about how to contact Wanda directly.

Head to the countryside

When you leave the walled city, through one six gates, you can easily visit any number of incredibly beautiful, well maintained, villa estates. There is an exquisite balance of nature and architectural beauty in the villas near Lucca.

The area has been enormously popular with European tourists and property seekers for decades. It has only been in the last thirty years that Americans began to ‘discover’ a lovely city, its country homes and gardens.

My post includes my four favorite country villas, though there are many more.

Villa Oliva, Facade

Villa Oliva:

Of the four villas included in this article, Villa Oliva presents the smallest scale in terms of the home. It was commissioned by the Buonvisi family toward the end of the 15th Century based on a design by Matteo Civitali. Civitali, who studied at the Accademia in Florence, also designed numerous other properties across Tuscany.  Civitali included the use of a loggia, an arch supported covered porch, on the northern facing (private) wall of the villa.

The grounds of Villa Oliva, referred to as ‘the park’, were created to make use of abundant water supplies from nearby mountain aquifers. To underscore the use of water in the garden the “Fontana della Sirena,” which clings to a high wall on the northern edge of the garden, was built.

As was true of many villas in this area of Italy, the villa was damaged during World War II. The restorations have been completed so that you would never know that such was the case.

Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau, Facade

The origins of the Villa Grabau are unique among the country villas near Lucca. Evidence indicates that, unlike other villas, this property was built on the foundations of an early 15th Century building. At the start of the 16th Century, the property came into the hands of the Diodati family from Lucca. The family’s enormous fortune, built on the design and sale of silk cloth, provided the family with ample resources for a country home.

The Cittadella family purchased the villa from the Diodati in the latter part of the 16th Century. It remained in their hands until the latter part of the 19th Century when a family from Hamburg, the Grabau’s, purchased it. That family still own and manage the property.

The 18th Century Limonaia is famous for both its architectural style as well as its size. (Photo below)

This is an extraordinarily beautiful home and well worth a leisurely visit.

Villa Reale di Marlia

In 1805, when Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Baciocchi became sovereign over Lucca, she began a project to combine a number of smaller properties into one large estate. Not surprising as she had large blocks of central Lucca destroyed so that she would have ‘a view’ from her enormous home in the center of the city.

Villa Orsetti and other smaller estates were combined to create the Villa Reale di Marlia.

Several of the Orsetti property’s unique garden highlights, the open air theater and grotto to name just two, were retained in Baciocchi’s design.

Villa Reale di Marlia View

The villa’s history reflects that of its owners.

After Italy was united under King Vittorio Emmanuele II, the property was given to the brother of the last king of the Two Sicilies, Prince Charles of Capua. He and his wife died at the villa and are buried on the grounds.

Financial troubles followed their death, generated by the reckless behavior of the prince’s son. Trees on the property were sold for timber, the villa sold.  It was only due to the care of the current owners, and their heirs, that the park has been saved and restored.

Jacques Greber, a well-known French architect, was commissioned to complete the restoration of the grounds. The property is still privately held and is often the location of major events in support of the arts and music of Italy.

Villa Torrigiani

This is, by far, my favorite of all the villas near Lucca. When spring Camellias bloom or the colors of fall blaze in the hills above Lucca, my thoughts most often return to this villa. This was the first villa I ever visited with Wanda Martinelli and the impressions both she and the property made on me have never receded. Sabrina, who has for years guided small groups through the villa, adds a unique and passionate perspective to a place she clearly loves.

Villa Torrigiani Facade

The villa dates back to the Buonvisi family, from Lucca, in 1593.  The property was purchased by another wealthy family, the Santini. Santini became the ambassador to the Republic of Lucca from the Court of France. In deference to the Palace of Versailles, he rebuilt the façade and added two wings to the villa.

One of the things that differentiates this villa from all of the others in the area is the ornate and very Baroque façade and statues. He had the original front gardens replaced by a simple parterre with pools and he added a large pool to the grounds on the opposite side of the villa.

In 1816 Victoria Santini, granddaughter of the original owners, married into a wealthy and famous Italian family – the Torrigiani. That family still owns and maintains the property.

A gorgeous Limonaia, ‘Secret Garden’ designed by the Santini family in the mid -17th Century, ponds and lovely shaded garden walk await visitors. One of the uses of water in the grotto of the ‘Secret Garden’ are the use of “giochi d’acqua” or water games that were designed to entertain renaissance guests. Inside the villa, mementoes of a family’s long history are evident from photos of the recent marriage of the present prince to the wedding dress of his grandmother.

I have spent many pleasant moments talking with the owners over the years. Their love for, and care of, the villa and grounds is evident in every way.

If you have time to visit Lucca, be sure to add a day to explore the villas in the nearby hills above the city. The gracious beauty and style of the villas and gardens provide another surprising perspective on a stunning area of Tuscany.

IF YOU GO:

Note: You can reach Lucca by train from Florence in about an hour and ten minutes or from Pisa in about twenty minutes. You can walk into the walled city of Lucca very easily from the train station. However, visits to the country villas, if you do not have a car, should be prearranged with a private car service. Train schedules and details can be found on the Trenitalia web site.

Italian Rail System

For private car and driver services in Lucca, contact:

Lucca Limo

If you wish to enjoy the professional guide services of Wanda Martinelli while in Lucca, or while visiting the many country estates in the area, you can contact Wanda directly through her web site at:

 Wanda Martinelli

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Oliva:

Web Site: Villa Olivia

Villa Oliva

Via di Villa Oliva

55010 San Pancrazio, Italy

Tel: +39.0583.406.462

Entrance tickets are Euro 12.00 per person.

Villa Grabau:

Web Site: Villa Grabau

Villa Grabau Limonaia

Villa Grabau

Via di Matraia 269
55010 S.Pancrazio, Lucca, IT

Tel:  +39.0583.406.098

The opening hours and days vary according to seasons:

April 1 – June 30

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

July 1 – August 31

10:00AM to 1:00PM and (note the long early afternoon closure) 3:00PM until 7:00PM

September 1 – November 1

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:00PM until 6:00PM

November 2 – March 31 (SUNDAY ONLY)

11:00AM to 1:00PM and 2:30PM until 5:30PM

Entrance tickets: Euro 15.00 per person

Villa Reale di Marlia:

Web Site:  Villa Reale di Marlia

Click on map to enlarge

Villa Reale di Marlia

Via Fraga Alta, 2

55014, Marlia, Lucca, IT

Tel: +39.0583.301.08

Visiting Hours:

1st of March to the 30th of November
Mornings from 10:00AM until 1:00PM and from 2:00PM until 6:00PM
Closed on Mondays, with the exception of holidays that fall on a Monday. Double check directly with the villa if you have any questions
All visits are scheduled and are led by a guide
In winter, guided visits are available only by pre-arranged appointment
Timetable of guided visits are on the hour from 10:00 until 12:00PM and again from 3:00PM until 6:00PM

Entrance tickets are Euro 7.00 per person

Villa Torrigiani:

Web Site: Villa Torrigiani

Villa Torrigiani

Via del Gomberaio, 3

55010 Camigliano, Santa Gemma, IT

Tel: +.39.0583.928.041

Visiting Hours:

March 5 – November 5

10:00AM to 1:00PM and 3:00PM to 7:00PM

NOTE:

Between February 1 and March 4 as well as 16 November and 7 January, the villa is only open to groups in excess of 10 people and by prearranged reservation only.

Entrance Tickets: Euro 10.00 per person

 

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