We hit the ground running in Italy. Two hours after landing at Pisa airport, we were exploring our first Italian town, Lucca, which was recommended by a former colleague of Melissa’s. Lucca is a walled city that grew rich in the late Middle Ages on the silk trade. From the map in our guidebook, Chris was expecting Lucca to be up on a hill, but instead it sits on a flat green plain, which makes its 30-foot walls less impressive than they might look otherwise.
It’s a fun town to wander through. Tall painted stucco merchant houses are crowded together on narrow streets, punctuated by piazzas (plazas). Churches sport white marble facades and decks of fantastically carved columns. When we got tired of dodging other tourists and motorbikes and cars on the streets, we strolled along the broad paths and parks atop the old city walls.
We ate some good local specialties: soup from spelt (a grain that resembles barley) and cecina (fried chickpea pancakes that taste much better than they sound). We also had great pizza and gelato, thanks to the recommendations of our host, Marco, who is a tour guide in Lucca. It seems impossible to get bad food in Italy—occasionally mediocre, but never bad.
Little Lucca was wealthy enough to leave behind some interesting art. The Palacio Mansi is worth a visit for the astounding rococo ornateness of its decoration. (Living there would give you permanent eye ache.) In the Duomo (cathedral), we saw a wonderful “Last Supper” by Tintoretto painted from an unusual angle: looking up the table. The cathedral also has Pisano carvings over the doors, a lovely 1410 marble effigy of a wealthy Lucchese woman, and an old wooden crucifix, the Volto Sancto, with a very dark-faced, bearded Christ. It was rumored to have been sculpted from life by Nicodemus and thus has drawn devoted pilgrims (such as King William II of England) for centuries.
But the oddest relic we’ve seen is in Lucca’s basilica of San Frediano. It’s the supposedly incorruptible body of a local saint, Zita, who died in 1278. Think a wizened old corpse—not unlike the Iceman they dug up in the Alps a while back—lying in a glass case, wearing a dress and shawl and apron. Very creepy! And from the look of the clothes, she didn’t have those on in 1278. I’m just saying…