I’ll never forget the moment I set foot in the walled city. It was a Sunday morning over two decades ago. The town was quiet, the storefronts either closed or boarded up. I thought what the hell are we doing here. “This town is dead,” I told Donald.
Then, as if by magic, come afternoon and the gates have been opened, the metal doors raised, and we find a city alive and thriving. Thousands of Lucchesi were carrying our their ritual passagiata, and as quickly as I had found the city deadly dull, I fell instantly in love with Lucca. I had never seen anything like it and a slew of questions entered my mind: Where were these people going? Why were they so beautifully dressed? What were they doing?
Soon, I noticed that the main gist of the afternoon parade was to catch up with friends, tell tales and stories, show off new babies, new clothes, and enjoy a gelato. It was a ritual full of life and I, along with Donald and another seven or so friends, joined in.
The next morning we walked down the city’s main shopping street, Via Filungo and watched the shopkeepers perform their daily ritual: washing the windows and sweeping the street in front of their store. It reminded me of my childhood when store owners in the United States performed the same ritual. Lucca’s shops were filled with beautiful merchandize – I would soon learn Lucca’s rich history, how they originally made their money from the silk trade, how they later became the banking capital for much of Italy, and now, how the paper industry keep the city coffers filled. I learned that the stunning wall, which took somewhere between 100 and 200 years to build and would soon be celebrating its’ 500 anniversary, was built for protection, but was never needed for that. The rich Lucchesi, rather than fight the neighboring armies, simply paid them off to go fight somewhere else. So, even though you might see signs that say Pisa Merde (shit) or Firenze Merde, these cities never battled Lucca.
I fell in love with the town immediately. The people were incredibly friendly; the food, rather amazing, and where in the world can one walk on top of a wall and look down upon city filled with stunning towers and out upon several spectacular mountain ranges. Oh, what a wall Lucca built. I liked climbing Torre Guinigi and looking at the city and the wall from high above, and taking in the stunning vistas. There was nothing about Lucca that I didn’t like.
Twenty years is a long time and during that time much has changed about the walled city, and much of it has not been for the good. As the city has become more popular and the tourist populations has skyrocketed, most of the beautiful shops on Via Filungo have been replaced by shops selling lower quality goods, catering to the tourist trade. Despite the governing bodies of Lucca banning big chains and fast food restaurants, numerous exceptions have been made: The two new big box book stores wiped out almost a dozen small, independent bookstores. And, despite the ban on fast food restaurants, there are a few that have made their way into the city. The little ma and pop fruit and veggie stores have mostly been replaced with small groceries stores, many owned by large chains. TV has changed the way people dress, and to an extent eat – one sees more and more obese Italian children – and now it’s hard to distinguish the way Italians, particularly young Italians, dress from people around the world. Many of the designer dress shops are now lower quality pasticerrias or restaurants. In fact, so many new restaurants arose that the older ristoranti were able to get a temporary ban on new eating places. But, the tourism has continued to crescendo.
Not all the changes has been bad. Numerous buildings, especially those located on the wall, like the Hangman’s House, have been beautifully restored. In several spots you can enter underneath the wall and see the incredible insides of the wall and the stunning paper artwork that is hidden in these structures. The tourist dollar has enabled the city to increase the amount of art that crops up around the city. One can now attend a Puccini concert nightly at San Giovanni, an event that began less than twenty years ago as a once or twice a week thing. There are numerous vacation rentals, giving people many, many more choices. as to where to stay.
All that said, I still love Lucca and the wonderful Lucchesi, who despite all the changes have remained as friendly and as accommodating as ever, but I will never forget that very first passaggiata! What a joyous memory.