Two sisters in the same family often are as different as night and day. We see this contrast between Italy’s two neighboring sister cities of Lucca and Viareggio. Lucca’s inland center is entirely enclosed within the mighty earthen walls, while her neighbor, Viareggio, is a sprawling seaside inlet and resort. These two jewels are in the province of Lucca in the northwestern corner of Tuscany.
The Walls of Lucca
The trademark of Lucca is its formidable walls. Three distinct perimeter walls have protected Lucca for centuries. While the wall(s) has no benefit today, Lucca, in the past, was spared attacks from other cities due to its defensively structured design. The Romans planted the first wall over 2,000 years ago. Later, a thin medieval wall replaced the previous Roman wall. However, the invention of the cannon required more fortification, which we see today. The current structure consists of a 100-foot wide mound of dirt with a façade of brick and stones that incorporates the prior medieval structure.
Atop the wall on its four sides are trees planted with each side bearing a different species. In the early 18th Century, Lucca came under the rule of Napoleon and his sister. When Napoleon fell, Maria Luisa of Spain came to power and created the park-like atmosphere on and around the walls, which has continued for the last 300 years. Bicycle paths encircle the crown of the 2 ½ mile long wall.
In Lucca we visited an olive oil press factory owned by my cousin’s co-worker. Olive oil harvesting starts around October. This factory processes the oil of many local olive growers. Notice the two over-sized vertical stone wheels setting in the huge copper colored bowl. This stone ground process is said to produce the finest olive oil. The seeds and pulp of the olives are pressed under the wheels several times. The oil drains to another press and is then filtered to remove debris. The collected debris (called sansa), which looks like press board, is removed to be used as a fuel for winter heating. The process is electric and can be run by one or two people.
We recently learned that the quality of olive oil varies due to the proximity of the sea or hills, atmosphere and climate. Overall, geography plays a major part in the outcome of the oil. The coastal olives create an oil that is lighter in color and sweeter in taste, which is good for white meats or fish. As a contrast, the olives from the central Tuscan hilly region produce a stronger flavor that is darker in color and heavier in consistency. They are used for flavoring salads, bread and vegetables. Olives are harvested in late October through the early winter.
Not far from the olive oil press we found the place where the author of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi, originally penned the book. A children’s park named for the title character is marked with a huge statue. Pinocchio became a successful Disney cartoon character in 1940. Thinking about Disney makes me want to start singing “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are . . . .”
It was an honor and pleasure to meet with nine of my cousins who live in Lucca. One of life’s greatest treasures is to link up with family and friends. There is no better feeling than sharing a commonality with love ones. To think that we originated from the same grandparents is awesome — we so love them! We enjoyed delicious dinners and lively talk with each family. It was very enjoyable! My cousin Rita (pictured, above right) served her homemade pasta and Bolognese sauce to my wife. Buon Appetito all!
After a busy morning of sightseeing, some of the cousins treated us to excellent seafood at the La Vecchia Posta, a restaurant and hotel in Lucca. Such fresh seafood is possible due to the proximity of the seaports. It was delicioso!
The stereotypical landscape of Tuscany evokes a mental image of rolling hills with stately trees lining roadways, grape vineyards, olive groves. However, the port city of Viareggio breaks the mold. Viareggio is the crown jewel on the Versilia Riviera. It began as the only gateway to the sea for the Republic of Lucca in the early 1500s. In the far distance (pictured, above left) the Carrara marble quarries are embedded in the majestic mountains which hug the Tyrrhenian Sea. Carrara marble is the first choice of Italian sculptors including the great Michelangelo.
To reach the sprawling beach we walked from the city’s main street to the Promenade along the pristine Burlamacco Canal boardwalk, located about a mile from the sea. On a beautiful day it’s a lovely stroll with street vendors hawking their wares and snacks.
Clearly there are more vessels, boats, ships, sloops and yachts than automobiles in Viareggio as shipbuilding is the primary industry. The nearby isles of Corsica and Elba are a worthy excursion, time permitting. Unfortunately, my wife wouldn’t let me bid on the yacht pictured left in the background. Sigh!
Besides its year round reputation as a superb port, Viareggio is probably best known for its pre-Lenten Carnival celebration (late January – February). My cousins say this is an event you do not want to miss. The action occurs along the promenade (shown, right). The architecture here is Liberty style (or Art Nouveau). The shops and hotels were rebuilt in the 1920s following a consuming fire, which destroyed the previous wooden structures in 1917.
Our visit to northwestern Tuscany has come to a close. We have seen two neighboring sister cities in all their finery, yet looking very different. I hope you enjoyed this look into wonderful memories, renewed relationships, and happy times. Until our next adventure, ciao!