Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ilaria of Lucca

Travel day today. Breakfast in Ireland , Lunch in France , and dinner in Italy , all in all a pretty good day. When you travel you collect a lot of little memories that never fail to bring a smile to your face. The Irelands are charming and the people make them that way. A small memory: while on the Dublin bus to Kilmainham gaol I watched an older woman (dressed in black) sitting, eyes closed, deep in communion with her memories. As we passed each Catholic church on the route she blessed herself. The two of them must have traveled that route many times.

Sunday - September 27, 2009 - Lucca, Italy

The cold (not cool), blustery walk from the hotel to the departure lounge did more to awaken us than the 4:30 call from the front desk. The deserted airport of a few hours ago was now buzzing with activity. There were surprisingly long lines at the security checkpoint and two little vignettes are worth note. In front of us were a couple of burly lads who were having a lively discussion about whether or not they could bring their open, over-sized Guinness beers onto the plane. They (rightly) decided they could not, so their solution was to consume them as they walked. The trail of vapors that emanated was remarkable. The second was my lack of foresight in not removing my belt before going through the ultra sensitive metal detector. This resulted in my first, very thorough, male-on-male pat down. Lesson learned.

The cool damp behind us, we touched down in the land of perpetual sunshine. Provence. Having lost an hour to the time gods, we grabbed a quick bite at the Nice airport, rented our car (a Skoda, whatever that is), and headed East. We could probably have taken a flight from Belfast to Firenze, but renting a car in Italy is financial suicide. Plus the ride along the French Riviera, and the Italian Ligurian coast is breathtaking as you tunnel through the finger hills that stretch into the Mediterranean. As we passed familiar landmarks we were reminded of the last time we made this trip with Ed & Alicia. More good memories.

We followed the very well marked roads right into Lucca, the quintessential medieval-walled town. Besides being a convenient laundry stopping point, what drew us to this little Tuscan beauty was the church of San Martino. There was a very old crucifix (700 AD) and a not so old marble topped sarcophagus (1400 AD) that we had read about and really wanted to see. But first we had to find our digs for the evening. Another first for us, Sogni d'Oro or "Golden Sleep", was our affittacamera for the evening. Fabio, (the rooming house manager maybe?) greeted us warmly, gave us keys for our room and the front door, some directions to the lavanderia, a map of Lucca and was gone in sixty seconds. Though nothing like our hosts in Trim, we were good with it. Our room (with private bath - we went first class) was upstairs next to a communal bathroom and cozy little kitchen.

Refreshed, we headed to the wall and entered Lucca via Porta Elisa, a pleasant ten minute walk away. It was crowded and being a Sunday afternoon, filled with families and kids, and a smattering of tourists. There is a Roman amphitheater with a beautiful oval square (oxymoron), that through the centuries has been built around and over. There are gates which mark the entrances once used by gladiators and beasts. It is neat and a nice place to get away from the promenade that carries on all around. Just to the side is the very dramatic church of San Michele where the Roman forum once stood. Atop is a huge bronze statue of the Archangel Michael with movable wings. The story is that back in the day, the crowds around the front would gasp in religious ecstasy when, at the invocation of the priests, the archangel's wings flapped divinely.

Lucca is Puccini's home town and since he is one of my favorites (Madame Butterfly hooked me about 35 years ago) I had to go check out the old homestead. Not much to see, a statue, a bronze plaque and everyone around the block looking to make a few bucks off the name.

The belle of the ball is the church of St. Martin, which looks very similar to the cathedral in Pisa with it's colonnaded facade. When you look at the front you see that the three portal arches are asymmetrical - the one on the right is not quite in tune with the music. The whole front right side of the church appears to be covered by the side of the campanile. In fact the bell tower was there first and the church was built later which makes me wonder why they didn't just build a few more feet to the left. On an outside pillar is a carved labyrinth where for more than 800 years mortals have tried to map their way to salvation. I couldn't resist giving it a try. Inside, in a small octagonal marble temple is the Volto Santo; a cedar crucifix that was said to have been carved by Nicodemus, the man who helped take Christ down for burial. It is dark and dusty but magnificent. Plus anything mentioned specifically in Dante's Inferno is worth a peek.

In the opposing nave is the pay-for-entry tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, who died during childbirth at the age of 26. She was the wife of a local dandy, who buried her somewhere else but had the tomb carved because he loved her and maybe just to show off a bit (he was very rich). The reason we are so interested is that the carver, a fellow named Jacopo della Quercia, was the man who inspired so much of Michelangelo's work, half a century later. Like Mike, his goal was to sculpt the precise moment of transition, and looking upon this masterpiece you wouldn't be surprised if at any moment she awakened and lifted her head from the soft marble pillow. She has such a delicate countenance. (The famous painter John Ruskin after seeing her wrote: "It is impossible to tell you the perfect sweetness of the lips and closed eyes, nor the solemnity of the seal of death which is set upon the whole figure. It is, in every way, perfect--truth itself, but truth selected with inconceivable refinement of feeling.") It alone was worth the trip to Lucca.

Outside in another square there was a large tent where some kind of cooking/baking fair was in progress. Pre-teenage children were busy shuttling the freshly cut breads and pastries to the crowd which thronged around the tent. No matter how hard I tried, I could not get the attention of one of the little rascals. I guess our recent trip to Ireland where everyone queues patiently had left an imprint on me and I was definitely at a disadvantage. We hadn't really eaten anything substantial and the aromas coming from the tents were driving us to distraction.

It was only 5:30 and like most of Italy, the restaurants don't even open until 7:30 and don't really get into gear until 9:00. But sometimes you get lucky, and we did. Down a quiet little side street nestled a small Trattoria (Ristorante L'antico Sigil). Perfect. We had a wonderfully relaxing dinner; some good wine complimenting the stuffed ravioli and country pasta. While waiting for the check our waitress seated a young couple at the two empty places of our table for four. That is one of the things we enjoy about traveling, the unexpected chance encounters. They were Danish, and a delight to chat with. We tried to think of all the famous Danes we knew, but other than "great", I had nothing. Kat came through with Niels Bohr (the atomic theory guy - she amazes me every day).Wishing we could have stayed longer (we had a date with some laundry) we bade them a pleasant evening and headed back to our rooming house.

The lavanderia was right where Fabio said it would be: out the door to the left, then 3 right turns. With good commercial washers and dryers it took the appropriate amount of time (remember Ballycastle) and was not very expensive. Lugging our laundry around really helped us feel like locals. Lucca turned out to be the perfect stopping point on our journey. We easily settled into the relaxed Tuscan lifestyle, with full bellies and freshly laundered clothes.

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