Some walled cities we have visited have felt a bit eerie. It is hard to explain but it is as if centuries of trying to ward off people have finally worked and there is no one left clamoring to get in. Other walled cities, like Orvieto, are bustling with tourism but feel a bit staged for the day-trippers.
Lucca, Italy is special perhaps because it boasts not one or two, but four circles of walls which are in many cases, intact. It is preserved without being sterile and it is visited without being trite.
As we approached Lucca, we were drawn in. The final circle took over a century to complete because it extends nearly three miles. The ditches and bulwarks are grassy embankments that frame the imposing wall and lead to open gates that have a magnetism that is tangible. There is something about this walled city that is so authentic and yet updated enough to be modern and desirable for people today, centuries after its first walls went up.
As we wandered through squares with charming crumbling churches and priceless works of art, we eventually stopped at Piazza San Michele. With chocolate-orange brioche from Pasticceria Taddeucci, (owned and operated by the same family since 1881) we sat in a square that was once the ancient Roman forum and watched ladies doing morning shopping, men meeting in the square and toddlers chasing pigeons.
It was a scene we have witnessed so many times, but somehow in Lucca, it was different. It felt as though people had been gathering here for centuries and that it would always be that way. It was a magnificent sense of permanence without any feeling of stagnation.
What I appreciated about wandering these Roman-medieval streets is the evidence of re-invention is gradual with a respect for the past and an eye toward the future. It is a unique balance I have only felt a handful of times in Italy.
I left feeling like I would certainly be missing something wonderful, as soon as I passed through the gate. Upon departure, I missed the insulated feeling from within as I tried unsuccessfully to get a glimpse of life on the inside as we drove deeper into the wide-open Tuscan countryside.