Sunday, 1 June 2014

Days 432 to 435: Pisa and Lucca

Once upon a time, Pisa and Lucca were rival republics, competing in trade and religious politics, even going to war with each other occasionally. Now just separated by a 30 minute train journey, the fates of both cities have changed much since then. In many ways their fates mirror each other: obviously they are no longer independent republics and have been absorbed into Italy, content with having become small-scale cities of around 80,000 people each, with a walled medieval centre packed with cafes, gelateries, petite hotels, and flag-bearing guides leading around packs of middle-aged foreigners. They are quintessentially charming Italian tourist towns. Their biggest difference can come down to one thing: towers. Pisa has a wonky one and Lucca has a few straight ones, and for this reason Pisa is internationally famous whereas I hadn't heard of Lucca up until a week before visiting.

We arrived in Pisa on a Thursday afternoon, staying for three nights, visiting Lucca as a day-trip on the final day. Pisa has the greater fame but Lucca has the more concise charm, aided greatly by its old city walls. I am an unashamed fan of city walls and think even modern cities should have them. They create a visible boundary to a town or city, without which we just end up with a thinning sprawl turning into dour industrial areas. A wall says "Here the city is! Stay here for the good stuff!" For the locals too, they know that if they want a bit of peace and quiet from the tourists hordes, they only need to go outside the wall and enjoy some normal life (and cheaper prices).

Lucca's wall is a great one -. I'd put it alongside Dubrovnik's and Xian's at the top of my league table (if I was to ever make one) of city walls, being in good condition and invitingly walkable. In fact, Lucca's gets extra points for being free to access, and having cafes up there - it's a big, sturdy wall. Around 4 kilometres long, wrapping around Lucca's historic centre, it is perfect for a leisurely stroll, getting a feel for the city within. It seems that ever since its construction in the 16th and 17th Centuries it has served this function - people liked it so much they directly disobeyed military orders and turned it into a social gathering place.

Pisa has a wall too, but it's much more run down, and to my knowledge can't be walked on. It makes up for it with its Leaning Tower and the overall cathedral complex than comes with it. It is through an old gate in the old city wall that the day-tripping tour groups pour, taking their photos, eating an ice-cream, taking more photos, then return, like a video being played in rewind, back through the gate. The cathedral complex - the Piazza dei Miracoli - is a wonderful area; as Piltup put in the comments section of my Tower of Pisa review, cathedrals are usually in the city centre, crowded by other buildings, perhaps with one small square in front. But the Piazza is set upon a large area of lawn, isn't in the town centre, and thus has a lot of space to wander around, or sit on the grass and watch fellow tourists contort themselves into vaguely embarrassing positions for their holiday photos. It all means that while the day-tripping tourists pour into the heart of Lucca, they are concentrated more by the fringes of Pisa, just inside the battered remains of its city wall.

For our three days, we stayed in a hostel near the main train station. It was a mixed bag. In its favour, it was clean, friendly, had large communal areas inside and out, and a great evening buffet for just 5 that came with a large glass of wine. Not in its favour was the appalling soundproofing in our room: truly and genuinely appalling. Usually poor soundproofing is the beginning of a story involving overhearing the adventurous amores of next door's couple and then having to sit down for dinner with them the next day - this exact scenario happening to Burness and I on a river cruise in China years ago. It was much worse this time - an entire coachload of schoolchildren, aged around 9, arrived in the early evening, and apparently never slept at any point. I stuck earplugs so deep in my ears that they merged inside my brain, but Danielle's ears and brain were less willing. She was unimpressed by the children's antics. It seems that at around 3am onwards, the room above devised a game which involved repeatedly jumping off the bunkbeds. If the aim of the game was to really, really annoy Danielle, then they certainly won.

Despite the poor soundproofing, the hostel was otherwise a pleasant place to spend time in. It and the Piazza dei Miracoli dominated our time in Pisa. Getting between the two was about a half hour walk, but a walk than pretty much involved walking through the historic heart of the city, so it was hardly a slog. This walk included crossing the river, which was terribly scenic.

Lucca doesn't have a river running through it, but it does have a square in the shape of an amphitheatre, precisely because it used to be an amphitheatre. It is times like this that I think that the English word "square" is hopelessly inadequate. The square was oval. Perhaps I'll stick to the Italian "piazza" from now on.

On our final night in Pisa, we headed into another square/piazza (it was trapezoid), the Piazza dei Cavalieri, to meet up with some people we'd met in the hostel. No chance of that happening. The piazza had been turned into a folk concert. Usually, the prospect of finding myself in the midst of a folk concert would be the point where I realise my night has irrecoverably delved into horror, but in this case it was great fun. The large crowd was young and lively, the music was enjoyable, and the Piazza setting was gorgeous.

As neighbouring towns will do, Pisa and Lucca still have a rivalry, and after my extensive explorations of each I am in a position which to judge which is the best and end the rivalry once and for all. Or maybe not, maybe I need a little more time. So if the city councils of each would like to contact me and offer me a week's holiday, food and accommodation supplied, I will be in a better position to make my important assessment. Pisa, Lucca, your move.

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