I guess that most of the people think that the city walls that make Lucca famous all over the world were of medieval origin. But I recently discovered, during a guided tour exploring the walls of Lucca and its underground, that this belief is partially wrong.
How to book a tour of the walls of Lucca
I have to thanks a friend of mine that suggested me to get this unusual tour created by Turislucca. Turislucca is a group of experienced authorized tour guides with a great knowledge of the town, which told me tons of interesting facts about the history of their hometown. If a “must to do” in town is a bike ride along the wide and shady path of the fortification that surrounds the historical center, the majority of tourists don’t know that the main bastions hide ancient underground to discover.
Stories of castles, fortress, and knights always fascinated me that the idea to explore the underground of the walls of Lucca made me very excited.
We booked a few days in advance because there are only two or three walking tours of the underground every month and so far, they are having a huge success. Anyway, we saw people buying the ticket on-site the day of the visit, so have a try even if you decide at the very last minute. Most of the participants were Italians but the tour is available even in English.
The meeting point of the tour is at the tourist office of Piazzale Verdi. Before the walk departs, they make small groups to make the visit more enjoyable and provide to all the visitors a useful map of the town showing how the town (and the walls with it) changed with the time. After that, the tour into the history of Lucca and its wall begins.
Overview from the walls of Lucca
The walls of Lucca in brief
Without the city walls, and other reasons I tell you later, Lucca would not exist as we see it today.
The walls of Lucca are the second in Europe for length with its 4,2 km (2,60 miles), just behind the walls of Nicosia, the capital city of Cyprus. Lucca’s city walls have eleven bastions, six main entrance gates, other three more ancient gates, and some secondary doors to get out the historical center.
Throughout its history, four different walls were built in Lucca. The Romans founded Lucca 2000 years ago, in 180 BC, and they built the first fortification. It lasted until 1118 when Lucca became a Comune and the second set of walls was built integrating the Roman old ones. During 1300, Lucca became bigger and they needed to better enclose and defend the city from the enemies with the third set of walls. Instead, the wonderful fascinating huge walls we see today are of Renaissance origin. The construction began in 1504 after more than a hundred years.
Resting in the shadow on the bastions of the walls of Lucca
It was very interesting to listen to the differences between the Medieval and Renaissance walls. I have never thought that could be a difference between them. The way of making war changed at the end of 1400 beginning of 1500, with the invention of the gunpowder. Earlier, walls needed to be very high (and not too much wide) to prevent any attempt of climbing and to neutralize the use of bows and arrows. If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, imagine the Wall of Winterfell that, instead of being made of ice, was made of stones. Differently, with the use of cannons in war, castles and cities needed larger but not very high walls, made in bricks and filled with soil, to resist against the cannon shots.
Lucca’s defensive walls had also another oddity I discovered thanks to this guided tour. Generally, the fortified cities had four main entrances, one for each cardinal point. Instead, in Lucca, there were only three gates: northern, western, and southern. Can you guess why? Because at East there was Florence, Lucca’s enemy no. 1. The Florentines tried to conquer it for centuries with no success. This action had a symbolic and challenging meaning; Lucca was proudly an independent city and its people would have defended the city with all its strength from the attacks of Firenze and of the Medici Family.
Gallery under the walls of Lucca
You have to know that Lucca was one of the most famous producers of silk in the Western world from the end of the 12th century. Vendors from all over the world came to Lucca to sell their products and buy precious textiles. Lampas, fabrics decorated with birds and animal patterns, brocades with golden and silver thread enrichments. Thanks to this trade Lucca became a rich city. Moreover, its good diplomacy established profitable relationships with the Pope and the most powerful European Families, to stay out of any war.
Therefore, Lucca was an independent city for more than 700 years, and the only person able to conquer it was Napoleon during the French First Empire. It is during its control that the fourth, eastern gate of the walls was built. It took the name “Porta Elisa” in honor of Elisa, sister of Napoleon, Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Princess of Lucca and Piombino, Duchess of Massa, and Princess of Carrara. Later, they also built other minor gates to ease the access and the exit from/to the old center.
The city walls, the important role in the silk market, its wealth, the highly capable diplomacy, and last, the luck of not having been bombed during the big wars of 1900, are the key factors which allowed to the city of Lucca to preserve the splendor that we still admire.
The tour of the Walls of Lucca and its underground
First of all, we have to clarify that only bastions have undergrounds, while the straight walls are full because they needed to resist to the cannon shots. So, the walking tour of the underground brought us along with an itinerary passing on top of the walls and inside the bastions of San Paolino, Santa Croce, and San Martino.
Under the walls of Lucca
The bastion of San Paolino
The first stop of the tour was in front of the old building of the Ex Manifattura Tabacchi, an old factory of tobacco operating from the middle of the 19th century that now moved out of the city. Then we proceeded to the first bastion of San Paolino that was recently renovated preserving the original structure. Today the underground houses special events and exhibits (if the humidity level is not too high), and there is also an exit path to get out of the walls. Along the corridor, it was still possible (at the time of the visit) to admire two artworks made on paper and wood from the last event called Cartasia that every two years takes place in town.
Artwork under Bastion of San Donato
The bastion of San Donato
Different from the others, the bastion of San Donato has not underground. It is situated between the Porta Sant Anna and Porta San Donato. This bastion has always been unsafe because built over a patch of swampy ground. Adjoined to the bastion there is an old barrack, the old horse stables, and the ruins of the old walls further in.
Opening the heavy door of the bastion
The bastion of Santa Croce
The next underground we explored was the bastion of Santa Croce. The bastion of Santa Croce is dedicated to the Holy Face, the venerated wooden crucifix hosted in the cathedral of San Martino that is also one of the patrons of Lucca. On the outside, the bastion is wide, very green and bright, and gives some nice panoramic glimpses of the towers and roofs of the town. It is well preserved and we can still see the ruins of the medieval walls and the old soldier barrack. It was interesting to go under and visit the undergrounds that are open to the public only during special events. During the Second World War, this space was used as a shelter for the civilians, and we can still see the rest of the foundations of the old medieval fortifications that during the Renaissance were merged with the modern city walls. Santa Croce Bastion is definitely my favorite, and I came back a few days later to enjoy the view and rest on the grass under the shadow of its trees. I discovered that the old barrack of the bastion years ago was an office of the Carabinieri Corps. Today it hosts a studio of painting. This is a good example of requalification which also allows local people to live an important old building of the history of the town.
Studio with view
The Bastion of San Martino
The last stop of the tour of the walls of Lucca and its underground was the Bastion of San Martino along the northern side of the fortification. Walking along the walls we passed next to the current city prison and there is a touching story to tell.
In 1960, one of the world’s greatest jazz trumpeter Chet Baker was imprisoned here for sixteenth months. Baker was considered a poète maudit that was playing and singing like an angel without knowing music, a talented autodidact. He was very close to the town of Lucca, where he had good friends. With the coastal area of Versilia too, where he was playing that summer when he was arrested for drug trafficking. During his imprisonment, he got permission to play his trumpet, so every day a crowd met up in front of the prison listening to his wonderful melodies. Also in December of the same year, another great jazz clarinetist, Henghel Gualdi faced the law organizing, along this part of walls, an improvised and moving concert as Christmas gift for Chet.
On the way to the Bastion of San Martino, we took a little shortcut passing in front of the wonderful Italian gardens of Palazzo Pfanner, and to the church of San Frediano. The uniqueness of this church is that the façade has an unusual orientation to Jerusalem, while most of the church has the altar pointed towards the west.
The tower of San Frediano and the gardens of Palazzo Pfanner
The entrance at the bastion of San Martino is free. It works also as a secondary gate to get out of downtown. The restorations dug up the rest of the octagonal tower dated back to 1300. At the gate, a huge robot statue made on paper, welcome visitors. Inside we still find old arches made in bricks that light games make them even more fascinating. You can also look out the embrasures used for defending the walls with cannons. The most powerful cannons (that could shoot up to 4 km away) were on top of the walls while from these windows cannons shot stones, nails, and iron scraps.
Underneath the bastion of San Martino
The tour ended up in San Martino after two hours that passed very quickly. You can walk most of this itinerary of the walls of Lucca by yourself. But if you wish to enrich your experience with interesting information and anecdotes about the history of the town, as I personally do, I highly recommend you to join this special tour of underground with one of the authorized tourist guides of TurisLucca.
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