Henry James wrote, “Nothing could be more charming than the country between Pisa and Lucca,” and I must agree. For the past 11 weeks my companion and I have lived in a casita beside my friend’s house in the village of Santa Maria del Giudice. Much of the village is built on terraces on the sides of the Pisan Mountains. From our hillside we can see the city of Lucca on the plain in the distance.
It is summer and the days are sunny, in the 80s—but when the sun goes behind the mountains, a glorious cool breeze descends off the pine-covered mountainsides, and there is no place lovelier to be.
Santa Maria del Giudice marks the southernmost boundary of the province of Lucca. Before the highway tunnel through the mountain, people took a trail up the steep mountain and then down to San Giuliano Terme, the village on the outskirts of Pisa where Shelley and Byron used to take the waters. From the top of the trail, the Mediterranean is visible and, of course, so is the leaning tower. On a rock ledge overgrown with weeds and brush is a weathered marble bust of Dante, himself a resident of Lucca, and a quotation from the 33rd canto of the Inferno about the mountains that hide Lucca from the sight of the Pisans.
In the 13th century, the cities of Pisa, Lucca, and Florence made war on one another. Armored knights on great war horses clashed on the plains and are immortalized in the paintings of The Battle of San Romano in 1432 by Paulo Uccello.
The city of Lucca had a medieval wall and moat not far from the ruins of the Roman wall. But to further discourage attackers mounted on huge horses, in 1500 Lucca began to build another wall, a high brick wall backed by a massive earthen rampart with a moat in front of it to completely encircle the city. The construction required a hundred years, and by the time it was completed, the wars between the cities of Tuscany were over.
The earthworks that backed the wall were too massive to remove, so the people of Lucca planted trees on top of the wall to form a promenade with little gardens and lawns. A clear stream still flows through the moat outside, so the result was a magnificent, shady emerald-green park five kilometers in length that encircles the entire city. Strategically placed ramps inside the walls allow city dwellers access. The promenade under the canopy of great trees is blessed with dense shade; even on the warmest days, breezes off the nearby mountains and the sea cool the wall’s top. Graceful promontories that extend the wall and earthen rampart provide wide lawns with expanses large enough for ball games and for children and dogs to frolic.
Walkers, joggers, bicyclists, and dreamy couples share the broad path that has discreet lampposts for visits after dark. The wines and food of Lucca are legendary, and as I have been helpless before their temptation, I can tell you a brisk walk atop the wall is necessary every day.
As I walk I love to peer down into the narrow curving streets and alleys and into the gardens of the old villas. Green benches along the way allow longer viewing. Some residents plant vines and bushes for a little privacy from prying eyes on the promenade above.
My favorite structure atop the wall has no identifying plaque as the others do. The appearance of the old house is sobering, and I knew if I stared too long at the broken windows, I’d see ghosts. Outside the house, four old wells, with iron bars welded over their tops, stand ominously near a low, crumbling stone shelf. This, my friend told me, is the Casa de Boia, the executioner’s house. The stone shelf is the place he chopped off the heads of the unfortunate, then dropped the heads into the wells.
Lucca’s wall and mighty rampart were never tested by war, but in the 19th century the Serchio River brought a great flood. The drawbridges and gates of the city were closed to form a floodproof seal that saved Lucca from destruction. During the flood, La Principessa, Elisa Bonaparte Bacio, Napoleon’s sister, who ruled Lucca then, demanded to get back to her palace inside the walls—perhaps she had left her cat or parrot there—and in order to do this she had to be lifted over the wall by a crane.