Monday, February 8, 2016

Lucca Roman History in a Back Alley.

Lucca or Luca as it was know in classical times was an important Roman town and tourists flock from all over the world to see the famous Amphitheatre and no doubt, imagine while taking refreshment in one of the many bars the gladiators entering the arena through the same arches as they did themselves. However if you continue along the main high street know as Via Fillungo, which in Roman times was simply know as the Cardo Maximus, meaning a main street that runs from north to south, opposite the Church of San Cristoforo (now an exhibition centre) and the clock tower, there is an insignificant alleyway, one of the smallest streets in the city know as via Chiasso Barletti.  You might dive into it because it looks like a cute medieval street or because you notice a house beautifully frescoed with portraits of two of the cities famous operatic sons: Puccini and Catalani

This inconsequential street holds an important place in Roman History. It was here during the conference of Lucca in 55 BC that the three Roman heavy weights Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus renegotiated the famous triumvirate. The accord meant that Pompey and Crassus would again stand for Consulship and after their election Caesar’s rule in Gaul would be extended by 5 years. At the end of their joint year in office, Crassus would be given the governorship of Syria to use as a base for his Parhia campaign and Pompey would govern  Hispania in absentia.
The original tower house of the Barletti family is still on the corner  and it is worth tipping your head back to look at this magnificent soaring structure. 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Lucca magic on a January Evening.

If you venture out on the evening of 5th January in Lucca city you might think time has stood still as you hear the clip clop of horses' hooves and the beating of drums later to be joined by "Zampogne", bagpipes played by shepherds who come down from the hills for Christmas and New Year.  If you follow your ears you might catch sight of three wonderful strong horses with their regal mounts being lead around the city by drummers. Sometimes when I am walking late at night in Lucca I feel I have wandered onto a deserted film set. The vision of these gentlemen from the Orient confirms that Lucca is no film set but a city steeped in tradition.

The three Magi are in the city because of course it is Epiphany but in Italy there is a beautiful fairytale as well. The Kings meet on their journey an old woman and tell her they are on their way to Bethlehem; she wants to join them but first need to finish her cleaning being a good Italian housewife and bake for the new born baby. She therefore because of her limp and age can’t keep up with the kings and gives the biscuits to all the children on her journey. Today Befana is still a very important holiday and Children receive presents if they haven’t been good. Until recently children had to write a letter to their parents asking forgiveness for their misdemeanors of the last year. The Befana then might decide to leave coal in their stocking instead of biscuits and candy. Here in Lucca there are special biscuits with hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top. Befana was also on the streets today near to the Kings distributing gifts to the children and scaring the timid ones with her broom but be sure she, like this city, she is benign and welcoming so Happiness and Peace to you all in 2016.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Presepe Vivente or Italian version of the Nativity play

Presepi or Cribs have played an important part in the life of Bagni di Lucca for over 200 years. Nativity scene figures and small statues are still a very important part of the local economy. If you are interested in the history of these cribs you might like to read my post on presepe  The Italian version of a nativity play is a Presepe Vivente, which translates as a living crib. A whole village transforms into a crib, which in Italy doesn’t limit itself to the stable scene but shows the whole village going about their daily activities.

The medieval villages make for the perfect stage set and  the houses open their door and volunteers demonstrate traditional skills from farming to crafts. In Medieval times each of these villages was a micro sufficient community.  Winter, however in modern times can be lonely in some of the higher villages when tourists and second homers leave and these winter festivals bring the hills to life and give the locals  from all the scattered villagers a chance to catch up. These presepi are not limited to religious significance but are more about community and indeed like every village event food is ever present.

Adults chat and warm up with mulled wine while the children enjoy a history lesson without being
aware that they are part of a living museum. How lucky are they that these crafts are still known about and indeed in some area are being brought back.
The fact that the odd plastic bowl and mobile phone is evident somehow makes these events more endearing. Agriculture in the area has seen the return of the sowing of ancient seed types and it has been noticed that those with wheat intolerance can eat this wheat without ill effects!!

The festive mood of these village winter festivals is enjoyed by all faiths and represent the best  of
small communities coming together, the releasing of japanese lanterns over the hills was a magical ending to very special day.

This Presepe Vivente was held in Monti di Villa. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Village Festival In Tuscany, Necci In Piazza.

Benabbio, near Lucca, is our Village and one of the reasons we chose to buy Le Mura Villa. Unlike many Tuscan villages Benabbio is vibrant and full of young families. The community is good at organising village events and we try not not miss them or lend a hand if we can.

Chestnuts have always played a very important part in the economy of Benabbino life and therefore it is only right that there should be a village festival to celebrate the harvest.
Sweet Chestnuts in Italy have been fighting a decease brought in from the Far East in the last couple   years and therefore very few locals have bothered to gather the meagre crop to make flour.  However this year the trees seem to be winning through and therefore the festival was the perfect way to celebrate.
The main piazza of the village was bursting and a local group singing traditional songs added to the "Allegria". The warm weather made it seem more like late summer than late Autumn.

No local Village festival in Tuscany is complete without food. One of the most indigenous local dishes in our corner of Northern Tuscany is Necci, which is a type of pancake made out of chestnut flour. Every Mamma in Benabbio is an expert in making them.  Originally the batter was cooked between clay plates but now they are cooked using  "testi", which are two iron discs with long handles. "Necci" can be eaten in many different ways either savoury or sweet, however my favourite is with ricotta and sausage or "pancetta".

Another very seasonal offering was "Frittelle di Zucca", deep fried balls made with pumpkin. Though deep fried, when prepared by the local ladies they are as light as a feather. A favourite among children and adults alike is "Pasta Fritta" simply deep fried pizza dough. You can't believe how delicious this is.

The whole village laughing and talking in the square gave me a warm glow. Like every village festival the day made me realise how lucky I am to be part of this close knit community and have a beautiful sunset and view of the mountains to enjoy from my windows when I returned to Le Mura Villa at dusk.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lucca Comics 2015 -Snoopy and Friends to be premiered at Lucca Comics

Lucca Comics and Games has now become a annual hit and enables Lucca to close the tourist season on a different note. The Fair is an international extravaganza, a meeting of cartoonists and enthusiast who turn this occasion into almost a carnival of comics. The devotees come in the most incredible costumes to meet the creators and reenact their heroes. This small walled city almost bursts its bricks with personages from different cultures, planets and even other time zones. This years theme is "travelling". Thousands of tickets have already been sold online but there is still time to book your trip and step into a completely different universe on the amazing set that Lucca city offers. These days are fun for everyone and the crowds are always so polite that it it a real pleasure to wonder the streets and take pictures.  Below is a selection from past years to give you a taste.

So if you feel like slipping into your "star wars" costume then come and join the fun in Lucca for the weekend of 29th October to 1st November 2015. The official website is but sadly not in English. I have just heard that Snoopy and Friends to be premieres at Lucca Comics, who says that Lucca is a backwater!
Drop your inhibitions and join in the fun.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Shopping In Lucca at the Oldest Jewellery Store in Town

Lucca is often described as a jewel of a city and a little treasure in that crown is one of the beautiful jewellery shops, which could in itself be described as a FabergĂ© egg. The shop can be found in the middle of the main shopping street Via Fillungo. The shop goes under the name of “Carli”and is the oldest commercial establishment in Lucca and probably Tuscany.

The front of the premises unwraps in layers, each a bijou in itself. The wooden medieval doors open to reveal to large wooden sills on which are placed the ornate carved wooden cabinets displaying the gems. 

If you dare poke your head inside you will see the most beautiful frescoed vaulted ceiling. This building was acquired by the Carli family in 1655 and is still run by their descendants. The shop is now protected but was nearly destroyed under Fascism when the owners were ordered to modernise. Luckily the family stood firm and then the war came. The war destroyed so much but strangely saved this “bottega” (shop) in a time warp. The family were responsible for the setting of the jewels in crown of the magnificent  “Volto Santo” in San Martino cathedral in the city.

If you want a romantic gift for your loved one or a special present for a friend or yourself, this is the place to buy something very special with a little bit of history woven or should I say soldered in. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The oldest Historic food shops in Lucca Tuscany

Food is full of rituals in Italy and Lucca is the perfect place to see how this culinary history has remained unchanged. There are still some foods shop in Lucca which link back to their original family owners.  Below I have described four such shops that are preserved in time but serving their 21st century customers with wonderful natural products proving that ancient food traditions are totally valid and up to date. Their beautiful ancient edifices with their fixtures and fittings, which are now protected, make food shopping a unique and wonderful experience. The locals still use these shops, as they know they can rely on the quality of the products.

The old saying goes "Bread is the staff of life". It would be unthinkable for an Italian table to be void of a breadbasket. Every Italian needs a piece of bread  to do a  "Scarpetta" , which is used to mop the juices off one's plate.  Forno Giusti in Via Santa Lucia has been supplying the Lucchesi (citizens of Lucca) for generations. It was originally set up to serve the surrounding monasteries. The original steam ovens are still in use though now they are run on gas. The vapor gives the products a unique shine. One of the specialties of Giusti’s is their foccacia beloved as a "merenda" (snack) by the school kids. This specialty is either cooked in a pan with olive oil or on the oven floor. If you feel like a picnic why not buy a fresh piece of the caramelised onion focaccia and the sweet focaccia from the window and you have a five star gourmet meal for a few euro. This is what fast food should be! Though you will need to work of the calories!

Just across the narrow street is Prospero where the Lucchesi buy dry herbs and legumes, different types of flour including the wonderful sweet chestnut flour used to make some of the traditional treats of the area. The same family has owned the shop since it opened in 1700 and the fittings are also the same. Entering the shop is like stepping into a culinary Diagon Alley.

Lucca isn't famous for its cake like other parts of Italy but we do have our own specialties. One is "Torta co' becchi"a sweet tart made out of vegetables and the other is Buccellato a sweet raisin bread flavoured with aniseed. This delicacy can still be bought from Taddeucci bakery in Piazza San Michele where it was invented. Prince Charles is said to be a fan when he visits our little city. The taste is a bit like a hot cross bun with aniseed. The Lucchesi love to toast it and serve it with ice cream. A little light number by oh soooo good!!

If you are feeling a little bloated after all those carbohydrates like many Italians you will feel the need of a digestive. A liquor to help you digest. Here in Lucca  you can buy a bottle of  Cinchona know locally as simply as China. This has been made in the city since 1855 when the chemist Dr Massagli who created the concoction to treat the malaria epidemic. The medicine was then sold as an elixir and can therefore be sold in chemists. The secret recipe of herbs and roots is passed down from owner to owner of the chemist shop but we do know the main ingredient is of course the Jesuit's bark, the natural form of quinine. The liquor also contains nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon. The shop was originally a spice shop and has moved a couple of doors down but the original shop furniture has been preserved in the new shop, which is still a working homeopathic chemist.  

Lucca has become the capital of ice cream parlours or gelateria. There are so many and my daughter and her friends all have their favourites. The oldest in the town however is Gelateria Veneta. Found just off Corso Garibaldi though there are other branches around the city and a guy peddles a refrigerated bicycle around the walls in summer. The shop itself isn’t anything special but the gelato     is rich and creamy and the fruit flavours full of fresh fruit. Licking a cone is the perfect way to cool down on a hot summer afternoon. The locals meet for an ice-cream on a summer afternoon and the semifreddo (literary translated semi cold) games make perfect gifts to take to a dinner party. Here in Italy it is traditional to take a dessert when invited for dinner.
There are many other wonderful food shops in town and some of my favourites I will describe in other posts but how many cities in the world  have food shops with direct family links going back centuries.