If you’ve been following us for any time, you know we love to mix in a cruise or two on our multi-month travels. Non-cruisers frequently asked why we travel by ship to explore the world. Can you really understand a place via day-long shore excursions?
Of course, you can’t. But in a short time and with ease, you can sample many destinations. If we discover a city or region that intrigues us, we make a note to return for a longer visit in the future. We’ve discovered many of our favorite places this way.
Our current Azamara cruise is definitely port intensive – 23 days with only two sea days. Already we have discovered a destination gem, Lucca, Italy, that’s now high on our list for an extended stay. We’ve been to Tuscany several times, and somehow we missed this beautiful, fascinating city on the Serchio River about 45 minutes from the Port of Livorno. From the moment we walked through the massive gate of the well-preserved Renaissance-era walls, we knew this was a special place.
Lucca has a long, rich history. Founded by the Etruscans in the 6th century BC, and a Roman colony in 180 BC, the city was an important center of silk trade and commerce through the Middle Ages. It also was a major stop on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route that led to Rome. In the 14th century, Lucca became a republic, and it remained independent until the 19th century. During this period, the city was a major center of the Renaissance,
We could see why Lucca is popular destination for decerning travelers. It has beautiful architecture, rich history, and a vibrant cultural scene. But it’s not overcrowded and marred by tacky souvenir shops and overpriced eateries. A real working city, its streets are lined with grand churches and stylish locally owned retail shops, art galleries, bakeries, and cafes catering to its citizens. It’s also home to Casa di Puccini, the great opera composer’s birthplace, now a museum.
Exploring the narrow medieval streets is a joy for photographers, history lovers, and cultural explorers. On our shore excursion there, we visited a number of the city’s historic buildings and areas, including the Piazza Anfiteatro (Amphitheater Square), once home to a Roman amphitheater. Today, it is a lively piazza with shops, cafes, and restaurants.
It’s also flat, so bikes are major transport here, leaving most of the cobblestoned streets car-free. The thick mura di Lucca (the walls of Lucca) are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s over two miles long and has developed into a civic jewel providing broad, tree-lined pathways popular for strolling and cycling. Benches along the way overlook magnificent villas like Pfanner Palace, known for its beautiful gardens, fountains, and statues.
And of course we visited a few key churches, including Lucca Cathedral, a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture, and the Church of San Michele in Foro located in Piazza San Michele, once the forum of the Roman city of Lucca.
Perhaps the most interesting and oldest church we visited was the Romanesque Basilica of San Frediano, built in the first half of the 6th century. Saint Francis’s remains are buried under the altar.
On the side of the chapel, we found the mummified remains of St. Zita (1212-1272), the patron saint of maids and domestic servants and a popular saint in Lucca. Her body lies on a bed of brocade in a glass shrine. Born into a poor family and orphaned, she entered domestic service and served the influential Fatinelli family for almost 50 years. Some 150 miracles were attributed to her and she was canonized in 1696.
Our shore excursion was over too soon, but it had served its purpose. We had a tantalizing taste of this marvelous destination, just enough to whet our appetite for a return visit, maybe as soon as next fall.