Day 2: School in the morning, beach in the afternoon and a centuries old parade in the evening

This morning I was feeling much more ‘human’ and less like a walking zombie. So much so, that I woke up at 7am, put on my walking shoes and went for a walk around Lucca’s famous Renaissance-era walls.

Although the ‘walls’ are obviously walls in a normal sense, I think the word is a bit misleading. With parts built over many centuries, but for the most part during 1500 – 1600, they are about 10 metres wide and have, in many places, a paved road running along the top (but only city vehicles allowed, and I saw one during the entire walk). There are further paths on either side made of gravel, used mostly by people jogging, with the cyclists and walkers using the paved parts. Prior to seeing them, I would have thought the wall was thin and made of bricks, like those surrounding castles on tv or in the movies. Boy was I wrong!

We were told during our walking tour the day before that the walls built during medieval times were generally much taller so to be used to protect against catapults, whereas during the Renaissance period, cannons started to become a threat, so walls were built thicker and less tall. In saying that, Lucca’s walls are still about 6m tall – this is a guess – and it would be a long fall and very difficult to try to climb!  The walls we see today have three gates, which used to be operated as drawbridges but of course are now open 24/7. Since Lucca grew over the centuries, when the current walls were built, they used some of the walls that defined the town during medieval times, but much of the walls today were constructed from scratch (taking 100 years to do so). Today two of the original gates of the medieval walls are still standing, and you can walk through them like people have done for more years than I can imagine.

One of two Medieval Gates still standing

In addition to the four kilometers of wall, there are 11 ramparts of various shapes and sizes. Most of these have been converted over the centuries to become parks and playgrounds and seem to be popular with people wanting to have a picnic or enjoy some time out of the sun. I should also note that for most of the walk, there are trees and plenty of shade, so enjoyable even when it’s 30 degrees (like it was today).

During my ‘early’ morning walk, there were a few people out, and by the large amount of Italian I heard and the number of dogs, I would say before 8am, the crowd seems to be mostly Italian, with tourists out in much larger numbers and the day goes on.

Le Mura di Lucca (Lucca’s walls). Though I say ‘a lot of people’ on the walls, it wasn’t what I would call crowded. There are much more people, but still not crowded, during the afternoons and evenings.

After my relaxing and highly enjoyable walk along le mura, it was a quick breakfast and over to the school. The lesson today started with a lot of discussion of the night’s festivities, La Luminara di Santa Croce and the fireworks afterwards (more below).

After class, I decided to head out on my first day trip. I chose the seaside town of Viarregio, since it’s located about 20 minutes by train from Lucca. While I thought I was going to hop off the train and see beautiful vistas of the beach, instead I left the train station and wasn’t sure which way I needed to go to get to the beach. Luckily I found a sign (I’d forgotten to look at a map prior to going and didn’t have one loaded on my phone – stupid!) and heading in the direction I guessed was the beach. About 15 minutes later, I found what I discovered was the ‘promenade’, but still couldn’t see the beach. I soon figured out that the beach is lined with beach clubs and restaurants and for the pleasure of seeing the ocean, you needed to pay. If you’re making a day of it, it would be worth paying for the private beach (think umbrellas, loungechairs, shower and toilet access, etc), for a short dip, I didn’t want to pay the money (which can be 20 euros or more in high season). The problem I had was that there were no signs with prices or protocols to figure out how much it would have cost, though I suppose I could have asked. Seeing as the beach wasn’t overly busy, it probably didn’t cost that much (my teacher guessed 15 euros).

I’d read that the public beach was to the left of the private beach (yes I did do some research first) so I walked 10 or so minutes towards a marina. Following it towards the ocean that I could finally see, I found the public beach. It was a long, but narrow strip of sand running along the private beach, with only about five or so metres of beach with water access. Being September, though over 34 degrees, there were hardly any people in the water. It was windy so it was quite choppy and honestly didn’t look that inviting.

The public beach is the area from the rocks to the fence where the umbrellas begin. The remaining beach is all private.

Though not understanding how the beach access worked, I thought I’d walk along the water to at least touch the ocean and did so for about a kilometre. I wasn’t sure how to get back to the main street, but eventually picked a beach club to walk through and no one said anything to me. Whether you could do this during high season when it’s really busy, I’m not sure! Since it was super hot I found a gelato and decided I’d head back on an early train, having my stay in Viareggio last all of about two hours.

After all my hard work, I deserved some gelato (it was also my lunch). This is the cookies and vanilla flavour from Grom. I have to brag that I ordered and paid for my gelato in Italian and also asked a young lady directions to the train and understood it all. The lessons are paying off!

On the way back to the train station I stumbled across a few pedestrian only streets with shops open though not a whole lot of activity. This was the only area I saw with stores open, so I grabbed something light to eat. All in all it was a nice city though I’d probably go back more prepared as it wasn’t as easy as ‘hop off the train and into the ocean’ and I’d expected!

Pedestrian only street in Viareggio

While the La Luminara di Santa Croce seemed a bit confusing and not all that exciting when described in Italian that I could understand, since the school was organising an outing for those who wanted to see it firsthand, it seemed like a good idea to go along and check it out.

Warning: while I’m sure everything I’m about to say is not 100% correct, based on the discussions I had in Italian and watching the procession, the following is my impression of the events.

The procession involves a wooden crucifix being carried along the streets from the  San Frediano Church to the Cathedral of San Martino. The legend goes that while the crucifix was being fabricated, prior to going to sleep one night, the artist had completed the figure on the cross except for the face of the man on it. When he woke in the morning, the face was carved and voila! we have a miracle! The parade celebrates the legend and has been doing so every year on 13 September for hundreds of years.

The parade, which involves several people carrying a crucifix, also involves hundreds of people from Lucca and the surrounding villages. The parade is not a parade as I would normally think of it, in that there are no floats involved, and instead is made up of groups of people from similar communities walking, singing or playing music as they walk through the streets. In addition, lights are turned off along the parade route, replaced by thousands of candles placed in candle holders outlining windows and doors (similar to chistmas lights). All day city workers place the candles in their holders with some being so high they use cherry pickers to place and light them. Once it was dark, the candles provided a very beautiful light, especially in the piazza where we were watching – Piazza di San Michele.

The parade is made of up people representing their churches and communities of Lucca and the surrounding region, senior members of the church, important business and political people and even people that live around the world that have Lucchesi heritage. Each of the groups walk one behind the other, like in a parade, and have a banner saying where they’re from (i.e Lucchesi di San Francisco, Bangkok, Belfast, Perth, parish of small town # 1 … #55, etc).

Besides groups from various churches and far-flung Lucchesi returning for the festivities, there were dancers with flags, sporadically marching bands and at the end, there were dozens of people dressed in medieval costumes (my favourite part – they were elaborate costumes!).

Church lit up with candles

The parade started at 8pm and finished after 10pm. From our original group of about 25, 6 of us remained at the end (it was a long procession and for the most part, not a whole lot to see other than people walking and not smiling!). After the parade was officially finished, we walked to the walls near Basilica di San Frediano to watch the fireworks. They like to draw out their festivities so the fireworks didn’t start until 11pm and finished at 11:30pm. They were pretty good, but for me the highlight was watching them while standing on top of walls that are 500 years old, surrounded by people speaking Italian! The fact that the route of the parade was lit up by candle light didn’t hurt either!

Walking to the walls to see the fireworks after the parade
The other students and I waiting for the fireworks to begin. We’re an international group coming from Australia, Germany, Denmark, Norway and the US!


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