A city with three love stories and very good wine

Posted on: 4th August, 2015

Category: The Wine Buff

Contributor: Tony Eklof

Tony Eklof, originally from New England, has settled in Clonakilty after a career as a librarian at University College Dublin. His knowledge and passion for wine has been inspired by frequent visits to the wine growing regions of the continent, particularly Italy and France.

The beautiful walled city of Lucca in Tuscany and its stunning piazza on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre, boasts great architecture, 99 churches, (strange then that it is known as ‘the city of 100 churches’) opera, (the home of Puccini), surprisingly good local wine, and is associated with no less than three famous love stories.

The walls surrounding the city were never breached; when the wealthy locals saw the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor or the opposing Papal forces approaching, they simply paid them off to leave Lucca in peace. Today the ramparts make a wonderful 4km walk or cycle affording great views of the terracotta rooftops of the city on one side, and the Apuan Alps on the other. In the early evening they make a great escape from the summer heat and a perfect setting for the ‘passeggiata delle mura’ (walk on the walls).

While cycling the walls, we spotted a wedding below in what appeared to be a particularly beautiful Italianate garden setting. This turned out to be the gardens of the Palazzo Pfanner, named after an Austrian brewer who brought beer-making skills to the city. Aside from being the setting for the film ‘Portrait of a Lady’, one room in the villa is interesting in that it is the bedroom where a love affair was conducted between the Prince of Denmark and a local noblewoman in 1692. When the affair ended, Prince Frederick returned to his homeland and became King of Denmark while Maria Maddalena Trenta entered the convent.

You can’t escape Puccini in Lucca, and why would you want to? There are concerts of his most famous arias every night, and while visiting we were treated to an outdoor performance of arias from ‘Madama Butterfly’. The birth house of the great composer has in recent years been turned into the ‘Puccini Museum’, which has memorable pictures of the era, many original scores, his piano, and perhaps most fascinating, letters to and from the great man. Here you can find references to the great scandal when Puccini fell in love with a married woman, Elvira Bonturi, who eventually abandoned her husband to live and have a child with the most famous living composer of his time.

The third love affair is perhaps the most fascinating, that of Ilaria, daughter of the Marchese del Carretto who married the Lord of Lucca but died in childbirth in 1406 at the tender age of 26. Today she is a symbol of beauty in Italy although she would probably have been forgotten had not her grieving husband Paulo Guinigi commissioned one of the most accomplished sculptors of the early Renaissance, Jacopo della Quercia, to create a monument to his young wife. The result, carved out of a single marble stone and portraying Ilaria’s effigy with her loyal dog lying at her feet, is one of the most tender and memorable works of art I have seen in my travels in Italy and is a major attraction for Lucca’s Duomo San Martino.

Lucca is a cycling paradise as it is relatively flat, and the city is almost entirely pedestrianised. For the more adventurous cyclists there is a popular ‘strada del vino e del ‘olio’ where you can stop off and visit the local wineries and sample also the olive oil which is highly prized in Italy.

Lucca can be easily reached from nearby Pisa and its beautiful Piazza Dei Miracoli but with not much else for the tourist. Lucca, described by the Lonely Planet as eliciting ‘love at first sight’, has many more attractions and makes a better base for exploring Tuscany. There are no shortage of fine osterie and trattorie to dine in and sample the surprisingly good local wine from a relatively new DOC classification called Colline Lucchesi which includes the nearby village of Montecarlo. (No, not that Monte Carlo). Wine from the hills above Lucca is often made with the same grape composition as used in the nearby Chianti Region with Sangiovese often supplemented by Merlot and Canaiolo.

Do be somewhat careful where you choose to sit in your restaurant, often located in old villas. While dining in a trattoria, enjoying a particularly good wine recommended by the wine maker who happened to be in the restaurant at the time, a small bit of plaster came loose from the ceiling and hit my wife on the head. The owner’s first reaction of ‘it’s not my fault, it’s an old building’ eventually changed to ‘the meal is on us’. We left wishing we had chosen to dine ‘al fresco’.

On another evening, we ate in Lucca’s oldest and most famous trattoria where both Puccini and Ezra Pound once dined, but were not impressed with the service and said so as we paid our bill. The next morning the manager arrived (by bicycle) at our hotel as we were checking out, with an apology and a very fine looking bottle of Montecarlo. As we were travelling with Ryanair and carry-on bags only, bringing the wine home was not an option. As luck would have it, I have a former colleague and friend who spends part of each year in Lucca, so I left the bottle in the hotel with her name on it. I do hope she enjoys it!

Recommendation: When in Lucca, dine at the iconic Osteria Pasqualino Gubitosa. I had exquisite Sicilian pasta with lemon sauce. The most amazing wine list I have ever seen. When we arrived there was a ‘restaurant is full for the night’ sign but when Pasquale appeared and engaged us in conversation he noted my interest in Italian wine and told us he would make a table available! Impress him by asking for the local wine from the Marrema town of Capalbio, or a bottle of Montecarlo Rosso from Vigna del Greppo.

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