Finally visiting and hiking the Cinque Terre – the five tiny and charming towns along the Ligurian coast of Italy south of Genoa. We’ve been interested in traveling to the Cinque Terre for years, but the charm and beauty of the towns has always been accompanied by a well-earned reputation of being overrun by tourists. We don’t like mobs of tourists, so we never went. Then: pandemic. As soon as Italy opened back up, we beelined it there to experience the region before a resurgent tide of of humanity could reach it.
Returning to Tuscany. Unsurprisingly, we’re fans of Tuscany. Surprisingly, we have only spent 5 days there, biking between five Tuscan towns during our only previous visit in 2004. Quintessential Tuscan towns, to be sure – Montalcino, Montepulciano, Siena, San Gimagnano, and Florence – but such a short time to spend in an area that was immediately so appealing to us. So, we thought we’d remedy that and head back to get a more immersive experience of the area (and hit two towns that occupied the eastern and western extremes of our 2004 bike route, and that we missed, as a result).
Here’s the route for the trip, starting at the top left:
We started the trip in the Cinque Terre – flying into Pisa, then taking a series of trains to get from the airport to our home base town there. We then trained back to Pisa to pick up a car and head into Tuscany, rotating slowly clockwise to visit or stay in towns around Florence before heading back to Pisa to fly back.
We spent the first 3 days exploring the five little towns of Cinque Terre, comprised of Riomaggiore at the southern end:
Followed by Manarola:
Vernazza (our home base for our stay in the Cinque Terre):
And finally, Monterosso, the northernmost village and the only one with an actual beach:
We hiked the only trail open between two of the towns during our stay, and had to hop a train or a boat to see the rest. A little disappointing not to be able to hike through all five, but we made out okay.
After killing the Cinque Terre, we headed back to Pisa to pick up our car (taking advantage of a delay in the car’s arrival by trotting up the street from the rental office to quickly check out the leaning tower). We then drove a short distance to Lucca in northern Tuscany. We’d spend only a day there, but Lucca turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip. The town was protected by fully intact, thick Renaissance walls, the 4k circumference of which you could circumnavigate by bike or by foot (which we did):
It offered a cool Torre Guinigi in the middle of town, with oak trees growing from the top:
And one of its piazzas retained the oval footprint of the ancient Roman amphitheater that previously occupied the space:
All of this added up to make Lucca a historically and atmospherically appealing highlight of the trip.
From Lucca, we headed south to Cortona, driving around the urban core of Florence and stopping for a bit in Fiesole at the recommendation of our niece, Tara. Fiesole sports, among other features, a remarkably intact Roman amphitheater, which was being put to use while we were there by an Italian band shooting a video. As you can hear, the 2-millenium old amphitheater’s acoustics still work!
We reached Cortona, and settled in for 2 days there. Our bike trip in 2006 took us through the center of southern Tuscany, so we missed the two famous hill towns on the periphery: Cortona on the east and Volterra on the west. Cortona was worth the wait.
Cortona’s Palazzo Comunale in the center of the small town:
Cortona also was the site of our second Air B&B of the trip (and only the fourth rental we’ve tried during our travels). We’ve always stayed in some flavor of hotel on our trips – more than 200 of them so far – and we’re now dipping our toes into the rental approach on this trip and previously on the Slow Roll. Generally, they’ve been positive experiences. In Cortona, our place sported a view over the Chiana Valley, which worked out quite nicely for evening Brunellos:
From Cortona, we headed west to Siena in the absolute center of Tuscany, and spent 3 days in and around town, which we had pegged as having Uzès-like potential as a longer-term destination for us in the future (nope – a much bigger city than we recalled from our bike trip).
But, it turned out that Siena itself would not be the main attraction of our stay there. Instead, it would be truffles. Without intentionally planning for it, we found ourselves in Tuscany during truffle season, much to our delight.
White truffles at dinner in town one night (when all we were looking to do was to grab some pizza and ended up here purely by happenstance), at a restaurant featuring a menu designed to pair with white truffles, which they served by the shaved – and carefully weighed – gram:
Black truffles the next day, foraging in the woods by a winery about 20 minutes away from Siena. The Italians use trained dogs to find truffles in the forest, rather than the pigs used in France:
A very successful foraging foray!
Trying out another Air B&B with another amazing view, this time from a private roof deck in the center of town:
After our time in Siena, we continued west to Volterra, stopping on the drive over to the tiny, but heavily fortified hamlet of Monteriggioni:
Where the final activities of a cyclocross race were winding up:
Monteriggioni was fortified because it served as a forward base of the Sienese during the Renaissance against any attempted incursions by their arch-enemy to the north, Florence:
Variations on a theme: after Monteriggioni’s walls, we ended up in heavily walled Volterra. We spent a day wandering about the eastern outlier in Tuscany that we missed in 2006 – it did not disappoint:
And then, as a departure from our stays in towns throughout the trip, we headed to a borgo – an entire village converted to a hotel – in the countryside outside Volterra for our final night:
One of the village’s old buildings had been converted for use as a museum of vintage Italian cars, motorcycles, and bikes – very cool.
Early the next morning, we drove back to Pisa, dropped off the car (this time without incident), and flew home – another road trip in Europe successfully executed!
From our base town of Vernazza in the Cinque Terre, we headed by train back to Pisa, but not the airport this time – instead the center of town to pick up our rental car (we could have picked it up at the airport, too, but rates were cheaper when they didn’t have the airport location surcharge).
The rental agency office was a 6-block stroll from the train station, which was cool, but it was both a Sunday and the day of the Pisa marathon, so we had to call the day before to have someone come in, and then we – and they – had to navigate the marathon street closures to get there, and then get out.
When we got the rental car office, the guy who had come in to take care of us told us we needed to wait because he had to run up the street to get the car washed. This was cool with us, since there was something else up the street that we wanted to run up to see. So, we left our bags in the office and both parties headed out, agreeing to meet back at the office in a half hour.
Striding over the peaceful Arno River that runs through downtown Pisa (and right by the rental car place):
Situated about 10 minutes away via a brisk trot lay the city’s characteristic feature we sought:
Hey! Lookit that! Efficiently checking the Pisa box while waiting for our rental car (not the marathon runner, the leaning tower behind him):
The barricades were up for the marathon, and runners were cruising by constantly during our short visit (Pisa’s cathedral baptistry in the back).
The leaning tower is actually the bell tower of the Pisa Cathedral next door. The tower was built over 200 years, between the 12th and 14th centuries. “The tower began to sink after construction had progressed to the second floor in 1178. This was due to a mere three-metre foundation, set in weak, unstable subsoil, a design that was flawed from the beginning. Construction was subsequently halted for almost a century, as the Republic of Pisa was almost continually engaged in battles with Genoa, Lucca, and Florence. This allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have toppled. On 27 December 1233, the worker Benenato, son of Gerardo Bottici, oversaw the continuation of the tower’s construction.” (From here.)
10 minutes was pretty much sufficient time to see what everyone comes to Pisa to see. Not a goal of this trip (nor of any of our trips), but Leaning Tower of Pisa box has now been duly checked!
With this brief detour, we trotted back to the rental office, retrieved our bags, picked up our car, and headed out.
Less than an hour’s drive away lay Lucca, where we’d spend a day and night before heading south to the rest of Tuscany.
Lucca was not a primary destination for this trip, but more of a convenient place in northern Tuscany to check out between Cinque Terre and Cortona, our first stop in the heart of the Tuscany road trip. Plus, Lucca sports this awesome amphitheater-shaped piazza that we wanted to see, having done a little pre-trip research. So, unlike Pisa, we were really looking forward to exploring Lucca.
But before even encountering Lucca’s signature piazza within the town walls, there were. . . the town walls!
Holy shit. We are big fans of medieval walled cities (most notably Carcassone, but also Krakow, Avignon, Dubrovnik, and the Tuscan towns of Montepulciano and Montalcino). But those were medieval city walls. Lucca boasts some of the world’s only fully intact Renaissance city walls.
Medieval walls were made of stone, very tall, and well-suited to resisting pre-gunpowder attacks. They were not, however, very useful in the new age of artillery that dawned in the late 1400s and into the 1500s. What made Renaissance city walls so different from medieval walls – and so pivotal in Lucca’s ability to resist its Tuscan enemies during the Renaissance – is the thick earthen structure that resisted (read: absorbed) modern cannon sieges. (FWIW, considering that Lucca is situated in Tuscany, “The Middle English word canon was derived from the Tuscan word cannone, meaning large tube, which came from Latin canna, meaning cane or reed.” From here.)
“Lucca’s historic walls were built between the mid-1600s and early 1800s and are still intact today, representing a valuable cultural resource not only for the city but for the territory as a whole. The walls today are actually the fourth version, the first one having been built by the Romans in the 2nd century BCE, the second one dating to the Middle Ages, finished in 1270, and the third stared at the end of the 1500s and was similar to the current walls. When considerable advances were made in military technology, it was decided that the walls should be improved and fortified.” (From here.)
We studiously avoid using non-WolfeStreetTravel photos in our blog except in the rare circumstance when a shot from the air is essential to capturing the essence of a place. This applies several times over in Lucca, as you’ll note below (as well as once in Carcassonne).
Throughout the Renaissance, Tuscany became increasingly dominated by Florence. As the strongest city-state in the region, Florence systematically and inexorably asserted its dominance over almost all of its rivals (significantly including Siena, which we’d hit for the second time in a few days). “Almost all,” because, as we learned from a native (and fiercely proud) Lucchesi during a guided walking tour during our stay, Lucca was the only city in Tuscany that successfully resisted the Florentine aggression (remaining independent until Napoleon upended Tuscany, Italy, and the entire continent in the early 19th century). Lucca’s investment in the 16th century in new city walls that responded to the military technology and engineering advances of the day played no small role in the city’s success in maintaining its independence.
Lucca’s 16th-century city wall was still around for us to enjoy 500 years later because the city did not have the funds to dismantle it after their military purpose was overtaken by technology. So, the city just left them in place. The wall is 4.2 km in circumference, and we circumnavigated this distance late in the afternoon – really nice walk.
From a sign about the history of the walls from our walk: “Not only did they answer the need for safety and security, protection and a confirmation of identity, but they also constituted that promenade, that belvedere that only the nobles could enjoy from their abodes. For this reason – despite the many signs warning against trespassing since it was a military zone – curtains and bastions were immediately used for strolling and as places to meet and relax; an activity that continues to this day.
Case in point:
A view of the walls (and a bastion) from one of the 10 other bastions on the wall.
Back inside the city, which reminded us a little of a smaller version of Toulouse, which we had visited a little over the month before during The Slow Roll – tall houses in town, creating urban canyons, but the place had a laid-back vibe that we totally dug.
Much of the layout of the walled city dates from the Roman city built here in the 2nd century BC, as depicted in orange (the amphitheater originally was outside the Roman walls):
Lucca’s San Michele in Foro basilica, dedicated to the Archangel Michael, the church resides in the center of the city. Although the original church dates to the 8th century, the current version was rebuilt after 1070. On the lower right corner of the façade is a statue installed in 1480 to celebrate the end of the 1476 plague (much like the plague pillars we had encountered in Vienna and Cesky Krumlov).
Even though it’s only a basilica (and never say “only a basilica” to the management of St. Mary’s across the street from us in Old Town, considering how much they’ve spent to update all of their signage to brag to everyone about their new designation), San Michele in Foro is more visually striking, in our view, than Lucca’s cathedral proper, which we’d see later.
“Notable is the façade, from the 13th century, with a large series of sculptures and inlays, numerous of which remade in the 19th century. The lower part has a series of blind arcades, the central of which includes the main portal. The upper part, built using plenty of iron materials to counter wind, has four orders of small loggias. On the summit, flanked by two other angels, is the 4 m-tall statue of St. Michael the Archangel.” (From here.)
The curved exterior of the signature feature that drew us to the town – Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro:
The eliptical piazza from above, clearly showing the shape of the Roman amphitheater that preceded the current structures:
“It stands in the exact place where the ancient Roman amphitheater was once located , dating back to the 2nd century AD and of which the square still retains its traditional elliptical shape.
In 1830, based on a project by the Lucchese architect Lorenzo Nottolini, the square took on its current structure, with the demolition of the small structures that up until then had been in the center of it and the restructuring of the buildings that stood along the perimeter. During the Middle Ages, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro was the privileged meeting point of Lucca society. In fact, citizens’ meetings systematically took place here, and buildings of notable social importance stood here, such as the salt deposit and the powder magazine. From that moment and until the first half of the twentieth century, Piazza dell’Anfiteatro became the seat of the city market.” (From here.)
Super cool space. We’d be back later that evening. . .
Back out in the urban canyons of Lucca we encountered both of the non-church-related towers. First, the less celebrated of the two: Lucca’s Torre delle Ore – The Clock Tower. Originally built as an aristocratic townhouse tower, Torre delle Ore belonged to the Quartigiani family at least till 1390 when the City Council decided to make the most of its primary position in the center of town and transform it into the town’s first public clock.
Then, the most celebrated of the towers in Lucca: Torre Guinigi:
The tower dates from the 1300s, when a number of wealthy families were building bell towers within the walls of Lucca as status symbols, identical to San Gimanano’s even more abundant Renaissance skyscrapers. The Guinigi family in Lucca were bankers, silk merchants, and one of them became the Lord of Lucca in 1400.
There’s still not an authoritative rationale for the seven oak trees growing in the roof garden at the top. Theories include a spiteful increase over a rival family’s nearby tower? Simple shade for the roof garden? A way to distinguish a wealthy family’s private tower from the church’s bell towers? The historians are still debating. But it’s pretty cool.
Lucca’s plane-tree-lined Piazza Napoleone
The piazza was home to Da Ciacco, which warned passers by “NO PIZZA NO PASTA.” Fine by us. Check out the steak tartar!
Lucca’s San Martino cathedral originally was consecrated in 1070 by Pope Alexander II, who formerly served as the Bishop of Lucca. The cathedral’s façade was updated 13th century to embody the Pisan Romanesque style that we encountered in Monterosso al Mare the day before (and that we’d find in Pistoia the next day).
Check out the right archway of the cathedral’s façade. There’s speculation that the layout was miscalculated, relative to the abutting bell tower (which predated it), and so the builders has to squish it in. We may never know, but it’s a pretty weird feature for a time when architecture – particularly religious architecture, was symmetrical and perfect. Considering that medieval cathedrals were planned and built over centuries, it would seem that there was time enough to remediate the issue if this were the case. . .
“The sculptural decoration inside the portico was begun in 1233 and uses pink, green and white marble to magnificent effect. Notice the intricate detail. Some say that the story behind the mix of columns on the façade originates with a competition the Lucca population started to see who made the prettiest; in the end they just used all the entries for this mix matched effect.” (From here.)
Oh, yeah, and San Martino himself – who was a knight on horseback – hangs out on the façade. The original, which dates from 1233, is inside the cathedral. The one exposed to the elements now is a copy.
Cool ceiling in the cathedral. And in the brass, dome-roofed cage partially obscured by a pillar on the left, an 8-foot wooden crucifix.
From a New York Times article in 2020: “According to the legend, “The Holy Face of Lucca” had been sculpted by a divine hand and remained hidden for centuries before an Italian bishop discovered it on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the eighth century. The crucifix was put on a ship with no crew and miraculously set sail to the Tuscan coast, where an angel helped guide the relic to its final home in a cathedral in Lucca.
On Friday, science provided another story — and it is remarkable in its own right.
The crucifix was shown to be the oldest surviving wooden carving in Europe. And it remains in remarkable condition, the downcast eyes of Christ on the cross still captured in dramatic detail.
“Though the crucifix had been the subject of many theological discussions given its central place in Christian iconography, it only attracted the attention of art historians about a century ago.
For lack of other works to compare it to, early scholarship saw stylistic similarities with a late 12th century artist who worked mostly in northern Italy, and though debated, many art historians came to believe that the current crucifix was a 12th century copy of the lost 8th century original.
That theory was soundly contradicted by the new radiocarbon results. . .
Radiocarbon dating at an accelerator mass spectrometry lab in Florence dated the wood “to the end of the seventh century and the middle of the ninth,” said Mariaelena Fedi, the researcher from the institute who supervised the scientific investigation. Also known as carbon 14 dating, the technique is mainly used to date organic materials, like wood.
“Generally canvas gives a more accurate dating,” because wood can have been cut years before it is carved, Ms. Fedi said at the news conference. Finding canvas to test “was a great opportunity.””
WolfeStreetTravel digs intact medieval objects, so this was pretty cool.
In addition to the oldest wooden sculpture in Europe, Lucca’s cathedral is home to three great Renaissance masterpieces, one of which is the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, wife of Paolo Guinigi, of Torre Guinigi tree tower fame above. The sarcophagus depicts Ilaria in a sleeping pose with her dog at her feet.
A final stop on our tour of Lucca: the Basilica of San Frediano. “According to tradition, Saint Fridianus, bishop of the city from 560 to 588, founded the church, and it was mentioned for the first time in a document from the year 685 as a Lombard-era basilica.
The church is famous for the large mosaic on its façade, dating to the end of the 13th century and an extremely rare ornamentation in the Romanesque style.” (From here.) (And btw Saint Fridianus was Irish. Natch.)
The rear of the hyper-Romanesque basilica with its Lombard-style campanile:
Pretty cool at night, too!
We returned to the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro around the corner for a casual dinner on our sole night in Lucca:
Next up: heading south, back to the heart of Tuscany, by way of Pistoia and Fiesole, per Tara’s excellent recommendations.
From Cortona, we traveled west, via Radda in Chianti, to Siena, where we settled down for 3 days to check the place out again. We first visited Siena in 2004 during our bike trip in Tuscany, and totally dug it. We’ll post separately on Siena, but during our stay there, we took a little field trip to the northwest to Torciano winery. Not for wine. For truffles.
It turned out that there were two compelling reasons to visit Italy when we did in October 2021: the first was the pandemic-level paucity of people in Cinque Terre, which drove us to travel there so soon after our South of France road trip just a month earlier. Totally worth it. The second reason, it turned out, was that it was truffle season in Tuscany.
So, one of the things we wanted to do was to go truffle hunting. Which brought us to Torciano. The winery, which has been owned by the same family for 13 generations, had cultivated truffles in an oak forest nearby, so you could go truffle hunting in the right season with a good likelihood of actually finding them.
When we arrived, we soon learned that they were also hosting a Ferrari event, so there were freakin’ Ferraris all over the place.
After winding our way through the sports cars, we headed over to the family patriarch (or old uncle, at least) for a quick lesson on truffles.
We would be hunting for black truffles, which are the only variety that can be cultivated in oak tree roots.
In France, they hunt truffles with pigs. In Italy, it’s dogs, and they’re trained from birth for the job.
Competition for valuable truffles in Italy has actually become dangerous recently. A January 14 New York Times article, reports of competing truffle hunters in Italy resorting to setting out poisoned treats in oak forests to kill their rival’s truffle hunting dogs. Freakin’ crazy.
Out on the hunt.
A potential target.
Yup – smells truffley.
Lisa actually found two black truffles on our hunt:
But there was still opportunity for more.
After a grueling day of pungent mushroom hunting, some sustenance back at the winery.
All featuring black truffles. As an aside, black truffles are sauteed to optimize their taste, releasing their distinctive flavor and scent, while the much more rare white truffles are sliced directly onto food without any treatment to maximize their flavor. We only just learned this on this trip.
(Several years ago, we dined at Fish, Jose Andres’ restaurant in National Harbor, specifically for a celebration of the availability of black truffles since they were in season in the chef’s home country of Spain. There, they sliced black truffles directly onto the dishes and we were really underwhelmed and disappointed. Now we know why. Fish subsequently closed. Maybe deservedly so.)
Equally important to the experience were the Tuscan red wines, including Brunello from Montalcino, where the family has some of their vineyards. Totally lived up to the hype. We think? we had Brunello in Montalcino from our bike trip, but weren’t sure. We definitely dug it here though.
The evening before in Siena, we headed out for what we intended to be a casual dinner of pizza some place indoors, since the town was freakin’ freezing, just like Cortona. In our quest, we stumbled on this place:
Where they were featuring a prix fixe dinner designed around white truffles. So, a little change in plans after we confirmed with the door dude that we were suitably attired to eat there.
Every dish was designed to highlight white truffles.
They’d first serve the simple dish. . .
Then place a scale on the table, weigh the raw white truffle, shave shave shave, then weigh the truffle again to quantify your take.
We might have gone a little overboard on one of the dishes.
Freakin’ awesome experience. When we showed the pasta and egg dishes to our truffle guide, he responded approvingly that that was how you feature the delicate white truffle.