Excursions in History, Livorno, Lucca, and Pisa, Italy
The itinerary of the Noordam of Holland America Line in the Western Mediterranean certainly had plenty of 20th and 21st century allure for the traveller with its stops in Tuscany, the Cote d, azur, Barcelona, Mallorca, and Rome. And for a history enthusiast, the ports of call in Livorno, Monte Carlo, Tunisia, Sicily, Naples were an opportunity to put heroic figures, battles and conquests into perspective.
A thoroughly modern port of call, Livorno’s contemporary port facilities belies a fascinating past as a merchant city, once as dominant as Pisa. The far thinking rulers of the city established a set of Laws, the Leggi Livornie, that established freedom of both trade and religion and even made amnesty available for a penance. These laws, in effect between 1590 and 1603, attracted immigrants including French, Greeks, English, Dutch, Jews and later, Moriscos (Muslim Spaniards forcibly converted to Catholicism). However, after Pisa ‘s silting up, distance from the sea and loss of dominance, Livorno took over as the main port in Tuscany.
Many port cities sacrifice art and architecture to streamline commerce. This is not the case in Livorno. Although largely rebuilt after World War II, the broad Piazza Municipio , leads from the port gate into the heart of the city.
Piazza Grande, graced by the central Duomo, is the main focus of local life. The seaward end links to Piazza Micheli, where the Monumento ai Quattro Mori, Livorno’s most prized sculpture can be found. The 1623 monument by Pietro Tacca, features four Moors to represent the maritime conquest of North Africa.
A short distance into the Tuscan countryside transports you to the middle Ages and the walled town of Lucca. A destination small enough to absorb in just few hours and rich enough in history to be a thoroughly satisfying experience. Not as well known as Pisa, with its; ’leaning tower,’ or Florence, the birthplace of the renaissance, Lucca is, however, filled with history and not completely overrun with tourists.
First settled by the Romans in 180 BC, Lucca has an easy to navigate grid layout highlighted by many piazzas, churches, and the remains of a Roman amphitheater. Lucca is also the birthplace of opera superstar composer, Giacomo Puccini, famous for La Boehme, Madame Butterfly and, the unfinished, Turnadot.
What sets this walled town apart from others are the ramparts, themselves. One of the pleasures of touring Lucca is taking time to walk along the tops of these walls that were constructed between 1500 to 1645 with defense in mind. However, the walls never actually had to be defended, and they were eventually converted into a public park in the 19th century. In the early 20th century the tops of the walls served as a racecourse for automobiles, and now in the early days of the 21st century bicycling and walking activities rule the rampart tops.
Most guided tours begin with the ramparts and then progress into the heart of the city through narrow streets that open into piazzas or circumnavigate the remains of the Roman built amphitheater.
The dominant church of Lucca, the Duomo di San Martino, was never finished but it served as the model for all other churches in Lucca. Inside are paintings and sculptures including Tintoretto’s Last Supper and works by Fra Bartolomeo, Filippino Lippi and Jacopo Della Quercia.
Lucca’s historic appeal is that it represents so much history in such a small area, the civic foresight of the Romans, the sturdy ramparts of the Middle Ages and the arts of the Renaissance decorating the city. Lucca is a veritable time capsule of Italian historic highlights.
Just 15 miles northeast of Livorno, the elegant city of Pisa was once a Roman Naval base. Best known for its ‘Leaning Tower’, the town will amaze you with its number of other sumptuous buildings such as the Duomo and Bapistry, which also look a little off center.
Pisa remained militarily important during the Middle Ages, helping to keep the coast free of invading Saracens and would later become a place from which a fleet of Pisan ships would sail off to the First Crusade and by the 11th century had developed into a maritime republic that would rival Genoa and Venice. At it height, it captured much Mediterranean territory including the large islands of Sardinia and Corsica.
The city was also a center for arts and sciences, Galileo Galilei taught at the University, and Percy and Mary Shelley lived in Pisa.
The draw remains the precariously looking tower, which engineers have raced to stabilize by placing lead weights at the base for balance, preventing the collapse. In theory, the tower could be set straight, but that would be unthinkable.
While the Leaning Tower is the most famous image of Pisa, it is only one of many works of art and architecture in the city. The Duomo, the Cathedral and adjacent Baptistry are wedding cake confections of design and worthy of a visit.
Most tours of the city begin in the parking area for the tour busses on the outskirts of the city. It is less than a mile walk to the main attraction, the leaning bell tower of the cathedral. There are many locations from which you can snap the always-popular photo of you holding up the leaning tower. Don’t worry you won’t be alone in this endeavor; there are hundreds of tourists all engaged in the same activity. Be advised, not all tours allow enough time to ascend the tower, if this is a priority, be sure to check that time is allowed for this activity.
My biggest and most welcome surprise in Pisa was the presence of a MacDonald’s offering air conditioning and iced drinks just a few hundred yards from the tower. In August the temperatures can soar into the high 90’s and a few moments to cool off and rehydrate were most welcome.
Back on board the Noordam, the ship celebrated our port of call with a Taste of Italy, Tuscan buffet. Various stations were set up with a wide selection of local foods allowing passengers to sample antipasto, pastas, seafood, Italian meats, cheeses and desserts including gelato and cannoli, with bar specials of Chianti and Limon cello.