Lucca (Part I)

P1084860This is the Italy I have been seeking.

I had planned to spend one night in Lucca but spent three.

I learned that you can ignore the guidebooks.

In chorus they all say you can “see” Lucca in half a day. The truth is, if all you want to do is “see” it, an hour, or maybe two, will do. It’s that small. The justly famous walled town is about two miles in circumference and flatter than a New York style pizza.

But if you want to “experience” Lucca, you must put away your watch and bury your calendar. A timeless place requires time. A timeless place deserves time.

I’d booked a room at Il Seminario B&B. As I walked from the tourist office near the train station, the  late afternoon streets were pretty empty, but not in a scary way. It was just quiet. I saw no pedestrians and few cars.

Ominously, I saw no sign of anything that looked like a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast.

UPDATE: the Il Seminario web site (link above) includes a photo with a handsome brass plaque affixed to the wall right next to the door. Thank you, Paulo!

One of the ways towns around world protect themselves from modernism is by strict – and strictly enforced – ordinances that limit or even prohibit advertising signs outside business.

I have lived in Lake Forest, Illinois and once owned an antique shop in Evanston. Both have similar ordinances.

No sign is permitted to protrude from a building. The uncluttered  streetscape in Evanstion was a powerful attraction to upscale clients. Earlier on this trip (see I saw the same beneficial effect in small Dutch towns.

Here in Lucca, the effect works as well, but I suspect it is not the result of a law, but the strange whim of Il Seminario’s management, that there is no sign at all, of any kind, not even a street number painted on the door.

Armed with the excellent free street map, clearly marked by the pleasant woman at the Tourism Office near the train station, I stood at the exact spot she indicated. Large, high, beautifully paneled anonymous doors stared back at me.

I wandered back and forth along the empty sidewalk, forced by an increasingly impatient bladder to keep moving or start leaking. I did the Dance of the Untipped Kidney. I had not felt such urgency since the last cold day I drank three beers.

Just as I was about to rush behind one of the parked cars for relief, a man and a young woman walked up to the large unmarked door by which I was fidgeting. He had a confident manner and a set of keys that suggested multiple accesses.

I spoke in hope but feared that failure now would be damp and embarrassing.

“Scuzi, parle Inglese? ”

“Why yes. May I help you?”

“Please, where is Il Seminario?”

“Ahh, are you Mister Harkins?”

I nodded affirmation as strongly as I dared without wetting my pants.

“Oh, Mister Harkins. I am Paulino, the manager. I have just called the Tourism Office and they said you were walking over here.  Please come in, come in.”

Fortunately, the “necessary” is directly inside the front door.

I’d snagged the last available room in what had once (maybe 100+ years ago) been a seminary for candidates for the priesthood. If this is how they lived, I want to take Holy Orders. But, I doubt they were offered the sinful luxury I found.  The only issue I had, the same as I found in other repurposed buildings in Europe, was that top floor rooms should not be assigned to lumbering 6-footers like myself.

I gave myself at least 6 cranial bruises on the romantically exposed rafters before I learned to stoop when leaving the center of the room.

The room was large, with a king-sized bed, excellent reading lamps, a lovely view over surrounding rooftops, clean and fresh-smelling. The bath and shower were spacious. The smallest complete kitchen I have every seen was hidden in a standard-sized closet.

It was now getting near sunset. I was tempted to just crash for nap. But I knew that if I did, I might not wake up until it was too late to find dinner. There are few dumber things than sleeping away dinnertime in an unfamiliar town. I’ve done that and then had to go hungry until breakfast.

A hot shower revived me and I hurried out to see what I could find in theP1074799 gathering twilight.

I took careful note of my lefts and rights as I wandered the deserted cobblestone streets. A light rain began. It was more like a warm mist.  In a sudden open square I came upon the remains of an antique fair. All but a few of the dealers were packed up.

Just as the mist began to assert itself as a genuine shower, I scuttled into Tratoria Sergio‘s,  a small, cozy restaurant with a tiny circle of outdoor tables under a wide awning.  There were no customers. By Italian customs, I was early for dinner.

I realized that all the day-tripping tourists had boarded their guide-tour buses an hour of so before my arrival. They had “seen” Lucca.

How was dinner in Sergios?

I grew up in Jersey City NJ at a time when the Irish, Polish and Italians were the predominant population. I loved my grandmother’s cooking, but like every other Irish person in town, when you went out to eat, you went to one of the many Italian restaurants. I do not recall there was a single Irish restaurant.

Irish and Polish bars? We had one or more in every block. But we all ate Italian.

Lasagna at Trattoria Sergio

Lasagna at Trattoria Sergio

That fact is preface to saying Sergio’s served me the most amazing lasagna I have ever had in my entire life, including the years in Boston, Chicago, San Fran and New Orleans.