Lucca Festival of Light
I’ll look for any excuse to spend a weekend in Lucca. I can’t fully explain my fascination with this lively town in western Tuscany. It’s way out west, about an hour drive from Florence directly toward the Mediterranean. There’s not much nearby other than beach towns of course, and Pisa with little to offer but its famous tower. But to say that Lucca is worth the side trip is a gross understatement. I say it’s worth its very own trip. The kids and I recently spent a gorgeous September weekend there, soaking in the Lucchese spirit on one of its most festive weekends of the year- the weekend when they celebrate the annual Luminara di Santa Croce.
Each year on September 13th, cherry picker cranes can be seen in the narrow streets of Lucca, hoisting workers as they set up tiny votive candles along every ledge and windowsill in town. The streets are full of locals as well as tourists, preparing for the big event.
When night falls on the city, the luminara, or “illumination”, begins. All of the city’s electric lights are extinguished and the candles take over. The church facades appear to be on fire. The city takes on a romantic and medieval feel, bringing you back to a time when candles and stars were the sole sources of light.
Then the procession begins. First into view is a giant cross of flowers representing the Volto Santo di Lucca, Holy Face of Lucca. The Volto Santo is a life-sized wooden cross that sits in the main cathedral of Lucca, the final destination of the procession. The flowers lead a seemingly never-ending parade of people from the old cathedral of San Frediano into the “new” one of San Martino, and right past the beautiful marble mini-temple housing the Volto Santo itself. The mood of the evening was peaceful.
The procession included candle-bearing representatives from every parish in the Archdiocese of Lucca, and then the Archbishop himself. Band musicians were peppered throughout the parade, which periodically broke into solemn song. It was clearly a very sacred event, bringing out the most faithful of Lucca’s citizens. The streets were quiet but packed so tight, it took 45 minutes of weaving through dark side streets to finally make our way to our B&B for bed. We were too sleepy to catch the fireworks that lit up the night sky starting around midnight. Clearly something magical and important was going on, but what was it?
It’s no coincidence that we chose this particular weekend to visit Lucca. We knew about the famous event. However, finding out about its origins and meaning proved more difficult than I imagined. After combing through pages on the internet about wooden crosses, bishops and candles, I stumbled upon an Italian blog post describing an interesting legend. The Volta Santo is said to have been carved in the 700s and transported to Lucca (from somewhere?) in the 1100s. It was originally housed in Lucca’s San Frediano church. Apparently one morning the city awoke to find that it had mysteriously relocated to the cathedral of San Martino, where it sits today. Hence the parade from the old cathedral to the new. Whatever the historical reason, this is clearly an important event for the faithful of Lucca, and a beautiful, moving sight for the rest of us.
Let me back up to before nightfall. A few weeks ago, on our way back from the swanky beach town Forte dei Marmi, we had stopped briefly in Lucca for lunch. I knew that the Luminara was coming up so I had my eyes open for a place to stay. We wandered into a tiny B&B right in the middle of town to book a triple room for Kate, Eve and myself the weekend of the event. The nice man initially shook his head and repeated “difficile” (difficult) several times before smiling, taking note of my first name and indicating that we were confirmed. I asked about parking, and he just said to call him when we got to Lucca and he’d come help us. Based on this brief interaction, all in Italian, the kids and I packed a small bag and our sense of adventure, and returned to Lucca on September 13th. The experience far exceeded our expectations.
The tiny B&B La Torre ended up being a lovely little place. It’s run by a father and son and what appear to be a couple of the father’s friends- really nice older Italian gentlemen that indeed did help us park and get to the hotel. The 2 ladies (their wives?) that were in charge of breakfast were quite taken with Kate and Eve. Our room was cozy and old world eclectic in its decor, and the bathroom was so small, it was impossible to wash hands without splashing the entire room and part of the bedroom. The girls loved it from the moment we arrived. We would definitely stay there again.
After checking in, we ventured out into the streets and our luck continued. We stumbled upon a charming sidewalk patio restaurant for lunch, then wandered along Via Fillungo (“Via Flamingo” according to the kids), the best shopping street in town. All weekend, the kids took charge of the map and enjoyed getting to know their way around the city, which is just large enough to get lost in but not enough to lose hope.
After shopping for a while, we decided to do the ultimate Lucca-tourist thing and rent bikes to cruise atop the city’s wall. As with everything else we did that day, the experience was easy. Just walk up to any one of a number of rental shops near the wall, point to some bikes and take off. Return whenever you want and pay 4 euro/hour for the amount of time you were gone. We only rode long enough to take one leisurely pass around the city, dipping down from the wall at a couple of playgrounds and cafes along the way.
As the afternoon wore on, the streets began to fill in anticipation of the Luminara. As early as 6pm, long before dark, candles were lit and people were taking seats on curbs along the parade’s route. The girls and I had dinner plans, and would have to miss much of the build-up. But I was really looking forward to seeing Luisa again, the owners’ representative for both of Tuscan Travel Group’s Lucca-area villas. When my business partner Brandy and I first met her on our villa-scouting trip to Lucca last October, she generously housed us and showed us around Lucca for two days. Her family has been in the area for generations, so she’s quite an expert. She’s also a wonderful lady, and the kids and I had a nice time catching up with her over dinner at one of her favorite restaurants- Buca di Sant’Antonio. I had been there with her before and recalled the extensive can’t-go-wrong menu, decadent wine list and impeccable service, as well as the friendly head chef that came out to flirt with Luisa. I’m happy to report that nothing had changed.
Each of the villas that Luisa represents provides for a beautiful and memorable experience in Lucca. Casa Palazzo, as the name implies, is a palatial villa that sleeps 20 in one giant house brimming with old world elegance. It would be easy to settle in there and feel pampered in luxury and seclusion, while only a 4-kilometer bike ride away from the wall of Lucca.
Meanwhile, a 10 minute drive up a winding road takes you to Casa Bella Vista, a gorgeous estate that houses up to 20 and provides glorious views of Lucca. I would be hard pressed to choose between the two. But take my advice: If you are ever looking for a place in Italy for a family reunion or other large gathering, Lucca is a great option.
Wrapping up our weekend in Lucca, the kids and I arose to the sweet smells of breakfast in the funky little dining room down the hall, and enjoyed it thoroughly. After walking around the city a little longer, we decided we weren’t yet ready to leave. So, we hit the bike trail one last time. I was only able to tear the kids away from Lucca with promises to return for a day trip some weekend soon for more biking and exploring.
There is something different about Lucca compared to the other Tuscan towns I’ve seen. Sure, Lucca is another medieval town, as one is reminded by the old churches and towers at every turn, and the wall-enclosed round shape of the city itself. But it has the vibe of a modern city, with regular Italians living and working within its borders. The kids are similarly stumped in trying to describe what makes Lucca so special- “a fun place to walk around, a lot to see.” I suggest you go and see for yourself.