Tuscany’s towns, towers and tenors
The moment the pianist began running his fingers up and down the keys and the soprano launched into Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro”, I knew I had worn the wrong mascara. As her powerful voice soared up towards the vaulted ceilings, the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention, my throat felt strangely constricted, and I desperately tried to blink away the gathering tears, threatening to spill in black rivulets down my cheeks. I never cease to be amazed by the emotive power of music.
It was the first of our two nights in Lucca, during our 9 day tour of Tuscany: “Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre” with Back-Roads Tours. Lucca is the birthplace of Puccini, and Dario our tour guide had casually mentioned that a concert was taking place at the church near our hotel. Whilst I am not a huge opera fan, I have always been profoundly moved by popular classics such as Nessun Dorma and had been enjoying the sounds of Bocelli and Pavarotti played in the coach by our opera-singing driver Sergio. Dario helpfully booked tickets for those of us interested and, on his recommendation we arrived early, finding ourselves seated in the front row of the rapidly-filling church of San Giovani. I had not known what to expect but this world class performance exceeded all of our expectations and proved one of many impromptu moments that made our tour so magical.
The first of several walled Tuscan cities, towns and villages we visited, Lucca is completely surrounded by its ancient city walls. It was once ruled by Napoleon’s sister Elisa, whose French influences can be seen today in the square surrounded by trees she planted. It also contains the remnants of a Roman amphitheatre, now turned into homes, shops and restaurants surrounding a touristic piazza. In our free time several of our group walked the 4k perimeter of the city walls and I made a detour to climb the Torre del Ore clock tower to enjoy the views across to the Guinigi Tower with its unusual hanging gardens of oak trees. I am not good with heights or enclosed spaces, but having conquered my fear of both whilst climbing the duomo and campanile in Florence, I was determined to keep up the good work.
On our journey from Lucca to Volterra, we visited Pisa. The eponymous tower, surrounded by tourists attempting to take photos of each other “holding it up”, is truly amazing and has to be seen to be believed. Positioned upon the well-kept green lawns of the Field of Miracles, it sits – or rather “leans” – alongside the magnificent buildings of the Pisa’s Duomo, Baptistry and Campo Santo.
An unexpected highlight of our visit was listening to the two minute echo sound check in the Baptistry. At a set time a solitary singer projects his or her voice into the dome where the echo reverberates for so long that the singer can harmonise with their own voice. A truly spine-tingling event that we might have missed had it not been for the guidance of Dario. Continuing in my mission to climb anything with stairs, I climbed to the top of the dome and was rewarded with some interesting views.
As we continued our journey, we performed a slight detour to visit the Teatro del Silenzio – a modern open-air amphitheatre developed on a hilltop thanks to tenor Andrea Bocelli, whose home town of Lajatico is close by. Since 2006 the Teatro has played host to an annual concert performed by Bocelli and friends who over the years have included Katherine Jenkins, Sarah Brightman, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras. The rest of the year it is a silent home to the lake and sculptures, visited by the occasional passing tourist.
Volterra is a delightful walled hilltop town with narrow winding alleyways, ancient Etruscan gates, recently discovered Roman ruins and fabulous views from the city walls. In our free time a couple of us joined Dario in a proposed hike across the cliff tops beside the town. Unfortunately the trails were closed but we were rewarded by signs of wild boars, sight of the Etruscan ruins and a spectacular sunset.
The magnificent ancient city of Siena, famous for its traditional medieval horse race, the Palio di Siena, which is run around the Piazza del campo twice each year, provided another opportunity for me to climb a tower. After a tour of the striking cathedral with its black and white marble striped interior, I was lucky enough to join the tail end of a small group that had just started their ascent of the campanile. This was far better organised than the climb of the duomo and campanile in Florence where a constant stream of two way traffic had squeezed through congested bottlenecks and vied for space on the viewing platform. After my climb I was rewarded with a choice of 3 scoops of award winning gelato and chose a mouth-watering combination of Grand Marnier; Limoncello and coffee-flavoured ice cream.
St Gimignano is a pretty but somewhat commercialised town, packed with tourists. After a brief visit to an attractive viewing point, I made a beeline for the Torre Grossa (big tower) where I found relative solitude and, once I had braved the final step ladder to the top, enjoyed breath-taking views across the Tuscan landscape. I was aware that my tower-climbing was becoming a slight obsession, but with each “summit” reached, I could feel my fear of heights and enclosed spaces decreasing.
Monteriggioni, is a tiny, charming, less commercialised, 13th century walled hilltop town. Its 14 towers feature in Dante’s Divine Comedy and for a small fee of 1.5 euros I was able to climb the battlements and walk along the walls. With just one Piazza, one church and a scattering of artisan shops, it felt like stepping back in time and far from the madding crowd. It also contained an excellent shoe shop, which seemed to excite the younger men in our group even more than the women.
On route to our final destination deep inside Chianti countryside, we made an unscheduled visit to the tiny walled town of Radda in Chianti. Some of us toured the walls and streets finding interesting and unusual items such as a wine glass holder for cyclists, whilst our young men disappeared into the shoe shop as, by happy coincidence, this village contained a sister shop to the one in Monteriggioni. With the coach groaning under the weight of several boxes of new shoes, we drove off to the soundtrack of Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, through vineyards glowing golden in the late afternoon sun, past groves of olive trees speckled with dark shiny fruit with rows of tall cypress trees silhouetted on the distant horizon. No sleeping for us – we wanted to absorb every delicious moment of this magical countryside.
Carole and John enjoyed these experiences during an 8 night/9 day tour “Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre” through Back-Roads Touring.