At around nine in the morning, when the little electric carts are still trundling around the streets, cleaning and collecting rubbish, I go into Lucca to visit the church of San Frediano. The saint is said to have brought Christianity to Lucca in, I think, the sixth century from his native Ireland, then the “land of saints and scholars” where I don’t remember what he was called, but am pretty sure that it wasn’t Frediano. Probably plain Fred to his mates. Inside is the mummified body of another of my favourite saints, Zita. She was a servant to a rich Lucchese family and had got into the habit of giving away bread from the household kitchen to the poor of the city. One day her master caught her sneaking outside, holding up the corners of her apron to make an improvised bag.
“What have you got in there?” he asked.”Only flowers,” she replied and dropped the apron corners. To, I suppose, the astonishment of both, this turned out to be the literal truth, as what had been chunks of solid Tuscan bread floated down to the floor in delicate petals. Zita’s body now rests in a glass box, wearing a lacy dress, a brown and wizened little Snow White, waiting for her Prince at the resurrection.
I wander back to the Hotel Rex, passing the statue of Puccini and the Piazza Napoleone, or Piazza Grande as the locals call it. Checking out, I am given a regalo – a small wrapped present which turns out to be a ceramic plaque of Lucca’s two towers. It’s another thoughtful gesture from the excellent management and staff, by whom I’ve become more impressed every day. Having chosen the hotel without particularly high expectations, I’ve been really delighted by the place and it will certainly be my first choice next time.
G. has joined me from Pisa by now and leaving our bags at the hotel we go for lunch – my first proper meal since Wetherspoons at Victoria. Afterwards we visit Cicli Bizzari, the shop from where we bought our bikes when we lived here, and now hire a couple for the afternoon.
We ride up to Nozzano Castello, the village seven kilometers north-west of Lucca where we used to live, and pass our old house there. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the next door neighbour Luglio, a kindly and exhuberant elderly man and wonderful gardener who used to call “Signora!” over the wall and pass me baskets of sturdy and delicious vegetables.
Now we pedal fast down the little side-alley and meet him at his gate. He’s doing well, except for trouble with his eyes, and we’re delighted to see him.
The river Serchio, which runs between Lucca and Nozzano, isn’t in such good shape. Near Nozzano, where we cycle along its banks, it is still healthy, but under the bridge the water level is low with a thick scum of algae. We’ve never seen it like this before, in the seven years we’ve been coming here.
We cycle through the twin villages of Nozzano Castello and Nozzano San Pietro, deserted in the siesta, and stop at the church and the lane that led to the back gate of our old house. There’s a car in the drive, so we don’t intrude any further.
Cycling around the walls of Lucca is an entirely pleasant experience, with no motor vehicles except for the odd maintenance van and plenty of room on the broad path for cyclists, pedestrians and other self-powered bods to spread out and give one another space. In the city streets it’s more tricky, with traffic on most of the roads and bands of less-than-alert tourists, but with plenty of bell-ringing most cyclists manage all right. Outside the walls it’s harder again, in the full force of Italian traffic aided and abetted by sporadic cycle lanes, random parking and little old ladies who insist on cycling on the left, against the flow of traffic. The final part of the journey back from Nozzano is hairier than the rest, as a basket full of pesto, Gran Padano and cheap Tavernello wine makes me wobble far more than I had expected, but we make it back in the correct number of pieces, drop off the bikes and go back to Lucca station and on to Firenze.
(I’d forgotten to mention, by the way, that at SMN station on the Tuesday were policemen on those wheeled platform scooters – are they called Segways? – that Niles in Frasier once borrowed. They seem ideal for the Italian polizia, allowing them to play boyishly when they’re not too busy, fidget in style and remain taller than anyone who comes to ask them a question.)
Now from SMN we go around to Campo di Marte and await the train for Paris. This is the point at which the fact that it starts in Rome, previously unconsidered, hits us with its true significance.
Forty minutes before the train is due it shows on the departure board as on time. Ten minutes ditto. Three minutes ditto, and we start gathering up the luggage and shrugging our shoulders into our backpacks. Then, without warning, the board changes. “In ritardo 100 minutes”. A hundred? That’s… Yes it is. To be fair, it’s only actually ninety-five minutes late, half past ten, when the train wheezes into the station. Not to worry, is my last thought, as I snuggle down in my bunk. Judging from the way we’re rattling along, we’ll have made up half the time before morning, if we don’t fall off the rails entirely.