Rich, pretty Lucca. What shall we do with you?
Surveying the Lucchese skyline from one of the handful of remaining medieval towers above the city, you’ll see a sea of low-lying ocher roofs, bounded by regiments of evergreens, bounded in turn by mountains forming phantom camels against the setting sun. Italian cities make for easy drama. It’s all here. Take a walk through Lucca’s Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, a sun-bleached ellipse of medieval houses built upon the ruins of a Roman amphitheater. For all the beauty around you, the eye is drawn to a huge pair of boxer shorts hanging from a window. Everything is an open story. Here red-and-black towels indicate a supporter of the soccer squad A.C. Milan, here lives an overweight man, here is someone who pines for a stronger Italian state. One of the region’s most conservative cities, a right-wing dinghy floating along in Tuscany’s veritable ocean of working-class red, Lucca does go on, reveling, feasting off its very Lucca-ness.
And then a small tempest stirred the world press. The Kebab Controversy.
As newspapers reported last year, the city has banned new ethnic restaurants from opening in the city center in an effort to preserve the purity of its local cuisine. Too many of the town’s children were coming home bearing the greasy thumbprints of foreign kebabs. The local left wing quickly decried the “gastronomic racism” and “culinary ethnic cleansing,” while Italy’s minister of agriculture, a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, supported the banning of non-regional food, proudly announcing: “I even refuse to eat pineapple.”
Lucca’s stand against the kebab-bearing Turks brings to mind not only the question, What on earth is happening to Italy? But also, What exactly are we looking for when we travel? Do we want to sift through the contents of a jewel box, or do we want to lean over the balcony of our hotel room and feel the gusts of a strange new breeze? Do we wish to see small pockets of history and tradition, or do we want to open our ears and hear the fresh news the world whispers insistently to us each day? There is no simple answer, although the masses of tourists ping-ponging between Lucca’s Renaissance-era walls seem quite happy with the jewel-box approach. And yet, we all crave surprise. Lucca is known for its churches, among them the 11th-century wedding cake of San Michele in Foro and the San Martino Cathedral, its sacristy containing Jacopo della Quercia’s magnificent Gothic tomb of a poor young dear who died in childbirth, her noble dog loyally roosting by her feet. But three months after my visit these images are relegated to quick postcard snaps on my phone. The only interior that still echoes in my mind is the Basilica di San Frediano. Not for its simple Romanesque proportions or its relative humility, but because in the sullen emptiness of one afternoon a middle-aged procession of just-off-the-bus Germans with their rolling luggage still behind them unexpectedly take over one of the chapels and, under the guidance of their skinny, polyester-clad pastor, suddenly raise their voices to God.