There are people who chart out their course and meticulously plan their journeys and people who flow with the current, where and whenever it takes them. Both are perfectly normal. Protestant and Buddhist. Leonardo and Pollock. I plan everything at the last minute, and then have to mount heroic efforts upon titanic accomplishments for my plan to work, backtracking from dead ends, exploring side alleys but diligently pressing forward. If you have ever tried to book a skiing holiday in December, you’d know what I mean. Unnecessary challenge is my motto. Were I to have a coat-of-arms, it would feature a labyrinth.
Perhaps, this is why I love the average Italian town (which is often a maze of several square miles), especially when the sun sets a little bit down, and you don’t have to apply sun protection cream on your legs before you put the trousers on.
In Lucca, one of the main churches, St.Martin’s, symbolically and metaphorically sports a 13th century labyrinth on one of the columns at the entrance.
This is the church:
This is the maze:
And, indeed, you get to see many tourists apparently lost in its narrow streets that veer off at bizarre angles and take you to places you couldn’t suspect existed.
If you really need to get to a place you absolutely have to be at, never ask for directions, for you will be given them.
People who populate these street are always happy to help, but the directions they give you would have nothing to do with places you thought you wanted to go to.
With a bit of free time and a lot of free will on your hands, you may go there, though, and discover a place you never thought you wanted to see, which is so much better than to know what’s there for you in advance.
You have to adapt to an Italian town to enjoy it, like the people of Lucca, who – sort of – adapted their living quarters around an ancient Roman amphitheatre, where gladiators used to be slain in front of a cheering crowd:
Fortunately, the medieval history of Italy provides enough navigational material to find your way practically everywhere. Family towers that can be seen from afar. Italian cities of 12-13th centuries where Manhattans of their times, for each family worth noting was making sure it was worth noticing as well. They were building towers, from which they could spot the gangs of other prominent families approaching the strongholds of their palazzos with malicious intents. The higher the standing of the family, the higher its tower.
The highest tower can be found in Bologna. It is about 100 metres high.
Imagine the height and shape of a tower Berlusconi would have to build
were the tradition a living one.
When looking up to spot the lighthouse of a family tower, don’t overlook the detail. It is not often that you can enjoy the design of 11th century windows above, say, a Zara store. The ancient lights can reveal a poet inside you or a modern Juliette behind the panes:
Whenver you see a Romanesque church, stop and seek a mermaid. It is a good luck charm (sort of) if you see one! Don’t get intimidated by the abundance of decor and detail:
Look closer, and you’d be rewarded:
This beauty is so double-tailed, that even the centaur that has been watching her for the last seven hundred years can’t stop being mildly surprised.
If you are with kids and want to protect them from a graphic depiction of mermaid-centaur relationship, choose a different frieze, and play the game of inventing a story around the events shown there:
And always, each time you see a church with its doors unlocked, go inside. For where else would you be able to enjoy the beauty of a Ghirlandaio’s painting sitting on a real prayer bench?
And no, this is not Ghirlandaio, this is a different painting from St.Michele Church (note that they have an amazing painting by Filippino Lippi). To see Ghirlandaio, you have to pay – if memory serves me well – 6 Euro (Three euro, if you look over 65) to go to a side chapel at St.Martin’s.
I am to wait another 20 years before I can reap the benefits of this age, and hopefully, I’d have to show my ID to prove it.
Remember, when visiting Italy, the important bit is to plan big. Plan to visit a town, but never more than that, and then let the current take care of you.