Lucca, Italy. It sounded very Italian, maybe delicious, possibly like a kind of pasta, but up until the night before, I hadn’t heard of the city. “Pisa is boring! You see the tower; you leave,” our hostel owner in Chianti had said the night before, “Lucca is better.”
My friends and I were just wrapping up six days in Italy, and we had to fly out of Pisa, Italy, the next day. We had a hostel booked in Pisa for the night, but we found ourselves on a train to Lucca that morning, a city about 30 miles outside of Pisa.
When we stepped off the train and into Lucca, we brainstormed. What is the first thing one does in a completely foreign city in which few people speak English? We saw a sign across the street that said “Tourist Information,” which we promptly followed to a squat concrete building with boarded-up windows. “Tourist info in city center” was scribbled in permanent marker on the door. No address, no other information.
So we decided that tourist information is boring anyway, and we wanted more adventure in our lives. What is the second thing one does in a completely foreign city? Ask a pharmacist? That’s what we did, because the only place in sight was a pharmacy. We bought sunscreen, established that the pharmacist spoke some English, and then immediately displayed our good ol’ American-ness; Americans openly ask questions with the confidence that there are no stupid questions. Here was my stupid question: “So, um, what do people do here? What is here?”
Like virtually every stranger we had ever badgered in our roughly two months of travel, the woman was incredibly kind as well as entertained by our frankness. “You can go on a walk!” she said, and she pointed us toward the city center. She repeated things like “very nice” and “beautiful city; bella città” until we left her alone.
The third step in traveling a foreign city? Look for tall and old buildings and walk toward them. We saw a pretty tower in the distance and headed that way. Eventually we saw the old city wall, against which we did handstands and took pictures. This is an optional step in exploring an unfamiliar city. We followed a man and a dog through a tunnel to the other side of a wall.
An elderly gentleman stopped us when we emerged. “You speak French!” he exclaimed. Both of my friends did speak French, actually, but it was never explained how this guy detected this. He told us (in French) to go to the church, as well as a square, and then he started talking about Texas (still in French). Apparently my friends had American-French accents? Texan-French accents? Maybe he was insane, but regardless, he gave us a couple of destinations to check out. It is up to you whether you want to listen to crazy old men in your travels, but it worked out okay for us.
We walked through gorgeous narrow stucco streets, our eyes on the tower, until we heard opera music. The church! We followed our ears to the front doors and stepped in. The opera singer was practicing with her accompanist for a concert later that evening, and we paid the four Euros admission to walk past the singer and through the elegant sanctuary.
With opera as our dramatic exploration soundtrack, we wandered down a staircase and into an archaeological dig! Apparently the church was built on top of two much older churches, one of them over 1,000 years old. We walked through this surprise and read signs that explained about the unearthed hot-spring baths, colorful mosaic tile floors, pillars, and carved graffiti.
The next exploration step is one that never failed us while traveling – find stairs and climb them. We did just that, climbing 200 stairs to the top of the church tower. When we got to the top, we took the obligatory pictures of the scenery, but mostly we took in the moment for ourselves. The entire city had red-tile roofs, and the buildings were in shades of yellow and orange, exactly as I had always imagined an Italian town. We spotted the square that the crazy man had mentioned, and we noted it as our next destination.
On the wall of the lookout, there was a ladder with an iron gate and the padlock on it just happened to be unlocked. A ladder doesn’t necessarily qualify as stairs, but we made an exception and climbed it up to the bells. The bare wooden planks were too scary for more than a few pictures, but the climb-everything rule once again proved to be worth it.
Shopping on the square ended up being artsy and cool, and we finished our evening with some gelato, which is a definite travel necessity. The steps and rules I named are not foolproof; they may not be valid at all, but experts agree that ice cream is always an appropriate way to end, begin, or savor an adventure.