Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

06 September 2009

The Bicycles of Lucca

Having forsaken the fountains of Rome, the palazzi of Florence and that teetering Pisan tower I spent a happy hour in Lucca, sitting in a kerb-side café, sipping espresso and nibbling una brioche while I watched the cyclists go by. At last I was face to face with real Italy at street level. Two things about this charming Etruscan city in northern Tuscany make it a bicycle town: its narrow streets and the complete absence of hills. It’s as flat as a slab of Carrara marble.

It didn’t take me long to realize that here there is no better form of everyday transport than the bike. Unless you’re sight-seeing, walking is too slow; motorists and bus drivers suffer stop-go misery in Lucca’s pinched and writhing one-way system, and the elsewhere ubiquitous three-wheeled two-strokes with their blue smoke and noise are plainly unwelcome in these airless alleys.

As I watched, it struck me that no matter whether old or young, large or small, Lucca’s citizens are bred to the bicycle: it fits them like part of their anatomy. They negotiate the cobbled thoroughfares and flag-stoned piazzas effortlessly and with complete disregard of the one-way signs. There’s an air of tranquility and confidence about them and a readiness to call a buon giorno to friends and strangers alike. They fear not neither do they give way to larger vehicles and their only concessions are to pedestrians, lesser beings for whom they tinkle their bells more as entertainment than as warnings.

Observing the passing ‘cycle-cade’ I could see that in Lucca the bike is no guide to socio-economic standing. There are no two-wheeled status symbols, no Ferraris or V6 Alfas. These machines are modest, neutral, purely practical. Well-dressed matrons flashing diamonds lost no dignity as they pushed their pedals, they looked as elegant in the saddle as on foot. Bankers, priests, businessmen suffered no loss of prestige in trouser clips. In handle-bar baskets, small dogs travelled contentedly in company with Florentine leather handbags. Two lovers met, wheel to wheel, and managed, while still astride their bikes, to touch hungrily and with an unashamed passion. A pair of toddlers passed trustfully poised on custom-made saddles on the cross-bar of grand-dad’s bike avoiding a gaggle of small boys who tilted at danger, taking that extra risk by standing upright on the parcel tray as they and their friends, sometimes three to a machine, bounced and rattled over the mediaeval granite stones.

I reflected that the transport needs of the historical centre of Lucca (that portion of the city which lies within the 4.2 kilometres of its third fortified wall, dating from 1645) would have been satisfied without the invention of the internal combustion engine and goods would have been carried just as effectively by horse drawn carts as they are today. The great leap forward would have been the bicycle and that’s where technology might comfortably have ended.

Lucca, in common with the rest of the world, traded horse manure for exhaust fumes but the bicicletta is above reproach and perhaps it is the confidence that they derive from their innate understanding of the appropriateness of the bicycle that made observing the endless stream of Lucchese cyclists such a source of enjoyment for this tourist.

From ‘Antipasto’ random samplings from various writings made over a few years of visits to a ‘New Zealander’s Italy’


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By Don Donovan