Lake Massaciuccoli in Tuscany

When picturing Tuscany - beautiful cities, art, fabulous food, rolling hillsides, umbrella pines and Cypress trees - it’s easy to forget the area is also home to coastline, lakes, and nature preserves. Recently, I was able to visit one of these lakes with a small group of students and teachers from Lucca Italian School. This was a different slice of Tuscany, and one well worth visiting.

Along the eastern shore of Lago Massaciuccoli

Along the eastern shore of Lago Massaciuccoli

First, a bit of history. Once upon a time, the areas of coastal Tuscany, including Lucca, contained large areas of marshland. Teeming with wildlife, these areas frequently flooded, causing problems for nearby cities (damage, mosquitoes, malaria). Eventually, many of the wetland areas disappeared, some naturally and others drained in the name of creating more livable environments for humans and a greater productive land mass.

Late afternoon sun on Lake Massaciuccoli

Late afternoon sun on Lake Massaciuccoli

Today the largest remaining wetland in Tuscany is Lago Massaciuccoli (a bit of a tongue twister, pronounced Mass-a-choo-co-li).  It lies about 12 miles (18 km) from Lucca, an easy 35-minute car ride.  There is also a bike path that begins just outside Lucca and goes all the way to the lake.  Lake Massaciuccoli is also connected by a series of canals to nearby Viareggio and can be reached by bike path from that city as well.

Lake Massaciuccoli has two very different shores. On the west, closest to Viareggio, lies the town of Torre del Lago. Here, in a beautiful lakeside villa, Puccini wrote many of his famous operas and also hunted in the areas around the lake. Here, too, is the Teatro Puccini, home to the Puccini Opera festival. This is the “civilized” more urban part of the lake. On this visit I skipped the western shore and headed straight to the “wild side” on the eastern shore

The entrance to the Oasi LIPU wetlands at Lake Massaciuccoli

The entrance to the Oasi LIPU wetlands at Lake Massaciuccoli

On the eastern shore, by the tiny town of Massaciuccoli, lies the Oasi LIPU protected wetlands, a wild bird sanctuary. The edges of the lake, full of marshes with tall reeds, are crossed by wooden boardwalks that skim just above the water and have small observation blinds at key points, allowing visitors to watch the wildlife while hidden from view.  Staying still, quiet, and out of sight allows for great bird watching.

The boardwalk path through the marshes

The boardwalk path through the marshes

There are informative signs about wildlife and flora posted along the boardwalk and in the observation points. Also offered are guided bird-watching expeditions and various types of boating expeditions (canoe, kayak, and larger tourist boats). This is a great place to sit with a pair of binoculars, walk along the boardwalks, listen to the sounds of bird calls, or peer into the shallow waters to see what lies beneath.

Literally a bird’s-eye view

Literally a bird’s-eye view

This peaceful place provides a nice side trip from nearby cities, a chance to experience the “wild” side of Tuscany, and an easy walk along the boardwalk.  I visited in mid-March when plants were still in winter mode, the dried stalks of last summer’s flowers had a beauty all their own.

Late winter in the wetlands of Lake Massaciuccoli

Late winter in the wetlands of Lake Massaciuccoli

 A stop in the town of Massaciuccoli provides a good spot for a coffee, lunch, or a glass of wine post exploration. There is also a nearby  archeological site - but that’s a topic for another post. -post by JMB

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Signs of Spring in Lucca

Tiny yellow buttercups grow along the wall in Lucca, beautiful against a view of distant hills.

Tiny yellow buttercups grow along the wall in Lucca, beautiful against a view of distant hills.

I’ve been waiting, not very patiently, for spring to arrive in Lucca.

Winter and early spring were unusually cold and rainy this year and the little hints of spring that showed up in early April were fleeting - the tease of just one warm day followed by several days of clouds, rain, and cool temperatures. The trees along the wall remained stubbornly bare, lemon trees remained in the limonaia, and vines were stark without even a hint of new growth.

I began to doubt that the sun would ever come to stay, that trees would sprout leaves, or that flowers would bloom. Flora (the Italian goddess of flowers and spring) seemed to have deserted me.

Today, I can happily say that the wait is over. Temperatures have soared during the past few days, changing from hat and glove weather to short sleeve and sandals weather in a flash. As I write this in late April, temperatures have hit the low 80s, not one day of rain is in the forecast all week, and i fiori (the flowers) have arrived. Sono contenta! (I'm happy!)

The trees along le mura (the city walls) are now green with leaves, tiny yellow buttercups bloom along the walls, and the sycamores in Piazza Grande (also called Piazza Napoleone) provide a beautiful green canopy around the square and the now-busy carousel. 

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This week I visited my favorite garden (on the grounds of Palazzo Pfanner) and found that the lemon and orange trees had been moved out from their winter home in the limonaia and were full of fruit. Showy peonies were blooming as was a magnolia tree and several bushes. Can roses and hydrangeas be far behind? How I hope they bloom before I head home to the U.S. in a few weeks.

The most dramatic and lovely proof that spring has truly arrived comes in the form of the glicine (wisteria) that have bloomed throughout Lucca. They spill over walls and terraces and across arbors with their soft colors and long flower heads. For me, it isn’t spring until the wisteria bloom.

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I noticed the first wisteria blossoms along the wall that encircles the historic city. I then spent an afternoon wandering through town to the spots where I remembered the most stunning displays of wisteria from past years. While a few had not yet bloomed, several of my favorites, in Piazza Parigi and Piazza Antelminelli (pictured below), were just as beautiful as I recalled.

 Italy in spring, Italy in flower  - Bellissima!                  -post by JMB