IMAGINE having a sunny playground on your doorstep, open 24 hours a day and big enough for hundreds, sometimes thousands, to join in and play to their hearts’ content.
It is a place where you can walk, run, cycle, meet and chat with friends, sit and admire the views or weave your dreams, take a book and bury yourself in another world, and generally just feel jolly good about life. You can even have a drink, although I’m afraid the fountains only dispense water.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it, but surely no place like this exists? Not with sunshine, certainly, and not without a park-keeper imposing limits on what you can get up to or wielding a padlock at dusk.
Let me tell you: it certainly does exist. I have seen it and I have even played upon it. Note that I say ‘on it’ and not ‘in it’, for I’m talking about a playground without compare. It sits atop the ancient walls of the Italian city of Lucca, in Tuscany, and it wraps itself like a halo around the historic centre for a very sporting 4.5 kilometres.
Round and round go the cyclists, round and round clatter the skateboarders, round and round puff the runners, round and round stomp the walkers.
Some of the recreational users are mere innocents who have consulted a guide book and declared: “Hey, Elmer, the walls are down the end of this street. Let’s go see what they look like.”
You can’t honestly look at Lucca’s beautiful walls and not succumb to the urge to climb on top and join in the action.
Once up there, you start moving, swept along by the fervour of the populace to move, move, move.
And therein lies the playground’s only problem. This is Italy, remember, and we all know how they behave on the roads. They drive with a raging desire to wipe out the human race in revenge for the lobotomy operation they’ve just undergone.
Translate these troubling traits from Italy’s roads to the thoroughfare that is Lucca’s recreational high spot, and you get the same complete and utter chaos.
Geoff and I know this because we walked the walls several times during our stay in Lucca last week. Not content with walking virtually non-stop each day as we quartered the ancient city and many of its neighbouring towns and villages, we hit the walls, too, for a 4.5km top-up in the evening.
The absolute mayhem up there! Not one user, apart from us in our anxious, order-loving, repressed Brit way, gives a fig about anyone else on the walls. They are doing their own thing, at speeds varying from dozy dawdle to 100-metre gold medal winning sprint, and nothing along their route presents any kind of obstacle. It’s a case of heads down and go for it.
Geoff and I shimmy and duck, sidestepping to avoid body contact and catastrophic crashes, but we’re quite clearly the only ones taking any avoiding measures at all.
Everyone else, especially the runners obsessively checking PBs, heart rate and run rate on watches that look as though they’d monitor a space flight, simply whooshes along in a protective bubble.
How no-one knocks into anyone, or gets crushed and flattened, I will never know. It’s hell out there and anyone’s game to win in this lunatic version of Chicken.
Happily, we’ve returned home with not a scratch between us but a burning desire for our very own playground. I’m eyeing the garden wall, but Geoff isn’t convinced it quite measures up.