Leisurely Lucca and Northern Tuscany

by Julie Bardsley

There is a timeless quality to atmospheric Lucca. Perhaps it is the narrow street plan, unchanged since Roman times, complete with forum and amphitheatre footprint

Maybe it is the massive stone walls which encircle the historic centre and prohibit the use of cars and mopeds, bicycles being the preferred mode of transport. Either way there is an appealing sense of tranquillity in Lucca.

Along with its cultural highlights Lucca has some excellent restaurants and shops. Tourism is surprisingly low key, making it a perfect base from which to explore the diverse region of Northern Tuscany. We included visits to Pisa, Viareggio, Barga and the Villa Garzoni gardens in our trip.

Where to Stay

We stayed at the Hotel Ilaria by a small canal within the city walls (Via Del Fosso 26; rooms from £92 per night) This was a real find! Created from a former stables and church, the hotel had great charm and was very welcoming and relaxed. I loved the informal buffet breakfast where I could make my own pot of tea. Perfect for a tea addict like me! Hotel Ilaria provided extra facilities to enhance your stay. We appreciated the courtesy bicycles and the complimentary light refreshments available daily in the reception area.

Magical Lucca

Inside the walls is a haven of calm, whilst outside in the new city modern life continues with conveniences such as cars and the railway station. The sense of history is everywhere. Apparently Julius Caesar met Pompey and Crassus here in 56BC.

The narrow, cobbled lanes, complete with old fashioned streetlamps, are atmospheric and increase the appeal of this friendly city. The streets are filled with bicycles, adding to Lucca's unique character. We used our hotel bikes but options for bicycle hire are all over town. Typical is Cicli Rai (66 Via San Nicolao), where the hire cost is Euro 2.50 per hour.

Riding the Ramparts

A popular way to see Lucca is to cycle or walk on the 16th century city ramparts. There is a tree-lined promenade and park along the top of the 4.2km circuit, with fine views of the city. On our ramparts tour we discovered a street market (Wednesday) beside the walls. In another corner we found the peaceful botanic gardens L’Orto Botanico (Via Del Giardino Botanico 14, entrance Euro 3.00).

Towers and Tombs

Start by climbing the quirky medieval Torre Guinigi (Via S. Andrea 41, admission Euro 3.50) to get panoramic views of Lucca and the surrounding countryside. The shape of the amphitheatre is clearly visible from here. The tower has trees growing from the roof garden, giving it a striking appearance.

A treasure of Lucca is its lovely cathedral, Duomo San Martino. The facade is imposing and boasts intricate carved reliefs depicting the tasks for each month of the year (The Labours of the Months). Inside are some fine paintings, in particular Tintoretto’s Last Supper (entrance free). The highlight has to be the exquisite marble tomb of Ilaria Del Carretto, carved in 1405 (entrance Euro 2.00). The delicate marble figure is incredibly lifelike and the puppy at her feet is adorable. The folds of her gown, created in marble, are amazing.

The Piazza Anfiteatro is an impressive space that retains the shape of the original Roman amphitheatre. Houses were built against the original amphitheatre walls, preserving the oval shape. The gladiator entrance archways still exist and it is a strange, atmospheric arena. There are cafes here but we found better options elsewhere.

Shopping

A pleasant evening walk is along the Via Fillungo, the main shopping street. It is lined with traditional shops selling exclusive clothes and accessories. We liked the Edison Book Store (corner of Via Roma and Via Cenami, www.edisonlucca.it) in a beautiful old building with vaulted and decorative stained glass ceiling. The Edison cafe is an excellent place for a focaccia. Another store worth visiting is L’Erbolario (Via Fillungo 9) for herbal beauty products.

Where to Eat

Eating in Lucca is a delight with top quality restaurants and numerous options for casual snacks and picnics.

We were celebrating a special anniversary so headed for the best restaurant in town, Buca Di Sant Antonio (Via Della Cervia 1/3, www.bucadisantantonio.it, Tel. 0583.55881). We knew it was going to be a good meal when our waiter brought us complimentary glasses of prosecco whilst we were perusing the menu! It was that sort of place. We had three courses plus wine (cost Euro 78.00). My starter of ricotta cheese and porcini mushroom tartlet in chick pea sauce was incredible and the meat pasta was just dreamy! The dessert of caramelised fruits with chestnut ice cream is also recommended.

Definitely the best meal of the trip but there was serious competition from Gli Orti Di Via Elisa (Via Elisa 17, www.ristorantegliorti.it, Tel. 0583.491241). This friendly, family-run restaurant specialises in traditional cooking. Again the quality is superb and we returned several times. A favourite was the terrine of pecorino cheese with lemon and pepper. (Three courses plus wine cost Euro 56.00).

There is an excellent baker, Panificio Chifenti (Via San Paolino 66, tel. 0583.55304) near Puccini’s birthplace. The ricotta and chocolate tortini are perfect for picnics.

Outside Lucca

Lucca is a convenient base from which to explore the diversity of Northern Tuscany, ranging from iconic buildings and historic hill towns, to dramatic scenery and the coast.

We visited Pisa to see the celebrated Leaning Tower and Field of Miracles. The tower's famous lean was more pronounced than expected. The stone was a dazzling white as it had just been cleaned. It is a major tourist attraction so go early or late to avoid the crowds. There is an efficient system where tickets to climb the tower are sold in a timed entrance slot, with a maximum number of people, so that the tower is not congested. (Euro 15.00) In complete contrast we spent a day relaxing on the beach at the lively resort of Viareggio.

Our personal highlight was our drive into the mountainous Garfagnana region. We headed out on the S12 towards Abetone through some dramatic scenery with rivers, road tunnels and gorges. Our first stop was at the photogenic old bridge, Ponte Della Maddalena. Then we drove onwards to the gorgeous walled hill town of Barga. You enter through an ancient gateway into a steep, narrow street. There is a picturesque climb to the Duomo and the views from here are breathtaking! Amazingly there were few visitors. We ate here at Caffe Capretz (Piazza Salvo Salvi 1, tel. 0583.723001). The cafe has a loggia to provide shade and we enjoyed great penne pasta (Euro 6.50).

We continued our drive to Bagni di Lucca, an old spa town and then into the mountains, before finishing at the Villa Garzoni Gardens at Collodi. This garden has a sense of faded grandeur and is formally planted with statues and terracing either side of a grand central staircase. Bizarrely there were statues of monkeys as well as the more usual classical figures. (Euro 13.00)

Lucca is definitely a rewarding and relaxing experience. Go soon.

Practicalities

We flew with Easyjet to Pisa and used the convenient train service from Pisa Central station to Lucca (cost Euro 2.40, duration 30 minutes). There are regular train services between Lucca, Pisa and Viareggio (fares Euro 2.40). We hired a car for our trip to Barga through Avis (Viale Luporini 136, tel. 39 0583.317283).
 

Julie Bardsley

Escaping the routine, I take every opportunity to indulge my addiction to travel. I share tales from my travels here at Simonseeks and under the name ‘TravellinJools’.

I enjoy city and cultural breaks, road trips and beaches. Recurring themes include garden visits, museums, theatre or dance.

My travel highs tend to be the road trips, memorably from San Francisco to Los Angeles and across to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. The journey through France, Italy and Switzerland was another great drive. Recently I travelled from Lyon to Provence. The highlight was an evening Argentine Tango performance in the Roman amphitheatre at Lyon. Magical!

I have travelled widely but confess to a weakness for Italy, the United States and Greece.