Lucca: Tuscany's secret star

by itchyfeet

Lucca may not have the famous sights (or infamous crowds) of nearby Florence and Pisa, but it has its own gentle charms and quiet pleasures - making it the perfect place to relax and unwind

Most people have heard of Lucca, but few know anything about it and fewer still have bothered to visit it. And that’s exactly why you should.

Unlike its bigger siblings, Florence and Pisa, it does not have a name for famous buildings, art or architecture. Nothing in Lucca should drag you away from your quiet morning caffe lungo at a table in the Piazza Napoleone. Don’t get me wrong – the gems are there, and they are worth seeing, but you won’t feel it necessary to drag yourself around in the heat of the day with millions of other sweaty tourists. No, Lucca is a city of quiet pleasures, of shady streets that open into tree-lined squares, of cafes where they recognise you when you go back, and of shops that sell things you can afford and might actually be pleased to show off once you get home, not hide away in a cupboard then donate to the first car-boot sale you can find (no plastic gondolas playing ‘O Sole Mio’ here).

The best thing to do in Lucca is to ditch your guidebook. Take a map, by all means – it’s very easy to get lost (although that can be a pleasure in itself) - and just wander. Most of the city centre is pedestrianised, so traffic is not a problem, apart from the odd cyclist losing control of their machine. Head off in any direction and you will be delighted by what you will find. This is not to say that Lucca does not have its share of uninteresting, if not downright ugly, areas. It does. But it more than makes up for these with a greater than average number of beautiful buildings, excellent hotels, great restaurants and good shops.

The perfect palazzo

After trawling the Internet for a last-minute place to stay in Lucca in mid-July and failing miserably, I finally came upon Palazzo Tucci. Not only did this hotel have a room available, it was, so the website said, within the walls and near the main shopping and sightseeing areas. I booked and did not regret my decision. The hotel (at Via Cesare Battisti, 13) is anonymous from the outside, but once you go through the great double wooden doors, leave the car park and head up the great staircase (there is a lift but the stairs are quite shallow), you enter another world. Painted ceilings, dark furniture, trompe l’oeil decoration, gold leaf, dark, brooding paintings, baroque plasterwork and sumptuous carvings are everywhere.

There are only six rooms, three of which are suites. We were delighted to be upgraded to a suite called ‘Edmea’ (all the rooms and suites are named after pieces by the composer Alfredo Catalani, who was born in the palazzo). It was perfect: a large sitting room, bedroom and bathroom, all tastefully decorated with period features but with all mod cons. Breakfast was enormous and delicious, with the best coffee I have had anywhere. The staff were so kind and took every care. We were very surprised to discover that we were the only guests in the hotel for most of our stay. Carlo, the owner, said, ‘I think we are not popular’. I cannot think why. I am sure the hotels you find mentioned in the guidebooks and on the internet (the Noblesse, Universo, Ilaria and all the others) are fine, but Palazzo Tucci is something very special. Do not miss it.

Follow the locals

As far as eating is concerned, again, it's a good idea to ditch the guidebook. We dined at two places mentioned in our guide, and were disappointed both times. While the Ristorante Giglio has a fine position next to the Hotel Universo, and a reputation to match, the food, sadly, does not live up to it. It is, to put it bluntly, dull. Not awful - dull. And expensive. I chose pasta with a rabbit sauce – not something you find in our part of Wales – but the sauce was runny and bland, the meat unidentifiable and the pasta uninspiring. And the service was, to be kind, offhand.

Another tourist trap was Caffe Simo on Via Filungo, which looks lovely from the outside and is featured in every guidebook for its good looks and olde worlde Italian charm. Maybe inside, but if you visit their much-publicised garden, you find cigarette butts everywhere, dead plants, uncleared tables and rubbish - not an encouragement to stay.

No - instead, follow the locals. Forget the big-name places and eat in the small places. They are everywhere and they are, almost without exception, good and reasonably priced, although it would be fair to say that with the Euro so strong against the pound at the moment, nothing in Lucca is exactly cheap. You want pizza? Fuori Pizza on Piazza Napoleone may be part of a chain, but it's hard to beat. You want a cup of coffee and a cake? Try Pasticerria Tadeucci on Piazza Michele (their ricciarelli – like squidgy macaroons – are wonderful. Also try their speciality, buccelato; it’s a kind of sweet bread stuffed with chocolate and dried fruit – heavy but delicious). Tadeucci isn't cheap, but it’s a great place to sit and people-watch.

Shops and picnic stops

At all costs (and I use the term advisedly), avoid eating in the Piazza Anfiteatro. It's a lovely spot, but you really pay for being there and the food is not very good. Instead, save your money for a visit to La Bottega di Mamma Ro (also on Piazza Anfiteatro), a remarkable shop selling all sorts of hand-made products including endearingly wobbly cups and saucers, candlesticks, mirrors and all sorts of other things you did not know you wanted (a gold wooden hedgehog, anyone?). And if you cannot carry everything you want to buy, don’t worry: you can order from home – they’re on the Internet!

Also, make room for some cheap, colourful, pure linen shirts from a number of shops around the Piazza Michele – they’re just the thing to wear when it’s hot.

If you happen to be lucky enough to arrive around the third weekend of the month, then you will find it hard to avoid the flea market, which is centred around the Cathedral but also worms its way up a number of the surrounding streets and squares. You may not end up buying anything but it’s a great way of spending a morning.

And if you’re in Lucca on a Sunday, pack a picnic and head for the Orte Botanico (signposts for it are all over the city). It’s a quiet, green haven where, for €3, you can stroll amongst the flowers or just sit and drink in the peace and quiet and be quietly pleased that you are not fighting through the crowds to climb the Leaning Tower or refusing yet again to buy a hideous plastic reproduction of the Doge's Palace.

Lucca is lovely. Don’t tell a soul.