If you haven’t visited Italy in a while you can sometimes forget just how beautiful it is. I’m always a little taken aback upon returning by quite how breath-taking the Italian views are, or how grand the churches or how intricate the fountains are. The city of Lucca is no exception – but there is nothing ostentatious about it. It has that simple but arresting architecture the Italians do so well. The burnt orange and dark yellow painted buildings, the countless piazzas – of which Piazza dell’Anfiteatro is the most impressive – and, of course, the sturdy ancient walls surrounding it.
While I have visited Tuscany many times, I had yet to visit this small medieval town. Situated in Northern Tuscany, Lucca is a little out of the way for those staying say in between Sienna and Florence. A bit of a (2 hour +) trek. Luckily we did not have to do any trekking, for City Turtle and family stayed on a charming Tuscan Estate a short 20 minute drive away from Lucca.
A bonus of Lucca being slightly further removed from the serial tourist-attracters (AKA Florence and Sienna, and smaller villages/towns such as San Gimignano and Montepulciano) is that it lacks that heaving tourist mass in peak season. You can walk through the walled town at your own pace. You can take photos of empty, shaded alleyways and pretty flagstone squares without the photo being ruined by capturing an arm or a leg of some oblivious tourist. You won’t be pushed aside while walking into one of the many churches. And the restaurants aren’t fully booked. That’s not to say you are completely avoiding the Dutch/British/French, as they are definitely present. But Lucca just has a wonderfully laidback atmosphere which makes it a town you don’t just want to see and get out of. It makes you linger. And it makes you return.
Of the four days we were in Tuscany this August we went to Lucca three times. And the one day we didn’t go doesn’t count as we spent most of it in Pisa (not really that worth it) and getting lost on our way to our B&B. Considering Lucca isn’t a sprawling city with countless museums and sights, this indicates that just walking around the city, stopping off for a light lunch or going for a bike ride on the famous thick city walls is enough to make you want to return.
There is no order in which to see the city, just amble and wander and ‘drift’ (a la E. M. Forster’s ‘A Room with a View’). But just please don’t miss Giglio for lunch or dinner.
Where to Stay
Fattoria Mansi Bernardini
Via di Valgiano, 34
A stunning large old Tuscan Estate, still owned by the Bernardini family, is a 20 minute drive outside Lucca. Marcelo – the owner – is charming, always keen to help and recommend restaurants in the area or in Lucca. Either stay in Villa Bernardini on Bed & Breakfast basis – expect traditional Italian interiors, quirky photos, huge shuttered windows and the Italian version of a power shower. You share (with the other 5 rooms) a huge terrace with lovely views of the valley below (including Lucca in the distance) and a lovely hidden pool, again sharing the glorious views. Or stay in one of the three self-catering villas, all with private pools, kitchen and living areas which sleep between 10 – 14 people. There is also a tennis court on site for those who wish to work off some pizzas.
Where to Eat
Il Giglio €€
Piazza del Giglio, 3
Tel: 0039 0583494058
We came here for dinner. And the next day returned for lunch. It was that good. The menu is succinct, a mixture of local dishes and old favourites. Don’t expect the pastas to be a heap of stodgy carbs; the zucchini with prawn linguini was light and fresh, the wild boar tagliatelli super tasty. The grilled octopus was ‘the best ever’ (quote unquote Mini Turtle Mol van Lynden), the tuna and mango tartar surprising and ideal for lunch. If you want to splash out, drink the Barbera wine from Piedmonte, smooth and heavenly. The staff were exceptional and, of course, welcomed us back.
Trattoria Da Gigi €
Piazza del Carmine
A simple Trattoria, perfect for a lovely lunch on a small square. We just stuck to antipasti and that’s all we really needed. Don’t let the name ‘zucchini pudding’ put you off – the ricotta and courgette mixture is delicious. The mozzarella burger (i.e a tower of mozzarella and tomato) and the Tuscan sharing platter were good choices too. Very jolly place and notably full of locals. That’s got to be a good sign.
Restaurante Serendepico €€/€€€
Via della Chiesa di Gragnano, 36
55010 Capannori, Lucca
Tel: 0039 0583975026
About 15 minutes outside Lucca, this is a quirky but delightful place. The friendly owner, Alessandro, is happy to explain in a heavy Italian accent how his father bought what was a crumbling farm years ago and which he has renovated with a lot of TLC. What remains is a traditional Italian farm with a modern touch – huge glass doors, funny trinkets – and a small ‘sun set bar’. We ate on a large terrace next to other tables occupied by mostly families with extremely well-behaved children. The menu is small and unusual. The presentation is exceptional. Taster menus are also available and the wine list offers a large range, including very local wines, which we tried and liked. There are also rooms on offer on a B&B basis and a beautiful pool and Jacuzzi a little stroll away from the restaurant.
What to See/Do
As mentioned before there are plenty of churches, squares and streets to meander along.
Cathedral of St Martin (The Duomo)
Piazza San Martino
While Lucca has many churches to admire, the Duomo is perhaps (unsurprisingly) the best of a good bunch. Though much smaller than the Duomos of Milan/Florence/Sienna, it still dominates Piazza San Martino, and the beautifully intact campanile (bell tower) stands tall and proud. The facade reminded me a little of the cathedral of Orvieto, though this one was a little quirkier – with different patterned pillars (mostly of the Corinthian order). Highlights are apparently Tintoretto’s ‘Last Supper’ – but we did not get to see it as it had been taken away to be restored. Worthwhile.
Puccini Opera – at Church San Giovanni
You can buy tickets at the San Giovanni church.
The Mini Turtle insisted on us going, and what a great shout that was. Tickets are not cheap at 20 Euros per person, but it is worth it. Every evening at 7:15pm a musical show is put on to celebrate the Lucca-born Puccini. Different opera singers will sing his famous operas, often a mixture of them, which makes for easier listening than if you were expected to sit through a whole opera. It’s just an hour long. The crowds are 99% foreign but very enthusiastic and appreciative. Yes it’s a bit clichéd and a bit of a tourist trap. But you leave with an uplifted spirit and a renewed love for Puccini. Perfect before dinner.
Cycle the city walls
Piazza Santa Maria, 32
Even for a Dutchman this is a fun way to see the city. For 3 Euros an hour you can rent a bike and have a leisurely bike ride along the city walls, viewing the old city from above. Most of the walls are shaded by large trees and you’ll find old locals pottering along the walls as well. The walls are only around 4km so it won’t take long. But you’ll feel like you deserve a good lunch. If you want you can keep the bike for the whole day and cycle around the city like a real local.
Via Della Fratto 29
This charming little shop is full of beautifully made leather products – from bags and belts to leather bound books. What I like about this shop is that they actually make everything in the shop itself – the workshop is attached to it so you can see all the different sheets of leather and it smells heavenly. Ideal place to buy some gifts to take home.