Nov 10 2015
This article first appeared in Gafencu magazine, November 2015
Travellers to Tuscany spotting the mysterious road sign ‘FI-PI-SI’ could be forgiven for thinking that their guidebook has a page missing. Where, exactly, is this fantastical spot that they’d never heard of? Actually, FI-PI-SI stands for Firenze – Pisa – Siena, so it’s highly likely most visitors will already have these cities underlined on their ‘must-do’ list. But how many travellers to Tuscany add ‘LU’ for Lucca to that itinerary?
There is more than a strong case for claiming that Lucca is the best city in Tuscany to visit and stay a while. It may not have a David, a leaning tower or the Palio, but it makes up for that in a number of other ways, not least that it’s not yet been turned into a tourist hell hole. For as beguiling and historical as FI-PI-SI are, no visitor these days can escape the fact that hotels, restaurants and attractions are centred on a ‘get them in, get them spending, get them out’ philosophy, with prices ramped up to eye-watering proportions. Even travelling in and out of these cities is enough to send blood pressures soaring.
In contrast, well-heeled Lucca does its own thing with class, style and supreme self-confidence. Tourists are welcome, of course, but the city (population 90,000) is commercially and culturally independent enough to not solely depend on them (perhaps best exemplified by the observation that most restaurant menus are displayed in Italian and don’t contain photographs). Lucca is on the tourist circuit, that’s true, but often as a destination crammed in as a one-day trip within a busy Tuscany itinerary. The point of this article is to suggest that if you’re going to Tuscany, make Lucca the epicentre of your trip, and take trips out of there to FI-PI-PI and beyond. Lucca is just far too sophisticated and cool to ‘fit in’ between 10am and 3pm on a Tuesday.
Lucca’s independent streak is built on centuries of being its own boss, a city-state and a republic in its own right. If it wasn’t scrapping with its rival Florence then it was going toe-to-toe with Pisa. Powerful and wealthy on the back of its silk trade, the city’s defining landmark remains the walls built between the 16th and 17th centuries that remain fully intact today. Used more for passeggiata, jogging, cycling and dog walking these days, the 4km circumference walls provide the idea starting point for a trip and the perfect way to work out the layout of the city as you encircle it.
On first appearance, it may look like a higgledy-piggledy network of small streets from above, but Lucca’s layout is still based on the Roman colony that settled here over two thousand years ago – a rectangular grid criss-crossing north to south and east to west. One of its most beautiful squares – Piazza dell’Anfiteatro – is, as its name suggests, built on the site of an old Roman Amphitheatre that once held over 10,000 spectators. Stroll up to Piazza San Michele and you’ll be standing on the spot where the old Roman Forum once stood.
Negotiating the maze of narrow streets is aided by the lack of cars – there are major restrictions on driving and parking within the walls, and the one-way system is notorious. BBC’s Top Gear once set Messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May the challenge of driving their cars out of the city walls from a starting point in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. Sounds easy on paper, but as they found out, not a task for the faint hearted. Having said that, with bicycles for hire at every entry gate to the medieval city, traffic hazards come in many forms, particularly at the hands of over-enthusiastic day-trippers. If you are hiring a bike – and you should – then the best advice is to stick to circumnavigating the walls for an hour or two, and then take it back.
The other large square in Lucca, Piazza Napoleone, is the venue for the City’s summer festival, which is now in its eighteenth year. The line-ups are truly stellar with, on average, around a dozen concerts being staged throughout the month of July each year. There can be few settings as beautiful and as compact to take in a performance – why sit in an anonymous arena when you can watch your favourite acts under the stars? The artistes obviously like it too – Elton John has played here on four different occasions while rock luminaries including Bob Dylan, The Eagles, Robbie Williams, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie and Oasis have all trod the boards here.
But do any of these musicians hold a candle to one Giacomo Puccini, Lucca’s favourite son, who was born at 3, Corte San Lorenzo in 1858? The composer of popular operatic standards such as La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, Tosca and Turandot is synonymous with the city, and visitors are never far from his memory. His birthplace is now a museum, containing displays of manuscripts, scores, photos and costumes. But where to hear his music? Try Puccini e la sua Lucca, a nightly recital held in the beautiful church of San Giovanni from 7pm until 8.15pm. Or travel further afield to Torre del Lago, fifteen miles from Lucca, where a festival of the maestro’s operas is staged each summer.
San Giovanni is in good company in a city that has earned the reputation of ‘The City of 100 Churches.’ From renaissance to gothic, from medieval to Roman, the ornate and impressive edifices loom over the city. You can’t visit them all, so make your top three: San Martino (Duomo di Lucca) which houses the marble Sarcophagus of 14th century noblewoman, Illaria del Carretto; San Michele in Foro, with its statue of Archangel Michael slaying the dragon perched on top of its a wedding cake layers; and the Basilica di San Frediano with its stunning mosaic façade.
The Lucchesi like their festivals as much as their churches. On the 13th September each year the Volto Santo (Holy Face, a wooden crucifix) is carried through the city in a candlelit parade (Luminara di Santa Croce) and the evening is topped off with a spectacular fireworks display. The annual Lucca Comics and Gaming convention at the end of October is the largest in Europe and will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year. On the third Sunday of each month a large antiques open-air market is held in the vicinity of Piazza San Giusto.
Fortunately for the traveller, for every church in Lucca there appears to be at least two bars and three restaurants – you will relax and dine to your heart’s content. Even if you stay for two weeks (never mind one day) you simply wouldn’t have enough time to take your pick and sample the best cuisine on offer. Admittedly, food and wine is a religion to the Italians, but unlike the restaurants of FI-PI-SI, here you will find as many locals eating as visitors. And they’re fussy about their food, which is to your enormous benefit. Don’t leave without sampling local specialities including Farro (spelt soup) and Buccelatto (doughnut cake).
There is any number of trattorias, osterias and pizzerias to feed the weary traveller and with the emphasis on pure, simple ingredients you’d be unlucky to get a bad meal. But come on, you’re on holiday so push the boat out and book ahead for a really memorable dining experience. The oldest restaurant in Lucca, La Buca Di San Antonio, still scores highly with its roast capretto (Kid) signature dish, while dedicated foodies may be tempted by new Michelin star winner, L’Imbuto, where charismatic chef Cristiano Tomei still mans the range most nights. The more family orientated Gli Orti di via Elisa is always booked out, and if you don’t mind venturing a ten-minute taxi ride out of town, Butterfly is the spot for any special occasion you’re celebrating (or just make one up).
Unlike FI-PI-SI, where everybody is in a hurry, Lucca affords the visitor ample opportunity for kicking back and watching the world go by from the comfort of its numerous shaded squares. Perfect conditions for a Spritz – the luminous orange concoction that tourists spot the locals drinking and are never quite sure what it is. It’s Prosecco mixed with Aperol (where the orange colour comes from) and soda water, so order with impunity. Pre-dinner, or for those on a mission to get drunk in the shortest possible time, try a Negroni (or two). Its neat combination of gin, Campari and Vermouth will put hairs on your chest.
After a rest, and assuming you’ve kept off the Negronis (until later, at least) there’s still plenty to see and do. The Torre Guinigi, a fourteenth century brick built tower offers spectacular views over the city and to the hills, and mountains, beyond (but be prepared to negotiate the 230 stairs first). Once you’ve climbed that far you can also marvel at the seven holm-oak trees that sprout from the top. If that’s too strenuous, and you prefer your horticulture closer to the ground, wander through the magnificent Palazzo Pfanner and take in the most beautiful Italianate gardens imaginable, or check out the late Baroque gardens (designed for Napoleon’s sister, Elisa) at Marlia Villa Reale in the foothills of Lucca.
As well as visiting magnificent period Palazzos, you can also stay in them in Lucca. There’s nothing like going to bed under a canopy of stucco and frescoes going back centuries. One spectacular example is Palazzo Tucci, dating back to the 17th century. It only contains six bedrooms, but you’ll never find a grander space to lay down your head after a few Negronis. Also check out Hotel Palazzo Alexander, Hotel A Palazzo Busdraghi, and Hotel Illaria.
You won’t be bored with Lucca yet, not by any means, but now you’ll also discover how its strategic location serves as an ideal base to wander further afield. To the west the stunning beaches of the Versilia Coast are literally twenty minutes away, offering a multitude of resort options from vigorous Viareggio to fashionable Forte dei Marmi. Twenty minutes east of Lucca, Montecatini Terme, as the name implies, is one of the most famous spa towns in Italy. Head north, following the Serchio River, and discover the valleys and mountains of the Gargfagnana national park. And still be home at your Palazzo in Lucca for a nightcap. And, if you’re really smart, you’ll catch the train from Lucca for your day trip to Florence. It takes 100 minutes, and drops you in the centre of Florence at Stazione Santa Maria Novella – anyone who has ever tried to drive and park in Florence will give you the same advice.
If you’re planning on heading to Tuscany, Lucca definitely deserves more than a look-in.