Last week, after an amazing twelve years we said goodbye to our incredible Tuscan villa, which is located in the hills behind Lucca.
It’s been an epic adventure – one which has brought joy and happiness to everyone that’s been lucky to enjoy the place with us. Sadly, however, it’s time to say goodbye and let someone else build happy memories there.
With age creeping up on us, the uncertainty of Brexit and our daughter’s desire to travel somewhere new every year the time is right to let it go and let someone else pay the bills that come with owning a crumbling piece of history.
But to Lucca and it’s surrounding countryside we will return, probably just as often as we did when we owned property in the local area. It’s an amazing place to visit and quite possibly the best city in Tuscany.
It may not have a David, a leaning tower of Pisa or the Palio but it makes up for that in lots of other ways, not least that it’s not yet been turned into a tourist hell hole.
Lucca is a well-heeled city. It 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 not to solely depend on them.
It is true that Lucca is on the tourist circuit, but it’s not a destination that is crammed in as a one-day trip within the busy Tuscany itinerary.
Lucca’s defining landmark is its city walls, which were built between the 16th and 17th centuries and all 4 km remain fully intact today. They are used by the locals and tourists alike for jogging, cycling and dog walking and are a perfect starting point to work out the layout of the city as you encircle it.
On first appearance, Lucca may look like a higgledy-piggledy network of small streets, 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 nineteenth 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 Robbie Williams takes to the stage in June 2017. If you don’t like popular music, there’s always opera on offer at the church of San Giovanni where nightly recitals are held from 7pm to 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.
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 has just celebrated its 60th anniversary. 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 can 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.
If you’re looking for an exceptional 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 which is set in an art gallery. 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.
For those with a head for heights and a sense of adventure, the Torre Guinigi is 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.
In the locale of Lucca there are plenty of other things to see and do, so if you’re staying for a few days then make sure you hire a car and take a trip out to the well-heeled and fashionable Forte dei Marmi where you can sample some of the best fish dishes around. Alternatively, if it’s a natural spa you’re looking for you can drive north to Montecatini Terme to one of the most famous spa towns in Italy. And if you’re really smart, you’ll base yourself in Lucca and catch the train to the centres of Florence and Siena – anyone trying to drive and park in these cities will give you the same advise.
So, if you’re planning on heading to Tuscany anytime soon, Lucca definitely deserves more than a look-in, in fact if you base yourself there you’ll definitely have the best holiday you can imagine.