By Bobbie Leigh
How can an exceptionally charming Italian town have an inferiority complex? It seems odd, but that’s definitely the case for Lucca, a former ancient Roman colony founded in 180 BC that’s about a half hour’s drive from Pisa.
“We have such a low profile,” complains one Lucchese. Foreigners go to Florence, Siena, even Pisa which is so close — but not here.”
That’s a huge mistake. Lucca should not be overlooked. For a start, consider the Passegiata delle Mura, the “walk on walls” on 16th and 17th century ramparts which surround the town, where locals bike, stroll, jog, and hang out at sunset. The hike is an easy three miles with broad paths and scenic spots for a picnic on a warm afternoon.
Lucca is not quite Amsterdam, but biking is the way to see the town whose historic inner city is closed to traffic. Rent a bike at one of the rental spots near Porta Santa Maria and you can pedal along narrow streets with ease. You won’t be alone as most of the women do their daily marketing on bikes and everyone under 30 seems to get around on two-wheels. The pace is slow, the people polite, and at every turn there’s a church or a charming piazza surrounded by cafes and even a carousel.
Lucca doesn’t just have ramparts and pretty piazzas, but some 50 churches including one recently opened for the immigrant Romanian community. San Martino, Lucca’s Duomo, first consecrated in 1070, is Pisan Romanesque style, highly decorative with little Gothic grace. All the columns differ one from another and of the three rounded arches, the one next to the bell tower is smaller. By far, the much more interesting building is the ornate, over-the-top 11th to 13th century Pisan Romanesque San Michele in Foro. The “Foro” refers to the fact that the church sits on what was once the Roman forum. The church has a marble façade, slight bands of gray and white, and four levels of colonnades, crowned by a statue of St. Michael. Although a bit top heavy with a false front, it is certainly fanciful and unlike anything you will see elsewhere. Right behind the church is the 1881 Pasticceria Taddelucci where you should stop for an espresso and the iconic buccellato, a sweet raisin, anise, cinnamon bun. In the little piazza San Salvatore, around the corner from San Michele, is the Enoteca Vanni where you can descend into aged wine cellars, still musty, dark, and damp. Surprisingly the wine is stored vertically, not on its side.
Wandering around the tiny streets and squares of old Lucca, you can’t miss the dominating tower of the medieval palace, Casa del Guinigi. The tower is perhaps the only one you will ever see with seven leafy trees growing on its top level. The sandstone and brick Guinigi is one of four original towers that still survive. Its base is now a little craft shop where weavers ply their looms. (Lucca was once a rich city, a center of the silk trade from the 12th-14th century.) The climb up the tower is worthwhile for the unspoiled view of the red-tiled roof town and the green countryside.
Via Fillungo is the main shopping street of Lucca lined with the usual upscale boutiques and a few rarities. One favorite is the old-fashioned 1880s Di Simo, Antico Caffe at Number 58. Stop by for a gelati or a latte macchiato and cornetto — lighter than the French croissant. The 1800 Carli jewelry shop at number 95 is another must-see as its ceilings are frescoed and the jewelry, especially the watches, have a timeless elegance. Fillungo which runs north to south corresponds to the Roman “cardo maximo” while the east-west Via S. Croce is based on the “decumano maximo,” an interesting factoid as many Tuscan cities including Florence are laid out in similar Roman fashion.
Like Rome, Lucca has its Anfiteatro Romano, an amphitheater that once seated some 10,000 people. Not much remains but the central empty space, as most of the stones were used in the Middle Ages to build the town’s many churches. La Bottega di Mamma Ro, a ceramics, linens, and tabletop shop where everything is handmade, contemporary but not crafty is at Piazza Anfiteatro, 4.
MUSEUM OF ITALIAN EMIGRATION IN LUCCA
As you might expect, Lucca has its fair share of art and history museums. One that is relatively new and not in the guidebooks thus far is the intriguing Paolo Cresci Museum for the History of Italian Emigration. It’s in the lovely gardened Palazzo Ducale at Via Vittorio Emanuele 3. Cresci was a major collector of documents relating to the history of Italian emigration, The museum excels in historic footage and photographs documenting the conditions which led to emigration, the departure, the journey, and arrival in a strange land. Anyone with roots or family in Italy might want to do a historical search in the museum’s database (fondazionepaolocresci.it).
DINING & STAYING IN LUCCA
It’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Lucca, as most of the restaurants take pride in their cuisine. Specialties of the region are a zupp di faro , a veggie soup made with the grain, farro: tortelli lucchesi; and coniglio (rabbit) alla cacciatore.. A few best dining bets are Ristorante Giglio, Osteria da Rosolo, and Buca di Sant’ Antonio.
Among many good hotel choices, consider the reliable, clean, mid-priced and four star with al fresco dining Hotel Ilaria.
If you become truly engrossed in Tuscan cooking, head north about 30 minutes to a 15th century hilltop estate where Sandra Lotti has her cooking school, Toscana Saporita. Here’s what she writes about her classes: “More hands on than before. Students love making raviolis and gnocchis and are challenged by deboning chickens.” This is the place to learn the not-at-all-difficult recipes popular in the Italian Tuscan kitchen.
Gabriele Calabrese is an experienced and enthusiastic English-speaking guide who will enthusiastically lead you to the city’s treasures. The best way to reach him is by email: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.