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Lucca: A Forgotten City in Tuscany

Posted on 18 April 2011

Lucca, Tuscany's forgotten city.

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.

Biking along the walls in Lucca

 

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.

San Michele in Lucca

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.

Cafe in a Lucca square

 

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.

Di Simo, Lucca

 

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).

 

Hotel Ilaria, Lucca

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: gabrielecalabrese@virgilio.it or turislucca@turislucca.com.

 

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.

 

10 Responses to “Lucca: A Forgotten City in Tuscany”

  1. Diana Scalia says:

    Buon giorno ~ I visited Lucca only once, in 2000, with Sandra’s Toscana Saporita, and I have *never* forgotten it!! I consider it one of the most exquisite cities in the world and only regret that I have not yet been back to revisit. Some friends are coming to Tuscany this summer and I have put Lucca on their top-priority list! I highly recommend Lucca chocolate (I believe the store I spent seemingly hours in, is Chocolat)!!!

    Grazie for this beautiful story, now I am all the more homesick for Lucca.

    Love from Los Angeles,
    Diana Scalia

  2. its good its low profile, place to return to when we visit tuscany again.

  3. MariaMoon says:

    Congratulations all of this rare event that happens once in a hundred years!

  4. Hyang says:

    I really really hope, wishing I can visit Lucca _ Tuscany someday soon. aamiin.

  5. K says:

    We had the pleasure of recently experiencing Lucca and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Italy. Though it rained all day the beautiful churches, timeless stone streets, fabulous shopping where you met the actual artists or family of the creators, and the unbelievable cafe’s made it a memorable “must return to” village. We found a quaint tiny cafe where we all took refuge from the rain and enjoyed expressos, American coffees and scrumptous euclairs & cream puffs. I think the shop owners thought us crazy, but were pleasant and suffered through our English. Don’t scrimp on shopping you will regret when you get home. Gorgeous scarves, pottery (Dont miss Mama Ros) linens. Lucca is a don’t miss experience and no I don’t work for the tourism bureau.

  6. Andrew says:

    What, no mention of Puccini?!

  7. ivano parenti says:

    Lucca. I was born and raised in Lucca and come April I am going to take my grandchildren to show off my roots. Is there any other city as quaint and beautiful as Lucca. Not a prayer !! But don’t advertise it too much. We don’t want too many tourist invading that city. And don’t forget to take a walk around the walls.

    ciao – Ivano

    • Woody says:

      Sounds familiar, Ivano. My hometown Maastricht is also broadly considered a pearl in the crown of my country, the Netherlands. Too many tourists however will outbalance the original character of a town, and change it’s original charme in the long run. On the other hand, without tourists no income. A delicate balance, which a town with a unique history, culture and charme needs to deal with wisely. Coming summer my family is planning a vacation in Tuscany, our first visit.. For my part Lucca is a serious candidate for our pied-a-terre over there. Love what i see..


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