A few years ago at a restaurant in Fez, Morocco, we shared a meal with a delightful Roman Judge who said that while she worked in Rome, her home and heart would always be in Lucca. Since then, Lucca has been on our bucket list.
Recently, we had the opportunity to spend four delightful days in this largely unknown gem in the heart of Tuscany, located at the foot of the Apuan Alps. Think Florence without the tourists, without the hustle, and without the attitude.
Leaving the train station, located just outside the old town, one enters Lucca through a portal in the 15th Century Renaissance wall, which replaced the Medieval wall, which replaced the Roman wall… that fully surrounds the old city, surrounded by a moat. The 12 meter high, 30 meter wide wall is completely intact and hosts ramparts, curtain walls and gateways. It is one of the best preserved in the world. This is the stuff of childhood dreams.
While the wall is no longer used for defense it is now a well-manicured pedestrian promenade spanning four kilometers around the old town a magnet for pedestrians and cyclists enjoying la dolce vita (the sweet life).
We stayed at the charming boutique hotel Alla Corte Degli Angeli, just off the main shopping street Via Fillungo. Each room is named after a flower. We stayed in room Rododendro, complete with hand painted tromp l’oeil flourishes, a very comfortable bed, a fabulous bathroom, which had in addition to the basics a jacuzi tub, bidet, and great water pressure (uncommon in many old European hotels). The room was immaculately clean, the location was ideal, the staff were extremely pleasant and helpful, and the hotel restaurant was one of the better ones we tried during our four day stay.
We started our Luccan adventure with a one-hour wine tasting class with the restaurant’s very knowledgeable sommellier, who was fluent in English, in the hotel’s restaurant. The Lucca and Montecarlo wines were paired with cheeses and local charcuterie. Of particular note, although not a recommendation, was the Lardo di Camaire – fat that has been cured and aged like a salami. Any afternoon that begins with copious amounts of wine and heart-stopping saturated fats is a good day.
We spent the rest of the day and the next two just walking. The streets of Lucca are very well maintained, the terrain flat and overall very walkable even for people with reduced mobility. A Boomer plus.
Through time, Lucca has been occupied by many peoples: the Ligurians, Etruscans, Romans, Goths, Lombards, Franks, Italians, tourists… Each occupation has left it’s mark on the city and the current city is a palimpsest of all that went on before.
Historic Lucca is a circular maze of narrow cobblestone streets overlayed and expanded on top of the original Roman city layout. We wandered through charming piazzas, Romanesque-Gothic towers a 14th century status symbol, and a plethora of churches – over 100 of them.
A few of the must sees for any visit to Lucca should include the following.
Guinigi Tower: The 125 foot tower was built ~1384 by wealthy silk merchants. Back in its heyday a tower was not only a symbol of wealth, it also offered protection from riffraff and disease. It is characterized by a roof-top kitchen-garden which dates back to the 17th century. The kitchen would have been located on the floor below the roof. In the 1980s, the tower was restored and the rooftop garden is accessible via a 230 stair climb (the original stairs were outside). From the roof top you can the expanse of the old city.
The 16th century Palazzo Mansi: A former baroque palace, this mansion hosts a stunning collection of tapestries and art from the Medici collection. The silk fabrics in the Bridal Chamber were embroidered in 700.
The Lucca Cathedral: According to urban legend, when deciding how to decorate the façade of the Cathedral, the Church held a contest to see which type of column (and which artisan) to use. After obtaining entries for the competition, the Church decided to use all the contestants’ free samples instead of awarding a contract. 11th century shenanigans. Of particular note, there is a labyrinth on the portico of the Lucca Cathedral, ca. 12th or 13th century, which, translated from the Latin, says “Here is the Cretan labyrinth that Daedalus built. From it no one who entered could escape except Theseus, who succeeded through the grace of Ariadne’s thread.” A nod to the pagan origins of Catholicism.
The Church of San Michele in Foro: Located on the site of the ancient Roman forum, the origins of this church date back to prior to 795 AD, when it was first mentioned.
The Romanesque Church of San Frediano is known for its Byzantine mosaic façade.
The modern façade of the Church of San Giusto dates to the 13th Century.
No multiday stay to Lucca would be complete without a visit to the Giacomo Puccini Permanent Festival where Lucca celebrates its native son almost every evening.