There is nowhere quite like Lucca, the charming, quiet Tuscan town which Henry James described in 1909 as overflowing with everything that makes for ease, for plenty, for beauty. It is the perfect antidote to the hustle and bustle of Florence, and given its close proximity, also a perfect day out.
A town that at one time matched Florence and Siena in political and military strength, and was also one of the wealthiest medieval cities in Tuscany, Lucca is now a much more humble, much less visited town. And maybe that is what lends to its quiet charm. The small town is surrounded entirely by a huge 500 year-old wall, built to keep the city protected from enemies and invaders. Now it seems to keep it protected from the tourist hordes, as well as keep the city quietly poised in its medieval state. Inside the wall, you are invited to take in this town at your own pace, visit Romanesque churches, have a picnic, people-watch in a piazza, or browse through second-hand books and music scores in an outdoor market.
A nice way to get to know Lucca is to take a stroll or hire a bike and ride around the length of the tree-lined wall, which is only about four kilometres long. For those who want to take advantage of the gorgeous spring weather and partake in a shady picnic, there are some wonderful places to stock up on picnic supplies in town. The first and most important for fellow sweet-tooths is a chocolate stop, and Lucca is home to a gorgeous little cioccolateria that specialises in boutique chocolates. They even make chocolate spoons perfect for stirring into your coffee for a bit of indulgence. (Chocalat on Via Canami)
Then there is La Grotta (the cave), a delectable deli where you can fill up your picnic basket with things like liver pat? for Crostini Toscana, stuffed hot peppers, pecorino cheese, freshly sliced prosciutto, or focaccia studded with green olives. The deli is conveniently located on one of the main streets near the ancient Roman amphitheatre, which is now an unusual and beautiful circular piazza known as Piazza Anfiteatro. Now all you have to do is make your way back to any part of the old wall, find yourself a gorgeously green and shady spot and enjoy sitting out on the grass and looking at mountains in one direction, and the beautiful tops of the white marble churches and old towers rising out of the town of Lucca in the other.
For music-lovers, Lucca is also a very interesting place as it has a long tradition of music which goes back as early as the ninth century. This small town has produced many famous Italian musicians, including Giacomo Puccini who was born in Lucca in 1858 into a family of musicians. He is best loved for his romantic operas such as Tosca and La Bohème. Very close to the Church of San Michele is the house in which Puccini grew up, now a small museum open to visitors, which was until recently closed for renovations. Just outside the Casa Puccini you can see a bronze statue of a rather Bohemian and laid-back Puccini sitting in a chair, complete with a cigarette in his hand.
Being one of Lucca’s most famous sons, every summer there is an outdoor festival to celebrate Puccini’s operas. This year’s is the 51st of such festivals held at the Torre del Lago Puccini, 11 miles west of Lucca. Puccini lived in this peaceful lakeside villa for thirty years and composed some of his most famous operas there, including Turandot. The villa has been turned into a museum, in which his remains now lie. The Festival Puccini runs from July 22 through August 21, with performances of Puccini’s La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Turandot.
Another very famous musical resident of Lucca was Niccolò Paganini, the violinist who caused a scandal simply by his virtuosity people were so in awe of his technical skill that they believed he was possessed by the devil. He used to wear a long black cloak that went all the way down to his ankles, which only added to his sinister allure, as it gave the appearance that he was floating. He spent some time in the house of the Bucchianeri family in Lucca, where the city has erected a plaque commemorating Paganini and describing him as the genius that was tormented by love and poverty.
If it is art and architecture that moves you, there are also some beautiful churches and towers to visit in Lucca. Depending on how much time you want to spend sightseeing, it is worth seeing the Duomo, San Michele (famous for its sublime facade, reminiscent of a sumptuous wedding cake), and also the Torre Guinigi, a 14th century family tower with an unusual feature crowning its top: a grove of old oak trees. The view from this rooftop garden is stunning.
Finally, what better way to end the day than to soak up the atmosphere people-watching in Piazza San Michele, preferably with a gelato in hand (or the chocolates from earlier if you haven?t eaten them all yet). Alternately, you could browse through a huge collection of second-hand art books, musical scores, and old prints in an open market nestled between an ancient loggia and a quiet church behind Piazza Napoleone. Then head to Puccini?s favourite haunt, the lovely old-fashioned Antico Caff? di Simo, on Via Fillungo, where you can have an espresso and a pastry at the bar, or sit in the sunroom with a pot of tea. And after a day of leisure, beauty, art, and music, you might agree with Henry James that Lucca represents the Tuscany that still lives and enjoys, hopes and works.
How to get there: Take a train from Firenze SMN, or get a guided experience with a Lucca and Pisa day tour.