Lucca here for a taste of Tuscany

 

LUCCA:Enjoy a mood enhancing mini-break in this medieval city where music and fine food are the order of the day, writes ALANNA GALLAGHER

LUCCA IN Tuscany is a pocket-size city the historic, musical and gastronomic delights of which can be explored leisurely on foot. A medieval walled city that dates back to Roman times, Lucca is impressive to look at. The city is surrounded by pink brick Renaissance-era walls that rise up from banks of emerald green grass.

Walk through the gates at Porta Santa Maria and you’ll see paintings hanging, designed to be illuminated by wrought iron down lighters overhead. They are empty but give some understanding of the prosperity of this city, whose silk making in the 11th century helped create a rich merchant class.

The centre is mainly pedestrianised, making ambling through it a real pleasure. The city, while touristy, is not in the same league that the super- Tuscan cities of Florence, Siena and Pisa, and therefore there is room to breathe.

The only thing to be mindful of is the overzealous local cyclists. If it’s lunchtime, the Italians won’t hesitate to mow down too-slow tourists who get between them and their next meal.

Food plays a big part in the city’s DNA. Renowned for its olive oil production, Lucca made international headlines in 2009 when its centre-right council prohibited new ethnic and fast-food restaurants from opening within its gorgeous historical centre.

There were cries of racism, but the reality is that this is what draws the half a million tourists a year to the city – the dreamy vision of rolling Tuscan hills blanketed in olive groves, history and the lure of local produce.

Elisa Palagi runs an agritourismo business. Her wines and oil are stocked in Dublin’s Fallon and Byrne. Don’t restrict your eating experiences to within the city walls is her advice.

“Outside is Il Ciancino, on Via Sarzanese, a butcher’s with an annexed trattoria, where locals love to lunch. Here you can enjoy a long and memorable repast,” she says, adding that it is also cheap.

However, most of the must-dos are within Lucca’s medieval heart. There is an old Lucchese saying that goes: “Chi va a Lucca e non mangia il buccellato è come se non ci fosse stato” (Going to Lucca and not eating the buccellato is like never being there).

Pasticceria Taddeucci, on the Piazza San Michele, has been serving this bread/cake staple for five generations. Order one with your morning cappuccino. If it’s your last day, order another to go, for it it’s carefully wrapped, buccellato keeps for several days. When it hardens, eat it the Lucchese way by cutting it up into thick slices and dunking it into wine or Vin Santo.

Lucca is the birthplace of composer Puccini, and you will sense his artistic legacy everywhere. There are concerts most evenings as well as outdoor festivals, pageants and markets.

The house in Corte San Lorenzo, where he spent his childhood until he moved to Milan at the age of 22, is now a museum. He performed his first orchestral composition, the Messa per Quattro voci, on July 12th, 1881, at the nearby church of San Paolino.

The Steinway, on which he composed his last great opera, Turandot, in his house in nearby Viareggio, is the highlight of any visit to the museum.

MUSIC CONTINUES to play a big part in the personality of the city. The Sacred Music Festival, which takes place from April through June, is a wonderful way to experience Lucca’s medieval churches in all their decorative and acoustic glory.

Of its many churches the Basilica of San Frediano’s Byzantine-style golden mosaic, called The Ascension of Christ the Saviouris one of this writer’s favourites. The columns inside the nave were actually taken from the nearby Roman amphitheatre.

Home to some of Lucca’s best frescoes by Amico Aspertini, they include The Miracle of St Frediano, depicting the Irish monk who is said to have brought Christianity to Lucca in the 6th century, saving the city from flood.

Inside the city walls feels like a place that time forgot. Shops close every day for lunch, the city is devoid of neon lighting and the original shopfronts have all been preserved. It’s a place that sucks you in – you plan to stay a few days and find yourself wanting to stay some more.

There’s a vibrant cafe culture and a buzz to its boutiques. The Edison book shop on via Roma, is housed in a dramatic, vaulted ceiling premises complete with coffee shop.

It’s the perfect spot to escape the midday sun and decide what you want to do next. If it’s mid-afternoon, then cool down with a delicious fruit ice cream at Gelateria Veneta on via Vittorio Veneto.

A tour of the walls is a must – if only to walk off some of the calories consumed. These fortifications are very much part of the Lucchesi’s evening passeggiata. Apparently used for a time in the 20th century to race cars these days they are best explored on a bike.

DRINK FURTHER of the surrounding views by climbing one of Lucca’s two towers that are open to the public: the 44m tall Torre Guinigi is one of the very few examples left in the region. Its rooftop garden is framed by holm oak trees that can be seen from all over the city.

In the distance are the snowcapped Apuan Alps and the Garfagnana mountains. You can also see Lucca’s layers of history in the oval imprint the Roman amphitheatre left on the medieval buildings of Piazza Anfiteatro.

Feeling energetic? Why not also climb the slightly taller and recently restored clock tower, the Torre delle Ore.

One of its most interesting museums is Palazzo Pfanner, which dates back to the 1660s. Its baroque gardens, with their ornamental flowers and string of 18th-century statues depicting Greek deities, are the real draw. They’ve even starred in several movies including Jane Campion’s Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman.

If you want to stay in a hotel within the city walls choose either the classically decorated establishment Hotel Universo (universolucca.com) on Piazza del Giglio or the modern Hotel Ilaria (hotelilaria.com) on Via del Fosso.

But a villa up in the cool country hills – preferably somewhere with a pool as its gets scorchio hot here in July and August – is a far smarter option.

This will allow you to graze on the local cuisine at leisure accompanied by a cuckoo chorus – the only soundtrack these hills are alive with.

There is a downside to a visit to Lucca. Thanks to the gourmet experiences you’re definitely go home carrying excess baggage. Here’s hoping Ryanair has no plans to start weighing-in passengers upon departure.

* luccaportal.it

High note the music of Puccini

Lucca may be the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini but the opera festival that celebrates his music is in nearby Torre del Lago, where the maestro had a lakeside villa.

Torre del Lago offers a seaside contrast to the history-rich Lucca. There’s the beach that stretches for miles, ringed by a resort heart that is low-key, has an enormous number of campsites and attracts a large number of locals.

One mile inland is Puccini’s villa, set back from a haze-filled lake. On the waterfront is a marine blue structure which may be unsightly but it allows you the opportunity to enjoy opera in the open-air.

The Puccini Festival (puccinifestival.it) is in accordance with the composer’s own wishes: “Once I would like to come here and listen to one of my operas in the open air.”

His villa (giacomopuccini.it) is open to the public and filled with ephemera and interior flourishes designed by his many artist friends. It is dimly lit and has frescoed walls, Venetian glass windows and doors, and includes his death mask.

This part of the Versilia Coast is low-key, family orientated and more democratic than the nearby Forte di Marni, where the beaches are private and there is a chichi dress code.

Lucca where to . . .  

Stay

Budget:There are plenty of apartments to choose from if you wish to stay within the city walls. Rents at Casa Emma, an apartment for two, start from €100 per night through Holiday Rentals (holiday-rentals.co.uk). Mid-market: Fattoria Maionchi, 00-39-0583-097-8434, fattoriamaionchi.it. This is a wine and olive oil farm that has 12 apartments, accommodating two to six people, as well as a villa that can be rented separately. There’s also a restaurant and four outdoor pools. Situated 20km outside Lucca, the apartments for two cost from €550 per week.

Up-market:Escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life by booking a villa. There are many to choose from, but the appropriately-named Casa Paddy (tuscantimes.com/ casa-paddy.html) is an Irish-owned four-bedroom converted farmhouse seven kilometres from Lucca that sleeps up to nine people. It boasts spectacular views across the valley, its own swimming pool and air conditioning. It costs from €1,500 per week in low season to €2,400 in high season. Contact Fiona on 086-6009165. Luccaholidayhomes.it is just one of the many websites listing villas in the region but make sure to ask how far they are from the city.

Eat

Value:Il Ciancino, Via Sarzanese, San Macario in Piano, 00-39-0583-59353. This is a butchers shop that has expanded into a very simple trattoria serving up succulent slabs of grilled meat, fish and typical local dishes. Situated outside the historic walls of the city, it is authentic and reasonably priced.

Mid-market:Osteria Miranda, 27 Via dei Carrozzieri, 00-39-0583-952731. Set on a quiet street on the edge of town, this informal establishment offers a warm welcome and rustic décor. The food is classic Tuscan with fresh pasta and a great selection of wines. This is one of website Chowhound’s favourite restaurants in Lucca.

Upmarket:Buca di Sant Antonio, 3 Via della Cervia, 00-39-0583-55881 bucadisantantonio.it. This is a charming restaurant housed in former stables and said to be the city’s oldest eatery. Little formal touches such as linen tablecloths add to the experience. The go-to place to sample classic Tuscan cuisine paired with the perfect wines from the region.

Shop spot

Serious foodies head to Delicatezze on via S Giorgio (00-39-0583-492633). It’s an olfactory delight where salami of every girth is stacked like fire logs, wheels of Parmesan are piled high and hocks of prosciutto and Parma ham hang like chandeliers. Take your purchases, climb onto the wall and consume while enjoying the views.

You can also eat and drink in Lucca with the expert help of insider Grifo Tour (grifotour.com). A day tour will take you to the most delicious taste spots the city has to offer. Price €165.

Night spot

There are concerts held most evenings in one of Lucca’s churches. Most of the music on offer is classical. It’s worth exploring what’s on especially during the city’s Sacred Music Festival.

In high summer, the Basilica di San Giovanni hosts Puccini e la sua Lucca (puccinielasualucca.com), opera recitals or orchestral concert dedicated to hometown composer Giacomo Puccini. Tickets can be purchased at the door for €17, €12 for children.

Summer Festival is an opportunity to see some of rock and pop’s biggest names in a boutique setting. The gigs take place in the city’s Piazza Napoleone during July and August. This year’s line-up includes Elton John, Amy Winehouse, Liza Minelli and Joe Cocker. Order tickets online from ticketone.it.

Get there:Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Pisa