Like a local: the Tuscan city of Lucca and beyond

With its triple shot of history, culture and phenomenal season-driven food — not to mention beautiful countryside right on its doorstep — the Tuscan city is a must on any Italian itinerary. Monday, 23 December 2019

Past and present

Lucca’s remarkably intact, tree-shaded RENAISSANCE WALLS trace a 2.6-mile loop around the historic centre. This is where locals come to jog, cycle and picnic, so follow suit and go for a sunset passeggiata (stroll), admiring the silhouettes of medieval towers against pinkening skies in one direction and the Apuan Alps in the other.

Dive into the medieval old town and admire the oval-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, rising above the ruins of the old Roman amphitheatre and fringed by ochre-painted townhouses and pavement cafes. It’s rightly billed as one of Tuscany’s prettiest piazzas, so it’s worth arriving nice and early to enjoy the scene before everyone else gets here. 

Swing south through narrow lanes and up pops redbrick, crenellated TORRE GUINIGI, Lucca’s lanky Romanesque-gothic landmark. The 125ft tower is all the more impressive once you’ve puffed up 230 steps to the top, which is crowned with holm oaks. Here, views reach across the city’s jumble of terracotta rooftops, domes and towers to the mountains beyond.

Saunter west and you’ll pass the Pisan-Romanesque basilica of CHIESA DI SAN MICHELE IN FORO, sidling up to the house where opera genius Puccini was born in 1858. Just a short walk from here, however, is SAN MARTINO CATHEDRAL, all at once weighty and delicate with its facade of intricately carved marble. Inside the great church, look out for the legendary Volto Santo crucifix and Renaissance masterpieces, like Tintoretto’s Last Supper and Fra Bartolomeo’s Madonna and Child.

But for masterpieces of the baroque kind, edge through the historic centre to lavish PALAZZO PFANNER. Scenes from the 1996 Nicole Kidman and John Malkovich flick The Portrait of a Lady were filmed in the grand mansion’s sublime gardens, fringed by potted lemon trees, camellias, begonias and statues of burly Olympian gods.

Tuscan trips 

In the Garfagnana mountains, BARGA, a 50-minute drive north, is the hilltown of your wildest Tuscan dreams. Slow the pace in its adorable pastel-daubed, alley-woven centre. The two big sights? Its fortress-like, 1,000-year-old cake-topper of a cathedral, with dress-circle views of wooded peaks, and its incongruous British telephone box-turned-book exchange.

Gourmets should make a beeline for SAN MINIATO, a medieval town where the lanes are lined with warm-stone palazzi and views take in orchards and olive groves. This is Tuscan truffle country, and every autumn (September to December) visitors can join local truffle hunters and their dogs and head into the woods in search of the hallowed tartufo bianco (white truffle). Time a visit for the end of November, when the town hosts its truffle fair.

For lunch, snag a table at SERGIO FALASCHI, a butcher’s-cum-trattoria with a covered terrace out back affording riveting views of the valley. Specials might include the likes of fresh pasta with Chianina beef ragu and mallegato (blood sausage).

Chianti gets all the hype, but there’s terrific wine closer to Lucca in walled, fortress-crowned MONTECARLO, a 30-minute drive east of the city. Go for a tour of the vines, a tasting of the local full-bodied reds and lunch or a cookery class at family-run wineries like FATTORIA DEL TESO and FATTORIA IL POGGIO

After something sweet? Grab a gelato and enjoy the sand and sea views at FORTE DEI MARMI, 40-minute drive from Lucca. Expect pine-shaded beaches, boutique shopping and a promenade perfect for people watching.

Antonella Giusti’s top food experiences

Ristorante Mecenate
Head here for delicious local, season-driven flavours. Owner Stefano knows suppliers by name and his wife, Sole, cooks generations-old family recipes. The torta di erbi (shortcrust pastry filled with vegetables, herbs and cheese) is my all-time favourite.

Mercato Piazza, San Francesco
There’s a fantastic farmer’s market on Wednesday afternoons in Piazza San Francesco. Producers sell everything from bread baked with ancient grains to biodynamic wines, extra virgin olive oil and seasonal vegetables.

Gelateria Fuori dal Centro
Each cone here has a story and unique connection to the region, be it figs from Palleroso and peaches from Ponte a Moriano in summer, or pumpkin from Borgo a Mozzano and sweet chestnut from Garfagnana in autumn.

Italian Cuisine Cookery Academy
At pro chef Gianluca Pardini’s cookery school, you can learn everything from how to prepare an exquisite Italian dinner to spot-on sushi. You can also go foraging with locals to gather edible wild herbs.

Enoteca Vanni
I always trust Paolo’s suggestions at this marvellous wine shop — I describe what I’d like and it magically appears on the shop counter. The enoteca is close to some Roman ruins where Paolo organises wine tastings.

A born-and-bred Lucchese, Antonella Giusti is the current secretary of Slow Food Toscana.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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