First stop has to be Piazza San Michele, a glorious amphitheatre of a piazza right in the heart of the city. Surrounded by trattorias and shops, this is where anyone who is anyone goes for an espresso, glass of wine or long lunch. One of the oldest grocers there is also a restaurant, the Pizzicheria la Grotta. Stock up on ham, cheese and the strangely addictive lardo. Yes, lardo – basically it’s pig fat that has been aged in the marble lined caves of Carrera in the mountains, then marinated in a secret mixture. Thinly sliced and served on fresh foccacia it is sublime.
Autumn is also the time for the famed mushrooms that are foraged from the surrounding hills and porcini that star in risottos, or are simply pan fried and served with a spoonful of creamy polenta. There is a barrow stand in the Piazza degli Scalpellini that sells only mushrooms and dried porcini that are well worth buying for the store cupboard back home. Chestnuts, grains, pulses and nuts are central to the cuisine in Lucca and can be found in many dishes on restaurant menus. Spelt was farmed here in Roman times and still plays a big part in the cooking of the region.
The wonderful shop, Prosperi, first opened in 1790 and is still going strong today, selling all of the grains from sacks on the floor to the savvy Lucca shoppers.
Of course, being in Italy, it would be rude not to have a good old browse amongst the shops for some leather goods. Handbags, shoes, belts, purses and wallets come in supple silky soft leather in a myriad of colours. Take your time to choose though, as there are lots of options to look at. The main shopping street is the Via Fillungo – all the big Italian fashion names can be found here – at a price! Lucca is also famed for producing paper; prints and notebooks are beautifully displayed in the shops that surround the main shopping streets. Literary lovers will find that they can browse the well-stocked shops for hours on end.
High Above The Rooftops
A walk around the Renaissance city walls gives a great overview of the city, but it’s bigger than it looks and can be quite tiring. The views of the russet- and ochre-coloured rooftops and the ingenious roof gardens and balconies around every corner make walking in this safe city a delight. Watching well-fed cats sitting in the sun, and the citizens of Lucca filling their water bottles from the many fountains that dispense clean, cold water from the mountains is an absolute joy. Especially if you hit upon the Piazza del Salmatore (the ‘boob’ square), where a marble statue of a lady with an exposed breast stands atop the fountain. The symbol of Lucca is a tower with trees crazily sprouting from the top. You can (if you’re feeling fit) climb the many, many stairs to the top, but if you have even a whiff of vertigo don’t do it! Stay safely at ground level below.
Cars are banned from the city (you have to have a permit and live inside the walls to use your car here), so cyclists rule the roads. Some hotels hire them out to visitors, but beware, the Italian love of speed doesn’t seem to be confined to the Grand Prix, and dodging the cyclists can become a way of life there.
There are some beautiful bookshops in the walled city, and one just outside near the station, the Mondadori Literia, sells coffee, cakes and wine too. Browsing the shelves whilst sipping a glass of the famous local red wine is a joyful experience and makes the decision whether to buy the sumptuous art book a whole lot easier. It’s run by a father and daughter team who love to practise their English and sit down to discuss the finer points of Inspector Moltabano or join in the tea versus coffee debate.
The Lucca Centre of Contemporary Arts in the Via della Fratta has planned an exhibition of Tuscan artists, the Macchiaioli, who were impressionists in the last half of the 19th century that will be simply stunning. If visiting, make sure you go down to the basement of the building to see the surviving columns of painted figures cavorting on broken pillars. The building was a brothel, so the cavorting figures are captivating, to say the least. The Centre also sells great coffee and some fabulous wine. Entry is free and it’s well worth a visit.
Cafés, Cakes and Chestnuts
A cake and a coffee is a must in the afternoon, and all of the cafés sell a fantastic array of delicious pastries and biscuits, most of them made with the beloved nuts of the region – walnuts, pine nuts and chestnuts. Try a slice of Buccellato, a sweet bread filled with candied fruit and anise, or Castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake filled with cream. The Tuscans love chestnuts so much, they even make a beer with them for your enjoyment. Best sipped chilled in a shady square.
The church of San Michele, records of which date from 795AD, is in the main piazza. Delicate marble carvings grace the outside and the roof reaches dizzying heights. It stands in an enormous space where the sky opens up at last after a journey along narrow, winding medieval streets: this is how it was for the pilgrims who passed through the town as they followed the ancient pilgrim route.
The city winds down in the afternoon, and shutters close as the siesta kicks off all over the city. As evening falls and the sun inches out of the piazzas, an evening ritual begins: the Italian tradition of passeggiata, a gentle stroll through the main streets of the old town, chatting and discussing the day’s events.
Italians tend to dress up for passeggiata and tourists are usually easy to spot in their shorts and trainers. Lucca is no exception. Older folk sit along the route, nursing a beer and having a good old gossip; la passeggiata is where new romances are on display as well as new shoes. To join in the fun, head towards the Piazza Napoleone and watch the dusk fall, the birds roost, and the lights come on.
Food Glorious Food
It seems impossible to eat badly in Lucca; the one thing I would advise against is the pizza. Save that for Naples. Or Rome. Italian food is fiercely regional, and pizza is only put on menus in Tuscany for to entice the tourists to eat. Head for the Trattoria Gigi and sit outside in the pretty courtyard and have some ‘nudies’ – literally a nude pasta. Think ravioli, but without the pasta. Delicate balls of ricotta and spinach are served in a fresh tomato sauce, as light as a feather and not quite so calorific. Or why not try melted pecorino cheese on a courgette cake? They make a fabulous candied fruit biscuit with pine nuts to dip into your grappa there, too. Or you could try the famous Bucadisantantonio, a landmark restaurant in Lucca with an amazing wine cellar that can be explored if you ask nicely.
Lucca by night is a magical place, with candles on endless tables and couples strolling arm in arm, leafy squares, flower dripping balconies, lazy cats and pampered pooches. The sound of wine corks being eased out of bottles, the laughter of friends greeting each other and the smell of food being prepared fill the evening air. No wonder us English adore it so much.