Not many cities in Tuscany still preserve their authenticity without having been contaminated by mass tourism. Among them, my city, Lucca, shines with a light of its own. Its unbroken walls and its delicate beauty make it a jewel worth visiting, and yet still belonging to its inhabitants.
Having remained an independent city for 5 centuries before entering the Kingdom of Italy in 1860, Lucca has always benefited from great prosperity and richness. Thanks to this condition, today the historical centre is still punctuated by splendid palaces, churches, museums, towers, and even a Roman amphitheatre.
To really understand Lucca, you should climb on its walls and walk their entire length. You may rent a bike Piazza Santa Maria or just walk by foot, paying attention to joggers and kids who come to play here. Only a few know that Lucca’s walls are made of three different circles. The first, the Roman one, has walls that reach 8/9 metres, while the second, shorter, dates back to the Medieval period; lastly, the third one, built in the XVI century, is the one that we still see today, and it runs for approximately 4 km.
Today, the walls host many important events such as the Lucca Comics & Games, one of the largest comic conventions in the world, second only to Tokyo’s Comiket.
Walking on the Walls of Lucca
Walking on the walls, you’ll catch a glimpse of the many churches’ towers spread all over the historical centre. Someone has defined Lucca as “the city with 100 churches “, and that could easily be true. However, among the bell towers, you may even spot some “imposters”. One sienna-coloured tower with a bunch of trees on its top, and one tower with a large clock on its façade. The first one is the Torre Guinigi, while the second is the Torre delle Ore (Hours’ Tower), and they can both be visited.
Getting on with your walk, you’ll have the chance to peer over the Botanical Garden with its pond. Legend says that you could still see the body of Lucia Mansi floating on the water. A beautiful yet cursed lady, Lucia sold her soul to the devil in exchange for 30 years more of beauty and dissolute youth. When the devil finally came to collect its price, it carried her away on a flaming chariot, diving with the screaming Lucia into the very pond. This place has since been regarded as a doorway to hell.
Lucca City Guide
Down the road, St. Martin Cathedral will impose itself to your sight, surrounded by wonderful palaces and posted on an airy square. Come down from the walls here to stop and admire the Cathedral’s façade, with its precious carvings and dichromate marbles.
Every year, on September 13th, the Cathedral becomes the final stop of a religious procession called Luminaria that starts from the Basilica of San Frediano. The whole city centre turns off its lights and the streets are bright with the fire of candles and torches. The kids admire the event from the windows, while the adults parade on foot to pay homage to the Holy Face, located inside the Cathedral. Regarded as the most important religious symbol of the city, the Holy Face is a wooden cross of rare beauty. It was sculpted by Nicodemus, one of the apostles who dropped Jesus down of the cross and who came here on an empty ship from the Middle East.
Having lunch in Lucca
If you want to have lunch in Lucca, you’ll be spoilt for choice. From the nearby Ristorante Giglio (Piazza del Giglio 2), elegant and with tables outside, to the new Guzman (Via Antonio Mordini 21), which also makes a cool choice for an aperitif or an intimate dinner. Otherwise, you could choice something more rustic yet no less delicious.
Amedeo Giusti’s Bakery (Via Santa Lucia 18), open since early 1900, is famous among the Lucchesi for its two types of marvellous focaccia: the “al suolo” (soil) one, traditionally cooked on the oven’s floor, or the one cook on the baking trail (“in teglia”), lighter and seasoned with EVO oil. You can’t walk out from this bakery without having tasted the buccellato, a typical Lucchese sweet made in the shape of a bread and enriched by sugar, raisins and aniseeds. The buccellato was once part of a proper ritual, with the fathers bringing it to the kids in their pockets.
An afternoon in Lucca
During the afternoon, you may visit the beautiful Pfanner Palace. This has been a location in the movie “Il Marchese del Grillo” with Alberto Sordi, made famous for the scene where the Marchese throws flaming coins down a grand staircase.
Other interesting cultural places include the Mansi Palace Museum, which hosts the ancient looms that made Lucca a great centre for the textile industry; the interiors of the Cathedral, with the shrine of Ilaria del Carretto, sculpted in marble by Jacopo della Quercia; Villa Guinigi and its Museum, the splendid Basilica of San Frediano, Puccini’s house and Palazzo Ducale.
You could also decide to get a detour from culture and dive into a shopping spree. Via Fillungo and Piazza San Michele are the places to go, with historical boutiques and contemporary shops.
Living Lucca as an insider
To really understand the life of a Lucchese, you should stop and have a break in one of the cafeterias overlooking Piazza San Michele, better if sitting at one of the outdoor tables during the happy hour. A spritz or a glass of wine, some olives and the view: in every season, San Michele will gift you with Photoshop-like sunsets. It only takes a few rays of light and the marbles of the façade start reflecting the whole spectrum of colours, from pink to lavender, from turquoise to orange. Legend says that an emerald was once placed on the archangel statue that sits on top of the Cathedral and that its green gleaming could be spotted sometimes during sunny days.
Sitting at the bar, you’ll immediately be able to distinguish the city’s inhabitants from tourists. The latter are those beaming with astonishment because of the extraordinary architecture, while the people from Lucca are intent in wild sessions of people watching.
All the city lights on after 6 pm: there’re those who come back from work, those who stroll for the last commissions, those who just wander around. In Italy, the squares are still the fulcrum of the city life, and Lucca makes no exception, with the walls adding a historical touch to the atmosphere.
Lucca City Guide
It only takes a look at Piazza dell’Anfiteatro (amphitheatre square) to understand what I mean. It was built with an elliptical form by the Romans, at the time when Lucca became the headquarter of the first triumvirate in 55 BC, when Caio Giulio Cesare, Gneo Pompeo Magno and Marco Licinio Crasso reigned. In present times, it has been the location for an episode of Top Gear, with the tree hosts starting from here their adventurous itinerary to get out of the city’s maze without a map.
Dining in Lucca
You’re in Tuscany, so it’s pretty normal to be hungry all the time. If you’re in for a fanciful snack, stop at the Pizzicheria La Grotta. This delicacies shop has been open since 1865, always selling the best cold cuts, cheese and focaccia of the Piazza. And that still remains a very circumscribed honour, because at every other corner of the city you may find something tasty to try. I’m talking about bakeries, chocolate bars, wineries, pastry shops, pizzerias, restaurants.
Speaking of which, right behind Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, at the beginning of Via Fillungoyou’ll encounter the Pizzeria Sbragia. For many years this has now represented a meeting point for students and workers during their lunch breaks, a milestone for a simple dish and some fun talks. The owner will have a joke with everybody, and, if he thinks you’re funny enough, he may even let you taste a slice of cecina, a thin focaccia made of chickpea flour, water and EVO oil, or maybe a neccio, a soft wafer made of chestnut flour, rolled and filled with fresh ricotta cheese.
Are you looking for something more refined? You could have dinner at one of the two main poles of the Lucchese fine dining scene: Buca di Sant’Antonio (Via Cervia 3) and the Ristorante all’Olivo (Piazza San Quirico 1). They have both been renown for many years now, the first for its traditional allure, full of bronze pans and prosciutti hanging from the ceiling, the second for its modern take on typical, ancient dishes.
A night out in Lucca
After dinner you may get a blast from the past and go see a movie in one of the small theatre that pop up around town. But before going, stop for a gelato or a crêpe at the Gelateria Veneta (Via Vittorio Veneto 74), or maybe linger inside on of the many lounge bars for a drink.
The best cocktails can be found in two venues really close to each other. One is the Caffè Ristretto (Via S. Giorgio 8), where once I asked “I’d like to have a gin tonic, which gin do you have?” and the answer was: “Bellina (you’re so cute, in an ironic way), we have more than 100 of them!”. Then I realised I was in the right place; the other one is Franklin’33 (Via S. Giorgio 43), open in 2015 and already awarded in 2016 as the Best Cocktail Bar in Tuscany by Gambero Rosso.
Lucca and its surroundings
Still, Lucca doesn’t end with its historical centre. I’m a country girl, so it’s inevitable for me to recommend a tour of the magnificent hills around Lucca, native land of the homonym wine (Colline Lucchesi) and perfect backdrop for the historical villas: Villa Grabau, Villa Reale, Villa Oliva, Villa Torrigiani, Villa Bernardini, Villa Mansi and many others.
Even though this land is constantly under the radar of foreign estate agents, Lucca was fortunate enough to maintain its identity during the years, attracting a more elitist tourism with respect to other cities in Tuscany. Aided by some sort of provincialism coming from the Lucchesi, protected by their strong walls, and by administrative directions that are against “hit and run” tourism, Lucca defends itself with nails and teeth.
In fact, until 2012, all the restoration licenses inside the historical centre had been blocked. On the contrary, many aids were given to those who wanted to restructure their old houses and go back to live in the old centre. That also because the population had encountered a drastic decline: from 27.000 inhabitants in 1951 to 8.600 in 2017.
I could keep on talking about Lucca forever, and maybe I should. Still, I prefer to keep some secrets about this gentle town, so shy and sleepy, yet so unique and indelible in the hearts of whoever visits it.