Lucca, Italy as a base?

Oct 25th, 2012, 01:44 PM
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Well ... on a map, Lucca looks like it would be well-situated for us to go on various day trips by car: Cinque Terre, Pisa. Since we've not been to this part of Tuscany before, we will probably take one day to explore the environs of Lucca.

Having stayed in San Gimignano & Pienza, we are acquainted with the phenomenon of day trippers invading a town by day. Then, at night after the hoardes have left, the town transforms into a tranquil place. It was always pleasant to return after a day away. Guess we were part of the hoardes elsewhere!

Jean's question has helped to clarify what we are looking for in a home base. Thank you.

So knowing this, will Lucca be a pleasant place for us to stay?
2010 is offline  
Oct 25th, 2012, 02:01 PM
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We just booked 6 nights at this b&b in Lucca for July next year:

We have found that we like to settle in and toodle around less travelled areas and we are planning to spend a week in montepulciano over New Years 2013 so we will do northern Tuscany in July.

We plan to us a car for the first couple of days to see the area around Lucca and a day in Siena, and then drop the car and spend a day in Lucca, take the train to Florence for a day (we aren't art/museum people) and finally a day in Pisa.

jamikins is offline  
Oct 25th, 2012, 02:06 PM
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Hurray! A map! For your plans, I think Lucca is fine.

I'd probably day-trip to Pisa by train, though. Pisa has a ZTL which may be easy to avoid (I don't know), but I'd just keep it simple and train. The train is only 3 euros per person each way and may actually be faster than driving and looking for parking (while avoiding the ZTL).

If you want a driving destination for a day, we enjoyed taking the secondary roads to Vinci (about an hour) and seeing the Leonardo sights (museums, birthplace).
Jean is online now  
Oct 25th, 2012, 02:30 PM
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My trip report on Lucca and vicinity. We stayed at the heavenly Villa Marta, about 15 minutes outside of town. The TR excerpted below starts in Florence, then moves to Lucca:

Tuesday, March 16, 2010:
At 10:30 am, after a fond farewell to our hosts, we pick up our Renault Clio at the Hertz dealership in via Finiguerra, an easy 15 minute walk from the apartment.

We have brought our bags with us: To drive to the apartment would have meant registering the car’s licence number with the police in advance, since vehicle access to this zone is strictly rationed -- backed up by unremitting “videosorveglianza”.

R has chosen tiny, hard-to-reach Poggio a Caiano as our first stop today. There is a Medici villa, subsequently occupied by Napoleon’s sister and by the King of Italy. You can visit both the villa and the (top-floor) museum of still-life painting. Both are free to visitors -- unheard-of in Italy.

We arrive just before noon. The villa, in the midst of town, is magnificent -- huge and plain-fronted in its original Medicean incarnation, it has been gussied up only slightly in the Napoleonic period and after.

At 12 noon, we are admitted to the property by a solemn, indeed funereal, older gent, who dons a plastic glove before pressing the elevator button that will take us to the top floor. We are alone in the museum with the 180 still life paintings.

The gent follows us from room to room. He has Tourette’s Syndrome! He approaches, bends, shakes his shoulders, retreats. He approaches again, bends, shakes his shoulders, retreats. The plastic-gloved hand extends behind at an awkward angle.

I find 30 minutes quite enough to view these lovely but near-identical works. The obsession of generations of Medicis, through the 17th and 18th centuries, with flower and animal paintings merely puzzles me.

We proceed to visit the villa. Soon we realize that this 16th C gem has been totally refinished for Napoleonic tastes, then further desecrated for the lowbrow House of Savoy: The very same pair of villains who corrupted the Palazzo Pitti in Florence! Only the great salone remains untouched: glorious Mannerist frescoes of the 1540s (Andrea del Sarto) and 1580s decorate its double-height walls.

Leaving Poggio a Caiano, the next couple of hours are spent in an injudicious effort to find interesting paths across this plain, without resort to the Autostrada.

We see some fine hill-country, also some lush plains and even some marshy wetlands. But the driving -- through areas of light industry and encroaching suburbs -- is not tranquil. Finally, we give up and do the last 20 km by motorway. Immediately, my stress-level lifts.

The Villa Marta, just south of Lucca, is a God-send, when we reach it.

It is on a quiet road in the narrow strip of plain between two opposing lines of high, conical hills. The air is full of birdsong. The grounds are beautifully groomed, the buildings are supremely well kept.

It is a tightly run ship.

Someone appears from nowhere to take our bags to the room. Our room and bath are spotless, with every amenity (except an iron -- one is not supposed to fend for oneself).

A chambermaid knocks around 7 pm, to ask if we need anything. When we go out to dinner at nearby La Cecca, for which the hotel has phoned in a reservation, someone provides us (unasked) with a flashlight, to ensure we get to our car safely in the dark. Someone also comes in after 8 pm, to turn down the bed, leave some sweets and change towels.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010:
Another sunny day. Breakfast is a cold buffet with everything I could want to eat and much that I should not.

The other guests slope in, in jeans and running shoes, half the men unshaven. They are a motley lot. Though all are dressed in the familiar uniform of the suburban mall, not one of them is North American.

We drive north of Lucca -- admiring the extraordinary ring of brick walls around the city -- toward the mountains. Our destination is the hill-town of Barga, in the Garfagnana region. It is a destination we share, apparently, with every truck driver in northern Tuscany.

Barga’s great feature, apart from 360 degree views of jagged peaks and dramatic valleys, is its Romanesque church, perched at the top of the town. The earliest mention of the church dates from 988 AD. For most of our visit, we have the place to ourselves. Its broad stone terrace is a perfect vantage-point from which to admire the Alps.

The church’s façade is flat and austere -- Lombard Romanesque. The interior is sombre, except for a fanciful altar in coloured stone, with lions on the base. One of the lions is about to maul a man, the other wrestles with a snake.

In a chapel are beautiful early Renaissance terra cotta works: a large panel of saints and a couple of smaller polychrome pieces.

From Barga we turn southward to Bagni di Lucca. Once patronized by royalty and le beau monde, this spa is now decidedly dingy.

With some difficulty (this is my toughest day of navigating yet, by a long chalk) we find the small twisty road that will take us over the crest of the mountains and bring us out on the Pisan plain. In almost an hour of driving, we meet only 3 cars.

We reach Collodi but I cannot locate the Villa Garzoni, whose Baroque garden I hoped to see. Instead, we decide to follow the well-signposted Strada del Vino dei Colli Lucchesi. This wine road keeps us well above the industrial plain, in verdant hill-country.

We soon find ourselves at the Villa Torrigiani, a grand 16th C villa whose gardens were originally based on French models (Le Notre may have had a hand in their design).

Sometime around the end of the 18th C, someone decided to tear out the parterres nearest the house and convert the garden into an English parkland. Much of the original design remains, however, including a dramatic Nympheum.

Unfortunately for us and despite a sign indicating the park is open “7/7”, the place is closed up and padlocked. We wait around for a bit, hoping someone will show up -- the view of the statue-laden façade of the house is most enticing -- then finally slink off.

Continuing on signposted "wine roads" -- there appear to be two, the Vino/ olio and the Vino/ Colle Lucchesi -- we make a short stop at pretty, hill-top Montecarlo, a centre of gastronomy and oenoculture. We admire its red brick fortress, town walls and handsome gateways.

We take the A-11 back to Lucca, vowing to stick closer to home tomorrow, our last day in the region. At least half our time will be devoted to Lucca itself.

Dinner is at nearby La Quercia, an unprepossessing place in Santa Maria del Giudice, on the SS 12, the main Pisa-Lucca Road. Dinner turns out to be a triumphant success.

Yes, there are some anomalous qualities -- the Queen soundtrack, for example. We are won over, however, by the fresh ingredients, the robust cooking and the eagerness and friendliness of the owner and his wife.

Thursday, March 18, 2010:
Today is our day for visiting Lucca. I have been fearful of driving, finding parking and making our way around this walled town. Florence -- and the mad traffic in rush hours on the SS 12 -- have spooked me. In fact, it is an easy 10 minute drive from the Villa Marta to the ring road around Lucca’s walls; thereafter, we quickly find free parking just off the ring road. We have a bit of a hike to the Porta San Donato.

Once inside the walls, however, we are struck by the relative silence of the town. We are often alone in the small streets. The exception is the Via Fillungo, the smart shopping street where people go to see and be seen.

Lucca has much the same feel as Siena: chic yet parochial; absorbed with itself and its mystique; a place where everyone knows everyone and where local affairs are rated much more important than national ones.

The church of San Frediano’s façade is of cool, white marble; its interior is of a much warmer brown stone. The mosaics on the façade are 13th C; the font is Romanesque; there are fine additions from every century of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. I like the way the disparate elements co-exist harmoniously.

This is one of the best churches I have seen on this trip. I am quite turning against anything Baroque or later: too florid, too stylish, altogether too perfect. In fact, I’m becoming a pre-Raphaelite.

After its staggeringly beautiful exterior, the interior of the Duomo is a disappointment, by contrast. The florid, arcaded white/green/black façade and the (earlier) campanile are both splendid. The interior has been completely overhauled in the 16th or 17th C; all the mystery is gone.

The same is true, we read, of San Michele, which is closed when we visit. Its over-the-top white and black façade extends high above the actual building, like the false front of a Wild West saloon. Delightful. But the interior has been “restored” to the point that it has (reportedly) lost all interest.

We decide we like Lucca very much. For one thing, the Lucchesi seem politer than other people we have met.

It is also a very liveable, walkable city, in which even very well-dressed people travel by bicycle. R. wants to rent a bicycle and ride around the magnificent red brick walls that encircle Lucca. It costs 2,50 E for an hour. R. completes the lap in 15 minutes, then I do a lap in 15 minutes. The final 30 minutes R. spends cycling through the historic district, revisiting favourite spots from our morning walk.

Back on the road, we drive 30 minutes to Pisa. I have not seen the Campo dei Miracoli since the 1970s, when we first travelled together to Italy. Since that time, the Leaning Tower has been straightened-up by 14 inches and the whole complex has been cleaned. Emerging from the tunnel on the SS 12, we look straight across the broad Pisan plain, where the whole complex, a few miles off, is dramatically silhouetted.

Yes, the tower is leaning. It really is leaning a lot.

What an irony that this marble building, begun in the 12th C, whose subsidence was noticeable before they completed the 4th level, should still be standing today when the World Trade Center is not.

There is nothing else in Pisa I want to see. This will be a quick one-hour trip. It is surprisingly easy to enter the city from the North and to find pay-parking in a public lot near the centre.

The Campo dei Miracoli is overrun, on this sunny day, with young people and with elderly Japanese tourists. No one seems very interested in the gorgeous, glistening exteriors of the Duomo, baptistery and cemetery. Only the tower counts, and that for freakish reasons. Near the entrance to the tower I spot beautiful low-relief carvings of animals and of sailing ships (the key to Pisa’s wealth, before bad times set in, in the late 13th C). No one is photographing them -- but everyone is photographed “holding up” the tower.

Dinner is at the Cantine Bernardine, Lucca, in the cellars of the huge and opulent Palazzo Bernardine. This restaurant and wine bar is universally praised on Tripadvisor, for the warmth of the welcome and the excellence of the food. We agree.

The refined menu is built around 100% local products and home-preparation (the cook even cures his own beef for the carpaccio). With a great local wine chosen by the sommelier and a litre of sparkling water, this cost 62,50E plus tip. We float away afterward, through Lucca‘s silent, shuttered streets.

Friday, March 19, 2010:
The day started out promisingly. Our breakfast at Villa Marta was opulent as always: a selection of fruit juices; fresh fruit; fruit compotes; dry cereals; boiled eggs, cheese and ham; croissants, buns and bread, to toast; homemade jams, yogourt.

We bade farewell to the staff at the Villa Marta and took the Autostrada to La Spezia. After a false start at Portovenere -- “Nice but no cigar” -- we headed to the Cinque Terre, a favourite destination of Fodorites.

The road from La Spezia climbs high among the Ligurian cliffs, above the 5 towns.

The views are dramatic; equally dramatic are the small local details. All along the coast, there are little funiculars, miniature railways for the transport of goods to the isolated farms and villages below. Below us we can see the tourist crowds walking from one town to another, along the precipitous cliff walk. I am happy, up here above the crowd. The 5 towns are super-picturesque, even if unremarkable architecturally.

We return to La Spezia, then take the A 15 to cut across the spine of the Appennines, in the direction of Parma. For nearly an hour we drive through jagged mountains, rarely broken by small towns and villages. We emerge onto the plain just west of Parma.

Here, we start to notice a certain falling-off in the atmosphere, to put it mildly. Many of the agricultural buildings are in a state of collapse -- abandoned, as haphazard industrial and commercial development encroaches. There is no centre to anything -- just random building and, along the main roads, long strips of commercial outlets.

Today, I formulate a new rule:

In Italy, never stay where it is flat. It is all industry, urban sprawl, visual dullness, smelly agriculture. We stayed last year in the Brenta region of the Veneto -- it was precisely the same and an even greater shame to Italy, because it has ruined the nation’s heritage of Palladian villas.

On to Cremona and a very difference experience, on the endless, treeless plains of agricultural Lombardy.
tedgale is offline  
Oct 26th, 2012, 07:15 AM
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mr_go: Thanks for your helpful reply. Hotel A Palazzo Busdraghi looks wonderful! I will go back for a more leisurely read of your trip report & view of your photos.

pizzocchieri: Well, you certainly presented a different perspective of Lucca! Are there any Tuscan towns which are not reliant on tourist dollars in some way?

jamikins: Thank you for chiming in to share your travel plans for next year. I see you have chosen a lovely B&B just outside the walls of Lucca. Is this so it's easier for you to come & go by car?

Bob: << I suspect the differences regarding Lucca speak to the time of year. >> Yes, I wondered about that, too.

Jean: I appreciate your hint about taking a train to Pisa. We are still jittery about driving into Florence and then months later receiving a ticket for entering the ZTL! I will also look into Vinci as possible day trip.

tedgale: I first read your trip report for pure enjoyment! I will be rereading it with pen in hand to make notes, especially of the drives you took around Lucca! Thanks so much!
2010 is offline  
Oct 26th, 2012, 07:36 AM
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Yes, if you get a B&B inside the walls you will need to park in a parking lot outside the walls. We figured this is the best of both worlds - close to the train station to get to FLorence and Pisa, can park the car close to B&B, and we can walk inside the walls to eat and go for drinks.

Hope this helps!
jamikins is offline  
Oct 26th, 2012, 11:23 AM
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Thanks, jamikins! You are very helpful!
2010 is offline  
Oct 28th, 2012, 10:25 AM
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FYI: B&B Romea has paeking inside the walls. We stayed at Palazzo Alexander which has access to a parking lot within the walls too.
We enjoyed four days in Lucca and arrived just in time for Lucca's patron saint's day with a medieval parade tnrough the xity. It was September but do not remeber our dates. Serendipity!
HappyTrvlr is online now  
Nov 1st, 2012, 01:17 PM
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We loved Lucca when we stayed there for 4 nights in February 2011 - in fact I am now booking an apartment for 4 weeks for February 2012 (any apartment suggestions?)

We stayed at a delightful B&B right by the Anfiteatro - they were very helpful with guiding us in with our rental car and organizing parking. The rooms are very nice and very reasonable.
Elizabeth_S is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 03:08 PM
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Hi, everyone!

I just wanted to report back that DH & I had decided to stay in Lucca! Those who are enthusiastic about this town have inspired us to give it a try. I promise to let you know our impressions when we get back!

We will be staying at A Palazzo Busdraghi. (Thanks mr_go!)

Thanks again for sharing your experiences & thoughts. It was all very helpful!
2010 is offline  
Nov 1st, 2012, 04:42 PM
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Have a wonderful visit...we loved Lucca and I would absolutely go back again. Our family visited in May and the weather was very nice and it was not very crowded. I think it would make a great base for touring surrounding towns.

A nearby town we enjoyed was Lerici...we had a delicious seaside lunch for a very reasonable price and the castle overlooking the sea is very charming.
vbrasil is offline  
Nov 20th, 2012, 02:32 PM
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I see that you have already decided to stay in Lucca. I just got back on Saturday from Italy and stayed 4 nights in Lucca. I will admit it was not one of my favorite towns. But, since you have decided to stay there I can highly recommend Chef Paolos cooking school. You can see reviews on tripadvisor. It really was one of the highlights of our trip. We rented an apartment within the city walls and there are a few parking lots that are within the city walls, but just inside. You do have to make sure you do not go into the city center. The roads you cannot enter will be marked with a white sign with a red ring. We parked at the Mazinni parking structure. We did drive to Pisa rather than taking the train using our GPS and the Rick Steves description. It was easy as can be and you are directed to a free lot that has a shuttle that takes you directly to the tower.

We were there on a Wednesday and visited the market and that afternoon we rented bikes and rode on the wall. On the other days we did the cooking class and visited Pisa.

While we did fill our days in Lucca, other than the things we did, I don't think there is much to do in the town.
rfbk50 is offline  
Nov 20th, 2012, 02:42 PM
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I hope 2010 likes it, but I think the problem with some of these towns that are crowded with tourists during the day but become tranquil at night is that they end up with the same feeling as an empty theatre. They lack the life of still-living town.

For those who want tranquility and antique photo-ops, sure, Lucca has that. But for those looking to get a feel for the culture of Tuscany -- which historically has been one of the most vibrant, competitive and liveliest of all of Italy's regional cultures -- then there are other towns no less lovely that are less about tourism.

Also, if you would like a town stuffed with the riches of Renaissance art and architecture, Lucca has lovely details, but not as many amazing works as many other small , unfamous Tuscan art cities nearby with good train connections.
pizzocchieri is offline  
Nov 20th, 2012, 02:43 PM
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What did you learn to cook?
pizzocchieri is offline  
Nov 20th, 2012, 03:01 PM
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I just noticed your Oct 25 question to me:

"Are there any Tuscan towns which are not reliant on tourist dollars in some way?"

OF COURSE THERE ARE! It rather breaks my heart to think this isn't well known, that Tuscany in popular understanding has shrunk to about 20 percent of what it actually is.

And before people rush in to assert that 80 percent of Tuscan towns are ugly and only 20 percent are the dear, sweet Tuscan towns tourists want to see, that is simply NOT TRUE.

Not only are there dozens upon dozens of lovely, well-preserved Renaissance Tuscan towns that have no tourist profile, there are dozens and dozens more that attract perhaps 5-10 tourists per week, or perhaps 30 on weekends because they are home to a famous restaurant. But otherwise these towns produce wine, truffles, saffron, art, chocolate and many other artisinal products. Does the tourist trade help? Sure -- but this is quite a far cry from towns that are consciously developed for tourism.

Again, these towns are not ugly, these towns have Renaissance art, marvelous restaurants, beautiful gardens, true Tuscan traditions. Many are on train lines. They are all over Tuscany.

Beautiful Tuscany really is not the tourist reduction to a few areas found in guidebooks because people don't want to carry heavy guidebooks. That simply cannot be said too strongly, and anyone who ventures beyond the guidebooks has seen this with their own eyes.


Did you simply fail to notice the flat, industrial areas around Lucca?
pizzocchieri is offline  
Nov 20th, 2012, 10:10 PM
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Below is the web site for the cooking class. I took the half day "Chef's favorite recipes" There are many others. It was well worth the price because you got a great class as well as a wonderful meal with wine.
rfbk50 is offline  
Nov 21st, 2012, 07:35 AM
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pizzocchieri: Can you suggest any lovely towns near Lucca which may not be on my radar to visit?

rfbk50: The cooking class looks like fun! Is it a hands-on class or a demonstration class? Were all the dishes listed on the website prepared? For €20 per person, it seems very reasonable! Did you book it ahead of time or when you got to Lucca?
2010 is offline  
Nov 21st, 2012, 09:41 AM
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2010: We will be staying at A Palazzo Busdraghi. (Thanks mr_go!)

My pleasure. Be sure to find out about their off-street parking spaces when you arrive, it's pretty convenient and nearby.

Don't expect a super-luxury hotel experience... but it's definitely comfortable and well-placed. Enjoy!
mr_go is offline  
Nov 21st, 2012, 09:50 AM
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We lucked out for the class and there were only two of us so we prepared almost everything. It is hands on. Please recheck the price. We paid a 20 euro deposit and then 60 euros on arrival. That's 80 euros per person but still very much worth it. The cost of a meal like we got would run 50 euros per person at a nice restaurant.
rfbk50 is offline  
Nov 25th, 2012, 08:55 PM
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mr go: I see on the Palazzo Busdraghi's website that they offer parking @ 15€. Is this the off-street parking spaces to which you refer?

rfbk50: Thanks for the clarification on the price! That makes more sense!
2010 is offline  

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