Lucca: wrapped in a wall of culture
We love Tuscany and everything about it, the landscape, the food, the wine. Recently we got a chance to visit Lucca, a medieval walled city west of Florence which several friends have recommended as a great place to explore.
Lucca is on a main train line, an easy day trip from Florence in about an hour and 15 minutes or a good base to explore other places in Italy. The train station is centrally located just outside the city walls and in about a ten minute walk you can be in the town center. Unlike a lot of other Tuscan walled cities we have visited, Lucca is relatively flat so easy for most anyone to walk around. When we arrived there was a large tour group with flags and headsets heading into the city at one of the main gates.
We stayed in a small boutique hotel Albergo San Martino that was less than 15 minutes from the train station and really easy to find. The San Martino was once a brothel, but is now a warm and cozy inn with very welcoming and helpful staff and a great breakfast. The rooms are named for the former ladies: Nuccia, Carlaccia and Wanda.
Lucca’s main attraction is the flat, landscaped wall that surrounds the town center. You can access it easily from multiple points in the city, with stairs and/or ramps depending where you are, and residents and tourists alike flock to the top to play in the parks, stroll or bike on the wide walkway or sit for a picnic or to watch everyone go by.
After we checked into our hotel we grabbed a couple of delicious sandwiches at Pan di Strada and headed to the top of the wall. The fall weather was perfect for a late afternoon picnic and we enjoyed a couple of uninterrupted hours of pleasant people watching before we moved on to exploring the rest of the city.
The town of Lucca, inside the walls at least, is tiny. You can walk around the city inside in about an hour, or go around it on a bike in about 30 minutes. We were surprised how quickly we had gone in a circle and seen a lot of the areas. The town is quite charming with lots of beautiful buildings and open piazzas with cafes and restaurants, and in the fall was still busy but not overly crowded, especially after the day-trippers have moved on.
For a small town, Lucca has a lot going on culturally with lots of musical performances, art and other festivals. Every summer there is a music festival that attracts global acts like Elton John, Mark Knopfler, the Scorpions and Sting and when we were there they were setting up for one of the largest and oldest comic conventions in Italy. We visited the modern art museum which was small but a nice surprise, with a well-curated exhibit of French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson. There are sculptures, street art and galleries scattered throughout the city.
Our first evening there happened to be our wedding anniversary and we were really lucky to dine at Ristorante Giglio, right around the corner from our hotel. We felt like we were honored guests at a palace, the tables were covered in crisp white with beautiful murals all along the walls. We enjoyed some of the most delicious and unusual food we have ever had in Italy, a truffle dish with potato foam, and of course a wonderful wine. About a month after we dined there, Ristorante Giglio got a much deserved Michelin star.
The weather for our next couple of days in Lucca was rainy and colder, so we took advantage of some time to relax. We found an excellent massage therapist in town for a relaxing massage, relaxed in our hotel’s comfortable lobby and enjoyed afternoon drinks and aperitif.
The highlight of our visit in Lucca was our cooking class with Chef Paolo Monti’s Cooking School. His restaurant was a outside the town center so we were hesitant about it at first, especially since we had a difficult time reserving a taxi to take us (our hotel wound up booking us a private driver who dropped us off and came back to get us). We were glad we persevered as it was an unforgettable experience and meal.
We arrived first and enjoyed a cappuccino while we waited for the other class participants. The restaurant was about 30 minutes by car from the city center and off by itself, but by the time we left it was full, and in the middle of the week, so locals must enjoy it as much as tourists. There were four other couples who joined us in the class, a nice size with all of us getting to participate.
We started off together chopping and prepping all of the vegetables we would need for our multi-course meal. Chef Paolo and his assistant walked around and gave us tips and guidance while we worked, and he kept everything we discarded, onion skins, carrot ends, fennel stalks, and other scraps and added them to a pot with water on the stove to make a tasty vegetable broth he used throughout the meal for extra flavor.
We continued together building our first courses and then sat down to take a break to enjoy them. For most people (including us!) that first course was plenty of food for dinner but we weren’t done yet. We enjoyed our mussels, shrimp salad, tomato and mozzarella and tuna tartare with a crisp white wine and got back our energy to continue to the main courses.
We had two more courses, a pasta course and the mains of pork tenderloin, beef tenderloin and tuna. Everything was unbelievably delicious, especially the pasta with pistachio sauce and shrimp. Chef Paolo was really generous with the olive oil, it seemed he used almost an entire bottle while we were there, and gave us great tips on dried pasta to buy when we got home (we were all Americans). He recommends Garafalo, available on Amazon as well as at Costco.
Our primary attraction for coming to Lucca was to ride bikes on top of the city wall, and being mindful of the weather, we did get to do that one afternoon. There are tons of small bike rental shops in the area and we chose one close to our hotel (and across from our favorite sandwich shop, Pan di Strada) and rented two cruiser bikes with baskets for our tour around the wall. It was very pleasant to pedal slowly on the flat, nicely paved surface. It only takes about 30 minutes to go around once, so we turned around and went the other direction to get the opposite perspective. You can see so much down the streets and into the yards of some of the larger former palaces around the city.
We stayed three nights in Lucca which was plenty of time to check it out and get a good feel for the town. It would be definitely be a good base for exploring the rest of Tuscany, either by train or with a car, or relaxing for a week or more in a villa. Four of our classmates from Chef Paolo’s had rented a villa and cooked with him for multiple days. We would definitely recommend it for anyone visiting Tuscany.