Once a relatively unknown little Tuscan gem, Lucca has become a top destination in recent years. Situated between Pisa and Florence, it was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 AD. Its Roman roots are still visible through the outline of its now gone colosseum in Piazza del Anfiteatro. It became rich during the 11th century due to its famous silks, rivaling the textiles of even Byzantium. It is one of the few Italian cities whose military walls have remained intact - they now serve as a park for pedestrians and offer spectacular views of the city within, and of the surrounding mountains. Napoleon conquered Lucca in 1805 and installed his sister, Elisa Bonaparte Bacciochi, as “Queen of Etruria.” Her palace now houses governmental offices and overlooks Piazza Napoleone. Besides its walls and churches, Lucca is also famed as the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. On just about any given day, you can hear excerpts of his operas being performed live by various groups, and a summer opera festival takes place at his nearby country estate of Torre del Lago. And, of course, there are the bikes. They are one of the preferred modes of transportation both inside and outside the walls, and you’ll see people of all ages and abilities riding them to work, shop and other daily activities.
Lucca’s population is around 87,000 and offers most amenities you would find at any urban area, in addition to its charming shops and fabulous restaurants. It serves as a convenient home base for visiting Pisa, Florence, and even Rome (100 miles south).
Do you like to eat? Good, because Lucca’s a great place to do it. Each region of Italy has its own distinct dishes, and Lucca is no exception. Here are some things to try during your stay:
- zuppa di farro: a bean base, thick soup with farro - an ancient grain also known as spelt - and rosemary. The beans are borlotti, similar to pinto or cranberry beans you’d find in the US. You drizzle a bit of olive oil and add a dash of parmigiano on top when you eat it.
tortelli Lucchesi: an extremely rich dish! Egg pasta stuffed with meat and topped with a meat ragù.
pollo al mattone: chicken cooked under a brick with rosemary and garlic. Usually served with small potatoes roasted in olive oil.
insalata farro: a cold spelt salad with many variations, but it almost always contains small chunks of cheese, basil, olive oil, tomatoes (and of course farro). Typically served in warmer months.
panzanella: bread salad - also with many variations, but always containing bread, olive oil, tomatoes, onion, basil, and vinegar. Typically served in warmer months.
baccalà: salted cod (if you like fish, that is)
sfoglia: puff pastry - in Lucca, often filled with apple (mela) or rice custard (riso)
cantucci: you will probably be offered these at the end of your meal - little biscotti that are eaten with vin santo or coffee (and by that we mean espresso).
gelato: gelaterias abound in Lucca, and many of them are produzione proprio (house made). Regional flavors include riso (rice), malaga (rum raisin) and zuppa inglese (English trifle with cake/cookies and dessert liquor such as sherry).
- And of course coffee. So, a small lesson in Italian coffee, if you want to live like a local. Cappuccinos are typically only had in the morning as part of breakfast (usually a cappuccino and a pastry or two). After that, people have espresso (which they call caffè) or a macchiato (espresso with a bit of milk foam on top).