Lovely little Lucca – she’s been our home for the past two weeks and we’ve grown rather fond of her! As cities go, she’s a bit of a dazzler; ringed by a complete set of Medieval walls and defences, the centre is crammed with impressive palazzios, sunny piazzas and cobbled little streets dotted with look-out towers.
The view from the top of the towers is well worth the climb too (we made it 227 steps to the top of the tree-crowned Guinigi Tower!) as the setting here is truly spectacular, with protective mountains rising steeply on three sides and a fertile plain stretching towards Florence in the East.
But she’s not just a pretty face; unlike so many overly pretty Tuscan towns we’ve visited, which seem to depend solely on tourism, Lucca has a real life of her own and her network of streets are filled with independent coffee shops, boutiques, smart bars and restaurants, all buzzing with locals.
An hour’s drive north of Lucca into the Alpi Apuane lies one of the most famous marble quarries in the world: Carrara. Mined since Roman times (the Pantheon was built using this stuff), the marble here is famous for its white translucent quality and the quarry lists Michelangelo amongst its famous clients. If you want to check out a sample of the stone closer to home just go and look at Marble Arch!
Obviously, with a geologist on board we couldn’t give it a miss and so we took “Toro” up the incredibly steep hairpin road, high into the white mountain. The scale of the quarries here is staggering, with bare walls of marble shooting high into the sky, turning the diggers below to toy-scale. There are several sculpture workshops in the quarry where enormous boulders are shaped into everything from baths (we spotted a marble hot tub!) to busts. We left as the proud owners of some Carrara marble chopping boards – perfect for pasta making!
We discovered that Lucca is also a bit of a cycle-mad city; the walls themselves form a 4km popular cycle ring road, whilst longer distance trails trace the Serchio river from the mountains in the North to the sea in the West.
We set off Westwards on our first expedition, with the vague idea of cycling to the seaside. After about an hour of following the river Will checked the map and exclaimed that we were very close to Pisa! We adjusted our course and sure enough we soon saw the outline of the iconic tower, angled against the horizon.
The hills directly North of Lucca are known as the Garfagnana; an area of lush forests and grassy slopes that has remained fairly isolated from the encroach of tourism and maintains strong cultural and culinary traditions. The forest floors here are filled with chestnuts at this time of year, which the locals grind to flour to make bread and other yummy delicacies (chestnut panettone anyone?) Following the river North from Lucca we explored this area on two wheels again, stopping for a sunny picnic in an olive grove before whizzing back down to the city.
There’s so much to see in and around Lucca that you could easily spend a week or more here without venturing further afield (and we very nearly did!). But if you did find yourself twiddling your thumbs, this is just an hour’s train ride away…
After two weeks of cooking, exploring and enjoying in Lucca we head an hour South West to the port of Livorno, it’s time for the next leg of our adventure…