Traveling abroad can be as fun or as challenging as you plan it. We prefer to explore on our own rather than be herded from place to place by tour guides who might miss great places to stay, visit, or dine. In Italy, like other European cities, it’s best to pick the most appealing destination and thoroughly explore it — and surrounding areas within an hour’s drive.
We based ourselves in the ancient walled city of Lucca. Our intent was to enjoy fine food and wine in medieval surroundings and explore the scenic beauty along the Tuscan coastline.
We stayed a few days in Florence, the capital of Tuscany, which has the nearest international airport to Lucca. (Renting a car to Lucca will put you on an easy 45-minute journey down the Autostrada, Italy’s superhighway. However, we discourage driving in Florence, where narrow one-way streets and pedestrian-only areas are ubiquitous and challenging.) Among the highlights in the large and enormously cultured city of Florence is the renowned Ponte Vecchio Bridge, with its glittering jewelry emporiums and unfettered views of the Arno River. Historic villas tuck into lush mountainsides. At the end of the pedestrian thoroughfare is Pitti Palace, a mélange of museums and Boboli Gardens.
To best experience the richness of Florence, choose a hotel in the center of it all. All roads lead to Piazza della Repubblica, the site of Hotel Savoy. It is a few strolling blocks from the Duomo, a cathedral that took 600 years to build. The Galleria dell’Academia, where Michelangelo’s David is ensconced, is also nearby.
Hotel Savoy belongs to the elegant collection of Rocco Forte properties. Built in 1896 and restored in 2000, its spacious corridors, marble bathrooms, walk-in closets, and muted colors make you feel like you’re in a private mansion. Rooms and suites have dramatic high ceilings and beds dressed with Italian unbleached linens. Artworks — including pieces by Andy Warhol, Lisa Milroy, and John Shand Kydd — punctuate the subdued interiors. Throughout, homage is paid to the Ferragamo dynasty’s contributions to Florentine crafts with its motifs of shoes and hats.
At Hotel Savoy’s primary restaurant, L’Incontro, Chef Remo Vannini selects seasonal ingredients and masterfully prepares dishes that entice prime flavors. Pleasant weather permits alfresco dining in view of the prominent Florentine carousel.
An unforgettable dining experience in Florence awaits you at L’Osteria di Giovanni on Via del Moro. Giovanni’s daughter, Caterina, presides over comfortable dining rooms frequented by notable politicians of the region. Warm colors, understated décor, and the freshest ingredients suit many tastes. Enjoy the Florentine specialties of fresh whole fish filleted tableside and Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a rare side of beef generally for two or more guests, as well as memorable pasta dishes.
The oversized architecture book Lucca Encounters the World (2009) reminds us that Lucca was the setting for events of great political and symbolic significance for Europe and beyond. It was where Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus discussed the power basis of the first Triumvirate, and where, in 1541, the foundations
for the Council of Trent were laid by Charles V and Pope Paul III Farnese.
It also emphasizes that Lucca, from medieval times, has been associated with greatness, particularly in culture. It is the birthplace of composers Luigi Boccherini and Giacomo Puccini and the setting of fantastic performances and social customs “that locate Lucca in the constellation of great musical cities.”
The city’s historic area is an amazing labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways where little has changed in architecture since the 1500s. Here you will find designer shopping and food markets with hanging prosciutto and deli cases filled with cheeses, salamis, and cured meats.
Lucca has a variety of accommodations. Hotel Ilaria is close to one of the city’s vehicle entries and offers comfortable lodging at moderate prices. Amenities include a drive-in courtyard with complimentary parking, sumptuous buffet breakfasts, and daylong snack buffets. The hotel owns three nearby restaurants, most notably Buca di Sant’Antonio, where hundreds of copper pots hang from the rafters.
Hotel Noblesse, a five-star property of 15 suites, is plush and intimate, although more difficult for drivers to reach. Sitting at the center of the walled city, its historic façade belies the renovated interior’s fashionably warm ambience and modern conveniences. The restaurant’s garden and indoor seating choices are equally tempting. The menu includes meat, fish, and pasta dishes that hint of fashion-forward American cuisine. Parking and breakfast are not included in the tariff.
In and around Lucca, you will encounter some of the tastiest food imaginable. The meats, cheeses, pastas, and fresh vegetables in America will be disappointing when you return home. The prevailing freshness and flavors in Tuscany are elusive in the United States, where additives, preservatives, and overcooking often detract from the essence of daily harvested foods.
While travel Web sites and guide books can steer you to worthwhile dining experiences, we relied on the recommendations of Lorenzo Petroni, a longtime friend, restaurateur, and vintner. Owner of the venerable North Beach Restaurant in San Francisco, Lorenzo was born in Lucca and maintains close ties to the best food and wine happenings in and around his hometown.
Two restaurants outside Lucca offer excellent dining. Pierantonio All’ Antico is in the hillside village of Montecarlo, a 30-minute drive from Lucca. Chef Antonio Pirozzi, his wife Piera, and daughter Francesca have restored this hilltop restaurant and furnished it in an understated, elegant fashion. Start with the sea crudite, red mullet in orange sauce, or a trilogy of sea tartare. Pasta dishes may include woodpigeon risotto or ravioli with amberjack. For your entrée, try a tuna hanger steak stew or a fois gras veal chop. Chef Antonio personally supervises the service.
A few minutes from the walls of Lucca, in the suburb of Marlia, you will find the wonderful Ristorante Butterfly, easily recognizable with its neon signpost and high arched fountain. “Black Hat” Chef Fabrizio and his wife Mariella have created a gastronomic paradise. The menu is at once simple and whimsical, poking fun at American traditions such as popcorn and ketchup. Haute cuisine techniques — such as capturing smoke flavors under glass and releasing the smoke during presentation — are playful and innovative. The culinary skills accompanying that inventiveness bespeak the chef’s talent. Most menu items provide two variations on a theme: simple and complex. The seafood presentations are reminiscent of those encountered when invited to food society dinners in the Basque region of Spain.
While Lucca offers the traveler a chance to participate in the bustle of a medieval walled city, exploring nearby towns is easy with a rental car, a map, and an entrance to the Autostrada. The Leaning Tower is very close in Pisa. Montecatani has great shopping for Italian-made temptations. And Riomaggiore, the southernmost town of Cinque Terre, is a wondrous place to have lunch or a glass of wine and enjoy one of the best panoramic sea views in Italy.
Getting on a tour bus may be the easiest way to travel, but you will miss the fun of having visited places that you can find only with a bit of research. It will be well worth the effort.
WHERE TO STAY
Piazza della Repubblica
(39) 055 27 351
Via del Fosso
(39) 0583 47 615
Via Santa Croce
(39) 0583 44 0275
WHERE TO EAT
L’Osteria di Giovanni
Via del Moro, 22
(39) 055 284 897
Piazza della Rebubblica, 7
(39) 055 27 351
Trattoria 13 Gobbi
Via del Porcellana, 9R
(39) 055 284 015
Via Conte, 1 Montecarlo
(39) 0583 229 475
SS 12 dell’Abetone Marlia
(39) 0583 307 573
Buca di Sant’Antonio
Via della Cervia, 3
(39) 0583 55 881
Hotel Noblesse, Via Santa Croce
(39) 0583 44 0275
WHAT TO READ
Lucca Encounters the World