AN INSIDER LOOK: Where to Stay & Where to Eat Made Easy

Posted Posted in Insider Food, Lucchesi, Restaurants, Where to Stay

Lucca is a great place in and of itself.  In fact, it shouldn’t be treated like a quick stopover, but rather as a place from which to savor the best of Tuscany.  This means not rushing in and out on a bus or even by train — though transportation on either is extremely convenient.  Enjoying the best of Lucca and Tuscany means staying in a hotel or apartment with the amenities you deserve on your grand tour, or just for Santa Croce… 

We want you to enjoy your vacation and not need another to recover from it!

Step 1:  

Book a stay at the city’s best hotel: the Hotel Ilaria.

Does it have 16th century frescoes on the walls?  No, sorry.  Nor is it decorated for nouveaux cardinals or princes.   It’s rather plain on the outside, BUT the Ilaria has many more valuable aspects: an exquisite breakfast (+ coffees of all types! More about that later), a gorgeous location (imagine a balcony bordering on one of the city’s most beautiful gardens), and amazingly, in and out parking that’s painless to access.  The rest can be taken for granted since it is a 4-star hotel: there are clean, modern, functional rooms, with clean modern baths.  Perhaps less usual, the hotel has gracious and comfortable common areas, where coffee and aperitifs are offered gratis at all the appropriate hours.  The Ilaria also quickly feels like home thanks to its accommodating and personable staff, in particular its owner Franco Barbieri.  At breakfast, the freshness of the offerings from smoked salmon to budini di riso (pastries filled with rice pudding) put to shame all other attempts to provide all-inclusive breakfast fare.  The coffee machine alone, is heavenly, pumping out freshly ground coffee of all types, and even hot chocolate, in a marvel of high tech proficiency.  Wander outside and you can choose between a leisurely stroll through the garden of Villa Bottini and along the fossi, canals punctuated by flowers, or head straight into town on via Santa Croce by walking through the medieval towered walls visible from the hotel.  Want to explore on a bike?  The Ilaria has free ones for you you to use.  You can even stay at the annex of the Ilaria where your beautiful suite can occupy what was once a chapel.   There is not enough we can say to praise this location as a launching point for your stay.  If you don’t want to worry about anything except how many circuits of the walls you’ll need to do to work off breakfast, stay here.

Alternatively:

Book an apartment for a week’s stay.

While airbnb is popular, it is not the best choice for Lucchesi nel Mondo and others looking for a worry-free experience.  Apartments are for those who know the city and are looking for quality accommodations, without the need to be fed or attended to daily.  Lucca Holiday Homes, directed by Debora del Sonno, has, for many years, offered reliable and beautiful alternatives to hotel living in apartments ranging from one room to three bedrooms.  Worry not if you are driving into Lucca either, for it is possible to easily find in/out affordable long term parking at Garage Pasquinelli, via Vittorio Emanuele 78, or at one of the city’s larger parking garages.

Once you are situated, you’ll want to eat something…

A refreshing combination of hibiscus flowers and citron complement freshly made fettuccine at La Buca di Sant’Antonio.

The best soul food:

Critics and celebrities agree with locals that La Buca di Sant’Antonio is Lucca’s best restaurant for the dishes which make Lucca’s cuisine so distinctive and delicious.  Locally sourced seasonal ingredients have determined its menus since long before these concepts became trendy.  La Buca is far from being the bettola that it was when it first opened in the 18th century.  Yet its elegance is never stuffy, and its chef-owner, Giuliano Pacini, frequents the dining room as if it were his home.  Don’t miss the tordelli, or the goat, or the piatto forte for dessert.  Hopefully, you’ll be dining with many friends there, so you’ll be able to sample many dishes.  You won’t be disappointed.

A veil of raspberry puree` crackles over a foamy pate` of chicken livers at La Buca di Sant’Antonio

The BEST fresh take on Italian cuisine:  Ristorante il Giglio

If you have never tried crostini con fegatini, you might want to start here with il Giglio’s incredibly light pate` topped with a crisp, microscopically thin sheet of raspberry, and served with melt-in-your mouth slices of pan brioche.  Yes, this dish is to die for and threatens to outshine everything else you might eat in Lucca — whether you ever thought you’d like chicken livers or not.  The restaurant’s atmosphere is again, elegant, but not stuffy.  There is 18th century wainscotting on the walls in the high ceilinged, air-conditioned dining area, but it is balanced by clean, heavy linens and photos of Summer Music Festival stars.   (Casually elegant places must be my favorite kind, because I sense these terms are a recurring motif to this website…)  The three young chefs at the helm keep the menu vibe fresh.  We loved the fettucine with citron and hibiscus flowers.  It wasn’t a fussy dish, just light and flavorful.

The BEST pizza:

When a light meal or snack are needed, MaraMeo serves pizza and cecina (a flat pie of chickpea flour) fresh from their wood-burning oven at all hours.  We especially like this Lucchese-owned place for their pizza Margherita con mozzarella di bufala.  If you’re in town for Santa Croce or during the winter, check out their torta di neccio too.

 

Garden Lucca

Lucca’s Best Kept Secret Garden

Posted Posted in Insider Sights
Secrets of Lucca
The doors to the garden mysteriously open in the morning to reveal a lovely quiet space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hot? Tired?  Need a quiet space to rest?  Worry not.  Lucca has many gardens, not just atop its walls…  

 

One of the most lovely hides just steps from the mayor’s office in via Santa Giustina.

Garden Lucca
Passersby once could only catch a glimpse of the garden thru the iron grates.

The garden’s walls that rise over 20 feet once kept out all but the Pierantoni family which most recently owned the adjoining Palazzo facing Piazza del Salvatore #1, aka della Pupporona.  In the past, one could only stand on tiptoe to peer thru the iron grates in the wall for a glimpse of the garden.  But for a few years now, the doors to the garden at via Loreto, 21, mysteriously open every morning and close again at night, providing conoscienti the chance to rest under the garden’s ancient, overarching wisteria or catch the scent from its sweet roses.  Warning: no dogs or picnicking allowed.  The rationale: finding peace is a serious business that requires quiet contemplation.

If you are observant, you can catch glimpses of more gardens like this one spread throughout the city.  In fact, at least until the 19th century, almost every building inside Lucca’s walls had a garden, or in the absence of this, benefitted from the presence of an open space or orto, in even the smallest dimensions, according to historian Domenico Taddei (170).

Being proponents of humanist values, renaissance Lucchesi began incorporating gardens into the plans for their palazzi for both practical and aesthetic reasons.  The water feature was tied to a well that supplied potable water.  Ornamentals stood in close proximity to the residence so that the proprietor might, from inside, relish the garden’s amenities, according to a 16th century directive cited by Taddei.  Even the regular subdivision of the plantings, the position of the walkway axis with regard to the residence, the pergolas and the placement of benches along perimeter walls and walkways, the addition of  lemon trees in vases along the central pathway, all corresponded to universal criteria that were readily accepted and applied to garden design thru the 19th century (171).

 

 

Thankfully, examples remain to be enjoyed to this day.  Check out the gardens of: Palazzo Pfanner, Villa Torrigiani, Giardino Garzoni, and Villa Mansi to name just a few….

Lucca's Secret Garden
As you leave the garden, admire the ornate carvings on the entrance door to the Palazzo Orsini across the way on via Loreto.

COUNTRY PLEASURES OF THE CASENTINO

Posted Posted in Day Trips, Fun with Kids, Insider Food, Restaurants

 

Many years ago we discovered a happy, mysteriously isolated place.  The hills, nearly mountains, there are rich with dense forest and wild boar, thickly built stone homes as well as beautiful vineyards and fields of grain.  This is the Casentino, a region in Tuscany that’s conveniently just two hours directly east of Lucca and just north of Arezzo, yet it is mysteriously free of tourists.  It is the home of the famous eponymous woolen fabric casentino which hunters, children, and noblemen alike wear proudly and comfortably during the winter, as they have for centuries.  It is where Civettaja — one of Italy’s new award-winning organic pinot noirs — originates, and near the vineyards of Castello Pomino and other Frescobaldi wines.   This is also where the mountain, Montefalterona, gives birth the Arno river that flows through the heart of Firenze, and which inspired political exile Dante Alighieri to reminisce about its fame in his home town.

Years ago, my father, children and I escaped all responsibilities by booking a room at an agriturismo in the Casentino where the owners raised wild horses and led excursions into the forests to hunt mushrooms and wild boar.  Even though my kids were too young to indulge in more than a ride around the corral, my sons happily soaked in the atmosphere imagining themselves something between cowboys and knights.  The innate warmth of our hosts made the excursion idyllic, and our communal evening meals of wild mushrooms and fresh game that other guests had snagged, were extraordinary.  The experience embodied “locally sourced” and “slow food” before either term was invented.

Alas, there was no locating the Agriturismo Croce ai Mori this year.  But we did discover a new place well worth the trip: the horse farm at Equinatura in San Donato (near the towns of Pratovecchio and Stia).  Its owner and chief trainer, Giovanna di Buonamico, has lived in the area for over 30 years and is an expert with a sixth sense for assessing riders.  After an orientation in their corral, her husband guided my son and me on a two hour tour on horseback through the countryside, passing blackberry brambles, wild cherries, golden fields of grain (yes, they do exist!) and finally, circling the imposing 10th century fortress of Castello di Romena.  During the tour, we crossed the Arno on horseback twice, saw a couple of wild boar parents usher their six babies across our path, and stopped by a spring which inspired lines in Dante’s Divine Comedy. We felt so out of touch with modern life, so immersed in the early renaissance feel of the place, that we forgot about the time and finished an hour late.

We did not stay in a farmer’s stone ranch as on our first foray into the Casentino, but at an unassuming and charming hotel, Albergo Falterona, in a 15th century palace in Stia.  While our room was London-hotel room-tiny, it was beautifully designed to make maximum use of every inch.  The decorating felt historically correct, yet it was unpretentious, even casual — a truly Tuscan feat that was refreshing and welcoming.  The bedroom easily accommodated three of us plus luggage and was complemented by a very modern bath — fresh and clean. Across the street, the hotel’s restaurant offered sophisticated nouvelle Italian cuisine and great wines, while not forgetting to offer excellent bistecca alla fiorentina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After our horseback excursion, we explored the Apennines around Stia, working our way to the mountaintop called Croce ai Mori (Moors’ Cross).  The exceptional view from the 955 meter peak compensated for the switchback, sometimes one lane drive through the forest to the top. On the way back down, we lunched at Locanda Fonte allo Spino. Our appetizer of fried dough with stracchino and prosciutto was an unusually scrumptious dish.  Better yet was the chef’s take on pappardelle con cinghiale (wide noodles with boar sauce).  It was the best I‘ve tasted in years.  The secret: juniper berries and cinnamon incorporated into the sauce.

The pappardelle con cinguiale at Locanda Fonte allo Spino benefit from the addition of juniper berries and cinnamon — yum!

 All this hospitality and gastronomic quality makes one wonder why the Casentino isn’t a more popular destination.  In the meantime, the lack of tourists gives those in the know all the more space and quiet to take in all the region has to offer.

How to get from Lucca to Stia: Click Here