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


5 sites

5 Top Sites in Lucca

Posted Posted in Fun with Kids, Insider Sights

VISITING LUCCA FOR THE FIRST TIME? Don’t miss these 5 top sites:

TOP SITE #1. The city’s park-topped, Renaissance walls — aka, le mura.  

Rent a bike or go on foot: every meter of this 4.2 kilometer walk encircling the city is a pleasure for the senses.  Look out onto vistas of the city or the mountains beyond.  Admire bronze sculptures from around the world.  People watch couples on their passeggiata (daily walk), see families reconnecting as they peddle buggies, folks relaxing in the shade of hundreds year old trees, and joggers pushing themselves into shape.  Scope out what you’ll be seeing next…

Top 5 sites Lucca
Top among visitors & locals alike: the tree-lined walkway on Lucca’s walls with a bird’s eye view of the city’s beauty & is never more than 5 minutes from anyplace inside the walls.

TOP SITE #2.   The Church of San Michele in Foro

Admire the facade of the 13th century Church of San Michele set on the site of Lucca’s Roman forum. Look carefully at busts that decorate the tops of the columns: not all are original to the church — not all are even saints!

top 5 sites lucca
There are jewels up there… or so the legend goes. There are also definitely some heads of political and cultural figures that aren’t original to the facade. Can you find them?

TOP SITE #3:  The Torre Guinigi

Rise to the top: climb the 230 steps to the top of the Torre Guinigi & be cooled by the shade of its trademark trees as you take in the magnificent 360 degree view of the city and beyond.  The tower is part of a palace built by one of the city’s wealthiest signori, an international businessman, patron of the arts & leader of the independent Republic of Lucca who died in 1432.  His lovely villa (or country estate) was just outside the city’s medieval walls.  It is now a national museum worth a visit for its architecture. 

Top 5 sites Lucca
The tree-topped tower of the prominent Guinigi family makes a terrific outing, especially if you have energetic kids in tow.

TOP SITE #4.   The Cathedral of San Martino

It may look lopsided on the outside, but don’t discount this Duomo — there are treasures within.   Most beautiful is the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto — the young wife of the city’s leading citizen, Paolo Guinigi, who died in childbirth.  The tomb is his tribute to his love for her.  It’s a striking contrast to the frightening countenance of the Volto Santo (Holy Face) which stares down at visitors from a massive cross within a wrought iron gazebo.  The Volto Santo is said to have been carved by an eye-witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus.  The cross arrived in Lucca on an unmanned boat in the river Serchio.  It has been performing miracles for believers ever since — hence the golden crown, robes, shoes, and countless other tributes that surround the ebony and ivory figure — all are gifts from the grateful.   If you time your visit well, you can see an impressive candlelight procession  for the feast of the Volto Santo on the evening of September 13th, which attracts Lucchese pilgrims from around the world.

Top 5 sites Lucca
Candles illuminate San Martino and buildings along the procession route for the feast of the Volto Santo.

TOP SITE #5:  The Church of San Frediano

Look up at the gilded facade of this simply lovely 13th century basilica.  The eyes of Jesus seem to follow visitors as they enter and leave thanks to the architect’s tilting out of the upper portion of the mosaic–an early way to simulate perspective.  Yet the wonders of  San Frediano don’t stop there. Its simple interior is true to Romanesque style.  There you’ll find masterworks by Jacopo della Quercia, a baptistry font attributed to Andrea Pisano, and a beautiful lunette by Della Robbia.   A garden bursts into bloom in the piazza of San Frediano and the nearby Piazza dell’Anfiteatro (once the Roman amphitheater) during the week before April 27.  It celebrates the feast day of Saint Zita who lived just blocks away from the church. Don’t miss this beautiful holiday if you’re nearby!

Top 5 sites Lucca
Fireworks sparkle against the mosaic facade of San Frediano during the Feast of Santa Zita.


Narcissus, known as the flowers of Saint Zita, are everywhere for her feast day, as are flowers and fruit of all kinds.

Lucca's Top 5 sites in one dayLucca's 5 top sites in one day


So there you have them: the 5 Top Sites to visit in historic Lucca…

Check them out and let us know what you think.  Photos and reader contributions are always welcome.  Contact Us


Overcome Jet lag on the way to Lucca: Indulge in a drive on E80

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

Driving from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to Lucca?
You’ve had a grueling time on the plane. Enough is enough. Indulge in some R&R on the way to Lucca. DON’T take the Autostrada del Sole – A11.
Drive north instead on the wind swept, tollway known as E80/SS1. The sea views will take your breathe away.

This highway, originally completed by Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius, has some of the best views on the Italian peninsula without sacrificing speed, since it is still a four-lane autostrada, which will occasionally require a toll. But because for bureaucratic reasons it isn’t completely refurbished and as fast as A11, it will whisk past summer beach resorts and yes, a few power plants and cities, exposing you to Italian history on fast-forward.

First up, the city of Tarquinia beckons with its claim to beautiful women and some of the country’s best preserved Etruscan necropoli — think Fellini’s Roma, before the frescoes faded… It’s worth a stop, if you have the time, or worth noting for a return once you are looking for a day trip.
This is Lazio where rows of umbrella pines punctuate the landscape in elegant rows, demanding attention. There was a time when my sons would spend hours smashing the seed pods of these trees with rocks, in order to extract their prize: a pine nut! If you stop for a break, you now know what to do…

In some stretches along the highway, the speed limit falls to 90 km/hr as the road drops to two lanes. The slow down should help you to admire the scenery, the sunflowers and wheat, cattle and sheep, mixed with gorgeous sea views. Stay the course and you will pass Orbetello and industrial Grosseto. If times allows, this is where you need to take a quick detour, to catch sight of Castiglione della Pescaia, and its resort sister: Punt’Ala.

Best of all this is a great place to grab a delicious lunch.

Exit at Grosseto and take route SP152 to Ponti a Badia where the restaurant of the same name serves exceptional tordelli (ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta) covered with pomarola, a fresh tomato sauce. Also recommended: the vongole: mussels steamed in a lemony wine concoction.

After an espresso, continue on SP152 to Castiglione della Pescaglia, a picturesque sailing and boating town populated by Italians getting away from it all. After exploring the area, hop onto SP158, taking a left turn onto Strada Provinciale Tirli, and cruise by lovely homes and seascapes on the way to Punta Ala. At this point on the peninsula, literally named Wing Point, there is a nature park along the reef with stunning views that sometimes include dolphins and whales! You can park near the tip of the peninsula and explore it on foot. The private residences in Punta Ala’s resort community have access to beaches, sailing, horse-back riding, tennis and golf; but others choose to camp there in a setting that feels untouched, even if, in reality, it is just very well-maintained.

From Punta Ala, the road passes Follonica, and reaches Castagneto Carducci, a hilltop town named for one of Italy’s greatest poets, Giosue` Carducci, who had a home there in the 19th century.

Perhaps even more scenic is nearby Bolgheri, whose allee` of cypresses inspired Carducci to write a poetic ode that has been memorized by generations of Italian middle-schoolers. Nowadays, most know the area for its SuperTuscan wines, like Salsicaia by Tenuta San Guido, and the Antinori wine, Guado al Tasso.

Have an aperitif, but hold out for dinner in Quercianella. There, on the terrace of the unpretentious, kid-friendlyHotel Belsoggiorno (photo above), you can reward yourself by experiencing one of the best fish stews, known as cacciucco, anywhere around Livorno, where the dish was invented. The space is clean and simply summery. The service as warm as the sun. The windsurfers abound, and you can follow their progress on the surf well below you, as you gaze out on the islands of Gorgona and Capraia, Elba and more…

At this point, you have overcome your jet-lag and are ready for Lucca. Your destination is just 43 minutes away…