West Country Life and This Is Bristol
Over the moon
Heading off for her honeymoon in Italy, Rachael Sugden discovered the
hidden side of Tuscany and the delights of luscious Lucca
The delights of Italy, and Tuscany in particular, are well documented. You'd be hard pressed to find a Europhile who had not, at the very least, heard of Florence's artistic charms, or of the region's impressive rural vistas with isolated villas perched on hilltops. Then there's metropolitan Pisa, with its leaning tower photoopportunity, and historic Siena...
But what of Lucca? Those in the know would wisely inform you the walled city is an under-visited gem in Tuscany's crown; less crowded than Florence, more charming than Siena, more visitor-friendly than Pisa and I cannot disagree.
We'd not heard of Lucca until arranging a three-night honeymoon at Albergo Villa Casanova, a stunning five-star boutique hotel nestled in a wooded valley a few miles beyond the city.
But as soon as we told Italian connoisseurs where we were heading, they'd look furtively around before whispering conspiratorially about the magic of Lucca as though telling all and sundry about the place would spoil its attraction. It's also the birthplace of Puccini, so classical music lovers will perhaps be aware of its annual opera festival, held every August.
We landed at Pisa airport mid-morning and headed straight for the car hire desks to collect our Fiat 500 before braving the traffic, Italians really are haphazard behind the wheel.
We'd already decided to bypass Pisa on this visit, thinking that a honeymoon should not be packed with every sightseeing stop on offer.
Instead, we were aiming straight for the hotel, about a 45-minute drive away through breathtaking Tuscan countryside.
Negotiating the traffic buzzing around Lucca was a nightmare, with incomprehensible signposts sending us in ever decreasing circles. The city itself is almost entirely pedestrianised, with the main roads acting as a giant roundabout outside the city walls, and all roads into the heart of the city have to pass through narrow, ancient, arched gates.
We spent almost an hour driving aimlessly, failing to spot signs to the hotel's nearest village, not understanding the directions we'd been emailed, and getting increasingly frustrated by the poor map supplied at the hire car office.
So we bit the bullet, ducked through a city
gate and found a tourist information office
where a lovely Scottish exchange student soon
had us heading in the right direction.
We briefly stopped off en route, even though it was only a 15-minute drive from Lucca â€“ at Castello Nozzano, a small village curling around an ancient church and tower on a small hilltop. The views of the surrounding countryside from the summit were worth the walk up.
Albergo Villa Casanova is literally at the end of the road, tucked into the side of a hill overlooking the Lucca plain, with gorgeous views across the rooftops of surrounding villages.
It looks like a new building, but is actually a very impressive renovation of an 18th-century Tuscan farmhouse. Set in hundreds of acres of its own woodland, it's a world away from the bustle and buzz of an Italian city.
Our suite, at the back of the hotel on the second floor, overlooked the surrounding woods. With it's own sitting area, stone-balustrade balcony, vast bedroom and sumptuous bathroom, we couldn't have been more impressed. The bed alone (four-poster wrought iron) was almost the size of our bedroom at home. The staff were incredibly welcoming, and whipped round opening up towering shutters on the half-dozen windows to bring in views of nearby hillsides as we unpacked.
First stop was refreshments at the poolside, an infinity pool, no less, hanging above one of the manicured terraces and with epic views across the valley floor.
After a cold beer and a few platters of mozzarella, tomatoes (I forget how good real tomatoes taste), hams, cheese and breads, we decided to head back into Lucca for the afternoon.
The suburbs of the city are uninspiring, but as soon as you venture on foot beyond the city walls, there are delights at every turn, and plenty of piazzas and street cafes at which to stop and watch the world go by.
We tucked into the best pizza weâ€™d ever eaten while watching glamorous Italians go about their post-siesta business. Food (and wine), served at regular intervals, was a recurring theme of our Italian honeymoon.
Day two we spent in Lucca, wandering the myriad shady streets, enjoying the respite they offered from a scorching July day. We also had to stop on an hourly basis to recharge with an espresso and a pastry (or platter of ham and bread). Sightseeing is an exhausting business. We took no end of photos of piazzas, church frescoes and groomed women gliding past on rickety bicycles, as well as us with various coffees, gelatos (Italian ice cream) and, of course, slices of pizza.
We climbed the famous 130ft Torre Guinigi with its ancient trees growing on top, sat in the Piazza Anfiteatro, a beautiful oval piazza built on the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and saw the wooden face of Christ, Volto Santo, thought to have been carved by Nicodemus (who was at the crucifixion) inside the Duomo di San Martino cathedral.
We didnâ€™t have the time or energy to explore Luccaâ€™s defensive walls. The ramparts that ring the city were built in the 16th century and the tops are now transformed into wide shaded walkways.
In need of another pit-stop that evening, we ate a fabulous four-course meal poolside at the hotel, while listening to the local owls and watching bats swoop over the water, sipping delicious local red wine into the night.
The hotel prides itself on its low-key luxury, with staff on hand at any time to cater to guests' every whim, unobtrusive but ever present, thanks to their unstinting willingness to help, it's no wonder AVC is a five-star hotel.
Day three saw us heading into the Tuscan hills, to the sleepy medieval town of Pietra Santa, home of Michelangelo, before dropping down to the coast at Viareggio, where fashionable Milanese escape the heat. We found it a little too touristy for our liking, and the acres of beachfront were mostly private and covered in sunloungers for hotel guests.
We returned to Lucca for an early dinner of fresh pasta, again watching the world go by from a street table, wondering how long it would have to be before we could come back.
We may have been on our honeymoon, but it was Lucca that captured our hearts.
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