The medieval town of Altopascio was once no more than a hospice and accommodation for receiving and looking after pilgrims on the Francigena Road. Today the once rich, powerful monastery has been dismantled but you can still see the medieval walls and gates, the elegant bell tower, the church façade with green and white Romanesque bands, and the various premises now converted into private houses.
Lucca is a surprise. We know in advance what beautiful things we’ll see in famous places but we don’t always expect the charm of “minor” cities such as Lucca. Its medieval and baroque architecture, like its atmosphere, is perfectly preserved, enclosed within the massive Walls that the people of Lucca are so proud of.
There are so many places to see because each little piazza, each corner, each little street reveals something unique to Lucca, something personalised in this unspoiled town populated by thoughtful inhabitants who have a special civic awareness. Here is a summary of the main places in Lucca, but as we walk I’ll point out a detail, a special item that will make you understand that the whole city is simply beautiful.
Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca in 1858 to a family of musicians He became world-famous in his lifetime and his music is much loved.
This outing could be called “a day in the countryside”. In the 17th century, the rich and powerful Lucca were at the height of their glory, foreign wars were becoming rare and wealthy families moved out to the countryside in the summertime. They built splendid, comfortable Renaissance villas with magnificent Italian-style gardens, most of them still in existence. Situated in a fertile area at the foot of the lower slopes of the Apennines, these estates quickly became important for their varied agricultural products which made up for the drop in profits in their town businesses due to the loss of the entrepreneurship of the Reformation exiles. A life based solely on pleasure and entertainment – music, philosophy, games and theatre – was the framework of the family’s life in the summer, complete with luxury and innovation.
There are many villas open to the public but, like every other guide, I’ve made my own selection:
A very special Carnival takes place in Viareggio in February – special because it lasts for four weeks instead of three! The people of Viareggio don’t take their annual holidays in August like everyone else in Italy, but in February, so they can enjoy the parades on the seafront and the district parties to the full. Carnival became a non-profit-making foundation with a “citadel” entirely dedicated to building floats made of papier-mâché and fresh flowers, the most spectacular of which will win first prize.
There are papier-mâché workshops for adults and children in the citadel. The month of February is ideal for travelling, the days are longer and the temperature is mild with sunny days, especially in this part of Tuscany. The mimosa trees are in flower giving Viareggio, already famous for its Art Nouveau, a special atmosphere. Only 20 minutes from Lucca, 20 minutes from the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa and 10 minutes from Torre del Lago with Puccini’s house and boat trips on the lake. Pietrasanta and Carrara are also very close, for “full immersion” in the world of marble, while the port of La Spezia is just 20 minutes away and is the departure point for the Cinque Terre excursion.
A famous name for this little village in the Lucca hills but there’s no casino in this Montecarlo. Instead there’s a beautiful fortress, three access gates of the original four and a tiny theatre still in regular use today.
A medieval village that still has its old slow way of life and, all around, lots of farmhouses producing the excellent Montecarlo wine which has a national fair every year in the first week of September. This is the old Vivinaia, now Montecarlo, named after Charles IV who set it free.
The seaside resort of Marina di Pietrasanta is really crowded in the summer because of its beaches and night clubs, but few people know the old centre of Pietrasanta, dominated by its fortress. Here is a town really worth visiting.
The Garfagnana is a marvellous unspoilt area north of Lucca. Some of its charming villages are really tiny, its mountains are crowned with medieval fortresses, and its cuisine is known throughout Italy. You’ll be surprised by the delightful medieval atmosphere of each village, by the small country churches and by natural sites of rare beauty and energy. Generally people come to the Garfagnana for half-a-day but I strongly advise you to set aside a whole day in order to absorb its spirit and peacefulness. In any case, here are two itineraries: