We aren’t big fans of Michelin star restaurants. Overpriced, overrated, small portions, usually more about presentation. They’re good, but they don’t usually float our boats. In San Gimignano, literally right across the narrow street on which our Airbnb sat, was a Michelin rated restaurant called Ristorante Dorando at which we reserved a table for our second night in town. It was a Saturday night and, for whatever reason, inexplicably, it was empty but for us. We were the only reservation and there were no walk ins. They locked the door right behind us as we left. It was amazing. The service, the food, the ambiance of this wine cellar-like place with black and white photos of Tuscany lining the walls and Luciano Pavarotti serenading our every bite. It was literally the best meal we’ve had in Italy in two months… until….
Our first night in Lucca, we had a reservation at Osteria da Pasquale Gubitosa. Yup, that’s the owner’s name. He greets you with a smile, remembers your name from the reservation (you’re David, right? Yes, how did you know, do you follow the blog?) and comes to your table to describe each course. We started with a steak tartare dish, followed by a beet ravioli and a Cacio e Pepe risotto finished off with the best pork loin, crusted in herbs, atop a saffron mashed potato that we’d ever eaten (not that I’d ever had saffron infused mashed potatoes before). Each course improved upon its predecessor. Pasquale is a sommelier (if only I was drinking alcohol these days…) but attends to every detail, gives tips for tourists not only of Lucca but all over Italy and takes pride in making every guest feel welcome and special. He brought two complimentary desserts: a liquid sorbet and a tiramisu (maybe he does read the blog). As I took a bite of one I kept thinking “yeah, this one’s better” until I took a bite of the other. I’m still conflicted and undecided. Tipping isn’t a big thing in Italy or Europe, though it’s appreciated. Pasquale and team got a big one, of the USA variety. If you’re in Lucca for only one night, go here.
To burn off a few of the Pasquale calories, we hit the trail around the old city built on the remnants of the city’s walls. These are not the tall and narrow (and sometimes treacherous) stony walls of some of the other cities we’ve visited, they are short and wide and now covered with grass and a bike trail. The trail is reminiscent of bike trails in the USA: wide with lots of room for runners, walkers and bikers to share the road. Walking around (we did it three times throughout the day) gives you the feeling you actually live in Lucca, mixed in with locals, as you encircle the town. And that’s just the feel of Lucca. It is larger than we expected. The old town is encircled by the walls which are encircled by the new town which is encircled by mountains of the Apuan Alps. It’s a place you would want to live. It’s near the sea and the mountains and is a beautiful little city.
Despite the larger than expected number of tourists with which we shared our time in Lucca, there aren’t a lot of tourist sites, but we hit the big three:
The Guinigi tower. In a whose tower is bigger/keeping up with the Joneses type deal, back in the 1300s the rich families of Lucca were building bell towers throughout the city. This is one of those that remains. It is easily identified, as it has trees growing on top (and is easily found by following the signage with the tree-atop-tower symbol on it). You can climb the 233 steps to the top for about 5 euro. The stairway starts out as wide interior steps winding upward and finishes off as metal wrought staircase, fire-escape style, which are very, very narrow in the final pitch. There’s not a ton of room atop, but the views of Lucca below and the countryside beyond are good. Legend has it that the tallest tree was planted by Paulo Guinigi and when he was captured, imprisoned and eventually executed the leaves fell off.
The amphitheater square. Once an oval Roman amphitheater seating 10,000, this 2nd century AD structure has been transformed into a city piazza with plenty of restaurants, cafes and people watching. No gladiators fighting for their freedom any longer, only a few tourists jostling for the best seats for a cappuccino or an aperol spritz.
San Michele in Foro. This church is certainly unique. It was built over a Roman Forum (which, to be clear, is not what makes it unique) and the façade is different and interesting. Atop it sits Archangel Michael defeating a dragon, flanked by two angels. I scanned the internet for about an hour trying to find more info about this interesting façade and statue as it looks almost modern. I found very little other than the angel was fixed up to flap its wings on special occasions by a crude contraption (source: Rick Steves) and that on the brightest days (like the one when we visited) you can see the bright glow of green from the emerald allegedly set on its surface (source: visittuscany.com). I guess, for now anyway, I’ll just be fascinated by the almost whimsical nature of the angels atop the church.
But most of all, Lucca just has a feel that makes it easy to like. Families gathering in piazzas. Restauranteurs and hospitality workers greeting you with a smile and welcoming you to their city with a knowing look that now you’re in on the secret. Of all the places we’ve been in Italy on this trip, it was the one where we thought: “if we were moving here, this place would be at the top of the list”. It was a great place to cap off a couple of great weeks in Tuscany and prepare for our final stretch of our current Italian adventure. Bravissimo!