Pisa, Florence and Siena might first come to mind when you think of the picturesque Italian region of Tuscany, but it’s the smaller towns and cities like Lucca that are worth having on your radar.
Encircled by a twelve-metre-high mura (wall) that dates as far back as the 15th century, Lucca is a mediaeval city that miraculously managed to escape the WWII bombings, remaining intact like a Renaissance time capsule.
WHAT TO PACK
It’s a city that has been inspiring poets, artists and writers since the 1800s, and that continues to cater for every type of traveller. Whether you’re an avid foodie, opera buff, or an adrenaline junkie with a penchant for pasta, art and culture, Lucca’s diverse landscape is sure to please adamant urbanites and nature lovers alike.
Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa
Surrounded by 1,700 acres of landscaped grounds, Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort & Spa gets a gold star for location alone, directly overlooking the sloping fields of the rolling Tuscan countryside. The hotel’s 180 rooms are sprawled out across seven floors, but not all of them offer such views – enquire if you’re a sucker for a panorama. The grand reception area and rooms are charmingly Tuscan in design, featuring original antique furnishings, rustic accents and rich warm colours.
Grab yourself an Aperol spritz and settle yourself on one of the padded sun loungers by the pool – arguably the hotel’s pièce de résistance. The spa area is tucked away in the downstairs area of the property, boasting a sauna, steam rooms, gym and an indoor pool area mainly enjoyed by families and children.
If you’ve got children in tow, Grand Universe has just launched La Residenza, an array of new luxury apartments just moments from the main property. The 10 suites and residences have been beautifully designed for families or groups in search of more privacy. Adorned with upholstered silk chairs, ceramic tiling and planted corridors, each apartment comes with a fully equipped kitchen and sweeping communal spaces with high ceilings.
Formerly a grand palazzo during the Renaissance period, Grand Universe is ideally located in the heart of Lucca’s colourful old town, neighbouring a slew of gelato shops and intimate trattorias. The surrounding piazzas – which hum with laughter and the clinking of glasses – set the tone on arrival, busy enough to create a buzz without being too overcrowded. A swishly-designed lobby with high ceilings greets guests on entry, flowing seamlessly into the reception area for a swift check-in process. The rooms are divided into categories, playfully nodding to Lucca’s musical heritage and operatic past.
Luxurious silks and a muted colour palette bedeck the walls to offset the brassy light fixtures and the occasional pop of gold detailing. The monochrome bathrooms feature roomy walk-in showers, leaving guests to primp and preen in a soothing space. It would be rude not to enjoy a Bellini or two at Sommità Martin Orsyn Champagne Rooftop if just to take in the sprawling views of Lucca’s higgledy-piggledy rooftops. Then make your way to the downstairs restaurant, Legacy, for fancy plates of pasta paired with local fine wines that are stored away in the property’s excavated cellar.
EAT AND DRINK
For something swish, La Veranda restaurant at Renaissance Tuscany’s sun-soaked terrace-with-a-view is the place to visit for bursty tomato burrata salads and fancy plates of pasta, including a succulent pistachio ravioli stuffed with shrimp. The half paccheri pasta served with fresh cherry tomato sauce and basil is outrageously flavoursome. After a day of wine tasting at the nearby vineyard of Podere Concori, it only makes sense to pair the medley of pasta dishes with a bottle or two of the winery’s biodynamic wines, though there’s plenty more to choose from if something else tickles your taste buds. Long, leisurely breakfasts are encouraged from a sprawling buffet of smoked salmon, platters of fruit and just-baked sweet treats.
Pian di Fiume Agriturismo
For traditional Tuscan cuisine, Pian di Fiume Agriturismo is a remote farmhouse restaurant worth driving out of town for. Expect warm focaccia on arrival served in a brown paper bag followed by fresh, hand-rolled ravioli in a butter sauce. The interiors have all the trappings of a wholesome, Tuscan farmhouse: beamed ceilings, tiled flooring and rustic wooden furniture, while pots, pans and plants dangle from the exposed-stone walls.
Legacy at Grand Universe
Grand Universe’s Legacy restaurant offers a menu based on Lucca’s local culinary traditions. Whether you’re dining for lunch or dinner, there’s a good mix of veggie and meat options to please all parties at the dinner table. Just the pappa al pomodoro alone is enough to make you come back for more, a thick and hearty Tuscan tomato soup – and the portions aren’t too overwhelming which means there’s more than enough room for a sizable serving of the creamy tiramisu or panna cotta. Try the paccheri pasta dish for the most incredible shrimp pasta submerged in a creamy tomato sauce.
THE TO-DO LIST
Remaining relatively off the beaten track, this northern Tuscan province has kept a fairly low-key profile in comparison with Tuscany’s other towns and cities, slowly but surely emerging from the shadow of Florence. On a breezy walking tour of the city, the guide delves into the reasons behind Lucca’s low-key reputation over the years, pondering the city’s past involvement with trade, crafting silk, being governed by Napoleon’s sister and coming out unscathed following WWII. The tour includes an amble through the main thoroughfare of the old town for an intro to some of the best independent shops to visit, a look inside a few antique stores, where to get artisanal gelato and a look inside a Roman Catholic Basilica.
Bike ride and picnic
Lucca is famed for its ancient walls. To see them up close, Grand Universe hotel offers a bike ride and picnic experience which follows a circular 4.2 kilometre loop along a tree-lined footpath dotted with benches and shady reading nooks. Scouting out the perfect picnic bench is all part of the fun. It’s also a lovely route for a passeggiata (early evening stroll), when the path is lit up, or an early morning run before temperatures begin to rise.
Podere Concori’s winery offers an authentic and wholesome tasting experience in a rustic-but-chic tasting room with the Podere family. The tour is breezy but educational, letting you in on how moon cycles impact the wine. Working with the astrological calendar, the biodynamic wines are bottled during the full moon, a routine that’s repeated to the day to avoid pressure. If they’re bottled even just a few days off, the wine can taste different, which is why it’s vital to stick to the cycle. The result is a selection of earthy and complex natural wines, the kind you’d find in a trendy wine bar in east London. After the tour, the wines are paired with a heartwarming batch of pasta and antipasti made from locally-sourced ingredients. The cuisine is prepared lovingly by Michela, who also crafts and sells the ceramics that decorate the tasting room. To add to the family’s long list of talents, they also make skincare products from any leftover red wine.
Barga is just a short drive from the Renaissance resort, a sleepy mediaeval town and commune home to around 10,000 people. Unexpectedly, this side of Tuscany has Scottish roots due to large-scale immigration during the 19th century when the region’s silk industry began to decline. There’s not much of a buzz, but the pretty sorbet-hued architecture, photogenic streets and relaxed bar scene is reason enough to visit. Perusing the churches, artisan workshops and pavement cafes will lull you into the town’s laidback rhythm for the rest of your stay. Wedged between a chapel and a cluster of multi-story apartments, Wine Not? bar is a lovely spot for joining the locals sipping wine in the afternoon sunshine.
Cooking Class at Renaissance Tuscany
If there’s one thing you need to try at Renaissance Tuscany, it’s the cooking class. The pasta-making process is demonstrated step by step so you can follow along. As the dough rests, you’re shown how to morph and concoct other types of pasta from the remaining dough. Or there’s the full, immersive cooking experience that can be arranged for the day, starting with a shop at a local market with the Head Chef followed by the making of a personalised menu. If making tiramisu sounds intimidating, this class will change those preconceptions. Plus, you get to sample it all for yourself on the private terrace, so fresh it’s still warm.
Considering Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca, the Puccini Museum is worth adding to your Lucca itinerary. Even if you’re not much of an opera devotee, you might be pleasantly surprised by the relics and remnants dotted around the composer’s former home, as well as the sketches and scores that make up his world-renowned repertoire. It’s eye-opening to see the way the rooms would have been decorated at the time, each room taking you back to some part of Puccini’s life as a student in Milan and later as a prolific composer.
Prelude of Existence Experience
To continue the theme of music and opera, Grand Universe offers a therapeutic composition experience for individuals, couples or groups. First, you’re treated to a glass of champagne before the pianist, Dimitri, begins an analysis of your aura. He’ll ask a few questions to begin with – your favourite genre of music, some likes and dislikes, any hints on pace – before the chordal progression begins to take shape. This all takes place in the hotel’s airy lobby, a serene space bedecked in luxurious silks and a slick palette. The end result is a score of your very own composition, unique to you.
There’s plenty to do in the heart of rural Tuscany – you just need to know where to look. For a dose of adventure, Grand Universe or Renaissance Tuscany can organise an incredible water rafting experience among the banks of the Lima River. It’s about an hour’s drive from the main town along a picturesque route that follows a road through Bagni di Lucca, a quaint village that once charmed Byron, Shelley, Henrich Heine and Giacomo Puccini into visiting.
See an Opera Performance
Opera buffs are in for a treat with the annual Puccini Festival taking place in the summer months at an open-air Grand Theatre in Torre del Lago, a lakeside town just under two hours away from Renaissance Tuscany by car. Before the showing, guests are welcome to explore the lakeside villa where Puccini composed his last opera, the unfinished Turandot. You’re then whisked over to the courtyard bar by the lake for drinks and a light snack before the opera commences.
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