In the 16th century they built Lucca’s imposing walls to keep out raiders. These days the barrier, still perfectly maintained and nearly 25ft high in places, seems to have another purpose —preserving the town as an oasis of picturesque, unspoilt charm amid the hubbub of tourist Tuscany.
To visit Lucca is to visit a Tuscan town as it should be — an almost medieval warren of cobbled streets full of boutiques, meeting in a series of airy squares littered with al fresco restaurant diners.
No blaring car horns here, either — the town is mainly pedestrianised and the only sound you’re likely to hear above the everyday chatter of passers-by is the tinkling of a cyclist’s bell.
Lucca, birthplace of composer Giacomo Puccini, is best seen by foot or by renting a bicycle at a local hire shop, so if you’ve come in the car it’s best to leave it outside the town walls.
And the wall is as good a place as any to start your exploration. Along its top runs a broad, tree-lined avenue 2 1/2 miles long that is an ideal vantage point from which to appreciate both the beauty of the town and the surrounding countryside and Apuan Alps in the distance.
Once you return to ground level, one of the first things that strike you is the number of medieval churches and Lucca is often called The Town of the 100 Churches.
Assuming you don’t plan on visiting them all, top of the list to see is the Duomo of San Martino cathedral, rebuilt between the 12th and 15th centuries. Stop outside to marvel at its stunning Romanesque facade, while the exquisite sculptures inside include Jacopo della Quercia’s Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto and Ghirlandaio’s Madonna With Child. But the most famous relic is the Volto Santo (Holy Face), a life-sized wooden representation of Christ said to have been carved by Nicodemus, who witnessed his crucifixion, and therefore to be his truest likeness. It attracts pilgrims the world over.
See also the San Michele in Foro church for its remarkably ornate facade. The young Puccini sang in the choir here and the house almost opposite in which he was born is now a museum and music school.
No visit to Lucca is complete without climbing the 15th century Casa Guinigi tower, which not only offers great views of the town and beyond but also oddly has an oak tree on top whose roots extend into the room below.
In keeping with its rich history and tradition, Lucca is a great place to pick up cultural artefacts. There is a large, open-air antiques market on the third weekend of every month, while mid-November sees the start of the three-week Olio e I Tesori di Lucca (Oil and Treasures of Lucca) festival, where the numerous delights on sale include the local olive oil, said to be among the very best in Italy.
There’s entertainment of a more contemporary nature, too. Music fans visiting in July may want to catchLucca’s annual Summer Festival, where recent performers have included Elton John, Eric Clapton and Paul Simon, while July and August marks the Puccini Music Festival in nearby Torre del Lago.
If you have time to venture beyond the walls, try to visit the scattering of splendid Renaissance villas and gardens that lie north of the town and are open to the public, including Villa Peci-Blunt, where Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Elisa lived when she governed Lucca.
The villas lead on to nearby Collodi, birthplace of Pinocchio creator Carlo Collodi and home to Pinocchio Park. Youngsters will love the park; you’ll simply love everything about this corner of unspoilt Tuscany. And that’s no lie…
How to get there: Pisa, 12 miles away, and Florence, 50 miles away, are the nearest airports. Frequent bus and train services connect both to Lucca.