Lucca

Picture a stay in an elegant 16th-century Tuscan villa in the luxurious style of Renaissance nobility, but with all of today’s modern conveniences. Imagine a setting overlooking vineyards with views of majestic mountains. Sounds enticing, doesn’t it? To that picture, add convenient access to the fascinating medieval city of Lucca and many top sites in the region and you have Villa Buonvisi, where Mr. TWS and I spent the second part of our Tuscany visit.

Buonvisi Estate, Lucca Tuscany

Buonvisi Estate, Lucca Tuscany

 

 

Driving along the road lined with vineyards and woods, I caught my first sight of the villa. There on a slight slope, Villa Buonvisi was perched, grandly overlooking the vineyard. We arrived at noon on a perfect sunny Saturday in May — the roses were in bloom and the only sound was the cheerful chirping of the birds.

 

Roses in bloom with a mountain backdrop on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Roses in bloom with a mountain backdrop on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

 

Walking on the red carpet to the entrance of the villa, I suddenly had the feeling that I should have been more elegantly attired – that perhaps Gucci would be more appropriate than Banana Republic. (I could picture walking up the red carpet from a horse-drawn carriage with a gorgeous Renaissance-style gown swirling around me, too.) My concern was diminished immediately by the warm greeting of our hostess, Gianna Dini, the owner of Villa Buonvisi. Gianna is very fashionable and chic, but her gracious hospitality made me feel completely at ease. She exudes a stylish flair which accompanied by her genuine warmth and sense of humor make her a joy to be around.

A tour of Villa Buonvisi

As we explored the grounds and rooms of the villa, Mr. TWS thought that he had stepped onto the opulent estate from Stanley Kubrick’s movie Barry Lyndon. He said he could picture the mid-18th century gentry and nobility moving around inside while the film’s theme song by Handel played. My first impressions of Villa Buonvisi were more associated with the music of the great composer of La Boheme, Turandot, and Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini, who was born in Lucca in 1858.

The Villa

On the red carpet of Villa Buonvisi

On the red carpet of Villa Buonvisi

 

The villa, one of the largest in the area, was originally built in the 16th century by the wealthy Buonvisi family who had made their fortune in the silk trade, an industry in which Lucca had been famous. Gianna and her late husband Joseph bought the villa in 1992 and made extensive renovations to bring it to its current splendor with modern conveniences yet retaining elegant ambiance and historic features. It was a daunting task. The villa was in severe disrepair and there were certain restoration requirements because Villa Buonvisi is a registered historic landmark. But Gianna was determined and with her innate sense of design and style, she took on the challenge and accomplished her goal.

Much consideration went into the restoration with authenticity always in mind from the custom-made drapery to the period murals to the large exposed beams. Gianna took great care in choosing and customizing the interior decor, antique furnishings, and works of art to retain the villa’s singular period character. Gianna and Joseph lived in the villa with their two sons until opening it as a holiday rental in 2008.

High ceilings and large windows create open and bright spaces in the villa, such as those in the ground floor living room shown below.

IMG_1076-001

With 11 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, and ample living and dining areas, it’s perfect for weddings (ceremonies can be held on the property), family reunions, business retreats, and other group events. To accommodate additional guests in the party or to be rented separately are two apartments (where Mr. TWS and I stayed) in the renovated farmhouse adjacent to the villa.

On our first night at Buonvisi, Gianna invited us for dinner at the villa with her son Nicola, a certified pizza chef and wine connoisseur. We began with aperitivos in the wine cellar seated at a table surrounded by their impressive wine collection. Gianna and Nicola talked about their family history and stories of the villa’s interesting past which includes a secret passage in the wine cellar discovered during the renovations.

In the kitchen and formal dining room on the ground floor, our lively conversation about food, politics, festivals, and life in Lucca continued as Nicola prepared and served us a wonderful Tuscan meal.

Dining table set for our dinner being prepared by Nicola

Dining table set for our dinner being prepared by Nicola

Originally, the second floor bedrooms and salon were for nobility while the third floor housed the servants’ quarters. Now all of the rooms throughout the villa are luxuriously designed and appointed with fine furnishings.

 

Second floor salon and view from the Juliet balcony; one of the 2nd floor bedrooms

Second floor salon and view from the Juliet balcony; one of the 2nd floor bedrooms

A few of the tastefully and colorfully decorated bedrooms, each one unique, are shown in the photos.

Colorful and uniquely decorated bedrooms of Villa Buonvisi

Colorful and uniquely decorated bedrooms of Villa Buonvisi

There are many exquisite displays of art and antiques throughout the villa. The religious art in the servants’ quarters (such as the fresco below on the wall of the servant’s secret stairwell leading to the “noble floor”) was a reminder to the maids of their faith in an effort to dissuade any less-than-honorable activities with the guests. Of course, we don’t know if it actually worked.

Religious fresco in old servants’ quarters, art by Dini family friend, sculptor Ron Mehlman, and ornate antique table and mirror

Religious fresco in old servants’ quarters, art by Dini family friend, sculptor Ron Mehlman, and ornate antique table and mirror

On the third floor, there is a large playroom for kids with a pool table and other games. The room is also used for presentations and screenings.

The grounds

Sunshine and blue skies really added to the already amazing setting as we toured outdoors.

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

The estate’s 300 acres include olive groves, vineyards, gardens, a gated pool, tennis courts, and outdoor entertaining areas with a BBQ and pizza oven. I would like to take a walk sometime through the imposing stone gateway at the rear of the villa through the olive trees and up the hill behind.

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

Palm tree on front lawn and stone gate in back on the grounds of Villa Buonvisi

The Vera apartments

From top right: Renovated farmhouse with Vera private apartments, Vera 3 dining and living area, one of three bedrooms in Vera 3, and lovely early morning view through bedroom window

From top right: Renovated farmhouse with Vera private apartments, Vera 3 dining and living area, one of three bedrooms in Vera 3, and lovely early morning view through bedroom window

We were very comfortable in our private apartment, Vera 3, spacious and lovely with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a dining/living area. There is a small private pool and patio for the Vera units.

City, countryside, and coastal experiences

With all that the villa has to offer, it can provide for a complete countryside holiday, but its location makes it convenient for touring other city and coastal areas of northern Tuscany.

Scenes of charming Lucca

We appreciated that Lucca’s city center was so accessible from Villa Buonvisi, just three miles away. With the guidance and recommendations of Gianna and Nicola, we saw highlights of this ancient city founded by the Etruscans and quickly fell in love with the town. The historic center is mostly pedestrian and bike traffic which really added to its appeal. Lucca was very much abuzz with locals and visitors as we walked around on this Sunday afternoon. In the summer months, it comes even more alive with festivals, such as the Lucca Summer Festival which brings big name headliners and the Lucca Comics and Games Festival. Gianna is an excellent ambassador for Lucca — proud, knowledgeable, and eager to show others her city.

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca

The oval-shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was the site of the ancient Roman amphitheater. As we entered through one of the four arched entrances, it was a lovely surprise with many cafes and restaurants.

Clockwise rom top left: Basilica di San Frediano, Duomo di San Martino, San Michele in Foro

Clockwise rom top left: Basilica di San Frediano, Duomo di San Martino, San Michele in Foro

Of the many churches that can be found in Lucca, on our walk we passed three that are the most notable in the city. Duomo di San Martino (above right) was built between the 12th and 13th centuries in Romanesque style with an intricately decorated marble facade. Puccini was a choirboy and played the organ here in his youth. Construction on the Basilica di San Frediano (top left above) was begun in the 12th century and in the 13th century was decorated with byzantine-style mosaic tiles mostly made with gold leaf that glows in the sunlight. San Michele in Foro (bottom left above) was built between the 12th and 14th centuries with a beautiful marble Romanesque facade and is topped with a statue of  St. Michael, the Archangel.

We got glimpses of Tower Guinigi at various points during the day, but didn’t have a chance to climb its 130 steps to the top where oak trees were planted by the Guinigi family to represent birth and renewal. Now one of the few remaining towers in the city, it’s interesting to note that when it was built in the 14th century, there were many of these structures on the Lucca skyline as a tower’s height was a reflection of a family’s prestige.

A glimpse of Tower Guinigi through the medieval buildings of Lucca; Statue of Puccini in front of the family home, now a museum

A glimpse of Tower Guinigi through the medieval buildings of Lucca; Statue of Puccini in front of the family home, now a museum

And of course, there is Puccini! Although we didn’t visit the family home which is now a museum with his musical scores and other memorabilia, we marked the moment by having a beverage at a cafe on Piazza Citadella near the bronze statue of Lucca’s native son.

Shoppers and browsers at one of the venues of the monthly Antiques Market; Taking an evening stroll along one of Lucca’s charming streets

Shoppers and browsers at one of the venues of the monthly Antiques Market; Taking an evening stroll along one of Lucca’s charming streets

Many locals do their shopping for food, wine, household goods and furnishings, clothing, and accessories in the city center. There are high-end designer shops and boutiques along the popular Via Fillungo, but many do their shopping at small and unique establishments that are individually or family-owned. We did a bit of window shopping and stopped in at Ottica Vogue to chat with Gianna’s lovely friend Andalusa and browse the glamorous eyeglasses. Of course, there are some stores that cater to tourists, but helping the city keep its character, they are not as prevalent as in other places.

Our timing was right to catch the antiques market which takes place the third weekend of each month. As we quickly browsed, we saw textiles, lamps, paintings, glassware, books, and many other collectibles.

There are many restaurants, cafes, and bars of all kinds in the piazzas and along the side streets for dining al fresco, people watching, and enjoying the company of friends.

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

At Osteria Miranda on Via dei Carrozzieri, a popular place with locals that comes highly recommended by Gianna. Our waiter (who is also a chef and owner of the restaurant) was friendly, the food was delicious, and the ambiance was very cozy and welcoming. Before dinner, we had aperitivos at a cleverly-themed cocktail bar, Franklin ’33, a nod to the end of Prohibition in the United States in 1933 during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Music of the 1920s and 1930s and photos of celebrities of those days create a fun speakeasy atmosphere.

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

Top: Al fresco dining in Lucca Bottom: Enjoying wine and dinner with Gianna at Osteria Miranda and lunch at L’Oste di Lucca

One of the most impressive features of Lucca are the still-intact ancient walls built in the 16th and 17th centuries with a 30-foot wide biking and pedestrian path on top. Mr. TWS and I rented bikes for an hour to ride all the way around twice. It was so much fun and quite beautiful with trees lining the path in many places. There were couples, families, and people of all ages biking, walking, stopping to talk, and looking at the sights. From vantage points around the path, there are great views of Lucca’s buildings, squares, parks, towers, and the countryside.

Day trips from Villa Buonvisi

Florence, Pisa, the quarries of the Apuan Alps, Viareggio and other sites in Tuscany are convenient for day trips from Villa Buonvisi

Florence, Pisa, the quarries of the Apuan Alps, Viareggio and other sites in Tuscany are convenient for day trips from Villa Buonvisi

In addition to having Lucca so close by, the villa’s location is ideal for sightseeing famous attractions, such as the cities of Pisa (8 miles) and Florence (45 miles). It’s also convenient for exploring other areas of Tuscany, some of which may surprise you as they did me. I never thought of Tuscany having beaches, yet it has a long coastline, the Versilian Riviera, on the Ligurian Sea with very popular beach resorts of Forte dei Marmi and the vibrant seaside city of Viareggio. I was especially taken with the rich art culture of Pietrasanta and the amazing marble quarries of the Apuan Alps where Michelangelo procured his white marble.

Quiet nights and sparks of light

On our final night on the Buonvisi estate, we were in our apartment when Nicola came to our door to tell us that the outside lights of the estate were going to be turned off to best see the fireflies that were swarming. My childhood memories include distinct recollections of chasing fireflies in our backyard in the Chicago area during the summers, but that was nothing compared to the thousands we saw this evening. Apparently, it is very common to see these swarms in Tuscany in early summer. We didn’t get any photos, so you’ll have to use your imagination to picture the vineyard completely aglow with tiny lights; trust me, it was a stunning sight.

I found a poem by Richard Monckton Milnes (Lord Houghton) who was at a spa in Bagni di Lucca (about 20 miles from Villa Buonvisi), when he wrote this in the late 19th century:

… The fireflies, pulsing forth their rapid gleams, Are the only light That breaks the night…

And so it was this evening, as we lingered outside breathing in the fragrances of the Tuscan air, mesmerized by the flickering lights.

Villa Buonvisi at night

Villa Buonvisi at night

Walking along the lane in front of the villa with the stars above us was quite magical, actually – which is how I remember our stay at Villa Buonvisi — magical, elegant, and filled with wonderful activities and surprises.

Our thanks to Villa Buonvisi and EsteVillas for helping us to create our Lucca memories.

by Catherine Sweeney   Travelling with Sweeney

august 10 2015

 

Osteria Da Miranda Via Dei Carrozzieri 27, | 55100 Lucca, Italy tel +39 0583.952731 – Typical local restaurant with great local food. indoor / outdoor seating –  reservation necessary.

 

Ciclo Divino Via Michele Rosi 7, Lucca, Italy   tel +39 0583471869+39 0583471869 – Happy Hour : A bike shop that sells great wine and great food. essentially you get wine by the glass and small “bites” for 1 euro/piece or 10 for only 7/euro

 

Prospero via S Lucia 13 Lucca – Local food tasting at Prospero, an extremely ancient and typical grain shop

 

Franklin Via San Giorgio,43, 55100, Italy tel +39 328 4677416+39 328 4677416 – Happy Hour

 

Dining al fesco at La Fattoria in Tuscany

Dining al fesco at La Fattoria in Tuscany

Alice’s words nicely summarize many of the highlights of our first Tuscany visit. Tuscan hospitality, lifestyle, flavors, and scenery came together for us many times throughout our stay in the region. I really like when the last day of a visit to a place positively reaffirms the impressions you’ve gotten during the rest of the trip and that’s exactly what happened during the final day of our Tuscany tour. We especially savored many aspects of the essence of Tuscany with Dizzi Alfons, owner of the luxury villa, La Fattoria and our guide Alice Dami, whose culinary talents were also a highlight of our day.

But before we take you to lunch, let’s sample some of the flavors and freshness introduced to us by Alice to on our way to La Fattoria from Lucca, through the countryside and villages of Lucca province. This rural area is rich in agriculture — vineyards, olive groves, and farms producing many of the fresh products we enjoyed during our stay in Tuscany.

Wine and high spirits

We began at Enoteca Vino e Convivio, a family-owned wine and food shop located in the village of Guamo, just a few miles from Lucca’s city center. Not only did we get to see a place where locals shop, but we were treated with the hospitality of husband and wife owners Giovanni and Giuseppina and buyer and wine consultant Lido, who first offered us coffee and then showed us around the relatively new shop (having moved from their original location of many years).

Indulging in Italian meats, cheeses, and Chianti while enjoying laughs and conversation at Enoteca Vino e Convivio with Alice, Lido, and Giuseppina

Indulging in Italian meats, cheeses, and Chianti while enjoying laughs and conversation at Enoteca Vino e Convivio with Alice, Lido, and Giuseppina

 

The walls of each of the four rooms were lined with shelves holding fine wines from around the world (primarily Italy and France), spirits, and local foods. The counter in the main entry room displays typical Italian meat specialties and Italian and French cheeses. There’s something for everyone, even vegetarians like Mr. TWS. Each room had a table and chairs for guests to relax, enjoy a glass of wine, and talk to friends in a comfortable setting. Their open hours are on the Vino e Convivio website, and I found it fun that it notes that the food section is closed on Saturdays from 3.30 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. because “Giuseppina needs to rest!!!”

It was still morning when our friendly and generous hosts served us assorted Italian hams and cheeses accompanied by one of the region’s signature Chianti Classico vintages. It was a great way to start our last day, and I thought it would take nothing to get me used to la dolce vita of Tuscany.

Getting fresh

From Enoteca Vino e Convivio we headed to another small village, Pieve di Compito, to visit Frantoio Sociale del Compitese, a cooperative of over 1000 olive oil producers that includes an olive mill and market.

Legumes and vegetables, Canestrino heirloom tomatoes, olive mill tour with Elisa

Legumes and vegetables, Canestrino heirloom tomatoes, olive mill tour with Elisa

We took a short tour of the olive mill, although it was not running since it wasn’t harvest season. As we learned in other parts of Tuscany and during our Provence trip in December, olive production was devastated last year by an insect that destroyed nearly all of this part of Mediterranean Europe’s olive crop.

We also got an insider’s look at another place where the locals shop for the best of fresh produce, pasta, honey, cheese, and other staples of Italian cuisine. We saw a steady stream of local shoppers, most of whom seemed to be regulars knowing exactly what they needed and quickly making their purchases. I was craving a taste of the Canestrino tomatoes, a type of heirloom tomato distinctive in the Lucca area.

Glorious gelato

When in Italy, you must have gelato, and we were pleased to watch the process and sample the sumptuous offerings at what is said to be one of the best gelaterias in Tuscany at Pappagrappa.

 

Freshly-made chocolate gelato, cones and specialty desserts at Pappagrappa

Freshly-made chocolate gelato, cones and specialty desserts at Pappagrappa

 

Owner and gelato-maker Marco uses only the freshest ingredients in his organic approach. He says that his key objective in starting the company 14 years ago was to use only the best ingredients, and whenever possible, local products, such as sheep’s milk and fruit from nearby farms.  For other ingredients, he selects the best from other places known worldwide for having the very finest, such as pistachios from Sicily and chocolate from Ecuador. It was the first time we’d seen someone making waffle cones manually and at Pappagrappa they are handmade fresh on site every day. The care in the selection of ingredients and preparation certainly showed in the finished product — the gelato was delicious.

Relaxing at the villa

Ready for lunch and eager to see La Fattoria, an EsteVillas holiday rental property, we turned off the main road outside of Pieve di Compito toward this beautifully restored 17th-century farmhouse. Tucked away down a narrow gravel road surrounded by woods and gardens, La Fattoria gives guests a feeling of luxurious seclusion while restaurants, shopping, and attractions are within easy reach.

La Fattoria

La Fattoria

Having already met the villa’s owner, Dizzi Alfons, by chance at Pappagrappa earlier (he was buying dessert for our lunch), we already felt like friends as we were warmly greeted by him at the house

Alice happily at work preparing lunch in the sunny, spacious La Fattoria kitchen

Alice happily at work preparing lunch in the sunny, spacious La Fattoria kitchen

While Alice got busy in the villa’s large and bright kitchen, Dizzi took us to the covered patio to talk and sample his homemade elderberry juice drink (made with elderberry flowers, water, sugar, lemons, lemon peel, mint, a little tonic) — a totally refreshing concoction. Alice had also prepared for us Olives Ascolane (stuffed olives lightly breaded and fried) as an antipasto. They were so tasty that if I hadn’t wanted to save room for lunch, I would have devoured them all.

Olives Ascolane and elderberry juice on the garden patio at La Fattoria

Olives Ascolane and elderberry juice on the garden patio at La Fattoria

Dizzi, an Austrian who fell in love with Tuscany many years ago, spoke of his background in the fashion industry, his travels, and how he came to acquire this lovely property. His enthusiasm and sincere appreciation of Tuscany were similar to sentiments I heard often during our visit, whether from lifelong Tuscans or those from other places who had made the region their home. It was a treat to be sipping our drinks on this warm, sunny day in this idyllic setting with a backdrop of the villa’s grassy knolls and flowering gardens. I warned Dizzi that it might be difficult to get us to leave!

Dining al fresco

What could be better than dining al fresco in Tuscany with a meal prepared by our own cook? Alice says that the bounty of fresh ingredients available in Tuscany inspires her cooking, and she uses only the freshest, locally-sourced ingredients. We felt very fortunate to sample her creations at La Fattoria, dining on the terrace with Dizzi.

La Fattoria’s outdoor dining terrace

La Fattoria’s outdoor dining terrace

 

Alice talked about the key to Tuscan dishes — their simplicity, relying on fresh, local ingredients from trusted suppliers, such as the extra virgin olive oil she buys from local mills.

Our delicious lunch, burrata cheese with anchovies and cherry tomatoes followed by fresh egg pasta with asparagus, was topped off with a delectable assortment of gelato flavors. We were so eager to indulge that we forgot to take photos of the dessert!

Lunch prepared by Alice Dami at La Fattoria: Fresh egg pasta with asparagus, burrata with cherry tomatoes and anchovies

Lunch prepared by Alice Dami at La Fattoria: Fresh egg pasta with asparagus, burrata with cherry tomatoes and anchovies

Alice was right when she said, “If you cook, you’ll make others happy. If you cook, people will remember you.” But I know that we will also remember Alice for her excellent guidance, enthusiasm, and vibrant personality.

As we relished the afternoon, our conversation with Dizzi and Alice was lively and informative, covering topics such Italian colloquialisms, life in Tuscany, tips about Rome (which was our next destination) and amusing personal stories. Dizzi and Alice were so warm and made us feel so comfortable with them. It was characteristic of the many people we met on our visit.

The look of luxury

Before leaving, we toured the rooms of the villa — six bedrooms, four bathrooms, living areas, and kitchen which were all restored in 2012. I loved the décor that seamlessly combined the original architecture and antiques with contemporary furniture and decorations, highlighting aspects of the historic villa while offering modern comfort.

The lovely décor of and views from the rooms of La Fattoria

The lovely décor of and views from the rooms of La Fattoria

As we explored the bright, colorful and tastefully decorated interior, I was thinking about which of the six bedrooms would be my favorite. Each room, including the spacious bathrooms, had a warm ambiance and lovely pastoral views of the grounds, beautiful flora, the hills and countryside.

Enjoying the cheery sitting room in La Fattoria

Enjoying the cheery sitting room in La Fattoria

As we went room to room, Mr. TWS and I could easily imagine staying there with a group of family and friends. What fun that would be!

The pool at La Fattoria

The pool at La Fattoria

The pool situated in a large expanse of lawn just above the villa was tempting on this warm day in May, especially for Mr. TWS who loves being in the water.

 

The villa has a private chapel on the premises that adds to its appeal and I think would be great if celebrating a small wedding or wedding anniversary. Now that’s an idea for another reason to return.

Arrivederci La Fattoria and Tuscany!

We said our goodbyes to Alice and Dizzi making our way along the garden path to our car, taking several glances back and wondering when we might come back to hike, bike, eat, drink, relax and soak up more of the fresh essence of Tuscany.

The chapel at La Fattoria

The chapel at La Fattoria

Grazie to EsteVillas, Dizzi Alfons, and Alice Dami for making our last day in Tuscany so special.

Take a look at the EsteVillas website for details and booking information for La Fattoria and other properties in their collection. Mention “Traveling with Sweeney” and you’ll get a discount based on the length and location of your stay!

Travelling with Sweeney

Posted by Catherine Sweeney on june 15 2015
Villa la Fattoria Lucca countryside
Alice Dami  guide and cook in Lucca
Vino e Convivio wineshop Via di Coselli, 6, 55012 Lucca LU
Frantoio Sociale Campitese Via di Tiglio, 609, Provincia di Lucca
Pappagrappa, via Sottomonte  Massa malcinaia Capannori Lucca

Highlights of a week in northern Tuscany

A week in Tuscany is not nearly enough time to gain anything but a preliminary knowledge of the region, even if just focusing on its northern part. However, it’s enough to feel the pull it has on the hearts of visitors and understand why residents are so proud of their home. It was also enough time for us to experience some wonderful activities that we can recommend for your own visits. In future posts, Mr. TWS and I will have more to share about the many reasons we loved Tuscany, but here are a few highlights of our Tuscan experience.

 

View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany

View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany

 

Seeing the famous sights

Florence and Pisa are well-known tourist-attraction venues, so be prepared for crowds of tourists but don’t miss their many must-see sights.

In Pisa, we took the climb to the top of the leaning tower which we thought was worth it for the views of the rooftops of the city and the surrounding area. Mr. TWS thought the tower leaned more than he’d expected, and I agree. I felt a little woozy because of the tower’s unevenness of the floor as we first entered the tower and started climbing. The tower itself actually seemed more beautiful to me than I’d seen in pictures. The subtle shades of the marble facade really stood out more than in photos. While waiting for your turn to tour the tower, have lunch or a coffee on one of the touristy, but still nice adjacent streets.

Famous attractions: Pisa — Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence — Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze

Famous attractions: Pisa — Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence — Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze

It’s no wonder that Florence is a top city for visitors to Italy. With its history, architecture, bridges, cathedrals, piazzas and museums, it’s an amazing place to visit. Even on this rainy day, for us Florence shined as a Renaissance treasure. While walking along both sides of the Arno River and from the bridges, we enjoyed views of the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The majestic Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) mesmerizes with its size and beauty. We were focused on getting a good introduction to Florence during a short day trip so only admired its exterior, but we’ve put a longer tour of Florence and key sights on our must-do list for our next time in Tuscany.

Being surprised

Part of the fun of visiting places for the first time is learning about and doing things that are unexpected. These were just a few things that surprised us during our week in northern Tuscany.

The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Novella Pharmacy in Florence

The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence

 

  • Tuscany is not just about vineyards, rolling hills, and quaint villages. The beach towns of Viareggio and Forte Dei Marmi attract summer vacationers to their resorts and villas along the Versilia coast of the Mediterranean.
  • I didn’t expect to see marble quarries on the hillsides of the Apuane Alps. These quarries extract the abundant high-quality marble there that has been used for centuries in great buildings and for creating the timeless art of sculptors such as Michelangelo.
  • Pietrasanta is a surprising artisic gem with its public art installations, galleries, and marble-carving studios. It is also home to master mosaic artist Piero Giannoni, whose creations are seen around the world.
  • In Florence, we admired the decor, artifacts, and product displays, while sampling fragrances at Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy which is said to be the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world. Formulas of the monks who originally established the pharmacy in the 13th century are still being used. Imagine that!
  • I like bicycling (primarily on flat surfaces) and got a special treat riding bikes along the top of the ancient city walls of Lucca, an area designated for pedestrians and bicycles only. Not only did it provide an opportunity for fresh air and exercise, but it was great for getting an overhead view of the city while watching locals stroll the tree-lined path.

 

Walking and wandering

Each of the cities and towns, large and small, that we visited in northern Tuscany had its own charm and unique appeal, but all were a pleasure to explore on foot, even when getting a bit off track as we did one evening in Lucca. Our footsteps took us all around Florence, Certaldo Alto, San Gimignano, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Pietrasanta, and Lucca. On many occasions, we were aided by wonderful local guides who explained the importance, history, or uniqueness of the sights and introduced us to local shop owners.

Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta

Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta

Wining and dining

For me, quintessential Tuscan dining experiences are those enjoyed al fresco with views of serene countryside or bustling piazzas. Besides finding great traditional cuisine in the restaurants of Tuscany, we indulged in tasting the local fare at the villas where we stayed or visited, cheese makers, wineries, olive mills, specialty wine and food shops, and fresh markets. And let’s not forget the gelaterias!

Tasty specialties of Tuscany – cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dell’Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa),  and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)

Tasty specialties of Tuscany – cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dall’Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa), and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)

Dotting the hillsides and valleys of Chianti and other areas of Tuscany are vast expanses of olive groves and vineyards, many of which are small, family-owned operations that welcome visitors for tastings and tours. The large Antinori wine estate is visually impressive with its modern architecture in a pastoral setting in Bargino that offers public tours and tastings as well.

Driving

On our trip, we especially enjoyed our drives through the picturesque countryside and small villages. There were beautiful vistas at every turn and also some serendipitous finds. Renting a car as we did will give you spontaneity and flexibility in seeing Tuscany’s beauty. Driving a  Ferrari in Tuscany seems very popular (and we saw quite a few), but that didn’t fit our budget. Whatever you drive, make it a small car for maneuvering the narrow roads and tight parking spots in towns and villages. As much fun as it is to drive in the countryside, avoid taking the car into the city centers by using parking lots on the outskirts or traveling by train.

Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari

Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari

Staying in a villa

There are certainly many accommodation options in Tuscany, including hotels and B&Bs, but as we learned, villas offer unique ways to truly immerse in the Tuscan experience. And they can be particularly advantageous for family celebrations, reunions, weddings, and other special gatherings. Each villa that we visited or at which we stayed has its distinct characteristics and amenities appealing to different tastes and needs, accommodating a wide range of group sizes, and offering a great variety of services to make a stay special. During our tour of EsteVillas holiday rentals, we were guests of La Novellina in Fiano and Buonvisi in Lucca, and toured several others in northern Tuscany. We’ll share the details of these with you in future posts

Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca

Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca

But beyond all the beautiful vistas, historic towns and cities, and the wonderful food and wine, there were the friendly, helpful and generous people we met throughout our stay.

Have I piqued your interest? Would you like to hear more about our week in northern Tuscany? Do you wonder what it might be like to stay in a Tuscan villa? Stay tuned!

Posted by on june 1 2015
Travelling with Sweeney : A Touch of Tuscany
All Rights Reserved

 

Villas around Florence : Novellina, Egle, Borgorosa, Mattei
Villas in Lucca and Versilia Area : Santandrea , Buonvisi, Fattoria, Elisabetta

 

Wines  : Pasolini Dall’Onda     Barberino val d’Elsa (FI) tel  +39 055 8075019
Gelato:   Pappagrappa Capannori Lucca tel +39 0583 909 555
Cheese Producer:  Fattoria Corzano e Paterno San Casciano Firenze tel +39 055 8248 179
Marble Quarries Tour by Serena Giovannoni Estevillas Travel Consultant
Alice Dami villa host, cook and a concierge in Lucca, Tuscany
Susanna Civeli cook and a concierge at la Novellina, Tuscany
Wine Store: Vino e Convivio  Capannori, Lucca  tel+ 39 0583 403573   

 

 

Massaciuccoli, Puccini Lake Lucca -Estevillas

Massaciuccoli, Puccini Lake Lucca -Estevillas

Immerse yourself in the unconventional natural beauty of Northern Tuscany, birthplace and chosen home to some of history’s most famous artists.

World famous opera composer Giacomo Puccini was born in Lucca and chose to spend his life in Torre del Lago, on the quiet shore of the lake.  The maestro has left a long-lasting tradition of music and opera to the area; the Puccini Festival entertains thousands of visitors each year in its open-air theatre with arias from Turandot, Madame Butterfly and his other masterpieces.

Carrara Marble Quarries Tour with Serena

Carrara Marble Quarries Tour with Serena – Estevillas Holiday Rentals

Michelangelo settled in Seravezza, a small town on the route to white marble quarries, while working for the Medici family. His legacy lives strongly in Pietrasanta and Carrara; the beautiful church facades still standing there are examples of his first architectural projects. He was also the one to promote the building of a new road connecting the Apuan Alps to the sea.

Today, both Pietrasanta and Carrara welcome artists from all over the world who journey to find artisans in marble, mosaic, bronze and other hand-crafts to advise in the creation of their art pieces. Pietrasanta in particular is a small fashionable town, full of restaurants and cafés and only accessible to pedestrians. It becomes very lively on weekends and in the summer months.

Forte dei Marmi beach - Estevillas

Forte dei Marmi beach – Estevillas

Nearby Forte dei Marmi (literally, the Fortress of Marbles) is today a posh resort town and hub of shopping in Tuscany, rich with boutiques and fashionable shops. The beach resorts of Forte dei Marmi are among the most luxurious in all of Italy, VIP-spotting is not unusual during the summer season.

The magnificent amphitheater of the Apuan Alps is a paradise for hikers or those who wish to simply take walks on its pristine trails and marvel at the breathtaking views.

Northern Tuscany hills-  Estevillas

Northern Tuscany hills

Along the way, you cannot miss stopping to tour the area’s small villages, hidden gems of history and traditions. Explore the towns of Pruno, Levigliani, Giustagnana or La Cappella, where you can take part in marble carving sessions at the Monte Altissimo School.

This region was appreciated and developed by the Romans, who built a few villas on its rolling hills. The ruins are today a special setting for the Roman Festival in July.

Pietrasanta Outdoor Market web

Pietrasanta Outdoor Market -Versilia Food Tour by Serena – Estevillas

Francigena Way, another ancient route that connected Canterbury to Rome, cuts through the region to the city of Lucca, which is definitely worth a visit. Its beautiful walls and historical center is a charming place to stroll around with kids and enjoy some shopping of local art crafts.

Last but not least, Viareggio—a city popular for its majestic, not-to-be-missed Carnival in February—is the perfect place to enjoy a walk along the art deco promenade or stop for a meal in a seafood restaurant in the harbor area, where the biggest yachts in the world are still being built.

 

Elena Berton Made in Italy Pietrasanta

Elena Berton Made in Italy Pietrasanta Artisan Tour by Serena

Another major attraction of Northern Tuscany is the food, which is particularly appreciated for its land and seaside cuisine. Take the chance to visit one of the region’s century-old ham workshops or taste its famous cacciucco, a shellfish soup.

If one has time to stretch a bit further from the region, Versilia area is within close reach to Cinque Terre, Pisa and Florence.

Cinqueterre  day trip tour by Serena - Estevillas

Cinqueterre day trip tour by Serena – Estevillas

 

A local concierge, knowledgeable of the area, will be a valid support for planning your day tours and enjoying your stay to the best.

 

By Serena Giovannoni, –  Estevillas Travel Consultant, Wedding Planner and Personal Assistant in North Tuscany area

Edited by Amay Smith

All Rights Reserved

Villas in the area : Santandrea , Buonvisi, Fattoria, Elisabetta

 

 

Lucca Amphitheatre Piazza - Estevillas Holiday Rentals

Lucca Amphitheatre Piazza – Estevillas Holiday Rentals

My friend Gianna takes us on an insider’s tour of Lucca’s best spots to grab a bite, a drink—and maybe a leather jacket or a fancy pair of Italian designer eyeglasses.

Gianna lives in an historic villa with a beautiful garden just a few minutes’ drive from Lucca. She is a real fashionista. She loves to find authentic small restaurants and “trattoria” where she can feel at home. She knows the best places to shop in the area for food, wine and fashion.

Lucca is a unique and very special town, a hidden surprise for visitors who come here for the first time. The location couldn’t be better: the Appennine mountains behind, the sandy beaches just a stone’s throw away and Pisa and Florence very close too.

The approach to Lucca involves venturing through the massive medieval walls that encircle the town. They are wide, lined with trees, restaurants, playgrounds, and tons of seating, creating a sort of suspended ring to jog, bike, run or simply relax while watching people wander the little narrow roads inside the walls.

Biking on the Lucca Walls

Biking on the Lucca Walls

Most of the city is closed to automobile traffic. Locals bike or stroll instead of driving, gather in the cafés and wine bar and peruse the open street market. You can easily hire a  bike and have tour of the city walls by yourself or decide to take a guided tour, which will add a lot to the experience by showing nice places outside the city.

We park outside the city walls and walk through the gate into the city.

“Don’t say that you have been to Lucca if you haven’t eaten Taddeucci’s Buccellato!”

Buccellato Taddeucci Lucca

Buccellato Taddeucci Lucca

The Buccellato is the most typical and well-known cake of Lucca. It is a ring-shaped tasty sweet bread with raisins and aniseed, smothered in a mixture of sugar and egg. It was the traditional dessert for Sunday lunch in most Lucchese homes.

For 131 years Taddeucci Bakery has stood in Piazza San Michele, the heart of Lucca and a fascinating place full of history. It was here in 1881 that Lucca’s baker, Jacopo Taddeucci, created the delicacy he is so famous for.

Today you can find the Buccellato in any bakery, but the original recipe is still a Taddeucci’s secret, handed down from father to son.

Two other bakeries make a worthwhile stop. The first is Forno a Vapore Amedeo Giusti (or simply Giusti) on via S Lucia. The tiny and always packed shop is the best place for their unforgettable dark brown, multi-grain focaccia. Stand in line, grab a number and wait for your order of the rich flat bread.

Sweet Vegetable Tarte- Chifenti

Sweet Vegetable Tarte- Chifenti

Chifenti on via San Paolino is where you can sample some surprising vegetable tarts—sweet, not savory!—a Lucca specialy.

Our path takes us to Via Fillungo, the main shopping street lined with many upscale boutiques, but Gianna moves quickly on and stops in front of one of the oldest shops in Lucca. Carli jewelry, first opened in 1655 and passing from generation to generation, is still furnished and decorated as it was in the 18th century. (Carli Via Fillungo #95 Lucca)

A little farther down the street at number 58 is Antico Caffe Di Simo, the historic coffee house where a stop for an espresso or a cappuccino is a must. It was here that Giacomo Puccini, the great opera composer, regularly gathered with other artists at the beginning of the 20th century. The café keeps the atmosphere of 100 years ago unchanged, as if Puccini will once again walk through the door.

Just off via Fillungo is Pizzicheria La Grotta, a triumph of regional food. The deli is stocked with delicious pecorino cheeses, some old, some fresh and young, soft cheese, prosciutto, salami, and pickled vegetable jam to be served with savory food.

Next stop is the famous traditional dried beans and seed shop Antica Bottega di Prospero, Via Santa Lucia 13.

Antica Bottega da Prospero Zuppa Lucchese

Antica Bottega da Prospero Zuppa Lucchese

 

We continue our tour leading to Ottica Vogue for a pair of Italian sunglasses…super chic sunglasses.

Superchic sunglasses - Estevillas

Superchic sunglasses Ottica Vogue Lucca

It is lunchtime and Gianna takes us to a….bike shop…a pleasant and quirky surprise. It is a funny place where you can buy bikes, great wine and great food all together in the same shop! You get wine by the glass and small “bites” for 1 Euro/piece or 10 for only 7 Euro. The welcoming and friendly Ciclo Di Vino is so popular for happy hour that the crowd spills out onto the Street.

Ciclo di Vino

Ciclo di Vino – Lucca , Bikes and Wine !

After our drink, it is time to get back to the car, as Gianna wants to show us one of the most renowned leather factories in Tuscany, La Pelle, which houses a large selection of clothing made of soft and fine quality leather by expert artisans. They also provide a prompt made-to-measure service and ship all over the world. I fell in love with a red leather jacket, it was just so cool and different from all the other ones I saw around.

The afternoon is gone! Time to go back to Gianna’s house where in my beautiful bedroom I will rest like a princess….

 

Gianna's villa in Lucca - Estevillas Holiday Rentals

Gianna’s villa in Lucca – Estevillas Holiday Rentals

Villa Buonvisi Lucca

Antica Bottega di Prospero – via S Lucia 13-  55100 Lucca.

Ciclo Di Vino – Via Michele Rosi 7

Carli Jewelry – Via Fillungo 95 Lucca

La Pelle  Via delle Cornacchie 473. – 55100 Lucca. Tel: 0583 955359

Forno Giusti – Via Santa Lucia, 18 -. 55100 Lucca.

Ottica Vogue – Via Fillungo, 4, Lucca LU

 

Bike rentals –  there are many biker rentals in town. Just to mention 2 of them:

Punto Bici   Via Crocifisso, 8, 55100 Lucca LU

Cicli Bizzarri   Piazza Santa Maria, 32
55100 Lucca (LU) – Toscana – Italia

Lucca Distances:  Pisa 17 km/11mls; closest beach 26km/16mls; Forte dei Marmi 34km/21mls ;  Florence 78km/48mls

 

Written by Luisa Castiglioni

Edited by Amay Smith

All Rights Reserved