Thursday 27 August 2015

Kid-friendly Lucca

Beautiful Lucca
Since I got back from holiday on Sunday it seems to have been raining non-stop.

After two weeks of getting up every morning to swim 30 lengths in an outdoor pool before breakfast, only pausing to sniff the lavender-scented air and look at the indescribably beautiful view of the Tuscan hills, this has come as something of a shock.

I love Italy. It's probably my favourite country -- I went there on my honeymoon, and have been back to Tuscany no less than four times since, as well as visiting other parts of Italy such as Sicily and Venice.

This time we had an extended family holiday in a beautiful villa, sandwiched between city stopovers in Pisa and Lucca at the beginning and end.

I thought I'd blog about Lucca because I was actually surprised about how child-friendly it is. Having dragged the boys around Pisa, admiring the beautiful architecture but being slightly dismayed at all the coach party groups with selfie sticks and lack of un-touristy restaurants, I was wondering how they would take to Lucca.

But they loved it. The highlight for us was renting bikes and cycling all the way around the historic city walls, which form a pedestrian and cyclist-only public park. It's a 4km ride which took us roughly 45 minutes, with a couple of rest stops. It's also shady and cool, particularly if you do it at 9am in the morning as we did, trying to avoid the heat of the day. The scenery is incomparable: you can look up at the Monte Pisano mountains, or down into the city of Lucca, at the Duomo San Martino in all its marble splendour, or busy street markets and charming piazzas, while cycling along at your leisure. The only hazard is avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (something Littleboy 2, a rather wobbly cyclist, narrowly achieved).

Cycling round the walls
Wandering around Lucca is charming -- many of its narrow, winding medieval streets are pedestrianised (although watch out for the odd scooter). The shops are upscale and mainly independent, with very few chains. By night, it's incredibly atmospheric and you will suddenly stumble upon little hidden squares crammed with people, eating, talking or just enjoying the balmy night air. The Littleboys were in their element, marching around singing Abba songs on our final night, to the amusement of passers-by.

Then there are the towers to climb. The Littleboys had actually refused to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, announcing that it was too scary. (We didn't try and force them; frankly, the prices are scary too, at 18 euros each including for kids).

Torre Guinigi
But in Lucca, you can climb (cheaply) up two towers that aren't leaning: the Torre Guinigi, which is famous for having trees planted on top, and the Torre delle Ore, or clock tower. The latter was more precarious, with a wooden staircase that looked like it might not pass a British health and safety inspection, but had the bonus of being beautifully empty. Both afford an incredible view of the terracotta-coloured rooftops of Lucca, and the climb gives you a much-needed chance to burn off all that pasta. 

The Lucca botanical garden (Orto Botanico) is a sweet place and offers an opportunity to relax and sit in the shade. The lilypond there has rather a gruesome legend attached; it's said to have been the scene of a horrific drowning. As the story, goes a beautiful Luccan noblewoman made a bargain with the devil to stay looking young, and when she reneged on the deal was finally chased by Satan around the city and into the water. You're supposed to be able to hear her screams on Halloween. In reality, she died of the plague and was buried in a church nearby.  (We had our own excitement, when Littleboy 2 decided to touch a plant clearly labelled as "toxic" with a skull and crossbones; cue lots of frantic hand washing.)

Botanical Gardens, Lucca
Lucca is also stuffed full of places to eat: from cheap pizzerias to homely osterias, lively trattorias and upmarket ristorantes. The first night we had delicious pizza at Trattoria da Nonna Clara in a lively piazza. It was one of the cheapest meals of all our holiday, but all pronounced it excellent. For lunch the next day, we stumbled upon All'Olivo, a stylish-looking restaurant on a tiny piazza. Although it had a slightly bizarre canopy with jets that sprayed out water (it was supposed, we think, to cool you down but had the effect of being in a rather humid sauna), the food was again brilliant. The boys tucked into prosciutto and melon, bruschetta and salami; The Dotor and I had succulent grilled calamari salads.

For our final night we ate at Osteria Baralla, a traditional Tuscan restaurant near the oval Piazza Anifteatro. The meal was typically heavy Tuscan fare -- my beef stew was delicious, but far too filling, and the boys tucked into meaty ravioli after stuffing themselves with unsalted bread and olive oil. I would probably recommend this place more in winter. Like most Italian cities, Lucca is also full of amazing gelaterias. We bought fabulous chocolate ice-cream and lemon sorbet outside the city walls, on our walk back to our Airbnb apartment. (It was our first time booking through Airbnb, and everything went very smoothly -- our host, Petra, was very welcoming and helpful).

Villa Reale's Green Theatre
The next morning, before our flight back from Pisa, we explored the gardens of the Villa Reale outside Lucca. The Villa was once owned by Napoleon's sister Elisa Bonaparte and the grounds are incredibly ornate. The garden was virtually empty, which made it particularly atmospheric, and the house itself, closed up, had a very dilapidated air (we asked about the current owners, and were told it is a "family from Switzerland" but they never come). It seems something of a random tourist attraction -- the custodian turned up late to open up, and there was nowhere really to park -- but the gardens are fascinating and well worth a wander; there's an over-the-top interpretation of Pan's Grotto, a "green theatre" entirely made of box hedges, a lemon garden and plentiful classical statues and fountains.

All in all, I would thoroughly recommend Lucca as a short city break with kids. From the U.K., you could get there cheaply and easily by flying to nearby Pisa with EasyJet, and then taking a train or renting a car. And if you're going on a holiday elsewhere in Italy, why not break your journey there?