I’ve visited Lucca and the Garfagnana three times, in 2015, 2016 and 2019, (each time with my sister). Lucca is one of my favorite towns in Tuscany and I love the beautiful mountains and little villages of the Garfagnana. But getting to the Garfagnana and into Lucca has had its challenges. So after the sections on Where to stay, Places to Eat and Things to see in Lucca, and the Garfagnana, I’ve added some information on Getting to Lucca, Getting around Lucca and Getting around the Garfagnan. In 2019 we also did a short day trip to Viareggio on the coast and I’ve included some information on it also.
Where to stay
We stayed at Villa Cheli each of the three times we’ve been in the area. The first two times we thought it was fabulous. In 2015 I wrote: Villa Cheli is everything it looked to be online; absolutely gorgeous. In 2016, after staying at some fairly crappy hotels while on a walking tour of Tuscany, I wrote: Feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven. We’ve already had 2 glasses of wine on the patio and I’m totally drunk.
The grounds are gorgeous, with a lovely pool in back and an equally lovely terrace in front. It was too cool this past year (2019) to spend time at the pool but we enjoyed relaxing there on our first two visits. The terrace is also a perfect place to relax after a long day of either traveling or being a tourist. You can buy a bottle or glass of wine at the small bar just to the left of the front desk. On our first two visits, the staff was terrific, helping us with driving directions and even giving us free drinks.
In 2016 we were enjoying our wine in the terrace when a bus load of people from Toulon France rolled up. The first couple of nights we had a lot of laughs talking with them and they even invited us to tour some vineyards with them. Kind of wish we had now.
Hotel Villa Cheli
Hotel Villa Cheli
Things were not the same in 2019. While the grounds were as beautiful as before, I said in my Tripadvisor Review that: The warmth is no longer there. First the staff chastised me for changing my reservation and confusing them, then lectured my sister about the price of wine when she was just asking about a wine stopper she’d misplaced. (Presumably that was because I expressed my annoyance when I was charged 10 euros for a bottle of wine that cost 6 euros the day before.) Plus the second floor loggia is no longer available for all guests, just those who pay for the more expensive rooms next to it. The latter may seem unimportant but in 2016 it was raining heavily on our last night and our nice waiter, who gave us a complimentary glass of wine before dinner, gave us a complimentary limoncello afterwards which we drank on the upstairs balcony because of the rain.
While our room was large and reasonably pleasant, the wifi didn’t work there and the water pressure and temperature in the shower would change without warning. And they really need to replace the 1960’s hair dryers.
Where to eat
Ristorante La Camelia, Villa Cheli
The dining room is fairly small and quiet, usually with just a few hotel guests but occasionally with people staying at other hotels. They serve breakfast there as well as dinner and it’s definitely convenient, especially after a long day of travel. We’ve always had pleasant meals, from a variety of pastas to meat dishes such as roast pork and potatoes, usually with a glass of the house vino and a dessert. In 2015 and 2016 the meals were fun because we had such pleasant wait staff who even gave us free drinks. But this year the staff, in general, was quite unpleasant and our waiter was weird beyond words. He’d get up in our faces, saying, ‘Madam’ very slowly and loudly. On the plus side we had a lot of laughs during our after dinner drinks on the terrace, doing imitations of him.
Dinner at Villa Cheli
Dinner at Villa Cheli
When we came to Villa Cheli for the first time we arrived on a Sunday and found that their restaurant was closed on Mondays. We asked for a suggestion and the concierge recommended Nonno’s. We thought it was fantastic, I wrote: We had a salad and huge calzones, wine, water and dessert for 29 euros. When the waiter brought the calzones, I yelled, OMG!! in ugly American fashion (only because they were the size of my head) and the couple next to us started laughing. As we talked with them, we learned that they were British and had done the same thing we did trying to get to Villa Cheli–looping through the A11 twice.
In 2016 we went to Nonno’s after our day in Lucca. I wrote in my journal that: We were the only ‘Amerkanski’s’ but had a wonderful meal of green salad for me (and I mean green only) a capricciosa pizza (ham, artichoke hearts, mushrooms and a fried egg) a chocolate torta and wine for 24 euros.
In 2019, I only wrote that we had a ‘really nice dinner last night’ but I’m sure we had the capricciosa pizza again plus a dessert, wine and a salad.
This is a very popular place with locals with good food for reasonable prices and a reservation is absolutely necessary.
Things to do
Lucca is a great place to walk or ride a bike. There are fewer tourists and lots of places to sit and have a glass of wine and watch the world go by. With the exception of the day we went to Viareggio, we’ve always parked just west of Porta San Donato.
In 2015 and 2016 we turned left, after going through the porta, following the street along the wall until we saw the campanile of San Frediano, (see below) then walked through Piazza San Frediano to Piazza Anfiteatro (more on the piazza below). In 2016 we returned from our ‘passeggiata’ along the wall to Porta San Donato. I, then, ran to the parking lot and put more money in the meter. We returned on the street to the left of Porta San Donato to a little trattoria where I had a really good salad and a huge beer. We also had a bit of a scare as a car rocketed out of the street across from the trattoria almost hitting a biker.
In 2019, after returning from a day trip to Viareggio, we walked from the train station through Porta San Pietro on the south side of the wall, stumbling on to an antique fair which was fun.
Antiques Fair Lucca
Antiques Fair Lucca
We, then, strolled north on via Beccheria to Piazza San Michele and stopped at a café for a vino, smoke and people watching also enjoying a view of a flower market across from the church.
My guide books say that Lucca’s walls are some of the best preserved in Italy and I totally believe that. I’ve visited at least 20 towns and cities from southern Italy to the Veneto and I’ve never seen more complete or more beautiful walls. Construction of the walls began in the 1500’s to protect the town from attacks, as is usually the case. However, in the early 1800’s the walls were converted to a city park which may be the reason why they’re so beautiful. A wide path, the Passaggiata Mura Urbane, follows the center of the wall and there are always lots of walkers, runners and bikers on the path. There are bike rental shops throughout the city but the main ones seem to be in Piazza Santa Maria on the north side of the city. I’ve always wanted to rent a bike but was never able to get my sister to agree.
The walls are nearly 30 yards wide and huge trees line each side of the ‘passaggiata.’ Along the south side of the wall there is also what looks to be a large restaurant although we’ve never gone in. I love being able to look down into the city as well as across the city to the mountains of the Garfagnana. There are somewhat steep paths up to the wall in several locations, mainly near the gates and also near the botanical gardens.
In 2015 we walked almost the full length of the wall, starting at the botanical gardens. In 2016 I think we picked up the wall on the east side of Lucca, either at Porta San Jacopo or Elissa, walking counter clockwise to Porta San Donato so we could put more money in our parking meter and have lunch.
In 2019 I suggested doing the wall first and I wrote in my journal that ‘We did close to 2 miles on the wall’ but it was only about a mile. We did get some nice pictures along the wall–although we were disappointed to see hundreds of huge tents on the wall, for what we learned later was a Comic Con convention. The huge tents were all over the city and significantly affected what you could see and do. We left the wall at the botanical gardens after taking more pictures looking down into the gardens from the wall.
Lucca’s botanical gardens
We stumbled upon the botanical gardens in 2015 as we walked from Piazza Anfiteatro past Torre dei Guinigi just wandering the side streets. I thought it was one of the prettiest gardens I’d ever seen. It’s not large but has some really unusual trees and plants, including a California redwood tree, plus some beautiful sculpture.
We didn’t stop in 2016 but spent quite a bit of time here in 2019. As I mentioned above we took the wall to the exit near the gardens, then followed the paths through the gardens taking pictures. It’s not only lovely but very peaceful. It was mid October when we visited in 2019 and I sat on one of the benches, enjoying the peace as well as the beauty of the changing colors. The gallery below includes pictures from both 2015 and 2019.
Lucca’s botanical gardens
Lucca’s botanical gardens
When I fell in love with Italy many years ago, one of the major factors was the lifestyle, especially sitting in a piazza with ‘un vino o una birra,’ people watching. And Piazza Anfiteatro is a particularly charming place to do just that. Surrounded by shops and cafes it makes a perfect place to sit and watch the world go by. I’ve read that the houses around it are built from stone taken from the Roman amphitheater below the piazza. And its elliptical shape also mirrors the amphitheater.
I enjoy walking around the piazza, browsing the shops and laughing at the funny signs that one of the bars always has. I think you can read them in the gallery below but one is for a husband day care and the other says, ‘Money can’t buy happiness but it can buy a mojito which is kind of the same thing.’ I totally agree.
In 2016 as we wandered the piazza we stumbled on a little shop where an artist had some very unusual watercolors of Lucca. We each bought one for 5 euros. Mine is still sitting on my baker’s rack, unframed because I can’t find a frame that fits it. (The artist’s name is Bianchi Giampiero.)
In 2019, we walked from the botanical gardens, past Torre dei Guinigi to the piazza, planning to do our usual window shopping and wandering. But there was a huge tent for Comic Con right in the middle of the piazza with cables running everywhere. It ruined the ambiance so we headed towards San Frediano. I’d like to think it was because of the tent and other changes but I had a terrible time finding our way back to the wall. By the time we got to the street along the wall, the little trattoria we ate at in 2016 was closed.
San Frediano and its Piazza
As I was reading my guidebooks about San Frediano and Lucca in general, it struck me that my sister and I hadn’t visited the Duomo di San Martino or San Michele (although we’ve sat at a little café across from San Michele, watching the tourists go in an out.) I think it’s because of the route we’ve taken, going left from Porta San Donato. After a few blocks you see the campanile of San Frediano and following it down a narrow street, you’re suddenly in Piazza San Frediano, amazed at the gorgeous gold and red mosaic on the façade. According to Visittuscany.com (https://www.visittuscany.com/en/attractions/san-frediano-church-in-lucca/) ‘The mosaic depicts Christ the Redeemer ascending to heaven, in a mandorla held by two angels. The figure of the Virgin is missing between the Apostles, which was removed when the modern window was installed. The artwork is in the Byzantine style and is attributed to the Lucca-based school of Berlinghieri.’
Oddly enough the church was founded by an Irish priest in the 6th century. Another factoid from Visittuscany.com is that the only other church with a similar façade is San Miniato al Monte in Florence. I’ve walked past San Miniato many times (and gone in the church once) but never noticed its façade.
The small piazza in front of the church is charming with one or two cafes with outside seating and if you happen to be in the piazza on one of those intense Tuscan blue sky days, the mosaic against the blue sky is stunning as you can see in the gallery above.
Torre dei Guinigi
Even though Bologna and Lucca couldn’t be more different, for some reason Lucca’s Torre dei Guinigi reminds me of Bologna’s Torre degli Asinelli (see Forty Eight Hours in Bologna post.) Probably because they both spring up out of the narrow streets and you have to look straight up to see them.
We usually take a street from the southeast corner of Piazza Anfiteatro and after 2 or 3 blocks, you can see Torre dei Guinigi shooting above the intersection of via Sant ‘Andrea and via Chiave d’Oro. As you look up, the first thing you notice are the trees growing out of the top.
In 2016 we decided to walk up the 230 steps to the top of the tower. Although the hike was marred somewhat by a bunch of German kids running up and down the stairs, it was worth it for the beautiful views both of the city and the mountains of the Garfagnana. I definitely recommend it.
I don’t know if I’ll get back to Lucca any time soon, but if I do I’d like to visit Palazzo Pfanner, which is a few blocks west of Piazza Anfiteatro on Via degli Asili. We’ve walked by several times and you can see portions of a gorgeous garden through the gate.
In my Finding Italy post I describe our unbelievable trip in 2015 from Nice to Lucca (more accurately to Villa Cheli south of Lucca on the SS12) but I’ll give a brief summary here. After Cirque du Soleil in Nice trying to drop off our rental car we took the train to Ventimiglia, Italy. We, then, took another train to Genoa where we spent the night. The next morning we were supposed to pick up a rental car in the centro, finding that the office wasn’t open on Sunday. So we rented at the airport. It was pouring rain as we got our car and the rain followed us through the mountain tunnels along the A12 until we got off at the A11 for Lucca. It took me two tries to get off the A11 and on to the SS12 and find Villa Cheli. (And I still kick myself for not taking the train from Genoa to Lucca and renting the car there. Instead we ultimately drove it to Firenze where we were charged 5 times what it was supposed to cost.)
In 2016 we took the train from Rome to Pisa (with a change in Firenze) then rented a car at the airport and drove to Villa Cheli. Here’s what I wrote in my journal: At Villa Cheli after a long day of travel that for the most part went fairly smoothly. The diciest part was making the connection to Pisa after our train from Rome got to the Santa Maria Novella station in Firenze. We only had 10 to 15 minutes and I was sweating bullets that we were on the wrong train. But we got to Pisa Centrale OK and found the ‘Pisa Mover’ bus to the airport. We had to wait 20 minutes at least for the car rental shuttle but had no trouble getting our car and miraculously found the SS12 and Villa Cheli.
That year, after our four days at Villa Cheli, we took the car back to the Pisa airport, then took a bus to Firenze from the airport. It was cheap and easy peasy. The bus brought us behind Santa Maria Novella station where we picked up a cab to our hotel.
2019 was almost as crazy as 2015. My sister and I had been on a tour in Croatia/Slovenia and took a shared ride from Bled, Slovenia to Venice leaving Bled at 3:30 am. Yikes!! Here’s what I wrote after that trip: OMG!! About to pass out after only 4 hours sleep before the crazoid drive at mach 10 in a torrential downpour. After staggering around in the Venice Mestre train station, trying different ticket kiosks, we had to give up and buy a 65 euro [per person] ticket to Pisa via SMN at the ticket office. Then we had an 18 minute delay in Bologna and thought we were going to [miss our connection in Firenze] and have to take a later train to Pisa. But that train was late too and we jumped on just before it left the station. The coups d’grace was having to stand all the way to Pisa.
We got in about 11:10 am, walked across the street to a less than great café and snarfed down 2 coffees each and a croissant each. We got a cab right away and it only took 10 minutes and 9 euros to get us to Sixt [our car rental company at the airport]. I had a bit of a fist fight with them about collision insurance but we were out of there by 12:50 pm and here by 1:10 pm. The easiest drive ever.
I wanted to take the bus from the Pisa airport back to Firenze but for some reason there’s no longer a bus from the airport. So we did a reverse of our arrival–drove back to Sixt, dropped off the car, took a cab to the train station and a train to Firenze. Once again it was SRO and this time we had to stand crammed together with 10 other passengers between cars. Talk about a miserable trip.
Getting around Lucca
It’s fairly tricky getting from Villa Cheli, up the SS12 and into Lucca. You have to watch the signage carefully at the roundabouts or you’ll end up west of the centro or on the Autostrada. If you’re headed north on viale Europa, I think it’s easiest to go left at the roundabout on viale Carducci, keeping the wall to the right. There are several parking lots on the left near Porta San Donato but you have to take a left and then go about a block west then south a block or two to get to the entrance. There are also lots on the north side of the wall and west of the train station.
My first attempts in 2015 at getting into Lucca and to Bagni di Lucca were less than successful. Here’s I wrote in my my journal after our first day: Today as usual didn’t go as planned. Traffic in Lucca was insane because of some festival. I got us lost trying to find parking and it’s a miracle we got back to the centro storico, found parking and were able to spend 2 ½ hours walking the city. Then we walked the wall, returned to the car and tried driving north to Bagni di Lucca. Once again I got us lost ‘cause I turned off the SS12 too soon. So I gave up and drove us back here, where we bought a bottle of wine and a bottle of water, and sat on the patio for 2 hours.
In 2016 I did a little better getting into Lucca, writing: I just had to do one extra loop before finding the parking lot we used last year. Apparently I have a flat learning curve because this year (2019) I wrote: Then it took me 2 tries to find our usual parking lot after which I took us the wrong direction for several blocks after parking. Once we found Porta San Donato things went well for a while. Part of the reason I got turned around is that we drove to Bagni di Lucca and the Devil’s Bridge first, and I apparently didn’t recognize the parking lot coming into the centro from a different direction.
Bagni di Lucca, the Devil’s Bridge and Montecarlo
When I was planning our 2015 trip I ran across an article in an old Wine Spectator magazine on hidden treasures of Tuscany. The only sights I hadn’t seen were the Devil’s Bridge and Villa Reale in Lucca. I still haven’t made it to Villa Reale but we’ve been to the Devil’s Bridge each time we’ve been to Lucca.
Research on the Devil’s Bridge led me to information on Bagni di Lucca which is just a few kilometers down the road and the Garfagnana in general as well as Montecarlo and the vineyards of the Luccan hills.
Bagni di Lucca
This village along the Lima River is tiny but charming. From the first time we came in 2015 our routine is to park on the edge of town, then walk to the centro and have a cappuccino and brioche. In 2015 we stopped at a small café that is now a real estate office. You can see a picture of the cafe in my ‘Getting to Lucca and Bagni di Lucca section’ and clearly it was warm enough to sit outside and enjoy our coffee and pastries. I think we went to the same café in 2016 but this past year, 2019, that café was gone and we had our coffee and brioche sitting inside at a café along the main road, just across the bridge.
I wrote in my journal that it was cloudy and cool so our pictures weren’t as good as usual but the 2 euro cappuccino and brioche were excellent.
I’ve tried to include pictures from all three trips in the gallery below.
Bagni di Lucca
Bagni di Lucca
Here’s a good link to information about Bagni di Lucca and surrounding towns with directions on how to get there. http://www.turismo.intoscana.it/allthingstuscany/aroundtuscany/bagni-di-lucca-tuscany/
Even after seeing the picture of the bridge in my Wine Spectator magazine, we weren’t prepared for how beautiful it is. It sits over the Serchio River and the view up the narrow river valley to the mountains is always spectacular, even on cloudy days. The real name of the bridge is Ponte della Maddalena but it’s called the Devil’s Bridge because local legend has it that this medieval stone arch, constructed with no center support, was built with the help of the devil, whom the villagers fooled.
In 2015 we were absolutely blown away as we drove up the SS 12 and saw the bridge on our left. We immediately parked and my sister must have taken at least 30 pictures. It was somewhat cloudy that day but must have been fairly warm since I’m not wearing a jacket.
Although I have lots of pictures from 2016 all I remember is that it was cloudy and cool and my sister and I weren’t getting along. This past year, 2019, by the time we drove from Bagni di Lucca to the bridge, the sun had come out and we got some exceptionally pretty pictures and talked to some nice guys from Australia who took our picture. I’ve included pictures from all three years in the gallery below but you can see more pictures in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights post.
The Devil’s Bridge
The Devil’s Bridge
In 2015 after a lot of research and map reading, I suggested driving south from Bagni di Lucca to Montecarlo. As I’ve written above, it’s fairly tricky to find the road out of Bagni di Lucca but once you get on this tiny twisting mountain road the scenery is beautiful (marred only by paper mills sitting in the river valley.) The road goes through Pescia and Collodi, the latter being the birthplace of Carlo Lorenzini, author of Pinocchio. I just read recently that Pescia has the second largest flower market in Europe and I wish now that we had stopped.
Montecarlo, like Bagni di Lucca, is a tiny but lovely village. It’s best to park at the bottom of the hill then walk up past the fort to the town. The path from the car park has some beautiful views out over the valley.
As you get to the main street, there’s a café with a fairly large outdoor seating area on the right. In 2015 we first walked to the end of the main street where there’s a look out point with more beautiful views all the way to Montecatini Terme, then came back to the café and had our usual vino plus a meat and cheese tray. We had some good laughs watching a table of German bikers pounding down the beer, then getting on their bikes.
In 2016 we made the same drive from Bagni di Lucca to Montecarlo and I wrote in my journal that after our walk ‘I suggested sharing a vino and an antipasto. So we went into a little café where I ordered the vino and antipasto in my broken Italian and we sat down at a little table out front. But the nice young guy insisted we sit across the street at a bigger table, then brought us a huge tray of meats and cheeses.’
This past year we drove from Villa Cheli first to Buonamico (see below) using a route I’d downloaded from Google. It took us on a rather circuitous route east from the SS12 then north to the east edge of Lucca and to SP31, also known as via Montecarlo. I had to back track a couple of times because the directions used street names that didn’t exist. But I eventually got us to Buonamico and then Montecarlo which is just a few kilometers down the road.
We did our usual stroll to the end of the main street enjoying a drop dead gorgeous day, the nicest of our time near Lucca. After taking some pictures, we could only find one restaurant (La Buca) that was open but it was perfect; great food and a lovely spot outside.
I’ve looked at a couple of web sites on Montecarlo but I think my sister’s pictures are better than the ones I saw on those sites. It is, as one blogger said, ‘a sleepy village.’ But it’s great for people watching as well as the views out over the valley.
Driving in the Garfagnana
So turning to Bagni di Lucca, as I wrote above, I got us lost on my first attempt in 2015. So I tried again two days later and as I recall I missed the turn to the SS12 from the road around Lucca’s wall but backtracked and got us on the right road. This time we stayed on SS12 to Devil’s Bridge and Bagni di Lucca (see more below). Luckily we saw a parking lot just as we entered Bagni di Lucca and that’s where we’ve parked every time. It’s a short walk into the small town where we always stop for a cappuccino and a brioche.
In 2019, I printed off directions from this website: https://bellabagnidilucca.com/2013/04/27/getting-to-bagni-di-lucca/. It has step by step (or more accurately block by block) directions with pictures which helped me see the sign to Abetone and the SS12. I followed the directions exactly and it brought us into Bagni di Lucca by a slightly different route. So I took our usual route back on the SS12 to the Devil’s Bridge and then to Lucca.
In 2015, after a lot of research and map reading, I suggested to my sister that we drive south from Bagni di Lucca through Collodi to Montecarlo. When we got to Bagni di Lucca, I didn’t see any signs to the road we wanted so I asked the café owner for directions. When we got on this crazy mountain road, I thought she’d sent us the wrong way but we stuck it out and finally started seeing signs for Montecarlo.
We did the same route to Bagni di Lucca and then to Montecarlo in 2016. I wrote in my journal: I thought I could find the road to Collodi OK but after nixing Sue’s choice got us on the wrong road and had to come back; finally found the right one but wasn’t totally sure for the first half hour of winding roads. When we got into Collodi, we took a desperately needed break, then I got us on the road to Montecarlo.
In 2015 I had a long list of potential vineyards to visit between Lucca and Montecarlo but we either couldn’t find them or as in the case of Fattoria di Poggio located just before the road going into Montecarlo, they turned out to be big tourist traps. So after lunch in Montecarlo we headed towards Lucca and spotted another vineyard that I’d read about online; Buonamico. We’ve come back each time we’ve been in the area and ordered wine shipped home all three times. Plus we’ve bought individual bottles to take with us to our next destination.
I particularly like their rosès and whites but all their wines are good. Both the first time we were here in 2015 and then again in 2019, the staff gave us generous pours of several wines. This past year we tried to book an appointment for the wine tasting plus meats and cheeses but they were completely booked the only two days we were available. When we arrived just after noon, we mentioned having bought wine there before so the staff gave us nice pours of 2 rosès, 2 whites and 2 reds. We bought 24 bottles to ship and she gave us more than a 40% discount. But the shipping was crazy expensive.
We were flat out drunk by then and sat outside for a smoke and photo op until we were sober enough to drive to Montecarlo.
As we were planning our 2019 trip, we looked into a day trip from Lucca to the Cinque Terre which was about a 110 euros each. But I couldn’t get the company to tell me where the meeting point was before paying and making reservations. So I suggested we take the train to La Spezia and then train to Manarola and Riomaggiore. When I checked online before our trip, there seemed to be plenty of trains at a reasonable price but after we got to Lucca and started looking at the train schedules, there seemed to be far fewer trains, possibly because it was mid October. Plus the weather forecast was not good, rainy and cool.
So I came up with the idea of taking the train to what my (somewhat dated) guide books said was a popular sea side town, Viareggio, which was only 30 minutes from Lucca. As you can see from the gallery below, it wasn’t the best day to be at a beach town, the cloudy cool weather giving it a melancholy vibe, plus for a supposedly popular beach destination, it seemed to have a lot of abandoned buildings. While it was a pleasant day trip, I wish now that we’d at least gone to La Spezia.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal: We caught the 10:30 am train to Viareggio, getting there just before 11:00 am. I took a chance on which direction to go but got us to the promenade after about a 20 minute walk. We walked north along the promenade for 1 ½ to 2 miles going out to the beach for a bit, window shopping and taking pix. Then we walked back and went south for a ways.
We decided on a restaurant and had insalata di tonno and wine. We were planning to go to the park but major storm clouds moved in so we hustled back to the station and caught the 2:20 pm train back to Lucca.