Day trip from Florence: Lucca

by Amy Knauff

I’d always heard good things about Lucca, a small town in northern Tuscany, but only after a decade of living in Italy did I finally manage to visit. I was not disappointed – in fact, a few months later when my mom came to visit, I insisted on taking her there too (and it turned out to be one of her two favorite towns in Italy, along with Orvieto).

Lucca is not a major tourist destination – the crowds are bigger in, say, Siena or Pisa – because it doesn’t have any famous sights to see. But that was exactly what I was looking for: something slightly off the beaten path, with some interesting things to see and do, but mostly just a charming town to walk around in and relax.

In fact, it’s the perfect day trip from Florence (it takes between 1 hr 15 mins – 2 hours on the train, €7.20-11) as you can pretty much see it all in one day, at an easy pace.

Here’s how I would spend a day in Lucca:

Exit the train station into the piazza in front (Piazzale Bettino Ricasoli), and stop by the Lucca Tourist Center to pick up a map for €1. Cross the piazza and at the main street, Viale Regina Margherita, turn left. Walk up the street – on your right, you’ll see the old wall surrounding the historic center of Lucca. A little ways up the street, at the traffic light, you’ll see an entrance in the old wall. Cross the street and walk through the arches and you’ll be in the historic center. It takes 10 minutes or so to walk into town.

Head straight to the Guinigi Tower, which opens at 9:30 am (entrance at via Sant’Andrea, 45, cost is €4). This is the most important tower in Lucca, and you can pick it out from anywhere in town as it has a few oak trees growing out of the top of it – a pretty unique sight. It was built by the Guinigi family, who were rich and powerful merchants in the 14th century. There are 230 steps to get to the top. It’s worth it for the gorgeous view of the whole town and the surrounding hillside.

 

Your next stop should be one of the many bike rental shops in town – try Tuscany Ride a Bike on via Elisa, 28. Head over to one of the entrances to the ancient Roman wall that encircles Lucca, and take a ride around on top of the wall. Yes, that’s right – on TOP of the ancient Roman wall. Lucca no longer needs protecting, so the top of the intact wall has become a park – it has grass and trees growing on top of it, and a biking/walking loop that goes all the way around (4 km). You’ll see locals jogging, biking, walking their dogs, pushing strollers, or reading on a park bench. Cycling around the top of the wall high above the town gives you a great view and a feeling of freedom.

After an athletic morning, park your bike and have a hearty Tuscan lunch. I liked Osteria Baralla (via Anfiteatro, 5 ) which had a charming atmosphere and great food. In the cooler months, try one of the filling Tuscan soups like ribollita or the farro (spelt) and vegetable soup.

After lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon biking around town. By the way, even if you’re rusty on a bike, this is the place to practice: the historic center has little to no car traffic, it’s flat, and the whole thing is non-stressful. Plus it seems EVERYONE in Lucca is always riding a bike – grannies, little kids, and everyone in between. I saw a local woman smoking, talking on a cell phone, and window shopping all at the same time as she biked slowly through town.

san frediano lucca

During your ride, stop off and visit the Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (Piazza Antelminelli); inside you can see the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, commissioned by her husband, Paolo Guinigi, and made by Jacopo della Quercia (the church is free, but a visit to the tomb is €2). Also stop by the town’s other two main churches, Basilica di San Frediano with its gold mosaic façade (Piazza San Frediano) and the Romanesque San Michele in Foro (Piazza San Michele).

If you’re an opera aficionado, the Puccini Museum, his birth home, is worth a visit (Corte San Lorenzo, 9, for €7). And if you’re visiting Lucca in July or August, DON’T miss the Puccini Opera Festival in the nearby town Torre del Lago (http://www.puccinifestival.it/).

 

End your sight-seeing at the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. This stunning oval piazza is built on the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. In the same curved shape of the ancient amphitheatre walls, there are now shops, restaurants, and apartments. The buildings are new, but inside some of the shops you can see pieces of the ancient structure. Have a late-afternoon coffee at one of the tables in the piazza as you take in the atmosphere.

After returning your bike, stop by Pizzeria da Felice (via Buia, 12) for a snack to tide you over for your train ride back to Florence (open until 8:30pm most nights). This humble hole-in-the-wall is a tiny place with only a few tables, but don’t be fooled: it has the most amazing cecina I’ve ever had! Cecina (also called farinata in some parts of Italy) is typical of Liguria and northern Tuscany: a simple savoury, flat, pizza-shaped “torta” made with chickpea flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. Eat it straight away, hot from the oven, topped with salt and pepper, and pair it with a cold glass of the house wine. It will be one of the simplest, but best, snacks you’ll have in Italy.

 

Vegetarian Florence

by Linda Martinez

Recently, Steve and I had the rare opportunity to spend a couple of kid-less days in Florence.  Besides some train stopovers, I hadn’t truly visited Florence since 1995 and Steve needed to get some cross-pollinate work done – visit with some owners and inspect some new properties.  With the help of our good friend, Toni, who offered to stay with our three young daughters, we were able to have a couple of precious days away on our own.

We stayed at a cross-pollinate property, Ponte Vecchio Suite apartment.  It’s a cute and well-maintained property just a 5 minute walk from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in the Oltrarno neighborhood.  I immediately took a liking to this area which is the artisan neighborhood of Florence.  Just around the corner from Ponte Vecchio Suite we found Caffe degli Artigiani, a bar on a small, quiet piazza that I immediately dubbed “our bar” and knew we would be going there every day for our morning cappuccino.

While the apartment has a kitchenette,  Steve was on holiday from cooking and I was on holiday from washing dishes, so we knew we would be eating out for the two days we were in Florence.  Our family is vegetarian, so traveling offers an opportunity to check out the veggie offerings in the place we are visiting.  One of the on-line sources I check when going to a new city is Happy Cow, an on-line guide (they also have an app) that lets you find vegetarian, vegan, vegetarian friendly restaurants and natural food shops in that town.

Our first food break was lunch and we headed to Steve’s favorite which he discovered on a past trip to Florence,  5 e Cinque, Piazza della Passera, 1 – coincidentally in the same piazza as my new favorite coffee bar.  5 e Cinque is an organic restaurant, mostly vegetarian, but they do have meat options.  Their food is inspired by traditional dishes and ingredients from the region of Liguria.  Steve and I usually try to get two different dishes so we can share.  I got the curried chickpea polpette (polpette usually, meat, but means anything ground and then formed into balls) served on basmati rice and Steve got a farro (spelt) dish made with radicchio and a walnut pesto.  As you can see from the photo, it was so delicious that we had nearly cleaned our plates before I considered taking a photo of them!  I highly recommend – definitely a restaurant to include on any vegetarian (or even non-vegetarian) tour of Florence.

After lunch, Steve had a cross-pollinate appointment and so I decided to take a walk around the city.  I ended up heading toward the synagogue of Florence which is a beautiful building with a gorgeous green copper dome.  On my way, I had an urge for a little something sweet and a hot drink and ended up at Caffelatte also known as La Latteria which uses organic milk and offers fair trade coffees and teas.  Nothing fancy here and the place seems a bit run down, but I was excited by the cakes and treats in the cabinet and so I ordered a slice of a type of pound cake and a caffe latte.  Unfortunately, I left unimpressed.  The cake fell in that realm of many Italian pastries – looks great to the eyes, but a different story when you actually put it in your mouth.  The cake was stale and hard, but at least the caffe latte was good.

Dinner that night was at BVeg which I found out about through Georgette Jupe’s great blog, Girl in Florence.   I had a dish with polenta with layers of pureed broccoli and Steve had a soup with chickpeas and algae.  Both were delicious.

The next day, our last day in Florence, we tried to have lunch at Cuculia, via dei Serragli, 18r, but after sitting down and ordering some water, were told that there was a problem and a delay in the kitchen with the stoves lighting and since Steve had an appointment and didn’t have loads of time for lunch – we decided to pay for the water and find another place to eat.  Lucky for us, just around the corner was Vivanda, via Santa Monaca, 7r.  We both had the lunch special which was a soup and pasta dish.  We started off with a mushroom, cannellini  and cabbage soup followed by a spaghetti alla chitarra pasta with a kale pesto.  We had some great organic wine to go with it.

Our final night we went to a non-vegetarian specific restaurant, il Santo Bevitore, via di Santo Spirito, 66 for dinner.  About a year ago, Steve had been on an excellent Context Travel tour which features the artisans in this area and the docent who led that tour had told him about il Santo Bevitore and had highly recommended it.  It was a Friday night and we hadn’t made a reservation, but we arrived around 7:30pm and with our assurances to the staff that we would not be occupying the table all night and could be out by 9pm, we managed to get a table.  We started with some vegetables preserved in oil – sundried tomatoes, onions, eggplant, etc.  We had a great meal – my ribollita was not really that soupy, but tasted great.  The wait staff were all very accommodating and pleasant – we got into a great conversation with a waiter who is originally from Togo who has lived in Florence for 20+ years.  The meal was our priciest in Florence though – we paid double what we had at the other restaurants, but it was a nice little splurge our last evening there.

The next day, our train back home didn’t leave until 3pm, so we decided to try one last veggie place for lunch.  We had been visiting with Moraq – originally from Chicago who has been living in Italy for the past 18 years.  She’s the owner of the homey Casa di Barbano property on cross-pollinate and having two children, she was able to make some great suggestions of where I could get colored wigs for carnevale for our daughters.

With that errand under our belt, we headed to Libreria Brac, via dei Vagellai, 18r for lunch.  There is no signage for this bookstore/artistic space/cafe so keep an eye out for the number and the books out front.  The cafe is in the back.  Because of the size and popularity of this space, reservations are a definite must.  We didn’t have them and had to assure once again that we would be out quickly as we had a train to catch.  We decided to go with a couple of the specials they had off the menu.  Steve had soy polpette with cannellini beans in a tomato sauce and I had a buckwheat pasta with cream of peas and kale sauce.  Both were absolutely excellent and very filling.  Steve went to the kitchen afterward for a chat with the chef to see how his dish was made.  The great thing about Italy is that for the most part there isn’t this sense of secrecy in the kitchen.  You won’t get a written down recipe, but if you ask the right questions, the chefs will generally tell you what they used and how it was made.  It’s up to you to deal with portions and how to put it together

We were pleasantly surprised by how well put together both in terms of interior design and menus the vegetarian restaurants were that we visited in Florence.  Each restaurant that we went to was always packed with people and had great atmospheres.  All in all we had some wonderful meals and no complaints.  While every Italian restaurant has vegetables available (contorni) or pasta dishes that are meat-less – eating at a specifically Italian vegetarian restaurant will provide an excellent opportunity for anyone  – vegetarians and non-veggies alike – to try interesting and creative dishes using the excellent produce that is available here in Italy.

For many more recommendations on where to eat and drink in Florence I highly recommend Elizabeth Minchilli‘s smartphone app Eat Florence.

Linda maintains her own blog for our hotel, The Beehive, at http://www.the-beehive.com/blog with practical and irreverent information, observations and musings on Rome.  

Florence Neighborhood Guide

by Steven Brenner

Overview of the city

I can’t stress enough how easy it is to visit Florence – it’s small, it’s flat, it’s more pedestrian than car-centric, and everything you want to see is within walking distance.  You won’t need public transportation or taxis and you won’t need to worry too much about whether you’re central enough.

To a Florentine, the city would encompass a much greater area than I will detail here, and the neighborhoods have specific names that I’m not using, because essentially I want to give you the very simplified, practical version of Florence, designed for someone who knows nothing about the city and wants to get their bearings.

You’ll probably enter the city by the main train station, Santa Maria Novella (top left circle), which is at the upper, western edge of the city center.  About a 10 minute walk away, towering over the center of the city, you have the Duomo at Piazza Santa Maria del Fiore (middle blue circle).  South of that you pass Piazza della Repubblica and then hit the Piazza della Signoria (with the statue of David copy), then the Uffizi, then the river Arno which is crossed at this point by the Ponte Vecchio (bottom circle).

That whole walk, to give you an idea of size, should take under 30 minutes.

Just beneath the Ponte Vecchio is the Pitti Palace and to the east of that, the Boboli Gardens.  This whole area south of the Arno river is known as the Oltrarno (it means “across the Arno”).

As this map above shows, Florence is not a particularly large city, and the neighborhoods are fairly the same in terms of architecture and the density of shops/cafes and restaurants, but there are some variations to the different areas that I’ll point out that might help you choose which area is the best for you.

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South of Santa Maria Novella

If you’re on the cheap, this is a pretty logical place to stay.  It’ll probably take you about 5 minutes to get over here from the station and then about 10-15 minutes to get pretty much everywhere else in the historic center.  There are some narrow streets, but cars are still allowed over here.  Lots of people on bicycles.  A mix of aging locals, immigrants, hotels, and a general bustling vibe.  It’s also home to the historic Erboisteria Santa Maria Novella, and some good, cheap eats (some ethnic, some traditional).

Where to stay:

Tre Gigli  – double rooms from €70 a night in high season.

Casa Corsi – double rooms from €75 a night in high season

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Behind SM Novella

About a 5 minute walk behind the station, going away from the center, this is a good choice if you are traveling by car, or want to save even more and don’t mind adding 5-10 minutes on to all that walking you’ll be doing.  The area, for the most part, loses some of the vibe of the rest of the city, and has some newer buildings that kill the architectural landscape a bit, but the plus is that the accommodations over here are more modern and functional.  It feels mostly residential and quiet, despite being so close to the station.  It doesn’t have that sketchy train station atmosphere that many train stations do, but if you really want to be on a small, cobblestone street, you’ll have to go a bit further in (and pay a bit more).  If you favor a room that’s more modern, this might be a better option for you.

Where to stay:

Residenza Giulia  – double rooms around €102 a night.

Bed and Bed Cassia - double rooms for €55 night in high season

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Fortezza da Basso and the Mercato Generale

This is a very residential, quiet part of Florence, with a number of ethnic food shops peppered here and there.  There are more cars, but not much congestion of traffic.  The buildings are older, typically Florentine.  Once you get to the Mercato Generale you have some serious old-school Florentine food – more tripe sandwiches than you can shake a stick at.  On the north of this circle you have the Fortezza da Basso which was a fort built in the 1500′s and is now a convention center.  From there you’re looking at a 10 minute walk to the Duomo and the Mercato.  It’s an obvious choice for anyone coming to Florence for a convention, but it’s also a good way to be away from the crowds and traffic and people around the train station without adding too much space between you and the stuff you want to see.

Where to stay:

Casa di Barbano – €92 for a double room in high season, with breafkast.

Gianna’s B&B – €100 for a double with breakfast in high season.

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Historic Center

Pretty much everything in your guide book is here.  One way to reach this area from the station is to go through Via Faenza, a very touristed street, made more crowded by hotels and pensioni thanks to it being a Rick Steves’ preferred, budget area in Florence.  It’s a mixed bag of good restaurants and tacky tourist souvenir stuff, lots of hotels and internet cafes.  Architecturally speaking, it’s still old-Florence and a narrow, quaint streets and feels just like anywhere else in the center, but without the glamor.  The street essentially ends at the Duomo, so it’s a good budget option for being just outside the “center”.

I consider the center the few blocks from the Duomo at the north to the Ponte Vecchio at the south.  There’s a few main streets that are wider and have taxis and literally swarms of people.  Often in the summer you can barely walk down these streets.  Florence doesn’t absorb tourists all that well, given that the center is so small, and it can be quite overwhelming in high season.

Accommodations are generally more upscale here.  Restaurants are pricier and you’ll see lots of boutiques and high fashion.

Where to stay:

Via Faenza:

Casa Billi - doubles around €65 a night in high season

Bencidormi - artsy doubles at €95 a night

Historic Center:

Cimatori B&B – traditional, charming doubles at €115 a night

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Oltrarno

Literally meaning “across the Arno”, the Oltrarno is my favorite area.  A bit harder to get to with bags for new arrivals (maybe a 20-30 minute walk), but once here you’re in a real neighborhood.  Better, cheaper food.  More local culture and less crowds.  You can walk to the Ponte Vecchio in about 5-15 minutes depending where you are.  There’s usually some savings for staying around here as well.  As for sites, just south of the Ponte Vecchio you have the Pitti Palace and then the Boboli Gardens behind that (to the east).  Via Maggio is a main street that runs away from the river and cuts through the Oltrarno.  Going further west you have Via dei Serragli, which can take you to all sorts of good local restaurants, and then crossing through the Oltrarno is Via di Santo Spirito and Borgo San Frediano.  In the center of all this is Piazza Santo Sprito with a daily fruit and vegetable market in the morning.  This is the area of the vanishing artisans that I’ve written about here and is much more easy going and less touristy than the other side of Florence.

Where to stay:

Casa di Annusca - €68 euro doubles and a nice little garden where breakfast is served

Ponte Vecchio Suite – 2 bedroom apartment for €160 a night for 4 guests

Three Easy Day-trips from Florence

by Jessica Infantino Trumble

If you’re staying in Florence, chances are you won’t run out of things to do.  But if you want to make Florence your home base and venture out to see the surrounding area, here are three easy day-trip ideas.

Siena
Probably one of the most popular side-trips from Florence, Siena is a medieval city built upon three hills that converge at its main square, Il Campo.  Twice a year in July and August, the square fills with thousands of spectators for the Palio horse races, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century.

Regardless of what time of year you visit, there is no shortage of things to see, from the city’s Duomo to the Pinacoteca filled with medieval art.  A must-see is Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall at the focal point of Il Campo, which houses the fresco-adorned civic museum.  If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also climb the 330-foot city tower for a stunning view of Siena’s signature brown rooftops.

While many travelers may be content with taking up a seat at a café on Il Campo, others may enjoy exploring the city’s maze of hilly streets.  Keep an eye out for the colorful flags that correspond with each of the 17 contrade or neighborhoods of Siena and their equally as colorful mascots, like a goose, unicorn and other medieval creatures.

How to get there: The easiest and fastest way to get to Siena is by bus.  The SITA bus station is just west of Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station on Via Santa Caterina da Siena. Buses run twice an hour and you can buy tickets at the station.  Try to catch one of the buses labeled corse rapide (they’re faster, a little over an hour versus nearly 2 hours), and get off at the Piazza Gramsci stop along Via Tozzi in Siena.  When you’re ready to go back to Florence, there’s an underground stairwell across the street from the bus hub, in front of the NH Excelsior Hotel, where you can buy tickets.  Go to www.sienamobilita.it to view bus timetables.

Pisa and Lucca
This is an easy two-for-one day-trip from Florence, especially for travelers who want to make a quick stop in Pisa to check the Leaning Tower off their bucket list.

Pisa – photo by Natalie Armijo

If you decide to climb the tower, reservations are required so be sure to book your time slot in advance.  If not, you can still see the tower from the outside, along with the Duomo, Baptistery and other sights on the Field of Miracles.  Walk down the Borgo Stretto, the most elegant and expensive shopping street in Pisa (and the location where Galileo was born), or escape the crowds of tourists with a quiet walk along the Arno River.

Nearby Lucca is a well-preserved medieval city, most famous for its ramparts.  Atop the wall, which is paved and landscaped, you can rent a bike or walk the 3-mile loop for a scenic overview of the city.  Within the walls, Lucca is also a great place to wander since there is very little traffic.  Like other Tuscan towns, Lucca was once dotted with defensive towers, and the last of which remains is the Guinigi Tower near the city’s center.  Climb to the top, where several oak trees grow, for an incredible view of the city.  Similarly, the Torre delle Ore clock tower also offer great views, or you can pass your time shopping and strolling along Via Fillungo.

How to get there: Trains run several times an hour from Florence to both Pisa (about an hour away) and Lucca (about an hour and a half), so you can start with either one of these cities.  Check out the schedules at www.trenitalia.com.  The best way to get between Pisa and Lucca is an easy 30-minute bus ride that connects the two cities, with convenient stops at the Field of Miracles in Pisa and Piazzale Verdi in the western part of Lucca.  Then just hop back on the train when you’re ready to return to Florence.

Cinque Terre
Look one direction and see hills dotted with colorful buildings and vineyards, and the other direction to see the crystal-blue waters of the Mediterranean.  This day-trip requires a little more planning than the others, but the extra effort is well worth it.  Each of the five villages that make up the Cinque Terre boast their own unique charm – be prepared for sensory overload!

Walk the Via dell’Amore that connects Riomaggiore and Manarola, eat a delicious lunch of fresh seafood or pesto pasta in Corniglia, kick back with gelato from Gelateria Il Porticciolo along the water’s edge in Vernazza or take a dip in the Mediterranean in Monterosso al Mare.

While there are many companies that offer organized day-trips to Cinque Terre where you’re guaranteed to see all five villages, you may also want to consider packing an overnight bag and stay for an evening in one of the towns before heading back to Florence.  You can read more about my recent trip to Cinque Terre here.

How to get there: If you want to forego an organized tour, take the train from Florence to La Spezia, which takes about 2 hours, usually with a train change in Pisa.  From La Spezia Centrale, pick up another train to the southernmost town, Riomaggiore.  The five towns are only a few minutes apart by local train, and you can buy individual tickets at the stations.  Just be sure to check the timetables so you don’t miss the last train back to Florence.  If you decide to hike between the towns, you just need to pay the Cinque Terre National Park entrance fee of 5 euros.  More information can be found at www.cinqueterre.it.

Cecina – where have you been all my life?

by Steven Brenner

I just discovered cecina, a Tuscan flatbread/pancake made from chickpea flour and water.  I can’t stop thinking, “how is it possible that I’ve lived in Italy most of my adult life and never had this before?”

Two of my daughters and I were in Florence and since I refuse to eat a mediocre meal anywhere, I dragged them around looking for just the right place and decided on Cinque e 5 in the Oltrarno.  It was small, cute, organic, vegetarian/vegan friendly, and the right mix of traditional and creative.  On the menu were a number of things I didn’t recognize, like cecina, both plain or with artichokes (as pictured above) as well as an unleavened focaccia called covaccino and the Florentine ravioli, pansoti, which are stuffed with greens and tossed in a walnut sauce.

Perhaps this is yet one more example of Italy’s awesomeness – that one can discover new foods that exist only a few hours away from one’s home; that entire culinary traditions in a neighboring region are totally foreign to you.

With my interested piqued, I looked it up to get the full story and to make it myself:  it’s called farinata in general, cecina in Tuscany, and socca in southern France.  There’s even a version of it in Sardegna, Uruguay and Argentina.  Originally from Genova – hence having spread to Sardegna (which was originally populated by the French Genovesi) and now typical of all of Liguria, and the stretch from Nice all the way to Pisa.  It is a simple flatbread made of chickpea flour, olive oil and salt.  It’s gluten-free – something that ought to really appeal to celiacs, suffering in Italy without something bread-like to dip into.  It’s similar to a tortilla and holds together well – can be stuffed or used like a sandwich, or rolled up like a crêpe.  You can bake stuff into it, like the artichokes; spread a soft cheese on it, such as stracchino; or top with onions, as I did for my first trial:

It’s pretty easy to make, but also easy to burn.  I mixed about 250g of chickpea flour with 750ml of water, added about 2 tbs of salt and let it sit overnight.  The next morning I stirred in 3 tbs of olive oil and a bit more flour until it was batter-like, then poured it into a well-oiled round dish, and baked it at 250°C until it was nice and brown.  Since I made a few different ones of various thicknesses, to experiment, the time ranged from 10 minutes to 30 minutes (and 1/2 of one was totally burnt to a crisp).

If you’re in Florence, be sure to try the cecina at Cinque e 5 in piazza della Passera in the Oltrarno.


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