Wandering through Lucca in Tuscany is like stepping into an illuminated manuscript. The town’s red-orange roofs and spires thrust out of a landscape of deepest green, with cypress-tree brushstrokes and a backdrop of mountains. Author Hilaire Belloc’s 1902 description holds true: 'The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good.'
It’s hard to imagine anywhere more romantic than Lucca in the spring. From late March to early June, the surrounding meadows are splashed with colour, as wild flowers run riot. The climate resembles a perfect English summer’s day: skies are blue and the valleys are lush. It’s still low season, so there are bargains to be had, and none of the holiday crowds that descend on Tuscany in July and August.
Place to stay: Albergo Villa Marta
Three miles outside Lucca, Albergo Villa Marta is a 19th-century hunting lodge with mountain views. It’s set in gardens with magnolia, pine, cherry, olive and cypress trees, and a pool. Rooms are decorated in powder blues and pale terracottas and there’s an in-house restaurant serving traditional Tuscan dishes.
Book for dinner: Buca di Sant’Antonio
Puccini and Ezra Pound both dined at Buca di Sant’ Antonio, which dates from at least 1782. It serves up hearty and sophisticated cuisine: dishes include pasta with hare sauce, lamb stewed with olives, and roasted kid with artichokes, meals cost around £30.
Breakfast time: Caffè di Simo
Get a morning hit of cappuccino and cornetto (Italian for croissant) in an art nouveau setting. Caffè di Simo has a long, polished bar, displays full of pastries and sweets, and old fashioned service – it can’t have changed much since Puccini used to play piano here. Breakfast here won't set you back too much - around £1.70 - but your fellow drinkers won't hang around for long, either.
Pause for a snack: Forno A Vapore Amedeo Giusti
Stock up on picnic ingredients at Forno A Vapore Amedeo Giusti, a temple of baking. Buy handmade focaccia loaded with tomatoes, onion, potato and mozzarella, as well as springtime produce such as artichoke and courgette.
Circle the Old Town: Lucca’s city walls
The ‘absurd fortifications’ described by Belloc are Lucca’s complete and substantial city walls, so sturdy that they support avenues of plane trees. The elevated two-and-a-half-mile circuit offers shifting viewpoints over the town, particularly glorious at sunset.
Amble in the sunshine: Parco Villa Reale
Once home to Napoleon’s sister Elisa Baciocchi Bonaparte, Villa Reale is closed to the public, but its 17th-century gardens are a marvellously theatrical adventure. Daily guided tours take in a water theatre with grotesque, stream spewing masks, a lemon tree garden, a topiary sculpted ‘green theatre’ and a labyrinth.
See religious art: Cattedrale di San Martino
Loomed over by a medieval bell tower, the façade of the Cattedrale di San Martino is a magnificent, lace-like doily of carved marble, supported by sculpted columns, each one different. The late-Gothic interior is equally spectacular, with sculptures by Matteo Civitali, a painting of The Last Supper by Tintoretto and a wooden cross said to have been carved by Nicodemus. What's more, admission is free so you can save your money for souvenirs.
Souvenir stop: Lucca’s antique market
Get lost among a mishmash of silverware, brass, bronze, wood carvings, furniture, and antique and second-hand books. Lucca has one of Italy’s best antique markets, an epic sprawl held on the third weekend of every month around an series of piazzas.
Alfresco dining: Vineria I Santi
This small, bottle-lined wine shop and eaterie close to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro has outside tables shaded by large, racing-green sunshades. It’s the perfect place to watch the world go by over a selection of local wines, along with inspirational snacks such as antipasti, carpaccio and roast rabbit.