Prato Fiorito, (Field of Flowers), is a bald mountain, covered in grass and goats and millions of flowers, above Bagni di Lucca. It is in the Appenine National Park and is in the company of other beautiful mountains that you can walk for days in, stopping along the way in small refuges. You arrive there via the road to Montefegatesi, the last highest village in the area. We love Prato Fiorito, it is a steep climb to the top along a narrow goats track through all the flowers. When you get to the top, you feel that ancient man has always come here, just to get that stupendous view, uninterrupted by trees, down over the valleys, through the next range of mountains, the Apuane, to the sea.
The Orrido di Botri is another special place in the Appennine National Park. You get there by car also via the road to Montefegatesi and then down down to the gorge at the bottom, through a beautiful old chestnut forest. It can be pretty rough so you can also go via Tereglio which is a real road. It has a lovely outdoors restaurant in the small park with great long picnicking tables alongside the torrent. To get into the gorge you pay the forrestieri a small fee for loan of a helmet and then you walk in the torrent, it is freezing cold, hopping over boulders and logs and escaping small stones that fall occasionally from above, for about an hour and half, before reaching a magical pool in the cascade.
San Cassiano di Controne is a village above Bagni di Lucca and can be reached by the same road to Montefegatesi but turning off before hand. This village has the most remarkable very old church built by the Longobards in the 7th century when they had been turned to Christendom, building over the shrine to Diana who was the Roman patron goddess of the thermal waters. The carvings outside the church feature some very ‘Green Man’ style carvings, glorifying nature. The marble flooring is exquisitely creamy with age, the surface rolling with thousands of footsteps. It used to house the very beautiful wood horse and rider sculpture, ‘Cavaliere’ by Jacopo della Quercia, but it is now being protected in the local museum – which is great because the local children used to ‘ride’ it which is most likely why it is in disrepair. Della Quercia’s sculptures were a huge inspiration for Michaelangelo’s own work.
We love Pisa. Sometimes we go there just to have lunch and to visit the Museum of San Matteo, an old medieval monastery, on the river Arno. What an amazing museum, it has with some wonderful Pisano and Donatello sculptures and lots of ecclesiastical early medieval works, the wealth of colours and those amazing distorted figures. It is usually very quiet in there as most people just go to the Piazza dei Miracoli and that’s all. Pisa has a lot more to offer.
The Circolo dei Forestieri restaurant in Bagni di Lucca is one of those wonderful daily experiences of fantastic eating that only the Italians can provide and not only that, the setting is gorgeous. This gracious old building, designed as a sort of club for the wealthy, was opened in 1790 in the hey day of tourism in this area, famous for its thermal baths and miraculous cures. The restaurant food is great, very tuscan, abundant servings and also does a tourist menu of €12 which includes primi, secondo and contorno, wine and water and bread.
We love the Jean Varaud Thermal Baths in Bagni di Lucca. There are apparently 19 different springs in the area and have been known throughout history for their therapeutic benefits. They are supposed to treat gynaecological problems, rheumatic, respiratory and skin diseases. We often go to Paolina’s cave, a little grotto in the complex with a steaming pool that you sit at and inhale for about twenty minutes. You sweat a lot and you feel quite depleted afterwards. The nurses lay you down after the grotto and wrap you in blankets and bring you a tisane – it’s a gorgeous experience lying there for another half hour, cocooned looking up into the huge vault with the occasional bird flying around. We feel wonderful afterwards, our lungs cleaned out, and our skin feeling like silk. Sometimes we go for a swim in the warm thermal pool at the hotel of the same complex, it makes a day of pampering in the simplest way.
Every third weekend of the month there is a wonderful Antique market in Lucca. It makes a great day out, walking the streets and piazzas full of wonderful things, from crockery to fabrics, old clothes, relics from churches, paintings, furniture, jewellery, an endless array of beauty from bygone times. The experience is made even more extraordinary in this very elegant city with its old streets of beautiful buildings and churches all enclosed by a great sculptural wall that at the end of the day is perfect for a promenade and a stop at one of its cafe restaurants.
While we are in Lucca shopping or collecting art supplies, we never miss a visit to via Buia 12, off via Fillungo, (the pedestrian shopping street), where can be found the iconic Pizza Felice. Mama mia, the best pizza slice we have ever had, plus they make a wonderful Cecine, made with chickpea flour and oil, and in the winter, necci – ricotta wrapped in chestnut flour pancakes. It is a little crammed place and people queue to get in, sometimes you can get a perch at one of the interior stools or you stand outside feasting on your spoils and sipping a wine or beer as you go.
Working and living in Pietrasanta, is an intensive time for us. We go there to get as much work done at the foundry or in the marble studio as we possibly can. Fortunately, Pietrasanta is beautiful, it is on the mediterranean and many people come just to holiday here. In the summer the main piazza exhibits huge sculptures and the shops and galleries are open till after midnight, people jam pack into the square, in the streets, into all the restaurants, laughing, promenading, the squeals of children playing till the never never hours. For us, our favourite recently found refuge is the bar, Circolo Porta a Lucca in via Garibaldi. This bar we love in winter, it is wonderfully eclectically cultural, featuring exhibitions and musicians at the end of the week plus some great events throughout those months. In the summer, the other bar we love and has a great workers lunch, is the Circolo Croce Verde in Via Capriglia, just up above the main carpark, the tables set out under a magnificent plane tree. And they make a great spritz! To go to a Circolo you have to become a member and the membership entitles you to every Circolo in Italy. Membership is around 10 euros a person per year. Drinks and lunches are much cheaper than the normal bars.
Sometimes you just have to go to Florence! It’s too easy from where we are in both Bagni di Lucca and Pietrasanta. It usually takes us about an hour and a half to get there. It is often a day trip for us, but we also enjoy staying overnight here so that we can enjoy the pictures at the old Odeon in original version. The Odeon is pretty special in itself – it is perhaps one of the most beautiful movie houses in Europe. The Palazzo Strozzino, designed by Brunelleschi, was built in the mid 1400’s and stayed in the same family until the beginning of the 1900’s when it was finally sold and renovated into a cinema in the twenties. It is truly beautiful inside with all the elegance of the renaissance and the panache of the roaring twenties, lovely to go here, take a wine from the bar and disappear behind those great velvet curtains into another world. Afterwards Trattoria Bordino, Via Stracciatella, on the other side of the river and just two minutes from the Ponte Vecchio is an amazing restaurant loved by the locals and very affordable – lunch is great here too. The interior is fabulous, very rustic and characterful.