Tuscan civilisation predates Rome and they won’t let your forget it. They have cherished their reputation as the first stop of the Italian tourist since St Malachy of Armagh footed their way through the rolling olive groves.
The old path through Lucca looks like it hasn’t changed changed much since Mal’s time, or since they replaced the original cedar cross in the cathedral with a new one – in the tenth century.
In another church across town St Zita, her body miraculously preserved, sits in her casket as if nothing has happened since the 1180s.
Despite appearances, something has changed. The Medici’s came and went, the famous rivalry with local cities was replaced by national unity, and although Lucca’s walls were never tested by cannon, (they were almost brought down by traffic which careered round them until the 1980s) another invasion is on its way.
It is all thanks to the man from Westmeath. Ryanair’s first flights from Dublin to Pisa started last month. It means that one of the most splendid tourist destinations in the world is now a couple of hours from Ireland.
The heart of Tuscany is elsewhere – the little spa town of Montecatini. Here is the ideal base for a journey to the region, and not just because hotels are 40pc cheaper than Florence, Pisa or Lucca, and restaurants weigh in at a 20pc advantage.
Montecatini Terme has been catering for tourists for hundreds of years and you can see why, there are 12,700 beds to be filled, largely in old family owned hotels with a tradition of hospitality, and nine spas including the luxurious Grotta Giusti where thermal waters fill ancient caverns beneath with their heat and humidity.
Don a dressing gown and you can pass through what locals call paradise, purgatory, limbo and hell in search of the gentle sauna environment and nostril unclogging air.
It is not quite a thrilling journey to the bowels of the earth through mineral-encrusted rocks worthy of Jules Verne, but what an antidote to the artificial spas that seem to be springing up everywhere.
Tuscany is famous for its landscape, its food, and the movies that they make – Under the Tuscan Sun is not typical, it should really be called Under the Almost Umbrian Sun.
The lifestyle is as spicy and their hospitality is as famous as their olives. Here they take care of their guests with the same attention to detail that they have taken care of their heritage.
No beating them down with bamboos, no net to catch the ripest, just a loving hand for healthiest end result.
Pisa has the airport and the biggest attraction. It took 12 years to restore the 800-year tower after it closed in 1990 because it was in danger of falling over. Eventually they attached lead weights to the north side and anchored it with steel cables to reinforce the foundations, correcting the inclination by 45cms. Nowadays if you are patient, you can become one of the thirty people they let up every half hour by paying Eu15. There is a separate entrance charge for the Duomo and baptistry and in fairness to the locals, they have cleared the gaudy stalls away from the foreground and planted lawns instead.
In reality the leaning tower is a half hour visit off peak before you go elsewhere to see the real Tuscany. A cycle around the walls of Lucca is as great a must-do for holidaymakers to the region.
Inside Lucca’s old Roman Amphitheatre they have what was probably the first piece of serious conservation in western Europe.
A hundred years ago they had got the hang of conservation, and one of the things that is most admired is the way the medieval grid of the city is preserved, allowing very few full on views of the massive monuments. Buildings came and went, but Lucca’s medieval heart kept beating as it embraced the modern with enthusiasm. This was the city of Verdi and the first part of Europe to abolish the death penalty.
- Eoghan Corry flew to Pisa with Ryanair. Flights are daily at 6.30pm. www.ryanair.com
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