Perhaps the least known of the Tuscan cities, Lucca lies off the beaten path. Most tourists whiz past it on the autostrada in their haste to get to Pisa or the Cinqueterre, but elegant Lucca will repay you for the detour. Once the capital city of Tuscany, Lucca has jealously maintained its independence for a number of centuries. The citizens have nurtured a special pride that is evident in their many churches, especially the unique grand Romanesque cathedral. Lucca deserves at least three hours of your time; don't leave town until you've had a chance to walk the ancient ramparts and enjoy a visit to the Puccini museum honoring the town's favorite son. Even the most exhausted Tuscan tourist can hopefully change his or her luck in Lucca.
If you have enjoyed your detour so far, then don't stop now. To experience the most striking natural terrain in all of Tuscany, head north from Lucca and enter the foothills of the Apuan Alps, the region known as the Garfagnana. Your first stop is the once famous spa town of Bagni di Lucca. This charming village on the River Lima boasts impressive homes that recall grander days, and is a fabulous place to enjoy a leisurely meal.
Time and weather permitting, continue your journey by taking the "yellow" road northwest from Bagni and following the signs to the fortress city of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. This fairy tale village dates from the twelfth century and features a sixteenth-century Renaissance cathedral and a most impressive landscape.
There indeed is a moral to this story. Tuscany is much more than museums, Chianti, and hill towns. Do yourself a favor and regenerate your cells by exploring Lucca and the Garfagnana. It just feels good.
You'll enjoy moderately priced meals at Giulio, Via delle Conce 47 (tel. 583-55948), closed Sunday, Monday and August (try the polenta and wild mushrooms or the eels in sauce), and Ristorante Giglio, Piazza del Giglio (tel. 583-494-058), closed Monday.