Original Travel founder and father of three, Tom Barber, reveals how a day of cycling around a small Tuscan city could become a firm family favourite.
It’s official: my children are spoilt rotten. Having a father who is the founder of a travel company specialising in tailor-made family holidays, they’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the most magical destinations in the world. They’ve skied in Switzerland, been on a riding safari in South Africa, watched spinner dolphins perform aquabatics in the Maldives, sailed around Greek islands, snorkelled in Oman, I could go on. Like I said, spoilt rotten.
And yet to my surprise, when I asked them recently what their single favourite travel experience had been, they all unanimously agreed on one destination, somewhere that was not especially far-flung or glamorous. Their favourite trip, it turned out, was cycling around the medieval walls of the charming and understated Tuscan city of Lucca.
I’m secretly relieved that all these lovely research trip holidays haven’t turned them into entitled little monsters, but to the uninitiated I imagine this begs the question - what’s so special about Lucca? Well, a lot actually, particularly when it comes to families.
Italy is the gift that keeps on giving for anyone with children and Lucca is arguably the jewel in the crown. The weather, the beaches, the accessible (for the most part) cultural curiosities, the activities on offer and, of course, the food, which includes most children’s holy trinity of pizza, pasta and ice cream. What’s not to like?
And while a Rome city break or Puglian/Sardinian beach week is an absolute must, time spent in Tuscany is also a family classic. Pop to Pisa for the obligatory holding up the Leaning Tower; introduce the little ones to the Renaissance in all its glory in Florence, stay in a glorious hilltop villa with pool surrounded by cypress trees. Tuscany works its magic in many different ways, but I strongly recommend trying to make time for a day spent exploring Lucca.
First, the history bit. Lucca was one of the Italian peninsula’s most prominent city states in the centuries before reunification, with power, influence and wealth centred on the medieval city itself. At first glance, it might feel much like any other municipality in Tuscany, comprising a tangle of grey, cobbled streets, faded saffron-yellow walls and red, terracotta roofs.
Yet what sets Lucca apart is the entirely intact medieval wall - the second longest in Europe after those of Nicosia in Cyprus - that enclose the old town within. Not only are these beautiful, red brick walls long, they are also very wide, to the extent that they accommodate a tree-lined ring road (albeit a car-free one), several parks, and the occasional fortification for good measure.
When you arrive in the city, make sure to park in Piazza Santa Maria before wandering across to Poli, the wonderfully relaxed bike hire shop. They might ask you for a passport or driver’s licence as deposit, but you pay when you return the bikes. And what a choice. Bikes for all ages, bikes with baskets, mountain bikes, bikes with 'stables' (as Athena, our youngest, insisted on calling stabilisers), tandem bikes and more.
Weather permitting, the children will love pedalling their own bikes and the entire circuit only takes about 20 minutes at a leisurely pace. You and the children can pootle along, glancing along avenues, peering down into grand gardens and counting the city’s medieval torri (towers), including the iconic Torre Guinigi, easily identifiable by the holm oak trees sprouting from the roof. You also cycle past a lovely botanical garden, which you know is coming up simply from the smell of roses.
Another of the many pleasures en route is seeing the perennially elegant Lucchese (residents of Lucca) going about their business. If your children are anything like mine they will demand to go around at least twice, so you’ll often see the same super-stylish joggers, dog walkers and old chaps playing dominoes on your circumnavigations. There are a couple of cafes and even two or three playgrounds where the sprogs can burn off even more energy, before swooping back down into town on one of the ramps.
Once the children have worked up a good appetite, deliver the bikes back to Poli and tuck into an authentic Italian pizza at the imaginatively named Pizzeria in Santa Maria, literally next door. For a slightly swankier yet child-friendly lunch, try Da Giulio, about a third of the way around from Piazza Santa Maria; by another one of the ramps so you can freewheel down and leave the bikes outside. There’s another ideal little playground there for the children to run off the inevitable gelato-overdose from lunch.
It would be a shame not to indulge in a little passeggiata, a typical Italian afternoon pastime in which the locals take to the streets to walk, chat and people-watch. Wander along Lucca’s main drag, Via Fillungo, and you can show the children the stunning gold leaf mosaics on the exterior of the Romanesque gem of a church Basilica of San Frediano (if travelling kid-free, you should definitely explore the interior too) and the lovely elliptical Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, built, as the name suggests, over the original Roman amphitheatre and now a venue for concerts throughout the summer.
There’s even some decent retail therapy to be had on Fillungo. Dads can stock up on chic shirts in Cerri, Mums on leather goods in Pelletteria Allegrini Filippo and the children on goodies in the Citta’ del Sole toy shop and the art supplies shop Cartoleria Biagioni.
One final thought – this makes for a perfect multi-generational day as well. The reason for my family’s repeated visits to Lucca is that my mother and stepfather live 20 minutes from the city (thanks Mum!), and a day in the city is the perfect way for grandparents and grandchildren to bond (united, as the saying goes, by a common enemy). The riscios are a decent way for grandparents not so keen on biking any more to join in the fun while their offspring pedal for them.
Spoilt rotten too, now I think about it.
Original Travel’s five-day Luxury Family trip to Florence and Tuscany costs from £1,820pp, including return flights, transfers, four nights’ villa accommodation, guided tours of Florence and the cycling tour of Lucca.
To book, visit Original Travel or call 020 3582 4990.