If you come to Lucca for only a day, arriving from Florence late morning and off early the next to get to the Cinque Terre, you’ll miss the pleasures of Borgo Giannotti. Compared to the amphitheatre, the Guinigi Tower with oaks growing on top, the wedding-cake columns of San Michele church and the massive encircling walls of the historic centre, Borgo Giannotti doesn’t look like much.
Immediately outside the north gate of Lucca, it was a meeting point for merchants coming from the port of Viareggio, a place to stop and refresh themselves before turning up the Serchio Valley to sell their merchandise in the Garfagnana. It developed into a thriving artisan quarter, and retains that vibrancy of people making and doing things, occupations that the waves of mobile phone shops haven’t yet totally swept away. So come with me for a Saturday morning trawl in Borgo Giannotti.
We might be mistaken for drunks, rare as they are here in Lucca, weaving from one side of the street to the other following the trail of my favourite places. On the left we come to coffee importers and roasters Bei & Nannini.
It’s not my favourite coffee, but I like the shop front and, apart from the coffee beans themselves, it’s local. It was founded in 1923 by Guido Nannini and Giovanni Bei and is still in the ownership of the two families.
There are many small groceries, delicatessens and specialist food shops in Borgo Giannotti. You can do all your shopping from the friendly vendors in the space of a few hundred metres without ever entering the anonymity of a supermarket. Crossing over to the right we find a fishmonger.
Over on the left is one of many fruit and vegetable shops. Since it’s Saturday, we’ll continue up the street to the farmers’ market.
Still on the left, look at that exquisite tiled shop front (it was even more beautiful before some developer painted over the ochre wash above).
On the right we come to a bakery with many enticing goodies in its window.
I suspect torta di erbi is a relict of Renaissance, and maybe mediaeval, times when sweet and savoury were often mixed in a single dish. As strange as it sounds, this delicious tart is filled with Swiss chard, parsley, bread crumbs, raisins, candied peel, pine nuts, grated pecorino and parmigiano, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, rum and eggs. Becchi means ‘birds’ beaks’ and refers to the form of the pastry; shaping them is a skill in itself.
Over on the left again is a tap where locals come to fill their water bottles for drinking at home. It’s free!
Next to the fountain is Angolo Bazaar where you can find almost any utensil or container you need for your household and many gifts to take to friends at home. It used to be on the corner (angolo), but moved down one space to make way for a discount sport shoe shop. Via Stalle means street of the barns—something like a mews in London.
You could spend a couple of hours in this Aladdin’s cave starting with the baskets at the front and penetrating into deeper and deeper caverns stacked from floor to warehouse ceiling with crockery, wooden kitchen utensils, garden tools, hosepipes, canvas—an inventory too long to list.
I’ve brought my sickle and pennato lucchese (a kind of billhook) to be sharpened opposite at L’Arrotino. Many people take their utensils to artisan sharpeners, and itinerant ones come to some open-air markets. The Bertinis have been sharpening knives in Borgo Giannotti since 1956. They also sell quality knives from those forged traditionally in Italy to Japanese knives of Damascus steel. Every kitchen needs at least one!
Continuing on the right, we come to a delicious smelling grocery stuffed with tasty products, including tortellini fresh from the Favilla pastificio of Lucca.
There’s something special along the road to the right, but first we’ll continue to the top of Borgo Giannotti.
When it’s lunch time, we can eat at Buatino, where the cook changes the menu every day to take advantage of seasonal ingredients.
We cross over the outer ring road and come to the Foro Boario. This has nothing to do with wild boar. Boario refers to cattle and the Foro Boario was the cattle market, used in September when herders brought their animals to sell in the city. The Festa della Carne e della Macelleria Tradizionale (Festival of Meat and Traditional Butcher Shops) held annually in the middle of September commemorates this practice. More in the old spirit of farmers selling their produce to the public is the farmers’ market that takes place at the Foro every Saturday morning.
If you buy your fruit and vegetables here, they’ll be fresh and seasonal. You’ll meet the growers and can ask for recipes for ingredients you’ve never used before.
Time for a coffee at the bar opposite the Foro and then we walk back to the monument, which turns out to be a road sign.
We turn left and if I weren’t with you, you’d walk right past this grey-green building and boring gate.
You would be missing a great treat. It’s a handmade tile factory founded by the current owner’s great-grandfather in 1902 to make tiles in the ‘Liberty’ or Art Nouveau style, which was all the rage in Europe at the time.
Press your nose against the dirty showroom window (perhaps never washed since 1902?) and you can see some of the patterns that Francesco Tessieri’s four artisans still make by the same techniques.
They’re closed on Saturdays, but if we come on a weekday, Francesco will take us into the workshop and explain as we watch the process. Among his many commissions were restorations of floors in the homes of Gucci and Pavarotti.
Around the corner are some over-the-top examples of ‘stile Liberty’ houses whose floors are surely paved with Tessieri tiles.
Our tour is done and it’s time for a delicious lengthy lunch accompanied by good wine and conversation. So like the merchants of old, why don’t you make Lucca your city to dawdle in, to catch your breath and refresh yourself?
If you landed here by chance and would like to be notified of future posts, you can sign up here.
If you’d like periodic news about our tours and courses, sign up here.
This blog was originally published on Slow Travel Tours on 13 January, 2013.
If you’ve been to the mountains of Italy, I bet you’ve asked this question yourself. You’re probably in a car on a road hugging a river and you’re craning your neck to look up at a terracotta-roofed village improbably balanced on an inaccessible ridge. To find the answer you have to abandon your car, get into your time-machine, key in ‘Middle Ages’ and click GO.
With no discomfort on the way, you find yourself on a broad cobbled road nearly at the crest of the ridge looking down at that very spot in the valley you just vacated. You see the river running swiftly in the shadow of sheer rock walls that not even a mountain goat could scamper across. Your car is nowhere to be seen, because the road won’t be cut through the rock for several centuries. Your eyes follow the river to the left where it emerges from the gorge, still in the shade at noon, and disappears into a thicket of dense scrub on a river plain that floods in winter. You walk next to your mule laden with your jeans, T-shirts and iPad and in five minutes emerge into full sunshine at the ospedale next to the church in the village, where you are welcomed by a monk and offered a meal. As you tuck into your succulent boiled salt pork ribs, a large bowl of tasty chestnut-flour polenta and a skin of wine, you’re cooled by a soft mountain breeze that ripples through the golden farro in small terraced fields. A couple of enormous black pigs with pink belts around their middles wallow in a puddle formed by the spring that issues from higher up the mountain and provides clean cold drinking and washing water for the village. It must have been hard work creating the terraces, but the place is swarming with strapping young sons who look as if they’ve been down the gym pumping iron all morning, and it’s obvious time isn’t in short supply either. After lunch you’re not allowed to depart before having a snooze on a bed of hay in the inn, air-conditioned by the thick stone walls.
Although you’ve signed up for a slow travel tour, you still have to get to the next village by evening. A shepherd setting out with his flock offers to accompany you and show you the way, not that you need help to follow the broad, well-maintained mule track bordered by dry-stone walls. He’s been visiting his sister who married one of the men in this village, and his aunt and uncle live here too. There are many family connections between adjacent villages on this slope and those just over the top behind the village. It’s all so convenient living right on the main mule track; nothing is much more than an hour’s walk away. As you amble along, he tells you that the village you’re heading for lies just below a fort, part of the Republic of Lucca’s line of defense against the warmongering Florentine Republic. The ridge serves as an ideal lookout point, but the garrisoned troops are always drunk, and he’s sure those sheep that went missing provided Sunday lunch for the officers. Besides, he lowers his voice conspiratorially, he and a couple of other shepherds, who know the tops of the mountains like the eagles, had a good trade in contraband chestnut flour and firewood with the Florentine citizens just over the border. All at an end now, of course. After about 50 minutes, at a fork in the road, the shepherd bids you farewell as he continues up to his house in the summer pasture half an hour away and you saunter down the slope to the village bar just in time for a gin and tonic and a pizza margherita. Oops! You must have accidentally hit the ESC key on the time machine. You can tell because they didn’t have tomatoes in mediaeval times, and there are those telltale electric fairy-lights in the bar garden. Oh well, now that you’re back, let’s do the return trip as a 21st-century hiker.
The mule track, being inaccessible even by a Fiat Panda 4×4, has become overgrown, many of the cobbles have washed out and in places no trace is left. No matter. You shoulder your rucksack and set off down the tarmac road to the valley bottom, which takes 45 minutes. Turn left and walk along the state highway cut into the sides of the valley or raised above the boggy valley bottom. The sun finally got here at about 12.30 pm, the tarmac is still blazing hot and there’s no cooling mountain breeze down here. An hour later you arrive at a village in the valley bottom, built mostly since the 1950s to be near the factories that exploit the river water. Turn left and for another hour and a quarter climb steadily following the interminable switchbacks of the car road, built in the late ‘50s, to arrive after a grand total of 3 hours back where you had lunch. QED. Where did that mule go?
Click to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.