Bagni di Lucca and its surrounds is one of my favorite areas in Tuscany. Here the terrain is full of impossibly picturesque hilltop towns, wild valleys and most importantly top quality local produce.
Bagni di Lucca is a tiny spa town nestled in the Serchio Valley, approximately 25 kilometres from Lucca. The town has been famed since its Roman and Etruscan days for its thermal springs and during the French occupation became the summer residence of the court of Napoleon and his sister Elisa Baciocchi.
My favourite coffee spot in the area is Il Monaco Pasticceria in pretty Ponte a Serraglio, just down the road from the main town – La Villa. They may not speak much English here but they make a mean coffee. If it is after midday.order an espresso rather than a cappuccino (apparently it’s not Italian etiquette to order a cappuccino after 12pm). For under two euro you can treat yourself to a cappuccino and a freshly baked pastry. This spot is perfect for sitting alfresco style overlooking the river and its colourful Italian villas. Bar Italia is also another popular spot for locals in the area if you are looking for a second option.
In walking distance to Ponte a Serraglio is Casino delle Terme, a beautiful building from the neo classical era. The casino, built in 1837 was the first licensed casino in Europe and was frequented by the likes of Puccini and Strauss who performed in the music room.
From there you can walk across the Lima River to visit Villa Fiori and its grounds.
If you have a car, make sure you take the short five minute drive to Ponte della Maddellena, the beautiful arched bridge in Borgo a Mozzano affectionately known as “Devils Bridge”. Climb the bridge to enjoy superb views of the Serchio river and the Apuane Alps. If the lighting is right you can also see the circular reflection of the arches in the water.
We stayed in a farmhouse in the Tuscan hill-top town of San Cassiano which is also home to one of my favourite trattorias I have discovered so far – Santina’s.
From the exterior Santina’s looks like a small local bar, but if you weave through the old Italian locals watching TV and playing cards at the bar you are in for a treat. The bar opens up at the rear to a large alfresco style restaurant which has developed a cult following in the local community.
Don’t expect a glam setting or fussy food. Santina’s is all about basic linen and good old-fashioned Italian cooking straight from nonna’s kitchen.
Here is a view from the terrace…
There is no menu or wine list, the menu changes daily and is cooked fresh by Santina herself and family. For just 20 euros you will be treated to a 3 course set menu with unlimited wine.
We started with handmade tortellino with ragu sauce followed my grilled pork and a selection of fresh cakes for dessert. Each time I go here I am convinced that this is the best pasta I have ever eaten.
Of course, all good Italian dinners have to be washed down with a healthy shot of grappa.
We also had a tip to visit Vico Pancellorum, a tiny village deep in the Tuscan hills which is rumoured to be the home to the best restaurant in the area – Buca di Baldabo. If you follow 15 kilometres of narrow, winding roads up the hill from Bagni di Lucca, you will eventually be greeted by this idyllic hilltop village where houses hang on for dear life on the steep hillside.
Buca di Baldabo is a beautiful atmospheric restaurant which has superb views over the northern tuscan hills. There is no doubt that well educated tourists have found out about this foodie hot spot. Despite this, its authentic charm remains – locals mingle with expats in the bar area while they watch sports, play cards and smoke. There are even bingo and magician nights on the lower terrace for both diners and the local community to enjoy in the summer period.
We dined alfresco on the terrace but there was also a lovely ambience indoors.
For 25 euro we were treated to a 3 course menu with free flowing wine. There is no printed menu but surprisingly there are at least a few options for each course.
I started with pappardelle with gypsy sauce (pork, chilli, parsley and a hint of garlic).
I had definite food envy when I saw Mr A’s spinach and ricotta ravioli with Ragu sauce.
For the main, braised rabbit with pine nuts.
And for dessert the richest, creamiest tiramisu I have ever had accompanied by profiteroles topped with a rich velvety chocolate fudge sauce.
There is so much to explore in Tuscany, this has only been my second visit! I definitely came home with a few extra kilos but it was sure worth it. In fact I am already dreaming of my next visit.