Tuscan Bargains in Bagni di Lucca


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By Steenie Harvey, International Living

Above the grand villas with their lichen-covered statuary and wisteria blossom, little villages cling to the hillsides. When their lights come on at dusk, it’s like a myriad stars twinkling away. One small house up there—stone-built, chestnut-beamed and habitable—is on the market for $72,600.

You don’t expect to find such prices in Tuscany, not in 2010, but Bagni di Lucca isn’t on the tour bus trail.

Not that it’s remote. Lucca of the medieval towers, one of Tuscany’s great art cities, is only 20 minutes down the road. You can be in Pisa or at the Mediterranean coast within an hour; Florence within two. In winter, there’s skiing at Abetone, around 30 miles away.

Adding to the twilight magic, I can hear the haunting call of owls in the chestnut woods. If they’re out hunting supper, it’s time for me to eat, too. Across from the theater, del Sonno’s has been in business since 1860 and does the best pizza in town. Goodies such as river trout, porcini mushrooms, fresh strawberries and home-made tiramisu are on the menu, but the wood-fired oven is glowing—and a huge pizza margherita only costs $6.

For another $1.86, I opt for extra toppings of carciofi (artichokes) and melanzane (eggplant). I’ve already made inroads into a $3.80 supermarket bottle of Chianti on the hotel’s garden terrace, so limit myself to a half-liter carafe of house red. (It’s what most locals are drinking.) That’s $4.65, so it won’t be an expensive night.

On the river Lima, Bagni di Lucca is a spa town of thermal springs whose cures for skin diseases and joint ailments were first chronicled in 1417. Thanks to its reputation as a thermal center, it became fashionable with travelers on the Grand Tour—summer visitors included Shelley, Byron, the Brownings and other English romantic poets. Russia’s Prince Demidoff built a villa, a chapel and a small hospital for sick children. Puccini, the Italian operatic composer wrote most of Turandot here.

My hotel, the Regina Park, is actually a former palazzo—egg-yolk yellow walls, deep green shutters—and Puccini was among its first guests. I got B&B here for $65 a night through the discount website www.venere.com. Not bad for a hotel with a history.

In the 18th and 19th century, Bagni di Lucca’s English-speaking “colony” was so numerous, they had their own Protestant church (now the town library containing over 1,000 English books) and cemetery. I wanted to see the English novelist Ouida’s tomb, but couldn’t climb the iron gates—they haven’t creaked open for a while. I should have asked the tourist office for a key—I love overgrown graveyards with gloomy sepulchers. If you’re on the American heritage trail, the sister of U.S. President Cleveland is also buried here.

More prosaically, Bagni di Lucca has a twice-weekly market, tennis courts, and an outdoor swimming pool for those hot Tuscan summers. There’s a rail link to Lucca and Pisa, and local buses serve the hill villages. You can almost drink the air up here, it smells so fresh. In spring, trees are laden with cherry and almond blossom; meadows blaze with celandines, poppies and daisy-like wildflowers.

Only one of the town’s seven historic thermal baths is in use today, but EU grant money is restoring some of its others. Along the riverbank, I looked inside the tiny but ornate casino where it’s claimed roulette was invented. Disappointingly, it was all slots, electronic blackjack, and local ladies playing bridge. However, one real estate agent says a license has been granted to revive proper table games. Chances are, Bagni di Lucca could soon be on the map again.

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