Text and photos by Debra Kolkka
The name Bagni di Lucca means Baths of Lucca. The town has been known for its thermal springs for centuries. One of my neighbours likes to tell the story about Hannibal, who crossed the Alps at what is now called Passo di Annibale, and came with his troops and remaining elephants along the river in Bagni di Lucca. They then went up to the hot springs on a path that is now part of my friend’s front yard, for some recreation before heading off to try to conquer Italy.
More recently, in the 11th century, Countess Matilda of Tuscany arranged the construction of the wonderful Ponte della Maddalena to enable easy access to the springs. The bridge still stands at Borgo a Mozzano on the SS Brennero near the entrance to Bagni di Lucca.
Bagni di Lucca’s heyday was the 1800s. Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, Princess of Lucca in the early 1800s, improved the road from Lucca and built a summer house in the town. It is now apartments.
Bagni di Lucca became part of the Grand Tour with visits from Byron, Shelley and the Barrett-Brownings, establishing the English connection. The first purpose built casino in Europe was built in 1837. Franz Liszt played there and Puccini was a regular visitor. He is said to have completed Turandot in Bagni di Lucca.
Most of the spas that gave the town its name are no longer operating. The Terme Hotel in Bagni di Caldi has a pool fed by thermal springs, but the 2 natural steam grottoes, one of which was the personal grotto of Pauline, another sister of Napoleon, are now closed. Hopefully this is temporary.
Bagni di Lucca still has a very beautiful public pool, with a stunning view. It is open in the summer months and is very popular with locals and visitors. To me it looks like a 50’s film set.
The name Bagni di Lucca is a bit misleading. It isn’t one town, but a collection of villages. La Villa, home of the Comune, is what is usually known as Bagni di Lucca. Fornoli, Ponte a Serraglio and La Villa are the low villages that straddle the Lima River. I admit to bias in thinking that Ponte a Serraglio is the most picturesque of the river villages. Our apartment is beside the bridge.
There are approximately twenty-five villages that are scattered in the mountains on either side of the river. I sat around twenty-five village because it is difficult define them. Some villages have separate hamlets and some are just a group of houses. There is also an abandoned village, Bugnano, slowly being taken back by the forest. I have photographed all of them over the last 20 years…at least I think I have been to all.
Many of the villages were settled by retiring Roman soldiers and seem to be locked in time. Montefegatesi is the highest at 850 metres above sea level. It is worth a climb to the top to admire the statue of Dante and the view over the surrounding mountains, or visit the nearby ancient chestnut forest and Orrido di Botri. You might see a shepherd walking with his flock of sheep and goats on the way.
Lucchio clings like a limpet to its mountain. It is said that hens in Lucchio lay square eggs to stop them rolling away.
A couple of years ago I walked the path between Cocciglia and Pallegio and came upon a remnant of original Roman road. Bagni di Lucca is the place to come if you want to explore authentic mountain villages.
In the past few years the Lima River has be a centre for adventure sports. There is rafting, canoeing, zip lining and canyoning. It is great to see new activity in the area. Come to Bagni di Lucca for the history and have some fun at the same time.
Bagni di Lucca is a 30 minute drive from Lucca on the SS Brennero. A car is necessary if you want to explore the mountain villages.
Buses leave regularly from Piazza Verde and stop at Fornoli, Ponte a Serraglio and La Villa. There are a few buses to the mountain villages but coordinating them is difficult and not possible in a day trip.
Trains leave from the station in Lucca and will drop you in Fornoli before heading up into the Garfagnana to Piazza al Serchio and Aulla.
I have heard that the Bernabo Spa in Ponte a Serraglio is set to reopen…watch this space.