The weather page on MSN is a disaster. The forecast is the grimmest I have seen, ever, anywhere. From the moment of my scheduled arrival in Lucca to departure a week later, the screen shows a series of black-cloud icons bearing The Flood.
On especially evil days the clouds are embellished by a thunderbolt. "T-storms" chortles MSN the Merciless. And if I dare to cling to the barest ray of sunshine after that, the next on-screen column ends all hope magisterially. Precipitation will be 95 per cent every sodden day of the week. You can't argue with that kind of precision. Thank you MSN. Thanks very much. If I could shoot the messenger, I would.
Then something strange happens. Exiting Pisa airport, I spy a crowd on the far pavement queuing for the courtesy bus. They seem oddly pre-occupied, holding mobile phones aloft – I see tiny screens flickering in the night. Before I have a chance to jump on board, a phalanx of smartly dressed men brushes past. The mobile phoners are agitated.
Suddenly, I am face to face with one of the coach party. He looks familiar. He is the spit of Ronaldinho, Europe's Footballer of the Year in 2005, twice World Footballer of the Year and one-time nemesis of England. He is being hurried along by a brace of aggressive minders who are doing their best to whip up a sense of crisis. My welcoming party is AC Milan on its way home from playing Livorno. Technically, they are not here for my benefit, but why split the hair? I take my arrival as auspicious. I am feeling lucky, punk. You listening MSN?
Lucky Strike No 2 follows in short order. It is one minute to midnight and we are hungry. At this hour a stale panino seems our best hope. Bolder now, post-Ronaldinho, I try my luck at a modest looking bar. "Troppo tardi," says the barman pityingly. His colleague though suggests a new place she thinks may be open, it is three roundabouts along, in the boonies, turn right past the industrial estate – it might be there, it might not, it might be open, it might not.
The lights are on at Grano Salis. The newest and brightest addition to Lucca's restaurant scene (it opened in April) is situated in the unlikely company of industrial sheds offering car spares, stationary, and discount sofas. A far cry from the traditional Tuscan tratt, Grano Salis seems to have got lost on its way to Milan via Stockholm. The chic styling, both outside and in, is reflected in the ambition of the menus (there are three), which are drizzled with buzzwords like sustainability, local sourcing and organic frouhaha. Yes, they do sushi. Of course they do.
It is, however, too late for anything but pizza and now, past midnight, it seems churlish to quibble. The waitress recommends the All' Amatriciana – it includes something called guanciale. She describes the mystery ingredient as "bits of peeg" and does a little charade indicating it comes from the cheek of the animal. I order the cheeky number. It has a perfect biscuit base, charred and blistered at the edges, the passata is spicy and the bits of pig are crunchy little bombs of fatty smoky flavour. The accompanying wine (by the glass) is a storming Sicilian called Saia. This is pizza heaven. And it's not raining despite the MSN Cassandras. My luck in Lucca is holding.
In the morning, I meet Marcello Salom, the owner of the agriturismo I am staying at. The Fattoria Mansi Bernardini is the estate in Tuscany I would have if I were Sting. I am not, but fortunately Marcello is willing to share with paying guests. Not that he has much choice. Marcello inherited the rambling estate in the hills to the north of the Lucca plain in 1980 and realised early on that agri-tourism was the future. He looks out on the idyllic olive groves, some of them hundreds of years old, and admits the olive oil and wine he makes are not earners but primarily useful for tax breaks. The real money to sustain the estate comes from the five villas and B&B options he has developed for tourism.
The Fattoria (farm) is perfectly located for a base to explore Tuscany's (and Liguria's) big-ticket attractions. Pisa (leaning tower, Galileo's birthplace); the seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi; the coastal beauty of the Cinque Terre ports; are all about an hour's drive away. Florence is a day trip; Pistoia and Vinci are excursions. The immediate surroundings, however, are rich enough to occupy a week of exploration.
The splendours of the Via Brennero winding up through the valleys of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines remain relatively low key. The road follows the river Serchio, then the confluent Lima; the first landmark is a triple-humped bridge dating from the 1300s, officially called Ponte della Maddalena but better known locally as the Devil's Bridge. The path up the narrowing valley to the spa of Bagni di Lucca was well beaten by 19th-century English poets including Shelley, Byron and Browning.
They came for the hot springs, but I am here for a colder treat. Il Monaco, the gelateria at Ponte a Serraglio, is a family business spun off from the café across the road. Their homemade ice cream is celebrated locally – the flavours revolve with the seasons and this week includeYogurt Frutti di Bosco. At one euro for two scoops it is the indisputable bargain of the trip.
Further up the valley, I turn right into the mountains. A vertiginous succession of hairpins leads to the medieval hilltop villages of Casabasciana and Crasciana – then stops dead. They both occupy stunning locations, with panoramic views of the surrounding Riserva Naturale Orrido di Botri. Neither the higgledy car-free villages nor the forested valleys can have changed much in the past 600 years. The history of Tuscany comes increasingly packaged and commoditised in the big cities, but here, you live and breathe timelessness.
Back at base, Marcello asks about my "programme", and before I can betray the absence of any such thing he interjects: "You will be going to the festival tonight in Lucca?" Festival? Dumb luck has brought me to Lucca on the most important day in its calendar. The Luminara di Santa Croce procession takes place every year on the 13 September. Tonight, then.
Lucca is better equipped than most to carry off a medieval folderol. Its massive encircling walls announce the city's historical credentials. Within the fortifications the warren of busy little streets, accidental piazze and scattered churches all combine to obliterate the 21st century. For the Luminara, window sills and parapets are lined with burning lamps and fire flickers from the arcaded façade of the Romanesque Chiesa San Michele.
The festival summons the Lucchesi diaspora from wherever they have settled. At 8pm they start, with banners, lanterns and sinister black KKK-style pointy hoods, they hoist a crucifix. Brass bands humph along. For three hours there is no let-up in the display of religious zeal and civic pride.
The rear of the procession is prefaced by ear-splitting drumming. Men and women in medieval fancy dress, bearing heraldic insignias and clan colours, march. Some carry crossbows, others hurl flagpoles up to the roofline and then catch them as they tumble back to earth. The drummers hammer out the rhythms of war – their faces are Titian portraits brought to life and the pomp and the pageantry seem borrowed from Benozzo Gozzoli's murals in Florence's Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. The nostalgia for a glorious past is palpable, no doubt offering a welcome escape from the daily indignities of modern Italian politics.
People are silhouetted at the top of the distinctive Torre Guinigi – it has an orchard sprouting from its summit. The landmark is open late for the Luminara and I haul myself up the 145ft tower to discover a small crowd settling in for the fireworks. The drummers still thunder away in the narrow streets below. Priests are sermonising and an organ swirls through the warm air from the direction of the floodlit San Martino cathedral. When the fireworks erupt the theatre is complete; cascades of white light pour from the heavens, explosions shake the city, butterfly and smiley shapes fizz across the night sky. For 45 minutes the pyrotechnics boom on; a virtuoso performance in which each seeming finale is topped by an ever bigger blast. The Italians are volubly appreciative, even the demure German couple beside me utter "VOW!"
It is a perfect balmy night. Where's your rain, MSN? You can't piss on my parade. Not in my lucky city.
How to get there
Easyjet (easyjet.com) offers return flights to Pisa from £33.
Carrentals.co.uk offers a week's car hire from Pisa for £129.
Fattoria Mansi Bernardini (00 39 0583 92 17 21; fattoriamansi bernardini.com) offers B&B in a double room from €130 (£118) per night, or a week in a cottage from €1,100 (£996) for two sharing.Reuse content