The wide Renaissance ramparts encircling Lucca are its obvious main attraction: tourists and residents alike use them as communal gardens to walk and cycle along and for lunch-hour picnics. But it is Lucca's relaxed quality of life that draws most second-home owners and earned the city the accolade of Europe's second most idyllic place to live, from Forbes Magazine in 2009.
BRINGING A VILLA BACK TO LIFE FOR HOMEBUYERS
Susy Deghé arrived in Lucca from England in 1969 as a newly qualified teacher and has lived there ever since, marrying Lelio, a geometra (surveyor). They live in Podere Consani, a stone farmhouse in 35 acres of lush countryside 15 minutes west of the city.
The couple farm olives and vines while Susy set up Tuscany's first agrotourism, renting out her two garden cottages for around 19 weeks each year. Her guests have included David Miliband and his young family.
With her daughter Lisa, an Italian national equestrian, Susy also manages their stable of 35 horses.
"Years ago, visitors to Tuscany would arrive in Pisa and zoom straight down to Florence, bypassing Lucca, but now it has become a destination in itself," says Susy. "It's a charming, small city surrounded by beautiful unspoilt countryside."
The biggest change for Brits has been the arrival of budget flights to Pisa airport, 30 minutes away, taking a typical return to London from nearly £300 in 1998 to under £50 today. "Once I could only afford to fly home once a year with all the family but now I zip back for weekends," Susy adds.
She and Lelio are among a group of investors restoring A Valli, a 16th-century manor house west of Lucca. Originally owned by the aristocratic Cenami family, the villa and its attached barns had lain empty and unused for 50 years until the group of Italians and Britons bought it.
They have painstakingly taken the building back to its shell and rebuilt it using antique terracotta tiles, chunky chestnut beams and travertine marble, finishing it with slick cream and grey contemporary interiors.
On completion in September this year A Valli will have 18 apartments, ranging from 600sq ft for £204,690 up to three bedrooms from £470,780 with finished kitchens and bathrooms — not always usual in Italian new-build property.
These are generously proportioned, airy homes with high ceilings and oversize windows that make the most of dreamy views over green hills towards the distant mountains. Lucca is an easy 15-minute drive away. Communal facilities include a pool, bar and traditional Italian courtyard gardens. "Buyers like this area of Tuscany for its charm and also its location," comments Jenny Gale of Lucca's Knight Frank associates Ser. Imm, which is selling A Valli.
HOW MUCH WOULD I PAY?
Two-bedroom apartments in Lucca start from £204,690. A partially restored two-bedroom apartment overlooking Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Italy's only oval-shaped piazza, is £368,430, while a spacious third-floor home off Piazza Napoleone is £556,750, both through Knight Frank.
Outside the city expect to pay from £286,560 for a restored country property says Roger Coombes of Cluttons Italy. He is selling a three-bedroom apartment in a modern house for £294,750, and an entire hamlet of farmhouse and three cottages at the start of the Garfagnana National Park for £982,500.
* A Valli: through Knight Frank (knightfrank.com; 020 7629 8171)
* Cluttons Italy (cluttonsitaly.com; 00 39 075 8450100)
* To rent Susy's Podere Consani cottages: visit podereconsani.it