The first time we visited Bagni di Lucca in 2001 we chose to eat at the Circolo dei Forestieri (Foreigner’s Club) restaurant upon recommendation of the Rough Guide which wrote about “exquisite food served in exquisite surroundings”. We were not disappointed. Neither was the waiter, whom we tipped (something one does not normally do in Italy) and who turned out to be one of the owners!
Built in the second half of the nineteenth century as a meeting place for the exceptional number of tourists and the British colony, who had found here a fresh, welcoming and lively summer alternative to Pisa and Florence, this superb building originally consisted of a single large hall. Parties, feasts and ceremonies were held here for the often princely visitors who had been coming to take the waters at Bagni since the fifteenth century. A young Giacomo Puccini entertained the guests during the holidays playing dance tunes with a theatre orchestra to earn a few pennies. Perhaps he might have sketched out Musetta’s waltz here? There is an anecdote that, while Puccini was tinkling the ivories in 1880, sick and tired of being asked for repeated encores he cried out to the equally tired dancers who were performing in the revue he was accompanying: “Coraggio necciari!” (“Come on you chestnut-pancake makers, you can do it!”).
(Explanatory note:” necci” are chestnut pancakes characteristic of this area and “necciari” are the people who make them using an age-old system of placing the formed flour between stones to bake it.)
In 1924 (the year of Puccini’s death) the Circolo dei Forestieri was rebuilt in its present form. The building’s upper storey was beautifully restored about five years ago and is used for conferences (that’s where I give my lectures to the University of the Third Age, for example) and exhibitions (the Christmas presepi are usually always exhibited here). Until the last war the first floor was also used as a gambling room: Count Galeazzo Ciano and his wife Edda Mussolini were regular guests here enjoying a game of roulette (or two).
The present Art Nouveau gates at the front of the circolo are the original ones, removed during the war, rescued only a few years ago and now beautifully restored.
One feature which alas is no longer present today was the dome-like pergola formed by eight large but now-felled, plane trees whose topmost branches came together in the centre of the square offering a sort of natural green dome over it which must have been particularly refreshing in the hot summer.This old photograph shows what it looked like then:
In 1979 a top-class restaurant of great elegance was opened on the Circolo’s ground floor; this was the place we first ate at Bagni and continued to patronise for special events like our wedding anniversary. It was the only place we knew which offered a sorbetto between course one and two, as used to be usual everywhere to clean one’s mouth out of the flavour of the previous course. The Circolo was invariably highly-praised for its food which, though not excessive in portions, was excellently prepared. It was also noted for an English waitress and for its riverside terrace which was most pleasant when the mosquitos didn’t bite!
Alas no more! This sign greeted me the other day when passing by the Circolo.
Evidently the Circolo’s restaurant has been permanently closed since November of last year. There was one year when it was also closed due to a dispute between the partners running it. I remember that time because our University of the Third Age’s end of term lunch had to be removed to another location which didn’t appeal to many of the students who expressed their displeasure by not turning up.
Let us hope that the previous year’s University of the Third Age end-of-term lunch won’t be the last one to be hosted in the elegant and charming ambience of the Circolo dei Forestieri. It would be a truly sorry state of affairs if Bagni di Lucca’s première location for smart events and elegant soirées continues to remain closed.