Lucca or Girona? Which one?
I am often asked which retreat out of my cycling and yoga escapes in Lucca and Girona would I choose, and how does the cycling in both locations compare. They are both very different places but similar at the same time and to help you choose, I thought I would do a comparison on a few key points between the two. What follows is my opinion as an average amateur cyclist, and based on my own experience in both towns over the years. To be clear, I think you need to visit both with me when we are able to travel internationally again and you can decide for yourself 😉.
If love cycling, and if you are reading this then you do, you’ve no doubt heard of Girona and the glowing reviews this Catalan town receives. Ever since the first American professional riders arrived in the medieval walled city situated close to the Costa Brava on the Mediterranean Sea, it has transformed into a cycling mecca amongst cyclists from the UK, Australia, North America and Northern Europe. Many have fallen so in love with the town that they have moved there permanently, creating a place where pro cyclists mix with amateurs, weekend warriors and everything in between, whilst sipping cortados before heading out on rides in the spectacular hills surrounding the city.
On the other hand, there is a slightly less famous city (in Anglophone cycling circles anyway) - Lucca. A lot of cyclists today are totally unaware of Lucca’s bike-haven reputation, but once you arrive, the steady stream of predominantly local lycra-clad cyclists heading out of town gives you a pretty big clue. The other big hint is the terrain. Lucca itself is flat, situated on a coastal plain on Italy’s western coast. But it’s close to the foothills of some pretty hefty mountains and that combination – flat quiet country roads, medium hills and high mountains nearby – near a charming and established medieval walled city, packed full of pizzerias, cafes and bars, well that’s cycling perfection. Lucca is also the home town of cycling greats Michele Bartoli and Mario Cipollini, and once you have ridden the endless, twisting roads nestled between the mountains and the Mediterranean, it’s easy to see how a small charming Tuscan city has produced and nurtured some of the sport’s biggest champions.
City & Culture
Lucca is a hidden gem in one of the world’s most culturally rich countries in the world. The city is completely surrounded by its fully intact 500-year-old walls, which have now been converted into a park where runners, cyclists and families circle at almost all hours of the day, taking in the sights of the numerous bell towers, church domes, and majestic palazzi of this city of just under 90,000 people. Though the city boasts numerous museums and opera houses, the Centro Storico is basically a giant outdoor museum with incredibly ornate church facades, unique bell towers and piazzas around every corner. Lucca is a city of animated yet lilting conversation, a place where the chink of coffee cups on saucers and the buzz of scurrying vespas meets the strains of Puccini escaping an open window. It is effortless Italian charm personified, mixed equally one-part rusticness, one-part romance.
Like Lucca, Girona also punches well above its weight when it comes to cultural icons. The city of just over 100,000 is rich with the historical and cultural heritage of Catalonia. The valley was settled and developed by various communities and empires throughout its history, including the Iberians, Romans, Arabs, Jews and Carolingians. Girona has a deep-rooted historical charm dating back more than 2,000 years including its incredibly well preserved medieval Jewish quarter, which featured prominently on Game of Thrones television series. Besides the wonderful atmosphere of the old town, Girona also has many notable examples of modernist architecture, providing a veritable pallet of colour and sophistication to the urban landscape. Girona has all the amenities of larger, touristic and cosmopolitan cities, yet still manages to maintain the charm and warmth of a tranquil town.
It’s hard to find a place with more cycling influence than Girona at the moment, it’s certainly the place to be if you are a cyclist. Pretty much everywhere you look, there’s a professional cyclist owned and/or themed cafe, restaurant, or shop with more opening up every day, even during a global pandemic. Cycling has made such an impression on the locals that they have wholeheartedly embraced the influx of the expat community and it’s easy to see why so many professional cyclists have made the town their home base in recent years and cyclists in general flock to the town.
Lucca can boast much of the same in terms of famous names in the sport of cycling, but in a toned down and perhaps more authentic manner. Cycling is its lifeblood, being one of the key cycling heartlands of not just Italy but Europe as a whole. Throngs of city bikes swarm endlessly through the winding, cobbled and predominantly car-free streets in the historical center, chained up and battered old city bikes are everywhere, as well as pimped fixies deftly navigating the centuries old corners. There are numerous bike shops catering to all levels of cyclists, including my supplier and friend Paladino Meschi’s shop, Chrono Bikes. Everyone knows where Cipollini lives and Lucca has been and still is home to numerous professional cyclists. However, the vibe in Lucca is much more local as opposed to the expat cycling community in Girona.
There is much made of Girona’s fantastic roads and courteous drivers, and in my experience the praise is well deserved. Once you are out of the city, you’ll find well maintained (thanks to funds from Germany is my understanding), quiet roads with sweeping descents for days on which you would be hard pressed to find a pot hole, ever. From the famous Els Angles climb 2-3km outside the city, to the stunning roads hugging the Costa Brava, the surrounding area is a cyclist’s playground.
Lucca is also cyclist’s playground in its own right and though the roads tend to be a bit rougher, the sheer number of roads weaving through the mountains, along the coast, and into the rolling hills, in my opinion far exceeds Girona in terms of ride options available for all levels. Where Girona offers a paved climb up one or two sides of a major climb, Lucca often has 5 or more roads up different sides of the same mountain and endless options to get to and from a given area. You could spend months in Lucca (like I do) and not come even close to covering all the best roads.
Both cities are very easily accessible. The closest international airport to Lucca is Pisa and it is only about 30mins by car or train to the center. Buses run regularly from Pisa airport directly into the historical center. Rome is 3 hours away by train or car, and Florence airport is about an hour by both car and rail.
Meanwhile, Girona has its own airport which is located 20-25 minutes’ drive from the city center. For international travelers, Barcelona airport is about 90 minutes from Girona by car or train. Buses are also available but don’t run very frequently.
Reading back through the above, if this was a competition which it’s not, Lucca might just nudge ahead as a winner but then again, I might be a tad biased towards Lucca 😉. My suggestion to you, is to try both for yourself to decide. After all, each to their own and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Both cities are cycling Disneyland’s and both have their own charms and appeal, it just depends on what you are looking for.
PS: I haven’t even mentioned the food and wine from both regions, as well as my favourite non-cycling attractions. I will leave those for another day...