Lucca and Puccini on 150th anniversary of his birth
Giacomo Puccini was born 150 years ago this year. Fortunately for us, he chose one of the most perfect towns in Tuscany for his earthly debut. Lucca is a gorgeous town - human scale, perfectly preserved within its wide medieval walls but big enough to provide all the good things of life - great restaurants, elegant shops, an opera theatre and views out to the Appenines beyond the Tuscan hills.
I first visited Lucca about 10 years ago arriving by train on the short ride from Pisa. Lucca's train station is just outside the walls. I walked out on a September morning and saw bales of golden hay neatly rolled and leaning against those great walls in the autumn sunlight. There was something cosy and reassuring about those hay bales so close to the ancient gates to the town. They were a reminder that, although it is NOT a hill town, does not have stunning views and vertiginous ascents, Lucca does look outwards to rural Tuscany. Lucchese love to stroll the old walls in the evening, in the shelter of a ring of old horse chestnut and plane trees that line them. Beyond the walls is another stately ring of chestnuts and beyond them, the mountains.
Every one in Lucca seemed to be riding a bike when I first visited. And in 2008 that hasn't changed. If anything there are more and better bikes and more diverse riders: the very old, the very fat and the very fashionable, in impossible stilettos and short skirts, all ride through the narrow streets where cars can't pass. If a visitor does nothing else in this town, an afternoon on a rented bike with a tour around the 4.5 kilometre walls is a must. There is a bike rental, "Cicle Bizzarri" right next to the tourist information office at Piazza Santa Maria that rents bikes for 2.50 euros an hour.
Lucca has some of the loveliest old shop fronts in Europe. A stroll along the main shopping street, Via Fillungo, takes you past Carli, the jewellers, with its ornate wood and glass display cabinets on the pavement and Di Simo, the elegant cafe that Puccini himself frequented.
Theatre, as always in Italy, extends to the church and few churches are more theatrical at first sight than San Michele with its gigantic Archangel Michael looming over Piazza San Michele - one of the central squares in the city. The most theatrical square in the city is the extraordinary Piazza Anfiteatro - once a Roman amphitheatre and now an oval of apartment buildings and cafes built around the peaceful piazza.
A good, reasonably priced cafe on this Piazza is the Cafe Roma. Just behind it, through the arch is the excellent local favourite - the La Baralla trattoria. The ravioli with basil, fresh tomatoes and pine nuts is delicious.