Having been to an opera in the Verona Arena the previous year, I was keen to go this year to the Puccini Festival, which takes place every year in Torre del Lago, where the composer lived for much of his life. I based myself in Lucca, where Puccini was born. There are many Puccini related sights in Lucca, including his birthplace, and an exhibition of costumes from his operas at the Giglio Theatre. The town also has several impressive churches including the cathedral, San Frediano and the St Michael church, with its beautiful façade.
I arrived in Lucca after taking the more scenic route by train from Rome, avoiding the high speed line, and travelling by the conventional train, which gives some nice views of the coast at Civitavecchia and in other places too. This train also passes St Peter’s, after going through San Pietro station, although it’s already moving quite fast by then, so it’s easy to miss. The train serves the coastal resorts and was full, with several people standing in the corridor, or sitting on the pull-down seats.
A lot of people left the train at Pisa, and then it was just a short trip to Viareggio and then 15 minutes by local train to Lucca. At the station, the friendly Margherita from the guesthouse met me, and drove me the short distance into the old centre. We passed under Porta San Pietro, one of several gates through the walls, which surround Lucca’s historic part. Soon we reached Margherita’s delightful bed and breakfast, on the second floor of a fourteenth century building, about a minute’s walk from the Guinigi Tower, with its tree growing up the middle, one of Lucca’s most unique attractions.
On my first evening, I went to Torre del Lago to see Turandot, as part of the Puccini Festival. Every year, Puccini operas are performed in a large open air theatre, next to the lake. Aside from its most famous aria, Nessun Dorma, one of my favourites from Turandot is Liu’s tragic Ascolte signore. One thing with Puccini is that he has such great tunes and you always come out of the operas humming. An especially memorable aspect of this performance was that Turandot wore a big scary headdress. I must say that although you know that Calaf is eventually going to win Turandot, every time I see the part of the performance when he thumps the gong to announce he will attempt the challenge to win her hand, I always think “you fool” especially as Liu is in love with him.
I went back to Torre del Lago during the daytime to visit the Puccini Villa. Here you can see several of the composer’s manuscripts, photographs and other memorabilia. It’s in a beautiful location, not far from the lake. Puccini’s mausoleum is within the villa, along with that of his wife. The villa is owned by the composer’s granddaughter, who meets tourists who visit. I also took a boat trip on the lake. It’s quite marshy and the boat passes through channels between the reeds. There are some nice views of the mountains around. You can’t escape Puccini- towards the end of the trip, E Lucevan le Stelle was relayed on the boat’s speaker system as we pulled back into the harbour in Torre del Lago, with the theatre and Puccini villa in view.
Torre del Lago is close to Viareggio, and there is a regular minibus service from the car park close to the Puccini villa. So I ended my day by taking this. The bus makes a roundabout journey through the suburbs of Viareggio and you wonder if you are going the right way, but eventually it leaves you in the centre. I walked the short distance to the beach and paddled in the sea. The beach is soft and sandy and the temperature of the water was just right.
Lucca itself is a pleasant, medium sized, friendly place. Of course, the main attraction for me was the Puccini house, where the composer was born. Like the villa in Torre del Lago, the house contains manuscripts and all sorts of memorabilia related to his life. The restaurants and cafes all around have names like Boheme and Turandot. It seems that Puccini is all around you in Lucca, as you hear the music being played everywhere.
As well as Puccini, Lucca has several interesting churches. The Cathedral contains the volte santo, an important relic, said to be an exact reproduction of the face of Christ carved on wood. Every 13 September, the volte santo is celebrated in a candlelit procession. The thirteenth century St Michael’s church is most notable for its intricate façade, which is more impressive than the inside, because most of the money went on the façade when the church was built. San Frediano is the third major church in Lucca, with some beautiful and colourful frescoes on the outside. It contains the tomb of St Zita, an important Lucca saint.
After visiting San Frediano, I soon found myself in Lucca’s Roman Amphitheatre. There’s little evidence of its previous use now, as medieval buildings four or five storeys high now surround the former arena. The central area is a lively meeting point, with lots of cafes and restaurants. I was going on to Siena later in the trip, and the Lucca Amphitheatre is a sort of preparation for the Campo, on a smaller scale.
Another of Lucca’s attractions is its walls, which stretch for about 4 km around the old part of the city. In fact they are more like a wide elevated expanse of green. You almost feel as though you are in a park, away from the bustle of the city. Lots of people cycle or jog, but I walked around in about an hour, starting from the Palazzo Pfanner, a beautiful seventeenth century structure, with frescoed rooms and ornate gardens.
As a Puccini fan, my visit would not have been complete without going to one of the concerts in the San Giovanni church. Every summer, there is a series called Puccini e la sua Lucca (Puccini and his Lucca). I went to one which featured Puccini opera arias, as well as popular Neapolitan songs, with two tenor soloists and a pianist. It’s small scale, and makes a nice contrast with the big operas in Torre del Lago.