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Falling in Love With LUCCA

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Ortiz is a freelance writer based in Malibu

Fall comes swiftly to Tuscany, and you’ll know it’s arrived when the trees atop this city’s ancient wall and along the streets begin shedding their leaves. In a matter of days, the trees will be barren and their branches will look like flimsy, grubby gossamer. You’ll also be able to tell when autumn has settled in for the duration because the winds blow from the north, bringing an Alpine chill from Switzerland, and because the vineyards in the hills are dormant--their greenness replaced by subtle ash-blond tones.

Invariably, this time of year, rumors also blow in with the wind.

One evening last fall, as a cold mist rinsed the town, I stood at the bar in a warm cafe drinking coffee to ward off the chill. In Italy, prices are lower and the atmosphere more congenial if you stand at the bar instead of sipping your drink at a table.

A group of Lucchesi stood around me, drinking, smoking and slinging rumors: Next year’s grape crop will be sour because of a cheap German fertilizer that was used too carelessly, a conglomerate has bought a huge lot in the heart of Lucca to build a skyscraper hotel, Italy will win the next World’s Cup. All improbable.

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One man declared that he’d heard from a friend of a cousin’s friend that agents for the Prince of Wales were shopping for a villa near Lucca because the prince planned to renounce his titles to become a gentleman farmer in Tuscany.

I left the bar and walked into the rain, where street lamps painted the city in amber and the bells from one of its 60 churches began pealing a mournful call to vespers. Walking along the medieval streets with their Roman touch still very evident, sensing the serenity of the place, I thought about the most disturbing rumor making the rounds: Lucca is being “discovered” by the rich and soon would be a routine stop for the mobs of summer tourists that flock to Italy in the summer. It seemed inevitable.

Why it has remained a relative secret for so long is a mystery. This is a town between Florence and Pisa with about 90,000 residents, where elegant women dressed in fur coats pedal bicycles through ancient alleys and the richness of Tuscany is reflected on its even older city walls and on cobblestone streets that turn black with the evening dew.

The prince wouldn’t be the first Briton beset with personal problems to seek refuge in Lucca. Percy Bysshe Shelley lived here for a while with his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, after he drove his first wife, Harriet, to suicide because of his infidelity.

The heir to the British throne wouldn’t even be the first celebrity to settle here.

The composer Giacomo Puccini, a legend around these parts, was born in a house in the middle of town. And Henry James found the solitude of the town ideal for writing.

And way before them, as all Lucchesi will readily point out, Lucca is where Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus met in 60 B.C. to form the First Triumvirate and appointed themselves rulers of Rome. This is the town that once rivaled Pisa, Florence and Venice in power and influence during the years when it was an independent republic, and the city that Napoleon proclaimed a principality, then presented as a gift to his sister Elisa Baciocchi.

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But all that is history. Now, Lucca is everything one imagines northern Italy to be. I wound up here because of curiosity and, as seldom happens in such cases, have never regretted it.

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It all began a few days before at an outdoor table at Gilli, the famous Florentine cafe in the Piazza della Repubblica. I was sitting there watching the street when two women caught my eye. They were elegant and very, very beautiful. Their shoes had the unmistakable imprint of Salvatore Ferragamo, their purses were Gucci, their dresses no doubt had the Valentino label sewn somewhere.

I had watched them cramming the trunk of a Mercedes sedan with shopping bags from the boutiques around the piazza minutes before and now they were sipping caffe corretto (strong black coffee with brandy) at an adjacent table.

“I’m tired of this,” one of them said, dismissing the whole of Florence with a sweep of her well-manicured hand. “l can’t wait to get back to Lucca.”

“Me too,” her friend agreed. “Lucca is a jewel.”

Later, walking along the banks of the Arno, I wondered about Lucca. All I knew at the time was that it was a small, historic and almost insignificant town whose time had passed. I even remembered having read something once about the legendary savoir-vivre of its residents from the German poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote that it was difficult to find a philistine there.

Surely the town couldn’t rival the glory of Florence. But then, what can?

After all, Florence is where, in a matter of hours, it’s possible to see Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Accademia, go a few short blocks to the Duomo to be enthralled by the gold-sculpted baptistery doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti, walk toward the river to the Galleria degli Uffizi to fall in love once again with the woman who posed as Venus for Botticelli, then stop by the banks of the Arno to watch the light change the colors of the reflection of the Ponte Vecchio on the water.

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If an old Tuscan town makes these classy women tire of Florence, I thought, then it must really be something.

The next morning, a 50-minute train ride from Florence deposited me here, and I began exploring the city . . . and what I’d hoped would be a day’s visit turned into a series of memorable days.

The train station is nothing extraordinary, a drab structure outside the medieval city wall. But once you pass through the Gate of St. Peter, a whole new world unfolds.

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For most of its history, Lucca has been independent and relatively prosperous. Even when it fell into the hands of Napoleon’s sister, Lucca produced fine textiles, especially silk, because she was a fan of the arts and encouraged culture. The silk industry is all but gone now, but the city thrives because, unlike other parts of hilly Tuscany, it is situated on a low-lying plain surrounded by fertile land. Now the main export is olive oil, not as lucrative as silk but ensuring a good standard of living. Ease and animation seem to cling to Lucca’s inhabitants. Some observers go so far as to say that no city in Italy is as quietly urbane.

In fact, the first impression often is that Lucca is too bijou. But a deeper glance shows much depth to the town and that the Lucchesi are very content to live in this undiscovered gem. It makes no sense to drive--the streets are too narrow for automobile traffic anyway--because the heart of the city is so small that one can walk around it in a matter of hours.

The best way to see Lucca is by bicycle, which can be rented by the hour or the day from the tourist office in the Piazzale Verdi.

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These days, many affluent visitors are renting villas in the nearby hills, which are dotted with restored, elegant structures leased by the week, month or season. Here, the Tuscan lifestyle has remained unchanged for centuries. One of the more interesting villas is Fubbiano. Dating back to the 1700s, it’s about 12 miles from the city center and is favored by visiting Californians. Fubbiano overlooks a borgo, or small village, whose main industry is olive oil and red wine. The main guest house is surrounded by oleanders, ancient fountains and olive groves.

Like other villas nearby, Fubbiano’s exterior exudes an air of decrepitude, but, inside, the luxurious rooms are full of modern conveniences.

During a visit to one villa, I marveled at the kitchen sink, a relic of solid stone dating back to the Middle Ages, while a microwave oven and an electric coffee maker sat on a Formica counter a few feet away. Most guests buy their food from local farmers and some even take part in the grape harvest or the olive pressing.

For others, a few days in a small hotel--there are no big hotels in Lucca--could prove a refreshing interlude in a travel schedule that includes larger nearby Italian cities such as Pisa or Florence.

The only five-star hotel in town is the Principessa Elisa, just outside the city walls. Its foundation was laid in the 1300s and subsequent restorations have given it the appearance of a peeling rococo mansion. But the rooms are modern, elegant and clean.

I preferred the Piccolo Hotel Puccini in the heart of the city. The service is first class, and its 14 rooms are as good as anything you’ll find in Italy. The hotel is a relic of days gone by and provides an ideal base from which one can comfortably explore Lucca and its surrounds.

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The city is a delightful labyrinth of narrow streets hiding small restaurants and trattorie in a medieval setting. Here one can sample such Tuscan delights as chianina, the steak that some say originated in Siena but is really a Lucchesi specialty, and wash it down with the local Montecarlo wine.

One of the best-kept secrets in Lucca is Il Buca di Sant’Antonio, a restaurant in a 200-year-old building that was once a private mansion near the Gate of St. Anna. Its specialties are smoked herring and kid on a spit, and it draws diners from as far away as Rome.

After entering the city, one’s first stop should be the Piazza San Martino and the cathedral of the same name. It was built in the 6th century and remodeled in the 11th by Bishop Anselmo da Baggio, who later became Pope Alexander II. Although a far cry from the opulence of Florence, the church houses many priceless works of art, including Tintoretto’s “Last Supper,” which he painted in 1590 for this altar; Matteo Civitali’s “Worshiping Angel” and his delicate “Tempietto del Volto Santo”--a small temple housing a crucifix. Legend has it that the crucifix was sculpted from memory from a cedar of Lebanon by Nicodemus, the man who took Jesus’ body down from the cross.

Every September, the faithful adorn the crucifix with precious robes sewn in what remains of Lucca’s fabled silk works and parade it festively through the city streets. September also brings the Settembre Lucchese, a monthlong festival of music and performing arts.

A short walk will bring the visitor to the palace on the Piazza Ducale, once known as the Piazza Napoleone, from which Elisa Bonaparte ruled the principality. It was designed by Bartolomeo Ammanati, whose work includes the Library of St. Mark’s in Venice and who, as chief architect to Cosimo de’ Medici, designed the Santa Trinita Bridge and the Neptune Fountain, both in Florence.

On the third Saturday of every month, one could do well spending a few delightful hours at the monthly antiques market and fair held in the plaza facing the church to take in the festive atmosphere and admire the handiwork of local artisans, who excel as woodcarvers and puppet makers. I bought a delicate, hand-carved cigarette box for about what a Big Mac with fries would cost in Westwood.

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From there, it’s only a short walk to the Piazza San Michele, the traditional and historic heart of Lucca. On the north side of the grand church, the Palazzo Pretorio, built in the 1400s by Civitali, adds a pleasant touch to the ancient square. The church is called San Michele ad Foro because it was built on the site of the ancient Roman forum (foro). It’s been altered so many times in successive centuries that the lower part of its facade is Romanesque while the upper part is Gothic.

The most famous work inside the church is an exquisite terra cotta Madonna by the Florentine master Andrea della Robbia. It was in this church that a young Puccini sang in the choir and his father and grandfather served as church organists.

The house where Puccini was born is less than a block away from San Michele, at Corte San Lorenzo 9 (off Via di Poggio), and is now a museum dedicated to the memory and belongings of Lucca’s most famous son. On display are many of his belongings: handwritten scores for “La Boheme,” “Madame Butterfly” and “La Tosca”; his private manuscripts and letters; his overcoat and even his piano. Portraits of him and his lifelong companion Elvira Gemignani--who bore a remarkable resemblance to Ingrid Bergman and, like the actress, shocked society when she left her husband to live openly with Puccini--stare down from the walls. Although Puccini later bought a luxurious villa at nearby Torre del Lago, where he is buried, he often retreated to this Lucca residence to compose his operas. Today, music lovers pay a small entrance fee and are treated to his music drifting from unseen speakers while touring the home.

If Lucca has a defining landmark, it’s probably the Torre (tower) Guinigi. It is in a neighborhood that hasn’t changed in more than six centuries, with narrow, claustrophobic streets and peeling walls that reveal layers of history going back to Roman times. The tower was built in the 1400s as a lookout by Lucca’s self-appointed ruler Paolo Guinigi, after he finagled Emperor Charles IV of the Holy Roman Empire into declaring Lucca a republic.

The tower, like the city wall, is crowned with trees. In the first part of the last century, Lucca was ruled by the Duchess Maria Di Borbone. She decided that the wall was too drab and ordered her court architect to plant trees atop it, the ramparts and on the tower. The tower was recently restored and a magnificent view of the Paduan Alps can be seen after climbing its 250 steps.

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There are too many things to see in Lucca to appreciate it in a short visit. For example, if one has the time and inclination, a different perspective on the city can be acquired by bicycling around the medieval city wall. The surrounding swath of green was created four centuries ago to deprive an enemy of cover. An ideal ride might begin at the Gate of St. Donato--where the smell of tobacco from a nearby cigarette factory permeates the air--and continue down the Via Galli Tassi around the city’s perimeter. Another day or two could be spent exploring the hills around Lucca, and one shouldn’t miss the surrounding Lucchesi Plain, with villages straight from the Middle Ages, olive groves and vineyards that seem to be elbowing small farmhouses out of the way along with a quiet, rural lifestyle that is rapidly disappearing.

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Lucca is a city fit for princes, but for its sake, let’s hope they stay away.

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GUIDEBOOK

Tuscan Treasure

Getting there: There is direct service L.A.-Rome on Alitalia, USAir and TWA; connecting service on other airlines; round-trip fares begin at about $1,100. Commuter flights from Rome to Pisa leave regularly; round-trip fares begin at about $130. Lucca is about 20 miles from Pisa by rail or the highway linking Pisa to Florence.

Where to stay: Principessa Elisa (Massa Pisana area on Via SS del Brennero 1616; telephone 011-39- 583-37-97-37, fax 011-39-583-37- 90-19), Lucca’s only five-star hotel; outside the city walls; very posh. Rates $250-$400 a night, double occupancy; open March through November.

Piccolo Hotel Puccini (Via di Poggio 9; tel. and fax 011-39-583- 55421), a quiet, charming hotel with all modern amenities, only 14 rooms. Rates $150-$250 a night, double occupancy.

Universo (Piazza Puccini; tel. 011-39-583-493-678), inside the walls, is a delightful place that shows its age. Rates $130-$220, double occupancy.

Villas: Range from simple one-room cottages to Renaissance mansions with swimming pools, gourmet chefs and maids. Prices: $1,950 to $3,500 a week; some can accommodate up to 14. An agency to try: Italian Rentals, 3801 Ingomar St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 22051; tel. (202) 244-5345.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 550, Los Angeles 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357 .

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