Puccini land

The life of the great composer was as colourful as any of his hugely popular operas. Adrian Mourby traces the career of a genuine Bohemian through the Italian towns where he lived, worked and womanised
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The Independent Travel

This summer, festivals across the world will resound to the music of the "Nessun Dorma" man. Giacomo Puccini was Europe's last great popular opera composer. Though some of the sniffier houses still maintain that Puccini is for people who do not really like opera, there is no doubt that crowd-pullers such as Tosca, La bohème, Madama Butterfly and Turandot bring in the punters like nothing else.

Puccini has also been very good for tourism in the small Tuscan city of Lucca which, until the world of opera succumbed to his charms, was known only for the fact that Napoleon's sister, Elisa, was made Duchess of Lucca in 1805. Initially, the republican-minded Lucchese refused to open the city to a Bonaparte and she had to be lifted over the fortifications in a hoist. Nowadays, though, Lucca is the centre of the Puccini trail and a gateway to other Puccini sites: Bagni di Lucca in the Serchio Valley, Torre del Lago on Lake Massaciuccoli and Viareggio on the Versilian coast. Few composers are so intimately associated with one landscape.

Lucca

Italy's most popular opera composer was born in 1858 at No 9, Corte Sant Lorenzo, just to the north of Lucca's splendid Romanesque church of San Michele in Foro. The Lucchese are proud of their connection with Puccini. His bronzed statue sits in Piazza Citadella, opposite Ristorante Puccini and round the corner from Piccolo Hotel Puccini in Via di Poggio.

It is not uncommon for tourists to sit on Giacomo's bronzed lap to be photographed. The maestro has been sculpted sitting down, taking his ease and enjoying life. Those sensual hooded eyes do not lie. Giacomo was something of a womaniser. He was also a man for sugared delicacies, so much so that he was invariably photographed - and sculpted - with his mouth closed to conceal the detrimental effects on his teeth.

His birthplace, now a museum, is a first-floor flat within a medieval block, and well worth visiting. Portraits of Puccini's imposing ancestors hang on the walls. His family was in the musical ascendant within Lucca for years until one of them was poisoned at a banquet for supporting the wrong civic faction. Thereafter the Puccinis fell on hard times.

Glass cases in the museum show us how young Giacomo more than won back his family's prestige. International awards witness the fact that in the early 20th century Maestro Puccini was monumentally successful, and wealthy. He had a speedboat and got through many expensive cars because of his reckless driving. There are also autographed scores on show and the composer's last words scribbled after an ill-fated operation for throat cancer.

The apartment is small considering how many sisters lived there fussing over the young Puccini. No wonder Giacomo was always off roving round town. On Via Filungo it is still possible to visit Caffe di Simo gia Caselli which Puccini frequented along with Giuseppe Giacosa, who would one day work on the libretto for La bohème, and Pietro Mascagni, composer of Cavalleria Rusticana.

Lucca's grand, if irregular, marble Cathedral of San Martino is where young Giacomo was expected to follow the family tradition and become organist, a post first held by his great-great-grandfather. Instead he earned money playing the organ at a parish church, improvising to avoid certain notes so no one would discover his vagabond friends had removed the valuable lead pipes.

Lucca has some splendid sites not directly associated with Puccini. Palazzo Guinigi with its massive tree-topped tower was built in 1418 for the family that ran Lucca in Renaissance times. From here you can see how the city's street plan is virtually unchanged since its foundation by the Romans in AD180. From up here the old Roman amphitheatre of Commodus's time is immediately recognisable in Piazza Anfiteatro. By Puccini's day this gladiatorial oval had become choked by slum housing but now it has been cleared and is full of cafés and trattorias serving pizza during the day. Georgie Fame and Bill Wyman have been known to play here in the evening.

Probably the most significant address in Lucca is in Piazza Bernardini, off Via Santa Croce. This narrow rectangle, full of official-looking buildings, was where in the 1880s young Giacomo Puccini used to visit Elvira Gemignani, the discontented wife of his school friend Narciso. They managed to keep their affair a secret until after the death of Puccini's mother in 1884 when the composer left Lucca to avoid a scandal. Elvira in due course followed him with her daughter. Eventually, after the death of Narciso, she would become Mrs Puccini.

Bagni di Lucca

The Romans established a spa on volcanic springs they discovered here in the Serchio Valley, 25km (16 miles) to the north of Lucca. Early in the 19th century when Tuscan spas became fashionable, the small town of Bagni di Lucca hosted poets such as Shelley, Byron, Browning and Heine at the splendid Palazzo del Bagno. Capitalising on the spa's popularity, the Duke of Lucca opened one of Europe's first casinos here in 1825, where the teenage tearaway Puccini used to amuse himself playing the piano for money, stealing sweet pastries and chasing girls.

Legend has it that the roulette wheel was invented at Bagni di Lucca. Unimpressed, a reforming mayor refused to renew the casino's licence in the 20th century and it fell into disrepair. For the past few years, however, EU-funded restoration work has been proceeding, albeit at a leisurely pace.

Puccini was to return to Bagni di Lucca at the end of his life. In 1920s when he was battling with cancer and trying to complete Turandot, he came to stay at the late-18th-century, marble-floored Hotel Regina in the town centre.

Bagni di Lucca is worth visiting, although the baths at Palazzo di Bagno are derelict. There are 19 springs, however, and lower down in the valley the new-age University for Peace has reopened a series of hot baths which offer treatments and meditation.

Any journey between Lucca and Bagni di Lucca will pass through Borgo a Mozzano where stands a sight that Puccini would have known well. The Ponte del Diavolo is an amazingly - and unnecessarily - tall stone-arched bridge over the Serchio river. Locals say such a monster could have been built only by the devil but, in fact, it was Matilda, Countess of Tuscany, who initiated this gargantuan project in the 12th century.

Torre del Lago

When Puccini fled Lucca in disgrace he chose to live a bohemian life in Torre del Lago on the shores of Lake Massaciuccoli, where fishermen and artists found cheap lodgings. He did not stay long but returned in 1893 when his career was taking off after the international success of Manon Lescaut (1893). Puccini, now married to Elvira and with a son by her, obtained permission to build himself a house and jetty on the lakeside. Here he wrote some of his most successful operas, including La Bohème (a fond account of bohemian days), Tosca and Madama Butterfly. As he grew increasingly wealthy Puccini was able to devote time to duck-hunting in the reeds of Lake Massaciuccoli, calling his rifle "my second favourite instrument". He also spent time in his speedboat (named Cio-Cio-San after Madama Butterfly), which was moored on the jetty outside Villa Puccini, now a museum. You can see the piano where he composed, his collection of guns and oriental instruments and also where Puccini, Elvira and their son Antonio are buried.

In 1909 a servant girl of the Puccinis' at Torre del Lago committed suicide after Elvira accused her of having an affair with the composer. A subsequent court case established the girl's innocence, but the publicity affected Puccini deeply and was the main reason for a seven-year gap in his output.

The Puccinis left in 1921 after a foul-smelling tanning factory was constructed near his lakeside retreat. What would the maestro think of Torre del Lago now? Today the solitude that Puccini claimed to enjoy has vanished. A chance remark that the composer made to his librettist Giovacchino Forzano - "One day I would like to hear one of my operas performed on this spot" - was used as the basis for inaugurating an annual Festival Pucciniano in 1930, which has transformed this quiet spot into a holiday camp. A 4,000-seat open-air theatre (Il Teatro dei Quattromila) has been built on reclaimed land to the north of Villa Puccini for performances of the maestro's works.

As a result, the roads around the lake - Viccolo Turandot, Viale Boheme and Via Gianni Schicchi - are clogged with coaches and cars every July and August as thousands of Italians take their seats nightly to listen to Puccini's work, and get mauled by midges from the lake.

Torre del Lago Puccini (as it is now known) is an experience not to be missed. Only in Italy would a campsite be constructed round an open-air theatre. While this facility (in the ruins of the old tanning factory) affords cheap accommodation for opera-goers, there is every likelihood that quieter passages will be drowned out by drunken Lambrusco louts trying to get back into their tents. Nevertheless, the festival is popular with singers and audience alike. Photos in the restaurants attest to how Domingo and Pavarotti, among many others, came here at the beginning of their careers.

Viareggio

After many happy years in Torre del Lago the Puccinis moved to Viareggio in 1921. Puccini was now in his 60s and composing Turandot. He built a house at the north end of the 3km (2 mile) stretch of bagnos (elaborate cafés which also serve to admit patrons to the expensive private beaches) and hotels known as Passeggiata Margherita and enjoyed the life of a gentleman of leisure. Most days he would sit in the ornate Gran Caffe Margherita near the harbour, which now honours him with a statue. Viareggio is a splendid art nouveau resort decorated in what the Italians call liberty style. Today it is where many Tuscan villa owners stay while British tourists are renting out their homes for exorbitant sums, but long before Puccini its beaches had staked a claim to fame as the place where Shelley was washed up, drowned, in 1822, en route from Livorno.

Today Viareggio retains much of its art nouveau style and the numerous bagnos are thriving. At €18 (£12) per person it is no wonder the bagnos can afford to keep the sand well swept. Expensive boutiques line the Passeggiata and splendid hotels cater for wealthy Tuscans. Throw in a few more palm trees and you could forgiven for thinking this was the Croisette in Cannes.

The domed Caffe Margherita has been restored to its inter-war glory and would be immediately recognisable to the maestro were he to come back today. Resting on its conspicuous laurels, the Gran Caffe these days deigns to open only in the evenings. Sadly, Puccini's villa in Viareggio is no longer a refuge, as it was for the ailing composer. Hemmed in today by enormous new hotels, the Centro Culturale Giacomo Puccini is a language school.

Puccini developed cancer of the throat in 1923 and died the following year at the age of 65 before he could return to Tuscany, and before he had completed Turandot.

It is always tempting - and frequently confusing - to draw too many parallels between the man and the music. Parallels between landscape and the music are probably even more erroneous. Only three of Puccini's operas - Tosca, La Rondine and Suor Angelica - are set in Italy. His best-known works are set either in France or in the Orient, but there is no doubt that the part of Tuscany where Giacomo Puccini grew up and lived is enormously beautiful, and beauty inspires. There are many ways of looking at this region but following a Puccini trail certainly shows you Tuscany at its best.

The Facts

Getting there

Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) leads parties to Lucca and the Torre del Lago opera festival every year. A six-day all-inclusive package, including return flights, transfers, transport and full-board accommodation, costs £1,390, based on two sharing.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Office (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it).

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