Tuscany: Puccini's patch

November 1924 is when the great Italian composer wrote his final note - a fitting time to make an operatic pilgrimage in his little corner of Tuscany, says Tim Lihoreau

The "Puccini Map of Italy" is seductively small, squeezed into a picturesque triangle that pivots on the composer's home town of Lucca, a short way north of Pisa. Opera buffs should start their explorations with an espresso at the Caffè Di Simo (58 Via Fillungo), an establishment that looks like a Dickensian pawnbroker from the outside. A plaque proudly reminds you that the price of your coffee includes the thrill of sitting in the very same rooms that once "echoed to the enthusiasms of the Risorgimento", not least, to those of Puccini himself.

The composer of some of opera's greatest hits, from La Bohème to Tosca to Madama Butterfly, was born in Lucca's Corte San Lorenzo, just off the Via di Poggio, in 1858. Giacomo was the latest in a long line of Puccinis, stretching back a century and a half. The home where he was raised until the age of 22 is an unprepossessing town house. Although it was turned into a museum, it is closed for refurbishment, and seems unlikely to reopen until 2008, at the earliest.

The rejuvenated museum should be worth waiting for: it houses, among other more run-of-the-mill Pucciniana, the moving notes he wrote towards the end of his life, when consumed by throat cancer. By then, the man whose innermost thoughts had produced some of the most meaningful vocals in music could communicate only with pen and paper. His home town remembers him not just with the museum, but also with a theatre, a restaurant, and even a boutique hotel, the Piccolo Hotel Puccini.

North of Lucca, the village of Celle is often referred to as Celle dei Puccini. This was home to the composer's ancestors, and Puccini himself spent many of his childhood summers there. It's now home to another Puccini museum. Inside, you will find proof that Puccini was a technophile. Cars, bikes, gadgets of any kind: he loved them.

In this one modest museum, you see the piano on which he composed Madama Butterfly in 1903 - and also the phonograph that was given to him by the American inventor Thomas Edison. About 10 miles north-east of Celle, the thermal spa town of Bagni di Lucca wears its past like faded clothes. As a result, it's easy to imagine the youthful composer earning his pocket money playing in the dance band at the Casino at the Ponte a Serraglio. The town of Chiatri lies on the slopes of Mount Quiesa, about 15 miles west of Lucca. This secluded spot provided a bolthole for Puccini in 1908. He needed one because he was writing his "horse opera" (as Stravinsky called it), La fanciulla del West - a Western-influenced work. "I've taken refuge here in order to work," he wrote to a friend at the time, from his villa, "but I'm doing very little."

Doing very little is a perfect way to spend time in this area. The enchanting views that Puccini saw are still in plentiful supply: "The coast from Livorno to Spezia, the Arno and the Serchio; on a clear day Corsica, the islands of Gorgona and Capraia".

In 1891, Puccini rented a house on the banks of Lake Massaciuccoli, one of the extinct volcanic craters that pock the face of Italy. He moved in to complete his latest opera, Manon Lescaut. He was 33, and desperate for a hit. His first opera, Le Villi, had failed to win him a major composition competition in 1883. His next, Edgar - well, the name says it all. So, when Manon Lescaut finally premiered in 1893, and proved a great success, Puccini could not only afford to breathe a sigh of relief, he could also afford to build his own home at Torre del Lago. The Villa Puccini was positioned so that the "extraordinary sunsets could light up the range of hills on the far side of the lake, and reflect in the still waters of the lake".

Puccini moved there as the 20th century began. He loved the place: as "supreme joy, paradise, Eden, empyrean, turris eburnea, vas spirituale". So enamoured of it was he that his son would one day have his remains disinterred from Milan and reburied in the villa's chapel.

Torre del Lago was, then, a village of 120 or so inhabitants in around a dozen houses. Nowadays, it has grown into a tidy little town between Lucca and Viareggio. Like Celle, it has adopted the maestro's name: Torre del Lago Puccini, the sign at the entrance announces; minor roads are named Via Bohème, Via Tosca, Via Butterfly, etc.

Puccini died in a Brussels clinic 82 years ago this month. The throat cancer was caused by his heavy smoking - he was rarely without a cigarette: even the life-sized statue of him in Lucca's Piazza Cittadella shows him sitting, imperious, with a half-smoked cigarette in his right hand. Within a few years of his death, a festival had been organised in Torre del Lago in his honour, and has taken place annually ever since. Today, more than 40,000 visitors are attracted each year to the town's lakeside Puccini Festival: next year, from 20 July to 19 August, you can watch the sun set over Lake Massaciuccoli while listening to Tosca, La Bohème, La rondine and Madama Butterfly (www.puccinifestival.it/eng).

With the success of Manon Lescaut came not just fortune but fame. Puccini was granted the "honorary citizenship" of the nearby seaside town of Viareggio, in 1900 - the same year that he triumphed with the Rome premiere of Tosca. Many of the hotels and villas where he stayed survive: the Park Hotel Regina, still a four-star establishment on Viale Carducci; the nearby Hotel Royal, now a Best Western; the Villa Motta on Via Buonarotti, and so on.

When Puccini and his artistic circle wanted a latte, they are said to have frequented the Caffè Margherita in the Viale Margherita. It has smartened up since the days when the bohemians were regulars, but still serves up an atmosphere as authentic as its iconic seafront towers.

In 1915, once Madama Butterfly and La fanciulla del West had cemented his position as the leading Italian opera composer bar Verdi, Puccini bought himself a plot of land in Viareggio. At first, he resisted leaving Torre del Lago, but, in the middle of the First World War, the arrival of a peat factory on his doorstep made him change his mind. Puccini built a villa in Viareggio in the finest art-deco style and, in 1921, he and the family moved to the seaside for good. Today, the Villa Puccini is still a grand, flamboyant yet elegant building. It clearly influenced the settings of Puccini's last operas, La rondine, Il trittico and, most poignantly, the much laboured-over but unfinished Turandot.

Set into the north side of the house is a tablet, dated 7 December 1924 - just eight days after Puccini's death in the Belgian capital - which reads: "The community of Viareggio promises to keep sacred to Giacomo Puccini the house and the wood that were the palace and garden of the resplendent Queen Turandot". No true Puccini fan should sleep until they have seen it.

Tim Lihoreau is creative director of Classic FM

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The easiest approach to Puccini's Tuscany is by air to Pisa; plenty of low-cost and full-service airlines go there from a range of UK airports. Some Puccini pilgrims rent a car, but it is possible to access the sites by train and bus. Pisa airport has its own station, but trains operate hourly, so it can be quicker to get a cab - or walk, in less than half an hour - to Pisa's central station, from which there are frequent trains to both Lucca and Viareggio. Buses run from Lucca to Celle and Bagni di Lucca, and from Viareggio to Torre del Lago.

STAYING THERE

Grand Hotel Royal, Viareggio (00 39 0584 45151; www.bestwestern.it); doubles from €130 (£85), including breakfast. Park Hotel Regina, Bagni di Lucca (00 39 0583 805 508); doubles from €90 (£64), including breakfast. Piccolo Hotel Puccini, Lucca (00 39 0583 55421; www.hotelpuccini.com); doubles from €88 (£63), not including breakfast.

MORE INFORMATION

Italian State Tourist Board: 020-7408 1254; www.enit.it

Additional research by Laura Goodman

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