26km (16 miles) W of Montecatini; 72km (45 miles) W of Florence; 335km (208 miles) NW of Rome
Lucca is the most civilized of Tuscany's cities, a stately grid of Roman roads snug behind a mammoth belt of tree-topped battlements. It's home to Puccini and soft pastel plasters, an elegant landscape of churches and palaces, delicate facades, and Art Nouveau shop fronts on wide promenades. The sure lines of the churches here inspired John Ruskin to study architecture, and though the center isn't the traffic-free Eden many other guidebooks would lead you to believe, cars truly are few and far between. Everyone from rebellious teens to fruit-shopping grandmothers tools around this town atop bicycles.
Lucca's greatest cultural contribution has been musical. The city had a "singing school" as early as A.D. 787, and this crucible of musical prodigies gave the world Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805), the composer who revitalized chamber music in the 18th century with such compositions as his widely famous Minuet no. 13, and most famously the operatic genius Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), whose Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Turnadot, and La Bohème have become some of the world's favorite operas.
Lucca boasts some pretty heavyweight history. Its plains were inhabited more than 50,000 years ago, and as a Roman municipum, it was the site of the First Triumvirate between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in 56 B.C. Bishop Paulinas, one of St. Peter's disciples, brought a third-generation Christianity here in A.D. 47, making Lucca the first Tuscan city to convert. It was a major pit stop for pilgrims and crusaders coming from northern Europe along the Francigiana road, and in 588 local clergy shanghaied one passing Irish pilgrim, the abbot Finnian, and pronounced him bishop as "Frediano."
When Pisa conquered Lucca in 1314, hometown adventurer Castruccio Castracani fought back until Lucca regained its liberty. Over the next 10 years, Castracani went on to conquer Pisa and expanded a Luccan empire over western Tuscany. Both Pistoia and Volterra fell, but in 1328, just as Castracani was training his sights on Florence, malaria struck him down. Disgruntled Pisa took over again until 1369, when Charles IV granted Lucca its independence. The proud, if relatively unimportant, city stayed a free comune -- occasionally under powerful bosses such as Paolo Guinigi (1400-30) -- for 430 years. Napoleon gave it to his sister Elisa Baciocchi as a principality in 1805, and in 1815 it was absorbed into the Tuscan Grand Duchy.