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26km (16 miles) W of Montecatini; 72km (45 miles) W of Florence; 335km (208 miles) NW of Rome

Lucca is often called the forgotten Tuscan town, because it’s just far enough off the beaten track to be left out of itineraries. That’s less and less true these days, and really never was the case entirely. Travelers have been waxing poetic about the place for a long time. Seventeenth-century British essayist John Evelyn said “The inhabitants are exceedingly civil to strangers, above all places in Italy.” In the 19th century, novelist Henry James called Lucca “a charming mixture of antique character and modern inconsequence”—the “inconsequence” bit referring to the fact that, completely enclosed by 16th- and 17th-century walls, Lucca is a beautifully preserved remnant of ages past. The Etruscans were here as early as 700 b.c., and the Romans after them, and the city flourished as a silk center in the Middle Ages. No doubt such a long and colorful history inspired Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), who was born here and whose “Tosca,” “Madame Butterfly,” “Turandot,” and “La Bohème” are some of the greatest operatic works of all times. Lucca can seem like a stage set, and it’s easy to look at the icing-white, four-tiered facade of the church of San Michele (Victorian art critic John Ruskin said it would be difficult to invent anything more noble) and hear the strains of ''O Mio Bambino Caro.''

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 Minuet no. 13, and most famously the operatic genius Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), whose Tosca, Madame Butterfly, Turandot, 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 municipium, it was the site of the First Triumvirate between Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in 56 B.C. Bishop Paulinus, 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 Via Francigena pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, and in 588 local clergy shanghaied one passing Irish pilgrim, the abbot Finnian, and pronounced him bishop "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.