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

Lucca is the forgotten Tuscan town, just far enough off the beaten track to be left out of package tours. But travelers have been waxing poetic about the place for a long time. In the 19th century, novelist Henry James called Lucca “a charming mixture of antique character and modern inconsequence”—the “inconsequence” bit meaning that Lucca, beautifully preserved within 16th- and 17th-century walls (designed in part, allegedly, by Leonardo da Vinci), is much more a remnant of the past than a part of the modern world. The Etruscans were here as early as 700 B.C., and the Romans after them; the city flourished as a silk center in the Middle Ages. No doubt such a long and colorful history inspired the romantic operas of Lucca’s native son Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), composer of Tosca, Madame Butterfly, and La Bohème. Lucca can seem like a stage set, and it’s easy to look at the tiered facade of the church of San Michele and hear the strains of Puccini’s aria “O Mio Babbino Caro.”

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."

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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.