Hit a high note on Tuscany’s Puccini trail

by John.Law

For opera buffs, following in Puccini's footsteps around Tuscany and watching his works performed under the stars in Torre del Lago makes for a blissful break

With all those scenes of stabbings, beheadings, ritual disembowelment and unrequited love, Italian grand opera is rarely a bundle of laughs. It all invariably ends in tears. But that’s not to say a night at the opera can’t be fun – and affordable. For the price of a decent seat at the Royal Opera House, try following the Puccini trail through Tuscany, taking in an aria or two and sampling a little dolce vita along the way. 
Each summer opera enthusiasts and first-timers descend on Torre del Lago for the annual Puccini Festival, a celebration of the composer’s works staged under the stars in a romantic lakeside setting. A new open-air theatre opened here last year to mark the 150th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s birth.
Arrive with a few hours to spare and you can visit the villa nearby where he penned some of his greatest weepies – when not out shooting wildfowl, driving fast cars and engaging in the odd illicit affair. Stroll across to Chalet del Lago to dine on fish and pasta specialities while watching the sun set over the lake, before settling down to enjoy this summer’s performances of La Bohème, Tosca, Turandot and Manon Lescaut.
If you're looking for accommodation nearby, two handy places with strong links with the composer are Viareggio on the coast, a 15-minute drive away, and his hometown of Lucca, 30 minutes away.
Only 14 miles from Pisa airport, Lucca is a splendid medieval walled city with lashings of history, excellent shops and restaurants – yet it’s smaller, cheaper and friendlier than Tuscany’s main tourist centres. Worth visiting are Puccini’s birthplace, now a museum undergoing restoration, the Romanesque Cathedral of San Martino where he sang as a choirboy, and the cosy wood-panelled Caffe di Simo where he swapped gossip.
For a small town Lucca has some amazingly good fashion shops. Look out for Versace, Prada, Principe and the like, and major chains such as Benetton and Sisley – all with lower prices than in nearby Florence. Stock up, too, at the big Gardenia perfume and toiletries store.
For lunch, bag a table outside Caffe Turandot, where you can watch the locals milling around Piazza San Michele by the white-marble church. You can certainly eat well in Lucca. In the evening, start with a leisurely aperitivo outside a bar in Piazza Anfiteatro before dinner at the excellent Buca di Sant’Antonio, which serves hearty Tuscan specialities such as pappadelle noodles with a hare sauce, and grilled goat. Expect to pay about €40 a head, including some decent Lucchese wine. Rather more formal is Giglio, and for open-air dining book a garden table at Canuleia.
For a city-centre base, check out the reasonably-priced three-star Hotel La Luna or Piccolo Hotel Puccini, or the stylish four-star Hotel Ilaria.
Beach buffs and families tend to base themselves in Viareggio, which has a wide stretch of sand, decent restaurants and some beautiful Liberty-style architecture. Puccini lived in Viareggio from 1921 until his death three years later. His home – not open to the public – is opposite a park where you can play tennis or stroll and cycle under the shade of the pine trees. There are also rides and a play area for youngsters.
It’s the perfect destination to shop and flop. You can swim and sunbathe on glorious sandy beaches and pick up fashion bargains. Sales generally run from mid-July well into September, but there are cracking deals in the street markets year-round. Look around Viareggio’s daily market by Cavour Square for trendy Italian shoes and handbags and inexpensive designer-label shirts and jeans. They’re not cheap rip-offs either. Each Thursday there's also a market held along a lengthy stretch of the Lungomare, the equivalent of the English seaside prom.
A favourite hotel is the four-star Grand Hotel Royal, which has a decent-sized pool and gardens with hammocks, and offers free use of the beach facilities opposite. 
There are smart restaurants in the centre of Viareggio that can be pricey, but the best value can be found around the harbour area. Barcobestia offers great seafood and charges about €35 for three courses with wine. Buonamico is the oldest trattoria in Versilia and serves the local speciality cacciucco, a delicious spicy-hot fish soup. If you’re in a hurry, try the inexpensive Eden pizzeria or, for a more relaxed meal, book La Chiesina, formerly an old church.
From both Lucca and Viareggio it’s easy to reach the peace and breathtaking scenery of the mountains. Narrow roads snake up pine-covered hillsides to the tiny village of Celle, where a young Puccini spent happy holidays. It’s worth the trek to wander among the old stone cottages, admire the view across the valleys below, and visit the atmospheric little house – now a museum – once owned by his sister.
Puccini loved Celle, though he complained about the uncomfortable leaf mattresses, the lack of a telegraph and “excessive solitude”. We wouldn’t know about the lumpy beds, but the mountains are the ideal place to escape the crowds before another night of Il Maestro’s operatic magic.  
The Puccini Festival runs from July 10 – August 22 and tickets cost from €33-€160.