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STURDY WALLS PROTECT A GEM

This aged Italian city has a colorful history which ranges from the times of Pompey to those of Puccini, and beyond.

Built more than 350 years ago to defend this town against enemy assault, the mighty walls embracing Lucca are ready still to protect this enchanting place. This time, the invader may be the ubiquitous 21st-century tourist.

Located less than 15 miles from the swarms of visitors in Pisa, Lucca has remained remarkably untouched by camera- and guidebook-toting legions. The city welcomes tourists but has also flourished without them.

Situated in western Tuscany, Lucca is a sophisticated and refined town with a reputation among affluent Italians. Yet the city is not simply a Euro-chic getaway. Its wealth is measured in its Pisan-Romanesque architecture, the olive oil exported worldwide and the Tuscan panorama.

I traveled to Lucca one wintry weekend, attracted by the city's bond to opera, perhaps its greatest artistic contribution. This is the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini, composer of such masterpieces as Madama Butterfly, Tosca, La Boheme and Turandot.

Enormously proud of its ties to opera, Lucca sees a transformation of its otherwise low-key demeanor during summer and fall festivals when the town joyfully celebrates Puccini and other classical music luminaries.

Within its sturdy ramparts, Lucca is a pedestrian zone. Without chaotic traffic and the eternal search for parking, I quickly learned the town's layout. I felt comfortable after only a couple of hours, at home in the city where Caesar, Pompey and Crassus agreed to rule Rome as a triumvirate in 56 B.C.

I made a beeline for Puccini's birthplace. Casa Natale di Puccini, near the church of San Michele in Foro in Lucca's center, is like many noted sites in Europe _ an unassuming, even dilapidated, structure housing a gem. Among the letters, librettos, mementos and objets d'art is the piano Puccini used to compose his last opera, Turandot.

As the strains of the composer's works drift through the apartment, a visitor can read scribbled notes written by Puccini. Because he was unable to speak after an operation in Brussels for throat cancer, the messages are considered some of the composer's final thoughts. Puccini died in 1924.

Before exploring Lucca's other treasures, stop at Antico Caffi di Simo, where Puccini also came for a drink and bite to eat.

Taking a small table near the back, I ordered a cup of cioccolata calda, hot chocolate, and watched while well-heeled matrons in full-length fur coats met for a quick glass of sparkling white wine. The light from the brass chandeliers reflecting in the dark wood's luster warmed the cafe with an old-world glow.

Rejuvenated, I visited the cathedral of San Martino, dating back to 1060. As parishioners arrived for evening Mass, the lowered voices echoed in the murky, cavernous church. Small, rectangular, stained-glass windows near the ceiling offer a splash of color to the gray stone interior.

The cathedral's prized religious relic is the Volto Santo, a wood crucifix with the face of Christ that is carried through town in a candlelight procession during the yearly Settembre Lucchese Festival. The sacristy houses the stunning marble tomb of Ilaria del Carretto Guinigi, a young aristocrat who died after childbirth.

While the cathedral's facade is an impressive example of Pisan-Romanesque architecture, the front of the church of San Michele in Foro is an astonishing feat, all twists, curves and unimaginable intricacies.

My sole complaint about Lucca is the piazza next to this church: A permanent junky market has been erected, cheapening the elegant stores selling exquisite jewelry and crystal, cashmere sweaters and fine purses. Skip the tacky market and drop in at Marsili Costantino, one of the delightful shops lining the piazza. It offers regional products such as wines, jellies and olive oil.

As winter dusk quickly approached, I headed for Lucca's best restaurant, Buca di Sant'Antonio. It proved a haven on a chill, rainy night. Dating back to 1782, the inviting eatery blends down-home decor _ copper pots and pans dangle from the ceiling _ with an inventive menu, featuring such dishes as wild boar stew with olives and corn mash and roasted goat with potatoes and sauteed turnip leaves.

My second day in Lucca began with a visit to the national museum, located in the 16th century Palace Mansi. Unlike some gargantuan European royal residences, this palace is limited to two cozy floors, combining an art collection and the rooms once used by Lucca's important Mansi family.

Much of the furnishing is original, including the 400-years-plus curtains designed in red and white, the traditional city colors. Look closely at the quirky painting in the dining room _ an all-male family tree.

Lunch at Il Giglio, just off Piazza Napoleone, was a perfect extension of a visitor's Renaissance reverie. Housed in a building constructed in the 1500s, the restaurant is decorated with sage-green walls, crystal sconces and high ceilings. White-jacketed servers presented my artichoke torte and tortellini in a local meat sauce.

Finally I opted for the Passeggiata delle Mura, the 2.5-mile walk atop the city walls. I shared the tree-lined stretch with joggers, dog walkers and meandering couples. During the summer, both residents and tourists pedal bicycles along the shady walkway. The views of town are picturesque _ snapshots from above of the tranquil botanical gardens or a pretty little balcony, surely the setting for intimate summer dinners.

If you go

A variety of music festivals, including opera performances, take place throughout July and August. More classical music concerts are held at the Settembre Lucchese Festival throughout September. And, in October and November, Puccini's works are showcased at the Teatro Comunale del Giglio in Lucca.

For an updated list of events, contact the tourist office at Piazzale Verdi, 55100 Lucca, or call, from the U.S., 011-39-0583-419689.

American freelance writer Christina Zarobe lives in Italy.

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