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Autumn Journeys

Falling in Love With LUCCA

This urbane Tuscan town that may be at its medieval best in fall

September 22, 1996|SERGIO ORITZ | Ortiz is a freelance writer based in Malibu

LUCCA, Italy — Fall comes swiftly to Tuscany, and you'll know it's arrived when the trees atop this city's ancient wall and along the streets begin shedding their leaves. In a matter of days, the trees will be barren and their branches will look like flimsy, grubby gossamer. You'll also be able to tell when autumn has settled in for the duration because the winds blow from the north, bringing an Alpine chill from Switzerland, and because the vineyards in the hills are dormant--their greenness replaced by subtle ash-blond tones.

Invariably, this time of year, rumors also blow in with the wind.

One evening last fall, as a cold mist rinsed the town, I stood at the bar in a warm cafe drinking coffee to ward off the chill. In Italy, prices are lower and the atmosphere more congenial if you stand at the bar instead of sipping your drink at a table.

A group of Lucchesi stood around me, drinking, smoking and slinging rumors: Next year's grape crop will be sour because of a cheap German fertilizer that was used too carelessly, a conglomerate has bought a huge lot in the heart of Lucca to build a skyscraper hotel, Italy will win the next World's Cup. All improbable.

One man declared that he'd heard from a friend of a cousin's friend that agents for the Prince of Wales were shopping for a villa near Lucca because the prince planned to renounce his titles to become a gentleman farmer in Tuscany.

I left the bar and walked into the rain, where street lamps painted the city in amber and the bells from one of its 60 churches began pealing a mournful call to vespers. Walking along the medieval streets with their Roman touch still very evident, sensing the serenity of the place, I thought about the most disturbing rumor making the rounds: Lucca is being "discovered" by the rich and soon would be a routine stop for the mobs of summer tourists that flock to Italy in the summer. It seemed inevitable.

Why it has remained a relative secret for so long is a mystery. This is a town between Florence and Pisa with about 90,000 residents, where elegant women dressed in fur coats pedal bicycles through ancient alleys and the richness of Tuscany is reflected on its even older city walls and on cobblestone streets that turn black with the evening dew.

The prince wouldn't be the first Briton beset with personal problems to seek refuge in Lucca. Percy Bysshe Shelley lived here for a while with his second wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, after he drove his first wife, Harriet, to suicide because of his infidelity.

The heir to the British throne wouldn't even be the first celebrity to settle here.

The composer Giacomo Puccini, a legend around these parts, was born in a house in the middle of town. And Henry James found the solitude of the town ideal for writing.

And way before them, as all Lucchesi will readily point out, Lucca is where Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus met in 60 B.C. to form the First Triumvirate and appointed themselves rulers of Rome. This is the town that once rivaled Pisa, Florence and Venice in power and influence during the years when it was an independent republic, and the city that Napoleon proclaimed a principality, then presented as a gift to his sister Elisa Baciocchi.

But all that is history. Now, Lucca is everything one imagines northern Italy to be. I wound up here because of curiosity and, as seldom happens in such cases, have never regretted it.

*

It all began a few days before at an outdoor table at Gilli, the famous Florentine cafe in the Piazza della Repubblica. I was sitting there watching the street when two women caught my eye. They were elegant and very, very beautiful. Their shoes had the unmistakable imprint of Salvatore Ferragamo, their purses were Gucci, their dresses no doubt had the Valentino label sewn somewhere.

I had watched them cramming the trunk of a Mercedes sedan with shopping bags from the boutiques around the piazza minutes before and now they were sipping caffe corretto (strong black coffee with brandy) at an adjacent table.

"I'm tired of this," one of them said, dismissing the whole of Florence with a sweep of her well-manicured hand. "l can't wait to get back to Lucca."

"Me too," her friend agreed. "Lucca is a jewel."

Later, walking along the banks of the Arno, I wondered about Lucca. All I knew at the time was that it was a small, historic and almost insignificant town whose time had passed. I even remembered having read something once about the legendary savoir-vivre of its residents from the German poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote that it was difficult to find a philistine there.

Surely the town couldn't rival the glory of Florence. But then, what can?

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