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A night - or five - at the opera; JOHN LAW EXPLAINS WHY A SUMMER BREAK IN TUSCANY IS MUSIC TO HIS EARS.

Byline: JOHN LAW

IN MY book you can't beat that winning combination of sun, sea... and song - and where better to hit those holiday high notes than in a little corner of Italy forever associated with Giacomo Puccini? Forget serenading gypsy violinists. When romance is in the air there's nothing quite like a few sentimental Puccini operatic arias in the land of amore to help things along.

Each summer on Tuscany's Versilian coast you can swim off glorious sandy beaches by day before settling down to a magical performance of La Boheme or Madame Butterfly beneath the stars.

Instead of arriving at Pisa airport and following the popular route south to Siena and into Chiantishire, my wife and I like to head north into the towns and glorious countryside that so inspired Italy's best-loved composer.

We base ourselves at the grand old seaside resort of Viareggio.

It's a great place for a beach holiday and handy for the Puccini Festival, held in July and August each year at the stylish, modern open-air theatre at Torre del Lago, just a 20-minute drive away.

Viareggio has a wide stretch of golden sand, decent restaurants and some attractive Liberty-style architecture. A good example of this is the cool, high-ceilinged Gran Caffe Margherita where a plaque commemorates Puccini's meetings with his friend, conductor Arturo Toscanini.

A big attraction of Tuscany's Versilian coast is that it's the perfect destination to shop and flop. Here you can swim and sunbathe on glorious golden-sand beaches and pick up fashion bargains on your way back to the hotel.

The sand runs for miles, and if you visit from mid-July into September, so do the sales.

Affordable Benetton, classy Max and Co. and Harmont and Blaine were among seafront stores offering stylish gear at a discount during our visit.

There are other bargains to be found year-round in the street market around Cavour Square, and each Thursday another is held along a lengthy stretch of the Lungomare, the equivalent of the English seaside prom. This moveable feast turns up in neighbouring resorts on other days.

Talking of feasts, foodies love Tuscany.

Indigestion Tosca's planning more In Viareggio you can enjoy the full range of gastronomic delights, from proper pizzas to regional specialities and seafood extravaganzas. In the harbour area around the shipyards we gawped at floating gin palaces being built for the rich and famous before tucking into a mixed grill of langoustines, octopus, prawns and sea bass.

Our favourite restaurant is Buonamico, the oldest trattoria in Versilia, dimly lit and with the wheel from an intriguing old ship's roulette-style game hung on the wall.

One evening we sampled the local speciality cacciucco, a delicious spicy-hot fish soup.

A three-course meal with a bottle of decent Lucchese wine cost us PS90 for two.

For a cheaper meal there are pizza places galore, such as La Chiesina, formerly a church.

An alternative is the friendly and faintly bohemian Orsa Minore, tucked away off the Lungomare in Piazza Mazzini. It serves great crepes, salads and cold meats with a jazz accompaniment - usually recorded but occasionally live.

We took after-dinner strolls along the Lungomare, joining late shoppers spilling out of boutiques and happy families enjoying ice cream. Unlike many resorts at home and around the Med, there were no boozed-up yobs to spoil things. Italian youngsters don't go out to get plastered. They prefer to round off the night with an inoffensive cornet.

By day you can swim or surf from immaculate beaches, or take a boat trip to watch the dolphins.

- or is Scarpia something deadly? No discarded fag packets or beer bottles here. There is a free public beach in Viareggio and at neighbouring Lido di Camaiore, but it's worth paying PS25 or so in high season for a full day's use of a couple of sunloungers and umbrella, showers and snack bar at a privately owned bagno.

We were lucky. Our hotel, the excellent Grand Hotel Royal, included free use of the beach facilities opposite. As a bonus, this elegant and friendly four-star also has a decent-sized pool and gardens with hammocks just perfect for an afternoon snooze.

If you're opera-bound, you can also catch the special bus opposite the hotel to Torre del Lago. Here's a tip: taxis to the opera are expensive and, if you dare to drive yourself, be prepared for some very Italian traffic chaos near the theatre!

Puccini moved to Viareggio in 1921 to escape the noise from a new electricity plant being built in his beloved Torre del Lago, living there 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.

A short walk from the beach, the park is one of Viareggio's more unexpected pleasures. There's a play area and go-karts for children and cafes and stalls selling everything from inexpensive jewellery to olive oil and tasty hams and salami.

The composer's earlier lakeside villa at Torre del Lago was where he penned some of his best-known works around the turn of the last century, including Madame Butterfly and the two we saw last summer, La Boheme and Tosca.

When he wasn't working, he relished shooting wildfowl on the lake, driving fast cars - and engaging in the odd illicit affair.

Performances start at 9.15pm, but many opera regulars arrive much earlier to get in the mood. You can take an eco-boat excursion around Lake Massaciuccoli and the swamp area in search of wildlife and the birds whose ancestors Puccini shot for dinner.

Visitors can also tour Villa Puccini, now preserved in much the same way as he left it. Il Maestro's glasses and pen remain on the desk next to his piano and his guns, hunting clothes and trophies are displayed elsewhere.

He is buried at the house, along with his wife and son.

Around the corner are stalls selling old books, librettos and other Pucciniana, and at the smart Chalet del Lago opposite the villa you can enjoy a pre-show dinner or take a drink on the terrace while savouring the view across Massaciuccoli to the hills beyond.

The Puccini Festival isn't the biggest musical event in the world, but it's certainly one of the most romantic.

Opera by the lakeside at the very place where Puccini composed some of his greatest weepies is a memorable affair and a great hit with the British - including, we noticed, a fair number of honeymooners.

With seats costing from around PS20 it's eminently affordable, whether you're an opera aficionado or first-timer.

The atmosphere is friendly and decidedly unstuffy. Last summer we again joined expensively dressed couples mingling happily with youngsters arriving on Lambrettas in T-shirts and jeans before wandering through the sculpture park before sunset and the start of the show.

Each year top-name artists are booked for the lavish productions. We took along a bumper box of Kleenex and enjoyed two evenings of the nicest possible emotional turmoil.

Most Italian grand opera seems to end in tears, often following scenes of torture, beheadings, ritual disembowlment and unrequited love.

But Torre del Lago's staging is terrific, the music is fabulous - and you're guaranteed to leave humming a tune or two.

This summer, the 64th annual Puccini Festival will include a new production of Madame Butterfly and, for the first time on the main stage, performances of Il Trittico which comprises three operas for the price of one: Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Puccini's only comedy Gianni Schicchi.

Going for a song, in fact.

NEED TO KNOW | JOHN LAW visited Tuscany with Jet2holidays, who offer seven nights of half-board accommodation at the Grand Hotel Royal, Viareggio, in August departing Leeds Bradford from PS999 (Manchester and Newcastle PS1,029). Visit jet2holidays.com or call 0800 4085599.

| Jet2.com flies to Pisa from Birmingham, Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle from PS48 one-way. See www.jet2.com or call 0800 4085599. EasyJet flies to Pisa from Bristol, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester from PS32.49 one-way in July/ August. See easyjet.com.

| For other holiday information and accommodation options see visittuscany.com/en when to go | THE 2018 Puccini Festival (July 14 to August 25) will feature Madame Butterfly, La Boheme, Turandot, Manon Lescaut and Il Trittico. Seats are from [euro]19.50 to [euro]159. Book on 0039 0584 359322, or at puccinifestival.it | THE Grand Hotel Royal, Viareggio, offers readers a 5% discount off online rates and includes free beach access during the Puccini Festival if they book directly by phone or email. Call 0039 0584 31437 or go to hotelroyalviareggio.it. A further 5% discount is available on bookings made before January 31.

CAPTION(S):

the Indigestion - or is Tosca's Scarpia planning something more deadly?

Prince Calaf prepares for his Nessun Dorma moment in Turandot

Turandot's biggest fans - with the sinister Ping, Pong and Pang

Take a dip: The pool at the Grand Hotel Royal

The Liberty-style Grand Hotel Royal, Viareggio

A warm evening with hot opera at Torre del Lago
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jan 5, 2018
Words:1509
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