Italy

Around the region

Tuscany is at the very heart of Italy. It’s a region that is both unique and alluring, that gave the world Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Dante Alighieri. Squeezed between Italy’s industrial north and the more agricultural south, it blends characteristics of the two – more laid back than places like Milan, less chaotic than Sicily or Naples. It’s a place where lively modern cities thrive and happily rub shoulders with tiny hamlets in which life seems hardly to have changed since medieval times.

Florence, of course, is the tourist honeypot, followed by Siena and the surrounding hill towns such as Montepulciano – a wine lover’s dream. But only as you explore more widely can you fully appreciate the glorious variety of the region. Northern Tuscany is the craggiest area, encompassing the mountains of the Apennines and Apuan Alps and the ancient maritime republic of Pisa, while eastern Tuscany is a mix of hills and plains – home to the art city of Arezzo and picturesque Cortona. Most surprising is the area to the south and west, where the Maremma’s buttery soft beaches gradually give way to fertile hills and plains, and hot springs spurt sulphurous steam. And this book doesn’t even have room to mention the glorious Tuscan islands, such as Elba, easily reached from the southwest coast and well worth a place on your itinerary, or the moonlike landscapes of the Lunigiana, far to the north.

Florence

It may be small but Florence is so full of art treasures, Renaissance palaces and fascinating churches that it takes a long time to explore it properly. Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s St George, Leonardo’s Annunciation, Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Fra Angelico’s frescoes, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus – oh, yes, and Brunelleschi’s awe-inspiring dome: there’s so much to see it can get quite overwhelming. You could spend a weekend in the Uffizi Gallery alone. In high season, the sheer numbers of tour groups – obediently following guides holding umbrellas or sticks aloft like modern-day Pied Pipers – can make it seem as if the city is one big museum. But make time to wander just a short distance from the main sights and you’ll be able to see another Florence. Explore the Oltrarno, for example and you’ll find craftsmen producing everything from sculptures to handmade shoes; stroll around Sant’Ambrogio Market and you’ll find locals buying fruit and vegetables for that night’s dinner. In fact, just get lost in the city and you’ll enjoy your trip much more.

Siena

Siena, Florence’s old enemy, is the most complex, fascinating and unfathomable of cities; a place where the medieval is as much a part of modern-day living as the mobile phone. Most people know it for the Palio, the ancient and brutal horse race held twice a year in the Campo, Siena’s famous shell-shaped piazza. But the city also has a deliciously over-the-top cathedral, remarkable 14th-century frescoes depicting secular rather than religious subjects, and a maze of atmospheric streets and alleyways lined with individual shops and characterful bars and restaurants. Between Siena and Florence lies Chianti, the oak-wooded wine country that has long been a second home to the Brits and Germans who ‘discovered’ it after the 1960s. Also within easy reach of the city is San Gimignano, the many-towered – and much photographed – medieval hill town.

Eastern Tuscany

While it is more industrialized than other parts of the region, eastern Tuscany also contains the wild Casentino with its forests and crags. The area is certainly not short of attractions. In fact it offers art lovers a real treat, for it’s here that you’ll find the majority of works by Piero della Francesca – from the Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle in Arezzo’s San Francesco Church, to the depiction of the pregnant Virgin, the Madonna del Parto, in the tiny village of Monterchi. Both Monterchi and Sansepolcro, where the artist was born, are on the border with Umbria yet still proudly Tuscan in their outlook. Here you’ll also find Cortona, the archetypal Tuscan hill town.

Northern Tuscany

Pisa, as Tuscany’s main transport hub, is the gateway to much of the region’s northern reaches. It sits at the foot of the Monte Pisano, a small mountain range that sets the scene for more dramatic crags further north. The most famous sight is Pisa’s Leaning Tower, but the rest of the area offers a good mix of cultural attractions as well as plenty of opportunities for activities. Lucca, birthplace of the composer Puccini, is not just picturesque but extremely musical, staging a wide range of concerts and performances. And each year the Puccini Opera Festival, on the coast at Torre del Lago, attracts thousands of visitors.

In the northwest corner are the mountains where Michelangelo found the marble from which he created his compelling sculptures, and where marble is still quarried today. Here too are the thickly wooded slopes of the Garfagnana, perfect country for a food and wine tour or some exhilarating walks. Further east are Pistoia, a small city that barely registers on the tourist radar yet has a beautifully preserved centre, the spa town of Montecatini Terme, and Vinci, birthplace of Leonardo.

Southern Hill Towns

The landscape to the south of Siena is dotted with such a charming mix of medieval hill towns and serene abbeys that it makes perfect touring country. Here are fields of sunflowers and sweetcorn, green hills and rolling waves of smooth clay soil. If you love wine then you won’t want to miss visiting Montepulciano, famed for the Nobile di Montepulciano, or Montalcino, home of Brunello. Between these two is squeezed the less famous, but still delightful, town of San Quirico d’Orcia. Then there’s Pienza, Pope Pius II’s embodiment of the ideal Renaissance town. More isolated are the beautiful abbeys of Sant’ Antimo, Monte Oliveto Maggiore and, further west, San Galgano, where you can see the hilt of a sword sticking out of a stone – buried there, it’s said, by the eponymous saint in the 12th century.

Southern & Western Tuscany

This is another Tuscany, one that few people take the trouble to get to know but which is richly rewarding if you make the effort. Volterra, to the west of Siena, comes under the province of Pisa but feels entirely different. It’s the place to come if you want to find out about the mysterious Etruscans, whose civilization flourished here before the Romans came. In the southwest you find the Maremma, a world apart from the tourist heartlands of Chianti – less manicured and mannered but with more to offer those with a sense of adventure. The Maremma coast, where the butteri (cowboys) still herd their long-horned cattle, provides a habitat for birds, butterflies and wild boar. It also has Tuscany’s best beaches. Moving inland you find fields and farms, and wine and olive oil producers. There may be no ‘must-see’ artworks, but there are quiet churches, expansive landscapes and hill towns where life seems barely touched by the 21st century.

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