Just a hundred metres away from the building that houses the world's greatest painting (see below) is a three-star hotel called the Fiorentino. Its rooms cost much the same as a one-star in Florence, and it has a great restaurant, where service is provided by a polyglot boss whose speciality is spinning his plates of spinach in the air before depositing them on your table. I plan each itinerary to include a night there.
MOST USEFUL PHRASE
"A che ora e la chiesa aperta?" (What time is the church open?). There are more Unesco-listed art objects in Tuscany than in the rest of Europe, and a fair proportion of them are in churches whose opening hours seem somewhat whimsical.
Andrei Tarkovsky filmed much of Nostalgia in the area to the south of Siena, and made great use of the sulphur pool that occupies the piazza of the little spa town of Bagno Vignoni. Bathers are now banned from the pool, but if you go down the street you'll come to an astonishing sight - a round-backed hill of solidified sulphur, down which a stream of steaming hot water courses into the valley.
Foolishly I once turned up in Florence on a wet Thursday night in November, thinking that I'd find a single room for under pounds 100. Florence had nothing for the cost-conscious traveller; neither did Prato, Florence's neighbour; things were no better in nearby Pistoia; a conference in Pisa had filled all its hotels. I ended up many miles away in Arezzo, in a dismal hotel which, as I discovered at 3am, earned most of its money from customers who needed rooms only for an hour or two. If you're going to Florence, whatever the season, be sure to book well in advance - unless pounds 100 is nothing to you.
I drove halfway across Tuscany to see Piero della Francesca's Resurrection - nominated the "world's greatest painting" by Aldous Huxley. I arrived in Sansepolcro to find the gallery closed for restoration - re-opening three days later, they said. I resumed my tour of Tuscany, then blasted back to Sansepolcro on the third day. Museum now re-opened - except the room containing the Resurrection. A party of tourists emerge from the gallery, talking of the wonderful della Francesca painting. "So the Resurrection isn't under wraps?" I ask. "No, you can see them all," they reply. "You've seen the Resurrection?" I ask, just to make sure. "Sure," they reply ecstatically. I prepare to hand over my entry fee. One of the party calls back to me: "That's the one where he's on the cross, yeah?"
Just off the Campo in Siena there's a superb restaurant called Le Logge. I gorged myself on truffle pasta one evening accompanied by a brace of Japanese businessmen . Having consumed a different bottle of wine with each course, they insisted on a photo-call with the chef and the waitress - the former a genial character of ursine dimensions, the latter a diminutive lookalike for Claudia Cardinale.
BARGAIN OF THE TRIP
A Tuscan bargain is virtually a contradiction in terms, but every time I use a train in Italy I feel I'm at least getting good value for money. The Fiat advert might tell you that no one in Italy wants to be a train driver, but the Italians still think of the railway as a public service. Trains run on time, they rarely break down, and are rarely vandalised - even by football fans.
It was a warm night, so I took a chair out onto the balcony of my hotel room in Lucca. Shortly after midnight, the window of the adjoining room opened, and out clambered a middle-aged man with straggly dyed blond hair, wearing nothing but a silver posing pouch. He jumped onto my balcony and leaned over the balustrade to survey the streets of Lucca. Apparently satisfied with the view, he climbed back into his room through the window, having at no point said anything to me - or, indeed, done anything to indicate he'd noticed me at all.
Amaro, a sludgy brown herbal digestif, is something of an acquired taste, and I acquired it many years ago, when I sampled the variety produced by the monks at San Miniato in Florence. Whenever I visit, I either bring back a bottle of the stuff, or a bar of soap from the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella, an ancient Florentine establishment staffed by people who have a knack of making you feel that you've transgressed some timeless law simply by entering their beautiful shop.
Jonathan Buckley did research for 'The Rough Guide to Tuscany'. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter 'Rough News', published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
A double room at the Hotel Fiorentino in Sansepolcro costs about pounds 40 (telephone 00 39 575 740350; fax 740370).
If you want to see the Resurrection, head for the Museo Civico, Via Niccol Aggiunti 65, Sansepolcro; it's open daily from 9.30am to 1pm, then from 2.30 to 6pm.
Bagno Vignoni is 6km south of San Quirico d'Orcia; virtually inaccessible without your own transport.
The Osteria le Logge is at Via del Porrione 33, Siena (telephone 00 39 577 48013), and is open every day except Sunday. Around pounds 30 per head for a meal, wine included.
The Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella is at Via della Scala 16, Florence - but there's a friendlier branch in London's Walton Street.
Walking tours of Tuscany are available through Headway (01606 48699). Their 10-day guided "Best of Tuscany" walk costs from pounds 848 per person on selected dates from 3 May to 18 October. Independent 11 day tours available (pounds 549 self-drive), with departures every two days.Reuse content