The Complete Guide To: Tuscany
Start with the exquisite art, museums and churches, then relish the cuisine and epic countryside. Jonathan Buckley highlights the best of the quintessential Italian region
Saturday 28 February 2009
Where do I start?
All roads in Tuscany lead to Florence, the region's biggest city and one of Europe's premier tourist magnets. You could spend a fortnight here and still not see every one of the masterpieces to be found in Florence's museums and churches. The Uffizi gallery (00 39 055 294 883; firenzemusei.it), Italy's most popular art collection, will take you the best part of a day. It opens from 8.15am-6.50pm daily, except Monday. You can reserve tickets (booking fee €4) by phoning 00 39 05 294 883 (Mon–Fri 8.30am–6.30pm, Sat 8.30am–12.30pm), or through the museum's website, or at its booth at Orsanmichele (10am–5.30pm daily except Sunday), or at the Uffizi itself; online booking and the Orsanmichele booth are the best bets.
You can also sample the colossal art collection of the Palazzo Pitti, the sculptures of the Bargello, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, the Accademia (as with the Uffizi, pre-booking is essential, because everyone wants to see Michelangelo's David), the amazing frescoes of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, Santa Maria del Carmine, San Marco and Santissima Annunziata. Details from the city's main tourist office at Via Cavour 1 (00 39 055 290 832; firenze.turismo.toscana.it), which opens 8.30am-6.30pm daily (Sundays to 1pm).
Oh, and you can't miss the Duomo and Baptistery, of course, and you'd be mad to leave Florence without visiting San Lorenzo (the mausoleum of the Medici), and Santo Spirito and Santa Trinita and Santa Felìcita. Then there's the stupendous San Miniato (the finest Romanesque church in Tuscany), and Castagno's The Last Supper ...
I get the picture. But where next?
The obvious second stop is Siena. If Florence is primarily about the Renaissance, in Siena it's the medieval period that predominates. And here the cityscape itself is the great attraction. You can have a fabulous time here without setting foot in a single museum: arrayed on three ridges, the city presents a succession of beautiful urban vistas, girdled by superb countryside on all sides. There's no more beautiful public space in all of Italy then Siena's Il Campo, the city's great scallop-shaped piazza; and the nearby Duomo is one of the country's mightiest monuments. Which is not to say that it doesn't have any first-rank museums: to get the measure of Sienese art you must visit the Museo Civico, inside the magnificent Gothic Palazzo Pubblico (00 39 057 729 2226; open from 10am to 7pm daily in summer, admission €7.50). You could also visit the Pinacoteca Nazionale and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo; the tourist office (which is open daily from 9am-7pm; 00 39 05 77 28 05 51; terresiena.it) can give you full details.
Give yourself time to explore the city at leisure: pedestrianised Siena is an easy-going contrast to frenetic Florence, except when the lunacy of the Palio is happening. This hell-for-leather bareback horse-race – Italy's most celebrated festival – takes place on 2 July and 16 August. If you want to be in town for it, book your accommodation now. The Grand Hotel Continental is centrally located and doubles start at €220 room only (Banchi di Sopra 85; 00 39 057 756 011; royaldemeure.com).
Any other must-see cities?
Plenty. Pisa, for instance, has much more to offer than just the Leaning Tower. The tower is a remarkable thing, certainly, but it's just a single component of the amazing Campo dei Miracoli, where the Duomo, Baptistery and Camposanto complete an unrivalled quartet of medieval masterpieces. For information on Pisa, call 00 39 050 929 777 or visit pisa.turismo. toscana.it ahead of time, or contact the tourist office on the north side of the station at Piazza Vittorio Emanuele 13 (Mon–Fri 9am–7pm, Sat 9am–1.30pm) or in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (open daily 10am-5pm).
Though the medieval core of the city is inundated with coach parties, the rest of the town is ignored by most visitors, which is a pity, as it has several fine churches and museums, and lots of fine restaurants too. For authentic Pisan home cooking, nowhere's better than San Omobono, Piazza San Omobono 6 (00 39 050 540 847), featuring dishes such as brachette alla renaiaola – pasta in a purée of greens and smoked fish. To capture something of the atmosphere of the 19th-century Grand Tour, head for the Royal Victoria (lungarno Pacinotti 12, 00 39 050 940 111; royalvictoria.it). Run by the same family since its foundation in 1837, this old-fashioned and appealingly frayed three-star is the most characterful of central Pisa's hotels – and the best value. Doubles start at €100 including breakfast.
The big university gives Pisa a buzz, but it's a bit too gritty for some. Neighbouring Lucca, on the other hand, is graceful without being dull, with a largely traffic-free centre that's strewn with handsome buildings – you can hardly walk for five minutes without coming upon a small piazza and marble-fronted church facade. Lucca isn't a major stop on the tourist trail, but its limited accommodation is always in demand, so it's wise to book ahead at any time of year. First choice is Palazzo Busdraghi, Via Fillungo 170 (00 39 05 83 95 08 56; apalazzo busdraghi.it), a tiny and central four-star hotel, richly furnished with fine antiques. In summer, you won't pay less than €200 for a double room, including breakfast.
An ideal hill town?
The one that everybody knows is San Gimignano, a village that, thanks mainly to its famous towers, receives far more day-trippers in summer than it can comfortably handle – at peak times the police impose a one-way pedestrian system in the narrow lanes. That said, the fresco-lined Collegiata is definitely worth coming to see, and San Gimignano also has one of Tuscany's best civic museums.
The popularity of Cortona has similarly become something of an issue in recent years. This perfect hill-town, located within sight of Lago Trasimeno – was relatively unknown prior to the publication of Frances Mayes' Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany; nowadays the place entices coachloads of her readers to the place where Mayes realized the expatriate dream of the Tuscan good life.
If it's quiet that you want, why not try instead lofty Volterra, west of San Gimignano? Brooding on a windswept plateau enclosed by volcanic hills, it was described by D H Lawrence as "a sort of inland island," and has an air of being somewhat cut off from the rest of the region. Like Cortona, it was a major Etruscan settlement, and the town's museum are stuffed with relics of that enigmatic civilisation.
The classic hill-towns, though, lie south of Siena. One of the highest, Montepulciano, is built along a narrow ridge, with a long main street and alleys that drop away to the walls. Endowed with dozens of palazzi and churches during the Renaissance, it fell into neglect in subsequent centuries, and today makes most of its money from its wine industry, based on the famed Vino Nobile. Its tourist profile becomes higher with each passing year, though, and the same goes for tiny Pienza, 20km to the west of Montalcino.
As perfect a Renaissance creation as any in Italy, Pienza was built by Pope Pius II on the site of the village where he was born in 1405. Though Pius's scheme didn't progress much beyond the central piazza, few places in Tuscany have as much immediate charm. And it has a very nice hotel, the three-star Il Chiostro di Pienza, Corso Rossellino 26 (open from 30 March; 00 39 0578 748 400; relaisilchiostrodipienza.com), an extremely chi-chi conversion of the old cloister and other parts of a former Franciscan monastery.
The third gorgeous hill-town in this zone of Tuscany is Montalcino, a quiet, likeable and affluent little place that has scarcely changed in appearance since the 16th century. It looks wonderful from below, and when you're up by the castle the view of the surrounding hills, vineyards, orchards, olive groves and ancient oaks is equally lovely. It has few specific sights, but makes an excellent base for the exploration of southern Tuscany, as it lies within easy striking distance of such sights as the great abbeys of Monte Oliveto and Sant'Antimo. It's also the source of one of Italy's finest wines, Brunello di Montalcino, which can be sampled at the Fattoria dei Barbi (open daily 10am-1pm, 2.30-6pm, closed weekend mornings; 00 39 0577 841 111; fattoriadeibarbi.it), 7km southeast of Montalcino on the Sant'Antimo road.
Talking of wine – what's Chianti like?
There's some justice to the "Chiantishire" tag. Foreign residents might account for only five per cent of Chianti's 45,000 inhabitants, but tourism has overtaken wine to become the region's most important cash crop, and has helped push property prices in Chianti's medieval hamlets beyond the reach of many of the locals – a lot of the houses are shuttered up in the off-season. There is, nonetheless, much to enjoy in Chianti: quiet back roads, hundreds of acres of woodland, and of course the vineyards.
Perhaps the best target is Greve in Chianti, venue for the region's biggest wine fair: the Rassegna del Chianti Classico, usually held during the second week in September. It is a place that has wine for sale seemingly on every street: the Cantine di Greve in Chianti, at Galleria delle Cantine 2, claims to have an unrivalled selection of Chianti Classico wines. It's an attractive little town u o focused on the funnel-shaped Piazza Matteotti, where the Saturday morning market is held.
A couple of three-star hotels on Piazza Matteotti offer comfortable accommodation. One is the Del Chianti at number 86, open weekends from 6 March and every day from 20 March; doubles from €90 including breakfast (00 39 055 853 763; albergodelchianti.it). The other is Da Verrazzano at number 28; doubles including breakfast from €103, though if you want an en-suite bathroom it will cost you €15 more (00 39 055 853 189; albergoverrazzano. it); this hotel also has an extremely good restaurant.
The best of Chianti's countryside lies to the south of here, in the Monti del Chianti – once the stronghold of the medieval military alliance known as Lega di Chianti. The ancient Etruscan-founded town of Radda in Chianti became the Lega's capital in 1384, and the imprint of the period is perhaps stronger here than anywhere else in the area. The Relais Vignale, on the edge of the village at Via Pianigiani 9 (00 39 05 777 38012; vignale.it), has a wine bar in the cellars, two restaurants and a heated swimming pool. Chianti is also prime agriturismo territory, with scores of farms offering rooms or apartments, or even self-contained mini-villas. You'll find a good choice of properties at the following websites: agriturismo.net, agriturismo.it and tiny.cc/6zbgM.
There are decent beaches on the Tuscan island of Elba: the isle stretches a maximum of 30km from coast to coast. The permanent population numbers a mere 30,000 inhabitants, spread throughout the island in picturesque coastal and mountain villages and a handful of larger towns. It has to be said, though, that Tuscany's mainland coast is often unalluring. Livorno, the largest place by the sea, is a fairly grim port. And though there's some fine sand at Viareggio – Tuscany's major resort – the best bits have been appropriated by the seaside hotels that overlook the palm-lined promenade.
One portion of the Tuscan coast, however, remains unspoiled: the Monti dell'Uccellina, or "Mountains of the Little Bird", which take their name from birds that use these hills as a stepping-stone between Europe and North Africa. Rising suddenly from the coastal plain, about 12km south of Grosseto, this breathtaking piece of countryside combines cliffs, coastal marsh, macchia, forest-covered hills, pristine beaches and some of the most beautiful stands of umbrella pines in the country. Devoid of the bars, marinas, hotels and half-finished houses that have destroyed much of the Italian littoral, it's perhaps the most peaceful corner of Tuscany.
And finally – how about an open-air hot tub? Tuscany has numerous spa towns. The most celebrated are Montecatini and Monsummano, west of Florence. These places offer a plenitude of treatments, many of them pricey, but you can give yourself a bit of a pampering without spending a single euro if you head for Saturnia, deep in the south of Tuscany, where sulphurous hot springs burst out of the ground. Alternatively, go to Bagno Vignoni, where the village square is mostly taken up by a spring-fed stone-lined pool. You're no longer allowed to bathe in it, but you can wallow in the muddy sulphur pools at the foot of the cliff at which the village ends.
Jonathan Buckley is co-author of the new 'Rough Guide to Florence and the Best of Tuscany' and 'The Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria'. For more details see roughguides.com
The best of Tuscan walking
North of Arezzo stretches the upper valley of the Arno, an area known as the Casentino. This lush and largely largely agricultural area sees few tourists, even though much of the area has been designated a national park. The most attractive town is tiny Poppi, which is dominated by the castle of the Guidi family, who once ruled the area. The seclusion of the forested and mountainous flanks of the Casentino fostered a strong monastic tradition, and the communities at Camáldoli and at La Verna continue to be important centres for their respective orders. The latter is the mountaintop retreat where St Francis received his stigmata, which is why it's one of Italy's major pilgrimage sites. The best place to stay in these parts is Poppi's plain, homely and inexpensive three-star Casentino (00 39 0575 529 090, albergocasentino.it) with double rooms starting at €65 including breakfast.
Monte Amiata, the highest point in southern Tuscany, is also delightful walking country, but for something more strenuous head to the north, where the Alpi Apuane offer a 60km spread of genuinely Alpine spectacle. Now a protected regional park, the Apuane are crisscrossed by numerous marked trails starting from roads and heading deep into the mountains; the biggest concentration of these tracks is in the peaks east of Forte dei Marmi and Pietrasanta, centred on Pania della Croce (1,859m) and Monte Forato (1,223m). Thanks to their position and height, the Apuane are a perfect combination of different ecological habitats, from tundra through Alpine meadow to Mediterranean grassland. The most noticeable plant life is the immense forests of chestnut and beech, which cover virtually all the lower slopes and offer shelter to some of the mountains' 300 species of birds.
Parallel to the Apuane ridge lies the Garfagnana, the name for the area encompassing the Serchio valley north of Lucca. This is one of Tuscany's least-explored yet most spectacular corners, and much of it is protected as a regional nature reserve, so there's a good range of signposted walks – the best are on the east of the Serchio valley, in the mountainous Orecchiella range. Base yourself in the ancient hill-town of Barga, at the three-star Alpino (Via Pascoli 41; 00 39 0583 723 336; bargaholiday.com), where a double room will cost you less than €80 a night.
Tuscan travel essentials
By rail, the main approach is from London via Paris and Milan to Florence.
Florence's Amerigo Vespucci airport is served from the UK only by Meridiana (0871 222 9319; meridiana.it) from Gatwick. Plenty of UK airports have links to Pisa, with the most frequent services from Gatwick on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyJet.com), and from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com). The airport is very close to the city centre, with a regular train link to Pisa Centrale station.
Given the terrain, rail services are surprisingly good in Tuscany, with buses filling in many of the gaps. Many visitors choose to rent a car. If you decide to drive, be aware that many town and city centres are off-limits to motorists who are not registered as local residents; though if you have a booking at a central hotel, you can usually drive to it - many provide parking.
Take to the Piero Trail
Arezzo, one hour's train ride from Florence, is another Tuscan city that doesn't depend too much on the tourist trade, although in recent years it has been making more of an effort to market itself as a holiday destination. The city's goldsmiths and antiques dealers underpin the finances of this solidly bourgeois city, but it offers more than its share of artistic delights, the chief treasure being the glorious fresco cycle by Piero della Francesca in the church of San Francesco.
In addition, the steeply sloping Piazza Grande – focus of the vast monthly antiques fair – is one of Tuscany's most photogenic squares. Overlooking the Piazza Grande is one of the finest Romanesque structures in Tuscany, the 12th-century Pieve di Santa Maria, while the nearby church of San Domenico contains a superb crucifix by Cimabue, painted when the artist would have been just 20 years old.
Arezzo has a good range of restaurants, such as the homely Antica Osteria L'Agania, Via Mazzini 10 (00 39 0575 25 381), and a stylish new hotel – the four-star Vogue, at Via Guido Monaco 54, where doubles start at €165 including breakfast (00 39 0575 24 361; voguehotel.it).
Having seen the San Francesco frescoes, you may want to strike east from Arezzo to the modest hill-town of Monterchi, where Piero della Francesca painted one of the most powerful images of the Renaissance, the pregnant Madonna del Parto. Other magnificent works by the same artist – notably his Resurrection – are to be seen in his birthplace, Sansepolcro, a short drive further east, almost on the Umbrian border. The best place to stay here is the Fiorentino, a plain three-star, which has been in business at Via Luca Pacioli 56 since 1807 (00 39 0575 740 350; albergofiorentino.com); it has a good restaurant and doubles start at €65 without breakfast.
Jonathan Buckley is co-author of the new 'Rough Guide to Florence and the Best of Tuscany' and 'The Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria'. For more details see roughguides.com
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