There was a time when the Grand Tour of Italy was a rite of passage, where Britain’s youthful nobility went to be “educated and improved”. And Tuscany – particularly the glorious Renaissance city of Florence – was an important stop for those who wanted to learn about art.
These days, Tuscany is seen as one of the most characteristically Italian regions of Italy – particularly the rolling vineyards and cypress-lined roads of the Chianti region. Despite such modern-day diversions as seeing how much gelato (ice cream) and spicy salsicce (sausage) you can consume while flip-flopping to your villa’s pool, it’s impossible to forget that Tuscany is where the modern world was made and where art and literature catapulted man out of the Dark Ages.
The Apennine and Apuan Alps put a cooling arm around this suntrap of a region and its main city, Florence. The marble carved out of Carrara’s quarries built some of the world’s greatest cities, as well as nearby Pisa and Lucca. Meanwhile the crags and golden curves of the coast and islands lead down to Grosseto and the protected Maremma national park, where salty breezes sigh through pinewoods and marshlands.
Inland and to the north is Siena, the world’s best preserved medieval city. However, although the men in tights and the brightly dressed horses of Il Palio ( ilpalio.org), which takes place annually on 2 July and 16 August, or the jousting La Giostra del Saracino in Arezzo ( giostradelsaracino.arezzo.it), which takes place on 8 June and 15 September this year are entertaining, these festivals bear no resemblance to the brutal medieval period. The constant power struggles that dominated the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance were also characterised by filth and disease, which wiped out entire cities not already depleted by war and famine.
And if life wasn’t bad enough, hell awaited all original sinners, or so the church said.
Yet amid all the greed, filth and cruelty came a desire for beauty that sought to humanise rather than suppress. As early as the 14th century, Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio wrote in the language spoken by ordinary Tuscans rather than the Latin of the church. And ideas of the self that challenged our God-given fate came from humanists such as Mirandola and Machiavelli.
Even bankers – primarily the Medici family – played a pivotal role in making a renaissance of art and ideas happen. Artists including Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and Michelangelo were all taken under the wing of the Medicis and the church, leaving an awesome legacy that is still oohed and aahed at today.
For a reminder that Tuscany is very much a work in progress, walk around the Oltrarno area in Florence, south of the Arno, in the morning and you will hear the tap, tap, tapping of a stonemason’s hammer and see the glare of a welder. These are the historic artisans of Florence applying their time served skills to the renovation and making anew of picture frames, sculptures, silverware, bound books, mosaics and damasks that the city has long been known for. Florence Art (00 39 055 233 5413; florenceart.net) offers group tours of the Artisan Quarter from €25; or €100 for individuals.
Tuscany is easily accessible from the UK, thanks to the links to Pisa airport from Belfast, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, four London airports, Manchester, Newcastle and Prestwick. In addition, Florence is served from London City by CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com) and from Gatwick by Meridiana (0871 423 3711; meridiana.it).
By train you can connect in Paris for the sleeper to Florence Campo di Marte. European Rail (020-7619 1083; europeanrail.com) is one of several agents that can organise this. Santa Maria Novella station in Florence is the rail hub of Tuscany (00 39 06 6847 5475; trenitalia.com).
The Footprint Travel Guide to Tuscany is available now, priced £13.99. To receive a 50 per cent discount (excl P&P) off any Footprint Italy guidebook, visit footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde11 in the coupon code at checkout. Valid until the end of July.
Where to stay
If you’re flying into Pisa, then the historic Royal Victoria Hotel (00 39 050 940111; royalvictoria.it) has doubles from €65, including breakfast. Popular with the Grand Tourists of the 19th century, the original furnishing and charm is still there.
The Hotel David in the Oltrarno district of Florence (00 39 055 681 1695; davidhotel.com) has doubles from €150 including breakfast. Its huge, airy rooms were furnished by 19th-century craftsman. The best bit, though, is the happy hour in the garden.
In Maremma, near Orbetello, Villa Bengodi (00 39 0564 885 515; villabengodi.it) has doubles from €95, including breakfast. It's a seaside villa surrounded by lush foliage and a marvellous terrazzo for al fresco supping.
For villa rentals, agencies including Tuscanynow.com offer a wide selection of properties that range from the rustic to the lavish. There are smaller, more localised agencies such a Friendsoftuscany.com, which specialises in farmhouses and cottages in the Garfagnana area near Lucca.
Italians have really embraced the agriturismi (agriculture and tourism B&B movement) in the last decade which offers farm-based accommodation and locally produced food. For more information see Agriturismo.it.
For something simple and serene the brothers and sisters of the 37 monasteries and convents that accept guests ( monasterystays.com) will take care of you. Couples and families are welcome, and you don’t have to be religious (although you may have to abide by a curfew).
Wine and dine
The food and wine of Tuscany is one of its main lures. Gourmets flock to Heather Jarman (07768 474610; sapori-e-saperi.com), a foodie who offers flexible day tours (from €190pp) of the region as well as week-long tasting tours that take in wine, oil, cheese, honey and the much maligned Tuscan bread. Some claim pane Toscano is the worst bread in Italy (it’s not, Venetian bread is the worst) but its blandness or “blank canvas” has a story behind it. The Pisans, constantly at war with Florence, blockaded the flow of salt to their inland foes in an effort to force them to surrender.
While the rich got hold of their salt somehow, the poor were left to make bread without it – or add other ingredients to liven things up. Heather’s tours visit one of the best areas for bread making: the mountainous Garfagnana, North of Lucca. Here there’s pane di patate (or Garfanino) made with potatoes, pane di farro made with spelt, and pane di neccio, made with chestnut flour.
Alternatively, eschew any clichéd zooming round the vineyards and chug through the hills instead on the green train (00 39 0577 280 551; trenonatura.terresiena.it). Leaving Siena station, the vintage railcars (€18 per person) and steam train (€29 per person) trundle passengers to local food festivals and events including the pork festival in Vivo d’Orcia (5 June), the organic food market in Asciano (18 Sept) chestnut festivals in Monte Amiata (9 Oct) and the Porcini festival in Vivo d’Orcia (26 Oct).
And don’t leave Tuscany without trying schiacciata (skee-acha-ta), a cross between foccacia and a pizza. There are regional versions such as schiacciata Maremma (made with pork fat) and the seasonal schiacciata l’uva, the Florentine speciality that oozes sweet cooked grapes. However, the plain version all’olio can’t be beaten.
Art of the matter
Your personal renaissance should begin in Florence’s Uffizi gallery, which this year celebrates 500 years since the birth of its architect, Giorgio Vasari, who was commissioned by Grand Duke Medici. Be warned: the crowds at the Uffizi make it as much pain as pleasure. Plan your visit using Virtual Uffizi ( virtualuffizi.com) then book ahead (00 39 055 23885; uffizi.firenze.it) at Piazzale degli Uffizi 6, Piazza della Signoria. Admission is €6.50.
Pre-booked tickets let you swoop past the queues of schoolchildren outside – but they will rejoin you later, probably about the time you’re trying to concentrate on the milky limbs of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera.
Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia (00 39 055 294883; firenzemusei.it) next door at Piazza della Signoria is considered a rousing symbol of Renaissance perfection, though perfect it is not (his hands are disproportionately large, while other parts are rather small). Admission is €6.50.
Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo (00 39 055 230 2885; duomofirenze.it) at Piazza del Duomo is a triumph over the cynics. The erection of this octagonal cupola without scaffolding was a retort to those that had written him off as an upstart. Admission is €6. There are too many paintings, sculptures and buildings to list here, so take along a good art guide, such as Renaissance Art: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld) by Tom Nichols.
If the Grand Tour was an institution today, the old masters would be scheduled for viewing alongside challenging newcomers. Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi (00 39 055 246 9600; palazzostrozzi.org) at Piazza degli Strozzi is a family friendly gallery, which until 17 July is showing Picasso, Miró, Dalí – Angry Young Men: the Birth of Modernity. Admission is €10.
If you are serious about the sights, the Firenze Card ( firenzecard.it) costs €50 and gets you to the front of the queue of all the major museums, villas and historical gardens in Florence and free travel on the buses and trams. The downside is that it only lasts for three days, which means everything must be visited at top speed.
Meanwhile in Siena, Santa Maria della Scala (00 39 0577 534571; santamariadellascala.com) on Piazza Duomo is an old hospital with Etruscan artefacts in the lower floor and a huge space showing contemporary art (recent shows include Jenny Holzer and Francesca Woodman).
Italian tourism websites are often hit-and-miss, but five stars go to Tuscany’s ( turismo.intoscana.it) for fulsome information.
Coastline and islands
The fragrant macchia mediterranea shrub covers Tuscany’s visitable islands of Capraia, Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri, served by ferries from Livorno, Piombino and Porto Santo Stefano. The largest island, Elba, is endowed with beaches as well as wild trails around the 1,018m-high Monte Capanne. There are also two Napoleonic bolt-holes – the villas dei Mulini and San Martino – where Bonaparte was exiled for 300 days in 1814-15. Imperial motifs vie with the resident cat population to give seaside San Martino a neglected, melancholic air.
In October and May, Elba is charming, but beware the summertime hordes and Portoferraio’s yacht-set during August in particular, when beaches are often packed.
For a more enchanting escape – and excellent waters for diving – head to Giglio, or 5km-long Giannutri with its grottoes and air of seclusion.
La Maremma – a vast marshy coastal territory finally freed of its malarial menace – is home to the Uccellina (“little bird”) (00 39 0564 407098; parcomaremma.it). Flamingos and reed warblers can be spotted on boat trips at Ximenes Casa Rossa (00 39 0564 484581; museidimaremma.it; admission €5), the former gatekeeper’s living quarters which now holds a multimedia centre and observation deck for the marshland.
If you want to ride the ocean wave, Paolo Fanciulli (00 39 333 284 6199; paoloilpescatore.it) at Talamone Harbour, near Grosseto will take you out fishing from €90 a day.
How green is the garden?
Heavy vines in neat rows. Cypresses pricking the sky. Bobbing heads of sunflowers. This is the received picture of the Tuscan landscape. However, a cycling holiday will reveal that hiding round a bend may instead be thickly wooded hills, craggy mountains and gushing rivers.
Terre di Siena by Bicycle ( inbici.terresiena.it) details 49 routes in this wine-growing region, and suggests accommodation options, travel deals and bike rental services.
For something a little more cultivated, Monty Don’s current Italian Gardens series has revived interest in these sculpted gardens. Tuscans have practised horticultural perfection for hundreds of years. Just outside Florence in Fiesole, Villa Palmieri (now Villa Schifanoia) was the backdrop to Giovanni Boccaccio’s collection of novellas, Decameron, completed about 1353. The villa (00 39 055 055; comune.fiesole.fi.it) is now a private home, but is open on various days throughout the year, admission €5. Other fabulously groomed gardens in Fiesole include those of the Villa San Michele (00 39 055 567 8200; villasanmichele.com), a grand hotel where double rooms start at €946, including breakfast.
An operatic diversion
Lucca, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), is the popular choice for those who like their opera both entertaining and outdoors. Each year from 22 July to 27 August, La Bohème, Turandot and Madame Butterfly are shown at the festival at Torre del Lago (00 39 0584 359322; puccinifestival.it) at Via dell Torbiere. Tickets €33- €160. Lake Massaciuccoli is the stage’s backdrop and makes for a little magic (note that lashings of citronella or DDT is required to prevent you from being savaged by mosquitoes). Even if the show doesn’t hold your attention, the local glitterati – terracotta-hued ladies, top-to-toe in D&G with rockhard bouffants – are fascinating.
Arblaster & Clark (01730 263111; arblasterandclarke.com) offers a first class ticket to one of the operas, with two nights’ accommodation at a four-star hotel for £650pp, excluding flights. (Lucca is a 20-minute drive from Pisa.)