Renowned for its artistic heritage, history and beautiful landscapes, Tuscany is where past and present seem to merge. Hilltop towns gaze down on a rural landscape, the heat haze gently rising to blur the distant hills. Etruscan farmhouses, handsome palazzo and medieval town halls testify to the wealth of this charming area of central Italy.
Getting to Tuscany is easy, whether for a romantic weekend or a summer vacation. Pick up your hire car and consider driving Italian. It does not have to be a Fiat. Red Travel Tours offers a Ferrari for the weekend, with a sizeable deposit of course! Your prancing horse dream machine will grip the road at every twist and turn, eating up Tuscan tarmac easily. Absorb the sights, sounds and scents of the glorious Tuscan countryside. Enjoy the winding roads, the fields of poppies, ancient farmhouses and endless vine-covered hills and feel yourself unwind.
Visitors to Tuscany come for the beautiful countryside, the antiquities of Florence and the world famous wines. They go home talking about the food. Tuscany offers unpretentious, simple rustic food but it tastes divine. Locally reared and cured meat, the freshest mozzarella cheese, newly pressed peppery olive oil and vine-ripened tomatoes seem to taste better in the Tuscan air.
For a holiday with a purpose, you can learn the art of cooking on a weekend in Tuscany, and you will be in good company. Michelin starred chefs have been known to come here to learn to cook ‘cucina contadina’. The irony is, this is peasant food! A Tuscan proverb advises ‘Cooking like your Mother is good; cooking like your grandmother is better’. These culinary secrets have been handed down from generation to generation and new recipes are regarded with skepticism and scorn.
Perhaps it is the local wine that makes everything taste so good here. The vine-covered hills are a constant testament to the fact that Tuscany is a top producer of Chianti. The exclusive wineries of Montalcino offer wine tasting tours at the family owned wineries around Florence and Siena. Famous for its red wines as long ago as the 15th century, the local ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ wine must be aged for at least 5 years in oak caskets before being sold. Enjoy learning about the wine-making process and then sample some of the fine local produce.
Beach or Spa
Making the choice between beach or city can be difficult yet in Tuscany the problem will not arise. Lucca is less than 20 miles from the coast and driving the aforementioned ‘red devil’ Ferrari, the journey will seem all too short. Beaches can be very crowded, but paying for a bagni, which is a swish beach club, will get you a lounge chair, a changing cabin and an umbrella as well as a little more space.
If visiting the beach is too much trouble, simply book into the Bagni di Pisa natural Spa resort in Lucca, one of the Great Hotels of the World. Offering therapeutic beauty treatments, there is also an open air thermal pool where guests can wallow in the natural healing spa waters of the volcanic hot springs which remain a balmy 38ºC. Set in an 18th century building on a hillside surrounded by olive trees, this is a restorative holiday for both mind and body. Rooms are from 260 euros (392CHF) per night and spa packages for non residents start from 155 euros (234CHF).
Historic cities such as Florence, Siena and Pisa along with the smaller towns of Lucca and Cortona contain some of Italy’s finest treasures. If you are visiting Siena, the famous Palio Horse Race takes place in the town square on 2nd July and 16th August and is followed by a grand festival of cultural celebrations which include plenty of feasting and music.
Although the leaning tower is Pisa’s number one attraction, there are plenty more wonderful sights to see too. The leaning tower of Pisa seems to have defied gravity and several earth tremors over the last 840 years. Even if it were perpendicular, the bell tower would still be a delightful photo opportunity. It is now leaning an unbelievable 3.9 metres (over 12 feet) from its upright position. Fortunately extensive remedial work has been done to ensure the tower remains stable for the foreseeable future. The magnificent Duomo, or Cathedral, close by has a delightful four-tiered façade and bronze doors. The marble pulpit is carved with detailed religious reliefs and the interior is a veritable treasure house.
A visit to Florence, the cultural and intellectual heart of Tuscany must be part of your Tuscan experience. While most of the world got by with carts and ramshackle buildings, Florence was being created by the very foremost artisans under the powerful rule of the wealthy Medici family.
A compact city which is easy to explore on foot, Florence is truly a beautiful monument to the Renaissance of the 15th century. Most visitors head for the Duomo, the jewel of the city’s architecture with its magnificent frescoes. The octagonal dome is still the largest brick and mortar-built dome in the world, even after 600 years. The Campanile, or bell tower, and the Baptistery with its famous bronze ‘doors of Paradise’ will take your breath away.
When you have had your fill of churches, monuments, frescoes and sculptures, walk down to the River Arno and enjoy browsing the shops above the lovely Ponte de Vecchio or sit in the Piazza della Signoria by the Fountain of Neptune and sip another Italian masterpiece, the cappuccino.
To make the very most of your trip, avoid the organized tours and download an audio guide to your MP3 player. With information literally at your fingertips, you can really get the most from your visit.
Where to stay
For a completely relaxed vacation consider renting a holiday home in rural Tuscany. A dreamy weekend or a lively family get-together can be enjoyed at your own pace, with a homely place to return to after dining at the local trattoria. Spend the vacation exploring the local countryside, discovering such gems as the medieval village of San Gimignano with its thirteen famous towers, or Pienza with its papal palace in the middle of nowhere.
Florence has some beautiful places to stay, particularly along the River Arno. Consider the Loggiato Dei Serviti on the beautiful Piazza Santissima, a former monastery turned boutique hotel. With canopied beds and Renaissance style furnishings, this hotel captures the essential spirit and romance of Florence with nightly prices in July starting at 120 euros (181CHF).
At the other end of the scale is Casa Bartolini bed and breakfast hotel, owned and run by local artists Lucia and Dario. Prices are from 85 euros (128CHF) per night, minimum 2 nights. Both these options are available through Luxique.com. Set beneath the olive trees in a sculpture garden Casa Bartolini is a pleasant antidote just a short drive from crowded Florence. This is not your typical luxury hotel. With just three simply furnished rooms it offers warm hospitality in a local Tuscan home. Casa Bartolini is surrounded by peaceful, rural scenery with many footpaths for hiking. A traditional Italian ‘buongiorno’ breakfast is served on the verandah. The delightful hosts are happy to suggest places to visit and will cook a ‘Seasonal Tuscan Dinner’ by arrangement, which is prepared and narrated by the owner, Lucia. Truly a unique opportunity to experience the real Tuscany.
With so much to see and do, like many visitors before, your first visit to Tuscany will certainly not be your last!