Tuscany has been the favourite holiday destination in Italy for many years, attracting visitors from the world over to experience its irresistible charms: ancient villages perched on sunny hilltops rising from rolling oceans of sunflower fields and vineyards, a treasure house of unrivalled beauty in the art and architecture of its historic cities, its pleasant and dependable climate, and the delights and delicacy of its unique cuisine and vintages. Add to this the warm welcome of the Italians and the lively array of festivals that adorn the calendar especially during the summer months, and it is easy to understand Tuscany’s continuing appeal and charm, which in spite of the number of visitors to the region remains steadfastly unaffected.
Set in the heart of Italy, Tuscany is a wonderfully diverse region extending over 9000 square miles, and each of its several distinctive landscapes has its fervent advocates. Perhaps the most popular area is the Chianti, between Florence and Siena, with its ravishing, verdant hillsides, dense vineyards and olive groves, and deep dark woodlands. The northern boundary of Tuscany presents the mountainous vistas of the Apennines, carving their way from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic, and the Apuan Alps, a smaller range running parallel to the Apennines, and the origin of the world-famous Carrara marble. The lush valleys of the Mugello, the Garfagnana, and the Casentino, ranged along the upper Arno and its tributaries, look up onto precipitous mountainsides. The Val d’Orcia extends from the rugged limestone hillsides of the Crete Sinesi south of Siena to the area dominated by the volcanic cone of Monte Amiata near the Umbrian border. This valley was for centuries the historic link between Rome and the north, and is dotted with picturesque medieval villages and fortresses, as well as the 9th century abbey of Sant’Antimo. The Mediterranean coastal area of the Maremma was once quite removed from the tourist trail, but now attracts visitors to its hill towns, nature reserves, thermal springs, and to revisit traces of its original inhabitants, the Etruscans.
The cities of Tuscany are world-famous for their magnificent Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture and art, called forth by regional prosperity and the influence of wealthy patronage, especially by the Medici, the Florentine banking family whose name became synonymous with the Renaissance, sponsoring such masters as Donatello, Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, and Leonardo da Vinci.
Florence can be justly named the cradle of the Renaissance, and its most popular and important sites include the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Uffizi, and the Accademia. The churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce are veritable art galleries, and the library of San Lorenzo is a magnificent exhibition of Michelangelo's architectural genius. Wander some of the oldest streets in the city until you reach the Arno River, cross the Ponte Vecchio, and experience the "newest" area of Florence, the Oltrarno. South of the city centre visit the vast and varied art collection housed in the Palazzo Pitti, or spend a day at the Boboli Gardens.
Siena is perhaps even more sumptuous, a golden-yellow-brown jewel of a city perched on three hills, and its cathedral is an extraordinary hybrid Gothic edifice in black and white marble. The heart of Siena is the huge piazza known as Il Campo, dominated by the ruddy Palazzo Publico and its imposing Torre de Mangia; here is the site of the Palio, the hair-raising traditional annual festival and horse race among the seventeen various city factions.
Nearby San Gimignano is a fascinating medieval town of tall towers, thirteen of which still stand, which may have been Middle Ages fortresses or, more prosaically, drying towers for dyed cloth.
Pisa is of course famous for an even more iconic tower, but those with artistic leanings will appreciate the entire Piazza dei Miracoli, which includes as well the Cathedral, the Baptistery, and the Camposanto cemetery, comprising one of Romanesque architecture’s most exceptionally beautiful ensembles.
Tuscany is also the source of some of Italy’s most popular wines. Chianti Classico is the best of the wines from this region, but there are some interesting local Chianti vintages, including perhaps the most complex, Chianti Rufina, from northeast of Florence. The southern Tuscan vineyards produce a couple of big name wines: Vino Nobile de Montepulciano has some very old and very enthusiastic mentions, and a relative newcomer, Morellino di Scansano, can be drunk quite young. The real heavyweight in the region is Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most expensive wines, and when it is good, it is very good indeed.
Tuscany is a microcosm of Italy, and brings the best of that country to the forefront: its beauty, history, culture, cuisine, and people are indeed remarkable, and few leave behind Tuscany unsatisfied.
Boticelli, Uffizi, Florence