ADVENTURES IN TUSCANY
There are many reasons to visit Tuscany: to see world-class Renaissance art, sample fine foods and wines, or, says HELEN ETHERIDGE, to simply relax amidst the sublime Italian countryside
With its idyllic landscapes of rustic farmhouses, rolling hills and trees lining every horizon, Tuscany is as distinctive as it is beautiful.
The region, in central Italy, stretches from the Apennine Mountains to the Tyrrhenian Sea. While the north boasts mountainous landscapes and verdant forests, in the centre silvery olive groves and bright green vineyards rise in terraced rows across hills upon which medieval villages lie. The east – still largely undiscovered by tourists – retains its rural authenticity and atmosphere, while along the southern coast lies a vast rural region rich with cliffs, rocks and promontories.
Alongside its stunning countryside, Tuscany has an unrivalled collection of historic, art-filled medieval and Renaissance towns from Florence and Siena to Arezzo, Lucca, Pisa and Cortona, where world-class masterpieces by painters, sculptors and architects can be admired.
Then there’s the food and drink – mouth-watering hams, mountain cheeses and fresh
fish are served alongside crostini breads and the region’s own olive oil. Not to mention the wines; Chianti is made here, alongside several other world-class reds.
Accommodation is plentiful – choose between hostels to boutique hotels, or stay at one of the many modern campsites peppering the region, providing the perfect base from which to explore Tuscany and beyond.
The largest city in Tuscany lies right at the heart of the region. Surrounded by green hills, it is filled with narrow winding roads, fabulous frescoed churches and bustling squares and is adorned with some of the finest architecture in Italy. Its Uffizi Gallery, home to Michelangelo’s David, is said to be one of the greatest museums in the world and the best place to appreciate Renaissance art. Take a regular bus (from outside Santa Maria Novella station) up to Piazzale Michelangelo to see a wonderful panorama of the city. From here you get a clear view of the cathedral standing out from an expanse of red roofs. The Arno River snakes its way through the middle of thecity and you can even make out the Old Bridge “Ponte Vecchio” – one of the few remaining bridges in the world with buildings upon it.
Buy a Firenze Card. It costs €72 and is valid for 72 hours. Starting from the first entrance, it allows you access into all museums and exhibitions on the circuit.
One of Europe’s best-preserved medieval towns, Siena is small, compact and easy to explore on foot. It has some stunning Gothic buildings – its cathedral, simply Duomo di Siena, is one of the most important Gothic churches in the whole of Italy. However, the cityscape is an attraction in itself – arrayed on three ridges, a visit there presents view after view, with picturesque countryside on each side.
The best free art in Siena is found at the Archivio di Stato (Via Banchi di Sotto 52, +39 0577 247145). Marvel at the medieval wooden covers painted by Siena’s leading artists.
Although Pisa lacks the beauty of other Italian cities – many of its medieval buildings were destroyed during World War Two – its Piazza dei Miracoli remains impressive. Standing in a large green expanse, the square houses four masterpieces of medieval architecture – the walled cemetery Camposanto Monumentale with its frescoes; the cathedral with its bronze doors and mosaics; the baptistry, a round Romanesque building with an early Renaissance pulpit; and the world-renowned Torre Pendente, more commonly known as the ‘Leaning Tower’.
While the latter three buildings all lean due to weak subsoil, it’s the tower that’s the most impressive – leaning a startling 3.9 degrees off the vertical. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, nothing can prepare you for the actual sight.
Take a stroll down Borgo Stretto near the river that leads to the Romanesque Church of San Michele in Foro stopping in at any of the museums and restaurants en route.
FOUR TO EXPLORE
1. The Chianti region
Stretching from Florence to Siena, the Chianti area boasts spectacular views and is full of celebrated vineyards. Home of the Chianti Classico wines, you can book wine tasting in advance in one of many splendid settings for a taste of the Italian good life.
2. Walled towns
There are plenty to choose from: San Gimignano, with its preserved houses rising above the city walls; Pitigliano, where the buildings seem to be growing out of the rocks they’re built on; or Cortona, which offers spectacular views of the town, the surrounding valley and Lake Trasimeno.
3. The Maremma coast
This beautiful region has some wonderful stretches of coastline but none as striking as the Maremma coast – the most unspoilt coastal area Tuscany has to offer. Think blue Mediterranean waters and long stretches of sand next to pine forests. Stay late on the beach for an unforgettable sunset.
4. The thermal baths at Saturnia
Also inthe Maremma region are the natural outdoor hot springs at Saturnia. The warm sulphurous waters were well- known by the Etruscans and Romans. At 37.5°C, they are said to have therapeutic and relaxing properties – even better, they’re free of charge.
WHERE TO STAY
The area has a great selection of campsites – we stayed at the Norcenni Girasole Club, perched above the small town of Figline Valdarno.
Commanding fantastic views of rocky green mountains all around, it has two swimming pool complexes with water slides, tennis courts, three restaurants and its own spa. Children are catered for with kids’ clubs and five playgrounds, while adults can try their hand at the on-site cookery course. There are also tours to Florence, Siena, Pisa and Rome.
A stay at the Norcenni Girasole Club in an Esprit mobile home costs from £25 for a family of four per night. To book your stay visit eurocamp.co.uk or contact the customer service team on 0844 406 0402.
TIME DIFFERENCE GMT+1
VISA Not needed
CLIMATE Tuscany has a Mediterranean climate, with hot dry summers balanced by cold winters. The southern coast has the milder climate, while the mountainous north is the coolest. The best time to visit is in the spring, and September to late October.
GETTING THERE The region has two main airports, Pisa and Florence Peretola, which are served by most airlines from the UK. Or take a car ferry to one of the following ports:
Calais (1,436km away), Zeebrugge (1,368km), Caen (1,407km) or Hook of Holland (1,417km)
GETTING AROUND We hired a car through carrentals.co.uk. Prices start from £76.67 for a week’s hire in a car that seats four people.
VISIT discovertuscany.com to find out more.