Pisa, with the world's most famous bell tower, Florence, the epitome of superb art and architecture, or the attractive town of Lucca, with its medieval atmosphere - Tuscany is the ideal destination for art lovers. And for bon-vivants, its fine cuisine ...
Pisa, with the world's most famous bell tower, Florence, the epitome of superb art and architecture, or the attractive town of Lucca, with its medieval atmosphere - Tuscany is the ideal destination for art lovers. And for bon-vivants, its fine cuisine and a countryside (ranging from the marble mountains of the north to the gentle hills of the Crete, near Montalcino) offer a feast for all the senses.
Whether you choose Siena, Florence, Pisa or San Gimignano, the sheer volume of art treasures in museums and churches, in palazzos and villas, built to the plans of inspired Renaissance masters, means that you'll need some staying power. The same goes for the wine tastings on the Chianti estates, where hikers and families will also receive a warm welcome.
The tarot sculpture park of artist Niki de Saint-Phalle at Capalbio offers a feast of unconventional fantasy art with a contemporary flavor, and Grosseto's popular beaches are nearby. The rows of colorful deck chairs stretch all the way to the noble Forte dei Marmi. And visitors can enjoy fashionable shops and relaxed bars in the seaside towns.
Arezzo, which is set on a hilltop in the East of Tuscany, is a city of exceptional charm, thanks to its intriguing combination of historical buildings and modern urbanity. Arezzo was important even at the time of the Etruscans. Many buildings still testify to its heyday between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The Corso Italia and the Piazza Grande, which are surrounded by medieval palazzos, are ideal spots for a relaxing stroll. The San Francesco church is world famous for its frescoes by Piero della Francesca, in which he depicts, among other things, the first night scene in the history of painting. The artist Giorgio Vasari, who lived in the 16th century, also came from Arezzo. A museum in the Casa Vasari recounts the life of the founder of modern art history, and the artist himself designed the walls on the first floor of the building.
The Chianti area
Chianti, between Florence and Sienna, produces the best-known red wine in Italy and the area of Chianti is most often described in terms of its wines. The region between Florence and Siena, however, has a great deal to offer in terms of countryside. This is where you can find the Tuscany of the picture books, with its isolated farm buildings and castles surrounded by dark cypress trees, vineyards and olive trees. Where the land is not farmed, the rolling hills are covered with thick woods or fragrant macchia.
The charm of the countryside, the exceptional cuisine and the appeal of the little towns combine to make it an unforgettable experience. The piazza in Greve in Chianti is ringed by deep arcades. Radda in Chianti is a fascinating, well-preserved medieval town surrounded by a turreted wall. Near Panzano there stands the Pieve San Leolino church, whose Romanesque cloisters are impressive for their aesthetic harmony.
The island of Elba is so popular because it offers vacationers a wide variety of activities. There are seaside resorts with fine sandy beaches and a wide range of water sports, not to mention the small, quiet mountain villages that hug the slopes of the mountainous island. There is macchia in the lower regions, followed by cool oak forests and finally, rough rock – a series of different climates in quick succession. A trip around the steep coast in the west beneath the highest peak on the island, Monte Capanne (3,339 feet) is a truly breathtaking experience.
Portoferraio, the island's capital, has an impressive harbor promenade. Napoleon's summer residence during his exile, Villa San Martino, is now open to the public. One of the most beautiful towns is Capoliveri, with its cobbled streets lined by little houses adorned with flowers, where you can leave everyday life behind.
The Etruscan Riviera
The Etruscan Riviera between Livorno and Piombino is among the most beautiful sections of coastline in Italy. In Punta Ala, the luxury hotels have picked out the best spots. The little town, with its charming sandy beaches and calm bays for bathing, sits on a strip of land which stretches far out into the sea. The town itself has many and varied sports facilities. To the north of Punta Ala, the coast is lined with pine forests and smaller inlets; while to the south, in the Maremma, there are long sandy beaches.
In what was once the heartland of the Etruscans, right beside the sea, the remains of the town of Populonia can now be viewed. This once-flourishing harbor town was also a center for the iron industry. Despite the ever-expanding beach tourism, nature has managed to retain a small stretch of coastline all to itself. Only limited access is available to the Parco Naturale dell'Uccellina, which offers visitors not only unspoiled Mediterranean vegetation and a wide range of animal species, but also wonderful views of the coastline.
Some visitors find Florence a fascinating, reverent city, while others are confused by its fairy-tale beauty, which seems almost unreal and hence barely comprehensible. However, they all agree on the extraordinary appeal of the Tuscan capital, one of the world's finest cities of art treasures, and home to countless architectural masterpieces. The Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral, clad in brightly-colored marble on the outside and with an interior of gothic austerity, and the baptistry, with its gilded bronze portals, have an almost ethereal beauty. The bell tower too is one of the most beautiful of its kind in a country with no shortage of bell towers.
The Palazzo Vecchio, which is now home to the city's administrative offices, stands proudly in Piazza della Signoria like a castle. The Uffizi Gallery was originally commissioned by the powerful Medici family to house administrative offices. It is now home to one of the world's most important art collections, which includes Botticelli's 'Birth of Venus' and Michelangelo's 'Holy Family'. The legendary Ponte Vecchio over the River Arno is very famous and is one of the city's most photographed landmarks. Even today, it is still the preserve of goldsmiths and silversmiths. Yet Florence also has another side, with narrow, winding streets and romantic corners with little bars, the perfect places to stop for a cappuccino after a lengthy wander through the many elegant shops.
The charming town of Lucca is situated on a plain surrounded by hills. The small, historic town center is enclosed by a massive wall with seven gates. In addition to good shopping facilities and the lively elegance of its palazzos, the birthplace of Puccini offers a wealth of musical entertainment.
Lucca has a number of interesting churches, especially the San Martino Cathedral, which has a façade adorned with highly imaginative columns and also contains the tomb of Ilaria del Caretto by Jacopo della Quercia, which is one of the most important pieces of sculpture in Italy. The most interesting thing about Santa Reparata church is what lies beneath it - excavations under the church floor unearthed not only the remains of Roman baths and of an early Christian basilica, but also those of the 12th-century construction site, complete with brickworks. San Frediano, with its majestic tower, is an eye-catching sight, although the mosaic of Christ's ascension on the church façade is much more beautiful.
Although it is a long time since Siena's heyday in the 13th and 14th centuries, the city, which sits on three hills, seems to remain pretty much unscathed by the passing of time. As before, Siena, with its reddish brown brick palazzi, remains a center for trade, banking and science. The fact that cars were banned from the old town center over 40 years ago has contributed greatly to the preservation of its lively, yet laid-back style.
Siena is famous for its Piazza del Campo, whose unique seashell shape and the gothic palazzos lining it make it the most beautiful square in Italy. Twice a year - in early July and the middle of August - it becomes the arena for a traditional horse race, the Palio. At its lowest point is the Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall with its triforium windows, which marks the end of the piazza. The magnificent cathedral, which dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, forms an interesting contrast with the early stages of construction of the unfinished new cathedral, which was to have incorporated the existing 292-foot long cathedral as its transept in the 14th century.
Volterra, situated in an exposed position on a barren hill, is an austerely beautiful town full of dark stone houses. Since the ancient art of alabaster working was taken up again in the 18th century, it has achieved new heights in this region. Some of Europe's few alabaster mines are near Volterra. Many of the works are open to visitors, who can obtain a glimpse of how the material is processed.
The Etruscans and Romans were well aware of the city's strategic value, and its heritage is all the richer for this. The Museo Etrusco Guarnacci contains over 600 funeral urns and sarcophagi, making it one of the most important Etruscan collections in the world. Within the much-admired medieval town center the Romanesque cathedral is also well worth a visit, with its simple yet impressive 13th century wood carving of the Descent from the Cross. The mighty fortress above the town dates back to the time when Volterra was governed by Florence.
Pisa lies near the mouth of the River Arno and has always been a self-confident city. In the Middle Ages, it was a major sea power on the western Mediterranean, and enjoyed lively trade relations. Today, it has a particular appeal for tourists, who mainly flock to see a single building.
The bell tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, has made the city world-famous. Following a ten-year restoration project, it has been accessible to visitors again since the end of 2001. In addition to the Tower, there is the wonderful Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral in Campo dei Miracoli, Italy's first cruciform ecclesiastical building. It combines Romanesque influences from Northern Italy with Islamic architectural influences. The third famous building in the square is the baptistry, a round building containing a free-standing hexagonal marble chancel.
San Gimignano is one of the most beautiful medieval towns in Tuscany and one of its highlights. Situated on a hilltop in the midst of typical Tuscan countryside, its silhouette is very much characterized by the 13 remaining family towers, of the 72 towers that once demonstrated the power of two noble families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and served to defend the town. The highest of these, at 177 feet, is the Torre Grossa in the Palazzo del Popolo, from the top of which there is a fantastic view.
The walled medieval town, with its stone houses, picturesque piazzas and the towers between them offers visitors an opportunity to picture life in a ancientl Tuscan landmark - despite the bustling tourist infrastructure in the two main streets. Visitors should take a stroll in the quiet side streets, still almost entirely populated by locals. In addition to the pretty Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo in the town center, the Collegiata Santa Maria Assunta parish church (12th century), with its many beautiful frescoes, and the Palazzo del Podestà, formerly the mayoral seat, are well worth a visit.
Here, north of Arezzo, far away from mass tourism, you will find isolated monasteries, the region's most beautiful beech and pine woods in between steep mountain crests, and enchanting little towns with a host of interesting sights. With its mountain streams and waterfalls, the Casentino National Park is a popular destination for hikers and pony trekkers, and a breathtaking place to experience unspoiled nature. Between the valleys of the Arno and the Tiber, at the southernmost point of the Park, you can visit La Verna Monastery, built by St Francis of Assisi, and the ancient church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, as well as the Cappella delle Stimmate, in which the saint received Christ's stigmata.
The Casentino also offers an attraction for lovers of Michelangelo's art - the birthplace of the great Renaissance artist. In Caprese Michelangelo you can breathe for yourself the wholesome air that Michelangelo breathed in as a child, to which he attributed his exceptional talent. Copies of some of his sculptures and photographs of his work are displayed in the Casa del Podestà.
The province of Siena is characterized by attractive little historic towns, solitary farms, venerable abbeys, dark cypresses and olive groves, all set in a landscape of gently rolling hills. The name 'the Crete' (clay) comes from the austere clay hills and treeless valleys between Buonconvento and Rapolano Terme. Nevertheless, it is perfect territory for hikers and nature lovers, as porcupines, red deer and foxes roam the woods and along the River Ombrone. In the autumn, you will meet truffle collectors, hunting for the subterranean delicacies in the damp ditches.
The southern part of the province has unearthed relics of Etruscan culture. Highly valued even by the Romans, thermal baths with hard water at a temperature of 116° F in the lively little spa town of Bagno Vignoni increase the bather's energy levels. High-quality Renaissance artworks can be found at the home of the order of the Olivetaner (White Benedictines) in the Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, which is renowned for its outstanding woodcuts and book illustrations. Another of the Crete's attractions is the historic little wine-growing town of Montalcino, home of the exclusive Brunello di Montalcino red wine.
Other articles: HISTORY LESSONS
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