IMAGINE: Dream Travels in Tuscany
Books, movies and poetry glorify the beautiful landscapes of Tuscany, and inspired writer Veronica Leonard to follow her travel dreams to magnificent Florence and through the many narrow cobble-stoned streets and hilltop towns of rural Tuscany.
Who hasn’t watched the movie Under the Tuscan Sun and fallen in love with Italy? I know I did: I wanted to experience fields of red poppies and yellow sunflowers, I wanted to drink the wine, gorge on the olives and pecorino cheese and wonderful Italian slow cooking, soak in the culture and explore the hill top towns.
I started my dream tour of Tuscany in Florence, where all tours start. Florence is the centre of the Renaissance world and many of the major paintings, sculptures and architecture of the period can be found here. It’s the living legacy of the Medici family who ruled the city for generations in the 1400-1500s. Cosimo and Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose advisor Machiavelli wrote The Prince, are often referred to in general Florentine conversation. Even the more sinister Medicis are talked of fondly, like eccentric relatives.
Another Renaissance Florentine genius whose name pops up in guided tours is Dante of the Inferno fame. Dante was in love with Beatrice Portinari of Florence. Unfortunately, her family didn’t accept him as a suitor and she died young. They met at a small church, which we toured and is now a pilgrimage site for poets and young lovers.
Florence is worth a couple of weeks—not the three hours your tour operator gives you. It’s beautiful, and is awash in great shopping, wonderful historical sites and world-renowned art. The Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge) is so universally loved that pilots refused to bomb it during the war and walking across it or admiring it down river is a memory in itself.
Florence is flat, unlike the rest of Tuscany. There are more than a dozen beautifully preserved walled hilltop communities, with ancient stone buildings, narrow cobbled streets, impressive churches, great shopping, lovely town squares and panoramic views. Each one is uniquely different and worth a visit. Wear good walking shoes and remember to stop and enjoy the view with a glass of wine or a gelato.
Sienna was historically an archrival to Florence. Its huge Plaza Del Campo at the centre of town hosts the famous il Palio horse race each summer and most of its attractions surround the square. The frescos in the cathedral are magnificent and there is a hostel that dates back to the 11th century where wounded crusaders were nursed.
San Gimignano is famous for its towers. At one time every rich family built a tower on their property for the view and as a refuge from intruders. Only 14 of the medieval towers survive, but the streets are very shaded as a result.
Pienza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built as the ideal Renaissance town with the Piccolomini papal palace, the Cathedrale dell’Assunta and the town hall lining three sides of its town square. It has a spectacular view over the Val d’Orcia and is famous for its pecorino cheese. It also had wonderful artisan stores.
I became a wine lover in Montalcino, the home of Brunello wine, a varietal of Sangiovese (the blood of Jove) grapes grown in this district and barrel-aged for 10 years or more. The wine is a brownish-red and so rich and mellow you will compare all other wine experiences with it. Nearby Montapulciano is the centre of production for Vino Nobile, another great Tuscan wine.
We stayed in Chianciano Terme, a city known for its therapeutic waters. It sits at the foot Chianciano Alto, the old hilltop town with a fascinating Etruscan museum. The Etruscans were a race of brilliant artists and engineers who were assimilated by the Romans—and for whom Tuscany was named.
After hiking the cobbled streets of hilltop towns or overindulging in Tuscan cooking and wine, soaking your weary body in the mud baths of Chianciano Terme might be one more tourist experience you’ll appreciate.