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Tuscan treasures

11th July 2012 • Posted in Where2 Magazine

Tuscany is a historic, cultural and artistic treasure trove. Its imposing architecture, distinctively striped churches, picturesque hilltop villages and extraordinary works of art draw tourists from all over the world. Cypress and pine trees, olive groves and vineyards add distinctive touches to the gently rolling landscape. The spring with its warm  freshness is the ideal time to visit.

There’s so much to see it can be difficult to decide where to start but a circular tour starting and ending in Pisa can take in numerous sights in just a few days. A snapshot itinerary could be as follows: 

Arriving in Pisa, an agreeable coastal town with a grand history as a maritime republic, a must-see will be the Piazza del Duomo with its beautiful cathedral and baptistry and, of course, the renowned Torre Pendente or Campanile – the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Tuscany Image

Drive on to Lucca, for a leisurely visit to its famous ramparts. The 4 km- (3 mile-) long walls were built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and are planted with a double row of trees to create an elegant, elevated garden promenade. Stroll along the top or cycle around it, stopping for a coffee in one of the numerous small caffè tucked against the walls.

Continuing on towards Pistoia, 15 km (9 miles) to the west of fashionable thermal spa Montecatini, take the children to the picturesque medieval hillside village of Collodi to visit the Il Parco di Pinocchio – Pinocchio Park. The park was created in honour of Carlo Lorenzini, author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, who took the pen-name Collodi because his mother was born in the village. It tells the original, rather dark story of Pinocchio through exhibits and puppet shows.

While in Collodi you can also visit the seventeenth-century Villa Garzoni, with its magnificent Renaissance and Baroque terraced gardens, pools, fountains, topiary, maze, grottoes and sculptures.

Drive on towards Florence and some 4 km (3 miles) northwest of Pistoia in La Verginina you will find the Zoo di Pistoia, with some 500 animals in a beautiful park setting with trees and lakes. There’s a very attractive picnic area and a playground for the children, who will also be able to feed some of the animals.

A highlight of any tour of Tuscany is likely to be Florence, the magnificent capital city on the river Arno, with its world famous art galleries, museums, palaces and churches. A great centre of medieval trade and finance, Florence became the cradle of the Renaissance. It was birthplace or home to many celebrated artists, writers, poets and sculptors including Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, Niccolò Machiavelli and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, better known simply as Michelangelo.

Florence’s many wonderful art collections include those in the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Museum) – one of the finest museums in the world – the Palazzo Pitti and the Accademia di Belle Arti. Visit the huge Palazzo Vecchio and fabled Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge. Behind the Pitti Palace you can relax and enjoy the terraced Boboli Garden with its antique and Renaissance statues.

It was in Florence that the very first opera was written. Music still plays a hugely important part of Florentine life and, since 1933, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino celebrates the coming of summer with a festival of classical and contemporary music. The Florentines also know how to celebrate the coming of summer in more relaxed ways. May sees the city’s attractive Parco delle Cascine, previously a game reserve, come alive with stalls and musical entertainment.

Visitors of all ages will also enjoy the permanent exhibition of replica Leonardo da Vinci inventions – from flying machines to hydraulic models – in the historic Michelangiolo Caffè on via Cavour. And no visit to the city will be complete without a tasting of Italian gelato, particularly as Florence claims to have invented the frozen delicacy. Bernardo Buontalenti of Florence was reportedly the first to blend milk and egg with the sorbets that were so popular at the time... and the rest, as they say, is history.

So, on to Siena, with its narrow Gothic streets and extraordinary Piazza del Campo, site of the famous summer Palio delle Contrade horse races. In addition to its own claims to gelato fame, the city is also well-known for its Panforte, traditionally a Christmas treat but today sold all through the year. It is said that Panforte was first made in the Middle Ages as an energy food blending honey, dried fruit, nuts and pepper to revive the sick or weakly.

On the homeward run towards Pisa, visit the beautiful hilltop town of San Gimignano, with its medieval towers and steep cobbled street. Try a glass of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, the distinctive local white wine. Some say Greek sailors introduced the grape and wine-making methods. Others insist the grapes were introduced by the Etruscans. Whoever it was, the vines thrived in the San Gimignano area. 

Your final stop could be Volterra, a town with an Etruscan, Roman and medieval heritage and a tradition of alabaster crafting, using alabaster extracted from nearby underground galleries. Visit a workshop while you are here and perhaps have one final gelato before you leave.

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