The Tuscan landscape is dotted with lines of cypress trees, vineyard covered hills and walled towns forming the backdrop for its classic Renaissance art which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The painter and sculptor Michelangelo Buonarroti, along with Leonardo Da Vinci, were two of the most prodigious talents to influence the artists that followed through the centuries. Many of their works can be viewed in Florence, one of the greatest artistic treasure-houses of the world. Where else but in Florence can so much perfection be enjoyed in such a small area? Think of Giotto, Donatello, Botticelli and Della Robbia. These and many more claim your attention at every turn.
But Florence is not only history and culture; shopping here is a delight (especially amidst the tiny jewellery shops on the Ponte Vecchio) and the Tuscan cuisine is simply delicious.
Heading south from Florence as far as Siena is the area of Chianti and the famous wine-growing region of the same name. This area which is synonymous with wine also has some of the most scenic landscapes in Italy with the town of Radda in Chianti, being one of the prettiest. Medieval streets encompass the main piazza and life here is slow paced and tranquil.
A 5km winding road, through terraces of olives and vineyards, takes you to the Etruscan hilltop town of Cortona, one of the oldest and most scenic towns in Tuscany. A stunning panorama includes fabulous views towards Lake Trasimeno beyond the Valdichiana (a rich cattle-grazing area famous for producing the Florentine ‘Bistecca’) and to the distant mountains of Amiata and Cetona.
Another Etruscan hill town occupying a commanding position above the Val d’Elsa is San Gimignano, the town of beautiful towers. The medieval charm and character remain in the square towers, narrow cobbled lanes and corners within the town’s fortified walls.
Close to the Mediterranean coast, 29km from San Gimignano, is the medieval hilltop city of Volterra, within easy driving distance of Florence, Siena and the sea. The walled town is an enchanting labyrinth of cobbled streets with parks and a wide choice of restaurants and bars. Once Etruscan and later Roman, this small town is now one of the best known centres for the turning and polishing of alabaster. Volterra is much quieter than the very popular San Gimignano and an ideal centre for touring Tuscany.
To the north of Pisa stands the small walled city of Lucca, largely ignored by foreign visitors to Tuscany possibly because it has no famous museum or palace. It is still very much a real Italian town. Strolling through the narrow paved alleys, window-shopping at either the elegant boutiques selling Italian fashion or the salumeria where ‘food’ is a work of art, the visitor experiences Italian life and style at first hand.
Home to the Palio which takes place twice in the summer (2nd July and 16th August) is Siena. This colourful event is a horse race around the cobbled main square (the Campo) with competitors from all the districts of the town (Contrade) re-enacting a medieval tradition. Siena is impossibly crowded on these two days but is so beautiful and full of colour at any time that a stroll through the narrow streets, lined with palaces, is always a spectacle.
Set on a ridge, 64km southeast of Siena, is Montepulciano, the highest of the Tuscan hill towns. Largely Renaissance in character, the centre of the town and the highest point is the Piazza Grande which affords fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. The town is also known for its red wine ‘Vino Nobile di Montepulciano’ which has been produced here since the 8th century. The local shops still offer the local variety and some still have cellars set within the original ancient tunnels.