A Quick Trip to Tuscany

By Rick

May 12, 2014

trip to tuscany with rick zulloThis wasn’t my first trip to Tuscany, but I have to admit that I’ve largely resisted its allures during my time in Italy.  I don’t know, maybe it just struck me as too cliché, chasing the dreams of someone else—Frances Mayes or any of the thousands of other foreigners who fall in love with the pre-packaged fantasy.  As I’ve written before, even the word “Tuscan,” as an adjective, has acquired a freakish sort of marketing power outside of Italy for everything from furniture design to gated golf communities to lamentable restaurant chains.  For these reasons, I’ve been determined to resist its siren song.

What a stubborn idiot I’ve been.

Tuscany deserves every bit of its exultations and then some.  What’s more, there’s so much to do, see, and eat in this region beyond the well-known stops.  Of course, this is Italy in general.  I get emails every day from people trying to plan their perfect Italian vacation, and it’s always a frustrating dilemma to plan an itinerary for a week or two if that’s all you’ll see of Italy in a lifetime.  (Admittedly, a good “problem” to have, but still…)

However, for purposes of showing what can be accomplished with the right allies on your side, my way-too-brief trip to Tuscany can be viewed as a nice mini-version of the perfect Tuscan experience.  The key is to find the balance between appreciating the art and history of Florence and/or Siena, and indulging in the seductive tranquility of the countryside.

Florence with a Flair

a tour of florence with a flair

My friend Elena began our tour of Florence at “ground zero,” so to speak.  Piazza della Repubblica was the forum area of the first Roman colony—called “Florentia”—founded in 59 BC.  The name derives either from the abundance of flowers during the Roman games that were held each May, “ludi floreales,” or from “fluentia,” which might have been related to the abundance of water along the River Arno. “Florentia” turned into “Fiorenza” in antic medieval Florentine dialect, and nowadays it is Firenze in Standard Italian.

The square has since been completely remade by King Victor Emanuel II, which he declared “The ancient center of the city / restored from age-old squalor / to new life,” or so reads the inscription above the triumphal arch which is the gateway into the piazza.  I doubt the Tuscans of that time were pleased with his declaration.

Of course, Florence is the “culla del Rinascimento,” the cradle of the Renaissance, and Elena taught me all about the Medici and the great architect Brunelleschi, who designed the awe-inspiring dome of the cathedral.  I’ve studied much of this history back in the States, but there’s nothing quite like learning about something in situ to transform mere textbook information into actual knowledge.  Even Elena, a native-born Florentine and enthusiastic scholar of her hometown, never stops learning new things about this impossibly rich history.

trip to tuscany with florence with a flair

At the end of the tour, Elena said she had saved a surprise for me—a unique place to visit that most people, even Florentine’s, don’t know about.   I’d tell you about it now, but likewise, I think I’ll save the surprise for a later post about Florence.

Something cool to do in Tuscany

The next day, I greeted Anna at the train station with a subdued, pre-espresso, “Buongiorno.” After that, I didn’t get another word in edgewise for almost an hour.  Anna is a fireball of energy and very passionate about her work as a Chianti guide.  After about 10 minutes of trying to take notes as she talked, I gave up and decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride.

And what a beautiful ride it was from Florence into the heart of the Chianti region.  In Rome, I always encourage visitors to get out of the city once in a while and see some of the surrounding areas.  There are some great sites such as Tivoli, Ostia Antica, and the “Castelli Romani,” which are an easy train ride from the city center.

Unlike Rome, the surrounding areas of Florence are not as well connected by public transportation.  Sure, there’s a bus that goes from the city center to Greve in Chianti.  But guess what?  Since that’s about the only little Tuscan hilltown easily reached by public a visit to tuscany with cooltours by annatransport, everybody goes there, making it more of a tourist attraction than a living village.  Not the off-the-beaten-path spot that we’re all searching for.

Fortunately Anna knows several little villages that satisfy the curious traveler in search of Tuscan paradise.  We visited one of them, San Donato in Poggio, where Anna explained to me how these little villages came to be, as stopping points along the trading route/pilgrim trail known as the Francigena that runs from Canterbury in England all the way to Rome.

After that, we explored an excavated Etruscan tomb, stopped at a small production winery, and enjoyed an authentic Tuscan lunch.  (No, there was no so-called, “Chicken Florentine” or “Tuscan Salad with Bacon.”)  But all of these details will be covered in future posts.

Finding a balance

Just yesterday I was chatting with my friends Travis and Pat on their Total Tuscany podcast and I remarked that, between the two of them, they seem to have found the right formula for a trip to Tuscany.  Pat likes to immerse himself in the rich history of the area, while Travis prefers to pass the day sitting at an outdoor table with a glass of wine and watching the Tuscan world go by.  For me, Tuscany is both of these things, and for your visit to Tuscan to be complete, I believe that it’s important to experience both.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Glad to hear you finally “discovered” Tuscany! We just returned from our 4th trip to the region in 7 years…OK, we adore it there!! This time rented an apartment in Panzano in Chianti for 2 weeks, even after all the time spent in Tuscany we are still taken aback at the beauty of it all. Agree with seeing some sights, then at other times just wandering, stopping for a glass of vino and watching the world go by. We were in San Donato! Had an amazing lunch there at Locanda di Pietraculpa. The conclusion we have come to is that you can make yourself crazy running around to try and see everything or figuring out that’s impossible and just going with the flow…relax, breath you’re supposed to be enjoying yourself!

    • Right. I think what finally “clicked” for me was the realization that, no matter how hard I try, I will NEVER see it all. Once you give into that notion, it’s easier to just relax and enjoy!

  • I am so relieved you finally saw the light of all that Tuscany has to offer! One of my favorite spots on this planet Earth, I had the pleasure of some slow travel through the region when we drove Florence to Montepulciano and Pienza via SR2, not the A-1. And you’re right! Tuscany deserves every bit of praise bestowed upon her. As you said above, if there is one destination that delivers and exceed every conceivable expectation, it’s Tuscany! I still look back to my journey through the land of sunflowers and olive groves and how I long to return! I loved this post and am really enjoying your blog tour. Keep the updates coming my friend!

  • Hi Rick. I am living the Tuscan dream right here in Bagni di Lucca. This coming week we plan to visit the Chianti area and I was planning to go to Greve but I just may re think that one. We have done an organised Tuscan winery tour with lunch just out of Lucca last week to Fattoria del Teso. It was really good. Came back with some lovely whites and reds. I am loving being in one place for 4 weeks cause we can do lots or we can sit in the piazza, drink wine and watch the world go by.

  • We spent 24 hrs. in Toscana in May 2003 and lost our hearts. We felt like we had been there a week. Since then we have been blessed to have returned every year for 2 weeks. We adore the Val d’Orcia area. We stay in a tiny town near Montalcino and use a car to explore. I love the Chianti area but my heart belongs to Sant’ Angelo Scalo!

    • Wow, sounds like you REALLY know Tuscany! I never realized how many great places there are to see here. Right now I’m on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, at an agriturismo called “Fontanaro” near the tiny village of Paciano…heaven!!

      • Yes, I would say we are pretty familiar with about 1/2 of Toscana, however as you know, there is always something new to discover! I guess we are lucky in that we took our first two trips to Italy before even hearing of Under the Tuscan Sun and before it helped make the region the mecca of Italian tourism. We stumbled upon San Donato purely by accident. I was in great need of a caffe` and we were early for a winery visit. It is one of my very favorite towns! We love the restaurant “La Toppa” and the views from just down the street, by the park and the tower are spectacular. I have played in the park with our granddaughter. Precious memories!

  • My first trip outside of Rome was to Chianti and Siena. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the landscape and could not have imagined such tranquility in those olive groves and vineyards, sunflowers. Every time I’ve gone back to Tuscany (Firenze, Lucca, San Gimignano, Pisa and other small towns hidden along the back roads) I got the same feeling of peace and overwhelming happiness. Thanks for sharing your experience Rick.

    • Joce, you’ve said! It’s mesmerizing, especially when you consider the variety of experiences in a such a relatively small area. Thanks for sharing!

  • Glad you enjoyed your time in la Toscana! Sometimes life in Florence gets me down with its problems….but, every time I’m away visiting other regions for vacation, when we’re driving back and hit Tuscany…..it just seems like a dream world. The landscape is truly second to none and I have to remember to visit the little towns, since I tend not to mainly due to pigrizia!

  • I fell in love with the Tuscan region visiting my mom who, at the time, had rented a beautiful apartment in the the little jewel of a hill town Castiglione D’Orcia…it was like an epiphany… So far up I felt like I was wrapped in a Milky Way hug… Visited Florence and Siena- what.a.rush….to see all those beautiful structures and works of art that until then, I’d only studied in art appreciation college courses! That was in 1996. I’ve been back since and last stayed in the wonderful if somewhat more touristy Montalcino… We were fortunate enough to rent a small hillside villa right outside the city walls… Kids walked into town most nights while the adults soaked up the amazing views of the vineyards as the sun set while sipping on a local Brunello… Mornings I watched the valley reveal itself as the sun burned away the fog through lavender and rosemary shrubs… I could cry for wanting to return. Frances Mayes’ writing brings all of this back to me, in a rush of very visceral memories… So yes, I love, love, love that book…

    • Yes, I enjoyed it, too. I think it inspired a lot of people to rethink the possibilities when it comes to following your dreams despite obstacles…most of which are internal.

  • Aha! You have learned about Florence and Tuscany. Took you a while!
    While I didn’t mind Frances Mayes book too much, the movie–well I consider it on par with Olive Garden, where I don’t go if at all avoidable and have never seen anything that looks or tastes like Italian to me. In fact, I thought your “so-called” dishes might have originated there.
    Have you tried pappa il pomodoro or panzanella or my favorite dessert cantucci con Vin Santo? I have been known to eath those several times in a few-day stay in Florence. I look forward to learning the “sruprise”!

    • Hey Joan! Actually, I loved the book, too. But I guess I was merely saying that Cortona was her dream, and too many try to replicate that instead of finding their own version of it. Anyway, YES, I had the panzanella, the ribollita, and the vin santo! And I’m proud to admit that I now LOVE Tuscany!

      • I understand your resistance to visit Tuscany. I avoided Rome forever, visiting only 1 day each visit. After my 4Th visit realized that it’s not just another big city and explored it more in depth and fell in love with it. So much for assumptions.

        • Right! And I had the same experience with Venice. First time, I saw the city was a quick 1/2 whirlwind and I left disappointed. A few years later I stayed for 2 months and found a completely different place.

  • I loved Florence, but I agree, the countryside is unmatched. Absolutely breathtaking and worth all the hype. Sometimes it’s depressing to live in foggy Venice!

    • Ahhh…well, don’t get me started on Venice. But you have the Dolomiti close by and a cruise down the Brenta Canal is wonderful!!

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