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
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.
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
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.