An August 1996 trip
to Tuscany by MichaelJM
Quote: A great place to chill out and take in Italy's cultural heritage. There is loads to see, fine food and beautiful scenery.
Visiting Lucca on a Sunday and joining the locals as they work up an appetite for their Sunday meal by walking, cycling, or jogging around the perimeter wall—we walked! Lucca is an ancient settlement dating back to 200 BC and is known to have hosted the great Roman Emperor Caesar. We found it a confusing place to drive round and got lost several times. Seeking directions was not easy; although we could ask for directions, we really struggled with the response! It’s an attractive town fully enclosed by the 16th-century 4km-long fortified wall. There are great views as you walk the wall, and most places can be accessed easily by hopping off the wall and following your nose towards the centre of the old town.
People-watching in Viareggio, Tuscany's largest and most exclusive seaside resort, was another great experience. We sauntered down the Passeggiata Viale Regina Margherita (the seafront promenade) and rubbed shoulders with the Italian elite who were out for their weekend stroll. In 1917, the promenade was lined with wooden buildings, but a huge fire ripped its way along the row and destroyed all but one of the houses. In the 1920s, all were rebuilt to the design of Galileo Chini and Alfredo Belluomini, and now these elegant properties back onto the beach and house some of the most exclusive designer-wear shops in northern Italy. Prices were extremely high, and so we were not tempted to splash out on this fashionable gear.
Village life, despite our "lack of language," was a pleasurable experience. There is no rush in Italy, and Tuscany was ideal to watch the world go by. Col di Compito, the little village we stayed in, was remarkably friendly, and the local bakers and butchers turned out to be in the front room of local houses. This, like many of the Tuscan villages, had a delightful church and village square.
If you’re driving, make sure that you park on the outskirts of towns. Parking in city centres is a nightmare, and we found free parking outside of the towns but still within easy walking distance from the main attractions.
We visited Florence in mid-July, and it was hot, far too hot for sightseeing, and I strongly recommend that you choose April, May, or October for more pleasant weather. However, if you just want to chill out (it would be a waste of a great area), June through September will give you some cracking temperatures.
Buy your snacks in the local shops. This will give you a great shopping experience, quality local produce, and a superb snack at reasonable prices, leaving your holiday budget for the more expensive evening meal of your choice. Check out the villages. They have local shops for local people, and you’re more likely to get the real stuff at non-inflated prices. But you will need a good phrase book, as we found that many of the older people in the villages had very little English.
Florence’s reputation for pickpockets is renown, especially in the height of the season, when the crowds are out. Be aware and sensible and you’ll be fine.
We preferred to make use of our own car (having travelled at a leisurely pace from England, camping in France before arriving at our villa). The car gave us total freedom to explore the region. As cheap airlines now fly into Pisa, getting to the heart of Tuscany is cheap and quick, and there are a host of car hire companies. You’ll need to remember the reputation of the Italian driver (fast, furious, and believes he’s the only person on the road!) I have to say we didn’t find them particularly fast, but in general terms, they are impatient and make disconcertingly high use of the horn. It can be off-putting for a courteous and careful British driver!
The roads, other than the motorways, are notoriously in poor condition when compared to France, Germany, and Switzerland, so you’ll need to remain attentive. Not only are you competing for road space with other cars, but there’s an abnormally high number of motorcycles on the road. People don’t recommend the hiring of motor scooters in Italy, despite the fact that it is the home of this vehicle, unless you’re fairly experienced. Car drivers need to be extremely spatially aware, especially in the towns where cyclists seem to assume that they always have the right of way.
I wouldn’t recommend buses for anything other than local journeys; trains are far more reliable if you’re travelling any distance. But for access to the Tuscan villages, you’ll struggle to do justice to the region without access to your own transport. Taxis are said to be expensive, but if you're within easy reach of a major town, they’ll be far more efficient for getting from A to B.
We didn't see a great deal of evidence of locally arranged tours, but then again, we weren't looking for this service and so may well have overlooked some. However, if you want to set up an all-inclusive tour of Tuscany, there are plenty of travel agents willing to do a deal. You can't beat, however, being a free spirit in this part of Italy!
However, as we approach our target town, we see in the distance a vision of a modern town with its high-rise flats. I feel that I am about to be bitterly disappointed until we are much closer and are rewarded with a quaint and thoroughly interesting walled town.
San Gimignano is sited on a 350m high hill and its tall towers dominate the Elsa Valley. It started life as a small Etruscan village around 300 BC but did not develop as a town until the 10th century. It was named after the bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who is said to have saved the village from barbarian invasion. Not sure he could have done this single-handed, but it makes for some good mythology! It was well placed on a central pilgrim and trading route and increased in prosperity during the Middle Ages, resulting in the development of some fine buildings and the acquisition of some seriously expensive religious iconery.
In 1348, its population and wealth were significantly diminished as the town was ravaged by the Black Death Plague, and in the aftermath, control was assumed by the mighty town of Florence. However, you can’t keep a good town down, and over the years its importance as an agricultural centre (it was after all surrounded by fertile land) gave rise to its renaissance.
We spent a good couple of hours wandering the streets of this fabulous town straining our necks as we looked up at the mighty 54m-high Podesta’s tower, which was constructed as early as 1311. Certainly the layout of the place was heavily influenced by the neighbouring towns of Florence, Sienna, and Pisa.
There’s plenty to see including the Collegiate Church, consecrated in 1148, the people’s palace (with its fine art collection), the Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Sacred Arts.
Overall, the great thing about San Gimignano is that it still retains its medieval qualities and it is possible, despite the fact that this is on a major tourist route, to find peace and tranquillity in the neighbouring countryside and meander the narrow cobbled streets of the town. There were plenty of people around, but this created a live bustle to the place, and somehow it didn’t feel just like a tourist attraction. It was indeed a living town with in-your-face history living and breathing all around.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 8, 2006
Florence is a must for art lovers the world over. The Uffizi is just awash with fantastic paintings that previously I'd only read about in books with famous painters such as da Vinci, Correggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, Giotto, Rubens, and Rembrandt, to name but a few.
However, this is not just a museum—it’s an architectural masterpiece that is simply awe-inspiring. It was originally constructed in 1581 for the local officials of the state with, long and wide airy-corridors lined with classical statues and the light shining through the windows onto the highly polished floors, ornate ceilings and friezes, impressively decorated "offices", and a superb setting at the side of the River Arno.
The Cathedral is classic Italian Gothic and its heavily ornate colourful exterior is just staggeringly beautiful. Statues seem to be everywhere, bright paintings are above each of the doors and circular windows adorn the building. I don’t think that there is a centimetre of the building that isn’t decorated in some way. Work started in 1245 and took over a century to complete (1367). The impressively bulbous dome oversees the whole of the church, and you will not be surprised to hear that the interior certainly has the "wow factor."
Just in front of the Cathedral is the octagonal-shaped Baptistery. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Florence, and its foundations date back to the 11th century. Its striped walls are indeed overshadowed by the Cathedral, but it is a magnificent building with fantastically ornate bronze doors, known as the "gates of Paradise." Inside, a visit worth making for 5 euros, the artwork and mosaics are breathtaking and worthy of your close attention.
From the top of the tall, elegant Campanile, started in 1334, you get a great view of the town, but you’ll have to climb over 400 steps to make it. Worth the effort if you’re feeling fit!
I reckon everyone has heard of the Ponte Vecchio, which was constructed in the early 16th century. It’s always been a key trading centre, and initially it was "home" to the city’s master craftsmen dealing almost exclusively in gold. Nowadays, hoards of tourists trail across the precarious-looking bridge looking for bargains. They will surely be disappointed because, not surprisingly, the shops in this area command perhaps the highest prices in town. But it is an experience to view some unique pieces, admire a superb view down the River Arno and imagine the importance of this bridge, protected at one end by the Mannelli Tower in the 1500s. From a distance I just wondered how the bridge was continuing to survive.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 9, 2006
Attraction | "Siena Sights & Attractions"
As we approach the Piazza del Campo, we are treated to the merest glimpse of its vastness through the archway at the end of the narrow street—a street that seems claustrophobic as we emerge from the darkness to the bright and airy Campo. Of course, this piazza is now famous for the "Palio Races," which take place on July 2nd and August 16th (we were too late for one and too early for the other!), and we could only imagine the buzz that erupts from this arena at that time of year. Apparently thousands of people are crammed into the piazza, and they’ll endure the intense heat for the sake of experiencing the 2 minutes of intense excitement as the 10 horses hurl themselves, almost chaotically, around the square. Perhaps we’ll make it one day!
The campo is encircled by majestically curved buildings, and there’s a plethora of restaurants and coffee shops where we were able to people-watch and take in the atmosphere of this historic town. Dominating the square is the bell tower, the Torre del Mangia. If you feel fit enough, try climbing the narrow winding staircase to experience breathtakingly beautiful views of Siena and the surrounding countryside.The Palazzo Pubblico, the public palace, dating back to 1250, is the focal point of the square and retains its original function as the municipal offices. Around it are some fascinating courtyards with great angles on the bell tower and the rest of the piazza. Just outside is the Cappella di Piazza commissioned in 1348 to "celebrate" the town’s survival following the Black Death. Amazingly, it took a full century to complete!
Make sure that you give sufficient time to take in the absolute splendour of Siena’s Cathedral. This was built in 1150, and it’s like a green-and-white zebra with horizontal stripes around the walls. Apparently there were earlier plans to enlarge the cathedral and make it the largest in the world. This, of course, never happened, but the building is still a most impressive sight (the best overall view is from outside of the city walls). Inside the Duomo there are impressive striped pillars, and the church is lined with the sculptured heads of past popes. The floor is particularly magnificent, being marble with fine inlaid designs. Some are covered for protection, but there are still plenty to see. A superb building.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 9, 2006
Piazza del Campo
Siena, Tuscany 53100
When we finally found the cathedral site, what an impressive trio of buildings stood before us. They looked regally grand, set off against green lawns and the bluest of blue skies. What a treat!
The bell tower for the cathedral has, of course, received greater notoriety than the cathedral itself. Work started on this eight-tiered wedding-cake tower in 1173, but it was not completed for another 200 years. It is surprising that it was built to the original specification. Early mythology suggested that it had been designed to be on the incline—that it would have been an amazing feat but has been thoroughly discounted—but despite numerous corrective techniques, the early builders were unable to bring it back to the vertical. The reality is that you, like us, will stand and say, "How does it remain standing?"
I am also convinced that the other two architectural masterpieces on this site are also leaning at somewhat of a jaunty angle. Certainly don’t be totally distracted by the leaning tower because both the cathedral and the baptistery are well worth popping your head into. There’s also the cathedral museum and an art museum close at hand if you have the time and inclination. It’s certainly not difficult to be "cultured up" in Pisa, and the town itself is awash with architecturally fine houses, churches, and bridges.
Overall we were a little disappointed, although we should not have been surprised, at the amount of commercialism that has been allowed on the site. Tacky tourist shops seemed to dominate and there was no shortage of people wanting to sell you items or coerce you to partake in a guided tour of Pisa. We rapidly learnt to walk on, rather than enter into any conversation. Despite this, it is an amazing sight and must be counted as one of the world’s must-sees. Indeed since we visited Pisa, the tower has been opened again to visitors. There is a restriction on the number of people who can climb this historic monument (so prepare for long queues), but at less than €20, it should be worth the wait.