Along the coast from Liguria is Toscana, one of the most famous and popular regions of Italy. This is a very cultured part of the country, the cradle of the Renaissance, which has made significant contributions to the world's understanding of itself, as well as having a strong and lasting influence on Italy's art and literature and the development of the Italian language.
Several of history's great movers and shakers came from Tuscany, including Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei and Amerigo Vespucci. Dante, Petrarca and Boccaccio, three of the most widely respected figures in Italian literature, came from Toscana and shaped the Italian language by writing in the Tuscan dialect, which gradually became accepted as standard Italian. Michelangelo, Botticelli and Puccini were also natives of this region - as was Machiavelli.
In addition to all this culture and high-brow thinking, Toscana has a beautiful coast, some exciting mountains and excellent wine. It's not surprising this region is inundated by visitors from all over the globe and I definitely recommend you visit Tuscany as part of your getting to know Italy. Do bear in mind, however, that demand has pushed prices up and, if you're on a tight budget, you may prefer to do Toscana in short bursts and spend your longer holidays in less recherché regions.
The Tuscan Archipelago
Where the Ligurian Sea meets the Tyrrhenian Sea, broadly between Toscana and Corsica, is the Tuscan Archipelago. This diverse group, now a National Park, is made up of seven islands: Gorgona, Capraia, Elba (see below), Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri.
What to see and do in Toscana
Enjoy the mountains
Outdoor enthusiasts will find loads to enjoy in the Tuscan mountains, the Appennines and the Apuan Alps. You can follow some beautiful trails, of varying levels of challenge, through the mountains and the many natural parks in the region (such as the Parco Regionale della Maremma near Grosseto).
Enjoy the sea
Although the beach may not be the first thing that comes to mind when Toscana is mentioned, the Tuscan coast is great for seaside holidays. The beaches are well kept and the water is ideal for windsurfing, waterskiing and other water sports.
Firenze (Florence) is the region's capital, was the focal point of the Renaissance and since 1982 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If you're into art, Florence offers tremendous value: there is more art per square inch in Firenze than possibly anywhere else on earth. And it's not just any art, it's paintings and sculptures you have always known about but never (until you go to Florence) seen the originals. For example, at the Uffizi you can see Botticelli's Birth of Venus; at the Accademia Gallery you can see Michelangelo's David.
To find out what's where and how to get tickets, have a look at the official website of Firenze's museums.
Beyond the art galleries, there is much architecture to admire. I have seen scores of beautiful churches in Italy but the Basilica di Santa Croce in Firenze stands out in my mind as having been particularly satisfying to the eye.
Siena is a stunning city, another of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. The central Piazza del Campo is where the amazing Palio horse-race takes place, on 2nd July and 16th August every year, and has done since 1644. It’s a bit touristy but this square is a lovely place to sit and have a drink and soak up the atmosphere. While you’re there, you can also have a look at the Palazzo Pubblico (Siena’s town hall) and the frescoes inside, and, if you’re feeling strong, climb up the Torre del Mangia.
The city’s medieval heritage is well preserved and traditions such as the Palio play a large part in the life of the residents.
Pisa is a university city with several sights worth seeing – the most famous of which, of course, is the Leaning Tower. The cathedral bell tower has not stood straight since shortly after it was built, 800+ years ago, because the soil beneath it settled unevenly. Over the centuries, the tilt became gradually more pronounced, until the 1990s when engineers carefully removed some soil from under the other side, making the tower more secure. For a (quite substantial) fee, you can climb the Torre Pendente and enjoy the view from the top.
In addition to the cathedral, there are lots of beautiful churches to look at in Pisa and, in a completely different vein, don’t miss Tuttomondo, the mural by Keith Haring (an artist whose work I particularly like) on the south wall of the church of Sant’Antonio.
Explore some of the smaller places
A couple you might like are:
- San Gimignano, a walled medieval town famous for its towers and its white wine
- Pontremoli, a friendly, ancient town in which I once spent a happy afternoon. Outstandingly good ice-cream, as I recall.
Take a ferry to Elba
From the port of Piombino, near Livorno, you can catch a ferry to Elba. It takes about an hour to reach Portoferraio, Porto Azzurro or Rio Marina. Elba is the biggest island in the Tuscan Archipelago and the third largest island in Italy, after Sicily and Sardinia.
Famous as Napoleon Bonaparte's place of exile in 1814, Elba is an island full of history that has become, over the past thirty years or so, a popular tourist destination.
Eating and drinking in Toscana
Tuscan cuisine tends to be straightforward and healthy, using fresh ingredients and involving more salad than is usually the case in Italy. Herbs, especially rosemary and sage, abound and the olive oil is particularly good here – you’ll see the herbs and the olives growing in the fields and groves around the region. Beans are widely used in all sorts of dishes, from soup to risotto. Along the coast, the fish is delicious and inland the meat speciality is cinghiale (wild boar).
A degree less healthy, perhaps, than grilled fish and salad but nevertheless recommended is the Florentine pudding called zuccotto. Recipes vary but, broadly, this is a dome-shaped, liqueur-moistened sponge cake filled with cream, chocolate and nuts and chilled. A luxurious experience!
There is a wide range of wonderful wines from Toscana, both red and white. Among them are those reliable favourites from Chianti.
Recommended reading (and viewing) from Toscana
As mentioned above, many of the giants of Italian literature came from Toscana. My personal favourite is Dante. I find La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), his exploration of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, completely fascinating.
Totally different but also very interesting is Machiavelli. His slim volume Il Principe (The Prince) is a guide to successful governance, written by a man many see as the first spin doctor.
Modern writersOriana Fallaci, from Firenze, was a much-respected journalist and writer, involved in politics since joining the resistance against Mussolini’s fascists in World War Two. A book that made me think a lot was Lettera a un Bambino Mai Nato (Letter to a Child Never Born).
Iris Origo was an Anglo-Irish-American heiress who grew up in Fiesole in Toscana in the early twentieth century and stayed in Italy, marrying an Italian and living through some historic times there.
A film I enjoyed, which captures some of the feeling of the fascist era (I think) and shows Toscana in a beautiful light, is Tea with Mussolini.
For more information about Toscana...
Buy a guide book for travelling around Toscana.
Check out this website:
Turismo in Toscana – official tourism website