Monday 13 August 2018

Touring around Tuscany

Touring around Tuscany 

So, when one wants to see other delights of Tuscany outside of Florence, where does one go? What does one do? What does one eat and drink? And perhaps the most important, what does one not do? 

As with all major cities Florence is great base to well, base yourself. There are numerous kiosks throughout the city to book many a tour. If you do your homework you can get a bargainespecially if you barter between companies and sometimes you can even get money off local museums, eateries and other tourist attractions. But there are also many public transport options to take, including buses and a very easily accessible train station that provides destinations in English. It tends to be the main meet up and access point for the start of many tours.  

Which is where we headed one fine, blissful July day. 

We wanted to do something classic, something out in the country and something near the vineyards. By all means you could hire a car yourself but a classic one? If this was to be your first time driving abroad, Italy is probably not the best place to enjoy a nice, uneventful ride out into the country. For one, driving on the other side of the road and second  that fiery Italian temperament  tends to come to the fore as you try to decide whether to turn right or left and your google maps has lost its bloody signal! Va fa Napoli. 

So, out we went to the heart of the Tuscan countryside, surrounded by the dream patchwork quilt of greens, ochres and earthy tones. It’s magical yes, pretty, dreamy …. you could run out of  adjectives to use for this part of the world but first we had to get the party, I mean the car, started. Now this was the stuff of vintage dreams; our tiny old school Fiat 500 circa 1960 something in a delicious tomato shade. We had a party of around 7-8 vehicles meandering after each other, exploring the Tuscan hills in procession and we were actively encouraged to open the roof and stand up (just the passengers, of course!), letting the wonderfully refreshing breeze tousle your hair in the processA train of Vesper’s also followed,  a something that just has to be experienced. The first stop on the tour was in the heart of the Chianti region in Castellina, a slightly remote commune but still part of the Chianti hills. This quaint little town had most things a visitor might desire, such as restaurants and bars, quaint homemade produce shops, the stunning and very cute San Salvatore church… in which I lit a candle and said a prayer (to not crash and die on the plane journey home!). Also, of course, the Via del a Vonle tunnel where you could cool off after a sweaty and tiring walk in the midday sun. We were given approximately one hour before we were encouraged to start the walk back to our vehicles.  I couldn’t help but giggle, perhaps a little too loudly, after our tour guide remarked ‘don’t drink too much’ (the emphasis being on the word, ‘too) as he told us some American’s had done the day before and failed to make it to lunch … let alone start the car … at a vineyard for tasting on our second leg of the journey. This has been the only tour I have ever been on where I’ve been actively encouraged to drink and drive. God bless those crazy Italians! 

The vineyard was situated high up an winding dirt track which was a bit of a challenge for our little car but we were told to whack it in first gear, put our foot down and just don’t stop. This certainly did the trick! This was a memorable part of the tour and well worth splashing the cash on. It was entertaining as well as informative and set in elegant surroundings in an 18th century villa. As our group was small, we were dining in private, surrounded by barrels hundreds of years old. I can still smell those Sangiovese grapes and could have happily tasted vino all day but all good things must come to an end. Our lunch was simple but refined; excellent breads and local olive oil, truffle paste and a variety of sun ripened tomatoes with a selection of cold meats. After buying a bottle or two from the gift shop, we were once again on our way, chasing the dream and the endless sun visiting a few other smaller and cuter villages along the way. I would whole heartedly recommend this tour without hesitation.  Not only is it of manageable length but also that you feel you are actually part of an experience. The food and wine provided along with the congenial ambiance made it one of the best experiences of my life.  

 Prices start from around £80.00 and you are picked up and dropped off in central Florence. 
Tour two, however, whilst a success in terms of distance and number of places visited, was an exhausting and emotionally draining experience. Given our time restraint of only a week and Florence being a smallish city, I could have happily split my days spending a few nights in the following recommended locations. Our tour was to begin in Pisa followed by San Gimignano, a very late lunch in a Tuscan vineyard (bearing in mind we were on a double decker tour bus) meandering down steep mountainous terrain and ending in Siena before driving the 60-70 miles back to Florence. If I could do it again I would skip Pisa entirely, though getting your obligatory shot of the tower is a box ticked, if nothing else.  The place just depressed me, tourists and selfie sticks abound, and queues are horrendous. Apart from the bleeding obvious leaning in front of you, I struggled to see what else there is to do and the place had a claustrophobic feel to it for me. Maybe I am being overly critical. It was, of course just a fleeting visit and a Pisian (is that a word?) might tell a tourist like me that there is much more on offer and to enjoy.  Is there someone I must see or do if I return? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and suggestions

 Next came San Gimignano, a small walled city where I could easily have spent an evening or two drinking the delicious white wine, which tasted of butter and honey and melted smoothly on your tongue. San Gimignano is a UNESCO world heritage site and is mind- numbingly, heart-breakingly beautiful. The views go on for as far as the eye can see and inside its famous walls one could imagine the locals partying in the main square, dancing the night away with the echoes of their revelry being heard for miles around. It is known as a town of towers and has elements of Renaissance and Gothic features. Tea with Mussolini was filmed here. 

Alas, all too soon we were off again, carted like cattle to a very quick pit stop lunch at another vineyard. This was not so elegant a setting, with food evidently cooked for a mass tourist market and not authentically Tuscan.  There is nothing really significant to elaborate on here, strictly average meal with barely palatable wine. 

Off to our final destination and dare I say it, place even nicer than Florence. Our guides were excellent and the architecture impressive. If there is such a thing as ‘architecture porn’ this city embodies it. It’s my type of place … quirky, not as well-known or visited, nor perhaps as traditionally beautiful as its older and more famous cousin but that’s just what I loved about it. She’s Gothic and I love Gothic. The city is also home to the oldest and incidentally, still operating, bank in the world. We visited here only one week after the famous Palio horse race. From all directions in this city, in order to reach the main square you have to emerge underneath arches and down flights of steps. Then this light hits you, this beautiful, curved square’, where you feel you have arrived in a Roman amphitheatre. It is magical I can only imagine the atmosphere on a race day. We wandered the side streets, emerging at the Cathedral, where we happily paid the entrance fee (unlike Florence there was no queue) and with mouths open, we gazed upon the intricate beauty of this magnificent building. I would have loved to have stayed and not be obliged to jump back on to the sweaty tour bus. If only I could have stayed in paradise a little bit longer. 

This tour started at around £80, however, if you’re short on time and want to experience a few different places this is a good bet. Just be sure to wear sensible shoes and get your beauty sleep the night before. 
If I had more time and had done things a little differently, I would have chosen Lucca over Pisa for a day trip, stayed in both San Gimignano and Siena, as well as obviously Florence and if time and money had not been a factor, while a way a day or two in Chianti in a giant turn of the century villa with a pool. I would have also loved to have seen Clinque Terre but that is next on the bucket list. 

What are your go to places for touring around Tuscany? Would you still recommend Pisa? A beach trip or just a few nights in one city? 

For now, Ciao. 


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