A century wouldn't be long enough to feast your eyes on all of Tuscany's architectural and artistic wonders - but that doesn't mean you can't try, says Eilidh McCabe.
A Feast for the Senses
Long before I had the joy of my first Tuscan travel experience, there were clear images that flashed into my mind whenever this sun-drenched Italian region came up in conversation. Rolling hills and patchwork fields broken up by borders of stately cypress trees. Ivy-covered farmhouses with patios perfect for lazy afternoons spent picking at plates of antipasti. Long strolls through the striped light and shade of vineyards, followed by an alfresco glass of the good stuff afterwards. And all of this bathed in golden light.
Yes, Tuscany had a lot to live up to for me. But you know what? It really did. And not just because of the beauty of its rural areas, but because of the aesthetic wonders packed into its towns and cities. There are an amazing seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tuscany – not to mention the countless priceless artworks and artefacts practically overflowing from the region’s museums.
An Icon in the Flesh
My first Tuscan adventure began in Pisa. We all know there’s one architectural highlight that almost no-one skips when they come here, and I was no different. Even if it stood straight, the Leaning Tower would always be one of the city’s great treasures, its intricate details and graceful rows of columns having survived for nearly 850 years. There’s a special thrill, though, in seeing that famous slant in person. It’s a structure most of us have seen in photos hundreds of times throughout our lives, and the urge to pose for the clichéd picture propping it up is strong (full disclosure: I gave in to that urge).
Small but Perfectly Formed
Piazza dei Miracoli is home to an embarrassment of historic splendour beyond the tower. I loved lounging on the grass with a clear view of the Leaning Tower, Pisa Cathedral and Pisa Baptistry all in a line. However, I actually found my own personal Pisa high point a short walk away, on the southern bank of the river. The Church of Santa Maria della Spina is a tiny but perfect example of Gothic architecture, perched right on the water’s edge. I wanted to pick up this 12th-century jewel and take it away with me in my pocket.
Art in All Directions
Next on my itinerary was Florence, to the east. As the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence’s cultural reputation always precedes it; but nothing could have quite prepared me for the rich sensory bath I was about to plunge into. Even on a short wander that took me from the Ponte Vecchio to Florence Cathedral, I passed multiple astonishingly beautiful historic façades.
However, where Florence really outdoes itself is in preserving its historic buildings inside as well as out – and turning them into fitting homes for yet more objects of historic significance. I could rave (and have raved!) about Florence’s spectacular museums for hours, but I’ll just highlight my absolute favourite here.
The Uffizi Gallery is one of only a handful of famous tourist attractions that I would brave the queue for a hundred times over. The sheer excess of its gold-accented ceilings and marble pillars would be overwhelming even without the art. Seeing the headline artworks, like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, in this dazzling setting was a dreamlike experience. But the best part was drifting slowly, without a plan, through the building’s grand halls, taking a seat opposite some glorious Renaissance masterpiece whenever the mood took me.
Prosciutto and People Watching
Siena is the perfect distance from Florence for a day trip, so I hopped on the train and off I went. In the medieval heart of the city, the pretty red-brick buildings create an entirely different vibe to the magnificent white edifices that dominate Florence. But these winding lanes are no less beautiful and historic, with the centrepiece being the lovely, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo.
My top tip for lunch on a sunny day is to skip the restaurants altogether and sit down on the ground here to nibble some good, crusty bread and prosciutto. Many others will be doing the same – making for unbeatable people watching!
Aim for the Sky
Tuscany is one of those rare destinations where setting your expectations sky-high is absolutely fine. Trust me – that’s what I did, and I still got so much more than I’d imagined possible.