Under the Tuscan sun

From high culture to organic cuisine, Christine Webb offers an insider's guide to the beauty and pleasures of Tuscany.

It doesn't seem that long ago that I asked my husband a simple question: "If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?"

"Live in Italy," he replied. "Do you think you could learn Italian?"

Two questions and 10 years later, my Italian is still woeful but I get by. We arrived on a whim from Sydney, with two boys and some suitcases, and found ourselves living in one of the most culturally opulent regions in the world. We knew Florence, the crucible of the Renaissance where Michelangelo and Leonardo created masterpieces, but we didn't expect the rest of the region to be as rich as it is with art, architecture, music and history.

Gradually we realised that the streets we were walking were trodden by the Etruscans, who gave Tuscany its name. Then the ancient Romans created towns and amphitheatres. In the Dark Ages the region split into autonomous city states. Early Christian pilgrims crossed the territory in search of peace and God and, finally, one city state rose over the others and the Medici family of Florence established itself as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. These wealthy rulers enjoyed their country estates and indulged their love of fine wine, food, art, literature and music.

For centuries, Tuscany has attracted travellers looking for inspiration and la dolce vita: among them Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence. Mark Twain perhaps summed up their responses: "The Creator made Italy from designs by Michelangelo."

Base camps

The undulating hills of the Crete Sinese are an ideal base from which to strike out on easy day trips to Siena; the towers of San Gimignano; the architectural jewel of Pienza; the stunning landscape of Val d'Orcia; the ancient town of San Quirico d'Orcia; and Montalcino, famous for its brunello wine.

To the west is the Tuscan province of Grosseto, also known as the Maremma, and the area near Manciano is one of the easiest parts of Tuscany to drive - to the Etruscan towns of Pitigliano, Sovana and Orvieto (the latter actually in the neighbouring region of Umbria), to the peninsula of Monte Argentario and from Porto Santo Stefano to catch a ferry to the dreamy island of Giglio. The walled city of Grosseto makes a pleasant day trip, as do the ancient ruins of Roselle and the Alberese park managed by butteri, or traditional stockmen.

Planting yourself near Sansepolcro in eastern Tuscany will give you a taste of the upper Tiber Valley, like a child's drawing of a perfect valley. From here it's easy to explore the citadel of Anghiari, the antique markets of Arezzo and the religious hermitage of La Verna, as well as a quick route to gems outside Tuscany, such as Urbino, Ravenna, Perugia and Assisi.

A base in the hills north of Lucca will open up the beautiful walled town, the Lucchese villas of the Napoleonic era, the valley of the Garfagnana, Pisa, the artist town of Pietrasanta and the marble mountains of Carrara.

Big tickets

During your time in the countryside you might find yourself gravitating to some of the better-known sites. This is understandable, for Tuscany has more big-ticket sights to tick off a must-see list than any region in the world.

Florence is a nightmare to drive in and you risk heavy fines for accidentally entering restricted traffic zones (signposted as ZTL). A train to Florence Santa Maria Novella station will deliver you to as central a spot as you could want. Florence is not a place to meander aimlessly. You need a plan, or risk a day of frustration. Seeing three major sites and taking an hour to stroll between each is a good plan. Or you could try my favourite strategy: buy a bus ticket and a guide book at the news-stand in the station, then hop on an electric bus D near the taxi rank and ask to be dropped at the Ponte Vecchio.

With map in hand, walk past all the major landmarks - Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria (with its David copy), the Duomo and the San Lorenzo market - as you wind your way back to the station. If you plan your day well in advance you can make a booking at the Uffizi museum to see its embarrassment of riches. (Book at www.uffizi.firenze.it; some booking agencies will charge up to €10 ($15) more than the going rate of €6.50 plus booking fee of €4 but might hold last-minute tickets.)

While Pisa is more accessible by car, I'd still recommend the train. From Pisa's central station take an LAM rossa (red) bus and ask for the leaning tower. The Piazza del Duomo is one of the most intensely touristy plots of land in the world. Despite the silliness of holiday snappers "holding" the leaning tower in one hand for the camera, the tower is beautiful and well worth a visit. From here, meander back through Pisa, heading south-east to Piazza dei Cavalieri, the political centre of mediaeval Pisa. Further in this direction you'll end up turning right into Borgo Stretto, a narrow, colonnaded road lined with shops and cafes such as Salza at No.44, a superb pasticceria serving nut chocolates with coffee roasted daily on the premises since 1898. Near the River Arno, Piazza Garibaldi is the heart of Pisa with a young pulse; grab a table at Bar Bazeel if you're lucky. Crossing the Ponte di Mezzo, head straight along Corso Italia back to the station.

Siena is probably one of the easiest Tuscan cities to tackle, which is one reason why it's so popular. Parking stations ring the town. Walk straight to the Piazza del Campo and then follow the signs for the Duomo. There are touristy restaurants around the magnificent piazza but the city has some marvellous foodie gems. Try Osteria Le Logge at 33 Via del Porrione (giannibrunelli.it), owned by Gianni Brunelli, who brings the purity of his own produce to the table. Also, Osteria del Gatto, at 8 Via San Marco (osteriadelgatto.com), specialises in Tuscan-style game and fish with regular degustazione (tastings) of house favourites.

The picture-perfect town of San Gimignano swarms with day trippers during summer but is left to the locals in winter. The town's 14 mediaeval towers are etched into the skyline from miles around; climb the tallest tower for a brilliant view of the countryside. It's no longer the genuine Tuscan experience but it retains a kind of fairytale air. And the local vino, the dry white vernaccia, is excellent.

Mangia! Mangia!

Tuscans are such food snobs they claim Catherine de Medici developed the basis of French cuisine when she took her chef with her to France. The regional specialities are often seasonal and have Protected Designation of Origin (DOP in Italian) labelling. They are so popular they are difficult to find outside their area, even those that travel well. For instance, superb chocolate can often be found only near the maker's workshop, such as chocolate maker de Bondt, whose shop on the Lungarno Pacinotti, near Piazza Garibaldi in Pisa, sells a prize-winning chocolate in sleek packaging. One of Florence's oldest cafes, Riviore, in Piazza della Signoria opposite the Palazzo Vecchio, produces its own line of superb chocolates.

The deep valley north of Lucca, the Garfagnana, is a rural backwater that has made much of its fresh foods and preserved ancient traditions. In its heart is the town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, where the rustic enoteca Vecchio Mulino is run by the ebullient gourmand Andrea Bertucci. At communal tables are a selection of tasting plates of the season's delicacies, sometimes from small producers that Bertucci has sought out, such as delicious farro salad with local smoked trout.

Throughout Tuscany, market days are particularly good for sourcing local products; you can often try a sliver of the cheese or a morsel of an artisan's bread drizzled with bright-green virgin olive oil before you buy. Pecorino is the characteristic sheep's cheese of the region and is aged in a variety of cladding: try the red, covered in tomato paste; di fosse, wrapped in hazelnut leaves; or my favourite, covered with the lees of grapes.

The Mercato Centrale of Florence, in the San Lorenzo quarter, has delicacies from all over Tuscany and is open every day, except Sunday, until 2pm. Livorno's Central Market, on Via Buontalenti, has a main food hall and a mind-boggling array of fish, in one of Italy's biggest seafood markets. Nearby, the shouting, laughing barrow men populate several blocks of this lively town with their fruit and veg.

Keep an eye out for neighbourhood wine shops - called mescita or fiaschetteria (such as the Vecchio Casentino in Via dei Neri, Florence) - where you can also have a bite to eat, and food shops where you can also have a glass of wine (Procacci Panini Tartufati in Via Tornabuoni 64, Florence). These old-fashioned shops are fading but still offer superb food and genuine service.

Tippler's tips

The most contained of Tuscany's famed wine regions is Chianti, where rolling vineyards growing the exclusive chianti classico are punctuated by villas and castle ruins. It's a great area to stay for lazy wine touring but it can take up to an hour to wend your way out of the tangled Chianti back roads on to a more serviceable thoroughfare to tour elsewhere. The two other super Tuscans are the hugely important red wine, vino nobile, of the picturesque hill town of Montepulciano, and the equally bravura brunello of Montalcino. If you can't decide which one is your preferred drop, stop at the exquisite town of Pienza, about halfway between the two wine regions, and compare your favourites.

It's regarded as brutta figura (completely naff) to appear inebriated, so where there is wine there will be generous pre-dinner snacks, often free or sometimes for a small charge.

Reasons to celebrate

While appearing drunk is frowned on, many of the great Tuscan festivals are barking with mediaeval madness. The craziest is the Palio di Siena.

This twice-yearly horse race around il Campo, the piazza of Siena, lasts for four days, on June 29-July 2 and August 13-16. Tickets to the stands are horrendously expensive, with €300 or more not unheard of, and are difficult to buy because there's no central ticketing agency.

The centre of the piazza, on the other hand, is a free-for-all zone; if you don't stand too near the barrier, it is an amazing (and free) experience. You might not be able to see all the action but you can certainly feel it. Spectators without tickets to the stands can wander into the centre of the piazza; the barriers close before 5pm and onlookers are corralled here for at least two hours. After an hour or so of parades, the horses race around the track in a three-minute spectacle that is almost over before it's begun. The crowd erupts. Horses, flags, drums and madness rule the streets for hours after.

The Arezzo Giostra del Saracino is an old-fashioned joust in which two riders from each of the town's four contradas (teams) tilt their lances at a rotating target, a wooden Saracen holding a shield and mace. The riders must reach a full gallop across a Piazza Grande filled with an army of more than 300 soldiers, plus helmeted knights on horseback, damsels, courtiers and flag throwers, who roar with approval or disgust. Like the Palio, this is held twice yearly (the next is September 5). For €5 you can join the hoi polloi but the best seats are €42. Bookings can be made in advance at www.giostradelsaracino.arezzo.it.

If there is one thing we have learnt in the past decade, it is to take our time in Tuscany, absorb its spirit and remain open to the unexpected. I'm not rushing to ask that third question, "When do we go home?", because the answer might be: "We're here."

Christine and Marius Webb recently contributed to DK Eyewitness: Back Roads Italy.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Swiss International Air Lines has a fare for about $2000, flying a partner airline to Hong Kong (9hr), then Swiss to Zurich (13hr), then a 70-minute flight over the Alps to Florence. This fare allows you to travel via two Asian cities and out of another European city. Singapore Airlines flies to Rome for about $1850, to Singapore (about 8hr) then Rome (13hr). There is a 90-minute train from Rome to Florence. Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax.

Driving there

Car hire is relatively expensive in Italy. Automatic models are not common and there may be a surcharge for a GPS navigator, which is incredibly handy. If you are staying a month or more, leasing might be a better option.

Staying there

The Fabbrica di San Martino in Vignale, near the town of Lucca, is a splendid villa with two farmhouse apartments that make a perfect base. From €500 ($745)-€1250 a week, depending on season. See Www.fabbricadisanmartino.it.

Villa Palagione is a retreat-cum-cultural centre near the town of Volterra, where you can join a language class, a sculpture group or just relax. The 16th-century villa was in ruins when a group of friends rescued it. From €31.50 a person a week. See www.villa-palagione.org.

Villa Pieve de' Pitti is a 17th-century residence in the grounds of a family owned vineyard and farm, 20 minutes' drive from Pisa. From €410-€660 a week, depending on season. See www.pievedepitti.it.

J.K. Place in Piazza Santa Maria Novella is one of Florence's most elegant boutique hotels. Neoclassical with a modern twist. Rooms from €350. See www.jkplace.com.

The Continentale, near the Ponte Vecchio, is where contemporary Italian meets classic Florentine. Rooms from €250. See www.lungarnohotels.com.

Eating and drinking there

Ristorante Fiorentino in Sansepolcro has a seasonal menu and a tray table of sensational desserts. Via Luca Pacioli 60, Sansepolcro. See www.ristorantefiorentino.it.

Enoteca Il Colonnino is a cubby hole of a restaurant and wine bar, 15 minutes' walk from the leaning tower. Owner Lorenzo Monti keeps a fine wine cellar. Via Sant'Andrea 37, Pisa. See www.ilcolonnino.it.

Osteria con Cucina is within the castellated hamlet of Volpaia in Chianti near the town of Radda. Lunch is home cooking with superb local wine overlooking the family vineyards. See www.volpaia.it.

Trattoria Za Za has the freshest produce from Florence's nearby Mercato Centrale. See www.trattoriazaza.it.

Antica Trattoria Aurora, in the Maremma zone in the town of Magliano, is a family-run restaurant inside the walls of this pretty town. Via Lavagnini 12, phone +39 0564 592 030.

Enoteca la Fortezza is a cantina wine shop within the walls of Montalcino's fortress. Taste the prize-winning brunello by the glass and a tasty light lunch while the kids climb the battlements. See www.enotecalafortezza.com.

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