I like cities, busy, active and stimulating cities. They make me want to run ahead full of curiosity even when I really want to rest for a bit. This is why we chose to stay at a house which was located in a comfortable distance from the city, yet was next to rolling hills and farmlands. Every urban day ending with me returning to the house, breathing clean fresh air from the green and open lands surrounding the house. That way, when we left Rome for Tuscany the sense of quite relief returned to me.
In Tuscany, the phrase “Land of Milk and Honey” receive a physical manifestation. Farmlands stretching to the horizon, round, smooth hills whose slopes are filled with vineyards, orchards and olive groves. Reddish farmhouses are nested between their curves and small and curving side roads lead you to fascinating ancient cities that both the darkest as well as brightest eras of the human civilization can be seen even in their smallest alleyways. They are romantic, compact, and rich with history and art that make the region into one of the most beloved and toured in the world. In most of those towns and cities, half of a day on foot with a night will suffice, and an extra half of a day of driving will be enough to reach the next destination. That was the experience that suited us, with the goal of seeing and experience as much as we can, though I have to warn you, it can get quite intensive (that how it goes when I decide to rest…). So if you are in less of a hurry, or in a different mindset, there are many wonderful ways to experience Tuscany; Farmhouses which can be rented and serve as a base for driving-based trips, a lot of people can be seen driving around on bicycles, and it is possible to balance between a vacation in the countryside and a vacation filled with museums, churches and fortresses, and that before I started describing the wine and food culture of Tuscany, the ancient bathhouses and some of the best spas in the worlds.
Our route was circular, so that in the end of our week in Tuscany we returned to Rome for a few last days in the city before our flight home, for those who wish to plan a similar vacation, I will write my tips according to their geographical order.
The first day we opened in the city of Assisi in Umbria, the region north-east of Lazio (Rome) and south-east of Tuscany and is an excellent place to begin an amazing journey.
This is one of the most beautiful and authentic cities in Italy, with an immense religious importance to many Catholics, with a church built by Saint Francis of Assisi, who was born in the city and founded the Franciscan Order. The city is built on a mountainside and is surrounded by medieval walls. The city’s well-kempt streets are narrow and steep, filled with all kinds of shops for tourists and pilgrims, as well as countless restaurants and hotels.
We were lucky to find an amazing restaurant called, Pallotta a trattoria (and hotel) definitely worth mentioning. Although we will never know, not that it really matters, if it was just the food and the place, or if it was the rain that surprised us and made us enter the hidden restaurant without really knowing where are we going to, maybe it was our hunger, or the fact that lunch time was almost over and we had the whole restaurant for ourselves and as the wine bottle got emptier by the minute, the voices around the table got louder and merrier, together with countless wonderful dishes that kept coming. When I saw on the door stamps that indicate that the restaurant is part of the ‘Slow Food’ movement I was already full of hope, and it didn’t disappoint, the menu is rich with excellent local dishes. Take your time to enjoy every dish, and ask to see the ancient wine cellar, built under the restaurant.
Before each vacation, I make sure to check if we were lucky enough to arrive at any local festival. Tuscany is especially full of various seasonal events and local festivals, the most famous of which are the renascence festivals in Sienna and Arezzo. During our last vacation in Tuscany we happened to arrive by chance at the city Lucca (which we didn’t visit this time around) during the ‘festival of fire’, a powerful and memorable experience, in which millions of candles decorated every building in the city, as the streets were filled with countless streams of people, bands, religious groups and more. While the religious zeal and the traditional costumes (which included men dressed in white pointy hoods with holes for their eyes), made my Jewish DNA panic a little, but beside it the whole experience was amazing to see.
This time I found out that we arrive in Perugia just in time for the city’s Chocolate Festival. Perugia is a modern and industrious city. The city’s ancient district is pretty, but not exceptional, and it is likely that without the festival we would have passed it. The Chocolate Fair is the largest chocolate festival in Europe, and most of the attractions and events during it are related to the people working in the business, such as manufacturers, chefs and confectioners. We enjoyed the countless stands that filled the streets and plazas of the old city, countless stands of countless companies and manufacturers; the air was filled with joy and our blood stream with illegal amounts of sugar. Even my children claimed by the end of the day that they didn’t want to see chocolate ever again.
Apparently in order for us to have a reason to go to another vacation in Tuscany in the future, the universe intervened and in two separate vacations we still didn’t visit two cities we wanted to see, Arezzo and Cortona, in which the film ‘Under Tuscan Sun’ was filmed, and thanks to that movie, brought countless tourist who want to feel as if they are renovating an ancient villa on one of the city’s slopes like Frances does in the film. When we reach Cortona this time, a storm started and we couldn’t even get out of the car because of the rain. We waited in the car for the storm to calm down, but seeing other tourist trying to exit their cars with umbrellas and then quickly returning to their cars with broken umbrellas and wet clothes changed our mind. By the time we drove down the hill and returned to the main road (about five minutes) the sun returned and only above the walls of Cortona the skies were black and stormy. With a belly full of chocolate we moved on and spent the night in a small family hotel on the countryside.
In the morning we continued on to one of the most special city in the world – Florence. For anyone who enjoys history and art there is no place which can compete with it. The old city is small and comfortable enough to explore on foot. This time we spent three days in the city and it is safe to say that it was just ‘the tip of the iceberg’.
The city is filled with culture, style and beauty. It was written about and filmed countless times, so I will only give you two little beautiful places I enjoyed discovering:
4 Leoni – A busy modern restaurant in Florence, which sits next to a small hidden plaza (as much as it is possible in Florence), not far from the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The restaurant’s menu is good, there are cozy tables both inside and outside and there are more locals than tourists in it (A good thing in my opinion). Don’t forget to try the pears and cheese sauce filled tortellini – it’s a dream comes true.
Bianco Bianchi – In the studio of the Bianchi family ornamented tabletops and tiled ‘rugs’ are made in traditional Florentine techniques for more than fifty years. Their work is breathtaking (as are the prices).
This is the second time we visit Tuscany during the autumn, so the red poppy fields that fill the view from one horizon to the other in the spring I haven’t seen, but autumn has its own charm. In autumn there is the excellent truffle season, which fills every menu and special event during the season.
When you stop to watch the view, the air is filled with intoxicating smells which you can almost taste; flowers, vegetables, spices, fruits and wine. We stopped in various beautiful points during our trip for an hour of rest, drawing, scouting and photographing.
The Countryside – This is the road you dream about when thinking about Tuscany. Road N 222 is a curvy road which goes through the rural countryside and connects the regions of Sienna, Florence and Pisa. Along the road there are numerous small pastoral villages, breathtaking views and an abundance of excellent wineries that carries the rooster symbol which indicates they make and sell the original high-quality Chianti wine.
One of the best places to stop on the road is in a typical Tuscan villa with tasty local food and exquisite wine made by the family winery, sitting on the beautiful porch and watching the view, and is located near the end of the Chianti road on the way to Florence.
Nuvolari Bar-Castellina is one of those places which make you think, ‘maybe I will do a relocation to some Tuscan farmhouse, paint cypresses and rent rooms to tourist who will dream of relocating to Tuscany as well’.
San Gimignano is another beautiful/ancient/fascinating/touristic town, which you won’t want to miss for all the right reasons, thanks to its location on the road. Thanks to pilgrims from Northern Europe going to Rome during the 12th and 13th centuries, the residents of the city turned rich and built thirteen unusual towers, which were almost skyscrapers at the time.
One of the town’s special attractions is ‘the Museum of Terror’, which is not recommended for children and the faint of heart, and no, I didn’t go there… Me and the little one enjoyed a puppet show in the plaza while the teen and my husband went inside. I will spare you the pictures; I will just say that they had trouble forgetting the creative horrors which were shown in the museum.
But don’t worry; the city is filled with shops with local art, cafés and restaurants. This dreamy carbonara, on which truffle chips were laid, I ate at the excellent restaurant Ristorante-Belsoggiorno, while sitting next to a panoramic window with a breathtaking view.
When you build a traveling route through Tuscany you will discover countless restaurants and accommodations; I can recommend a few memorable places:
We visited the area around the beautiful Siena for two days, one of the most impressive cities in Italy. While in the city’s area we found a special boutique hotel a twenty minutes’ drive from the city.
Relais la Costa – It is a thousand years old villa, which was thoroughly renovated and reconstructed and turned from a ruin to a beautiful and intimate place in the middle of the woods.
There is also a spa, a pool and a restaurant in case you don’t want to go on a nighttime drive on a dark, semi-wild road (indeed, it was a bit frightening when we didn’t really know where we arrived in the middle of the night…).
Villa Bernardi – If you wanted a Tuscan vacation like in the movies, this is the place for you. A beautiful renovated farmhouse on the Chianti Wine Road; it was renovated by a young loving couple, he is a German and she is a Jew from New York. All I can say is that the place is just perfect.
Residenza il Colle – A villa which was recently reconstructed and renovated in the spirit of its original 13th century style. It is an intimate, beautiful hotel, designed with precision and care. It is a perfect place for a romantic vacation, only a half hour drive from Florence.
And for conclusion, a tip with a moral:
Before the invention of the GPS I was our navigator, and Italy is remembered by me as one of the most challenging places in Europe, with a chaotic system of road signs that turned me mad and didn’t really allowed me to enjoy the road. In this vacation, I praised the inventor of the GPS at least once a day, as well as the great improvement in my enjoyment of the road when a reassuring voice id leading you, until… I discovered the price of complacence.
Never be tempted by the GPS’ offer to auto-complete your destination name when you type it. Even if it seems like the exact same name to you, it is better when one of you spells the name while the other type it, or else you might switch, remove or add an extra letter among the twenty letters that make up each Italian place name.
We left Florence in the morning, en route to San Gimignano, a drive that we knew should take forty minutes at most. The GPS said that it will take two hours, and we explained to the boys that there are probably traffic jams in the city’s exit. Soon we got off the highway to a narrow, twisting country road; we climbed higher and higher, through thick clouds with minimal sight, till we were finally above them. A steep climb of about one thousand meters!
The view turned thicker and denser, and when my son wonder out loud how the view reminded him more of the Alps than Tuscany, we told him that we will surely cross the ridge soon enough and descend the mountain on the other side.
And indeed we started to slowly drive downwards. After a hour and a half of driving through god forgotten villages with no touristic sign, when the GPS says we are five kilometers from the destination, and since I already been at the destination I know it supposed to look completely different, finally the red light in my mind turned on. I insisted that we will rewrite the destination, and this time I will spell it again. You can imagine the sudden burst of laugher and then the bummed feeling when ‘180 kilometers to the destination’ was written on the screen (a two and a half hours drive).In the middle of a god forgotten hole in the middle of nowhere we were forced to turn around and once again climb one thousand meters and then descent them again to reach the valley on the other side, on a road which seemed like it was a one-way but was actually a two-way road, with countless twists and turns; an unplanned four hours divergence from the original trip. The view was breathtaking, but extremely hard to enjoy. And the moral is: Even if you have a reassuring voice telling you where to drive, don’t shut your brain off and let it lead you off course.