Jul 052015
 

By Catherine Sweeney

Highlights of a week in northern Tuscany

A week in Tuscany is not nearly enough time to gain anything but a preliminary knowledge of the region, even if just focusing on its northern part. However, it’s enough to feel the pull it has on the hearts of visitors and understand why residents are so proud of their home. It was also enough time for us to experience some wonderful activities that we can recommend for your own visits. In future posts, I will have more to share about the many reasons we loved Tuscany, but here are a few highlights of our Tuscan experience.

View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany

View of Val di Pesa from La Novellina in Tuscany

Seeing the famous sights

Florence and Pisa are well-known tourist-attraction venues, so be prepared for crowds of tourists but don’t miss their many must-see sights.

In Pisa, we took the climb to the top of the leaning tower which we thought was worth it for the views of the rooftops of the city and the surrounding area. My husband thought the tower leaned more than he’d expected, and I agree. I felt a little woozy because of the tower’s unevenness of the floor as we first entered the tower and started climbing. The tower itself actually seemed more beautiful to me than I’d seen in pictures. The subtle shades of the marble facade really stood out more than in photos. While waiting for your turn to tour the tower, have lunch or a coffee on one of the touristy, but still nice adjacent streets.

Famous attractions: Pisa -- Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence -- Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze

Famous attractions: Pisa — Leaning Tower of Pisa; Florence — Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze

It’s no wonder that Florence is a top city for visitors to Italy. With its history, architecture, bridges, cathedrals, piazzas and museums, it’s an amazing place to visit. Even on this rainy day, for us Florence shined as a Renaissance treasure. While walking along both sides of the Arno River and from the bridges, we enjoyed views of the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The majestic Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) mesmerizes with its size and beauty. We were focused on getting a good introduction to Florence during a short day trip so only admired its exterior, but we’ve put a longer tour of Florence and key sights on our must-do list for our next time in Tuscany.

Being surprised

Part of the fun of visiting places for the first time is learning about and doing things that are unexpected. These were just a few things that surprised us during our week in northern Tuscany.

The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence

The coastside city of Viareggio, quarries of the Apuan Alps, bicycling on the walls of Lucca, art in Pietrasanta, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence

    • Tuscany is not just about vineyards, rolling hills, and quaint villages. The beach towns of Viareggio and Forte Dei Marmi attract summer vacationers to their resorts and villas along the Versilia coast of the Mediterranean.
    • I didn’t expect to see marble quarries on the hillsides of the Apuane Alps. These quarries extract the abundant high-quality marble there that has been used for centuries in great buildings and for creating the timeless art of sculptors such as Michelangelo.
    • Pietrasanta is a surprising artisic gem with its public art installations, galleries, and marble-carving studios. It is also home to master mosaic artist Piero Giannoni, whose creations are seen around the world.
    • In Florence, we admired the decor, artifacts, and product displays, while sampling fragrances at Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy which is said to be the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world. Formulas of the monks who originally established the pharmacy in the 13th century are still being used. Imagine that!
    • I like bicycling (primarily on flat surfaces) and got a special treat riding bikes along the top of the ancient city walls of Lucca, an area designated for pedestrians and bicycles only. Not only did it provide an opportunity for fresh air and exercise, but it was great for getting an overhead view of the city while watching locals stroll the tree-lined path.

Walking and wandering

Each of the cities and towns, large and small, that we visited in northern Tuscany had its own charm and unique appeal, but all were a pleasure to explore on foot, even when getting a bit off track as we did one evening in Lucca. Our footsteps took us all around Florence, Certaldo Alto, San Gimignano, Barberino Val d’Elsa, Pietrasanta, and Lucca. On many occasions, we were aided by wonderful local guides who explained the importance, history, or uniqueness of the sights and introduced us to local shop owners.

Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta

Strolling the streets of Lucca, Certaldo Alto and Pietrasanta

Wining and dining

For me, quintessential Tuscan dining experiences are those enjoyed al fresco with views of serene countryside or bustling piazzas. Besides finding great traditional cuisine in the restaurants of Tuscany, we indulged in tasting the local fare at the villas where we stayed or visited, cheese makers, wineries, olive mills, specialty wine and food shops, and fresh markets. And let’s not forget the gelaterias!

Tasty specialties of Tuscany - cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dall'Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa),  and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)

Tasty specialties of Tuscany – cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), wine (Pasolini dall’Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato (Pappa Grappa), and fresh produce (Frantoio Sociale)

Dotting the hillsides and valleys of Chianti and other areas of Tuscany are vast expanses of olive groves and vineyards, many of which are small, family-owned operations that welcome visitors for tastings and tours. The large Antinori wine estate is visually impressive with its modern architecture in a pastoral setting in Bargino that offers public tours and tastings as well.

Driving

On our trip, we especially enjoyed our drives through the picturesque countryside and small villages. There were beautiful vistas at every turn and also some serendipitous finds. Renting a car as we did will give you spontaneity and flexibility in seeing Tuscany’s beauty. Driving a  Ferrari in Tuscany seems very popular (and we saw quite a few), but that didn’t fit our budget. Whatever you drive, make it a small car for maneuvering the narrow roads and tight parking spots in towns and villages. As much fun as it is to drive in the countryside, avoid taking the car into the city centers by using parking lots on the outskirts or traveling by train.

Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari

Our rental car, some of the beautiful scenery, and a not uncommon Ferrari

Staying in a villa

There are certainly many accommodation options in Tuscany, including hotels and B&Bs, but as we learned, villas offer unique ways to truly immerse in the Tuscan experience. And they can be particularly advantageous for family celebrations, reunions, weddings, and other special gatherings. Each villa that we visited or at which we stayed has its distinct characteristics and amenities appealing to different tastes and needs, accommodating a wide range of group sizes, and offering a great variety of services to make a stay special. During our tour of EsteVillas holiday rentals, we were guests of La Novellina in Fiano and Buonvisi in Lucca, and toured several others in northern Tuscany. We’ll share the details of these with you in future posts.

Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca

Rolling out the red carpet for guests at Villa Buonvisi in Lucca

But beyond all the beautiful vistas, historic towns and cities, and the wonderful food and wine, there were the friendly, helpful and generous people we met throughout our stay.

This article was originally published on Traveling with Sweeney.

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