Jun 012015
 

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, Mr. TWS and 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 fron 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. Mr. TWS 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: Leaning Tower of Pisa; Ponte Vecchio and Il Duomo di Firenze in Florence

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 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, Tuscany, Italy

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 - wine (Pasolini dell'Onda), ham (Enoteca e Convivio), gelato, cheese (Fattoria Corzano e Paterno), and produce

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 Ferari

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.

At Villa Buonvisit in Lucca, Italy, they roll out the red carpet for guests.

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.

Have I piqued your interest? Would you like to hear more about our week in northern Tuscany? Do you wonder what it might be like to stay in a Tuscan villa? Stay tuned!

  17 Responses to “A Touch of Tuscany”

  1. Wonderful choice of the Tuscany’s attractions! I love Italy and everything connected with this country and I’m happy that you found your own way to enjoy its treasures.

  2. Great tip about cycling in Lucca, that would be right up my alley. I do want to hear more about your trip in Northern Tuscany, particularly the best places you ate at. I spent a week in the region over a decade ago and I travel through my stomach, so keen to hear about some great, local gems.

  3. Ooh, love Tuscany. San Gimignano after hours… sigh! And I can’t believe we didn’t know about cycling the wall in Lucca. Will stay tuned, for sure 🙂

  4. So, so pretty. I love Florence but haven’t been to many places in Tuscany, actually. I would love to stay at a villa in the countryside, so I’m looking forward to your next posts about your trip!

  5. Have traveled all over Italy, though Tuscany is the last region I haven’t yet had a chance to visit, and I’m dying to go!! Not just for the vineyards as you rightly pointed out, but there’s so much more to the region! The closest I’ve gotten is the Cinque Terre – and that was FAB!

  6. I’ve been to Tuscany, but only to Pisa and Florence. Too bad, this region has so many things to offer. I didn’t realize they have beaches! When I think of Toscana, it’s vineyards that come to mind. I hope I can go back there someday. I’ll definitely spend more time there, sans the Ferrari. I can’t afford it either. 😀

  7. We have spent a fair amount of time in Tuscany because we are lucky to have friends with homes there. Your pictures brought back wonderful memories!

  8. LOVE LOVE LOVE Tuscany, everything about it and it’s home to my fav city in the world, Florence! I couldn’t agree with you more about renting a car and staying in villa to enjoy those sublime moments under the Tuscan sun. This post brought back a flood of memories of my trip back in 2005…boy, it’s about time I return!!

    Thank you for the lovely post and the wonderful walk down memory lane!!

  9. Beautiful place…

  10. You know I’ve been to Pisa twice and never been to that dang tower.

  11. […] After a long day of travel from San Francisco to Florence, the ivy-covered villa at the end of a long gravel driveway from the road, was a welcoming sight. Luisa Castiglioni, who has owned this Tuscany luxury villa since 1980, greeted us at the door with a hearty welcome and introduced us to her son Nic and Monica, one of the “gifted women and men” that has shared her dream of preserving the authenticity and culture of the area and contributing to the land. Initially restoring the historic building and property as a place for her family to enjoy the simple Tuscan lifestyle, Luisa has been renting the villa for the past 25 years to others so they can experience the beauty and peacefulness of the setting while enjoying the wonderful food, wine, culture, and other highlights of Tuscany. […]

  12. Oh yes, we’d like to spend a week in northern Tuscay in a great villa! Florence, Lucca, and all those Italian vinos to try – what’s not to love!

  13. […] With all that the villa has to offer, it can provide for a complete countryside holiday, but its location makes it convenient for touring other city and coastal areas of northern Tuscany. […]

  14. […] the many highlights that Mr. TWS and I enjoyed during our stay in Tuscany, one of our favorites was learning about the rich art culture of Pietrasanta, a town near the […]

  15. […] cooler than I expected. I hadn’t really put Pisa on a wish list, but knew that it would be a must-see while in Tuscany. We were staying just about 10 miles away in Lucca, so it was very convenient. Of course, the […]

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