Even in Italy’s most-loved region, there are still hidden gems to be discovered. Ute Junker shares her favorites.
Vine-covered slopes and Renaissance frescoes. Cypress-lined avenues leading to ancient hilltop towns. Al fresco dining in a sunlit plaza, stuffed zucchini flowers washed down with a glass of sangiovese. Any day spent in Tuscany is littered with small moments of perfection.
Unfortunately, the word is well and truly out. Tuscany has become one of Italy’s most visited areas, as the crowds ebbing through the streets of Florence and Siena attest. The good news, however, is that for those willing to take the road less traveled, there are still some gems to be discovered.
Start by choosing the right accommodation. Skip the big cities; instead, opt for a rural retreat where the sun-warmed stones have weathered the centuries, and your bedroom window opens onto a view of rolling hills covered with grapevines and olive trees. The converted castle known as Castello di Casole fits the bill. Set in an over 4200 acre estate, the oldest parts of this converted castle date back 10 centuries. Staff excel at organizing interesting excursions, from boating trips down the Arno to Medici-themed tours and even wildlife spotting excursions (think deer, pheasant, boar). Be sure to allow some time for uninterrupted lazing around. The pool on the sunny terrace is perfect for a spot of lounging: staff will bring you a glass of the estate’s own wine to savor as you admire the view.
Alternatively, there is Villa Fontelunga, a boutique retreat with just nine rooms. Behind the traditional Tuscan exterior (burnt ochre walls, blue shutters, ivy) is a chic retreat that combines classic Italian decor with designer touches. Owners Paolo and Phillip create a family-style atmosphere: their twice-weekly dinner parties are a highlight of any stay.
Once you are settled in, it is time for some exploring. A visit to the charming town of Arezzo is a must for art lovers. Its Basilica di San Francesco is home to one of Tuscany’s most powerful, and precious, art works: in fact, some consider The Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle, by Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, to be the greatest fresco cycle ever completed. The panels tell an involved story with a cast of characters including Adam, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Don’t get so caught up in the action that you neglect the details tucked into every image. These quirky cameos – such as the Queen of Sheba’s grooms, too busy gossiping to take in the miracle unfolding to their right – make the art come alive.
Although Arezzo has plenty of fine eateries – is there an Italian town that doesn’t? – it is worth seeking out Il Canto del Maggio, perched in a nearby hilltop hamlet. The restaurant is as famous for its magnificent views as its acclaimed local cuisine. Looking for a light bite? Try the wild nettle souffle or the zucchini salad with pine nuts and mint. Bigger appetite? The wood pigeon roasted with grapes is superb.
Another of Tuscany’s most underrated towns is Pistoia, tucked beneath the towering Apennines. Spend the morning admiring its typical hill town charms – medieval ramparts, winding streets, a bustling market and a grand cathedral – before stopping in for lunch at La BotteGaia, acclaimed by Slow Food for its nuanced renderings of local specialties. The Cinta Senese is exquisite – who would have thought that pork, tomato and onion, served in an earthenware bowl, could be so sublime?
Once you have fueled up, it is time to discover Pistoia’s more unique attractions. The spectacular facade of the town’s ancient hospital, the Ospedale del Ceppo, gives no clue as to what lies beneath: an underground labyrinth where, on an hour-long tour, you can see everything from centuries-old surgical tools to an underground river.
Contemporary art fans are also in for a treat. The lovely Palazzo del Tau is home to the Museo Marino Marini, showcasing the works of Pistoia’s most successful modern artists, while just outside town, the Fattoria di Celle showcases 70 site-specific installations. It is a labor of love by local businessman, Giuliano Gori, and visits need to be booked in writing at least a month in advance.