Category Archives: Art & History

Tuscan Towns

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Most tourists heading for Tuscany visit Florence, Siena, or Pisa. But Tuscany has more to offer than the great cities; smaller and less well known towns show a different side of Tuscan life and have their own, individual characters.

Lucca, a tiny cathedral city in the plains of the Arno valley, is still surrounded by its high defensive walls. It is a treasurehouse of Romanesque art; the cathedral contains the Volto Santo, an ancient crucifix that drew pilgrims from all over Italy, while San Frediano has a massive carved font showing the story of Moses. Winding streets of old houses in pale orange and pink end in towering white marble church facades, and the massive brick Tower of the Guinigi family dominates the east of the city.

Barga is a short bus ride away from Lucca, but a more different town can’t be imagined; it’s high up in the foothills of the Apuan Alps, which in the middle ages were full of wolves and bandits. Steep streets and narrow alleys run upwards to the gleaming white church. Barga’s food comes from the mountains ñ chestnuts, wild boar, and forest mushrooms ñ and even when the sun shines, it’s cooler than the cities of the plain below.

Another city with rough edges is Volterra, sited dramatically on a rocky ridge, overlooking untamed, arid country; it feels a little like Tuscany’s Wild West. Here the Etruscans operated mines, and the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum contains many examples of their metalwork, as well as a large collection of funerary urns, many with uncannily vivid portraits of the deceased.

In keeping with Volterra’s rough exterior, its fine Renaissance fortress has become a state prison, but it springs one surprise on the visitor. It now contains a highly rated restaurant where the cooks and waiters are all prisoners. Bookings need to be made well in advance ñ and there are strict security checks on the way to the table.

Chiusi is another hill town with Etruscan roots, and is surrounded by Etruscan tombs, many exhibits from which are now in the town’s museum. Its most interesting exhibit, though, is a set of tunnels under the city, known as the ‘labyrinth’, but in fact dug by the Etruscans for drainage.

Some of Tuscany’s towns take you back to the Middle Ages. Monteriggioni, not far from Siena, is perhaps the most perfect example of the Tuscan walled hill town, its majestic walls and towers dominating the valley below. Inside, though, it’s nowadays little more than a village, with attractive gardens and elegant Renaissance houses.

But if it’s towers you want, visit San Gimignano. Its medieval noble families feuded perpetually, and each family built its own fortress; fourteen of the towers still survive. The town’s main church has Renaissance frescoes, and there’s a good gallery of Renaissance paintings. Wine lovers will want to track down the local vernaccia wine, crisp and dry.

Further south, in an area little known by tourists, Pitigliano and Sovana are two ancient towns linked by an Etruscan chariot route which can still be followed across the plateau. Pitigliano, a town built in creamy stone on a ridge above the valley of the Fiora, is known as Tuscany’s Jerusalem, since it provided a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution in the Papal States; the synagogue is open to visitors, though few Jews now live in the town. Many houses in Pitigliano have wine cellars that were dug by the Etruscans, while Sovana has well preserved Etruscan tombs.

An unusually complete Renaissance town is Pienza, named after its founder, Pope Pius II. It is a logical planned town, centred on its main square with the cathedral, the palace of the pope’s family, town hall and bishop’s palace, each taking one side of the square. The architecture is pure and delicate in style, and the whole town seems to be a perfect miniature ñ it was hardly more than a village when Pius decided to rebuild it.

Cortona shows a different side of the Renaissance with paintings by Fra Angelico, and two elegant small Renaissance churches. The town, though, is medieval with its steep narrow streets and tall houses perched on a steep hillside, and medieval customs still survive ñ there’s an annual archery contest in June, and processions in medieval costume in May.

Florence may be a honey pot for culture vultures, but Tuscany’s smaller towns can offer just as many interesting cultural experiences, in a more relaxed and less crowded atmosphere.

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Spiritual Guards by Jan Fabre

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The works of Jan Fabre will be on display in Florence until October 2, 2016. The exhibition is promoted by the Comune di Firenze and is taking place in three impressive locations throughout the city.

Jan Fabre is described as one of the most innovative and important figures on the international contemporary art scene, who uses his art to depict and embody the power of imagination.

This is the first time that a living artist will have his art exhibited in three venues of outstanding and historical importance at the same time.

Around 100 of his works will be on display including bronze and wax sculptures, works made of the iridescent cases of the scarab beetle and performance films ripe with humanity and universalism.

Two new works specifically created for the occasion will join the open-air museum of Piazza della Signoria that will temporarily host the monumental work ‘Searching for Utopia’ and the smaller ‘The man who measures the clouds’ that proudly stands between copies of Michelangelo’s David and Donatello’s Judith outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

The second location is the Palazzo Vecchio featuring a series of sculptures that will interact with the frescoes and artifacts tat are housed in the Quartiere di Eleonora, Sala dell’Udienza and Sala dei Gigli, rooms that are open to the public.

The third location is the Forte Belvedere which is the thematic heart of the Spiritual Guards exhibition, showcasing roughly 60 works of art.

The Fortress was built to defend Florence from external attack, but also to protect the Medici family in troubling times and was, therefore, a stronghold for both external and internal defense, highlighting the need for protection and vulnerability. Seven bronze scarabs are placed on the fort’s outlook posts, which represent angels of metamorphosis and guardians who symbolize the transition between earthly dimension and the afterlife with their ceaseless movement.

Continuing on the first floor of the villa, open to the public for the first time in many years are a series of was sculpture and films of the artist’s performances.  These works of art all being in the magnificent setting that is Florence.

“The exhibition’s motto and device, Spiritual Guards, should be interpreted as an encouragement to live a heroic life, be it in war or unarmed in defense of the imagination and of beauty.”

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Spa Break and Wine Tasting in Tuscany

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What better way to relax than to combine a Spa break in the Tuscan countryside with a wine tour of local Tuscan wineries.

Where can I find a Hotel with Spa in Tuscany?

Castello del Nero

Just 35 minutes from Florence airport is Castello del Nero in the town of Tavernelle Val di Pesa, in the heart of the Chianti Wine region this 5 star luxury hotel is a 12th century castle converted into a Leading Hotel of the World Hotel with ESPA Spa and outdoor Vitality Pool.

Grotta Giusti 

Grotta Giusti Natural Spa Resort  is situated in Monsummano Terme, north west of Florence. The early nineteenth century villa, now a prestigious 4 star Hotel.

Grotta Giusti has its very own thermal Grotto and new open-air thermal swimming pool.

Villa La Borghetta

Set on a beautiful Tuscan hillside between Florence and Arezzo is four star Villa La Borghetta Resort. The villa dates back to the 14th century. It has a beautiful spa with views over the olive groves and outdoor pool and jacuzzi.

Palazzo Leopoldo

In the heart of Chianti is the picturesque town of Radda in Chianti is four Star Palazzo Leopoldo, which is a historic hotel within the Medieval City Walls.  It was the Manor House of the Minucci family in the 1800s. It has a wellness centre, sun terrace and indoor heated swimming pool.

CDH Hotel Radda

CDH Hotel Radda is a 4 star hotel which has modern Tuscan-style features with stone facades and terracotta floors.  Pure relaxation is the underlying theme of the hotel with a indoor Health Centre and outdoor pool with beautiful views over the Chianti hills.

Villa Campomaggio

4 star Villa Campomaggio is an 18th-century nobile villa stands amid the Chianti hills surrounded by vineyards and woods.  The spa was converted from the old cellars and the outdoor pool has a breathtaking outlook on Chianti vineyards.

Castello di Casole

5 star luxury Castello di Casole lies west of Siena, recently restored Castle that dates back to the year 998, in the heart of a vast and vibrant country estate has a mesmerizing spa and state of the art fitness centre, with outdoor heated infinity pool.

Adler Thermae

5 star Spa Hotel Adler Thermae, near Montalcino is one of Italy’s leading wellness hotels.

Discover thermal baths in Tuscany and reap the benefits that thermal spring water has to offer. With indoor and outdoor heated pools plus exclusive spa treatments with thermal water from the thermal springs of Bagno Vignoni.

Tuscan Wine Tour with Silvia

Enjoy a day of wine tasting on a Tuscan Wine Tour with Silvia, your English-speaking driver and wine expert.

Silvia is a Tuscan native who holds a degree in Italian History, a Diploma from the Italian Sommelier Guild and a license for private chauffeuring.

Silvia has a strong passion for Tuscany and Tuscan wine, which she will share with you on your Tuscan Wine Tour.  Start your day visiting a charming village in Chianti with time to shop for local specialties and handicrafts. You will then visit a fine winery, in a historic villa or castle where you  will taste the winery’s current releases and visit the ancient cellars where you will be introduced to the world of wine and wine-making.

By this time you’ll be ready for a tasty lunch at the winery overlooking the countryside, or in a very good local restaurant.

In the afternoon, you will visit another excellent family-run winery. Now you will begin to

understand the range of aromas and flavors that Tuscan wines have to offer and recognize the incredible subtleties and differences.

Return to your Spa Hotel with new knowledge of Tuscan wine, ready to relax at the hotel with a spa treatment or a glass of wine by the pool reflecting on your Tuscan wine tour experience.

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Carnival in Venice – 23 Jan – 9 February

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Recently ranked at number 7 on Conde Nast’s most beautiful places in the world Venice is indeed a unique city.  Venice is a collection of 118 islands connected by bridges and separated by canals, running through the heart of it is the Grand Canal, on which the Venetian noble families spent fortunes building impressive Palaces to show off their wealth.

Carnival in Venice is a two week long annual festival which ends 40 days before Easter at the start of Lent. Venice’s piazzas and canals become awash with cloaked figures wearing colourful and exotic masks.  The city is filled with street performances, parades and banquets, not to mention the famous Masked Carnival Balls which are held in the most historic palaces.

This years theme is Creatum: Introducing Art and Tradition, with the aim of a rebirth of Venices ancient origins, where arts and trades are the protagonists.  With a focus of attention on mask makers, weavers, tailors and glass-makers. Another highlight is the open air theatre in St. Mark’s square which will host live musical and theatrical performances.

Embrace the spirit of Carnival with a tour of the Grand Canal Boat Tour. Seeing Venice from the water is the best way to experience it’s charms and feel its magic.  Your tour will be aboard a luxurious Ventetian motorboat with professional captain. You will cruise down the Grand Canal sipping prosecco as your expert guide explains the history of the city and the majestic palaces.

Or why not spend a day in the Prosecco region on a Prosecco Wine Tour, learning about how Prosecco is made and tasting the sparkling white wine that is outselling Champagne in the Britain.  Start you day driving through the lush hills of the Valdobbiadene area to your first winery where your Prosecco Wine Tour starts with a visit to a small family-run estate where you will taste the results of their lovingly tended 100 year old vineyards.

From there you will visit the small medieval hamlet of Follina, with it’s beautiful Cistercian Abbey dating back to the 12th century.  Enjoy a delicious lunch of local specialities at a local restaurant before visitng a second larger state-of-the-art winery for your second Prosecco tasting, where you will begin to understand the many variations and styles of Prosecco production.

Carnival and Prosecco – pure decadence.

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