Tuscan Towns


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.





… two terms of enchantment that weave embracing impressions of somnolent walled towns guarding hilltops under the moody Mediterranean sun; of rolling vineyards, and silvery, shimmering, olive groves; of great, cool umbrella pines shading old roads, and tall cypresses marching along horizon ridges; of majestic palaces and hymns-in-stone cathedrals; of vast treasuries of masterworks in paint, stone and bronze; of simple, tasty, healthful, low-cholesterol, tangy-fresh food; of sylvan mountains, and beaches both sandy and rocky — and, permeating it all, of silent, inescapable echoes of Etruria, Rome, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. And so much has been written about all of these throughout the past five centuries that we can only offer you a meagre and simplistic thumbnail sketch of some things you oughtn’t to overlook while here.

Statistics: The Modern Region of Tuscany (Regione Toscana) coincides with the old Grand Duchy (Grand Ducato di Toscana) as it was up to its absorption into newly-created Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Total area is 22,900 km2 (cfr.: Wales 20,700, Holland 33,400, Massachusetts 21,400), current population about three and a half million. Umbria was a province of the Papal States until the conquest of these by Italian forces and their absorption into the Kingdom of Italy in 1871. Total area is 8,450 km2 (cfr.: Northern Ireland 13,450, Delaware 5,350), current population about eight hundred thousand.

The cities

The epicentres are, needless to say, Florence (what could be said about her in ten words?), followed by Lucca, Siena and Arezzo in Tuscany, and Perugia (same thing), followed by Assisi, Spoleto and Orvieto in Umbria. Entire libraries have been devoted to their inexhaustible offerings of sights, sounds, flavours and pageantry, and no thumbnail summary can hope even to scratch the surface.

Fortunately, nowadays most of the guide books on offer in news-agents’ stalls and bookshops are good — look for the copyright date and chose one written after 1998. All historical city centres are pedestrian zones — remember while ambling through them that by now all the world’s city streets look the same at eye level . . . same plate-glass windows, same lighting, much the same wares on offer.

Rather look up and around you, at the kaleidoscope of architectural themes and variations accumulated often over ten centuries that will please, amuse and/or irritate your eyes, if you know how to see them. Explore off-the-main-drag side streets and alleys, where you’ll often find good trattorie — small unpretentious restaurants — with savoury fare and good local wines at reasonable prices .

Tuscany’s Lucca is a wonderful full day’s experience because, aside from the fascination of the townscape and its contents, it is the most liveable, orderly, day-to-day enjoyable city you could ever wish to be in. By all means, ‘do’ it with a guide book! Arezzo has similar qualities but is larger, more bustling and noisier, and, being built on a steep hill, harder on the feet. Siena is the Very Pearl of All Italian Mediaeval Cities, a wonder of preservation and livableness — easily worth two days’ stay.

All are unmistakably Tuscan in character and speech . . . and in their cucina, cuisine, including wines and precious hard-to-come-by local olive oils. Umbria’s Perugia will keep you amazed and amused for as long as you’d like to stay. Assisi is essentially the overwhelming Basilica of Saint Francis, plus the usual warp and weave of a typical small Trecento city off to one side. Thus also the much larger Spoleto, albeit without basilica or Saint Francis.

The façade of Orvieto’s duomo, cathedral, will send shivers of delight and awe down your spine, especially if you see it in the afternoon sun. These communities are unmistakably Umbrian in personality, architecture, speech (in several dialects, all very different from Tuscany’s) and in the cucina, which is more elaborate than the Tuscan because influenced by Rome, and has many specialities, including pastries, unknown in Tuscany.

Small towns and villages

Not all are attractive, not even remotely so — in fact, many are depressingly ugly. For historical reasons too complex for expounding here, all Italy lacks those pretty water-colourists’ villages and picturesque chocolate’-box-top market towns so common in Britain and Germany — so on this score don’t be disappointed.

What you’ll find instead are many very handsome, sometimes stunningly so, small ancient cities that are timeless in soul and fabric. All are marked with the same mediaeval stamp that makes them spartan, rugged, severe, with veins of tragedy counterbalanced by occasional flamboyance, but never jocular, bustling, canorous.

In Tuscany there is much Romanesque, some Gothic, and overabundances of Renaissance, but virtually no Baroque or Rococo. It is much the same in Umbria, although few Umbrian arts ever reached Tuscan levels of quality and quantity. So set the dial on your mental time sensors back to before 1600, with a spike for 1400-1500.

The countryside

Given clement weather, it would be an unfortunate visitor indeed who’d come away from Tuscany or Umbria without nurturing in his memory the tumbling patchwork of panoramas that warm the hearts of pessimists, prod the curiosity of dullards and rejuvenate the spirits of the aged.

Few lands anywhere, at least in the Western world, blend man‘s intrusions so successfully, so symbiotically and aesthetically, with an amenable, amiable and bountiful earth. At least so it was until recently. Torquato Tasso, who wasn’t a Tuscan, thought Tuscany might be the earthly paradise.

But such rewards are not reaped from air-conditioned cars on motorways. Excursions onto small back-roads are advised — windows down, conditioner off! — and then, a suitable spot for leaving the car having been found, an hour’s or two walk. Well-planned walking maps are available for every region, many of them chosen to meet special interests, e.g. in rural architecture, agriculture, horticulture, history, crafts and artisanship, and so on. We’ll gladly help in any way we can to make your visit memorable.