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Tuscany seems to be everyone's favorite vacation spot these days, and all the world knows Florence, Siena, Pisa, even tiny San Gimignano, with its 13 medieval towers. But Tuscany has so many secret treasures that we really recommend you find a nice villa or farmhouse and settle in for a week. There is more than enough to keep you occupied, including the mandatory half day of wandering lost down a delightful little farm road!
Exquisite Arezzo, home of Petrarch, father of the modern Italian language, and Guido d'Arezzo, inventor of the modern musical scale, is one of the great Renaissance gems in this jewel box of a country. Among Arezzo's many masterpieces, two that stand out are the Duomo, with glorious frescoes by Piero della Francesca and a tomb by Giotto, and the 15th-century church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with a terracotta and marble high altar by Andrea della Robbia. Nearby Cortona, capital of "Chiantishire," as the British call it, and home to Frances Mayes of Under the Tuscan Sun fame, is one of the oldest towns in Tuscany. Much of its Etruscan wall remains, separating the charming little medieval city from the surrounding olive groves and vineyards.
Ten miles off the Tuscan shore lies Elba, the island where Napoleon spent his first exile until escaping in 1815. Visit his two homes, sip espresso in the charming port of Marina di Campo, or ramble among the hillsides covered with that lush, strongly perfumed mix of bushes, shrubs and flowers known as macchia mediterranea. We suggest you plan to spend at least three or four days on this untamed island, because the great fun of being here is the relaxation it brings. During your stay, hire one of the little fishing boats and sail around Monte Cristo, whence the Count hailed.
Back on the mainland, the seaside resort of Viareggio is famed for its raucous Carnevale parade in February, and the resort town of Forte dei Marmi has some of the chicest cafes and designer boutiques in the country. Just inland is the fascinating home of Giacomo Puccini at Torre del Lago. Visit the home all year round; in the summer stay for a performance of a Puccini opera in the outdoor theatre next to the lake. A few miles away is Lucca, famed for its perfect city walls, the wonderful 13th-century façade of San Michele, and the enchanting elliptical shape of Piazza Anfiteatro. If you go there, notice the palazzo doors as you wander through the town: nowhere in Italy are they more inventive. We also recommend you plan for a long lunch: not that they are slower eaters in Lucca, but one of the most entertaining things you can do in Tuscany is to join the locals on their afternoon stroll along the ramparts.
"Grim," was how D.H. Lawrence described Volterra, an ancient Etruscan stronghold overlooking the sea. The city's massive fortress is indeed foreboding, but its gleaming alabaster façades make it unique among Tuscan centers, and its churches and palaces are filled with countless masterpieces. You can witness just about every period of Italian history in this town, and do it with far fewer fellow travelers than if you were in smaller and less fascinating San Gimignano. By the way, our own personal feeling about the latter is that its best feature is the unforgettable sight of its towers on the horizon. In recent years it has become a tremendous tourist mecca, and unless you like long lines of buses parked along the side of the road, you may be put off by all the ruckus.
The Italians call it città d'autore, "an author's city," because it was recreated in the 15th century for Pope Pius II by one guiding intellect, the architect Rossellino, who carefully designed its streets, palaces, churches and squares. Just down the road is Montepulciano. It enchanted Henry James, although he was perhaps too affected by its legendary wine to notice its splendid medieval churches and Renaissance palazzi. On the way back to Siena, the 14th-century monastery at Monte Oliveto Maggiore (near Asciano) has frescoes by Luca Signorelli and Sodoma, a pharmacy featuring herbal medicines made by the monks themselves, and a terracotta gateway by the Della Robbias.
Maremma is a part of Tuscany that few foreigners have time to visit, and yet it is not only very authentic but also fascinating. The Etruscan tombs outside Sovana lie within the quiet confines of a magnificent Tuscan forest; as you wander amongst the oak groves, you suddenly come face-to-face with stones that were planted there thousands of years ago by a mysterious civilization we still know next to nothing about. Take along a picnic and enjoy it near the Siren's Tomb, if you dare. Also in the area are the unique thermal waterfalls of Saturnia; the ancient hill town of Pitigliano, famed for its lace and its Jewish origins; and the unspoiled coastline, boasting broad sandy beaches, quiet coves, shady pine forests and more than one wildlife refuge.
The best time to be tooling around Tuscany is in the fall, preferably October. There are all sorts of fun things to do, such as picking up the big fat chestnuts that literally cover the ground in some areas. Nothing beats the smell of them roasting on an open fire, and though they're the devil to peel, it's worth it because of the really delicious goodies that can be made from them. My favorite is marrons glacés, candied chestnuts that cost a small fortune to buy in a store but next to nothing to make at home.
Another fun thing we used to do in October was to go up to my friends' vineyard in Tuscany for the vendemmia. In their wine cellar, located below the house, juice from the newly picked and crushed grapes was guided into two or three gigantic wooden vats and left to ferment into wine. The first couple of weeks, its smell was so heady I would awaken in the morning feeling drunk.
Fall always brought with it drives from Rome into the Tuscan countryside. Several times, our destination was the very peaceful and comforting Terme di Saturnia spa. This was before it became so chic and famous...and costly. It was the sweetest little place, all wood beams and rustic-looking. You could stay there for about $20 a night, which included great meals and the use of all facilities.
I drove up a few times with my pal, Molly, who worked with me at the Overseas School of Rome. The first time we went it was all so new and exciting. We hurled ourselves at once into the huge freeform pool, then paddled around like two kids in the warm smelly water. Copying the other women, we dove down to the bottom, scooped up handfuls of mud--purported to do magic for your skin--and slapped it all over our faces and throats. Unfortunately, however, after about five minutes in the water, Molly came popping up from down under and my mouth dropped open in shock. The sulphurous water had turned her pretty blond hair a horrible shade of bilious green!
One end of the pool had no rim, which forced the water to spill over in a powerful waterfall. Two long stone benches were set into the rock walls below the cascade and you could sit there and let the water crash down onto your back. It was so stimulating! Quite hedonistic, now that I think back on it: like a hundred hands massaging your neck and back at once.
In the evenings after dinner there was dancing and mingling. Or, if you wanted, you could take another dip in the warm steamy waters of the pool and float on your back, staring up at the stars amidst the mysterious vapors rising all around you.
There was no rule that you had to stay at the Terme hotel: you could sleep elsewhere and use only their facilities. Once, just for variety, we booked into a nice little inn situated just before you turn onto the road that leads up to Saturnia. It was cheaper than the Terme and, hard to believe, served even better meals! During the day, we used the Terme di Saturnia facilities by buying a one-day pass: at that time it cost some absurd amount like 2 Euro (about $3) each!
Saturnia is small; you can walk all over it in a half-hour. The people are nice and friendly, though I must admit, Molly's green hair drew more than a few astonished stares.