This article aims to answer one simple question: If you had a car and a weekend in Tuscany, and wanted to get away from the crowds, where should you go?
As requested by a friend, I thought I’d do a few posts on lesser-known tourist destinations for the regions of Italy that I am most familiar with. Look out for words in red in the article. Where you find one, there will be a little fact at the end which corresponds to it. Consider these my gift to you, which you can use to blow your travel partners’ minds.
I have done one of these before with Veneto, but this is the big one. The granddaddy of Italy challenges. How to spend a weekend in Tuscany without signing over your personal space for the entire duration.
DISCLAIMER: The title is misleading; anywhere you go in Italy, you will encounter tourists. Stumble into a car-park on the outskirts of an industrial area in Lombardy and you will be sure to encounter a fellow traveller holding an open phrasebook exclaiming excitedly how “bello” it all is. This is doubly and triply true for Tuscany, where tourists wouldn’t hesitate to blow their entire holiday budget on a biro if you told them it was the one Dante used to write the Divine Comedy.
Before I begin, I have to state clearly that this in no way replaces the “classic Tuscany”. Siena during the period of the Palio is a weird and wonderful creature. The quality and quantity of globally-renowned artworks in Florence’s Uffizi is frankly unfair on the rest of the world. It might be cliché, but wine-tasting in Chianti is one for the bucket list. As for Pisa…. Never mind. My point is, this post consists of the stuff you won’t have time to see on your first visit, but which should provide an excellent reason to return. So without further ado, here’s your quiet weekend in Tuscany, assuming arrival and departure from Florence Airport:
Day 1 (AM) – Tuscany in Miniatore
You’re going on holiday to Tuscany, there are certain expectations that have to be met. To ensure you reach your quota of rolling hills, renaissance art, and medieval towns, your first stop is half an hour to the west of Florence, in the small town of San Miniato Alto. The austere-looking 13th century Cathedral is an unexpected treasure on the inside, renovated during the renaissance and decorated with pink marble. There is enough to see here to keep you busy through a couple of hours of pleasant wandering, dipping into churches and chapels. Stick around and find somewhere for lunch; the town is famous for the white truffles which are found in the hills nearby.
Day 1 (PM) – Lucca-ing Good
Don’t stick around too long in San Miniato though, the best of the day is still ahead. Lucca is one of my favourite cities in Italy, as mentioned here, and while it is popular with tourists, it is chronically overlooked by industry professionals and travel journalists in favour of Pisa. I would go so far as to say it is the second most beautiful city of Tuscany after Siena, and is significantly less hilly. San Michele in Foro is the central and most iconic church, but my pick of the bunch is the Basilica di San Frediano. Next door to San Frediano is Lucca’s youth hostel, a 17th century converted monastery with an elegance not usually associated with hosteling. What distinguishes Lucca is its perfectly-preserved renaissance walls, on top of which you can (and should) take a post-dinner passeggiata.
Day 2 (AM) – A Marble-ous Day
The half-day you spent in Lucca will be enough to convince you that you will one day need to dedicate at least a whole weekend to it. For now though, it’s time to press on. There is a theme to today, and it’s marble. The area to the north-west of Lucca is renowned for the stuff, which has been quarried here since pre-Roman times and has been used in some of the most recognisable buildings and artworks around the world.
It also means the area has developed a reputation for artistic endeavour. Pietrasanta is a notable example of this. When I was there, the central square was taken up by a circle of giant-sized, colourful baby strollers for people to relax in. The art aficionado bored of medieval and renaissance offerings and craving variety can spend an enjoyable morning looking around the galleries and installations here.
Day 2 (PM) – Filling the Lard-er
Ok, so I’m stretching the puns at this point, but stay with me. Keep going north from Pietrasanta, and in no time at all you’ll reach the next town along, Massa. It’s a pretty enough town in itself, but what marks it out are the views. Get some elevation (the Malaspina Castle which overlooks the town is one possibility) and enjoy the Apuan Alps to your back, and the sea stretching out in front. In the town itself, the churches run the range from ornate Baroque to simple Romanesque, and as ever in Italy, there’s no shortage. For a culinary experience, a short distance from Massa is the hamlet of Colonnata, where since Roman times, a particular micro-climate and the availability of Carrara marble (carved into huge basins), have allowed for the curing of a highly-prized lardo. Several of the producers offer free visits and tastings, although as a Jew, I can’t speak personally for the quality of it.
Day 3 (AM) – Alp, Alp and Away
Remember those rolling Tuscan hills? They’re only the second most impressive landscape in Tuscany. Far more striking are the Apuan Alps, which retain a regal dominance over the surrounding area despite the scars of millennia of marble quarrying. From Massa, drive across the mountains towards Barga, passing the clear waters of the promisingly-named Lago di Isola Santa [Lake of the Sacred Isle] as you go. Take your time, enjoy the panorama along the route, there’s no rush.
Day 3 (PM) – Pistoia
The only puns I’ve been able to come up with for this title involve the British slang for “drunk” or “angry”, neither of which are appropriate here. Anyway, what matters is that, what with Italy’s City of Culture 2017 designation, being listed as one of the top ten global cities to visit in 2017 by Lonely Planet, and now a mention on my blog, things are looking good for Pistoia. Like a smaller, less crowded Florence, this is a good way to book-end a weekend that started in another underrated Tuscan city, Lucca. You’re twenty minutes from Florence Airport, so make the most of your remaining time here. Throughout the summer there are sure to be a myriad of exciting cultural events to mark the City of Culture status, so don’t miss out.
Fun Facts to Impress your Travel Partners:
- A white truffle found in this area, weighing 1.5kg, was sold at auction for $330,000 in 2007, a record figure at the time.
- It might seem like an unlikely place for it, but Lucca hosts the largest comics festival in Europe, and the second largest anywhere in the world. In 2016, almost 300,000 people attended the week-long event.
- Among the structures and artworks which use Carrara marble are the Pantheon in Rome, Marble Arch in London, the Peace Monument in Washington D.C., and Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David.
- Keep your eyes peeled when wandering through Barga, you might just spot multiple-award-winning Scottish singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini. His family is originally from the village, and he returns to visit almost every year, calling it “the most amazing place in the world“. Here’s a clip of Nutini taking the stage at the Barga Jazz Festival:
Agree with my choices? Disagree? Have other suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.
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-The Wandering Jew-