Tourist-Free Tourism: Tuscany Without Florence

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:

Tuscany's golden triangle. Not this time.
Tuscany’s golden triangle. Not this time.

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.

san-miniato

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.

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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.

The Duomo of Pietrasanta, with the baby stroller installation in the bottom corner
The Duomo of Pietrasanta, with the life-size baby-stroller installation

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.

Not your typical Tuscan hills
Me, staring pensively out to the sea in the distance
Me, posing dramatically in the Apuan Alps

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.

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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.

Buon viaggio!

 

Liked this post? Tell your friends! Didn’t like it? Tell them anyway, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

-The Wandering Jew-

 

 

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10 thoughts on “Tourist-Free Tourism: Tuscany Without Florence

  1. Lucca è più bella di Pisa. Io non amo molto Pisa devo dire. Può essere colpa della genetica, dato che un ramo della famiglia era originario di Livorno e tra livornesi e pisani c’è rivalità . C’è un detto “Meglio un morto in casa, che un pisano alla porta” per darti l’idea.
    Se non ci sei ancora stato, Cortona ( provincia di Arezzo) è bella ed anche Volterra (provincia di Pisa), sono legate alla civiltà etrusca. Volterra è famosa anche per l’alabastro.
    Tutte e due le città hanno turisti, ma non come Firenze.

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    1. Hai assolutamente ragione tu, Pisa non è niente di particolare. Torri storte in Italia ce ne sono parrecchie… solo che ho visto io ce ne sono a Bologna, Ravenna, Pavia. Non dico che Campo dei Miracoli non è bello, ma basta un’oretta e hai visto tutto, e poi a Pisa non c’è altro da vedere.
      Livorno invece è una delle uniche città Toscane a cui nono sono ancora stato. Cortona è carina, e Volterra è veramente bellissima, per me erano soprattutto le panorame che la distinguono dalle altre città Toscane.

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  2. Io salterei Livorno e punterei sull’isola d’Elba. Livorno è la 3° città più grande della Toscana mi pare ed io ho un rapporto d’amore/odio con le città grandi.

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    1. Fino a certo punto ti capisco e sono d’accordo. Siena è il mio primo amore, e poi pure Lucca è bellissima. Firenze mi piace, ma solo rispetto alle altre grande città d’Italia, che non mi piacciono molto (Milano, Venezia, Napoli).

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    1. La città non mi piace particolarmente, devo dire, tranne le isole (murano e burano) e il ghetto ebraico. Non ho niente contro le persone come persone, ma mi da fastidio un po’ il modo in cui trattano i turisti, da un lato sfruttandoli finanziariamente e basando tutta la economia della città quasi su di loro, ma dall’altro lato votando sempre per partiti estremisti e separatisti che si oppongono a quei stessi turisti (per non dire immigranti ecc…). Mi sembra ipocrita come atteggiamento, anche se ovviamente non sono tutti così.

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  3. Io ho dei bei ricordi di quando ero bambina, particolarmente a Murano, dove c’erano botteghe dove soffiava il vetro ad ogni angolo, erano molto sporche a causa del fuoco, ma era affascinante vederli lavorare, ora c’è più che altro una dimostrazione e un giro in negozio.
    Ma ricordo anche che durante una gita scolastica (avrò avuto 12 anni) eravamo su un ponte e vicino a noi passa un bimbo di circa 6 anni dall’aria nord africana, un signore lo vede e dice qualcosa tipo “Che carino con tutti quei riccioli”.
    Un’altra signora dice “Si, sono belli da piccoli, ma poi crescono, bisognerebbe affogarli”.
    Lo so che può capitare dovunque, ma da quella volta mi sento sempre un po’ a disagio a Venezia, forse perché all’epoca non ho detto niente.

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