Tuscany: A Taste Of The Real Italy

Tuscany is everything you ever dreamed about Italy; the rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves and a country filled with history and art.  Florence advertises itself as  Italy’s art capital and it’s hard to dispute. It is undeniably the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and all of history’s most famous artists contributed to the city’s beauty; Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, Caravaggio, even Rembrandt, Rubens and Goya just to name a few.  It was also the home of Galileo (who revolutionized astronomy), Dante, Puccini, the list is endless.  There is art everywhere you look from the architecture to the shops and galleries and its’ amazing  museums.  It is overwhelming and in fact Stendhal Syndrome was named for a French writer who experienced dizziness and disorientation while trying to experience all that Florence had to offer.  A visit to the Uffizi Gallery alone is enough to stagger an art lover.  The gallery is home to many of Italy’s Renaissance masterpieces.  The lineups are very long so expect a wait, although I discovered one shortcut, by paying an extra 5euros (added to the 15euro price) to one of the young people walking the lines, you can jump the queue and the 5euro goes directly to the Medici Archive Project to help preserve the historic works of art.  There are two massive wings full of art and you could spend a full day going through each of the salons so pace yourself.  Even before you reach the Uffizi Gallery you are faced with the Loggia Della Signoria, filled with beautiful marble statues including a replica of Michelangelo’s David.  To see the real thing you will have to wait in line again at the Galleria dell’Accademia where the original of the world’s most famous statue resides.  I was surprised to learn that Florence’s population is only about 350,000 with many of its’ residents, artists and craftsmen forced to leave the city over the past 20-30 years because of the high cost of living.

Florence is only one part of your Tuscan adventure though.  If you visit you must leave the city to explore Tuscany’s countryside.  I took a bus tour (I rarely do that) to Siena, Pisa and San Gimignano.  Probably Siena’s biggest claim to fame is the Palio, an annual horse race (July 2 and August 16) that is run around the central square.  Ten horses at a time race around the square three times, taking the winner about 75 seconds but drawing huge crowds to the centre of the fan shaped square with the more affluent hanging out on the balconies and restaurants all around the Piazza del Campo.  Just up from the square is the Siena Cathedral, a massive structure that dominates the skyline.  It is a UNESCO Heritage site and construction started in the 12th century.  It’s clad in black and white marble, Seina’s civic colours.  The artwork inside and out is jaw dropping.

Next we headed for Sam Gimignano and the heart of Tuscan wine country.  We stopped at a family vineyard for a Tuscan lunch and to sample some of the wines produced there.  I learned that not all Tuscan wine is red, while Chianti is the most famous, Vernaccia is a delicious and fruity white wine and the sweet dessert wine Vin Santo is also produced in the region.  After lunch we headed up the walled Medieval town of San Gimignano, a chance to see the original architecture from the 12th and 13th centuries, especially the surviving towers that made the town famous.  While a tour of the local museum is interesting by showing you scale  models of the town hundreds of years ago, my favourite stop was the Museum of Torture.  No I’m not a sadist but I found it fascinating to see the relics of just how cruel humans can be to one another, designing some of the most horrific and gruesome torture devices you can imagine.

It was a long 3.5 hour drive to Pisa, and everyone knows what that city is famous for.  But while  the Leaning Tower gets all the attention it is now home to the most important airport in the region (named for Galileo) and some of the most esteemed universities in Italy, still when in Pisa… you must check out the tower.  A few things surprised me though, first that it is not standing all alone in the city. It is in a large park and part of the Cathedral and Baptistry and in fact the tower was built in the 12th century as the bell tower. You rarely even notice the other buildings but they are worth a second look.  I was also surprised at how much the tower leans… while it has been corrected and leans almost 4 degrees that is still more than 12 feet off centre. You can definitely see how people feared it would topple over and come crumbling down one day, but  engineers have managed to stabilize it now.  It is also a very popular tourist attraction with dozens of souvenir shops and snack concessions lining the route to the tower.  It seems the most famous pose is the one where people pretend to be holding up the tower… just about everyone took their photo doing that, and after chuckling about it at first…. I ended up doing the same thing.

But the best part of Tuscany is its’ natural beauty.  It is lush and green with fields of bright yellow sunflowers up the hillsides next to perfectly aligned rows of grape vines in the vineyards, contrasting with the silvery leaves of all the olive trees planted around the region.  A visit to Italy just would not be complete without a trip to Tuscany.

 

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