After 4 action packed days and nights in and around Positano and the Amalfi Coast it was time for the next leg of our Italian adventure… Touring Tuscany.
The picture postcard landscape of Tuscany is one I have wanted to explore for a while and I was very envious of my parents who traveled the area for 2 weeks to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary several years earlier (apparently I was/am too old to tag along). With only 3 days in Tuscany our visit was brief, maybe too brief but I feel we saw a lot of the area and managed to get off the beaten track away from the more obvious tourist hotspots.
As with most, we based ourselves in Florence. Florence, locally known as Firenze is the biggest city in Tuscany and its history is etched with that of post Roman Italy. Home of the Borgias, the most powerful family in Italy for generations who dominated the headlines in the Renaissance period and became (check) several Popes.
We took the train from Naples direct to Florence which took about 3 hours. This high speed monster reached speeds in excess of 300km/h which made short work of the (check distance) between the two cities. This train is a far contrast to the rickety 1960’s buses we were driving on the Amalfi Coast and put the over-priced, shoddy services available in the UK to shame.
Our visit to Naples was extended by an hour due to a signal failure (sounds like home) but this turned into a blessing as what can be described as a traditional Italian flash-mob erupted in the station plaza singing folk songs much to the delight of locals and tourists alike. The delay also meant the girls could pop out into the city to get the one thing I craved above all else. Neapolitan pizza from Naples!!!. My god its good.
We arrived in Florence at 11pm and headed over the river to San Fredianao where our AirBnb was located.
Day 1 – Fabulous Firenze?
For the geekier readers out there Florence is also the town you start in in Assassins Creed II (the best Assassins Creed.. I would say yes) and because of this or its stunning history and architecture it is often touted in guide books as the must-see Italian city to visit. Unfortunately, I think half of North America had read this same book because the city was busssssyyyy. I struggle to believe what the city would be like in the ‘busy’ periods of late July and August. These crowd’s kind of put the edge off my experience of Florence.
Our first experience however was great, we arrived late but as is always when arriving somewhere new the need to explore (and eat) had taken over us and we took a midnight stroll through the city seeing the sites all lit up at night. The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) looked amazing all lit up and I would recommend people take the opportunity to view the town at night.
The next day was a complete contrast and it was if the entire tourist population of Italy had descended on the city at once (bearing in mind this was a Tuesday) and it was a struggle to walk down the popular streets and roads of Florence. Sites I had been looking forward to see became swamped with walking tours taking the edge of the fun. Slightly hypocritical I know but it’s my blog/party and I can cry if I want to. I would like to come back to Florence in the late fall, early spring and enjoy the city without the crowds. Or perhaps next time I should just get up earlier to beat the crowds. There were some bits that I enjoyed though.
Il Duomo translates as The Cathedral and the Duomo in Florence is simply stunning. This 13th Century church which stands 153m long and 114m high is the 4th largest church in the world.
Its story is equally as cool (thanks to season 1 of the Borgias for this one) as the church was left incomplete for generations as nobody knew how to build the large domed roof, also called the Cupola (and thus nobody was willing to finance it). It is crazy to think the Pantheon had been built in Rome 1000 years earlier but due to the collapse of the Roman civilization this transfer of knowledge had also been lost. (Think of how primitive us Brits lived in the dark ages).
Ultimately it was a gentleman by the name of Filippo Brunelleschi who came up with the dome inside a dome idea and it was financed by the Borgia family to increase their popularity within the city. His masterpiece still stands today and dominates the Florence skyline.
For once I was un-organised and I didn’t plan to climb the Duomo (something I LOVE doing) and the trips were sold out for the day. Ultimately I decided to wait a few days and climb the 3rd largest church in the world, the Duomo in Milan.
Piazza de Michelangelo
If you are feeling fit or wish to burn off the pizza you have undoubtedly eaten, then I would recommend a walk up to Piazza de Michelangelo. Located to the south east of the town this panorama offers unrivalled views of the city plus a chance to view a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David which gives the square its name.
The walk from Ponte Vecchio takes 15-20 minutes and it is quite steep but the juice is definitely worth the squeeze as can be seen from the pictures below.
Day 2 – Touring Tuscany
I am (for better or for worse) the kind of guy who likes to see 700 things in one day and our second full day in Tuscany is a prime example of this. We decided to hire a car and head south to see some of the sites off the ‘beaten track’. We hired a Fiat 500 (how very Italian of us) and headed south to our first stop, Bagni San Filippo.
Bagni San Filippo
Bagni San Filippo is a quite un-opposing town in the middle of the Val d’Orcia, a region on the southern border of Tuscany. What makes the town worth a visit are the fantastic thermal springs that run through the town. The springs may be a smaller version of Pamukkale (use link) in South West Turkey but unlike its Turkish counterpart they are not overrun with tourists and there couldn’t have been more than 30 people visiting with us.
The springs mix with a fresh stream which travels down the valley which means that different pools fill up with different ratios of hot/cold water meaning there are a variety of temperatures to enjoy. For those who like it hot or those prefer it a bit milder. What makes the springs visually spectacular is the large calcium deposits that create large white formations often compared with cotton candy.
As became typical on our Italian adventure the girls had brought with them a bottle of wine and we enjoyed the bottle in our environmental hot-tub.. BLISS.
Val d’ Orcia
Val d’ Orcia is the part of Tuscany you are looking at when you see the postcards of rolling hills and rows of perfectly pruned cypress trees and it is a part of Italy I was keen to photograph with my new camera.
One of the most famous media representations of this landscape comes in the 2000 Ridley Scott film, Gladiator featuring Russell Crowe. In the film Maximus Decimus Meridius (husband of a murdered wife…..) returns home through a line of cypress trees to find his family have been murdered. I tracked down this villa and although I couldn’t go to the exact line of trees there is an equally impressive (if not more) row of trees down the entrance of the villa which is well worth a photo-opportunity. For those wishing to track down this spot it is on the main SR2 road just south of Bagno Vignoni. Search for Farmhouse Poggio Covili on Google Maps.
Tyler also re-enacted the famous Gladiator (or Theresa May, dependent on where you are from) scene of walking through the wheat fields at the end of film. (time to turn on Spotify and put on Enya – Now We Are Free)
The main town of the area is San Quirico d’ Orcia which is everything I hoped Florence would be like (but wasn’t) this sleepy yet charming Italian town epitomises the less commercial Italian lifestyle. It was the perfect spot for lunch after a hectic morning.
Due to time constraints we only really had time for one more spot before heading back to Florence. I had heard of great things from both Sienna and San Gimignano. However the latter is one of my bucket-list destinations and I made the ultimate decision to stir the group north west to the famous hill town.
Before we made it we San Gimiginano we spotted a wine shop belonging to a range of vineyards collectively know as Chianti Geografico. It would be rude to not to try some local produce whilst passing through the famous wine region. The tasting was excellent and we were given generous portions of 5 or 6 local wines including a ‘Super Tuscany; which is a blend of 5 different grapes (and retails for over €200). The tasting was accompanied by the most gorgeous balsamic vinegar which was my biggest food revelation of the trip (I am now a keen olive oil/balsamic vinegar combo fan. The tasting is completely FREE but such is the level of service compels you to purchase some bottles and we each walked away with a few bottles each including one for the road (this is a recurring theme). From the wine shop it was only 20 mins to San Gimignano
Sam Gimignano (pronounced Jimmy-Neyaahhhh-No) is famous for its 13 watch towers which distinguish itself from other hill towns in the area and symbolises the towns affluence and power. Today the town is a tourist-hot spot but we arrived early evening when most of the day trips had long since returned from where they came (probably Florence). The town reminds me to a certain extent to the medieval town of York with its narrow cobbled streets and courtyards. There was even a wedding happening in one of the larger squares and I am sure our ugly mugs will be appearing on peoples wedding photos coming soon.
After a few hours of exploring the city it was back to Florence to drop off the car. It was a whistle-stop tour of Tuscany but gave enough insight into the region to know its worth coming back and making a week of.
Day 3- Heading to Cinque Terre via Pisa.
The final part of our Italian adventure took us to Cinque Terre and onto Milan. The route between Florence and Cinque Terre goes through Pisa so it was natural for us to split up the journey and take a pit-stop to see one of the most famous landmarks in the world, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The tower is a good 30 minute walk from the train station along a route which cuts through the centre of town. To be honest whilst Pisa is a perfectly lovely Italian town it lacks the charisma of Milan, Florence or Rome. Many visitors make a bee-line for the tower before quickly escaping to pastures more interesting.
So the main attraction, well its abit shit. The tower is not worth the hype surrounding it. It is alot smaller than you would have thought and I find myself pleased I hadn’t invested in €30 to climb the tower. Still there was time to goof around outside and follow the 1000’s of tourists who pretend to hold up the tower. After an underwhelming few hours we headed back to the station and headed north towards La Spezia and Cinque Terre.