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Frommer's EasyGuide to Florence and Tuscany

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More and more American tourists to Italy are confining their stays to the ultra-popular province of Tuscany, with its "capitals" of Florence and Siena, its astonishing Pisa and Lucca, its Grevi (chianti and montepulciano wines) and San Gimignano. Donald Strachan, author of our broader Easy Guide to Rome, Florence and Venice, has won awards for his previous guides to Tuscany, which he and Stephen Brewer have brought entirely up-to-date for 2015 and beyond. You are in the hands of consummate experts when you use their superb guidebook.

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1 The Best of Florence & Tuscany

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The Best of Florence & Tuscany

As the cradle of the Renaissance, Tuscany—and its easygoing neighbor, Umbria—boast some of the world’s most captivating art and architecture, from the sublime sculpture of Michelangelo to paintings by Botticelli and Leonardo, to rural hilltop towns and the noble palazzi of Florence. Yet Tuscany isn’t all churches and palaces and galleries. These are regions of lush landscapes, the snow-capped Apennine mountains, and olive groves and vineyards that produce prized oils and famous wines. Every drive or country walk is a photo-op waiting to happen.

The artistic treasures of Florence have been dragging visitors to the city for hundreds of years—its show-stopping cathedral dome, giant “David,” and Uffizi are genuine bucket-list attractions. The picturesque, narrow streets of Siena and San Gimignano ooze medieval history, while Pisa’s Leaning Tower is a curiously unsettling sight, however many times you’ve seen pictures of it. It’s straightforward to add a side trip into Umbria, for the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi and one of Italy’s marquee painting collections at the Galleria Nazionale, in cosmopolitan Perugia.

 

2 Florence & Tuscany in Context

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Florence & Tuscany in Context

As the cradle of the Renaissance, Florence has an abundance of blockbuster architecture and artistic masterpieces—as do most of the smaller cities that dot the Tuscan countryside, such as Arezzo, Pisa, and Lucca. This profusion of art is the direct result of historic rivalries between the region’s cities dating back to the medieval era. Various noble and merchant families spent centuries trying to outdo each other with shows of artistic wealth; they often competed to see who could procure the most elaborate and grandest artistic masterpieces, from the most celebrated artists and architects they could lay their hands on. Today we are left with vivid reminders of those historic rivalries: an artistic treasure trove in nearly every city, and even hamlet, in this region.

While historically the intercity rivalry boiled over into countless wars, today it persists in other forms: clashes between soccer fans, graffiti sprayed on palazzo walls (“Pisa merda” is a favorite vulgar phrase of vandals from Livorno), and throughout the tourism sector at every level.

 

3 Suggested Itineraries

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Suggested Itineraries

Tuscany and Umbria are densely populated with things to see, perhaps more so than any other region in Europe. It could take months to experience all of the area’s art, architecture, food, and wine. Lovers of Renaissance art could spend a month in Florence and still discover new gems to admire. Wine buffs could sip and sniff their way through weeks in Chianti and Montalcino. Romantics could dream away days in Lucca alone. But most of us don’t have that kind of time, so we’ve designed the 1-week and 2-week itineraries for first-time visitors to discover the best of Tuscany, with a little bit of Umbria, too. Then there is a tour for families, and one for food-and-wine enthusiasts, as well as an art tour that takes enthusiasts well beyond Florence’s city limits.

A car will be indispensable in almost every case, because public transport connects the main towns efficiently—but no more. And the soul of central Italy is found in its countryside, through its sunflower fields and gently sloping vineyards, and its landscapes spotted with storied castles or lonely abbeys.

 

4 Florence

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Florence

It’s the city of Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, and the cradle of Europe’s Renaissance. Florence is a place where history still lives on the surface. With Brunelleschi’s dome as a backdrop, follow the River Arno to the Uffizi Gallery (Florence’s foremost museum) and soak in centuries of great painting. Wander across the Ponte Vecchio (Florence’s iconic bridge), taking in the tangle of Oltrarno’s medieval streets. Then sample seasonal Tuscan cooking in a Left Bank osteria. You’ve discovered the art of fine living in this masterpiece of a city.

Michelangelo’s “David” stands tall (literally) behind the doors of the Accademia, and nearby are the delicate paintings of Fra’ Angelico in the convent of San Marco. Works by Donatello, Masaccio, and Ghiberti fill the city’s churches and museums. Once home to the Medici, the Palazzo Pitti is hung with Raphaels and Titians, and backed by the fountains of the regal Boboli Garden.

And it’s not only about history, art, and architecture. Florentines love to shop: Italy’s leather capital strains at the seams with handmade gloves, belts, bags, and shoes sold from workshops, family-run boutiques, and high-toned stores, as well as at tourist-oriented San Lorenzo Market. Splurge on designer wear from fashion houses along Via de’ Tornabuoni—this is the city that Gucci, Pucci, and Ferragamo call home.

 

5 Around Florence

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Around Florence

As if Florence wasn’t endowed with enough attractions to keep you interested for months, within a very small radius of the city is a wealth of other attractions. Some, like Prato and Pistoia, are art cities filled with sculpture and painting that can easily contribute to your sensory overload. The Chianti wine county is a good antidote, providing a tonic of rolling green hillsides and a taste of some of Italy’s best wines. Fiesole is the easiest break from city life, topping a hilltop that’s a bus ride of a mere half hour or so away from Florence. You will lengthen the list of possibilities almost inordinately if you consider that just about anywhere in Tuscany, and many places in Umbria, are an easy train journey away from Florence—Lucca, Pisa, Siena, San Gimignano, and Volterra are short trips away (see chapter 6), as are Arezzo, Cortona, and Montepulciano (see chapter 7). Umbria’s Perugia and Assisi are also relatively short journeys away (see chapter 8). In the meantime, though, here are some worthy choices well under an hour away from the Tuscan capital.

 

6 Siena & Western Tuscany

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Siena & Western Tuscany

Outside Florence, Tuscany’s role as the cradle of the Renaissance and an ancient center of power and culture comes most to the fore in lovely Siena and the lands, towns, and city to the west. Surrounded by golden landscapes where walled towns cap hilltops and are surrounded by fertile plains are the narrow medieval lanes and stony piazzas of Lucca, the sublime art and architecture of Gothic Siena, the remarkable architectural assemblage of the Campo Santo in Pisa, the Etruscan tombs in Volterra, and the tall towers of San Gimignano. These are near the top of the list of the region’s many attractions, but so are so many other sights and experiences. Just for starters, consider also:

Piazzas Piazza del Campo, the scallop-shaped setting for Siena’s famous Palio race, is the heart of the city and an icon of medieval town planning.

Churches The icing-white, four-tiered facade of the church of San Michele in Foro makes you understand why local son Giacomo Puccini was inspired to compose his world’s favorite operas.

 

7 Central & Eastern Tuscany

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Central & Eastern Tuscany

The Tuscan lands that flank either side of Italy’s big central valley, the Valdichiana, are first and foremost places of distinctive landscapes. Silvery olive groves sweep up and down hillsides, large swaths of otherwise barren-looking countryside are ablaze with sunflowers and punctuated with pointy cypresses, and vineyards produce two of the world’s favorite red wines, Rosso di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. This part of the world, from Arezzo in the north to Montepulciano and a string of nearby towns in the south, welcomes you with an everyday beauty and unsophisticated, easy charm that leaves no doubt you are in a place apart.

You’ll experience the region’s warm hospitality in sun-drenched hill towns that are almost eponymous with everything that’s good about Italy, from friendly little restaurants serving homemade pasta, to bright, warm-stoned piazzas that are the centers of town life, to masterpieces tucked away in dusty little museums. An overnight stay in any of the towns below introduces you to some memorable experiences of real, everyday Tuscan life, and a visit to any or all of them will fill as many pleasant days as you can spare.

 

8 The Best of Umbria

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The Best of Umbria

Umbria is often called a land apart, a reference to its remove from its more famous neighbor to the north as well as to its gentle, almost otherworldly landscapes—some observers go so far as to call the rolling green hills “mystical” and call Umbria “la terra dei santi” (land of the saints), of whom St. Francis of Assisi is the world favorite. Umbria certainly holds its own against Tuscan scenery with its hillsides covered with vineyards and olive groves, forests, golden, checkerboard valleys, rugged mountains, and noble hill towns that have been the strongholds of everyone from the Etruscans to medieval dynasties. The region also contributed its fair share to wine and gastronomy, and its art and architecture takes in a wealth of treasures that include the glorious Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, the Gothic Upper Church of which houses Giotto’s 28-part fresco, “The Life of St. Francis”; Orvieto’s garish and glorious Duomo; and Todi’s heavily medieval Piazza del Popolo. It’s not that Umbria is a land apart as much as “a land in addition to”—another region of Italy to be discovered and savored in conjunction with your explorations of Tuscany.

 

9 Planning Your Trip to Florence & Tuscany

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Planning Your Trip to Florence & Tuscany

This chapter provides a variety of planning tools, including information on how to get there, how to get around, and the inside track on local resources.

If you do your homework on special events, pick the right transport options, and pack for the climate, preparing for a trip to Florence and Tuscany should be uncomplicated. See also “When to Go,” p. 22.

Getting There

By Plane

If you’re flying direct to Italy across an ocean, you’ll most likely land at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport (FCO; www.adr.it/fiumicino), 40km (25 miles) from the center, or Milan Malpensa (MXP; www.milanomalpensa-airport.com), 45km (28 miles) northwest of central Milan. Rome’s much smaller Ciampino Airport (CIA; www.adr.it/ciampino) serves low-cost airlines connecting with European cities and other destinations in Italy. It’s the same story with Milan’s Linate Airport (LIN; www.milanolinate-airport.com). For information on getting to Tuscany from Rome or Milan, see “Getting Around,” below.

 

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