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Travel & Holidays in later life

GETTING THE FLAVOUR OF TUSCANY

Thirteen medieval towers still survive in the fortified Tuscan hill town of San GimignanoTo catch the full flavour of the beautiful Tuscany landscape that inspired Italy's great artists, the place to visit is the hill town of San Gimignano.

Located 35 miles southwest of Florence, it's a superb medieval survival from which all 20th-century traffic is banned. Perched high above the surrounding vineyards, the city walls and defensive towers dominate the skyline. Seven hundred years ago, most of Tuscany's hilltop fortified towns were built in this style.

Through the city gates there are charming old streets, squares and turrets. Buildings of soft yellow brick glow in the sunshine.

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

If you have mobility problems, remember that many Tuscany towns and villages are perched on hilltops. There is no car or coach access to the centres of Siena or San Gimignano, where park and walk is the rule.

Spring and autumn are the best seasons - lower prices, temperate climate, fewer crowds. Avoid Easter and school holiday times.

Direct flights from Britain serve Pisa, with good rail and bus connections throughout Tuscany. The best centre is Florence, from where day trips are easily arranged. A hired car is best for anyone self-catering on a villa-renting deal.

Tuscan wines: Besides Chianti Classico, try the other regional wines such as the dry red Rufina, the red and sweet Aleatico di Portoferraio from the Tuscany coast, the dry red Brunello di Montalcino and the Nobile di Montepulciano.

If you're hovering between vintages, the rule is to choose the youngest white wines, and the oldest reds..

More information: Italian State Tourist Office (ENIT), 1
Princes Street, London W1B 2AY. Tel: 0207 399 3562.

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A 15th-century artist named Benozzo Gozzoli spent several years painting in San Agostino church, depicting religious scenes in contemporary dress. In the cathedral, other paintings illustrate how the city looked during that same period. It makes a complete record, showing how little has changed.

From vantage points you can overlook a superb countryside of hills, vineyards and olive groves - favourite landscape subjects of the great Italian painters. In cafes, you can sample the dry white Vernaccia, the wine of St. Gimignano, which probably tastes just the same as when Dante came here in 1300. No wonder he wrote great poetry!

Most wine lovers have a special interest in visiting Tuscany. The Chianti wines travel well, but it's nice to save them the journey. The Chianti hills can also claim some of the best scenery in Tuscany, making the trip doubly worth while.

The Chianti Way (named Chiantigiana) follows the N 222 road due south of Florence for a 20-mile journey through the wine country. Many vineyards offer free tastings, but they also expect you to buy.

The heart of the wine trade is Greve in Chianti which holds an early September wine festival. Another local speciality is wild boar in the shape of ham or sausage.

Continue south along that road, and you reach the beautifully-preserved city of Siena. Inside the original defensive walls is medieval perfection, with a street plan quite unchanged from 13th century.

Buildings are the colour of burnt sienna from bricks made of local red clay. A maze of winding streets finally empties  into the principal Piazza del Campo, where cars are forbidden.

The unique structure of the central piazza of Siena, the Campo, which is kept permanently free of traffic. It is the annual setting for a famous horse race called the Palio.The Campo, fan-shaped like a shell, offers a theatrical setting for the traditional Palio horse race, with jockeys riding bareback in medieval costume. The contest has been a part of the Siena calendar for centuries, based on hot rivalry between the seventeen contrade or wards into which the city has been divided since medieval times.

Even if you don't make the Palio - always held on July 2, with a re-run on August 16, when crowds and temperatures are at their peak - Siena is still a fantastic city to explore. You could spend your time entirely in the Campo, savouring one of Italy's most beautiful squares and sipping local wines.

At a pavement cafe, eat a richly flavoured cake called panforte, made in Siena with honey, cloves, candied fruits and almonds. It could give you the energy to climb the 335-ft bell tower of the Town Hall opposite.

Another great Tuscan city to visit is Pisa, where everything focuses on the 'Miracle Square': the Romanesque Cathedral, the Baptistry and of course the Leaning Tower. This unique group of buildings has survived since the 12th century, when Pisa was a rich and powerful Maritime Republic which rivalled Venice and Genoa.

Prosperity was wrapped round the shallow natural harbour at the mouth of the River Arno. Pisa's bad luck was that the sea retreated from 13th century onwards. The city declined as the harbour silted up.

But Pisa's reputation as a university town has remained intact, specially strong in science ever since the stirring times when Galileo was a lecturer. In the Cathedral hangs the swinging bronze lamp which first set Galileo's mind working in 1581 on the mathematics of pendulum movement.

Ten years later, he used the Leaning Tower for his famous demonstration that objects with different weights fall with identical velocity. Despite tilting 15 feet out of plumb, the Leaning Tower is in no immediate danger. After 12 years of engineering work, the tower reopened in 2001. During summer, visitors can now again climb the 294 steps up the inner spiral staircase for a pigeon's-eye view over the cathedral roof. 

Entry must be pre-booked. Otherwise you queue on the spot for an hour or two. Each group up and down takes 30 minutes. The climb is totally no-go for anyone with mobility problems.

While most holidaymakers in Tuscany go for the ancient cities and countryside, and the pleasures of food and drink, the province also has a lengthy coastline. The prime stretch of Tuscan Riviera runs 40 miles from the white-marble quarries of Carrara in the north, to Livorno south of Pisa. Viareggio is the principal bathing resort.

But maybe after all the rich Tuscan eating, and the good wine, you may feel the need to take other waters?

The province is well equipped with spas. Bagni di Lucca and Montecatini Terme are the most famous. There you can drink or bathe in the sulphur-flavoured waters, for the ultimate taste of Tuscany.

For other viewpoints of Italy, read these articles: 

ITALY CUISINE - Finding your way around the menu

ROME - doing as the Romans do

TRENTINO - on sunny side of the Alps

VENICE - City without wheels


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

"Touring in Wine Country: Tuscany" by Maureen Ashley - Written by a distinguished specialist on Italian wines, this guide to the delights of Italy's best-loved wine region also recommends hotels and restaurants.

Michelin Green Guide: Tuscany - The well-known handy format of this series makes an excellent companion for touring in the region.

Walking in Tuscany (Cicerone International Walking Series) - with more time, the delights of the region are revealed much better at a slower pace.

The Rough Guide to Florence & Siena - the definitive guide to these two beautiful Italian cities. 


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