So, you've quaffed the brunello di Montalcino wine. You've drizzled the cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil over the bruschetta. You've seen ARoom with a View , Under the Tuscan Sun and that famous photo (there are hundreds, but they're always taken in the same place, from the same angle) of a zigzag row of cypresses carving a mark of Zorro onto a green hillside.
Still you wonder, is Tuscany really a place of fine produce rooted in a ravishing terroir, a landscape of vine-covered slopes and walled villages of handsome stone houses, virtually unchanged since the 14th century, when Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted bucolic scenes of country life into his allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico?
Strangely, the answer is yes. This is a region of Italy that really does live up to its image. Sure, there are some modern buildings - even Tuscans need new places to live, shop and play five-a-side football every now and again. But there's an inherent respect for the historical and architectural integrity of town and landscape that, at least outside of the main cities, keeps things looking spruce and painterly. Tuscans have a feel for panoramas - so most hilltop villages will have at least one side (usually the one facing the approach road) that takes the breath away with its untouched purity. The new stuff is dusted away at the back.
Tuscany is also pretty big, however. Not by Canadian standards; but in high-population-density Italy, the four-hour meandering drive from Arezzo to Carrara, from the southeastern province of the region to its northwest corner, is an epic journey that takes one through a slideshow of different landscapes, from the eroded clay, Crete Senesi hills east of Siena to the woods and vineyards of Chianti, the plant nurseries of Pistoia, the deckchair-lined beaches of Viareggio and the marble quarries above Carrara itself, where in 1505 Michelangelo personally supervised the cutting of the huge block intended for Pope Julius II's funerary monument (the Pope later changed his mind, and got the irascible Tuscan artist to give the Sistine Chapel a makeover instead).
With so much on offer, knowing where to head can be a headache. The best approach is to divide Tuscany up by theme. Here are three suggestions:
Wine, walks and wide-open landscapes: the Val d'Orcia
One of the region's six UNESCO protected sites, this stunning valley, dominated by the graceful bulk of Monte Amiata, is rural Tuscany at its most iconic.
One of the best places to view it is from La Foce, a few kilometres west of the town of Chianciano Terme. This huge estate belonged to Marchese Antonio Origo and his Anglo-American wife, Iris; its landscaped garden, laid out by Cecil Pinsent in the 1920s and 1930s, can be visited on Wednesday afternoons from 3 to 7 (see www.lafoce.com for details).
Just beyond La Foce is the Valoresi road, with its famous zigzag line of cypresses. To the north are the twin towns of Montepulciano and Pienza.
The former is a fascinating, archaic place of tight medieval lanes winding up in a sort of DNA helix to the central square, where the duomo houses Taddeo di Bartolo's glorious, lambent Assumption of the Virgin triptych. Along the way, you will have any number of opportunities to buy or sample Montepulciano's celebrated gutsy red vino nobile wine: Producers to look out for include Avignonesi, Poliziano and Salcheto. Pienza is a curious example of a Renaissance new town: Commissioned by Pope Pius II (who was born here), architect Bernardo Rossellino grafted a grand papal palace, central piazza and duomo onto what until then had been a rural village. The architectural equivalent of a mouse that roared, it's a delightful place to while away a few hours. Well-maintained white roads link many of the smaller villages in the area, making this ideal walking and cycling territory.
Churches, beaches and gardens: Lucca and around
Lucca is one of those mid-sized Tuscan towns that gets it right. It's not just the glorious intactness of the centro storico inside the heavy brick ramparts that enclose and protect it; it's not just the fact that the town has, in San Martino, San Frediano and San Michele in Foro, three of Tuscany's most absorbing Romanesque churches, and in the former Roman amphitheatre of Piazza del Mercato, now lined with medieval houses, one of its most delightful squares. It's the laid-back lifestyle of the lucchesi that really hits home. This is a great place for strolling, or sitting and watching the world go by over a glass of summery vermentino wine. And it's also a good base for excursions. The wild Garfagnana Valley to the north is great walking territory, with several marked trails leading up into the high peaks of the Alpi Apuane and the Orecchiella Natural Park. Northeast of Lucca, a sprinkling of grand villas with splendid formal gardens make for a cultured, panama-hatted and linen-jacketed sightseeing jaunt - Villa Reale at Marlia, Villa Torrigiani at Camigliano, and Villa Garzoni at Collodi (a town also known for its rather dated Pinocchio theme park). And to the west is the sea: not the most crystalline water in the Mediterranean, but it's the beach culture that counts here more than the swim. Head for elegant, palm-lined Viareggio and join the locals for the evening passeggiata , gelato in hand.
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