Tuscany is a delight whichever way you turn. There really is no wrong way to explore it. But if time’s tight, and you want to ensure you tick off a few of its most precious gems, you’ll be best heading to one of its charming hill towns.
The fortified towns, so iconic they’re the first thing most of us think of when picturing the region, are enigmatic reminders of a time when the welcome wasn’t quite so warm around these parts. In the middle ages the region saw a succession of battles fought by warring factions desperate to get their hands on a slice of Tuscan paradise. And, really, who could blame them…
These days, just 30 families live within the walls of Monteriggioni. But what a place to call home. This fortified hilltop village is entirely enclosed by sturdy walls: if you’ve played Assassin’s Creed you’ll recognise it – the village was the inspiration for the town of Monteriggioni in Assassin’s Creed 2. The town was built during the Middle Ages, as a fortification in the war between Sienna and Florence, and it saw its fair share of battles. The only battles it sees these days are the virtual ones of the computer screen: this is one supremely relaxed place. A restaurant, a bar, an ice cream shop and a gift shop seems to be the height of it. And sometimes, that’s all you need.
One of the most beautiful villages in Italy, Barga should be on anyone’s must visit lists. It’s a busy place, so try getting here early – as part of the fun is simply wandering around its tightly packed lattice of streets with their sudden, delightful views over green fields, chestnut trees and olive groves. Take a walk in the old city center and you’ll find historical palaces, churches and museums aplenty. Try Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata, home to prestigious Renaissance art works. Head from here into the luscious Gargagnana Hills, all emerald lakes, rushing rivers and soaring peaks topped with castles.
Lucca, the town of Puccini, is an art lover’s idyll. Renaissance style is everywhere – the extraordinary architecture of the city surrounded by the famous XVI century walls simply dazzles. Clamber up and along the battlements for breathtaking view over forests, steeples, villas and churches. Look inside to see the Cathedral and its famous miraculous wooden crucifix: “Holy face”. The town’s streets meet at the circular Piazza dell’Anfiteartro, a plaza lined with restaurants, bars and shops. It’s a truly inspiring place. Maybe you’ll feel an opera coming on…
Enjoy that feeling of getting off the beaten track, while not actually travelling too far to do it, at Suvereto – a beautiful 13th century Tuscan town with a little of everything to keep your camera phone busy. Visit the hushed and shadowy Medieval cloister, its handsome Romanesque church, and 12th century castle. Then wander around the narrow streets to find the perfect lunch spot. Love Italian wine? The DOCG Wine Trail passes right through the town! Kids like dolls? There’s a doll museum here too.
Known as “Little Jerusalem”, this small Tuscan town (main pic above) seems to grow from the rocks themselves. Close to the coast, the commune was once a safe harbor for persecuted Jews. You can learn more about the town’s Jewish history in the Jewish Museum of Culture in the old town (crammed with gift stores) and sample some local Jewish delicacies while you’re there. Escape the heat, visit the underground tunnels and caves dug into the soft volcanic rock beneath the town, in use since Etruscan times. Piazza Becherini: The perfect place to take a photo of the surrounding valleys.
All the elements are present and correct in Cortona. Hilltop location, suitably venerable and ochre-coloured palazzos, fortresses and churches wrapped in sturdy stone walls. It’s got all you need for the perfect day out in a Tuscan town. The city dates back to Etruscan and Roman times, which explains why the recently opened Etruscan Academy Museum of Cortona (MAEC), is such a fabulous storehouse of wonders. It’s one of the most important Etruscan collections in the world. The main streets of Cortona offer local handmade items, bars and restaurants while the Santa Margherita Sanctuary offers terrific views. Read “under the Tuscan sun” to get under its skin, because it’s where Francis Mayes set her romantic comedy.
The pretty village of Collodi tumbles down the hillsides east of Lucca, and is utterly captivating. The medieval heart of the village dates back to the twelfth century – to the time its defensive castle was built: a strategic strongpoint in the Lucca-Florentine battles. Collodi’s famous son, Carlo Lorenzini, took the town’s name as his own for his pen name. Carlo Collodi’s best known work? Pinocchio. Really young kids will love the Pinocchio fun park here (but it’s no Disneyland). Adults will love the gorgeous gardens of Villa Garzoni.
Capalbio is a delight. Close to the coast, the historic village hides a core that remains more or less intact a full millennia after it was built. Once the ramparts for a huge castle, the walls are still intact and the narrow alleyways and cobbled streets lead to piazzas and wonderful restaurants. The town’s a popular destination for VIPs and business leaders, so there’s a well-to-do air to the proceedings here. Climb the crenellated tower and the medieval walls of the Castle for wonderful coastal views, and pop into the church of St. Nicholas and the Providence Oratory where you can admire a fresco by Pinturicchio.
Tucked into a narrow valley carved out by the river Albegna, Roccalbegna looks every inch the quintessential medieval village – so intact and well preserved is its townscape of houses, churches and squares you’d think you’d stepped onto a costume drama film set. The town is loomed over by a huge outcrop of volcanic rock – like a beast rising from the bowels of the earth. Aside from the rock, with its castle on top (of course), the town’s most famous monument is the venerable Church of Santi Pietro e Paolo, in the central piazza, also home to the town hall. This is a magical place, deep in the south of Tuscany.
Once a busy trading post, these days the trade in Buonconvento is unashamedly tourism. The 12th century town welcomes its visitors with an open, really enormous and heavy door, once the main gate into the walled town’s heart. Inside it feels like time’s stood still: you can see old historic buildings with the flags that represent the four ancient districts of the village. Don’t miss the Museo della Val d’Arbia (Val d’Arbia Museum), where works of art by Sano di Pietro and Matteo di Giovanni glisten like new. Other sites of interest in the town include the Museo di Arte Sacra (the Museum of Sacred Art), Palazzo Ricci, the church of San Pietro e Paolo (Saint Peter and Saint Paul) and the Oratorio di San Sebastiano (the Oratory of Saint Sebastian).
We’ve plenty of parcs close enough to embark on your Tuscan adventure from. Take a look here.