Based on a tour around Tuscany, 15.-30. August
name Tuscany, first used in the 10C, is derived from the Latin word Tuscia, which
was employed from the 3C onwards to describe the region then known as Etruria, the
territory of the Etruscans (also known as Tusci), situated between the rivers Tiber and
It was Friday 14/8, 10:40pm when we left Prague. We aimed to Tuscany, picturesque region in central Italy which beauty we've only heard of. During the night we passed Linz, Salzburg, Innsbruck. Brenner welcomed us at 5:58am however, we were driven by the current of cars back to Austria. Brenner Pass was closed due to the clay avalanche that hit the highway and, unfortunately, four German tourists. We had to select alternative pass, and it was Timmels-Joch. Narrow mountain roads were not able to handle sudden number of cars and we climbed slowly to the top in the long line of the same affected travelers. Luckily, we were among the first early ones and thus we managed the bypass (about 200km) quite easily. The cold weather in Prague continuously got warmer and warmer to 39°C. Our today's goal was camp in Bivigliano, 15 kilometers above Firenze, so we left the main A1 highway at Barberino exit and followed the road 65 to Váglia. Finally, we came there in 4:30 pm. The camp was situated in the steep terraced slope, it was rather dusty and costed 30 000 ITL for one tent.
is not only a prestigious city of art, generally acknowledged to be one of the finest in
Italy; it is also, and principally, a source of genius. It was the birthplace of Dante and
the cradle of the Italian language and is still a center of civilisation, where the first
flames of Humanism and the Renaissance were fanned into life in the first half of the 15C.
Sunday morning was sunny with light haze over the surrounding valleys. We descended from the hills down to the Florence valley along rd65. An outstanding view of the whole Florence opened suddenly at Trespiano. The view was splendid - mighty Cathedral dominates the centre, surrounded by the red carpet of roofing tiles. We left the car at Fortezza da Basso near Piazza de Libertá (15000 ITL for 7 hrs. If you want to save money, find free car park at the suburb and get to the centre by bus. It is not difficult.). I will never forget this square because we passed it another six times. It looks like everyone who comes to Florence from whatever direction, must go over this place.
It was about 10am but the air was already hot and dry, Florentines were
either at home or outside the town and we met mostly only other tourists walking in the
shadows of the houses, and also endless number of street sellers with post cards, gifts,
and tons of other junk.
Despite the heat we decided to climb the tall Campanille (belltower) at the Cathedral. And I must say, it was worth the pains (82m or 414 steps). From the upper terrace there is a fine panoramic view of the cathedral and the city of Florence. The belltower has number of bays which interrupts the staircase and where you can rest a bit. On the fourth bay the clock reached the noon and the bells started ringing without any warning. The noise was deafening and everything vibrated, even the thick stone walls. People were stuck with their hands on ears, pupils flickered at bell's frequency, picture was fuzzy, weak people felt dizzy and threw up down to the lower bays... uncommon experience.
We knew from the guide that Boboli Gardens was very pleasant place for short rest under the cypress trees and so we walked there over Ponte Vecchio along all its jewelers and goldsmiths. ...The arcades that initially lined the bridge housed the stalls of butchers for whom the river provided a handy "sewer". In the 16C, on the orders of Grand Duke Fernandino II, the butchers were forced to make way for craftsmen whose activities were of less insanitary and more decorative nature.... We ascended the hill with Forte del Belvedere on the top from where we could again see the whole Florence city but there was no gate to Boboli Gardens! We didn't want to return back so we followed the narrow twisty street, still outside of the garden walls. Finally, we got out of map, far from the centre, nothing interesting around but a couple of Americans who also lost their way. Together we eventually approached the gardens from behind but all its gates were closed. Luckily, some visitors inside opened the gate and we slipped in. This quiet nice park is " ...is a fine example of an Italian terraced garden with many different perspectives, interspersed with ramps, flights of steps and terraces and dotted with statues and fountains...". The only entrance is to the left of the main building of the Pitti Palace. Visit is free and it is really good place for the rest.
Well, we had enough (of walking) and so we returned back to our car park (over Piazza de Libertá). It was afternoon, too early to return to the camp so we left the car under the Monte Senário and started climbing up to look at the convent there. The wood above the car park was crowded! I hadn't seen it before; Florentines - individuals, couples or whole families had picnic tables and chairs laid out almost everywhere, the darker shadow, the better. They read, played cards, slept, drank.. they did whatever, but far from the furnace of the city and summer sun. What a difference if I compare it with people at home who try to enjoy ever free while on the sun.
"...The Chianti region is famous for its excellent wine; the vineyards which produce it extend well beyond the boundaries of the geographical region, which lies between Florence and Siena. The landscape shows that the soil has been tilled for many centuries. Among the fortress of chestnut, oak, pine, and larch which grow on the slopes that are at least easy to cultivate, there are rows of vines and silvery-green olive trees carpeting the gently-rolling hillsides which are also dotted with cypress trees. Small villages and a few superb estates around a castle, villa or abbey blend harmoniously into a natural environment partially tamed by the hand of man..."
Monday 17/8. Before we part with Florence we wanted to drop in Fiesole,
small town above Florence with even deeper historic background. "...Fiesole was founded by the Etruscans in the 7C or 6C BC and
was the largest town in northern Etruria. For several centuries Fiesole within its mighty
walls was a town of greater power and importance than Florence. From 63 BC on the destiny
of Fiesole was linked to that of Rome. New buildings were erected on the ruins of the
Etruscan structures and the Roman town, known as Faesulae, with its temples, theatre, and
baths, became the centre of the region. From the 1C AD onwards it began to fall into a
decline and was overtaken by Florence, its rival and neighbour. In 1125 Faesulae was
finally conquered by Florence and almost razed to the ground..."
Full of ancient atmosphere we went on through Florence and found the road
S222 - Via Chiantigiana. This road is very scenic and provides wonderful views of local
vineyards, hills, villas among the cypresses. We stopped frequently and made short walks
to and there to find the proper place for good shots. We also tried to find out if there
are any suitable circular 3-5 hour walks but the information we got in Dipartimenti
Turismi were disappointing. There are some trekking paths but they are mostly long
distance ones and they are not circular. Some offices provide written guides for local
walks however, as I read them, I would be lost in few minutes.
Tuesday 18/8. We were woken up by dogs' barking. I opened my eyes and saw one little dog, the barking one, and then second one, really big big dog, quietly running to and there and whenever it shook its head, the foam from its mouth flew to all directions. My wife observed them with horror, unable to do any move. Fortunately the dogs were friendly and soon their owners appeared. It turned out that they were local farmers doing their regular morning walk and the man was of Czech! origin, so we could easily talk in our native language.
We slept not far from Siena, our next goal. Again, the morning was sunny
but with haze that hid the horizons. Such haze usually lifts during the day and the
afternoons are much sharper.
Since the weather was still pretty good, we were more and more hungry to spend some time at the sea and so we decided to part with the town and to go south to Monte Argentário which looked like a good place for spending a couple of days on some small, quiet beach. At least on map. The reality was worse than nightmare. We arrived over the Tombolo della Gianella and the current of cars carried us towards Porto Santo Stefano. The town was flooded with people and cars, the road in front of us was almost invisible. At first possible place we u-turned and literally disgusted escaped from the island. We found the camp at Tombolo and there I realised that I forgot our passports in the camp in Bivigliano, Florence. Normally, I don't understand Italian a word but the stress made me speak like local padrino. How sweet was the answer "Yes sir, we've got them here...".
Wednesday 19/8. And so we aimed back to north. Along the way, we dropped in the ruined Abbey San Galgano which is not far from the road No.73 connecting Siena and Grosseto. This majestic, unroofed Romanesque-Gothic abbey was built in 13C by Cistercian monks and contained the earliest gothic church in Tuscany which provided the inspiration for Siena Cathedral. We changed our plans and so once we withdrew our passports at the reception of the camp, we found the highway A11 and left for Collodi, near Pescia. Everything in this town, set amid rural hillsides, relates to the famous string puppet, Pinocchio, a storybook character created by Carlo Lorenzini. But we didn't come to admire the Parco di Pinocchio. We came to see Villa Garzoni and, particularly, its 17C gardens. The gardens were granted some funds in 1997 and now they are well restored. "...The entrance opens on to formal design with fountains, waterfalls, terraced flowerbeds flanking flight of steps decorated with balustrades and vases or statues. From each step there is a view of some part of these gardens, which used to be famous throughout Europe - huge round lily ponds, yew trees pruned into shapes reminiscent of architecture or imaginary animals, bamboo groves , Rococo "grottoes", mythological or allegorical statues..." some parts of the garden are really spooky and I 'd have strange feelings if I had to be there in the night. Nevertheless, I have never seen gardens like these, especially the bamboo grove, actual small forest where you feel more like in Far East, not in Mediterranean Italy.
This night we slept in le Pizzorne hills above Collodi, not in the camp, and again, we have uncommon (for us) experience. It was already dark when some car forcefully stopped about two hundred meters from us. Soon two voices, man and woman, began to shout to each other with intensity that startled us little. My wife was convinced that he'd murder her (and then us, of course). More than hour passed before they began to calm down. Finally, to our great relief, they got on the car and went away. Be prepared for Italian way of life!
Thursday 20/8. I won't bore you with sunny mornings anymore because all of them were like from Fisher catalogue. We descended from le Pizzorne and came into Lucca. When we planned the tour, we saw the aerial view of this town and we knew we had to go there and to stroll through the narrow twisty alleys of Citta Vecchia (Old Town). Old Town remained untouched by 20C town planning, well sheltered behind its pink brick ramparts surmounted by trees and grass. Originally, it was a Roman military encampment dated back to 2C BC, with streets intersecting at right angles along each side of two main perpendicular thoroughfares. It was already a large town when Caesar, Pompey and Crassus met there to form the First Triumvirate.
Apart from lovely lanes you shouldn't miss two sights: Piazza
del'Anfiteatro and tower at Guinigi House. Access to Piazza dell'Anfiteatro
is only through passages beneath the houses. It is "...unusual
enclosed oval space, which occupies the site of an amphitheatre built by the
Romans in the 2C. The amphitheatre fell into ruin during the Barbarian invasions and
provided a large part of the building materials used during the Middle Ages to reconstruct
the town's churches..."
We knew that the beaches along Viareggio can't be too romantic (and, actually, they are not at all) however, we went there to spend a couple of days at the sea. There is a lot of various camps along Viale del Tigli under Viareggio, from the high-cost to medium-cost representatives. The third was ours and once we built the tent we hurried to the beach. Hot, soft sand and people and people and sand. But also the sea, and waves, and seagulls, and boats... something mystical and charming for overland rats. We spent there almost two days. Fortunately, it was enough even for my wife and we could return to real Tuscany.
VOLTERRA, SAN GIMIGNANO
Saturday, 22/8. We left the sea, passed Pisa and, along the road 439 headed towards Volterra, town standing on the hill between the Cecina and Era Valleys. It is set in and unusual landscape. To the west the outline of the hill is broken by the grandiose crags caused by erosion and rock falls. Good viewpoint is Le Balze, spot approx. 1km in front of Volterra. There is also nice small (and cheap) camp. Every Saturday morning there is huge market on the car parks below the town walls, but they sell mainly commodity stuff, nothing eye-catching.
"...The town was a Stone Age settlement and enjoyed a period of major prosperity during the days of the Etruscans, before becoming a municipality under Roman jurisdiction in the 3C BC. Although the general layout of Volterra is medieval, there are some Etruscan remains (Porta all'Arco, 4C BC walls) and Roman remains (theatre and other ruins). One of the main industries of Volterra is the working of alabaster, a craft which dates from the 8C BC. There are many craft shops in the town..."
Our next goal that day was San Gimignano, small but fascinating town. Already from the distance you'll recognize its towers. I think there are 14 of them in the town, built of grey stone. The town is small medieval one, very well preserved. The famous tower-houses caused the town to be called "San Gimignano dalle belle torri" (San Gimignano of the fine towers).
"...In the Middle Ages there were
70 towers but the number had dropped to 25 by the end of 16C and only 14 have survived to
the present day. These feudal towers, designed like castle keeps, were built in many
Italian towns by the great families. For reasons of prestige the nobility built as
tall as they could. The holes that can still be seen in their walls are said to have been
used in those days as supports for a network of footbridges linking the houses of
allied families who could gather together quickly in one place in times of danger.
We spent the night again on the wild spot, not on the camp. Somewhere in Montagnola hills to the west of Siena. Those hills are full of sweet chestnut trees. And of boars. It was about 3am when I felt my wife's hand on me and startled whisper "Do you hear it too?". And really, strange noise in the wood and bushes around our tent. Beyond doubt it was the wild boar, I had heard them before on other places. "Whwhwhat we'll do?!", again my wife, scared of anything which is dark and uncivilised. I tried to explain that the boars don't eat meat and fell asleep again. My poor wife had very bad sleeping (if any) for the rest of the night, despite of the boar being miles away from us.
Sunday, 23/8. We wanted to travel down again but across the eastern part of Tuscany. We followed the road 438 to Asciano and dropped in Abbazia Monte Oliveto Maggiore, famous abbey that nestle among the cypress trees in a landscape of eroded hills. Monte Oliveto is the mother-house of the Olivetians, a congregation of Benedictine monks founded in 1313. We arrived there just during the holy mess and since both of us wore short trousers, we didn't dare to enter the main church and stroll there among other good Christians. Most of Italian churches and abbeys has sign asking people to wear long trousers or skirts if they want to enter. On many places you can go in even so because a lot of other people do it too. In some occasions, like this, you'd feel that going in would be simply inappropriate.
Our next short stop was Pienza, tiny town on the road 146 (San Quirico - Montepulciano). We wanted to see it because Pienza is almost "artificial" own, nothing that evolved through Old and Middle Ages. It is a perfect example of Renaissance town planning as requested by Pope Pius II, a scholarly man who wanted to build there the ideal town. "...At the end of the 19C Pienza changed some of its street names, particularly in the district east of the main square. To harmonise with the concept of the ideal city, the new names were inspired by love rather than war. The streets on the right of the main thoroughfare are named after Fortune, Love, the Kiss, Darkness, and there is also a Blind Lane. These streets lead to a panoramic walk on the town walls..."
The main event in this day should be a walk up the highest peak in Tuscany - Monte Amiata. So we left Pienza and went south through Montalcino (there is splendid fortress on the hill with outstanding views of the landscape around from its fortifications and towers. Montalcino is also known throughout Italy for its excellent red wine, Brunello, a very high-quality vintage from a restricted wine-growing area.) and Abbazia di Sant'Antimo which lies at the foot of the village of Castelnuovo dell'Abate and which preserved its solitude in the depths of the delightful landscape composed of hills planted with olive and cypress trees.
From there we slowly climbed up along narrow twisty roads. We thought that we would do some good walk at last. But when we came under Monte Amiata, we found the car park overloaded, and around thousands and thousands of people - from sucklings to wheelchaired pensioners, families with videocameras, stalls with fast food refreshments and souvenirs. Well, we did "climb" up to the top on the paved path and there we had to make the way through the crowds of Italians. Disgusted, we returned back and left the highest peak behind us without any feeling of satisfaction. Fortunately, Sunday had a good end. We found suitable place on the small bare hill far from any villages and, during the night, we spend so far the most exciting star observations in our life. Lying on the ground in a sleeping bag, watching the deep sky and millions of stars on it, we again found some new constellations, particularly early in the morning when the sky shifted so much that we could easily observe the start usually visible only during the winter.
LAGO DI BOLSENA
Monday, 24/8. We came to Sorano (11km from Pitigliano, road 74) in the morning. Its old town is very striking and it made one of the strongest impressions on me. Old Sorano is built in the steep slope, set above the wooded limestone Lente Gorge dotted with natural or man-made caves (Etruscan tombs). Although not large, it is full of narrow lanes, staircases, vaulted passages, both nice and shabby houses, nice and weird people. We met a barber's shop that looked more like Middle Ages torture chamber than present service. We followed one twisty alley, up and down.. and after ten minutes we realised it was blind and we were almost in someone's bedroom. I strongly recommend visiting this town.
Pitigliano is not far from Sorano and it is also very picturesque town. It stands on a massive spur of volcanic tufa high above the confluence of two rivers, the Lente and the Meleta. There is outstandingly impressive view from the southwest (S74), particularly from the church of the Madonna delle Grazie on the southern outskirts. The town was an Etruscan settlement before being colonised by the Romans. From 13C to 17C it belonged to the Aldobrandeschi family and later to the Orsini family of Roman Counts. Until the 19C it had a large Jewish population, hence the synagogue in Via Zuccarelli. Similarly like in Sorano, the town is traversed by cobbled streets lit by old lanterns. The streets are linked to each other by covered alleyways or flights of steps. South of the town are the remains of aqueduct - two 16C arches. From Piazza della Republica there is a fine view of the valley below.
About 3pm we found suitable camp at Lago di Bolzena, between Montefiascone and Marta. What a difference, compared with the seaside at Viareggio! Tranquil camp, quiet park just next to sweet water, flowers, trees, dense grass, clear fresh water. No wonder that we spend another day here. And the lake itself is very beautiful with two islands in the middle. In the evening we went to Marta. It was too soon to go to the restaurant so we found a pleasant bar with tables outdoors, few local padrinos had a good chat before the dinner. I'm telling you this story to show the difference between the habits. I asked the bartender to bring two biers. "Small, middle or big bottles?", he asked. I chose big ones. "How many glasses you want? Four? Six?", "Well, two is enough..." I replied and his eyes widened. Later, when we asked for another two bottles, he treated us like friendly, but very exotic, visitors.
Wednesday, 26/8. Relaxed, we set out for the way back. Slowly we went through Radicofani, Chianciano, Montepulciano, and we end up in Cortona. Cortona occupies a remarkable site planted with olive trees on the steep slope of a hill overlooking the Chiana Valley not far from Lake Trasimene. It used to belong to the League of Twelve Etruscan Towns before coming under the control of Rome. It has retained its medieval town walls, commanded by a huge citadel (fortezza) which replaced the Etruscan precinct. The town has barely changed since the Renaissance period, which produced some fine mansions (palazzi), narrow, paved streets, mostly very steep, leading to irregularly-shaped squares lined with arcades and public buildings. Again, we spent there a time when the town wakes up from its siesta. Streets began to live, shops opened their doors and people slowly flooded the streets and filled them with traditional rush.
We found very good place for tent in the hills above Cortona. On the way to Villa del Seminario there is a rest place with many tables and benches, which probably serves as a shelter from hot sun for local people. We had a company there - small lonely cat that drank up our milk and ate up a half of our dinner. since then we've never seen it again.
Thursday, 27/8. Our last day in Tuscany. The morning was not too successful. My wife blocked up some nerve in the neck and so any step was quite painful for her. The only position that brought little relief was with the right hand behind her head (and imagine walking all day with your one hand up all the time). So we decided to end up our Italian adventure a day sooner and to go home. On the way we dropped in Poppi, small town next to S70 road. At the top of the upper town stands a dominant, proud 13C Gothic castle which offers quite good views of the surrounding landscape. The streets in the upper town, which is accessible after long climb through the gateways set among the houses, are lined with long, long arcades. This is unusual but very nice and the cafés, hidden in the shade of those arcades offer delicious, big cappuccinos.
And that's all. We returned back through Florence (remember Piazza del Liberta?), Brenner pass, Salzburg and Linz. We may miss the warm Italian weather. We realised that almost immediately. I was rather tired of driving near Salzburg and so we stopped at the car rest and took a nap for few hours. When we woke up and get out of the car in our shorts and T-shirts, we got unbelieving looks from the passengers of the German bus, all of them in warm, winter anoraks. When I checked the thermometer, it said 6 degrees off Celsius... Welcome home again!
Tourist Guide MICHELIN - TUSCANY (1996)