Strange that many of the selected tips this week seemed to require an overnight stay. I wouldn't recommend Barga for a day trp from Florence. You'll need to change trains at Lucca and the drive along the valley of the Serchio river is not particulary quick. However, if you do give it a go leave time to stop at the Ponte del Diavalo, also known as the Ponte della Maddalena. You'll find it at Borgo a Mozzano. Better to stay in Barga for a few days and explore the upper reaches of the Garfagnana region, which is so different to the traditional Tuscany that everybody knows. Even better still, coincide your stay in Barga with the Pesce e Patate festival when local Italians tuck into fish and chips served down at the local football ground.
PS Lucca is an excellent recommendation for a day trip. There's an international music festival every summer - Leonard Cohen is playing this year. The best way to explore the city and its walls are by bike, which can be hired by the hour.
Google map: bit.ly/153ob5S
Take a bus (or drive) from Florence towards Sienna and you'll be able to visit two medieval fortified hill towns that offer stunning views across the Tuscan countryside and a taste of life from another time. You can spend a day in either Monteriggioni or San Gimignano or combine both for a day trip to remember. Great places to eat and drink, with rustic churches and historic buildings that rightly make San Gimignano a UNESCO world heritage centre.
Mercato centrale, as it's name suggests, is placed bang in the centre of Florence. And it's a food market. It's kinda like Borough Market is to London.
Inside you'll find the odd tourist that's found their way there but you'll mostly see chefs buying wholesale and locals buying their ingredients for that night's dinner.
The smell of truffles as you walk in will wash over you and, if you're anything like me, pull you in like the tractor beam in Star Wars. It's got some amazing wines (nearly all varieties of Super Tuscans), cheeses, olive oils, bread, huge bags of fresh porcini mushrooms (depending on the time of year) but, for me anyway, the main reason to go is for the cafes at the rear of the market. There's always a queue and it's packed with locals. A good sign. It's very cheap (about €3.50 for a main and €2 for a medium caraffe of wine. The porchetta sandwiches at Nerbone at €3.5 are an absolute must. They're incredible.
Piazza del Mercato, Florence, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/12SI4Jr
Flee the tourist hurly-burly, coach party crush and cultural overload and head for the hills. Not the well-known wine rich Chianti Hills to the south, but to the altogether wilder, more rugged deeply forested Apennines to the east. The Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona e Campigna straddling the Tuscany / Emilia-Romagna border is just 40km from central Florence and easily reached by bus although a car would provide more flexibility for a day trip.
These majestic ancient forests in one of Europe’s oldest continuously wooded areas create a place of great natural beauty and profound meditative stillness. Chestnut woods on the lower slopes where old and dead trees have been kept seem magical and enchanted. Statuesque stands of dark fir are carefully managed while the higher ground is clothed in cathedral-like beech, sometimes serried ranks leaning at improbable angles, pushed over by a winter avalanche sometime in their past. Timber from here was used in the construction of the magnificent dome of Florence’s Duomo and was especially prized for shipbuilding.
The main ridge is traversed by the Grande Excursione Appenninica (GEA), a 375 km hiking trail extending from the Umbria / Marche border near Sansepolcro to Montelungo in Liguria. Marked and unmarked paths are plentiful in the national park though a good map is essential if your day communing with nature isn’t to become something much more unsettling or potentially life-threatening. Out of peak season and avoiding weekends the chances are you and your companion(s) won’t see another soul.
The mood of contemplation and reflection is sustained by an overnight stay at the Foresteria attached to the Monastero di Camaldoli (advance booking is advised to guarantee a bed for the night). Delicious fresh food, comfortable uncluttered rooms and an atmosphere of quiet dedication to work and prayer deep in the forest nourish body and spirit, perhaps almost ready for the return to the fray in Florence.
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