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
Less than two hours and €15 away from Florence is the Tuscan hilltop town of Cortona, haloed by Etruscan walls. The setting for the film ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, Cortona is a jumble of medieval streets, relaxed piazzas and Etruscan history. As well as the absorbing museums in the town, the MAEC (Museum of Etruscan and local history) is well worth a look; one of my favourite places is Le Celle. The tranquil convent, founded by St Francis in the thirteenth century, is reached by a meandering forty-five minute walk through woods and olive groves. Photo opportunities abound along the way, with stunning views over the valley.
Take the train to either Terontola or Camucia, from there a regular bus service runs up to the walled town.
Train times: www.trenitalia.com
Bus times: www.lfi.it
Museum of Etruscan Academy and of the City: www.cortonamaec.org/english/
Piazza Luca Signorelli, 9 52044 Cortona Province of Arezzo, Italy
+39 0575 637235
Le Celle: www.lecelle.it/
Google map: bit.ly/12HqjvA
Take a train or drive the hour or so west of Florence to the beautiful compact city of Lucca. It is virtually car free so perfect for wandering! Climb the Torre Guinigi which has oak trees growing at the top. Hire bikes from piazza Santa Maria del Borgo and join the popular afternoon Lucchesi 'passegiata' around the city's wide ramparts, enjoying views of the botanic gardens and plenty of private gardens too as you cycle around. Enjoy a rich hot chocolate in the Piazza dell' Anfiteatro. The cool narrow streets surrounding the central piazzas of Lucca have a wealth of individual shops selling fashion, food and ice cream, many of them seemingly unchanged over the centuries.
If the fancy takes you make a detour on the way back to the 'Parco di Pinocchio' in Collodi which is an eccentric but somehow endearing homage to the wooden puppet and its author, with garden sculptures of the key characters in the story.
Take a trip to the small town of Vinci, birth place of Leonardo, 35 kilometers west of Florence. The small Museo Leonardiano, sited within the 12th century Castello dei Conti Guidi, is jammed full of the artist’s drawings, designs and a mind boggling array of large and small military, textile and travel inventions.
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.
Take an hour and twenty minutes train trip south to Camucia and catch the local bus or what appears to be the only taxi in the area, up to the ancient Etruscan walled town of Cortona. From Piazza Garibaldi the main street has many bars where you can take a light lunch enjoying the casual atmosphere before walking out of town back past the Piazza Garibaldi into the tree lined avenue of the public park, Giardini Parterre, with magnificent views across the Valdichiana.
At the end of the park turn left up the cypress lined road with wonderful views over the hills and you will come to Bramasole, the big peach coloured house where Frances Mayes wrote Under the Tuscan Sun. Carry on to the village of Torreone and turn left to follow the old roman road through the Porta Montanina back into Cortona. Stroll down through the steep narrow streets to Piazza della Republica just after siesta as the town comes to life and a possible free wine tasting at Enoteca Molesini.
The Piazza buzzes with life early evening and you will find it hard to leave to catch the train from Camucia back to Florence.
Camucia Station, a ten minute bus ride or five minutes by taxi from Cortona.
Google map: bit.ly/12lPJP5
A true gem is the walled city of Lucca, birthplace of Puccini. Take a stroll on the tree-lined city walls (as wide as a motorway). For fantastic views climb the bricked Guinigi Tower which has a tree growing on the top. There are churches, squares and museums to explore. Look for the unusual piazza of the Amphitheatre with houses around the perimeter. For mouth watering traditional Tuscan food head to the family-run Trattoria Buralli on Piazza Sant’Agostino.
Lucca always stayed independent. In the past through the supply and trade of silk, nowadays it is the biggest producer of toilet paper in Italy.
Take a day trip to San Gimignano, about an hour by road or rail from Florence. Explore the walled medieval town on foot and enjoy some local ice cream in the the town centre - a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of the towers can be climbed - giving panoramic views of the local countryside. Try and get into the deserted back streets to get a feel for the history, away from the crowds. Local wines can be tasted at the Vernaccia Wine Museum.
San Gimignano, Siena , Tuscany
Google map: bit.ly/YFa2nc
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.
Certaldo Alta is a short train ride from Florence. The new part is less interesting, apart from a twice weekly market so head for the old part, Certaldo Alta either on foot or using the cable car from the square. Here you will find a lovely Tuscan hill town with few tourists, some interesting history and quiet bars and restaurants. In the summer there is a music and arts festival so you can listen to jazz in part of an old church surrounded by ancient frescoes. Even better, stay for the night in the nearby Fattoria Basseto, a former Benedictine convent, that is now a budget hotel and hostel. In one of the rooms there is a black and white photograph of the family who still own it, taken in the 1950's by Cecil Beaton.The owners are lovely, you will want to stay, arrange a cooking class at a nearby farm, and not return to Florence!
Via delle Città, 50052 Certaldo FI, Italy
+39 348 4370285
Google map: bit.ly/11ucXCG
About 90 minutes on the train, this ancient Italian city is much smaller and far less touristy than Florence. Look for the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, oval in shape because the houses are built into the walls of the Roman amphitheatre. Here in 56BC Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate (coalition government) to rule Rome. Also look out of the train at the previous stop, Montecatini Terme, to see the modernist Mussolini era station.
Why leave one crowded tourist honeypot to spend 24 hours in another? Because San Gimignano offers more than towers and tourist tat. It sits amid some of the most beautiful landscapes this planet has to offer, so if you need a break from masterpiece-bagging, lose yourself among the rolling olive groves and vineyards where the hills are dotted with fabulous, tranquil, rustic places to stay: agriturismi. Clusters of ancient farm buildings seemingly assembled by the god of aesthetically pleasing structures-in-stone have been arranged artfully throughout the San Gimignano area. Take your pick from one of the 90 or so near the 'Medieval Manhattan' and you will see this town's best angle - from afar on your poolside veranda with glass of Vernaccia in hand.
An hour by road, San Gimignano is an easy day trip away from Florence. Great website with everything you need to arrange to stay at an Agriturismo in this stunning area: www.sangimignano.com/en/services-and-facilities/accommodation/farmhouses/
Google map: bit.ly/YFa2nc
A broad wooded valley north of Lucca, the Garfagnana is a ruggedly beautiful area of Tuscany hidden between the Apuan Alps and the Apennines, often overlooked in the stampede for the art-laden cities further south. If you are tired of galleries, museums and crowds or simply prefer nature to culture, a 24 hour escape to Barga, one of the 'Borghi piu Belli d'Italia' with its twisting lanes, artistic residents and incredible panoramic views will refresh your crowd-weary soul and renew your appetite for all that Florentine art. Among the elegant medieval merchant's houses are several flower filled stairways leading to the cathedral which surveys the town from above. The vista over the tiles and verdant valley towards the Apuan Alps is ample reward for the climb. There are plenty of trattorie for the obligatory sampling of delicious regional fare.
Barga can be reached from Florence by train but it is not a straightforward journey as you must leave the train on the valley floor. Simpler and quicker to drive - around two hours from Florence. Stay in the impressive and serene Villa Moorings in the town or in one of the many nearby agriturismi.
Villa Moorings: www.villamoorings.it
Via Roma 18, Barga (LU) 55051.
+39 0583 711538
Google map: bit.ly/Zg84hR
... and leave the train at Pisa Central. From the station walk towards the river and cross the Arno by Ponte di Mezzo. Explore the narrow streets and squares of this historic university town. Eventually you will arrive at the Leaning Tower in the Piazza dei Miracoli (Cathedral Square). Make sure that you walk back to the station exploring a different route – there’s so much more to discover than the buildings close to the Tower (which is all that you are likely to see if you book on an organised excursion).
Hilltop town favoured by the Etruscans and wealthy Renaissance families who valued the cooler climate. Well preserved Roman Theatre and other ruins in the archaeological park with lots of Etruscan artefacts in the Civic Museum. A Combo ticket also gives admission to Ethnographic Missionary and Bandini Museums (small but worth it for the painted panels).
Eating wise there are two good restaurants (l'Polpa particularly good) at the bus terminus on Piazza Mino or take a picnic on the panoramic terrace with wonderful views of Florence.
Take bus no. 7 either from outside the main railway station or from Piazza San Marco - about three an hour. Lots of hairpin bends up to the town. Double decker Florence sightseeing bus also goes there.
Piazza Mino, 21/22, 50014 Fiesole, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/XDwbVI
The 'Pedalata dei Castelli' is a non-competitive cycle ride that takes in medieval castles and picturesque villages that are largely undiscovered by non-Italians, against a backdrop of the stunning Apennines in Northern Tuscany.
There are two stops at castles along the way where you get to taste the best local delicacies and be entertained by reenactments of medieval sword fights. At the end there is a slap-up Slow Food or, as it is known locally, Zero Km lunch.
Full support is provided for cyclists and all types of bike are available for hire, including electric bikes, making it very accessible. Advice on accommodation is available.
Non-cycling partners and families need not miss out, as there is also a guided tour (in Italian, but it doesn't really matter if you can't understand Italian as you get to have a good look round) that includes the local food tastings, as well as the opportunity to join the cyclists for lunch.
It is a fabulous combination of the best local food, combined with sightseeing and cycling. Last year's event was great fun with nearly 300 cyclists participating despite poor weather.
I found it possible to organise my own walking holiday. Our first family trip began at Ortisei with the first ascent via cable car, giving everyone a boost. Another glorious walk finished at the Lago di Braies Hotel on that beautiful lake. Get the books, write yourself a booking script in Italian (or German) and you will be rewarded by stunning scenery and a variety of welcoming refugi. Our (big) boys love it!
The Sibillini mountains in Umbria lack the scale and severity of the Italian Alps and the Dolomites, but that only means walkers are less numerous, and all the tops are accessible to the merely fit and well shod. The scenery is unique and spectacular, particularly the vast utterly flat lentil fields of the Piano Grande, ringed by mountains. Our hotel in Norcia arranged a reasonably priced post-breakfast transfer to the largely deserted village of Castellucio, on the edge of the Piano Grande, from where it is a long-ish but straightforward walk to the summit of Monte Patino (1883m). This is the highest point for some distance and there are huge views over the rest of the Sibillini mountains, the rolling hills of Umbria and down to Norcia immediately below. By the time you get back to town you will be ready for a beer, and if you pick your spot carefully you will be able to look up at the big cross on the summit of Monte Patino and feel, well, smug. Norcia is famous for its salami and truffles and Umbrian wine is a match for its more expensive Tuscan neighbours. Add pasta, lentils and risotto and you get perfect hearty walkers fare.
Norcia - just Google it! It's an adventure!! (OK we booked it all through Inntravel. But still an adventure to get there.)
Strada Statale Picena, ., 62026 San Ginesio Macerata, Italy
+39 0737 97271
Google map: bit.ly/16U78kY
Wake up early and ride the Mount Baldo cableway up 1.6km to hike among breathtaking scenery of the snow-capped pre-Alpine region, the Po Plains and the Dolomite Mountains. After exhausting ourselves on the mountain trails we head to a hilltop restaurants for late lunch with panoramic views of the lake. We loved Mount Baldo so much we went back twice more during our week-long summer holiday to Malcesine, Lake Garda.
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