IN TUSCANY, BEAUTY THE ITALIAN WAY
In the most desirable region of Italy, harmony is everywhere, in the ink-like painted landscapes, where the cypress trees seem to reach for the sky at the top of the hills, in the sumptuous villas from which you can imagine life and the great family gatherings, in the towns that have offered the world their treasures, from which you never fully recover because the dazzle is so incredible, in the villages where time seems to stand still. Tuscany is Italy’s tourism darling, famous, dreamt of, documented and visited, where you can experience the sublime as well as the unbearable when the crowds invade. With this article, we wanted to pay tribute to the Tuscany we love, the Tuscany of the films that have left their mark on us and the Tuscany of the lesser-known places, where the peace and quiet (sometimes very relative in summer though) brings moments of absolute grace, in the contemplation of beauty, the meeting of soothing nature and human genius when its talent and creativity produce the best, for eternity. A trip to Tuscany, off the beaten track.
THE TUSCAN FANTASY OF THE “GRAND TOUR
Many artists, writers, painters and poets have fallen in love with Tuscany and nurtured their creativity with its beauty. Florence in particular has always been a rallying point for travellers looking to experience the ‘shock’ of Italian splendour, the dazzle of art, culture and the utterly unique atmosphere of this magical city, ultra-crowded but not to be missed. Touring the city is not so different today as it was from the 18th century onwards as part of the ‘Grand Tour’ dear to the hearts of wealthy Europeans.
And for us, Florence will always be associated with Lucy Honeychurch’s wanderings in the sublime film “Room With A View”, where in just a few scenes and a story as romantic as it gets, an entire city becomes the ultimate fantasy. So yes, we stroll around the Piazza della Signora, Santa Croce and the banks of the Arno, just like everyone else, but remembering that we first fell in love with the city on the big screen, that Florence will always resemble the idea we had of it when we watched that film, and that the city’s spell will continue to grow, journey after journey. The Pensione Bertolini in the book/film no longer exists as such, but the room with a view is still there, it’s room number 414 at the Hotel degli Orafi which has transformed the building into a beautiful hotel in a wonderful location. “Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.” E.M Forster, “A Room with a View”
LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL IN AREZZO AND CORTONA
Tuscany is a vast territory in which it is easy to find places that are a little less visited. What used to be true of Arezzo and Cortona, 2 towns in the Val di Chiana to the south-east of Florence, is a little less true now that they have been spectacularly portrayed in blockbuster films. But they are still much less visited than the classic villages of the Val d’Orcia.
Cortona is one of our favourites, perched on its rock at an altitude of 500m, overlooking the beautiful surrounding countryside, rich in culture and history, it is the quintessential Italian village, with a soul and a gentle way of life that make you want to drop everything and move there. No doubt this is why the book, and the film, ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ have had such a resonance in anglo-saxon countries: a desperate American falls in love with a decrepit house just outside Cortona, buys it on a whim, patiently restores it and lives there ‘happilly ever after’. The pure fantasy of an Italian lifestyle! The film and book were not hugely successful in France, but in the US and UK they helped put Cortona on the map of Italian dream towns. The house in question, Villa Bramasole in the film, Villa Laura in reality, can be rented, and it has to be said that it is magnificent.
Arezzo, an ancient Etruscan city founded in the 5th century BC a few kilometres away from Cortona, is quite simply one of Italy’s most sublime cities, but curiously it often flies under the radar in a region that can sometimes be dizzying with so much to visit. A city of ancient convents, squares, gardens, villas and priceless works of art, it is breathtakingly rich. Every first weekend of the month, a huge antiques market (the Fiera Antiquaria di Arezzo) makes it vibrant with activity. It was in this magical city that the first part of Roberto Benigni’s film “Life is Beautiful” was shot, but it was above all in the Basilica of San Francesco (dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi) that the famous scene of Juliette Binoche discovering Pierro della Francesca’s frescoes by candlelight in “The English Patient” was filmed, forever anchoring the city in its dazzling beauty.
IN MAREMMA, THE LITTLE-KNOWN TUSCAN COASTLINE
Tuscany spontaneously conjures up images of the countryside, hills and vineyards rather than the seaside. However the 160 km or so between Livorno and Ansedonia is a coastline of small fishing villages, wild beaches, parks classified as nature reserves and beautiful seaside resorts, generally known only to Italians who have made it their summer destination.
Starting in the south and going up north, you can visit Mount Argentario and its 2 beautiful villages of Porto Ercole (scenes from “The Talented Mr Riplay” were filmed here and it is here that the spectacular hotel Il Pellicano is located) and Santo Stefano. Some of the most beautiful beaches, including La Feniglia, Giannella, Lunga and Cala Piccola, are picture-perfect of fine sand, turquoise waters and tranquil beauty. The lagoon at Orbetello, between land and sea, can be admired from a fisherman’s boat.
From Porto Santo Stefano, take a boat to the sublime island of Giglio, just across from Corsica, which fans will have recognised from Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful film “La Grande Bellezza”.
Heading north, the 25km-long Parco Regionale de la Maremma is a paradise of marshes, dunes, wild beaches and migratory bird sanctuaries, ideal for walks and horse-rides.
Other fishing villages and small seaside resorts such as Castiglione della Pescaia, Roccamare and Punta Ala offer a serene and charming atmosphere, as does the little-known nature reserve of Diaccia Botrona, where you can take a boat trip to see the pink flamingos. Then on to Piombino, from where the boats leave for the beautiful island of Elba.
A trip away from the signposted tourist trails, to discover the authentic charm of maritime Tuscany.
TUSCAN VILLAGES OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
The infinite variety of villages in Tuscany quickly fills up a holiday itinerary, and the great classics remain a sure bet. But to discover other wonders in a vast region where it’s easy to get away from it all, here are a few ideas for less popular excursions.
Starting with Pienza seems a little counterproductive in the idea of a less-frequented place, because this village, which we believe to be one of the most fabulous in Tuscany, is now well known to lovers of Italian beauty. It’s hard to imagine a more spectacular concentration of art and culture than in this Renaissance village of unreal perfection. Staying here for at least one night allows you to get away from visitors for a few hours and enjoy the city for yourself. It was here, and in the countryside nearby, notably in the monastery of Sant’Anna in Camprema (where you can sleep) that many scenes from the film “The English Patient” were filmed.
Other wonderful villages off the beaten track: Bagno Vignoni and its mineral pools; Bolgheri and its castle; Poppi and its works of art; and Anghiari on the Marche route.