We rented a place for four of us in the hills of Tuscany in a small village called Rosano near to the town of Pontassieve and only 12km from Florence. Dave’s Mum and Dad came with us and we picked up a hire car at the airport. Villa Caffaggiolo has a few different apartments and ours was called Brunellschi. We arrived and unpacked, Di’s suitcase had been bashed to bits by the baggage handlers but fortunately she had enough to get by. A quirky stone walled house with 3 bedrooms set in the Tuscan hillside; one totally private bedroom and the other two sharing a double height space, one was under a mezzanine with another bedroom with two single beds above. As there were only 4 of us it worked perfectly. It was all beautiful, with gardens and outdoor terraces and seating areas but it was absolutely freezing cold inside the thick walls at night! Better to come later than March when the weather is warmer if you don’t like the cold…but a great time to visit Tuscany if you want to avoid the crowds.
On our first day we explored the local area and the small town of Fiesole which sits 295 metres above Florence and has gorgeous hillside views of the Tuscan countryside. Absolutely beautiful scenery but don’t be deceived by the sunny landscapes…it was freezing in Fiesole, but the views from the steep walk to the top of the hill were well worth it. It was so cold that Brian was using Dave as a windbreak whenever we stopped at the top! They say that it is from the Fiesole hilltops that Leonardo da Vinci first experimented with flight.A former Etruscan town, conquered by Romans, name dropped in Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’, mentioned in a Robert Browning poem and a former residence of the architectural great Frank Lloyd Wright and artist Paul Klee, Fiesole still has the remains of a Roman theatre and Roman baths. During the 14th century it became popular with wealthy Florentines who built their villas here surrounded by gardens and cypress trees; it remains today as an affluent suburb of Florence where residential properties are expensive and much sought after. There is a small archeological museum at Via Portigiani near to the Roman theatre which conserves and promotes Fiesole’s ancient treasures and history and includes a Costantini Collection of pottery from Greece donated in 1987 by Professor Alfiero Costantini. We ended the day with a trip to Greve Chianti for their home-cooked wild boar pasta….delicious.
And so to Florence. A very short train ride from nearby Pontissieve station. We drove down from the villa leaving the car in the station carpark for the day. Florence is a feast for the eyes. The Duomo and Campanile resembling extravagant confectionery marvels in their pink, cream and green layers of marble panels of 19th century Gothic Revival design. The Cathederal (Dumo di Firenze) complex consists of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Florence Cathedral, The Baptistry and the Campanile (belltower). The Duomo is absolutely beautiful from the outside but rather stark and personally disappointingly uninspiring on the inside.Florence is a Renaissance masterpiece, the buildings astound. Across from the Palazzo Vecchio which stands in the Piazza della Signoria, is the Uffizi, the world famous gallery housing an extraordinary collection of Italian Renaissance masterpieces which opened in the 16th century, with admission to the general public in 1765. Originally built for the Medicis as ‘offices’ (uffizi) for Florentine magistrates, it was completed in 1581; the top floor already made in to a gallery which housed the family Roman sculptures. You can spend hours in here walking the gallery levels, looking at hundreds of paintings. It is overwhelming. Among the Caravaggio’s (see his ‘Medusa’), the Titian’s, da Vinci’s you will find one of the most recognised paintings in the world; Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. The gifts of most cities are found simply by wandering. The statues, architectural details, daily life, it’s people. Small shops, alleyways and plazas. An historical backstory of gods and conquerors, heroes and artists in evidence everywhere. To Boboli Gardens Florence, designed for the Medicis, opened to the public in 1766 and forever a leading example of the ‘Italian Garden’ style much copied and revered the world over. Lavish grottoes, fountains, ponds and statues flaking in their antiquity. The glamour and bombast of chronicled riches aimed squarely at showing off status. You don’t come here to see flowers, but lines of conifer hedge and topiary clipped meticulously by specialised gardeners preserving perfection and grandeur. The views of the city are wonderful on a clear bright day.A day trip to Siena and San Gimignano in Central Tuscany. Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage site and known for the Siena Piazza del Campo, the site of the Palio horse race which is held twice a year. A colourful pageant with medieval roots where bareback horse riders race around a temporarily earth covered Campo for three laps (approx 90 seconds) negotiating steep twists and turns with several riders being thrown in the process. The Duomo of Siena; stunning from the outside, jaw dropping on the inside; its interior far exceeding that of the Duomo in Florence.
The dark greenish-black and white striped marble pillars brought to mind glorious John Galliano gowns and striped mint humbugs. According to legend, black and white are the symbolic colours of Siena linked to the black and white horses of Siena’s founders, Senius and Aschius, sons of Remus, nephews of Romulus. It dates to 1215-1263 and the bell tower has 6 bells, the oldest of which was cast in 1149. Looking up you see the horizontal molding around the nave and the presbytery which contains 172 plaster busts of popes dating from the 15th and 16th centuries, starting with St. Peter and ending with Lucius III. My photographs don’t come close to showcasing the splendour; one of the most incredible cathedral interiors I’ve seen. The Duomo di Siena or Siena Cathedral is a 5 minute walk from Siena Piazza del Campo. From the Duomo to The Battistero Di San Giovanni, located in the square of the same name, built between 1316 and 1325 and lavishly painted with incredible frescoes depicting ‘Twelve Articles of the Christian Faith’. https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/sites/baptistry/Walking the beautiful red brick streets of Siena. I was sorry to leave Siena, a truly beautiful city which completely won me over but with more of the Tuscan scenery to explore we drove to San Gimignano. A small medieval town surrounded by 13th century walls and famous for its towers and ancient architecture, San Gimignano is located half way between Siena and Florence. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1990 and known for its white wine and saffron, the town buildings reflect the afternoon sun in amber hues, a contrast to the red bricks of Siena. Easily explored on foot we climbed higher up to look over cottages and rooftops to see the views of the glorious Tuscan countryside. Back at the villa where we’d been told that if we used the heating the costs would be prohibitive and charged to us (who doesn’t provide accommodation with adequate heating?!) we decided to have a go at making a fire in the huge stone fireplace in the main living room. Encouraged by the owners who left us a pile of firewood and confident with my fire building skills having built many fires in our old Victorian fireplace….we smoked out the entire living area…coughing and spluttering just as the owners arrived at the door with a prospective long term rental client who chose that exact moment to view the property. We opened all the windows, freezing ourselves in but letting the smoke out. We laughed about it the following morning as we drove on our final day trip; first to Lucca before heading to Pisa.The ornate stone carving of the Chiesadi San Michelein Foro (The church of San Michele in Foro) was my favourite building in the walled town. Built over the Roman Forum, its 13th century facade (many remade in the 19th century) pays tribute to King Vittorio Emanuele, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Camillo Benso. The Romanesque architecture is heavily detailed and the towering multi level front section, fortified with iron to counteract against strong winds, is topped with a 4 metre tall statue of Saint Michael the Archangel. Lucca’s central square still echoes the shape of the original ampitheatre that stood on this site and the broad town walls are now topped with 4km of parkland. Lucca is pretty but no competition for Pisa where tourists, us included, flock to see the infamous Leaning Tower of Pisa. Now much restored and cleaned it is a fantastic architectural icon. Beware of driving in to Pisa…you need to obtain a special permit which we weren’t aware of. (One year later and received a traffic fine for 120 Euros for driving in to the city even though we parked in an overpriced car park). The tower is the city’s Campanile or freestanding bell tower to Pisa Cathedral. Unstable foundations on soft ground result in its lean which is currently measured at approximately 4 degrees after construction restoration work brought it back slightly from the 5.5 degree lean it had reached by 1990. It is over 55 metres tall with just under 300 steps and is the third oldest building in Pisa. We didn’t climb to the top as the site was very busy and as familiar as it is from the hundreds of images you see of it, the leaning tower still has the capacity to take your breath away. Completed in 1372 this multi layered wedding cake of an architectural marvel, disobediently leans forwards with an air of magnificent abandon. As we walked through Pisa on our final day in Tuscany, through columned arcades, plazas with gorgeous statues, painted wooden shutters overhead at the windows… we were rewarded with an historical procession. A spectacle of pageantry rich with colourful banners, red robes, drummers, giant cricket bats (?) and fabulous boots! Apparently this was a march to celebrate the New Year, a tradition going back to the Roman Empire when New Year was celebrated on the 25th March until when in 45BC Julius Caesar moved the start of the year to January 1st. So the fabulous people of Pisa get to celebrate it twice. Italy, a country rich with history, art, glorious architecture, food, tradition and friendly people; a country where, whichever region you visit, will bowl you over with its beauty and resonate with you forever.