Travellers seem to find it impossible not to wax lyrical on the subject of Tuscany but as I discovered on my recent visit, it does live up to its reputation.
With attractions such as Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, which is crammed full of Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli and Caravaggio and the spectacular Leaning Tower of Pisa (Torre Pendente), it is no wonder that so many people flock to the region.
My husband Mark chose Tuscany for our Italian adventure as we had been to the country before and loved the people, the way of life and the culture.
However, not being great fans of tourist traps, we sought out some of the more laid back places to get a real taste of Tuscan life. We had a week but instead of the obvious choice – Florence – we chose to stay at a hotel on the outskirts of the historic maritime city of Pisa.
This was a master stroke as the hotel had a breath-taking view of the Leaning Tower and other attractions on Pisa’s Piazza Dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles).
Every evening we were able to watch the tower light up as the sun went down behind purple mountains.
It was about a mile from the hotel to the centre of the city and the train station. Not an easy walk in the baking heat but we soon got used to it.
Each day we visited a different location and we started off with the Piazza Dei Miracoli in the centre of Pisa.
The tower itself was impressive and in surprisingly good nick, but the teeming masses of tourists swarming all over the piazza detracted from its charms. It was fun to watch the hordes pretending to prop the tower up as they posed for pictures. However, the novelty soon wore off and the vast queues for entry tickets were extremely off-putting.
While we were there we discovered that the iconic tower leans because it was built on sandy soil. Its fellow ‘miracles’, the Duomo, Baptistry, Chiesa di San Nicola and Chiesa di San Michele degli Scalzi, are also afflicted by the sandy soil. Engineers have managed to ensure they don’t fall over and their lip-sided quality makes them endlessly appealing. Not an affliction after all!
We pottered around with the masses and took in the sights before escaping into the back-streets and city centre where there was a much more mellow vibe. Over the coming days we grew to love the shady streets, Medieval architecture, friendly cafes with delicious food, smaller churches, market stalls, bars and river walks.
We even watched a regatta with enthusiastic teams from Pisa, Venice, Genoa and the Amalfi coast battling it out on the atmospheric River Arno. This gave us a real flavour of the friendliness of the community spirit in Pisa.
On day two we went to a no frills coastal town called Livorno.
This was definitely no tourist trap. It was a gritty port town which had been heavily bombed during the Second World War. However, its run down historic quarter and canals where countless boats were moored had a certain charm as did its belle époque seafront.
The following day we took a deep breath and decided to head for Florence (known to Italians as Firenze). We’d been advised that it was best to visit Florence in the cooler and quieter winter months but as it was only an hour’s train journey away we thought what the heck and went anyway.
With its jaw-droppingly beautiful buildings, fabulous museums, vast galleries, perfect piazzas and the historic Ponte Vecchio, Florence is the daddy of tourist Italian destinations. While Mark caught the people on camera I marvelled at the frescoes and statues that adorned almost every building.
Buildings such as the ornate Duomo were breath-taking but the relentless flashing of cameras and the jostling of some tourists was more than a little annoying. Yet again the great mass of bodies on sight-seeing tours became oppressive after a couple of hours. We headed for the back streets and enjoyed the quieter atmosphere.
Walking by the River Arno was a blessed relief – the best part of our visit to the city. We opted for a completely different experience on day four.
Viareggio – a glamorous seaside resort with slightly dilapidated yet beguiling buildings from the ‘20s and ‘30s – was only a short train journey away. As lovers of the seaside, we were enchanted by it.
Huge waves crashed on the beach and the promenade, with its cafes, lidos, gardens and glamorous hotels, went on for miles. Photographs from the ‘20s and more recent decades were exhibited along the promenade, bringing the past to life. We slowed the pace down even further on our fifth day by visiting the enchanting walled city of Lucca.
The best thing about Lucca? Virtually no traffic. The birthplace of composer Puccini, Lucca was incredibly peaceful and the Renaissance buildings were outstanding.
It was also a very friendly place. I stopped to chat with an elderly man who ran a flower shop and had two 19-year-old cats.
He was delighted to hear that I was Scottish saying: “Do you know the Luchesi and the Scots are the same? They all have short arms!” I deduced that he meant we’re all tight with our money and we had a great laugh about it.
Another highlight of Lucca was walking the city walls and viewing the city’s gardens.
We could easily have spent many more weeks exploring this bustling part of Italy and have vowed to return in the future.
Our last view of the Torre Pendente was from above. From the plane it looked even more spectacular than ever.