The tourist brochure view of Tuscany as an idyll of olive groves, vineyards, hill-towns and frescoed churches may be one-dimensional, but Tuscany is indeed the essence of Italy in many ways. The national language evolved from the Tuscan dialect, a supremacy ensured by Dante – who wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of his birthplace, Florence – and Tuscan writers such as Petrarch and Boccaccio. And the era we know as the Renaissance, which played so large a role in forming the culture, not just of Italy but of Europe as a whole, is associated more strongly with this part of the country than with anywhere else. Florence was the most active centre of the Renaissance, flourishing principally through the all-powerful patronage of the Medici dynasty. Every eminent artistic figure from Giotto onwards – Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo – is represented here, in an unrivalled gathering of churches, galleries and museums.
The problem is, of course, that the whole world knows about the attractions of Florence, with the result that the city can be offputtingly busy in high season. Siena tends to provoke a less ambivalent response. One of the great medieval cities of Europe, it remains almost perfectly preserved, and holds superb works of art in its religious and secular buildings. In addition, its beautiful Campo – the central, scallop-shaped market square – is the scene of the Palio, when bareback horseriders career around the cobbles amid an extravagant display of pageantry. The cities of Pisa and Lucca have their own fair share of attractions and provide convenient entry points to the region, either by air (via Pisa’s airport) or along the coastal rail route from Genoa. Arezzo and Cortona serve as fine introductions to Tuscany if you’re approaching from the south (Rome) or east (Perugia).
Tucked away to the west and south of Siena, dozens of small hill-towns epitomize the region for many visitors. San Gimignano, the most famous, is worth visiting as much for its spectacular array of frescoes as for its bristle of medieval tower-houses, even if it has become a little too popular for its own good. Both Montepulciano and Pienza are superbly located and dripping with atmosphere, but the best candidates for a Tuscan hill-town escape are places such as Volterra, Massa Marittima or Pitigliano, where tourism has yet to undermine local character. You may find lesser-known sights even more memorable – remote monasteries like Monte Oliveto Maggiore and San Galgano, or the sulphur spa of Bagno Vignoni. The one area where Tuscany fails to impress is its over-developed coast, with horrible beach-umbrella compounds filling every last scrap of sand. Elba, the largest of several Tuscan islands, offers great beaches and good hiking, but is busy in summer.