A Perfect Week in Tuscany, Part One
By now we have been doing this long enough to have formed definite opinions as to what comprises the perfect Tuscan vacation. Let’s say you and your family or group of friends have one week in Tuscany. If you’re like me and you crave a little adventure, a little culture, and good food and wine, then this article is for you.
Day One (Arrival): You arrive in the late afternoon or evening. This allows just enough time to rent your car, find and settle into your villa before retiring for the night to start fresh (and slightly less jet-lagged) the next day. Now, this is the most important moment of your trip— when you find out whether your villa is all you hoped it would be!
Don’t worry. For your perfect week, you’re staying at the beautiful and unique Casa Agnese in the town of Impruneta, about a 20-minute drive south of Florence. You are close enough to Florence to explore Tuscany’s capital often and easily, yet tucked far enough away to enjoy the untamed countryside. The villa sits in an olive grove that produces and sells exceptional olive oil each year, and its pool overlooks more olives and vineyards in the distance. It is a brisk but easy walk into town, where you will enjoy a cappuccino at the local bar or a pizza at one of the excellent local restaurants. The villa itself is a true Tuscan country home, maintained with the utmost care, where the lovely owners raised their children. Their traditional, elegant yet homey style permeates the house, as does air conditioning (a rare treat in these parts).
Day Two (Florence): You wake up a little groggy, but that’s nothing a cappuccino can’t cure. Jump in your rental car and head to Florence, a quick 20 minutes away. Park in the garage under the Sant’Ambrogio market on the east side of town. Sant’Ambrogio is a large indoor/outdoor farmers market that gives you a true feel for local life. Wander through the stalls of butchers, bakers and produce farmers, and spend a few euro on freshly-picked figs or plums. Grab your coffee and pastry at a counter here or you can wait to find it in one of the many piazzas you pass along your way to the center of town. Head due west and within 15 minutes of strolling past charming shops and restaurants, the narrow streets suddenly part and give way to the massive Piazza del Duomo. Allow a few minutes to catch your breath after gazing up at the size and detail of the masterpiece that is Florence’s domed Cathedral. Now it’s time to meet your tour guide.
If you only have a day to spend in Florence, it’s worth spending half of it with Freya or one of the other exceptional tour guides at Freya’s Florence. Your 3-hour private, customizable walking tour begins at the Duomo. This is the most famous building in Florence and a great place to start your walk through Florence’s history. The main building with the huge dome is the Cathedral of Florence. I once attended a mass in this space. Between the beauty of the impossibly high frescoed ceiling and the echo of organ music, it’s easy to have a religious experience. Across the piazza, through the “Gates of Paradise” bronze doors, is the Baptistery, where the who’s who of Florence have been baptized since the 11th century. Sit inside and let your gaze wander upward at the mosaic ceiling where the Last Judgment is depicted, complete with souls of the saved rejoicing at Christ’s right hand while the damned are punished in hideous and terrifying ways at Christ’s left hand. It is truly an incredible sight.
From there, your guide will walk you north a few blocks to the San Lorenzo market, a seemingly endless street market selling leather and other goods. Check a few gifts off your list. The Medici family’s original palace is in this neighborhood, as is their family church, San Lorenzo. While appearing deceivingly plain from the outside, the crypt and chapels within, which serve as burial place and tribute to departed Medici family members, remains one of Florence’s most interesting places to visit. Enter the main chapel and take in the display of marble and precious stone on every surface of the room. Another chapel dedicated to a handful of family members including Lorenzo the Magnificent was designed by Michelangelo and features several of his marble sculpture masterpieces.
Speaking of Michelangelo, no tour of Florence would be complete without a visit to the most famous Florentine of all time – David. He is housed in the Galleria dell’Academia museum a few blocks north of San Lorenzo, and his beauty must be seen in person to be believed. After a long morning of exploring some of the wonders of Florence’s history, it’s time to say goodbye to your guide.
Now you’re hungry so you bee-line south to the famous bridge, the Ponte Vecchio. Fight the masses of tourists across, pass the over-priced jewelry stores that populate the bridge, and arrive in my favorite neighborhood of Florence, the Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno”). You’ll turn a corner into a quaint little piazza and duck into La Volpe e l’Uva, a favorite enoteca among locals.
After lunch, assess the situation. Are you in the mood to shop, or to walk? If it’s shopping you crave, head to nearby Borgo San Jacopo for some wonderful boutiques or Via Maggio for antiques and crafty gifts. If you’re up for a hike, head uphill to Piazzale Michelangelo for the most breathtaking views of the Florentine skyline and enjoy your afternoon gelato from this spectacular vantage point.
As evening sets in, it’s time to head back across the bridge to the center of town. Cross the Pointe Vecchio again and head slightly west into the fanciest shopping district of Florence, Via di Tornabuoni. For dinner, it’s Obica, an upscale mozzarella bar with a fabulous ambiance matched only by its menu. After dinner, its time to head back to the car for the short trip home, where you fall into your comfortable bed.
Day Three (Siena, San Gimignano): From your villa, it’s an easy drive south about an hour on the beautiful Florence-Siena highway to the Tuscan city that is second only to Florence in importance – Siena. With its rich history and terra-cotta colors, the reason is easy to see. The lively shell-shaped central piazza, Piazza del Campo, twice a year becomes the locale for the famous Palio horse race. The rest of the time, it’s just a fun spot for dining, shopping, strolling and people watching. Among the buildings overlooking the piazza is the Torre del Mangia, a tower whose 400 steps can be climbed for spectacular 360 degree views of the city.
From here, head for the main cathedral of Siena. You can’t miss it. It is a beautiful Romanesque-Gothic building constructed of black and white marble with windows at the top that reflect the sky. Inside, among all the beauty, don’t forget to look down. The marble inlaid floor is perhaps the most impressive work of art in this building. Wander south a few blocks for your seriously good lunch at La Taverna di San Giuseppe, and order something with truffles if in season. After lunch, as you work your way back to your car parked just outside the city’s wall, browse the shops and notice the colorful banners hanging in windows of houses, which represent the various contrade districts that compete fiercely in the Palio each year. Civic pride runs deep in Siena.
About a 40-minute drive back up toward your villa is the picturesque city of San Gimignano. Set among gentle rolling hills, with colorful towers and buildings, it’s a much smaller and quainter Tuscan town. Many complain of crowds of tourists, but it’s so pretty and small, it’s worth a brief visit. Head directly for the Torre Grossa, which is the tallest tower, and start to climb the stairs. You will be rewarded for your efforts by the view of the ancient town below surrounded by the hills of Chianti. On your way to and from the tower, duck into the charming shops and meet the lovely people. I have purchased artwork from street vendors and dishes from ceramicists in this town.
By now it’s late afternoon, and your villa awaits you. Stop at the Coop grocery store in Impruneta right by the villa, and pick up the makings for an easy pasta dinner. Or head home for a dip in the pool, shower and venture back out to Florence for dinner. For a closer and very easy dinner out, you can walk or drive into Impruneta and visit Bellavista. Sit on their rooftop deck and enjoy the bella vista (beautiful view).
Days Four through Seven get really fun, with some biking, cooking, wine tasting and more exploring.