When you think of Italy, Florence is probably one of the first places that come to mind. Of course, you have to see Florence, and so it seems does everyone else. Enduring crowds is part of the Florentine experience along with being stunned and amazed at its glorious art and architecture and the gleaming gold shops on Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno River. When you need some breathing room, it is time to explore the less crowded treasures of Tuscany.
Siena, just 30 minutes from Florence by train, is an ancient hill town famous for the Palio, the centuries-old horse race in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The yellow-brown buildings that line the campo gave the name to the color “sienna.” Walking the ancient streets, you can see neighborhoods defined by the different flags flying from buildings. Each neighborhood has its Palio team, and competition is fierce through the generations.
The green and white marble 12th Century Siena Cathedral is one of the best examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its Gothic octagonal pulpit is supported by lions. Inlaid in the floor is a mosaic labyrinth where penitents walk contemplating their sins. Its Piccolomini Library has frescos by Raphael and other artists from the 1500s, and the ceiling scenes shimmer with gold.
You can take a bus from the train station to avoid the arduous uphill walk. Or, try the series of escalators that take you from the station to the center of the city in less than five minutes.
Lucca, an hour train ride from Florence, is a walkable medieval city surrounded by 800-year-old walls. The walls are so thick, they are topped by a park with benches, large trees, and paths. A favorite pastime is walking or biking around the city on the walls. The old Roman forum is the main square now lined with shops and restaurants. Old signage must be preserved, so a pharmacy sign is carved in 16th Century stone above the entrance to a shoe shop.
The town is best known for its native son Puccini who composed many of his famous opera here. He lived in a mid-19th Century apartment that has been made into a museum filled with his memorabilia and showcasing costumes from some of his operas. In the apartment, his family tree, drawn on a wall, goes back to the 1700s and includes several musicians.
An ancient deconsecrated church has free musical performances nearly every night, many featuring the music of Puccini. The 1846 Belle Epoch style Antico Caffé di Simo, Via Fillungo 47, serves great cappuccino and fresh pastries, and also served Puccini and literary luminaries such as Ezra Pound. A piano sits where the piano Puccini used to entertain friends was placed. At night the café is a wine bar.
The cobblestone streets can get crowded during the day because it is a popular tour stop. However, the village has too few hotel beds for most tours to stay overnight. Laws keep the town authentic, and large hotels are not allowed. In the evening, Lucca is quiet and peaceful.
During town’s annual Puccini Festival, you can enjoy one of Puccini’s operas in the outdoor theater on the lake where he composed some of his music. You can park across the lake and take a boat to the opera. During the ride, you experience the watery and waterfowl sounds that inspired the maestro
With a car, and it needs to be a small car, you can drive along narrow twisting roads up hills to the hamlet of Celle in Pescaglia to see the ancestral house where Puccini was born. The Puccini progenitor Jacopo was born here in 1712. The house contains original artifacts and furnishings including Puccini’s crib and the bed where it is rumored he was conceived. Celle’s two-block-long main street has a small restaurant serving the rustic Tuscan food Puccini would have grown up on. The restaurant overlooks a bucolic valley.
A hamlet near Vettriano has an 1889 theater constructed in a barn. It is the world’s smallest historic theater still in use. It seats 99 because one more seat would require the installation of fire safety features that would spoil the ambiance. The only way to reach its two tiers of balconies is through the roof. Seats are padded kitchen chairs that retain the character of the times when the townsfolk had to bring their own chairs. Contemporary performances include classical plays and concerts. Puccini attended a performance here, and the townsfolk were so honored, they sang to him. He ungraciously replied, “If I knew you were going to sing, I would have brought my rifle.”
Pietrasanta, which means “sacred stone,” is 30 minutes from Lucca. The village is dedicated to sculpture and, to a lesser extent, other arts. The Carrara marble quarries are close to the town and have been mined since ancient Rome. Michelangelo lived in this village while he was searching for the marble he needed for his masterpieces. The Church of Sant Agostino was built in the 14th Century and has been deconsecrated. It is now a museum showcasing contemporary sculpture. Walking around the small town and its gardens, you will see displays of sculpture in surprising places and doors to artists’ studios invitingly open. Visitors enjoy their espressos at outdoor tables in the main piazza with a view of the white marble 14th Century Duomo, or main church, that has a marble rose window dating back to the 14th Century and lunettes with scenes of the Life of Christ over the three portals. The Eno-Trattoria Da Beppino. Via Valdicastello Carducci 34, serves hearty Tuscan food and offers indoor and outdoor seating.
Viareggio is on the Tuscan Riviera. It was a medieval fishing village developed as a seaside resort area in the 19 Century. The tree-lined promenade has boutiques, upscale shops, discos, restaurants, cafes, and art galleries. Pine forests on both sides of town offer a green respite. The town is best known for its “furnished” beaches. With a one-day pass, you can have a place of your own on the sand furnished with a blanket, beach chairs, and beach umbrella. Changing rooms, lockers, and showers are available plus a bar and restaurant.
Adventurous travelers find there is more to Tuscany than Florence and vineyards. Exploring little towns, finding hamlets you have never heard of, and enjoying a beach day enrich the Tuscan experience.