5 Best Locations in Tuscany

Why is Tuscany on almost everyone’s bucket list? What is it about wandering around from hill town to hill town in Tuscany, passing through vast stretches of lush vineyards, that has such universal appeal? Why would you want to visit this idyllic part of the world yourself? And where should you go first in your wanderings?

To start with, Tuscany is steeped in history, dating back to the Etruscans in 900 BC, moving forward through Roman times to the contentious, art-enthused city states of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Even today, the well-preserved towns and cities of Tuscany retain much of the charm and flavor of their pasts, offering a time machine of first-hand experiences of days gone by. From Etruscan to Medieval to Renaissance to modern times, Tuscany has kept its own unique version of timelessness, all proudly displayed in its museums and churches, but, in equal measure, evidenced in the “living museum” of its streets and piazzas, buildings and art.

And speaking of art… Tuscany holds one of the greatest accumulations of art in the world–with the masterpieces of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and many others–bringing its history to life, illuminated through art and sculpture.

Add to this the over-the-top, built-to-impress, architecture of its colossally extravagant cathedrals, with multicolored marble façades, inlaid marble floors that took centuries to complete, and soaring domes that were their own miracles of design at the time they were built. As if any further embellishment could possibly be needed, these massive edifices hold numerous masterworks of sculpture, fresco and stained glass, all joining together in an obvious attempt to inspire awe in the populace and humble them into obedience.

Equally appealing are the characteristic experiences to be enjoyed throughout the region, in each Tuscan town or city, large or small. The excellent wine, locally produced… The delectable food… The excitement of the piazzas, spacious centers of living filled with people and bordered by lively outdoor cafés. The outdoor markets… Not to mention the gelato!

Tuscany and its Etruscan Heritage

The Etruscans were the first civilization of Tuscany, beginning in the eighth century BC, well before the Romans. The name “Tuscany” is derived from the term “Etruscan.” These were an advanced people, thought to be a melding of Greek immigrants and people indigenous to Italy. They built their well-fortified towns on hilltops, reclaiming previously unfarmable land by constructing water systems for irrigation. By 500 BC, Etruscan culture had spread across Tuscany, controlling much of central Italy, including Rome.

A wealth of Etruscan art and artifacts has survived across the centuries, preserved by being buried with the dead, as with the Egyptians. Etruscan tombs, composed of multiple chambers, are carved into the rock and furnished like a house for the next world, complete with food, jewelry and weapons. The Etruscans crafted exquisite, intricately delicate filigreed jewelry, reflecting a wealthy and sophisticated culture with refined tastes.

Each Etruscan town was its own independent city-state, with an autonomous government. Over the centuries, the towns banded together into three separate leagues, made up of 12 cities each. By the 4th century BC, the Etruscans were steadily losing power to the Romans, who ultimately brought about their demise. As Rome grew in power, it conquered and absorbed the Etruscan city states one by one until they vanished into the larger civilization Rome carved out for itself.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Tuscany had a succession of rulers until the 12th-century when Tuscan cities gradually began to regain their independence as republics. By the Middle Ages, some of these cities became wealthy through commerce, trade and banking, including Florence, Siena and Pisa. But there was an almost perpetual state of rivalry, war and mayhem between the city states, each jockeying for power over the others. Ultimately Florence ended up in the lead.

Five Places to Visit First in Tuscany

On your visit to Tuscany, you owe it to yourself to enjoy the full experience, balancing small, quaint towns with large, well-known cities. Start in the medium-sized city of Siena. Then hop about among the three small hill towns of San Gimignano, Montepulciana and Cortona. Save Florence for last.

Throughout your time in Tuscany, you will be perched on hilltops in enthralling, ancient towns, surrounded by gorgeous countryside, with vineyards and fields reaching out in every direction, as far as your eye can see. Travel about by train so your journey will be as much of a delight as your arrival. And determine to place as much emphasis on the being there as you do on seeing sights.

Start your wanderings in Siena…

First to Siena, Frozen in Time

Start your Tuscan adventure in Siena, Florence’s rival city, now frozen in time. Surrounded by olive groves and the vineyards of Chianti, Siena is one of the most beautiful cities of Tuscany. Set on three hills, the city is connected by winding alleyways and steep steps.

Like other Tuscan hill towns, Siena was first settled by the Etruscans (in 900 BC to 400 BC). Centuries later, in 30 AD, the Romans established a military outpost in Siena. The town developed into a busy little trading post, advanced by the Via Francigena, the trade and Pilgrim road linking Rome to France. This greatly increased Siena’s importance.

Siena grew in economic and military power to become a major and powerful city of 60,000, equal in size and importance to Florence. Like Florence, Siena commissioned great artists to create beautiful monuments and artwork as evidence of its stature.

But Siena’s golden age ended abruptly with the devastating plague that swept through Italy, France, Germany and other European countries, spread by infected fleas carried by black rats. Around 1/3 of the population of Europe died in this plaque. When the plague hit Siena in 1348, it killed its victims almost instantly… the ill would “fall over dead while talking.” There were so many deaths that some believed this to be the “end of the world.”

Fervent friction developed between Siena and Florence as they recovered from the plague, with both cities determined to enlarge their own territories at the other’s loss. Siena won some of the many battles between the two cities. But eventually Florence gained the upper hand in 1555, in alliance with the Spanish crown. Siena surrendered to Spain and the Spanish king ceded Siena to Florence to pay off his huge debts to the Medici family.

In Siena you will have your opening experience with a grand Piazza, Piazza del Campo, standing at the heart of the city. Find the Fountain of Joy and the statue of Venus for up-close looks. This vast open space was once the center of commerce and the scene of executions and bullfights. Now it is home twice a year to the famed Palio–the bare-backed horse race where the 17 neighborhoods (“contrade”) compete fiercely to win the highly-coveted banner. The Palio race lasts only one minute, with three laps around the piazza, and is attended by 60,000 wildly cheering viewers.

Also, you will take in your first excessively resplendent Duomo, with its façade of gold-leaf and pink, white, and green marble. Take time to study closely the 56 masterpieces embedded in the floor panels, depicting stories of legend, fortune, journeying, wisdom and rape. If you are in Siena on a Wednesday, take in the weekly market. And consider signing up for the 2-hour class at the Tuscan Wine School near the Duomo to begin your introduction to Tuscan wines.

On a day trip from Siena, venture by train to little San Gimignano…

To San Gimignano, a Town of Towers

San Gimignano is a small walled village, about halfway between Florence and Siena, along what was once the trade and pilgrim route between France and Rome. It is famous for its medieval architecture and defensive towers, rising above the town walls, visible as you ascend the hill towards the town.

These protective towers were built by patrician families at the height of the town’s glory, as symbols of their wealth and power. The towers also served a defensive purpose against attack from external intruders, as well as from rival families within the town walls. Of the 72 towers that once dominated the city, only 14 have survived, continuing to give San Gimignano its feudal atmosphere and appearance. To see a replica of the town as it appeared in the 1300s when all of its towers were still standing, visit the San Gimignano 1300 exhibit, inside the town walls.

Like Siena, San Gimignano was decimated by the plague, which reduced its population from 13,000 to 4,000, and forced the town to submit to Florence. Florence ordered that most of the towers be removed. After Florence moved the trade and pilgrim route to bypass San Gimignano, the town’s fortunes declined, leaving it preserved in its 13th-century form.

San Gimignano is a maze of buildings from times gone by, threaded by narrow pedestrian-only streets, and bordered by intriguing shops and galleries that offer the work of local artists and artisans–leather, handmade jewelry, embroidery, ceramics, paintings. There are a few interesting sights to see here. But, more importantly, this is a town where you can explore at will, enjoy a delicious Tuscan lunch, and look out past the ancient walls and across the countryside while sipping a glass of wine at an outdoor table.

Next move your home-base to Montepulciana…

To Montepulciana, Famous for its Vino Nobile

Next stop after Siena is the small hill town of Montepulciano, 43 miles southeast of Siena and 77 miles southeast of Florence. Known to be one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy, Montepulciano is built along the curve of a 1,985-foot limestone ridge–a favorite place for the nobility of Florence to build their luxurious second homes.

The town is encircled by walls and fortifications, and filled with Renaissance-style palazzi, ancient churches, charming piazzas and hidden corners, as well as vast panoramas looking out over the surrounding hills and valleys. But the town is chiefly known for its excellent local wines, referred to as the “Vino Nobile.”

Piazza Grande is the heart of Montepulciano and the setting for its main events, including the barrel-racing contest, Bravio delle Botti, held in August every year. The sequel to the Twilight Vampire Saga, New Moon was filmed here in 2009.

Montepulciano Market Day is on Thursday, with the marketeers arriving early to set up their draped and shaded stalls. Local crowds follow, pulling haversacks on wheels, to gather up fresh food for the week–vegetables, breads, olives, oils, salamis and cheeses–and to peruse the other goods. Join them!

From Montepulciano, take a day trip to the nearby hill town of Cortona, 20 miles to the northeast…

To Cortona, Under the Tuscan Sun

Little Cortona–featured in the popular film Under the Tuscan Sun–is another charming town perched on top of a hill, enclosed by stone walls that dates back to Etruscan and Roman times. This dominant position above the valley offers a spectacular view from all over town of the surrounding valley and as far as Lake Trasimeno.

This is another town with interesting museums, but even more interesting streets and shops, restaurants and markets. The Etruscan Academy Museum is outstanding, displaying many artifacts from the Etruscan archaeological sites in the area. Excellent red wines are produced here and in the surrounding area, and all the wine bars offer a wide selection. Market day is every Saturday morning.

In Cortona, stop in a leather shop along the main street, Via Nazionale, and select your perfect bag with the friendly help of the owners. Then ask that they point you in the direction of a restaurant with domed Etruscan-style ceilings that offers local Tuscan food and feast on a delicious lunch of mushroom-stuffed ravioli and vino bianco.

Complete the loop of your journey, ending up back to Florence…

To Florence, Birthplace of the Renaissance

Arriving in Florence, you immediately will be surrounded by remarkable sculpture and architecture, palaces and piazzas, masterworks of Renaissance art and intricate work by current-day artisans. Here you will experience unsurpassed art and sculpture, masterpiece upon masterpiece. You will shop the leather markets and sit alongside the piazzas, people-watching and sipping delightful Italian wine. You will look up at the glowing marble of San Miniato, perched high above Piazzo Michaelangelo, across the Arno River in the “Oltrarno.” Florence is best known as the birthplace of the Renaissance and the meeting place for artists and architects, scholars and bankers. It is home to many of the most celebrated masterworks of all time.

Julius Caesar founded the city in 59 BC, named it “Florence Shia,” meaning “flourishing,” and designated it as a haven for retired military veterans. The pattern of the city’s design was in the manner of a military camp.

The powerful Medici banking family ruled the city from behind the scenes for three centuries (15th through 17th) and became avid patrons of the arts. Many of the era’s most influential artists flocked to the city to create their masterpieces, including Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. Their frescoes, sculptures, architecture and paintings bedeck the churches, squares, and palaces throughout the city.

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Things to Do Around Moab Utah

One thing for sure, Moab has more going for it, than just the two National Parks. The 40-mile La Sal Mountain Loop road travels from the desert plateaus to the forested covered mountains. As the road winds its way up and down the mountain side, the serene landscapes are spectacular. Before the final decent down use one of the pullovers to enjoy the panoramic views of the Moab area and the Canyon Lands with the mesas carved into the landscape. The finale decent around the swirling switchbacks back to the desert floor leads through the powerful Castle Valley area where the towering mesas provide awesome photography opportunities.

Highway 128 extends from I-70 to just North of Moab to highway 191 which provides some spectacular scenery from desert land to towering red-rock cliffs. Leaving the ghost town of Cisco, the highway passes through 15 miles of open desert land before reaching the Colorado River Gorge where the highway and the mighty Colorado River run parallel to each other for the next 30 miles. As they enter into the narrow gorge passing by the historic suspension Dewey Bridge, the highway and river turns and twists their way through the gorge hugging the walls of the towering red-faced cliffs before finally reaching the Northern section of Castle Valley. As the gorge widens into the valley, scenes from many famous westerns as well as commercials have been filmed in this area. Along this stretch of highway is a viewpoint of one of the grandest views in the West, the red rock spires with the snow-covered peaks of the La Sal Mountains as the backdrop. Leaving the valley for the last 13-miles the highway runs parallel with the river within a narrow section of the gorge which only allows enough room for the highway and river where the towering red-faced cliffs and the river provide breathtaking views.

As the Colorado river flows underneath highway 191, the river runs parallel to highway 279 where both enters into a valley for the next few miles before entering into another narrow gorge. Along this section can be seen petroglyphs, rock climbing, a walking trail to an arch, and photo opportunities of the Colorado River with the cliff walls as a backdrop. After 14 miles the highway turns to graveled dirt winding its way through the mesa’s to Canyonlands National Park.

25 miles South of Moab is a rare occasion where one can see an arch right beside the highway. Wilson Arch was named after a dry pioneer, Joe Wilson. This large Entrada Sandstone arch, stretches 91 feet across and is 45 feet high. The spectacular view from the pull-off frames the blue sky in picture-perfect fashion. The quarter mile steep hike to the arch is over loose sand and rocks with 90-feet in elevation change. The strenuous hike to the elliptical-shaped opening is very rewarding with the scenic perch to take in the fins and formations of the incredible landscape. Sitting underneath the arch offers a lovely view of the graceful lines of this large rock structure, which has been sculpted by wind, water, and time

Just South of Moab is the hole in the rock, not really, it’s a 5,000 square foot home carved into the hard-red sandstone rock by Albert Christensen which began in the 1940’s. For twelve years he dug, blasted and carved into the rock before his family finally moved in, with one room being set as a unique dinner for desert passersby’s. Unfortunately, Albert only lived in the home for five years before his death in the late 50’s. To tour the inside of this rock home is truly amazing. The 14-room home is arranged around huge pillars with shelves carved right into the rock right down to the rock bathtub. Being a historical site, the home is just the way Gladys left it when she died in the 1970’s, Gladys and Albert are buried underneath a small alcove, they called home.

Arches National Park is a wonderland in itself with 1000’s of arches to towering spires, pinnacles and balanced rocks perched atop seemingly inadequate bases. Although many of these features can be seen while driving the 25 miles of the Arches Scenic Drive, the hiking trails provides one a closeup encounter where one can actually enter some of the arches, while the overlooks provides spectacular views of the canyon floor as well as astounding rock formations and arches in the distance.

The Park Avenue one-mile trail, one way descends 320 feet to the narrow canyon floor made of slick rock and loose sand with the towering cliff walls on either side, high above the canyon floor balanced rocks can be found throughout the canyon. The.3-mile roundtrip Balanced Rock trail is best viewed in the early morning when the sun is behind the rock radiating an orangish glow. From this trail off in the distance arches can be seen.

The parking lot at the end of the Windows road provides two excellent hiking trails. The 1-mile round trip Windows trail contains a half-mile loop which leads to three magnificent arches. To the East is Turret Arch where one can climb the steep cliff wall and enter into the arch with spectacular views of the canyon. Further around the trail is South Window Arch which sits high up a slick cliff wall. Last but not least is the North Window Arch where an easy climb allows one to enter into the arch, where rock formations can be viewed behind the arch. On the opposite side of the parking lot is the.5-mile round trip Double Arch trail. From a distance these arches appear to be one inside of the other one when actually one is located just behind the first one, just much smaller. An easy climb allows one to enter into the first arch and a much stepper and difficult climb enters into the second arch.

Driving Delicate Arch road down into the canyon is the 3-mile round trip trail with an elevation change of 480-feet to Delicate Arch, the only free-standing arch in the park. A few hundred feet into the trail, one will pass historic Wolfe Ranch built in the early 1900’s where a family lived in an underground home before building a slightly bigger home next to it above ground. Here a short side trail leads by a wall of petroglyphs. At the end of Delicate road is an overlook of Delicate Arch for ones not wanting to hike the trail.

The.3-mile round trip Sand Dune Arch trail is a wonder in itself. After a short walk the trail enters a small wooded section then passes through a narrow trail through towering cliff walls where the cliff walls widen to about 25 feet where deep loose brown sand covers the canyon floor, fit for any beach. In between the cliff walls are serval short rock formations where kids climb to the top and jump into the soft sand. Watching the children play gives one the feeling of being in a narrow and long sand box. About 200-feet in is the spectacular Sand Dune Arch with the base sitting on the sand floor.

To get a close-up view of the Skyline Arch, one must hike a.4-mile round trip over rocks and loose sand. Along the trail are rock formations, Junipers, and desert vegetation. The arch is at the top of the cliff with rock formations on both sides.

Arches scenic drive ends at the Devils Garden section of the park, where the Devils Garden Trail is located, the longest and most difficult hike in the park. Only seasoned hikers take on this challenge. Part of this trail takes one to Landscape arch, the longest arch in the park with a span of 290 feet. which is a 1.6-mile round trip hike over a smooth walking path with small elevation gains.

With the Green and Colorado Rivers running through the Canyonlands National Park and no bridges over either one, the park was divided into three sections. One must do a lot of driving to experience what the park has to offer, with most of the park doable by back country roads only. The Needles district is 35 miles West from highway 191 with most of this a very scenic drive with the highway winding around the base of mesas and through the valley with towering mesas along both sides of the highway. 12-miles in, one should stop at Newspaper Rock where 100’s of Petroglyphs have been carved into one large boulder. The 6.5 miles scenic drive inside the park has several overlooks and ends at Big Spring Canyon Overlook. The hiking trails range from.3 miles to 11 miles. The.3-mile level loop trail leads to a pueblo ruin set back in a small alcove used for storage. A 1-mile dirt road ends at the Cave Spring hiking trail. This.6-mile loop travels under sheer rock where a historic 1800’s cowboy camp still remains to the top where prehistoric rock paintings can be viewed. The.6-mile Pothole Point loop travels over uneven slickrock with excellent views of the needles.

Island in the Sky district is about a 40-mile drive from Moab where the Grand View Point scenic road is a 12-mile drive one way across the top of the mesa with overlooks of scenic views of the canyonlands and ends at Grand View Point overlook where a vast and dreamy landscape emerges with views of the towers, gorges, and plains tells why Utah is such a beautiful State. The Shafer Canyon overlook has awesome views of the Shafer road as it winds its way down the mesa into the canyon floor. The candlestick Towers overlook provides excellent views of the cliff walls where rock spirals can be seen towering above the canyon floor. Buck Canyon overlook provides scenic views of the Colorado River gorge and views of sweeping vistas of mesas.

Along the way is upheaval dome road with a side road which leads to an overlook of the Green River winding its way through a gorge to merge with the Colorado River. At the end of upheaval road is a.8-mile round trip steep hiking trail to the top of a mesa where a crater can be viewed which is believed to be formed from a meteorite impact. The half mile round trip hiking trail to Mesa arch is well worth the effort. The arch sits right on the edge of the cliff wall where views of the canyon floor are spectacular.

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