Secret Tuscany

01 Jun 2015

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Vine-covered slopes and Renaissance frescoes. Cypress lined avenues leading to ancient hilltop towns. Al fresco dining in a sunlit plaza, stuffed zucchini flowers washed down with a glass of sangiovese. Any day spent in Tuscany is littered with small moments of perfection.

Unfortunately, the word is well and truly out. Tuscany has become one of Italy’s most visited areas, as the crowds ebbing through the streets of Florence and Siena attest. The good news, however, is that for those willing to take the road less travelled, there are still some gems to be discovered.

Ready to explore secret Tuscany? Start by choosing the right accommodation. Skip the big cities; instead, opt for a rural retreat where the sun-warmed stones have weathered the centuries, and your bedroom window opens onto a view of rolling hills covered with grapevines and olive trees.

The converted castle known as Castello di Casole fits the bill. Set in a 1700 hectare estate, the oldest parts of this converted castle date back 10 centuries. Staff excel at organising interesting excursions, from boating trips down the Arno to Medici-themed tours and even wildlife spotting excursions (think deer, pheasant, boar). Be sure to allow some time for uninterrupted lazing around. The pool on the sunny terrace is perfect for a spot of lounging: staff will bring you a glass of the estate’s own wine to savour as you admire the view.


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Alternatively, there is Villa Fontelunga, a boutique retreat with just nine rooms.  Behind the traditional Tuscan exterior (burnt ochre walls, blue shutters, ivy) is a chic retreat that combines classic Italian décor with designer touches. Owners Paolo and Phillip create a family-style atmosphere: their twice-weekly dinner parties are a highlight of any stay.

Once you are settled in, it is time for some exploring. A visit to the charming town of Arezzo is a must for art lovers. Its Basilica di San Francesco is home to one of Tuscany’s most powerful, and precious, art works: in fact, some consider The Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle, by Renaissance master Piero della Francesca, to be the greatest fresco cycle ever completed. The panels tell an involved story with a cast of characters including Adam, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Don’t get so caught up in the action that you neglect the details tucked into every image. These quirky cameos – such as the Queen of Sheba’s grooms, too busy gossiping to take in the miracle unfolding to their right – make the art come alive.

Although Arezzo has plenty of fine eateries – is there an Italian town that doesn’t? – it is worth seeking out Il Canto del Maggio, perched in a nearby hilltop hamlet. The restaurant is as famous for its magnificent views as its acclaimed local cuisine. Looking for a light bite? Try the wild nettle souffle or the zucchini salad with pine nuts and mint. Bigger appetite? The wood pigeon roasted with grapes is superb.

This image: Town Square of Arezzo, Tuscany.

Another of Tuscany’s most underrated towns is Pistoia, tucked beneath the towering Apennines. Spend the morning admiring its typical hill town charms – medieval ramparts, winding streets, a bustling market and a grand cathedral – before stopping in for lunch at La BotteGaia, acclaimed by Slow Food for its nuanced renderings of local specialities. The Cinta Senese is exquisite – who would have thought that pork, tomato and onion, served in an earthenware bowl, could be so sublime?

Once you have fuelled up, it is time to discover Pistoia’s more unique attractions. The spectacular façade of the town’s ancient hospital, the Ospedale del Ceppo, gives no clue as to what lies beneath: an underground labyrinth where, on an hour-long tour, you can see everything from centuries-old surgical tools to an underground river.

Contemporary art fans are also in for a treat. The lovely Palazzo del Tau is home to the Museo Marino Marini, showcasing the works of Pistoia’s most successful modern artists, while just outside town, the Fattoria di Celle showcases 70 site-specific installations. It is a labour of love by local businessman, Giuliano Gori, and visits need to be booked in writing at least a month in advance.

This image: Bell Tower and the Cathedral in Piazza Duomo, Pistoia, Tuscany.

For more contemporary art, head to Seggiano in southern Tuscany. Outside this small town lies Il Giardino di Daniel Spoerri, a 16 hectare sculpture park created by Spoerri, a Swiss artist. The park features more than 100 works of art by sculptors including Nam June Paik and Jean Tinguely. From a gaggle of concrete geese to a grass sofa, the pieces range from whimsical to challenging.

From here it is not far to Bagno Vignoni. Despite the crowds that flood into the Val d’Orcia every summer, these hot springs have somehow remained off the main tourist trail. This quirky place may be the only village in Italy that has a pool where its main square should be. In former centuries, pilgrims on their way to Rome would soothe their limbs here. If you want to try out the healing effects for yourself, the best spot for bathing is down at the nearby Parco dei Mulini.

This image: Hot springs at Parco dei Mulini, Bagno Vignoni, Tuscany.

The lands stretching west of here down to the Mediterranean coast, known as Maremma, are a favourite with in-the-know wine aficionados, who love the unusual drops produced by local winemakers. At Tenuta San Guido, for instance, you can try the superb Sassicaia, a cabernet blend with rich flavours of chocolate and smoke.

The Ornellaia winery is another favourite. Its flagship wine, Ornellaia Bolgheri DOC Superiore, sells out before the wine is even in the barrels. An estate visit will allow you to sample some of the rest of the range, including Le Volte, a spicy, fruity sangiovese-cabernet sauvignon blend.

This image: Medieval town of Pitigliano at sunset, Tuscany.

While you are in Maremma, make time to visit some of its lovely medieval towns. Sovana and Pitigliano, with its old Jewish ghetto, are wonderfully atmospheric, and far less visited than their central Tuscan counterparts. If you find one day in Maremma is simply not enough, stop in for the night at L’Andana, a luxurious hideaway by French superchef Alain Ducasse housed in a Medici-era villa.

Prices start from $469* for 3 nights at Villa Fontelunga with breakfast daily and $1445* for 3 nights at Castello di Casole with breakfast daily and private transfers. Contact your Travel Associates consultant for bookings or more information. 

Ute Junker

There’s no such thing as a typical day for Ute Junker: it might begin with a snorkel through Tahiti’s translucent waters, or finish with a samba session in one of Rio’s best clubs. From hiking the Norwegian fjords to dining in Lima’s best restaurants, she travels the world in search of inspiring, informative stories.