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Art & Culture

Known throughout the world for its strong Italian traditions, rooted in antiquity, Tuscany boasts an enviable artistic and cultural heritage. From the cities of Florence and Siena to the marvelled landscape of Val d’Orcia, the region, famous as the cradle of the Renaissance, enjoys an impressive eight sites listed as World Heritage sites by UNESCO.

Etruscan, Roman, Middle Age and Renaissance influences can be seen from every corner of Tuscany and have shaped every aspect of how the beloved region is today. In this area of the journal, we explore the highlights of Tuscan art and culture, from the marvellous museums and contemporary galleries to the buzzing festivals and amazing live performances.

Art & Culture

Want to know how to take a great shot of a view? Ask a photographer


We all love a beautiful view and if you capture one on camera you can admire it forever. But how do you take a great photo of a landscape? Photojournalist Alfredo Falvo, owner of Tuscany Photography Day, helps people get the best out of their cameras. Here he shares six stunning images of landscapes that he shot in the Val d’Orcia and reveals how and why he created these scenes.
Belvedere
The subject: Belvedere, an agriturismo set on a hill near San Quirico d’Orcia.
The location: At the edge of San Quirico, on the road to Pienza, just past Ristorante La Taverna Del Barbarossa, there’s a field of olive trees on the right, from where the view can be seen looking east.
The shot: I took this photo just after dawn to capture the morning mist. The rising mist cast the building in silhouette and revealed all the layers in the landscape behind.
Sorano
The subjectSorano, a town between Mount Amiata and the coast.
The location: At the sign that marks the edge of Sorano, on the road to Sovana, this scene unfolds.
The shot: This image was taken during the “blue hour”, just after sunset, when the sun has set but the sky is still blue. Consequently, the natural and artificial lights are well-balanced, even and soft, and the photo picks out a lot of detail.
Cappella di Vitaleta
The subject: Cappella di Vitaleta, a rural chapel between San Quirico and Pienza.
The location: About 5km outside San Quirico on the SP146, turn right at the sign to Cappella di Vitaleta. Continue for a couple of kilometres, then take the first right and continue for 500 metres to find the chapel on the right.
The shot: It’s best to photograph this chapel from the front before the sunset. But my shot shows the rear of the chapel in silhouette. I was lucky weather-wise; the sun had dipped below the horizon but the rays of light gave the clouds these amazing colours.
Gladiator scene
The subject: The famous landscape seen in the film Gladiator, where Russell Crowe dreams of returning home as he dies.
The location: Standing with your back to the entrance of Le Pieve di Corsignano, just off the SP18 near Pienza, turn left onto a gravel track and walk for about 200 metres, just before the road levels out, then turn right onto a steep path into a field to see this view towards a little house on the hill with Mount Amiata in the background.
The shot: This image is all about the light, which gives the hills their shape. A golden light was coming in from the right, reminiscent of the scene in the film, and the trees add symmetry to the photo.
Monte Oliveto
The subject: Monte Oliveto, an abbey near Asciano.
The location: Just before the Santuario Madonna delle Grazie chapel, as you enter Chiusure from the SP451 along the Strada Provinciale del Pecorile, look to the west.
The shot: I took this shot about an hour after sunrise to capture the diffuse light on the rock formations, using their shape to draw the eye towards the abbey. I like the contrast between the sharp angular lines of the rocks and the soft, billowing clouds.
Poggio Covilli
The subject: Poggio Covilli, an agriturismo near Bagno Vignoni.
The location: Take the SR2 from Bagno Vignoni towards Gallina. After about 2km you will see the cypress trees in the image on the left. This photo was taken at a bend in the road about 150m before the driveway to the agriturismo.
The shot: I wouldn’t usually recommend shooting before the “blue hour”, but that’s when this photo was taken. I was struck by the stormy sky, so I waited (a long time) for the light to fall on the top of the hill and make the house brighter than the rest of the landscape.  
Alfredo’s Top 3 Tips: taking landscape photos
Never take a photo with the sun behind you – even though that’s what we’re taught to do. Make sure the sun is to one side, to give light and shade to the subject and the rest of the elements of the image. This will add dimension to your picture.
The best time to take photos is in the morning before the sun rises but the sky is light, about a half-hour before to an hour after sunrise. Alternatively, take photos from 90 minutes before to 40 minutes after sunset. The “blue hour” is just after sunset. If you take photos outside these times, they’ll make good memories but not great photos.
Always keep the image as simple as possible. Draw the eye straight to the subject and let the light help direct the eye towards the subject, too. Less is more.Tuscany Photography Day (www.tuscanyphotographyday.com) offers daily workshops, led by Alfredo, from €115 per person.

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Five Tuscan summer festivals you should not miss


It is no wonder summer is one of the most popular times of year to visit Tuscany: the weather is fantastic, the cities and towns are buzzing and the days are long - perfect for fitting in as much (or as little) activity as you like.

There is also plenty going on. Festivals in Tuscany stretch across the warmer months and range from historical reenactments to modern music events. If you are looking for a summer festival to suit your taste, we have a few fantastic options for you.
Mercantia
There’s a feast for the senses when Mercantia hits the streets of Certaldo, a small hilltown about an hour’s drive from Florence. Spectators are invited to enter the “fourth dimension” at the many intriguing performances that take place each day in atmospheric locations, from secluded courtyards to secret gardens. Leave your car at the bottom of the hill and ride the funicular railway up to the heart of the action.
Il Palio di Siena
The world-famous Il Palio di Siena is a fast and furious bareback horse race that takes place not once but twice a year in Siena’s medieval Piazza del Campo. Different districts of the city enter a horse and rider, sporting their colours and emblems, to race around the perimeter of the shell-shaped piazza, cheered on by hundreds of spectators. In the days leading up to the race, Siena’s streets are dressed with colourful local banners, while on the afternoon of the event the piazza buzzes with historic parades before the horses and riders go under starter’s orders at 7pm.
Pistoia Blues
For almost 40 years, the city of Pistoia has hosted the internationally renowned Pistoia Blues festival in the Piazza Duomo, an historic setting for this contemporary event. This year’s big names include Alanis Morissette, James Blunt, Graham Nash and Steve Hackett. For villas in the area, see here
Medieval Festival
The good people of Monteriggioni travel back in time to the Middle Ages once a year, bringing the period to life with a fun annual Medieval Festival. Proceeds begin in July with a costumed banquet at the castle, and, for the following two weekends, the locals go about their business dressed in costume, transformed into nobles and commoners from yesteryear. There’s live music, dance and theatre performances, and the chance to taste traditional regional food.
Lucca Summer Festival
Every July, the pretty walled city of Lucca reverberates to the sound of top international acts as the month-long music event Lucca Summer Festival comes to town.

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Puccini’s operas: a bluffer’s guide


Giacomo Puccini once said he would like to hear one of his operas at Torre del Lago, the lakeside where he wrote so many of them, next to his home.  These days it is the setting of an open-air festival www.puccinifestival.it) where virtually all his operas are performed over seven weekends in July and August. You’ll hear Puccini everywhere in Tuscany – in shops, restaurants, museums – but only at Torre del Lago are his operas belted out to such theatrical great effect.

If you are planning to see an opera during your next visit to Tuscany but not sure where to start or whether you will be able to follow the storyline, be sure to read our “bluffer’s guide” before you arrive.
La Bohème
Four overgrown students live on next-to-nothing in 19th-century Paris. Rodolfo, the poet falls in love with Mimi, but he can’t bear the fact she’s dying of TB and they separate. Their Act III parting duet ‘Addio’ is a showstopper. Marcello , the painter has an on-off affair with Musetta, but they break up, too, because he is insanely jealous. In Mimi’s final hours, Musetta brings her to Rodolfo so she can die in his arms.
Tosca
An idealistic painter gets caught up in counter-revolution in Napoleon’s Rome. The problem is his silly girlfriend Tosca, who is provoked to jealousy by Scarpia, the villainous chief of police. Scarpia deceives Tosca into thinking he’ll release the boyfriend if she’ll sleep with him. Tosca stabs him instead but the boyfriend still dies. Torture and double-crossing abound and in Act II there’s a lovely aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ when Tosca asks while life can’t be nicer.
Madama Butterfly
An American naval lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki buys the marital services of a local woman. Unfortunately, that woman, Butterfly, thinks it’s a real marriage. After the sailor, Pinkerton, leaves she raises their son as an American and refuses all other suitors. In Act II she dreams of when he’ll return (listen out for the famous aria ‘Un bel dì, vedremo’), but when he does it’s with his new American wife to acquire the baby. Butterfly makes sure they arrive to pick up the boy just as she kills herself.
Il Trittico
After a domestic scandal that almost sent his wife to prison, Puccini lost his way for a few years. One of his experiments at this time was an evening of three one-act operas. The first was a grim tale of infidelity and murder, the second a weepie about a dying nun, and the third Puccini’s only comedy, Gianni Schicchi. This mediaeval story of a family squabbling over who should inherit Schicchi’s wealth contains the rapturous aria ‘O mio Babbino Caro’.
Turandot
This man-hating Chinese princess would be a great catch but to marry her you must answer three riddles. Get them wrong and she executes you. Undercover, Prince Calaf risks everything on the Turandot challenge and gets three out of three but, capriciously, offers that if she can guess his name she can execute him. Calaf’s great aria ‘Nessun Dorma’ is sung while Turandot is off-stage torturing people who might provide the name.

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Tuscany, second (third or fourth) time around


First-timers to Tuscany often focus on the frescoes, not the fields of sunflowers. Take Florence. The city of Botticelli and Brunelleschi, home to half of Italy’s Unesco art treasures, can seem daunting. August can mean gridlock by the goldsmiths on the Ponte Vecchio, and seething crowds around Michelangelo’s massive, heavy-veined David. As well as Florence, first-timers flock to Siena and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, stopping only for San Gimignano (“medieval Manhattan”) and wine-tasting in the Chiantishire vineyards. After an indigestible feast of art history and riservas, Tuscany gets ticked off for ever.

Or you could be stirred to slip away and take it slowly? Tuscany for second- (third- or fourth-) timers means not missing out on sleepy hill towns that might steal your heart. There’s time for hearing Puccini in piazzas, cycling the ramparts, and siestas by sunflower fields. Going off-piste works for sophisticates or seven-year-olds, with Vin Santo or ice cream an antidote to artistic overload. And you can expect fewer teenage tantrums in empty minor museums studded with masterpieces.

If you like Florence, you’ll love unsung Pistoia a miniature, less touristy version, complete with twin town hall – a tiny Palazzo Vecchio. With its shadowy streets and medieval mood, Pistoia feels bubble-wrapped against modernity. The main square offers a dizzying sense of medieval might. Admire the jauntily striped Romanesque cathedral, the sky-high bell tower and the wedding-cake baptistery. Climb the crenellated bell tower for a bird’s-eye view of the square, one of the loveliest in Tuscany. Mostly pedestrianised, Pistoia also revels in its contemporary side, from bold museums to street art, suggesting a vibrant cultural scene. Even so, as dusk falls, the streets see Franciscan friars striding along in their brown habits and rope belts, just as they did in the Middle Ages.
Lucca is best seen on foot – but look down as well as up to catch the street art. Photo: Lisa Gerard-Sharp

If overwhelmed by Pisa, and the posers around the Leaning Tower, try perfectly preserved Luccawhich was built on a human scale. Ringed by Renaissance walls, crowd-pleasing Lucca invites strolling and shopping, church-goggling and café crawls. The massive ramparts seem made for jogging, flirting, gossiping and cycling. What’s more, Lucca’s skyline is superior to Pisa’s, with ravishing vistas from the top of the Romanesque-Gothic Torre Guinigi tower-house. This city of bizarre churches climaxes in the crazily patterned San Michele in Foro, a Romanesque concoction on the Roman Forum site. Wander Via Fillungo, one of Tuscany’s prettiest shopping streets, and retreat to genteel Pasticceria Taddeucci for pastries and coffee. To jaded urbanities, Lucca represents life as it should be led.
Pop into one of Volterra’s alabaster workshops to see the artisans at work. Photo: Aquarius/Alamy

For elemental Etruscan Tuscany, try Volterra instead of jam-packed San Gimignano. Perched on a majestic ridge overlooking soft hills and deep gullies, Volterra commands its remote setting, entered via the best-preserved Etruscan gateway in Italy. The road climbs to Piazza dei Priori, the most theatrical square, dominated by the town hall, a model for Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. A ramble through this multi-layered medieval town reveals Roman and Etruscan walls, along with ancient epigraphs encrusted in Renaissance mansions. The compelling Etruscan Museum runs the gamut of Etruscan demonology and Greek mythology, featuring sea monsters, Greek gods and beaked griffins. Enigmatic sculptures blur the line between mortality and immortality. Before giving up the ghost, call into Volterra’s alabaster workshops to learn about alabaster-carving, yet another Etruscan legacy.
The San Biagio tower guards Montepulciano’s Piazza Grande. Photo: Kumar Sriskandan/Alamy

Further south, if Siena strikes you as claustrophobic, choose Montepulciano a dignified Renaissance outpost. Standing sentinel is San Biagio, a honey-toned Renaissance temple topped by a perfect dome, with a purity of line echoing the Pantheon in Rome. The town hall is a miniature version of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, with a tower surveying Siena province, from Val d’Orcia to Monte Amiata and Siena itself. Overlooking the set-piece square, the winery Contucci Cantine offers a taste of noble life, a loftiness at one with the town itself. The Contucci dynasty has been making Vino Nobile di Montepulciano in their ancestral mansion since Renaissance times. This being Tuscany, the family often leads the guided tasting and cellar tour. This smooth red wine with a hint of violets was ennobled in 1549 when Pope Paul III’s sommelier proclaimed it “a most perfect wine, a wine for lords”. Call into equally smooth Caffè Poliziano and take in the pastoral views, preferably with a glass of Vino Nobile in hand.
Montalcino has a mellow, medieval heart to explore. Photo: Valerio Mei/Evgeny Shmulev/Alamy

If Pienza feels too popular, visit spirited Montalcino, Montepulciano’s hilltop neighbour. From afar, Montalcino resembles a medieval Sienese painting, especially at sunset. While Pienza was perfectly planned, Montalcino developed around its fortress, so has a sense of freedom and spiritedness that Pienza lacks. With few must-see sights, Montalcino is more about the mellow mood and drinking in the views from the home of prized Brunello di Montalcino wine. The citadel sums up Montalcino, from the medieval battlements and wide vistas to its beguiling wine-tasting centre.

It’s a travesty to equate Tuscany with Chiantishire, a parody of an English country-house party transposed to Italy. Still, if you’re tired of the slightly soporific Chianti and feeling restless for transcendent scenery, try the Val d’Orcia. Montalcino opens up this Unesco-listed patchwork of craggy castles, hilltop hamlets, remote abbeys and moody natural spas. From the ribbons of vineyards to the serried exclamation marks of cypresses, the area is less populated, less manicured and less commercialised than Chianti. It’s here that Tuscans best master the art of country living, of deep harmony with the land. Expect to be shaken and stirred, whether by the giant sunflowers or by a balloon ride over the valley.
Cortona’s Girifalco fortress is worth the hike for the views. Photo: Francesco Bonino/Alamy

Finally, if you are underwhelmed by unprepossessing Arezzo, visit Cortona the perfect hill-top town. Enticing Cortona is a place for pottering in search of the Etruscans, while being beset by Puccini-playing buskers and tempting cafes. In the Etruscan Museum, gaze at a dolphin- and gorgon-encrusted Etruscan chandelier, proof that this was the most important Etruscan city in northern Tuscany. Hike up to the Medici fortress for views of terraced olive groves and vineyards stretching towards Lake Trasimeno. This dreamy spot was once an Etruscan acropolis but you might prefer to dream in the citadel’s wine bar, or to feast on Val di Chiana T-bone steak, washed down with Chianti Classico, of course. Forget Florentine frescoes: Tuscany for second-timers means succumbing to chance encounters.

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Eye in the sky: Tuscany from above


Sometimes you can get a fresh perspective on a place if you look at it from a different angle. That’s the case with Belvedere: In Volo Sulla Toscana (Flying Above Tuscany), a collection of aerial photos by the Florence-based photographer Guido Cozzi. His unusual compilation captures the essence of Tuscany but offers a different way of seeing. Take a look at a few of our favourite shots…

CRETE SENESI (main picture, above): Seen from the sky, the Crete Senesi is green in spring, ochre in summer, and bronze or grey in autumn and winter. But the colour that never changes is the local red brick of the buildings. The ancient tradition of brick-making was carried out using kilns scattered across the region, which supplied monumental works such as the abbeys of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Badia Ardenga and the walls of Buonconvento. The travertine and dressed stone in nearby Rapolano is a perfect complement to the almost monotone use of this brick, adding a pleasing visual and structural complexity to the urban landscape.
VERSILIA VIAREGGIO (Above top): Versilia is just one beach, yet it is 36km long and has more than 500 sunbathing areas, with some 10,000 colourful umbrellas opening to the sky each day. This was an elite tourist destination in the early 20th century, hence the local Art Nouveau architecture, though today little is done to promote the place.

MAZZOLLA VOLTERRA  (above bottom): There are almost half a million sheep in Tuscany, particularly in the hilly pastures of the Crete Senesi in Val d’Orcia, around Volterra, and in Maremma. Agriculture declined in the 1950s and 1960s but has since revived, partly due to significant immigration from Sardinia and a new awareness of the value of quality cheeses. For more than 20 years a special consortium has protected and promoted Pecorino Toscano, producing more than 1.3 million truckles of the cheese each year.

SANTUARIO DELLA VERNA (above top): The ancient beech forest covering Monte Penna, in the Casentino, has always given shelter to dreamers and fugitives, including thieves and bandits who hid here and dedicated a primitive temple to their protector, the goddess Laverna. They built a temple on the rock, where in 1224 Saint Francis, chief of all dreamers, received the stigmata and made this wild and lonely spot a place of pilgrimage. The limestone, from the Miocene era, on which the sanctuary rests, has the same geological characteristics as Monte Titano in the Republic of San Marino and the Sasso Simone e Simoncello in the Marche.

CASA ROSSA XIMENES CASTIGLIONE DELLA PESCAIA (above bottom): The massive red-brick building standing astride one of the outflow channels of the marshes of Castiglione della Pescaia was built by the engineer Leonardo Ximenes in 1765 as part of extensive reclamation work in Maremma. The building housed winches and water gates that could be operated to separate the freshwater of the swamp from the salt water of the sea, preventing the formation of the “miasma”, which, according to the scientific theories of the day, was the main cause of malaria. The marsh is a rare ecosystem, home to a wealth of birdlife and 15 different species of orchid.


TORRE MOZZA PIOMBINO (above left): This fortified building projecting into the sea was built in the 16th century by the Appiani family, the counts of Piombino, who for centuries dominated the coast and the Tuscan archipelago. The tower was used to control the mining trade from the nearby island of Elba. Close to the shore, just below sea level, lie the remains of a Roman road, once part of the Via Aurelia. The photo above right shows the countryside around Monteriggioni
Belvedere: In Volo Sulla Toscana (Flying Above Tuscany) by Guido Cozzi (Sime Books, £20). The book is available from www.simebooks.com and the photographs from www.simephoto.com

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Eight hidden gems to visit in Tuscany



Finding new and lesser-known places in Tuscany can mean your trip is truly unforgettable. The charm and unassuming appeal of the local villages in the region offer a wonderfully authentic experience. These hidden gems may not often be included in the guidebooks but they are well worth seeking out.

1 Monticchiello
The walled village of Monticchiello is the counterpoint to over-popular Pienza, viewed from its medieval ramparts. Strung out along the crest of a hill, this fortified hamlet is proud of its peasant origins, which are showcased in “poor-man’s theatre” every summer. Starring the villagers themselves, this “peasants’ play” (Teatro Povero) presents rural life, embracing social protest and marginalisation. To show your support, you’ll probably want to stay for the peasant cooking, ranging from chickpea or bean soups to tripe and rabbit dishes.Osteria La Porta, on Via del Piano, would tempt princes or peasants with its tasty pici, stubby pasta served with sheep's milk cheese. 

Radicofani. Photo: Guido Cozzi/4Corners
2 Radicofani
Set on the edges of prettified Val d’Orcia and rugged Monte Amiata, Radicofani remains an arresting borderlands stronghold, trapped in a medieval limbo. The writer Charles Dickens called this rocky spur of a setting “as bar­ren, as stony, and as wild as Cornwall”. Now a ravishing backwater, Radicofani first flourished as a Sienese bulwark against Florentine power and as a stop on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route to Rome. Crowned by a castle, perched on a craggy basalt rock, known as La Fortezza, this Medici fortress now houses the Museo del Cassero, with an Etruscan and medieval collection. 

Civitella in Val di Chiana. Photo: Alessandro Ciolini/Alamy  
3 Civitella in Val di Chiana
Often dismissed as a lunch spot between the Chianti and ArezzoCivitella in Val di Chiana is worth more time than it takes to devour a Tuscan T-bone steak. Like Arezzo, the provincial capital, this rural backwater has not sold its soul to tourism. Apart from being a bastion of Slow Food, with chickpea soup and roast rabbit on the menu, Civitella is small-town Tuscany. Unfurled along a ridge, this fortified outpost surveys cypresses and olive groves. Beyond the medieval gateway lie vaulted alleyways and a Romanesque church, forming a timeless scene surmounted by a ruined castle.Lucignano. Photo: Zoonar/Alamy
4 LucignanoLucignano, west of the more celebrated Cortona, offers another taste of the Val di Chiana, famous for its Florentine steaks. This oval-shaped hill town, tucked into medieval walls, enjoys a commanding view of the Val di Chiana. It’s a pleasing game of concentric circles converging on the central square, where temporal and spiritual powers meet in the Gothic town hall and its shadow power, the church of San Michele. Feast on T-Bone steak inIl Goccino, on Via Matteotti, and, for contrast, consider a spot of designer shopping in the Valdichiana Outlet Village in neighbouring Foiano della Chiana.

Bolgheri. Photo: PqPictures/Alamy
5 Bolgheri
Wine-growing Bolgheri is synonymous with the all-conquering super-Tuscan wines that make this stretch of the Etruscan Coast so special. Forget incongruous images of beady-eyed Etruscans lounging under beach umbrellas, much as they do on funerary urns. At Cecina, south of Castiglioncello, leave the Costa degli Etruschi for medieval Bolgheri. Charming though tiny Bolgheri is, it’s really a stepping stone to the Etruscan Riviera wine trail, complete with low-slung farmhouses and Tuscany’s most acclaimed wines. Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Solaia spell the future of Tuscan wine-making, with Ornellaiathe most intriguing estate, run by the illustrious Frescobaldi dynasty, who’ve been in wine for 700 years.
6 VolpaiaVolpaia is a revitalised village just off the Chiantigiana, or Chianti Way. It’s both a cinematic hamlet and the hub of a sustainable community. On the surface, this outpost looks the part, with fierce towers, tortuous alleys, deconsecrated churches and secret courtyards. Yet Castello di Volpaia is a castle and winery repurposed for modern living, without sacrificing the soul of the village or its surface sheen of antiquity. Given its vineyards and farmlands, Volpaia is virtually self-sufficient, with estate workers housed within the walls. The local lifeblood is wine and olive oil, with low-key tourism flowing in its wake, like a vintage Chianti.
Monteriggioni. Photo: Shutterstock
7 Monteriggioni
Often dubbed “the gateway to the Middle Ages”, walled Monteriggioni is the quintessential medieval town, bristling with fortifications. Ringed by towers, this theatrical Sienese hilltop settlement was built as a bulwark against Florentine foes. Today, it’s a place for dolce far niente, the sweet art of doing nothing at all. Monteriggioni in Arme, the evocative Museum of Arms, conjures up chivalric times. Walking these battlements gives a true sense of what it must have been like to be a medieval knight. It’s not surprising that the town inspired the popular Assassin’s Creed film and video game franchise.
San Giovanni d’Asso. Photo: Danita Delimont/Alamy
8 San Giovanni d’Asso 
Set in rolling countryside north of Montalcino, San Giovanni d’Asso is a glorified hamlet that thinks itself a city-state, Tuscan-style. San Giovanni retains its medieval street plan and proud urban spirit, pride at odds with its current status as truffle-fest-with-castle-attached. Medieval insecurity accounts for the cluster of castles built in this sleepy corner of Siena province. Despite two Romanesque churches, San Giovanni is mostly about the medieval mood of its terracotta-tinged castle, home to the Museo del Tartufo, the White Truffle Museum. Snaffle up the autumn truffle fair or ride the occasional Nature Train, a journey through the surrounding landscape.

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These four blockbuster movies were all set in Tuscany

A Room With A View (1985) Director: James Ivory
When a young Englishwoman, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), and her prim chaperone, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), arrive in Florence, the capital of Tuscany, in the 1900s, they are given rooms without views. Fellow guests Mr Emerson and his son, George (Julian Sands), graciously offer to switch their rooms with the ladies – allowing them a clear view of the Ponte Vecchio bridge over the River Arno.

Gorgeous cinematography and stirring opera music underscore the unfolding love story of passionate Lucy and free-spirited George. This Oscar-winning film mixes panoramic views and detailed close-ups of Florence’s historic centre, including the scene at Dante’s tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce, where a Florentine offers to accompany Lucy to view the Giotto frescoes, and the flower-filled hillsides of Fiesole, where Lucy has her first kiss with George. Watch A Room With A View on AmazonMuch Ado About Nothing (1993) Director: Kenneth Branagh
Branagh chose Villa Vignamaggio as the setting for his outstanding adaptation of Shakespeare’s theatrical comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, in which young lovers Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard), soon to be wed at the home of Leonato (Richard Briers), conspire to trick verbal sparring partners and confirmed singles, Beatrice (Emma Thompson) and Benedick (Kenneth Branagh), into confessing their true love for each other. The Vignamaggio estate sits on a hill just outside the town of Greve, in the heart of Italy’s most famous wine-making region, Chianti Classico. Most of the story unfolds in the rooms and courtyards of the villa, as well as in the estate’s Renaissance garden and orchards, contributing a sense of timelessness and isolation from the rest of the world. It’s an uplifting movie, especially the final scene, shot with a single camera in one take, in which the villa’s guests sing and dance around the gardens in a joyful celebration. Watch Much Ado About Nothing on AmazonThe English Patient (1996) Director: Anthony Minghella
In a crumbling villa in Italy during the Second World War, Hana (Juliette Binoche), a nurse, tends to her badly burned, semi-amnesiac patient, Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes). His past is shown in flashbacks, revealing his involvement in a fateful love affair. Minghella’s beguiling Oscar-winning adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s novel has many scenes that were filmed on location in Tuscany. Some external shots show the hamlet of Ripafratta, panning across its fortress and bridge over the River Serchio, with most footage filmed in the Val d’Orcia, especially the village of Pienza. The Tuscan monastery Sant’ Anna in Camprena is a focal point, where the English patient was employed as a map maker in the 1930s. The 13th-century Bacci Chapel in the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo also features in a touching scene when Hana studies the frescoes of Piero della Francesca. Watch The English Patient on AmazonHannibal (2001) Director: Ridley Scott
Having successfully eluded the authorities for years, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), the murdering cannibal, lives peacefully in Florence, in a 15th-century building, with frescoes of muses by Ghirlandaio, on the Palazzo Capponi, masquerading as an expert in Florentine art and history. Trouble strikes when local police commissioner Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) begins to suspect Hannibal’s character and is disturbed by Lecter’s fascination with his wife, Allegra – chillingly shown in the opera scene in the cloister of Santa Croce. Learning of a large reward for anyone who assists in Lecter’s capture, Pazzi attempts to kidnap him, but he’s picked the wrong guy. Hannibal’s ensuing trail of murder displays Florence in all its gothic glory, as he commits his most gruesome crimes in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica, staining the Porcellino fountain in Piazza del Mercato Nuovo with his victim’s blood. Watch Hannibal on Netflix.

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Let there be light for Pisa’s patron saint

They know how to throw a party in Tuscany, the annual calendar is filled with festivals and special events. One of the more unusual is the Luminara, a festival of lights that takes place in Pisa in spring.

As the sun sets on the city on 16 June, more than 70,000 candles, lumini, are hung on the ancient palaces that line the Lungarni by the River Arno, and float on its waters. Crowds gather on the banks of the river to see the city take on an ethereal glow and also watch the climax of the evening, a huge fireworks display launched from the old citadel.

But what’s it all about? La Luminara is held in honour of St Rainerius – or San Rainieri – the patron saint of travellers and of Pisa, the city of his birth.  Born Rainerius Scacceri in 1115 to a wealthy family, he worked as a travelling minstrel in his youth. On his travels, Rainerius met a holy man named Alberto, a nobleman from Corsica who had forgone his wealth to join the monastery of St Vitus in Pisa and work with the poor.

Rainerius was so impressed by Alberto’s story that he decided to devote his life to Christianity, journeying to the Holy Land in 1146, where he served his penance as a hermit and beggar. Returning to Pisa in 1153, word soon spread about this charismatic preacher who was said to have the power to perform miracles and exorcisms. When he died, just seven years later in 1160, he was already regarded as a saint and his body was carried through the streets to be laid to rest in the Duomo.

Today, the Luminari isn’t the only way Pisa marks San Ranieri’s memory. He is also remembered in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where two treasures associated with him can be seen; the hermit robe he wore, and an exquisite medieval bronze gate, that once stood in the cathedral, with 24 panels, each telling a story from the New Testament.

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