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10 ways you never thought you’d experience Tuscany

  • Tuscany may be popular for its historic towns and cities, dreamy rural landscapes, world-class art and fine wine, but there is a quirky side to the region, too. Whether you are a returning visitor or it’s your first time in the area, these entertaining activities will give you something to write home about.

    Eat dinner in a prison

    Foodies in search of a truly unusual experience should book a table at one of the Galeotta dinners held at the working prison Fortezza Medicea in Volterra, near Pisa. Here, inmates learn valuable catering skills by cooking and serving dinner to paying guests, under the direction of famous visiting chefs. On arrival, diners pass through the cold steel gates of the fortress and are led to a large dungeon-like room with a vaulted ceiling. Guards keep an eye on guests as they eat reasonably priced meals – using plastic cutlery. Even the booking process is bizarre; you must apply for a criminal background check two months before your dinner date.

    Learn how to make ice cream from blue cheese

    The town of Castellina is an essential stop on a tour of Chianti. While it’s best known as a centre of wine production, one of its other highlights is Gelateria di Castellina (+39 0577 741337), where they make some of the best ice cream in Italy. Owners Chiara and Simone are very particular about the quality of the gelato they produce, which is available in 24 flavours. Find out about the process in more detail at one of their ice-cream classes, where more unusual samples to taste include ice cream made from blue cheese.

    Meet a monster

    Watch out for monsters at Bomarzo. The Park of the Monsters – Il Parco dei Mostri – near Viterbo is dominated by larger-than-life monstrous sculptures. They were commissioned by Francesco Orsini, the Duke of Bormarzo, during the 16th century, as a way of coping with his grief following the death of his wife. Subjects include a whale, winged horse, giant, dragon attacked by lions, and a turtle with a winged woman on its back. Unsurprisingly, the great surrealist artist Salvador Dali was a big fan of Orsini’s curious collection.

    Bathe in wine

    After a warm bath, there was nothing the ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed more than scrubbing their bodies with pulp and grapes – the perfect way to release tension and rejuvenate the skin. Take a leaf out of their book at Castellare de’ Noveschi (+39 0577 746010) in San Sano, near Gaiole, where fragrant baths await weary bodies. Here, in a cosy cellar, a whirlpool bath for two is filled with warm water and wine, the atmosphere enhanced with scents of berry, rose, violet and orange. A very relaxing way to spend 45 minutes.

    Taste bull’s penis and testicles

    The stalls at Florence’s Mercato Centrale are piled high with bread, cheese, salami, fish, meat – everything you could possibly want to make an authentic Tuscan meal. But what about bull’s penis and testicles? Now that’s something to surprise them with for dinner back at the villa.

    See a mountain god

    Half-man, half-mountain, a sculpture of Appennino stands 35 feet tall in the grounds of the Villa Demidoff near Florence. This colossus, created in the late 1500s by the sculptor Giambologna, hides a wonderful secret – his interior includes several spaces with different functions. Inside his left hand is an underground stream, and there is a space in his head for a fireplace – light a fire and the smoke blows out of his nostrils.

    Wallow in mud

    Head to the village of Bagni San Filippo in southern Tuscany to play in the natural thermal waters. Follow the signs to Fosso Bianco to discover hot springs, pools and waterfalls in the wild. You can even choose your preferred temperature – the lower down the springs you go, the cooler the water. Give your skin a polish, too, by covering yourself in the mud and allowing it to dry – the perfect natural exfoliant.

    Witness the Second World War

    Tuscany is a peaceful place today, but in 1944 it was filled with the roar and smoke of battle. This was the site of the Gothic Line – in fact, many German and Allied bunkers and positions still remain. To remember what took place in this area, Gotica Toscana, a group of enthusiasts based in Scarperia near Florence, regularly re-enact pivotal historical events from the Second World War.

    Stroll around the Tarot Garden

    A sculpture garden based on the tarot cards is surely one of Tuscany’s unique sights. Il Giardino del Tarocchi in Grosseto is the work of the late French artist, Niki de Saint Phalle, who started the project in the late 1970s. Her garden, inspired by the mysteries of the tarot, is set with 22 monumental figures that can be walked through, extraordinary sculptures made from reinforced concrete covered with colourful mosaics of mirrors and ceramics.

    Eat wild boar with chocolate

    Think chocolate, think dessert. Not in Italy. The Italians have been adding the stuff to savoury dishes for centuries, since cacao beans first arrived from the New World. Fine dark chocolate offers a complex taste profile, a lovely toasted flavour and a silky finish to dishes featuring venison and wild boar – keep a look out for them on restaurant menus.

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