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Wildlife & Nature

Where can I find Tuscany’s most beautiful gardens? What will I see in Tuscany’s natural parks? Is there a path where I can wander through this glorious countryside? Which animals should I look out for in the local fields and woods? Questions, questions – and we’ve got the answers. Read on to discover the wonders of Tuscany’s landscape, from formal gardens to wild terrain shaped by nature. We’ll show you where to join one of Europe’s famous long-distance walking routes, the Via Francigena. And we’ll tell you why you should keep an eye out for a porcupine. Plus, we'll point the way to the best viewpoints, amazing thermal spas, cleanest beaches in the world and more.

Wildlife & Nature

These Tuscan beaches are some of the cleanest in the world


Tuscany has topped the charts yet again for having more official Blue Flag beaches and marinas than anywhere else in Italy, apart from Liguria. The prestigious global Blue Flag eco-label is awarded by the Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) for locations with pure, clean and safe water and beaches that offer access for all. Here are seven of our favourites from the 19 destinations that won the coveted award in Tuscany.
Forte dei Marmi
This glamorous resort, set against the backdrop of the Apuan Alps, owes its name to the Carrera marble brought here from the quarries in the mountains (along a road built by Michelangelo in the 16th century). By the 1800s, the “fort of the marbles” was a seaside playground for Italian high society and its popularity continued to grow, luring creative giants including the writer Thomas Mann and sculptor Henry Moore in the 20th century, as well as wealthy industrialists, such as the Agnelli family, owners of Fiat. To this day, it remains a fashionable place to see and be seen.

Follow in the footsteps of the locals to the lovely beach at Calambrone. Photo: Shutterstock
Tirrenia and Calambrone
The dictator Benito Mussolini transformed this former marshland into seaside resorts, as well as a centre for making propaganda movies, and the Fascist architecture he commissioned – massive complexes that hosted ideological summer camps for children – can still be seen today. Yet, despite its grim origins, these coastal towns are popular, particularly with Italians, for their clear waters, which offer welcome relief from the heat of the day in the nearby cities of Pisa and Livorno. Calambrone is especially favoured by windsurfers.

Castiglioncello beach CREDIT : Finn/Interstil
Castiglioncello
This pretty seaside town, south of Pisa, has been a cultural hotspot since the 19th century. Once the retreat of painters in the Macchiaioli movement, sometimes called the Italian Impressionists, it was made world-famous by Dino Risi’s 1960s cult movie Il Sorpasso and so became the summer stomping ground of stars such as Marcello Mastroianni. Although the coastline here is a string of coves and rocky cliffs, backed by fragrant pine woods, there are two sandy beaches to choose from – Quercetano Bay and the Cove of Castiglioncello. If you can’t find a spot on the sand, some of the cliffs nearby are scaffolded with sunbathing platforms looking out over the sea.
Marina di Castagneto Carducci
The rural shores of Marina di Castagneto may be a place to romp and relax for today’s visitor, yet in the 18th century this was part of a coastal defence, along with its hinterland of pine woods and the fort at Castagneto Carducci, which still watches over the area. As well as being a great place to splash about in the sea, the woods here are home to a large amusement park, Il Cavallino Matto, featuring roller-coasters and water rides.

Rub shoulders with the smart set at Punta Ala. Photo: imageBROKER/Alamy
Marina di Punta Ala 
The smart set has long known about this pine-cloaked headland, hence the chic houses that peep out of its glades and the racing yachts in its marina. But you don’t need a Swiss bank account to enjoy the beach here. It’s a raw beauty, with rocky outcrops and golden sands that dissolve into sparkling waters. The only problem will be choosing between a shady spot under a sun umbrella or beneath the boughs of the pine trees.
Principina A Mare
It’s no wonder Principina A Mare is a stalwart of the Blue Flag list. To the north, this fine stretch of sands reaches the port of Marina di Grosseto. To the south, it gets wilder as it becomes part of the Maremma Natural Park and meets the marshy land around the birdlife-filled mouth of the Ombrone river. Ideal for families, especially with young children, the sea here is shallow and sandy-bottomed. The whole beach has plenty of public areas. For wind-free bathing and calmer waters, visit in the morning.

Lay down your sunhat at Porto Ercole Le Viste on Monte Argentario. Photo: Shutterstock
Port Ercole Le Viste
Loosely tethered to the mainland by the tomboli, two sandy causeways, the mountain of Argentario is virtually an island. The little beach at Porto Ercole Le Viste is a nice spot to lay one’s sunhat – a quieter, more rural alternative to Santo Stefano on the other side of the peninsula. The beach is pebbly, with a partly grassed terrace fashioned out of a flat rock. There’s a platform for diving and a natural wading pool that will keep little ones happy. The glassy waters and a seabed characterised by bits of reef are a snorkellers’ delight.

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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 fromwww.simephoto.com

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Step out on the Via Francigena


It felt like I was walking into a painting. Beneath the blue sky, a grassy path curved around a field scattered with haystacks, with a row of cypress trees at its rear. The colourful patchwork of a distant hill was made up of golden fields, a pale green vineyard and a darker square of olive trees, while lone villas and a tiny hilltop town completed the view. It was the perfect Tuscan scene that I always dreamed of exploring. Walking some of the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrim route from Northern Europe to Rome, I was treated to such landscapes all day every day.

I’d started that particular day in the town of San Miniato, filling my water bottle at the fountain and stocking up on fruit, sandwiches and sweet cantuccini biscuits at the local deli before setting off. San Miniato, strategically located on the junction between the Via Francigena and the road from Florence to Pisa, was the scene of many battles in the Middle Ages and various rulers fortified it with a castle and city walls. It was all quiet, though, as I looked out on the Arno Valley from the clock tower, before leaving town to see the Tuscan countryside on foot.

Turning off the main road, I joined a white gravel trail, exchanging the noise of the traffic for that of water in a stream and the songs of birds and crickets. I passed lavish stone villas with tree-lined driveways, and working farms, vineyards and olive groves, admiring as I went the views across the valleys to blue and black hills on the horizon.

San Gimignano is an essential stop along the route. Photo: Alpineguide/Alamy, Kevin George/Alamy

Later that day, I arrived in the town of Gambassi Terme and sipped a reviving coffee in the main square before exploring the village’s streets and alleys. I discovered tall houses with ornate doorways, windows framed by wooden shutters and boxes of flowers, and old-fashioned street lamps that lit my way when dusk descended. In medieval times the town was popular for its hot springs and pilgrims would stop here on their long journey to rest weary limbs or drink the curative waters. Modern-day pilgrims like me can still take the waters or check into a spa resort.

The next day, the trail led me to San Gimignano. At times the path was lined with wild white flowers among which danced butterflies and dragonflies. Elsewhere, I walked through copses of dark green oak and chestnut forest and olive groves, and saw signs alerting me to the likely presence of deer and where I might make a detour for a tasting of Chianti wine and olive oil.

One of my favourite rest stops was Monastero di Bose in Pieve di Cellole, at the top of a hill, garlanded with wild flowers and supplied with wooden benches from which to take in the views across the Elsa Valley. A notice here requests ‘silenzio’ – but the views are enough to still anyone for a moment of quiet reflection. Here, too, I found a Romanesque church dating from 1109 that has been rebuilt, and a small shop where I browsed pottery and preserves made at the monastery.

The next part of the trail took me through a meadow of tall grass and flowers to the main road to San Gimignano, and the hilltop town’s famous medieval towers came into view.

I passed through a grand gateway into the narrow streets of the old town, where restaurants and gelaterias lined my way to the Piazza del Duomo. Shops here sell everything from souvenirs to salami. But a better treat awaited me at the top of the Torre Grossa, where I contemplated the landscapes through which I’d travelled and those still to come on the Via Francigena.

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