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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
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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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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Six glorious Tuscan gardens

Tuscany is home to some of the most beautiful Renaissance gardens in Italy, designed for some of the most influential residents of the region. It is the perfect way to discover the rich history of Tuscany, exploring a wide variety centuries old art and local nature. Here are just a few of our favourites...

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Get back to nature at these three top beauty spots on the Tuscan coast

Whichever way you turn in the Tuscan countryside, your eyes are sure to settle on a wonderful view. Yet this landscape isn’t all about sentries of olive groves and vineyards, it’s also home to wilder patches of nature. Here are three of our favourites close to the coast.
Tuscan Archipelago National Park
This national park covers a stretch of the Med from Livorno in the north to the Lazio border in the south, taking in seven main islands off the Tuscan coast, including Elba, where Napoleon was exiled. Carved by the waves over the millennia, each of the islands in the archipelago has its distinct shape and character, from the rocky cone of Montecristo to the flatlands of Pianosa, and is inhabited by plants and wildlife that have been influenced not only by the marine location but the arrival of man and years of mining, too.
Maremma Natural Park
South-east of the city of Grosseto is one of Tuscany’s most unexpected landscapes, the unspoilt coastline of the Maremma. Once this was a malarial swamp, only ventured into by the local cowboys, known as butteri, a community that is dwindling but can still be seen herding cattle here today. The result is untrammelled nature now protected by law, a place to wiggle your feet in the sand on a beach backed by dunes and thick pine woods, and frolic in the clear waters of rocky coves where pirates once hid out.
Val Di Cornia
Rich in archaeological sites and natural assets, the Val di Cornia, near Livorno, delivers both history and beauty. Its historic trail stretches back through feudal times, evident in the layout and fabric of local towns, to the Romans and Etruscans, whose tombs can be seen in abundance at the Baratti and Populonia Archaeological Park. Alternatively, you could just enjoy the scene; the river Cornia meanders through fertile plains cloaked in olive groves and oak woods where wild boar rootle in the scrub on its way to the nearby coast.

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Relax in the soothing waters of Tuscany’s thermal spas

Art, architecture and… hot springs. Tuscany may be world-renowned for the first two, but few outside Italy know much about the last. Yet, particularly in winter, an al-fresco soaking in mineral-rich waters is one of the best ways to enjoy this famous landscape.

Most of the springs are around Monte Amiata, the hulking, dormant volcano in southern Tuscany that separates the Maremma and Siena regions and forms the backdrop to the Val d’Orcia. It hasn’t erupted for about 200,000 years; but it keeps things bubbling under the surface with hot springs gushing up around its foothills.

Hot springs are a way of life for Italians – they can access thermal treatments as part of the national health service. But apart from the health-giving properties, which vary from spring to spring, these thermal waters provide an incredibly relaxing way to get back to nature, and see Tuscany.
Chianciano Terme has a superb spa, Terme SensorialiChianciano Terme
Chianciano, just below the Val d’Orcia, is perhaps the best known of Tuscany’s spa towns – which is down in no small part to Federico Fellini, who set his film 8 ½ here. The hot springs were beloved by the Romans – poet Horace was dispatched here by his doctor – and before them, the Etruscans. Of course, 2,000 years of development means they’re not free anymore (although you can wander through the pine-filled Acqua Santa park and drink the liver-fortifying water from a tap at no cost).

There’s still a significant medical element to the springs, but today Chianciano is a big wellness destination, with a superb spa, the Terme Sensoriali. With twenty “experiences” include chromotherapy baths, a bracing Kneipp pathway (where you walk on pebbles as you’re blasted by hot and cold water), a womblike soundproof cube, and an energy-aligning pyramid – so you can plan your own itinerary. Don’t miss slathering yourself in the mud room, or the indoor-outdoor thermal pool that’s so warm you can happily stew outside in the middle of winter. It’s a brilliant introduction to the thermal scene. 

Address: Via della Valle, 104, 53042 Chianciano Terme SI, Italy
Tel: +39 0578 68501
Web: San Filippo
Deep in the wilderness, the Fosso Bianco pools, near the village of Bagni San Filippo, are perhaps the most spectacular-looking of Tuscany’s thermal springs. A five-minute, signposted walk from the village into the wooded valley brings you to what looks like an enormous static waterfall. In fact, the billowing white rock is a calcium build-up from the thermal waters that flow over it, and into the pool below. It’s high in sulphur, as well as calcium, so there’s an unmistakable aroma.

Signs advise you not to bathe (because of health-and-safety issues), but they’re ignored by all and sundry, who pile into the natural pools.

Address: Via del Bollore, 33, 53023 Castiglione d'Orcia SI, Italy

The Fosso Bianco pools look like an enormous static waterfall. Photo: Stephen Hughes/AlamySaturnia
Tucked around the back of Monte Amiata in the Maremma region, Saturnia’s remote location has ensured the survival of its extraordinary volcanic crater. Here, in a natural clay-bottomed pool, water gushes out at 500 litres per second and at a steady 37°C. The crater itself, which has been ingeniously enclosed and turned into a thermal pool, is open only to guests of the Terme di Saturnia resort. But there’s also an on-site “thermal park” – one of the largest in Europe – with a series of interconnecting pools, hydromassage tubs and showers, all using the sulphurous thermal water.

From the park, the water gushes downstream for a kilometre, before hitting its most famous spot, the Cascate del Mulino – a sequence of “waterfalls” where the thermal water rushes over frothy-looking calcium deposits, pooling in what appear to be natural hot tubs, before continuing downstream, to another set of waterfalls where locals are said to bathe their arthritic horses at night. It’s not only free to enjoy the Cascate, it’s easy to access, too, with a large car park. But go midweek – it’s incredibly busy at weekends.

Address: SP della Follonata, 58014 Saturnia GR, Italy
Tel: +390564600600
Half an hour’s drive south of Siena, en route to the Maremma, is Petriolo, where the 43°C water fills up a swimming pool-sized area beside the Farma river. Known in Roman times, Petriolo came into its own in the medieval period, when it became a pay-per-entry spa. Over the centuries, it has been popular with gentry, including the Medici family, and, later, even the Papal court.

Today, it’s loved for its sauna-like experience, where you soak in Italy’s hottest thermal waters, before leaping over the calcium “wall” into the river for a bracing dip. But beware: although there’s a waterfall-like calcium build-up that looks similar to those at Saturnia and Bagni San Filippo, here the water is pumped over the minerals in plastic pipes. While it might not be as aesthetic as the others, it’s full of history – and still surrounded by the ruins of the old Renaissance spa.

Address: Terme di Petriolo
Strada Provinciale di Petriolo, 53015 Monticiano SI, Italia
Tel: +39 0577 757104
Web: Terme
Montecatini Terme, near Pistoia, between Florence and Lucca, is as far in distance from the other springs as it is in style. This is an elegant spa town reminiscent of the likes of Baden-Baden and Bath, with spas set amid grand landscaped parks, and architecture dating back to the 18th century, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany developed it as a destination for health tourism. Here, the spas come straight from the Belle Époque – Terme Tettuccio is a palatial Art Nouveau complex, with the kind of baths you’d expect in Budapest, and even a reading room with grand arched walls and coffered ceiling. Terme Excelsior and Terme Tamerici are the other two grande dames. Not that they’re stuck in the past; treatments include lomi lomi massage, chakra realigning and an entire ayurvedic programme at the Excelsior.

Address: Montecatini Terme, Province of Pistoia, Italy 51016
Terme San Giovanni Rapolano

Surrounded by the beautiful landscapes of the Tuscan countryside of the Crete Senesi, the resort is within easy reach of popular medieval towns surrounding Siena and the Chianti region. The park and pools are divided into two areas, one dedicated to hotel guests and one open to daily visitors. For daily visitors, there are five thermal pools, one indoor and four outdoor. The resort's hot springs also have notable therapeutic properties, recognised by the Ministry of Health, helping to improve your respiratory and muscular systems.   

Address: Via Terme San Giovanni, 52
CAP 53040 Rapolano Terme (SI)
Partita IVA 00654370527
Tel: +39 0577 72 40 39

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Quiet please: escape the crowds in Tuscany’s natural parks

Tuscany is all about the landscape. Yet, perhaps because of those famous vistas, the natural parks in Tuscany are lesser known. Here in the protected areas, you’ll find everything from untamed beaches to mountain wilderness and shaded forests – and few people with which to share the space. Here are six of the best places to escape the crowds.

The Apuan Alps Regional Park contains riches galore – including the marble that was the material for Michelangelo’s sculptures. Photo: Orlando Tomassini/Shutterstock
The Apuan Alps Regional Park contains riches galore – including the marble that was the material for Michelangelo’s sculptures. Photo: Orlando Tomassini/Shutterstock
1 Apuan Alps Regional Park
These forbidding-looking jagged mountains, part of Tuscany’s wildest park, contain hidden riches: marble quarries, caves, and startling views of the Mediterranean. The area, on Tuscany’s north-west border, is best known for its marble – this is where Michelangelo personally chose the lumps he’d use for his sculptures (he could see the shape waiting to be liberated from the rock, he would say), and the mountainsides are still a dazzling white. Other jaw-dropping sights include Antro del Corchia, a network of deep inner-mountain tunnels drenched in stalactites and stalagmites; the Pellegrini-Ansaldi botanical garden, its plants and flowers hanging off the mountainside; and the Marmitte dei Giganti, with its huge, deep holes in the rock on Monte Sumbra, which look as though they were drilled by giants.

The historic hilltop town of Pienza is well worth a pitstop when visiting the Val d’Orcia Park. Photo: Stefano Valeri/Shutterstock
2 Val d’Orcia Artistic, Natural and Cultural Park
An hour south of Siena, the Val d’Orcia area is Tuscany’s most famous landscape – those rolling hills with gravel roads zigzagging up them, elegant cypress avenues on top… This is also home to some of Italy’s best-preserved Renaissance towns. So it’s the relationship between man and nature that’s on show here. Don’t miss Pienza, a ravishing hilltop town of palazzos and squeeze-belly alleys built as the 15th-century ‘ideal city’ by Pope Pius II, or Montepulciano, with its grand piazza and underground, cathedral-like wine cellar. Drive around the hilltop villages, walk part of the Via Francigena, or soak in the hot springs in this volcanic landscape. For a sense of how humans have tamed the area, take a tour of La Foce, the grand estate owned by the writer Iris Origo. On a walk around the beautifully landscaped gardens, you’ll hear how the local population transformed a barren landscape into the beauty we now see.

Visitors leave behind their primitive huts on the beach at Marina di Alberese. Photo: Click Alps Srls/Alamy
3 Marina di Alberese, Maremma National Park
This shoreline is so unspoilt that it has a resident population of foxes, which sun themselves alongside tourists. It’s a far cry from Italy’s usual regimented, private beaches; there’s not a sunlounger in sight, no bar piping tinny music across the sand, here in the Maremma National Park, on Tuscany’s southern coast. Instead, you’ll park in a pine forest (from 27 June to 31 August you must take a shuttle from the village of Alberese) and walk through the trees, emerging on thick, rumpled sand which curves for as far as the eye can see and is scattered with driftwood flung onto it by the Med. Most people (and foxes) congregate around the main area, so walk towards the medieval watchtower on the distant, forested hill for an emptier stretch of sand. There’s a bar and bathroom in the forest.

The Bismantova Rock, with its vertical walls, dominates the landscape in the Appennino Tosco-Emiliano National Park. Photo: D-Visions/Shutterstock
4 Appennino Tosco-Emiliano National Park
Straddling the border of Tuscany and Emilia Romagna, this sprawling mountain park features Tuscany’s highest peak, Monte Prado (2,054m). There’s plenty to get the adrenaline flowing here: cycling, hiking and skiing in winter are all on offer. But it’s also a place for wildlife spotting – wild boar, golden eagles, wolves and deer all call this home – and to learn the rhythms of mountain life in the tiny villages. Comano is famous for its horse show, Comano Cavalli, which usually takes place in September, and at Rocca Soraggio, a hamlet clinging to the mountainside, you’ll discover a famous medieval crucifix, the Volto Santo.

Covering 341 hectares, Pietraporciana Nature Reserve lies between the Val d’Orcia and the Valdichiana. Photo: Emiliano Migliorucci/Pietraporciana
5 Pietraporciana Nature Reserve
This is a small but lovely reserve, centred on a peaceful, Tolkienesque beech forest, once owned by the author Iris Origo (see above), on the ridge that separates the Val d’Orcia and the Val di Chiana. Cool off in the shade of moss-covered beeches (plus sycamore, turkey oak and hornbeams) as you walk along paths that have been in use since the Bronze Age. Spot woodpeckers, barn owls and buzzards, as well as rare plants such as the martagon lily and belladonna bush, and learn about the resistance partisans based in Pietraporciana’s farmhouse (now the visitor centre) during the Second World War. The real joy here is getting lost in the forest – this is secret Tuscany, a world away from the man-made attractions of the Val d’Orcia.

The air is scented with Mediterranean herbs on the beaches of Rimigliano Coastal Park. Photo: Werner Rebel/Shutterstock
6 Rimigliano Coastal Park, Val di Cornia Parks
On Tuscany’s Etruscan coast, the northern Maremma, lie the six parks of the Val di Cornia. There’s something for everyone, here: a nature reserve, thick forest, plus archaeological remains that include an Etruscan acropolis overlooking the placid Mediterranean, and a medieval mining village. But it’s the beaches that could delay you for days. Rimigliano, at the northern end, is a dune-backed, thick stretch of sand that seems unending, the air scented with juniper, honeysuckle and myrtle by the macchia mediterranea bushes that top the sandy ridges, and the island of Elba shimmering offshore. Strong sea breezes keep things cool, but when the midday sun strikes, take refuge with the cicadas among the oaks and pines that lurk behind the dunes.

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