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Florence & Chianti

Few descriptions of Florence can do it justice. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, the city is arguably Europe’s art capital, its galleries full of works by the greats, such as Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and Botticelli, and its churches frescoed by the likes of Giotto and Fra Angelico. With Florence’s stately buildings and sprawling palace gardens lining the Arno river, this is one of Italy’s most strollable cities, despite the crowds. Surrounded by ruffled hills, the historic centre is just a few kilometres from the northern part of Chianti, which stretches from Florence and Siena to the south. This is a bushier, more rugged landscape than the better known Sienese part of Chianti further south; but it’s less visited, and therefore less spoiled, with vineyards and olive groves woven into wooded hills. The joy of this area is that you’ll be staying in a rural idyll with Florence on the doorstep, as well as other beautiful towns such as Impruneta and San Casciano in Val di Pesa.

Florence & Chianti

Panzano

The historic centre of hilltop Panzano unfolds along quaint alleys, bounded by a stretch of battered city walls. Medieval Panzano was a pawn between the feuding powers of Florence and Siena so constantly changed hands. Architecturally, this fortified outpost suffered during the conflict but vestiges of its medieval heart survive, though not its castle. A walk along the walls allows for scenic glimpses of the countryside. Restaurants lining the walls offer views of the Chianti hills and vineyards. Instead, the café-lined main square is the place for lapping up the small-town atmosphere and contemplating lunch. Modern-day Panzano is the preserve of Dario Cecchini, an eccentric celebrity butcher so a meaty feast forms part of the Panzano experience. But first turn your mind to loftier thoughts: the loveliest Romanesque church around. San Leonino, a romantic parish church, awaits on the next hilltop, a reminder that the Chianti can do churches, too.

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Greve in Chianti

Greve represents the northern gateway to the Chianti, the first stop from Florence. The SS222, known as the Chiantigiana, or Chianti Way, winds its picturesque way from Florence to Siena, through this peaceful region, offering archetypal scenes of cypress trees, olive groves and vineyards.  At first sight, Greve may be a disappointment: it seems a slightly characterless, modern-looking town. Luckily, its main square is a redeeming feature, as are its restaurants, food and wine shops. The impressively arcaded Piazza Matteotti is surmounted by wrought-iron balconies of cascading geraniums. The shops under the arcades are crammed with an assortment of Tuscan treats, crafts and wines. The square is framed by a neo-Renaissance Town Hall. Above all, as Chianti’s commercial hub, Greve does the business, with its weekly market, September wine fair and a tempting wine route beginning outside town. Greve is a stepping-stone to Renaissance villas, castles, abbeys and wine estates.

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Florence

Florence is dauntingly monumental and basks in its past glories, its weighty Renaissance history. More than any other city, Florence is defined by its artistic heritage. The churches, palaces and galleries are studded with the world’s greatest concentration of Renaissance art and sculpture. The city is both blessed and burdened by artistic overload. In 1743 Anna Maria Lodovica, the last of the Medici line, left her property to Florence, ensuring that the Medici collections remained intact forever. As a result, Florence is still awash with treasures. Despite devouring the checklist of must-see sights, beware of suffocating under the weight of treasures. Allow time for aimless wandering. Beyond the selfie sticks and statuary awaits a funky foodie haunt with sleek cafes, superb cooking and seriously edible markets. Florence is not fusty. Nor has the greedy city lost its gutsy Tuscan soul: traditional inns still serve earthy peasant fare, including macho steaks.

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San Donato in Poggio

San Donato in Poggio is set in one of the prettiest patches of the Chianti. The hilltop medieval village dominates a ridge separating the Val di Pesa from the Val d’Elsa and enjoys views of olive groves and vineyard-clad hills. This walled, stone-and-brick-built hamlet is tucked into its medieval fortifications. Even if only stretches survive, including two gateways, the street plan remains medieval. A remaining watchtower on the western edge of the hamlet leads to a bell-tower and the atmospheric main square, along with the Gothic church of Santa Maria della Neve and an octagonal well. Given its position as a pawn in the long-running battles between Siena and Florence, San Donato often depended on this well for survival. The Florentine-Romanesque church of San Donato stands by the Porta Senese, the Sienese gateway, a reminder that medieval peace treaties between Siena and Florence were twice signed in this former citadel.

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