Travel Writings


One of the most wonderful things about holidaying in Italy is that it offers so much variety, in the first place in terms of what kind of holiday you want to take - ‘activity’, ‘sun’, ‘cultural’ - and then within any given holiday itself. Hey, why not mix’n’match a little of everything, while you’re at it? A three week vacation last August took myself and my companion on an enjoyable but exhausting jaunt from the natural splendours of the Dolomites in Trentino to the artistic treasures of Rome, with much else in between, and we still hadn’t ‘been there, seen that, done that’ to a fraction of the extent that we could have. But for the purposes of compression, this piece is concerned solely with the Tuscan and Umbrian part of our trip. So here, in the time honoured tradition of the first day back to school, is an account of ‘What I Did On My Summer Holidays’, or an extract from it, at least.









Travelling by car with Italian friends, we approached Tuscany from Liguria, where we had just spent the weekend in Chiavari, and so the first and most obvious stop was Pisa. The famous Leaning Tower is now the best known building in the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) - which also includes the Baptistery and the Camposanto, or cemetery - but originally it was intended as a campanile to complement the Duomo, upon which work had already started over a century earlier, in 1064. Begun in 1173 on sandy silt subsoil, the Leaning Tower started to tilt even before the third storey was finished in 1274. Despite the shallow foundations, construction continued and it was completed in 1350. The tower’s apparent flouting of the laws of gravity has attracted many visitors over the centuries, including Galileo, himself born in Pisa, who climbed to the top to conduct his experiments on the velocity of falling objects. Recently the tilt has increased alarmingly, and the tower now leans in excess of 5 metres, and remains closed for restoration and underpinning. At the height of its powers, from the 11th to the 13th centuries, Pisa’s navy dominated the western Mediterranean, and trading links with Spain and North Africa brought vast mercantile wealth and formed the basis of a scientific and cultural revolution that is still reflected in these remarkable buildings. But during the 16th century the Arno estuary began to silt up and made the harbour unworkable, thus ending Pisian pre-eminence. So the natural forces that put paid to Pisa’s economic supremacy also gave it its most famous landmark.
We then stopped off to have a swim and take the sun for a couple of hours at the coastal resort of Vada. Visited mostly by Italians, lying on unspoilt beach at Vada was relaxing, and swimming in the warm Tyrrhenian Sea refreshing. We moved inland to Volterra which, like many Etruscan cities in the region, is situated on a high plateau, offering fine views over the surrounding hills. The excellent art gallery, the Pinacoteca e Museo Civico, features work by Florentine artists like Ghirlandaio, Luca Signorelli and Rosso Fiorentino. The town is also famous for its craftsmen who carve elaborate white statues from locally mined alabaster.
We came to rest for the night in beautiful and quiet town of San Gimignano, famous for the thirteen towers, or medieval skyscrapers, that dominate its majestic skyline. these were built by rival noble families during the 12th and 13th centuries, when the town’s position on the main pilgrim route from northern Europe to Rome brought it great prosperity. The plague of 1348, and later the diversion of the pilgrim route, led to its economic decline as well as its preservation. Street by street it remains mostly medieval and, for a small town, is rich in good works of art, shops and restaurants. It was here that we really began to enjoy the delights of Tuscan cuisine. Truffles were in season, and could be had as a delicious pasta sauce for starters, or as an equally tasty complement to a main meat dish. They were also readily available at reasonable prices in shops, so you could take the opportunity to lay in a store to take home with you. Another discovery was that Chianti wine, much to the chagrin of Hannibal Lecter one imagines, is not nearly as popular with native Tuscans as other local wines like Brunello di Montalcino or Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which are not as aggressively marketed in Ireland, and so not as well-known here. Indeed, it is interesting to observe differences between how native and foreigners consume Italian food and wine. An Italian would never dream of drinking cappuccino after a meal, considering it far too milky and favouring an expresso, nor would they dirty their mouths with bread while eating pasta. In the smaller towns of Tuscany it is possible, if one finds the right restaurant, to eat and drink like a prince for a very modest outlay. Even the average restaurant there is superior in quality and much less expensive than the average restaurant here. We had a sumptuous meal in San Gimignano for around £15 a head, including wine. And a room with a view, double of course, in the charming old Hotel L’Antico Pozzo, was a mere L150000, or around £60.
The next day, while driving to Cortona, we managed to take in the remote Cistercian abbey at San Galgano, the spa waters or ‘Terme’ at Petriolo, and the tiny Renaissance jewel of Pienza, a delightful village whose intimate little centre was almost completely redesigned in the 15th century by Pope Pius II, who decided to rebuild his birthplace in his own honour a year after being elected Pope. We took a tour of the Palazzo Piccolomini, the former papal palace, which continued to be inhabited by Pius’s descendants until 1968.
Cortona, where we were to be based for the next week, was founded by the Etruscans and, apart from being one of the oldest hilltowns in Tuscany, it is also one of the most scenic. A major power in the Middle Ages, it was able to hold its own against Siena and Arezzo. Today it is a charming maze of old streets and medieval buildings, like the Palazzo Communale on Piazza Signorelli. The town’s early history is traced in the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca, which contains Etruscan artefacts and a wide variety of Egyptian and Roman remains. The small Museo Diocesano features several fine paintings, in particular a Crucifixion by the Renaissance artist Pietro Lorenzetti, a Deposition by Luca Signorelli, and a sublime Annunciation by Fra Angelico. Here we continued to eat and drink well, and took advantage of the wonderfully civilised Italian habit of showing films outdoors on summer evenings.
We stayed in a convent which, if not quite luxurious, was at least clean and comfortable, and was laughably cheap at £20 a night for a double room (yes, I know, a double room in a convent, and there were no curfews or restrictions either!). The staff in the local tourist office was extremely helpful and friendly, and we took day trips from Cortona to Arezzo, Assisi, Perugia and Orvieto, the last three of which are in Umbria, long known as Tuscany’s ‘gentler sister’.
Each of these towns deserves more detailed discussion than there is room for here, so all I will say is that Perugia was my favourite, since it seemed to achieve the right balance between tradition and modernity, with altarpieces by Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, and the Universita Per Stranieri attracting many foreign students every year who want to learn Italian. The highlight of Arezzo was Vasari’s house, the facade of Orvieto’s Romanesque-Gothic cathedral made it perhaps the finest we saw in these regions, and the Basilica at Assisi has of course Giotto’s magnificent cycle of frescoes on the life of St Francis. (As I write, I learn that frescoes by Cimabue in the Basilica have been irreparably damaged by two major earthquakes, and the Giotto frescoes have suffered severe but less serious damage, so it appears that we may have been among the last people to see these treasures intact. Part of the roof of the Basilica also fell in during the tremors, so it’s as well that we were there last month and not now.)
An article on Tuscany without a mention of Florence is like Hamlet without the prince, but both myself and my partner had been there previously, and we decided that high season was not the time to visit it again. Some 32 million tourists a year flood into Tuscany, most of them staying in the bigger cities. About the only negative thing to be said about Tuscany, and to a lesser extent Umbria, is that with so many visitors around, one is bound to meet the odd pillock. Tuscany seems to draw a particularly malignant strain of nouveau riche English person, who has discovered the region through E M Forster via Merchant Ivory. Because of this invasion, Italians now jokingly refer to the region as Chiantishire.
But, this caveat aside, Tuscany is a place where the past and the present merge in pleasant harmony and, with its art, history and evocative landscapes, it is unlikely that one will come across another location with so delicately balanced a blend of nature and culture.
On leaving Cortona, we took a train to Rome. But that’s another article, or another book, for another time. As for Tuscany and Umbria, there is really too much to say in too little space, as there is so much to see in so little time.









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