INTRODUCTION Tuscany and Umbria harbour the classic landscapes of Italy, familiar from a thousand Renaissance paintings, with their backdrop of medieval hill-towns, rows of cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves, and artfully sited villas and farmhouses. It's a stereotype that has long held an irresistible attraction for northern Europeans. Shelley referred to Tuscany as a "paradise of exiles", and ever since his time the English, in ...
Tuscany and Umbria harbour the classic landscapes of Italy, familiar from a thousand Renaissance paintings, with their backdrop of medieval hill-towns, rows of cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves, and artfully sited villas and farmhouses. It's a stereotype that has long held an irresistible attraction for northern Europeans. Shelley referred to Tuscany as a "paradise of exiles", and ever since his time the English, in particular, have seen the region as an ideal refuge from a sun-starved and overcrowded homeland.
The expatriate's perspective may be distorted, but the central provinces - and especially Tuscany - are indeed the essence of Italy in many ways. The national language evolved from Tuscan dialect, a supremacy ensured by Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of his birthplace, Florence. Other great Tuscan writers of the period - Petrarch and Boccaccio - reinforced its status, and in the last century Manzoni came to Tuscany to purge his vocabulary of any impurities while working on The Betrothed, the most famous of all Italian novels. But what makes this area pivotal to the culture not just of Italy but of all Europe is, of course, the Renaissance period, whose masterpieces of painting, sculpture and architecture are an intrinsic part of any tour. The very name by which we refer to this extraordinarily creative era was coined by a Tuscan, Giorgio Vasari, who wrote in the sixteenth century of the "rebirth" of the arts with the humanism of Giotto and his successors.
Florence was the most active centre of the Renaissance, flourishing through the patronage of the all-powerful Medici, of a multitude of religious bodies and of the guilds, whose merchants and manufacturers laid the foundations of the city's prosperity. Every eminent artistic figure from Giotto onwards - Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo - is represented here, in an unrivalled gathering of churches, galleries and museums.
If Florence tends to take the limelight, however, rivalry between the towns of both provinces - still an important factor in a region whose inhabitants feel a strong loyalty to their particular locality - ensured that pictures and palaces were sponsored by everyone who could afford them. Exquisite Renaissance works adorn almost every place of any size from the Tuscan coast to the Apennine slopes of eastern Umbria, while the largest towns can boast artistic projects every bit as ambitious as those to be seen in the Tuscan capital - the Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo, for example, or those by Luca Signorelli in Orvieto or Giotto in Assisi.
Moreover, the art of the Renaissance did not spring out of thin air - Tuscany and Umbria both can boast a cultural lineage that stretches back unbroken to the time of Charlemagne and even beyond. Lucca is one of the handsomest Romanesque cities in Europe, and Pisa - whose Campo dei Miracoli, with its Leaning Tower, is one of Europe's most brilliant monumental ensembles - is another city whose heyday came in the Middle Ages. Siena's red-brick medieval cityscape, arranged around its fabulous scallop-shaped Campo, makes a refreshing contrast with the darker tones of Florence, while a tour through Umbria can seem like a procession of magnificent ancient hill-towns. The attractions of Assisi (birthplace of St Francis), Spoleto and the busy provincial capital of Perugia are hardly secrets, but other Umbrian towns remain more obscure - such as Gubbio and the backwater delights of Bevagna and Todi. Many of the Umbrian towns retain a fair showing of their ancient past, too, with Etruscan and Roman walls and tombs to be seen on sites left undisturbed for centuries.
Even though the percentage of the population who make their living from the land has plummeted since the last war - in Umbria the figure fell from nearly sixty percent in 1950 to just over ten percent in 1980 - both Tuscany and Umbria are predominantly rural provinces. Just as the hill-towns mould themselves to the summits, the terraces of vines follow the lower contours of the hills and open fields spread across the broader valleys, forming a distinctive balance between the natural and human world. The towns may have grown and industrial estates may have blocked in some of the outskirts, but great tracts of land still look much as they did half a millennium ago.
The variety of landscape within this comparatively small area is astounding. A short distance from central Florence spread the thickly wooded uplands of the Mugello and the Casentino, much of the latter still maintained by the monasteries to which the forests were entrusted hundreds of years ago. Lucca is a springboard for the Alpi Apuane, whose mountain quarries have supplied Europe's masons with pure white marble for centuries. Along the Tuscan shoreline the resorts are interspersed by some of Italy's best-kept wildlife reserves, including the fabulous Monti Uccellina, the last stretch of virgin coast in the whole country. Out in the Tuscan archipelago, the island of Giglio is unspoilt by the sort of tourist development that has infiltrated - though certainly not ruined - nearby Elba. The pastoral archetype is perhaps most strikingly subverted in the deep south of the province, where the agricultural hinterland of Siena soon gives way to the bleak crete and the sulphurous pools of Saturnia.
Landlocked Umbria may not be as varied as its neighbour, but the wild heights of the Valnerina, the Piano Grande's prairie-like expanse and the savage peaks of the Monti Sibillini all contrast with the tranquil, soft-contoured hills with which the region is most often associated. In Lago Trasimeno the province has the largest body of water on the Italian peninsula, while in the south there's the Cascate delle Marmore, a spectacular if sporadic waterfall.
When to go
Midsummer in central Italy is not as pleasant an experience as you might imagine: the heat can be stifling, and from May to September you'll require luck to find accommodation in all but the most out-of-the-way spots. If at all possible, the month to avoid is August, when the great majority of Italians take their holidays. As a result many town restaurants and some hotels are closed for the entire month and the beaches are jammed solid. As the standard Italian idea of an enjoyable summer break is to spend a few weeks towel-to-towel on the sand, Umbria escapes the worst of the rush, but the problem of limited opening remains.
Florence throughout the summer is such a log jam of tour groups that the major attractions become a purgatorial experience - a two-hour queue for the Uffizi is not unusual. To enjoy a visit fully, go there shortly before Easter or in the late autumn - times of the year that are the best for Tuscany and Umbria as a whole, as the towns are quieter and the countryside is blossoming or taking on the tones of the harvest season. The Umbrian climate is slightly more extreme than Tuscany's, chiefly because of its distance from the sea; temperatures in summer are fractionally higher, while the hill-top locales of many towns can make them surprisingly windy and cool at other times. Winter is often quite rainy, but the absence of crowds makes this a good option for the cities on the major art trails. Bear in mind, however, that the high altitude of much of the region means many roads are impassable in midwinter, and in places like the upper Casentino or the Sibillini the snow might not melt until March or even April.
It's always worth checking when each town has its festivals or pilgrimages. Accommodation is always tricky during these mini peak seasons, but some of the festivities are enjoyable enough to merit planning a trip around. Many have been crucial to their town's image for centuries - the most celebrated of these being the Siena Palio, a hell-for-leather horse race round the central square. The frenzy of Gubbio's semi-pagan Corsa dei Ceri almost matches it, as does the passionate commitment of Florence's Calcio Storico, a football match in medieval attire with no holds barred. Costumed jousts and other martial displays are a feature of several festive calendars, notable examples being the jousts in Pistoia and Arezzo, and the twice-yearly crossbow competitions between Gubbio and Sansepolcro. Holy days and saint's days bring in the crowds in equal numbers, with Assisi leading the way as the most venerated site.
Among the innumerable arts festivals, the highest profiles are achieved by the contemporary arts extravaganza in Spoleto, the Umbria Jazz festival in Perugia and the Maggio Musicale in more conservative Florence - but as with the more folkloric events, even the smallest towns have their cultural stagione. Finally, there's scarcely a hamlet in Tuscany or Umbria that doesn't have a food or wine festival, the region seeming to find an excuse to celebrate almost everything that breathes or grows. Appealing mainly to the local population and often lasting for just a day, these events place less stress on the hotels, though it might be a good idea to book a room if you're dropping by - fountains running with wine and other such excesses are pretty common.
PART ONE BASICS
Getting there from Britain and Ireland
Getting there from North America
Getting there from Australia and New Zealand
Red tape and visas
Costs, money and banks
Health and insurance
Information and maps
Food and drink
Communications: post, phones and the media
Opening hours, public holidays and sightseeing
Festivals and annual events
Trouble and the police
Flora and fauna
PART TWO THE GUIDE
CHAPTER 1 Florence
Arrival, transport and information
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Piazza della Signoria
Santa Maria Novella
Santa Maria del Carmine
San Miniato al Monte
Cafs and bars
Food markets and shops
Nightlife and cultural events
CHAPTER 2 AROUND FLORENCE
The Medici villas
Montecatini and Monsummano
CHAPTER 3 LUCCA AND NORTHERN TUSCANY
East of Lucca: the villas, Collodi and Pescia
Viareggio and Torre del Lago
The Alpi Apuane
CHAPTER 4 PISA, THE CENTRAL COAST AND ELBA
The Etruscan Riviera
CHAPTER 5 THE MAREMMA
Follnica to Marina di Grosseto
Rusellae and Vetulonia
Scansano and Magliano
South from Orbetello
CHAPTER 6 SIENA
Arrival, orientation and information
Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Terzo di San Martino
Terzo di Camollia
Eating, drinking, nightlife and events
CHAPTER 7 THE SIENESE HILL-TOWNS
Colle di Val d'Elsa
CHAPTER 8 SOUTHERN TUSCANY
San Galgano and the western crete
Monte Oliveto Maggiore and the central crete
The Val d'rcia and Bagno Vignoni
South to Saturnia and Manciano
CHAPTER 9 AREZZO PROVINCE
PART FOUR UMBRIA
CHAPTER 10 PERUGIA AND NORTHERN UMBRIA
Citt di Castello
Parco Regionale del Monte Cucco
CHAPTER 11 ASSISI AND THE VALE OF SPOLETO
CHAPTER 12 SPOLETO AND THE VALNERINA
The Piano Grande and the Monte Sibillini
CHAPTER 13 ORVIETO AND SOUTHERN UMBRIA
Amelia and around
Carsulae and around
PART FOUR CONTEXTS
The historical background: Tuscany
The historical background: Umbria
Directory of artists and architects
Glossary of artistic and architectural terms
Glossary of Italian words and acronyms
LIST OF MAPS
Tuscany chapter divisions map
Central Florence: accommodation
Central Florence sights
Santa Maria Novella
Lucca and Northern Tuscany
Pisa, the Central Coast and Elba
Siena: The Duomo
The Sienese Hill-towns
The Legend of the True Cross
Umbria chapter divisions map
Perugia and Northern Umbria
Citt di Castello
Assisi and the Vale of Spoleto
Basilica di San Francesco
Spoleto and the Valnerina
Orvieto and Southern Umbria
Cappella di San Brizio