The last time we were in Italy, we only got the chance to see Rome and the town of Tivoli. That short visit kept us wanting to explore more, particularly Tuscany, having read and seen so much of its beauty. We finally booked a Western Mediterranean cruise over a year ago with Tuscany as one of the destinations, counting down the days with excited anticipation. Still, we knew we had to plan well how to experience Tuscany to get the most out of our two-day stop.
We boarded our ship in Civitavecchia, Rome, and sailed towards Tuscany for our first stop. With so much to offer, we had to decide how to be able to take in as much of the place without being rushed, and still hit our must-see and must-do lists.
After considering what we will see in our other cruise stops, we decided on San Gimignano and Pisa. Florence’ Uffizi Gallery and other exciting treasures deserve another trip back.
It was a 2-hour scenic drive from the port city of Livorno (where our ship docked) to the medieval town of San Gimignano. The misty weather added an ethereal beauty to the rolling hills of the countryside dotted with vineyards and charming houses. It gave us a glimpse of the wonderful experience ahead of us.
Along the way, we were awed by views of cypress trees lining up the winding roads leading to private villas, scenes straight out of paintings, and much envied Instagram posts.
It was raining when we finally arrived at the hilltop town of San Gimignano, but nothing can dampen our excitement. We anticipated the weather, and we came prepared. While some people in our group brought umbrellas, we decided to wear rainproof jackets instead. The jackets allowed us more flexibility and freed our hands to be able to take pictures.
The city rose to prosperity in the 14th century. Its affluent families built towers (around 70 at one point) to flaunt power and wealth. These wealthy families later on turned into warring factions, and as a result, the thriving commerce and industry went elsewhere and left, leaving its narrow streets and disintegrating towers untouched. The town has been made a national monument, with its dozen or so medieval towers still standing serving as a living testament of what it used to be.
We entered the old walled city through the southern gate of Porta San Giovanni and strolled through the slightly uphill path of Via San Giovanni. The street is flanked by terraced houses that have been converted into cafes and tourist shops while retaining most of its original exteriors.
From Via San Giovani, we headed to the Piazza Della Cisterna. The Square’s pavement is a beautiful herringbone pattern of brick with a bit of a slope. At the center is an octagonal travertine well built in the late 12th
century. We spotted a gelato shop by the corner and stopped by for a scoop of Italy’s world-famous gelato.
We then found ourselves in the center of Piazza Duomo, with three impressive medieval buildings facing one another. It felt like a place where time stood still. We sat by the bench-lined walls of one of the buildings and soaked in the view, enjoying the tranquil setting without the usual crowd.
On our way back to the bus, we did a bit of window-shopping and bought small souvenir items. There are shops selling leather products, copies of artworks, and other handicrafts. We focused on spending the remaining time looking for fascinating details of centuries past instead.
Our tour group then headed to Fattoria San Donato, a 900-year old farm and winery that still operates to this day.
We were warmly welcomed by the head of the Fenzi family who now owns the farm. He gave us a mini-tour of their winery, peppered with anecdotes about its history.
After our tour, he led us to the old house where a generous spread of mouth-watering antipasti and a variety of wines awaited us.
He explained how everything was prepared with ingredients from their farm and other small neighbouring farms, with recipes handed down through generations. He educated us with the best wine pairings for each food, from appetizer to dessert. Couldn’t have a more authentic farm to table experience!
The trip will not be complete without buying something to remind us of our enjoyable experience. We bought a few items from the farm’s store – a bottle of wine, a can of extra virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. We will enjoy these later with freshly baked Italian bread and pasta when we are back home.
We headed to the city of Pisa the next day– about an hour bus ride from Livorno. Pisa is another Tuscan treasure, with the Square of the Miracles as its centrepiece. It is home to a trinity of masterpieces – the circular Baptistery, the 13th-century Cathedral, and of course, the Leaning Tower.
On our way, we drove through roads lined with uniquely shaped trees. We were intrigued by what they were as we don’t see them in North America. Called “umbrella” pine as their shape implies, they are common in Italy. Their edible nuts are used in making pesto sauce and other dishes. Anything with pesto will now make us feel nostalgic for our Italy trip.
The first building we entered at the Square was the Baptistery. It has a simple interior, but we were surprised at its impressive acoustics. An analysis of the sound inside the circular, marble structure suggested that renaissance architects designed it to emulate a church organ. The resulting flawless acoustics was either an incredible coincidence or the work of genius! We were lucky to hear it with a demonstration. We recommend that you check the schedule of the short performance to take this into account when you visit.
We explored the Cathedral next, a remarkable example of Romanesque architecture with its elegant marble façade and bronze doors. The exterior also shows Moorish-inspired arches and details. Its interiors brim with bronze and gilded statues, paintings, and religious mosaics. The pulpit is regarded as one of the great masterpieces of Giovanni Pisano (sometimes called the only true Gothic sculptor of Italy). It was interesting to learn that it was not as popular before and was even considered an eyesore.
No visit to the Square will be complete without taking a picture of the Leaning Tower in the background. It is the most famous structure, but we were surprised to find the Baptistery and Cathedral equally, if not more, fascinating.
It was indeed an excellent decision to visit during an off-peak season. Our tour guide mentioned that during summertime, the crowd could be tenfold that you could hardly enjoy the experience.
Tuscany stole our hearts; its beauty is beyond words. It deserves another visit to explore the other areas and immerse ourselves longer in the Tuscan way of life and its rich history.
Is Tuscany in your bucket list or have you already experienced it? Please let us know your thoughts and stories about this incredible place by leaving your comments below. If you enjoyed reading our post, please share the joy with your family and friends.
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