What to know before you go: Tuscany

Odds are, when you think of Italy, Tuscany is one of the regions that first comes to mind. This may due to a number of factors – the glorious architecture of Florence and Siena, endless cookbooks and memoirs gushing about the ‘Tuscan Sun’, renaissance art and culture. In our opinion, however, it’s so much more. Let us tell you what you need to know before you hit the Tuscan countryside.

TUSCANS ARE INTENSELY TRIBAL

We’re not necessarily talking about the attitude Tuscany has towards its neighbours, although we won’t deny there’s a slight sense of superiority. No, we’re talking within Tuscany itself. Before Italy was a united nation state, the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of warring cities and dukedoms. No more was this apparent than in the Tuscan region, where the cities of Siena and Florence slugged it out for supremacy over centuries. Florence eventually gained the upper hand but traces of the conflict are everywhere – most prominently, in the hundreds of picturesque castles and watchtowers that dot the region. To this day, Florentines think of Sienese as bumpkins focused on their past glories, while the Sienese respond that the Florentines are flashy and soulless sorts, sellouts to tourism.

TIP: You can stay in some of the same castles that defended their respective cities from one another, we recommend Banfi Il Borgo and Castello di Velona for a heavily fortified luxury getaway.

IT’S A PARADISE FOR ACTIVE TYPES

Due to its location and geography, Tuscany is the perfect environment for outdoor activities. The climate ensures almost year-round mild, sunny weather, making it perfect for an active or sporting break. If you’re into golf, you’re in luck – the region boasts several world-class golf courses. Tuscany’s coast has amazing beaches for swimming, sunbathing and surfing. Horse-riders, walkers and cyclists are well catered with hundreds and miles of dedicated and signposted paths. You might even like to ascend into the skies with some hang-gliding, or a balloon ride over the rolling Tuscan hills. Winter sports junkies aren’t left out either – the mountainous regions of Tuscany have several popular ski resorts.

TIP: Argentario Golf Resort & Spa is our choice for golfers. The staff at Banfi Il Borgo are more than happy to pack walkers a delicious lunch for terrific walks across the extensive estate. Borgo i Vicelli is particularly well placed for mountain bikers, walkers and has a large swimming pool, great for those who want to keep up their lap count.

TUSCANS HAVE A SWEET TOOTH

Perhaps more than any other Italian region, Tuscans love their sweets. It seems like every city, town and hilltop hamlet has their own renowned speciality. Siena does ‘Ricciarelli’, almond biscuits covered in icing sugar and ‘Panforte’, a kind of cake that is almost chewy, jammed with dried and glazed fruit. ‘Neccio’ is a thin chestnut cake, flavoured with rosemary and topped with pine nuts that they love in Lucca. If you’re around Florence this time of year, you’ll come across ‘Schiacciata Alla Fiorentina’, a delicious orange-flavoured cake covered in icing sugar and a cocoa fleur d’Lys.

We could spend hours talking about the sweet treats of Tuscany, but half the fun of discovering new tastes is in the hunting. Drive from village to village and ask cafe owners what they recommend – they’ll be delighted and proud to share their local treasure with you.

TIP: Stay at our bed and breakfast, Villa Gilda for a morning spread full of Tuscan sweet treats.

THE BEST BITS ARE HIDDEN AWAY

Yes, Siena and Florence are astonishing. Ok, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni are spectacular walled towns. Yet, there are so many more wonderful treasures to be found slightly off the beaten path.

For a medieval town straight out of a fairytale, try Anghiari. Here you can purchase gorgeous Busatti linens, manufactured right in the town centre and if you’re there in August, watch a spectacular series of foot and horse races as part of the town festival, along with a series of music concerts.

If it’s stunning views and winding lanes you’re after, head to Barga, in the Lucca province with astounding view towards the Apuan Alps. Their regional speciality is fish and chips! As many Scots emigrated to the town in the early 20th century.

Tuscany is wonderland for those who like to explore – to make the most of the region is to rent a villa for a week, hire car and explore those hamlets you just can’t get to via train or bus. You’re likely to come home laden with bottles of wine and cheese.

TIP: Some of our favourite Tuscan hotels are somewhat out of the way. Il Borro takes up a number of the buildings of a local medieval hamlet. Argentario Golf Resort, La Bandita and Locanda Rossa are also great countryside bases for exploration.

TAKE YOUR TIME, LIVE LIKE A LOCAL

We’re all about living like a local at Chic Retreats and nowhere more epitomises what we’re about than the Tuscan lifestyle. This is an oasis of relative calm sandwiched between the frenetic pace of Rome and the fashion and design centres to the north. People take joy in the simple pleasures here. We wouldn’t rush through a list of sights rather enjoy wandering. Visit artisanal butchers, cheese makers and wineries and try (liberally) before you buy.

While we’re on the subject of wandering, Tuscany is a region custom-made for walking. A number of well-signposted walking trails crisscross the area and make for some spectacular vistas. There’s probably no better way to see this corner of the world than by foot, when you can notice the details and take in the sights, sounds and smells.

TIP: For lazy urban wanderings, JK Place Florence has the location you’re looking for. For countryside properties with excellent walks nearby, we think Banfi Il Borgo and Villa Chic are just perfect.

Think you have some great tips for those about to head for Tuscany? Let us know by emailing us and we’ll share your suggestions in a future newsletter and possibly our blog.