Driving through the painted Tuscan landscape, camera in hand and guidebook on my knee, has a particular childish pleasure, like a treasure hunt. Around every hairpin bend and over the peak of every hill there is a fresh delight; an ivory concealed villa with a battered sign proclaiming olive oil production, a ruined barn pleading for a costly restoration, or a village sitting so majestically crowning a hill-top that one wonders whether it was manufactured for the artists of the picturesque. Most of these sightings cause shrieks, frantic flicking through the guidebook or contortions to take photos as it disappears behind us. As such, we’ve learnt that the best way to travel in Italy, and particularly in Tuscany, is to drive meanderingly with only a vague plan and instead be lured off the road by brief glimpses of monasteries and bell towers that catch our eye.
Tuscany is particularly rich in attractive villages, or borghi. I like to make slow tour itineraries that allow for much deviation, with time to peek into local churches, sample typical products and browse shops where the owners have time to recommend restaurants or local sights. Here is a brief guide to some of the villages and their nearby attractions that could happily pepper a driving tour of Tuscany.
Loro Ciuffenna, Arezzo
Loro Ciuffenna is a small cluster of coloured houses clinging either side of a deep gorge. A beautifully formed medieval bridge conquers the gorge and leads to the Porta dell’Orologio, the entrance to the old borgo of 3000 inhabitants. Narrow alleys duck beneath houses and then suddenly open out into sunlit squares given life by flowers, washing and old brooms. Spring is the ideal time to visit, when the wisteria cascades down walls and perfumes the air. The medieval church of Santa Maria Assunta houses a shimmering golden altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo, while a short way out of Loro Ciuffenna you can visit the mystical countryside church (pieve) of San Pietro a Gropina. The cavernous stone interior enchants the visitor with enigmatic Lombard sculptures of sirens, serpents and knotted columns.
Il Borro, Arezzo
A few kilometres away from Loro Ciuffenna, this borgo was bought and restored by famous shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo. The village is now a kind of scattered luxury hotel, with restaurants and wine cellars, but it is still open to the public. At the end of the elegant cypress-lined drive you reach what was once a villa, formal garden and surrounding structures, now possible to hire for weddings. A short walk away you reach the old borgo of just a few houses and a church housing a copy of the Turin Shroud. Dotted around the village are artisan workshops of eccentric made-to-measure shoes, jewellery, and leather bags.
This is the site of the Battle of Anghiari famously immortalised by Leonardo in a fresco believed to be hidden behind a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. You can almost still hear the ring of clashing swords echoing through the twisting streets, and you can certainly imagine it as a medieval fortified stronghold as you approach from below, gazing up at the solid perimeter wall. In the Giardini del Vicario bar you can actually sit out on a rampart of the old walls to drink a spritz and lose yourself in the hazy landscape vista. Steep stone streets leave you breathless, but reward you with sudden striking views. The 12th century church of San Bartolomeo is known as a ‘rupestre’ church, meaning it is hollowed out from the rock. Inside it is grotto-like, with crooked rock walls and a fantastical baroque altar piece.
Bagno Vignoni, Siena
Most central town squares are a stone piazza flanked with shops and bars. Bagno Vignoni’s centre is, instead, a large thermal pool whose steaming water runs in channels all the way to a cliff edge and then down into a naturally formed pool below in which you can swim. Locals dip their feet in the channels of hot water while they chat to friends or on the phone. The pool below can be reached by a stoney track (good footwear recommended). In this area there used to be mills, the remains of which can still be seen.
In the surrounding area there are two other more extensive areas of natural thermal water. Click here to read more.
A formidable outcrop of rock forms the pedestal for Pitigliano’s dramatic silhouette, best admired at sunset standing on the higher road leading out of the town (Strada Regionale 74). Pitigliano is a town of ‘hidden cities’. The town perched on the rock is a picturesque painting, but for centuries residents also excavated a network of caves into the tufo rock itself. All around the base of the outcrop are caves used for storage, and higher up wine cellars and shops have been hollowed out from the rock. Inside the town itself the most notable underground caves were in the Jewish Ghetto, yet another hidden world within the town. There is a ritual bath, wine cellar, slaughter house and bakery all beneath the ground. Although there are no longer any Jews living in the Ghetto, a little shop sells traditional kosher products and the synagogue is open to visitors. In the valley beneath Pitigliano lies the final, secret town concealed in the woods. Along the overgrown Vie Cave, you can follow Etruscan roads and peer into gloomy caves marked with medieval cross carvings.
Giglio Castello, Grosseto
Giglio Castello crowns the tiny paradisiacal island of Giglio. The old borgo, located inside the medieval castle walls, is a disorienting warren of uneven rocky streets. From the fortified walls you can survey the island laid out beneath you, with its limpid turquoise water, and on clear days, you can see Isola d’Elba and even Corsica. The local church holds a surprise for art lovers – an exquisite ivory sculpture of the crucified Christ attributed to Giambologna – and for history lovers – a pistol left by Tunisian pirates attacking in 1799. The local Ansonaco wine in best tasted during the cantine aperte (open cellars) in the last week of September, when the little village becomes a giant restaurant with starters in one cellar, an industrial sized barbecue on the walls, dessert inside the Aldobrandeschi fortress, and wine offered everywhere. The island of Giglio has some idyllic beaches, and the energetic Giglio Porto (where the ferry arrives) has some good beach-side restaurants. The best way to move around the island is by scooter, but if you do want to bring your car be warned that some roads are very narrow and very steep. A Panda 4×4 is the idea car!
Our accommodation was in a coastal villa with a view across the sea from the bedroom door. As you can see in the photo above it has an infinity pool and sun lounging terrace. We were collected and dropped at the ferry, and during the stay guests are provided with a car or scooter free of charge to use. If you would like more information please contact me here.
For other hotels on Isola del Giglio please follow this link.