I have seen a lot of Tuscany, mostly the heavily touristed spots such as Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Volterra, etc..., but would like to find some real out of the way gems to visit in Northern Tuscany. Any favorites?
We visited Vinci last September and enjoyed the Museum there! To get to Vinci, take the train to Empoli. Outside the train station there is a bus stop. Bus tickets are for sale in a small newspaper/tobacco store inside the train station. We went to Empoli from Pisa, but I believe you can take the train from Florence too. Enjoy!
I visited Arezzo a few years ago and thought it looked like a good place to stay for a few days. It is an hour plus by train from Florence. Lucca isn't "out-of-the-way" exactly, but is well worth a visit.
We happened into San Quirico d'Orcia while driving form Montalcino to Pienza. Very sweet little town, with a huge home products store. Also Castelnuovo dell'Abate, with the nearby Abbey of Sant'Antimo worth a stop to see the abbey and have lunch. We really liked Monteriggioni, near Siena. You can walk on the well-preserved walls for amazing views, and there were quite a number of promising-looking restaurants, a few cute shops. There seemed to be a lot of lodging. Although we were only there for a couple of hours, it struck me as a peaceful place to spend a couple of nights in what looked like some very nice establishments.
Have you considered Umbria? It's beautiful, and not as discovered as Tuscany.
Northern Tuscany? Well, starting around Siena and moving north, Monteriggioni is a real gem, a small town perfectly preserved within its walls. Colle di Val d'Elsa can be fun..it has lots of small churches if you enjoy those. Up around Florence, I personally enjoyed San Miniato..great duomo. As mentioned, Vinci is a nice town; you won't find any tourists in Montelupo. Of course, Fiesole, Pistoia, and Prato are well known, but skipped over by many. Further north, Carrara can be a fun visit especially if you are interested in marble. And, one place that I've heard is great, but haven't gotten a chance to explore myself is Barga, which is surrounded by the mountains and valleys of the Garfagnana with some great hiking if you're interested in that. So, from what I've experienced, I think there are still some great gems to explore up north. Keep in mind that all the towns I've mentioned are very small, with the exceptions of Pistoia and Prato, and I guess Carrara. So, I'm not sure of your particular interests, but if you like a small town feel, these can be good options. There are other great options a little further south/southeast in Tuscany if you are willing to venture down that way.
Pistoia is a charming litle city about 20 miles NW of Florence.
We loved San Quirico-a very charming little town. If you are there in May as we were, walk along the outside wall and you will see capers growing in the wall. Don't know the lengtht of the growing season for capers but they looked almost ready for picking. Lidia(the chef) says they can be seen in the old walls in Rome but we did not see any there.
In Northern Tuscany - the Mugello valley and the Garfagnana and the Lunigiana. Although if you've never been to Casentino, definitely recommend that as well. What period of the year are you coming in? Do you like hiking and walking? Casentino is the area between Florence and Arezzo.... it covers valleys and goes into the Apennines which are great for hiking. Poppi and its castle are a must, as are the abbeys/monasteries of Verna and Camaldoli. If you haven't seen Arezzo, then that also merits a visit. Quiet a "sleepy" sort of town but charming. If you're in that area, head to Anghiari, Cortona or Sansepolcro. In the Mugello, Scarperia is a real gem. Renaissance town, really small but has a town hall that looks a lot like Palazzo Vecchio. Further north you once again get into the Apennines (that is why I was wondering whether you like hiking because it is great for that) and among these another gem is Firenzuola.
If you head to the west, the Garfagnana area is the southern edge of the Apuan Alps, also great for hiking. The eastern side is the Garfagnana, the western side is the Versilia which is right on the coast. Barga is a charming medieval village, popular for UK and Scottish expats. Lots of small villages along the valley, all merit stopping and visiting for one thing or another. The Wind Cave is near Barga off Gallicano. Definitely a must see. Further north touching the Ligurian and Emilia Romagna is the Lunigiana area above Massa and Carrara. This whole area is dotted with castles so the area is nicknamed "the area of the 100 castles". So you can use that as an itinerary to tour the area. Pontremoli is a really beautiful town, its castle is now a museum housing the "stele" or prehistoric burial stones found in the area. We visited last summer and were charmed by the wildness of most of the area. The area closest to the sea was definitely much more touristic. Massa also has a castle. We did 3 beautiful hikes in this upper limit of the Apuan Alps range.
AGAIN, TRY UMBRIA. NOT AS WELL KNOWN BUT THERE ARE SOME WONDERFUL WINERIES, COUNTRY HOMES/B&B'S AND VILLAGES. MONTEFALCO IS GORGEOUS.
Scott, I'm sure you'll get some good ideas from places people have been, but I'd suggest just striking out on your own. Driving around Tuscany and other parts of Italy we've found delightful villages that weren't in any guidebook (or internet forum). I bet you can do the same.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monteriggioni Its tiny, but a lot of fun. One of the original settlements on the old Roman Silk Road. Prato is fun also. Definitely see the Imperial Castle. http://www.castellitoscani.com/prato.htm Practice your Italian for ordering food in Prato. Its not a tourist center and English isn't spoken that much.
Another vote for Barga and surrounds. Definately off the typical tourist route and well worth a visit. The 'Scottish connection' in Barga is, indeed, a hoot... to run into a very Italian-looking person and then hear that o-so-Glaswegian accent come out of their
mouth is a real surprise!
Barga is beautiful, but don't drive there. It is a harrowing ride on narrow mountain roads and the bus driver just blows his or her horn and rounds the corners like it's a sports car. We were on the bus, thank God, but we really felt sorry for the people who had to back up on a winding road with a sheer drop off on most curves. And the bus doesn't back up! We were staying in Lucca and took a bus there. We were told that it is where the natives of Lucca go during the hot summers.
Hmm. We stayed on an agritourismo 30 minutes east of Barga and every day for a week we explored the region by car. We didn't find the roads or the drivers frightening at all - and our week was very rainy so the
conditions were far from perfect.