Summer is in full swing now, which means it is time to dust off your passport, pull out your suitcase and get ready for a little adventure.
Flocks of tourists will be heading to Italy. Over the next few months Florence, Rome, Venice, Milan and the Amalfi Coast will be flooded with an almost unbearable number of people. Trust me, the crowds and the intense heat can be overwhelming.
Last summer, I spent the month of June in Florence. Make no mistake; it was unforgettable, but even early in the summer the crowds and endless lines of people took their toll. In fact, the only time that I managed to truly escape the crowds was when I left the city.
Many people who visit Tuscany never leave Florence except to travel to and from the airport and maybe stop off to see Pisa’s Leaning Tower. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Florence is one of the most beautiful cities on earth and having spent over a month there I can confidently say that no amount of time there would ever be enough for me.
That being said, limiting oneself to Florence means never experiencing the other wonders of the region. Tuscany is famed for its rolling golden hills and world-renowned vineyards, but it also has some of Italy’s most spectacular towns and cities.
Florence’s historical rival is its equal in beauty and splendor. Unlike Florence which lies in a basin and is mostly flat, Siena was built in the Tuscan hills. Wandering Siena might require a bit more effort, but the city’s hilly streets only add to the romance of the city.
Siena’s Piazza del Campo is the city’s central hub. A large semicircular space lined with restaurants, cafés and most importantly, gelaterias, the piazza is typically Italian. The Palazzo Pubblico draws the focus with its Torre del Mangia towering over a hundred feet above the square. It is the second tallest secular tower from the medieval period; a testament to the city’s powerful and prestigious past.
The real gem of the city, however, is undeniably the stunning Duomo. Constructed from white, green and red marble just like the Duomo in Florence, Siena’s ostentatious cathedral is every bit as beautiful. Inside, the cathedral does not disappoint. The Duomo houses works by Italian masters including Bernini and Michelangelo and the mosaic floor is famed across Italy. Interestingly, work was begun in the fourteenth century to expand the Duomo, but it was never finished. The leftover evidence of this unfinished extension can still be seen today.
Finally, for the best view of the city head to the Basilica of San Domenico. The Basilica itself is free and well worth a visit, but the view of the rest of the city from the Basilica is breathtaking. In the evening as the sun is preparing to set, the city, crowned by the Duomo, takes on a stunning warm glow. Its magnificence cannot be fully expressed with words. It is just one of Tuscany’s many beauties which can only be experienced in person.
Tuscany is peppered with medieval towns. Monteriggioni is a quaint town with a disproportionately large impact on the Tuscan landscape. Driving up the Via Cassia Nord, I was stunned by the small town’s monumental effect. The town is encircled completely by high walls and fourteen turrets. It sits isolated atop a hill with views stretching for miles. It was built strategically to defend Siena against Florentine offensives in the thirteenth century. 800 years later, it is still imposing.
Considering its impact from afar, I was surprised when I finally made it through the Porta Romana. It is, after all, rather tiny. It consists of one main street and a large central piazza with smaller streets, gardens and piazzas off shooting the main Piazza Roma. You can walk the whole town in no more than an hour and there is very little to explore. But it is definitely worth spending an afternoon to drive over, if only just to see the striking town from afar. Even Dante was impressed by Monteriggioni and referred to it in his Divine Comedy!
San Gimignano has one of Tuscany’s most remarkable skylines. The original settlement dates back as far as the third century BC but the town really began to take on its current appearance during the medieval period and it has impressed visitors ever since.
The town is most famous for its medieval towers, a shocking fourteen of which are still standing, a feat virtually unmatched by other Italian towns dating from the medieval period. With every corner of San Gimignano crammed with a mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, exploring the town’s streets is like stepping back in history. It is the perfect escape from the tourist packed streets of Florence.
Photography by Savannah Hayes
Top: View of Siena from the Basilica of San Domenico
Middle: Piazza del Campo, Siena; View of Tuscan countryside from Monteriggioni
Bottom: San Gimignano