Reveling in Tuscany

By Amy Lively Jensen

Who wouldn’t love staying in a fairy-tale castle, exploring top wineries and tastings, enjoying treasured art and savoring fantastic food?  This is what awaits you in the Tuscany region of Italy. Sharing our travel experiences for this article brings back phenomenal memories.



We began our Tuscany adventure in Florence, home to some of the greatest art and architecture in the world. Instead of racing from museums to galleries, I recommend that you focus on the “must-see” sights in Florence, then leaving plenty of time to soak in the ambience and wander around the city’s wonders.



Even if you’re not a devoted art lover, you must visit the Uffizi Gallery. It holds the greatest collection of Italian paintings on earth, spanning masters from the 12th through 17th centuries. Most note-worthy is Venus revered as the epitome of beauty. “The Birth of Venus” is a Sandro Botticelli painting from 1485 was unlike any other painting of its time. It was designed to be hung above the marital bed and was a daring celebration of human desire. The painting was so controversial that it was kept behind closed doors for half a century. It’s a surreal experience to see the room that’s got enormous Botticelli paintings all over the walls; you feel like you’re in the paintings. While at the Uffizi, be sure to seek out the nice rooftop café with views over the Piazza.



You can take a break from art and people-watch in the Piazza della Signoria. This gorgeous open-air plaza is in the “front yard” of what was once the ruling Medici family home: the Palazzo Vecchio with a life-size “David” replica regaling its entrance. To the right is a fantastic outdoor sculpture gallery. Nearby you can indulge in superb gelato. After tasting the creamy seasonal flavors such as fig and sour cherry, you may want to partake once (or maybe twice) a day. One of the oldest and best gelato shops in Florence is Vivoli Gelato (www.vivoli.it). The best gelato is handmade in small batches in covered tubs. But avoid food-dye offerings in vivid pinks or bright greens-which you will not find at Vivoli.



We joked that all roads lead to the Duomo, the centerpiece of the city. Its spectacular dome is taller than a football field and is the most stunning feature of the Florence Cathedral. If you don’t mind 463 steep steps plus some tight spaces, climbing to the top will reward you with incredible panoramic views. If you’re not out of breath, head to the adjacent bell tower for another spectacular view of the city and the Duomo itself. I had a goose bump moment when the bells were chiming as I contemplated the scenery below.

While there are many copies of Michelangelo’s “David” in Florence, only one is the original. The Accademia Gallery seems made specifically to show off this 12,000 pound, 17-foot tall masterpiece. Carved from a single abandoned block of marble 500 years ago, 26-year old Michelangelo captured remarkable details, for instance the intense expression in David’s eyes and veins in his muscles where it seems that his blood runs.



To get a perfect postcard view of Florence, head to the Piazzale Michelangelo. You gaze out over the crumbling city wall, the Duomo and Uffizi across the river. We went at sunset where the valley turns purple; it was an unforgettable panorama. Plan for ending another day with one more sunset at the Ponte Vecchio bridge. It looks over the Arno River and shows an incredibly sweet and romantic view of Florence. Known as the “old bridge,” the first bridge here was built in 966. It is characterized by three arches and wide arcades on each side that house famous, unusual and very expensive gold jewelry shops.

You must take a stroll through Florence’s famous leather markets. In the San Lorenzo market, you’ll see hundreds of jackets flapping in the breeze with the musky aroma of leather wafting into the air. The choices of leather gifts are nearly overwhelming, and the quality and prices vary greatly. If you are interested in a pricey purchase, it is worthwhile to research how to choose quality leather. I chose cashmere-lined leather gloves which made wonderful Christmas gifts.



After wandering through the gauntlet of leather stalls, you can take a turn through the fabulous Mercato Centrale. This indoor market has countless food vendors selling wine, fruit, meat, fish, cheese, olive oil and spices. It is frequented by locals as much as tourists. If you need a food souvenir to bring home, try the olive oil, dried pasta or shrink-wrapped cheese.



In addition to gelato, there are several “must-try” foods in Florence. Pick up a bag of Cantucci, tiny biscotti made with almonds. These twice-baked little gems are lovely dunked in your morning cappuccino, evening expresso or in the local dessert wine known as Vin Santo. Cinghiale, or wild boar is a local treasure. If you enjoy pig, you’ll definitely like this gamier version in a ragu. This boar-based sauce is most likely served over Pappardelle, a wide noodle common here. Olive oil here has a delicate taste from olive groves that are said to be 600 years old. In Tuscany, olive oil isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity, present at every meal. For serious carnivores, try Bistecca alla Fiorentina. This is a T-bone steak that weighs in at well over a pound; it’s brought to diners with the meat hanging over the edges of the plate.

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