Claudia Da Rin

Ten things not to miss in northwestern Tuscany

Come and discover a wealth of treasures, living history and a memorable artistic powerhouse

Tuscany, the land of dreams. Ethereal and seducing, this region is a picture-postcard beauty, with endless rows of beguiling cypresses, mist-clad hills with isolated villas and mansions, fascinating medieval hilltop towns, architectural gems and art museums of the finest kind. It is also, of course, a foodie paradise, with some of the most celebrated Italian wines being produced here and delicious regional specialities prepared with love. A region boasting every possible landscape, from challenging mountains to wide open sand beaches, rolling hills and deep gorges, Tuscany steals the heart of many a visitor, who find it hard to leave a land so blessed with natural, artistic and cultural riches

1. White Carrara

The name of a week-long festival, Carrara has more than one reason to feel proud about its illustrious “white” past. The Romans discovered the potentials of the pristine marble found aplenty in the area 2,000 years ago, with famous artists and architects visiting in the Cinquecento, sourcing the finest marble to craft immortal artworks – Michelangelo is perhaps the most celebrated one, the marble blocks for his Pietà (Saint Peter’s, Rome) comes from here, but also Rodin’s The Kiss, and even London’s Marble Arch was crafted with this magic white treasure. Deep within the Apuan Alps, the marble quarries in the valleys of Torano, Miseglia, Bedisano and Colonnata dazzle as they shine as if made of snow – the name itself comes from the Greek marmaros and it means “shining stone”: this is the largest source of marble in the world and the place where you can sense history happening.

Marble speaks the language of potency and refinement, and can be fully admired when visiting the lunar landscape of the quarries: private tours take you along the old tunnels where a steam train used to carry the marble blocks down to the bottom of the mountain. Colonnata is also famous for its IGP lard: juicy pork fat seasoned with garlic, pepper and rosemary, left ageing for six months within marble basins. Do not miss this delicacy. Carrara is located 12 km from Il Bottaccio.

2. Pietrasanta, the city of artists

Art undoubtedly runs in the vein of Italians, the country a long record of gems in every corner, with pleasant surprises waiting to be discovered. Pietrasanta, not far from the northern coast of Tuscany, is one such example: a pretty little town bustling with art galleries and attractive shops, it is called “little Athens” and its marble quarries were favoured by Michelangelo. Although boasting Roman origins, the town was founded by Guiscardo da Pietrasanta in 1255, the then governing magistrate of Lucca. Its vibrant art scene, with several exhibitions held during the year, means many artists live and work here, such as Fernando Botero and Igor Mitoraj. Stroll down this picturesque town and admire the 14th century, marble-clad Duomo di San Martino and its adjoining, unfinished brick Bell Tower, the Baptistry and the Museo dei Bozzetti, tracing the story of modern sculpture through more than 700 maquettes and plaster moulds. Pietrasanta is located 8 km from Il Bottaccio.


3. Lucca, sublime beauty

Quaint, picturesque, scenic and pretty: Lucca has it all. This attractive medieval town in the Serchio valley still retains its medieval ramparts, along with cobbled streets and the refined feel that is typical of so many Tuscan towns. Walk along fashionable Via Fillungo, with its series of trendy shops, before reaching sublime Piazza Anfiteatro, perhaps Tuscany’s loveliest square, named after an amphitheatre that stood here in Roman times. The fabulous Duomo di San Martino contains exceptional artworks, chiefly Jacopo della Quercia’s sublimely delicate marble Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto: the young lady is rendered in such an exquisite way that you could almost feel her clothing coming alive. Inside this marvel, you will also find Tintoretto’s The Last Supper and Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1479 Madonna Enthroned with Saints, among others. Climb up the 60-metre bell tower, next to it, for staggering views across the town, then explore the elegant church of San Michele in Foro, a symmetrical Romanesque masterpiece that lies where the Roman forum once stood. You may take a bike and view the many pretty villas in the hills around the city, such as Villa Oliva, Grabau and Reale.

Lucca is also the town of Puccini and opera lovers will adore its permanent Puccini festival; Lucca Comics is the unmissable festival for lovers of comic strips, games, animated cinemas and graphic novels, taking place in September, while the Lucca Summer Festival brings outstanding international artists to this Tuscan delight for boogie nights out. Lucca is located 40 km from Il Bottaccio.


4. Beyond the leaning tower: Pisa

Pisa and its leaning tower are so famous that you may be tempted to glance at the Campo dei Miracoli and move on; you should, instead, visit the epic Camposanto, the cemetery that was sadly heavily bombed during WWII and bestows an air of serenity and calm in an otherwise busy corner of the city. The Baptistery contains Nicola Pisano’s masterpiece, a sublimely sculpted pulpit, made with Carrara marble between 1302 and 1310; the 11th century Duomo , next to it, paved the way for future cathedrals in the region. It’s certainly easy to wax lyrical about this supremely beautiful piazza, but you should also dig deeper and discover other key Pisa landmarks: in this charming former maritime power, once rivalling with Amalfi,  Venice and Genoa, pay a visit to fabulous Santa Maria della Spina church on the Arno river, and the Palazzo Blu, hosting Pisan artworks from the 14th to the 20th century. Admire Keith Haring’s murals and walk along its walls. The city houses the famous Normale University, an outstanding research centre for natural sciences and humanities. This is also where the delicious cecina tastes like heaven (a soft, focaccia-style bread made with chickpea flower) and people like to party in great style: visit on 16th June for the staggering Luminarie di San Ranieri, when festivities for the patron saint mean the town and the Lungarno become alive with dazzling lights and people celebrate well into the night. Pisa is located 48 km from Il Bottaccio.

5. Portovenere, an idyll come true

Sitting in neighbouring Liguria, Portovenere is often dubbed the “sixth town” of the Cinque Terre, located south of them, and it is an evocative destination, well worthy of its UNESCO World Heritage Status.  Set inside a Regional Natural park and spectacularly located on the water, Portovenere is one of the most charming amphitheatres in Italy, with its pretty rows of pastel-coloured houses lining the harbour, once part of the town’s fortified walls, called the Palazzata.  Evocative Saint Peter’s church is perched high on the cliffs and combines a Gothic and Romanesque structure: it is an exceptional viewpoint and a dazzling sight. Walk down the steps to reach Byron’s grotto, for this is the romantically named Golfo dei Poeti (another name for the La Spezia gulf), as many Romantic poets loved the area and spent time here. Allegedly Lord Byron was also an avid swimmer and swam from Portovenere to San Terenzo near Lerici, across the gulf, to visit Percy Bysshe Shelley: the 7.5 km-long distance is replicated each summer by swimmers who take part in the Coppa Byron.

Portovenere also comes with its own archipelago that can be reached by ferry, the biggest island being Palmaria, hosting a staggering 36 sea caves and several walking trails offering staggering views, flanked by Tino and Tinetto. While you’re here, try the delicious Liguria specialities, including unforgettable focaccia, appetizing seafood and delicately scented olive oil, not to mention the original pesto. Portovenere is located 55 km from Il Bottaccio.

6.Five lands of beauty: The Cinque Terre

Few places can boast such cinematic coastal scenery as Liguria’s Cinque Terre. UNESCO World Heritage sites since 1997, the five hamlets of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore stand perched on the hills overlooking the sea, in an area sung by Romantic poets and stirring up everyone’s emotions. Enclosed within a national park, hiking may be the best way to take in the dramatic views: the Alta Via delle Cinque Terre runs from Porto Venere to Levanto along 38 km, or try the Sentiero Azzurro (blue trail) which once connected all the pastel-coloured villages and now exists in a few sections. Everyone’s favourite, the Via dell’amore, linking Manarola to Riomaggiore, has been closed following a landslide and will reopen in 2023.

Approaching the Cinque Terre by boat is another splendid way to admire these fabulously choreographed marvels: relax on a private yacht and sail from Bocca di Magra towards these ethereal villages and anchor at Vernazza. From here, visit the 11th century Castello Doria and the 13th c. Saint Margaret’s church for sweeping views on the bay. You may also combine a train/hike/sail experience to make the most of this blessed land.   Le Cinque Terre (Riomaggiore) is located 56 km from Il Bottaccio

7. Prato and its textile heritage

Any Tuscan lover will have a packet of delicious cantucci biscuits in his larder. These crunchy almond delights are known the world over, but most people may not know that Prato, half an hour from Florence, produces its own version with its Biscotti di Prato, presented at the Paris International Exhibition in 1867 by the same company that manufactures them today. Prato is certainly famous for its textile past, as well – pay a visit to the extraordinary Museo del Tessuto to learn about this activity, which made Tuscan merchants rich from the Middle Ages onwards. You may also read Iris Origo’s The Merchant of Prato to learn about Francesco Datini and gain an insight into medieval times.  

The feather in the cap of this interesting city is the magnificent Cattedrale di Santo Stefano that entails frescoes by Filippo Lippi (a cycle showcasing Stories of Saint Stephen and Stories of Saint John the Baptist), Paolo Uccello (Stories of the Virgin and Saint Stephen) and Agnolo Gaddi (Stories of the Sacred Girdle).  Sculptural masterpieces are the pulpits by Antonio Rossellino and Mino da Fiesole inside the church and by Donatello and Michelozzo on the exterior of the façade. Prato is located 95 km from Il Bottaccio.

8. From the Apuan Alps to Forte dei Marmi

The beauty of this area in northwestern Tuscany is the juxtaposition of mountains and the sea, rolling hills and medieval towns. All this majestic scenery can be contemplated by the wild and remote Apuan Alps, soaring high and well visible from the coast.  A UNESCO world geopark and a regional park, the Apuan Alps entail a series of peaks, the highest of them, Monte Pisanino, reaching 1945m: a barren, yet evocative landscape, hiking here should be carefully planned, as the often misty weather may make navigating a challenging affair. The park extends over the Garfagnana area – Dante spent his exile from Florence here – and Massa Carrara and you can find a staggering 1,300 caves – the biggest of them, the Antro del Corchia in Stazzema, is the deepest in Italy.

This is also the land of marble, which gives its name to Forte dei Marmi, the town on the coast where marble blocks were stacked before being loaded onto ships to be exported. Now a vibrant centre, Forte dei Marmi is an attractive resort where trendy shops and antiques fair, as well as music festivals, attract many visitors, who enjoy the beauty of the sea in a unique setting, Forte dei Marmi is located 9 km from Il Bottaccio

9. A trip into Chiantishire

Say Tuscany and wine springs to mind. In a country where the passion for food and wine knows no boundaries, it often difficult to choose among the many wine varieties produced in each Italian area. Regional varieties depend on the intensity of the sun, the exposure of the vineyards and the producing methods. The best way to learn about what makes each wine so special is to embark on a delightful wine tasting tour. Forget dusty cellars and a few nibbles eaten stealthily while your host looks the other way: a trip to the Cantina Antinori nel Chianti Classico, in San Casciano Val di Pesa, is an astonishing experience. Wine growers ever since the 14th century – Giovanni di Piero Antinori became a member of the Arte Fiorentina dei Vinattieri in 1385 – a visit to this futuristic, innovative estate exposes and illustrates everything about the wine making process; the building itself has been carefully constructed with locally built material, focusing on “the gravity flow of vinification”.

Part of the Toscana Wine Architecture association, three tours are offered here: Barricaia, Bottaia and Bottaia Cru, revealing  the production processes through the various phases. You may also visit the Gallery Space, showcasing pivotal artworks in the family collection, the auditorium and the art project, a platform for contemporary art exhibitions. End this experience with a sublime tasting, enjoying locally produced olive oil, as well. The Cantina Antinori nel Chianti Classico is located 131 km from Il Bottaccio.

10. Ornellaia wine tasting tour

Quiz any Italian on Bolgheri and they will know that this is where picturesque rows of cypresses stand – made famous by Giosue’ Carducci’s Davanti  San Guido poem. Ask any wine lover about it, and they will tell you that Bolgheri is the home of the first “SuperTuscan” wine, Sassicaia. It is this ideal combination of fairy-tale landscape and excellent wine-making production, along with the typical Italian hospitality, that make a trip to Bolgheri unforgettable; a visit to Cantina Ornellaia quintessentially sums up this delight. The estate was created in 1981 and contemplates nothing but excellence, delivering a superb wine, full of character and elegant expressions, favoured by its proximity to the coast, enjoying a gentle sea breeze in the summer and being protected by cold winds in the winter.  

Taste the several varieties, such as Ornellaia, Ornellaia Bianco, Variazioni in Rosso, or Ornus, and experience a truly excellent wine. Interestingly, each year a famous artist takes part in the Vendemmia d’artista project, designing a special label that defines the character of the wine, and culminates in artworks that embody the vision of the artist and his or her interpretation of Ornellaia. The Ornellaia Estate is located in Bolgheri, 110 km from Il Bottaccio.


Travel Tips where to stay

Ask for more info about the best experiences and itinereraries we can design in Tuscany