[THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON VISITTUSCANY.COM]
The central Italian province of Tuscany is perhaps the country's most famous, both for its incredible history and its iconic, panoramic landscapes. The province has strict building codes for most of its areas, so the architecture and the use of land in general is carefully preserved to maintain its quintessential beauty. The culinary traditions are also preserved, and it is hard to find better food anywhere in the world. The cities of Florence, Pisa, and Siena are its main large attractions, but many wonderful and rewarding days and even weeks can be spent in Tuscany without ever approaching these large metro areas. Here are a few of our favorite out-of-the-way places that we've found over the years, full of art, history, architecture, food, and beautiful landscapes... but not full of tourists.
1. San Quirico D'Orcia: Horti Leonini
Designed by Diomede Leoni in the 1500′s, this beautiful and extensive (and free) Renaissance style garden is a hidden gem. The entrance is through a gate at one corner of the town’s main square, the Piazza della Libertà. The vast size of the garden is impressive for such a small town. At different times of year, for some festivals they decorate the garden with sculptures or other public art. One path here leads under an arched gate to a rose garden, which then exits right by the Church of Santa Maria Assunta on the main street; in summer it is replete with rose blooms and scents. Another route takes you up the hill (past an open air stage) to the old medieval wall fortifications, where you can imagine defenders looking out on assailants through the many arrow slits. Today the invaders have given up, though, so this is a lovely and quiet place to wander, and spend some time to relax. Allow yourself an hour to explore the whole grounds.
2. The Abbey at Abbadia San Salvatore
Just north of Piancastagnaio is the relatively bustling (but still small) town of Abbadia San Salvatore. The town sprang up around the abbey of the same name, and it is this collection of ancient buildings, and the small historic village center, that is the destination here. The Benedictine abbey, founded in the 8th century AD, is one of the oldest and largest in the country, and it used to be the center of great influence across southern Tuscany. Of particular note is the crypt, beneath the sanctuary of the abbey church. In its spookily-lit and otherworldly depths, dating back to the earliest days of the abbey, can be seen columns with carvings of faces of people and animals (or combinations of these) that are over a thousand years old. If you’re fortunate enough to be down there when the church bells ring, you’re in for one of those eerie out-of-time feelings that are so frequent in these ancient spaces.
Fans of herbal liquori will want to seek out local liqueur-maker Lombardi e Visconti, who crafts an amaro (a bitter liqueur) called "Stilla", which follows a recipe laid out by the Cistercian monks of the Abbey. You can literally taste the history - but don't taste too much of it if you're driving.
A tiny, medieval walled hill town (its castle was built sometime in the 12th century), Murlo has an interesting distinction: Researchers recently discovered that the modern residents of this historically isolated town share a great deal of DNA with that of the ancient Etruscans. These similarities manifest in particular facial characteristics of the people here.
The town’s Antiquarian Museum contains many ancient artifacts and archaeological information, helping visitors explore and learn about the intricacies of the Etruscan civilization. Many of the antiquities here come not just from tombs, which are common all over Tuscany, but in this case from a large estate residence, evidently the home to a very wealthy and important Etruscan resident of the area.
Murlo lies on a wooded ridge between two river valleys, west of Buonconvento. Several hiking, biking, and horse trails wander through the forested areas below the town, for those who might like a long excursion through the woods.
4. Etruscan tombs at Castellina in Chianti
On the edge of the beautiful town of Castellina in Chianti can be found a large Etruscan hilltop burial mound. Its structure is similar to those tombs at the famous site of Cerveteri, and brave visitors can explore parts of the inside. It’s open all day every day, and is free and unattended – give yourself maybe 20-30 minutes to check it out and reflect on these ancient pre-Roman people who left remnants of their culture like this all over Italy.
This tiny town, just west of Greve in Chianti, is a perfect, very small, walled town to walk through. Montefioralle was originally a double-walled castle town built in the 13th century as a strategic fortification. The walls still stand, but are now simply part of the many houses that were built since then; it is now is one of those charming hill towns that seem untouched by time. It is perhaps notable to those of us from the Western hemisphere that Amerigo Vespucci lived here in the 1400s, and his family's house can still be identified by the wasp ("vespa") insignia over one of the doors. It's possible to walk the circular town in just a few minutes, not counting the time you'll spend taking in the incredible views of the town, and from the town of the valleys below. Walking through the town on a winter's day, we were struck by the quietness, the solitude, and the comforting scent of wood smoke in the air. Montefioralle's houses have some of the most beautiful doors we've ever seen, so if you are looking to make your own "Italian Doors Calendar" this is a great place to go - be sure to get a picture of Amerigo Vespucci's house, no. 21.
From the Duomo in Barga, up to the northwest, you can see the tiny town of Sommocolonia looking down over the valley. Finding it requires a careful look at a detailed map; the drive up to the tiny hilltop town is beautiful and evocative, and the village itself boasts commanding views of the Garfagnana countryside. The quiet village has no stores or restaurants, but it does have a sense of timelessness and peace. There is also a memorial to the victims of 9/11. Evidently the villagers here have a soft spot for Americans because of the events in World War II, the great heroism of members of the U.S. 92nd Infantry Division, who died while keeping the town (which occupied a very strategic position) out of the hands of the Nazis in December 1944. One of the key figures in this resistance, US Army Lt. John Fox, is commemorated by a marker in the field just below the town – he was one of several of this division who was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor in 1997 for his heroism. Fox had directed Allied artillery to his position in order to destroy the oncoming Nazi troops. It destroyed himself as well, but halted the enemy advance. This is particularly poignant, since as a black man, Fox served in a racially segregated Army division, who toiled and fought in their country's defense, despite being treated like a second class citizen.
7. San Gennaro
We drove to tiny San Gennaro after reading about the 11th century church here. It was worth the short, beautiful drive northwest from Collodi just to see this adorable and picturesque town, whose design is centered around the church and bell tower of San Gennaro. The scope and grandeur of the church belies the size of the town: The doors of the church are adorned with a series of bas-relief copper panels depicting Biblical scenes in three dimensions. Inside the church is a terra-cotta angel that has recently been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci.
8. Borgo a Mozzano: Devil's Bridge
While exploring the beautiful, mountainous Garfagnana region in northwest Tuscany, be sure to stop and appreciate the Ponte della Maddalena, the Bridge of Mary Magdalene, just north of the little river-side town of Borgo a Mozzano. Built in the 11th century AD, this stone footbridge is a wonder of medieval engineering and construction (though it has been renovated multiple times over the centuries). The footbridge steeply crosses the Serchio River in three spans of wildly different sizes, giving it a lopsided look that earned it the nickname Ponte del Diavolo, or Devil's Bridge. Legend has it that the builder made a deal with the devil to get the bridge done overnight. The builder agreed that the devil would get to claim the soul of the first person to cross. When it was finished, the builder sent a pig over, essentially cheating the devil out of his due.
Speaking of pigs: The town itself is small but bustling, offering several restaurants that serve traditional Garfagnana cuisine, including the ferocious and delicious wild boar (cinghiale) of the region.
9. Pescia: Tintori Citrus Orchards
Run by the same family for generations, “Il Giardino degli Agrumi” is open for self-guided tours for 4.50 Euro (with a 1 Euro discount for children and seniors). Hundreds of ornamental citrus plants can be found here, some more than half a millennium old. There is a small gift shop where you can purchase honeys infused with lemon or orange, marmalades of many varieties, and body products made with citrus oils. It is prohibited to pick citrus off the plants, but the smells are free and plentiful. It’s an unusual experience to be in northern Tuscany wandering through a citrus orchard (even if it is in a greenhouse), and it’s well worth a visit if you are passing by. There is a bar at the end of the street so you can have a quick coffee or prosecco before or after you visit.
10. Sant'Angelo in Colle
A short drive south from the famous and tourist-thrumming wine town of Montalcino brings travelers to the tiny little hilltop medieval borgo of Sant'Angelo in Colle. This is an unspoiled, miniature version of Montalcino, with all the charm but none of the crowds - fewer than two hundred people reside here. Walking through its narrow, cobbled streets feels like stepping a few centuries back in time. It has a couple of ancient churches and only a few stores and restaurants, including the excellent Il Pozzo, which sources all its food from nearby. The town walls overlook vineyards in all directions; these are a central source of the production of the famous Brunello di Montalcino wine.
11. San Galgano - Church and Abbey
The story behind this ruined abbey, and the still-intact church that looks over it, is interesting: Galgano Guidotti was a historical figure from the 12th century. The repentant Galgano supposedly plunged his sword, previously used only for nefarious deeds, into the stone atop Montesiepi; the hilt created a cross, a sign of his newfound piety. As a result of this sensation, the man and the place became sanctified, visited by pilgrims and monks. This became the site of a round church which still stands today (and in which can still be seen the stone with the sword hilt protruding from it); word of the sword artifact undoubtedly spread quickly throughout the devout of Europe; it is possible that this was in fact the source of King Arthur’s own sword legend. A few decades later, in 1218, a large complex was built in the valley below, becoming the Abbey of San Galgano.
The church is free to enter and visit; its round shape and domed ceiling make the space inside a great resonating chamber. Right next to the chapel is the “herbalist's shop“, in which can be found many products (soaps, oils, jams, liqueurs) made by various local artisans or by other monastic colonies elsewhere in Tuscany.
The abbey ruins are open for a fee of €2 per person – well worth it, for a stroll through these haunting ruins. The abbey was mostly abandoned by the 1600s, and its roof and bell tower collapsed in the late 1700s, making it a source of stone for other local buildings until historians and archaeologists began the work of preserving the remains.