You've seen some of the articles on bike racing on our site written by Owen Mulholland. Owen has a twin brother John. In their young adulthood, both John and Owen went to Europe to be bike racers, Owen to France and John to Italy. John has maintained close ties with Italy ever since. When he had a friend planning a trip to Tuscany, he wrote the following "travel guide" for his friend, and has given us permission to print it here. Enjoy!
Travel in Tuscany
by John Mulholland
Subj: Tuscany: Where to go and what to do. I arrived in Tuscany 35 years ago at the age of 19. From my first days in the region (Italy is divided into regions which are similar to our states, La Toscana is one of them.) I immediately felt at home to the point that I often thought of myself as an Italian born by error in the United States. My sojourn lasted only three years and, sadly, I've never lived there since. However, all was not lost. I did meet the lady of my life there, Gabriella (a daughter of Florence), learned Italian well, and acquired an old farm house in the hills northeast of Florence. Since 1968 I've had the good fortune to live constantly overseas returning every year to our home near Dicomano for vacation. I offer this preamble so that you will understand that while I'm obviously passionate about Italy I cannot really call myself an "expert" on my adopted country. In short, please understand that all that follows are very personal views. They should be held up to the objective light of other (undoubtedly better informed) sources and your own desires and preferences.
First, a note on the historical perspective. During the arc of ages there have been various magical moments of human creativity. The philosophers of Athens and composers of Salzburg are two examples that come to mind. As great as these moments were in the enrichment of man they pale in comparison to the creativity that poured forth during the Renaissance in Florence. We are all familiar with the great artistic creativity of da Vinci and Michelangelo. Equally great accomplishments were wrought in literature, the sciences, music, architecture, and commerce. For example, regarding this latter, relatively obscure subject, how many of us today realize that the Letter of Credit, sales on consignment, consolidated shipments, Bills of Lading, and even "banks" were all inventions from Florence? Today when one travels from Milano to Palermo there is no shortage of renaissance art to be seen. What is not apparent is that the vast majority of it was created by, copied from, or inspired by (through students and imitators) Florentine artists. There were others, I have no wish to slight them (How I would love include Vivaldi but, alas, he was from Venice.). My point is that Tuscany, and, in particular, Florence, was the source of this avalanche of creativity. In short, what we know today as "Italian Culture" is, in large measure, the product of the magic of Florence. Reflect for a moment that only 2% of the Italian population spoke "Italian" as their mother tongue when the modern Italian state was created in 1861. (Italian dialects were, and are, spoken by the rest of the population.) Today that figure is over 60% and growing. How could this tiny sliver of the Italian peninsula so dominate the rest of the country linguistically and every other way? Keep this question in mind during your trip. We'll discuss your views after your return.
When I first went to Italy I expected to find historical sites surrounded by little white picket fences with a neat sign stating so-and-so had been there and done such-and- such, much as we see erected by the DAR and similar historical societies here in the U.S. I could not conceive of a country where one is besieged by historical structures every two blocks or even every building. To preserve Italy's creative heritage would necessitate the removal of its population and putting the whole country under glass. The down side of this is that you will see examples of art unrecognized, unappreciated, and deteriorating. The positive is that you will be able to "live" the lives of the icons of the renaissance very closely. You can walk on the same paving stones and sit in the same pews as Michelangelo, Giotto, Dante, and so many more. Hopefully your budding Italian and innate perception will allow you to ascertain that the same kind of proud (never arrogant), rough, and independent tribe continues to populate Tuscany today.
Now please get out your map of Tuscany; a 1:200,000 is adequate.
Florence: Notwithstanding too many tourists and often miserable weather (usually too hot or too cold and always humid) Florence remains the center of any visit to Tuscany. Web pages and tourist guides will describe the major points of interest far better than I. Certainly you don't want to miss Gli Uffizzi(1) Gallery, the Pitti Palace, Michelangelo's home, the Boboli gardens, il Ponte Vecchio, etc. etc. During a week's stay in Tuscany spend at least two days discovering this incredible city. Walk everywhere. This is helped because half of the downtown is blocked to traffic. Be sure to check opening hours and working days of museums and other points of interest. Holidays, odd days off (like Monday), and, of course, lunch (see more on this crucial subject below), can ruin the best laid plans.
Lucca/Pisa: Both of these are about 50 miles to the west of Florence and about 15 miles apart from each other. Leaving early in the morning one can go and on the Autostrada Firenze-Mare (A11) or make the loop going through Empoli (renowned for its hand painted terra cotta dishes)(an interesting side trip is to nearby Vinci, birthplace of you know who, with a little museum containing working models of his inventions) and Pontedera (still the home of Vespa motor scooters) and returning through Pescia (site of the National Flower Market), Montecatini Terme (Site of famous thermal springs), Montecatini Alto on the hill behind Montecatini Terme is a jewel (Drive up to it for a drink and the view.), Pistoia, and Prato (the wool textile capital of the world), all are cities very worthy of visits. Pisa is the more famous of the two cities but a visit to Lucca will soon show why I consider it one of the three crown jewels of Tuscany (Siena and Florence are the other two). In Pisa visit the Leaning Tower and its Basilica but dedicate the rest of the day to Lucca. We've all seen walled cities, but not like this one. Forgetting for a moment the 12 enormous buttresses on its corners, this wall is 60 feet wide, sufficient to accommodate two sidewalks, two lines of oak trees, and a two lane road for cars. Today the cars are banned. Leave your car and walk this city. Again get a proper guide book to its notable treasures. As I walk the city I love to look in the windows of the more notable palazzi to see the marvelous painted ceilings. Another favorite is to climb to the top of the tower of Palazzo Guinigi. You can't miss it, it's the only one with trees growing on top of it. The view of the city is unparalleled. Lucca is known as a music center (it hosts the Cherubini Conservatory) and, with luck, you might be able to catch a chamber music concert in one of its famous palazzi.
Tour of the Marble Quarries: Head west out of Lucca on the road to Camaiore. (Actually the road is found on the north side of Lucca and then bends westward.) And follow the gentle course upward. A couple of miles before you arrive at Camaiore you'll crest Monte Magno. Park at the top and take in the view of the valley below and the beginning of the Alpi Apuane to the right. For me it's one of the loveliest yet dramatic panoramas in all of Tuscany. Next, head down the hill through Camaiore (Time permitting there's a very spectacular climb up to Casoli behind Camaiore) to the coast and turn north to Massa (there are several parallel roads including an Autostrada). (I don't want to complicate matters but if you're an opera buff a visit to the wonderfully preserved home of Puccini at Torre del Lago 5 miles to the south on Lago Massaciuccoli might be in order.) Checking your map turn northeast on the road over the mountains to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. Before starting up, stop in any of the marble factories to see how they saw through 20 ton blocks of marble. Climbing is slow because you'll continually want to stop to take in the views. Towards the top you'll be passing by the quarries themselves. You'll see men who seem the size of gnats clambering over the exposed white marble rigging their cables to cut blocks. As you pass near the top (before the tunnel) you'll be near Monte Altissimo (about 5000 ft.) from where Michelangelo came personally to select his marble. On the other side after Castelnuovo you'll continue down to Bagni di Lucca (an historic haunt of English literate such as Byron, Shelley, and the Brownings.). Here, turn right (southeast) and proceed along the Serchio River on the east side (there are roads on both sides) to the Village of Mozzano. Stop and walk over the Ponte del Diavolo (Bridge of the Devil). I'll just say it's the most unforgettable 700 year old bridge you're ever seen. Continue down to Lucca and then home.
Siena and area: In spite of its fame Siena is still more of a town than a city. After all it's population is still only 50,000. Not only is Siena beautifully preserved, it's free of cars. Again, get the proverbial tour guide for all the things to visit. The best of all? Go down to the central piazza, the Campo dei Fiori (site of the famous horse race, il Palio) and have a cappuccino at any of the outdoor bars (2) and just soak up the atmosphere. Three nearby towns deserve mention.
Montepulciano is a medieval hill town east of Siena that has two huge attractions. One is that it's "relatively" undiscovered and in mint medieval condition. Two is that it sits on top of a hill covered in grape arbors that produce a wine called Vino Nobile. Until the 18th C. this was the private reserve of the Pope. When you taste the wine, especially the riserva, you'll understand why the penalty for swiping a jug was death.
San Gimignano: Yes, it's beautifully preserved and justifiably famous for its towers, It's in everyone's tour book. Unfortunately it's also a tourist kiosk from stem to stern.
Volterra I'll confess I haven't visited it for years. When I used to, it was still relatively undiscovered. This town has it all: Etruscan, Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance buildings with a marvelous Roman amphitheater and Etruscan tombs thrown in for good measure.
Valley of Mugello: Tired of running and want to spend a day close to home? Although only "over the hill" from Florence the valley truly has not been "discovered". I know, I've been visiting it for the last three decades. Some recommendations:
Dicomano: Take a walking tour down both sides of the Comano River on the footpaths and cross Dicomano's own Ponte Vecchio. Also follow the cobbled alley from the river (OK, stream) up to Piazza Buonamici and turn back to the center of town on the cover sidewalks. Market day is Saturday and an experience in itself.
Vicchio earned its place in history when she bore a son named Giotto. Giotto's home can be visited just west of town. Giotto was discovered by another famous artist, Cimabue. The story goes that Giotto was drawing a picture next to a bridge when Cimabue came by. Cimabue recognized the quality of the young's Giotto's artistic efforts and pronounced that he would become Florence's most famous artist. Anyway there's a little sign on the side of the road indicating where to go to visit this very famous bridge that's still used and in excellent condition.
Borgo San Lorenzo: The central part of the city is well preserved with parts of its original wall still intact. It's certainly worth a visit and a walking tour.
My "turf" is from Borgo San Lorenzo to San Godenzo, 10 kilometers east of Dicomano. One of my passions is running and I can safely say that I've run nearly every trail in this 400 sq. kilometer area. Notwithstanding the myriad times I've run through the Mugello Valley, its shear natural beauty hits me square in the chest each time I go out. I trust you will have the same experience. You will wonder no longer wonder why Giotto was a child of the Mugello.
Weather and Clothes: It will perhaps surprise you to realize that Florence is farther north than Boston. Being surrounded by the Mediterranean the Italian peninsula's climate is far more moderate than New England yet be prepared for potentially very chilly and wet weather in the Spring, Fall, and Winter.
La Figura (image): Italians care far more than Americans as to how they are perceived by others. Especially when chilly weather arrives Italians tend to dress in fine wool clothes with classic style. What I'm trying to say is that you'll blend in better in downtown Florence in slacks, sweaters, and jackets than sweat suits and similar apparel. Having said this I notice that clean, pressed jeans are becoming acceptable wear across the age spectrum.
Italian Eating: Generally Italians eat a light breakfast consisting of a caffe or cappuccino with pastry early in the morning. This may be followed by a light snack later in the morning. Lunch is the big meal. At home or in restaurants it is served in courses one after the other with a change of plate for each course. The full gambit is the antipasto (ham, salami, melon, cheese, olives, etc.), il primo (the pasta dish), il secondo (main course: meat, fish, or fowl), contorno (vegetable dish served with the secondo), insalata (salad), dolce (sweet), espresso, and finally a liquore. Of course you don't have to go through all of this. Many people just eat a primo or secondo and find it more than adequate. The whole meal is washed down by wine (you will be surprised to see what moderate drinkers Italians are) and water. Dinner is usually a light affair consisting of the equivalent of an antipasto with perhaps soup.
As Americans we have a hard time appreciating the central role of meals in the Italian culture. The country just shuts down at lunch time (1-4:30 PM). In the countryside don't expect to find a gas station or store open, you won't. Plan accordingly! Breaking bread with friends and family is for me one of the most endearing traits of Italian (and Mediterranean) culture. We have two sayings in Italian that describe my feelings on this subject: Chi mangia da solo si strozza (He who eats alone, strangles.). A tavola non si invecchia (At the dining table you don't grow old.).
Language: I was fortunate enough to speak Spanish before I want to Italy. I think many Americans approach Italian by the same route. Certainly Spanish is a big help but from many personally painful (and embarrassing) experiences I can tell you that they're not as close as they might first appear. I urge you to get a simple grammar book (and dictionary) and learn a couple of the basic conjugations. Foreign languages are not widely spoken in Italy. It's true that most young people today study some English but I can assure you that every bit of Italian you learn will enrich your vacation immeasurably.
(1) Uffizi: This is the kind of word that can give foreigners fits. Uffizi is the antiquated (i.e. no longer used) plural of the word for "office", ufficio (modern plural: uffici). If you're a Spanish speaker you know that the word for "office" is oficina. Lo and behold, we have the same word in Italian but, careful, here it means "garage" or "workshop". Similar curve balls are pronto which is "soon" in Spanish but "ready" in Italian. Salir in Spanish appears to be nearly identical to salire in Italian. The trouble is that it means "to leave" in Spanish but "to go up" in Italian, and so it goes.
(2) "Bar": I don't know how this word came to be adopted by the Italians but please don't confuse it with our concept of a "bar". In Italy these are fully lit establishments where you get candy, sandwiches, ice cream, coffee, and, yes, alcoholic drinks. There are frequently game rooms for both bambini and adults associated with the bar. In short, it's a kind of neighborhood social center. Children, families, and foreigners mix freely and easily. There is no control of the sale of alcohol to children but I have yet to see this freedom abused.
Gabriella joins me in our sincere hope that your stay in Tuscany will be one of the most unforgettable vacations of a lifetime. If we, in any small measure, have assisted in that experience, then this is our reward.
John M. Mulholland