Italy: Tuscany

Next up for our Italian tour: Tuscany! I spent two days in Tuscany - one on a tour around the region and one in Florence itself. For my day tour, I went to a few cities, saw a leaning tower, and visited a farm/winery. To sum up, Tuscany is stupid gorgeous and has to be seen. A love of wine is beneficial but not required. That being said, an appreciation for great Italian food is totally necessary.

Here I am at a winery/farm in Tuscany. More on that later. The region was picturesque and everything that one Diane Lane movie would lead you to believe. Cypress trees and vines and rolling hills, green and yellow and orange everywhere.

First up, Florence! I have to say, each Italian city I visited was completely unique. With just one picture, you can easily identify which city you're looking at. Florence is no exception. The colors and tone of the city was all its own. This picture was taken along the Arno river, the brick bridge and yellow and orange buildings a perfect introduction to the Tuscan city.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge. There are records of the bridge going back to the 900's. The shops along the bridge used to belong to butchers; today, they primarily house tourist vendors - jewelry and Italian leather handbags and cheeses. I went on a Wednesday night and the place was still packed, so beware.

Welcome to the Gelleria degli Uffizi, which can't be missed. If you only go to one museum in Florence, go to Accademia. But if you go to two, the Uffizi is next on the list. The Medici family's art collection was bequeathed to the city in 1743, on the condition it never leave Florence. The building, like most major European art galleries, is beautiful and ancient in American standards, built in the late 1500's to house government offices, a piece of art itself. Today, it houses the largest collection of Italian Renaissance art in the world. Annunciations for everyone! Personally, Italian Renaissance isn't my forte but with the extent and artistry on display, even this Impressionist-fan was gobsmacked.

The gallery is extensive, so put aside a couple of hours for a quick walk through for the high-lights or consider coming back over multiple days. I can't speak to the timing. I went right when it opened and it didn't seem too crowded - the place is large. However, if you want to get up close to The Birth of Venice, maybe come early. Speaking of which...

Arguably the most famous piece at the Uffizi, though there are da Vinci's and Michelangelo's to check out elsewhere in the museum, is Botticelli's The Birth of Venice. Painted probably in the 1480's, the piece depicts Venus arriving to the shore after her birth. Like all major works of art, it's breathtaking in person and there's a crowd, so act accordingly.

Just behind the Uffizi is the Piazza della Signoria. Pictured is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open air sculpture garden with pieces from the 14th and 16th centuries. The square itself is lively, with tourists and street artists and vendors. The Palazzo Vecchio makes up one side of the square, Florence's town hall. Due to timing constraints, I wasn't able to check out the interior of the town hall. That being said, if you have a bit more time in Florence, check it out. It's on my 'just missed list.' For me, it was art over beautiful architecture in Florence, but if you have the time, give it a go.

Damn. I waited in line for maybe half an hour to see this guy and it was absolutely worth it. Sculpture fascinates me and this is no exception. And it was from a cast-off block of marble! The detail is incredible (the hands!). I was in awe. Go see it. There's other art in the museum, including a behind-the-scenes look at recreating sculptures, but you're here to see this guy and there's no other reason to go. Give yourself some time to admire the world's most famous sculpture from every angle. He's worth it.

David is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia. You'll be able to spot the museum by the queues. You cannot go to Florence and not see this guy. What's the point?

I learned a lot about Catholic art on this trip! Apparently, this thing is called The Annunciation. It's when the angel visited Mary and told her she was carrying Christ. My casual Baptist upbringing did not prepare me for traveling in Italy. Pictured is the Annunciation from the convent of San Marco. The friar cells are decorated with religious, and sometimes terrifying, paintings by Fra Angelico and are shockingly sparse. It's near the Accademia and a contrast to the opulent home of David.

And now for Florence's piece de resistance, the Gothic Duomo. Officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the building's construction began in 1294 and was consecrated in 1436. The thing is lovely in person and can't be missed. I think I've said that about everything in Florence so far, right? But seriously, the green and white marble facade is unique and entrancing. You can climb up to the top of the Cupola. However, I recommend the walk to the top of the nearby bell tower, so you can see the famous red dome up close. Both are a bit of a hike, so unless you are really looking for a workout, I recommend picking one.

And now the bell tower, 82 meters tall and built in 1334 by Giotto. The climb to the top includes 414 steps. Real talk: it's not an easy walk. The stairs are extremely claustrophobic and sometimes crowded, though occasional bells offer a respite from the upward climb. And boy, the view is worth it. Just be prepared to be a sweaty and frustrated mess by the time you get to the top.

Google Image "Florence" and this picture will come up. This is the view of the Cupola from the bell tower. Seriously, you have to do this, unless you have mobility issues or a heart condition. And this is basically Tuscany - red tiles and rolling hills.

Here's the front of the Duomo. More green and white with pink accents and ornate sculptures. As for logistics, I didn't have a problem with queues or access to the church. The baptistery next door was a different story but the church was rather accessible.

This picture sucks and I apologize. The interior is lovely, with fancy stained glass ceilings and high ceilings. But you're really here for the exterior.

Okay, I have said this a lot, but you really have to see this! The Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore is near the Duomo and houses treasures formerly displayed at the Duomo. It's awesome and very extensive. Pictured is the entry-way, which lists the artists featured in the museum itself. The original golden Baptistery doors are here, along with a Pieta by Michelangelo.

You can get combo tickets for the Baptistery, the bell tower, and the museum. I purchased mine at a ticket booth in the palazzo but they are available at a variety of establishments. And it's worth it. They all warrant visit - the church, the Baptistery (no pictures, but it's lovely and covered in gold), the view. and the museum. I'm not a religious person but the artistry and history on display here are necessary to see on a trip to Florence.

One more note about the museum - it was both confusing and overwhelming, so get a map and maybe prioritize what to see.

The Piazza della Repubblica is worth a stop (though it's the level below 'must be seen'; I'm giving you a break). It's been a little bit of everything in its long history in Florence, but today is the most modern area I saw (though I mostly stuck to the touristy bits). Nearby are shops and restaurants. It was a nice place to relax and people watch after a long day of walking around the city.

My last tourist stop of the day: Santa Maria Novella, just around the corner from the train station. First, a quick rant on the train station. It isn't great. There are a few stores - essentials, a book store, some McDonalds/cafe comb. I went through the Florence train station twice, once for the Tuscany tour and once for my day in Florence. And each time, I found it lacking and disappointing. And that's the end of that rant. As for the church itself, church is a misnomer. It's more a of a complex, with a church, cloister, and chapter house, all included in the price of admission. And it's a great last stop - close to the train station and extensive but willing what you have time or attention for. It is what you make of it. Or, across the street is a decent Irish pub if you just want to have a pint and wait for your train while your legs rest.

After checking out my last tourist attraction, I wandered back into the city, picked up dinner in the old town, and walked towards the train station along the Arno River. It's a totally different view at night. But no less beautiful. I also stopped by the Piazza della Signoria one last time. I recommend seeing it at night as well. The place comes alive in a whole new way.

For the record, this painting is in the Netherlands. But some artist was creating lovely works near the train station. It was a great end to my day in Florence.

And now on to my day tour of Tuscany. First, up Siena! The tour took off from Florence and then took us to Siena. A medieval town, we abandoned our bus and walked through tight alleyways and looping streets to get to the Piazza del Campo, the center of Siena for over 600 years. On a hill itself and full of Siena Gothic architecture. Twice a year, there is a horse race here in the square, with the various neighborhoods of the city sponsoring a horse. It's, like, a really big deal. The square is packed and you can spend a lot of money to rent rooms with a view for the event. The winners get to gloat and are the toast of the town until the next race. Both the different neighborhoods (or contrade) and the horse race are everywhere - emblems on doors and everything you can imagine in the tourist shops. Outside of the race, the square is sunny and an easy place to relax and people watch.

Near the Piazza is the Dumo, built in the 1200's. The exterior is looming but what's missing is that almost directly behind me is the wall of a large, plain building. Siena is not for the claustrophobic. Or those who don't like walking.

The interior of the Duomo. Siena was lovely. We were here about an hour and a half and, to be honest, that was about as much as I needed. It was just enough time to walk around the square, eyeball the church, and grab a gelato.

And now for that winery/farm in the middle of Tuscany somewhere. I just went wherever the tour took me. Honestly, it was nice to have the decision made for me. Tuscany was overwhelming. So many little towns and wineries, I didn't know where to begin. The tour was a nice introduction to the region as a whole. Also, the bus ride around the Tuscan countryside was lovely and a highlight. In general, I really enjoyed the tour itself. We had a great guide (she was from South America and had come to Tuscany after visiting the place while working for a vineyard) and I met some fun lonely travelers to chat with. And hey, a winery! That I didn't have to pick out!

Ugh, what a totally garbage view. This was basically what I saw outside the bus window the whole day.

Italian cows! The farm we visited was charming, with pettable cows and goats. And vines for days.

After a quick tour of the farm, we had lunch. Each course came with a different glass of wine, both food and wine local. There were many courses and it was all delicious and I could have been there all day. The bread alone! And the view wasn't bad either.

Next up: The Medieval Manhattan. San Gimignano is a tiny town in Tuscan countryside. Its nickname comes from the 11th century versions of skyscrapers. We only spent a few hours here but were treated with ancient buildings, lovely views, and...

My tour guide ensures me this is the best gelato in the world. Honestly, I had better in Rome. Come at me. The main square of the town is tightly packed. You can pick out the gelato place by the long line and yelling tourists.

The tower, it leans. Honestly, this was a bit of a let down. I didn't really care to see it (it was just part of the tour and I was worried about Bucket Lists) and didn't have high expectations. But it's a leaning tower, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Some history: The tower was built in the 1100's. The tower wasn't completed, because of the leaning. By 1990, the lean had reached 5.5 degrees. In 1998, measures were taken to ensure stability and prevent further leanage.

The view from the tower. Again, it's a leaning tower in the middle of nowhere... The tower is actually the bell tower to the Duomo of Pisa. As for visiting the tower, it's not incredibly tall but there is still a bit of a hike to get to the top. It is definitely not for the claustrophobic. Only a few people are allowed up at a time. I booked my tickets through the tour but it's something to look into before your visit. I also visited during the night, so it may be a totally different perspective during day time. There were minimal numbers of tourists making asses of themselves when I went. But sure, go, see, check off your Bucket List.

And that was my brief foray into Tuscany. Go forth, wine lovers and Italian food connoisseurs.