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Tuscany: Beyond the Major Cities

by Gloria

Tuscany is famous throughout the world for some of its most beautiful cities, such as Florence, Siena, Pisa and Lucca. Outside these major centers though, there is a world of historical and artistic treasures to discover. The real beauty of Tuscany lies in the many smaller towns and villages that dot its spectacular countryside, in the castles that crown wooded hilltops, and in the small parish churches and the remote abbeys that appear before the traveler who dares to venture off the beaten path.

To fully appreciate what the region has to offer, one needs to rent a car and explore. Driving in Italy is not as scary as many say, and driving outside the major cities can be the goal of a daytrip in its own right.

We sometimes recommend to the more experienced guests of our vacation rentals the Casina di Rosa for trips south of Siena and Behind the Tower for Pisa. We also suggest that those guests looking for an alternative holiday in Tuscany plan thematic itineraries.

One of the themes we like best is “abbeys and minor churches”. It is no secret that the most impressive buildings in the country and the ones that house the most beautiful artifacts are religious buildings, and Tuscany boasts a wealth of them.

Pisa Abbeys and Churches

  • The Abbey of San Piero a Grado, a beautiful Romanesque church dating back to the 12th century and built on the place where St. Peter issaid to have landed in Italy from Antiochia in 44 AD.
  • The Charterhouse of Calci, a majestic monastic complex, a former Carthusian monastery and currently the home of the Museum of Natural History of the University of Pisa. A cool daytrip with children.
  • Badia of San Savino, near Cascina, a perfect example of a medieval Benedictine monastery-fortress dating back to 780 A.D.
  • The  Church of St. Maria della Neve, a beautiful Romanesque country parish, once part of the Castle of Panicale and dating back to the 11th century.
  • The imposing Cathedral of Sant’Assunta and Santo Genesio in the town of San Miniato, a smaller center that boasts a grand history that left behind some remarkable buildings and monuments.

Siena Abbeys and Churches

  • The Abbey of San Galgano, near Monticiano. It’s an impressive roofless gothic cathedral in the beautiful countryside of the Val di Merse. A path leads from the cathedral to the still existing abbey at the top of a hill. The unique round-shaped church houses the sword in the stone which historians believe to be the origin of the Arthurian legends. The legend of Galgano, first a knight and then a hermit, is said to have been brought to northern Europe by the monks who traveled to spread the Gospel.  The perfect time to visit the Abbey is in the summer when operas are staged in the cathedral.
  • The Abbey of St. Antimo, near Montalcino, for a trip back to the middle ages, when abbeys controlled vast portions of the countryside and monks led their lives in prayer. A unique opportunity to listen to Gregorian chants.
  • The Abbey of Monteoliveto Maggiore, still a thriving monastery, ideal for a full day visit. The refectory is impressive with the frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict, and the church is a real jewel of monastic architecture. The drive to the abbey itself is well worth the trip: quintessential Tuscany at its best.
  • The churches of Monte Amiata for an off-the-beaten-path daytrip to a very different part of Tuscany. We especially recommended these two stops: one at the Pieve of Santa Maria ad Lamula, a beautiful Romanesque parish church immersed in a chestnut grove; one at the Abbey in Abbadia San Salvatore, a lovely town with an impressive church. In between the two destinations, take the time to stop for a picnic in the woods of the highest mountain in Tuscany.
  • The Synagogue in Pitigliano, for a different take on the history of Tuscany. The town also has an impressive cathedral.
  • The church of St. Giovanni Battista in Bagno Vignoni, for its unique position overlooking the thermal baths.
  • The impressive Cathedral of Pienza, an entire town built to honour a Pope.
  • The beautiful Collegiata di San Quirico and Giuditta in San Quirico d’Orcia.
  • And of course the nearby Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta, near San Quirico d’Orcia, one of the most photographed in Tuscany.

Bottom line: don’t confine yourselves to the large cities, explore!

Gloria is a born and bred Tuscan. She and her husband Marcel operate two vacation rentals in Tuscany – Casina di Rosa, in the countryside, and Behind the Tower, in Pisa – and she blogs regularly about life in Tuscany. You can read more of her writing at www.athomeintuscany.org.