Other Italian regions may have lusher valleys and may have taller mountains. But in Tuscany it’s all about the serenity and joy of her rolling landscapes with their agricultural precision and elegance. It is all so engaging and life enhancing. My senses were enlivened by the many stimuli of their smells, sights and sounds, by the fields of poppies, the margheritas (daisies) and the tiny ‘ranuncolo’ buttercups as they danced in their stunning meadows while butterflies flitted and bees buzzed along the mazy, dappled lanes.

Words: Adam Jacot de Boinod

Other Italian regions may have lusher valleys and may have taller mountains. But in Tuscany it’s all about the serenity and joy of her rolling landscapes with their agricultural precision and elegance. It is all so engaging and life enhancing. My senses were enlivened by the many stimuli of their smells, sights and sounds, by the fields of poppies, the margheritas (daisies) and the tiny ‘ranuncolo’ buttercups as they danced in their stunning meadows while butterflies flitted and bees buzzed along the mazy, dappled lanes.

Words: Adam Jacot de Boinod

For I was in Chiantishire (so called after the flurry of British tourists who take delight in the Tuscan countryside) with its light green vineyards, sunburnt wheat fields and long rows of trees comprising of tall poplars, parasol pines and upright cypresses that point delightfully in silhouette to the heavens.

It was very late at night by the time I reached my hotel Castello di Spaltenna (www.spaltenna.it/en/home). But the next morning compensated by heralding the utter joy of opening the shutters of my room, like a gift, to reveal the sunshine streaming in beneath the countryside in her full glory. The hotel is cocooned among the ever-present vineyards, cypresses and ‘abete’ (fir trees) with curves of every shade of green that nature produces. The swallows swooped and swerved between the terraced flowerbeds; all very stimulating as I immersed myself in its utter stillness.

This independent boutique hotel rests comfortably beside the Romanesque Parish Church of Santa Maria, a monastery constructed in 1040 that is currently awaiting restoration. The small monastic windows look out over the ‘chiostro’ (courtyard). It’s perfect for weddings and is enjoyed by all ages: particularly, it seemed, by ramblers. The 37 rooms have tasteful shots of colour beneath their authentic farmhouse beams. It has its own ceramic shop and a vineyard which produces its own rosé. Look out for the miniature red robot called Ambrogio that mows the lawn with great industry.

From here I took myself off to Siena to visit the cathedral. It’s striking black and white striped columns reflect the ‘balzana’, the symbolic shield of the city, with the contrasting colours of the horses ridden by the two sons of Remus, brother of Romulus. I recommend visiting it late in the day when it remains open for twenty minutes after the last entry. For only then can you have it to yourself and own the experience with its full dramatic hollow silence. Back outside and the black and white façade is beautifully offset by hues of pink stone as the cloudless blue sky completes the aesthetic picture.

I walked back up from the dipping ‘campo’, the famous piazza where the two annual ‘palio’, the bare-back horse races, are staged surrounded by dramatic steep cobbled streets and harmonious ‘Siena’ brown buildings.Thankfully, my car was nearby – I recommend parking right by the San Domenico football stadium.

When you’re ready for a meal, try out the mid-price ranged Baggoga (www.ristorantebagoga.it), named after a famous local jockey and restaurateur and managed by his son, Francesco Fagnani. “Chefs are French, I am a cook,” was the boast from the kitchens. Baggoga carries the symbol of Vetrina Toscana, a government-backed scheme to promote the more authentic aspects of the region’s locally sourced food and wine of which Francesco offered up a white Anna 2013 and a red Brunello di Montalcino 2012.

A good place to stay nearby is the Castel Monastero Resort and Spa (www.castelmonastero.com/en/home). It’s a small 11th century former convent for cloistered nuns (the Pope being the only permitted outsider). By the 1400s it belonged to the Chigi Saracini family, renowned for having two Popes, one of whom, Alexandro V11, booted the Mother Superior out of the nunnery, causing her such disappointment that she died at his feet. But her spirit remains in the room nearest the church and is still keenly felt by guests today.

This boutique hotel is set among woodlands and vineyards and is perfectly positioned for art lovers, being a half hour drive to Siena and an hour to Florence. It’s also ideal for an indulgent weekend for gourmets and spa seekers, with 55% of the guests returning for more. Bought and renovated twelve years ago, it has 74 rooms and no apartments. They were all standardised in design but priced by size. There are meditation classes offered near the dreamy pathways that took me down to the four swimming pools. Three of the latter are outdoors and adjacent to the luxurious and stylish spa where every programme is based on the deep ‘marma’ massage, working the acupuncture points and energetic meridians with Ayurvedic and Reiki treatments.

From here, I headed to San Gimignano, with the 13 medieval towers (out of the original 76) in full prominence justifying its sobriquet of ‘Medieval Manhattan’ (towers once symbolised power among the rival households vying for status). It’s an unspoilt, well-preserved town with a lovely approach through cypresses, silvery green olive trees and vineyards. With more open spaces than most Tuscan hilltop towns, it doesn’t feel unduly touristic.

I had a delicious light lunch at the Locanda di Sant’ Augustino (www.locandasantagostino.it) in its eponymous large, empty piazza, a quiet breathing space where the buildings have layers of faded plaster to reflect the wear and tear of time. Genziana, the characterful owner, paid careful attention to create a lovely dish of spaghetti with pea sauce and truffle oil. It’s marvellous how Italian cuisine knows how to make something so delicious out of such simple ingredients.

From San Gimignano, it’s a simply gorgeous drive to Pisa where the leaning tower truly defies science, so I preferred to photograph it from a distance! The baptistery has a bare interior in stark contrast to the one in Florence. The lawns of the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) that surround the Duomo give a wonderful frame to the honest and devout architecture.

And so finally to Florence where the secret is to surrender yourself to being transported in time and to sharpen your eyes by testing and training yourself to take in all the detail and refinery. It’s one of the best ways to revive the spirits. How life-affirming it is to admire the artistic skill of our forebears! Indeed, anyone trying to understand the greatness of European culture over the last five hundred years has to grasp this Tuscan journey of human confidence.

I stayed first at the boutique hotel Dimora Palanca (www.dimorapalanca.com/en/). From €295 a night, it has18 spacious rooms with the master suite even having a private terrace and, above the four-poster bed, its own 19th century gilded fresco. Opened in August 2020, it has all the glory and freshness of being brand-new. This elegant and classical square villa was formerly the 19th century home of the Palanca family and is bang opposite the luxurious grounds of the esteemed Corsini family on the Via Scala just out from the city centre.The sense of harmony and tranquillity is enhanced by the height of its large windows and by its predominantly pristine white interior: a colour that exudes supreme confidence.

When I’m in Florence, I like to take a zonal journey beyond the walkable centre exploring the North, West, South and the East, one at a time. I strongly recommend Destination Florence (www.destinationflorence.com/en) for their specialist tours and expert advice. If you find a church door open then go in (by the right-hand door) as they are often shut. All the museums and most of the churches offer some delight for the eye, some masterpiece of craftmanship. However beware the Accademia, which is overpriced and overrated, and which lures unsuspecting tourists to see the original of Michelangelo’s David and not much else.

Time to go on a shopping spree! As for my suggestions for unusual shopping I recommend Ricceri Giuliano (www.riccericeramica.com) in Via dei Conti for ceramics and Fabio Innocenti (www.antichitafabioinnocenti.com) in the Piazza dei Ciompi for antiques. Try Galleria d’Arte Pietro Bazzanti e Figlio (www.galleriabazzanti.it/en/) on Lungarno Corsini for your very own sculpture and Occasioni Musicali (https://occasionimusicali.it) on Via dell’Oriuolo for pop memorabilia and vintage rarities. And if you happen to be there on the last Sunday of the month go to Piazza Sant’ Ambrogio to rummage around for a bargain from the bric-a-brac market.

The hills are visible from every central point and nowhere more directly than from the cathedral (the ‘duomo’) along Via Camillo Cavour. The Duomo is still mercifully the tallest building on the skyline with no modern buildings in the city centre allowed to detract the eye. The interior is vast and empty with all the hollow echoes that brings. Opposite is the Baptistery. Just imagine baptising your child beneath the gilded splendour and of course the centuries-old holy breath. From the cupola’s vastness, images expand like unfurling petals, whose symmetry is broken only for Christ from above to (who welcomes you reassuringly into his church with his all-enveloping, outstretched arms).

Fantastically situated overlooking the river and only one bridge along from Florence’s world-famous Ponte Vecchio is Antica Torre di Via Tornabuoni 1 (www.tornabuoni1.com/en/). The latter was where I stayed next. This hotel, with prices starting from €245 per night, inhabits the top half of a rather grand 13th century tower. And it’s perfectly placed for high-end shopping. Opposite is the Salvatore Ferragamo flagship store (complete with its own museum). And there’s Tiffany and Burberry, Gucci, Prada and Alexander McQueen, Armani and Dior, Bulgari and Montblanc to name but a few.

My room (and I recommend you ask for room 55) has lime green curtains and painted yellow striped walls. It was traditional and stylish but simply decorated and refreshingly free from pictures so as not to compete with the stunning view out over the Ponte Trinita. The terrace breakfast room and, higher up, the panoramic restaurant look longingly out at the city’s famous riverscape – the bridges, the churches dominating the skyline and the glorious almost delicate cypress trees of the ‘rural suburb’ that is Bellosguardo.

In Tuscany, I was transported in every sense and by every sense. I must go back. Whenever, but soon!


Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the first BBC television series QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. He wrote The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.