Under the Tuscan spell

Soak in Italy's art, history and wine in a region of heart-stopping beauty and grandeur
Sunset over vineyards near Panzano in Chianti
Sunset over vineyards near Panzano in Chianti

On the terrace of Villa Vignamaggio, the Chianti vineyard and farm where Mona Lisa is believed to have spent her childhood summers, our host Sandro Checcucci declares that he had been drinking wine from the age of three, like everyone else in the region &ldquoFirst a little wine in my water. Then a little water in my wine. And then just wine.&rdquo Shocking news that would fell a paediatrician, but I barely hear him. My mind is elsewhere. I have the sobering conviction that though I have never been to this villa before, I have seen the terrace we are standing on.

Actually I had, the previous day, at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I&rsquod be surprised if it isn&rsquot the setting of one of Leonardo&rsquos best-known paintings, the Annunciation. It&rsquos entirely possible because Leonardo&rsquos and Mona Lisa&rsquos parents were close friends and he spent time in Vignamaggio. If I am right, I was standing smack between the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. It&rsquos a spooky feeling, to step into the frame of a masterpiece that depicts a turning point in history.

Tuscany is about wine, art and history. The English pioneered tourism here in the 17th century, when Florence and Pisa became important waypoints on the Grand Tour, the extravagant educational walkabout across Europe undertaken by scions of rich families in preparation for careers in the arts, academia, government and diplomacy. Even today, Indian tourists limit themselves to those two cities, though the real life of Tuscany is best seen elsewhere, in the steep, cobbled streets of ancient Etruscan hill towns, like Volterra and Cortona, on the pleasure coast of Versilia and here, in the valley of Chianti.

But we must move on from the superb wines of Vignamaggio and the artistic speculations their fumes engender to...er, more wine. The Cantina in Greve-in-Chianti beckons, home to all the wines of the Chianti Classico region. Run by the vintners&rsquo union, it has automated the gentle sport of wine-tasting. Buy a charge card, pop it into a dispenser, punch a button and out comes your wine. Easy as snagging a Mars bar on the subway, but here we are talking wines we avert our eyes from in the shops because the sticker shock could damage the retina Ornellaia (130 euros the bottle), Vicchiomaggio (126 euros), Luce Frescobaldi (105 euros) and Barbaresco (153 euros). And then we are told that the real thing is still ahead the Enoteca Italiana in Siena, with 1,600 wines from all over Italy.

Under the relentless onslaught of wine-tastings, a journey through Tuscany may become a motion blur illuminated by lucid flashes of heart-stopping beauty, grandeur and craziness. Like, I&rsquom in the Piazza del Campo in Siena, a beautiful half-circle hollowed like Botticelli&rsquos seashell. On its diameter stands the Palazzo Publico. It&rsquos a Saturday, and they&rsquore running civil weddings back-to-back in there. Newlyweds emerge every now and then in a great puff of rice and confetti and the vast Piazza erupts in cheers and whistles. Everyone cheers&mdashthe Caterpillars, the Giraffes, the Eagles, the She-wolves, the Porcupines, the Tortoises and the tourists. Fret not, gentle reader. These are but citizens of the medieval contrade or city wards of Siena, named for their emblems. Each contrade has its own baptismal font, social club and a fierce sense of identity, which survives marriage and moving. Born a Porcupine, always a Porcupine.

The days to be in Siena are July 2 and August 16, the holy days of the Virgin, when the contrade run the Palio race around the Piazza del Campo, which is packed with 30,000 people. Jockeys in contrade colours ride three laps bareback in 76 seconds. Dirty tricks are allowed &mdash so horses win, not riders, who are often thrown in mid-course. And it&rsquos all for a painting of the Virgin on silk, which the winning contrade gets to keep forever. And then it goes broke financing month-long festivities. This crazy medieval race in which the winner loses money is the backdrop of a scene in Quantum of Solace, by the way.

Siena&rsquos attractions include a striking example of Italian Gothic, the cathedral Santa Maria Della Scala, which was a hospital for pilgrims to Rome for a millennium and now serves as a museum, and Monte dei Paschi, the world&rsquos oldest working bank, in business since 1472 and still making millions.

Siena&rsquos medieval madness is rivalled by Arezzo&rsquos Saracen Joust. On the second-last Saturday of June and the first Sunday of September, the Etruscan city remembers the Crusades in a ritual encounter between knights representing the four quarters of the city and the effigy of a fiercely grimacing dark-skinned man named Buratto, King of the Indies. His name means &lsquocheesecloth&rsquo. Don&rsquot even ask. I&rsquom sure no one remembers why.

Knights in shining armour tilt at the shield of Saracen, the armour-plated dummy, at a gallop with Crusader lances, while avoiding his ball and chain, which is set in motion as he swings around on impact. Each quarter has a little museum on a city gate housing jousting memorabilia that goes back centuries. Incidentally, this ritual game straight out of the age of chivalry is held in the sloping Piazza Grande, the setting for the opening scenes of Life is Beautiful.

Arezzo&rsquos jewel is in the basilica &mdash the &lsquoLegend of the True Cross&rsquo by Piero della Francesca. Based on the Golden Legend, a 13th-century bestseller by Jacopo da Varagine, this sequence of huge frescoes must be the biggest comic strip ever. And in the cathedral is Francesca&rsquos most beautiful work, the fresco of Mary Magdalene. Incidentally, Arezzo had ancient trade links with India. Its characteristic pottery has been found at the port of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry.

The Tuscans were indefatigable travellers and traders. The most famous of their number was Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the Americas are named. But Tuscany has left an even bigger footprint in the history of ideas. It is much more than the crucible of the Renaissance. You can climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa like Galileo is alleged to have done (brave man) &mdash he dropped two weights to demolish Aristotle and prove that the acceleration due to gravity is a constant. Equally, you can go to the hermitage established by St Francis of Assissi at Le Celle, outside the Etruscan city of Cortona, which is still a place of worship. I peeped into the saint&rsquos cell, smaller than my hotel bathroom. This tiny cell, deigned to embody the virtue of poverty, was the nucleus of the Franciscan movement, which helped to democratise and humanise the Catholic Church.

Tuscany&rsquos charm is that it is a living time machine. Turn a street corner and you could go back two millennia. Go back, did I say Not exactly, because Tuscany was the stronghold of the brilliantly progressive Etruscan civilisation, which predated Rome by centuries. Etruscans are believed to have originated the keystone arch, still partly visible in the 3rd century BC Porta dell&rsquoArco in Volterra.

And a visit to the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum will assure you that their art and culture was cutting-edge modern, even by contemporary standards. It houses the mascot of the city, Ombra della Sera (&lsquoEvening Shadow&rsquo), a slender Etruscan votive bronze of a young boy which is so modern that you could mistake it for a Giacometti. And the amazing collection of funerary urns showing their owners reclining at banquet reveal that Etruscan women were extraordinarily liberated. While Rome kept its women in check with sexist social rules, Etruscan women were partying in public&mdashusually with the aid of a goblet of wine.

That love for the good life is still flourishing in Viareggio, which hosts the world&rsquos second-biggest carnival, after Rio&rsquos, on weekends through January, February and March. The gigantic  papier-m&acircché floats are often savagely political and it&rsquos a wonder they don&rsquot get banned. Viareggio is the big city of Versilia, the Italian Riviera &mdash miles and miles of beaches, hotels and resorts, including premium properties like the Grand Hotel Imperiale at Fortei del Marmi. And in town, right on the beach, there is the storied Principe di Piemonte which has hosted almost all of southern Europe&rsquos nobility, including Pauline Bonaparte Borghese, Napoleon&rsquos scandalous, nymphomaniac sister who later turned saint and joined him in exile.

At the marina down the beach is Perini Navi, global market leader in classic luxury sailing yachts, worth a visit if you&rsquore shopping for toys for big boys and have cash to drop. The going rate for a custom job with carbon fibre masts and sails controlled by servomotors half a million euros &mdash per metre, that is. Prominent past customers include Silvio Berlusconi and Rupert Murdoch.

Next stop is Carrara, a city whose name is synonymous with marble. Every fourth sign in town reads &lsquoCave di Marmo&rsquo. We follow one such sign up into the Apuan Alps in marble tycoon Franco Barattini&rsquos Land Rover, revving in first gear all the way to the Michelangelo Cave, where the master came personally to select stone for works like La Pieta and David. Trajan&rsquos Column in Rome is also made from stone quarried here.

But where&rsquos the cave Blown away long ago, perhaps. We&rsquore just little dots of humanity on a huge marble plain. Below us lies a chasm lined with marble. Above us towers a mountain of marble. I&rsquom not sure if I&rsquom on the beam, since the miners have no English, but I get the impression that Franco owns all of it. Even the mountain.

Back in town, at the workshop of Nicoli & Lyndam, noted marble sculptors of Carrara, I admire Paul McCartney&rsquos turd. A week earlier, he had walked in with a snapshot of doggie do and ordered it in marble. Ballpark market value 1 million euros. Unpolished, scarred by electric chisels, the unfinished turd looked like the fossil of a chambered nautilus, totally out of place amidst the formal statuary lining the shelves. I try to imagine the final product in the shimmering, translucent glory of polished Carrara, which Sir Paul will see when he comes to collect next week. Doesn&rsquot work. It&rsquos still a turd.

We encounter classical Carrara marble again in Florence, home of David, Michelangelo&rsquos best-known creation, which became the emblem of the city&rsquos republican liberties. The world&rsquos most famous statue is now in the Accademia Gallery but at its original location outside the Palazzo della Signoria, its eyes were turned to Rome in challenge.

Florence has two of the most important art collections in the world, showcasing masters like Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea del Sarto and Tintoretto &mdash the Accademia, an adjunct of the oldest drawing school in Europe, and the Uffizi, originally designed as an office for the Medicis by Giorgio Vasari. Before you travel, check out their websites for special exhibits. I caught Fra Lippo Lippi and Caravaggio specials at the Uffizi, for instance.

Those galleries are worth a week on their own, but even if you&rsquore on a tight schedule, you must make time for the Medicis, merchant princes whose presence towers over Florence and, indeed, half of Italy. Don&rsquot miss the Medici Chapel in San Lorenzo. The Pitti Palazzo, the family home, is now an art gallery. Connecting it to their offices in the Uffizi is the Vasari Corridor, an extraordinary passage, which runs halfway across the old city, crossing the Arno river over the Ponte Vecchio and drilling through homes and buildings that were in the way.

Designed to get Cosimo to work and back every day without contact with the commoners in the street &mdash who might have stuck a knife in him, actually &mdash it now houses the awesome Medici collection of self-portraits. To get in, you usually have to apply a month in advance. And while in Florence, you must visit Santa Croce Basilica, the resting place of some of Italy&rsquos greatest  sons &mdash Galileo, Machiavelli, Michelangelo, Rossini, Marconi.

The funereal gloom of Santa Croce reminded me of our first day in Tuscany, when we had climbed down into an Etruscan family tomb outside Volterra. Carved out of the living rock, it was like a house, with a drawing room and bedrooms. A stone shelf ran the length of the walls, on which alabaster funerary urns had once stood, each topped by a sculpture of the person whose remains it contained, showing him or her reclining in the banquet posture with a goblet or plate in hand. When the family rolled aside the rock guarding the entrance and came down with their dead, they would have seen all their ancestors lounging in the tomb, making merry in an eternal banquet. Perhaps the Etruscans, who gave their name to Tuscany, had best understood the spirit of the region &mdash a celebration of life, death and every human experience that lies in between.

The information

Top tip
Following its discovery by the Americans a few years ago, Italy&rsquos Tuscany region has become hugely popular with holidaymakers worldwide and renting a home is now the preferred choice. There are a vast number of villas, farmhouses and cottages available on rent, usually by the week. Some time on the Internet will lead you to what you&rsquore looking for &mdash several websites specialise in holiday home rentals in Europe. Of these, www.holiday-rentals.co.uk appears to be particularly useful &mdash it has listings of nearly 2,300 villas in Tuscany. All of these villas have kitchen facilities and most are picture-perfect luxurious homes. Also try looking on www.ownersdirect.co.uk and www.rentvillas.com.

Getting there&nbspThe season runs from April to late September but it&rsquos best to avoid the midsummer crowds. The main destinations are Florence, Pisa, Volterra, Siena, Cortona, Arezzo, Carrara, the Chianti valley and the Versilia coast, especially Viareggio.

Ticketing choices are wide because Galileo Galilei in Pisa and Amerigo Vespucci in Florence are twinned international airports. Search for flights to one and you should simultaneously see results for the other. Return tickets to Pisa cost upwards of Rs 38,000 (from Delhi) and Rs 35,000 (from Mumbai) on Air France and British Airways. The fares to Florence from both these cities are about the same and Air France, British Airways, KLM, Swiss and China Airlines fly there.

The airports are 10-15 minutes from the city centres, which are only an hour apart by road. Rome is the traditional landfall in Italy but if you&rsquore concentrating on Tuscany, the local airports will save you two days.

Getting about Coach and train services are great. Remember that distances are relatively small, so a cheap Intercity would take maybe half an hour longer than an expensive direct express. Buying tickets individually works out cheaper than a Eurail pass and makes your itinerary flexible. Believe me, there are places where you will want to linger. And that&rsquos why Tuscany is best explored by road. It is littered with places where you will want to stop for an hour. Car rentals go as low as Rs 2,000 a day for a four-seater manual. For groups of four people or more, a road trip with villa stays is not significantly more expensive than trains and hotel rooms.

Where to stay Tuscany has 400,000 beds. The Principe di Piemonte (www.principedipiemonte.com) in Viareggio is top of the heap at &euro600 the night during high season. But you can experience heritage luxury at lower prices in a place like the Relais dell&rsquoOrologio (www.hotelrelaisorologio.com) in Pisa, a traditional Tuscan tower house that throws its doors open in the season to become part-family home, part-boutique hotel and part-museum. Prices peak at &euro250 and the timbers you sleep under are guaranteed 13th century.

There are also mid-range design hotels like the UNA Hotel Vittoria (from &euro90, www.unahotels.it) in Firenze. My room was perhaps designed for the starship Enterprise. Almost no natural light, bright red and acid green walls and ceiling sprinkled with LEDs, futuristic bar-stools for chairs, a violet loo and a shower stall with a glass front looking onto the room. Kinkily sexy but if you plan to sleep, pack Valium. And don&rsquot dream of ordering room service from the bath. At the budget end, there is the comfortable and old-fashioned Merlini Hotel (from &euro35, www.hotelmerlini.it) and Hotel Villa Kinzica (from &euro69, www.hotelvillakinzica.it) near the Leaning Tower of Pisa. You also have the option of staying in rented villas or apartments.

What to eat and drink&nbspTuscan fare derives from a peasant tradition and includes real vegetarian cuisine, which is popular in the summer months. Salads dressed with excellent olive oil, dozens of varieties of pastas, straight and stuffed, handmade and mass-produced, and legumes. Some of the really interesting antipasti (starters, literally &lsquobefore the pasta&rsquo) are vegetarian. The white truffle is the treasure of Tuscany. Very understated taste, but it grows on you.

For carnivores, this is the original home of the bistecca a la Fiorentina, celebrated internationally as the &lsquosteak Florentine&rsquo. Game and tripe are very popular. Florence&rsquos lunch speciality is lampredotto, the fourth stomach of a cow served on bread. Wild boar is the regional showpiece. And the Versilia coast provides excellent seafood.

Don&rsquot diss street food. Browse panini shops for sandwiches and the talova calda (cafeteria) for pizza. Real pizza, not the limp, puffy caricature beloved of the Americans.

This is place to do wine, and the only way to do it is to go flitting and sipping down the Chianti valley. But if you&rsquore pressed for time, stop at the Cantina at Greve-in-Chianti, the biggest enoteca in the Chianti Classico region. Apart from Chianti, try Vin Santo (&lsquoholy wine&rsquo) in which you dunk biscuits like a priest with his wafer at Mass. And you may like the refreshing limoncello and maybe grappa, a fierce brandy made from grape pomace, which is sometimes mistaken for rocket fuel.

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