Richard and I visited Tuscany four years ago and enjoyed many of the fortified hill towns that crowd the centre of the region. It was great to have the opportunity to return and discover some new treasures. We were based in a holiday resort on the coast ten minutes south of San Vincenzo, which was an experience in itself. Watching tourists try to deal with Italy, and seeing Italy try to deal with tourists can be hugely entertaining.
Driving from Rapallo didn’t take long, so before we checked into our accommodation we drove further south to have lunch at the historic walled city of Populonia, which seemed sadly empty. Perhaps it’s just the season.
After lunch we drove down the road to Piombino, a small industrial town with an attractive historical precinct and clean, well-appointed public toilets. You’ll think it strange that I mention the latter unless you’ve traveled in Italy. Usually if public toilets exist at all they’re difficult to find, and when you find them you often wish you hadn’t.
I find walled cities fascinating, and that fascination may be part of Tuscany’s appeal. On Tuesday we drove to Masso Marittima, which Richard quite rightly describes as “a town of two halves”. One half wears its working clothes, while the other dons fancy dress for the tourists. Personally I prefer its work-a-day garb.
In the afternoon we continued on to Volterra, evidently famous for its alabaster; or perhaps infamous, depending on your taste. This had far too many tourists and far too many churches; it was everything a good Tuscan hill town should be.
On our initial excursion to Populonia we’d noticed the small settlement of Baratti at the bottom of the hill, and drove back down the coast several days later to pay it a visit. It’s a natural sheltered bay with a handful of houses and a harbour full of boats. We ate lunch on the waterfront in the company of a tabby cat so hungry she wolfed down every scrap of bread we dropped.
From Baratti we drove back up the road to the Parco Archeologico and visited the Etruscan tombs, some of which are nearly three thousand years old. There are several other archaeological sites in the vicinity; the area has been continuously settled since the paleolithic era. Tombs in themselves don’t appeal to me, but these structures were beautifully crafted.
On the way back to the resort we detoured through Venturina, which was unremarkable apart from the bicycle tree on the outskirts.
While staying in the resort we made a day trip to Florence, and had one particularly memorable evening meal. As a result of researching local restaurants, Richard drove us up a steep nearby hill on a narrow road to what appeared to be someone’s house. We were ushered into a charming restaurant where we enjoyed a substantial and tasty meal created with local produce.
San Vincenzo itself is a likeable seaside town. It has a beach, the inevitable marina – this is the Mediterranean after all – and a dystopian labyrinth of one way streets, the result of attempting to shoehorn 21st century traffic into a 16th century town plan.
Tuscany is as welcoming and as beautiful as I remember it being on my first visit four years ago. We wistfully bade it farewell on Saturday morning as we embarked on a long drive north, out of Italy, to Avignon.