Bucine is the key town in Valdambra, or Val d’Ambra, the valley of the river Ambra, a tributary of the most important Tuscan river, Arno, which lends its name to the Valdarno region. This is fertile and rich Chianti area, prime agricultural land with vineyards, olive groves, sunflower fields, tobacco plantations and cereal. The Sangiovese variety of grape for Chianti wines is produced here. Dotted with small stone villages, old churches, well preserved castles, legends and lore of a rich historical past, Bucine and the region around it has many stories to tell. During the Middle Ages, this opulent region of Valdarno was the scene of many brutal battles between the ruling Guelphs of Florence and Ghibellines of Arezzo. It also took a pounding during World War II.
Today its serene vistas offer the perfect refuge to indulge in il Dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing and charge one’s creative batteries. Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa here. Visible just over her left shoulder is the Ponte Buriano, a stone bridge built across the river Arno around the latter half of the 13th century. It can be reached in just 10 minutes by road from Bucine. The cliffs of Valdarno, called La Balze, also inspired Leonardo da Vinci to paint them. The Balze are eroded clay hills, which were formed by nature when a massive lake receded millions of years ago. Declared a protected natural reserve in 2005, it is a popular site for treks.
South of Bucine, a short drive away is the tiny town of San Pancrazio nestled atop a hill, with a small, close knit community. Balbir Singh Pabla, who moved to this region more than a decade ago, narrated an interesting episode about how he was pleasantly surprised when an elderly Italian, Enzo Panzieri, came up to him and identified him as a Sikh from India, although none lived there at that time. During the World War II, Nazi Germany’s Hermann GÃ¶ring Battalion found its way to San Pancrazio, rounded up the men, marched them to a stone warehouse in the main plaza, shot and burnt them. The women and children escaped into the woods. Soon after, Germany lost to the Allies and the Indian Infantry Division of the British Army arrived in San Prancrazio. Sikh soldiers helped the survivors re-build their town. The stone warehouse is now a museum, with all the signs of the brutal night still visible. A large white statue of a woman and her children stands as a testimony to how the women re-built the town. Enzo Panzieri is a survivor of the massacre. He was 15 at that time, and escaped to the woods to survive. Many of his family were killed that day.
To the north of Bucine is the commune of Montevarchi, which has a train station on the Rome-Florence line. There are two reasons that make a visit to the town essential–the Villa Masini and the Prada’s Space shopping outlet, which offers 70 per cent discount. A 30-minute ride by train from Florence has tourists coming by busloads to shop. Go early to beat the crowds and get the store’s number token before settling down for coffee at the Space CafÃ©. The outlet is adjacent to the Prada factory.
The Villa Masini is a grand mansion built in 1924 by a prosperous fur hat manufacturer, Angiolo Masini, for his beloved second wife, who unfortunately died before the villa’s completion. The gorgeous villa was featured in Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful. The descendants of Angiolo Masini live here still. It has been declared a heritage home and the garden is being restored by the government.
The town of San Giovanni Valdarno, just six kilometres up north from Montevarchi, is a typical little Italian town straight out of the history books and old classic movies, with a basilica, museums, a hundred-year-old shop Pratesi Drogheria & Cioccolateria which has the best chocolate produce I have ever tasted. The best way to explore any of these towns is on foot, and stop by at one of the many lovely cafÃ©s for a nibble or coffee.
Italy is the home of the Slow Food revolution. Food is serious business here. Every region has its own specialities and processing traditions. The Arezzo region, with its fertile agricultural land, is home to many Italian specialities, besides the Chianti Wine. The family-run eateries do a fine job. A tasting tour is mandatory for any visitor to get a first-hand experience of these local specialities. The Pecorino Toscano cheese is made from sheep’s milk, and has the ‘Protected Designation of Origin’, or DOP, status. A special kind of red potatoes, Patata rossa di Cetica, has a unique taste, and is used in tortelli, stews and gnocchi preparations. Also try the Sangiovannese stew with veal and the local handmade spaghetti bringoli that does not include egg in its ingredients, Join a cookery class (they organise short weekend ones for tourists) and learn to make the fabulous ribollita soup. The Prosciutto del Casentino ham is from wild pigs, and its long production process makes it a rarity. The Pratomagno ham is another popular Tuscan appetiser. A rare delicacy is the Cinta Senese ham made from the hind legs of the specially bred wild boar. The giant Chianina cows are specially reared for their beef. The popular desert wine, Vin Santo or Saint’s Wine is a must.
To pay homage to the luxury brands on their home turf, check out the factory outlets of Fendi, Dolce & Gabanna, Prada and Roberto Cavali. One can book a tour of The Mall at Via Europa 8, Leccio Reggello, to shop for top Italian brands, international fashion designers and much more. Special bus services run from Florence all day, ferrying tourists who come for the amazing discounts. Open on all days of the week, from 10am to 7.30pm, the crowds packing in has to be seen to be believed.
Bucine and its nearby towns can be best experienced by living the Italian way, on a farm. The region’s well organised agri-tourism offers many farm stay options, B&Bs, guesthouses and restaurants. The Middle Tuscany Lands Association has listed twenty three structures. These range from fully furnished apartments to independent cottages, with all modern amenities, well-equipped kitchens offering varying degrees of luxuries, a supply of the house wines and olive oils. The range of accommodation is phenomenal, and fits all budgets.
By air: The closest airports are Peretola in Florence, Galileo in Pisa, and Perugia S. Egidio Airport. Most airlines from Delhi and Mumbai fly to Rome.
By road: Motorway A1 (Milan-Rome). Leave the motorway at the Valdarno exit and follow the state road number 69 following signs first for Montevarchi and then to Bucine. It is 15km from the exit.
By train: From the north using the Milan- Bologna-Florence line and from the south using the Rome-Arezzo line.
Most accommodation is B&B as agri-tourism structures are not allowed to have catering services. Most accommodation requires a minimum three-day stay. Rentals range from Euro70 to 250 per day for a single room (for two people) or a high-end villa for Euro7,000 per day (for nine people). Prices are variable and can be checked with the owner.
Any of the many villas, B&Bs and cottages can be booked from Middle Tuscany Lands Association (middletuscany.holiday). See also agritourismo.it and tuscanyaccommodation. com. Tuscan-Tale (tuscan-tale.it) will help out with airport pickup, bus hires, car rentals, reservations, wedding organisation, and tour itineraries.
What to do
Bikes are easy to rent, and bicycle tour itineraries are indicated on GPS maps. You can learn to cook local delicacies over a weekend. Food & wine tasting trails for cheese, wines, and other delicacies are available. Tuscany is famous for its truffle hunts. Many luxury outlets and special venues like The Mall offer heavy discounts. In summer, every Wednesday evening, the main square of Bucine comes alive with food, wine, music and dancing. Get a personal culture aficionado or join a small group. Tuscany has 31 world class golf courses. July to August is peak season, and it’s quite warm then. March to April is low season, with lower rates.