Gentle slopes, cypress trees, rolling hills, soft tones of green foliage, golden wheat fields, vineyards and olive trees. That’s the signature Tuscan view. A region where hill towns, villas and landscapes magically intertwine into a picture-perfect postcard. Beyond the famed gastronomical delights of Tuscany, visits often overlook the magnificent Renaissance-era gardens.
I set out to sample some of the Tuscan gardens considered to be monumental centrepieces of the region. Villa Gamberaia is one such playfully charming garden with Roman sculptures, filled with roses, jasmine and citrus trees. Through the course of 400 years of its existence, it has managed to retain much of the original design and character. Medici Villas and Gardens is another such enduring attraction where colour, balance, harmony and decorations are an organic extension of the villas that symbolised the power and sophistication of its rulers.
Even after 500 years, these gardens have great allure. Medici’s Villa La Petraia provides a good vantage point of the world’s most iconic dome structure located just a few miles down the hills. If the journey through Tuscan gardens is captivating, the excursion to the region’s capital city, Florence, is equally riveting.
The orange coloured, confident and bold octagonal dome soaring in the sky has bewitched the world for centuries. It remains a massive architectural feat and a mystery even today.
The birthplace of the Renaissance, a city of the super-rich and super egos, filled with creative geniuses, connoisseurs of art, and a hub for innovation and excellence, Firenze (Florence) was a thriving centre of trade and finance in the 14th century. It ushered in a new artistic grammar and style, where nature’s beauty and the human body were celebrated and depicted to perfection, in a style known as realism.
To one’s disbelief, the city may appear low-key for a first-time traveller. But walking the streets of Florence feels like flipping through a fashion magazine. A ‘homily’ city with an international flair. The narrow cobble-stoned streets that lead to the historic town square contain some of the greatest art of the world, all within a few hundred yards. Florence alone has half of Italy’s artistic wealth.
The rhythms of antiquity set in as you reach the cathedral near the town square, named in the honour of Santa Maria del Fiore. The tallest building in the city and the fourth-largest church in Europe completed in 1436, it is built in a Gothic style and happens to be a Unesco World Heritage Site. The cathedral is famous for its bronze door and magnificent exteriors, including the tower designed by Giotto. Michelangelo famously called them the ‘gates of paradise’. The cathedral is beautifully clad in a combination of white, green and pink marbles. While entrance to it is free of cost, you have to brave the long queues to get in.
Next to it is the iconic Dome (il Duomo) built by Filippo Brunelleschi that changed the Florence skyline forever. You will see wide-eyed tourists gazing at the beautiful ceiling, especially Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of The Last Judgement and scenes from Dante’s Divine Comedy. They are among the largest paintings on the planet. Vasari could complete only one-third of the work before he died. Federico Zuccari later completed Vasari’s vision.
A climb of 463 narrow steps await you inside and it is not for the faint-hearted. It leads you to the top of the dome where you can catch breathtaking views of the city: terracotta coloured houses spread like a meticulously painted canvas on the horizon. Indeed, an unparalleled sight. A few steps away from the main square are Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio. The statutes here commemorate the city’s major historical events and it is here you will also find a replica of Michelangelo’s famous statue, David.
However, the original Michelangelo work is preserved in the Galleria dell’Accademia, few blocks down the road. In a way, this statue solidified Florence’s artistic supremacy in the world. The S-curved sculpture captivatingly depicts a perfectly proportioned human body. The pulsing veins on the back of the hands, the taut torso, the flexing thigh muscles and the almost invisible slingshot David carried over his shoulder to kill Goliath is realism at its best. This imposing 17-foot masterpiece made of gleaming Carrara marble, the whitest of all marbles in the world, weighs 5,660 kilograms. It is one of the most intensely studied and zealously guarded statues.
A visit to Florence is incomplete without paying a visit to the Uffizi Galleries, which is replete with artefacts, Italian Renaissance paintings and European masterpieces, all accumulated over the centuries by the Medici family, perhaps the most important Florentine family across history.
If you need a break from art, then you can amble along the 14th-century bridge by the river Arno, Ponte Vecchio, that houses jewellery shops. The stores easily have museums worth of goods. The storefronts have remained unchanged for centuries. Most of them belong to families of goldsmiths who have traded here for generations, at least since 1345.
Towards the southern side of the Arno is Palazzo Pitti. It was originally built for the banker Luca Pitti who wanted to outdo the Medici family in their display of wealth and power. Ironically, the construction bankrupted the Pitti’s heirs and, later, the Medicis purchased the palace and made it their main residence. Today, the Pitti Palace’s richly decorated rooms display treasures from the Medici collections.
Apart from the royal apartments, it consists of the Silver Museum, the Porcelain Museum and the Costume Gallery. As you walk on the palace grounds, look for a glimpse of the Duomo and the Tuscan hills in the horizon.
You can lose yourself amid the greenery of the Boboli Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site spread across 111 acres. The gardens reveal stunning contrasts and forms, an amphitheatre, boxed hedges clipped into symmetrical geometric patterns, groves of cypress trees, countless statues and fountains—all creating an extravagant visual theatre. The pomp and privileged life of the Medicis is at display here. While the palace appears stern, imposing with the weight of wealth, the stepped terraces behind make the Boboli Gardens a destination for nature enthusiasts from around the world.
As you walk past the gardens, do not miss the Buontalenti Grotto, which reproduces the natural elements of a cave using a picturesque style known as mannerism, decorated with sculptures. It originally housed Prisoners by Michelangelo, which is now displayed at the Accademia Gallery. At the end of your walk as you exit near the palace, don’t forget to wave goodbye to the court dwarf Morgante who rides a tortoise.
A visit to the Tuscan region and Florence, in particular, will leave you with memories lasting a lifetime. Extraordinary natural beauty, legendary art and mesmerising architecture—it is Italy’s premier città d’arte.
Air India, Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways and Alitalia among others fly from major Indian cities (return fare from approx. INR 60,000). Peretola, the nearest airport, has limited flights. Pisa International Airport is 50 miles west of Florence but better connected with international flights. The train takes an hour with an interchange. Buses cost you € 4.99 one-way.
WHERE TO STAY
St Regis Florence (from € 400; stregisflorence.com) is a five-star hotel on the Arno riverside with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Hotel Lungarno (from € 223; hotelungarno. it) is another five-star option, with a river view, part of the Salvatore Ferragamo-founded Lungarno Hotel Collection. Hotel Duomo (from € 150; hotelduomofirenze.it), is a three-star property. Finally, Hotel Universo (from € 90, hoteluniversoflorence.com) is a modern budget hotel near the main station.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
- Shop at The Gucci Museum (Piazza della Signoria; € 7 entry fee) or shop at chic boutiques such as Bvlgari at Via de’ Tornabuoni.
- Italian wines and olive oils are sold at L’Antica Cantina del Chianti (Piazza del Duomo 23R) and at Mercato Centrale (Piazza del Mercato Centrale).
- The annual Maggio Musicale (every May and June) concerts are held in the Boboli Gardens