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Tower of strength
Although there is one iconic image that leaps to mind when Pisa is mentioned, it only takes one short visit to learn there is a lot more to Tuscany than a leaning tower.
Drive out a few kilometres and it is the panoramic views of luscious greenery from your car window that will stick with you on your return home.
The stunning scenery and impressive architecture of Pisa and its surrounding towns make it the perfect sight-seeing getaway.
About halfway between Pisa and Florence, the former home of Napoleon Bonaparte’s family San Miniato is well worth a visit. With features dating back to the eighth century, there is a wealth of history to the picturesque town and plenty of museums to educate and inspire interested visitors.
Although some of the old town’s medieval buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, much of the architecture remains.
And the people of San Miniato are especially proud of its local delicacy, the white truffle.
The highlight event of the San Miniato calendar is, in fact, the Mostra Mercato Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco, the National White Truffle Exhibition Market, that takes place in the main streets and squares of the old town on the second, third and fourth weekend of November.
Although they are readily available in most local restaurants, tourists can take organised truffle hunting trips – it is rumoured though, the same path is never taken twice and the locations of the coveted treat are kept top secret. Not surprising when you learn they can sell for more than 10,200 euros per kilogram.
And after a couple of mealtimes it doesn’t take long to learn a light lunch in Italy means a meal of at least three courses, generally with wine.
A good wine tasting session can be enjoyed at leafy hideaway Varramista. The villa and winery’s fame has grown in recent decades, thanks to the Vespa manufacturing family Piaggio from Genua who now have it as their country residence. Prior to that it belonged to the wealthy Capponi family from Florence.
The gardens extend more than 400 hectares and the estate is split into three holdings, which can be rented – customers can also sample Varramista’s red wines, made from grapes cultivated in its surroundings.
Finally on the subject of food, Il Cantuccio di Federigo in San Minato makes the best cakes I have ever had.
A medieval castle converted into a villa, Borgo di Colleoli, lies perched on a hilltop among olive groves, between Pisa, Florence and Volterra.
Apartments in the former farm buildings are spacious and luxurious and the owners are more than happy to host weddings in its grounds.
It is an idyllic location providing the perfect rest stop before continuing to see the Tuscan sights.
If you make the journey south to Volterra youngsters can often be seen running across the main square in a scene remeniscent of something from Stephenie Meyer’s recent teen sensation, the Twilight series.
Fans of the saga can take a Twlight-themed tour, and literally buy the T-shirt from the tourist information centre.
But if Twlight doesn’t appeal you can take a stroll around the old town, breathing in its history, which dates back to the Etruscan era of the seventh century BC.
The town is surrounded by medieval walls, which were built inside the pre-existing Etruscan belt. Elegant Renaissance buildings alternate with austere medieval tower houses all along the streets and alleyways that lead to the imposing Fortezza Medicea, a fortress now used as a prison.
Volterra is also a city of alabaster production – it is not unusual to come across small craft workshops where visitors can watch the long-practised method of working the candid stone.
And so we come to our final stop, Piazza dei Miracoli, a UNESCO heritage site, and home to the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The bell tower, originally intended to stand up straight, began to lean soon after construction began in 1173 due to problems with its foundations.
Visitors who scale the 296 steps of the tower should prepare for the strange sensation of feeling as though they are going down when they are climbing the steps at some stages, because of the lean.
Crowded with visitors all day every day, all year round, the leaning tower is certainly an important pulling point bringing tourists to the area.
But Tuscany, Pisa, and even the square where the tower stands have a lot more to offer.
Pisa was the birthplace of Galileo Galilei, the physicist and philosopher who discovered the law of the pendulum after watching a lamp swinging in the city’s cathedral. And the acoustics of the Pisa baptistery are not to be missed. The sound of a sustained note will echo around the dome for several seconds, allowing one person on their own to sing a musical chord.
This phenomenon is displayed at regular intervals by members of the baptistery staff.
Buildings and palaces overlooking the Arno river can be admired from the five bridges or by river boat, waters so inspiring they have been the subject of writings by Italian and British poets, such as Byron and Shelley.
Walking through the side streets and alleys visitors will come across quaint corners and hidden squares, old churches and eateries serving typical cuisine – and enjoy a real taste of what Tuscany has to offer.