Captured in popular images and literature, Tuscany has been romanticized throughout the ages for its rural charm and natural beauty. For all the desires of a long sought vision, this corner of the world lives up to its famed reputation leaving only indelible memories and a yearning to return.
By train and bus visitors traverse the gullies and peaks ever increasing in size but always gentle and rolling. Edging outside cities of global commerce, the trek to Tuscany finds one leaving the dirt and grime of Rome for cleaner air and natural communion.
Rome's ancient streets and relics glistening of marble represent well the abilities of man; but in the Italian hills, as it is in many countries, there lies a place remaining of testament to a higher authority. Away from the glow of city lights are found the grandeur of God's creation.
From sunsets to starry skies, Tuscany capitalizes on the inherent beauty surrounding it. Quaint, unassuming hilltop villages serve as vantage points for true marvels rather than those subjects created by hand.
Tuscany is often known for the larger cities of Florence and Siena, deserving of attention in their own right. Time can be well spent in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, visiting Michelangelo's statue of David, an impressive gothic cathedral and countless other priceless works of art; but quieter, greener places abound.
Buses leave regularly for the slower pace of San Gimignano, the picture of Tuscany perched upon a hill surrounded by vineyards and defended by the remaining towers. Today, only a handful of towers watch over San Gimignano which was once guarded by dozens of these stone structures. Incredibly well preserved as it was centuries ago, the town still lies intact within the city walls with new construction falling in the valley below.
Boasting an array of leather shops, a museum of torture devices and a wine museum, the entirety of San Gimignano can be walked in a single day but each evening a brilliant light show can be seen from the top of the medieval fortress. The sun sets behind an adjacent hill spilling a canvas of radiant colors on the lazily sprawling valleys as smoke rises from chimneys and windows are shuttered up for the evening.
Even further from the tourism mainstream lies the town of Pienza, known well by Italians as an ideal escape, this town with a population of 900 is serviced by buses from Siena running on a loosely suggested time table. Here, the cypress reach higher than the cathedrals and the greatest adornment to churches is moss growing on terra cotta roof tiles.
Known for cheese and wine, Pienza holds little else to occupy the time of frantic travelers use to the hectic pace demanded by big city sights. A wine aficionado owns a small store on the corner, advised the hotel clerk pointing down the cobblestone street. Ghino is his name and the walls of his shop are covered in pictures, one shaking hands with the Pope, another hunting with a French ambassador. Magazine features are posted proudly on display as are bottles clearly marked in prices from ¤5 to ¤10,000.
"Pienza is paradise," said Ghino with a smile on his face and sincerity in his eyes. For him, it is home and speaking five languages he enjoys the handful of tourists strolling through town on any given day taking time to speak with guests whether they buy from him or not.
Hospitality and goodwill are not always easy to come by in tourist packed towns but those surrounded by natural beauty where time moves a little slower are more apt to stop and talk. Finding a place off the beaten path often finds you among people who are only there because they choose to be.
There are many similar hilltop towns and villages waiting to be discovered by the adventurous tourist. Pienza was by no means a scheduled stop but came highly recommended from a local in Florence, not a guide book. So do your homework, know where you're going but don't be afraid to change your plans when the time is right.
Matt Shinall is the business reporter for The Daily Tribune News. Brielle is his lovely bride. They are traveling Europe the next couple of months.