Sunday, February 15, 2015

What Exactly Is Tuscany?

Sounds like a foolish question, right? The allure of Tuscany has made it one of the most famous travel destinations in the world and there are probably few people who don’t have an idyllic picture come to mind when the word Tuscany is mentioned. In the collective imagination, it is simply the kind of magical place dream vacations are made of - where rolling hills, vineyards and cypress trees define the stunning landscape, and hilltop towns with cobblestone streets, ancient buildings and charming shops complete the picture. When you add the good food and excellent wine to the equation, you’re pretty close to paradise. And thus far, this definition is spot on - all of these characteristics are definitely part of Tuscany. 

So, what’s the problem? Well, the glitch comes when the myth of “Tuscany” blurs the real understanding of what it really is. Not everyone is clear on the matter, since it is pretty common for people to ask to spend “a few days in Florence followed by a week in Tuscany”, or to request to see “all the main towns of Tuscany, including the Cinque Terre.” That's when I feel the need to clarify a bit better what Tuscany actually is, from a geographical and administrative perspective.  

Italy is divided into 20 regions, and Tuscany is one of them. Located in central Italy, it covers an area of nearly 23,000 square kilometers (8,900 square miles), has a population of about 3.8 million people, and includes a vast variety of topographical features. Two-thirds is made up of hills, 25% is mountainous, and the remainder are plains. There are also 397 km of coastline and five Tuscan islands, the largest being Elba. Tuscany is bordered on the West by the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian Seas - but the Cinque Terre do not belong to Tuscany, they are part of the neighboring region of Liguria.

Tuscany includes the famous cities of Florence (the region’s capital), Siena, Arezzo, Pisa and Lucca (to name those best known to tourists). This explains why saying, “Florence and Tuscany” is not correct, because Florence is IN Tuscany. Obviously, what people are usually referring to is the countryside of Tuscany, but here too it’s not all that simple. The region itself is divided into various geographical areas and 10 provinces (soon to be officially eliminated by the government - but from a psychological point of view it will be a long time before the locals don’t identify themselves by their province of origin). 

Some of the geographical areas which will immediately sound familiar to many are Chianti, Val d’Orcia, Crete Senesi, Colli Senesi (Siena hills), Maremma, Valdarno, Val d’Elsa, Val di Chiana, Mugello, the Tuscan Archipelago, Casentino,  Apuan Alps and Garfagnana. All of these names (and quite a few others) belong to Tuscany. In addition, there are nearly 50 important artistic centers throughout the region, which include cities and small hill towns. Hence, when you say, “I’d like to visit Tuscany”, it’s a tall order (especially when you only have a few days to do it). When you factor in the incredible amount of history and art that are present, it becomes plain that one should focus on a smaller area in order to appreciate the experience more. This leaves plenty of choice for a return visit (or more than one), and it helps to avoid the other frustrating thing about travel overload: when people return from a trip not remembering exactly where they went or what they saw. 
How is that possible? you might ask. Well, I really have heard people say things like, "I think I visited Montepulciano, or maybe it was Montalcino?" and I can assure you that I have been stopped in Florence by tourists asking me where Michelangelo’s Pietà was… and then being stunned to hear it was actually at St. Peter’s, in Rome! As a consolation, I pointed them in the direction of the Accademia Gallery, promising they’d find another of the artist’s sculptures worthy of a visit… after all, this IS Tuscany!  

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