After Florence, I wanted to visit Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Lucca on our way to Cinque Terre. I’d also read about Chianti Road in Tuscany’s wine region so I was keen to visit a local winery. My first thought was to take the train, which I adore, so of course, I googled it. To my surprise, I discovered it’s less efficient to take the train to Siena and you can’t get to San Gimignano by train at all. You must either rent a car or take a bus. That research led me to bus schedules, which led me to bus tours, which led me to Viator Tours, which led me to reviews of Viator, which led me to Rick Steves Travel Forum where I learned that Viator is a consolidator that buys from local operators with whom I could book directly at a lower cost. That led me to Walkabout Florence where I booked The Best of Tuscany Tour.
I don’t typically choose a tour for several reasons. First, I can usually book the components myself at a lower cost. Second, I like flexibility to adjust my plan based on our enjoyment or additional discoveries along the way. Finally, I get annoyed when others are inconsiderate and make us wait for them because they don’t follow the tour guide’s instructions to return on time. This tour appealed to me, however, and for 90 euro ($124), it was a bargain. Learn more about Walkabout Florence.
Leaving from Santa Maria Novella Station near our hotel at 8:30 am, we had a scenic ride through Tuscany in a comfortable air conditioned bus with a lively tour guide offering interesting commentary until we reached our first stop.
Medieval Siena, with less than 60,000 inhabitants, is a walkable city built around Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy.
Since the 1500’s, the famous Il Palio horse race has taken place in this piazza amid great excitement and pageantry. Ten horses chosen from the 17 districts of the city engage in a wild and dangerous race that lasts no more than 90 seconds to win bragging rights until the next race.
The gothic Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena dates back to the 1200s. It’s one of the few cathedrals I’ve visited that charges admission and fortunately it was included in the price of our tour because I would have been tempted to skip it, having seen many cathedrals throughout Europe. This is a sight not to be missed.
Even more awe-inspiring than the beautiful frescoes by Pinturicchio and the impressive sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello inside the cathedral, are the 56 etched and inlaid marble mosaics found on the floor. Most of them are ordinarily kept covered to protect them from damage except for a few weeks in September and October, when we just happened to visit.
After a walking tour and the cathedral visit, we were allowed some free time in Siena. Fortunately, everyone met at the appointed time to leave for lunch at the organic farm just outside the town of San Gimignano. Was it the promise of food or wine?
Fattoria Poggio Alloro
Literally translated Farm Hill Laurel, this organic family farm grows or raises everything they served us for lunch except the cheese which came from a nearby farm. After touring the farm, we enjoyed Tuscan dishes including homemade breads, pasta, salad, several cheeses, sausages, beef, cookies, and olive oil accompanied by locally produced wines. They even accommodate dietary restrictions such as gluten-free. The views of the Tuscan countryside are unbelievably lovely from the terrace where we ate communally at long tables while visiting with others on our tour.
Interestingly, the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, is painstakingly produced here from the crocus sativus flower grown on the farm. For more information about the farm and all their products, look at Fattoria Poggio Alloro.
After a leisurely meal and some time to shop, we commenced the short drive to San Gimignano. Nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan for its towers, San Gimignano is one of the most charming and best preserved walled medieval towns in Tuscany. In the Middle Ages, the tower was a symbol of wealth and power and this town originally contained 72 of them but today only 13 towers remain. We were free to explore on our own for several hours and we enjoyed every minute of our walk through the Middle Ages.
Our final stop for the day was in Pisa. One reason this tour suited us so well is that they offer the option to leave the tour wherever and whenever you want, with proper notification, of course. We wanted to spend the night in Pisa and take the train to Lucca the following day before going to Cinque Terre so we brought our luggage with us on the bus in the morning and parted company after our tour of Pisa late in the day. The tour group then returned to Florence and we took a taxi to our hotel.
Pisa is one of those places that gets mixed reviews. Some love it, some not so much. We had low expectations of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but we were pleasantly surprised. The most famous bell tower in the world is located on the Field of Miracles which also contains a cathedral, a baptistry, and a cemetery, all situated close to the medieval city wall. The tower has leaned since its construction began in 1173 due to its position on soft ground but recent stabilization efforts have ensured that it will stand for at least another 300 years. You must reserve a time to climb the 294 steps to the top of the tower so we returned the next morning to experience the view and to visit the cathedral. The walk from our hotel was reasonably short and enjoyable.
Once we’d enjoyed everything the Field of Miracles had to offer and the crowds started to arrive, it was time to take the train to Lucca.