Treasures of Tuscany
If you still have time, you really should explore a little more of the area around Pisa. Cities such as Lucca, Volterra and San Gimignano are certainly among the classics, but San Miniato in the province of Pisa is also a legitimate attraction – a Cittàslow where the infrastructure and policies are aimed at slowing the pace and increasing the quality of life. For truffle fans, the town is especially attractive in autumn when the Tartufai set off with their truffle dogs in search of the highly coveted white truffle. The otherwise tranquil commune then comes alive, competing with its arch-enemy Alba in Piedmont to discover the largest and finest tartufo.
The walled city of Lucca is about half an hour away from Pisa and, as is so often the case in Tuscany, dates back to the time of the Etruscans. Lucca is best known for its olive oil, while being a Mecca for fans of traditional Italian pastries. It is also famous for its impressive fortified ring of walls. The city is always a bit more relaxed than in the classic tourist destinations of Tuscany. According to Forbes magazine, Lucca is one of the most idyllic places in Europe.
If you ask (mainly female) teenagers around the world to name a city in Tuscany, many will surely mention Volterra. US author Stephenie Meyer is to blame, having triggered quite a vampire cult around the city with her Twilight series. The film adaptations were ultimately shot in Montepulciano, however, 120 km away. Volterra has remained true to its soul and resisted the Hollywood kitsch. Hence, rather than the walking dead, visitors can admire splendid Etruscan walls, a beautiful medieval city centre, traditional alabaster art and, of course, the mighty medieval Medici fortress, the Fortezza Medicea. Once a proud stronghold, it is now a maximum security prison. Unfortunately, the interior of the castle complex therefore is not open to the public, but the imposing exterior more than compensates for this. From time to time, however, the prison opens its doors for an extraordinary rehabilitation programme: On Cene Galeotte evenings – naturally under strict security and supervised by Italy’s best chefs – a gala prison dinner is prepared and served by the inmates (www.cenegaleotte.it).
San Gimignano is a rather busy tourist town on a hill overlooking the Tuscan countryside, but nevertheless a very worthwhile destination. It’s difficult to decide what is more beautiful in San Gimignano: the gently rolling cypress hills surrounding the town and their spectacular views or the town itself, where time appears to have stood still since the 14th century. Because of its famous towers, San Gimignano is also known as the “Manhattan of the Middle Ages”. True to the motto “high, higher, highest”, the nobility of the time competed for prestige and power by building towers that by prevailing standards were increasingly dizzying. Of the 72 built in all 15 are still standing today, and some are even accessible. If you’re longing for a little more nature after exploring the town, the stunning panoramic routes and hiking trails around San Gimignano are the perfect tonic.
Pontedera is a town in the province of Pisa known perhaps only to die-hard Piaggio fans, given that it is the production site of the famous Italian scooters. Even if you don’t have a Vespa, a visit to the Piaggio Museum is simply a must. The famous “April 1946 98cc” can be admired here, only about 21 km southeast of Pisa.