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Tuscany, Far From the Madding Crowd by Shyam Amladi

Sunset in Livorno, Western Tuscany             Manorola, Cinque Terre, Northern Italy

If you are visiting Tuscany to relax, forget the major towns like San Gimignano or Pisa or Prato or Lucca or Sienna or Florence. These are all beautiful cities with lots of history, but only if you go as a tourist. For a real native Tuscan experience, stay in some of the smaller towns in the rolling countryside of Tuscany.

Wine Country, Tuscany

Here are a few:

Buti, is situated 12 km south of 7 miles east of Pisa-known for its olive oils and a nice theater

Volterra: Etruscan civilization, Volterra has served as a city since 800 BC. It is situated 1800 feet above sea and offers a panoramic view of the Tuscan landscape

Entering the fortified town of Volterra

Fauglia/Lari: Scenic towns near the water, of architectural interest for its 14-15th century villas and churches

Montcastello: as the name suggests, it has a fortified and well preserved castle of Marchese Torrigiani Malaspina. Marchese (Marquis in France) is a title bestowed upon royalty and wealthy Italians , of mediaeval  vintage.

Panicale:  This hill town sits among verdant hills about half way between Rome and Florence and is known for its 16th century church called Chiesa Collegiata di San Michel Arcangelo built by one of the most famous designers of his time, Antonio De Rossi.Also, about 

Selvatelle:  is an old town that lies between Livorno and San Gimignano, the famed walled city. It is rather remote so you will need a car. However, you are surrounded by low hills and lush vinyards, and above all, 15th century villas that has residents. The living kind! 

We stayed at Hilton Grand Vacations’ Borgo Alle Vigne in Selvatelle—a small timeshare Hilton built a couple of years ago. We loved it! But you can stay in several small inns along the way.

The surroundings boast of wine region that produces some of the best red wine in all of Italy. Plus it also is home to Pecorino cheese, a powdery, robust-flavored cheese that reminds you a bit of Cheddar, only much more flavorful. It is made with sheep's whole-fat milk so does have a sharp taste than its American counterpart.Pecorino Toscano (versus Pecorino Romano) is produced in Sienna and in many small villages around Tuscany. While all cheese produced in Tuscany, just like its wine, is tasty,  look for DOP (protected original design) label when buying it to bring home.

And the food? I am not much for superlatives, but the intense flavor of the vegetables, the natural, grainy flavor of pasta.....all of them make the food a delightful experience, even if they are not kind to your waistline. Among our local favorites: Cacciucco (fish stew made with cuttlefish or crawfish with other varieties of shellfish), Finnociona (local Salami embedded with fennel seeds), Tagliata with green pepper sauce, Torte Della Nonna (Grandma's cake).........anything made with white truffles which abound in the area.......I could go on and on, but all I can barely say is, Questa cibo e da morire!

As to wines, Tuscany produces the famous Sangiovese variety. But the blends are just as good--particularly the Brunello di Montacino, a dark, drier but fruity wine made near Sienna. Also try the local vinyards like Azienda Agricola and Castello di Verrazano. 

Almost next to the village of Selvatelle, there is an old, kind of crumbly castle-like building that houses an authentic, old-style cheese factory. Do visit it. The Grand Dame who greeted us was a treat though she spoke no English and most of our communication was hand signals and sparse Italian phrases we had picked from a tourist guide. But it was fun--she has the most amazing collection of aged cheeses and will generously let you sample them. Of course we ended up buying a large quantity of different cheeses--they were fresh, delicious and tasty!

As to wine tours, you have to be invited—there is no “open” wine tasting except in larger towns like San Gmimgnano and Sienna. However, the wine tasting is not a sip-and-scoot affair we are used to in Napa and Central Valley. Definitely not! Wine tasting in an Italian vineyard in the heart of Tuscany is a two-hour affair where you get to sit down in a group, talk with the wine maker, take a leisurely tour, munch on Italian meats and cheeses and taste the wines they are so proud of. You can book in advance through the hotel, or there are website which can help you . Some useful links are given below. Unlike the usual major commercial sites like and Tripadvisor, these are local websites in Italy.

Around Tuscany, do not forget to visit the world famous Cinque Terra, a collection of five Italian seaside villages that frequently show up in the “best towns to visit in Europe” from prestigious magazines. Monorola , one of the five, has been featured in a number of elite travel magazines and is known for its colorful houses, spectacular swimming and pristine ocean side view. It is about 100 miles from Volterra.