Mamma Mia, what a tasty Tuscan treat: Skip the crowds and tuck into these Italian hill towns
- Florence is home to some of the world’s most recognisable art and architecture
- During the summer months the Tuscan capital is overflowing with tourists
- But if you go south to explore the Chiana Valley there is peace and quiet aplenty
Florence at 7am is highly recommended. Having just got off an overnight train from Austria, we began exploring one of the best trodden tourist routes while others were still waking up.
There was room to breathe: the Duomo enchanted in the morning sun and you could linger on the Ponte Vecchio without running the gauntlet of selfie sticks.
After a blissful morning strolling, that was it. We picked up a car and motored south for an hour to find still more peace and quiet — because this was a (perhaps naive) attempt to dodge the Tuscan crowds in August.
Relaxing: The sun sets on Villa Fontelunga, a nine bedroom boutique hotel in the Chiana Valley
After bypassing the always busy Chiantishire, the relaxed welcome we received at Villa Fontelunga near Foiano was faultless.
Set in the Chiana valley — famed for the Chianina beef produced by its distinctive white cattle — it’s a hop, skip and a jump from some charming Etruscan hill towns and a slightly longer run to the better known tourist trails of Siena and Arezzo.
With just nine en suite doubles and a couple of private villas, families are welcome, but its solitude attracts the romantics.
Tempting: The olive groves and Tuscan hills that stretch out in front of the hotel
We chatted with some honeymooners from Essex who’d barely moved from the poolside. Certainly, the pool and the landscaped olive groves made staying put a tempting alternative to sightseeing.
We did stir ourselves to visit La Dogana Enoteca in nearby Valiano, run by the wonderfully named Sunshine Manitto who found fame on Italian TV and is the author of My Tuscan Kitchen cookbook. We quickly gorged ourselves on Sunshine’s pici — a thicker type of pasta that is best described as plump spaghetti. It’s typical of the region and is wonderful with pretty much any sauce, but particularly wild boar.
By the way, don’t go to southern Tuscany on a diet. Portions are generous and the multiple courses can be a tad intimidating.
Historic hillside: The town of Cortona is made up of maze-like medieval streets
The other restaurant to try is La Lodola, a tiny family osteria which offers astonishing food dished up in the secluded garden. Evening meals are served by candlelight and the food is staunchly local.
After a couple of days of flopping, we started to explore some of the historic hill towns. Eternally popular Cortona, with its terrific views and fabulous gelato, made for a sun-dappled afternoon. But we preferred the deserted Lucignano, a village of little more than 3,000 long-time inhabitants with a maze of medieval streets in which you’re bound to get lost.
Be sure not to miss the exquisite museum in Piazza del Tribunale. Its showstopper is the remarkable Golden Tree — a 700-year-old, 10ft masterpiece of Gothic art that is said to bring eternal love to couples who view it.
Peace and quiet: Arezzo’s Piazza Grande is devoid of crowds even in the peak months
Monte San Savino was similarly quiet. A quirky (albeit vertigoinducing) tower afforded yet more enticing views. Once again, there was barely a queue to be had.
Our attentive Fontelunga hosts advised us to avoid packed Siena and try Arezzo, a 20-mile drive, where we headed for the Renaissance master frescoes at the Basilica di San Francesco.
Later, feeling suitably smug, we chatted to the Fontelunga’s hotel manager, Roberta, who was justly proud of the tranquility she and her team work so hard to preserve. My advice is to take a good book, adjust the easy chair for the optimum view — and relax.
Villa Fontelunga doubles from £151 per night (fontelunga.com). British Airways (ba.com) flies from London to Florence from £184 return.