It’s hard to believe it has been more than 10 years since I first stepped off the plane in Rome to live in Florence for a semester. It was a long bus ride to Florence, made better by the views, which only increased in stereotypical Tuscan colors as the sun neared the horizon an d we neared Florence. Grand stone buildings, wide avenues, tiny alleys, we had finally arrived. So had the first trickling of the hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Florence each year, many of them booking luxury accommodations in Tuscany. We were all enchanted by the same thing – the romance, the color, the light, the magic.
By the time throngs of tourists descended on Florence just before Easter it was time to get out of the city and escape the crowd. Don’t get me wrong, I love the history, culture and art of Florence, but so does everyone else. Here are two of my favorite places to avoid the crowds in Florence while still enjoying the enchantment of Tuscany.
Fortunately the closest escape is a short bus ride from Florence’s center, so if you are the type of person who wants to pop in and out of the city on your vacation this is a good place to center yourself. Fiesole sits perched on a hill above the city, but with its quieter streets, surrounding olive orchards and villas, it seems a world away. Fiesole is the kind of place most people drive through without stopping, but if you are the type that wants to stop and smell the roses, soak up the experience, or enjoy the magic of the Tuscan hills Fiesole is a good place for you.
If you are the hiking or leisurely strolling sort, there are a lot of beautiful roads to travel in Fiesole. You can easily walk from the center of Florence to Fiesole in about an hour. Remember it is mostly uphill, so wear comfortable shoes. Perhaps the better way is to walk from Fiesole down to Florence. You can follow a map, or more adventurously just follow gravity and continue to walk down the slope. There are several shops off the main Piazza in Fiesole if you want to purchase picnic supplies in town and set yourself up on the side of the Monastery of San Angelo. There’s a few bench overlooking the terraced hills down to Florence – a breathtaking view of the city without the crowds!
If you’re looking for something more quiet and adventurous take a walk from Fiesole to a nearby town, like Settignano. We took a bike tour, but you can also walk from Fiesole to the top of Montececeri and then into the village of Settignano. I did this with both my Dad (on foot) and my roommates Mom and Aunt (on bike), so it’s age friendly. If you’re a history or culture buff you may appreciate the historical significance of Montecerceri – this is where Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have taken his flying machine to test it. The hill is also dotted with caves, quarries and Etruscan ruins, so it’s a great place to “get lost” without fearing a night in the woods. When you’re ready for a drink, or some nourishment, head down to Settignano, a blink if you miss it kind of place that has real charm. Not much of a tourist attraction, the town is known for being the home of Michelangelo and the marble quarries that produced some of the Renaissance’s most famous sculptures. Roman ruins, like almost everywhere else in Italy, are intertwined with the most modern of engineering feats, so don’t ignore an outcropping of old stones.
Slightly further afield, closer to Pisa is Lucca. I fell in love with Lucca from the first moment I saw it. A city still enveloped by its Renaissance-era walls, Lucca has the buzz of Florence without the extreme crowds and tour groups. It’s the perfect place to feel like a local, to indulge in la dulce far niente, or the sweetness of doing nothing. If you are looking for a place to sit in a piazza, sip wine or enjoy a gelato without any interruption in your day, this is the place to be. Any one of the large or small piazzas will make for the perfect backdrop to a vacation of indulging in Tuscany’s food, culture or drink. The area surrounding Lucca is rolling hills of vineyards and medieval towns and ruins, still vibrant with life and culture today. Now do you understand where my love of the city comes from?
The best way to experience Lucca is to do so on foot. Am I sounding like a broken record? But seriously, Italy is meant for walking. The medieval town walls are still intact and now serve as a sidewalk of sorts around old town Lucca. Beyond the pleasure of being slightly above the streets and parks, the Passeggiata delle Mura crosses the major areas of the city, allowing you do to a “highlights” tour on foot without car traffic. You can also rent a bike and in the summer you may find yourself in the midst of a cultural show or play on the Passeggiata. If you are a history lover, you’ll notice that the wall is one of the largest intact star shaped walls left in Europe. If you’re a nature lover, you’ll notice that different trees are planted on each of the main sides of the wall.
One thing I love about Tuscany are the old churches. Each has it’s own look, feel and ambiance, with each architect, sculptor or painter trying to outdo someone else. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate the artistry and magic of these churches or in the major city centers either. Some refer to Lucca as the city of 100 churches. While I can’t speak to the number of churches, I can offer that they are distinct in style (more similar to Pisa!), and the Duomo di Lucca, unlike those of the large cities, only faces a small square. To me this is symbolic of Lucca as a whole – unpretentious, yet a gem not to be missed!
I learned quickly that no matter where you go in Tuscany you will be surrounded by delicious food, decadent wine and some of the most hospitable people on the planet. When you’re ready to escape the crowds of Florence, consider giving Fiesole or Lucca a try!