Art, History, Gelato

The inspiration, awe and enjoyment that Lucy Honeychurch, the heroine of E. M. Forster’s 1908 novel Room with a View, found during her fictional visit to Tuscany abounds today in central Italy.

Florence, the capital of the Tuscan region, oozes history around every classical columned corner. The Uffizi Gallery, home to Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, was once the office for the Medici family, rulers of Florence in its 16th-century heyday. Not wanting to mix with the common folk, the family constructed a two-story enclosed corridor from the Uffizi to their home, the Pitti Palace, about a mile away. A tour through the Vasari Corridor lets you walk in the shoes of a Medici, even stopping for mass at the Chiesa di Santa Felicita as the corridor discreetly passes through the balcony of the facade.

The famous Ponte Vecchio spanning the Arno River still bustles with life, although mainly of the tourist variety. The bridge is also a gateway to two of Florence’s best restaurants, Trattoria Cammillo and Buca dell’Orafo, where descendants of the founders serve unforgettable ribollita (a classic Tuscan soup), fettuccini and pasta fagioli.

The centerpiece of Florence is its cathedral (the Duomo), ornate with mulicolored marble placed intricately into undulating geometric patterns. The Palazzo Niccolini Hotel’s Duomo Suite offers a spectacular view. Looking up to the suite, I imagined waking in the morning to a cityscape filled with the Duomo’s dramatic architecture. In the words of Miss Honeychurch, I would “fling wide the windows.”

The cobblestone streets of Florence are their own form of art, replete with grand-scale Renaissance architecture, open markets, Gothic churches and the most delicious gelato. My favorite stop, Vestri Gelato, picked me up perfectly after an afternoon of meandering.

With a few days of art, history and gelato under my belt, I left Florence for the bucolic hills of Tuscany’s countryside and the walled hill city of Pienza. With street names like Via Della Amore and Via Della Volpe, Pienza has the feel of a movie set—romantic and charming in every way. Laundry hangs from green shuttered windows while storekeepers sell wines and local cheeses on the street level.

The city’s fortressed walls provide a vantage point for a quintessential Tuscan panorama — cypress trees standing like soldiers at attention, their ranks stretching in formation across the sweep of rolling vineyards and farms below.

Accommodations in the countryside vary, but the recent wave of agroturismo inns and small hotels provide a distinctly authentic Italian experience. In particular, La Bandita, on a hilltop just outside Pienza, is a tranquil hideaway offering delicious organic meals with ingredients from local growers. The main stone structure until recently was part of a working farm complete with sheep, goats and cows. A herd of long-haired sheep grazed in the meadow outside my bedroom window. After a day of Tuscan touring by car, nothing seems better than coming “home” to a farmhouse and a rustic dinner of hearty soup, grilled vegetables with olive oil, marinated steak and a heavenly tiramisu.

Just a short drive down the road is La Foce, author Iris Origo’s famous formal garden. During World War II, this dauntless English woman and her Italian husband secretly helped wounded Allied soldiers and refugees even while invading German troops occupied her house. She tells the story in her diary, which she buried in the garden every morning for safekeeping. Read her account, War in Val d’Orcia, then stroll the garden’s exquisite travertine paths, cypress alley, box hedges and rose garden.

About an hour north is Siena, a vast fortress of brick walls surrounding a historically influential city. A political rival of Florence, Siena was a formidable seat of regional power but riven by internal strife between nobles and commoners. Still, amid the turmoil, Siena founded a university in 1240 that continues to thrive. 

Visitors must park outside Siena’s walls and walk to the town center, where a full complement of restaurants, plazas and museums, countless shops and a huge cathedral await. The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo is renowned for its outdoor cafes. There, indulging in an afternoon glass of Chianti Colli Senesi, I pondered my Tuscan adventure and realized that nearly every room in this region comes with not only a view but also an enchanting passport to Italy’s Renaissance past.