Tuscany combines beauty, history, food, art

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By Victor Block

Vineyards and groves of olive trees blanket rolling hillsides and spill down into deep valleys. An ancient stone villa, its entrance road lined by parallel rows of tall, straight cypress trees, tops many hills.

Sprawling fields provide a patchwork of colors ranging from the green of crops to golden wheat to the reddish-brown of freshly turned earth.

This is the painting-like scenery that greets visitors to Tuscany, the region running along the northwestern coast of Italy that long has been a popular magnet for vacationers from around the globe.

Fascinating history, magnificent art, outstanding food and some of the best wines in the world are among attractions that draw people to the area. It doesn’t take long to learn why typical Tuscan communities are described as “hilltop towns.” Many are perched on the peak of a steep rise that overlooks the surrounding countryside.

Most were laid out centuries ago in a maze of narrow twisting, turning, climbing and dipping cobblestone streets that were not intended to accommodate automobiles. Every town has one or more churches, some dating from the 14th century and even earlier. Many also boast an ancient fortress, and a museum — or two or three — that recounts local history and displays priceless artistic creations.

While most of the museums have outstanding collections, I found myself drawn even more strongly to the magnificent art and architecture outside. Statues and ornate fountains line the streets of cities and towns. Ornately designed wooden doors set off by fanciful brass knockers add to the feeling that entire towns are outdoor art shows.

Visitors could spend weeks enjoying a different town each day and still not exhaust the supply. Along with similarities, each also has its own unique attributes.

My exploration began in Montalcino, in many ways a typical hill town that was settled around 1,000 A.D. Vineyards that have been producing outstanding wine since the 15th century surround the community. That accounts for the large number of enotecas (wine bars) where it can be sampled. At the weekly Friday market, vendors sell goods ranging from fresh produce and delicious pastries to pigs, chickens and cheese.

Buonconvento, a short drive away, was a personal favorite. Its medieval center looks much like it did when it was established during the 1500s, with one exception. In more recent centuries, apartments were built just behind and against the city walls, whose exterior now is peppered with windows.

San Gimignano, known as early as the 1300s as “citta delle belle torri” (city of the beautiful towers), has its own claim to fame. At one time, at least 70 towers loomed over the setting.

They were built during the 12th and 13th centuries by wealthy families, serving both as defensive strongholds and as a demonstration of each owner’s prosperity. The 14 structures that remain still provide a spectacular sight for people approaching the village.

Two other towns also stand out in my memory. Pienza has been described as the first example of Renaissance city planning.

In the mid-15th century, a noted architect was assigned to upgrade the community into an ideal town. The result is a charming setting featuring a piazza, splashing fountain and lanes lined by stone houses adorned with an explosion of colorful flowers.

The tiny village of Murlo is as picture-perfect as Pienza in its own way. It resembles a movie set of a typical medieval village, with immaculate stone houses that form what once acted as a defensive wall. Given its tiny size, I was not surprised to learn that only 17 people live within the walls, while several thousand more reside in the surrounding countryside.

What makes Murlo unique is the close association of its present-day residents with the civilization of the Etruscans. They arrived in the area in the 8th century B.C., flourished as seafarers and merchants for more than 400 years, and then were absorbed into the Roman Empire. A recent study of the DNA of residents in and around Murlo today indicates a direct link with their ancestors.

The village of Murlo at one time was under the control of Sienna, but the two could not be more different. Sienna is a bustling city of palaces and towers — many built of bricks with the distinctive brownish-yellow hue known as “sienna.”

Any of several must-see sites in Sienna alone would make a visit there worthwhile. Begin with the Piazza del Campo, which since at least 1283 has been the site of an exciting horse race around its outer edge.

The elegant, 14th century Palazzo Pubblico on one side of the Campo has served as the town hall since it was completed in the 14th century.

A graceful bell tower looks out over the square and the entire city.

If you go …

For more information call the Italian National Tourist Board at 212-245-5618 or log onto italiantourism.com.