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from April 2005
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Insider's Tuscany
Text by Tom Mueller    Photograph by John Kernick

Insider's Tuscany

Fronting the ornate Franciscan Basilica, Piazza Santa Croce is Florence central.

Experience some of Italy's most beloved cities and quiet places from the inside out: Take your cues from the folks who live there.

Tuscany is one of those few, precious things in life—like springtime, Shakespeare, and the power of first love—that cannot be overrated. Despite incessant praise, the bellezza of this region continues to defy description. It's as if Tuscany, located as it is in the heart of Italy, has condensed the best characteristics of the whole nation. It boasts internationally famous art and architecture, with six UNESCO World Heritage Sites—more than many countries. There are the sunny isles and electric blue surf of the Tuscan Archipelago and the rugged Alpine peaks of the Lunigiana, the gentle Chianti hill country and the wild moorlands of the Maremma, and more—all in a space about the size of New Jersey. Not to mention some of the headiest, more heartwarming food on the planet.

Tuscany also has the Tuscans, which other Italians will tell you is a decidedly mixed blessing. Tuscans are a rare breed, tough yet intensely self-conscious, sarcastic and sharp-tongued yet, once you get beneath the veneer, capable of great generosity. They like to call each other toscanacci—nasty old Tuscans—in celebration of their agrarian bluntness and vigor, yet their aesthetic sense is almost preternaturally mature. They have a profound reverence for the traditions of their homeland, which they define not as Italia or Toscana, but their native village, even their neighborhood.

Tuscans also have an extra helping of what is superficially called passion, but is better termed obsession: an intense, even savage attention to life's fine print. A surprising number of people here care deeply about the floral aftertastes of sheep cheese, the correct way to cut marble, the nuances of a Gregorian chant. And lurking behind the disinvoltura—the appearance of effortlessness much valued among Tuscans—is a cool calculation that leaves nothing to chance. It's no accident that double-entry accounting was invented here during the Renaissance.

Even earthy things have an otherworldly refinement in Tuscany. The landscape itself shows the hidden hand of the master, with subtle balances satisfying to eye and mind. If a road curves just so—that is, ever so scenically—or the sunset bathes the facade of a villa in a most picturesque golden light, it's likely because a Tuscan wanted it so.

In few places do art and life intermingle so completely. Here a butcher becomes a virtuoso, and the distinction between shopping and museum-going fades. Even the centuries melt away as the graceful lords and ladies of a Renaissance fresco look down at you with that same toscanaccio brazenness and curiosity you've just witnessed on the street. There is a harmony here that strikes up echoes in the heart.

35 ways to love Tuscany as the Tuscans do

1. Two-wheel it
"Bicycling is an Italian institution," says Enrico Caracciolo, a photographer and writer, "and Tuscans lead the pack. In Lucca the townspeople love to ride the walkway of the city walls, which are intact." Rent bikes at Biciclette Poli. "For something more adventuresome, I recommend two memorable routes, both of which start in Asciano: The first heads north to Torre a Castello via Monte Sante Marie, while the other winds south to Buonconvento via Monte Oliveto Maggiore." For detailed itineraries as well as rental information, visit Terre di Siena online. And for cycling tours with champion racer Andy Hampsten, visit Cinghiale Cycling Tours. Just outside Siena, bicycles can be rented from DF Bike (+39 577 271 905).

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