September 07, 2018 - Active, Events, Museums, Central Tuscany
In the heart of Tuscany between Florence and Siena there are hills to explore, rivers to swim and festive occasions where locals and visitors easily mix to celebrate - usually around a table and often with music in the air. Here are some of our favorite things.
1. Go to a local Palio instead of the crowded Sienese one
Many towns and villages have a “palio” – literally “prize”, the palio is usually a painted standard or trophy that the victorious party take part to their village. Horse races, donkey races, crossbow competitions, anything can count, though our favourite is the Palio at Casole d’Elsa, where the horses run up the hill below the village and then everybody dances the evening away and eats at long tables in the village high street. First week in July. If you miss this Palio, check out these other Tuscan Palios to see if your dates coincide.
2. Find a "Sagra" and eat like a lord
Seasonal food supplies lead to a tradition of "sagre", mono-thematic food festivals where one type of food is celebrated and cooked in all ways possible. From the delicious to the ridiculous, these now encompass themes from frogs to particular pasta shapes, but one of our favourites is the Cep mushroom festival at Pievescola in early September. Heroic tales of mushroom collecting are told while cooks prepare ceps so large they cook them like steaks on the grill. The village is so proud of their their particular sagra they even have a giant statue of 2 mushrooms in love in the main square.
3. Visit an abandoned village in the forested hills near San Gimignano
Abandoned church of Castelvecchio, photo credit: Giacomo Baldini
The remains of Castelvecchio are hidden in the hills west of the famous towered village. It was once a fortified citadel, fought over by San Gimignano and neighbouring Volterra but was more or less abandoned after the plague in 1348, and an earthquake in the early 15thcentury. Now you can still see the remains of the walls that once encircled the village, some old houses and a church. It can be reached by footpath, following red and white markings through the forest. Go to 43.439985, 11.016691 with your satnav, turn up the dirt track and stop after less than a km - you should see signs. Just in case you're curious learn further information about Castelvecchio.
4. River swimming
Swimming pools are all very well, but swimming in a narrow wild river, with evergreen oak forests all around you is a different experience altogether. Put a picnic together and drive to the bridge over the river Pavone, below Montecastelli Val di Cecina – warning: it is a narrow road, partly carved out of rock! – walk down river for a while, until you find one of the large pools that dot the course. Warning – at the end of August there may not be much river left, so take this as an adventure!
5. Visit the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano
Surrounded by medieval tower, paintings, medieval cafes and medieval museums the Galleria Continua of San Gimignano is this jewel of a contemporary art gallery, set in the old cinema and founded by 3 local lads; it now has branches in Beijing, Basel, Paris and Havana, so they’re doing something right! Check there latest museum exhibits. Via del Castello, 11 - Open Mon-Sun, 10 am-1 p.m & 2-7 pm.
6. Go to the Thermal Power Museum at Larderello
Geothermic steam rising near Larderello, photo credit: Roberto Caccuri, Contrasto
To the west, the hills are dotted with thermal spouts, beloved by the Romans for their hot baths. In the 19thcentury a French engineer invented a method for extracting boric acid from the volcanic mud; there is now a town named after him, and a multimedia museum with free admission showing how the vents are now used for geothermal energy. The Thermal Power Museum in Larderello is open daily from mid-May to the end of October, 9:30 am - 6:30 pm. The Volterra Tourist Board can give you for further information.