Under a Tuscan Sky: AHA alum Anna Fothergill reviews Tuscany’s lesser know treasures.

During my AHA experience, back when I was a young bright Gap Year student, drinking in the wonders of Italy (as well as the prosecco), the days we spent in Florence and Siena secured themselves a special place in my Italian Romance. And for so many others, the lure of Tuscany is undoubtedly present. This summer, I was fortunate enough to return to the land of pencil cedars, rhythmic hills and Medici fortunes. And I soon realised, that while Florence and Sienna might be the most famous gems of Tuscany, the surrounding region has ancient villages atop every hill, and endless landscapes to fill any camera.

 

View from San Gimignano - Own photo

So if you are drawn back to the heat and beauty of Tuscany, here are some places to consider visiting if you want a taste of real Italian life.

1) San Gimignano. A name which you may have heard, but know little about. I spent one gelato-meltingly hot day there, and was awestruck by the quiet beauty of it. Be warned that most of your time will be spent walking around looking skyward to the 14 remaining “power-towers”, which give San Gimignano it’s distinctive skyline. The town appeared to me like a 14th century Manhattan, with each stone skyscraper attempting to tower over its neighbour. There is a gelateria that claims to be the World Ice Cream Champion, and of course I sampled it to assure you all that it lives up to its title. If you wander into the Duomo, first being wrapped in Crete paper to protect your modesty, the church is illuminated with wall to wall frescos that for me were reminiscent of those in Giotto’s Area Chapel in their colour brilliance and animated expressions. The hellish portrayal of gluttony was particularly descriptive.

 

Sam Gimignano

 

Frescos in San Gimignano Duomo

Should you leave San Gimignano in search of new adventures, a place for a true taste of local Tuscan life is Montepulciano, a town where they have their own version of the Palio…trading the horses for barrel rolling. The town has wide, movie set streets and bars resting on sloped paved roads, any number of which will serve for apperitvi, before you head to the viewpoint to take in the sweeping countryside. A highlight of this town for me was the atmospheric Ristorante sotto L’arche, a pizzeria which seated you under a canopy of a lighted arch, the owner greets you as his own family and live music accompanied every bite of the unforgettable pizza (the real Italian stuff, not your standard Dominoes). The meal was loud with laughter and music, the manger himself as concerned with performing an aria as he was dutiful to his customers. Definitely  worth a visit.

Primi Piatti - Own photo

For those who wish for rest and relaxation, an escape from the endless supply of cultural wonders, it can be found at the villas of La Foce. The massive estate has a fascinating history as well as breathtaking views. Built on the volcanic lands of Val del’Orcia, it has served as a farming estate, was taken over by Nazis, secretly fed artisans during WW2, and today one can tour the gardens, relax by the pool and even attend olive oil tastings – the golden syrup is grown right beside your villa. The whole complex radiates with the smell of cedars, lavender and olives. the coolness and calm of La Foce is an oasis in the dry Tuscan heat.

La Foce

Sunset over La Foce -own photo

These are just a few of the things I was fortunate enough to discover in only a week. This is what amazed me about Tuscany. How there can be so much to do if you desire to do things, yet such an emphasis on Italian lifestyle. On enjoying eating and drinking, taking hours over meals, feeling no pressure to go to any 14th century town today because it will still be there tomorrow. If you are in Tuscany in the next year, know that you can see as much or as little as you want, and it will still be a wonderful Italian holiday. Of course, there is always Florence.

Firenze -own photograph

 

Melon Ice-cream and Travertine: A student’s impression of Rome

The capital of Italy was our final and busiest city visit. Before I get to the art, I’m going to have to mention a couple of the most amazing things that happened in Rome. First of all: Melon Ice Cream (ever tried it?), this is best when made by ‘GROM’ and if you ever have the pleasure of going to Italy, your trip will be incomplete without this life-changing substance. Secondly, travertine stone – I admit – I originally thought this quasi-sedimentary calcium carbonate was rather boring – but Helen Oakden’s enthusiasm eventually had our whole group caressing a travertine stone in the centre of Rome. We ignored the slightly startled passers by.

GROM...

Melon and Travertine aside, the art in Rome was beyond belief. The Colosseum and Forum let us dive beyond the world of the Renaissance and appreciate the ancient Rome that was beneath our feet and The Vatican City certainly lived up to expectations. A short tan-top-up for the girls as we queued outside lead us to the most incredible frescos, sculptures, architecture and paintings I’ve yet had the pleasure to see.

The Glorious Basilica of St Peter

 

Michelangelo's incredibly moving Pieta

St Peter’s Basilica was incomprehensibly large – the small letters around the base of the dome interior were in fact, we learned, each 2m high… and finished nearly 400 years ago. Not only is this place the largest church in the world, but also it is also home to Michelangelo’s genuinely moving Pieta. I had never seen my favourite fresco, Raphael’s The School of Athens (best fresco in existence), in the flesh, but when I saw it in the Vatican Palace for the first time I really did feel like I was meeting an old friend.

Raphael's 'School of Athens' in the Vatican Palace
Amazement at seeing the School of Athens, finally...

The two weeks had been good enough already, but it made them all the more worthwhile. To top the day off we had also seen some mind-blowing classical sculpture. Us boys in the group did feel jealous upon seeing the Belvedere torso…!

The Belvedere Torso in all is muscular glory

Of course it wasn’t all go – we did have some down time; the ever-knowledgeable tutors took us out to supper to a roof terrace restaurant which was great fun albeit bittersweet as we knew we were coming to the end of our trip.

Bernini's David in the Borghese Gallery
Outside the Borghese Gallery on our last day...

Our final day was in a similar vein; while we were all soaking up the atmosphere and some incredible sculpture (Berlini’s David is both very emotive and unfortunately overshadowed by Michelangelo’s) in the villa Borghese, everyone was sad to be saying goodbye to such an atmospheric city, and of course to each other. Rome, in the true sense of the word, was awesome, and I know that all of us will want to go back very soon.

With thanks to Hugo Dunn, student on our Northern II summer course 2013.

HOW TO BE ROMAN: Lucy Chiswell’s top ten substitutes for tourist traps in the eternal city

 

As a tourist in Rome, it feels like you are in the majority doesn’t it? Queuing for the Vatican with two thousand fellow sardines, speaking English, eating with a view of St. Peter’s and buying a purple polyester shawl covered in Rome’s famous monuments; you are no different to the rest of them. But how much do you want to be the swarthy twenty four year old Italian, riding with a bella ragazza on the back of his Vespa and heading to the coolest aperitivo in town? Well I’m afraid I can’t make you twenty four, swarthy or provide you with an Italian lady, but what I can do, is tell you the top ten local hangouts and the ‘off the beaten track’ scenes of the Caput Mundi. But don’t worry, I’ll give you a well-known equivalent so you don’t feel too out of your depth…

 

1) THE GELATO

Now if you think I’m easing you in gently, then you’ve clearly never had Italian ice-cream. Food is, without doubt, Italy’s number one pride and joy (you can forget the culture), and gelato sits up there at the top with pizza, pasta and the Fiat 500. The problem with Rome is that there are so many ‘gelaterie’ (sing. gelateria) to choose from that you just end up going to the touristy one that is next to the touristy restaurant  in the touristy area that you are having a touristy lunch. But the trick is to know the crème de la crème (or ice de la crème as it were) of gelaterie… So instead of heading towards the Pantheon (the area is infamous for its selection of gelati), I would head to Alberto Pica.

Thanks to Joan Allegretti

 

This is without doubt the numero uno gelateria in Rome… and that’s not just because it is situated one minute from my old apartment. Unassumingly placed off the busy Largo di Torre Argentina, you will know where you are when you see a group of eighty year-old Italian men shouting at one another, smoking, and eating gelati in the leafy outdoor seating area. Do not be put off by this, nor by the neon sign above the entrance or the surly wrinkly lady seated at the till in the dated Italian bar who, for a fact, has never smiled in her life.

Thanks to ladepeche.fr

 

Buying most things in a (traditional) bar in Italy usually goes a bit like this: choose, buy your ticket, give the man behind the counter your ticket, and then tell him what you want.  In Pica, you will have chosen your cup size (if only it could be that easy…) and after paying Signora Grumpy you will give her deceivingly friendly-looking son your choice of gelato.  If you’re feeling safe, go for the best Crema in town, if you’re mid way on the adventurous-o-meter go for Pistacchio and if you are feeling as daring as me every day that I was in Rome, dip your fluorescent plastic spoon into Riso or Riso e Canella. Yep, that’s right, your Italian translation skills are correct. Rice. Rice ice-cream. Or rice and cinnamon for those of you with more of a sweet-tooth. Just think rice pudding, but frozen.

In the name of the father, the son and the holy gelato, I can promise you, Alberto Pica’s Riso is the best ice-cream that’s ever passed these lips…

Thanks to emirates247.com

 

To visit Alberto Pica, you need to head to Via della Seggiola, 12 00186 Roma. For a map, visit: Alberto Pica Google Maps