If you are looking for a European tourist destination, consider visiting the western part of the famous Tuscany region in central Italy. Depending on your interests, this beautiful area might be your ideal vacation spot. You can get classic Italian food, and wash it down with fine local wine. Many of the sites are very popular, especially in high season, but are well worth the visit. Be sure to read the companion articles in this series presenting eastern Tuscany and the Chianti region.
Our tour of western Tuscany starts on the Mediterranean coast at Viareggio. Then we proceed inland to Lucca, turn southwest to Pisa and continue southwest to return to the coast at the major port of Livorno. We continue south along the coast to the town of Piombino and then cross the Golfo di Follonica to the island of Elba.
Yes, you can have Tuscany and the Riviera in the Mediterranean resort city of Viareggio. Its oldest building, Torre Matilde, was built in the mid-Sixteenth Century. This city is still a major shipbuilding center, but that probably won’t influence your tourist decisions. Because of its seaside location it attracted many nobles from the nearby inland city of Lucca. The city hosts a Carnival (Carnevale in Italian) that claims to be the most important in all Europe; one that has been televised since 1954. During the offseason the Cittadella del Carnevale (Carnival Town) hosts a Jazz Festival and a Theater Festival. Other Viareggio festivals are EuropaCinema and Festival Puccini. You may also enjoy visiting the port and the marina. Its Monument to the Resistance and to Peace includes columns from the old City Hall, destroyed in the Second World War.
Over two thousand years ago Caesar, Pompey, and a guy called Crassus met in Lucca and agreed to rule a city in the adjacent Latium region, a city called Rome. Lucca was Tuscany’s first Christian town and now hosts about 100 churches, more than one church per thousand residents. Have you ever heard of Maria Anna (Marie Anne) Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi Levoy? This sister of Napoleon Bonaparte ruled Lucca for nearly ten years in the early Nineteenth Century. Since she had a history of standing up to her famous brother, we can easily imagine how she treated ordinary Luccans.
Don’t even think of bringing a car to Lucca’s central area. The walls of the city have become a pedestrian promenade, but they were once used for racing automobiles. The often grass-covered promenade has picnic tables and play structures but no railing and it’s a long way down so be careful. Don’t miss the beautiful Villa Garzoni and the Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, situated in a Fifteenth Century Palace. You’ll also enjoy the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro Romano whose medieval buildings are constructed over the Roman amphitheater. Of course there are several churches worth visiting including the Duomo, San Frediano, and San Michele in Foro. Lucca is famous for its olive oil.
Who hasn’t heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa? (We’ll skimp a little on the foundation and nobody will ever know.) It began as a bell tower for the Duomo, built in the late Twelfth Century. There were problems from the beginning but the Tower has been stabilized and is safe for climbing, but you must be over eight years old. By the way, unlike Galileo (an unproven story), you aren’t allowed to drop metal balls from the top to test gravity. Book ahead if you want to climb the Tower.
But Pisa is more than just the Tower. Make sure to visit the Gothic Battistero (Baptistery), which is famous for its acoustics. The Duomo is particularly known for its Fourteenth Century pulpit and Romanesque panels depicting the life of Christ. The Piazza dei Cavelieri hosts Renaissance palaces and the Chiesa di Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri church. Pisa is home to many museums and a University that hosts Europe’s oldest academic botanical garden.
Livorno is known for two highly unrelated items, neither of which should attract many tourists. In 1921 the Communist Party of Italy was founded in this port city. And the Leghorn chicken carries the English-language city name. The famous Galliano liqueur comes from Livorno as well. But why would you want to tour this city? The lovely historic Venice district has all you would expect in an Italian town center, plus canals. In the hills near the city you’ll find the Sanctuary of Montenero, dedicated to Our Lady of Graces, the patron saint of Tuscany, which attracts many pilgrims. The Museo Mascagnano hosts operas during the season. There are fortresses and monuments and beautiful beaches nearby. The most famous dish is cacciuco, a stew made from at least five types of fish with garlic, tomatoes, red pepper, parsley, and toasted bread. The term “alla livornese” means cooked in tomato sauce with garlic and parsley.
The coastal town of Piombino was founded by the Etruscans. During World War II it successfully resisted for some days an attemped sea invasion by German forces after the fall of the Fascist government; decades later Piombino was awarded a Gold Medal for Military Valour. Sights to see include the Fourteenth Century Cathedral of Sant'Antimo, the Rivellino (Walls Tower-Gate), the city’s oldest monument, the Chiesa della Misericordia, the Cassero Pisano (Castle), the Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall), a reconstruction of the Fifteenth Century, and the Thirteenth Century Casa delle Bifore (House of the Mullioned Windows). Close by is the Natural Province Reserve Padule Orti Bottagone.
Why not make like Napoleon and tour the island of Elba off the coast of southern Tuscany? This is the third largest of the Italian islands, but quite tiny compared to Sicily and Sardinia. Elba’s largest town is Portoferraio, an international tourist resort. Highlights include several forts, an archeological museum, and Napoleon’s house. Capoliveri in the southeast of the island offers the following sights: The Focardo Fortress built by the Spanish in the Seventeenth Century, the Sixteenth Century Sanctuary of Madonna delle Grazie, Mount Calamita, the Apse of San Michele, and several great beaches.
Levi Reiss has authored or co-authored ten books on computers and the Internet, but to be honest, he would rather just drink fine Italian or other wine, accompanied by the right foods. He teaches classes in computers at an Ontario French-language community college. Visit his website www.travelitalytravel.com devoted to Italian travel with an accent on fine Italian wine and food. Visit his central wine website www.theworldwidewine.com with weekly reviews of $10 wine and columns devoted to various aspects of wine including wine and food, humor, trivia, organic and kosher wine and lots more.
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