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How to relax and putter around in Southern Tuscany

| Sunday, Sept. 28, 2003

Tuscany's always ready for its close-up -- glorious landscapes, enchanting cities, matchless history, superlative art and great food and wine.

Connoisseurs view Siena as the area's most beautiful city, Florence as its cultural Mecca and Pisa as a powerful tourist magnet attracting the entire world to its curious leaning tower. While these and other famous centers are spectacular, there's also a quieter side of Tuscany to explore. Dot some spots in the region's southern part, add brilliant bits of Etruscan Lazio and quintessential Umbria, then meander to connect the dots: You've got a travel plan!

Serene luxury accommodation

This region of Italy hosts a riches of places to stay -- from modest B&B's and no-nonsense hotels to farm guest houses (some quite opulent), convents and monasteries, spas and resorts. If splurging, here are some standouts -- soul-satisfying ports on their own or happy homebases for touring.

  • La Posta Vecchia: Forty-five minutes from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport at Fiumicino, right on a dramatic black sand beach, La Posta Vecchia offers a leisurely first day in Italy after your overnight flight -- or a last night stop before your return trip home. Either way, this Relais & Chateaux hotel delivers a magical experience.

    Built by Prince Odescalchi as an adjunct facility to his neighboring 15th-century Palo Castle, the post-house/inn hosted travelers from 1640 until 1918, when it was damaged by fire and subsequently left to deteriorate. But in the '60s, legendary billionaire J. Paul Getty bought it. During four-plus years and untold millions in restoration, the ruins of two Roman villas -- and various Etruscan relics -- were uncovered beneath the building. Highlighted by extraordinary floor mosaics, the ruins are preserved in situ as a jewel-box museum. Getty lavishly furnished La Posta with fine art and antiques. These treasures remain, even though the villa, in 1990, became a luxury hotel.

    Check into your room; throw open the shutters to the soothing sound of wavelets breaking on the beach below. Bathe in the posh oval indoor pool, or stroll the magnificent garden featuring fig trees twice as old as the United States. English-fluent concierges guide you through other activities, including a tour of the art and antiquities.

    Excursion possibilities take you on coastal routes, along a seaside favored by affluent Romans since the second century BC, or to Lake Bracciano, a post-volcanic formation and the eighth-largest lake in Italy. Another possibility: follow the Etruscan trail (more about that later).

    For delightful dining, Chef Michele Gioia matches seasonal, contemporary dishes to the gracious setting. Service is meticulous, and accomplished pianist Daniele Di Pomponio mellows the meal with everything from Chopin to Gershwin.

  • Il Pelicano: A sister property to La Posta, Il Pelicano's motto is "Paradise Found." And it is indeed a heavenly spot -- elegant yet informal, not only a Relais & Chateaux but also purple lily-designated, the elite of the elite.

    The resort sits on the Tuscan coast near Porto Ercole, on a south-facing promontory overlooking the turquoise waters of the Tyrehnian Sea. A narrow road, winding along the cliffs in hair-raising hairpin turns, leads you to a cluster of ochre buildings nestled in lush gardens, amid stands of ancient olive trees, pines and cypress. Discrete cottages, with rooms and suites, private patios and distinctive decors, house guests. A cliff-top deck boasts a heated seawater swimming pool. Descend by steps through terraces of quiet retreat and splendid views. Or ride the elevator down to a private beach, with diving platforms at the sea's edge. Wherever you go, unobtrusive service follows.

    A smart spa, water sports, even tennis entice. But the main draw is relaxation. And glorious food! Ebullient food and beverage director Gianni Alocci and brilliant executive chef Antonio Guida run a world-class restaurant, with wine cellar to match. Choose between the handsome indoor dining room or the outdoor sea-view terrace.

    Nearby, Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano invite leisurely exploration. Or enjoy abundant birdlife, castles and curious landforms throughout the entire Argentario peninsula. Note Pelicano's convenient proximity to such attractions as the "Lost Corner," the Maremma, Capalbio and I Tarocchi.

  • Convento di San Francesco: Just outside the village of Cetona, step back in time to an intensely spiritual place. The Convento di San Francesco, built in 1212, was the first gathering place for St. Francis of Assisi and his followers. The original site grew into a thriving Franciscan monastery, but over the years, time and neglect took a toll. Then, in 1975, Padre Eligio, a controversial priest who runs Mondo X, a modern program for delinquent young men, rescued and restored the complex.

    A palpable serenity drapes the surrounding woods, fields and gardens. Inspiration soars amidst ancient stones, worn brick floors, vaulted ceilings and a 13th-century wine cellar. Removed from outside distractions -- even television -- the boys experience community while learning trades and life skills. Some move back into the world; others stay to operate the restaurant and inn.

    Guests can reserve a small number of comfortable, restored rooms or suites. Lunch and dinner unfold surprising refinements -- hand-embroidered linens, china, crystal, silver, hand-painted menus. Mondo X members prepare and serve seasonal gourmet meals and fine wines in a tranquil, joyful ambiance.

  • Hotel Terme di Saturnia: "Taking the waters" has been considered therapeutic since ancient times, and naturally occurring hot mineral springs dot the Tuscan landscape. You can bathe for free in the mineral waterfall at Cascate del Gorello. But the ultimate experience is at nearby Hotel Terme di Saturnia, in the province of Grosetto, where sulphurous water emerges mysteriously from the natural limestone floor of a huge pool -- at 98-degrees Fahrenheit, 800 liters per second. Here, Italian ingenuity catapults the heralded restorative powers of hot mineral water into a four-star resort and spa -- with multiple pools, luxury accommodations, an extensive spa, gym, tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course and a "good life" restaurant.

    "Global well-being" programs come in packages of three, seven, 10 or 14 days, or as a day trip. People of all ages, shapes and sizes wander the spa halls, treatment rooms and pool decks in terry robes and flip-flops, slipping into the odoriferous waters for relaxation or relief from ailments. Guests also seek medically supervised nutrition or stress counseling, massage and beauty treatments, or just sun bathe. Next on the resort's agenda: an exact replica of a vast Roman Bath. Meet you at the tepidarium.

    "Tourist-free" Tuscany

    Enjoy wonderful places where the crowds don't roam.

  • The Lost Corner: Practically ignored by tourists, the inland reaches of Grosetto Province -- known as Italy's Lost or Forgotten Corner -- delight precisely because of their obscurity. Pitigliano, an astounding hill town, dates to pre-Roman Etruria. Perched on sheer cliffs, made lacy by numerous caves carved out of the soft tufa stone, this delightful town appears to be suspended from above, not supported by foundations. Narrow medieval streets wind through the town, crossing a once-prominent Jewish ghetto with remnants of a synagogue. Nearby Sorano, similarly situated and crumbling into the surrounding valleys, though practically uninhabitable, is picturesque. Other small towns to explore in this area -- Sovana, Magliano and Saturnia -- all have medieval remnants and Etruscan burial sites.

  • The Marremma: Historically, the Etruscans, then the Romans, irrigated and farmed the Maremma swamplands. With the fall of the Roman empire, this wild and obscure terrain returned to dense vegetation and malarial mosquitoes. Today, though, the drained and reclaimed coastal land is again viable -- and beautiful! In an area known as Tuscany's "Wild West," the butteri (cowboys) still tend their herds. Boars run wild. There's an amazing 40-square-mile natural park, with strict rules: Only 500 people per day are admitted, no cars, no dogs. Visitors follow defined walks. A guide, stout shoes, food and water supplies are recommended. The dramatic, unspoiled coast delivers pristine beaches. Bird watching is extraordinary.

  • Radicofani: Now bypassed by the route from Rome to Siena and Florence, this small community is perched on a ledge under the protection of a fortress built atop a craggy peak. It's said that the legendary medieval bandit, Ghino di Tacco, used the fortress as headquarters for his highwayman activities. On the west edge of town, below the steeply rising main street, a pretty park provides magnificent vistas: across the valley below to Mt. Amatia, Tuscany's highest point, then northwest towards Pienza. An unassuming church -- actually two churches side by side -- displays stunning della Robbia altarpieces and a standing Madonna.

  • Val d'Orcia: The best vistas of the fertile Orcia valley are from Pienza and Castiglione d'Orcia. But drive through the rich farmland and fine vineyards to understand why a succession of Italian city-states vied to control this land. En route, see Castiglione's ruined castle, built by the influential Orsini-Aldobrandeschi family, and San Quirico d'Orcia, an agricultural center with several fine buildings.

    Capital "U" unique sights

    Not wholly off the tour bus radar, but still navigable, these places are just too good to miss.

  • Capalbio & I Tarocchi: For a literally fantastic day's outing, visit the town of Capalbio, lunch in the castle at Le Mura (see sidebar on dining) and tour the Giardino dei Tarocchi, an amazing modern sculpture park.

    Begin in Capalbio, a fairytale circular hilltop town, with a castle, bell tower and 12th-century church. While popular with affluent Romans for nearby beaches in summer and wild game hunting in winter, just 50 inhabitants reside within the village's medieval walls. Wander through steep narrow streets, basking in history.

    Venture then a few kilometers southeast into the dazzling, madly mythic Giardino dei Tarocchi, a Tarot card-themed modern sculpture garden by French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle. Inspired by a pack of Tarot cards and Antonio Gaudi's Parc Guell, in Barcelona, Saint-Phalle created this, her life's work, from 1983-1996. Vibrantly colored, glittering giants explode in the quiet, remote countryside. Twenty-two Tarot characters, some three-stories tall, made of cement, mosaic tiles, ceramics and mirrors, fan out over a half-moon-shaped park. The artist and her husband, kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, lived for a time in Capalbio. When local authorities refused them a permit to create a public sculpture garden, they bought the land and built the park anyway. Getting her own back, Saint-Phalle, who died in 2002, bequeathed I Tarocchi to the French government. The Italians, denied involvement in running or profiting from this popular attraction, remain vexed.

  • Pienza: Modern traffic makes Tuscany's "jewel box" towns notoriously difficult to visit. One solution: Stay right in the village center. As the day-trippers depart, you'll join the real life spilling out into the streets, shops and churches.

    This works in Pienza, population 3,000 and a model of Renaissance city planning. Humanist Pope Pius II, who was born here, hired architect Bernardo Rossellino to shape the rural village into an ideal City. The main piazza -- with grand duomo, papal palace and town hall -- was completed mid-15th century. But the overall project then stalled, never to be finished. Today, the town retains a rustic intimacy. Strolling the main street east to west takes 15 minutes, not counting time spent exploring shops selling such prized local products as pork, honey and sheep's cheese. The distance north to south is even shorter. Don't miss the 11th-century parish church on the outskirts of town (open by appointment only).

  • Montalcino and Montepulciano: Easily reached from Pienza are two engaging hill towns famous for their wines (see sidebar: Vino Veritas). A fortress or Rocca dominates Montalcino's skyline. For a small fee, you can walk atop the pentagonal 14th-century walls for breathtaking vistas. Inside the fortress, an old battle standard attests that this low-keyed town was the last stronghold of the Siena city-state. The Piazza del Popolo, with its 13th-century city hall and clock tower, marks the heart of this generally placid town.

    Montepulciano, on the other hand, bustles. Go late afternoon for a quieter time, and prepare to climb, up and down, steep streets (though there's a small bus at the main entrance that takes you to the top and back). The Piazza Grande caps the town. Impressive Renaissance mansions border the irregularly-shaped piazza. A waterwell, guarded by Medici lions, provides a social focal point. Ogle interesting architecture throughout town. Buy local products and crafts. Sample and purchase wine in the numerous cantine.

  • San Biagio: Outside Montepulciano, along the road to Pienza, a golden travertine church rises majestically from a flat grassy plain. The church of Our Lady of San Biagio, a marvel of 16th-century Renaissance architecture, is the masterpiece of Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. Designing the church, he used a domed Greek cross format reflective of plans for St. Peter's in Rome. But here, in a bucolic setting, such sophisticated beauty startles. Approach the entrance through an avenue of cypress trees. Inside, absorb the perfect proportions and expensive materials.

  • Cortona and Lago Trasimeno: Cortona's prominence in Frances Mayle's books and the just released movie, "Under The Tuscan Sun," might ultimately spike tourism in this seductive town. But so far, the place still just gently hums, with thriving shops and lively piazzas. Quieter streets, alleys and staircases climb high through the town's residential sections, with sweeping views over the famed Valdichiana and Lake Tresimeno.

    Don't miss: the Piazza della Repubblica, with its cafe population; the oddly shaped Piazza Signorelli, its market packed with shoppers; and the Piazza del Duomo, site of the splendid Diocesan museum featuring masterworks by Fra Angelico, Luca Signorella and native son, modern Futurist artist Gino Severini. More of Severini's work can be seen throughout town. Other museums and interesting churches invite browsing.

    Italy's fourth largest lake, sleepy, marshy Trasimeno, yields quirky historical footnotes. Lauded for its eels, water fowl and water lilies, it's also seen bloody battles, malaria and poverty. Now cleaned up, it steps in as the Umbrian Riviera, a modest beach resort area rimmed by friendly little towns. It also neighbors Perugia, Arezzo, Assisi--but that's another trip.

    Visit interesting Castiglione del Lago, sitting on a limestone promontory overlooking the lake. Roll south through Panicarola, Panicale and Paciano. Stop at delightful Chiusi, with its excellent Etruscan collection in the archeological museum. Check out Citta della Pieve, birthplace of Pietro Vannucci (Perugino). His famous Adoration of the Magi fresco adorns the Oratory of Santa Maria dei Bianchi. Nearby, Vicolo Bacciadonna (kiss the women), said to be the narrowest lane in Italy, offers a great photo-op.

    The Etruscan Trail

    Lars Porsena, the villainous general who led the attack in which heroic Horatio defended pre-empire Rome, hailed from the powerful Etruscan civilization. The Etruscans ruled Lazio, Umbria and Southern Tuscany for several centuries before Rome came to dominance. Traces of Etruscan culture pervade the entire region. Cerveteri, Tarquinia, Vulci, Grosseto, Saturnia, Sovana, Pitigliano, Marsilliana -- dot after dot on the map marks sites rich in art, artifacts, walls, burial caves and vast necropoli.

    But if you want to pack the most Etruscan experience into the shortest time, head for Tarquinia. The necropolis, spreading out over a long land ridge on the edge of town, harbors about 600 underground tombs, many open for inspection. In the tombs, colorful wall paintings depict everyday life and mythologies. Interpretive markers introduce each tomb, but explanations remain tentative. For more clues to this mysterious culture, tour the museum at town's center. Much of what the Etruscans left is funerary, yet their images convey a zest for life and celebration. That spirit still reverberates in this region of Italy, in the rhythms of everyday modern life.

    Additional Information:

    If You Go

  • Check a good general site: Tourism in Tuscany . U.S. visitors do not require a visa for tourism stays shorter than 90 days. Time is six hours ahead of the Eastern United States.

    In July and August, tourists from all parts of the world mob Italy in general and Tuscany in particular. Spring (as early as mid-April) and fall (as late as mid-October) are the best times to visit.

    Note that some resorts -- Il Pellicano, Posta Vecchia -- and special outdoor venues are open only between mid-April and mid-October. Currency is the euro, equal to about $1.10 in U.S. dollars, but check for the current exchange rate.

  • USAirways flies to Rome daily from Philadelphia. You can connect in Rome and fly to Florence, but this overshoots Southern Tuscany.

    No rail stations locate near most of the places featured, so it's better to rent a car. Major U.S. car rental companies operating in Italy can be found and booked at best rates online through US Airways , Orbitz and Yahoo travel . Driving is on the same side as the States -- with good road signage. The autostrada is fast and challenging, with high toll rates.

    Where to stay

    Hilton has an excellent hotel at the Rome Airport.

    For farm guest houses, look to Agriturism in Tuscany .

    All Relais & Chateaux properties can be centrally booked through the web site , (800) 735-2478, fax (401) 854-1612.

    Individually:

    La Posta Vecchia , (069) 949-501, fax (069) 949-507

    Il Pellicano , 0564-858-111, fax 0564-833-418.

    The Convento de San Francesco in Cetona, just off the autostrada from Rome to Florence and Siena, the fastest return route from Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino, prides itself for silence, perhaps befitting for a 13th-century monastery, no TV here and only five rooms, 0578-238-015, fax 0578-239-220.

    A good central location in Pienza can be booked online, e-mail , 0578-748-400, fax 0578-748-440.

    Other charmers:

    The Hotel Vecchia Oliviera in Montalcino, 0577-846-028, fax 0577-846-029

    The Locanda dell'Amarosa near Sinalunga, between Montepulciano and Cortona, phone 0577-677-211

    And the Hotel de Terme di Saturnia , 0564-600-111, fax 0564 601-266.

    The country code for international dialing is 39.

    Note that even hotels with a web site and apparent online booking might not respond to your online request. Fax will usually get a fast and definite response. Book early, since many smaller hotel properties sell out quickly.

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