Tuscany: Certaldo, Monteriggioni, Lucignano & Pisa

The drive from Rome to the French border took us through the Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany regions and we spent an enjoyable few days in the latter, exploring lesser-known hilltop towns and fortresses, many of which still sport the tall column towers built during the Middle Ages to symbol the area’s wealth and prosperity.

Lucignano is a place with an aura all of its own and it’s had a soulful journey through time, spanning art, legend and faith. We arrived in the late afternoon and spent a wonderful evening below the village walls before exploring the quiet medieval cobbled streets the next morning.

Sunset at Lucignano

The drive was a delight with high clear skies. Bright sunshine showed off the gentle rolling hills dotted with poppy fields, olive groves and vineyards and many fortified farmhouses were secretively tucked into the shaded groves of tall dark cypress trees.

Monteriggioni represents one of the most important walled castles in Tuscany. Its incredibly preserved intact structure elegantly dominates the surrounding landscape. We walked the walls and enjoyed the calm of the cobbled streets before the tour buses arrived.

The castle was built by the Sienese between 13th century for defensive purposes. Its strategic location on the hill overlooking the Cassia Road allowed the castle to control the cities of the Val d’Elsa and Staggia and be on the lookout for any armies approaching Siena. Today, we could see looming American, Chinese and Japanese tourists advancing with their oversized canons (cameras).

Monteriggioni town living

A problem with Bertha’s front wheel caused us to stay in the steep walled town of Certaldo for a repair.

Typical of the hillside towns it boasted a small circular centre on the crest of a hill which is nowadays best reached by funicular but we puffed our way up the medieval cobbled slalom of track that pitches  nearly vertically into the centre.

Certaldo’s many tall red brick buildings wound in and around themselves. Originally it had a number of towers along its high fortress walls but was told to ‘lop them’ in retribution for a rebellion against Florence in the 15th century. Timeless Italian posturing!

The tall towers of San Gimignano from Certaldo’s walls

We enjoyed a cool glass of local white wine with bread and salty olive oil whilst pondering Bertha’s likely costs which turned out the next day to be precisely (maybe suspiciously) €250.

We were overcharged on the labour (but unsurprised) and amused by the daily life of the garage’s smoke-filled office which revolved around an antiquated photo copier, a fax machine, a ghastly coffeemaker that spat out millilitres of thick black goo and a smelly communal loo. It was a relief to get the problem fixed and back on the road.

Life on a Tuscan town wall

Electing to use the fast, smooth and cheap toll roads we quickly reached gorgeous Pisa on the Tuscan coast.

This lovely city worked its charm upon us once more and we wandered around the improbable and alluring Piazza dei Miracoli admiring the world-famous leaning tower, cathedral and baptistery.

Piazza dei Miracoli

Along the banks of the Arno and passing Byron’s palatial riverside mansion we returned to see what progress had been made of the excavations to reveal the original Roman Citadel.

The work was scheduled for completion at our last visit in 2010 and despite new hoardings boasting of billions of funding from the EU, the site is still fenced off and little appears to have been done.

The Gothic Santa Maria della Spina church alongside the Arno

We meandered for the day around the student quarter, the main shopping boulevard and the many picturesque medieval piazzas which include the wretched site of Ugolino’s incarceration and subsequent devouring of his own children, as recorded in Dante’s Inferno.

Away from the obvious main tourist areas, Pisa captured our hearts once again as one of our favourite places to visit in Italy.

The growing hills above San Remo

The fast and very cheap toll roads got us to the French border with a final stop at San Remo to admire the start of the season for the sparkling Italian Riviera.

An old favourite, the Billa supermarket at San Remo, meant we could stock up on Italian treats of cheeses, prosciutto, sundried tomatoes and jars of pesto as we crossed the penultimate border of our journey.

As we left the aire we clocked up 2,700 trip miles. Arrivederci Italia et Bonjour La Belle France!

San Remo aire with a sea view