On arrival in Italy you will be met and transferred to Lucca and your four-star hotel. We will stay here for four nights with breakfast and dinner.
After breakfast enjoy our guided tour of Lucca, famed for its wonderfully preserved renaissance city walls. Founded by the Etruscans, as we explore the historic centre on our tour you will instantly notice the rectangular grid pattern and amphitheatre preserved from Roman times. It is not difficult to imagine the place buzzing with rumour and intrigue when Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus established the infamous First Triumvirate here, a secret political alliance carving up the Roman Empire henceforth, until it fell 400 years later, ruled by dictatorial Emperors - some benevolent but some notorious! Growing prosperous on the silk trade from medieval times onwards, Lucca once rivalled Byzantium and was Italy’s second largest city-state after Venice before eventually being conquered by Napoleon. The superb city walls, with each of their four sides lined with trees of a different species, remain beautifully intact, cementing their place as one of the Tuscan region’s major sights, although in true Italian style they have even been used for racing cars! This really is a lovely place to explore so we won’t be rushing off. Wander its charming cobbled streets, shady promenades or dally in elegant piazzas.
Today we discover some of Tuscany’s best secrets where amidst its typical rolling landscape studded with classic finger-like Cypress trees, olive groves and traditional farmsteads displaying their unmistakable terracotta roofs, hilltop villages appear to sprout almost magically. We visit two of them, really quite unknown, wonderfully unspoilt and utterly charming for no other reason than that. You probably won’t find the historic medieval village of Campiglia Marittima in a guide book, but it is marvellous to stroll in solitude around its maze of ancient alleys - squares nestling below, the castle tower dominating above and gazing over timeless countryside. There are numerous vineyards here that produce the excellent wines for which Tuscany is renowned – the small village of Bolgheri produces an outstanding type. It would be a veritable travesty to pass by without stopping for a tasting – so of course we do. Next we call at Castagneto Carducci, before returning to Pisa.
After a leisurely breakfast it is just a short drive to Pisa for our guided tour, the historic heart centred on its aptly named Piazza dei Miracoli - the Square of Miracles. During the 11th century extensive trading links were forged with Spain and North Africa, bringing Moorish scientific expertise and vast wealth. Pisa became one of Europe’s richest cities leading to an explosion of magnificent building projects, the results of which are delightfully visible today. The great “Leaning Tower” is one of the world’s most instantly recognisable icons and the centre of a stunning array of perfectly harmonious buildings unmatched anywhere. The richness of decoration in the cathedral is just astonishing; breathtakingly detailed sculpture, fine art, a medley of graceful arches and inspired use of colourful marble. The huge bronze doors and the amazing carved wooden roof are truly remarkable. Indeed it was in this cathedral’s massive nave that Galileo is said to have formulated his pendulum theory when observing the incense burner swinging from the highly decorated ceiling. Next you are sure to be impressed by the enormity of the 12th century Baptistery, a superb example of the transition from Romanesque in the lower levels to Gothic styles in the upper registers. Constructedentirely of marble, and being on the same unstable ground as the tower, it also leans - but only slightly! Inside, the acoustics are nothing short of dramatic with noises seeming to echo endlessly – often demonstrated by the staff! Last but not least of the wonders here is the Camposanto, the monumental cemetery said to contain soil from Golgotha – site of the crucifixion - so Pisa’s great and good could be laid to rest in Holy soil! It consists of an incredible Gothic cloister lined by sarcophagi and huge frescoes gradually being restored to their former glory. This afternoon we return to Lucca for a leisurely afternoon or perhaps another visit in to the historic centre of Lucca, before our evening and dinner.
This morning we drive north past Carrara’s enormous gleaming quarries, source of the finest marble, much prized by sculptors from Michelangelo to Henry Moore and used since Roman times to build the great monuments now stretched across the Italian nation and beyond. We commence our exploration of the extraordinarily naturally beautiful coast of Liguria, studded with some of the world’s most attractive small villages with rugged mountains dropping sheer into the Mediterranean. Firstly we see the “Gulf of Poets” a favourite haunt of Byron, Shelley and DH Lawrence amongst others, then the stunningly picturesque village of Portovenere, its massive fortress high on the hillside towering over a jumble of pastel houses lining the harbour. Wander gently along the promenade, explore the fascinating network of narrow medieval lanes leading to the church and castle behind - it’s just a hint of what follows. We stay three nights in elegant Santa Margherita - the ideal location for our stay; charmingly chic and quintessentially Italian, the lovely palm-fringed coast and green-carpeted mountains form a wonderful backdrop. Full of smart shops and pavement cafés a sophisticated atmosphere pervades the narrow streets beyond, and is just three miles from Portofino.
A leisurely breakfast, perhaps on the hotel terrace overlooking the deep azure blue of the Mediterranean glinting and sparkling in the morning sun, precedes two days exploring the splendours of the surrounding coastline in the manner to which local peoples have been accustomed for millennia; by boat. Today we cruise by private charter to the extraordinary Cinque Terre (“The Five Lands”), five villages cut off from the landward side by a rugged terrain and steep coastline, almost unreachable by car. We will visit a selection of the villages, the individual names, Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore, mean little and are almost unknown but as the Cinque Terre they are celebrated as a region completely unspoilt by modern development. Their dramatic position makes this one of Europe’s principal scenic highlights and when you see the sheer variety of colours, topography and timeless beauty of the villages themselves you will fully appreciate their reputation. Seafood dominates menus here - anchovies being a local speciality - while the steeply terraced hillsides produce fine olives and pesto. Being Italy, there is also much locally produced wine and it is fascinating to see how the local growers have adapted to the steep terrain with precarious-looking monorail mechanisms used to ferry themselves and their produce, some of which has to be harvested by boat! There is a refreshing lack of souvenir shops so you can truly immerse yourself in surroundings and a lifestyle that has changed very little over time.
Today we admire yet more stunning scenery with fine watercraft quietly going about their business on the shimmering waters as we sail to Portofino. Arriving here by boat gives you the true sense of the way in which this historic fishing village nestles around its own superb natural harbour, set amongst cypress trees and olive groves with the realisation that all you have heard about the stunning beauty here is not hype! Superlatives just roll off the tongue. Traditionally this incredibly pretty village with its jumble of colour-washed houses stretching up the hillside from the water’s edge earned its living from the fruits of the sea, and its many superb restaurants still do. Mentioned by the great Roman writer Pliny the Elder, as early as the 1950s it was a favourite of Bacall, Bogart, Burton and Taylor. Indeed celebrity spotting whilst whiling away an hour over a drink is a common pastime of residents and visitors alike. However you may prefer to explore the quieter backstreets, seek out a “locals” bar for more authentic Portofino life or take a walk to the headland where the scent of wild thyme, pine and wild flowers hangs heavy in the air plus a stupendous view. Returning this afternoon, you can explore lovely Santa Margherita itself; perhaps seek out a bargain or two in the smart shops, wander amongst the many parks and gardens with their abundant semi-tropical plants, then sip a cool aperitif as the sun sinks slowly over the sea. It’s time for our final dinner in the hotel’s classic dining room overlooking the warm waters of the Med, and as the waterfront lights twinkle on the gentle waves, take a moment to reflect on the splendours of this wonderful region.
After breakfast, bid farewell to the Ligurian coast and transfer back to Pisa Airport for your return flight.