Purim is a holiday celebration like no other
With its medieval walled villages and ochre-coloured villas, set within a landscape of vineyards, cypress trees and hills rolling down to the coast, you could spend a lifetime exploring the best of Tuscany.
San Gimignano: Best for history
Once known as San Gimignano delle Belle Torri, or San Gimignano of the Beautiful Towers, there were originally 72 towers, 50 to 60 metres tall, crammed within the walls of this small, medieval town that crowns a hill in classic Tuscan fashion. There may be only 13 left, but they evoke a powerful feeling of time past. San Gimignano is probably the most complete and unchanged medieval town in Italy. The remarkable frescoes in The Collegiata, the Romanesque cathedral in the centre of town overlooking the Piazza del Duomo, give a sense of what life was like in the 13th century. Around the piazza also stands the crenellated Palazzo del Popolo, with its forbidding tower and loggia, and the Palazzo del Podestà. It is easy to imagine the piazza, and the steep, narrow streets leading into it, resounding to the clank of armour and clatter of hooves. Today, they echo to the tramp of modern invading hordes, three million tourists a year, armed with cameras and guidebooks rather than pikes and broad swords.
'I've lived here all my life,' says Maria. 'I'm almost as old as the stones. So many tourists these days. Now all the shops sell things to them or feed them.' The secret is to get here early, before 9am when the tour buses arrive, or stay on after they've departed, about 6.30pm, when you can stalk the streets like a medieval lord.
But you don't have to battle with bands of marauding tourists if you want to get a sense of medieval Tuscany. About halfway between San Gimignano and Siena is Monteriggioni, a small medieval village perfectly preserved within its walls, with towers at regular intervals. Monteriggioni owes its importance, and its walls and towers, to the dominant position that it held over the via Francigena, the ancient and vital trading road between Florence and Rome. Two magnificent doorways pierce the walls and there's access to sections of the walls that look down on the tiled roofs of the houses and their gardens. Monteriggioni, like San Gimignano, has a sense that the men in doublet and hose, ladies in wimples, peasants in jerkins and knights on horseback have just disappeared through the gates - and might return at any minute.
Visit sangimignano.com for details on the town.
Where to eat
Set about a mile back along the dirt road to Lucciola, Fattoria Poggio Alloro produces the ingredients for almost all its dishes at its farm, including pasta, cured meats, pigs, chickens, rabbits, Chianina cattle, wine and olive oil (00 39 0577 950153; fattoriapoggioalloro.com; via Sant'Andrea 23, 53037 San Gimignano).
Where to stay
Located at the end of a winding dirt road, four miles outside San Gimignano, the Podere Lucciola is lost amidst olive groves, vineyards, wheat fields and woods. It's an old farmhouse that has recently been renovated and opened for bed and breakfast. There are magnificent, sweeping views of the surrounding countryside all around. The nine rooms are large, comfortable and air conditioned, and there's also a swimming pool (£100; 00 39 0575 846119; italydreamvillas.com).
Siena: Best for campo life
Piazza del Campo, 8.30am. The sun is already warming the golden-ochre façades of the buildings surrounding it. A woman is pushing a baby buggy up a slope, while a delivery truck off-loads supplies to one of the many bars ringing the Piazza. There's the odd smattering of people colonising the tables, meditating over coffee and newspapers. Pigeons potter about the square undisturbed.
This is one of the most remarkable and beautiful urban spaces in the world. There is a feeling of immensity, of harmony and balance in spite of its irregularity. It rolls like the trough of a wave between two peaks. Paving stones radiate out in a vast, petrified fan from the 14th-century Palazzo Comunale (also known as Palazzo Pubblico) - with its bell tower rising 102 metres.