If there’s one thing that Tuscany does well, it’s idyllic little hilltop towns, framed by castle walls, boasting sensational views of surrounding rolling countryside, and offering picture-postcard views of medieval stonework, cute tavernas aplenty, slowly decaying buildings adorned with cracking window shutters, pots overflowing with geraniums and more often than not, a cat sleeping in the sunshine. You know the scene – it’s postcard land after all, for who could resist these honeypot utopias, to which every tourist, artist and hedonist will flock in their thousands every year.
Yet what makes the towns so idyllic is the fact that far from pursuing a Disneyland level of commercial exposure, as is no doubt the temptation, life goes on in these little villages, just the same, irrespective of the camera-clicking tourists emerging at every corner. The best photos, for me, are the shots capturing locals gossiping in little piazzas, or old couples catching the evening breeze on stools out in the street. I adore the little grocery shops, which continue to sell fresh, vividly coloured produce to the locals, and whose offerings are yet to feel the effects of the supermarket spread. The haphazard park of a little bicycle or a retro-red scooter against an old cracking wall represents ordinary life to them – but to me it’s art dripping in decadence and charm in all its imperfect beauty.
Not far from Donoratico, where I was staying by the sea, a cluster of small towns, each one atop a hill and each, stunningly, idyllically beautiful, can be found amongst the vineyards and the pine forests. My favoruite, Castagneto Carducci, is a Tuscan Elysium, perched upon the hills above Donoratico, with views over the coast and vineyard-covered rolling hills to die for, while within the town, pastel pink walls, green painted shutters, and elegantly deteriorating plaster work, old lamps and ageing locals exude charm and decadent beauty.
Meanwhile, just ten minutes along the coast towards Pisa, the tiny town (we’re talking two streets only) of Bulgheri can be found at the end of a perfectly straight Roman road, continuously bordered with cypress trees, the result of which is a scene of such wonderful symmetry that it appears on at least 2 out of every 5 postcards sold across Tuscany. Meanwhile the town is another chocolate-box paradise – little restaurants with red-checked tablecloths, lit by lanterns at night and benefiting from the dappled shadows of nearby pine trees during the day, a minuscule central piazza adorned with flowers aplenty, and cute little shops selling art and crafts and fresh local produce.
But by far my favourite discovery of this Tuscan adventure was to be found in the region of another hilltop idyll, the town of Populonia, not because of the beautiful town itself (which, with devastating views of the port below, laundry hanging across the streets, and a single cafe set out beneath lush trees atop ancient castle walls, is a true contender for postcard-fame) but because of the truly awe-inspiring natural beauty subsisting beyond its forest surroundings. Taking a sharp turn left off the winding road heading up to the hilltop town, my Partner had a surprise for me. Walking through metres of densely packed pine-tree forest, I wondered where on earth we were going, that is, until we reached an opening in the thick coating of pines, and the most incredible view of a cove beach below came into sight.
What followed was a sharp descent down magnificently formed geologically stunning rock forms, almost like spiderman upon the vertical facade of a Manhattan skyscraper, but with each and every perilous step taking us a few inches closer to the paradise below. This slightly dangerous adventure (not least for my partner, attempting to traverse the cliff face in flip-flops) was well worth the effort – the cove beach was truly awe-inspiring, nature at its very best, and our afternoon spent swimming around in those sometimes hostile but vigorously exciting and stunningly beautiful waters, pursuing further coves and prickling our hands and feet on every kind of mussel and sea urchin imaginable, was among the happiest afternoon of my year so far.
First view of the cove emerges from the cliff-top forest
The stunning cove below
Those incredible cliffs
Which just goes to show, while historical towns provide steadfast charm and a consistent source of timeless beauty, it is the transient, often less-accessible beauty of nature that still has the edge, and whose discovery is all the more thrilling as a result.
(Disclaimer: if you too decide to head down to this very beautiful cove (and, looking at the photos, why wouldn’t you) you go at your own risk – don’t blame me if you prick your hands, feet or any other part of your body on a bed of mussels or some other vicious sea life, or if you trip, slip, get squashed by a falling rock or otherwise and unsuitably manage to kill yourself. It’s not my fault).
All photos are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2012 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved.