Discover the Tuscany coast
Tuscany Coast holiday guide
On the island of Elba, the beaches' beauty jumps a notch—especially along the west of the island—and period homes preserve memories of Napoleon's time in exile on the island. The sights of 'classic Tuscany' are within reach, too: the Maremma, the Romanesque architecture of Pisa, even Siena.
Written by Donald Strachan, Italy specialist and Travel Writer for The Guardian.
Art & architecture
The coast's most precious architectural remains date from the period before the Romans conquered Tuscany (as well as most of Europe): Populonia is the only Etruscan burial ground yet discovered by the sea. It served a settlement built around processing iron ore from Elba—Populonia's tombs were discovered under a giant slag heap in the early 20th century.
The Necropolis of San Cerbone stands in what is now a field scattered with tumuli and intact tombs dating to the 7th century BC. Further uphill, beside the village of Populonia Alta, the Acropolis area has a flagstone road, ruined baths, and temples dating to the Roman period.
The seas off Tuscany's coast were often contested, and coastal towns preserve remnants of a history of conflict. You can hike up to abandoned watchtowers in the Parco Naturale della Maremma—pirate incursions were a menace for centuries—and admire the colonial architecture in Orbetello, a former Spanish garrison town.
At Portoferraio, the island of Elba's capital and major port, the Forte Stella is raised above the old town on a rock pedestal. Much of its construction dates to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, when Cosimo I (a Florentine Medici ruler) fortified the port to protect Elba's iron ore exports.
Under the Loggia dei Lanzi, copies of Roman statues are joined by Mannerist originals, including Cellini's studied bronze, Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa (1545).
Eating and drinking
Seafood is a staple, and the best menus ebb and flow to the rhythms of the daily catch. You will find ingredients like seppie (cuttlefish, whose ink is the key ingredient in riso nero, black risotto); totani (baby squid) and bottarga (tuna roe); and riccio (sea urchin, great with linguine).
In Portoferraio, on Elba, Osteria Libertaria has menu of local specialities and a perch right opposite the harbour. In San Vincenzo, La Barcaccina has a daily fresh seafood menu, a terrace with sea view, and a relatively quiet location south of the main resort, and right on the sands.
The Tuscan coast is also one of Italy's most prestigious wine zones, with a climate and output comparable to the Medoc, north of Bordeaux, in France. Around Bolgheri, the grapes for two of Italy's priciest 'Super Tuscans'—Sassicaia and Ornellaia—grow. You can sample both, by the glass, around the town.
Further south, especially in the Monteregio DOC around Castiglione della Pescaia, white wines are fresh, with crisp apple flavours—an ideal partner for seafood. The most elegant wines from the Elba DOC are also white.
The olive oil from the steep terraces around Castagneto Carducci is among Tuscany's best.
Local islands and towns
Elba—15km offshore, and a one-hour ferry crossing from Piombino—has some of Tuscany's best beaches. Its rocky interior is covered in typical Mediterranean macchia scrubland; almost any drive away from the main ports is a pretty one.
Elba also has the best panorama of the Tuscan coastline, from the 1,019m summit of Monte Capanne, in the island interior. If you are feeling energetic, hike the trail to the top. For everyone else, there is the Cabinovia, an open-air lift that takes you up in less than twenty minutes.
On the Monte Argentario peninsula, the pretty resort of Porto Ercole is a popular weekend destination with fashionable Romans. Its photogenic harbour buzzes all summer.
Orbetello is marooned in a lagoon, on a spit and dyke that connects Monte Argentario with the Tuscan mainland. The town owes its unusual (for Tuscany) look to its time as a garrison town (or presidio) for Spanish forces between the 1500s and early 1700s.
Beaches are strung right along the coastline. Although Tuscany is better known for its vineyards, art, and hill-towns, its coast is a popular destination with Italian families—and, on Elba, fun-loving youngsters each August.
Beaches line the coastline almost from the Ligurian border, in the north, to Lazio, south of Monte Argentario. You will want to whittle your selection to the very best stretches of Tuscan sand. At the Tombolo di Feniglia, a flat arc of south-facing sand stretches all the way from the Monte Argentario peninsula back to the mainland, trapping Orbetello's marine lagoon behind it. There is shade under the parasol pines, and plenty of peace and quiet as you move away from the car park.
It was on this beach that baroque painter and all-round bad boy Caravaggio dropped dead from a fever in 1610.
Castiglione della Pescaia has the coast's prettiest town–resort combination, with good sands and steep, atmospheric streets in its gated old town.
On Elba, the south-west of the island has spectacular crescents of white sand at Fetovaia and Cavoli. The long sandy beach at Marina di Campo has plenty of family-friendly facilities.
The Parco Naturale della Maremma also has a fine sandy beach—at Marina di Alberese—as well as miles of some of the best coastal hiking anywhere in Italy. A network of trails criss-crosses the Monti dell'Uccellina, a squat coastal mountain range shrouded in parasol pines, holm oaks, and Mediterranean macchia scrub.
Wildlife in the park includes a rich crop of native (kestrel, buzzard) and migratory (hoopoe, shrike, marine jay) birds, as well as the Maremma white breed of longhorn cattle, which are still marshaled by 'cowboys' on horseback.
Some of the park trails are closed in high summer due to the risk of brush-fires; book ahead to tour others with a guide at this time of year. Away from the warmer months, the whole place is yours to explore.
After Milan, Florence is Italy's best shopping city. And just like its northern rival, fashion is big business here. The main haute couture drag is Via de' Tornabuoni. Along here, and in other luxe side-streets like Via della Vigna Nuova, you'll find the big names in Florentine fashion (Gucci, Pucci, Ferragamo) as well as Milanese and global designer labels such as Prada and Armani.
Just north of the Duomo, Via dei Servi retains the vibe of old Florence. Window-browsing independent booksellers, a philately store, traditional stationers', and more is a glimpse of Florence before mass tourism arrived. Around Borgo degli Albizi, in the eastern part of the centre, fashions have a younger feel, with vintage shops, too.
To go with your new outfit, you want to smell nice, too. The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is as grand as its name suggests. There has been a 'pharmacy' here since the 1600s, when it was founded by Dominican friars. The present incarnation sells top-end fragrances and skincare for everyone (even the family pet). If you don't love the smell of what's in stock, you can design your own to take away.
Florence also has a reputation for leather. Everything sold at the Scuola del Cuoio is made on the premises by students at the city's most prestigious leather-making school. Turn up during school hours (weekdays only) to watch the trainee artisans at work.
The city also has several markets. The Mercato di San Lorenzo is heaving with tourist trinkets; the Mercato Centrale is Florence's covered food market, selling everything from salami, cheeses, and Chianti wine to hot food for eating on the move.
There is a flea market, the Mercato delle Pulci, in Piazza dei Ciompi. On the last Sunday of the month the whole piazza turns into a giant fiera antiquario, dripping with antique books and objets, bags and accessories, trinkets, and other luggage-friendly collectables.
A short drive down the A1, south of Florence, units at The Mall sell last year's designer threads and one-offs at massive discounts.
Elba has a couple of heritage sites relating to Napoleon's exile on the island. After defeat in the War of the Sixth Coalition, he was banished to Elba by the 1814 Treaty of Fontainebleau. He stayed on the island for less than a year, before escaping en route to a final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.
The Palazzini dei Mulini was Napoleon's stately townhouse, high on a hill above Portoferraio, with a great view of the busy port's comings-and-goings.
Inland from Portoferraio is the secluded home where Napoleon was due to spend the summer months of his (somewhat luxurious) Elban exile, the Villa San Martino. He never stayed there. Revamped in the neoclassical style by Prince Demidoff, this country manor is decorated with insignia and mementoes relating to Napoleon's time on Elba, as well as his passion for Egypt.
There is a tourist office in most holiday towns along the coast, although only the largest are open all year. Details of several seaside resorts and information offices are on the Costa degli Etruschi (Etruscan Coast) website, www.costadeglietruschi.it. On Elba, the main tourist office is at Viale Elba 4, tel. 0565/914671, www.aptelba.it, e. email@example.com. If you are visiting out of season, it is best to email ahead for essential information, because winter opening hours can be erratic.
Pisa (PSA - Galileo Galilei) is Tuscany´s international airport, located about 40 minutes´drive west of Florence. Florence (FRL - Peretola), north-west of the city, is a smaller airport receiving domestic and European flights.
If your villa is in southern or eastern Tuscany, one of Rome´s two airports may be a more practical option: Fiumicino (FCO) is the larger, for international flights; Ciampino (CIA) has a fewer facilities and caters to the discounters and smaller European airlines. Both are just off Rome´s ring road, the GRA, and convenient to all the motorways.
The little airport at Perugia (PEG - Sant´Egidio), in Umbria, is convenient fr eastern Tuscany and receives domestic italian flights and discout airlines from UK.
If you plan to visit Elba in high season—even on a day-trip—book ferry crossings as far ahead as you can. The island is very popular in July and August. The main ferry operators are Moby (www.mobylines.com) and Toremar (www.toremar.it/en). Out of season, you can just roll up at the well-signposted port in Piombino and catch the next boat.
Best & Finds
- For the appetite. Il Frantoio, Capalbio 'Very good, but all restaurants in Capalbio were good.' 2009 or Trattoria Sconcigli, Porto Santo Stefano 'Simple, superb seafood in the old port.' 2007
- More fun. The Merca delle Manze Maremmane in Paganico, mid- May, marks the beginning of the Maremma's rodeo season.
- For the ears.Two operas are performed in Massa Marittima's Piazza Garibaldi every August.
- For the body. Terme di Saturnia, Saturnia 'Lovely clean thermal pool, Turkish bath, etc. Cured all my aches and pains!' 2010
- For fresh air. Cycling along the causeway on hired bikes was great. Loved exploring the local hills on foot. Hired a boat for a day and had an incredible time.' 2009