Under the Tuscan Sun

A visit to Tuscany is every photographers dream. The hilly, lush landscapes with endless  fields of poppies, sunflowers, and lavender are the perfect backdrop for amazing sunrises and sunsets, my favorite moments of every single day. The region is also the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance and has been home to many historic figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo Galilei. Lastly, the region has a high density of UNESCO heritage sites: The Medici Villas and Gardens,  the Cathedral square of Pisa and the historic city centers of Florence,  San Gimignano, Siena, Pienza, and the Val d’Orcia.  Plenty of reasons for me to go – as if I needed a reason for travel 😉

Trip details:

Day 0: Late afternoon flight into Rome and Drive to Val d’Orcia
Day 1: Val d’Orcia, Pienza, Monticcello, and Hot Springs!
Day 2: Siena, San Giminiano, Volterra
Day 3: Early morning return flight

Trip duration: 2 days (on the ground, without travel time)
Vacation days required: 0 (Departure Friday afternoon, Return Monday Morning
Cost rating: moderate (~125€/day w/o flights) (all in, including parking, tipps etc.)

Weekend trips are always more expensive in a cost/day ratio, so you might be wondering why only 125€. I had gotten the flights on airline miles, so you’d have to add approximately 200€ p.P. for a normal flight. We had chosen to fly into Rome, take the car from there into Val d’Orcia valley (2.5hrs drive) and then fly back on the early morning flight from Florence (1.2hrs from Siena) on Monday. This maximizes the time on the ground and you get 3 sunsets and 3 sunrises – most important for me as you know by now. 😉

Sadly, our Eurowings flight was delayed and we came into Rome much later than planned. This meant we cancelled the planned dinner in Rome and instead directly hit the road. The drive is easy and nice, but be careful with the speed cameras! We had booked a hotel in San Quirico d’Orcia, which is ideally located in between all the beautiful spots. I was quite tired after the drive and we went straight to be bed because it was an early rise tomorrow.

Day 1

Early indeed – my alarm rang at 4:15am to get up for the sunrise. Our target destination was Monticchiello and the photo location close by to get one of the iconic Val d’Orcia shots of the Cipressi di Monticchiello.

After sunrise we still had a lot of time left until breakfast and explored the old towns of Monticchiello and Pienza and drove through the valley, stopping every 5 minutes for another beautiful viewpoint, the endless poppy fields are simply stunning:

My personal highlight was this, hidden behind an old, broken gate just next to the road:

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After this it was finally time for breakfast. Our hotel had a wonderful terrace and everyone else was sitting inside (19°, I have no idea why) so we had the entire terrace to ourselves. The hotel is perfectly located for many reasons, one is that it is just next to a small lake and you have several small flower fields nearby. We wanted to hike a bit to walk off the breakfast (I think I had 3 croissants…) and explored the surrounding area. There were thousands of butterflies and – first time ever I was able to see, alone photograph one – A Hummingbird Hawk Moth. Looks almost like a colibri and the wings also flap at an amazing speed – this shot was taken at maximum shutter speed:

After this lucky encounter on our hike, we headed back to the hotel and packed our swim gear. It was already early afternoon and time to head off to the hot springs! There are many hot springs in Tuscany. The most popular is probably the Saturnia Terme. However, it is also the most crowded and not cheap, so [not recommended]. Better go for one of the many free hot springs – you will not have an on-site shower and have to bring good shoes (some of the stones can be sharp), but it is a much more immersive and personal experience. We chose Bagni San Filippo – which is natural, free, and we were mostly amongst locals. The currents of some of the small waterfalls are quite strong, so you get a hot bath (they are not too hot, nice and warm) plus a free massage. I think I fell asleep for like 15mins or so 😉

You feel so refreshed after this! We tuned up the music and enjoyed the beautiful drive in the fresh air. The roads are fantastic for driving, circling up and down the hills in spirals and curves and we had so much fun simply cruising around. One more iconic stop on the way: Agriturismo Poggio Covili

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For dinner we decided to just skip the restaurants and supplied ourselves for a picnic: Italian cheese, local ham and sausages, bread, a Chianti from the region, lots of fruit, some Olives and a perfect spot for the sunset. Nothing left to ask for to end a perfect day:

Day 2

Early rise again and time for the second iconic sunrise: Podere Belvedere. This is arguably *the* most famous image of Tuscany and I literally took 100 shots here. These are my 6 favorites, which one is your favorite?

Nearby you have another must-see, which is the Cappella Madonna di Vitaleta and the road of cypress trees leading up to it:

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DSC_0680-01.jpegSame as the day before, we spent the remaining morning circling around for some more astonishing views and then headed back to the hotel for an extensive breakfast.

Now it was time for city exploration and we drove over to Siena. Siena is often considered most beautiful of the Tuscan cities – always in competition with Florence – and a UNESCO heritage site. Almost all main sites and gothic buildings are centered around the Piazza del Campo:

The Palazzo Pubblico is located here and quite impressive. It is over 700years old and the inner courtyard is something else:

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Siena is different from the other Italian (renaissance) cities such as Florence or Venice in that the Cathedral is actually not located at the central square, but at another square nearby. The Duomo di Siena is beautiful from the outside, but in contrast to many other churches, entrance is not free and – although it is impressive- I would [not recommend] to go in for this reason.

Siena is especially famous for the Palio – a historic horse race that takes place in July and August. However, preparations run all year, with different contenders entering the city, and almost every weekend leading up to the event you will have related activities. This was also the case on the weekend we were there and we joined the procession all the way through the city to the Basilica di San Clemente.

From Siena – where we spend all noon trying local specialities and dishes – we continued to yet another UNESCO site: San Gimignano, which is famous for its intact medievial fortifications and architecture. To take good shots of the city, follow this walkway. It is off the main road and beautiful for a hike (but 10km!) or you can also drive by car and this is the perspective you see:

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The Piazza della Cisterna is the central square and the essential site to visit, and this not only because of the impressive architecture but also because you can find one of the best Gelaterias in all of Italy here, the Gelateria Dondoli. I actually met the owner and he spoke very good German! (And the ice cream flavors were creative and amazingly good)

We got really lucky with the timing of our visit, because at the time they held a Medieval Festival throughout the city. You could try many crazy food specialities and observe many of the old crafts and workshops. Very well done and we had great fun.

After San Gimignano it is another 30min drive across beautiful hills to Volterra, a little village up on the mountaintop that is famous for beautiful far-reaching views and sunsets. This was also our main dinner location and we tried the local Foccacia and more of that excellent wine.

It was still a 1.5hr drive up to Florence, so early evening we headed off to our hotel near Florence airport to take the first morning flight back home and off to work.

To end my trip report, one more image of endless hills and poppy fields:

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Shoot

Tuscany is the no.1 destination for photographers, but it is crucial you find a good spot for your shots.

  • San Gimignano – take the side road that I mentioned. Good for sunrise
  • Volterra: Sunset on the rooftops
  • Monticchiello: Use this photo spot for a good shot of the curved cypress street (walk into the field!)
  • Agriturismo Poggio Covili – just off the southern main road
  • Podere Belvedere: Use this spot and walk into the poppy field
  • Cappella Madonna di Vitaleta is just up the road, 1 km. You can stop at the pedestrian entrance.
  • Siena – city center and in particular Palazzo Pubblico
  • Apart from that: Just get up early and drive around – you will see so many beautiful spots along the way…

Plan

  • Hotels sell our very quick, so best book all in advance
  • High season is very crowded, and you will have trouble with queues in many places. Sunflower and poppy season starts in May, when it is still not so full
  • Map out all your viewpoint spots in advance. You absolute HAVE to get up for sunrise – it is incredible – but you don’t want to waste time searching
  • Almost every town and village has their own food specialty. Make sure to read up on this and try it!
  • Restaurants open at 19:30h and are closed after lunch.

Avoid

  • Careful when speeding! Cameras are everywhere and they nowadays to route supervision which calculates your average speed between to measure points. Since tickets take ages to get to you, you will pay late fees on top!
  • Everyone else races 20-30km/h above, so check carefully what the locals do. The drives across Tuscany are amazing, but we saw several accidents, so be careful.
  • Almost every major city (Florence, Siena, San Gimignano) has vehicle access restricted. Fines are heavy – so use the parking outside and walk in.
  • Do not go to Siena or San Gimignano in the peak times (11 – 15h) it is massively crowded and – especially in San Gimignano – all parking will be full and even in the city it is no fun. San Gimignano is great for sunrise / sunset as well.

5 thoughts on “Under the Tuscan Sun

      1. It is gorgeous, but super touristy..I think the most of all those Tuscan towns you visited. Pienza is also another touristy town but you can still find place to breathe;)

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