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2003-09-02 Tuscany

I don't work for the Italian tourist board, but with my ever-increasing passion for the country, I feel I could. Recently I stayed with friends in Gaiole, a little agricultural village with a waterless stream in the heart of Chianti.


Celtic artist Rachel Arbuckle is a Dubliner, her Tuscan husband Pino works in ceramics, and they have three beautiful children with a Utopian quality of life.The Tuscan people are justly proud of their ancestry right back as far as the Etruscans 3000 years ago. Many an artistic and literary revolution has taken place here, for this is the home of Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Boccaccio, Donatello, Botticelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Puccini and Guido dArezzo  the monk who invented musical notation almost 1000 years ago.

The unique Tuscan topography is living art. The flame-shaped cypress trees originally planted as windbreaks have become a distinctive sculptural feature of this fertile landscape, as they perch on sloping hills of zig-zagging vines, above those famous blinding fields of sensitive sunflowers.

Wild boars forage the wooded areas, tiny lizards dart about nervously and in the evenings bats dance around the streetlamps, while the firefly beacons flash intermittently to the hypnotic yet restful pulse of the crickets rhythmic song.

Aside from the budget-airline staff who carried me there reluctantly, there are other creatures that bite and sting, like vipers and scorpions, but stay away from them, and theyll stay away from you. Same goes for the airline staff.At first sight, Pisa, once the capital of its own republic, is a tired city, its majestic buildings a reminder of its former glory.

The 12th century leaning tower is being straightened inch by inch, but I wonder if it will have the same appeal when it is simply known as The Tower of Pisa? It is unfair to view Pisa as Florences poor relation, as there is much to see here.

However, it is central Tuscany which is the most architecturally rewarding. Florence, for a short time the nations capital and itself once a republic, is a city of half a million people. Narrow streets meander through this living museum, opening out into expansive squares.

The best sights are all located within a relatively compact city centre. The collossal Gothic Duomo with its signature Brunelleschi dome, the Uffizzi Gallery housing Italys most important art collection, the impressive Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, the splendid Basilica Santa Croce with tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo, and the indelible stamp of the Medici 300 year reign all make Florence, for me, one of the worlds most rewarding cities.

Florence would not be Florence without its trademark Ponte Vecchio, the only surviving bridge left by the retreating Germans in World War 2. This idyllic street extension astride the Arno river is lined with jewellery shops and immortalised in art, music and film.Like Rome, Siena was built on seven hills. The narrow hilly streets lead to the vast Piazza del Campo, where several times a year, a dangerously competitive horse race is run  the Palio.

Sienas Gothic black and white marble cathedral remains unfinished, but is nonetheless one of the most impressive I have ever been privileged to light a candle in. The distinctive towering skyline of San Gimignano, a sort of medieval Manhattan, remains more or less unchanged since medieval times. This walled city is a gem.

The hilltop villages of Radda, Vertine, Barbischio, Monteriggioni and several others are all there to be explored and stored in the memory.

On one evening, the piazza in Gaiole was host to a quality, if surreal gig. An Irish/South African called Séamus OKelly wearing only a loincloth (I kid you not) duetted with a local African prince, backed by their band of virtuosi. This ethnic crossover worked a treat and had the locals dancing in the piazza.

On my final night, at our favourite restaurant  Il Poggio  run by Giannetto at Lecchi, we enjoyed a meal of bruschetta, Panzanella (Tuscan salad), Spaghetti al Giannetto, pork and white fagioli (beans), rocquette, and too Vin Santo! (I passed on the cured lard).

I am never a party-singer, but with the wine, the al fresco surroundings and some persuasion, I ended up singing the entire Italian tenor repertory to Giannettos heartfelt accordion accompaniment.

Like most Italians, and most Irish, Giannetto is passionate, tearful even, about music and food, which probably helps to explain why I feel so at home in Tuscany.