There's an unexplainable bond between campers and Tuscany. Why is this Italian region such a popular destination for caravanners and holidaymakers? Is it the cypress trees on the gently rolling hills, the olive groves, the historic towns or simply the Mediterranean cuisine and wine? Freeontour goes in search of clues and discovers a number of beautiful places – here's a selection of its favourite spots, beyond the coast and deep in the heart of Tuscany.
Camping in Tuscany: when is the best time to travel?
Tuscany lies in central Italy and borders Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to the north, Marche and Umbria to the east and Lazio to the south. This region is regarded as a historical landscape, an important cultural centre and the heartland of the Renaissance. The name comes from the Etruscan people who lived there in ancient times, who were also called Tusci by the ancient Romans. Tuscany has something for everyone, attracting culture enthusiasts, gourmets, hiking and cycling fans as well as sun worshippers alike. So hop into your motorhome or caravan and come when it best suits your lifestyle and preferences. If you're looking forward to spending most of your time on the beach on the Tuscan coast, plan your trip between June and September as most campsites on the coast are open between mid-May and mid-September.
If you prefer to explore the region by hiking, cycling or mountain biking when the weather's not so hot, then Tuscany is perfect in spring from mid-March to mid-May and in autumn from mid-September to around the end of October. We also recommend these months if you want to enjoy the cultural offerings outside of the main summer season. Campsites are often open as early as March or April near cities that are more popular with tourists, such as Florence, Siena and Pisa. Sometimes you can even camp here until November. Several campsites are also open all year round as are most RV parks in Tuscany. You can enjoy your caravan holiday on farms and wineries as well – known as Agricampeggio.
Stop #1: Arts and culture in Florence
Some say that if you've never been to Florence, you haven't really seen Italy – nor Tuscany. Historical palaces and a wealth of art treasures prove that Florence was once the cultural centre of Europe for a very long time. Florence was even the capital of Italy (1865-1871), albeit only for a handful of years. The city is full of tourists in summer, so expect long queues at the most important sights if you haven't secured online tickets for a specific date in advance. We, therefore, recommend visiting in off-peak times, e.g. before Easter or in September and October. But plan several days for Florence, even in off-peak season, and book tickets online in advance so as not to waste precious holiday time waiting in queues.
You'll have a good view of the Old Town and the Arno River from Piazzale Michelangelo, probably the most popular photo spot in all of Florence. The conspicuous 13th-century Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore – built in the Gothic style – was meant to be the largest church in the world, hence the mighty dome engineered by Bruneleschi (1418-1436), which today is considered to be the architectural highlight of the Renaissance period. You can enjoy a magnificent view over the city from the 107-metre high dome. The interior of the cathedral is just as impressive and also one of the largest in the world. Incidentally, another stunning building in Florence is the Baptistery opposite the cathedral, with its gilded bronze portals depicting scenes from the Bible. It's then a short walk to the Palazzo Vecchio, the magnificent town hall with an equally striking tower and a must-see object in front of the entrance: a copy of Michelangelo's famous David statue. The original, which stood here in the Piazza della Signoria until 1910, is now in the Galleria dell'Accademia to protect it from damage. There is another copy at Piazzale Michelangelo (mentioned above).
Ponte Vecchio, an architectural highlight
In addition to Florence Cathedral, you'll also be amazed by the oldest bridge in the city, the Ponte Vecchio, with its many goldsmith and silversmith shops. It dates from the 14th century and is considered to be one of the oldest segmental arch bridges in the world. However, if you want to look at the bridge in peace and quiet, you'll have to get up early as it is quite a tourist magnet.
You won't have to walk far from the Ponte Vecchio to get to the city's next highlight: the Uffizi Gallery is one of the most famous museums in the world. You can admire masterpieces by Botticelli, Giotto, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci from the 12th to 17th centuries with your own eyes. Most works of art came from the Medici family. The museum fascinates thousands of visitors every day with its 3,000+ paintings and sculptures, which is why you should book a guided tour with preferential entry well in advance.
Other art treasures in Florence
Moreover, you'll also have an exceptional view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery. Try some homemade ice cream on the roof terrace and then stroll through the Vasari Corridor. Formerly reserved for princes, this one-kilometre long covered walkway goes from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno.
Unwind from all the impressions by stretching out your legs on the Piazza della Signoria, the centre of public life in Florence ever since the Medici era. Popular photo motifs include the Fountain of Neptune, the Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I de Medici and the Loggia dei Lanzi with the famous sculptures The Abduction of the Sabine Woman and Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
Another highlight is the Basilica di Santa Croce, which houses the tombs of Dante, Macchiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei. Experience Italian market flair at the Central Market in the San Lorenzo district, with many stalls selling fruit, vegetables, herbs, cheese, sausage and meat as well as an array of typical regional delicacies. You'll undoubtedly feel a pang of hunger along the way, which you can satisfy in one of the small restaurants on the upper floor. Or stock up on local delicacies and enjoy them later on while having a quiet glass of vino in front of your motorhome.
Where to park and stay overnight in Florence
There is a Limited Traffic Zone in many parts of the centre of Florence and especially in the historic Old Town, so that private cars and motorhomes may only enter them at certain times of the day and season. Since parking spaces are scarce anyway and the streets can at times be very narrow, it's best to use public transport or a bicycle to get from the campsite or RV park into town. For instance, Camping Firenze can be easily accessed by motorhome and is open all year round. It's located in the southeast of the city (motorway exit: Firenze Sud) on the banks of the River Arno. In addition to the usual amenities, the site also has several pools and a supermarket. You can get to the Old Town by bike or on foot (about three kilometres) along the river or with the shuttle bus offered by the campsite.
Other camping options in the Florence area include Parking Camper Stop & Go on Leopoldo Via Pellas in Florence and Area Attrezzata Camper Antica Etruria in Sesto Fiorentino. Both are well connected to the local transport network and guarded. You can get to Camping Village Panoramico di Fiesole on the hills north of Florence from the centre of the small town via a road that is about 2 km long and somewhat narrow in places. There is a regular bus service into town.
Stop #2: Scenic route from Florence to Siena
We recommend taking the Chiantigiana (SR 222) from Florence to Siena. This road goes across the entire Chianti region for around 70 kilometres through one of the largest wine-growing regions in southern Europe. You'll be able to smell the scent of the famous Chianti Classico on this scenic route, while passing by rolling hills, vineyards, olive groves and castles. Stop over at any of the picturesque villages along the route for a short break.
For instance, the small town of Impruneta has been producing quality terracotta products since the 14th century. Even the bricks used for the famous dome of Florence Cathedral came from this area. Impruneta is also renowned for the cultivation of olives and wine. While you're here, try the traditional local dish peposo, a delicious beef stew made with pepper, tomatoes and red wine.
Stop at Greve and visit the triangular square surrounded by an arcade. Incidentally, the navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano, who discovered New York Bay, was born here. Castellina boasts an archaeological museum in a castle. And in Pievasciata you can visit a unique open-air museum in a forest of oaks and chestnuts: the Chianti Sculpture Park presents contemporary installations and sculptures by artists from five continents, all created especially for this location.
The places that have been able to keep many elements of their medieval fabric are perfect for strolling through their narrow streets, absorbing their attitude to life and then accidentally discovering a wine shop or a butcher's shop where you can try regional specialities. It's usually best to park your motorhome nearby and then cycle into town.
Stop #3: Siena, a World Heritage Site
Siena is famous worldwide for the Palio di Siena horse race, which is held every summer in the town hall square and watched by thousands of enthusiastic spectators. This explains why the Piazza del Campo along with the soaring tower became the city's landmark. The Palazzo Pubblico, which was built around 1300, still serves as the seat of the municipality and is, therefore, a symbol of political power. The façade beautifully reflects the different phases of construction: from stone to brick to marble. The Civic Museum on the first floor houses masterpieces from the Sienese School, including the splendid Maestà by Simone Martini, which depicts the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels and saints protecting the city.
Since Siena has largely retained its medieval Italian Gothic style, it's regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in Tuscany. The historic Old Town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. Make sure you visit Siena Cathedral, made using black and white marble and a fantastic example of Gothic architecture. If you lower your gaze to the cathedral floor, you'll see unique works of art: magnificent mosaics made between the 14th and 16th centuries depicting scenes from the Old Testament and the history of the city in great detail. By the way, some of the James Bond Quantum of Solace film was shot in Siena. Siena is also the seat of the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the oldest bank in the world still in existence.
RV parks and campsites in Siena
Siena is best explored on foot, especially as the centre is a Limited Traffic Zone. In any case, you've got better things to do than look for a parking space in the narrow streets, such as browsing through the many small shops and enjoying an ice cream and/or espresso. You'll find excellent olive oil throughout Tuscany, including Siena. Crostini (small bread slices with olive, mushroom or tuna paste toppings) are a traditional antipasti. However, olive oil can only be the main protagonist when you have it on its own on a slice of toasted bread. Afterwards, you can end your evening relaxing with a glass of red wine at the campsite or RV park.
It will take you about 15 minutes to walk from the Parcheggio Il Fagiolone RV park to the Old Town of Siena. There's another motorhome park just outside the city, with a train station nearby where you can get a train to the city centre. Camping Colleverde is the only campsite within the city of Siena, therefore more convenient. It's also easy to access by public transport and only 2.5 km to the city centre. The site is also the perfect starting point for trips to Montalcino, Montepulciano and San Gimignano.
Stop #4: The idyllic landscape of Val d'Orcia
If you travel further south from Siena by motorhome, you'll find yourself in the very landscape that many people always imagine when they think of Tuscany – gentle hills, ravines, the meandering course of the Orcia River and cypress trees atop isolated elevations or along roads. The Val d'Orcia landscape is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a true idyll of nature and picturesque villages such as Pienza and Montalcino. There's an abundance of vineyards and wine, and you can rest assured that you won't come across any bad wine here.
Pienza and Montalcino are two of the most popular places to visit in Val d'Orcia. If you're interested in culture, head to Pienza, which is also a World Heritage Site. Pope Pius II had the town rebuilt as an ideal Renaissance town in the 15th century, which was then renamed to honour him. Renaissance elements are still evident today in the symmetrical arrangement of buildings and various structures, including the Cathedral, the Palazzo Piccolomini, the Palazzo Vescovile and the Palazzo Comunale (town hall). Take a look at the eye-catching travertine well at Piazza Comunale. It's also worth making a detour to the small village of San Quirico d'Orcia near Siena and the unusual portals of the collegiate church of San Quirico; the town of Bagno Vignoni with its thermal baths; the Old Town in the small town of Buonconvento; the Belvedere viewpoint of Castiglione d'Orcia; and the picturesque Old Town of Montepulciano with its medieval city walls and Renaissance buildings. And you won't regret visiting the famous wine town of Montalcino with its medieval fortifications and 13 sacred buildings.
Stop #5: Etruscan bronze art in ArezzoEast of the Val d'Orcia and south of Arezzo lies the Val di Chiana, which has been the agricultural soul of Tuscany for centuries. The Etruscans left numerous archaeological finds and villages here, such as Castiglion Fiorentino and Cortona, which are worth stopping over at on your way to Arezzo. Surrounded by typical Tuscan vineyards, you'll be captivated by Arezzo's omnipresent medieval past. Arezzo has been renowned for metalworking since Etruscan times. The Chimera of Arezzo is an excellent example of Etruscan bronze art, believed to date from the 4th or 5th century BC. An unbelievable amount of gold is still used to make jewellery in the city to this day.
The Piazza Grande is striking because of its steep incline. Arezzo also served as the backdrop for Roberto Benigni's film Life Is Beautiful (Italian: La vita è bella), which received three Oscars. Sights that you can see in the film, which deals with the Holocaust, include the Piazza Grande, the steps of the Cattedrale di Ss Donato e Pietro, the Basilica di San Francesco and the Caffè dei Costanti opposite.
Where to park your motorhome in Arezzo
There is a paid RV park on the outskirts of Arezzo with gravel pitches and space for 20 motorhomes. Fresh water is available and you can dispose of grey water and your chemical toilet waste. The city centre is within walking distance. The Camping le Ginestre campsite is just outside the city centre.
Stop #6: San Gimignano, the town of towers
Not directly on the route, but you'll find a fantastic stopover towards Livorno or Pisa on the Tuscan coast in the small UNESCO World Heritage town of San Gimignano and the best preserved medieval town in Tuscany. The landscape looks as though it had been painted by an artist. Most of the town's houses date from the 11th and 12th centuries. In the 16th century, the then Grand Duke of Tuscany prohibited the construction of new buildings. This is why you might at some point get the feeling that time has stopped in San Gimignano. Only 13 of the original 72 towers have survived. These tower houses were built by wealthy noble families and were primarily a status symbol: the higher the tower, the higher the family's standing. It's been said that the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York were inspired by two of the local towers. You'll just have to see for yourself if there's any truth in this claim.
Parking and camping facilities near San Gimignano
San Gimignano is always full of hustle and bustle, especially but not only in peak season. We, therefore, recommend visiting the city as early as possible in the morning or from late afternoon when most of the one-day visitors have moved on. Just outside the city, in the village of Santa Lucia, there's an RV park next to the swimming pool. It has CCTV and disposal facilities, but no electricity, toilets or showers. If you want to stay longer or are not self-sufficient, you'll find the Campeggio Il Boschetto di Piemma campsite about two km from the Old Town.
More stops towards the coast
On the way to Livorno or back to Florence, you can stop off at Gambassi and relax in the thermal baths while drinking some of the healthy Pillo water. If you can never get enough culture, visit the Monastery of San Vivaldo just a few minutes from the Gambassi thermal baths. The many chapels and the small church are said to reproduce the holy sites of Jerusalem. You can whet your appetite for Italian literature in Certaldo as this is the birthplace of Giovanni Boccaccio, known throughout Europe for his novel The Decameron.
Incidentally, you won't have to wait long for your next culinary delight: simply stroll through the ancient alleys in Certaldo and you'll notice onions everywhere – not only do they adorn the city's coat of arms, but there are many traditional onion dishes that you simply have to try. Foodies should head to San Miniato, home of the white truffle. But it's worth coming here even when it's not truffle season as you'll have a wonderful view of the wide valley and the distant Apennine Mountains from the viewing platform at the Tower of Frederick II.