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Think of Tuscany, and a quintessentially Italian scene springs to mind - with idyllic olive groves, rolling hills, pretty towns and churches full of ancient frescoes. When you come to visit the region, you will find all of this and so much more besides.

In many ways, every element of the essence of Italy can be found in Tuscany. Indeed, the national language started life here, evolving from the Tuscan local dialect. The Renaissance, a time that was key in creating the Italian culture we know and love today, is the still beating heart of Tuscan culture. Florence played a pivotal role during the Renaissance, and flourished under the patronage of the famous Medici family. Work by all of the artists we associate with the period can be found in beautiful Florence, in one of its many museums, galleries and ancient churches.

Florence’s worldwide fame does cause some problems. The city can be almost unbearably busy in the high season, so do try and plan to travel outside the school holidays if at all possible. For similar beauty on a smaller scale, head to Siena. One of the finest medieval cities in all Europe, Siena is an excellent example of a wonderfully preserved ancient city, and is packed full of the most wonderful works of art in both its secular and religious buildings. Its central square is full of character and is the setting for the Palio - the famous pageant of the bareback horse riders - which is a sight that has to be seen to be believed. Lucca and Pisa too have a great deal to offer the traveller, and there is an airport at Pisa which provides convenient access to the whole of the region.

Hidden away to the south and west of Siena, you will come across scores of charming hill towns that Tucked away to the west and south of Siena, dozens of small hill-towns that embody the true spirit of Italy. The most famous of these is probably San Gimignanop a town which boasts an array of beautiful medieval architecture, plus a plethora of well-preserved frescoes. Pienza and Montepulciano both sit in stunning settings, and are laced with atmosphere. However, for a real sense of the real Italy, travel higher into the hills to towns such as Pitigliano, Massa Marittima or Volterra, all of which are all still largely untouched by tourism. If you are prepared to travel off the beaten track, you will be able to marvel at the quiet splendour of monasteries such as the one at Monte Olive.

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