Tuscany countryside, Chianti district
Hilly countryside of Chianti, Tuscany

To many English-speaking people, Italy invariably evokes Tuscany. It’s not just Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who has holidayed in Tuscany. The British upper-middle classes are attracted to the beauty of this region, which they have christened Chiantishire, and they buy villas on its hills or rent farmhouses with a view.

Tuscany has some of the most beautiful cities and countryside in Italy and indeed in the world. Italy is divided into 20 regions; Tuscany is a region in north-west Italy. Summer is the best time to visit the Tuscan cities and countryside, when practically all Italians head for the seaside, if you want to enjoy traffic-free roads and find car parks empty.

Tuscany was the driving force of the Italian Renaissance, a time when Tuscan cities were rivals, until Florence eventually won. Most of the area now known as Tuscany was in ancient times the region inhabited by the Etruscans, or Etruria, and was at the heart of the Etruscan civilization, a great pre-Roman civilization. Towns like Volterra and Arezzo, South of Pisa, still contain Etruscan remains. Later it was called Tuscia, and now it’s Tuscany, or Toscana in Italian.

The climate in Tuscany is temperate. Tuscany is the most wooded Italian region, with poplars, cypress trees and pinewoods.

The capital of Tuscany is Florence, or Firenze in Italian, one of the world’s great cities of art.

Other major towns in Tuscany are the historical towns of SienaPisaLuccaArezzoSan Gimignano. The region’s main city on the sea and port is Leghorn (Livorno in Italian).

Still important are the towns of Massa and Carrara, Pistoia, Prato, a large industrial conurbation in the outskirts of Florence with a major textile industry, and Grosseto: all of these are capital of their own province.

In the north-west of the region, near the Ligurian Riviera and Cinque Terre, is Versilia, comprising a riviera with renowned and fashionable seaside resorts, the most important of which is Viareggio, and a pleasant rolling hinterland. Versilia is close to the majestic peaks of the Apuan Alps. Next to Versilia and sorrounded by mountains is Garfagnana, the valley of the upper river Serchio, which flows through Lucca. Further north is Lunigiana, with important Roman remains in the town of Luni.

The Tuscan Archipelago comprises seven islands off the central-southern coast of Tuscany. They are, starting from north: Gorgona, Capraia, Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo, Giglio and Giannutri. The largest and most important is Elba, of historical significance also because Napoleon lived there in exile.

The Tuscan countryside is famed for its wine-producing district of Chianti, beautifully landscaped by man over the centuries, resembling a Renaissance painting scenery and predominantly hilly.

Mountain areas of Tuscany are on the east Appennino Tosco-Emiliano and on the west the Apuane Alps. The former, forming the border between Tuscany and Emilia, the region of Bologna, is a section of the Appenines, the backbone of Italy running through all the length of the peninsula. The latter, close to the sea, produce the precious white marble of Carrara.

Tuscany, along with Sardinia, is the Italian region with the most varied mineral deposits production. Besides marble, it provides iron (Island of Elba), copper (Metalliferous Hills), rock salt and alabaster (Volterra), lignite (San Giovanni Valdarno), pyrites (Grosseto province), cinnabar (Mount Amiata), zinc, lead (Campiglia Marittima), antimony, and borax fumaroles used for producing boric acid and for generating electric energy (Larderello, near Pisa). Mount Amiata, in southern Tuscany, used to produce mercury but these deposits are no longer mined.

The Mugello, the valley of the upper Sieve river, is between Florence and the Appennines, while the Valdarno is the valley of the upper river Arno which, flowing entirely in Tuscany, has its source in the Mount Falterona and goes through first Florence and then Pisa. The Arno’s mouth marks the boundary between the Ligurian Sea, north, and the Tyrrhenian Sea, south, the two arms of the Mediterranean along the west coast of Italy.

In Southern Tuscany, Maremma is a vast rural region which stretches along the coast. The southern Tuscan coastline is particularly beautiful, rich with cliffs, rocks and promontories. Punta Ala and the peninsula of Monte Argentario are the most upmarket: main resorts on the latter are Porto Santo Stefano, facing north of the promontory, and Porto Ercole, facing south.