Autumn in Tuscany is the season of grapevines turned golden in the sun. It’s a time to cherish the fruits of the earth and the vine. Restaurants put up handwritten signs touting fresh porcini mushrooms, and small towns hold sagras, festivals celebrating local food and history.
Living in Florence over the past few years, I’ve relished taking short local train excursions within the region of Tuscany, which is subdivided into 10 provinces, each with a capital city, and each with a different character, presiding saints, folk traditions and culinary specialties.
Here are three day trips on regional trains that will take you to three provinces. All the trains leave from the huge central Florence train station, Santa Maria Novella, right in the center of the city. Buy your tickets in advance — I use Trainline, or you can buy tickets from machines in the station, which offer English instructions. The trains themselves move relatively slowly, stopping at small stations that the AV, or Alta Velocità (high-speed), trains whiz right past. Some may be modern three-car commuter trains; others will remind you of European trains you may have taken years ago, with no assigned seat numbers and windows that can be opened.
On Sundays in October the Tuscan town of Marradi holds its chestnut festival, with food stalls, music and the pervasive scent of chestnuts roasting. But visiting any day of the week will immerse you in chestnut season.
About 28 miles northeast of Florence, Marradi is in a broad green valley called the Mugello, which claims connections to both Giotto and Dante. On the train ride there (see below for information), you’ll pass olive groves, cypress trees and hill towns.
Take the five-minute stroll from the train station, pausing, perhaps, to eat a chestnut fritter. Before you cross the river into town, you will pass the neoclassical, 18th-century church of San Lorenzo, where you’ll find paintings by the Maestro di Marradi, or Master of Marradi, an anonymous painter working at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. The Maestro was probably a pupil of Domenico Ghirlandaio, and he originally painted these paintings for the Abbey of Marradi, which was dedicated to Santa Reparata, a young virgin — in some stories, only 11 years old — who was tortured and martyred for her faith in the third century. Up through the Middle Ages, she was the patron saint of Florence (the Duomo replaced a church dedicated to Santa Reparata). In the apse of San Lorenzo in Marradi, you will find her at the Madonna’s right hand.
At the chestnut exposition, which is in the piazza where you will find yourself after crossing the river, you’ll find information about the chestnut trees; lots of chestnuts on display; posters demonstrating how chestnuts can be used, from antipasto to dessert; products, from liqueurs to marrons glacés; and sculptures, including a Nativity scene, set in the hollowed trunk of a chestnut tree. You’ll also be right near the charming little Teatro degli Animosi, and should step inside if it’s open; it was built in 1792, in a style described as Doric-Tuscan.
Across from the exposition, there’s the Palazzo Torriani, a villa that has belonged to the Torriani family for centuries, and is now a hotel. Tours led by a family member can be arranged (call in advance), and the public rooms include some beautiful painted ceilings from the early 20th century.
Then climb a flight of steps to the gracious central Piazza delle Scalelle, often used as a market square on festival days, and wander up to the top of the town, where you’ll find sweeping views of the roofs and towers of Marradi and the surrounding hills. You can also descend and walk along the river, where there will probably be a chestnut-roasting operation on festival days.
You might want to reserve a table for lunch at the restaurant you passed as you walked from the train station: Ristorante Il Camino, which has tables along the street and overlooking the river. Order the fantastic housemade pasta with sausage and porcini, or ravioli with black truffles; try the grilled lamb chops with cherry tomatoes or the beef filet topped with a large porcini mushroom cap. A plate of pasta will cost under 20 euros, a lavish multicourse lunch might cost 40 to 50 euros (or about $40 to $50), and there are excellent local desserts — but save room for those chestnut treats.
Marradi also offers plenty of stores selling chestnut products to take home. I recently came back with cookies made with chestnut flour, a bottle of terrific grappa (brandy) made with chestnut honey, and a big jar of the honey itself.
Train: From Santa Maria Novella in Florence, buy a ticket to Marradi-Palazzuolo sul Senio. The train’s destination will be Faenza. The ride takes about an hour and 15 minutes (ticket will cost 7.30 euros, each way).
Don’t confuse the town of San Miniato, which is about 31 miles to the west of Florence, in the province of Pisa, with the church of San Miniato al Monte, which is in Florence. The church is definitely worth a visit, but the town, named for the same saint, is worth a day trip, especially if you are interested in truffles. San Miniato, like Santa Reparata, was a martyr saint who was tortured and ultimately beheaded by the Romans in Florence. He is said to to have picked up his head and traveled across the Arno River to the site of his church.
You can reach San Miniato in 40 minutes on one of the regional trains heading west from Florence toward Pisa or the coast. Come during the white truffle festival, which takes place over the last three weekends in November. Shuttles will meet the train and take you up the hill to the historic center; otherwise take a bus or taxi, either of which will bring you to the Piazza del Popolo.
The hills around San Miniato yield the highly prized white truffles, as well as black truffles, and you can watch them carefully weighed and sold in town even when there is not a festival. But the white truffle harvest is a major event. The town’s identity as a truffle destination is also celebrated in a statue of a truffle hunter, Arturo Gallerini, with his dog, Parigi, and the world’s biggest truffle, which they found nearby in 1954.
There’s a tourist information office in Piazza del Popolo. From there, walk uphill for five to 10 minutes into town, and you’ll soon find yourself in the Piazza della Repubblica, admiring the beautiful frescoed facade of the seminary, built in 1650, which surrounds most of the piazza.
A staircase will take you up to the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Genesio, which dates to the 12th century; the facade is remarkable for inset ceramic plates from North Africa used as decorative elements (the originals are in the cathedral museum). There is a beautiful bell tower, the Torre di Matilde, named for a powerful Tuscan countess from the Middle Ages, who, according to legend, was born nearby. There is also tragedy. During World War II, on July 22, 1944, the Germans gathered local people into the church, which was then hit by an artillery shell from the U.S. Army bombardment, killing 55 people. This incident was used in the 1982 movie, “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani.
In the nearby Palazzo Communale, or town hall, close to the cathedral, is the Loretino Oratory, a small chapel dedicated to the Madonna of Loreto, which originally contained a much-venerated crucifix from the beginning of the 15th century. The 16th-century wooden altar in the oratory includes the scene of San Miniato’s martyrdom, and there are wonderful early Renaissance frescoes on the walls, with scenes from the life of Jesus; on the ceiling, David peers down, holding Goliath’s head, accompanied by one of the classical sybils and the Four Evangelists.
If you head uphill from the cathedral, you will quickly (if breathlessly) find yourself at the Rocca di Federico II, or Frederick’s Tower. This is a rebuilt structure — the original, built for the Holy Roman Emperor around 1220, was destroyed during World War II. You can pay to climb the tower for a great view of cultivated fields, cypress trees and hill towns.
All this should help you work up an appetite. During truffle festival time, you’ll find stalls and delicacies everywhere, but the town is also full of restaurants serving local cuisine, some of which take advantage of the same hilltop vistas you saw from the tower. The butcher shop on the main street, Sergio Falaschi, offers housemade salami to buy and take home; a restaurant in back has a spectacular open terrace looking out on the hills. Essenza also has some tables on a terrace, and offers wine and snacks all day and a full menu.
Train: Buy a ticket to San Miniato-Fucecchio. You may be offered a route with a change at Empoli, which will not be difficult, but there are also many direct trains headed for Pisa, La Spezia or Livorno. Tickets cost 6 euros each way. If you are traveling during the truffle festival, shuttles to town will be available; if you are there on a nonfestival day, you can take the No. 320 bus, which leaves outside the station every half-hour.
After chestnuts and truffles, you go to Prato, about 16 miles to the northwest of Florence, for dessert. Prato is the capital of its own Tuscan province; it’s an industrial city, important for textiles since the 12th century, and it has a textile museum. But you’ll also get the chance to see world-class Renaissance masterpieces, and taste the famous Prato cantucci cookies (the ones you dip in sweet vin santo at the end of a meal). Prato is also a center for Italy’s Chinese population and there are plenty of restaurants offering Chinese food.
Take one of the frequent trains from Florence to Prato Porta al Serraglio, and walk the short distance to the 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral of Santo Stefano. The striped, green-marble facade was added in the 15th century, along with the monumental pulpit on the outside facade of the church, built and decorated by Michelozzo and Donatello, starting in 1428. From the pulpit, the priest could show the public Prato’s greatest treasure: the Holy Belt, or Girdle, of the Virgin Mary. Mary is said to have given the Belt to St. Thomas at the time of her assumption to heaven, and its illustrious journey to Prato is told in gorgeous color in paintings by Bernardo Daddi, which can be seen in the Palazzo Pretorio Museum, along with a multimedia installation on the history of the Belt.
But first, buy a ticket for 8 euros to the cathedral museum, where you’ll find a room with the original carved Donatello panels from the outdoor pulpit (the panels outside are reproductions). Here are Donatello’s joyously dancing children, with glittering mosaic backgrounds.
The same ticket will take you into the chapel inside the cathedral where Filippo Lippi painted his famous 15th-century fresco cycle on the lives of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist. The paintings feature unforgettable scenes: the saints in their youth, as well as scenes of martyrdom and death. For St. John, the artist created a remarkable scene of Herod’s banquet and the beautiful dancing Salome in her diaphanous gown — off to the side, you see her with her reward, the head of the saint on a platter.
The beautiful chapel right next to it was painted by Paolo Uccello from 1430 to 1450 with scenes from the life of the Virgin and Saint Stephen.
There is plenty more to see and do in Prato, all in easy walking distance. There are also restaurants serving local dishes — Prato makes its own version of mortadella, for example, a pork salami flavored with liqueur, and there are wonderful local wines. Restaurant Le Barrique, for instance, is a terrific wine bar, open continuously from noon to around midnight.
And as you walk down the main street away from the cathedral, stop in the biscotti store, Antonio Mattei, where the cantucci cookies (also called biscotti di Prato) have been made since 1858. You can buy the original cookies, made with almonds, and also variants like hazelnut or chocolate. The cantucci will leave you with a sweet taste of the variety and complexity to be found in this fascinating region, so rich in history, landscape, art and food.
Train: Buy a ticket to Prato Porta al Serraglio (one stop beyond the central station in Prato, so be sure you wait for Porta al Serraglio); it will cost 2.70 euros each way and take between 20 and 30 minutes with no changes. There are several trains every hour.