by Sasha Alyson
The Italian region of Tuscany draws gay vacations with its cuisine, history, and architecture.
If geographic names could be trademarked, Tuscany would be today’s leading brand. “Given a choice of places to spend a month, which name would you select – Tuscany or Cyberspace?” asked New York Times columnist Russell Baker in 1995. Even then, “Tuscany” evoked images of enchanting medieval towns, sprawling cypress trees, and ancient stonework.
The reputation has grown since then, spurred along by Frances Mayes’s deservedly best-selling book, Under the Tuscan Sun. For gay men and lesbians, too, Tuscany beckons. As a gay tour operator, my company receives more requests for trips to Tuscany than for any other destination. Certainly, part of the lure lies in all those Renaissance statues of naked men. (And a few of naked women. Given that the sculptors themselves were virtually all male, what shall we make of that disparity?)
But Tuscany’s greatest appeal is that within one small, beautiful corner of the world you can indulge in such a wealth of experiences. Pick your interest: Tuscany has something for you.
Foodies will be in heaven when they enter the region. Visit one of the independent wineries, operating from a five-centuries-old stone barn tucked away amidst the majesty of the “Chianti Classico” hills, then enjoy their wine along with a hearty dinner of risotto and fresh-picked wild mushrooms, in a small restaurant. There’s no limit to what a blazing fire in a cozy dining room will do to your appetite!
History buffs? You’re in luck. The Etruscan bridges, arches, and burial mounds of the region date back to 700 B.C. The Romans left their mark too, but Tuscany’s true glory came in the Middle Ages, when Florence and Siena vied to become the most magnificent city in northern Italy. The churches, gardens, public buildings, and palaces of that era remain a primary attraction for visitors.
Art historians? You already knew you wanted to come here. The museums of Florence alone could take up an entire week, then you still have such jewels as the series of 36 Renaissance frescoes at the cloister of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Architects can visit the roofless abbey ruins at San Galgano one day, imagining its former grandeur seven centuries ago; the next day, admire the gilded dome and inlaid marble floors of Siena’s Gothic cathedral. And even unbiased critics agree with the Sienans who proclaim their breathtaking Piazza del Campo to be “the most beautiful public plaza in the world.”
Outdoor enthusiasts? The region is laced with spectacular hiking trails, from hour-long rambles to all-day excursions. Biking is popular, and with good reason, but be prepared for hills; while Tuscan biking will amply reward your efforts, it isn’t for beginners.
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Despite this rich variety, the best of Tuscany lies within a small area. There’s no need to pack your suitcase and move to a new town each night. Simply find a comfortable base, rent a car (or bikes, if you’re ambitious) then make day trips to the spots that interest you.
For those more interested in art, architecture, and a modest level of gay nightlife, Florence is a logical base. Here you’ve got a choice of several gay-friendly hotels. One explicitly gay establishment is Hotel Medici (via dei Medici 6; 055/284818; Fax 055/216202), comfortable and moderately priced but be forewarned: Reception is on the fifth floor. A longer list of “gay-friendly” establishments appears on an Internet guide to Tuscany. Note that “gay-friendly” means only what it says in this case. These hotels welcome lesbian and gay visitors, but don’t expect to find a large gay crowd at most. Escape the city one day by renting a bike from Andrea and Marika at “Florence by Bike” (Via San Zanobi 120/122 R, near the train station; 055/488992). They’ll supply you with maps and advice. Florence is also home to Italy’s first gay bar and disco, hot and saucy Tabasco.
Parking can be a nightmare in towns whose streets and walls predate the first automobile by many centuries. If you’ll be spending much of your time in the countryside anyway, you can reduce your budget and eliminate some headaches by staying at hotels in smaller towns or countryside. You won’t find much in the way of gay culture here; instead, you’ll discover just how warm and welcoming the locals are. A beautiful and friendly spot is Castelvecchi (0577 738050) in the picturesque town of Radda-in-Chianti. In Certaldo, outside of charming San Gimignamo, try Hotel Latini (0577 945019). You can generally find someone who speaks English at all the spots I’ve mentioned.
One other option is to rent a villa in the countryside. While some villas are small enough to be appropriate for just one couple, this choice is most appealing for a group of four to eight friends. Share the costs, the driving, and the cooking – but keep a few evenings free to see what the local restaurant can produce. Many websites advertise such villas; one that welcomes gay clients is the Barclay International Group (800 845-6636)