In the same way that Italy continues to be the top pick for all kinds of travelers, for the ninth year in a row, Italy topped Recommend’s list of Readers’ Choice Award for the Best Destination in Europe. Taking top favorites a step further, the Tuscany region is a favorite among the more than three million American travelers who journey to Italy each year, more than half of those are repeat visitors. With such a robust market, the Italian National Tourist Board was a major sponsor of two Buy Tuscany workshops held recently, one taking U.S. travel professionals to Florence last October, followed by tourism suppliers from the region bringing Buy Tuscany directly to the U.S. market, hosting workshops this month in New York and Los Angeles.
And, supplementing this U.S. promotion, Recommend was lucky enough to be invited to Destination Tuscany 2014, a special event hosted by Eugenio Magnani, director of the Italian Government Tourist Board (ENIT); Alberto Perruzzini, director of the Regional Agency of Tourism Toscana; and James Bradburne, director of the Palazzo Strozzi Foundation. Magnani opened the event with the comment: “When talking about our country, the second word foreigners know after Italy is Tuscany, a rich and beautiful land where art, tradition, gastronomy, viticulture, fashion, sports, wellness and all the beautiful things of life express themselves at the highest levels.”
Not surprisingly, Perruzzini added that Tuscany is the heart of Italy, and an easily accessible region that welcomes visitors in over 3,000 hotels and 4,000 farmhouses. Also demonstrating that Tuscany continues to reinvent itself as both a traditional and modern destination, he introduced an exciting new attraction—the Via Francigena, a contemporary journey through places of history, art and faith, which follows an ancient pilgrimage route that starts in London and runs from France over the Alps to Rome, before continuing south to Bari and Brindisi, where the faithful took to boats to reach Jerusalem. The Italian portion of the route runs 600 miles, reaching some of the most beautiful areas of the country. And just as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain has proved an important draw for today’s pilgrims and hikers, the Via Francigena through Italy—now signposted to indicate a network of documented medieval pathways and earlier Roman roads—introduces a special “slow tourism” product, backed by high standards of comfort.
In ancient times, the flow of goods and travelers along this medieval pilgrimage route gave rise to today’s cities, in Tuscany (Parma and Siena, for example) and the segment of the route to Florence is connected to the Via Francigena from a lovely pedestrian path that runs along the bank of the Arno from Fucecchio. (Cycle paths along the Arno from Fucecchio also lead to the center of Pisa.) Tourism Toscana will shortly release new walking and cycling itineraries focused on this historic route; for good background information, visit viefrancigene.org/en.
Certainly Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance—probably the single most important artistic and cultural movement in Western civilization—has undergone a contemporary renaissance of its own, stepping into the present and future with new hotels (the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze for one, scaling new luxury heights with its superb restoration of the 15th century Palazzo della Gherardesca); restaurants serving lighter versions of the traditionally rich Tuscan cuisine; pedestrian traffic only in major touristic areas; and Palazzo Strozzi, built in 1489 and one of the finest examples of Renaissance domestic architecture, and a new center for contemporary art and culture in the heart of Florence.
Located just off Piazza della Republica and long serving as Florence’s main if lackluster contemporary public exhibition space, Palazzo Strozzi is now abuzz with updated spaces hosting a rich program of events; video screens and free WiFi; a cafe in the courtyard; innovative activities for families and kids; complimentary coffee served to anyone standing in line for longer than an hour awaiting entrance to such recent exhibitions as “Chinese Contemporary Art,” “Gerhard Richter,” “Russian Avant-Garde.” And coming soon—March 8 to July 20—is a show entitled “Pontormo and Rosso Fiorntino, Diverging Paths of Mannerism” that celebrates two of Tuscany’s most outstanding artists. Palazzo Strozzi’s new lease on life is generally accredited to the energy and imagination of Canadian-born, foundation-director Bradburne, who asked this question of his American audience: “Isn’t it time you came back to Florence for a new look at the city as a center of contemporary culture and see Tuscany in a new way?” Resoundingly, our answer would be yes!