Tuscany is a beautiful part of Italy. Florence, Pisa, and Siena all boast some incredible sites. The Duomo is spectacular, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a must see, and the Piazza del Campo hosts one of the year’s most anticipated cultural events in the Palio. Chianti is home to fabulous wineries where homegrown grapes produce some of the world’s finest wines, and the countryside gives way to romantic hillside towns that boast breathtaking views. But, what if your after something a little different? What if you want to discover the undiscovered? The weird and wonderful? The unusual hidden gems? Well, we’re here to help. Here's our this list of some of the best and most unusual things to do in Tuscany
Okay, so we’re going to sidestep the Piazza del Duomo and forget about the magnificent Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. We’re going to ignore St. John’s Baptistry and consciously overlook Uffizi Gallery. We know they are there with their fantastic art and history. But, today, we’re not interested in them. No, today, we’re interested in different kinds of Tuscan secrets. That’s right, we want unusual things to do in Florence.
Yup, Galileo Galilei, the polymath genius who discovered four of Jupiter's moons over 400 years ago, has, in Florence’s History of Science Museum, his middle finger on display.
This relic, removed from Galileo's corpse along with two fingers, a tooth, and a vertebra, belonged to a Florentine family. Until, they, and the container they were in, mysteriously disappeared. In 2009, they resurfaced at an auction, were bought, verified and given to the Florence History and Science Museum.
The Vatican condemned Galileo with the church viewing him as a heretic. So, if you so choose, you could interpret the final resting place of the astronomer’s skeletal finger as a final defiant message to the church.
To cop a glance at what has surely got to be one of the most unusual things to do in Florence.
- Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Established in 1221 by Dominican monks, this is quite possibly the oldest pharmacy in the world. Here, balms, salves, and medicines were cooked up and mixed together for the monk’s infirmary in the Basilica Santa Maria Novella. The practice remains the same today, employing the same traditional methods to make their products.
The pharmacy is in a beautiful, but unassuming building. Inside, the nose tingles with the fragrance of herbs and spices and the eyes bulge at the fantastic decor. Frescoes and gilded ceilings give way to elegant wooden cabinetry in which old medicine bottles sit.
You can browse the space, which first sold to the public in the 17th century, and pick yourself up an ancient remedy. What makes the experience so special is exploring the history attached to the products and recipes.
The Acqua di Rose, concocted to serve as a disinfectant when the plague struck Florence, is still made using the original recipe and ingredients. All that has changed is its purpose. Now, it is a skin toner.
Included in the building is also a small museum, which features some low-key displays. However, it is the pharmacy that steals the show. There is a helpful computerized catalog that you can use to browse what’s on offer and read about the history of each product.
- Perseus with the head of Medusa
Located in Florence's popular Piazza della Signoria is a the greatest of Tuscan secrets, the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa. This example of Italian Mannerist sculpture is one of the most important and sits discreetly under the Loggia dei Lanzi.
Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned Benvenuto Cellini, a renowned goldsmith, and sculptor, to make the statue in 1545. It depicts Perseus, who in Greek mythology was the son of Zeus, holding gorgon Medusa’s head high after he had killed her.
The statue, cast all at once and made entirely from bronze, is stunning in its detail. Most people flock to the Uffizi, for a glimpse of the Statue of David, but Cellini’s Perseus is a show stopper.
Difficult as it may be, you’re going to steer clear of the Piazza dei Miracoli. You’re not here to see the Leaning Tower. No, you’re looking for unusual things to do in Tuscany and Pisa’s here to sort you out.
They are perhaps the most popular mode of transport in Italy. You see them everywhere. People shoot up and down avenues and tear around narrow, windy side streets atop them. The Vespa, Piaggio’s racy, two-wheeled scooter is so much a part of Italian culture and identity, they should put it on the flag.
For a complete look into the history of the company, head 25 kilometers south of Pisa and enjoy their museum. Housed in a 3000 square meter former tool shop, you can now learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the company. From its start in 1921 all the way through to its production of aircraft, destruction during WWII and the eventual development and restyling of their famed Vespa.
- The Charterhouse of Calci
Ten kilometers from Pisa, in Calci, at the foothills of the Pisan Mountains, is the Calci Charterhouse, a spectacular Carthusian monastery. Not exactly an unusual thing to do in Tuscany, but definitely something often overlooked.
Carthusian monks are part of the Carthusian Order, an enclosed Catholic religious order, founded by Bruno of Cologne in 1084. The Charterhouse in Calci, established in 1366, was a monastery where monks could retreat for a life of seclusion and contemplation.
Now, on-site, there is the Natural History Museum which beautifully combines art, history, and faith. A walk around the grounds makes for a beautiful afternoon. And, when you make your way into the church, you’re sure to have your breath taken away. There are stunning frescoes, beautiful marble floors and Bernardino Poccetti’s The Last Supper.
Continuing our exploration of unusual things to do in Tuscany we arrive at Siena. So, trek away from the Piazza del Campo and wind your way through the medieval town’s streets to uncover the weird and wonderful Tuscan secrets the place has to offer.
- Saint Catherine’s Severed Head
That’s right, on display in Siena is Saint Catherine’s severed head. This relic, dependent on how you feel about severed heads, will either captivate you or, leave you a little queasy.
Saint Catherine is an incredibly intriguing figure. Born into a family of 25 in Siena, she was charitable from a young age. Catherine often gave food and clothes to the city’s poor at the expense of her family.
In her teenage years, Catherine joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic. And, by her early 20s claimed that Jesus had married her, placing an invisible ring made from his skin on her wedding finger.
Later in her life, Catherine was a diplomat for the Catholic Church. She helped to strengthen and fix deteriorating relationships between cities and the Church.
At the age of 28, she claimed to have received the stigmata. She practiced strict abstinence, and before her death in Rome, was unable to eat or swallow water.
Catherine was buried in Rome. But Raymond of Capua, wanting to assuage Catherine’s family and the Sienese, endeavored to send back part of her body. In 1383 while moving Catherine’s tomb, Raymond, without permission, removed her head and had it shipped back to Siena. Now, it sits in an ornate, gilded box in the St. Dominica Basilica.
- Montesiepi Chapel’s “Sword in the Stone”
You’ve undoubtedly heard the story of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Well, here, 20 kilometers from Siena in Chiusdino, life imitates legend. Inside the Montesiepi Chapel, buried deep into a rock is a medieval sword.
The man responsible, Galgano Guidotti, was a wealthy knight who turned himself over to God. In a vision, Archangel Michael guided Galgano to a hill. Here, Michael told Galgano to renounce his possessions. The Knight insisted this would be as difficult as thrusting his sword into stone. And, to illustrate his point, Galgano drove his sword into a nearby stone. But, to his amazement, he cut through it like butter.
The following day Galgano found himself atop the very hilltop from his vision. Wishing to commemorate the spot with a cross, but having no wood, he plunged his sword into the same stone. It remains to this day. In 1184 Galgano died. The following year, Pope Lucius III canonized him and a chapel erected around the sword.
Although many claim the sword is fake, it is not. After examination archaeologists determined that it does date back to the 1100s. We will never know if there is truth to the legend. But, the sword in the stone is remarkable nonetheless.
So, now, when you make your way over to Tuscany for your next trip, you’ve been armed. You can head off the beaten track and forget the major attractions. If not for a day, then at least a couple of hours. Go on, make some time and explore all the unusual things to do in Tuscany. You’ll discover a whole world of weird and wonderful.