The strip of Tuscany riding along the Apennines and the Emilia-Romagna border remains relatively uncrowded despite its being wedged between Florence and Pisa, favorites of guided tours. Florence's close neighbors -- Prato, with its Lippi frescoes, renowned theater, and the best biscuits in Tuscany, and Pistoia, known in the Middle Ages for its murderous inhabitants but today for Pisano's most accomplished Gothic pulpit and a slew of Romanesque churches -- have rich histories and artistic patrimonies that can keep you steeped in Tuscan culture just a few dozen kilometers from Florence . . . but a world away from its tourist traffic. Both are also blessed with fine, great value eating establishments.

Beyond them stretches a land of serene hills smothered in olive groves and vines, genteel spas such as Montecatini Terme, and tall alpine mountains buried in green forest and capped with snow all winter long. Tuscany's northern coast catches some of the Riviera attitude in resort towns like Viareggio, but of more interest just inland are the jagged peaks of the Garfagnana. It was in these hills that Michelangelo quarried his marble, and where today you can explore one of the most extensive cave systems in Italy.

Lucca, the northwest's main città, lies in the plains just south of these mountains. This regally refined burg of few cars and many bicyclists is home to beautiful Romanesque churches, towers, and the mightiest set of walls of any medieval Tuscan town -- now tamed into a city park and planted with trees to shade Sunday strollers.