No matter how many times I travel to Tuscany, each visit teaches me something new. One welcome find this year is that accommodation prices have remained static, or even dipped, compared to 2008. Offering to pay in advance might secure a further reduction, making one of Italy's most multifaceted regions still more affordable. Here are some more insights that may surprise you.
1. Tuscany has more cities with Serie A soccer teams than any other Italian region. The season runs from now through May, and you have three choices for a slice of Tuscan life that has nothing to do with bucolic hills or wine cantinas. Glamor-hounds should head to the Artemio Franchi in Florence to see Fiorentina (http://it.violachannel.tv), whose strike force of Gilardino and Mutu will be starring in the Champions League and expecting a top-4 finish in Serie A again. Buy your tickets in the center at Chiosco degli Sportivi (Via degli Anselmi 1; tel. 055/292363). Tiny AC Siena (www.acsiena.it) has survived in Italy's top league against all odds, thanks to goals banged in by crowd hero Massimo Maccarone. Their Montepaschi Arena is close to San Domenico. Buy tickets on match day at the window next to the bus office below Piazza Gramsci. Known as gli amaranto ("the purples") and famed for having the most left-wing fans in Italy, AS Livorno (www.livornocalcio.it) is a friendly little club just promoted from Serie B. Their Stadio Armando Picchi is in Piazzale Montello; buy tickets at the main entrance on matchday. At all grounds, you're safest asking for a "tribuna tranquilla" (a quiet stand) -- unless you want to end up with the ultras -- and strict antihooligan laws require you to produce photo ID when buying a ticket. Warning: fans of "American football" may witness more theatrical rolling-around and grabbing of slightly grazed shins than they are accustomed to.
2. The greatest Tuscan painter wasn't Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, or even Botticelli. That accolade is owed to a figure born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Mone Cassai, but better known as Masaccio. A friend of Brunelleschi (of that dome fame), Masaccio applied techniques of linear perspective to give Italian painting the realism and solidity we associate with "the Renaissance." His masterpiece, the Cappella Brancacci in Florence (Piazza del Carmine 14; tel. 055/2768224), was the greatest leap forward since Giotto's art a century earlier, and was still being studied 75 years later by Michelangelo and his golden generation of Florentine painters. Masaccio's Trinity, frescoed on the nave of Santa Maria Novella (Piazza Santa Maria Novella; tel. 055/215918), shocked Florentines when it was unveiled in 1425: they thought he'd punched a hole in the wall, rather than produced the illusion of a baldacchino in paint. Panel paintings by Masaccio can be admired in the Uffizi (in Room 7; tel. 055/294883; www.firenzemusei.it) and at Pisa's Museo di San Matteo (Piazzetta San Matteo; tel. 050/541865). The reason Masaccio isn't far more famous? He died in Rome in 1428, aged just 27, his talent barely revealed.
3. Public transportation beats car rental for most of what you want to see. Astronomical insurance rates put Italy among Europe's most expensive countries to rent a car. Thankfully, Tuscany's train network can take you to most of the best -- traveling cheaper, greener, and without parking hassle. Lucca, Arezzo, Prato (Porta al Serraglio not Centrale), Pistoia, and Pisa (San Rossore not Centrale for the Campo) all have rail terminals close to the action. For timetables, check www.trenitalia.it. You can even tour the otherworldly wilds of Le Crete and the Val d'Orcia by rail, on the tourist Treno Natura (www.ferrovieturistiche.it). For San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Chianti, and Siena you're better off on the bus. Operators like LFI (www.lfi.it) and Tra.In (www.trainspa.it) have PDF timetables downloadable from their websites.
4. Your best base for a flying Tuscan visit isn't Florence, but Siena. Granted, Florence has the Renaissance, and Ghiberti's doors, and the Old Bridge, and David (all three of him), and the Uffizi, and the wondrous rest of it. But Siena has the most perfect architectural expression anywhere on the peninsula of Italian Gothic. It's small enough to enchant without overwhelming. It's packed with art that speaks a different language to the muscular Renaissance capital to the north: the greatest secular fresco cycle in Italy is inside the Palazzo Pubblico (Piazza del Campo; tel. 0577/292263), ethereal works by great Sienese like Duccio, Simone Martini, and Domenico Beccafumi are spread around the city. Plus it has food, and not just its Cinta Senese breed of pig cooked and cured every which way. The panpepato gelato at Kopa Kabana (Via de' Rossi 52; tel. 0577/223744) is my favorite flavor in Tuscany. Best of all, after a three-day stay, you'll feel you've come to understand your destination a little. Florence demands that you invest more time for a payback like that.
5. Even if you want to go in summer, there's likely a great hotel deal to be had. Low season in Florence includes August. As long as you don't mind the heat and the occasional fashionable spot being closed, you can bag a big discount on some of the best rooms in the city. A Classic Double with a Fall rack rate of around €450 a night can be yours for €180 if you stay 2 nights in August at some places, or prices can even drop below €100. If you have a favorite hotel in town, call, haggle, and ask for a low-season sconto.