Tuscany is the geographical centre of Italy. Here you find two of the greatest Italian medieval and renaissance cities Florence and Siena. Florence is perhaps the cultural heart of the country.

The Tuscan countryside is actually rather varied. The Chianti Classico in particular is very hilly with dense woods interspersed with vineyards. Further south the country is more open with magnificent sweeping vistas, punctuated with poplars and olive groves. The country is varied, but always evocative. Here too are the lovely small hilltop towns such as Montalcino, Montepulciano, Radda-in-Chianti, Castellina-in-Chianti and San Gimignano.

The Tuscan wine scene has undergone a dramatic change in the past twenty years in terms of quality. Long gone are the straw covered fiascos of Chianti and DOC wines of questionable standards. Italy in general has transformed its wine industry, now concentrating on superb traditional regional wines.

Tuscany was at the forefront of the revolution of introducing world-class Vino da Tavola from international grape varieties. More recently, with the rest of Italy following this trend, the Tuscans turned the tide again, to concentrate on exploring the superb qualities of their native grape varieties. The main grape red variety Sangiovese is now recognised as a ‘grade A’, superstar variety.

The main Tuscan wine regions are Chianti Classico, which stretches from just south of Florence to Siena from North to South and from Tavernelle in the West and Gaiole in the East. Within this region you will find the attractive Tuscan towns of Radda, Castellina, Greve, Panzano and Castelnuovo de Berardenga.

South of Siena are Montalcino, famed for its weighty, complex ‘Brunello di Montalcino’ and its finer, more more aromatic ‘Rosso di Montalcino’ and to the East, Montepulciano with its ‘Vino Nobile’.

To the west, you find San Gimignano, with its medieval towers, built by merchants demonstrating their wealth rather than for military purposes, and which can be seen for miles around. The most famous white wines of the region, Vernaccia di San Gimignano is grown in the vineyards around the town and made on farms nearby.

Just further west on the Tuscan coast is the world-renowned wine region of Bolgheri, where the ‘Super Tuscans’ of Ornellaia and Sassicaia are made, and the ‘international varieties’, such as Cabernet-Sauvignon do so well. The news on the coast though is white! More-ish, refreshing and with a complex and delightful flavour, Vermentino has stormed in to prove the Tuscany does have a great white wine. In fact, delightful Vermentino is found all along the coast, and a little inland. A favourite of ours comes from near the Cararra marble mines, the DOC of Coli di Luni too on the Ligurian border can deliver, but perhaps it’s on the island of Elba that we have often visited on our wine cruises, that it has the most potential.

Tuscan cuisine is wholesome and rustic rather being refined or complex. Local ingredients, fresh according to the seasons are crucial. It is not a tomato-based cuisine, although Tuscan tomatoes and vegetabes are very good; Crostini (little toasts) with liver paste, anchovy paste or fresh tomatoes are probably the Tuscan dish that is best known internationally. Pasta is not a traditional local dish, though it will be used along with game, for example in the delicious game dish “Papardelle alla Lepere” or “Papardelle alla Cinghale”. (These are wide pasta strips with hare or wild boar); soup is a Tuscan staple, particularly those rich bean soups laced with the excellent local olive oil. Nearly all the wine estates also make their own extra virgin olive oil, which is an added bonus to the visitor.

Tuscany is indeed the very essence of Italy, with its backdrop of medieval hilltowns, rows of slender cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves, and artfully sited villas and farmhouses.

The national language evolved from Tuscan dialect, thanks to Tuscan writers like Dante, who wrote the Divine Comedy in the vernacular of his birthplace, Florence.

Florence was the most active center of the Renaissance, which flourished, at least in part, through the patronage of the Medici dynasty. Every eminent artistic figure from Giotto onwards – Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, Donatello, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo is represented in Tuscany, in an unrivaled gathering of churches, galleries, museums.

Tuscany is filled with treasures of architecture, paintings, and sculptures that are renowned worldwide.

Siena is one of the great medieval cities of Europe, almost perfectly preserved, and with superb works of art in its religious and secular buildings. Its beautiful Campo – the central, scallop-shaped market square – is the scene of Tuscany's most unmissable festival, the Palio, which sees bareback horse riders racing around the narrow cobblestone streets.

It’s the brightest display of pageantry this side of Rome.

Other major cities, Pisa and Lucca, have their splendors, too – Pisa its Leaning Tower, Lucca a string of Romanesque churches. To the west and south of Siena are dozens of small hilltowns that, for many, epitomize the region – tourism has yet to undermine their vibrant local characters.