When Henry Jamesthe writer responsible for such novels as "The Wings of the Dove" and "Portrait of a Lady"visited Florence, the largest city in Italy's Tuscany region, he was struck dumb.
"One is dealing with a solemn brilliancea harmony of acute tonesthat I am not capable of describing," he wrote.
That admission is pretty remarkable, considering that James is famous for his long sentences, florid style and descriptions that go on and on. But when one is faced with Tuscany, which looks just downright beautiful from every angle, words do indeed feel inadequate. It seems best to tell people, "Go. Just go."
Then again, it's hard to leave it at that. After all, James may have claimed to be at a want for words, but that didn't stop him from writing enough of them to fill a book called "Italian Hours."
So, incapable as I am of describing the brilliance of Tuscany, I suggest you center a trip there around Cortona, a medieval town surrounded by ancient walls and perched on the top of a hill. Cortona provides the setting for a more recent book, "Under the Tuscan Sun." While not quite at the level of a novel by James, this memoir by Frances Mayes does give a sense of the deep-sigh-inducing loveliness of the area's landscape, which can cause you to seriously entertain thoughts of dropping your frenzied American life and buying a leaky Tuscan farmhouse.
Cortona is situated between Italy's marquee cities. Rome is about 110 miles south, and Florence is about 60 miles north. The drives take longer than expected, because both big cities are ringed with clogged highways and once you turn off the major north-south expressway to reach Cortona the road becomes quaint and, well, slow.
On the way up the hill to the town, you'll pass the Renaissance church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Once you reach Cortona's walls, parts of which date back to the time of the Etruscans, park and walk through one of the city's arched entrances, then climb the steep, narrow, picturesque streets.
The piazzaanchored at one end by a church with a lovely, dimly lit interioris surrounded by numerous restaurants and cafés.
Scattered throughout the town are lots of art galleries and shops. Even in winter you'll want to stop at one of the many gelato stands, where you can spend an inordinate amount of time deciding which flavor to order. Then walk with your cone to one of the lookout points offering sweeping views of the valley.
Halfway up the hill to Cortona, at a discreetly marked turn-off, is a road that leads to Relais Il Falconiere, a villa that dates back to the 17th century and has been turned into a boutique hotel. Serving excellent food and sporting an impressive wine list, Il Falconiere's restaurant is a great find, and the building overlooks beautiful cypress and olive groves.
At Il Falconiere's restaurant I had my first taste of prosecco, the Italian sparkling white wine that has become somewhat trendy recently, and rightly so.
Searching for chianti wine
Less than an hour's drive east of Cortona is Perugia (which is actually in Umbria, not Tuscany), another walled city with a large, beautiful piazza. On one side of the square sits the Palazzo dei Priori, home to political bigwigs in the Middle Ages and now serving as the site of the National Gallery of Umbria. Across from the palace is the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, which took more than 100 years to build, beginning in the 14th century. In the piazza's center is the Fontana Maggiore, a 12th-century fountain decorated with biblical and mythological carvings.
Siena, yet another drop-dead gorgeous city, sits about an hour west of Cortona, but continue driving. My friend and I were rewarded in unearned abundance when on a whim we decided to drive north of Siena through Tuscany's Chianti region. As our little blue rental car chugged toward the town of Castellina in Chianti, on our right the mountain dropped away to reveal miles of hills that rolled gently to the horizon like sand dunes, fading in the late-afternoon light from intense green to a misty gray-green.
You can, of course, find plenty of chianti wine in the Chianti region, not to mention the sharp cheeses and flavorful meats that in Italy are often served as first courses or even as part of breakfast. A little way before Castellina in Chianti we noticed a restaurant and stopped for a late lunch. The traditional Tuscan food we ate at La Locanda di Pietracupa was one of the best meals we had in Italy, and that's saying a lot. The place is also a small hotel with nice-sized, serene rooms.
If you're heading to the region, you can soak up a lot of art and culture in Rome or Florence, then spend a few pastoral days watching the breeze ruffle the leaves of the olive trees in central Tuscany. Good luck trying to describe it all to your friends once you get back. You can mutter something about "a harmony of acute tones." Then tell them, "Just go."
Theresa Everline is travel editor of AAA "Car & Travel" magazine in New York.
Above: Florence is the capital city of Tuscany. The city's inspiring cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, with its dome by Filippo Brunelleschi stands out in the skyline. Deborah Reinhardt photo
Below: Il Duomo, the cathedral in Orvieto, was built in 1263 and is noted for its elaborate mosaics. Deborah Reinhardt photo
Above: Jewelry selections in a shop on Florence's Ponte Vecchio. Deborah Reinhardt
Below: Taking time for conversation in one of several spas in the town of Montecatini. Tuscany has several options for vacationers wanting to experience Italy's spas. Deborah Reinhardt photo