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Terrell's Suggested Reading List for Tuscany
There are tons of great guides for Tuscany and since it's such a popular destination, they all get regular updates so you rarely have to worry about getting an outdated guide. Here are a few suggestions for guides that you may have overlooked among the better-known names.
The Cadogan Guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches by Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls The Cadogan Guides are an excellent small British series--although I believe that Dana and Michael are actually American expats--that leave out the pictures and only include hand-drawn maps but have excellent descriptions of the region. Instead of the short, bullet-pointed paragraphs favored by so many guides these days, the authors write long flowing essays on the scenery, history, food and culture. I find them especially useful when you're traveling in such historically rich areas as Tuscany where it's so easy to miss the significance of an Etruscan burial site or the cultural traditions behind a local food staple. They have short lists of hotels and restaurants which I have found to have a nice range in price and style with very accurate assessments. This is also one of the few guidebooks to give good coverage to both Umbria and the Marches, areas adjacent and similar to Tuscany but less crowded with American tourists. The new edition will be available in July of 2007.
Rick Steves' Florence & Tuscany 2007 If you've never been to Tuscany before and especially if you've never been to Italy, Rick's guides are an excellent place to start. He's really good at suggesting places to go and clearly maps out how to get there. He's got great tips for using public transportation, avoiding lines at museums, finding a friendly place to eat and many other travel skills. My biggest problem with Rick is that he's a little too popular, so you're likely to run into plenty of other Americans if you follow his directions. This is the guide where you'll find my nephew-in-law, Giovanni, listed as a private guide in the Cortona section. Keep in mind that the new editions of Rick's Italian guides come out in the late fall, so look for the 2008 edition around October or November of 2007.
History & Culture
A Traveller's History of Italy by Valerio Lintner If you want your history in a quick, compact format, try this little book from Interlink publishing. In less than 300 pages it takes you all the way from archeology to current events. Lintner manages to make this short history quite painless, even entertaining, with an extremely dry British wit. This is part of very good series from yet another excellent, small English publisher.
Marling Menu Master for Italy Food in Italy isn't particularly intimidating. As Americans, we're familiar with a lot of the street food and Italians don't eat nearly as much weird stuff as the French do, so we're pretty sure to like nearly anything on the menu. On the other hand, it can be nice to be sure you're ordering what you think you're ordering. The Marling Menu Masters can be a huge help there. This little book translates common menu terms like cooking methods or styles as well as the names of the food. It's organized like a menu with starters first and desserts last so it's easy to follow along. It's from a tiny publisher and is periodically unavailable so if you see one on the shelf at the local bookstore, snap it up for future travels and be careful when you loan it out to friends.
Berlitz Italian Phrasebook As with the guidebooks, there are about a zillion good phrasebooks for Italian. My personal favorite is the Berlitz because I like the color-coded organization and the relative formality of the vocabulary. If you're a twenty-something wild child, you'd probably do better with Lonely Planet's phrasebook or if you like a more of a dictionary format, go with the Rough Guide. All of them are good. It's purely a matter of personal preference. Just don't leave home without one, is my advice. Even though lots of people in Italy speak English, you never know when you'll be in a sticky situation that requires translation, like "What's inside that pastry over there?"
Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes You can't write about Cortona and ignore Frances Mayes. She is still the inspiration for myriad pilgrimages to Tuscany more than ten years after the publication of this book. Every hotel and information bureau in Cortona has preprinted maps showing how to walk out to her house from town and I once saw a display in the local bookstore that featured her book in seven languages. It's not my favorite, but how can I argue with her obvious success. As an alternative, try novelist and memoirist Lisa St. Aubin de Teran's account of restoring her villa in Umbria, A Valley in Italy.
On the Road with Francis of Assissi: A Timeless Journey through Umbria and Tuscany and Beyond by Linda Byrd Francke People in Tuscany and Umbria have a long memory. Visiting Le Celle near Cortona, you would have thought that St. Francis had been living there just a few years ago, not almost 800. Reading a book like this doesn't just tell you about the life of the saint or about the places he visited. It gives you a sense of the way history is alive in the lives of the people who live here. I can't say I'm completely taken with Ms. Francke's writing style, but it's still a good book to read if you're visiting this region or want to know more about it.
The Scarlet City: A Novel of 16th Century Italy by Hella Haase My favorite historical novel set in Italy, this book is full of Borgias and Sforzas and all those other famous names of the Renaissance. Haase's historical research is very good and her plotting and characters very satisfying. Most of the historical novels I've found set in this time period tend to be very bodice-ripperish and while I've no real objection to that, I was happy to find this novel that really gives you something to sink your teeth into.
The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman If you're traveling with tweens or you know some kids who'd like to read about Italy in the Middle Ages, try Mary Hoffman's new mystery novel. Set in the early 14th century in Umbria, Silvano and Chiara wind up in neighboring religious communities. Silvano is in hiding at a Franciscan friary while his father tries to prove he's not guilty of murder and Chiara gets sent to a Poor Claire's convent by her brother. Both teenagers are set to work making colors for the painters working on the nearby cathedral at Assisi, but soon another gruesome murder disturbs the peace of the friary. It's a fast moving novel that doesn't talk down or moralize excessively, with just enough flirting between the main characters to be fun. I think it would be great for kids who are going to be seeing all those famous artworks in the churches of Tuscany and Umbria because it explains the parts of the painting that are most interesting like how they made the pigments and how the pictures tell a story.
Gaudenzia: Pride of the Palio by Marguerite Henry Remember all those Marguerite Henry horse books you read when you were a girl? Misty and Stormy and Brighty of the Grand Canyon? Well, my hands down favorite was Gaudenzia which most other Marguerite Henry fans will tell you they never heard of. Gaudenzia is the horse who's too delicate to be a real contender for the brutal conditions of the race that's run twice every summer in Siena. Her boy jockey, Giorgio, takes her home and grooms her into the champion she was meant to be. I loved this book before I had any idea that I loved Italy. In fact, it may have started the whole thing! It's been out of print for years but you can look for a copy here.