“Are we really here?” I asked my husband, as we sat sipping cappuccinos in the shade of a café parasol on the first day of our holiday. Tuscany was a destination we had longed to go to for years.

“It’s hard to believe,” he replied as we took in our surroundings – flowers at windows and doorways – tables crammed onto verandas. San Miniato seemed like a friendly place, and we spent a lot of time there over the following two weeks. Especially for evening meals when we sampled various trattorias. All, thankfully, served good food, even though we were initially confused by the menus and over-ordered, the quantities, more than we could eat.

After refreshments, we ambled to the top of town for a closer view of the fortress and tower originally built by Frederick the Second. The iconic landmark can be seen from miles away and is even more stunning at night when illuminated.

Heading back down through the cobbled lanes, we came across the town hall and museum. Painted in warm Tuscan tones, it tells part of the city’s history and was the community governors’ residence after Frederick the Second’s death in 1250.

The Hall of Seven Virtues there is splendid, and I was surprised to see clear acrylic seating, but I imagine it was chosen so as not to obliterate heraldic wall panels. There is further grandeur in the council chambers. In addition to elaborate decoration, the Italian flag and other banners signify San Miniato’s prestige.

Through streets originating from the Middle Ages, we admired the buildings. The façades aren’t pristine but full of character. Some with chipped plasterwork, shutters, and entrances rendered in natural shades. Most have charming features, such as faded crests or ornate planters. All in all, exuding a storybook quality.

The Via Francigena hiking trail goes through San Miniato and follows the ancient route of pilgrims travelling to Rome, so there are many holy sites. From the grand cathedral with its bell tower to the boxy brick church wedged into the corner of Piazza Buonaparte. Believed to have been constructed during the plague, the exterior is draped with strings of pearly lights. But the best is inside; frescoes radiate from the walls and ceiling. Exquisite and emotive in such a small space.

San Miniato is only a short drive from Agriturismo Bellavista where we stayed in a studio apartment – part of a converted farmhouse.

Set on a hillside, the views over cypress trees, olive groves, and vineyards meet distant mountains. At dusk, bats swoop, and hoopoe birds call to each other by the rose-covered arbours surrounding the swimming pool.

After a relaxing day or two, we journeyed further afield to Pisa. It’s a city to suit all ages, with a mixture of contemporary and early architecture dating back to the Etruscan and Roman eras.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa gleamed in the mid-morning sun through an archway leading from the bustling market. From the hubbub of vendors selling leather, crafts, and other tourist paraphernalia, it’s like stepping into another world.

Piazza del Duomo and other buildings of worship encircled by lawns lead up to the extraordinary bell tower which began tilting from its completion in 1372 due to the marble’s weight on unsuitable ground. It was stabilised, so no worries, it’s not going to topple over.

Like fifty percent of the people there, we tried positioning ourselves in photograph shots to appear as if we were pushing it straight. And in a café, I was quite pleased with my attempt at a picture of the tower seemingly teetering inside my coffee cup.

Horse-drawn carriages trot to and from the town centre opposite the famous tower. A large doorway encouraged us inside, where the features and ambience of San Giorgio church emanate tranquillity. As well as being sacred, the church was also the court of bishops in the 10th century, and its Renaissance-type courtyard with ruby geraniums, olive trees, and a Moses statue is pretty.

Back in the sunshine, we skirted the market, buying postcards and postage stamps on our way back to the car.

Lucca is a city twenty minutes away and recommended by the manager at our holiday accommodation.

Still full from our breakfast of cold meats, cheeses, fruit, and homemade pastries, we agreed it would be better to eat in Lucca a bit later.

With the location tapped into the sat-nav, we set off, encountering our first automated toll-paid highway. Oh, what fun. We worked out the machine’s instructions and popped money into a metal container that slid towards the car. Lastly, change and a receipt shot out from a tray below. Sheepishly, we glanced over our shoulders, thankful to see we hadn’t caused a traffic queue.

Within the time-worn walls of Lucca, founded by the Romans in 180 BC, we dithered about what lunch venue to go to and decided upon one in a quiet shady spot. An old-fashioned children’s carousel made a nostalgic scene by Bar Pacini and Gelateria where we tucked into lasagne followed by strawberries and ice cream.

Re-energized, we explored the streets near Palazzo Ducale’s quadrant where Napoleon’s sister, Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi, the Princess of Lucca and Grand Duchess of Tuscany, influenced the Throne Quarter and Piazza Napoleone.

Close by is Villa Bottini, a long elegant building and estate, which I learned was also owned by Elisa.

A small walled river, shops, churches amid Renaissance buildings, and honey-coloured houses and apartments are warm and welcoming.

Feeling weary and with the car parking ticket expired, it was disappointing not to have seen the composer, Puccini’s house.

At last, I’ve been to Firenze; the city’s Italian name for Florence, and I prefer it.

From San Miniato, we drove to Empoli train station on another day. The journey into Florence is straightforward and terminates in the centre where sights, only glimpsed in travel features before, are immediate.

First of all, the romantic setting of Santa Maria Novella Piazza complete with blush-coloured rose-edged lawns. Sweet musky perfume wafted around the Dominican church. Its Gothic monochrome façade and elegant obelisks create a dramatic scene.

After studying a guidebook over cool drinks and cake, we found our way to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Strands of music floated serenely from the bow of a single violinist at the main entrance of Florence’s primary landmark. Disappointingly, the snaking queue was long and we hadn’t pre-booked. There was so much to see, that we promised ourselves another visit before going back home to England.

Luckily, we had gone prepared with a list of other venues that didn’t need pre-booking. San Lorenzo church, in the main market district, was recommended, and we were delighted to come across Dante’s house and museum on the way. I’ve always wanted to learn more about the Italian writer and philosopher who was eminent for his input to Italian literature and believed to be the father of the Italian language.

Within Dante Alighieri’s family home, the exhibits and manuscripts are fascinating, but not original. Nevertheless, they illuminate his life and literary studies in the city he loved.

Still in pursuit of San Lorenzo, we came across the Bartolucci Store, crammed with handmade wooden items – some celebrating Pinocchio. Its wide range of fine-quality merchandise is reasonably priced. We chose Christmas tree decorations – they would be a fond reminder of our holiday later in the festive season.

After being sidetracked, we eventually arrived at San Lorenzo, which is where the Medici family’s burial vaults are situated. The church’s exterior is plain and rough, and not in keeping with the rest of Florence’s ornateness. This is because Michelangelo was commissioned for the decorative element, but for some reason, it never happened. The walls and columns inside are mainly sandstone, housing exceptional art, including Donatello’s last masterpiece.

The cool and airy cloister gardens give a touch of colour to the building’s austere appearance. In one location, an entrance leads to the Medici Crypt and chapel which was only discovered in 2004.

A short walk away is the River Arno, spanned by several bridges. The most famous of all is Ponte Vecchio, a Medieval construction, its foundations’ date back to 1218.

Crossing it is like going back in time. A long hamlet with plaster and beamed accommodation above jewellers. Originally, the shops were occupied by butchers, bakers and all sorts of small businesses. Once across, it is a good idea to walk along the riverbank to take in its charm from a distance. The shops and dwellings jutting precariously over the ripples seem as if they might tumble into their reflections.

We had walked full circle and weren’t far from the train station. So with aching feet, we plodded there – pleased with the thought of returning to Firenze the subsequent week.

Our next excursion wasn’t planned before we started our Tuscan holiday, but was an opportunity not to be missed, as it was only a short drive from where we were staying.

Vinci – a small city on the slopes of verdant Montalbano where Leonardo Da Vinci had lived. It’s an enchanting walk up from the car park, with reddish buildings higgledy-piggledy at the top. The roadside verges were daubed with poppies and yellow flowers that matched the Vinci flag fluttering in alleys and entrances  – crimson and yellow everywhere!

“Buongiorno,” locals greeted us along the quiet and picturesque streets, where I made a mental note to buy vibrant fruit and vegetables from shops along the way. Another outlet that took my eye was one selling Mona Lisa stationery – irresistible!

The first notable building on the way to the Medieval quarter is the five-arched Sanctuary of the Santissima Annunziata, a rustic church with style. And nearby is Piazza del Liberta, where a bronze statue of Leonardo’s Horse canters atop a plinth. The sculpture is the work of Nina Akamua, completed at the end of the last millennium, and inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s intricate and skilled equine sketches. The small park would be a peaceful spot to sit and watch the world go by, but we were eager to reach the Castle of Counts Guidi.

We carried on up the road; its fortifications and towers came into view. The structure was renovated in 1940 and still has frescoes from the 14th century. Best of all, though, is the glazed pottery Madonna and Child, a colourful wall decoration by Giovanni della Robbia, dated 1523.  

The castle houses a museum celebrating the city’s famous writer, artist, and inventor, but concentrates on his latter attribute. Dozens of models illustrate Leonardo’s machinery, of which some ideas are still in use today. Canal locks, spinning wheels, looms, and the automaton of the textile industry, to name a few. He was motivated by water and nature, but alas plenty of his innovations never reached maturity.

The restaurant is in a secluded courtyard, where servers were cheerful and eager to explain the menu. Open bruschetta from a traditional recipe, Cantuccini (almond biscuits) dipped into Vin Santo (an Italian dessert wine), and an Aperol spritzer, was my choice. Very tasty and uplifting, and a culinary delight I intend to serve to friends and family.

We almost overlooked the Church of Santa Croce, but were pleased to find it and spent a pleasant fifteen minutes in the church where Leonardo was believed to have been baptised.

We seemed to have worked in a non-chronological order. From his life works to baptism, we then headed out on the road to Anchiano to see his birthplace. Here, the villa where he was born in 1452 and resided until his family moved to Florence, and a nearby farmhouse form the education centre. It didn’t look like there was much to see inside, so we wandered in the lavender and rose gardens, but found out later that there is a full-size hologram of the genius and a touch multimedia application that delivers pictorial works allowing interaction.

We had had an enlightening day, so didn’t feel too disappointed, but next time I think somewhere doesn’t look interesting, I’ll have a peek through the doorway first.

That’s what we did at San Gimignano a day or so after, although we already knew we would be in for a special experience there. This time, it was through the gateways that we glimpsed the age-old town of towers as we drove outside its walls.

After parking, we joined other tourists, and although modern businesses occupy the arcades, it’s like stepping back into a bygone era.

Shop proprietors sell local produce, boars meat and associated items, pasta, spices, and dried petals for sprinkling on salads.

We were drawn into Nino and Friends with the window display of a huge chocolate cascade, where the handmade chocolate tastes rich and creamy. As usual, in Italy, there are numerous leatherworks, the smell of animal hide exuding from entrances appealing, and the selection of bags vast, with prices ranging from reasonable to extravagant. As you have probably guessed, I had quite a shopping spree.

San Gimignano’s famous for its fifteen towers, built by affluent families who competed to build the highest and most magnificent. Centuries later, they still arouse wonder.

There are various piazzas; most popular is the enchanting Piazza Della Cisterna. A large triangular-shaped public space bordered by striking buildings, including some of the towers and, in the middle, a travertine fountain. It links to the town’s largest square, Piazza Duomo, with its churches, series of steps, and murals.

From over the town’s walls, the views are stunning, of lush fields, and terracotta-roofed villas with cypress trees pricking the sky.

Here and there, clothes hang on mini washing lines looped from all sorts of places. I admired a petite slice of ground blocked off with roses, cacti and geraniums in wooden troughs. Two chairs faced the Elsa Valley, an idyllic spot. I thought of the locals, happy to share their compact neighbourhood, but it must be a blessing in the evenings when day-trippers have left and peace reigns again.

The last few days of our Tuscan holiday hurtled by and included a second trip to Florence. Confident with reasonably priced parking at Empoli station, and the train ticket system, we were more at ease. The double-decker train journey was speedy and comfortable, with sights over the countryside splashed with scarlet, purple, pink, and yellow flowers.

On arrival, we chose another route to walk through the metropolis to see different sights and didn’t go inside Santa Maria Del Fiore as we thought we would, forfeiting it instead for the wonders of the Uffizi Palace. Art has a great role in Florentine culture and the gallery is impressive.

Located in the political centre, the magnificent building was originally taken up by the city government in 1560. These days it’s crammed with masterpieces I’ve only seen in books previously. Statues line hallways leading to chains of rooms where photography is permitted for studies and personal use only, but the arts’ true hues aren’t easily captured with the lens, anyway. Among the most memorable are those painted by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Giotto, and Barocci, and pieces painted with tempera or oil paints on wood are fascinating.

The rooftop restaurant, as the name suggests is on the same level as Florence’s iconic roofs. With a balmy breeze and glorious scenery, the location is unforgettable.

Back outside, the Piazza della Signoria is believed to be Florence’s most beautiful square enhanced by its Neptune fountain and other sculptures. Along with the decorative Loggia, it all reminded me of a motionless stage, steeped in art, history, and folklore waiting to metamorphose.

Although we had arrived earlier than the previous week, we still hadn’t seen everything we had intended to, but it was late, so wended our way along the River Arno towards the station and found ourselves on a less glamorous road.

It was unexpected and pleasant, coming across smaller shops, and the discovery of the world’s oldest apothecary. The entrance is a tunnel-like profusion of petals and fragrances that leads to a chamber of perfumed delights packaged uniquely. The business is linked to nearby Santa Novella Church and the Dominican monks who experimented with plants and potions hundreds of years ago.

What a fascinating find, and the perfect end to a fabulous day and holiday – our flight back to England was early the next morning.