Old lady holding a plate with polenta next to an open fire

All of Tuscany seems off-the-beaten path in winter and not even the Uffizi will boast the usual crowds and queues. So imagine how quiet things get in my Tuscan village, where American and Japanese tourists don't even come through in high season.

But one night every February, a barbecue is installed on Cinigiano's town square and the line in front of it will be longer than the one at the Vatican. Winter being cold in southern Tuscany too, lots of red wine will have to be drunk to warm up whilst watching the locals prepare the rivolti, an incredibly basic flour and water only pancake totally appropriate for the start of lent. But Cinigiano being Tuscan - and hence communist at heart - lent isn't taken too seriously, so expect plenty of wine, polenta and fried sausages.


Dress warm and arrive early (before 7.30 pm) to avoid the polenta queue. Not here in winter? Visit Cinigiano and its Montecucco wines during the rest of the year. 

The foodie queue during the 'notte dei rivolti'

Rivolti in a frying pan on an outdoor winter night

Rivolti and polenta in the making


Looking for Tuscany related travel advice? Wondering when to visit, which city to spend an extra day in and what restaurant to avoid at all cost? Map It Out provides trip planning help for individual travelers and small groups, who plan to taste the best wine and dodge the worst meal. 

Some Siena or Florence tips are relevant for most visitors and can be easily found on the internet or right here on my blogs (how to skip the Uffizi queue again and which organic Brunello winery to visit) - other recommendations for your stay in Tuscany will depend on taste, age and interests of the traveler exploring our hills.


For more local insight and 
info about Map It Out's expert advice for your Tuscan itinerary send Katja an email (more about me here). My tailor-made tips for recommended sights, winery visits and booking service of hands-on activities or guided tours during your holiday normally cost between 90€ and 150€ (depending on the size of group and type / amount of customized travel advice needed). Travel consulting is normally via email; as an alternative a skype call can be organized on request. 

Or just visit the Map It Out Instagram or Facebook stream, to consult my very own Best of Tuscany itinerary. My favorite days start in a Tuscan museum or with an off-the-beaten-path hike, lead to a good local meal accompanied by a fine glass of wine and end on a lonely beach.  

a DIY beach hut on the Alberese National park beach


Queues, overpriced gelato and queues again. Florence can be tiring. Let alone with kids. But exploring the Florentine Renaissance dream can also be lots of fun thanks to the many educative and inspiring guided tours - especially with kids. With a playful and less intellectualizing introduction to Italy's art, history and cultural heritage everybody has a better time, the adults too. 

The most knowledgeable person I turn to when planning a day in Florence with children is Molly McIlwrath. As a licensed tour guide with a five year old daughter she knows from first hand experience what will work for families traveling with kids, and - maybe even more importantly - what definitely won't. 

Florence artisan tour with Molly McIlwrath
Molly explaining the techniques in Luigi Mecocci's wood carving studio in Florence

Avid reader and creative mind at large, Molly is also involved in the planning of hands-on activities in some of Florence best museums and art schools (many of them are available in English thanks to the big expat community in town). 

One of my favorite upcoming treats is the children's art and food workshop during which kids produce a vegetable based self-portrait inspired by Arcimboldo's artwork and hopefully end up eating some if too. 

Most of Molly's private tours end in one of Florence artisan shops in the Oltrarno quarters. I'm planning to sign our family up for one this winter. Not as a threat to our children (three hours of Renaissance studies since you didn't tidy up your bedroom), but as a premium for good behavior - together with an ice cream at the great gelateria in piazza della Passera. Molly obviously knows about that one too and is more than happy to supply countless tips and addresses of Florence' best shops, restaurants, bars, museums and ice cream parlors to keep your family busy for days after the tour. 

  • To book a tailor-made tour in Forence for families with kids send me an email


I'm no friend of nativity scenes, but there is no Christmas in Italy without a presepe (I could also do without Christmas, but that's a different story). Tuscany's creches come in all shapes and materials and whilst the manger scene at my in-laws is made of plastic other households show off elaborately carved artisan figures under their Christmas tree. However, thmost exciting cribs are found outdoors or in former barns and pigsties, where real people freeze off their sandal wearing feet for their method acting performance of Mary or Joseph (the newborn is mostly fake though). 

Perhaps my Christmas crib aversion has to do with being a mother and knowing that the last thing you need right after having given birth is an incessant stream of strangers popping in to say hello. All the jolly men and rejoicing animals jamming it around the crib and everything Maria probably hoped for was a female friend to help her get up - unless immaculate conceptions not just lead to high-speed pregnancies but also culminate in pain free births as a reward for foregoing a sex life. 

Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli (today in the Uffizi)
It's a man's world 

As a mother I also know that kids love nativity scenes. Especially if they show off great lighting effects or are constructed with Lego. Years ago our children were glued to one of the creches exhibited at the monastery in Abbadia San Salvatore on southern Tuscany's mount Amiata. I had time to admire the 36 impressively sculpted columns in the abbey's crypt whilst the kids tried to stop a sheep on short circuit from eating up baby Jesus. It was a perfect Christmas day, most of it spent skiing on an empty Mount Amiata followed by a 21st century salvation of Gesù bambino.

After all these years in Italy (and after having been raised as a catholic in Switzerland) I must have seen millions of cribs. Whether artisan sculpted, assembled in China or painfully paper mached by the pupils of our Tuscan elementary school, the experience of admiring them doesn't foster kindness in me. In some occasions, the result is the exact opposite and my personal irritation levels hit peak scores when the artistic installations block out already scarce parking spots in medieval hilltop towns - just when everybody needed a last minute Christmas present. 

Nativity scene and road signs in Monticello Amiata

Nevertheless we've decided to look at a couple of manger scenes up close this holiday season to introduce our children to the gender issue. All the animals and gay looking angels don't make up for the fact that there is only one woman in the play; and she's obviously never been meant to say anything. Being eight and ten years old, my daughter and son are old enough to visit some of Italy's best known nativity scenes so as to reflect on the number of male and female actors in leading and supporting roles and to compare the result with the ratio encountered in the latest Hollywood productions (they can't wait!). 

Using a scientific approach we'll be starting at Siena's biblioteca degli Intronati, which exhibits the hand painted nativity scenes depicted in some of its oldest books (the beautiful public library also has a great children's book section). From the Middle Ages in Siena we're off to the Renaissance city to see one of the few Christmas parties I keep coming back to: Benozzo Gozzoli's extensive and colorful frescoes in the Magi chapel in Florence's palazzo Medici Riccardi (one of the must sees on my three days in Florence with kids and the Firenze card itinerary).

After that we'll drive to the sea to compare our Renaissance data with the cast of the presepi viventi performed in Porto Ercole and Porto Santo Stefano on the Monte Argentario peninsula. This stop will also give us the time to collect some drift wood to build our own presepe on my favorite Tuscan beach

Then it's back inland to Casole d'Elsa near Siena, which promotes itself miglior presepe vivente in Italia, Italy's best living nativity scene. I would have thought this title goes to Matera in the Basilicata where a good thousand people participate in a four day nativity enacting, but since Matera just left Siena empty handed after winning thtitle for European Capital of Culture 2019, I'm overjoyed to hear that the best live act of the holy family is still happening in down-town Tuscany. 

From Casole we might consider a pilgrimage along the 70 kilometers of the newly found 'Strada dei Presepi' between Florence and Pisa or head to Umbria, which is not just Italy's region with the highest number of saints but thanks to St. Francis also the birth place of presepe making. But by that time the kids will probably be ready to go back to school. 

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