The delights of Tuscany are well known to Britain's middle classes, but their forays tend to be confined to the major city destinations such as Florence, Siena and Pisa. To the north west of the region can be found an area of outstanding natural beauty, and faultless hospitality - Garfagnana.
Garfagnana is basically the area around the valley formed by the Serchio river, bounded on the west by the Apuan Alps, a branch of the Alps proper which stretches down Italy's western seaboard, and to the east by the Apennine Mountains. By far the easiest way to gain access to the valley from the autostrada (the motorway system) is at the ancient walled city of Lucca. Lucca itself is a heritage town which is well worth a visit, but whatever you do, don't eat in the central piazza - the restaurants here are geared for tourists and you'll pay far too much for tasteless, microwaved food. You're much better off searching the back streets for a tiny osteria where the owner/chef actually gives a damn.
Driving north from Lucca along the S12, you get an idea what to expect - the road snakes along the side of the river because there isn't really anywhere else for it to go. Every few miles, the current side of the river will become a sheer cliff face and the road will take refuge across the water, often via a small stone bridge which clearly wasn't designed for modern traffic. The problems for unaccustomed drivers are compounded by the locals who appear to view driving etiquette and speed limits as theoretical devices which may slow down tourists, but are obviously not aimed at them.
Then, the road divides. The S12 heads off to Bagni di Lucca, a medieval spa town. To get deeper into Garfagnana you take a left on the S445. All of the earlier characteristics of the road are now doubled, as the peaks of the Apuan Alps rise almost 2,000m/6,500 feet into cloud. Undaunted by the gradients, the slopes either side are dotted with villas, in locations which appear to be beyond the reach of any normal vehicle. In fact, a diversion along a side road will reveal a series of tight hairpin bends allowing the road to wind precariously up to heights which will, when you look back down, make you dizzy.
One of the finest towns in the region is Barga, set atop a hill at the end of one such road. A map of it must look more like an anatomical diagram of a small intestine. Parking here is rare, and if you do, then the gradients will test your handbrake severely. Your visit to Barga will afford magnificent views over the valley, classic fortified, hilltop architecture, and fine restaurants.
If you are approaching Barga from the western side of the river, you may be tempted to cross at the village of Fornaci di Barga via a bridge which has a width restriction. You are strongly advised not to do this on anything wider than a motorcycle. The bridge is narrow, just wide enough for a single car (heaven knows what happens when two cars meet), but the real fun starts on the eastern bank. Here your car has to pass through a tunnel under the railway which has only a couple of centimetres of clearance either side of an Opel Corsa; and just to add to the fun, it's curved. If you chicken out, you'll have to reverse back across that single-width bridge. Nightmare-inducing stuff.
The region is full of restaurants which approach the discerning visitor's dream of a proper Italian family eating-place, relatively unspoilt by tourism, serving simple but tremendously fresh ingredients cooked with skills handed down from a grandmother's grandmother. Many places serve local delicacies, particularly wild boar, but for a peerless meal, turn west at Gallicano - follow the signs for Grotta del Vento, one of the region's premier tourist attractions, whose name means literally 'The Caves of the Wind' - and head high into the mountains to the tiny village of Fornovolasco. Barely even a hamlet, it's just a car park by a river and a few buildings. One of these is your destination Rifugio La Buca, down at the end by the weir. The front door leads into the bar area, but instead go round the side and up a few stairs for the restaurant. This isn't classy food: the surroundings are cheap, your glass may be cracked, and the wine is poured from a plastic container, but it's quintessential rustic home cooking. The local brown trout is gloriously fresh, and doesn't need more than simple baking with a few herbs to be absolutely delicious.
If you want to leave this beautiful area for more traditional holiday pursuits, the sea is only about 25km/15 miles away, with resorts such as Viareggio and Forte dei Marmi. There's only one problem: the mountains. Firstly they are very high and very steep, so the roads through them twist and turn, and climb and fall, like a Cossack dancer with a ferret down his trousers. Secondly these mountains are the source of the world's finest marble, and on the seaward side you'll find the city of Carrara which was built on the pure white rock, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately, to get from the quarries to Carrara, huge blocks of stone have to be carried on the back of even bigger lorries, and if you meet one of those coming the other way, give way to it. If you don't like the idea of driving a car that feels more like a cross between a big dipper and a dodgem, or if you're in a hurry, it's much quicker and easier to drive back down to Lucca, across towards Pisa, and then up the coast road - but you'll miss some breathtaking views.
Garfagnana does allow access to the traditional tourist cities of Lucca, Pisa, and - at a push - Florence, but its appeal lies more in its isolation, its lack of tourism and its striking scenery. As such, it works better as a second week destination so you can recover from the strains and stresses of queueing, white-knuckle driving and getting ripped off. For those who want to see a piece of real Italy, traditional, but not stuck in the past, it cannot be beaten.