Sunday, 16 December 2012

Nice family-friendly hotel in Chianti

For those seeking a nice family-friendly hotel in Chianti, I have no hesitation in recommending Hotel Villa Sangiovese which is located in the charming town of Panzano in Chianti. Panzano is exactly mid-way between Florence and Sienna, on the scenic Via Chiantigiana, and it is also the highest point on that road. This means that the Hotel Villa Sangiovese is an perfect base from which to explore Chianti and to visit Florence and Sienna. Day trips by car further afield in Tuscany are perfectly practical.
Nice family-friendly hotel in Chianti Hotel Villa Sangiovese
Hotel Villa Sangiovese at Panzano in Chianti, Tuscany
Hotel Villa Sangiovese is amazingly happily situated. The front door opens onto Panzano's main piazza while behind the villa are the gardens, swimming pool and terrace looking towards the church in the middle of Panzano. Town and country in one.

The hotel has an excellent restaurant specialising in bistecca alla fiorentina, along with some unusually good fish dishes. The latter have been inspired by the friendly Swiss owners who have owned the hotel for almost 25 years. The large but enclosed gardens are a perfect spot for children of all ages to run free.

Don't forget, if you would prefer to stay in a self-catering apartment or on a winery, check our list of owner-direct family-friendly vacation rentals.

More about Hotel Villa Sangiovese in Panzano in Chianti.

More about family friendly accommodation in Tuscany.

Today's top links: For everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Tuscany: The Chianti Travel Guide and The Greve in Chianti Tuscany Blog.




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Saturday, 15 December 2012

Sights and attractions of the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, Italy

The Val d'Orcia, the valley of the River Orcia, sometimes written Valdorcia is located to the SE of Sienna and is one of the most famous areas of Tuscany. Indeed, it is a UNESCO world heritage site. So today, let me say a little bit about the sights and attractions of the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, Italy. The attractiveness of the Val d'Orcia for many lies in what I've previously called its "big sky" panoramas. The hills are rolling on the grand scale, at least by Tuscan standards, and are virtually unforested, making the characteristic dark green silhouettes of umbrella pines and cypress trees on distant horizons all the more appealing. There are also areas of highly characteristic badlands where the whitish clays, known as the crete senesi, has been eroded by the rain into what are often referred to as "lunar landscapes". It is these clays that have made parts of the Val d'Orcia so very difficult to farm in the past. Many of the most famous views of the Val d'Orcia feature the volcanic cone of Monte Amiata rising up in the background.

Sights and attractions of the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany, Italy
Iconic casa colonica and cypresses in the Val d'Orcia.
However, the Val d'Orcia is by no means simply a collection of magnificent landscapes. It includes five of the most charming hill towns in Tuscany, namely Pienza, Montalcino, San Quirico D’Orcia, Castiglione D’Orcia and Radicofani - as well as numerous castles and villas. One of the most famous of the latter is La Foce, home of the late Iris Origo whose evocative books about life in the Val d'Orcia, especially during World War II, are a must read. The grounds of La Foce are open to the public from time to time and represent probably the most famous creation of Cecil Pinsent.

View of the Valdorcia
Misty morning in the Valdorcia.
If you base yourself in the area between Montepulciano and Pienza, in addition to those two "must sees", any and all of Montalcino, Montefollonico, Monticchiello and Bagno Vignoni are worth a visit. Those interested in religion, art and architecture won't want to miss the very picturesque abbeys of Monte Oliveto and Sant’Antimo, at both of which there is Gregorian chant by the monks. Montalcino is close by Sant'Antimo. Other unspoilt villages include Castelmuzio, Montisi, Petroio and Trequanda. Petroio in particular is the place that time forgot and few tourists go there even in August.

Beautiful motoring routes include Pienza to San Quirico. Montefollonico - Castelmuzio - San Giovanni d'Asso - Asciano - Sienna is another must-do road. Yet another is SS 153 (the Pienza to Radicofani road) that goes right through the heart of the Val d'Orcia, and then, possibly best of all, San Quirico - Castiglione d'Orcia - Castelnuovo d'Abate - Montalcino.

Even if you don't base yourselves there for part of your vacation in Tuscany, the Val d'Orcia should not be missed. It's easily accessible for a day excursion from Chianti, Sienna and also the areas around Arezzo and Cortona.

Castles of the Val d'Orcia include:
Rocca di Tentennano.
Rocca Aldobrandesca.
Ripa d'Orcia.

More about the Val d'Orcia.

Another great Val d'Orcia photo.

Today's top links: For everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Tuscany: The Chianti Travel Guide and The Greve in Chianti Tuscany Blog.




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Friday, 14 December 2012

Tuscany by bike: self-guided bicycling tours in Tuscany

Today I have a few tips on a subject very popular with Tuscans as well as tourists, namely, Tuscany by bike: self-guided bicycling tours in Tuscany. Cycling for pleasure and fitness is extremely popular in Tuscany, as it is throughout Italy, despite (or perhaps because of) Tuscany being on the whole very hilly. The network of lightly-travelled country roads passing through very scenic areas from one picturesque sight to another makes it a real pleasure to get around Tuscany by bike. The idea is NOT to ride within or through the outskirts of the major cities, notably Florence. Unless local experts advise otherwise, put your bike in the baggage space under a bus and start your ride from out in the country.

Tuscany by bike: self-guided bicycling tours in Tuscany
Cycling through the Tuscan countryside - pure joy!
Because cycling as a sport is so popular in Tuscany, there are numerous excellent bike route books available. Some are published by bicycling clubs and others by individual enthusiasts. The routes described as well as the quality of the maps have to be taken into account when choosing your cycling atlas. After you've done a bit if research, it will become evident which are the classic rides. These latter are the ones for a first time visitor to Tuscany to stick with.

Click here to see my recent post on where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany.


My recommendation is to buy one or more bicycle route books well before you depart for your vacation so that you can plan your itinerary and accommodation around the routes rather than vice versa. For example, one of the classic bike rides is from Florence to Sienna and back, along the Via Chiantigiana. Florentines start off from wherever they live in Florence but they have the experience on how to avoid or at least deal with traffic. Newcomers should either take the SITA bus out of Florence or plan to stay in the country and join the cycling routes near where they are staying.

Cycling in Tuscany - Tuscany on a bike
All set to go! Tuscany by bike.

There are several guided bicycle tours of Tuscany offered on the internet. These have the advantage of providing the bikes, a support vehicle and accommodation booked along the routes, plus, of course, the planning of the route itself. Some are accompanied by a guide while other provide a route plan and are effectively self-guided. Personally, I don't think it's necessary to lock oneself into an organised tour, guided or self-guided. Armed with a good route book, you can easily choose a base and nearby routes. On the other hand, if the organised tour provides the bicycles, you could well save a lot of time unless you are experienced at shipping your own bike.

bicycling in Tuscany
All set to win the Eroica!

e-Bikes in Tuscany


For those of you who are not as fit as you used to be, the availability of very user-friendly power-assisted e-bikes (electric bikes, booster bikes) opens up the wonderful world of bicycle exploration of Tuscany. Once again, I recommend to make at least your initial excursions on the back roads, including dirt roads, where there is little traffic, little noise and plenty to see. e-Bikes are readily available as rentals and for the Chianti area of Tuscany, I can strongly recommend Tuscany e-Bike Rental snc. They are located in Gaiole in Chianti, but will transport your bikes to you within any reasonable distance of Gaiole.

More about Tuscany e-Bike rentals in Tuscany.

Tuscany e-bike rentals
e-Bikes in Tuscany


I have reviewed a selection of cycling atlases of Italy and Tuscany here.

A comprehensive assortment of Tuscany bicycling route books

Secure travel accessories

Today's top links: For everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Tuscany: The Chianti Travel Guide and The Greve in Chianti Tuscany Blog.



Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit Elena Spolaor's
Travel Guide!

Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany & Umbria.

Chianti Travel Guide


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Monday, 10 December 2012

The Mercato Centrale in Florence is not the same as the San Lorenzo Market!

Today we have a post of interest to visitors to Florence. I want to demonstrate emphatically that the Mercato Centrale in Florence is not the same as the San Lorenzo Market! They may be right next to one another, but that's all they have in common.

Here's the take-home message right at the start. The Mercato Centrale is a marvellous meat, seafood, charcuterie, fruit and vegetable market patronised by Florentines. It's housed in a beautiful 1874 Art Deco iron and glass structure and is one of the most interesting and colourful markets in Europe. In contrast, the outdoor San Lorenzo market is a crowded cluster of booths and barrows populated by aggressive touts selling overpriced tourist tat, mainly of Chinese and Indian origin.

Let's go first at the Mercato Centrale of Firenze. Here's how it looks, outside and in.

The Mercato Centrale in Florence is not the same as the San Lorenzo Market
The exterior of the Mercato Centrale in Florence.

Mercato Centrale Firenze
Just one of dozens of produce stands in the Mercato Centrale.
The Mercato Centrale is not only a wonderful place to buy your fresh produce, meat, salumi, fish, cheese, olive oil, sweets, herbs and spices, but it is also so colourful and full of life with great opportunities for some very creative photoshoots. You can also eat well at the little restaurants and food stalls inside the Mercato where you will find Tuscan home cooking, including (BUT NOT LIMITED TO!) favorite Florentine dishes such as lampredotto (tripe). (Avoid Gastronomia Perini's meat and cheese counter. They have a reputation for cheating tourists on the grand scale.)

The Mercato opens Monday through Saturday early in the morning (7 am) and closes at 2 pm. By 1.30 pm many of the stalls are already closed or closing. The Mercato Centrale is an easy stroll from the Duomo.

Mercato San Lorenzo a Firenze
Tourist souvenirs on sale at the Mercato San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo market in Florence
Almost outside the door of the Mercato Centrale is the open air Mercato San Lorenzo. Many years ago, San Lorenzo was a local market that specialised in high quality, Italian-made leather articles ranging from hand bags through jackets to leather coats. The market has long since changed into an area catering solely to tourists and manned mostly by non-Italians. The goods are largely of Chinese and Indian origin, and, despite a reputation for allowing haggling, the prices are very uniform for the same item. Those labelled 'Made in Italy', when not outright fakes, are made in Chinese sweatshops in Prato. In addition to the endless hats, T shirts and scarves, there are leather goods (and plenty of vinyl goods masquerading as leather goods) but generally of very poor quality. The mismatched pieces of leather fade badly and fade at different rates, and often rip under the slightest tension. The vendors are extremely aggressive and the place is a haven for pickpockets. The shops associated with the stalls and to which customers are often lead are not better in the quality that they offer but ARE better adapted to the hard sell. In summary, unless you want to pick up a few inexpensive gifts for friends back home, there is no good reason to come to San Lorenzo Market.

Note: a classic scam practised by some vendors at this market works as follows.  You order a couple of high quality leather jackets in a size currently out of stock, to be send to you by post. What arrives is a rubbishy item nothing like what you ordered, but your credit card is charged for two expensive jackets. You contest this with your card company but the vendor has a shipping receipt. The card company says there's nothing they can do.

Secure travel accessories

Today's top links: For everything you need to know about what to do and where to stay in Tuscany: The Chianti Travel Guide and The Greve in Chianti Tuscany Blog.




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Sunday, 9 December 2012

Bed and Breakfast in a genuine Tuscan villa

Have you ever felt the desire to find a Bed and Breakfast in a genuine Tuscan villa? It's not easy because most of the Tuscan villas offering vacation accommodation are not real villas at all, they are Tuscan farm houses (case coloniche - see my post on when is a Tuscan villa not a Tuscan villa!). However, today I want to tell you a bit about Corte di Valle which is a splendid (and genuine) villa located near Castello Vicchiomaggio, about 40 minutes south of Florence in the Chianti Classico wine district. Corte di Valle offers large B&B rooms as well as two vacation apartments in another building on the property. The villa has a beautiful swimming pool for the use of guests, as well as its own restaurant. A tour of the cellars and a wine tasting can be arranged.

Bed and Breakfast in a genuine Tuscan villa
Villa Corte di Valle in the foreground with Castello Vicchiomaggio
on the hill top in the background.
Corte di Valle offers 13 spacious, 2 person, B&B rooms, many with air conditioning available. These B&B rooms are ideal accommodation for wedding parties as well as for couples and families looking for a base from which to explore Chianti and elsewhere in Tuscany, as well as to do day trips to Florence. A car helps but there is a bus stop right outside the gate where one can catch the bus for central Florence. Corte di Valle is one of the great places to stay in Chianti.

More about Corte di Valle Chianti villa Bed and Breakfast accommodations.




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Saturday, 8 December 2012

Palazzo Davanzati cocktail evenings 2013

The opportunity afforded by the Bargello Museum to admire the works of art there after hours while sipping a glass of wine has now moved to the wonderful Palazzo Davanzati, one of the great under-estimated sights of Florence. Palazzo Davanzati cocktail evenings 2013 actually begin now and continue every Friday evening until 1 February 2013, with the exception of 28 December 2012 and 4 January 2013. The aperitif evening at the Davanzati Palace takes place from 7 pm to 10.30 pm and costs €15 per person. A reservation is recommended (Tel. 055 294883).

Palazzo Davanzati cocktail evenings
One of the spectacular rooms of the Palazzo Davazati.
For me, the Palazzo Davanzati is one of the most enjoyable and educational museums in Florence and I strongly recommend that you seize any opportunity to spend some time there.

The Palazzo Davanzati was built during the second half of the 14 C by the Davizzi, a family of very rich wool merchants. In 1516, it was sold to the Bartolini family and, later in the same century, to the Davanzati family, also rich merchants, in whose hands it remained until 1838. The palazzo was then divided into flats and suffered severe structural damage. However, in 1904 it was restored by the antique furniture dealer Elia Volpi, who opened it to the public in 1910 as the Museo Privato della Casa Fiorentina Antica. He used it to display his stock of antique furniture. After passing through other hands, the palazzo was purchased in 1951 by the Italian government and opened once more to the public in 1956. A major restoration became necessary in 1995 and this work continued more or less until 2012 when all floors were finally re-opened to the public. The Palazzo Davanzati is now restored as closely as possible to its original 14 C appearance with the corresponding furnishings and decorations, some from that period and some later. The effect is dramatic. It really is as if we have returned to the 14 C and gained entry into the private domain of one of the incredibly wealthy Florentine families of that period. Don't miss it!

Opening hours:

Every day of the week from 8.15 am to 1.50 pm.
Closed on the second and fourth Sundays of the month and the first, third and fifth Mondays of the month, New Year’s Day, 1 May and Christmas Day.

The areas that can be visited are the ground-floor loggia and the first floor (Salone Madornale, Sala dei Pappagalli, Studiolo, Camera dei Pavoni and the two rooms displaying lace).

Access to the second floor (Salone Madornale, Camera da letto della Castellana di Vergy, Studiolo, Sala da Pranzo) and the third floor (Kitchen and Camera delle impannate) is organised for accompanied group visits, on request and by appointment, at 10.00, 11.00 and 12.00 on the normal opening days.

Tel: 0039 055 2388610
Fax: 0039 055 289805
E-mail: museo.davanzati@polomuseale.firenze.it



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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Best place to stay in Chianti, Italy

If you will be staying outside of the big towns in Tuscany for part or all of your vacation (something that I strongly recommend), then Chianti is definitely one of the great locations. Rather than a hotel, I will be recommending good holiday villas, Chianti farm houses and vacation apartments. The Chianti hills, with their case coloniche, olive trees, vineyards and forests, are more intimate than in the Val d'Orcia, for example. The hilltop villages of Chianti are better preserved and both Florence and Sienna are readily accessible for day trips from almost any place in Chianti. Of course, no one can tell you the best place to stay in Chianti, Italy! However, I'm happy recommend a good selection of accommodations that I have personally visited in Chianti. The list below links mostly to Tuscan farm houses, agriturismi, vacation rental apartments and B&Bs, but I have also included a couple of hotels with loads of character. At the bottom is a link to a complete list of my recommended Tuscan vacation rentals. Enjoy!

Best place to stay in Chianti, Italy
Could this be the best place to stay in Chianti, Italy?




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Saturday, 1 December 2012

Apartment to rent in a small town or village in Tuscany

I often see enquiries on travel forums, from travellers preparing for their trip to Tuscany, requesting a recommendation for an apartment to rent in a small town or village in Tuscany. They have the right idea! There's no better way to enjoy and really understand life here in Tuscany than by renting a self-catering vacation apartment outside of the main centres. And it's economical as well! Today I want to describe just such a place, namely Appartamento Saverio in Greve in Chianti which sleeps 4 in a double room and a twin room, and can sleep two more on a sofa bed.

Apartment to rent in a small town or village in Tuscany
An apartment to rent in a small town or village in Tuscany
The apartment that I'm recommending today is situated right on Piazza Matteotti, the arcaded, main piazza of the small town of Greve in Chianti. Greve has around 14,000 inhabitants and is located on the scenic via Chiantigiana, the main road between Florence and Siena. Greve is accessible by bus from Florence (60 minutes to the centre of Florence) and Appartamento Saverio is a five minute walk from the bus stop, meaning that you don't need a car to get here nor to make excursions to Florence. There is a good supermarket in the town plus numerous restaurants and food outlets, many of them around Piazza Matteotti. And yet, in most directions, a 15 minute stroll takes you out into the vineyards and olive groves, and the mediaeval walled village of Montefioralle is just a mile away.

The apartment is large and both the structure and the furnishings are typically Tuscan, with a huge fireplace in the living room. In fact, the buildings around Piazza Matteotti date back several hundred years. Appartamento Saverio has two modern bathroom and a huge terrace that overlooks the piazza. A great place for a dinner al fresco or just to sit and enjoy the sun while watching the activity of the piazza. In essence, if you're looking for an apartment to rent in a small town or village in Tuscany, Appartamento Saverio should be at or near the top of the list!

More about Tuscany Holiday Apartment "Saverio" in Greve in Chianti.




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Friday, 12 October 2012

Why is Tuscan bread so bad?

Of all the misplaced expectations that visitors to Tuscany report, bread probably leads the pack. "Why is Tuscan bread so bad?", they ask. Well, if eaten the way the Tuscans eat it, Tuscan bread isn't bad, it's good. But it is unlike the crusty "Italian bread" sold in the States and, indeed, unlike most of the other breads sold in the homelands of our visitors.

Tuscan bread
Tuscan bread
Tuscan bread is saltless and contains no keepers to maintain freshness. This means that it bakes with a light-coloured and sometimes soft crust, is fine grained and turns into concrete by lunchtime. It is therefore not what you want if your breakfast or lunch is bread or toast, with butter and jam. Hotels often provide Tuscan bread at breakfast time because guests have asked for bread over the years, but the results are usually bad because the hotels have no idea of what a toast and jam breakfast is, and the guests completely misconceive the place of Tuscan bread on the table. So when you're here in Tuscany, you should either enjoy an Italian breakfast, meaning a sweet pastry and a coffee at a local bar, or buy the appropriate bread from a supermarket ("foreign" breakfast breads are, in fact, available in Supermarkets but rarely at bakeries).

For lunch, sandwich bread substitutes are readily available and extremely popular in Tuscany, forming, as they do, the basis for panini, the popular Italian take away sandwich lunch. Various forms of schiacciatina are often used to create a panino, essentially a sandwich with the major difference that butter is almost always replaced with olive oil. Many Tuscan households don't use butter from one week to the next.

So how should Tuscan bread be eaten? In essence, Tuscan bread accompanies all phases of an Italian meal except the dolce (dessert). That's why there's always a huge basket of bread in the middle of the table and also why it should always arrive at your table early on during a restaurant meal. Slices of bread, moistened by spreads of olive oil, chopped tomatoes and so on, might also be served up as an antipasto in the form of crostini, bruschetta or fettunta. Tuscan bread goes perfectly with salty antipasti such as salami and prosciutto, but remember to pour a bit of olive oil onto your bread to soften it up and add flavour just before eating it. During the pasta and main courses, you use your bread to finish off any sauce left on the plate.

In the country, the evening meal might consist mostly of dishes based primarily on bread. Indeed, when the rural regions of Italy were much poorer than they are now, bread and oil were the staff of life, and dishes like ribollita and panzanella were eaten every day. Ribollita - the word means 're-boiled' - is a winter 'soup' that consists mostly of the day's remaining bread added to a pot of white beans, vegetables and, most important of all, a kale called cavolo nero. Generations of Tuscans have survived the winter eating ribollita. Panzanella is a summer dish, basically a light bread salad that also uses up the bread left at the end of the day.

Conclusion? When in Tuscany, as far as bread is concerned, do as the Tuscans do and you'll discover that our bread is perfectly adapted to complement our delicious traditional dishes!

More about Tuscan culinary specialities.

Useful information on what it costs to eat out in Tuscany.

All about ordering coffee in Tuscany.




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Chianti Travel Guides and Chianti Tourist Information

Here I would like to provide some useful links for those seeking reliable Chianti travel guides and Chianti tourist information. The following websites are among the most comprehensive in terms of information for visitors on what to see and things to do in the Chianti area of Tuscany and also to other parts of Tuscany, Italy. At the bottom of this post, I've also placed a link to a good selection of travel guide books available from Amazon along with my recommendations.

Chianti Travel Guides and Chianti Tourist Information
A classic Tuscan farmhouse (casa colonica)
One of the first and still one of the best websites devoted to Chianti is www.greve-in-chianti.com (established 1997) which is a travel guide not only to Greve in Chianti, the market town of the Chianti Classico area, but also to many points of interest in the surrounding area. It offers an excellent owner-direct list of vacation accommodation in Chianti. I also publish articles there from time to time on different aspects of Tuscan life plus tips for tourists visiting Tuscany: Tuscany Blog. My friend and colleague, Elena Spolaor, is rapidly expanding her Chianti Blog at www.chiantitravelguide.com

www.bella-toscana.com (1998) is a travel guide website containing a mass of useful and information on Tuscany - architecture, history, food, wine, accommodation as well as links to tourist information websites about individual towns throughout the region. Their map of Tuscany has similar links to towns, monasteries, villas, mountains and other geographical points of interest to tourists in Tuscany and also Umbria.

Another excellent Chianti travel guide is www.chianti.info (2001). Despite its name, this travel guide website covers not only Chianti but provides tourist information on other parts of Tuscany. Do you want to gather, or simply eat, porcini mushrooms? To grill, or simply eat, a bistecca alla fiorentina? Learn about the history of the part of Tuscany known as Chianti? This site is for you!

Two smaller, more recent but increasingly popular travel guide sites are www.chianti-italy.com and www.tuscanyitaly.com. The former provides a list of air conditioned vacation rentals among other things, while the latter offers a comprehensive list of events and fairs, and a list of market days throughout Tuscany.

My recommendations for the best Tuscany guide books are:
- for those interested in the details of history and architecture, the Blue Guides, namely Blue Guide Florence and Blue Guide Tuscany. These are excellent scholarly guide books.
- for those who prefer diagrams more than text, the best guide book, in my opinion, is the Eyewitness Travel Guide: Florence & Tuscany. This is quite a weighty book to carry but it's packed with excellent illustrated maps, cut-away illustrations of architecture and so on.

I have assembled a comprehensive list of Tuscany travel guide books available from Amazon here. Titles and some reviews of more specific interests are as follows:

Some general Tuscany guide books.
Cycling in Tuscany.
Hiking in Tuscany.
Gardens of Tuscany.
Orchids in Tuscany




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Saturday, 6 October 2012

What does it cost to eat out in Tuscany?

After researching accommodation costs in Tuscany, voyagers preparing for their visit often next ask "What does it cost to eat out in Tuscany?" The short answer is that, even at current exchange rates, restaurant prices are good and you can probably enjoy an equivalent meal for less in Tuscany than back home. Furthermore, excellent, light and healthy, takeaway foods are available throughout Tuscany. I was prompted to write this post because several tourists have told me recently that they were surprised at how cheap it is to eat here, suggesting that there might be a few misconceptions out there.

What does it cost to eat out in Tuscany
Eating out in a Tuscan restaurant - an important part of your visit to Tuscany
My colleague Elena Spolaor has provided detailed information, including sample prices, on the subject of restaurant prices in Tuscany here, but let me summarise.

Breakfast in Tuscany is usually a cappuccino and a pastry. Nevertheless, there are hotels and B&B's that provide a cooked breakfast or more often a buffet. My recommendation is to stick with a coffee and pastry.

Lunch can be a huge meal but would not be followed by another huge meal at dinner time. As a tourist, your daylight hours are valuable. I therefore recommend that you again follow local custom and have a sandwich, a panino, assembled under your guidance at one of the many paninoteche dotted around every city and town in Tuscany.

Dinner is the main meal of the day in Italy and starts at 8 pm or later. A full dinner consists of antipasti, primo piato, often pasta, main course (secondo) and dessert (dolce). However, you are under no compulsion at all to eat your way through a full meal. For many, a pasta dish and a dessert, for example, is more than enough.

If economy is important, you can avoid restaurants altogether by renting a self-catering apartment. Outside the big cities and sometimes also within them, you can rent a vacation apartment for less than it costs to stay in a hotel. You can then either cook your own meals or, for not much more expenditure, buy ready to eat hot and cold food in supermarkets and the many other food outlets for enjoyment in the relaxed environment of your own accommodation. Restaurants make their profit on the wines, so you can save significantly by buying your wine from supermarkets for consumption at your apartment.

More about restaurant prices in Tuscany.

More about coffee and coffee prices in Tuscany.





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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Where to stay in Chianti

Chianti is rightly regarded as one of the most popular places to stay in Tuscany. Before arranging your visit, sometimes decisions have to be made when deciding on where to stay in Chianti during your vacation. Here are some helpful hints in this regard:

Where to stay in Chianti

  • Village apartment or rural farmhouse ("villa")? For those who plan to dine out with plentiful wine accompanying their meals, it can make sense to choose accommodation within walking distance of restaurants, and that usually means in town or, if the place is small like Greve in Chianti, then right on the outskirts. Greve has real agriturismi within walking distance of the main piazza. But see the next point.
  • Swimming pool or not? If you definitely want a pool, you'll need to stay in a rural area because only hotels have pools in town, and town hotels are very rare in Chianti in any case. Don't forget, however, that there are good public swimming pools in some towns, again notably in Greve in Chianti.
  • Multi-unit accommodation or stand-alone farmhouse? Usually multi-unit vacation rentals are more economical if only because the swimming pool and possibly some other facilities, such as a barbeque, are shared. Some people also like the company. For others who prefer complete privacy and tranquility, having your own place to stay out in the country is the way to go.
  • Do I need WiFi? More and more visitors to Chianti wish or need to have access to the internet during their vacation. In response, most of the places to stay in Chianti offer WiFi if it's technically possible. Not all of them specify this on their websites so be sure to ask. Truly remote farmhouses will probably not have an ADSL line.
  • Must the road be sealed? If you plan to stay outside of town, be prepared for at least some gravel roads. These "strade bianche" pose no special challenges and often lead to very picturesque sights - castles, romanesque churches, monasteries, ancient farmhouses and tower houses.
  • Access to public transport? The most efficient way, time-wise, to visit the sights of Chianti is by car, either driving yourself or by hiring a driver-guide. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see many places by walking and by using public transport - almost always a bus, since there are no trains within the Chianti Classico part of Chianti. Many rural accommodations have a bus stop nearby but be sure to study and understand the bus time tables. See Chianti without a car.
  • Near Florence or near Sienna? This depends almost solely on whether or not you will have your own car. From Castellina southwards, the buses run to Sienna. From Panzano northwards, the buses run to Florence. Both of these famous art cities, located at the northerly and southerly boundaries of the Chianti Classico area respectively, are readily accessible by car from anywhere in Chianti in usually less than an hour.
Map of Chianti with links to town-specific websites.

More about what to expect from your Chianti vacation rental accommodation.




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Sunday, 23 September 2012

How to get to Fiesole from Florence

Fiesole is a charming little town located high in the hills above Florence. Fiesole was in fact founded by the Etruscans long before Florence made its appearance, and it is still the seat of the Diocese covering Florence and this part of Tuscany. There are a number of interesting sights in Fiesole itself including a Roman theatre with a small museum attached plus the remains of some Roman baths. The Cathedral of Fiesole, dating from 1028, is worth a visit. The little Church of the Primerana in the cathedral square was built in 996 and further expanded in mediaeval times. Its Gothic presbytery is one of the few gothic structures in and near Florence.

However, Fiesole is best know for its spectacular views out over Florence and its cool summer air. The nearby hills are dotted with aristocratic villas built to take advantage of both the views and the summer breezes.
How to get to Fiesole
View of Fiesole from on of its steep lanes
How to get to Fiesole from Florence? It's better to take a bus than to drive your own car due mostly to the very narrow, walled roads leading up to Fiesole. The ATAF Florence city bus to Fiesole is Number 7 which runs about every half an hour until almost midnight so that it is possible to remain in Fiesole for dinner. The bus line starts at Via La Pira (on the side very close to Piazza San Marco) in Florence and the trip takes 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic. The stops before Fiesole main piazza, the last stop on this route, are Regresso and F.G. Angelico 03. Be sure to validate (stamp, frank) your ticket as soon as you board the bus.

More about Fiesole.

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Friday, 21 September 2012

Contemporary classical music concerts in Florence

Events taking place in Florence are not limited to exhibitions of Renaissance art and folkloric festivals. During October and November this year (2012), there will be a series of three contemporary classical music concerts in Florence, to accompany the modern art programme Arte Torna Arte. These concerts, under the title Musica Torna Musica, take place 9 pm in the Tribuna del David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, with entrance free of charge while seats last.

These musical performances were conceived and organised by Daniele Lombardi and staged in collaboration with the Fondazione Atopos.

Programme
Monday, 1 October, 9 pm
Karlheinz Stockhausen Klavierstücke I – XI
Bernhard Wambach-Havemann, piano

Monday 22 October, 9 pm
John Cage
Cage Age
Daniele Lombardi, piano and toy piano
Ana Spasic, voice
Jonathan Faralli, percussion
Jonas Daverio, toy piano

Monday 5 November, 9 pm
Luciano Berio
Ritratto di Città. Studio per una rappresentazione radiofonica.
Danilo Rossi, viola
Jonathan Faralli, percussion

Contemporary classical music concerts in Florence
Musica Torna Musica contemporary classical music concerts in Florence
The art exhibition Arte Torna Arte ("Art Returns to Art") presents over forty works by thirty two contemporary artists. It takes place in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence from 8 May to 4 November, 2012.

The on-line catalogue of contemporary classical music published by Atopos, including world premier performances, can be found here.

Arte Torna Arte.

Tuscan culture.




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Monday, 17 September 2012

Italian Terracotta Garden Decorations

As you travel around Tuscany, you will rapidly realise that Italian terracotta garden decorations play a prominent role in garden architecture here, from the grand gardens of the Tuscan villas through farmhouse gardens to the balcony decorations of village homes.

Italian Terracotta Garden Decorations
Terracotta vases and antique oil jars used to grow lemon trees in Panzano
Terracotta has been used in Tuscany as building and decorative material since at least the time of the Etruscans. Today, a major source of both the clay and the finished products is Il Ferrone with nearby Impruneta also producing large quantities of high quality decorative pieces. Both places are within easy reach of Florence by car or bus. The furnaces of Impruneta became extremely important with the building boom that started during the early Renaissance, when bricks and tiles were required in vast quantities, and have remained so ever since, with a movement towards more decorative pieces and an emphasis on skilled handwork. During the last few years, painted terracotta has also made an appearance in Impruneta.

One of the most unusual recent developments in a number of countries, has been the production of wine in terracotta vessels, as practiced by the Romans and also in Georgia since possibly even earlier times.

Visitors can easily select and buy smaller items to be carried home as hand luggage, but it's better to have larger items shipped. This latter exercise is not exactly an inexpensive proposition. However, the quality of Italian terracotta is very high. Cheap imports, mostly from Indonesia, easily break and are not frost resistant. In contrast, the terracotta vases and jars made in Impruneta resist even exposure to snow and last extremely well - as witnessed by the antique oil jars frequently seen standing outdoors in Tuscan gardens and on terraces here.


The town of Impruneta is worth a visit not only on account of its terracotta furnaces but also the Basilica of Santa Maria, located on the main piazza of the town, and two famous fairs. The Festa dell'Uva (Grape Festival) takes place on the last Sunday of September and the Fair of Saint Luke on 18 September.

More about Impruneta and its terracotta.




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Friday, 14 September 2012

The Gardens of the Tuscan villas

Gardens and gardening without utilitarian purpose seem to be defining characteristics of civilised life. From the end of the 19 C well into the early 20 C, the gardens of the Tuscan villas were among the most important attractions for visitors to Tuscany. Although apparently less fashionable now, perhaps because visits to Tuscany are much shorter and more frenetic than formerly, at least one formal garden should be on your itinerary.

Tuscan villa formal gardens
The formal garden of Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany
Although you will easily find un giardino all'inglese anywhere in Tuscany, to avoid any false expectations, it's important to realise that an italianate garden is never a flower garden in the way many famous English gardens are. The gardens of Tuscan villas are in essence an extention of the architecture of the villa and are therefore symmetrical with extensive use of topiary and statuary. A beautiful and distant vista beyond the garden is important, and, if supplies permit, water can be incorporated, either as ponds or water works of various kinds.

A fairly complete bibliography of guide books to Tuscan gardens is provided here.

Links to descriptions and pictures of many Tuscan gardens may be found here.

One of the most talented Edwardian garden designers was Cecil Pinsent. Among the gardens he worked on were Bernard Berenson's Villa I Tatti at Fiesole, Charles Augustus Strong's Villa Le Balze , Villa Capponi and, most famous of all, Iris Origo's Villa La Foce.

Click here for information on staying at Villa Gamberaia, one of the most famous villas in Tuscany.

Some other Tuscan villa gardens easily accessible to tourists include:

Badia a Coltibuono and its reconstructed monastic garden.
Castello Brolio, essentially a 19 C folly with matching garden.
Villa Vignamaggio, a magnificent Renaissance villa on the road from Greve in Chianti to Lamole.
Villa Gamberaia, one of the finest examples of a Tuscan villa hanging garden in Tuscany.
Tuscan gardens and Tuscan culture.

Last but not least, please realise that 99% of the villas offered as vacation rentals are farmhouses, not villas. Read "When is a Tuscan villa not a Tuscan villa?" and my article on Tuscan villas to rent.





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Sunday, 9 September 2012

Luminara di Santa Croce in Lucca

The main festival of the year in Lucca, the Luminara di Santa Croce in Lucca is coming up on 13 September. This famous Tuscan festival is a devotional procession in which the Volto Santo or Holy Face, a wooden crucifix, is carried along the streets of the old town centre from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino, illuminated by thousands of small candles. Workmen spend all of the previous day putting the candles in place so that the entire centre of Lucca is beautifully illuminated on the evening of the feast.


The Volto Santo is usually kept inside the Cathedral of San Martino, in a chapel in the left nave specially built for it by Matteo Civitali in 1482. The relic has been a pilgrimage destination since the middle of the 11 C and the image has long been the symbol of Lucca, displayed on Lucchese coinage over the centuries.

The Luminaria procession coincides with "Settembre Lucchese" when a special market takes place in the piazza of San Michele in Foro, the ancient Roman forum. Local specialities, clothing and festival treats are sold in the market.

Things to see in Lucca.

More festivals in Tuscany.




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