Vacation rentals in Italy (villas, farms, estates, agriturismo, apartments)
Where to Stay In Tuscany
The reason that I am writing this section, when you can get all the details of a region in guidebooks, is that I think guidebooks sometimes make everything sound like it is of equal charm and beauty. This is my (very) opinionated view of Tuscany.
About this E.M. Forster quote: Monteriano is a fictional town used in the novel, Gubbio is in Umbria (and this section is about Tuscany), and Pienza, Cortona and San Gimignano are no longer "off track", but I like this quote!
About Tuscany in General
Tuscany, and its neighbors Umbria and Liguria, are incredible places with perfectly preserved hill towns, fabulous art, the most beautiful countryside imaginable, almost tropical coastal areas, great cities (Florence, Siena, Perugia, Orvieto), top quality restaurants and food stores, possibly the best cafes in the world, and friendly and beautiful people.
Tuscany is exceptional in part because of restrictions that have been placed on development. New buildings are allowed only on the outskirts of certain towns. Very few new buildings are allowed in the countryside. Farmhouses can be remodeled or rebuilt on their original footprint and must be built in the original style. Because of these development restrictions, many vacation rentals are remodeled barns or other farm out-buildings.
Tuscany is now a wealthy place and money has poured into the towns to restore them. Italians and people from other countries are buying up the old houses in the towns and restoring them for use as holiday homes or for their own first or second homes. Tourism and the wine industry have brought in good jobs, making this a prosperous area that caters to tourists but has a lively local life as well.
The style of farming in Tuscany makes the countryside beautiful. Farms are mostly owned by families, not corporations. Frequently they grow many different types of crops. In the Chianti region the hills are laid out like a beautiful quilt: straight rows of dark green grapes vines here, a misty green olive grove splashed with bright red poppies there, a lush forest in-between, all of it topped with a perfect blue sky. Off in the distance a town sitting at the crest of a hill. That is the color palette in June, it changes through the seasons.
Even in the areas of new development, the Italians do not build our American-style sprawling suburbs. The development is usually three-story apartment buildings or smaller houses close together. Italians want to be close to their caffe, to stores, to each other. They respect and love their historical towns. These towns are not museums. People live in them, shop in them, and gather on the main street every evening for the passagiata. They drive their cars through town gates that may be over 2000 years old (built by the Etruscans and remodeled by the Romans). The towns in the countryside are alive. I can't say it often enough: Italy is a wonderful place.
This map shows the official provinces of Tuscany. (Map by Bill Thayer.)
Pauline's Opinions About the Areas in Tuscany
The best parts of Tuscany to stay in are:
Central Tuscany: Around Florence or Siena
The most popular areas of Tuscany are around Florence or Siena. Florence is a larger town (population of approximately 300,000) and Siena is smaller (around 50,000). Anywhere within a 45 minute drive of Florence or Siena will be a good location for a first time countryside visit.
Central Tuscany: Chianti area
This is a good location for a first time visit to Tuscany. Chianti is a wine-producing region between Florence and Siena. The region extends from south of Florence, to north of Siena; from San Donato and San Casciano in Val di Pesa in the west to Gaiole in the east. We have always enjoyed staying in Chianti. The countryside is beautiful, the towns charming. There are lots of great restaurants and wineries. You can get into Siena or Florence easily. You will feel like you are in the countryside, but it does not feel remote.
The central part of Chianti is along the S222 road that runs north and south between Siena and Florence. From Siena it passes through Castellina, Panzano, Greve, Strada. Radda is about a 15 minute drive east of Castellina. This central part of Chianti can be crowded with tourists in the summer, but it is not crowded enough to make your visit unpleasant. This is a huge area of countryside. You will notice extra crowds of people in the towns. This area is perfect for a first countryside trip because there are lots of great towns, good restaurants and you are close enough to Florence and Siena for day trips.
The north western part of Chianti, near the towns of San Casciano in Val di Pesa and Montespertoli, is also a lovely area full of small towns and beautiful countryside. It is closer to Florence and a day trip to Lucca is possible.
The eastern part of Chianti, near the towns of Gaiole and Castelnuovo Berardenga, is a quieter part of Chianti, but you are driving more between towns. It is closer to Siena for day trips.
Central Tuscany: West of Siena
This is a good location for a first time visit to Tuscany. The area west of Siena is not as busy as the Chianti region. It has fewer tourists, but has some very nice towns: Sovicille, Colle Val d'Elsa. San Gimignano is the exception; it is a tour bus destination, but it is worth the trouble. Volterra is worth a visit, but I wouldn't spend a week there. It is quite a drive from there to other towns and the area south of Volterra has some type of mineral mining going on and it can smell funny (especially around Pomerance).
I personally feel that staying west of Sovicille is too far from Siena, unless you have been to Tuscany before or you are looking for something well off the beaten track. That far western region is very pretty and there are a few nice towns, but it is not exceptional and it can be a long drive between towns. You would do better to base yourself near Sovicille, or Colle di Val d'Elsa or San Gimignano.
Central Tuscany: South of Siena
This is a good location or a first time visit to Tuscany. The area directly south of Siena is one of my favorite areas. It is a different look from Chianti; it feels more wide open. There are big fields of crops on rolling hills, but not as many wooded areas. The Val d'Orcia is in this region. There are several good towns in this area - Montepulciano, Pienza, Montalcino - and many good restaurants. You can visit the Sant'Antimo abbey south of Montalcino and the Monte Oliveto abbey north of Pienza. You can get into Siena in an hour.
Eastern Tuscany: Cortona and Arezzo
Cortona is a lovely town, but lately has become overrun with we Americans because of the Frances Mayes books. This is a busy area because the Autostrada goes down this main valley. The road from Lake Trasimeno to Cortona to Arezzo can be very busy. Cortona is removed from the busy area - it sits up above it on a hill - so is more peaceful. Arezzo is a busy town surrounded by a busy, modern sprawl, but the town itself is lively and fun. The rural area to the north would be a good location to stay.
Eastern Tuscany: Lake Trasimeno
Don't be tempted by Lake Trasimeno (or Lake Trashy-meno, as some call it). The area north of Lake Trasimeno is full of holiday homes so there is lots to rent here.
Southern Tuscany: San Casciano dei Bagni and Cetona
Stay here if it is not your first trip to Tuscany and you have seen the main areas. South of Pienza can feel more remote, but we like this area. San Casciano dei Bagni is a lovely town. You can explore the Monte Amiata towns or drive north to the Pienza area. You can get to the Maremma in south-west Tuscany easily. You can also get into southern Umbria easily.
Southern Tuscany: Pitigliano and Saturnia
The Maremma is the region in the south west corner of Tuscany. It is a beautiful region for a day trip, but I do not recommend it as a base for a first time trip.
North-West Tuscany: Around Lucca
This is a good area, but might not be where I would go on a first trip to Tuscany. Lucca overlooks the Arno river valley which can be industrial and built up in places. The corridor between Florence and Lucca does feel crowded to me. But Lucca is lovely and there are wonderful towns in the mountains north of the Arno valley - north of Pistoia and Lucca.
Lucca is a beautiful town, full of good restaurants, shops and cafes. We have only been there twice on day trips, but many other Slow Travelers love Lucca and this area. The countryside around Lucca is filled with big villas. Some are available for rent. There are beautiful towns in the mountains north of Lucca (the Garfagnana), but we have not been there. I would like to spend a week or two in a vacation rental near Lucca to better explore this area. From here you could get to southern Liguria easily on the Autostrada. You could go to Pisa (we have not been there). You could also get into Florence on the Autostrada, or into the Chianti region.
North-West Tuscany: Carrara, Massa, Camaiore
The north-west corner of Tuscany, north of Lucca, is a busy and crowded stretch with the Mediterranean on one side and mountains on the other. I think this area is too busy and crowded for a countryside vacation. Good for a day trip, but don't spend a week there. The A12 Autostrada runs north and south along the coast here. The No. 1 highway runs parallel to the autostrada, but a little more inland. This is a very busy road. We have been in this area several times and always experienced heavy traffic.
This is the region where marble is mined. It is really fun to drive by on the Autostrada and look up to see the marble on the mountains. It looks like snow. We drove up to the town of Carrara once, and it was an interesting town. I remember it being hard to find. We spent three nights in Camaiore once and felt the whole area was too busy - not the best location for a first trip to Tuscany.
The towns along the coast here are very much "holiday towns". The beaches are filled with those typical Italian beach places where you pay for a chair and umbrella and sit in rows on the beach. I like the beaches to the north in Liguria better (although it is mostly swimming from very small beaches or from a rock beach) or to the south in the Monte Argentario (again, rock beaches).
Just up into the mountains from Sarzana (a great town just over the border in Liguria) is the town of Fosdinovo, where Eric Newby had his Italy house (from his book "A Small House in Italy".
I find that it helps to know how big towns are when planning a trip.
The Blue Guide for Tuscany lists town populations.
demo.istat.it/pop2000/start.html: You can also find the information on this web site for Italy (in Italian). Click on the part of Italy (Ripartizione), then the region (Regione), then Province (Provincia). The list of communes for the province are then displayed. You can get population totals for the whole province or for each commune.
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