Now, here’s where I’m going to express a likely unpopular sentiment: I really didn’t like Tuscany. “What’s that?” you say, “How can anyone not like Tuscany? Haven’t you seen Under the Tuscan Sun? Isn’t it just a ton of rolling hills and wine and amazing food and quaint little towns and…and…?” Well, yes and no. The scenery is quite beautiful, and the wine is pretty damn good. However, I don’t think that the wine is that much better than some of the best wines we had in Umbria, and most of the wines in Tuscany were not cheap. There were towns that at one point were quaint, but over the past 10-20 years, they’ve been overrun by tourists on package deals and day-trippers from Florence. The end result is a lower quality of service, over-priced everything, and swarms of tourists. With a couple of exceptions, neither of us really have any desire to return to any of the places in Tuscany that we saw. However, it wasn’t all bad, and I’ll try to share the best of what we saw. Hopefully, if you do go to Tuscany, you can have a more positive experience than we did.
A really cute hill town, and a good base for seeing other places in southern or eastern Tuscany (you’re about an hour by car from Siena, for example). We got hooked up with an awesome little apartment for the two nights we were there, and it was convenient to a number of restaurants in town (Osteria del Borgo, via Ricci 7; +39 0578 716 799). This is one of those places where you park outside of town and walk in, because driving is a nightmare where it’s even allowed. Those ZTLs can be a bitch!
Sadly, we did not get to enjoy this city as its best, because about 3 hours in, the bottom dropped out of the sky. We were hailed on, for crying out loud! I think Siena is a lovely city and is a great alternative to Florence. The main piazza (Il Campo) was really cool and would be a nice place to sit and eat some gelato. The tower overlooking the piazza was a long climb, but let us see the beauty of the city and the lush, green country outside the city. Siena’s Duomo is absolutely gorgeous and worth about an hour’s visit, for sure. The Bernini Chapel was closed during our visit, but I’ve heard it’s one of the highlights. I don’t feel like I have enough to say about Siena, but I will say that if I had the chance to go back, I would.
Radda in Chianti
I really, really, REALLY wanted to like this place, but alas, we did not have the best time. We booked a room at a B&B at a winery/organic farm, so we thought we were going to have amazing accommodations that included dinner and wine both nights. When we got there, they informed us that they weren’t doing dinners at all that weekend. At first I attributed this to Cantine Aperte, but then found out that they weren’t going to be open for that, either. No explanation was ever given, and it really put a damper on our experience, since that was really the main reason we booked there instead of other places. I will say that one of the managers was really nice, but it felt like they didn’t have their act together the whole time we were there.
One particular problem with Chianti is that it’s just teeming with snobby middle-aged and older British tourists, many of whom are on package deals, so much so that some call the area (pejoratively) “Chiantishire.” The end result is that things cost way more than they should have, the service was mediocre, and our fellow travelers were not pleasant company.
Cantine Aperte was also not as amazing as I’d hoped, partly because we weren’t really in the best town for the associated events, and because we weren’t staying at a participating winery. If I had it to over again, I’d be somewhere like Montefalco for the weekend so that I could be closer to more wineries that made wine that I actually liked. I developed greater respect for Chianti Classico, but I still don’t count it among my favorites. Hindsight’s 20/20.
Now here’s where things get really controversial…we damn near hated Florence. I love art, history, and culture, so Florence seemed like a natural destination for me. Things could not have been more disappointing. The sheer number of large tour groups was enough to make me want to beat these people with those obnoxious tour guide flags repeatedly. They swarm like flies, annoying everyone in their vicinity and making it impossible for anyone else to enjoy anything. The Uffizi Gallery was one of the most disappointing museum experiences in my life, in large part because of the amoeba-like groups of people who ambled around following their guides in zombie fashion. It’s hard to view and appreciate the art. To be honest, I would not recommend seeing this museum, unless you have nothing else to do. If you go, make a reservation, because standing in line for hours to see this place would have to be the most frustrating experience a traveler could have (and I’ve tried to get across Cairo at rush hour).
So, the positives, shall we? The Duomo is awfully pretty, and climbing up to the top of the dome is a cool experience (go at around 4:30 or 5 pm…any earlier and the line is insane). The Duomo Museum, surprisingly, is a great place for art and for a good historical perspective on the Duomo. I’d recommend seeing the museum before the actual Duomo, just so you can appreciate what you’re seeing. Another good museum to see, if you aren’t completely museum-ed out is the Bargello Museum. The admission is inexpensive, and there are some really nice sculptures and other works of art there.
Our hotel was really great, inexpensive, and had an amazing location. (Hotel Lorena; via Faenza 1) Really, I have no complaints about the place, and it was actually one bright spot in that segment of the trip. We also had some amazing meals at Trattoria 4 Leoni, Trattoria Sabatino (via Pisana 2), and Antico Noe (volta di San Piero 6-red). Florence is, of course, also well-known for its gelato scene. We had great gelato at GROM (via delle Oche 24-red), Gelateria Carabe’ (via Ricasoli 60), and Gelateria dei Neri (via dei Neri 20). If you want a nice, laid back bar with a decent aperitivo spread, check out The Friends Irish Bar (yes, Irish bar…Borgo San Jacopo 51-red).
We loved Lucca. Yes, loved. It was a beautiful, charming city that was a welcome retreat after the hectic headaches of Florence. One of the coolest things about Lucca is its city walls. There are three layers of walls around the city, and the outermost ring is wide enough to accomodate 12 small parks and a bike path around the center of town. It was a lot of fun to bike up on the walls and look down on the town below, and it makes for a fun way of getting around town. Climbing the Guinigi Tower is also a fun activity that provides some stunning views of the town and the surrounding mountains. If you get bored, Pisa is a fairly short train or bus ride away, and you will come back to Lucca appreciating its quiet, understated charms.
If you go to Lucca, definitely stay at Al Tondone . The Tomei family were the kindest, most friendly hosts I think I’ve ever known. The mom, Anna, is the epitome of hospitable and is the perfect balance of motherly and unobtrusive. Her husband, Benito, and their lovely daughter Paula were also amazing hosts. The rooms are perfect, the morning breakfast is amazing, and they give you bikes so that you can bike around the city. At the end of our stay, they hugged us and drove us to the train station. It was like staying with relatives, if your relatives happen to live in a gorgeous house on the outskirts of Lucca.
I must say that I was initially against the idea of seeing Pisa. The taste of mass tourism still lingered in my mouth, and I wasn’t sure I could stand another experience like that. However, I’m actually glad we went. The crowds weren’t too bad, if you can look past the dozens of people who all thought it would be a fantastic idea to strike a pose as if they were propping up the tower. This scene played out at least 100 times during our short time there, and I am proud to say I didn’t succumb to the stupid. While the Leaning Tower is obviously the big attraction, the adjacent Duomo is actually quite beautiful and worth seeing. You have to get a (pricey) ticket ahead of time to climb inside the tower, and they only allow around 30-45 people up at any given time, so buy your ticket for an hour or so ahead, then visit the Duomo. As you walk around, try not to blush at the boxer shorts with a strategically-placed tower being sold by every other tacky souvenir stand on the Campo dei Miracoli. Yikes!
Next post will cover Bologna, Ravenna, and Turin.