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Trying to get a handle on our 19 days in Tuscany and Umbria

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I have traveled quite a bit in Europe (from the US) - much of it with help from the Forums! - but will be taking my first trip to Italy in October. I know the Italy Fodorites are active and knowledgeable, so I look forward to your advice.

We will have 19 full days in Italy, counting our landing day but not counting our departure day. I have had a tough time getting a sense of this trip, but I think I have the rough itinerary figured out. I apologize for the length here, but I'm trying to provide enough information to give you a picture.

My husband is a stone carver by avocation and is scheduled to take a 2 week marble carving workshop in Pietrasanta (not too far from Carrara) on the coast in the northwestern part of Tuscany. The class runs from M-F two weeks in a row, with the weekend in between free. He knows the teacher from other classes in the US and also the fellow students. For 2 weeks our accommodations will be a shared hilltop villa somewhere near Massa, with the arrangements having been made by others members of the class.

Additionally my husband will be bringing a few of his chisels and other hand tools in his checked luggage, so it won't be the lightest we've ever traveled, although we will keep our packing fairly minimal.

We fly from ATL on Delta in and out of the Rome airport. As much as it kills me, we are not planning to go into Rome at all on this trip. (We will be back! That's how I'm consoling myself)

Here's the outline of our travel plan:

Thursday, Oct 16: land in Rome 7:30 am; travel straight to Florence - I have been thinking we'd travel by train, and rent a car when leaving Florence (I have already researched how to do this). Our alternative is to rent a car at the Rome airport and drive. This would raise questions of finding a hotel with parking and figuring out the ZTL regulations for Florence (and other Italian cities we might visit), as they seem likely to conflict with our usual preference to stay in historic city-centers. Also, why have a car for 3 days when we wouldn't use it? On the other hand, there are those heavy chisels in the suitcase, and wrangling them on public transportation isn't a ton of fun.

Thursday, Oct 16 - Sunday, Oct 19: three nights in Florence - adjust to time zone and get a taste of the city. Focus on sculpture.

Sunday, Oct 19: head to Massa-area villa. (our rental is from Oct 18 - Nov 1)

Friday, Oct 24 - Sunday, Oct 26: hear to Bologna for weekend, stay 2 mights (one full day, Saturday in the city, but also most of Sunday) Focus on St. Dominic and St. Catherine. We can travel very light, just a weekend bag.

Sunday Oct 26: back to the Massa villa until Friday, Oct 31

Friday, Oct 31 - Monday, Nov 3: 3 nights in Assisi, driving. Focus on St. Francis and St. Clare.

Monday, Nov 3: drive to Rome airport area, turn in car, stay in an airport hotel for a Tuesday, Nov 4 morning flight

Our usual style of European travel is to take trains from place to place, stay in the old-town/center of cities and towns, and walk the sights when we can. On this trip, however, a rental car keeps seeming like a good idea, and that appears likely to change our touring habits. Is it still possible for us to stay in the city centers in Florence, Bologna, and Assisi, and what about that pesky car and the ZTL? I guess our alternative is to stay somewhat further out of the centers and take public transportation to the sights in the historic centers. If you happen to have any lodging recommendations, we are trying to stay under 250Euros/night.

In addition to the itinerary sketched above which my husband and I will cover together, I will have from Monday to Friday each of the two stone carving weeks to explore on my own while my husband is in class. My plan is to explore places that are fairly close to Mass. I will either drive or figure out how to travel from the villa to the local train and/or bus station(s). I know that both Massa and Carrara have train stations (on the Genoa to Pisa line I think) but don't know yet how to get there from the villa. Pisa, Lucca, and Florence (things we weren't able to cover on our 3 nights there) are cities that come to mind. I'd welcome your suggestions of northwestern Tuscan towns and villages that are within striking distance for solo day trips. My strongest interests are old churches, old buildings, and old art.

Can you tell that I'm a little stumped? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!
- Nancyo

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