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How to get off the beaten path to the "real" Tuscany

How to get off the beaten path to the "real" Tuscany

May 13th, 2010, 02:38 AM
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I enjoyed reading maitaitom's trip report too about visiting Pitigliano, Sovano and Sorano, but while perhaps maitaitom thought they were "undiscovered gems" and most people on Fodor's have never heard of them, those towns are actually quite well known tourist destinations, with tour groups visiting them, and often included in standard guides. I also think if the goal is to see get in touch with the real Italy, visiting 5 towns in one day is not the way to go, nor is staying in the val d'Orcia the way to go.

Here is a recent article from the NY TImes suggesting people who want to get closer to the real Italy in the val d'Orcia and Mount Amiata should avoid traveling there in summer, in order to avoid the crowds of summer tourists.


But jimal, as I said in my first post, getting off the beaten track for many people means simply getting away from Venice, Florence, Rome and a daily agenda of museum-and-monument sightseeing. Some people find going to Chianti and the val d'Orcia "user-friendly" because almost everyone speaks English, takes credit cards, there is lots of restaurants and boutique shopping and a chance to socialize with fellow travelers. The areas beyond have everything you need, including restaurants and atms, and the Italians who live there are just as friendly, so I don't hesitate recommending them.
zeppole is offline  
May 13th, 2010, 08:59 AM
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In general, I agree with zeppole, but I disagree on some specifics.

Let's apply this situation to the Boston area in the US. Suppose a European visitor asks on this forum where she can find an authentic American town in the Boston area to see how real Americans live and what a real American town is like, away from all the tourist sites like Boston's Freedom Trail, etc, where she can shop in real American shops and eat in American restaurants.

Suppose I recommend Needham, MA? It is an attractive town that fills all her requirements, and you can even get there on commuter rail, yet it is not full of tourists. Why? Because nothing historic ever happened there, there is no museum of art, no restaurants like El Bulli. It is just a place where some thousands of people raise nice children and live happy lives.

A tourist might go and see how those lives are lived by going to a high school play, watching Rainbow soccer practice, going to yard sales and farmers' markets, visiting Trader Joe's and on and on. But just down the road is Concord, with literary sites related to Emerson, Thoreau, and the Alcotts, and the beginning of the American Revolution, too. Otherwise, the towns are quite similar. Guess where the visitors are going to be?

I know this sort of thing is the case in the UK. Winchester is full of tourists, Farnham isn't. I assume that the same thing is true in Italy. 'Twas ever thus.
Ackislander is offline  
May 13th, 2010, 09:23 AM
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People who don't know much about Italy often imagine that the towns that aren't on the tourist radar for Italy or in abbreviated guidebook must be ho-hum towns without world-changing histories. But that is NOT TRUE for Italy. It may be true for Massacusetts, it is entirely untrue for Italy, and especially Tuscany! And let's not kid ourselves: Most people on Fordor's are recommending Tuscany to escape historic sightseeing. (Try and get them interested in Chiusi as more than a car-rental pick spot.) Read their trip reports, you'll be hard pressed to find many doing much besides driving, wandering, taking snaps of things they have no clue as to the history of, shopping and going to wine tastings.

And that if fine with me! I spend my half time on Fodor's encouraging people to stay out of museums and monuments if they aren't interested and instead enjoy the farm country.


It occurs to me to add for you that the hills around Lucca are also a great place bypassed by many tourists, and they are full of beauty and history. I didn't mention that area before because I thought the nearby sights might put you right back on the tourist path you say you want to get off, but since you are traveling with kids, the hills around Lucca offer a lot: you can get to the beach and islands from there (likewise in the Maremma area around Grosseto), you can pay a visit to Lucca to bike around the walls, you can visit the marble quarries in Carrara, and few other friendly things. If your kids haven't climbed the leaning tower of Pisa, a picnic on the grass there can be nice -- although there is possibly no more touristy place in Italy! (See folks, I'm not totally against going where the tourists are on occasion!)

There is a Pinocchio park near Lucca, but I hear nothing but sorry reports about it.
zeppole is offline  
May 13th, 2010, 09:49 AM
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I think Jimal doesn't care any more.

When I stayed in the hills near Assisi I drove all the back roads up into the mountains and other areas way off the beaten tourist tract and it was very interesting. We came across small towns where we were the only tourists in sight. After we looked at their war memorials, sat in their square and watched squirrels, nodded to the nonas on park benches, grabbed a bite to eat and drink in a bar, checked out the church, walked around looking at their back streets and gardens, we had nothing more to do. No one out during the day spoke English, we don't speak much Italian. Sometimes we stayed after dark and went to a local hangout for dinner but then the town would close up for the night and we would drive back to the villa. They are working people in the small towns and go home to their families. It was a pleasant time but the tourist areas are crowded for a reason.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 08:13 AM
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Hi Jimal,

Wow! you received so many interesting replies to your query. Thought I'd add my 2 cents, too. Just gave the same advice to a couple of other people on this site.

Last month my family and I visited a beautiful, unspoiled corner of Tuscany in the Val d'Orcia: Sarteano, just where Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany meet, and quite close to Montepulciano, Pienza as well as some less known Etruscan sites. Why hadn't I heard before about San Casciano (medieval city with a to-die-for five-star thermal spa) and Cetona (medieval city, beautiful views, excellent food)? Recommend you stay at this absolutely wonderful, simple (and affordable!) little house from the 1600s that we rented for the week: www.casacollecetona.com. The house is set in Fonte Vetriana, a charming village from the 1300s......breathtaking views over the UNESCO protected landscape.....not yet spoiled by tourism.......Perhaps you will also be lucky enough, like us, to help the neighbors bake bread in the village's bread oven!

Hope you succeed in getting off the beaten path and enjoy your trip!
Stephanie_F is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 08:48 AM
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I hope you don't imagine that because you went to a few towns and were bored for lack of English speaking company and sights other than war memorials and squirrles, that this is what the rest of us experience when we bypass tourist-crammed venues like Assisi in favor of Gualdo Tadino, Castiglione del Lago, Foligno, Scheggia the val di Nera -- and can I stop now?

I realize people are invested in the trips they took, and I enjoy seeing the most famous sights of Italy. But if you imagine the reason the tourists crowd in some places and not others is because the collective wisdom of tourists is to choose the most enjoyable parts of Italy, you've got it by the wrong end. They are crowded because these are the areas tourists want to go to. They want to follow the crowd.

Years ago, tourists would not have dreamed of coming to Italy without visiting Genova and Mantova, and a half dozen other places I could name. You think those places now just have squirrels and war memorials and roll up their sidewalks at night? Rick Steves has permanently destroyed the culture of probably a dozen Italian towns that formerly only had old people sitting around by their war memorials feeding the squirrels for recreation.

And for all the people who march all over Assisi, not one out of a hundred could tell you the significance of the saint to Italian culture, or even when the freschi were painted.

It's a lemming phenomenon fueled by frequent flyer miles.

Most people who get off the beaten track in Italy never go back. Only on Fodor's!
zeppole is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 08:49 AM
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Of course, there are places where few tourists go, but you are really unlikely to find that place where no foreigner has ever trod, and nobody has ever spoken English. It's a small world, and here are some examples.

I don't think we have ever been in a French restaurant where we were the only people whose first language was English, although there might have been a small lunch place in Armentieres once where that was true.

The waitress at the restaurant in Stresa on Lake Maggiore knew our home city because she used to work in a restaurant there, and had in fact got married there.

We were stopped outside La Fenice in Venice and asked to sign a petition by someone who had lived in our home city and had stayed with someone my wife and I both knew in different ways.

The American man we met at the Firestone vineyard in California had a good knowledge of the area in England where we live, and had a branch of his business there.

It can make sense to avoid the obvious tourist traps, and the grandest sites will always be crowded. But don't believe that there are gems that you are the first person to see.

My tip would be to visit out of season, or at a different time of day. Try Pisa by moonlight, when the daytrippers have left.
chartley is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 11:00 AM
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(They are crowded because these are the areas tourists want to go to.)

Of course they want to go to those sites, because there is something that interests them....or they are exploring...or they could be following the crowd, such as those who used to take the Grande Tour.

You mention Genova and Mantova, of course those are not the small backroad towns I am referring to in my post. If you think Foligno is more interesting than Assisi, I wonder about your reasoning.

I have been visiting off the mainstream towns for about 30 years now. We have taken dirt roads, farm roads, flooded roads, washed out roads, autostradas, whatever, to explore small towns without much to see other than what I mentioned.

I do find the war memorials interesting and moving, usually with a list of the locals from the same families who one way or another gave their lives.

I think you just like to feel that you are superior because you are staying in Italy and want to think that most other Fodorites are lemmings. Whatever rocks your boat.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 12:24 PM
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Snowflake25 is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 12:30 PM
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A recent Forbes magazine article on "The Other Tuscany" which mentions some towns rarely discussed here:

Jean is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 12:41 PM
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I have a question, though: Do you need to rent a car to go off the beaten path? (... just kidding, just kidding!)
Nelson is online now  
May 14th, 2010, 12:43 PM
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You can also stroll off the proverbial beaten path, lol.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 14th, 2010, 09:11 PM
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I realize this is never going to make on dent on some people's thinking, but here goes anyway:

Within all our lifetimes, most of the small towns that specialize is fine craft and rural farm areas in the world have been destroyed by globalization policies. Everyone knows this is true in America. Not everybody realizes this is true in a great deal of Europe as well.

Unlike America, where you just let towns wash away ad fall down because they weren't all that old anyway. Europeans have a tremendous centuries-old patrimony of spectacular art and craft in their small craft cities and rural towns that can no longer support themselves.


In a few places in Italy, not many, mainly for reasons of geography, sometimes just mismanagement, it has been necessary for Italian towns to turn themselves into tourist attractions simply to survive. Globalization made the local, historic economy unviable.

However, nowhere else in Europe will you find as many historic small towns and cities surviving on superior craft and farm production as you do in Italy. And these places are not only historic. They are beautiful and fascinating for their robust local Italian culture not dominated by foreign tourism. Towns like Vivegano, Parma, Sant'Arcangelo in Vada, Ascoli Piceno, Tarquinia, Norcia, Vercelli, Cuneo, Soave, Padova, Lavagna, Modena, Ferrara, Cherasco, Novara, Treviso, Alba. Castellucio, Modica, Mantua -- you get the idea.

This is the "real" Italy. It is not something to be scoffed at. It's not up to you to tell people it doesn't exist. It's actually both an extraordinary and fragile achievement in the 21st. And it is incredibly instructive and rewarding and soul-reviving to spend some time in it.

Is it all a picture postcard? No. Do tourists visit these places for their beauty and charm and add to the local economy. Sure. But probably 99 percent of American tourism to Italy is people who saw a picture and said: "I want to go there." And what they saw a picture of is tourist destination that is one of very teeny tiny areas of Italy totally given over to marketing itself as a tourist destination.

And what do they Americans do when they get to the picture they saw? They take a picture. And that's their main engagement with what they are seeing.

Most guidebooks, most trip reports, most message board travel advice is an EXTREMELY one-dimensional view of Italy. One=dimensional. I honestly don't blame people for being excited that they can spend a whole day in Venice wandering around INSIDE the picture, and not having the magic get cut short by a McDonalds. Or that they can drive around the safari park of the val d'Orcia once their knees give out and have the same uninterrupted pleasure, for days on end.

And sure it's nice at night when the day trippers leave, the way an empty theater and stage set can be nice and eerily atmospheric when you're there alone.

But it's not the same as exploring the Italy where the Italians get up every day and make a living doing something other than marketing themselves to tourist desires.

Next time somebody asks about wanting to find the real Italy in Tuscany, could you please not tell them it doesn't exist? Just tell them you've yet to find it, or that it bored you.

Jean, nice link.

SeaUrchin, I think you need to re-read your post if you think I'm the one with the sense of superiority.
zeppole is offline  
May 15th, 2010, 07:12 AM
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zeppole, my grandfather was born in Ascoli Piceno. Your mention of it reminded me that I have yet to visit. It sounds like the perfect reason for our next trip to Italy.
kfusto is offline  
May 15th, 2010, 07:51 AM
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Zeppole, I have read your past posts on areas you have visited and have enjoyed them. Let's call it a day.
SeaUrchin is offline  
May 15th, 2010, 08:38 AM
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nukesafe is offline  
May 15th, 2010, 09:00 AM
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Perhaps we need a list of "fake" Tuscany so we can warn everyone not to visit "fake" Tuscany. I don't think people living in those places think they are living in "fake" Tuscany as opposed to a person's idea of "real" Tuscany. Florence is no more fake than New York City, just not isolated. It seems the determination for real on this thread is isolation which doesn't make something more "real".

Some people seem to have a need to put down American tourists and suggest anywhere they might go is not worthy and a trip is totally ruined if you see an American or visit a town that any other American has ever stepped foot in. Of course, that is a very one dimensional view also. I've been to areas in Italy where the only tourists I saw were Italians and some of the areas were quite tacky.

>>>Jean on May 12, 10 at 2:59pm
What's the definition of "tourist"?
Aren't agriturismi by definition places for tourists to stay? If they're listed/advertised on websites, isn't that so tourists can find them?
If you find a town with no tourists, where will you stay?
I'm just wondering. No need to respond.<<<

Yes, the Italian version of an all-inclusive vacation. lol

From Merriam-Webster:

Main Entry: tour·ist
Pronunciation: \ˈtu̇r-ist\
Function: noun
Date: 1780
1 : one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture

Not everyone finds pleasure in the same things. It would be a dull world if they did.
kybourbon is online now  
May 16th, 2010, 07:56 AM
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I have to disagree that most people's experience of Florence doesn't end up being about fakery -- including fake goods imported from China sold as authentic goods. And if fakery is too strong a word, it's a very thin experience of Italian life.

I recall being in Florence last November in order to meet two American visitors. I didn't want them to get lost, so I suggested we meet in the Piazza Signoria. The Piazza was completely empty, even though the night was warm. And it was sad. All the tourists were gone. Locals would never come there and pay those prices for a drink at the apertivi hour.

The present-day life of Florence is 90 percent outside its tourist core. (Touristic NYC is more fake than you apparently realize). Tourists either never make it there, or they positively avoid it. But Florence isn't what we are talking about here anyway. We are talking about "Tuscany" -- the "under the Tuscan sun" Tuscany that has become a "destination" -- even a mecca -- for people planning a visit to Italy.

When I read Fodor's, I see other people -- not me -- cat-calling many Tuscan towns as not as good and more touristy and "fake" than their favorites. Chianti is constantly derided on this board (I defend it.) Montereggioni? How declasse! Even Pienza was dubbed "touristy" bu Stu Dudley. Pisa? Don't make people spit.

So don't point a finger at me. It's the evengelical val d'Orcia crowd who derides every place else in Tuscany -- and goes on the warpath when people talk about how touristy it is there.

Nobody is putting down American tourists. Or the places they choose to go. And unlike Jean's link to the Forbes magazine article -- which contains some useful information -- nothing I'm suggesting is about finding "exclusive" places to go or not wanting to encounter fellow Americans.

I'm talking about a very real phenomenon: Many beautiful towns and areas in Europe -- and even in the US -- have been forced to live off tourist dollars. Tourism -- mass tourism -- has replaced the local, historic economy.

But not all beautiful places have become that in Italy. And there is a much different feel to the life of the beautiful places where tourism is not the main driver of life in the town.

There is a big difference between experiencing the Piazza del Popolo in Ascoli Piceno at 7pm and the central piazza of San Gimignano. In San Gimignano, the people don't know each other, they are only talking to their travel partner, it's not a common social space of interaction. At night, when the tourists leave and the postcard racks are put away, it's empty, except for a few straggling tourists, talking privately to each other.

In Ascoli Piceno, especially in the early evening, the piazza buzzes with the life of the town, people greeting, meeting, talking in groups large and small, catching up with business, circulating petitions. And this isn't a stage show. It's hard to understand just what a piazza is for if you've only seen piazze in tourist towns, full of tourists or completely empty.

I take it as a given that when people go abroad, they want to experience something special. For some people, that will always be the popular WOW sights, and only the popular WOW sights, the more famous and WOW the better. I don't think these travelers should do something else. It's their money, their travel time, their enjoyment.

But for lots of other people, once they've seen the WOW sights -- and they praise the WOW sights, like jimal did above -- they ask: "Is there another part of Italy that's enjoyable?"

To me, the answer is YES! In fact, MOST of the rest of Italy is wonderfully enjoyable. It's harder to find the ugly parts than it is is the pretty ones. And it's amazing how often these places are not only special as well, they very often have WOW to them. But even without the WOW, they are not wastes of time or money for many travelers.

Again, there is a "real" Italy that isn't dependent on marketing itself to tourists just to survive, and it is not hard to find and if you are curious, I encourage you to visit it -- and not be persuaded by all these posts you read that you're kidding yourself, you'll be bored, you're a snob, you're pretentious.

As for the ignorance and sneering about agriturismi, not only is the Merriam-Webster dictionary not an Italian dictionary, the point of agritourism was to save open space but with integrity, and in recognition that many people -- even Italians -- had been driven off the land and perhaps would want to reconnect with the experience of eating food grown at hand, drinking local wine, having communal meals. Most Americans who head off to "Tuscany" either don't get that or want that: They want to stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and be where they can easily shop and find amusements. Many parts of "Tuscany" are well-set up for that. But if you would like a less suburban experience of Italy, agriturismi are all over Italy, and it can be quite a revelation for some people to experience them.

Anybody who reads my posts and thinks they need to tell me not everyone finds pleasure in the same things isn't reading them for comprehension. It would be a dull world and a very dull Italy if it all ran on American tourist dollars. Fortunately, the vast majority of Italian space does not, and that part of Italy is filled with staggeringly beautiful treasures and special experiences.
zeppole is offline  
Aug 14th, 2012, 05:49 AM
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This is what I love about the Fodors board. You can do a search and go to a thread that is over 2 years old and it is still helpful.
wrenwood is offline  

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