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Just returned 10 days in Tuscany/Florence --a few thoughts

Just returned 10 days in Tuscany/Florence --a few thoughts

May 9th, 2008, 06:29 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 98
Just returned 10 days in Tuscany/Florence --a few thoughts

Just returned from 10 days in Florence and Tuscany and I'd like to share a few random thoughts and two good guide recommendations:

1. The dollar is getting crushed...things re just super expensive. When you look at the price in euros, it's tempting to think it's "one-to-one" dollars -- like when a chocolate bar is 2 euros; but you have to add about 2/3, so the chocolate bar is really closer to $3. Our dinners for two (2 pasta courses, 2 main, house wine and 1 or 2 desserts) averaged between 55-125 euros---- that works out to about $75-175 a dinner! All the traditional Italian souvenirs are just very expensive --I bought bars of soap for 4 E (that's like $7 each) Things were cheaper in the countryside --

2. There were TONS of tourists -- we went over May 1, which is the Italian Labor Day (long weekend) so there were many Italian tourists -- and Germans. Some Americans. You could not walk in the blocks around the Duomo in Florence... getting into the neighborhoods; off the tourist track was the most fun -- and it was very doable.

3. We took the train from Florence to Rome, to stay 1 nite in Rome before our flight home and I worried before about buying the train ticket, stamping the ticket at the little yellow machines, paying for the high speed supplement etc.... The trains were all late; we did all of the above easily and they NEVER EVEN collected the ticket on the train. It was not a cheap ticket either (73 euros for 2; second class) and they never even asked for it-- stamped or not!

4. We had a guide for Chianti wine country -- she drove so we could drink and she was very sweet; prompt and nice. Her name is Natalie and her email is [email protected] We saw the castle where Mona Lisa lived and across the valley where Leonardo lived and walked over to paint her; tasted various wines. Greve in Chianti is a cute little tourist town with nice shops in the middle of the Chainti trail. I had wanted to try/visit the Cantina wine bar in Greve -- a modern computerized wine tasting place where you buy a card and swipe it for each tasting -- we did; it was a rip-off. You use the value of the card up pretty darn quick at 2-3 E a taste, and you can taste for free at the wineries.

5. Driving to the mountain towns (Volterra, San Gimignano, Montepulciano) was challenging but not impossible. Just hilly and twisty. I pulled over into scenic rest stops to let locals pass me, and then Natalie (a local) drove even slower than I.

6. Among the small towns, Lucca was my favorite -- just the right size. When they say you can bike ride on the walls, the walls are mile wide, like a garden path that rings the city -- everyone was promenading. We rented bikes and rode on the wall and then went down and rode in town, great fun! It's easy to explore/get lost when you're on a bike--you can go further than walking.

7. We had a nice cab driver/airport ride in Rome. He was so prompt we used him several times. He speaks 6 languages and also does day tours and will pick you up and drive anywhere. His name is Giovanni Brancu and his email is [email protected]
8. Sienna is a lovely, fancy city. Fancy residents, nice restaurants. See the town hall/civic museum with it's ancient murals of good and bad government.

9. In many churches, the old custom of putting in a coin to turn on the lights has vanished, .but in its place is a machine that you can put in 1 E and hear a recorded guide to the artworks/history of the church. This was one of our favorite bargains (that and house wine!)

10. In Florence we stayed at Residenza Il Villino (I think picked from Trip Advisor) It was wonderful! yes, Americans will complain that you have to walk up 2 flights of marble stairs to your room, but the building is 400 years old! It was 2-3 blocks off the beaten track, but that was a GOOD thing, given the tourists and crowds. Everywhere in Florence is walking distance --and when we looked back at where we had walked in the course of a day --we traversed most of the city. We never felt unsafe walking anywhere in Florence (or anywhere in Italy for that matter -- (except going to a parking garage in Sienna, late at night and that was our imagination) Il Villino is owned by a husband and wife and the husband, Sergio, couldn't be nicer -- he offers his touring advice, his lap top, his books to borrow and his homemade cappuccino every morning in the garden breakfast area. I would recommend Il Villino.

That's all for now. If people have specific questions -- post and I'll try to help.
elmom is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 07:06 AM
Join Date: Jan 2004
Posts: 3,700
Thanks for your posting and the information. This is the kind of info that is a real help to travelers.
cynthia_booker is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 07:10 AM
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 500
Could you say more about Lucca? I was thinking of squeezing it into a day trip from Florence.

Thanks for your random thoughts!
mebe is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 08:30 AM
Join Date: May 2005
Posts: 5,651
Just another take on the wine bar in Greve - we were there two years ago, and hardly thought it was a rip-off. There was a wide range of wines to taste, and yes, some were rather pricy but many others were not. As for the wineries, most of the ones we have visited in Italy have charged a fee for visiting, so I hardly think that the tastings can be considered free. If you get a chance, vistit the cantina in Greve and see for yourself, we had a very good time there.
socaltraveler is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 08:48 AM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 854
Glad you were able to enjoy your trip in spite of the ever increasing costs and expense. I too found your description of Le Cantine in Greve to be harsh--"rip-off"? The customer has total control of the amount they wish to spend and numerous offerings have always been in the .80 to 1.50 euro range as well as the expensive ones. They even rebate you any unused amount after use. And then there is the free olive oil offerings. This all in one location without having to drive and tour--200 wine offerings.

Residenza Il Villino sounds terrific--I'll have to include it in our plans for our visit in September. Thanks for the heads up.
macanimals is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 08:59 AM
Original Poster
Join Date: Apr 2004
Posts: 98
You're right, rip-off is harsh-- if you want to taste many wines without visiting teh wineries, the Cantina is a good opportunity; but the wineries we visited (excuse the wrong spellings, I don't have my receipts/notes with me --castle verrazano, castel vincomaggio, castel pietraio) were free.
More on Lucca - we drove, and it was 30-40 minutes from Florence; you can take the train. We stayed overnite at a funny hotel, cote d'authur (which has something to do with King Arthur, b/c our room was "Merlin" with a canopy bed, claw-foot tub etc) It was a fine small b&b. Just that Lucca was more than a tourist town, there were residents strolling the walls, kids playing--we rode bikes throughout the town. Lots of nice shops; more of a real feel than some of the other walled/ancient towns.
elmom is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 10:49 AM
Join Date: May 2008
Posts: 7
Here is a reply from the Author's husband:

(1) Elmom overstates how expensive things were. Dinners maxed out at about $85 euro, and that only happened twice with good wines. A comparable dinner in the US would have cost as much. By the way, they don't mark up the wines most of the time there as much as they do in the states. Also, the silk ties were 3 for 10 Euros in the San Lorenzo market, so don't be put off.

TIP: The small towns were generally cheaper than Florence and Rome. Try to buy in places like Lucca, Sienna, Volterra and even tourist-crushed San Gimignano.

(2) True, there were a lot of tourists, but they all congregate right at the main tourist sites. Walk off the beaten track even a couple of blocks (or better yet - park yourself in a neighborhood piazza at a local bar) and you will get to see the "real" Italy.

(3) There is an awesome archaeology museum in Florence. Everyone ignores it because of the great art elsewhere, but if you have more than two days in Florence, you should see it. Not far from the Academia.

(4) In Florence, the Mercado Centrale (food market) is terrific, but lots of people don't notice it because the clothes and souveniers are outside. If you like markets, don't miss it.

(5) Elmom is right on about Lucca. You can easily do it in a day or less. So a day trip from Florence is absolutely feasible. Make sure to rent bikes first thing, but try to park them someplace (there are plenty of bike parking spots) and walk around. Utterly charming.

(6) Really, really try to speak even a little Italian. Pick up a Berlioz phrase book. Always say buongiorno (or buona serra in the afternoon) when you go in a store or restaurant or want to ask a question, and arrivaderci or ciao when you leave. Also, grazi and prego. If you can take a class before going (I did), you'll be amazed how much more fun it makes things.

(7) Two really good restaurants (on the pricey end, but well worth it)Osteria Cinghale Bianco (white boar) in Florence and Trattoria San Giuseppe in Sienna (ask them to show you their Etruscan House in their wine celler!) An interesting experience, though not quite in the class of the others, is Tattoria Gigi in Lucca. Watch the waiters race around.

(8) One of our guides advised us that in Tuscany, tipping really isn't part of their culture, because most waiters are paid differently than here. Don't feel compelled to do anything, but even a few (like 3 euros) on a 50 Euro meal can be OK. Hard to get used to as an American.

(9) MAKE RESERVATIONS FOR MUSEUMS at least 7 days in advance. We got boxed out of the Uffizi (probably OK in hind sight, as we've been there before and it allowed us to experience other things). Call the central number, they speak english fine.

TIP: As long as you have the right day, they're pretty good about letting you in with a reservation any time. So if your reservation is at 3 but you want to go at 1, chances are they'll let you in if you swing by at 1.

(10) We stayed at a place called Castello Petraio near Monterrigioni. Great little Agritourismo. Terrific if you have a car, because it's 15 miles from Sienna and right on the main Sienna/Florence Road. We could have stayed there the whole time, as nothing was really more than an hour from there, and most places were a half hour or less.

(11) I agree that the assessment of the wine place was "harsh." It was just OK. It's just so much more fun to stop at the places on the road. Many wine tastings are absolutely free. There are also plenty of places in all the towns where you can taste for free. (Montepulciano has about 3 on the main square.) For a true wine lover with a lot of time, you can spend a day (with lunch) at titans Verrazano or Banfi, but we didn't do those. They are expensive but look fun.
schmave717 is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 11:40 AM
Join Date: Mar 2008
Posts: 3,965
I've never found anything cheap in Florence (even when the Euro was cheaper). It may exist but didn't find it. There is so much to see, you have to swallow hard and accept it.

I've done better in Rome with the help of a friend who lives there. I've found reasonable meals and lodging in Venice (I think because many don't stay the night).

When dining I've found I pay the same for a good meal as a bad meal. When we're starving and stop at the first place, we get a bad meal from a restaurant that deals mostly with tourists. When we take time to ask for a local recommendation, we get an outstanding meal with local color and flavor. The check for either one seems to be identical.
bdjtbenson is offline  
May 9th, 2008, 11:54 AM
Join Date: May 2008
Posts: 7
Totally right about taking the time to ask around! Also, I think it's important to look around. If you see a place on the central square that's crowded, chances are it's not the best place in town, just the most convenient.

On the other hand, one of the best places we found was a no name bar on a small piazza that was crowded with locals. We went in and had a fabulous time!
schmave717 is offline  

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