Tuscan hill towns -- need advice!

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Sep 18th, 2004, 06:48 AM
  #1
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Tuscan hill towns -- need advice!

My friend Gail and I are planning a two-week plus trip to southern Tuscany next March, and we could really do with some advice! We want to go to the hill towns, of course, and we would really love to have some place small to use as our headquarters where we could also get a feel for everyday life and the people. We are considering Montalcino, Montepulciano, or Chiusi, and wonder how they would work compared to a more northern town like Arezzo or Pistoia. We are also interested in a daytrip or two to Florence. Both of us speak a little (very little!) Italian. Our major problem is that we?re both really scared to try to drive (we?re in our early sixties, and used to slow southern traffic!). From everything we?ve read, it sounds like we?re going to need to use the busses rather than the trains if we don?t rent a car. Can anyone give us any suggestions on where we should go ? and how we should try to get there ? and where we should stay when we do get there??! Also, does anyone have any advice on places and things we should see at that time of year ? festivals, fairs, markets, anything? And one last thing: what kind of clothes should we pack for March in that area?
kaustin is offline  
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Sep 18th, 2004, 07:12 AM
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If you do not want to drive then I would stay in Florence or Siena--or both---and take local transport from there. Or, hire a tour guide like toursbyroberto.com, based in Siena, to drive you around.
You cannot really see SOUTH Tuscany wihtout driving--or hiring a driver. A fellow named Alessandro is stationed in Montalcino and may be a good choice for you. Good luck !
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Sep 18th, 2004, 07:17 AM
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Please don't be afraid of driving!

Perhaps you can start off gingerly in a rural area and gradually get used to it. If not, you can always revert to busses or trains.

Try it; you'll like it!
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Sep 18th, 2004, 07:28 AM
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Kaustin, I've done a couple of posts recently about not having a car in Tuscany. This year we stayed for a week in Montepulciano without a car, after cancelling it just after an accident in Wales on the same trip. We've traveled both with and without a car in Tuscany. I've mentioned we loved our week without this year -- but that's because we did a smaller area in detail and did a lot of hiking as well as using the busses. I can't think that you'd really get a good overview of all of Tuscany that way. And frankly two weeks in one town is a lot if you don't have a car -- bus service will be somewhat limited in the number of places you can easily go.
That said, I think you could spend one week in Pienza which really fits your description and offers a fair number of places to get to by bus, including less than an hour to Siena and lots of transfers available from there. The other week I'd move to another location so you could more easily cover some other towns. I'm not sure what that town might be -- but possibly something a little further north. I'm not very familiear with Arezza, but that might be a really good option. Cortona is lovely, but awkward for bus and train travel, we found. It would make a good one day trip from Arezza however.

If you both feel uncomfortable driving, I wouldn't let anyone talk you into it. That just doesn't make sense to me. You have to be comfortable driving or you'll not have a good time.
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Sep 18th, 2004, 01:47 PM
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Thank you so much -- these are really helpful! For some reason we hadn't even thought about Pienza, and that sounds like a real possibility. And I'm going to go look up immediately the toursbyroberto. Have you tried it? Is it terribly expensive? And is the Alessandro in Montalcino with them? We're really glad to know about Cortona, too -- for some reason, I had just assumed that it would be one of the easy travel connections, but as always, I seem to have assumed wrong. And a question for Tuck: thanks for the encouragement! I know we don't have the nerve to drive on the autostrade or in the big cities -- is the countryside quieter? I've never seen road rage in my whole life, and I don't want to start now -- especially if it's directed at me!
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Sep 18th, 2004, 04:35 PM
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kaustin, of course I have no way of knowing the reasons why you're "both really scared to try to drive".

Of course the countryside is quieter - and the autostrade is not very difficult either (the cities, maybe yes).

I'm in your age bracket and a number of years ago I was similarly concerned - but it was because I wanted to visit the UK and I was fearful about the left-side driving. But I did it - and have been back there 5 more times and to the Continent many times as well. And I'm so glad I did it, because we get so much enjoyment in getting off the beaten track, having picnics in scenic spots and keeping to our own timetable.

I don't know why you mention "road rage". I've found other European drivers to be very polite.

Although it's not about your present target destination, please read my recent trip report...

http://www.fodors.com/forums/pgMessa...een_name=TuckH
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Sep 19th, 2004, 06:35 AM
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Buon Giorno Kaustin,

We drove throughout Tuscany & Umbria on our second trip to Italy. It was very easy! We stayed on the smaller roads and had no problems. The only time we got lost was around Siena. We did a few loops on the highways around the city before we were able to find the right road.

The key is to have detailed maps and to plot out your route ahead of time. Pick your starting and ending towns, then make a list of all the towns along the way. This will keep you on the right track when you go through the roundabouts and intersections. You need to look for the next town on your list (or the ending town) and just follow the signs. It helps to have a good navigator, but you'll still get there if you don't.

Personally, I wouldn't want to drive in the major cities, just for the trouble of dealing with traffic, navigating, finding parking, all at once. But - the countryside is easy. Go for it!
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Sep 19th, 2004, 08:35 AM
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O.K., we?ve decided that you?re all right, and that we?re being entirely too chicken about the driving thing, so we?re going to rent a car (although we?ve also agreed that if we both get up-tight and hysterical, we?ll turn it in and go back to the bus plan!). If we drive slow and to the far right, we should survive this. So, now that we have wheels, what are your suggestions as to the best things for us to see and do (and eat!) in March?
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Sep 19th, 2004, 12:41 PM
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Glad to hear it...now click on bobthenavigator's name and follow the advice he gives on this subject.
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Sep 19th, 2004, 12:45 PM
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Hi K,

>If we drive slow and to the far right, we should survive this.<

You will be almost entirely on 2-lane roads. Do try to maintain about 40 kph.

Have you practiced driving a manual transmission?

Enjoy your trip.
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Sep 19th, 2004, 02:05 PM
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Kaustin, your trip sounds fun! I think Pienza would be a good option but I am not fond of Arezzo. I think you should stay in or very near a mid sized town as you most likely won't want to be driving after dark to get to dinner.

If you aren't used to driving a manual transmission, go for an automatic. There is no reason to add more stress to your driving. As others have said, park at the edge of the big towns and walk in. The little roads of southern Tuscany are sparsely used, especially in March.

Even with a car consider a day trip with Roberto of toursbyroberto. He is so funny besides being passionate about his beloved Italy an all things Etruscan. Our day with him was the highlight of all of my trips to Italy.

I would think it can get quite chilly in southern Tuscany in March so plan to dress in layers.

Are you renting an apartment or staying in hotels?




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Sep 19th, 2004, 04:21 PM
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Yes, we definitely have to have automatic! And a compact, something as small as we can squeeze into. Several people have suggested Pienza -- does anyone have good recommendations on places to stay there? We want to do either an apartment or possibly a B&B of some sort.
Bobthenavigator mentioned the toursbyroberto too, so that's two of you. Which one did you do with him (Roberto, that is)?
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Sep 19th, 2004, 05:00 PM
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Perhaps you can get some information about apartments at slowtrav.com.

I looked at Roberto's site and nothing exactly fit what we did. We spent some time in Chianti country and also the Crete Senese. This was in November 2001 and American tourists just weren't there; I think we were given a special tour because Roberto wasn't that busy.
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Sep 20th, 2004, 05:53 AM
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kaustin
I am traveling to Tuscany in 3 weeks and we are staying in a villa in Chianti. We are renting a car as well and will be taking the car everywhere. I am not sure when you will be finalizing your itinerary, but if you can wait until later next month, I will be glad to give whatever advice I can based on our experiences.
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Sep 20th, 2004, 11:16 AM
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Spend 1 week in Chianti and another in southern Tuscany.
You could substitute Umbria for either.

Driving is easily the best idea for what you want to see.This is especially true for your first trip.
Navigating is actually more a challenge than driving.
A good map and a good understanding of signs, where to park ,etc. would be helpful.I also recommend a cell phone,just in case.
You can very much avoid most city confusion and could easily limit your autostrada miles (although not that difficult).

While you never know about the weather, rain, sun and snow are all possible in March. We had some nasty weather this May in Tuscany and a very pleasant week later in Rome.
Next year we're going in late April, so we are willing to take the risk.
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Sep 20th, 2004, 11:33 AM
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If you don't want to drive, I would urge you to base yourself out of Siena. From there you have bus service to:

Florence
Montalcino
Pienza
Montepulciano
San Gimignano
and the rest of the Chianti region.

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Sep 20th, 2004, 11:53 AM
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Hi Kaustin,

A friend and I (we're 40-somethings) toured southern Tuscany and Umbria in March 2001. We did a combination of public transportation and driving. We landed in Pisa, spent one night, then took the train to Siena. Spent one night in Siena, picked up our car there, and drove south. Visited Monte Oliveto Maggiore (don't miss it!), Montalcino, Chuisi(I love all things Etruscan,) spent the night in spa town Bagno Vignoni, then drove north to our rented house in Umbria. For the next week we took daytrips to Assisi, Spello, Gubbio, Orvieto, Norcia. Then we drove to Florence, dropped our car off at the airport, taxied into the city and spent the last four days of the trip there.

As others have stated, it's not difficult to drive, drivers are fast but polite and patient (they'll hang behind you until they can pass,) the roads are well-signed (get a good map.) All the hilltowns we visited had public parking lots outside the city walls, which made getting in and out easy. If you're not a manual transmission driver, rent an automatic--we did.

As I recall the weather was high 40s-low 50s in the evening and the high 50s-low 60s during the day, although when we got to Florence it was in the mid-eighties! (That was a fluke though.) Bring layers, a rain jacket and an umbrella, and you'll be fine.

I should tell you that this was my first non-tour trip to Europe, although my friend had been to other countries (not Italy.) I learned some Italian, which really helped with navigation and directions and being able to communicate, even meagerly, helped me to feel immersed in the culture. I loved every minute of this trip!

There are so many sources of information on the web--this forum and website, SlowTrav, www.initaly.com. Don't be scared--you'll have a great time!

Patti
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Sep 20th, 2004, 03:16 PM
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Hi Kaustin

Rent a car!!! And explore the countryside.

We went to Italy in April and I spent alot of time doing research and decided that we should not drive. I just read how dangerous it was. Well, I am soooo glad we rented a car. The roads are not that bad at all. They are curvy but you can drive slowly.
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Sep 20th, 2004, 05:01 PM
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I can't tell you all how grateful I am for both the encouragement and advice! I really like the idea of going to a town by bus or train and renting the car there -- I kept thinking about just trying to drive in or out of Florence with the car, and found it daunting. Was there much of an extra charge to pick the car up one place and drop it off at another? And thanks for the climate info. I had a sneaking hunch we were going to get cold, and I just wanted to be ready. And thinking of getting cold: I've read a couple of places that it can be tricky getting an apartment or small house, etc., that's really heated in cold weather. Anybody got any ideas on that?
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Sep 20th, 2004, 05:07 PM
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Heated or not heated in Italy has been, in my experience, the luck of the draw.

I have stayed in small hotels where they were happy to heat and in others where they refused to do so and gave me a small space heater for my room AFTER I had come down with a bad cold.

I would err on the side of caution and take at least one toasty warm pair of pajamas or nightie.
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