Tuscany in August - Where We Crazy?

Aug 17th, 2010, 10:45 AM
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Tuscany in August - Where We Crazy?

My husband (DH) and I just returned from our trip to Italy, and it was absolutely, positively, FABULOUS!!!!

Ever since we returned from our 2003 trip to Italy, we have been talking about going back. 2010 marks the first year when both of our children went to camp for two weeks, and all the other stars and moons aligned, so we set off to Italy again! This time, we decided to forgo the wonderful city of Rome, and instead spent the majority of our trip in southern Tuscany, with two nights in Florence on the back end.

Before I get started, I need to thank all of the wonderful folks on Fodors for their advice on our trip – especially Henry, Elaine, StuDudley and JustRetired for their great files on Tuscany. I scoured prior trip reports and posts to make my restaurant lists, driving itineraries, etc. Basically, I completely overplanned – but that is part of the fun of taking a trip – all of the excitement leading up to it, and imagining what it will be like, what we’ll see, where we’ll go, etc.

Our trip started from Houston, where we flew Continental to Frankfurt. We were booked on the 4pm flight to Florence, but there was an 11:30am flight as well. Since we arrived in Frankfurt at 10am, we had time to make the earlier flight. I had considered booking it originally, but was worried we’d miss it… So, upon arrival in Frankfurt, after making it through passport control and customs much quicker than I had expected, we rushed through the airport, to see if we could get on the earlier flight. We found the proper place to ask, and were happy to hear that there was room on the flight. The ticket agent just said he’d have to wait and see what Continental’s fee for changing flights would be. When he told us it would be $250 per person we couldn’t believe it. What a complete rip off… So, we decided to keep our later flight, and find a place to crash for a couple of hours.

The Frankfurt airport was great – we found a little area at our gate that was hidden from the main concourse, and stretched out across several seats, and each of us took a nap. DH kept anyone else around us from sleeping with his snores – I think the chairs were all shaking every time he took a breath.

After a quick flight to Florence, we finally disembarked on Italian soil. We were in Italy – ready for the vacation of a lifetime. We stepped out of the plane, and breathed in the Italian air. Yes, it was hot, and yes, it was humid. But that was okay – we are from Houston, where hot and humid reach magnitudes unimaginable anywhere else, so this felt just fine to us.

The Florence airport is tiny. We stepped to our left, and found our rental car office. We rented our car via Kemwel, which is a broker. They gave me a better deal than the other brokers often recommended. The car was actually from Hertz, and was a little Alfa Romeo. We named him Alf (yes, we are incredibly original and creative, I know). The agent gave us our key, and told us to go to space #48. Being the kind of people who follow directions, we went to space #48. There sat a bright blue Alfa Romeo. We opened the trunk (the car was unlocked), put in our suitcases, and started to get in the car. Out of nowhere, an Italian came running up, shouting “what are you doing with my car?” DH and I looked at each other, looked at the space to ensure it was #48, and shrugged. “What do you mean your car? This is our car – we are at #48,” I said, holding up the key to the car. I should mention that I don’t think his half of the conversation was entirely in English. But I don’t entirely recall – I was tired… And then he held up the key to his car – it was also #48. Uhoh… Turns out we were at #48 for Avis – not #48 for Hertz. Oops. “Stupid Americans” I muttered to another man who had stopped to watch our conversation, and laughing, DH and I walked to the correct space #48, and put our luggage in the black Alfa Romeo that was parked there. We got in the car, DH put the car in reverse, and off we went – on our way to 5 days in Montepulciano at Locanda San Francesco.

...to be continued...
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 17th, 2010, 10:55 AM
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Looking forward to it, CStone. This promises to be fun!
sap is offline  
Aug 17th, 2010, 11:41 AM
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Out of nowhere, an Italian came running up, shouting “what are you doing with my car?” DH and I looked at each other, looked at the space to ensure it was #48, and shrugged. “What do you mean your car? This is our car – we are at #48,” I said, holding up the key to the car>>

how lucky he turned up. He might still have been looking for that blue Alfa!

keep it coming!
annhig is offline  
Aug 18th, 2010, 10:15 AM
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I am embarassed to say I can't spell - my title was meant to say "Tuscany in August - were we crazy?". I realized my mistake as soon as I hit the submit button. I promise to all you grammar fanatics out there, I do know the different b/ween where and were...

This is shaping into a long and detailed report. I hope it contains enough useful information that people hang in there and read it all!

We intended to take the quickest and easiest route to Montepulciano, which was on the A1. After sitting in terrible traffic for about 45 minutes, we decided to go the scenic route. This is south via Siena. With every minute of driving, we got more and more excited. After passing Siena, we knew we were close. We drove through Pienza and several other smaller towns. The scenery was incredible. Fields of hay, sunflowers, wine or olive trees. Mountains in the distance. Cute little houses with beautiful flowers everywhere. We stopped at a sunflower field and took some pictures.

The approach to Montepulciano is breathtaking from this direction – the Temple of San Biagio is in the foreground, and the perched city is behind it. The sun was setting, and the entire town glowed. And then we tried to get to the town… DH loves to drive, and loves to drive fast. It is difficult to see and read street signs in a foreign language when you are driving past them at a high rate of speed. So, we missed the first turn to Montepulciano. Figured it out within about 50 yards, and then had to turn around. We didn’t figure out we missed the second turn until we drove through a parking garage and to a dead end. We knew we were close, as we had been driving up and around for quite some time into the buildings. So, we turned around again, and eventually found the next turn. And the next. We slowly drove by the main piazza – avoiding all the people milling around. We kept driving up, and ended up in a square with no signs in it. There was a church, and a wall with a beautiful view and a cute little restaurant / bar with a terrace full of flowers. We got out of the car, and looked around. DH whispered to me – “go ask someone at the restaurant if they know where the hotel is.” I whispered back – “let me look at the map one more time, I’m sure I can figure out where we are.” Just at this point, an Italian lady walked over to us, and asked if we were looking for the Locanda San Francesco, because if so, we were here. The restaurant / bar was connected to the hotel. With a huge sigh of relief, I gave Cinzia a huge hug! We were finally home!

Coming up – the end (finally) of our very long Day 1…
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 18th, 2010, 07:08 PM
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Keep writing, and you can make your report as long as you like. I'll read every word!

We were in that area in June, and I am HOMESICK for Southern Tuscany. Always happy to hear more about trips there!

thanks for the memories.
taconictraveler is offline  
Aug 18th, 2010, 07:45 PM
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Snowflake25 is offline  
Aug 19th, 2010, 06:01 AM
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Please hurry. My DH and I spent a lovely time in Perugia and I'm sighing about it daily.
TDudette is offline  
Aug 19th, 2010, 01:39 PM
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After settling in with our luggage, we headed downstairs to the bar. Cinzia poured us each a glass of wine, and gave us some introductory information about the hotel, the town, etc. We decided to stay there for dinner. We sat on the terrace, enjoying the cool breeze. The dinner was the first of many good meals in Tuscany. We started out with a selection of pecorino cheeses, served with honey and onion chutney. We then had pasta – ravioli for DH and penne pasta with chiangale (wild boar) sauce for me. Delicious. We shared a yummy bottle of 2004 Vigna D’Alfiero Valdipiatta – a vino Nobile di Montepulciano. From there, we staggered upstairs to our hotel room, and collapsed into bed.

A brief note about our hotel room. The Locanda has 4 rooms – we were in room number 4. The room has an outstanding view of south eastern Tuscany. There is a small loft in the room, with a cute little reading nook. The bathroom is huge – there are two sinks and a shower with one of those cool rain heads. The view from the bathroom overlooks north western Tuscany – also spectacular. The window is directly over the terrace of the restaurant, so at night there was sometimes noise from the people below. But if we closed the door to the bathroom, we couldn’t hear a thing from the bedroom. The room included a desktop computer with internet access. There was also wireless internet – Cinzia gave us the password when we asked. I can’t say enough about how happy we were with our stay here. The room was so comfortable, and a wonderful relaxing oasis to come home to every evening after we spent the day in southern Tuscany. The breakfast was nice – a typical spread of fresh fruit, yogurt, cheese and cold cuts, pastries, cereal, hard boiled eggs, a selection of juices, and coffee. There is another desktop computer in the hall outside the other rooms. Downstairs, where we ate breakfast, there was a nice library area with tour books of the area in multiple languages. There’s also a wide selection of DVDs and CDs which you can take to your room and use. Our room rate was 210€ per night, which we thought was a great rate for what we got.

Day 2 – Siena and Montepulciano
I woke up at the crack of dawn, ready to leap out of bed and explore. Well, really what happened is the sun shining through the drapes woke me up at 5:30am. Luckily, I was able to fall back asleep for a couple of hours. I will have to say that the sun worked wonders on helping me avoid any semblance of jet lag on this trip! There were no mornings wasted in slumber. DH and I both enjoy running, and have completed several half marathons in the last few years, so a short morning run seemed like a good idea. We would run through the town, get to know the streets, and maybe even get a bit of a workout. Well, what sounded like a good idea was great as we ran downhill through a maze of streets. The uphill part was a bit more challenging, particularly when we couldn’t find our way back to the hotel. Luckily, there were plenty of signs to the piazza grande. After locating the piazza, we huffed and puffed our way uphill back to the hotel.

We showered and went down to breakfast, and then headed out to get on the road for our first day’s adventure in Siena. As we stepped out the door of the hotel, we noted that the road downhill was blocked by a few vans. Those vans were full of tables and tents and artisans’ wares. Apparently, today was the first day of a street fair - on the street leading up to our hotel. The already extremely narrow roads were now even narrower. So DH got in the car, and started the drive down, with me helping him navigate through the stalls. He took the first right, off the main road, I got in, and things got even more interesting. The road was downhill, through a tiny archway. I think we had about 6 inches of clearance on either side. Then we had to make a “right” turn that was basically a u-turn, and then a “left” turn which was another u-turn. Each street seemed to be progressively narrower. Fortunately, after the left turn, the road was straight, and widened as we continued downhill and out of the town. The road took us right by the Temple of San Biagio, and up the picturesque cedar lined road leading to the temple.

There are two ways to get to Siena – we took the more “direct” way, following the A1 signs, through a few small towns, then hopping on an expressway to the town. Finding parking once we arrived was a challenge, but we had several tips from our online research. We parked by Porto Ovile – there’s a fairly large parking lot that is across the street from Siena’s centro storico. There’s a series of escalators that takes you up, and you end up on a side street about 5 minutes walk from Piazza Campo. Tip – take your parking ticket with you, b/c you pay in the building where the escalators are. We left ours in the car, and wandered around for several minutes trying to figure out where to pay…

Siena is a beautiful town. We had been there twice on our last trip, and loved it. This time it was a bit more crowded, which took away from the overall charm of the town. But it was still beautiful, with interesting buildings and facades every corner you turned. We walked to the Piazza Campo, and saw that they were putting up the barricades for the Palio – the big race was the following week. We thought about climbing to the top of the bell tower, and even stood in line for a few minutes, but it didn’t move, so we decided to forgo that adventure. We spent a few hours just wandering around the town. We saw the duomo, and it was just as beautiful and awe inspiring as I remembered. We did some shopping, took lots of pictures, and soaked in everything.

For lunch, we went to Hosteria L’Osteria. This is a cute little restaurant on the street leading back to where we were parked. The tables outside were full, so we sat inside at the back, on a tiny little table. The service was sparse, and we waited quite some time for someone to take our order, so DH left and went down the street to a small grocery store to get a coke light. The food was good – just basic Tuscan fare. We had bruschetta to start, with pasta as the main course. Very hearty stuff, and after some food in our bellies (and caffeine, too!), we felt refreshed.

Coming up – an amazing dinner in Montichiello, and Day 3 – exploring the small hill towns of Val d’Orcia.
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 19th, 2010, 06:24 PM
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Can't wait to hear the rest - I love your decriptions of the countryside and Sienna
susawhite is offline  
Aug 19th, 2010, 06:48 PM
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Just tried to book the same spot but they are not available - di you have a second or third choice?
susawhite is offline  
Aug 23rd, 2010, 11:25 AM
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Susawhite - I am sorry you weren't able to get a room at Locanda San Francesco. We also looked at Palazzo del Capitano in San Quirico d'Orcia, Villa Poggiano just outside Montepulciano, Il Chiostro di Pienza in Pienza and Locanda dell Amorosa in Sinalunga. In the end, Montepulciano won out.

Another place that looks really neat is La Bandita, but it was a bit out of our price range.

Bobthenavigator has a list of hotels in the area that he often posts. try doing a search on his name to find more hotels.
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 01:53 PM
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We headed back to Montepulciano after lunch. Rather than take a nap, we decided to take in a little of the town. We walked down from our hotel to the piazza grande, stopping to peruse some of the booths at the street fair. From the piazza grande, we headed down towards the main shopping street. We wandered down down down. All downhill. There were tons of shops, selling anything you could imagine that a tourist would want. Many wine shops for my DH to peruse, art galleries, clothing stores, etc. The road seemed to go on forever. We finally made it to the bottom, dreading the turnaround, as we knew it would be uphill from there. Well, at least we would be working off all the great food we would be eating! We finally made it back to the hotel, ready for a well deserved nap.

Dinner tonight was at Osteria La Porta in Montichiello. On the map, the town was only a couple of miles away. However, maps in Tuscany can be deceiving – the drive took about 15 minutes, and was very windy. We finally arrived at the town, and were amazed at all the people who had parked their cars and were walking uphill. There must be some event in the town we were unaware of? As we drove up the steep uphill towards town, I started to wonder where we would park. Sure enough, we reached the top, and a police officer was directing traffic. We said we had reservations at La Porta. He pointed downhill, and directed us to park and walk. So we turned around, drove downhill, searching for a parking space. We found one fairly easily, and then started the hike back uphill. Luckily, La Porta is right at the front of the town, so it didn’t take us too long to arrive. We were immediately seated in a cute table on the terrace. The sun was just setting – and the view was gorgeous. We sat down, took a deep breath, and marveled that we were sitting on a terrace in Italy. It was wonderful! As soon as we were seated, we were served two glasses of prosecco. We ordered a nice bottle of brunello with dinner. Dinner was amazing. We started with an order of bruchetta and a special of the day – salmon tartare. I then had the gnocchi and DH had risotto with shaved truffles on top. We shared the delicious rack of lamb, and finished off the dinner with a chocolate torta and vin santo. Looking back, I’m not sure how we ate all that – it was a lot of food. But it was so yummy. We really loved this restaurant – the ambience could not be beat, the food was outstanding, and the service was great.

Day 3 – Driving through Val d’Orcia
Sunday was our hill town day, so I got out our map and my printout of Stu Dudley’s “One Day Drive through the Val d'Orcia in southern Tuscany”, and off we went. Note that we didn’t follow the itinerary exactly, as we were planning to visit Montalcino and the S’Antimo Abbey the following day.

Our first stop was Pienza, which is a small town know for pecorino cheese. We had no trouble finding parking just outside the historical center of the town, as it was still fairly early. We could smell the cheese before we even got to the center. Yum! Pienza is a tiny little town, full of charming side streets with beautiful flowers outside every doorway and window. The main street has many shops, selling (of course) cheese, as well as wine, dried herbs, and other traditional food items. In the center of the town is a large cathedral, surrounded by several huge palazzos. The cathedral was built on the side of a hill, and the view of the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. We did a bit of shopping, and took lots of pictures. And then, we turned down a side street, and were stunned to see “our” shop. As a little background, about five years ago, we bought a large picture for our living room. We found it at an art festival, and the artist told us he’d taken the picture in Tuscany. Well, the shop was in Pienza, and this was it. Of course, we had to take many more pictures, and we tried to explain to the proprietor of the shop that we had a picture of their shop in our living room.

After leaving Pienza, we headed towards San Quirico. We stopped for the obligatory pictures of the small church amongst the cypress trees, as well as several other times for other can’t miss pictures. San Quirico is another small, quaint Tuscan town. We parked at the back, and walked through the narrow streets to the main piazza. Unfortunately, it was a Sunday afternoon, so many of the shops were closed. We had a small picnic of some cheese and bread we had bought in Pienza, and then moved on to the next town – Bagno Vignoni. This is a tiny little town, where there was a large pool that is fed by thermal springs. We found a small self service restaurant (La Bottega di Cacio) here that was packed. We decided if it was that busy, it was probably worth visiting. So we got in line and watched everyone order at the counter. When it was our turn, we asked for a selection of cheese and salami. We got a plate of several different kinds of cheeses, another plate of different types of salami, a plate with a variety of marmalades and honeys, and several large slices of bread. All this plus a large bottle of water was 13€. And it was delicious!

After our meal, we continued our drive – we drove through Castiglione d’Orcia, and found a gelato shop at the top of a hill. From there, we headed back to Montepulciano, and took a well deserved nap.

Dinner was at Osteria dell’ Acquacheta tonight. They have two sittings – one at 7:30 and the next at 9. The seating is very informal – there are long tables that you share with other groups of people. I think we were the only Americans in the restaurant. A teenager and her father were sitting on one side of us, and a large family gathering was on the other side. DH asked for a wine list, and the owner pointed to several bottles of wine displayed on shelves with a flourish – “this is my wine list!” he said. We had a bottle of Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which was very good. We started with some bruschetta and some pecorino cheese with honey and walnuts. We both had gnocchi – mine was delicious, with zucchini blossoms and ricotta cheese. DH’s was also very good, with pomodoro (tomato) sauce and garlic. As a side order, we couldn’t resist the pears and baked pecorino cheese. We finished our dinner with a torta and some grappa. The food was all great, and the conversations around us were entertaining (even though we didn’t understand them at all). We got to know the father and daughter at our table, as they spoke some English. By the end of the meal, we were all sharing wine and having a great time! After dinner, we took a long walk through the town, enjoying the cool night breeze.

Coming up – Day 4 – Exploring the Hills and Roads with Luca!
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 02:09 PM
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Wonderful report!!!! Don't stop, please. My mouth is watering, and I can picture all of that lovely scenery, as I've been in this part of Italy several times. Thank you for the details about the FOOD and WINE and CHEESE!!
simpsonc510 is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 02:24 PM
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This is all so so delicious! Love re-living my trip. and so glad yours was so good. great report.
taconictraveler is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 04:28 PM
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ttt before it disappears to page two
simpsonc510 is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 05:14 PM
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Great report! I'm ready to head to Tuscany.
GranthamMommy is offline  
Aug 25th, 2010, 06:07 PM
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I'm loving your trip report and missing Southern Tuscany. We, too, had a wonderful meal at Porta. Can't wait to read more.
Pawleys is offline  
Aug 26th, 2010, 03:54 AM
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Very nice report. But you haven't answered your own question yet. Were you crazy to go to Italy in August? You've mentioned a few times about crowds or trouble parking, but it doesn't sound really horrible. What other months have you been to Italy and did you notice much difference in August. Have you ever been in July? I always go to Europe in July, scarred off by the tales of massive crowds in August and would like to know if it's really that bad.
isabel is offline  
Aug 26th, 2010, 05:56 AM
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Isabel - in short, the answer to my question is no, we weren't crazy to go in August (to southern Tuscany at least. I feel a little differently about Florence, as I'll try to explain when I get to that part in my trip). There are three things I was worried about - the heat, the tourists and everything being closed.

Yes, the weather was hot during the day, but we live in Houston, so the weather felt cool to us. During the day, we generally wore shorts and short sleeved shirts, and were hot in the sun, but comfortable in the shade. The evenings were wonderful. It cooled down quite a bit. Since we were in hill towns, there was always a nice breeze. I was often chilly at night, and made sure to bring a scarf to wrap around my shoulders. At La Porta, they actually had fleece blankets available for those of us sitting on the terrace, as they knew it could get cool after the sun set. We made sure that both of our hotels had a/c, and our car had a/c, also.

The tourists weren't that overwhelming either. Sure there were other people around, but only in Florence did I truly feel like things were crowded. Often, parking issues were related to us not knowing where to go, and not so much b/c of an influx of tourists. During the day, Montepulciano got a bit full, but by mid afternoon, it thinned out. Since we tended to take day trips, this worked out great. The other interesting thing was that we rarely saw American tourists. We heard lots of foreign languages, but it seemed that people were from all over. We met people from France, Holland, Germany, Japan, Australia, England, other parts of Italy, etc. One of the games we would play was to try and guess where people were from - we'd try and figure out what language they were speaking and things like that.

Finally, the only place we ran into places being closed in August was Florence - one day at lunch we tried three different recommended restaurants, and all were closed. Other than that, we never had problems with things being closed. In fact, in Montepulciano, as you'll see when I get a few more days written up, there was a big summer festival, and the city was full of local Italians watching musicians, flag competitions, etc. It was a great environment to be in, and we really felt like we were experiencing something that was very "local" in spirit, and not geared to tourists at all.

We went to Italy in 2003 in late September / early October, and I would probably recommend that timing if you have a choice in when you can travel, b/c the weather was nicer, and things were maybe a little less crowded. But, if you don't have a choice, I wouldn't hesitate to go in August - if you plan ahead and know what to expect, you will still have a fabulous time!
CStoneTX is offline  
Aug 26th, 2010, 06:31 AM
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Loving this..eager for more!
ekscrunchy is offline  

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