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TUSCANY: What is it? Which parts should YOU visit? How to avoid the hype

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Many people post for the first time on Fodor's because they are planning a trip to Italy and they have heard that "Tuscany" is a MUST-SEE. But even if they spend a long time with guidebooks, they get confused about what to see and do, how much time to spend where.

This is a thread to help YOU, the traveler, figure out what would be the most rewarding experience for YOU in Tuscany. It is not a guide to Tuscany. There are guidebooks for that. It is not an attempt to tell you what is the "best" of Tuscany. Anybody who tells you they "know" and "trust me" doesn't know, and more than that, they don't know YOU.

This is a thread that emphasizes that it matters very much what YOU like to do when you plan a trip to Tuscany. It matters what kind of experiences YOU like to have while traveling and what kinds YOU like to avoid.

It has become increasingly common for people to advise about Italy as if it didn't matter whether a trip to Tuscany has any content. But it really does matter if seeing Michaelangelo's David is something you've dreamed of doing all your life or something you read in a guidebook.

Likewise, not everybody will find it a good use of their time and money in Italy to spend days at a stretch in Tuscany driving through a scenic zone of tourist farms and towns, with shopping and eating the major activities of the day. It's just not enough intellectual and cultural engagement for them. It feels like a waste of their precious time in Italy. Exploring Pienza can be fascinating. Your 10th "quaint" hilltown only known for being "quaint'" and having a restaurant popular on Fodor's in fact IS a waste of Italy for many people.

I hope by the time you finish reading this thread you will have enough knowledge to never fall victim to the hype about Tuscany that it can be reduced to a formula that makes every American tourist happy. You need to be at the center of your Tuscan trip, first and foremost. Think about what you like to do and don't like to do --- and don't be afraid to be called a snob, a philistine, a contrarian --- that you're going "too fast" or you're "spending too much time" here or there. Pick what YOU want to see, what you want to experience, and then ask questions about the logistics.

How can you know in advance how to make your dreams come true in a week or less in Tuscany?

Here are some questions I think it might help to ask yourself:

If most of the important artwork of Florence or Siena was moved to museums in Denmark, would I want to go to Denmark to see it?

If your answer is no, then realize that your dreams about going to Tuscany have more to do with things like sunshine, good smells and Italian food, not art. You're likely to be left speechless by your first glimpse of many great artworks in Florence or Siena, but that will give you less lasting pleasure than the clean air and better food outside the tourist-jammed cities. Think about whether you want to spend time in the art cities of Tuscany at all, and don't be afraid to buck the crowd.

Does it matter to me see church interiors with works by Gozzoli, Masaccio, Fra Angelico and Giotto if I have the chance?

If your answer is yes, you should think twice about committing yourself to days of Tuscan driving that glues you to following SS40this and SS30that, to yet another cypress-lined road with a castle town of no particular artistic reward at the end. Many astonishing artifacts of Italian art and history are locked up inside small Tuscan walled towns (San Gimignano, Chiusi, Cortona, Buonconvento, Volterra, Pienza -- to name just a few). By all means track them down to see the art, they are worth the effort. But don't be bullied into content-free meander-shopping of Tuscan hills by people who yell at you that's the "best" of Tuscany. It is for thousands of American tourists to be sure. You're spending the money here and you're entitled to make the most of your own time.

Do I need a vacation without alarm clocks and nothing to do?

If the answer is yes, spending days in the Tuscan countryside -- any part of it -- without a sightseeing agenda can be deeply relaxing. The Tuscan people are among the world's most gracious hosts, and they have created accommodations and restaurants in every price category to delight visitors. Don't hesitate to go to rural Tuscany for a vacation -- in the hills, by the sea, among the thermal baths, or in the mountains -- and just relax. Don't be bullied and nagged into sightseeing or shopping or town hopping. Plan to do it by whim and your own personal design, if at all.

Do I want to shop for wine to ship home?

If the answer is no, you don't need to visit any of Tuscany's famous wine towns. You might enjoy the rural scenery around them or the views from a few of them. A handful of them (very small handful) have architecture, art and historic importance. But they are also the most touristed and touristy parts of Tuscany, because tourists associate Italy with wine -- even if they personally don't drink wine -- and are led to believe the thing to do in Italy, therefore, is go see where they make wine! If you're not interested in buying wine to ship home, there is little point in taking tours of wineries or hanging around wine towns. Unless you like being around English-speaking tourists to chat with them and make new friends. But otherwise,. most other places in Tuscany have more to offer.

If I'm honest with myself, will it disappoint me or annoy me to find myself among lots of other tourists and few Italians when I go to Tuscany?

If the answer is yes, don't let other people call you a snob or push you around for not wanting to go to all the trouble and effort to get to Italy only to find yourself in a tourist safari park. If you want to see the greatest artworks of the Renaissance and you are bothered by the bus tour groups or crowds of semi-lost or anxious crowds of tourists (many of whom don't share your interest despite being there), you will need a strategy for avoiding them or keeping your sense of humor. In rural Tuscan villages, the answer is simpler: go to towns and areas you don't read about in guidebooks and on message boards. They are just as charming, the roads leading to and from them are just as beautiful, the food is often better. There is less tourist shopping, but that's all.

If I'm honest with myself, do I feel terrible if I don't go to the guidebook recommended places?

If the answer is yes, then no doubt you will be going to the guidebook recommended places in Tuscany, as many as you can. You can still make your trip more personally enjoyable by putting the emphasis on what means most to you. Don't feel like you MUST go actually stay in a "cute little hilltown" if a day of scenic driving on your way to Rome will allow you to check "val d'Orcia" off the list.. Likewise, if you feel you must follow guidebook orders to go to the Uffizi despite disliking museum-going, please just remember that for some other people in the room with you, this is the culminations of a personal dream to be standing there.

Am I sure Tuscany is really the right vacation for my kids?

If your answer is "I'm not sure," then read more about Tuscany and think about what you are reading. Apart from a few beach locations, Tuscany is non-stop Renaissance art sightseeing and Etruscan history sightseeing, without English language labels or interactive museums, and its countryside attractions are super-quiet villages with Super-Tuscan wine. Meals are long drawn out affairs. Pizza is rarely on the menu. Bicylcling around Lucca takes less than an hour. Reservations need to be made to climb the Leaning Tower, and the view from the top doesn't interest many kids. There are farms in Tuscany that specialize in activities for kids, with swimming pools, horseback riding, organized trekking, cooking classes.

Am I getting better information from people on message boards who've been to Tuscany than I can get from guidebooks?

If you think the answer is yes. please consider that people who write guidebooks often live in Tuscany, or have spent years there, and speak Italian. People who post on message boards will tell you not to go to a town that they've only been in once 12 years ago (and whose name they can't pronounce) or they will urge you not to miss an enormous museum in Florence and on and on that they visited for one hour a cruise ship tour group without realizing the logistics involved. Some people should never try to plan a successful trip to Tuscany on message boards, and everybody should beware people who ask you to contact them via e-mail.

Different parts of Tuscany suit different needs, different couples, different families, different people.. Don't be bullied by message board posters into staying in a part of Tuscany because it's one of the "big 3", or in another part of Tuscany because " driving in Tuscany is what Tuscany is all about, IMHO." Choose to visit a part of Tuscany because it best matches YOUR reason for being in Italy. Visit if for as long or as short as you like -- one night, 3 days, half a day, just passing through. THERE ARE NO FORMULAS FOR TRAVEL. Truly. There are no "rules." That's for children. And you are the only "expert" you should heed about how to spend your time and money in Tuscany.

Have a great trip!

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