In my last post, I hit upon some lovely places to rest your weary head and what to do when in Rome. As I've mentioned before there's literally so much to see that you could keep busy for weeks on end. With all that seeing and doing, you need some sustenance, obviously, but you really need some cultural balance. Some wonderful ways to experience what Rome really has to offer is to take part in aperitivo, eat some local dishes, wander off the main roads, and for the love of God ditch the picture menus! After all, indulging in local cuisine and cocktails is why most of us travel (and if it isn't, then you're doing it all wrong and we need to change that!)
In my last post about places to see in Tuscany, I mentioned that you have some options in where/how you stay. Florence provides a great home base for taking day trips and is chock full of hotels, B&Bs, hostels even. It is also a common jumping off point for organized tours and public transportation such as trains and buses. But a great, affordable alternative is to experience an agriturismo. Agriturismi are actual working farms that offer accommodations in its farmhouses or villas. The style of accommodations can vary-- from rustic to luxurious, traditional Tuscan to modern-- and some even offer swimming pools and spas. One thing they all have in common is that they produce some type of food, usually olives for olive oil or grapes for wine, that you get to sample and bring home as a souvenir. Yes, you're technically staying on a farm but since you're in Tuscany the scenery is spectacular and nothing like Old MacDonald's. I've stayed in both a hotel in Florence and an agriturismo in the countryside and both were lovely experiences in their own way. The most memorable though was my week at Il Castello di Bibbione, an agriturismo in San Casciano in Val di Pesa, known for being Niccolò Machiavelli's hunting grounds. It is located just 30 minutes south of Florence, about 40 min north of Siena, and close to the autostrada (the major highway) which made it a perfect location for exploring. The grounds consisted of a castle which had a few separate rooms, a 4-bedroom villa for large groups, several 1 & 2-bedroom apartments, 2 swimming pools and a breakfast room. At one point in time it used to be a small village so the buildings are all in walking distance of each other. Each room/dwelling was outfitted in rustic yet charming Tuscan décor and each had its own kitchen so you could cook a meal with the food you picked up from the local market that day. Some apartments had outdoor patios with a grill and the villa even had a wood-fire pizza oven built into the side of the building. You can bet we took advantage of that!
Two things that you probably won't find at an agriturismo are daily room service (although you can request new linens if necessary), and a concierge (however the receptionists are very knowledgeable and friendly). That doesn't necessarily mean you won't find high-end amenities though if that's what you're looking for. They do exist, especially with luxury agriturismi popping up on the map more and more lately (I just saw one on Jetsetter). Also, some do not have restaurants onsite or only offer meals during part of the day, so that is something to keep in mind. But hey, it gives you a great excuse to get a flavor for local life at the market in town as you stock up on provisions. Which brings me to my next point.
A car was imperative for staying at the agriturismo and for exploring the area. You might be able to find some that are accessible by bus but more than likely you will be quite off the beaten path so I highly recommend renting a car. Don't be scared, rent that Fiat and have fun with it! Cars, especially stick shifts, are pretty inexpensive to rent ($100-150/wk for a standard size). Automatics are tougher to find but it is possible and you do need to reserve one in advance. Note: it's totally worth renting the GPS with your car or you're stuck reading maps and I bet it's been awhile you've had to do that, thanks Google. If you're not keen on driving, then you might be better off staying in Florence where you can catch trains, buses and tour groups.
Important note about driving: If you are renting a car, be sure to watch for signs indicating you are about to enter a Limited Traffic Zone or Zona Traffico Limitato (ZTL). You are NOT allowed to drive in these zones which are usually found at the historical city center of most cities in Tuscany and you WILL get a ticket. They have cameras set up that take pictures of your license plate and the rental agency will mail you a piece of paper in Italian several weeks later when you're least expecting it. More info on ZTLs here. Also, when on the highway watch for signs indicating a speed trap known as Controllo elettronico della velocità. You are always warned ahead of time, several times actually, that one is approaching so just keep an eye out for the sign with a little policeman on it and slowww down. Yes, that is probably why you see all the people ahead of you randomly braking. Do yourself a favor and take the hint.
Tuscany is such an amazing destination that no matter how you see it you will find enjoyment. But I hope that this article encourages you to trade the chain hotel for an agriturismo on your next trip. You might surprise yourself--I know I did--and find out there's more to traveling than staying at the Hilton.
Note: If you're not sure about how to go about finding an agriturismo, let me know below or shoot me a message and I'll show you a few websites that I've found to be helpful.
Ahh, Tuscany. I can almost taste the earthy Chianti Classico and the bowl of al dente pici in a light pecorino "sauce" as I type. We all can't help but associate good food and plentiful wine when we think of Tuscany. And that's for good reason. Tuscany is home to hundreds of wineries and serves up some of the most simple yet delicious food around. And Florence, being the capital of Tuscany, is full of amazing dining experiences. I love the Italian approach to eating--whatever's in season and whatever's nearby. Here in the States it's become trendy to "eat local" but in Italy it's just what you do. And I also love that in this region in particular, the dishes are quite simple but so incredibly delicious thanks to the fresh, quality ingredients used. That pici that I mentioned above, I recall having for lunch in a casual trattoria one day and being blown away only by 4 ingredients-- pasta (homemade of course), olive oil, pecorino cheese, and black pepper. My husband ordered penne alla pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce, yup that's all) and he still talks about it.
With good food must come good wine and luckily there is plenty of that available. Tuscany is known for its reds thanks to the sangiovese grape that grows on its vines. There are some whites available (Vernaccia di San Gimignano being a good one) but reds definitely dominate this region--Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano to name a few. And we can't forget about the lovely dessert wine--Vin Santo. The local thing to do is to sip that with cantucci (what biscotti are known as in this region) for dipping.
Italy takes their wine very seriously (no new info there) and has a rating system which can help consumers distinguish the quality. Top quality wines are labeled DOCG, followed by DOC, and lastly IGT. You will see this on menus and on a label on the bottleneck. Now, let me say that IGT doesn't mean the wine is bad, it just means that it hasn't met the strict regulations (certain percentage of grape variety, location in which it's produced, etc.) that DOCG and DOC wines must meet to wear the label. Unless you're a sommelier or wine connoisseur, chances are the house chianti you order with dinner that is labeled IGT will be fantastic and only about 8 euro a bottle.
Tip: When ordering wine, do yourself a favor and choose something from Tuscany. Just like eating local the Italians like to drink local as well. And when else are you going to be in the middle of wine country able to sip a red made by Giovanni down the street? It doesn't get any better than that.
So it's pretty much a no-brainer that your visit to this region will involve lots and lots of great eating and drinking (better pack elastic-waisted pants...) so here's a list of my favorite places to dine in Florence:
- Il Santo Bevitore - My absolute favorite place for dinner but reservations are a must. They also have a tiny little wine bar next door to the restaurant that was super quaint and great for a glass. It's located in a great neighborhood--Oltrarno--which (as the word translates) is on the other side of the river, away from the touristy crowd and with some great boutique shopping nearby. (Via di Santo Spirito, 66r)
- Ristorante Parione - Another great place for dinner. At first I was nervous when I was being led to my table in the basement, until I saw that the basement was actually a wine cellar. Such a cool atmosphere! Food was delicious and the owner makes you feel like you're at home. Reservations recommended. (Via di Parione, 74/76r)
- Il Pizzaiuolo - Pizzeria with the best pizza I've ever had outside of Naples. Very casual but buzzing atmosphere and pretty inexpensive meal for a lot of food. Reservations are recommended because this place is always busy. Closed on Sundays. (Via de Macci, 113)
- Il Borgo Antico - Outdoor seating in a really cute piazza. Yummy food. They don't take reservations but I've been told if you have to wait they give you a glass of prosecco! I went for an early dinner so I didn't have to wait but by the time I left the place was hopping. This is also in the Oltrarno neighborhood I mentioned above, away from the touristy crowd. (Piazza Santo Spirito)
- Il Latini - They seat you family style here at either 7:30pm or 9pm. You can make reservations but it didn't seem to matter. I showed up for the first seating at 7 and people were already lined up. I just hopped in line and they opened the doors at 7:30. Really good tuscan food including the locally-famous Florentine Steaks. Closed on Mondays. (Via del Pachetti, 6R)
- Trattoria ZaZa - Great for pasta. Casual place. The truffle fettuccine was ridic. (Piazza del Mercato Centrale, 26r)
- Alla Vecchia Bettola - Slightly outside the old walls of the city, but a nice walk on the other side of the river. Definitely off the beaten path and so totally worth the walk. Had an awesome traditional tuscan lunch with checkered tablecloths, wooden stools, and 4 euro all you can drink house chianti. (Via Pratolini, 3)
- Gelateria La Carraia - There are literally gelaterias on every street corner of this city but this one had the yummiest flavors. Latte di mandorla? Si, per favore! (Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25r)
The only thing I've failed to mention is coffee or caffé as it's known in Italy. Stay tuned for Caffé Cultura:101 in which I will fill you in on what you need to know about ordering coffee in Italy. In the meantime, buon appetito! And sorry if I made you hungry.