A wise tour guide once said, "Be a traveler, not just a tourist." Getting the most out of the Tuscan experience means you need to follow his advice, deviate off the beaten track and see more than the usual tourist sights. The world is becoming a smaller place by the minute with the Internet, McDonald's, Coca Cola and even All-A-Dollar (All-A-Euro in Italy). As our cultures become more homogeneous we need to seek out the things that make us different and enjoy them before they're gone. Tuscany, with its beautiful landscapes and friendly people, still offers a cultural adventure if you're prepared to do some walking and aren't afraid to interact with the locals, and when it's over you'll leave with memories of people, not just places.
Italy, like most of Europe, is busiest during the summer months. To avoid tourist congestion, high hotel prices and the heat of summer, it makes sense to visit in the spring or fall. The temperature may be a little cooler with a bit of rain, but the payoffs in savings, comfort and beating the crowds make it well worth going in the off-season .
Be prepared for a long time in the air. Despite the choices of multiple movies, music and magazines, a 17-hour flight (including layovers) does wear on you. American carriers with their aging aircraft may not be quite as comfortable as European airlines, such as Luftfhansa, with their new Skybuses.
Many travel companies now offer packages that include hotel accommodations, transportation, to and from the airport, and optional guided tours. You could rent a car, but with the cost of gas in Italy at over $9 a gallon it makes more sense to use the commuter rail. Trains are comfortable, easy to use and on time. Except for traveling long distances, the best way of getting around is to walk or rent a bicycle. Walking affords you the opportunity of enjoying the sights, smells and people of this beautiful historic area.
Land of the euro
Like many a traveler, you'll be tempted to think of one euro and one dollar as being equal. DON'T! Unless, of course, you're trying to soften the impact of the high prices for everything in Europe. It's expensive. At one time, long ago, the exchange might have been close but not anymore.
Base of operations
On previous trips to Italy we had stayed in larger cities, such as Florence and Rome, and while
they have their advantages for the tourist, the traveler might prefer more intimate surroundings, like Montecatini Terme. Located about 30 minutes from the Florence airport, it has a perfect central location for exploring a number of towns without the overwhelming bustle of major tourist attractions like Florence.
The Campo dei Miracoli, "Field of Miracles," includes the Duomo (cathederal), the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower. Walk the open market area with its fresh produce and open stall with local merchants. Enjoy a leisurely lunch at a sidewalk cafe.
Museo delle Sinopie
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
Museo Nationale di San Matteo
Climb the tower
The Leaning Tower (bell tower), completed in 1350, took 177 years to construct because of its sinking foundation. The Tower was recently reopened after the base was stabilized (an 11-year process). Caution: Be ready to wait in a long line. The once-in-a-life-time experience is worth it.
Pisa is very crowded, especially during the summer. Although the Campo dei Miracoli is definitely worth seeing, the crowds are a definite turn off.
Florence has so much to see and do it's hard to know where to start. The main attractions are mainly centered around the Piazza Di San Giovanni and the Duomo, Campanile and Baptistry.
The Uffizi, completed in 1580 by Duke Cosimo I, was originally administrative offices. It now houses one of the greatest collections of art in Europe. It's amazing to see famous works that you had only viewed in books. This is a definitely complete day's experience.
David: If you only go to one art exhibit while in Florence, be sure to see David, by Michelangelo, at the Galleria dell' Accademia. The perfect art experience for the individual who would be overhelmed by the Uffizi.
The Ponte Vecchio (bridge over the Arno River), built in 1345, originally housed merchants and craftsmen. Today its tenants are primarily jewelers.
Florence's attractions are so numerous that it's impossible to see them all in a day or even a week. As with all of Tuscany, you need to walk the streets to get the feel of the city. There's a charm and ambience that keeps visitors coming back time after time. Napoleone, was named for Napoleon's sister, Elisa Baciocchi, who brought about a number of beneficial changes to the city. Once a medieval silk center, it is now a major producer of tissue paper and paper products.
San Gimignano is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Tuscany. Fourteen of the original 76 towers still dot the skyline. More relaxing than Florence, the town is known for its shops, galleries and restaurants. The perfect place to spend a leisurely day.
I love Lucca because it doesn't seem to have the tourist traffic of the other Tuscan towns. The city was originally a Roman colony (180 B.C.). The main square, Piazza Napoleone, was named for Napoleon's sister, Elisa Baciocchi, who brought about a number of beneficial changes to the city. Once a medieval silk center, it is now a major producer of tissue paper and paper products.
Another medieval city, it's home of the Piazza del Campo and the pageantryof the Palio, an annual bare-back horse race that pits 17 Sienese neighborhoods against each other. It's also the home of my favorite pizza shop; just off the Piazza.
Gelato traces its roots back to Emperor Nero in the 4th century B.C. Gelato is made with milk rather than cream, has fewer calories and is denser than ice cream. With gelato shops that seem to be on every corner, you'll get hooked fast.
After your first slice of Tuscan bread you'll realize it lacks something. That something is salt. It seems that many years ago Pisa and Lucca were involved in a conflict. Since Pisa had control of the sea it cut off the salt supply to Lucca. The result is the Tuscan bread.
Probably your initial thoughts on Italian food are everything smothered in a marinara sauce, especially pasta. The reality is dishes with many light sauces made with fresh garlic, herbs and local cheeses. Pasta is usually a small portion of a much larger meal. A real Tuscan dinner has multiple courses and can last all evening. Although you'll recognize many things like bruschetta, salami and prosciutto, be prepared for the unusual. A few of the more different dishes I experienced were tripe, squid, chicken liver pate (I hate liver) and prawns that stare back at you.
Sometimes an afternoon of just people-watching can be fun. Montecatini's shops are open on Sundays, and this is an irresistible draw for people from surrounding towns. The result is a fashion parade through the center of town. Italians are very concerned with how they look, and they all exude a kind of style that isn't evident here in the States. From what I could tell, metallic flats, and of course stiletto heels, are in (heels are worn even on the worst cobblestone streets). Shoes with long pointed toes are popular with the men. They both look like accidents ready to happen to me. The average Italian woman spends $6,000 annually on clothing.
The Italians, like everyone else, love to express opinions and talk. It's always interesting to find out what is concerning the locals. Our shuttle driver was concerned over an influx of Chinese immigrants and their effect on the economy. A chance meeting with a local couple (he was an American from Chicago and she was half Italian and half Argentine) resulted in a family style dinner at her cousin's hotel. There was also the Egyptian who acted as our interpreter and his buddy who loved America and wanted to immigrate to the U.S. These little encounters will make your Tuscan experience much more memorable.