After spending far too long back in the UK since our round-the-world travel I decided to go and tick another dream off my list, Tuscany. Despite having family in Italy and having visited Rome many times over the years I had never quite managed to get myself to Tuscany. As such, I decided it was time!
Using my Avios points I managed to book a return flight from London, Heathrow to Rome, Fiumicino for a grand total of £35. As my aunt was visiting us in the UK she gave me her apartment keys for Rome to use as a starting point, which provided me with a couple of nights of free accommodation.
I had researched going via public transport using trains and buses, but as I only had 10 days in which to squeeze as much of Tuscany in as I could, I decided to hire car. Being the last 2 weeks of August the rental was not cheap at around 350 euros, but as I had in essence had a free flight I figured it was worth it for the freedom it would give me.
So with a map of Tuscany on the passenger seat I set out for a solo adventure…
The first and biggest challenge was undoubtedly dealing with the driving in Italy. Chaos is an understatement. Not only do drivers seem completely oblivious to anything happening outside of their cars, they also seem to have virtually no traffic laws. Or at least not many they take heed of…
Road lines are used for guidance rather than for actual lanes with cars straddling lines rather than lanes, parking seems to occur at any free space regardless of location or if there is already someone parked there and indicators must obviously be a missing component on Italian cars, making it all the more challenging trying to understand what drivers intend to do at junctions, roundabouts and just about anywhere in general!
Don’t think I was completely naïve to this before hiring a car. I had many years ago in fact hired and survived the rental of a scooter in central Rome. However, a car is a whole other matter, especially when you have never driven a left-hand vehicle and keep forgetting that the other half of the car is on your right and not your left!
So with a slightly higher than usual blood pressure level I ventured from Rome into the region of Tuscany.
Now you really can’t go wrong with just driving around Tuscany, as there are so many beautiful little old towns “borgo” dotted all over this region that every corner brings a new delight.
However, I had selected a few key places I wanted to see and in the end I spent my days exploring; Capalbio, Magliano in Toscana, Scansano, Saturnia thermal pools (free access), Grosseto, Volterra, Siena, Florence, Pistoia, Vicopisano, Pisa, San Miniato, Monteriggioni, Monticiano, Certaldo, San Quirico D’orcia, Montalcino, Bagno Vignoni (free access) and Bagni San Filippo (free access) thermal waters.
My favourite places were:
- Magliano in Toscano: a picturesque village of only 3,000 odd inhabitants with intact fortress walls surrounding the small community.
- Siena, a beautiful old city, full of history and yet surprisingly well maintained and welcoming, with plenty of pedestrian only winding cobbled streets. Siena is divided into “Contrade” or districts, and there are 17 in Siena, each represented by a symbol along their walls, such as the fish. I loved Siena so much that I went through it again on my way back.
- Volterra, I admit I originally went as I thought Twilight had been filmed here and wanted to see the pretty town that was used in the film. However it turns out they had actually filmed in Montepulciano! Nevertheless, the sleepy town is known for its alabaster stone work and is the perfect place for a lazy afternoon.
- Florence: the most known city in Tuscany along with Pisa and probably the biggest. Although beautiful in its own right and full of culture it felt it has less charm than its neighbour Siena, but definitely still worth a visit.
- Monteriggioni, although a little touristy, the main plaza and surrounding cobbled streets are extremely picturesque and it feels like stepping into a postcard.
- Saturnia and Bagno Vignoni, although very different from each other, with Saturnia being busier and more interesting in terms of pool formations, and Bagno Vignoni being quieter and smaller, they both offer a great free spa experience complete with muds!
If you were stop at every little village around Tuscany you could happily spend a couple of weeks exploring as each place has its own unique attraction.
For accommodation I booked each place a day in advance using various sites such as booking.com, trivago.com etc as I was never too sure of my itinerary. This worked out better than just trying to find a place on the day, as despite finding numerous “agriturismo” places in the countryside; they were not only fully booked but also extremely expensive. Something I did not anticipate as I had expected them to be similar to the chambres d’hotes of France. I also noticed that hostels were only available in the main cities such as Florence, Pisa etc but they were not necessarily the best value for money.
One thing to bear in mind when travelling in Italy though is cost. It is not a cheap country to visit and prices in general are on par or higher than the UK, so budget accordingly. For example, a double room can start from 40-45 euros, a plate of pasta will set you back around 7-8 euros, a salad can be about 6-8 euros and a slice of pizza is 3-4 euros.
However, this is the one country where you are pretty much guaranteed good food anywhere you go, and can happily ask for the house red or white and get a decent wine with your meal!
In fact if you visit Tuscany you have to make it a must to sample all the varieties of wine that this region alone makes, whether via a wine tour or simply trying out the wine menu along with your meals. You really can’t beat sipping a glass of gorgeous wine while having lunch in a quiet plaza under the blue sky…