Friday, 14 April 2017

Italian lessons in Tuscany, Italy

Taking Italian lessons in Tuscany can and should be both practical and fun. There are multiple approaches, all of which have strong positive points. One approach to learning Italian is to use an online Italian language beginners' course or CD course and then to follow that up with intensive Italian lessons with a professional Italian language teacher, either in a group or one-to-one. Another approach to learning Italian is to start from the beginning with your professional Italian language teacher, taking your lessons at an easy pace, and backing them up with taped or CD lessons. Both of these approaches are enormously enhanced if you have the chance to take your Italian lessons in Italy so that you hear the language all day long and, of course, have the opportunity or the necessity to use your Italian language skills, rudimentary as they might be at the start.

Italian lessons in Tuscany
Lorella Federico, certified Italian teacher
If you have the chance to study Italian in Italy, I can strongly recommend Lorella Federico who is a professional Italian language teacher who gained her qualification at the University of Siena and who is based in Panzano in Chianti. Lorella is a skilled teacher - no doubt about that - and Panzano and its environs are a great base for your vacation in Tuscany. And they say that Siennese is the purest and most beautiful dialect of Italian.

Italian lessons via Skype
Italian lessons via Skype

If you're coming here on vacation, you can even take a single lesson with her so that you can pronounce places names correctly and apply a few useful phrases. Those are her beginner-level Italian lessons. She also offers a highly popular programme where you can continue your Italian lessons back home via Skype. And she also offers an intensive Italian course for those who, for one reason or another, must or wish to acquire good Italian conversational and reading skills in a short time.

More about Lorella's Italian lessons in Tuscany.

Tuscany Toscana
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Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany & Umbria.

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Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How to get from the airport to central Florence

Many first time visitors to Tuscany ask me how to get from the airport to central Florence. And of course I have to ask them to specify which airport. Florence is served mainly by Pisa Airport (Aeroporto Galileo Galilei - code PSA) and to a lesser extent by its own small Florence Airport (Aeroporto Amerigo Vespucci, often known as Peretola - code FLR). I have heard but cannot confirm that sometimes long distance passengers have tickets specifying Florence as the destination when in fact they will land at Pisa. Be sure to check that and to check whether subsequent ground transport is included.

The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.
The Pisamover light railway from Pisa Airport to Pisa central railway station.

There are three different ways to travel from Pisa Airport to Florence - by train, by bus or by taxi

By train: The new, fast and fully automatic PisaMover light rail runs from Pisa Airport to Pisa Central Railway Station every 5/8 minutes every day, from 6 a.m. to midnight, and the journey takes 5 mins. The airport stop is in via Pier Giorgio Ballini, 40 m from the Passenger Terminal, and it arrives at platform 14 in the Pisa railway station. It has an intermediate stop at San Giusto/Aurelia station, where you’ll find two parking areas with about 1,400 spaces, open 24 hours a day, every day.

By bus: the notoriously unreliable Terravision bus is apparently still running and when there is no issue with traffic it is slightly faster than by train (around 70 minutes) and a ticket costs about 5 - 10 euros. Return and children's tickets cost less. Terravision bus timetables here. [Note March 2017 - Terravision is not running currently and their booking form yields "Not available". It is unclear whether or not this is permanent.]

Other bus services from Pisa Airport to Florence are Autostradale and Sky Bus Lines Caronna (the latter with multiple stops en route).

The choice between train and bus will very likely depend on the next train departure time but, taking traffic problems and comfort into account, along with the new PisaMover, my recommendation is to take the train.

There are other bus services from Pisa Airport to Lucca, Siena, Montecatini, Pistoia and Prato.

Beware of gypsy and other pickpockets when there is a scrum during boarding of the Terravision bus.

By taxi: A metered taxi will cost you about 150 euros or more because you have to pay the driver to return empty (that's included in the meter reading - the driver doesn't double the displayed price). There are also fixed-fare NCC minibuses that can be reserved in advance. This latter option costs about the same as a taxi base rate but the drivers are usually more familiar with country accommodations and so provide a good option if your have several people, a lot of luggage and will be staying in the country. Both people and baggage will cost extra with a taxi. NCC drivers can be booked for times when trains, buses and rental car offices are not active. Finally, you can rent a car, but do not try to drive it into central Florence (or Pisa, for that matter) where there are camera-patrolled limited traffic zones and fines aplenty.

Florence airport
Florence airport

There are two different ways to travel from Florence airport to central Florence.

By bus: Florence airport is only 4 km from the Florence city centre and the orange ATAF Volainbus bus shuttle takes about 20 minutes, runs every half an hour and costs about 5 euros. It leaves from the SITA bus station near the SMN railway station and from near the taxi rank at the station itself. Departures from city centre are every 30 min from 5.30 am to 8.00 pm, then after every hour up until 11.00 pm. Check timetable details on the ATAF website. New buses with large rack space inside the passenger compartment have been purchased in mid-2014.

By taxi: A metered taxi has a fixed price for trips to the airport (currently 20 euros), takes 15 minutes and is obviously a good choice if you are 3 or 4 people and/or want to leave directly from your hotel. Picking up and dropping off your rental car at the airport is generally a good idea because you avoid the limited traffic zones in the city centre.

A taxi will cost 20 Euros, plus 1 Euro for each piece of luggage (maximum 5 Euros). There is also a 2 Euro supplement for Sunday service and a 3.20 Euro supplement for night service (22:00 to 6:00). Consequently, the "break-even" point for using the airport bus is 3 or 4 passengers traveling together.

Secure travel accessories

Some recommended fixed-fare NCC minibus drivers.

Getting around in Tuscany.

Warnings regarding limited traffic zones in Tuscany.

Recommended vacation accommodation in Chianti towns, villages and countryside.

vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

I've been to Tuscany before. What should I see this time?

Today I want to try to provide some hints on the amazing diversity of Tuscany. More than once, readers have written to me to say "I've been to Tuscany before. What should I see this time?" To research your next trip to Tuscany, you basically need to list the aspects that you've already experienced and then to expand your options. Here are some ideas.

Art, yes, done that - then what about architecture as such? Renaissance architecture, yes, done that - then what about vernacular architecture? Head out into the Tuscan countryside and follow some of those quiet, narrow roads - they all lead somewhere, as often as not to farmhouses and hamlets that have grown over the centuries from mediaeval watch towers. It's this almost random agglomeration that gives much of Tuscan vernacular architecture its charm. Tuscany is also dotted with ancient monasteries and parish churches created in the same spontaneous manner. Because they are all invariably built of stone, you'll have no trouble finding inhabited structures documented as dating back to before the year 1000. Settle down in an ancient courtyard for a picnic and enjoy the atmosphere as well as the architecture!

Vernacular architecture in Tuscany
Vernacular architecture in Tuscany
Wine tasting at a winery, yes, done that. But was it at some industrial scale place with several minibuses (or touring buses) parked about the place? From about April onwards, the grape vines begin to sprout and the Tuscan countryside takes on a deep green colour. Right up until the vendemmia in September, it becomes a real pleasure to stroll along the strade bianche that traverse the vineyards and visit one of the many small, traditional wineries of Chianti and elsewhere in Tuscany. You don't need to book in advance - if someone is available, you'll be able to look around and taste the two or three wines that they make. Look for the roses planted at the ends of the rows of grape vines - like canaries in a mine, they warn of imminent danger, in this case mildew. Some wineries still grow crops between the rows of vines, among them irises (giaggioli), the roots of which are harvested for extraction of a stabiliser used in perfumery. Mixed cultivation like this is a reflection of the old coltura promiscua common even in the early 20 C.

Irises planted between rows of grape vines in Tuscany
Irises planted between rows of grape vines in Tuscany

Walking tour, yes, done that. A walking tour of Florence, maybe, but what about the numerous walking paths from one village to another. Some are hilly, that's true, but there are others that are no more than a bucolic stroll. These are popular among Tuscans too, especially if there's a chance to dress up in ancient costumes like the group of pilgrims below on their way to Monteriggioni. There are several excellent guide books describing the most popular routes plus the villages and wineries that you will encounter along them. This is really a great way to get to know the real Tuscany and real Tuscans!

A country stroll under the walls of Monteriggioni,Tuscany
A country stroll under the walls of Monteriggioni.
Go to the seaside, yes, done that. To Forte dei Marmi? Many people, including a very large number of Italians, enjoy nothing better than lying in a deck chair under a sun umbrella in neat rows with hundreds of other like-minded sun worshippers at Tuscan beaches. But Tuscany has numerous stretches of truly beautiful coastline and charming fishing villages, especially in its off-the-beaten-track southwest, around Monte Argentario and Talamone. Here you can swim, go boating or diving around interesting rocky promontories and dine in excellent fish restaurants. Also see my post of the delightful beaches and old town of Castiglione della Pescaia.
Talomone port on the Tuscan coastline
Talomone port on the Tuscan coastline

Take a horse and wagon ride through the Chianti countryside - OK, well, that's something really different. Luca Perrotta who works from Montespertoli, fairly near to Florence, does regular private and shared horse and wagon excursions through the Chianti countryside. He also does excursions that last three days through the unjustly-neglected area of south-western Tuscany known as The Maremma. These excursions are absolute magic for families with children.

See my post on taking a horse-drawn wagon tour through Chianti.

Horse and wagon excursion in Tuscany
Horse and wagon excursion in Tuscany
In future posts, I will have more suggestions on how to refresh yourselves with new and interesting sights in Tuscany. For now, don't forget: one of the objects of a vacation is to relax, and there is no place that offers a greater variety of tranquil locations combined with wonderful weather and views than Tuscany. See you here soon!

Relax in Tuscany
Relax in Tuscany.

Sights, activities, events and places to stay in Tuscany.

Vernacular art of Tuscany.

Vacation accommodation in Tuscany

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany?

As more and better models of e-bike (electric bike) become widely available in Tuscany, we are lucky enough to have access to a new and wonderful way to explore the Tuscan countryside. Standard bikes are already hugely popular in Tuscany, especially among male Tuscans of all ages as well as with many visitors. On weekends from Spring through Autumn, you can see them zooming along in their thousands over the scenic routes, especially the Chiantigiana highway that traverses Chianti between Florence and Sienna. The one adjective that applies to all of these riders is "fit".

cycling in Tuscany
White road cycling in Tuscany

Then there are the rest of us . . . keen on enjoying the outdoors and getting a bit of exercise but not quite up to tackling the Tuscan hills on racing bikes. Fear not, Dear Reader, the answer is nigh. The electric or assisted bicycle, commonly known as the e-bike or ebike, is a bicycle with pedals like an ordinary bike but with, in addition, a generator and an electric motor powered by accumulators (rechargeable batteries) which are recharged by the generator on downhill or easy, flat stretches. I tested one of these recently during a brief warmish spell and I can say that they're incredible. You can tackle the Chianti hill roads, including the unpaved strade bianche without breaking into a sweat (or perspiring, in the case of ladies). This really puts at your disposal the most attractive way to explore Tuscany outside the big art cities. Very little sound, fresh air blowing through your hair and the option to stop for a "photo opp" or a rest or lunch whenever the spirit moves you. Riding an e-bike really does bring you effortlessly into close contact with rural Tuscany.

Where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany?
E-bike in Tuscany

This brings us to the question of where to rent an e-bike in Tuscany. I have personal experience so far of just one e-bike rental agency in Chianti, namely Tuscany Limousine who are located in the pretty village of Gaiole in Chianti and can be recommended for anyone staying in the Chianti Classico wine area between Florence and Sienna. Tuscany e-Bike Rental snce rent e-bikes and you can arrange a guided e-bike tour with them. For a small fee, they will also bring your e-bikes to any location within a reasonable distance of Gaiole. Their service is very friendly and helpful, and you can rent or buy things like gloves, helmets, GPS systems etc. from them.

Their sister company, Tuscany Limousine, rent cars, with and without driver - one of the few car rental places outside of the big cities.

More about Tuscany e-bike rentals.

My post about self-guided bike tours in Tuscany.

Tuscany e-bike rentals

Tuscany Toscana
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Travel Guide!

Up-to-date news on what to see and where to stay in Chianti and all of Tuscany.

Tuscany Travel Guide

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Chiocchio, the castle of Mugnana and the Cintoia valley in Chianti, Tuscany

Chiocchio is a village on the Via Chiantigiana that wanders from one villa and farm to another along the ridges of Chianti, Italy between Florence and Siena. In early times, Chiocchio was a fairly important crossroads with a road running to the Castle of Mugnana which was probably built on the remains of Ad Aquileia, a Roman way-station on the Via Cassia. The castle represents a typical case of the 14 C transformation of a castle into a single-family, private residence. It belonged to the Bardi family of Florence during Renaissance times and later.

The Castello di Mugnana near Chiocchio in Chianti, Tuscany
The Castello di Mugnana near Chiocchio in Chianti, Tuscany
The Pieve (Parish church) of San Donato a Mugnana is located nearby and was for long a dependency of the Castle of Mugnana. Although much reconstructed over the centuries, the Pieve di San Donato a Mugnana is a Romanesque foundation.

The Pieve of San Donato a Mugnana near Chiocchio
The Pieve of San Donato a Mugnana near Chiocchio
From the via Chiantigiana, I recommend making an excursion by taking the turn to the east a short distance to the south of Strada in Chianti, to explore the beautiful Valley of Cintoia by driving to La Panca and then rejoining the via Chiantigiana at Greve in Chianti.

The Castle of Cintoia might take its name from the Roman expression "centuria", an area of ground of about 50 hectares but it is more ttle of the original castle remains, having been replaced by some large farm houses.
Castle of Cintoia in Chianti, Tuscany
Castle of Cintoia in Chianti, Tuscany
For anyone who would like to spend a few days in this tranquil area, my best recommendation is the Agriturismo of La Sala, located very near La Panca. This agriturismo, which has a swimming pool, offers four beautiful apartments at very economical rates. The location is ideal for exploring Chianti.

Aerial view of Agriturismo La Sala at La Panca
Aerial view of Agriturismo La Sala

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