Monday, 4 January 2021

Visit Tuscany in winter

Visit Tuscany in winter
Winter in Tuscany - it's not always this snowy!
Now seems an appropriate moment to discuss the question of whether to visit Tuscany in winter. The final answer will be a strong 'yes', but let's look at the details. Cons first. Days are short, meaning that you're likely to set out and return from a day of sightseeing in the dark. Weather can be very cold so gloves, scarves and warm coats are necessary. Could be snowy roads at higher altitudes. The larger vacation villas will be closed because of the cost of heating them, and you will need to take care about who pays the heating costs wherever you stay. Pros. Often brilliantly clear days with magnificent views into the distance. No tourist crowds. Despite fewer offerings, accommodation will be easy to find and might have low season prices or heating included. South-facing terraces can be quite warm in the middle of a clear day - definitely warm enough to sit out and enjoy the view. The opportunity to enjoy major features of 'the real Tuscany' such as meals based around the hunting and truffle seasons, enjoying the evening at home or in a restaurant in front of a roaring fire. And of course plenty of Christmas and New Years celebrations, private and public. New Year's Eve in Florence is well worth a visit. So yes - it's well worth spending some time in Tuscany during winter.

Florence in winter
The Duomo of Florence during winter 2013

There's plenty of winter accommodation listed on the Greve in Chianti web site. These are all owner direct offerings, so you're getting the best prices, and Greve is the centre and market town of the Chianti Classico wine zone between Florence and Sienna.

Abbey of Sant'Antimo near Montalcino

And this is the beautiful Abbey of Sant'Antimo during January 2021.

And there are no mosquitoes in winter!

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Tuscany vacation accommodations with handicapped access

Tuscany is high on the list of travel destinations that are friendly to the elderly and those with mobility limitations, especially since laws were introduced several years ago regarding provision of suitable facilities for the physically handicapped. I'm often asked for information about Tuscany vacation accommodations with handicapped access. One important piece of information everyone should take account of is that Tuscan farmhouses ("villas") and sometimes genuine villas are characterised by numerous steps and steep staircases. For this reason, if your mobility is impaired, read the descriptions of rural vacation accommodations in Tuscany with care and feel free to ask the owners detailed questions. This is one of the several reasons to rent owner-direct, by the way. Agencies rarely have the kind of information you need.

Tuscan vacation accommodation handicapped accessibility
A fairly frequent sight in Tuscany - this you don't want if moving around isn't all that easy for you.
Step-free or almost step-free agriturismi and other rural holiday homes are definitely available. Today I want to describe one of them which has recently been renovated and which enjoys one of the most beautiful locations in Tuscany. This is Agriturismo Felciano, a cottage with two large double rooms and a large living-dining room, situated on a winery near Panzano, in the famous Conca d'Oro.

Accommodation in Tuscany for mobility impaired visitors
Agriturismo Felciani - an ideal Tuscan vacation location for anyone with mobility problems.
Agriturismo Felciano has a large terrace in front of the entry and flat ground round about, including the location of the gazebo. There is one very slight step at the large entrance and none at all inside the cottage. Of the two modern bathrooms, one is fully-equipped for handicapped accessibility. You can bring your car right up to the terrace.

In addition to being able to buy your Chianti Classico wine directly from the cask and extravergine olive oil by the bottle, you can buy Tuscan saffron grown on the Felciano farm.

Click here to visit the Agriturismo Felciano website.

More about Panzano in Chianti.

Vacation accommodation in Tuscany
Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Thursday, 10 December 2020

A tour of the Val d'Orcia by steam engine - the Trenonatura

A couple of years back, I went on a tour of the Val d'Orcia by steam engine - the Trenonatura. I can safely recommend this excursion to all who would like to do something a little different during their stay in Tuscany. My babbo was a train nut, with the result that some of my earliest memories are of visits to obscure stations and smokey engine sheds to view huge, steaming machines with gleaming pistons gracefully sliding back and forth. This Spring, I decided it was time to go for a ride in a train pulled by one of these splendid monsters. I discovered that the Provincia di Siena and a group of volunteers organise train tours every Spring and Autumn (the risk of fire being too high during Summer). These tours usually depart from Siena and do a loop through the Val d'Orcia, dropping the passengers off for a few hours at whichever town has an interesting event or festival taking place on the day in question.

A tour of the Val d'Orcia by steam engine - the Trenonatura
A tour of the Val d'Orcia by steam engine - the Trenonatura
The Trenonatura follows a route through a variety of terrains including the classic Val d'Orcia "big sky" country with views of Monte Amiata, the Crete Senesi, the River Orcia itself and the famous cypress tree clusters and rows that are so popular with photographers. At Monte Antico, the engine is moved to the other end of the train and filled up with water. This occasion provides plenty of photo opportunities for the passengers.

Most of the carriages are third class and dating from before World War II. The wooden seats are very comfortable and you have to wonder how the airlines and, for that matter, modern railways have got it so wrong despite the money they claim to pour into seat design. Bring some refreshments, including something to drink, because these are not available on board. My carriage was filled with a merry crowd and a very informative volunteer who provided an interesting commentary both on the train and on the country we were passing through. He was happy to answer everyone's questions. I was surprised to see that on the return route we went a far as Castelnuovo Berardenga at the southern boundary of Chianti Classico.

Steam engine in Tuscany Italy
Steam engine in Tuscany Italy - Trenonatura

A note on reservations. I reserved my place via email about two weeks ahead of time and paid, as the agency requested, by bank transfer. They never confirmed receiving the payment nor did they send me a confirmation nor any other information, despite multiple emails from me. I phoned them two days before the trip and they confirmed verbally, more or less by chance also giving me my carriage and seat number. My name was on the list when I showed up at Siena station. If you don't receive a confirmation from the agency, my advice is to bring along a copy of your email requesting a reservation plus a copy of the bank transfer, just in case your name isn't on the list.

Trenonatura 2021 time table

Provisional Trenonatura timetable for 2021

Val d'Orcia Tourist Information.

Val d'Orcia on Facebook. 

Recommended vacation accommodation in Chianti towns, villages and countryside.

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

All content copyright © ammonet Web Site Promotion 2012 - 2021. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Best way to buy Euros in Italy

For American and other visitors to Italy, the most convenient and least expensive way to buy euros is to use a debit card at an ATM (called a "Banc-o-Mat" in Italy). This is also where you will obtain the best rate of exchange. You can withdraw a certain maximum of Euros per withdrawal or per day (determine this before you leave, although it depends both on your bank and the ATM) and your bank will charge a per withdrawal ATM fee from as low as $0.75 up to $5.00 or more, depending on your bank. Some debit cards do not charge fees for international transactions, while most Visa cards and Mastercards charge a 3% transaction fee per withdrawal. Ask about these fees before departure so that you know whether to withdraw a maximum amount infrequently or smaller amounts as needed.

Best way to obtain euros in Italy
Capital One is reputed to be the only major company to not add on a foreign transaction fee. Almost all other Visa/Mastercards have a total of 3% foreign transaction fees.

It's always a good idea to obtain, say, € 200 in small notes before you leave, so that you don't have to look for an ATM as soon as you arrive.

Try not to use ATMs in large railway stations and crowded places to avoid the problem of pickpockets.


Obtaining euros in Europe

DO NOT use EURONET ATM cash machines. You will see these ATMs everywhere that tourists go, especially in airports and railway stations. They charge outrageously high fees and give the worst possible exchange rate. Use an ATM that belongs to a bank, preferably in the lobby of the bank.

Traveler's Cheques are no longer in common use in Europe. Hardly any shop or hotel will accept them and most banks refuse to take them because of redemption problems.

DO NOT use currency exchange offices ("Cambio"). Although somewhat regulated, these places charge huge fees. Up to 20% is not unheard of. If you must exchange bank notes, it's by far best to use a bank.

Be sure to let your bank and/or credit card company know that you will be traveling in Europe, (destinations and time periods) so that the anti-fraud protection software does not block your use of the card in Europe.

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Thursday, 2 April 2020

Italian lessons in Tuscany

If you're under lock-down due to Coronavirus, maybe this is the moment to take some Italian lessons using Skype. Lorella is ready and willing to provide Italian lessons at all levels via the internet.

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
Don't forget to visit Elena Spolaor's
Travel Guide!

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

Chianti Travel Guide

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Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Cooking lessons at our accommodation in Tuscany

Food definitely has to be one of the reasons to spend some time in Tuscany, and second to enjoying Tuscan cuisine comes the desire to know how to prepare a Tuscan meal. No doubt that's why I often receive enquiries about arranging "cooking lessons at our accommodation in Tuscany". Usually, my answer is first to try Le Cetinelle, Simonetta Landati's B&B in the Chianti hills above Greve in Chianti.

cooking lessons at our accommodation in Tuscany
Agriturismo Le Cetinelle Bed and Breakfast offers Tuscan cooking lessons to vacationers.
At Le Cetinelle, the Tuscan cooking classes are hands-on. When participating in a cooking lesson, you prepare and cook yourself under Simonetta's expert guidance in a very friendly and informal atmosphere. Whenever possible, fresh produce from the Le Cetinelle vegetable garden and orchard are used, plus, of course, their own Chianti Classico wine and extra virgin olive oil. Cooking classes can be arranged over 1, 2, 3 or more days and they usually start at 10 am for a lunch cooking lesson and 4 pm for a dinner lesson. This allows plenty of time for the lesson before you sit down to enjoy the products of your labours.
A Tuscan cookery class with Simonetta
A Tuscan cookery class with Simonetta
For those more interested in dining that cooking, Simonetta also prepares evening meals for those who are interested.

So if you're seeking very attractive and economical vacation accommodations with the opportunity to learn Tuscan cookery, Le Cetinelle is the place for you!

More about Tuscan cooking lessons at Le Cetinelle.

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Friday, 31 January 2020

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 Tuscan 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 how to rent an e-bike in Tuscany.There are e-bike rental outlets in many of the larger towns in Tuscany - just keep your eye open for a bicycle and Vespa repair shop. In general, these outlets provide e-bikes for those keen on self-guided bike tours in Tuscany. In contrast, I took the opportunity to join an organised e-bike tour with Tuscany Quintessence, specifically their four day Via Francigena Tour, which included both accommodation along the route and meals (they also offer a seven day version of this e-bike tour). It was a fabulous experience that I don't hesitate to recommend strongly.

More about Tuscany Quintessence Tuscany e-bike Cycling Tours.

My post about self-guided bike tours in Tuscany.

Tuscany e-bike rentals

Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit my Tuscany
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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Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Thieves in the trams in Florence

I generally don't like being the bearer of bad tidings on this blog, but a warning for visitors to Florence. There are now thieves in the trams of Florence. It seems that pickpockets have discovered easy pickings in the Florentine trams and at the tram stations. The latest arrests were two attractive Bulgarian gypsy women, ages 19 and 23, whose modus opparandi is for one of the them to jostle and if possible unbalance their target while the other steals the victim's wallet or purse (and to claim to be pregnant upon arrest so that they can't be held pending trial). The youngest had been arrested at least six times in 2019 for similar crimes on public transport and her friend had been investigated for theft last year.

pickpockets on Florence trams

What can you do about it?  If you detect someone trying to pick your pockets or you see that happening to someone else, create a noisy fuss. The Florentine public are fed up with this kind of thing and will come to your assistance. The latest arrests resulted from exactly this - the pickpockets were spotted in action and members of the public blocked them from slipping out the door of the tram until the carabinieri arrived.

Tips on how to avoid pickpockets in Italy.

Useful info on bus and tram tickets in Florence.

Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit my Tuscany
Travel Guide!

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

Tuscany Travel Guide

vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Sunday, 12 January 2020

Florentine villas and gardens: American and English expatriates in Tuscany

Your favorite blogger's sources tell her that a fabulous opportunity is coming up during November 2020, namely a week long "workshop" organised by Villa Gamberaia, devoted to the Florentine villas and gardens of American and English expatriates in Tuscany during the later 19th and early 20th centuries.

Florentine villas and gardens: American and English expatriots in Tuscany
The parterre of Villa Gamberaia

Villa Gamberaia, celebrated for its unique gardens and splendid views over the city of Florence and the Arno Valley, has long inspired American and British landscape designers, from Charles Platt and Cecil Pinsent to Ellen Biddle Shipman. In the early 1900s, it was the favorite meeting place of Bernard and Mary Berenson, Janet Ross, Vernon Lee and Arthur Acton, who gathered for tea, dinners on the terrace and talks on art and literature with their hostess, the Romanian princess Jeanne Ghyka and her American companion, artist Florence Blood, two very talented women who created the magnificent parterre d’eau.

The number of participants will be limited. A small group of guests (probably 6-12 persons) seeking both a tranquil setting away from crowds of tourists and a convenient base for visits to Florence and to the neighboring villas of Fiesole and Settignano, will be accommodated in the Villa Gamberaia guest-houses. All visits, on-site lectures and workshops are planned and will be conducted by art historians and landscape architects resident in Florence.

I can't reveal the details yet, but the week will include lunches and aperativi at villas, gardens and other sites in and around Florence that are otherwise almost impossible for the ordinary visitor to access. There will be lunches and dinners at Villa Gamberaia.

Click the following link for more information on this unique one week exploration of  the Florentine villas and gardens of the American and English expatriates in Tuscany.

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

vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Friday, 20 December 2019

Roselle and Grosseto in the Tuscan Maremma: an ancient Etruscan town and a modern cathedral city in Tuscany

Roselle is a picturesque, Etrusco-Roman ruin located on the boundary between the valley of Ombrone and the Maremma, on the shore of the ancient lake Prile (Lacus Prelius). The ruins are about 15 km SE of Vetulonia, another Etruscan site, and 8 km NE of Grosseto, the largest town in this part of Tuscany.

Remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Roselle in the Tuscan Maremma
Remains of the Roman amphitheatre at Roselle in the Tuscan Maremma

The relationship between Roselle and Grosseto is quite interesting - to a large extent, Roselle is the ancestor of Grosseto.

Roselle (Rusellae) stood and, as a ruin, still stands on two hills separated by a valley that formed its political, economic and religious nucleus. The area has been frequented humans since prehistoric times, but Roselle became a real city when it was settled by the Etruscans, in the 7 C BC. Roselle was among the Etruscan cities that were not members of the Etruscan Dodecapoli.

In 294 BC, Roselle was conquered by the Romans, led by the consul Lucio Postumio Megelio. Its flowering began in the first century AD. Thanks to the imperial favour and the work of some munificent families of local patrons, there was intense building activity at this time, that extended throughout the county.

From the late imperial age, Roselle was affected by the same decadence that struck numerous Roman cities. Archaeologists have been able to identify signs of this recession in the contraction of the urban area and in the numerous cases of re-use and abandonment of the oldest structures. Roselle was unable to recover its modest but not unimportant status in Tuscany, despite its role as a bishopric.

In fact, it was at Roselle that the first cathedral of this bishopric stood, at least from the 5 C AD, when Bishop Vitaliano participated in the Roman Synod of 499. The first building was built on the remains of a thermal baths complex dating from between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, on the slopes of the northern part of the city and was subjected to various reconstructions, such as the imposing Romanesque phase, characterised by the bell tower of which the foundations may still be seen.

The Duomo of Grosseto
The Duomo of Grosseto

The spiritual and administrative center of the diocese was, however, transferred in 1138 to nearby Grosseto, by a bull issued by Pope Innocent II. Thus, from the 12 C the city of Roselle was gradually abandoned and its remains reused as building or decorative materials elsewhere. Some of them were used to embellish the new Duomo and others were generally transported to Grosseto. Some architectural remains have been recovered and displayed in the Museum and in the Archaeological Garden or form part of the Grosseto street decorations, to illustrate the close link with ancient Roselle.

decorated stone element from Roselle
Decorated stone element from Roselle

More about the Maremma.

More about Grosseto

Tuscany Toscana
Don't forget to visit Elena Spolaor's
Travel Guide!

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

Chianti Travel Guide

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Thursday, 15 August 2019

Tuscany, Europe's top budget tourist destination

Today, I'll be giving a positive answer to this question: Is Tuscany Europe's top budget tourist destination? As we all know, the dollar and, to an even greater extent, the pound have fallen in value against the euro for several years in a row. This no doubt helps US and UK exporters but it might be expected to be less than helpful to tourists visiting the euro zone, including Tuscany. The empirical evidence strongly suggests this is not the case, especially for visitors from America. How can that be?

Tuscany budget vacation destination
Tuscany - Europe's top budget tourist destination?
Your vacation costs are in essence the flight, your accommodation, your food and local transport.

Prices of flights to Europe have been decreasing steadily in real terms. (Comfort has also decreased, but that's another story.) The airlines are definitely stressed by this trend, but, in the meanwhile, tourists should take advantage of what's on offer.

What about accommodation? In Tuscany, uniquely in Europe, there has been a huge increase in the availability and quality of non-hotel vacation accommodation in the form of farmhouses (often incorrectly referred to as "villas"), farmhouse apartments, village apartments and Bed and Breakfast rooms. The increased competition due to the greater numbers of vacation rentals available together with much easier price comparison via the internet, plus the fact that agriturismi and similar rural and village vacation rentals are much less regulated than hotels, means that prices have decreased in real terms over the past ten years to the point where a couple can easily find a comfortable apartment for 65 euros per night or less. A family with children can easily find a stand-alone farmhouse with a swimming pool for under 100 euros per night. In addition, the old Saturday to Saturday minimum stay has long since vanished from owner-direct bookings and from a great many agency-mediated bookings as well. A three night minimum stay is now the rule rather than the exception. Many B&B's will let a room for a single night. The rural holiday homes are almost always beautifully-restored, traditional Tuscan structures furnished in Tuscan country style and with modern bathrooms. In Tuscany, families are reluctant to sell houses that have been in the family for generations and would rather renovate them and rent them out. Since Italy's rental laws are unreformed (meaning you can't boot someone out for not paying the rent), most Tuscans strongly prefer renting to tourists for a few months a year than risk renting to a local who might decide not to pay. This is all to the advantage of holiday-makers coming to Tuscany.

More about what to expect from your Tuscan vacation rental.

vacation accommodation in Tuscany
Tuscan country style furnishings in a Tuscan farmhouse vacation accommodation
How are food prices? There are two aspects to answering this question. First, restaurants and trattorias. During last year, I spoke to many Americans about restaurant prices which I remembered as being very inexpensive in the States. The responses were almost uniformly that it was too long since I'd been there. While quantity is always greater in the States, restaurant prices have gone up to the extent that eating out in Tuscany is now comparatively inexpensive. Competition and the structure of the Tuscan restaurant trade (mostly family run), has kept prices more or less constant in real terms for more than a decade.  I have discussed what it costs to eat out in Tuscany previously on this blog and my colleague Elena Spolaor provides current data on restaurant prices in Tuscany.

The second aspect regarding the price of food is related to Tuscan accommodation opportunities. If you rent a villa or an apartment with a fully equipped kitchen, you can prepare your own meals at home either from the abundant and inexpensive raw materials available everywhere in Tuscany or from the freshly cooked meat, vegetables and pasta available in supermarkets all over the Region. Buying a bottle of wine at a winery or in supermarket contributes to making eating at home inexpensive and enjoyable.

eating at home in Tuscany
Dining at your own accommodation in Tuscany
Lastly, the subject of local transport. There's no denying that renting a car provides the best way to see the many sights of interest in Tuscany. Nevertheless, it's possible to have an enjoyable holiday in Tuscany without a car by staying in or within walking distance of a town or village served by trains or buses. For intercity travel, the new high speed trains, Frecciarossa and Italo, are preferable to many, including me, over a car. By booking in advance, you can make substantial savings and make high speed train travel not only convenient but inexpensive as well.

More about getting around in Tuscany.

More about getting around in Chianti.

In summary - I'm totally convinced that Tuscany is the new budget destination in Europe, with undiminished (indeed, enhanced) comfort and convenience, plus the wine, countryside and art cities that have always been here for the pleasure and profit of our visitors. See you soon!

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

All content copyright © ammonet Web Site Promotion 2013 - 2019. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Florence bus tickets - tickets for the ATAF buses in Firenze

STOP PRESS! As of 18th July 2019, Florence's ATAF buses allow contactless payment, meaning credit card touch technology. The system is installed on 355 buses within the city plus the airport bus, and currently accepts MasterCard, VISA, Maestro and V Pay. The ticket price of 1.50 euros and the validity duration of 90 minutes remain unchanged. When asked to produce your ticket by an inspector, simply tell him give the last four digits of the card with which you made the payment.This is an enormous time-saver and obviates the need to validate and manage paper tickets which tend to accumulate in the pockets of busy tourists. We await news on when the system will be installed on the trams.

There are a few simple but important things to know about using the city buses in Florence, Italy.

ATAF bus ticket
ATAF 90 minute bus ticket

ATAF bus tickets should be bought BEFORE you board the bus. They are available from any kiosk (news stand) and from many cafés (bars), and at tobacconists. There are also two ATAF offices very near the SMN railway station where you can buy tickets. The most useful ATAF office is the one at via Alamanni 20r. You can get to it from inside the station by going down the steps leaving the station on the right (when facing away from the platforms), turn right again at the bottom of the steps, go past the very useful Conad supermarket, a florist shop and a post office. The ATAF office is the next place and is open Monday through Saturday 7.15am to 7pm.

In extremity, you can buy a ticket from the driver. Note that he's not obliged to provide change and sales are suspended if an inspector is on board.

how to buy an ATAF bus ticket in Florence
Etiquette indicating that ATAF tickets are sold inside.
Sign indicating a tobacconist - they usually also sell bus tickets
Sign indicating a tobacconist - they usually also sell bus tickets

IMPORTANT Florence ATAF bus tickets must be validated as you enter the bus. You do this by inserting the ticket into the franking machine located beside or just behind the driver, and another near the rear entrance to the bus. Insert the pink strip uppermost and first into the machine. Check your ticket to make sure it was stamped with the date and time. Inspectors have no mercy on those without a ticket or with an unvalidated ticket or with an expired ticket - the fine is on-the-spot and painful (50 euros). If one machine is not working, try the other one. You only escape a fine if both machines are inoperative.

There is a good range of tickets available. Most commonly used is the 90 minute ticket. Using this you can get on and off as many buses as you like in any direction for the 90 minutes from when you validated the ticket.

Other tickets are good for four 90 minute rides. These tickets can be shared as long as they are validated the requisite number of times. For example, two people taking the number 7 bus to Fiesole could frank such a ticket twice to go and again twice to come back later in the day. These tickets have four strips for validation. Be sure not to overwrite your validation.

There are also 24 hours tickets and tickets for several days. Since these tickets are not meant to be passed from one person to another, YOU MUST WRITE YOUR NAME ON LONG DURATION ATAF TICKETS, such as 24 hour and three day tickets.

ATAF tickets are good for the small, electric buses that follow routes mainly through otherwise traffic-free lanes, and also for the trams. They are NOT valid for the bus that runs to and from SMN railway station and the airport. You can buy those tickets on the bus. Note that a taxi from the airport costs a fixed price of 20 euros plus baggage and late hours fees.

Last but not least, there are pickpockets on the buses and trams in Florence, especially when they are crowded and on routes favoured by tourists. Please read this article on pickpockets in Italy to understand what you can do to protect your valuables from these thieves. It's not as bad as in Rome, but they are here in Florence for sure.

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

vacation accommodations in Tuscany

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Friday, 19 July 2019

Should I rent a car or hire a driver to explore Tuscany?

How to get around Tuscany is a bit of a vexed question. Between the larger towns, there is an excellent rail service with frequent trains all day. Smaller towns can be reached by bus, but the bus service is scheduled more for commuters than tourists. To explore the countryside, a car is by far the best way to go and, of course, many visitors to Tuscany rent a car for the duration of their stay. There is, however, an alternative strategy. "Should I rent a car or hire a driver to explore Tuscany?" Suppose you are here for two weeks but only five of those days are trips that require a car? Money-wise and for the reasons outlined, this might be the optimal alternative:

Don't rent a car in Tuscany: hire a driver.

For those of you who want to explore Tuscany efficiently, rather than renting your own car, consider hiring a private driver - a chauffeur, in other words - with his own vehicle. Yes, it will cost a bit more than a rental car but the advantages are numerous:
  • Instead of focussing on the narrow, twisting roads of Tuscany, you will be able to admire the views and identify the sights while you let your driver take care of the driving.
  • Planning your routes together with your driver - before you arrive, if possible - will allow you to visit more of your destinations in a shorter time - no time wasted on the wrong roads, slow speeds and closed sights. Plus, your driver will help you choose the most scenic routes where there are more than one.
  • Once you arrive at one of your destinations, your private driver will drop you off at the sight and then he'll take care of finding a parking place - often a problem with popular small Tuscan villages.
  • No more worries about bus lanes and limited traffic zones. A driver with an NCC license is allowed to drive into limited traffic zones where private drivers are prohibited. That means he can pick you up at your accommodations and drop you off again, as well as access sights with limited traffic zones.
  • Doing a wine-tasting tour is a popular activity among visitors to Tuscany. "Taste and spit" can be tiresome on day-long wine tasting tour. With your own driver, that issue disappears and you can enjoy yourselves freely.
  • Last but not least, your driver knows places that the guide books don't. Tell him or her your interests and ask for suggestions.
A minibus carries up to 7 or 8 passengers, will probably be air conditioned and provide WiFi access to the internet.

My recommended drivers are:

Tuscany Toscana
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Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Tuesday, 16 July 2019

How can we do an olive oil tasting in Tuscany?

Wine tasting is a favorite of visitors to Tuscany and there are numerous avenues to that activity. In contrast, I'm often asked by readers, "How can we do an olive oil tasting in Tuscany?" This is slightly more difficult to arrange. Although, of course, many Tuscan olive oil producers will let you taste their olive oil before buying, this doesn't help much because you've got nothing to compare it with - you're dependent on having an "educated" palate. What you need is to have an expert present you with 2 or 3 olive oils to taste while the differences are described to you. It could be two good but very different extra virgin olive oils from different locations (e.g. Lucca area and Chianti), or a very fresh olive oil and a two year old oil from the same farm, or a bottle of Turkish olive oil and a sample from Tuscany, or a second press oil and a cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil. There are many interesting and illustrative comparisons, but the basic aim is to be able to distinguish a fresh, extra virgin olive oil grown (not just bottled) in Tuscany from other, often inferior, products.

Just a personal note: the colour of the olive oil doesn't necessarily tell you much. Grass is also a good source of chlorophyll! In southern Italy, where counterfeiting olive oil is, or anyway was, rampant, there is a group of tasters who use purple glasses to hold the oil they're examining so that they aren't influenced by the colour. Having said all that, a fresh, extra virgin oil should look deep green and might well be cloudy.

olive oil tasting in Tuscany
Extra virgin olives oil ready for an olive oil tasting.
For you olive oil tasting lesson, one option is to stay at an agriturismo where olive oil is produced and where the owner is able and willing to do a comparative tasting. Podere Felceto, a vacation villa located near Panzano in Chianti, does exactly that. In fact, the owners organise an olive oil evening where a light meal follows the tasting. Needless to say, there's plenty of their organic olive oil in the dishes as well as in the tasting glasses!

Another option is to take a day tour where an olive oil tasting is part of the programme. A good tour has either a driver-guide who is expert in comparing olive oils or who can take you to a producer who is expert.

More about the olive oil tasting evening at Villa Felceto in Tuscany.

More about the different commercial grades of olive oil.

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Saturday, 13 July 2019

What you need to know before renting a car in Italy

Today, a few tips on what you need to know before renting a car in Italy.

Firstly, many car rental agencies in Italy leave much to be desired in terms of service, accessibility and opening hours, and some of them are to be avoided at all costs. Waits of up to two hours are not exceptional when picking up and dropping off a car at a popular point such as an airport. Closure for lunch, holidays and at night are standard practice. Be aware that some rental car companies that have a good reputation in the US, for example, are totally separate from companies of the same name in Italy.

Secondly, don't try to save money by using price comparision websites and opting for the cheapest deal. You will surely lose money and a lot of time if you do. Use Avis, Hertz or Europcar or a reputable broker such as Auto Europe even if it appears to cost a bit more. Europcar is probably the largest rental company in Italy and has a good reputation.
renting a car in Italy
Motoring in Tuscany
Auto Europe is an agency that arranges cheap rentals with the major and reputable car rental companies. The UK site is sometimes cheaper than the US one, so check out both and AutoEurope has a good reputation.

DO NOT confuse Auto Europe with Auto Europa - Sicily by Car which has a very bad reputation. Auto Europe good, Auto Europa bad.

Rental car agencies in Italy to be AVOIDED at all costs.

● Auto Europa - Sicily by Car has an appalling reputation for sullen service, hours long waits, major overcharging, total lack of response to communications etc. NEVER have anything to do with Auto Europa. All business for Dollar and Thrifty car rental companies in Italy is handled by Auto Europa - therefore AVOID.

Once again: Auto Europe good, Auto Europa bad.

● Goldcar Rental Agency, especially at Pisa Airport, is notorious for hard-selling additional and unnecessary insurance, including not mentioning that the charge is per day not per hire and stating falsely that your own insurance, if any, is invalid. They overcharge for the initial tank of petrol and refuse a refund on remaining petrol when the car is returned. There are also endless reports of other excess charges. Waits can be up to four hours. Their staff are uniformly reported to be rude, aggressive and intimidating. Note that many brokers send customers to this rental car agency without fully explaining their fuel and insurance policy. If a broker offers you a car from Goldcar, refuse it.

● Maggiore Car Rental is another company to be absolutely AVOIDED, especially in Sicily. All the same issues as for Goldcar and more. Maggiore Car Rental has by far the worst reputation of any large car rental company in Italy. They routinely come up with excess charges in the hundreds and will call in the police if you don't pay. Never threaten to dispute a card payment nor give them cash. Work through your card company after the event. DO NOT, DO NOT, DO NOT RENT FROM MAGGIORE.

● Sixt Holiday Car Rentals is yet another rental car company that should NEVER be used. If a broker sends you to this company, cancel immediately. A Sixt speciality is to send you to a franchise that does not have an available car. Complaints to Sixt elicit the response that their small print says that reservations are NOT confirmed (despite their email titled "Confirmation of your reservation".)!

● Locauto should NEVER be used. If you are sent there through a broker, cancel immediately. They routinely demand a large deposit and then charge for existing damage, they do not check returned vehicles in the presence of the customer and they add damages to the blank check sheet, their insurance makes no provision for the passengers if the car breaks down and so on and on.

 ● Firefly is yet another disastrous hire car company that should NEVER be used. Easycar and Holiday Autos sometimes refer customers to Firefly. Cancel immediately if that happens. Dirty vehicles often with over 100,000 km on the dial, headlights that don't work etc etc. plus charges for an additional driver despite that being included, the usual massive (e.g. 1500 euros) deductions from credit cards without explanation, and so on.

To check carefully: unethical car rental companies pressure their customers to buy additional insurance. This not only costs money unnecessarily but can render your original insurance invalid.

Always insist that you get a finalisation of your rental - that is a receipt that the car has been checked and that signed off as OK and that there is no balance due for car items (damage and petrol). This can take a lot of time but it's worth it. They will not sign off on possible future parking or other road infringements.

IMPORTANT - limited traffic zones (ZTL's).
These are the areas in the historical centres of most Italian cities and towns that are closed during certain hours to traffic other than permit holders. Rental cars do not have these permits. The ZTL's are monitored by traffic cameras and entry by non-permit holders results in a charge to your credit card by the car rental company and a fine from the traffic authorities. Many rental car companies have offices very near these zones so that it's easy to wander into one when driving to or from the car pickup. For this reason, it is highly recommended, in Florence, for example, to use the offices and rental car pickup at the airport rather than those in the centre of town.

Full details about traffic violation in Italy, including ZTL infractions, click here.

Car rentals in Italy
Driving in Florence
ALSO IMPORTANT - an International Driving Permit, which is in essence an official translation of your driving licence, is required, in addition to a driver's licence, by everyone who does not hold a driving licence issued by an EU country and who intends to drive in Italy. Note that International Drivers Licences sold over the Internet are all scams, offering worthless pieces of paper at best. You need an International Driving Permit from your national motoring organisation. They're very cheap. Most rental car agencies now ask to see your International Driving Permit in addition to your licence.

If you plan to spend most of your time in a city such as Florence, with just one or two excursions into the countryside, you might find that the additional cost of a car and driver-guide rather than a rental car will be far outweighed by convenience and the efficiency of having a planned sightseeing itinerary.

More about motoring in Tuscany.

More about getting around in Tuscany.

Chianti without a car, including a list of recommended drivers.

Vacation accommodation in Tuscany
Author: Anna Maria Baldini

All content copyright © ammonet Italian Web Site Promotion 2013 - 2019. All rights reserved.