Thursday 27 September 2012

Where to stay in Chianti

Chianti is rightly regarded as one of the most popular places to stay in Tuscany. Before arranging your visit, sometimes decisions have to be made when deciding on where to stay in Chianti during your vacation. Here are some helpful hints in this regard:

Where to stay in Chianti

  • Village apartment or rural farmhouse ("villa")? For those who plan to dine out with plentiful wine accompanying their meals, it can make sense to choose accommodation within walking distance of restaurants, and that usually means in town or, if the place is small like Greve in Chianti, then right on the outskirts. Greve has real agriturismi within walking distance of the main piazza. But see the next point.
  • Swimming pool or not? If you definitely want a pool, you'll need to stay in a rural area because only hotels have pools in town, and town hotels are very rare in Chianti in any case. Don't forget, however, that there are good public swimming pools in some towns, again notably in Greve in Chianti.
  • Multi-unit accommodation or stand-alone farmhouse? Usually multi-unit vacation rentals are more economical if only because the swimming pool and possibly some other facilities, such as a barbeque, are shared. Some people also like the company. For others who prefer complete privacy and tranquility, having your own place to stay out in the country is the way to go.
  • Do I need WiFi? More and more visitors to Chianti wish or need to have access to the internet during their vacation. In response, most of the places to stay in Chianti offer WiFi if it's technically possible. Not all of them specify this on their websites so be sure to ask. Truly remote farmhouses will probably not have an ADSL line.
  • Must the road be sealed? If you plan to stay outside of town, be prepared for at least some gravel roads. These "strade bianche" pose no special challenges and often lead to very picturesque sights - castles, romanesque churches, monasteries, ancient farmhouses and tower houses.
  • Access to public transport? The most efficient way, time-wise, to visit the sights of Chianti is by car, either driving yourself or by hiring a driver-guide. Nevertheless, it is also possible to see many places by walking and by using public transport - almost always a bus, since there are no trains within the Chianti Classico part of Chianti. Many rural accommodations have a bus stop nearby but be sure to study and understand the bus time tables. See Chianti without a car.
  • Near Florence or near Sienna? This depends almost solely on whether or not you will have your own car. From Castellina southwards, the buses run to Sienna. From Panzano northwards, the buses run to Florence. Both of these famous art cities, located at the northerly and southerly boundaries of the Chianti Classico area respectively, are readily accessible by car from anywhere in Chianti in usually less than an hour.
Map of Chianti with links to town-specific websites.

More about what to expect from your Chianti vacation rental accommodation.

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Sunday 23 September 2012

How to get to Fiesole from Florence

Fiesole is a charming little town located high in the hills above Florence. Fiesole was in fact founded by the Etruscans long before Florence made its appearance, and it is still the seat of the Diocese covering Florence and this part of Tuscany. There are a number of interesting sights in Fiesole itself including a Roman theatre with a small museum attached plus the remains of some Roman baths. The Cathedral of Fiesole, dating from 1028, is worth a visit. The little Church of the Primerana in the cathedral square was built in 996 and further expanded in mediaeval times. Its Gothic presbytery is one of the few gothic structures in and near Florence.

However, Fiesole is best know for its spectacular views out over Florence and its cool summer air. The nearby hills are dotted with aristocratic villas built to take advantage of both the views and the summer breezes.
How to get to Fiesole
View of Fiesole from on of its steep lanes
How to get to Fiesole from Florence? It's better to take a bus than to drive your own car due mostly to the very narrow, walled roads leading up to Fiesole. The ATAF Florence city bus to Fiesole is Number 7 which runs about every half an hour until almost midnight so that it is possible to remain in Fiesole for dinner. The bus line starts at Via La Pira (on the side very close to Piazza San Marco) in Florence and the trip takes 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic. The stops before Fiesole main piazza, the last stop on this route, are Regresso and F.G. Angelico 03. Be sure to validate (stamp, frank) your ticket as soon as you board the bus.

More about Fiesole.

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Monday 17 September 2012

Italian Terracotta Garden Decorations

As you travel around Tuscany, you will rapidly realise that Italian terracotta garden decorations play a prominent role in garden architecture here, from the grand gardens of the Tuscan villas through farmhouse gardens to the balcony decorations of village homes.

Italian Terracotta Garden Decorations
Terracotta vases and antique oil jars used to grow lemon trees in Panzano
Terracotta has been used in Tuscany as building and decorative material since at least the time of the Etruscans. Today, a major source of both the clay and the finished products is Il Ferrone with nearby Impruneta also producing large quantities of high quality decorative pieces. Both places are within easy reach of Florence by car or bus. The furnaces of Impruneta became extremely important with the building boom that started during the early Renaissance, when bricks and tiles were required in vast quantities, and have remained so ever since, with a movement towards more decorative pieces and an emphasis on skilled handwork. During the last few years, painted terracotta has also made an appearance in Impruneta.

One of the most unusual recent developments in a number of countries, has been the production of wine in terracotta vessels, as practiced by the Romans and also in Georgia since possibly even earlier times.

Visitors can easily select and buy smaller items to be carried home as hand luggage, but it's better to have larger items shipped. This latter exercise is not exactly an inexpensive proposition. However, the quality of Italian terracotta is very high. Cheap imports, mostly from Indonesia, easily break and are not frost resistant. In contrast, the terracotta vases and jars made in Impruneta resist even exposure to snow and last extremely well - as witnessed by the antique oil jars frequently seen standing outdoors in Tuscan gardens and on terraces here.

The town of Impruneta is worth a visit not only on account of its terracotta furnaces but also the Basilica of Santa Maria, located on the main piazza of the town, and two famous fairs. The Festa dell'Uva (Grape Festival) takes place on the last Sunday of September and the Fair of Saint Luke on 18 September.

More about Impruneta and its terracotta.

Anna Maria Baldini

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Friday 14 September 2012

The Gardens of the Tuscan villas

Gardens and gardening without utilitarian purpose seem to be defining characteristics of civilised life. From the end of the 19 C well into the early 20 C, the gardens of the Tuscan villas were among the most important attractions for visitors to Tuscany. Although apparently less fashionable now, perhaps because visits to Tuscany are much shorter and more frenetic than formerly, at least one formal garden should be on your itinerary.

Tuscan villa formal gardens
The formal garden of Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany
Although you will easily find un giardino all'inglese anywhere in Tuscany, to avoid any false expectations, it's important to realise that an italianate garden is never a flower garden in the way many famous English gardens are. The gardens of Tuscan villas are in essence an extension of the architecture of the villa and are therefore symmetrical with extensive use of topiary and statuary. A beautiful and distant vista beyond the garden is important, and, if supplies permit, water can be incorporated, either as ponds or water works of various kinds.

A fairly complete bibliography of guide books to Tuscan gardens is provided here.

Links to descriptions and pictures of many Tuscan gardens may be found here.

One of the most talented Edwardian garden designers was Cecil Pinsent. Among the gardens he worked on were Bernard Berenson's Villa I Tatti at Fiesole, Charles Augustus Strong's Villa Le Balze , Villa Capponi and, most famous of all, Iris Origo's Villa La Foce.

Click here for information on staying at Villa Gamberaia, one of the most famous villas in Tuscany.

Some other Tuscan villa gardens easily accessible to tourists include:

Badia a Coltibuono and its reconstructed monastic garden.
Castello Brolio, essentially a 19 C folly with matching garden.
Villa Vignamaggio, a magnificent Renaissance villa on the road from Greve in Chianti to Lamole.
Villa Gamberaia, one of the finest examples of a Tuscan villa hanging garden in Tuscany.
Tuscan gardens and Tuscan culture.

Last but not least, please realise that 99% of the villas offered as vacation rentals are farmhouses, not villas. Read "When is a Tuscan villa not a Tuscan villa?" and my article on Tuscan villas to rent.

Author: Anna Maria Baldini

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Sunday 9 September 2012

Luminara di Santa Croce in Lucca

The main festival of the year in Lucca, the Luminara di Santa Croce in Lucca is coming up on 13 September. This famous Tuscan festival is a devotional procession in which the Volto Santo or Holy Face, a wooden crucifix, is carried along the streets of the old town centre from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino, illuminated by thousands of small candles. Workmen spend all of the previous day putting the candles in place so that the entire centre of Lucca is beautifully illuminated on the evening of the feast.

The Volto Santo is usually kept inside the Cathedral of San Martino, in a chapel in the left nave specially built for it by Matteo Civitali in 1482. The relic has been a pilgrimage destination since the middle of the 11 C and the image has long been the symbol of Lucca, displayed on Lucchese coinage over the centuries.

The Luminaria procession coincides with "Settembre Lucchese" when a special market takes place in the piazza of San Michele in Foro, the ancient Roman forum. Local specialities, clothing and festival treats are sold in the market.

Things to see in Lucca.

More festivals in Tuscany.

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