23 Feb 2011

The first post in a new series about the different tourist areas in Tuscany. In an effort to avoid blatant self-promotion, a post which I hope will help some travelers to choose among the many things Tuscany has to offer. Of course, a bit of self-promotion is in order…!

Where should we base ourselves in Tuscany?

base

Many of the people who contact me via the web, mostly via forums and social media, ask me what the best area to base themselves to explore Tuscany is. I have to fight the “instinct of self-promotion” and try not to reply too quickly “you should come and stay at our Casina di Rosa of course!“… I also have to fight the temptation to be too condescending and to explain that, even if Tuscany does not cover an enormous area, it is still too big for people to be able to choose a base which is in a position to reach any possible place of interest in the region. Also, the amount of things to see and do in any sub-region is incredibly large… you can spend a month in a small area and see only a tiny fraction of all the things there are to see. This is sometimes hard to understand for people who are used to the huge North American or Australian distances (the same as it is difficult for a European to understand that you might have to drive for 4 hours before finding something else to see in these places).  But in Italy, if you drive the equivalent distance that separates Ottawa and Toronto in Canada, you will pass areas so diverse and different from each other, with distinctive historical, cultural, natural and architectural features that it is almost like driving through different countries.

I originally wrote a long, long, post. But then I have decided to split the content over few days because there is no point in publishing something people won’t feel like reading if it’s too much to take in. So, here is the first post of this new series about what I think everybody should be aware of when planning a vacation in Tuscany.

1. There is no such thing as Florence and Tuscany

Tuscany is a political region of Italy. Florence is its capital and is in Tuscany. So when you say you want to see Tuscany you are talking about a large territory which includes very famous cities such as Pisa, Siena, Lucca, Arezzo  and many smaller yet just as famous towns such as San Gimignano, Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano, Cortona, Volterra, Barga and more. Many use the word “Tuscany” as a synonym for Chianti or the Val d’Orcia/Siena area. Those are tourist regions, with distinctive cultural, geographic and architectural features that make them unique and different from any other tourist area in Tuscany.

2. Two… no maybe four… main different areas

Tuscany can be ideally divided in two main areas: northern and southern Tuscany. The difference is remarkable in terms of density of population, accent, landscape and architectural features.

Northern Tuscany includes the provinces (or part of the provinces) of Livorno, Pisa, Lucca, Massa and Carrara, Pistoia, Prato and Florence (even though Florence is “ideally central”, the heart of the region). The area is quite densely populated (with a few exceptions like the Garfagnana and the Lunigiana north of Lucca, the Val di Cecina – Volterra area in the province of Pisa and the Appennines north of Florence), more industrialized, less “stereotypically” Tuscan as far as the landscape is concerned (yet really beautiful in the less densely populated areas), home to beautiful art nouveau and classical architecture, countryside mansions and lively beach towns. Plenty of cultural events too: music festivals, art exhibitions, and more.

Southern Tuscany includes the provinces (or part of the provinces) of Livorno, Grosseto, Florence, Siena, and Arezzo. The area includes the typical picture perfect landscape of Tuscany, the rolling hills, the cypress-tree lined roads, etc, mostly in the province of Siena.It is less densely populated, with lots of smaller hilltop hamlets and much open countryside. It is the area of the nature parks (Casentino, Maremma, Valdorcia). It’s not very industrialized (with the exception of the Poggibonsi area and the area of Monte San Savino and surroundings near Arezzo). It is home to the highest mountain in the region, Monte Amiata, quite unique, and to the most unspoilt stretch of coastline, the coast of the Maremma. It’s the heart of medieval Tuscany (even though Pisa in the north is also prevalently medieval).

These two macro-areas, which are just simple approximations, make for two very different types of holidays and could be further subdivided. Northern Tuscany has the mountain areas of the Apuan Alps, Garfagnana, Lunigiana and Mugello which are quite different from the coastal areas of the Versilia and the cities. Southern Tuscany has the Maremma area which is quite unique, and very different from the “classic” Sienese landscape.

3. Many tourist regions

Something that might be confusing for people who want to visit Tuscany is all the various regions they find mentioned in portals and on guidebooks. Being such a varied territory, rich in sites to see and traditions, it should not be surprising that many tourist areas with peculiar traits can be identified.

This map should speak for itself: it depicts the “official” tourist areas of Tuscany. A real patchwork! (I only marked down the cities I was quite sure people had heard of, but of course there are many more that deserve to be visited.)

This is why 3 days in Tuscany (or 7 for that matters) will not be enough to see “Tuscany”. Truth be told, most people who want to visit “Tuscany” actually want to visit southern Tuscany, mainly the Siena area.

And here an image of the ideal division in two areas:

In the next few days I will post more about the various regions, with the landmarks in each of them.

4. So how does one choose where to go?

First of all by reading a guidebook and figuring out what interests you the most. I recommend either focusing on northern Tuscany choosing as a base Pisa or Lucca or southern Tuscany chosing Siena or the countryside around the city as a base.

5. And here comes the self-promotion

But I truly believe anything I am about to write and I would write the same even if we didn’t manage holiday rentals.

Pisa is an excellent base in northern Tuscany because it’s an excellent transportation hub. You do not need a car to visit the major sites. Of course if you want to venture up into the rural areas, then you will need a car, like in most countryside areas of Tuscany. But there are plenty of places that you can reach by public transportation. Besides, the city is really underrated: it you dare venture away from the Leaning Tower, far from being a tourist trap, Pisa is a University city, with many lively locals, plenty of restaurants and many culural events. Of course we have a special place to recommend… Behind the Tower, our vacation rental in Pisa!

If on the other hand you want to see picture-perfect Tuscany, and the most popular areas in southern Tuscany, I think the area where my home village is located, and our other vacation house in Tuscany, Casina di Rosa, is ideal. A picture is worth more than 1000 words (and that’s a topic for another blog post!) to show how central the village is to the main areas of southern Tuscany, also thanks to the easy access to the major road connecting Siena to the coast. So here is our area marked in white:

So, you see how it is hard for me to avoid blatant self promotion…but hey… this is my blog, so I can be blunt, right? My village, Civitella Marittima, is a short drive away from many different areas of southern Tuscany, which means that by choosing it as your home base you can visit most of the most popular sites with a 30 to 60 minute drive, you don’t have to pack and unpack every three or four days to move to the next base  and you go back to a non-touristy, quieter village in the evening and make yourself at home in Tuscany!

Comments

  1. Fabulous post Gloria: cannot wait for the next instalment!

  2. I have a long legend with the various areas… I’ve been working on this for weeks! Just to figure out what is included in what area drove me insane! LOL THank you for the comment!

  3. I agree – Pisa is a great base, especially in the summer, as you are close to Viareggio, Forte dei Marmi, Pietrasanta and the Cinque Terre to the north and the lovely area surrounding Grossetto to the South. It’s also very close to Lucca and the Garfagnana.

  4. I have never been to civitella, but I agree that the smaller towns as a base makes great sense, you are able to feel how relaxing is Tuscany and enjoy the beautiful countryside at the same time you can be really close to major cities and tourist hotspots, but with a better night sleep than you will probably get in somewhere like florence!

  5. Adi

    Hi Gloria,
    im realy anjoying reading your blog. me and my husband are planning a vacation in tuscany and thinking about seting our base right on the border between north&south, somewhere in the pink area.
    do you think its better to choose between south and north or is it possible to do it this way and taste abit of each? and if so, what are the musts?we love the countryside and wish to relex and maybe take some cooking lessons, but we also the type of people that get bored easely.
    love to hear your thoughts on that matter.
    also, we’ll land in rome and will have one day before arriving tuscany (there are not alot of options when you’re coming from Israel..) is there a nice place on the way that will fit a one day stop? (noon til the next morning).
    im sorry for writing so much, its my first time in Italy and i am realy looking forward to this vacation.

    thank you so much!!
    Adi.

  6. Thank you for your comments Megan, Sharon and Adi.
    Aid, consider that Tuscany is big but most importantly it’s packed with places to see. Whatever base you choose, within one hour drive there is more that you can see in a week anyway.
    Northern and Southern Tuscany are very different. I prefer the south, but it’s me. You won’t be able to see everything anyway, so my recommendation is to make a top 5 of your dream day trips and choose a base accordingly. Have you checked the other two posts on southern and northern Tuscany?

  7. Michelle Ortlipp

    Hi Gloria, I’ve sent an enquiry about your house in Southern tuscany and have now located the village on my new map. We also want to spend some time in Umbria but it looks like your village is quite near Umbria so if we were to spend a week in southern tuscany where would you recommend a week in Unbria? Would it be too similar to southern tuscany? Perhaps we could head up to the norhern part of umbria and spend time at a farmstay? I’ve heard that Todi, Spoleto, Perugia and Gubbio are all worth visiting.
    regards
    Michelle

  8. Hi Michelle, thank you very much. I replied to your request yesterday. I hope you have received my answer, if not, please let me know and I will send it again! thank you!

    I answered your question in my reply to your other comment to my post about Southern Tuscany I think, but in a nutshell, yes. I think Southern Tuscany and Umbria are better enjoyed if you spend one week in each area because the distances are short but the time it takes to cover them is significant, because the roads are slow. Besides Italian culture is very varied and there are many differences between the two areas.
    And last but not least, both areas are filled with lots of places that are well worth a visit, and you will have more to see than days to spend in each.

    All the towns and cities you mention are well worth visiting, and so is Assisi and the many smaller villages around those areas. Visiting them from Southern Tuscany is not very convenient, and the time you would spend on the road would take away from the experience of living even for a few days in beautiful Umbria.

    Thank you for stopping by! I am looking forward to hearing from you via email!

  9. Virginia

    Hello Gloria, I am so glad I found your site. It is really helpful. I think you should mention your own place without anyguilt ! Go for it! Would love to stay there but unfortunately there is not enough room. There are six of us.Any ideas of other places? Two of us are considering renting a villa for a month and having others visit for a week or maybe two at a time. Never done anythig like this but I am so excited. I traveld to Italy in 2009 but did not make to to the beautiful countryside. We are thinking of locating outside of Siena and turong the villages in the area.
    Looks like we will have to rent a car but frankly I am not too excited about doing that due to the expense but hey, you only go around one, right? Not sure about driving in Italy but your blog has helped my fears! So, if you have any friends who have larger accommodations in the area abd know of an economic car rental out of Florence, bring it on!
    Virginia from Atlanta GA USA

    • Hi Virginia,

      thank you for your kind words! Unfortunately I can’t think of any friend who has a house that can accommodate 6 people. Maybe Casa Gigliola http://www.casagigliola.it in Monticiano.
      Have fun and thank you for your kind words!!!

  10. Hi Gloria:
    I just found your blog and I instantly love it. I am in the process of researching a trip to some part of Tuscany (haven’t decided yet) for my anniversary next July. I would like to stay out of heavily touristed areas and put together my own trip. I am finding your blog very helpful :)

    • Hi Maria, thank you for the comment and for your kind words! And congratulations on your anniversary! maybe you will want to take a look at our Casina di Rosa, http://www.casinadirosa.it, you might like it! LOL

  11. Paola

    Hi Gloria, enjoyed reading your blog. We’ll be visiting Tuscany in Feb 2013 and staying at the Il Borro Village. Have you any personal information about this place? Also we have a car rental. What places would you recommend seeing. We’re praying that there wil be no snow. We get enough of this here in Canada.

    • Hi Paola, it seems very nice, but I don’t know it personally, sorry. Snow it is a rare event and it never lasts too long. But it will probably be cold, as February can either bring the first taste of spring or the last bite of the winter.
      I guess all the Chianti area comprised between Arezzo and Florence should be at your doorstep.

  12. karen redelin

    I’m off to Santa Fiora next week October 31st, and I can’t wait. I’ll be in a house for the month of November, I’ll try and let you know how it all went. I’ve never been, and I am embarking on this adventure myself. I love reading all you have written, and am excited to sart filling up my own notebook! Thanks, enjoyable reading. Karen

    • Santa Fiora is lovely and Monte Amiata is a world of its own. Unique.

  13. Louise

    Hi
    We would like a base where we can head out each day for bike rides but return to a village of around 25000 people with bakery etc Would San Christiana in southern Tuscany be suitable

    • 25000 in italy is a city not a village. A village is 300 people… And even then you will find places with all sorts of stores. our village houses 350 people and has two bakeries, a fabulous retaurant, two bars, a grocer’s, butcher’s, tobacconist’s and fabulous florist’s shop.

      I am afraid I have never heard of the place you mention. Also remember that Tuscany is very very hilly. You need to be well trained. You might want to look at somewhere in Chianti or around Pisa if you are not very experienced. Besides, anywhere else distances are huge.

  14. Hi Gloria, Thank you so much for your very interesting and exciting blog. My husband, myself and another couple are hoping to tour Southern Tuscany in September this year. Could you let us have your accommodation details and costs so that I can make a start on preparing for our exciting holiday.
    Thanking you
    Rene

    • Ciao Rene, our house is too small for your group but thank you! We can accommodate 2 people, but if you don’t mind splitting in terms of accommodation, there are plenty of options in the area. You find all information on our website http://www.casinadirosa.it

  15. Gloria, many thanks for your excellent, it’s proving to be a fine resource whilst my girlfriend and I plan our first trip to Italy.

    With this in mind would you be able to advise on the following potential itinerary?

    We’re thinking of visiting in early through mid July, probably flying into Rome and spending a few days there, I appreciate the city deserves longer.

    Then hiring a car and driving along the coast for a few hours and staying in a coastal area for 3 nights, I’ve read Castiglione Della Pescaia is nice? We’d be hoping for somewhere not too remote I think.

    Then driving across and up to Florence, we’re thinking of staying on a farm a few Km outside of the City for 5 nights, hoping for a mixture of being able to get into the city and being in a quiet location.

    Then driving to Pisa to fly home.

    Many thanks

    • It sounds like a nice itinerary! Castiglione della Pescaia is very neat.

    • Great blog. thank you for the insight to your home Tuscany. I am traveling to Italy in July and staying in Tavarnelle, 30 minutes south of Florence. Staying 5 days. What areas do you recommend to visit, see, eat? should I rent a car? Please advice. Thank you.

  16. Dan nelson

    Hi Gloria – thanks for the helpful information. Four of us, two couples, are starting to plan our trip to the Tuscany area. We will arrive in Florence on the second Friday of October and will fly back on the third Saturday.

    My thinking was to spend a few days in Florence first and then hire a car to explore Tuscany. I was thinking of making our base north of Florence, but after reading your blog, I am thinking of making it in Siena area instead.

    If you had five days in southern Tuscany, what would your schedule of to do’s look like?

    Thanks!
    Dan nelson

    • Hi Dan, I would visit the Valdorcia and the Crete area (Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano, San Quirico d’Orcia) and possibly Cortona. San Gimignano is interesting too of course but I find it very touristy. There are nice abbeys too (Sant’Antimo and San Galgano). Of course assuming Siena is not included in the 5 days, otherwise one day at least has to be for this beautiful city.

  17. Sam

    Hi Gloria, I enjoyed reading your blog as the info is really insightful and different from the mainstream websites. My friend and I are planning a trip to Italy in early December. We are thinking of staying in a farm house somewhere near Siena for 3 nights, then set off to stay in Florence for another 2 nights. Would you be able to advise us on the following?
    1. As we are not confident drivers (due to left hand drive in Italy), we are thinking of hiring a driver to drive us around within the first 3 days. Do you have any reliable driver to recommend? Or would you be able to tell us how much does it normally cost?
    2. What activities would you suggest in our 3 days in southern Tuscany?

    • Hi Sam! I have heard good things about Luca of Hills and Roads http://www.hillsandroads.com/ but I have no idea of the costs. In three days you might want to spend one full day in Siena, and then two days touring the hilltowns. The valdorcia area is great (see my post on Southern Tuscany) and so is the crete area. San Gimignano and Volterra are also lovely, and of course the Chianti area.

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