The best of Tuscany based on my Lonely Planet research (and the worst)

taking notes best of TuscanyIt’s finally done. I know this is incredibly delayed (I finished my Tuscany research trip over a month ago), but I felt I needed to review and carefully consider my notes before posting this authoritative, yet decidedly subjective list.

Caveats: Of course there are caveats. Chiefly, I’m not taking into consideration all of Tuscany in this list. My territory of research for LP is Central, the Coast (including Isola d’Elba), Eastern and Southern Tuscany. In other words, not Florence and not Northwest Tuscany (Lucca, Pisa, etc).

Also, although I’ve now done guidebook research in this territory twice and can cautiously declare myself an expert, I am merely one man – one exceptionally gifted, insightful, smokin’ hot, dignified, semi-sober man – and Tuscany is a densely packed region of almost limitless awesomeness. By my estimation, there are about 3,475 notable scenic drives, 374,622 agriturismi, 1,273,938,294 restaurants (roughly) and so on. Obviously I did not drive/visit/eat at every one of these options. Relying on experience, meetings with tourism reps, reader letters, conversations with local characters, etc, I endeavored to review some of the best options that time, the elements and word count limits would allow. So if you don’t see your favorite whatever here, it’s not because I’m an incompetent halfwit that didn’t actually visit Tuscany before doing the write-up. This is all too frequently the conclusion that people authoring hate mail to me jump to when I don’t mention the amazing, third generation, mom and pop trattoria they presumptuously “discovered”, like it was an archeological find from 1000 BC. By the way, they’re almost all third generation, mom and pop trattorie, people.

What I’m getting at is that it’s likely I didn’t get to review the absolute best of everything. That’s just how this job goes. Maybe if there were six of me (which would be spectacular, even without Tuscany) and each of us had three months on the road, perhaps this would be viable, but unfortunately that is not the case. I hope I have not destroyed your other-worldly, mystical fantasy of how guidebooks are made.

Now that I’ve excused myself from all fault, here are my “Best/Worst of Tuscany” and “What Happened?” lists for 2009.

Best/Worst of Tuscany

•    Best drive: This is a tough one to nail down. Incredible driving scenery in Tuscany is more profuse than douchebags at a Brewer’s game. In Central Tuscany the stretch between Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Asciano is by far the one where I wished I was the passenger in the car and not the driver. In Southern Tuscany, the bit between Albinia and Magliano in Toscana gets awfully pretty for the last 10 km. On the Coast, the back road connecting Sassetta and Suvereto is hailed by a local cycling journalist as being one of the best in all of Italy for biking and motorcycling, to which I agree whole-heartedly.
•    Worst drive: Anywhere within the Livorno city limits.
•    Best parking: Cortona. Close to the historic city center and free.
•    Worst parking: It’s a tie between Livorno and Arezzo.
pitigliano •    Best view from a hotel room: I’m giving it to the same place as last time, the Albergo Guastini in Pitigliano. Specifically, rooms six and 18, among others. There’s just no equal. Pitigliano is also far and away the winner of the ‘Coolest looking hill town from a distance’ award, if you’re interested.
•    Best Hostel: Sadly, the best hostel in my territory is in one of the least noteworthy areas. I’m talking La Cocciara in tiny, ho-hum Cetona. The hostel is large, clean, safe, friendly and has great beds, but apart from some fine dining in town and the inviting climb on Monte Cetona, there’s really not much to keep you in the area.
•    Best hotel room (budget): Santa Margherita in Cortona. Run by sweet, obliging nuns and just completed a total renovation, including new beds, fresh paint, and sparkling bathrooms. Honorable mention goes to Pensione Weekend in Porto Santo Stefano, on the Monte Argentario peninsula.
•    Best hotel room (mid-range): Antica Residenza Cicogna in Siena. Springless beds, soundproof windows, ornate frescoes, free wi-fi, antique furniture, huge buffet breakfast and a great location. What’s not to love?
•    Best hotel room (high-end): La Frateria di Padre Eligio, also near ho-hum Cetona. (Am I missing something here? Is there a major attraction nearby that I somehow drove past while grappling with the GPS?) It’s a gorgeous former convent dating from 1212, lovingly restored and converted into an unforgettable seven-room hotel and gourmet restaurant.
•    Worst hotel room: Unlike in 2007, I managed to get through the entire trip without being the victim of bedbugs. I stayed in some shabby places, but none of them were flat-out awful. So, instead of naming the worst room, I’ll name the worst service, which was hands-down the disastrously pretentious Hotel Vogue in Arezzo. I didn’t stay there, but my time in reception was probably the most frustrating, customer service-starved 10 minutes of the entire trip. They started out cagey and difficult and then, even after I relented and identified myself, they refused to give me prices, refused to let me see a room and refused to smile (or look away from his computer screen in one clerk’s case). Kiss all your Lonely Planet business goodbye!
•    Worst city for overall accommodations: Though there’s a new, promising budget contender that has yet to prove themselves, overall, Livorno has the worst price-to-value accommodation options in Tuscany. This is unfortunate, as they don’t exactly have the strongest visitor appeal, unless eating at endless exceptional seafood restaurants is enough to snare long-stay visitors. I imagine their biggest tourism hotel customer base are those people arriving late or departing early on ferries, so we’re talking one overnight max, whereas if they lowered prices a bit, people might be inclined to stay longer, giving them more money and less work turning over the rooms. Capice?
•    Best wine: Once again, Vernaccia di San Gimignano. Though I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the incredible, relatively discounted prices one can get if they shop carefully in Montalcino for very decent bottles of the coveted Burnello.
•    Most over-rated wine: It was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but I’d have a hard time finding the money to regularly indulge in the Super Tuscan Sassicaia, made in Bolgheri, for €20 per 10cc pour.
ravioli•    Best plate of pasta: This is how unfair the universe is: the best plate of pasta I saw in Tuscany was not consumed by me, but by my companion! I got a small taste and that was it! For the record it was the buckwheat lasagna au gratin with pheasant and fennel seeds on a base of creamed garlic and squash. Anyone whose saliva glands aren’t running at full power right now should see a doctor, because it was cra-zay. This complex miracle of gastronomic wizardry was served at Antica Osteria da Divo in Siena. I’ve gotta give two honorable mentions (that I actually ate): the first was the Spinach ravioli with walnut and radicchio sauce, served at Ristorante Don Beta in Volterra. The other was the Chianina beef and tarragon ravioli with porcini mushrooms and cherry tomatoes, a tiny but nonetheless amazing dish I had at Sobborgo in Cetona (there’s that town again).
•    Best meal: Price being no object (without resorting to Michelin Star restaurants), I’m giving this one to Ristorante Don Beta in Volterra. I ate there twice and although the service on the second visit was wooden at best, the food standard was with either superior or beyond both times. Also, as my companion pointed out, the place was full of locals, which you don’t often find at higher end restaurants in tourist towns.
•    Best budget meal: This one was easy, Cantina Senese in Livorno. Excellent seafood at prices dock workers will pay.
•    Worst meal: I have to be careful here. Last time I called out the place that food poisoned me, the owner went nuts and emailed me repeatedly. Instead, I’ll just say how disappointed I was that the formerly great and relatively affordable restaurants that sit on the northeast edge of Piazza Grande in Arezzo have started to charge 10-15% service charges on top of the coperto, which is just unnecessarily greedy and opportunistic. They still have wonderful meals, but staring at not one, but two compulsory tips on the bill irritates a special place in my soul.
•    Best gelato: Gelateria di Piazza in San Gimignano, who I named in 2007, is still doing great work, but I was very impressed with newcomer Visola del Gusto in Volterra, whose signature flavor redefines the word ‘creamy’.
•    Best town: I’m still a die-hard Cortona fan. As I said in 2007, I like the funky streets, cinematic houses and the fact they manage to maintain eateries serving great food at decent prices. This year they were even better, with some major improvements in the budget accommodation options (see ‘Best hotel room [budget]’ above). However in the interest of fairness, I’m going to give the bump to Portoferraio, on the island of Elba. It’s got fun streets, interesting Napoleonic history and too many good restaurants to fit into the space that I was allotted to write about them in the book. Just avoid it in June/July/August or you’ll have difficulty enjoying most if not all of these perks. Also, the accommodation situation could use improvement. Entrepreneurs, get going.
•    Best big city: As in 2007, it’s Siena. There’s nothing like it.
•    Best beach: Passable beaches are on the coast, like just south of Livorno or the less objectionable profiteering beach towns like Castiglioncello, but the island of Elba still takes honors. If you don’t like rubbing oiled-up elbows with strangers, head for the southeast corner of the island. There’s a bunch of places that take a little effort to reach, meaning they’re pretty roomy, even in high season.
•    Best monastery: Again this is a toughie, but I found myself more impressed this time around by Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore near Asciano. The fresco cycles by Luca Signorelli and Il Sodoma are just amazing.
•    Best agriturismo: In 2007 my bump went to Agriturismo San Lorenzo, just 2km outside of Volterra, which I still love with the heat of a thousand espressos.  However, I was introduced to a new winner this year that takes the title, La Cerreta, outside of Sassetta. They’ve been at it for over 20 years, engineering a ‘self-sufficient, biodynamic, harmonic project’, a mindset and lifestyle that will cause all but the most die-hard city lover to re-think their lives. They aim for a simple, gastronomically authentic Tuscan lifestyle. They raise cinta senese (indigenous Tuscan pig), Maremma cows, and the rare Livornese chicken, among others and welcome WWOOFers for short and long-term stays. When I visited they were close to finishing their brand new, three-pool spa, using a thermal spring that they’d discovered late last year.

What Happened?

•    Number of days on the road: 31
•    Number of genuine rest days in that time: 2
•    Drove about 2,200 kilometers (about 1,367 miles)
•    Percentage of time while driving that I was being tailgated by a deranged Italian, under the impression that he was racing for pole position:  50%
•    Most dangerous passing: a van three times the size of my car rode my ass on a violently twisty mountain rode for about 10 minutes – I was already going fast enough to scatter books and papers and test the traction and suspension on my Panda – then finally passed me on a 150 meter stretch between blind curves and careened out of sight. Asshat.
•    Average temperature: 60 degrees  Fahrenheit (15.6 Celsius)
umbrella best of Tuscany•    Number of days that I could walk around without a jacket or umbrella: 2
•    Number of times I did laundry in 30 days:  1 and 1/2
•    Number of towns visited:  65, (not counting all the little resort-towns, rural abbeys, parks, random castles, and bumps in the road that required me to pull over to check a fact)
•    Number of cumulative hours spent lost:  five (huge improvement over the ‘1.8 billion squillion hours’ I spent lost in 2007)
•    Number of times I cursed lazy/confusing/nonexistent Italian signage at lunatic volume until I became horse: three
•    Number of times that my GPS crashed, ran out of power, got confused by dense cities, took me on unnecessary detours or otherwise failed me: 18 (still, in addition to my familiarity with the region, it’s what most saved me from being constantly lost on this trip)
•    Number of times I parked illegally:  countless
•    Number of parking tickets:  zero
•    Number of free wi-fi clouds that I found:  22 (much improved this year, mainly because I was armed with my awesome Blackberry, allowing me to pirate wi-fi while loitering in front of random hotels, cafes and doorsteps, though searching these out still took a lot of energy, as most hubs were  password protected)
•    Number of cups of coffee consumed: 257 (I tried to show a little restraint this year, 2007 got a little out of control)
•    Number of people who told me that I had their dream job:  31
•    Number of times that people who only talked to me for 15 minutes in 2007 unsettlingly recognized me as soon as I walked in the door: 14
•    Number of reverent, nubile, females whose hearts I broke with my good looks, coveted job and fleeting, dashing presence: zero
•    Number of reverent, nubile, males whose hearts I broke with my good looks, coveted job and fleeting, dashing presence: three
•    Number of people who charitably told me “No, no! Your Italian is just fine!”: one
•    Number of mornings I woke up and said “OK, no wine with dinner tonight. This has gotta stop. I’m dying here.” then had wine with dinner: seven