I love Tuscany so much that I named my novel after it! Europe is full of amazing sites, compelling history, gorgeous countryside, and yet there is something about Tuscany—Toscana–that resonates. Perhaps it’s because we associate Florence, Tuscany’s principal city, with the Renaissance and the so-called flowering of western culture. Perhaps it’s because the very word Tuscany conjures visions of green rolling fields, stunning hilltop villages jagged with towers, stately Lombardy poplars standing guard over vineyards producing some of the best wines in the world. Or maybe it’s just because Tuscany is code for the sweet life, la dolce vita.
Say Tuscany and you are instantly transported to a sunny terrace paved with ancient stones, butter ochre in the sun, gazing out at a bustling piazza or a country scene of exquisite loveliness. The air smells of pine and heat, warm wine and garlic. You sip a glass of wine purchased from the vineyard next door and listen to echoes of the past that seem much louder here than almost any other place in Europe.
The names of the towns you can visit in Tuscany roll off the tongue like licks of the sweetest gelato – Montalcino, Montelpculciano, San Gimignano, Volterra, Monteriggioni, Cortaldo, Siena.
Today I’m focusing on a subject dear to many traveler’s hearts—where to sleep while touring glorious Tuscany. For a comprehensive listing of all the amazing hotels and pensions in Tuscany, check out the always reliable Trip Advisor or good ole booking.com (one of my favorites). But if you want a personal tour of places that I’ve stayed in and can wholeheartedly recommend, stick with me.
I’m going to review just four establishments in three towns: Florence, San Gimignano, and Siena.
First up, is Florence, which for most travelers is the first stop on their Tuscan adventure. The minute you get off the train in Florence, you realize that it’s a surprisingly big and bustling city. It’s not like Rome of course (where is?), but certainly it is a city to be taken seriously. You’ll see the difference after you’ve visited Siena and San Gimignano. I’ve stayed in several hotels over the years in Florence, but I’m going to focus only on my favourite—the Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio. I chose this hotel because of its location. I wanted to be as close to the Arno River as possible and I wanted a reasonably priced hotel that gave me a view of the fabled rooftops of Florence. The Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio delivers on both counts. First, it’s one of the few establishments located across the Arno River in the Oltranto district, just seven meters from the Ponte Vecchio and steps away from the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. Despite its proximity to the Ponte Vecchio, the hotel feels just a little bit out of the way. Step out the front door and the hordes of tourists surging across the Ponte Vecchio flow around you, but walk just a block or two deeper into the Oltranto neighborhood and you are alone with cobbled streets and ancient shops in which artisans create their crafts just as they have for centuries.
The Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio is small enough to be friendly but large enough to include a rooftop bar and an excellent breakfast buffet. I splurged for a room on the 3rd floor that overlooked the skyline of Florence. My fantasy of strolling onto my little balcony and taking my selfie were realized just moments after I walked into my room. It’s unfortunate that immediately across the street is a rather unsightly building from the sixties. I am often surprised in Italy how frequently ugly, painfully utilitarian buildings nestle self-consciously next to ancient ones. I understand that the cultural wing of the government is very strict about preserving Italy’s remarkable heritage, which makes these lapses in architectural unity all the more grating.
But I wasn’t in Florence to be critical. After drinking in my fill of the view, I set off to explore Florence, a city I know quite well but that always yields new surprises. I was not at all familiar with the Oltranto district and so my first priority was to wander its quiet back streets in search of lunch. I ended up in a lovely little piazza that appeared almost empty of tourists. I ate my lunch at a tiny table perched on the sidewalk and watched a clutch of impeccably dressed Florentine businesspeople enter the posher restaurant across the square.
Florence is a must-see, of course, but I confess that I prefer Siena. Florence’s fame has turned it into a kind of Renaissance Disneyland that teems with foot-weary, art-soaked tourists, most of whom are more intent on finding a gelato than looking at yet another masterpiece. My main purpose for being in Florence is that it is a stop over on the way to the hill town of San Gimignano where a portion of “The Towers of Tuscany” is set. My interest is in the art of the fourteenth century and, with a few notable exceptions, Florence is pretty much all Renaissance all the time.
A highlight of my two nights at the Hotel Pitti Palace al Ponte Vecchio was my early evening glasses of wine on the terrace. Here’s a picture of me snapped by a friendly French couple. I discovered at breakfast on both days that most of the guests in the hotel were from French and British tour groups. I think I might have been the only North American.
San Gimignano is one of my favorite towns in Tuscany, and not only because it’s the principal setting for The Towers of Tuscany. Yes, it’s swarming with tourists, and yes, the shops are bursting with merchandise for tourists to buy, and yes, it’s a bit over-priced. But none of that matters when I slip away from the crowded main street to a tiny back street where just me and a few cats warm ourselves on the cobblestones. Although it’s a small town, San Gimignano has a surprising number of small niches and deserted piazzas for the crowd averse traveler. And the daily influx of tourists means that San Gimignano and environs boasts some really lovely accommodation options, not to mention some great restaurants. My two favorite, moderately-priced options are located just outside San Gimignano. Both have stunning views of the towers. The Pescille is to the north of San Gimignano and the Villa Ducci is to the south. Both are excellent choices for visitors who want to linger for several days in this swathe of Tuscan heaven.
Hotel Pescille, San Gimignano
I’ve stayed at the Pescille just north of San Gimignano twice and both times loved it. The location cannot be beat and the comfortable rooms, friendly staff, and beautiful pool make leaving the place a tough sell. On one of our trips (it was April), we spent most of our days just hanging out in our room and in the lobby, then setting out for San Gimignano just before sunset to enjoy deserted streets and wonderful meals.
The view of the towers of San Gimignano from the Pescille (splurge for a view room) really can’t be beat. Check out the Pescille’s Web site for pictures and information.
Villa Ducci, San Gimignano
I stayed at the Villa Ducci, on the south side of San Gimignano while researching The Towers of Tuscany. Oh my! The view is panoramic. The towers of San Gimignano rise on a hill across the valley flanked on either side by vineyards and olive groves, punctuated by pointy, dark green cypresses and dreaming under white clouds that hover over deep blue hills at the horizon.
The moment I stepped onto the terrace at the Villa Ducci, I knew I’d found one of the locations for the novel. Later I was to discover that the Villa Ducci was built on the foundations of a 13th Century tower, which meant that there really was a structure on this spot during the period covered by The Towers of Tuscany.
One morning after breakfast, the daughter of one of the owners took me down to the cellar to see the original foundations. A major plot point was solved!
I arrived at the Villa Ducci at two in the afternoon after a jarring bus ride from Florence. I was starving and the staff very kindly said I could order lunch from my table on the terrace. I ordered ravioli with truffle sauce and when it arrived, I was transfixed–too overcome by the aromas to even pick up the fork. I smelled a combination of fresh butter, cream, garlic, and something sweet and slightly off—the truffles. And then the first taste of fresh, piping hot raviolis coated with sauce studded with fresh herbs and pepper. They melted in my mouth, leaving traces of intense flavor that made me want to swoon. To say that the truffles tastes sweet doesn’t quite capture it because it is a sweetness tempered by an odd earthiness that has never seen a chemical. No wonder people pay small fortunes for fresh truffles.
The Villa Ducci was a real find—reasonably priced, comfortable rooms (I had my own terrace overlooking San Gimignano across the valley), and friendly owners. In the evenings, I ate dinner in the small dining room with an assortment of mostly European guests. One night I hung out with four guys from Hungary, another night with a Dutch couple, and the third night with a woman from Paris. All spoke perfect English, leaving me ashamed of being so hopefully unilingual.
I was traveling without a car but fortunately each morning I was able to hitch rides into San Gimignano from a guest. People really are very kind! A highlight of staying at the Villa Ducci was the lovely long walk home from San Gimignano. Each afternoon, I left the town and started down the hill—the Villa Ducci as my goal perched on its own hill across the valley. Months later as I was writing an important scene towards the end of The Towers of Tuscany, I had that walk firmly in mind. Of course, I had to remove the sidewalks, houses, street lamps, and roundabout from my imaginings, but essentially the land and sky that my Sofia saw as she walked across the valley was the same. Well, at least the sky was, although a million times more stars would have been visible when night fell.
I was not able to stay at the Villa Ducci during swimming months but if I do next go to San Gimignano when it’s warm, I’ll look forward to taking advantage of the beautiful pool. Few things in the traveler’s life are more wonderful then sitting by a sparkling blue pool on a hot afternoon with a glass of chilled San Gimignano vernaccia in hand. Vernaccia is a local white wine from grapes that have been grown for centuries. Some experts disagree that the current Vernaccia has its origins in Eastern Europe, Greek, or Rome, but I’ll take artistic license and decide it’s Etruscan.
The soul of the historical novelist soars when imagining two millennia of people enjoying some version of the experience being enjoyed in the 21st century. It’s similar to the feeling I get when strolling the back streets of San Gimignano. Only a very small leap of the imagination is needed to transport myself back seven hundred years to get under the skin of Sofia Carelli as she hurries from her home to her father’s workshop. All that is missing is a long gown trailing in the dust and a rather tenuous grip on personal hygiene.
I’ve written about Siena in other blogs and will likely write more about it in future blogs. I don’t think it’s possible to get weary of Siena. It’s just so wonderfully medieval. A large chunk of The Towers of Tuscany takes place in Siena.
Palazzo Masi, Siena
I took a bus from San Gimignano to Siena—a journey of about 90 minutes. Being on a budget, I decided to walk from the bus station to the Palazzo Masi, my fourteenth century Bed and Breakfast. After all, Siena is a small town, relatively speaking. How could I get lost? Well of course I got lost within minutes and spent many many more minutes wandering up and down ancient streets, my little rolly suitcase rumbling obediently behind me. Finally, I gave up and whipped out my phone, praying that the call wouldn’t require another mortgage (I had not added a travel plan!). It turned out I was just about 100 yards from the place. The owner and her husband greeted me kindly and showed me to my room on the 2nd floor.
The beams holding up the ceiling were absolutely massive and I had my very own archway leading to a small anteroom containing a desk and chair. I also had two windows – huge, tall wooden ones with thick green shutters that opened out onto a view of a narrow medieval street. I could lean out the window and not require a great deal of imagination to believe I have been transported back in time. Just take away the odd Vespa speeding down the cobblestones and the occasional lost looking tourists.
The Palazzo Masi on Via Casato di Sotto is a very short and atmospheric walk to Il Campo and is a great choice for visitors who want an authentic Siena experience. The Palazzo Masi is located in an ancient building that dates back to the 13th Century.