Driving Through Tuscany

Sometimes you just have to face your fears to see what’s on the other side. I have always wanted to drive in a foreign country. It always seemed to be the best way to explore someplace rather than just hitting the tourist highlights. So with that in mind, I decided to give it a shot.. in Italy! Probably not the best place for my first driving attempt. I don’t drive much at home in Toronto and try to avoid it most of the time. Italian drivers have a reputation for being aggressive and speed demons. But I figured Tuscany would be easier because of the rural roads and laid back attitude… and I was partly right. 

Before the journey I read as much as I could online. Some of what I read terrified me but some of it provided good information for the road ahead. The best information I received was about Italy’s road signs. I have never seen anything like it before. When I visited Italy before I guess I didn’t really pay much attention to them but now that they were going to be guiding me they became overwhelming. Italians even make fun of their road signs. The sheer volume is enough to confuse anyone. Imagine driving at 110 kph (the highway speed limit) and you come up on a grouping of road signs -like 10 all bunched together. You try to read as fast as you can but miss most of them. There are some very important ones that you probably won’t see at home like those warning about the ZTL – areas of cities that are off limits to all but emergency/city vehicles and sometimes local residents. Cross into one and your license plate will be photographed and you will get a hefty fine. There are no excuses for tourists so you want to avoid them at all costs. Here are a couple of sites that I found good information about driving in Italy

Google maps was very helpful to get around but beware that it can’t be 100% trusted. It will get you from point A to point B the quickest and easiest route even if that means directing you through a ZTL. 

We had planned a 2 day trip through Tuscany from Florence (airport pickup so I didn’t have to drive through the city) with stops in San Gimignano, Siena, Pitigliano (overnight), the hot springs of Terme Di Saturnia, Pisa, Lucca, and back to Florence. Seemed doable but turned out to be too ambitious. We ended up skipping SG, Saturnia, and Lucca because there just wasn’t enough time. 

The drive wasn’t as bad as I expected. Keep right and you don’t have to feel like you have to speed through your trip. The worst part was the condition of some of the roads, particularly the regional highway we took on the second day. We were racing along at 110 kph – 120 kph and suddenly we’d hit a pothole or a bad patch of road. I was terrified we were going to blow a tire. It was very stressful. Driving in Pisa was a little stressful too because of all the tourists crossing the busy road. You have to be on alert for that while you are trying to find a parking space and manoeuvre unfamiliar roads. 

We took the  SR222 described as the most scenic route in Tuscany. And it lived up to its reputation. Spectacular vistas of iconic images of Tuscany like the vineyards, olive groves, and perfectly shaped Cypress trees. The road winds its way through the countryside and takes you through towns where people are going about their daily business. We also passed by numerous Agriturismos  (B&Bs at farms or vineyards) that we will have to come back and visit sometime. 

The views are breathtaking, but don’t forget to keep your eyes on the road. Along with the views are the hairpin turns, the long mountain climbs uphill and then back down. But it all adds to the adventure. 

Siena – this was my second visit to Siena so I knew what we needed to see and do before moving on. There wasn’t a lot of time to dawdle since we were on a tight travel schedule (this should have been a week or at least 4 or 5 days). We managed to find good parking just outside the wall surrounding the old part of the city (and just outside the ZTL) we wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets and ended up outside the magnificent medieval Duomo di Siena. It is one of the most beautiful churches in the world (and I have seen a lot of them) and I believe it even rivals St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. It was constructed in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries. The Gothic exterior gives you a glimpse of the beauty inside but it’s still jaw-dropping as you enter the nave. The dark green and white striped marble pillars, the magnificent ceiling, the intricate mosaics on the floors,  the chapels each featuring their own artwork, with sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello and of course the altar.  There’s also a library that contains massive medieval books and spectacular paintings and it even has a sign telling people to “Please Do Not Stay.”

We also made our way to the nearby Piazza Del Campo where the annual Palio horse race is held every August. The piazza is massive and rivals any square you will find anywhere and is world renowned as Europe’s best example of a medieval quare. The shell shaped piazza with its brick surface laid out in a chevron pattern, is surrounded by apartments and hotels that feature restaurants and bars and are the best viewing spots for the Palio. At one end is the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia, which you can climb for spectacular views of Siena . All along the walls of the building are metal rings where the horses are tethered before the race. At the other end of the Campo is a magnificent marble fountain, the Fonte Gaia, that was first constructed in 1342 and is a favourite bathing spot for the town’s pigeon population.

Our next stop was Pitigliano, which turned out to be the highlight of my trip. It is an ancient town built on top of volcanic tufa. I’m glad I had Google maps to get us there because it isn’t really a tourist hotspot. When you get into the town there is a hairpin turn you have to make. Take the left road instead of trying to drive into the town and there is public parking there. It’s cheap (cost us 3 euros all night) but if you drive another block or two up the road there is a public parking area that is free. There is a narrow park alongside the road that gives a spectacular view of the town (a great spot for taking some photos, especially early in the morning when it’s perfectly lit.) 

Only 300 people live in the old town, including the area that was once a Jewish ghetto. Each of the homes and buildings feature cellars that are cut into the rock and many also have subterranean tunnels. You can tour through this when you visit the synagogue. You learn about the history of the Jewish population here, how the numbers dwindled over the decades and when the war broke out the town residents hid the remaining Jews from persecution and death. There is an underground slaughterhouse and kitchen where the food was prepared. As you wander the few streets you find picture postcard scenes wherever you turn. 

I have to give a shout out to the hotel we stayed in – Le Camere del Ceccottino. Family owned and run, beautifully furnished, very comfortable and welcoming. It has 5 rooms and the Superior room was perfect. The couple, Chiara and Alessandro, that owns the 17th century  hotel also owns two restaurants. We had one of the best meals during our Italian vacation at La Corte del Ceccottino. Their attention to detail at both the hotel and restaurant is outstanding. 

There isn’t a lot to do in the town except explore the streets and alleyways and browse the shops. But nearby is the Terme de Saturnia hot springs. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit on this trip but we will, when we return. This is definitely a place I want to return to. 

 

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