Wednesday, June 15, 2016

How to entertain yourself while visiting us in Tuscany's Montecarlo

We’ve been inviting friends from the United States to pay us a visit while we’re in Tuscany, and each year a few people take us up on the offer. Now that we have our own two-bedroom house in Montecarlo, we expect more people to visit in the coming seasons, so I’d thought I’d write down some ideas on what one can do while here.

Lucy welcomes you to Lucca, our favorite and nearest large city.
We love to share our passion for this place, but it’s important for everyone to know what to expect during a visit. Some people want to use our house as a home base for exploring Tuscany, and it’s well situated for that purpose. From Montecarlo, you can reach Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Lucca, Cinque Terre, San Gimignano, Viareggio, Volterra, Carrara, Livorno or the Chianti wine region in less than two hours. Therefore, you can easily take day or overnight trips and then return to Montecarlo to rest, regroup and plan your next expedition. We’ll be glad to give you travel advice and listen to your travel stories.

There's a reason this church looks a little unusual. But it will
take some research or a good tour guide to tell you its story.
Some people, however, say they just want to come and chill in Montecarlo and enjoy the surrounding little cities—like we do. We’re glad to welcome you for this experience as well, but I should warn you about two things. First, our lives here are not all that exciting. We eat at home, we take walks, we go shopping. Lucy makes quilts. I write. We live the slow life. You may say that’s fine for you too, but my second point is that this is a bit of a waste of money, because there are a lot of wonderful things you can do without going far from home. It costs a lot of money to go to Italy, and you should go out and experience the place.

Now we’d love to lead you to all the cool places near Montecarlo, but we’ve already done them a few times already. As special as these places can be, we don’t want to visit each one again and again every time friends come to visit. Therefore, we’ll make a list and post it here so that anyone who is coming to visit will have an idea of the possibilities. We’ll probably join you on some of your adventures, but don’t be disappointed if we sometimes just stay home.

We enjoy a festa in Pescia, only 10 minutes from our house (and the birth city of my nonno and bisnonna).
Before we start, though, we should talk about whether you need to rent a car or not. The answer depends on how long you’ll be here and where you want to go. You can easily reach Lucca, Pisa, Montecatini, Firenze, Pistoia and most other large cities by train. One minor problem is that we live in a hill town, and the train only stops at the bottom of the hill. Walking down the hill may take 20 minutes, but going back up can take twice as long. However, we usually have a car, and we’ll be happy to take you to and from the train station.

There are some places on our list that do require a car, however, so you’ll have to decide if you want to spend the extra money in exchange for the freedom to go anywhere you want and at any time. Having a car certainly makes you less dependent on train and bus schedules.

OK, here is the list, in no particular order:

The funicolare to Montecatini Alto.
TAKE THE TRAIN TO MONTECATINI TERME. It’s only a 15-minute ride for a couple of euro. Walk through the town (which is a fairly modern town popular with Italian tourists). It has a permanent street market every day. But the best activity is to take the cute old funicolare (funicular) up the hill to Montecatini Alto, the old town center. Stroll around the outside of the city and enjoy the views (you can see Montecarlo from there, as well as the hills leading to the Alpi Apuane mountains). Then go to the central piazza and enjoy a lunch or dinner, outside, if it’s a warm day. To read about one of our own forays to Montecatini, you can read this earlier blog: Montecatini Alto beautiful to visit, would be a great place to live.

TAKE A TOUR OF LUCCA AND MONTECARLO WITH A PRIVATE GUIDE. Yes, it’s nice to just walk around these towns, but a guide can make your stroll so much more meaningful by putting everything into a historical perspective and explaining the significance of the sights. You won’t remember all the dates and details, but you’ll get a feel for the events and characters that have shaped these important cities. I happen to be a personal friend of the very best guide in the land, who was born in Lucca and lives just down the hill from us in San Salvatore. Elena Benvenuti has been voted on Tripadvisor as the number two attraction in Montecarlo (the Fortezza of Montecarlo is number one, and she can take you there, so you’ll get the best of the city in one tour). You can easily visit both cities without need for a car. For more on this topic, read Good personal guide well worth cost.

Lindsey, right, enjoys a sampling of fine Montecarlo wines.
GO ON A WINE AND OIL TOUR, OR TAKE A COOKING CLASS. Again you’ll need a guide like Elena to make this happen, but you can easily arrange these without need of a rental car. When you get back home, you’ll find that your most memorable times in Italy had nothing to do with what you saw but everything to do with whom you met and what you did with them. Talking, cooking, eating and drinking are all experiences that involve multiple senses, and you’ll enjoy and remember them much more vividly than all the sights you’ll see. It will be well worth a little extra expense. You can also read Free wine tour nothing to whine about and Cooking class, Italian pranzo both enjoyable and special experiences.

TAKE A TRAIN TO LUCCA AND WALK OR BIKE THE WALLS AND CENTRO. This is best done after you tour the city, so you’ll have a better idea of the history and design of the city. There may be places you saw on the tour where you wanted to spend more time, and this is a large city that deserves more than a few hours to experience. One of the best features of the city is its incredible wall and bastions. The city is very level, so bikes are a great way to get around. You can rent them at several places, including just outside the train station. See The incomparable city wall of Lucca and Lucca took the advice of Machiavelli seriously.

The amazing marble mountains of Carrara.
BOOK A TOUR OF THE MARBLE MINES ABOVE CARRARA. We did this a few years ago, and it may still be our all-time favorite day trip. You’ll need to contact a tour company in advance to make an appointment, and it’s best to split the cost with another couple, but even if you’re single, it’s still worth the cost. You can get there by train, but you’ll need to change trains in Lucca or Viareggio, and figure it will take as much as hour and a half each way (we can show you how to use the website). If you’re not convinced it’s a worthwhile trip, read Going inside the marble mountains of Carrara is an unforgettable journey.

Flag-throwing sbandieratori can
sometimes be found at local
town celebrations.
ATTEND A LOCAL FESTA OR SAGRA. Every city and town in Italy has some kind of local festival, usually in honor of a traditional food or possibly some historical event. Sagre (plural of sagra) give you an authentic taste of country food and culture away from the artificiality of tourists. Your meal, reasonably priced, will be cooked by locals with a passion for the local cuisine, and you’ll sit at communal tables with locals. Sometimes the best way to find out if there is to be a sagra nearby is keep an eye out around town bulletin boards for posters, but you can also do a web search. You may need a car to get to some of the smaller towns. We’ve been to several sagre, including this one in Marliana: Sleepy Marliana comes alive with sagra in honor of chestnut flour treat.

TOUR A CASEIFICIO WHERE PARMIGIANO-REGGIANO CHEESE IS MADE. This will engage your senses of sight, smell and taste at the very least, and a good guide will make the experience even more memorable. You’ll definitely need a car for this suggestion, because we’re more than an hour away from the region where this delicious cheese is made, but the tours are very inexpensive, sometimes even free. Of course, you’ll want to buy some cheese or other fresh dairy products at the end, but that’s a small price to pay for this sensuous adventure. See Smells, sounds and flavors of our visit . . .

TAKE A DRIVE TO VINCI, THE BIRTHPLACE OF LEONARDO. You’ll either need a car or a tour guide who has one, because getting there by train and bus from Montecarlo can be complicated and time-consuming. We’ve not done it that way, so maybe some more experienced bus traveler can prove us wrong, but I doubt it. It’s about 45 minutes by car, mostly on the back roads, a fairly pleasant drive. GPS is highly recommended, though, unless you don’t mind doubling your time with wrong turns. The town is on a hillside, worth a trip just by itself, but there is also a museum dedicated to this incredible Renaissance man, and there are more displays and activities at the house where he was born. If you don’t have a tour guide with you (this is one of Elena’s favorite locations), the museum can be a little frustrating, because the display explanations are not translated into English, but it’s still worth it. I recommend reading up on Leonardo before going (we have a book). Also read Visit to Vinci, Leonardo’s birthplace, one of Tuscany’s best day trips. Finally, if you’re a real Leo buff, you might want to take a second trip to see what likely is one of only two known surviving sculptures that he created, located in a church near Collodi.

This view is from the hilltop above Lucchio, in the Garfagnana Valley in the Alpi Apuane mountains.
TAKE A HIKE IN THE ALPI APUANE. This rugged collection of mountains is not far (you can see part of the range from our terrazzo), and we have a book that describes numerous hikes that begin within an hour from Montecarlo. We’ve only completed one of the hikes so far, so if you pick one we haven’t been on, maybe we’ll join you. Hikes range from moderate to difficult. See A perfect day for the first of our 50 hikes in the hills of Tuscany.

EAT A MEAL OR TWO AT MONTECARLO'S AMAZING RESTAURANTS. Montecarlo is a hopping place in the evenings, because locals come from miles around for the ambiance and great food. I can't recommend a particular restaurant because they are all so good. If they weren't, they'd soon be out of business, because the locals have high expectations. Our sentimental favorite for just pure Tuscan cuisine is InCucina. We also suggest you go to happy hour, get a spritz or prosecco, and munch on some appetizers. Most of the restaurants on via Roma offer this.

Poggio: Just another typical hillside town in the Garfagnana.
TAKE A CAR TO THE GARFAGNA VALLEY. It will be hard to take in all the sights of this valley in a day, so an overnight trip would be better. Notable destinations are the Ponte della Maddelena (better known as the Devil’s Bridge) in Borgo a Mozzano, and at the very least the cities of Barga, Lucchio and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. There also a great ropes course with zip lines and the Grotta del Vento (cave of the wind). It’s better to have a car for going to the Garfagnana, but you can get to some of the cities by train.

AND THEN THERE ARE THE MORE WELL KNOWN TOURIST DESTINATIONS. As mentioned before, you’re not far from Pisa and Firenze, which are considered must-see cities and can be easily reached by train. If you’re here in February, you have to see the fantastic floats in the Carnevale parade in Viareggio. You can’t see them all, but it will give you good reason to come back regularly. We certainly do!