By Edward Schneider
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 20, 2006
In Italy, as in many other vacation destinations, renting a car is both boon and burden. Yes, your little Opel or Fiat liberates you from train or bus schedules. Yes, it enables you to dart down a country road to view an ancient ruin or buy some freshly made sheep's-milk cheese or farm-pressed olive oil. And yes, it is more likely to be air-conditioned than many other means of transport.
But on the other hand, the moment you approach any Italian town you discover that the purpose of the road signs and the inevitably confusing systems of one-way streets is not to guide you to your destination but to keep you out. This is part of a well-conceived policy of minimizing traffic in historic urban centers, thereby slowing damage to old buildings and roads and improving residents' quality of life.
A car in the countryside, then, is fun; a car in town is nothing but trouble.
Another observation: Country hotels are quieter, roomier and more likely to have swimming pools than their counterparts in town. They are more, well, vacation-like.
During several trips to Tuscany over the years, my wife and I have hit upon a very appealing approach, one that would work anywhere: We sometimes rented cars to get from place to place (although those buses and trains really do work very well), but we did our best to stay in hotels that were just outside the town centers. All were bucolic refuges from extreme museum-going; all were luxurious in a creaky, comfy, low-key way that seems characteristically Italian (and correspondingly expensive, though not as costly as their urban equivalents); and -- key to this whole enterprise -- all were close enough to town to enable us to get back and forth by taxi or bus in a matter of minutes. One, indeed, was within easy walking distance of the center.
Here's what I mean.
Barely three miles (an inexpensive five-minute taxi ride) down the road from the compact, walled city of Lucca is a really charming hotel, Villa la Principessa. A number of years ago -- the first time we put our system into practice -- we spent a couple of nights there and were delighted to dump our car and not to think about finding parking spaces for the duration. Our room was enormous, with ceilings that appeared to be a good 15 feet high. If the place were in Scotland, its style could be described as baronial. As it is, "ducal" will have to serve -- in the 14th century the building (renovated repeatedly and beyond recognition, to be sure) was the seat of the Duke of Lucca. He would not, presumably, have had a swimming pool or air conditioning.
How nice it was to spend the day sightseeing, grab a cab (in the piazza right near the Teatro del Giglio, the town's tiny opera house) and return for a swim and a nap, then zip back into town for dinner at, say, the well-known Buca di Sant'Antonio (on Via della Cervia). There, they serve ultratraditional local dishes; and there, we observed a 12-year-old child eat a plate of horsemeat tartare and boiled chickpeas, perhaps the most remarkable sight we saw on that trip and one I'd pay to see again. Other menu choices have broader appeal, all of them redolent of the most aromatic olive oil you can imagine.
Our next "park and ride" experience was in -- or near -- Siena, at the Villa Scacciapensieri. This 19th-century house (so new, by comparison) is in the hills above the town and is served by a city bus that, in our experience, generally arrived on time (the schedule is available at the reception desk). There are wonderful views of distant vineyards and Siena's towers, a nice little pool and cool, shady gardens. In the gardens are lemon trees, and their fruit goes into the hotel's lemon sorbet, one of the best I've had. The rooms are larger than you'd expect in Siena itself, and even though you're within the city limits, you'll be struck by how quiet it is. Service at the family-run hotel is warm and friendly.
We ate a decent dinner in the hotel on our second night, but it was (apart from that lemon sorbet) eclipsed by the food, wine and fun at the Osteria le Logge (33 Via del Porrione), a half-block down the street from the Piazza del Campo. The owner is of a winemaking family, which is not uncommon in this part of the world, and at his restaurant you can drink excellent Tuscan wines at reasonable prices -- or, if it pleases you, at far higher prices, as the list runs the gamut from Chianti to Chianti, with other Tuscan and Umbrian labels thrown in.
We enjoyed the food and atmosphere so much that we returned two nights later, when we were greeted by name and treated like regulars. Such hospitality genuinely enhances the experience -- though it would not have been sufficient had the food not been as good as it was. I particularly remember a pine-nut tart fresh out of the oven: We'd already had dessert, but the toasted-nut aroma brought smiles to our faces and twitches to our nostrils. The smiles and twitches were observed, and a slice of the tart appeared, unbidden. It tasted as good as it had smelled.
Most recently, we applied our approach to Florence. The Grand Hotel Villa Cora was built in the 1860s (again, recent construction in Italian terms) for a financier; Napoleon III's widow Eugénie lived there for a time. Like the Villa Scacciapensieri, it is in the hills overlooking town; the views are amazing in every direction. Public areas are spacious and airy, with wireless Internet access. Rooms have a lot of charm, with oldish furniture, lots of heavy draperies and (at least in our case) a vast closet. The walk into town is lovely -- about 25 minutes of downhill strolling will get you to the Ponte Vecchio, or by a slightly longer route you will end up a little farther east in the up-and-coming neighborhood below the Piazzale Michelangelo. In the mid-'70s, you could eat three courses, with wine, at the Trattoria le Sorelle for about two bucks; now it's wall-to-wall art galleries and chic bars.
If you don't feel like walking, the hotel will drive you into town on request. It will pick you up as well if you phone reception, but we found it easier to take a cab back for $7 or $8. We always, without fail, returned to the hotel in the afternoon, not only because it was so pleasant and welcoming, but because the swimming pool was the real thing: 20 by 10 meters, with a separate shallow children's area and comfy chaise longues with umbrellas. We ate dinner poolside one night (included in our room rate), with good, ultra-fresh fish, simply cooked.
Yet, we wouldn't have wanted to miss our mammoth steak -- a bistecca fiorentina -- at Trattoria Sostanza (25 Via del Porcellana), or our mind-blowing meal at the ever-stylish Cibreo (8 Via A. Del Verrocchio): a foil-wrapped steamed packet of fresh porcini mushrooms, Tuscan beans and what seemed like a quart of the best extra-virgin olive oil, added at the table.
Is out-of-town living the only way to visit Italy? Of course not: We stay in urban hotels, too, and we love them. But this approach lets you visit the city while enjoying the countryside -- and dispensing with the burden of a car.
Edward Schneider last wrote for Travel about tripe stands in Florence.