For the design conscious traveler on a budget Campeggio Fusina, designed in 1959 by the modernist Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, offers stylish, inexpensive camping with a stunning view across the lagoon to Venice (prices range from €8,50 for a tent to €92 for a four-berth static caravan).
The deep water channel just offshore treats you to a close-up of passing ships en route to Porto Maghera, Venice’s industrial secret. There’s a regular Vaparetto service from Fusina to Zattere that takes just 20 minutes, and there’s no better way to arrive in this city than to watch its majestic decaying architecture gradually loom out from the surrounding turquoise lagoon.
Once you’re there, be sure to visit the 55th International Art Biennale, on till 24 November at the Giardini and Arsenale. The Arsenale buildings housed the rope works and are worth seeing for the architecture alone. But be warned, the centre of Venice is not a cheap place, so to save money take lunch with you and enjoy it, and the visual feast that Venice offers, all’aperta!
The whole town centre is one huge market split into sections according to products - e.g. all things horticultural in the Piazza Comune - and everyone is out socialising. Then visit the beautiful wooden panelled tourist office on the corner which is a shrine to Stradivari. Beware there are no camping sites in all of Cermona province but if you ask nicely at an agriturismo they may let you pitch up.
Google map: bit.ly/ZqBpY7
Super pretty and very calm, even in summer. Unesco-ratified, no traffic as cars can't get in to the cobbled streets. With steps galore it is really not for the weak in muscle but is so charming. You can easily get lost in the alleyways and it is a pleasure to do so. The town was the star of an italian film about how not all parts of the south are rubbish-filled mafia towns and it really does challenge that prejudice. A newer, livelier part of the town lies on the beach below, and the seafront is pretty, beach very clean, the fishermen repair their nets - the restaurants are great and cheap.
The train station Agropoli-Castellabate (90min from Naples, further along on the Salerno line) is actually 20km from the town. For no hassle take a taxi (40€ approx) for an adventure take the bus - with a maximum zone all-Naples ticket it's actually free. It's about 20 minutes till you see the beach part of town and the bus stops at one end of it. To get up top, walk through town and take a bus from the back of the police station- about 1.20€
Google map: bit.ly/130nHtj
Fivizzano, a walled Medieval town in the region of Lunigiana is surrounded by stunning mountains and inhabited by the friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.
Head to the main Piazza for a cheap appertivo at Gelateria Ricci: prosecco and free nibbles go down well.
For an affordable, traditional Italian meal, cross the Piazza to Caffé Elvetica - run by the glamourous and ever welcoming Ivana, you can get a three course meal for 15 Euros - with lots of free foccacia and fantastically cheap wine.
Speaking of which, you can head to the Enoteca in Soliere where you can buy a bottle of superb vino for €3, which they bottle and cork in front of you. If that wasn't enough, they also give you olives, capers and crisps whenever you buy a drink.
La dolce vita, eh?
Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 14, 54013 Fivizzano Massa-carrara, Italy
+39 0585 926657
Google map: bit.ly/15f1hEJ
Vallerosa Bonci is an award-winning vineyard and winery in the 5th century village of Cupramontana, set in the rolling hills about 40 minutes’ drive from Ancona. Using native Verdicchio grapes, the family-run business cultivates wine in the local tradition and completely ecologically. Several years ago, a Verdicchio won a prestigious award for the world’s best white wine, and has since seen a surge in popularity.
A small business that has been in the family for over a century, Bonci own 30 hectares and export wines worldwide. They are open year round for wine tasting sessions and tours of the cellar and vineyard. Tours and tastings are free of charge - probably because once they know that once you’ve tasted the fruits of their labour, you’ll be investing in a bottle or five.
Prices start at around €8 a bottle and go up to just under €100, so this is a great experience for a range of budgets.
Nasone are the drinking fountains dotted all over the city. The water is fresh and perfectly safe to drink - best of all they are free! If you must but water just get one bottle during your stay and then fill it up from one of the nasone.
All over the city
Self catering with a difference in beautiful, unspoilt Abruzzo. Bring your own tent, rent one of the gorgeous resident canvas bell tents, sleep in Rosemary the retired WV camper van, or select one of the in-house self catering options: the choice is yours. Climb, walk, bike, swim or chill amidst the spectacular foothills of the Apennines, with the Adriatic's undiscovered beaches less than 40 minutes away. Two hours from Rome and easily accessible by rail www.bootandbike.co.uk/2013/05/by-train-to-kokopelli/ Ideal for solos, couples, groups and families; all from 16 euros per night.
I would recommend a language school to visit Italy. It’s affordable and a great way to get more involved with the culture if you live with a resident. I stayed with a family for two weeks in Siena when the Palio di Siena was happening in 2006. I was able to see the great race and the events surrounding it. The class went on a field trip to see the blessing of one of the horse's in the race, it just happened to win that year. I lived with a family in Contrada del Nicchio which gave me more insight into the Palio and the meaning behind it. The language course I chose was only four hours a day, so I still had plenty of time to tour the city.
I also did this twice in Venice - once during the Carnival and once during the summer. Again a great way to see the city during such a popular event and live with local people. Oh yeah, I only learned un po 'di italiano, but I had a truly memorable and affordable time in both of these great cities, now off to Rome.
Search 'language schools' in Italy.
Strange that many of the selected tips this week seemed to require an overnight stay. I wouldn't recommend Barga for a day trp from Florence. You'll need to change trains at Lucca and the drive along the valley of the Serchio river is not particulary quick. However, if you do give it a go leave time to stop at the Ponte del Diavalo, also known as the Ponte della Maddalena. You'll find it at Borgo a Mozzano. Better to stay in Barga for a few days and explore the upper reaches of the Garfagnana region, which is so different to the traditional Tuscany that everybody knows. Even better still, coincide your stay in Barga with the Pesce e Patate festival when local Italians tuck into fish and chips served down at the local football ground.
PS Lucca is an excellent recommendation for a day trip. There's an international music festival every summer - Leonard Cohen is playing this year. The best way to explore the city and its walls are by bike, which can be hired by the hour.
Google map: bit.ly/153ob5S
Less than two hours and €15 away from Florence is the Tuscan hilltop town of Cortona, haloed by Etruscan walls. The setting for the film ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, Cortona is a jumble of medieval streets, relaxed piazzas and Etruscan history. As well as the absorbing museums in the town, the MAEC (Museum of Etruscan and local history) is well worth a look; one of my favourite places is Le Celle. The tranquil convent, founded by St Francis in the thirteenth century, is reached by a meandering forty-five minute walk through woods and olive groves. Photo opportunities abound along the way, with stunning views over the valley.
Take the train to either Terontola or Camucia, from there a regular bus service runs up to the walled town.
Train times: www.trenitalia.com
Bus times: www.lfi.it
Museum of Etruscan Academy and of the City: www.cortonamaec.org/english/
Piazza Luca Signorelli, 9 52044 Cortona Province of Arezzo, Italy
+39 0575 637235
Le Celle: www.lecelle.it/
Google map: bit.ly/12HqjvA
Take a train or drive the hour or so west of Florence to the beautiful compact city of Lucca. It is virtually car free so perfect for wandering! Climb the Torre Guinigi which has oak trees growing at the top. Hire bikes from piazza Santa Maria del Borgo and join the popular afternoon Lucchesi 'passegiata' around the city's wide ramparts, enjoying views of the botanic gardens and plenty of private gardens too as you cycle around. Enjoy a rich hot chocolate in the Piazza dell' Anfiteatro. The cool narrow streets surrounding the central piazzas of Lucca have a wealth of individual shops selling fashion, food and ice cream, many of them seemingly unchanged over the centuries.
If the fancy takes you make a detour on the way back to the 'Parco di Pinocchio' in Collodi which is an eccentric but somehow endearing homage to the wooden puppet and its author, with garden sculptures of the key characters in the story.
Take a trip to the small town of Vinci, birth place of Leonardo, 35 kilometers west of Florence. The small Museo Leonardiano, sited within the 12th century Castello dei Conti Guidi, is jammed full of the artist’s drawings, designs and a mind boggling array of large and small military, textile and travel inventions.
Take a bus (or drive) from Florence towards Sienna and you'll be able to visit two medieval fortified hill towns that offer stunning views across the Tuscan countryside and a taste of life from another time. You can spend a day in either Monteriggioni or San Gimignano or combine both for a day trip to remember. Great places to eat and drink, with rustic churches and historic buildings that rightly make San Gimignano a UNESCO world heritage centre.
Take an hour and twenty minutes train trip south to Camucia and catch the local bus or what appears to be the only taxi in the area, up to the ancient Etruscan walled town of Cortona. From Piazza Garibaldi the main street has many bars where you can take a light lunch enjoying the casual atmosphere before walking out of town back past the Piazza Garibaldi into the tree lined avenue of the public park, Giardini Parterre, with magnificent views across the Valdichiana.
At the end of the park turn left up the cypress lined road with wonderful views over the hills and you will come to Bramasole, the big peach coloured house where Frances Mayes wrote Under the Tuscan Sun. Carry on to the village of Torreone and turn left to follow the old roman road through the Porta Montanina back into Cortona. Stroll down through the steep narrow streets to Piazza della Republica just after siesta as the town comes to life and a possible free wine tasting at Enoteca Molesini.
The Piazza buzzes with life early evening and you will find it hard to leave to catch the train from Camucia back to Florence.
Camucia Station, a ten minute bus ride or five minutes by taxi from Cortona.
Google map: bit.ly/12lPJP5
A true gem is the walled city of Lucca, birthplace of Puccini. Take a stroll on the tree-lined city walls (as wide as a motorway). For fantastic views climb the bricked Guinigi Tower which has a tree growing on the top. There are churches, squares and museums to explore. Look for the unusual piazza of the Amphitheatre with houses around the perimeter. For mouth watering traditional Tuscan food head to the family-run Trattoria Buralli on Piazza Sant’Agostino.
Lucca always stayed independent. In the past through the supply and trade of silk, nowadays it is the biggest producer of toilet paper in Italy.
Take a day trip to San Gimignano, about an hour by road or rail from Florence. Explore the walled medieval town on foot and enjoy some local ice cream in the the town centre - a UNESCO world heritage site. Some of the towers can be climbed - giving panoramic views of the local countryside. Try and get into the deserted back streets to get a feel for the history, away from the crowds. Local wines can be tasted at the Vernaccia Wine Museum.
San Gimignano, Siena , Tuscany
Google map: bit.ly/YFa2nc
Mercato centrale, as it's name suggests, is placed bang in the centre of Florence. And it's a food market. It's kinda like Borough Market is to London.
Inside you'll find the odd tourist that's found their way there but you'll mostly see chefs buying wholesale and locals buying their ingredients for that night's dinner.
The smell of truffles as you walk in will wash over you and, if you're anything like me, pull you in like the tractor beam in Star Wars. It's got some amazing wines (nearly all varieties of Super Tuscans), cheeses, olive oils, bread, huge bags of fresh porcini mushrooms (depending on the time of year) but, for me anyway, the main reason to go is for the cafes at the rear of the market. There's always a queue and it's packed with locals. A good sign. It's very cheap (about €3.50 for a main and €2 for a medium caraffe of wine. The porchetta sandwiches at Nerbone at €3.5 are an absolute must. They're incredible.
Piazza del Mercato, Florence, Italy
Google map: bit.ly/12SI4Jr
Flee the tourist hurly-burly, coach party crush and cultural overload and head for the hills. Not the well-known wine rich Chianti Hills to the south, but to the altogether wilder, more rugged deeply forested Apennines to the east. The Parco Nazionale delle Foreste Casentinesi, Monte Falterona e Campigna straddling the Tuscany / Emilia-Romagna border is just 40km from central Florence and easily reached by bus although a car would provide more flexibility for a day trip.
These majestic ancient forests in one of Europe’s oldest continuously wooded areas create a place of great natural beauty and profound meditative stillness. Chestnut woods on the lower slopes where old and dead trees have been kept seem magical and enchanted. Statuesque stands of dark fir are carefully managed while the higher ground is clothed in cathedral-like beech, sometimes serried ranks leaning at improbable angles, pushed over by a winter avalanche sometime in their past. Timber from here was used in the construction of the magnificent dome of Florence’s Duomo and was especially prized for shipbuilding.
The main ridge is traversed by the Grande Excursione Appenninica (GEA), a 375 km hiking trail extending from the Umbria / Marche border near Sansepolcro to Montelungo in Liguria. Marked and unmarked paths are plentiful in the national park though a good map is essential if your day communing with nature isn’t to become something much more unsettling or potentially life-threatening. Out of peak season and avoiding weekends the chances are you and your companion(s) won’t see another soul.
The mood of contemplation and reflection is sustained by an overnight stay at the Foresteria attached to the Monastero di Camaldoli (advance booking is advised to guarantee a bed for the night). Delicious fresh food, comfortable uncluttered rooms and an atmosphere of quiet dedication to work and prayer deep in the forest nourish body and spirit, perhaps almost ready for the return to the fray in Florence.
Certaldo Alta is a short train ride from Florence. The new part is less interesting, apart from a twice weekly market so head for the old part, Certaldo Alta either on foot or using the cable car from the square. Here you will find a lovely Tuscan hill town with few tourists, some interesting history and quiet bars and restaurants. In the summer there is a music and arts festival so you can listen to jazz in part of an old church surrounded by ancient frescoes. Even better, stay for the night in the nearby Fattoria Basseto, a former Benedictine convent, that is now a budget hotel and hostel. In one of the rooms there is a black and white photograph of the family who still own it, taken in the 1950's by Cecil Beaton.The owners are lovely, you will want to stay, arrange a cooking class at a nearby farm, and not return to Florence!
Via delle Città, 50052 Certaldo FI, Italy
+39 348 4370285
Google map: bit.ly/11ucXCG
About 90 minutes on the train, this ancient Italian city is much smaller and far less touristy than Florence. Look for the Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, oval in shape because the houses are built into the walls of the Roman amphitheatre. Here in 56BC Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed the First Triumvirate (coalition government) to rule Rome. Also look out of the train at the previous stop, Montecatini Terme, to see the modernist Mussolini era station.
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