Rick Steves' Travel Blog
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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I often say the Volterra is my favorite Italian hill town. Returning this year for my research chores, I was wondering if that was overstating things. But as soon as I settled into the town, my opinion was affirmed. It’s got everything just right: beautifully preserved; far enough away to not have the crippling crowds; just enough tourism to be entertaining and welcoming; enough local economy so that tourists don’t feel like they have a price on their scalp; big enough to have plenty of good restaurants, cafés, and bars; small enough to be mostly traffic-free.
I love to connect my readers with great local guides in wonderful historic cities. And lately, my personal challenge has been to help organize things through my guidebooks. With these listings, a tour that otherwise wouldn’t be viable becomes viable; guides can make enough money for their service, and my travelers can split the cost. A few years ago, I arranged with Annie Adair to promote a €10 walking tour of Volterra that runs every night in the high season at 6–rain or shine, with three people or 10. Annie splits the work with her wonderful partner, Claudia, and each night they show up at the meeting point with their cute little tour sign, wondering if anyone will show up.
Hanging out with Annie and Claudia, it looked like no one would come this evening. Then, just as the bells were ringing six times, two couples appeared. They got what I call “the best hour in Volterra” (for €10 each), Claudia made about $50, and everyone went home happy.
When we travel in Europe, we marvel at the palaces and mansions of venerable noble families from a bygone age when class distinctions were quite explicit and pronounced. It was a time when a few people owned nearly all the land–the other 99 percent were happy for the privilege of working it in hope of having enough food. Today, of course, kings and nobles no longer enjoy such a lofty position. In fact, lots of noble families still have their palaces but need to open them to the public simply to pay their taxes and keep them maintained. In Volterra, one of the best sights is the Palazzo Viti. And to get in you’ll actually give charming Senora Viti herself the €5 admission. The palace gives an intimate look at aristocratic lifestyles and is particularly enjoyable to tour, knowing you’re helping keep a noble family in leotards.
A key to sightseeing is finding glimpses of simple, everyday life among all the stained glass, crenellations, and gargoyles. For instance, cut into an old stone wall in Volterra is a 24-hour cigarette vending machine that says “Vietato ai Minori” (not for minors) and requires anyone buying anything to insert their national health card to prove that they’re over 18.
A girl hides, quietly hoping the leaning tower doesn’t find her.
(Or, perhaps I misinterpreted this scene. Can you give it a better caption?)
When filming our TV shows, we often note how we make things look better than they are. The truth is, there are a lot of tacky tourist traps throughout Europe. San Gimignano comes off as a pretty greedy place during the day. (But at night, they’ve made their money, and the place becomes more romantic.) Here’s a quick clip at the end of a long day of selling junk to tourists. What’s your vote for the worst tourist trap in Europe?
When it comes to hill towns in Tuscany, San Gimignano is the region’s glamour girl, getting all of the attention from passing tour buses. A quick stroll through its core, in the shadows of its 14 surviving medieval towers, is a delight.
Local guides claim that Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of New York City’s World Trade Center, was inspired by San Gimignano’s twin towers. (I have no idea if that’s true, but they sure look like they could have.) While only 14 of the town’s original 72 towers are still standing, these sisters have stood here for 700 years.
Way back in the days when Rome was falling, the people of this town were saved from barbarian ransacking by the local bishop. He eventually became a saint, and they eventually named their town after him. Today, you can see glittering frescoes of Saint Gimignano holding his town (back when it had a lot more of those towers).
High-intensity travel makes me hungry — especially in Italy. The one meal I’ve been looking forward to more than any other is a big steak dinner at Osteria dell’ Aquacheta in Montepulciano. Warning: Vegetarians may want to skip this post.
They jam the place for four seatings (two for lunch and two for dinner) every day. It’s a long room with communal tables under a medieval barrel vault. In the back, like the engine of a steam train, a fire roars behind a huge hunk of cow lying flat as if on a gurney.
You don’t have much of a choice here. Giulio, who reminds me of George Carlin with a cleaver, parades through the room with slabs of beef for diners to consider. It costs about €3 per hundred grams (about $3 per quarter pound) and they serve 1.6 kilos of beef for each couple (about $50 for two). You don’t say how you want it cooked. There’s a correct way: seven minutes on each side. Fifteen minutes after you say OK, it’s chow time.
I’m 45 days into my 100-days-of-Europe blog series. I hope you’re enjoying traveling with me. I’ve picked up some new tips along the way while updating my guidebooks. Most people consider this a “dream job,” but in reality it’s a lot of hard work.
While I’m meeting up with my TV crew now and then, most of the days I’m alone and checking all the places in our guidebooks. This shot captures my view almost each evening. In this case I’ve found two wonderful new restaurants (with my scrawl on the back of their “biglietti da visita” (business cards, if I have my Italian correct). I put the restaurants in a logical order and visit when the restaurants are busy (8 p.m. to 10 p.m. or so). When all the places are crossed off my list, I get to eat.
When dining with friends, I like to eat family style, and waiters are happy to make that easy. If I’m on my own and want to double the experience without overeating, when it comes to pasta, I simply ask for a “bis” — two half-portions on a plate for the cost of one full portion. This way I get to try the wild boar sauce on the local “pici” pasta and a pasta with white truffles as well.
Risa Laib, who for nearly twenty years in my office has been a key behind-the-scenes player overseeing the growth and quality of our guidebook series, proposed producing a clever little binder so people who rip chapters out of their books (as I encourage) can have a tidy little package as they are out and about. It’s fun to see people in Europe enjoying Risa’s little innovation. Rather than toting 1,300 pages of “Rick Steves Italy,” this woman is packing light for the day with just the Siena chapter.
I find the bureaucracy and frustrations of running museums in Europe — especially Italy — fascinating. With the chaos in local and national governments, and the severe budget-cutting, things are in flux and often a mess. It seems that each year there are more notices on the window leaving the sorry soul behind the glass with less and less light…and more and more grumpy.
Researching with my local guide on the Campo (main square) in Siena, I was bumping into so many of my readers that I wasn’t getting any work done. I met some people from one of our Best of Italy tours and was so rushed that I didn’t even make time to pose for a photo. Afterwards I felt terrible. They mentioned in passing that they were on Stephanie’s tour and had free time until 2:30 p.m., when they were meeting on the far side of town at the Dominican Church. At 2:20 p.m. I told my guide we need to hoof it across town to meet the group. I know our guides are fanatically punctual — and if we’re two minutes late, we may miss them. I made it there (the local guide straggling behind me) just in time to catch Stephanie and her group. It felt great to find the people I was rude to and make sure we got that souvenir photo. They seemed like a great group and were having a beautiful trip.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” There is no better place in the world to confirm what Ben said than in Tuscany. Today I’m tasting some of the region’s great wines in romantic hill towns.
A big reason for visiting Tuscany is to not just sample the great local wine, but to have it served to you by the families who make it. With my friend and favorite Tuscany guide, Roberto Bechi, we’re taking it a step further. At the Santa Giulia farm we’re enjoying a “Zero Kilometer Lunch” — everything made right on the farm: bread, olive oil, cheese, prosciutto, and wine. We came, we toured, we ate. And you can too (if you have a good guidebook).
The town of Montepulciano is my favorite base for exploring the heart of Tuscany and wine country. A room with a Tuscan view like this is standard here.
A perfect way to maximize the Tuscany experience is to actually stay on a working farm. And family farms survive here with the help of being able to rent rooms to travelers. The term “agriturismo” can only be used by a rural B&B on an actual working farm. My favorite agriturismo is Agriturismo Cretaiole outside of Pienza, an idyllic retreat for any romantic tourist, lovingly run by Isabella and Carlo.
Wineries have cellars with massive barrels aging the Brunello wine. To be Brunello, the wine spends several years in a wood barrel like these. The wine is almost a religion here, and it seems that guides walk you worshipfully through cellars as if they were sacred spaces.
A great thing about Montepulciano is that the town has several historic wine cellars that you can explore, followed by generous tastings. At the Contucci cellar your host is Adamo. For 50 years, Adamo has made sure visitors enjoy a tasty education in the Nobile di Montepulciano. And I’ve been checking in on him for over a decade.
The countryside around Montalcino is dotted with classy wineries that are evangelical about taking visitors on tours and tastings. Unlike Californians wineries, here in Tuscany you need to book your tours (it’s a simply phone call the day before). Tours last an hour, cost about €10, and finish in a tasting room like this where, with expert guidance, you’ll development a better appreciation of the fruit of these vines. Did you find any particular wine tour in Europe exceptional?
With about 800 Rick Steves tours this year enjoying unforgettable experiences in every corner of Europe, I wasn’t surprised to bump into one of my groups in an Etruscan cellar below the streets of Volterra having a wine tasting by Francesco. I thought I’d just pop in and say hi (as I had a pile of visits yet to make that evening). But Francesco’s talk was so good (as were the wines he featured), I stayed for the entire presentation (munching perfectly matched prosciutto and cheese with the wines to call it dinner). This was just one of fifty groups of ours that Francesco will join for a tasty, educational, and memorable Tuscan evening this year.
Rattling around late at night in an empty Siena, I found myself curbside at the craziest horse race in the world…the Palio. Hold on to your gnocchi!
Visiting agriturismos and countryside B&Bs listed in my Italy guidebook, I was impressed by how much fun the hosts were. Here, Franco of Frances’ Lodge (a B&B just outside of Siena) jumped at an opportunity to show off his flag skills. And then today, while writing in my downtown Siena hotel room, I could hear drums and drill teams out my window — it was school kids practicing the same moves Franco has had down now for 50 years.
I spent the better part of yesterday popping in on the wonderful agriturismos we recommend in my Italy guidebook. An agriturismo is a rural B&B run by small farmers who are trying to survive in a modern economy. Here in Italy, you can’t call yourself an “agriturismo” unless you are actually a working farm. This place (Casanova Agriturismo near Asciano, in the province of Siena) certainly is. But, as you’ll see, you can go in less than a minute from the sweet smell of cows to the sweetness of doing nothing poolside with a vast Tuscan view. (BTW, the trendy thing these days is what’s termed a “Zero Kilometer Meal” — serving food that is virtually all grown on the farm from zero kilometers away. And it’s a meal you’ll never forget.)