Off-Season Italy

For my work, I tend to be in Europe for a few weeks each in spring and fall: April and May, then September and October, year after year. Our Tuscan Thanksgiving gave me the chance to be in Italy off-season. And it was a delight.

Traveling off-season — like traveling at any time — has its pros and cons. The weather is unpredictable: Two weeks before Thanksgiving, highs were in the 60s. But just as we arrived, the forecast plunged 20 or 30 degrees, forcing us into ski caps, long underwear, and wool socks. But at least it was mostly sunny, aside from a couple of rainy afternoons (and a few snowflakes and hail pellets). Our agriturismo came complete with a fireplace and an unlimited supply of firewood…and the resident cats enjoyed keeping an eye on the woodpile.

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We took drizzle as an excuse to visit the hot springs in Bagno Vignoni, an ancient spa town a half-hour’s drive from our agritirusmo. Having a huge, steamy pool of spring-fed thermal waters almost to ourselves, and being able to book massages on the fly, made us feel pretty smart for coming here off-season.

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The days are short in the winter…deceptively short. Despite its sunny reputation, Tuscany is at the same latitude as Toronto. Nightfall drew the shades on our sightseeing around 4:30 — leaving us with several dark hours to kill, scenery-free, before dinner. (The limited daylight also made getting over jet lag a bear, in both directions.) But at least the setting sun cast evocative, long shadows over the winter landscape.

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Because we were there so far off-season, a few things were unexpectedly closed. For example, my favorite gelateria in Pienza was closed (I checked…three times). But in most cases, it was easy to avoid disappointment by calling ahead.

All in all, late November was a wonderful time to be in Tuscany. The most pleasant surprise was the vivid colors. We enjoyed the final, fleeting yellows and oranges of autumn leaves. Spindly branches hung heavy with bright-orange persimmons. And because winter crops had gone in a few weeks prior, several of the rolling hillsides were fuzzy with the vibrant green of winter wheat. Most days, we enjoyed blue skies (albeit briefly). We found that, from a landscape-scenery perspective, late November was much better than a previous trip in early October (after the harvest, and when trees and lawns had been singed by the hot summer sun).

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The lack of crowds was another huge plus. Being able to park anywhere, go anywhere, and show up at any restaurant without consideration for crowds, it’s easy to get spoiled. It was nice to be in popular places — like Il Campo in Siena — and have them basically to ourselves. Enjoying the empty cobbles, I had flashbacks of being in these same place during the peak spring months — parking my car at distant satellite lots and hiking into town, only to find my first through fifth choices for dinner completely booked up.

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Late November is also a festive time to be in Tuscany. Holiday decorations were not yet in full swing, but throughout we week we saw people putting up garlands and lights — further dressing up already gorgeous towns like Pienza and Montalcino. Each town set up a Christmas tree on the main square. The most impressive was Montepulciano, which hosts a weekend Christmas market starting in mid-November. That town’s already adorable main square was filled with lights, stalls, and a Christmas tree.

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Italy is obsessed with seasonal foods. You might think that would leave few options in winter, but dining in the late autumn was a pleasure. Chestnuts worked their way into many dishes, and fennel salads were everywhere.

Winter is also the season for the precious white truffle — which is both delicious and fun to find. In the summer, truffle hunts are popular…but pointless. Tuscany’s worst-kept secret is that truffle hunters usually have to pre-hide a truffle for the dog to “find,” so as not to disappoint tourists. But November is legitimately truffle season, and our dog found four — including one surprise truffle in a park where we weren’t even looking.

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All in all, assuming you pack layers, plan to bundle up, and call ahead to steer clear of unexpected closures, there’s no reason not to visit Italy off-season. You may even find you prefer it.

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One Reply to “Off-Season Italy”

  1. We travel in off season a lot. Favorite time in Venice? December. Torino was delightful last week, and January in Florence is wonderful for museums-without-crowds. Paris in March, London in December, Lucca in November were all perfect. We have had good weather overall, and it is @ better to bundle up than die of heatstroke. Costs are lower, too.

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