I have not been posting very much lately because I have dedicated myself 100% to the big (or better said, massive) venture that my boyfriend and I have embarked on, that is…. setting up a bed and breakfast in the heart of Tuscany.
After having spent over two years looking for the right property and almost an year to buy it (it’s not as easy as it may sound!), we have finally started the building works to convert the “old” (and somewhat letdown) property into a brand new Tuscan bed and breakfast, keeping the Tuscan tradition very much alive and mixing it with some modern touches.
Not an easy task (and Italian bureaucracy doesn’t definitely help) but we are committed to get to the end….and we are almost there! Though the opening date is not set yet (we estimate before summer 2017), you can follow our progress on Villa San Michele Facebook page(give it a like too!) 🙂
So, whilst the builders dig hard, we do our best and we get on with all the paperwork, the training courses and the jobs that we can do by ourselves: gardening, jet-washing all the outside patios and paths, sanding and varnishing something like 40 wooden shutters (it does take a while) etc….physical work in the Tuscan sun doesn’t feel that hard, after all!
Are thinking about visiting Tuscany and want to know where we are? We are located in a tiny hamlet called Vico d’Elsa, in the municipality of Barberino Val d’Elsa on the Tuscan hills in the Valdelsa area (Florence metropolitan area).
And if you need any suggestions on what to visit near us, just scroll to the bottom of this post and you will get a full list of some of the most beautiful spots in the area (San Gimignano and Siena just to name a few) and their distance from our place! For more details and information on the region, just have a look at my Tuscan posts to get some inspiration.
If you think someone else might be interested in visiting Tuscany in the near future, share the post or visit our Facebook page! I will be extremely grateful 🙂
There are events that we experience and we are able to describe and explain, trying to convey feelings and emotions so people that have not attended them can get as close as they can to the situation.
And then there is Palio.
I thought I could actually describe Palio (and I tried, with my two previous posts) but the reality is that, for much details and information you provide, no one can really explain the essence of Palio.
I am not from Siena and I have moved to the area very recently so I definitely have no presumption on this subject but I know one thing: as soon as you step in Piazza del Campo on the Palio race day and you lift your eyes to the balconies, the windows, the roofs or any other opening, jammed with people flagging the contrada colours, you cannot feel anything else than tension. Multiply that for a thousand times and I think you can get a rough idea of what contradaioli experience during the Palio days – better said, throughout the whole year.
One the day of the Palio (July 2nd and August 16th) the historical parade goes on for a time that feels almost interminable, just adding more suspense and expectation to the race itself.
Then the Palio (a silk hand painted drape, dedicated to the Madonna di Provenzano in July or the Assumption of Mary in August) enters, greeted and waved by thousands; at the end of the day that is why everyone is gathering in Piazza del Campo twice a year.
When the last access to the square from Via Dupre’ is closed (usually half an hour before the race starts), that’s it: you are locked in.
At that point the square is still noisy and constantly moving, people trying to gain a good spot for a better view particularly of the Mossa area, where fate is decided.
As soon as the white envelope containing the starting order appears and goes from the Mossa down to the hands of the Mossiere, the square suddenly fells to a surreal silence. If there is still someone chatting, people will immediately shout for silence.
The starting order is called out by the Mossiere, accompanied with the usual cheers or boos from the crowd (and plenty of swearing too), depending on whether their contrada is next to an ally one or a rival.
At this point, the die is cast. Being a good jockey and having a good horse is not enough. Strategies, silent agreements, threats and bribes play an equally important part (have a look at my previous post for more details).
The run-in horse gives the start to the other 9 and, unless the Mossa (the start) has to be repeated for irregularities (which happens often, and more than once), 90 seconds is all the race lasts.
Imagine a whole year condensed in these 90 seconds and you might be able to understand what follows….
What happens next is even more striking. The winning horse (and the jockey) gets literally sucked in a flow of people that, with the horses still running, climb over the fences, frenzied and I would say almost possessed. The winning horse is kissed and profusely hugged and the jockey is lifted above the crowd and he will stay there for few hours, carried around the city and brought up to the Duomo (in August).
In the meantime in the square you will see a bit of everything: people screaming and throwing themselves to the ground being literally dragged out by their friends (because their rival contrada won), people crying of joy and restlessly hugging other contradaioli around because their contrada won two Palio in a year (La Lupa, this year), people rushing to the fences, falling down and pushing as fast as they possibly can to reach the winning horse/jockey….
And the Palio? Those that have not rushed to get the jockey up in the air have literally climbed up the Mossa to get the Palio down. The Palio is then taken on a procession (with the jockey) to the Duomo, through the streets of Siena and then to the tiny church of the winning contrada where its contradaioli (and not only them) pay respect. Pictures, selfies, smiles and plenty of tears, again.
Still think that this is just a 90-second horse race…?
Siena Palio is over. All the stress, anxiety and excitement of the Palio days (or better to say of the year, for the Senesi) was over in just a couple of minutes last Saturday evening. La Lupa contrada won, after 27 years. At the moment, for as much I try hard I can’t think of any other sport or event that lasts so short and that profoundly marks a part of a city in a matter of seconds.
The fact that la Lupa contrada won is undoubtedly important (particularly for la Lupa contrada itself, of course) but that meant a true catastrophe for the contrada of the Istrice, its forever rival. The two contrada horses were next to each other at the starting line and the animosity was clear. As I wrote in my previous post, for a contrada that races in the Palio, winning is as equally important as making sure that its rival doesn’t win. That happened on July 2nd and I suppose that was the worst nightmare for the Istrice contrada and all its contradaioli. I was watching the Palio in a bar in the Istrice contrada and the fact that la Lupa won completely changed the mood of the evening, at least for this part of the city: minutes after the result, flocks of people abandoned Siena streets, head down with tears in their eyes, walking back fast pace towards Istrice contrada headquarter. A funeral would be the best way I could describe the atmosphere, and I am absolutely serious. When I say proper tears, I mean that I have never seen so much distress in such a vast group of people of all ages: from kids up to elderly people, the distress was patent and widespread and I felt a bit intrusive in being in the Istrice contrada in such a moment since, for much you would like to show empathy with people crying, you will never be able to fully understand the desperation of the contradaioli.
But let’s get back from the beginning…
Though the race itself starts at 7.45 PM, it is absolutely worth to be in Siena in the early afternoon of July 2nd (the same applies to August 16th) to attend the multitude of events collateral to the Palio that help to build up the whole atmosphere.
For various reasons, we had previously decided to not watch Palio inside Piazza del Campo but we still wanted to enjoy half a day in Siena, wandering down the streets packed with locals and foreigners alike.
If you are planning on watching the Palio inside Piazza del Campo, bear in mind that:
If you want to get a good spot, i.e. next to the Mossa (where the horses start) or at the finishing line, people will start arriving to secure a space next to the fence in the early afternoon. We entered the square around 4 PM and the best spots on the fence where already taken, so probably around 1 or 2 PM would be recommended.
At the time we arrived, almost all the square except a tiny part on the west corner was in the full sun. If you are planning on arriving early, come prepared: water, a hat or even a small umbrella to shade yourself and plenty of sun cream are an absolute must. The are a few stalls in Piazza del Campo that sell water (or there is a potable fountain, if you don’t mind the queue in the baking sun).
All the accesses to the square start to close around 4.30/5 PM, before the historical parade enters Piazza del Campo. The last access to be closed (at 6.45 PM) is in Via Dupre’ (from the contrada Onda).
In the square there are no toilets, so be prepared.
Once the last access to the square is closed, you can’t leave Piazza del Campo until the Palio is finished and nobody can’t really predict when that will be: lining up all the horses and starting can take a while and the Mossa can be repeated several times and, above all, it takes a while to empty a packed square.
Apart from the Palio race itself, the afternoon starts at 3.00/3.30 PM with the benediction of the horse and the jockey in each contrada church, a truly solemn moment. After the benediction, each contrada parades in its full costumes and flags down the street of Siena, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, Casino dei Nobili, Chigi Saracini Palace and in Piazza del Duomo, waving flags and drumming. Choose one of these stops, and secure a space to have a good view (we choose Piazza Salimbeni standing on the steps of the central statue and we had a very good view).
Then, at around 4.30 PM the procession leaves the Piazza del Duomo and heads for Piazza del Campo. By pure chance we went up the tiny Via del Castoro and at the end of this street, just before the arch, it’s where the parades gather before entering Piazza del Duomo so you can get a few nice shots before entering the square.
Choosing to follow the parade means that you will not be able to secure a good place in Piazza del Campo but that’s a choice, of course; we found the parade in the streets absolutely fascinating and worth watching. The streets were busy but if you feel too congested just take a side road and it will be almost empty. We followed the parade, took our time in the streets and then head down to Piazza del Campo. As expected, all the accesses (it was gone 6 PM) were already closed. We heard that the last access to be open was Via Dupre’ and we headed there. Surprisingly, there was almost no queue and we were able to easily enter the access and in a matter of seconds we found ourselves right in Piazza del Campo with definitely a great view to take a couple of pictures!
We stayed a while in the square, enjoyed the historical parade and then, right before they closed the access at 6:45 PM, we sneaked out and headed to the contrada dell’Istrice, in a bar where we had booked a table to watch the Palio. We are still learning about Palio and having someone (in our case, the bar owner) explaining you what’s exactly going on is absolutely essential, otherwise you will probably miss the most of it. In this sense, hiring a guide for the Palio is definitely a great idea and highly recommended if you want to have some proper background and detailed notions on the Palio tradition.
As I said, the fact that la Lupa won caused a massive meltdown in the people of the Istrice contrada. In a matter of seconds, Via Camollia (the hearth of Istrice contrada) got exceptionally quiet and silent, and you could distinguish from afar a steady and almost compact flow of people coming up the street heading towards Porta Camollia. By that time we were standing outside the bar finishing our drinks and as soon as the Istrice contradaioli (all clearly recognizable by their scarf with the contrada colours) were coming closer it became obvious that a lot of them were in tears. I suppose we were not expecting anything like that and the bar owner must have seen our puzzled faces and promptly explained us that for the Istrice contrada it was an absolute travesty that their rival had won, not so much that they didn’t win the Palio.
Since I have been in Tuscany I have always liked people from Siena: from the experiences we had, they are generally very chilled out, relaxed and friendly with tourists/outsiders but the Palio definitely changes people and on Saturday in Siena there was a weird atmosphere: people were obviously getting ready for the big event with families and group of friends alike gathering in and around Piazza del Campo but throughout the day we approached 5/6 different groups of people and every time answers to our questions were very quickly dismissed and cut short or answered in bad manners. At a certain point, I had the feeling that tension was becoming almost rudeness (not all of the Senesi, but I am sure it was not a case).
With the end of the Palio days, it was absolutely clear one thing to me: the Palio belongs to Siena and the Senesi. That’s it. Of course you/we can attend the event and watch it, either in the square or paying hundreds of Euros to watch it more comfortably from a palco or balcony seat but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything: for us (not Senesi) Palio is a mere festival, a celebration. For them, it’s a completely different story: tradition, passion and pride.
Nevertheless, it has to be experienced, at least once in a lifetime.
Heading to Siena this summer? The Palio days will take place again from August 13th to August 16th (Palio race), with the same schedule. If you are visiting, have a look at my other post to find out the most interesting facts about the Palio and the trials.
Yesterday evening was my first time at Palio di Siena. For those not familiar with it, it’s one of the most spectacular events held in Italy, a bareback horse race around the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) held twice a year. Attending the trial races yesterday evening and this morning was an absolute amazing experience, even though I am still battling with the mixed feelings related to the fact of attending a horses race event on such a difficult and dangerous track, where undoubtedly horses will suffer and will get injured or worse. So far I have not seen such a thing happen so I have been comfortable in experiencing it but I suppose that the race itself is going to be a total different matter so, at least for now, I have decided to not attend it. It’s a tradition that has been alive for centuries, for which its people are extremely proud and passionate about and I had goosebumps myself from the very first moment I stepped in Piazza del Campo yesterday evening.
I didn’t know a lot about Palio before moving to Tuscany and I still have to learn plenty but what I have been learning in the last few weeks from Senesi (people from Siena) keeps fascinating me.
While tourists (including me) may get excited only for the 2 Palio dates (July 2nd and August 16th), for Senesi Palio is not only limited to these 2 days a year: as they like to say, Palio is 365 days a year.
A few interesting facts about Palio, that I recently learnt:
Palio is not limited to July 2nd and August 16th: in truth, it should be referred as Palio days since equally important are the 4 days preceding each Palio, busy with rituals and processions and the twice a day race trials (one in the morning and one in the evening). One of the most important moment for each contradaiolo is when the horses are assigned to each contrada by draw ( the so called “Tratta”), a moment that attracts thousands of people in Piazza del Campo. The starting positions are by draw as well.
There are 17 contrada in Siena but only 10 of them take part in each race. Each contrada has got a traditional rival and for each of them winning the Palio is as important as making sure that their rival contrada does not win it. Each contrada is considered a sort of individual small State, run by a Priore, a Capitano with the support of 2-3 contradaioli called “mangini”. Each contrada has its own church and their own headquarter where its flags, drapes, costumes and historical memories are kept.
Forget the fair play: Palio has been and will always be a game of power, plots, threats and bribes, as the Senesi themselves openly admit. Everything is allowed (including bribes and all sort of dirty play behind the scenes) and the only rule of the race is that the jockeys (fantini) can’t interfere with other jockey’s reins but everything else is allowed and should be expected.
It’s the horse that wins the Palio and gets all the honours and celebrations, not the jockey and the horse can win even without the jockey. From the moment jockeys are drawn, they can be changed up to the day before the Palio. The jockeys are paid and they are more a sort of mercenaries not emotionally attached to the contrada and open to bribes and corruption from rival contrada – no wonder why you hardly see them smiling during the trials! An extremely important figure, not to be confused with the jokey is the so called Barbaresco, the horse assistant that during the Palio days sleeps in the stable with the horse and never leaves his side.
The race itself on July 2nd starts at 7:45 PM and lasts just over 90 seconds. All the horses – except the horse drawn last – are kept in the so called “Mossa”, an area in the north-west corner of Piazza del Campo marked by two ropes where the horses are gathered. The race officially starts when the free horse charges the group between the two ropes.
Watching the Palio in Piazza del Campo is free. If you have got plenty of money to spend (I have been quoted Eur 450 for a seat on Saturday July 2nd) you can secure a place on one of the “palco” or balconies, definitely a more privileged position to experience the Palio but that will need more investment and undoubtedly more planning.
If you want to take some nice shots during the trial races (I can’t recommend about the Palio day itself since I have not experienced it), keep in mind that the morning trials (9 AM) are generally a lot quieter than the evening ones and you get more chances to secure a place in the front line without having to arrive in Piazza del Campo too early (I was there at 7.45 AM this morning and got a spot right next to the Mossa). If you want to get a good close up of the horses and the jockeys, position yourself near the Mossa where the horses start (keep in mind that where there is a double fence you might get some policemen or the square cleaners to partially obstruct your view).
If you want to get pictures of the horses entering the square, get down to where the Town Hall is, which is also a great spot if you want to have a longer view of the horses racing. This location can get a bit noisy 🙂 but extremely colourful since there are the stands where hundreds of little contradaioli (kids of all ages) wave and sing before and during the race.
After the trials, the horse is brought back to each contrada’s stable to get washed and rested, followed by the procession of its contradaioli.
Though you can’t get right up to the stable, follow them down the streets of Siena for some great people shots. Equally beautiful is just spending a couple of hours walking through the different contrada, picking up the colours and the symbols of each of them.
It’s official: I am in love with Siena each day more!
Let’s face it: sipping a glass of vino rosso overlooking the Tuscan hills is possibly one of the best thing you could do on a sunny day in Italy. While plenty of people choose to visit Tuscany during the summer, the wiser (and the luckier) that can plan to visit out of peak season will be pleasantly surprised by the peacefulness of one of the richest region in Italy in terms of history and natural beauty paired with great food and wine – and friendly locals! Plenty of people from all over Europe (and the world, I would say) choose Tuscany as their second home, as well. And if you spend a few days in this corner of Italy it’s not difficult to understand why.
Up to a couple of years ago, quite sadly my knowledge of Tuscany was limited to Florence and Siena, two stunning cities that it is impossible not to fall in love with. It is only when I seriously thought of moving here that I started to explore a lot more, discovering some amazing towns, villages and hidden corners of a region that offers absolutely everything for everyone (I still haven’t tested its seaside yet….just waiting for the great weather to start!) Life goes at a much more relaxed pace than life in the north of Italy where I come from and I suppose that is another good reason that it attracts plenty of people from all around the globe, for just a few days or for a lifetime.
As for many regions in Italy, when to visit is the key. In some Italian regions most tourist related businesses completely shut down during the late autumn/winter months until early spring and then become unbearably busy and congested with skyrocketed prices during the peak summer months (mid-June to mid-September) making the whole travel experience less enjoyable and less relaxed.
Probably Tuscany will never feel too congested (with the exception of its main tourist spots) since it’s not too difficult to get out of the main towns and get lost in stunning countryside lanes where you barely meet anyone but it’s no doubt that part of Tuscany’s charm is to be able to enjoy its beauty without stress and without crowds.
Why should you choose to visit Tuscany now? Here are 3 good enough reasons why you should not wait for summer – if you can!
1. It’s very quiet. Unless you like visiting towns and cities surrounded by crowds of tourists, having almost to push to enter to any major tourist attraction, having to queue in any restaurant and having to book your accommodation months in advance to avoid disappointment…THIS (and the late summer too) is the perfect time to visit. Tuscany in general can get very busy but it is also true that – generally – people tend to concentrate in some specific areas: Florence, Siena, Pisa, San Gimignano or a bit further down in Pienza, Montalcino and Montepulciano. As soon as you leave these main cities/towns, you will be pleasantly surprised to notice how some charming and pretty villages barely get any visitors out of season. The big crowds will not arrive until mid June and if you plan smartly you may have a town or a village all by yourself (such as the tiny villages of Monteriggioni, San Quirico d’Orcia or in Bagno Vignoni). A great opportunity to enjoy the peace and the quietness that Tuscany should convey to any tourists.
The same goes for traffic. Whilst traffic in Tuscany is quite an overstatement compared to where I have previously lived (Milan, Madrid, London), during the peak months car parks tend to fill up pretty quickly, roads can get busy (particularly around the big cities, such as Florence and Siena) and make the whole experience less enjoyable, if you are planning to drive (which in Tuscany is undoubtedly the best option to reach some of the most fascinating places). Being quieter, generally also means that you will receive a better service in cafes, restaurants, hotels etc: staff are at the very beginning of their working season and they haven’t got the stress of the whole season on their shoulder – yet!
2. It’s more affordable. Visiting Tuscany in peak season (particularly July – August) can be obscenely expensive. In the main cities (namely Florence and Siena) most businesses that cater to tourists will be open all year round but in the small/mid size towns in the countryside, most businesses will generally close from November to March/April for lack of tourism. This is typical of many regions in Italy (including two other stunning regions like Puglia and Sicily) and unfortunately it is as a real limit of the Italian way of thinking: having more businesses and services open all year round would encourage more tourists to come off-peak, particularly in regions where the weather is reasonably good all year round. Anyway, it’s in this time of the year (March – May) that you should still be able to find good prices. Though it’s true that cities like Florence and Siena are generally expensive all year round, hotels and bed and breakfasts near the most touristy towns (San Gimignano, for example) have far more affordable room rates than the peak season. To save a bit of money, choose an accommodation to use as a base to explore near to the main tourist towns without having to pay the premium of sleeping in it.
3. It’s beautiful. Against this argument you could probably say that “it’s beautiful all year round” and that it’s absolutely true but its beauty is also in its peacefulness and, above all, its colours. Though autumn offers arguably a more interesting palette of colours, spring is the perfect time to visit: trees start to blossom, the air is crisp and clear and days are wonderfully bright. After a long winter (this year actually not so long and cold), sun is finally shining, swifts are out and about, days are getting longer and sunset are getting gorgeous. During day time temperature can go up to 25C, whilst in the evening you will still need a medium weight jacket. Overall: DIVINE!
For more information on accommodation, restaurants and places to visit, have a look at my other posts on Tuscany!
Although it goes against the grain, I am far more in love with Siena than Florence. Even though I have visited Florence on many more occasions than Siena, the feeling in Florence is always the same: am I in a real city or am I just another tourist in a big tourist attraction? Florence is a must and it should be on everyone’s top list of places to visit when in Italy but for me the true Italian charm is in Siena. You could easily spent a few days visiting the Cathedral and the several churches dotted around town, discovering the narrow streets and the alleys. Hours will fly sitting on the main square Piazza al Campo, sipping a Spritz (Italian aperitivo made with Aperol, soda and prosecco – normally served with a small nibble and crisps) and people watch. And you will notice that even though there are many tourists around, Siena is of its inhabitants. It’s deeply Italian land and you will love it.
Siena is a very friendly walking city (large pedestrian areas car free); if you are not staying downtown, leave your car outside the walls (plenty of car parks available and generally free after 8 PM) and take a pleasant stroll to the centre. It’s very difficult to say what to do, where to go and where to stay in Siena so I will just go for the not to miss check list:
Siena is a pleasure for the eyes and for the camera. Every corner, every old palace lobby, every single street has something new to discover every day. Do not leave Siena without visiting the majestic Cathedral, the Crypt, the Piccolomini Library, the façade of the incomplete Duomo, the Torre del Mangia and Piazza del Campo. You will need a few days to visit all the main sites and the different neighbourhoods; leave a bit of time to enjoy the city itself at the relaxed Italian pace.
Have an aperitivo in Piazza del Campo; it’s always busy but the best time would be just before dinner (5 PM onwards) there are many options and many of them not overpriced but you have to look for them. Italians are world renowned for being fashionable but as far as food and drinks we like to go simple so choose a bar with no white table cloth and busy with Italians. Climb up the Torre del Mangia to enjoy the breathtaking views of Siena from the very top. I haven’t been able to get my boyfriend up yet (damn vertigo!) but I have been myself a few times and on a clear day it’s absolutely stunning.
Siena has got plenty of amazing restaurants for all budgets (personally I found that the restaurants in Via Camollia where a good choice, Osteria Titti, for example). We had been recommended Boccon del Prete but we couldn’t find it (not sure whose fault was it); reviews were excellent so I’d definitely try it on my next visit. One evening we were running a bit late and at 10.00 we hadn’t eaten yet; in a bit of a rush, we chose Vivace and were pleasantly surprised: the food was good (nothing mind-blowing though) but the views and the idyllic setting were the true highlight of the meal. If you go, ask for a table at the end of the terrace where you can enjoy a beautiful and romantic view. No matter which restaurant you choose, always remember that you are in Tuscany and as throughout all over Italy we do it in a simple way: basic ingredients, great fresh produce and hand made pasta. Wild boar and hare will always be on (almost) any Tuscan menu but obviously it will be fresh only when hunting season it’s open (Autumn/Winter). The same goes for the white truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico): best to enjoy it fresh when it’s picked up (from September to December). For those that can read a bit of Italian, Tuscany Region issued a very good and exhaustive guide on truffles. For more information on where to buy fresh truffles at a decent price, have a look at my post on San Giovanni d’Asso. If you are staying in a self catering accomodation and are tempted to buy some local products downtown to cook your own food, Consorzio Agrario (Via Pianigiani, 5) is probably the most comprehensive shop in the centre of Siena. It’s a cooperative of local farmers and producers that offer an excellent variety of high quality local delicacies: fresh pasta, freshly baked pizza and bread, panforte, cantucci, local wines and oil etc. Careful: it’s not cheap (not many Italians do their daily shop here!) and I found some of their products in the more affordable supermarkets like PAM and COOP for less money but still it’s a good option if you are a foodie looking for some good Tuscan product.
After dinner, have a late evening stroll down its streets, get lost (it’s completely safe) and enjoys the amazing views and the evening lights. Best of all: it’s absolutely free! Depending on the areas, some streets/squares might be completely empty and you will be the only one admiring such gorgeous masterpieces.
Go to Nannini (Via Banchi di Sopra, 24) for the best panforte (traditional Italian dessert with fruits and nuts) and ricciarelli (traditional soft Italian biscuits), two local delicacies. It might be a bit overrated but it’s a tradition and worth the little investment!
Looking for a nice and unusual present to take home (that it’s not food :-)? Have a look at La Fabbrica delle Candele (Via dei Pellegrini, 11). Gorgeous homemade candles that last for ages with great designs.
At this stage, I haven’t mentioned anything about accomodation in Siena and the simple reason is that every time I visited I stayed out of town. I know that there are plenty of options for all budgets downtown Siena but I prefer to wake up in the morning and have a view of Tuscan countryside rather than a city view (even though Siena is a stunning city!). The options listed below were all around Euro 50/60 per night and they are all outside Siena. On 2 separate occasions we stayed at La Loggia Villa Gloria, located in Quercegrossa, a tiny hamlet less than 15 minutes drive from Siena downtown. They do offer both rooms and self catered studio/apartments. We chose the studio option since we wanted to keep an eye on the budget by cooking our meals and we were absolutely happy with it; it was quite old fashion with a relatively small kitchenette area and in need of an overall refresh but it served the purpose for a very good price. Their location just a few Km from Siena is perfect, the reception staff is very nice and helpful (book directly with them for a better rate) and they have a gorgeous swimming pool overlooking the olive trees that couldn’t be a more Tuscan picture. Having said this, they could do a lot more with the structure, improving some of the studios and prettying up the pool area but I suppose they would then charge a lot more money! If you are thinking about booking, ask for a studio in the 2 story stone building near the pool with outdoor space since some of their studios in the red building next to the main one are pretty horrible (I’ve tried them as well!).
An excellent option is Agriturismo Olivera, a self catered accomodation in Vagliagli. It’s a bit further out than La Loggia Villa Gloria and it will take you around 25 minutes to Siena but it was really good value: perfectly stocked kitchen, big bathroom, good size bedroom, outdoor seating area, lovely setting and the morning drive to Siena overlooking the hills was truly stunning. On top of that, Sandro the owner is a friendly young guy that works hard (he produces and sells his own wine) always up for a chat. If you don’t mind a bit of drive (no white road), it’s an excellent option. We chose to cook our own food during the evenings except one night that we tried the nearby restaurant Casa Lucia (a few minutes from the Agriturismo towards Siena) and it was delicious so if you don’t fancy cooking that’s dinner sorted!
Our last accomodation during our tour in Tuscany was at the Agriturismo Tenuta di Monaciano. It’s a massive estate made up of a main villa and different buildings (some quite apart from each others) that have being very nicely restored to accomodate several apartments on the hills near Siena (7 km). The views are absolutely superb and animals are abundant (driving back at night we saw plenty of roes, wild boards, hares etc) but be prepared for quite a long drive on a steep unpaved road (strada bianca, literally “white road”) not all in good condition (not ideal for very low setting cars). I suppose that’s the (small) price to pay if you want to stay in such an idyllic setting surrounded by colourful vineyards and olive trees.
On the positive side, the apartments here were probably the best that we found out of all the previous accomodations. Leaving the Tenuta and turning right at the end of the white road just before crossing the road that goes to Siena, there are a couple of restaurants; we tried La Piccarda: good size portion of yummy and reasonably priced food, excellent pizza and good house wine. We ate there on 3 occasions and it was always busy; it’s a good option if you don’t want to drive back downtown Siena for a bite to eat.
Where to stay? Not an easy choice with such a vast offer. If you are thinking about staying in a self catered accomodation out of town, take into account the following:
Strada bianca (unpaved road): agriturismo or self catered units are generally located in the countryside so don’t expect a perfectly flat paved road up to the door of your room. Unless you plan to hire a 4×4, always ask how long the unpaved road is and its condition. Take into account that if you plan to come and go several times a day it can be a nuisance if it’s particularly long and bumpy.
Heating: usually in self catered accomodation heating is not included. If you are visiting in cold months and looking to keep the apartment warm throughout the day, it can have a significant impact on your final bill (we always had it included but we had been told to calculate roughly Euro 1,50/2,00 per hour but it can be more). This is due to the fact that in general agriturismo are not connected to the mains therefore they rely exclusively on (expensive) liquid gas provision and sometimes in order to not lose money they have no other choice other than charge it back to the customer.
Apartment: if you are planning to stay a few days and do most of the cooking, before doing the food shopping check if the kitchen is already stocked since some basics might be provided (oil, vinegar, coffee, sugar etc). Giving the fact that Tuscany is generally blessed with nice weather in the warm season, I would always try to look for an apartment with an outdoor seating/eating area. You will spend a lot of time just eating and enjoying the wonderful views!
Restaurant: most agriturismo have a restaurant and do offer home made meals (in most cases prepared using their own produce) upon reservation. If your agriturismo has a restaurant and it’s open when you are visiting, it is an excellent option to try some local food in an informal atmosphere just outside your door.