Visiting Tuscany has been a dream of mine since I read the book Under the Tuscan Sun. After I read this book, I envisioned Tuscany as a patchwork of farmland, with rolling hills, quaint villages and of course vineyards. Lots and lots of vineyards. I dreamed of a place where I could go to relax, sample the cuisine, drink the wine, and escape reality for a while, and that is exactly what I found.
When we began our search for what to see and do in Tuscany with our kids, I was shocked by not only how large of an area (close to 9,000 square miles) Tuscany actually covers, but by how much there is to explore. My first piece of advice is to narrow down your itinerary. What do you want to see and how many days will you visit? Tuscany takes time, and it is best enjoyed when you slow down and truly absorb and appreciate the surroundings.
Car rental at the Florence Airport
For the record, we have driven in France, Spain, and the UK. For some reason, the Italian road system completely baffled us. Usually we are able to find our way with our trusty companion, Mr. GPS, but even he had difficulty directing us out of the rental car parking lot. The first clue that renting a car in Florence was a bad idea should have been the attendants at the rental car counter. Each of them gave us different directions for getting to the highway. Mind you, these were different from the directions given to us by the taxi driver that dropped us off at the rental agency in the first place. Both were different from the GPS directions. Are you confused yet? We certainly were. We barely made it out of the parking lot, and onto the highway, but somehow, our GPS managed to get us to our destination. My suggestion would be to print out a map from home with directions from the rental car agency to your destination, to have in case of an emergency. Investing in a Michelin map of Tuscany (358) isn’t a bad idea either. In hindsight, part of the issue was construction around the airport at the time and poor signage, hopefully this has all been resolved.
Where we stayed, CORZANO E PATERNO
Wine and cheese, need I say more? Just kidding. Corzano e Paterno is set off a long dirt road ten minutes driving from the nearest paved road. It is surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, and when we arrived, we knew we had stumbled upon something special.
As we exited the car, the kids could hardly contain their excitement. They immediately set to exploring and took off in all directions. We found our house, Casa Gina, with a note from our hostess, Mirella, explaining that we should let ourselves in and she would return in an hour. In the kitchen she had left the perfect welcome pack: wine, coffee, milk, bread, and fixings. Everything we needed to begin our Tuscan vacation.
The main floor of the house has a kitchen with a large open fire place and a separate living and dining area. Upstairs is the bathroom with three bedrooms, each bedroom with its’ own unique view of the surrounding countryside. There is a very steep staircase going up to the top floors, beautiful stone tiles, wood beams on the ceiling. My favorite part was the window high above the master bed, which offered night time views of the stars and provided music in the room when it rained. Truly magical.
Mirella was an amazing hostess. She arranged for a tour of their cheese making facility, as well as showing us their wine making process. Afterwards, we had a private tasting in our home, which was nice because it gave us the opportunity to learn about the history of the agriturismo and learn more about Mirella herself.
The boys LOVED it here. Even without a television and computers. There were cats roaming around, a dog (Lulu), and sheep, pigs, and horses on the other side of the property (a good hour long hike, which the boys enjoyed). It was like having our own menagerie. We set limits as to where the kids could and could not venture and they relished the freedom of exploring a new place without adults hovering over their every move.
Visiting vineyards with kids
There are two schools of thoughts on this: 1) Drinking and driving with your kids? And 2) Can I really do this? Well, it’s not really drinking and driving when your sample cup is smaller than a tablespoon and yes, you can do it too. We discussed our plan with Mirella in advance and she assured us that children were welcome at most of the vineyards (and may even sample the wine, um, no thank you?). We told her a few places we wanted to visit. She gave us typical Italian directions, “turn right here, go two signs down, turn left there” and sent us on our way. We used our GPS. First, we drove into Castellina in Chianti because there is a wine shop there that does tastings. We thought this would be a one and done opportunity. Once again, we forgot about Italian nap time, so the store was closed. We settled for gelato instead at L’Antica Delicia. After we were hopped up on sweets, we visited Villa Vignamaggio, birthplace of Mona Lisa, the inspiration for da Vinci’s masterpiece, and the filming location for the 1993 movie “Much Ado About Nothing.” It was raining the day we went touring, so our wine tasting was brief. The villa itself was quite beautiful and the surrounding gardens and property were picturesque. The kids played outside in the garden while we sampled wine and then we went on our way. The drive up to Castello di Verrazzanno vineyard is breathtaking around every curve, with the castle at the top of the hill awaiting you at the end. However, we timed our arrival poorly and walked in just as they were closing for the day. Bummer. Fortunately, they had a wine tasting shop at the bottom of the winding road where we let the kids play on our iPhones while we sampled two wines and bought a bottle for later that evening. Everything in moderation.
Ditching the rental car
After one day of Tuscany’s narrow roads, ineffective signage, and multiple GPS failures, we gave up on the rental car. The night before hubby was to return the car, we both did not sleep. It caused that much angst. Would he get lost? Would he be able to find the airport? We scoured the internet for directions, asked Mirella, and came up with a plan. A taxi driver would meet him at the rental car agency to drive him back to Corzano. But who would navigate to the airport? We knew the GPS was useless, we didn’t want to pack the three kids along (that’s stress inducing in itself), and so we decided to send the oldest one as designated map reader. Miraculously it worked. Believe me, I was back on the farm biting my nails the entire time, but they arrived safely and then we had a personal driver and tour guide to take us around Tuscany, for less than the cost of the rental car.
The drive through the Tuscan countryside is so much prettier when you are not driving, and better yet, not navigating. Our driver stopped for photo opportunities, pointed out important sights along the way, and dropped us safely at our destination. On a hilltop overlooking the surrounding countryside sits the “city of the beautiful towers”, San Gimignano. Only fourteen towers of the original 72 remain, but the town is still spectacular. We walked through the piazzas, browsed in the local shops, and tried to stay out of the rain. With some amazing cajoling, we persuaded our children to make the treacherous climb up the Torre de Grassa. The cost is 5€, which includes admission to a small museum attached to the tower. There are well over a hundred steps to the top and it becomes a bit dicey when the children have to climb metal ladders. It was hard work getting everyone to the top of the tower, but in the end we would all say it was worth it to enjoy the spectacular view.
Let’s be clear. Yes, I am a fan of the “Twilight Series”, but no, I did not drag my family there in search of the Volturri. Since the movie was released, Volterra has become a destination for vampire fans searching for remnants of Edward and Bella. Thankfully, I didn’t see any. That would have ruined the beauty and magic of this gem of a town. Founded by the Etruscans, and believed to have been their largest settlement, Volterra is exactly what you would expect from a quaint, Tuscan village. The rain probably helped, but there were only a few tourists on the day we visited. The Palazzo dei Priori is one of the main attractions. You can go inside and see some artwork, and learn about the town history and even climb to the top of the tower. Since we had just climbed the other tower, we skipped this one, but know that it is something you could do. We did however waste our money by paying to see the Teatro Romano. The complex is gated, you pay to go inside and that’s it. No tour, no information, just a big waste of money. My advice: walk around the outside, take pictures, and imagine what it was like to sit in this amazing Roman amphitheater when it was built 2000 years ago. The kids were getting hungry at this point and it was nearing gelato time, so we found ourselves in search of somewhere to get out of the rain. We settled on L’Incontro, Via Giacomo Matteotti 18, due to its awesome display of desserts. There are a limited number of seats, so we secured ours and then ordered coffee for ourselves and hot chocolate for the kids. Let me say this: the Italians know how to make coffee and they know how to make hot chocolate. Delicioso! The kids wanted me to get my own since I kept asking for more from their cups. After our tummies were full, we did some exploring and shopping (the town is famous for alabaster). This is the perfect town for slowing down and enjoying “la dolce vita”. Time almost stands still, birds are singing, and then your kids start fighting. C’est la vie.
There is so much to experience in Tuscany, there is no way one can do so on one trip, let alone multiple visits. Should you ever find yourself with an opportunity to visit the region, might I suggest basing yourself in an agriturismo near Florence or Siena and taking day trips to some of the smaller towns. You won’t get to know all of Tuscany, but you will certainly discover a bit of its magic.