Going carless in Tuscany

By: Philip Early
This article appears on page 6 of the September 2018 issue.

Enjoying the “world’s best” gelato in San Gimignano.

My wife, Marina, and I took a 2-week vacation to Tuscany in April 2018 and did the whole trip without a car. We wanted to avoid Italian roads and drivers and parking hassles in medieval towns, so we decided to "go green" with public transportation, using Italy's excellent train and bus system supplemented by the occasional taxi.

We started to prepare a year in advance, planning to use airline rewards for our round-trip flights to Rome. We wanted to stay in monasteries or convents for a more authentically Italian experience.

Our chosen destinations offered insight to the Etruscan culture, which preceded Roman rule and gave its name to Tuscany. Siena, the Gothic rival of Florence, would be our base. From there, we would visit Chiusi, Castellina in Chianti, Volterra, Colle di Val d'Elsa and San Gimignano.

We made online reservations at two well-reviewed restaurants offering local cuisine: La Locanda delle Scuderie, near Chiusi, and Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina in Castellina in Chianti. We also wanted to take a side trip to Ravenna (in the Emilia-Romagna region) to appreciate the Byzantine mosaics that distinguish this last outpost of Rome in the West.

It was a lot to do in two weeks, but careful planning made it happen!

Getting around

We planned our train travel using an English-language site, Italiarail.com, which offers online tickets that can be booked with an American credit card. Once it's booked, you print out your ticket with a QR code (square barcode), which the conductor will scan on the train.

To give you an idea of prices, the 1½-hour trip from Rome to Chiusi on an Intercity train with second-class assigned seats cost 19.80 ($23) for both of us, while the 1½-hour regional second-class train from Chiusi to Siena cost 8.40 for two.

The total cost of all train travel during our vacation was less than $400. We used both regional trains with no reserved seats as well as first- or second-class Intercity express trains with seat reservations printed on the tickets. All these trains were generally comfortable and not overcrowded. (It might be different in high season.)

Most of the rail system is electrified, but we did travel on some older diesel engines on rural routes with limited air-conditioning, although the windows opened!

Second-class seating was similar to airline business class. And on the one Intercity first-class train we took, there were private compartments accommodating up to four travelers in each.

Some of the destinations could not be reached by train, so we also looked at bus schedules. The principal long-distance bus company in the area was Siena Mobilità (aka Tiemme), but we also would need to take a CPT bus to reach Volterra.

Al Giardino degli Etruschi, our B&B accommodations outside the town of Chiusi.

Both companies have schedules online. Though they're in Italian, they aren't too hard to figure out. There are separate schedules for weekdays and holidays (including Sundays), and some routes are different on Saturdays, and some buses are for students going to and from school; be sure to check footnotes.

Schedules are limited in some areas, so planning is needed to avoid getting stranded (and having to pay for an expensive taxi).

We bought Siena Mobilità tickets in advance at their office in Siena, just a couple blocks from our hotel. Bus tickets also can be purchased at convenience stores near bus stops, which is what we did for our CPT tickets to Volterra.

Each ticket needs to be validated in the machine on the bus next to the driver. A bus ride costs just a few euros, and some routes were very scenic, especially in the spring, winding through Chianti wine country.

Starting in Rome

Staying mobile is an issue when using public transportation, so we each took just a day pack and an airline-sized roller case that would fit in the overhead bins. That permitted us to use the racks above our seats on trains rather than the storage areas located at the ends of the cars.

Despite limited space, we each had a set of clothes suited to fine dining, including a jacket for me. We also packed lightweight rain shells that could be stuffed into our day packs, since April showers as well as warm days could be expected.

Our first train was the Leonardo Express from Rome's Fiumicino airport to the main rail station, Roma Termini. Tickets could be purchased at the gate for 14 per person, either at machines that took cash or chip-and-PIN cards (not American chip-and-signature) or at a booth that accepted American credit cards. (The return trip from Roma Termini has machines only, so be prepared.)

In Rome, we like to stay at a small hotel near the train station. There is a nice trattoria, La Famiglia (Via Gaeta, 66), in the area with a great antipasto buffet that offers a whole meal for the price of one large plate. The ruins of the Baths of Diocletian are across the street, and a short walk takes you to the Piazza della Repubblica and a view down the Via Nazionale to Capitoline Hill. In the evening, a walk to the illuminated Imperial and Roman forums is nice.

Before we left Rome the next morning, we took a taxi (hotels, museums and restaurants will call one for you) to the National Etruscan Museum inside Villa Giulia, at the edge of the Villa Borghese gardens, to see artifacts from areas we would not be visiting on this trip.

Chiusi

We used Expedia.com to find a nice B&B, Al Giardino degli Etru schi (Località Dolcianello; algiardinodeglietruschi.it), just outside Chiusi, for less than 100. We needed to take a taxi from the train station, but our charming hostess, Carolina, and the country views from the hilltop location were worth the journey.

This was also the location of our first restaurant reservation, at La Locanda delle Scuderie (Strada Vicinale Località Dolciano, 10; la locandadellescuderie.com), a short walk from our lodging past deer running in the fields. Chef Walter Tripodi impressed us with his rabbit and lamb dishes paired with excellent local Chianti, all served in a picturesque room.

Highlights of the next day, in Chiusi (Carolina drove us to town), were the sculptures in the museum, as Chiusi was one of the major centers for manufacturing Etruscan funerary monuments. We also explored the tunnels under the town's cathedral, once used as an Etruscan water-collection system, and we took part in the docent tour of an original Etruscan tomb a few miles away. (The museum called a taxi for us.)

Underground Etruscan tombs.

The tombs consisted of narrow tunnels under a hilltop tumulus that led to family burial chambers with several sarcophagi.

Siena

From Chiusi, it was on to Siena by regional train. At many train stations, including the one at Chiusi, a passage under the tracks was the way to get from one side of the station to the other.

Train schedules are displayed on electronic signs, like at airports. Tracks are usually just numbered, but in some of the larger stations, there are also different boarding areas on each track, so pay attention to the "east," "west" and sometimes "central" designations on the signs.

If you have assigned seats, be sure to find the correct car number. Italians are very helpful, so when in doubt, ask!

For regional trains with no assigned seats, it helps to line up in the boarding area half an hour ahead to get the best seat choice, though it wasn't very crowded in April.

Again using Expedia, we had made reservations at Hotel Alma Domus (Via Camporegio 37; hotelalmadomus.it) in Siena, operating in the Sanctuary of St. Catherine just below the church of St. Domenic. We took a taxi from the train station to the Old City.

Our room (less than 90), with facilities en suite, had a magnificent view across to the Gothic Sienese cathedral on its acropolis, illuminated at night. Rooms were fairly basic, but breakfast was excellent, served in a pink-themed dining room with chair cushions attached by big bow ties.

It was a pleasant walk, especially in the evening, from the hotel to the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. We particularly appreciated the interior of the cathedral and The Archaeological Museum, located in one corner of the Piazza del Duomo. The museum's lower-level tunnels are a spooky showcase for an extensive collection of Etruscan and Roman artifacts. It's easy to get lost and wander in circles!

As is true almost everywhere in Italy, the food was good. We enjoyed beefsteak Florentine (7.50 per hundred grams) at the Osteria le Logge and great gelato.

In preparation for our trips to Castellina, Colle di Val d'Elsa and San Gimignano, we walked to the bus terminal at Piazza Gramsci, where we bought tickets from the Siena Mobilità office in the underground shopping arcade. These were not time specific. They just required validation on the bus upon boarding.

Curiously, the No. 125 bus to Castellina left from the train station rather than from Piazza Gramsci.

Castellina is built on a narrow ridgetop, and the bus stop was at the upper end of town at the base of Monte Calvario, with its Etruscan tombs. The road forks there, the branch to the right leading to a small parking area and a path climbing uphill to the tombs at the top. The tunnels there are empty and not gated, but there's a nice view of the countryside and wildflowers.

Marina and I walked down to the center of the small town, visited the Coop market for supplies, explored a small museum and climbed to the top of the medieval tower that gives Castellina its name.

After that, it was time for our lunch reservation at Ristorante Albergaccio (Via Fiorentina 63; ristorante albergaccio.com), up the left fork of the road at Monte Calvario. We enjoyed outdoor dining and a menu of modern versions of classic Tuscan fare (18-25 per plate), including slices of marbled marzolo truffles (pretty but not as flavorful as black truffles or later-in-the-season white truffles).

Rail to Ravenna

For our trip to Ravenna, the Italiarail.com website routed us on three regional trains, from Siena to Florence, then on to Faenza and, finally, Ravenna. It took a total of six hours, but the journey was quite scenic crossing the Apennines. We took only day packs, leaving our suitcases and excess clothing in our room at the Alma Domus.

We had reserved a reasonably priced room in Ravenna at Il Mosaico on Expedia for less than 90 for the night. It was on the harbor and just across the tracks from the train station via an underground passage. The hotel seemed a popular place with Italian travelers and provided a large breakfast.

Highlights in Ravenna included the Byzantine mosaics in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica of San Vitale. San Vitale was closed to tourists on the morning of our Sunday visit, so we began with the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, where we bought "cumulative" tickets to the major sites for 9.50 and paid a 3 surcharge for the visit to Galla Placidia. The nave of this basilica is lined with rows of impressive mosaics from the 5th-century Goths and, later, Byzantines.

The Archbishop's Museum and Chapel are definitely worth a visit (3), though photography is not permitted. The private Archbishop's Chapel is decorated with perfectly preserved 5th-century mosaics.

After lunch, we tackled the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, regent for her young son during the height of Byzantine Ravenna. Translucent alabaster windows provide light to its complex mosaics depicting Christian imagery on a floral background topped by a starry sky.

The adjacent Basilica di San Vitale houses the famous mosaic image of Empress Theodora and her court opposite Emperor Justinian with his entourage. Surrounded by its decorated floors, columns and ceilings, I could picture what the greatest Byzantine church, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, must have been like before the Ottoman conquest.

Back to base

The Italiarail.com website routed us through Bologna on our return journey to Siena. This was the largest station we passed through on this trip, and it was important to be aware of the "east" and "west" track positions of the trains. We were back in our room at the Alma Domus by that evening.

Incidentally, if you plan to be absent overnight from your hotel room, it is best to let the desk staff know. Otherwise, they worry, as they have to know which rooms are occupied in case of an evacuation.

The following day we set out on a bus trip to Volterra, another of the 12 independent cities of the Etruscan confederation. We took only day packs to the nearby Piazza Gramsci terminal, where we looked at signs and asked around to find the departure point for the 8:20 No. 130 Tiemme bus to Colle di Val d'Elsa. From there, we would need to take a CPT bus to Volterra.

The trip was only half an hour, but we planned to explore Colle before going onward to Volterra. First, though, we purchased our CPT bus tickets at the convenience store next to the main bus stop and verified the location where we would catch the bus. Although many people in rural Italy don't speak English and we just had an Italian phrase book, we managed to communicate.

Mosaic of Empress Theodora inside Ravenna’s Basilica di San Vitale.

To reach the historic part of Colle, situated on a rocky promontory a couple hundred feet above the new town, we walked up the main commercial street and turned right at the (only!) stoplight to enter a rocky tunnel that led to the municipal glass elevator. The tunnel was cool on this hot day and lined with niches displaying art and artifacts. Once at the top, we enjoyed good views of the lower town and countryside from the terrace there.

Walking up the cobblestone street in the Old Town, we enjoyed the medieval atmosphere, then went back down to the lower town where there was a museum of glassworking, a craft for which Colle is known.

Volterra

We caught the No. 770 CPT bus to Volterra in the afternoon after lunch. All the buses we rode in Italy were very modern and comfortable, just like ones you would expect on a guided tour.

The hour-long ride to Volterra was through pretty, spring countryside, with several stops made to pick up or drop off passengers in small villages. It was truly amazing to see the driver maneuver past stone buildings on one-lane right-angle corners!

The bus station in Volterra is at the city wall adjacent to the center of the Old Town. Through Booking.com we had located a former monastery attached to the church of San Girolamo in the countryside about a mile away.

We took a taxi to the Chiostro delle Monache, which is operated by a local family who also runs a nearby hotel and restaurant. The front desk hours were limited, but our room (65 per night) was very nice and looked into an inner courtyard with views of the bell tower. Breakfast was under a portico surrounding the courtyard.

The walk from the hotel to Vol terra's Old City on the ridge above us took about 45 minutes. Volterra is an impressive medieval town on Etruscan and Roman foundations, but it was definitely more tourist-oriented than the other towns we had visited earlier in the trip.

We explored the park and Etruscan acropolis beyond the town's fortress; the civic and religious piazzas in the center of town; the Roman theater (best viewed from the city wall above), and the Etruscan Porta all'Arco.

The highlight there was the Guarnacci Etruscan Museum, begun by a local abbot in the 18th century to preserve artifacts as the city expanded. Their most famous piece, the Urna degli sposi (a remarkably realistic sarcophagus depicting an elderly couple), was on tour, but the rest of the collection was amazing.

For dinner, we stopped at Osteria La Pace, a restaurant just inside the Selci gate, where we had seen a "medieval menu" advertised for less than 20. It was great — the best wild boar ragout and pasta I had in Italy! Big chunks of meat in a delicious sauce were served with bruschetta with leaf lard (much cleaner taste than butter) melted over pecorino cheese, crostini with homemade toppings and a classic Tuscan dessert of vin santo (a sweet wine) with almond biscotti.

San Gimignano

In the morning we took a taxi to the bus station to be sure we wouldn't miss the CPT No. 770 back to Colle. In Colle we caught the same Tiemme No. 130 bus that had brought us from Siena, but this time we traveled on to San Gimignano's Porta San Giovanni. Half an hour took us to this gate to the Old Town, famous for its towers built in the 13th and 14th centuries in competitions of power between wealthy families. (You can climb the tallest one.)

We enjoyed this plate of grilled sardines at Naif, a restaurant near our hotel in Ravenna.

San Gimignano was definitely the most tourist-oriented town we visited, and there were already busloads of people being deposited at the entrance and led down the main street by flag-waving guides when we arrived. There was an open-air market operating in the central piazza, and one fellow was slicing pieces off a large pork roast for sandwiches (4 each). We got two for lunch later.

San Gimignano is a nice medieval city to wander around in, especially away from the busy piazzas. Rocca di Montestaffoli is a park with a small tower that has views of the city and countryside. We followed a path along the wall near the medieval fountain and found a bench in a shady spot to enjoy our sandwiches. Tasty!

There were two gelato shops in the Piazza della Cisterna, each proclaiming itself to be the world's best. We chose the one with the longer line (Gelateria Dondoli), and the gelato was excellent, with a wide assortment of unusual flavors. The vernaccia really tasted like the local white wine. The proprietor is also very willing to ham it up for a selfie!

Catching the Tiemme No. 130 back to Siena, we stayed on the bus this time when it stopped in Colle. We enjoyed our last evening view of the Duomo from our room in the Alma Domus, and after breakfast the next morning we took a taxi to the train station to board the regional train to Chiusi, then splurged for first class on the Intercity to Rome — the end to a delightful carless vacation in Tuscany!