Five Perfect Days in Tuscany, Italy

by Hanya Yanagihara

There are some places you can’t help but fall in love with at first sight and return to year after year. We’ve chosen some of the world’s most beloved (and touristed) destinations and, with the help of the best travel specialists in the business, have ferreted out their secrets, their treasures, their unmissable experiences. The result is a series of step-by-step trips that will surprise and delight those who’ve never been to the destination before … or who have been a dozen times. Each of our highly detailed itineraries has been vetted and perfected by a Conde Nast Traveler editor, and each can be bought as is with just one phone call. Let the romance begin.

The Challenge
Trying to describe all the pleasures and prides of Tuscany—that fecund, almost ridiculously picturesque region of central Italy—would take more pages than a single issue of this magazine, and even then, we’d just scratch the surface. So visiting the area, whose capital is Florence and which contains a dazzling number of the world’s iconic masterworks, as well as some of its most luscious wines and scrumptious foods, presents two unconquerable problems. The first is a surfeit of affection. Everyone loves Tuscany, so you will never be alone. But take heart: Do you think Goethe, Twain, and Stendhal (enthusiasts all) had those narrow streets to themselves? Going to Italy means joining a centuries-long roster of tourists. The second difficulty is one of time and endurance there is no way to see all of the region s sights, no way to linger over every masterpiece, no way to stroll every beautifully preserved hilltop town. Attempting to do so would take several lifetimes, and most of us have only a week or so.

The Solution
There are many ways to discover Tuscany, of course, but the most efficient, intimate, and unexpected is to use a travel specialist such as Maria Teresa Berdondini of Tuscany by Tuscans. She was skilled at negotiating the realities of visiting Italy and at arranging special experiences that are the stuff of every tourist s fantasy. Together, we worked out an itinerary that shows off an essential Tuscany, one that reveals the best of the region’s tastes, smells, and sights and will appeal to both the first- and fifteenth-time visitor. And while the latter may cry foul over what’s not in the trip (no extended tour of the Duomo? No visit to the area’s Etruscan ruins?), they’ll also make discoveries about an area that, even after a thousand years and countless visitors, still has its secrets.

Sadly, Maria Teresa Berdondini died shortly after I finished writing this piece. She was a wonderful resource and generous travel guide, and I know that the many people she helped to see the best of her beloved Italy felt the same sorrow I did upon learning of her death. I hope that Berdondini would feel some comfort in knowing that another of our top travel specialists, Maria Gabriella Landers of Concierge in Umbria, is carrying on her legacy and will handle all bookings that result from this trip—one Maria’s gift to the world, fulfilled by another Maria. For the Italians, who find poetry in the everyday, it seems an appropriate tribute.

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Eat like a local in Venice

Don’t spoil your visit to Venice by eating in over-priced tourist traps – follow the locals’ lead and graze on bar snacks in back-street osterie

The Guardian,

Venice, Cantinone-già Schiavi

One going begging … nibbles in the atmospheric Cantinone-già Schiavi.
My trip to one of the world’s most romantic cities was inspired by the least romantic of situations: a boys’ night out in Soho, London, the kind that ends up in a random curry house before falling asleep on the night bus. On this night, however, we fell, quite by chance, into Polpo (see Jay Rayner’s review), a relatively new restaurant that appeared to be some kind of tapas bar, was lively and not too pricey – yes, this would do.

It was an inspired choice. It turns out we weren’t eating tapas (“We don’t use the T-word here,” said the waiter) but cichèti, small snacks unique to the bars of Venice. Our conversation, usually dominated by football, turned to the tenderness of sliced flank steak and the sweet softness of the sensational cuttlefish cooked in its own ink.

On more than 20 visits to Venice, Polpo owner Russell Norman has trawled the back-street bàcari, the small bars where locals pop in for a glass of wine and a snack, to find inspiration for Polpo. He is the right man to talk to about where to eat in what he calls “one of the world’s worst destinations for food lovers”.

“Avoid all the crappy tourist places,” is Norman’s advice, “anywhere with the menu in six languages stuck in the window or, worse still, one with photographs of lurid pizzas.

“But there is still a side of Venice which is alive and isn’t Disneyland, and it’s best typified by the bàcari.”

With those words ringing in my ears, and a list of his favourite bàcari in my pocket, I headed off for La Serenissima.

Venice, La Cantina Cutting edge … La Cantina. Photograph: Gavin McOwan A bar crawl, or giro di òmbre, is the best way to try Venice’s bàcari, popping into each for a cichèti and accompanying òmbra (small glass of wine). And a good place to start was Ca’ d’Oro – Alla Vedova (Cannaregio 3912, Ramo Ca’ d’Oro), one of the best-known bàcari, on the Strada Nuova, well away from the city’s touristy hub. On a Friday night it was packed with punters lingering around the bar, waiting for the hot polpette (pork rissoles) to emerge from the kitchen. These delicious balls of salty, finely minced pork (the inspiration for the meatballs at Polpo) were snapped up within seconds of hitting the old marble bar counter, washed down by unbottled Veneto red in tiny glasses. Both cost €1 a pop.

Around the corner is La Cantina (Cannaregio 3689, Campo San Felice) which, like Polpo, has taken the simple cichèto to another level with its freshly prepared, imaginative dishes. On the bar was a tray of oysters on ice (€9 for six), which the barman shucked to order, behind it a counter of fresh fish and an ancient hand-operated slicer for the charcuterie, and on the blackboard around 30 wines available by the glass. But, like all bàcari, La Cantina didn’t run to anything as tourist-friendly as a menu. When I asked for one, the barman replied, “It’s me!”

Raw fish is a speciality, and my trio of minced salmon, lightly seared tuna with finely chopped cucumber and sea bass (€2 each) with tomatoes, prepared right in front of me, were melt-in-the-mouth fresh – the best thing I ate in Venice.

Venice , All'Arco Market leader … All’Arco. Photograph: Andrea Matone/Alamy
Across the iconic Rialto bridge, on the other side of the Grand Canal and tucked down an alleyway, is tiny All’ Arco (Calle Arco, San Polo 436, lunchtime only). On a Saturday lunchtime this friendly bàcaro was heaving with shoppers from the nearby Rialto market, which sells a stunning selection of fresh fish and remains a favourite meeting place for Venetians. Plates of cichèti on the bar – langoustines, calamari, liver, speck and prawns, all served on slices of bread – were tasty enough, but what the owner Francesco Pinto was preparing behind it looked even more appetising. The hot sandwich of boiled beef sausages (which, he gesticulated, are made from the meat in the cow’s head) served with mustard was the perfect winter comfort food.

Around the corner is Do Mori (San Polo 429, Calle dei Do Mori), said to be the oldest bàcaro in Venice, dating back to 1462, with a dark wood interior and copper pots hanging from the ceiling. The house speciality is francobollo (literally “postage stamp”), a tiny white-bread sandwich filled with sliced meats, radicchio, gorgonzola or roasted vegetables. This Venetian institution is an obligatory stop on the giro di òmbre, yet the atmosphere is solemn, the staff seemingly forbidden to smile at customers. When I mentioned this attitude to a bunch of friendly Italians from out of town enjoying a lunchtime bar crawl, one of them said: “Don’t take it personally. When we order [in some bàcari] they reply in Venetian dialect, to remind us this is not Italy, we’re on the island of Venice.”

This fortress mentality is understandable given that these proud, mostly working-class establishments have made a conscious decision to reject the easy tourist dollar to continue serving a loyal but diminishing clientele. There are just 60,000 inhabitants left in the city, but it receives more than 16.5 million tourists a year.
Venice, Cantinone-già Schiavi exterior Water to wine … Cantinone-già Schiavi.
Opposite Cantinone–già Schiavi (992 Ponte San Trovaso), located on a canal in Dorsoduro, is another symbol of disappearing Venice: one of the city’s last gondola workshops. Schiavi is really a wine shop that sells food on the side – although the cheese and fennel crostini were delicious. The walls are covered floor to ceiling by bottles, and there is a fantastic choice of 10 or so wines by the glass, mostly from the Veneto region, starting at €2. That, I noted, was the same price as the house, so I made a pest of myself and started to work through the labels (well, the glasses are tiny).

Venice is notorious for its lack of nightlife, but a good place to end a bar crawl is Campo Santa Margarita, the hangout for local and international students. Ai Do Draghi, at the north end of the square and known as the red house as much for its political leaning as for the colour of the facade, was swarming when I arrived. Like me, the cichèti were looking a little tired and dog-eared by late evening, so I ended the night with their excellent spritz, the classic Venetian cocktail (whose recipe Norman admits to nicking for Polpo).

Staggering back to my hotel I got lost for the umpteenth time. But then this, as much as the wine and the food, is the beauty of the bar crawl – it takes you through the medieval alleyways and floating magic of this amazing city.

British Airways (0844 4930787) flies to Venice Marco Polo from Gatwick from £95 rtn inc taxes, and from Heathrow from £136. Expedia (0871 226 0808) offers three nights B&B at the Hotel Gorizia A La Valigia from £214pp, or three nights at the waterfront Best Western Albergo San Marco from £204. Polpo (41 Beak Street London W1, +44 (0) 20-7734 4479).

Expensive Cities on the Cheap

Strategies for navigating notoriously pricey cities like Honolulu, London, New York, and Tokyo, along with unique experiences in each that won’t cost you a penny.

By Tim Leffel, Monday, Oct 20, 2008, 2:18 PM 

Big Ben and the London skyline
Big Ben and the London skyline (Goodshoot/Corbis)

At about $5 for a pint and $8 for a single Tube ride, that London pub crawl is going to cost you. But London does have a better choice of hotels in all ranges than most other European capitals, and most of its
fantastic museums are always free.

The foot of Powell Street in San Francisco is a downtown transportation hub (Phil Coblentz/San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau)

To find other bargains, go to the Budget section of Visit London for an exhaustive rundown of free attractions and performances, cheap eats, and inexpensive hotels. If you’re only going to be in London a short time and plan on buying theater tickets, you can save a small fortune by booking a Theater Breaks package with tickets and a hotel stay. Be sure to get an Oyster card if you’ll be using the Tube regularly; it cuts the ticket price down to a more bearable level.

Freebie Join a BBC show audience by reserving tickets for a TV-show taping—perhaps trivia with Brain of Britain or comedy with Grown Ups. Choose from a schedule of upcoming sessions and come ready to laugh or clap.

You know you’re in trouble when half of the “affordable tips” section of Tokyo’s website is devoted to ways to get from the airport to the city for under $40.

To find an affordable meal, eat at noodle stalls for under $10, or explore the unique Japanese culinary stop: the department store basement. Seibu Department Store in the Ikebukuro area is a destination in itself, with two giant underground floors of food stalls extending several city blocks. The prim uniformed greeters bow as you enter.

Book a free walking tour of the Shinjuku commercial avenue through the tourist office and you’ll get the lay of the land from English-speaking volunteers.

Freebie Gape at the neon city below from the 45th-floor observatory of the Tokyo government skyscraper. For only-in-Tokyo views of another sort, stroll through the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, otherwise known as the Tsukiji fish market. By either name it’s the world’s largest, with 1,400 stalls selling everything that moves in the ocean,as well as active auctions from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.

New York City gets a bad rap mostly because of its sky-high hotel prices. But beyond hotel doors, NYC is teeming with cheap or free events and attractions all year long.

If you’re around in the summer, look for free outdoor concerts in Bryant Park or during Central Park’s SummerStage series. On Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon and on Wednesdays, you don’t pay to enter The New York Botanical Garden. Every day is free at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Museum at the Hispanic Society, and the National Museum of the American Indian, the latter housed in the beautiful original Custom House building.

One silver lining in the recent economic meltdown is that prices are leveling off and even falling a bit at many New York hotels. If you don’t see a deal, try Hotwire and Priceline, where unbooked rooms go for a sizable discount. Also check BT’s recommendations: New York Hotels at a Price That’s Right.

Freebie Get a good look at the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline by taking a free cruise on the Staten Island Ferry. Join the commuters at dusk to watch the skyscrapers change as the sun goes down. There are also views of the Statue of Liberty from the Ikea Water Taxi, which makes the trip between Manhattan and Ikea’s new location in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Tip: On the way there, sit on the starboard/right side as you’re facing forward—and leave time to sample Ikea’s take on Swedish meatballs.

Expensive restaurants, pumped-up prices for foreigners at museums, and forgettable hotel rooms that can easily top $500 a night—what’s not to like?

Fortunately, parks and gardens cover almost a third of Moscow, and it’s easy to put together an interesting walking tour. Many guidebooks list routes that circle around the center, stop by all the historic churches, or explore the oldest section of the city, called Kitay gorod. If the weather isn’t ideal, go underground. Moscow’s metro stations are attractions of their own, impressive spaces alternately filled with mosaics, marble columns, and bronze statues. A one-way ride will cost you less than $1.

Avoid accommodations in the the pricey city center and instead find something near an outlying metro stop. You can reach the center within 30 minutes from almost any stop. If you’re staying for a few days to a week or traveling with a group, renting an apartment is an option. You’ll pay anywhere from $80 to $200 a night for a larger space with cooking facilities; browse

Freebie At Red Square, you’ll find Lenin’s Mausoleum, where His Waxiness has been embalmed since 1924. The line starts moving at 10 a.m.

France is so popular that restaurants and hotels don’t have to try very hard to stay full. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to save a euro besides sitting by the Seine eating baguettes and cheese.

The Vélib bike service launched in 2007. More than 20,000 bikes are kept in automated racks posted throughout the city, and the first half hour is free. Use your credit card if it has a smart chip; the chip is typically visible as a small gold or silver circuit board on the card. (some American Express cards, for example, will work.) Otherwise, you’ll need to buy a seven-day ticket for €5 to access the system. Pick up a free Paris a Vélo map for routes and bike paths. Find out about more European bike-sharing programs here

Freebie Hong Kong’s tourism board runs a wide variety of free culture classes in English. Learn the principles of feng shui one afternoon; then practice some moves with a tai chi master the next morning by the harbor.

There’s no getting around it: in L.A. you need a car and you’ll put a lot of mileage on it. You’re joining throngs of aspiring film and TV workers who are neither famous nor rich, so you can eat and have fun on the cheap if you know where to look.

Those in the know say L.A. has the best thrift shops in the U.S., and Hollywood estate sales turn up all kinds of goodies.

Cheap eats are plentiful: Try a double-double and a real milkshake from In-N-Out Burger, and stop by a taco stand for an authentic Mexican lunch.

For a quintessential L.A. experience, shell out $10 per person for a Sunday-night movie screening in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. You can bring a picnic dinner and a cooler of drinks—alcohol is permitted.

Freebie View the Hollywood sign and the city from the Griffith Observatory, or relive countless movie moments by admiring the sprawling city from nearby Mulholland Drive.
The beaches around L.A. are free and open to the public. Once you get north of Malibu to Zuma Beach and beyond, you can find free parking along the road.

Let’s see…take an isolated volcanic island chain in the Pacific and turn it into a tourist paradise full of golf courses and huge hotels. Only one problem: the costly long-distance shipping of everything but pineapples and poi.

Staying in a house or a condo with a kitchen helps. When stocking up on groceries, avoid the tourist centers and find a regular supermarket to save on your bill. Most restaurants in Waikiki are priced for tourists. To pay what the locals pay, head to Honolulu’s Chinatown, order Hawaiian-style fast food from one of 24 Zippy’s locations, or check out the Cheap Places to Eat in Oahu blog for ideas.

Freebie Learn to play the ukulele or dance the hula with free one-hour lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Center.

Get a free big-wave surf show between November and February by heading out of town and up to Oahu’s North Shore. Many of the world’s premier surfing competitions are held here, with waves that can swell to 30 feet.

There’s a lot to love about this city, but the dramatic hilltop vistas come with nosebleed prices for hotels and restaurants in prime areas.

The gap between expensive restaurants and cheap ethnic dives here is as wide as the San Francisco Bay. To eat great Chinese food on the cheap, avoid the spots decorated with pagodas and dragons, with waitresses in floor-length silk pajamas. Instead, find the alley spots away from tourist areas—the ones with Formica tables and a staff that barely speaks English. Z&Y Garden, Y. Ben House, and Hang Ah Tea Room are good places to start. Then next meal, hit one of the Mission District taquerias to stuff yourself as full as a burrito for $10 or so, drink included.

If you’re traveling with a bike or in-line skates, you can move freely through the eastern half of Golden Gate Park on carless Sundays. Hiking trails in the hills of Berkeley and Oakland offer panoramic views of the whole area. You can also get some exercise and some interesting photo ops by strolling 1.7 miles (each way) across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The new CultureBus is $7 for an all-day unlimited pass, and it allows you to get on and off at many of the top museums and parks. Read more about it on our blog.

Freebie The volunteer San Francisco City Guides organization has been running walking tours for 30 years. Each day presents a menu of choices, like a “Bawdy and Naughty” tour of Gold Rush-era brothels and dives downtown or a tour of the famous Haight-Ashbury district.

Hotels and attractions in this popular European capital are jammed with tourists—especially in the summer—and eating out can make you say “Mama Mia!” when the check arrives.

On the other hand, getting around Rome by bus and metro is downright cheap: €4 for a one-day pass or €11 for a three-day tourist ticket (the BTI). Or just hop on the #40 express and get a scenic tour from the Vatican to Termini Station by way of the Forum, Piazza Venezia, and the Tiber River.

The Europeans love their bottled water, but that doesn’t mean you have to shell out €2 or €3 for it every time you get thirsty. Buy yours at a supermarket instead, and refill it from one of the many public drinking fountains: the water’s perfectly drinkable.

To eat well without breaking the bank, visit a pizza-by-the-slice place or a tavola calda (hot table) cafeteria, where you pick from a selection of meats and vegetables. If you manage to hit a bakery at closing time, you might luck out with a bag full of extra goodies thrown in gratis.

Freebie There are more than 20,000 pieces on display at the Numismatic Museum of the Italian Mint, where you can learn about evolving money-making techniques. Show your ID to obtain the free entrance pass. A free daily puppet show (granted, in Italian) at Park Gianicolo on Janiculum Hill has panoramic city views for a backdrop.

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For the best bargains, Join the Locals

‘When in Rome …’ is great advice for thrifty-minded travelers.

By Tim Leffel
MSNBC Travel News

A funny thing happens after living in a foreign place for a few months: The cost of living starts falling. It feels like magic, but it’s not. What happens is that the new resident figures out who has the entertainment freebies, how to get around for less money, and where to get a great meal for a good price. Spending less becomes almost effortless.
You may not be a savvy local the first day you land in a new destination, but you don’t have to be a clueless tourist with a wide-open wallet, either. If you just take on the attitude of a local, the battle is half won.
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