How to Find the Perfect Tuscan Villa
So you’ve been craving that Tuscan Sun after reading, and hearing, and watching all the movies, documentaries, TV shows, cooking shows, magazines, and being basically smothered in “Tuscan everything”. Now you’ve decided to finally do something about it and indulge in your own ‘Tuscan heaven’, the perfect vacation among the softly-shaped hills covered with vineyards, olive trees, and cypresses in one of Italy’s most enchanting regions. But what now? Could this dream destination possibly turn into the worst vacation of your life? Don’t make assumptions when traveling abroad, people live differently so you may not find things the way they are in the USA.
Avoid nightmare-like situations with these useful pointers.
1. Location, location, location. This goes not only for business, but for renting a villa in Italy as well. Many have ended up in remote locations, isolated from everything, with no access to main roads for miles. Make sure you look at a map before booking a villa, consider the relations in distances to the major cities, as well as nearby towns. If you’re planning on taking day-trips, make sure you’re not too far from a highway or “autostrada”, in Italian. Keep in mind that most villas for rent are actually part of a working farm, which means, you will not be in walking distance to towns or shops. When you’re on a farm, you can enjoy the wonderful country views, nature walks, and silence. Villas in Italy are usually called “Agriturismo”, which basically means “agricultural tourism”, a farm that offers hospitality services by renting out one or more of its houses on the property, that’s all.
2. An empty house. Yes, that’s what you get when you rent a ‘villa’. Unless you go to a hotel or B&B, villas don’t provide many services for customers, sometimes there is no reception at all. It’s usually a house with basic, traditional country furniture, linens, silverware, dishes, pots & pans, towels, appliances such as a TV, fridge, dishwasher. Hmm... yeah, that’s about it! Some places may provide soap, dishwashing fluid, washing machine detergent, and toilet paper. So, you will be responsible for food, bottled water, juices, wine, and anything else you’re going to need during your stay. If you have particular needs, make sure you ask the booking agent first. Also, Italians don’t use dryers, because they are known to use up a lot of energy, which is very expensive in Italy, so the way Italians dry their clothes is on a clothes line. Sometimes you can find foldable clothes lines that you can use indoors if it’s rainy outside. Washing machines are typically available in a villa, but they are front-loading and sometimes tricky to function. The wash cycle goes on much longer than the average US machine cycle, so don’t be concerned if you’re clothes are being washed for over 2 hours. They will come out really clean!!
3. Look at the big picture. There are litterally hundreds, if not thousands of choices out there.. just try to Google “villa in Italy” and see how many results you get! Pretty scary, huh? The best way to pick one is obviously word of mouth. If your friend got back from a spectacular place and you’ve seen the pictures, try to get the contact information. If you are starting from scratch and you’re randomly picking out photos of beautiful villas from websites, again, make sure you know exactly where this place is in relation to everything. Also, don’t just look at pictures of rooms and interiors, but have the contact person send you pictures of the views around the property. The last place you want to be is overlooking a massive industrial plant or worse, having a high-voltage tower right outside your room!
4. When should I go and how long should I stay? You will be spending most of your days outside, so good weather is key when planning a countryside stay. The best time to rent a villa in central Italy (Umbria, Tuscany, Marche) is in Spring (end of April, May, June) and Fall (September, October). As many villas do not have air-conditioning, I would not recommend going during the uncomfortably hot summer months, not just for the high temperatures, but also for the presence of mosquitos and other bugs. Winter can be cold, rainy, and overall gloomy. The hills are stripped of the bright greens and yellows that you find during the other seasons. If you decide to rent a place (house, apartment, etc.) in Southern Italy, as much as the weather can actually be sunny throughout the year, the best time to go is during the Summer months, because this is when most services (both private and public transportation, ferry boats, guides, tours and excursions, etc.) are available. Many villas are rented by the week, so if you want to stay less than that, sometimes you may be required to pay for the entire week regardless. A common assumption that Americans make is to find screened windows. Italians rarely use screens, windows have all different shapes and sizes, so you may want to pack an extra bottle of mosquito-repellent or even better, your own netting and some double-sided tape. I do not advise to bring thumb tacks, because they will leave holes in the window frame. So, one more reason to go when the weather is cool enough that you can leave the windows closed and keep the bugs out.
5. Renting a car. Consider that most villas are, erhm, in the countryside, which means they could be off completely unlit, unpaved roads, isolated on top of a steep hill, surrounded by nothing but trees. If you are staying for a week or more, you should entertain the idea of renting a car, as intimidating as this may be, it may be a necessary evil. As you will need to buy your own groceries and other consumable goods, your only choice for transportation may be a car. If instead you will not stay that long, the best option is to hire a private driver for a few days, which in the end may actually save you money and time. Private drivers don’t just know all the bumps in the roads, they are licensed professionals with special permits that will allow them to drive you directly in city centers. Usually all expenses are included in the quoted rate: the vehicle, gas, highway tolls, parking fees, the driver’s meals, etc. I think this is a great option if you want to spend more time enjoying the sites, food & wine, and less time trying to figure out where to get gas, and how to get back home after a long dinner of feasting.
6. Kids or no kids? The small hilltop towns can be very fun for children, but keep in mind that there isn’t much to do besides visting farms & vineyards... and towns. Your time at the villa can be very relaxing as you enjoy the views, but for kids who are used to be very active it may turn out to be boring after a while. So make sure you ask the place you intend to stay if they offer cooking classes, excursions, horse-back riding, or other activities for adults and kids.
7. Learn Italian! This is highly advised if you are going to be outside of an urban area, especially if you’re going to do the driving. Getting lost is easier than you think when there aren’t many landmarks around. Also, Italian street signs are often terribly confusing, so knowing some Italian will come in handy when you need directions or need to find a pharmacy/bank/grocery store/gas station/internet access/post office/etc. Most people who live in the country are the elders who don’t speak English, so make sure you do your homework (litterally) and take some Italian lessons before taking that plane!!
Use this list of 20 questions to get the information you need before signing any papers.
Questions to ask when booking a villa:
1. Will someone meet me at the villa and explain how everything works? Whom do I call if I have questions or problems? Whom do I call to arrange local activities and excursions? What are their working hours and when is their day off?
2. Will a “house instructions book” or other binder of instructions await me at the villa?
3. Insist on driving directions to the villa and a map to illustrate them, a list of what’s at the house and what you’ll need to bring, and information on activities and excursions that should be booked in advance.
4. What day-trips are easily made from this villa? How long a drive is it, in minutes (distance can be deceiving when you are not familiar with what conditions the roads are in), to the things I want to do and see?
5. What is the weather like in the season when I will be there?
6. How close is the nearest village with stores and restaurants? To get to sights in other towns, is the villa near transportation (e.g., a train station) or will I need a car?
7. Consider a villa’s location and the driving times to the activities you plan to pursue. An unpaved ten-mile road with hairpin turns, for instance, can take an hour to navigate. Is the villa on an unpaved road? How rough is the road, and for what distance?
8. What features does the villa have to keep our group entertained (for instance, satellite TV, a DVD player, a pool, a game room, ping pong table, a library)?
9. Does this villa have any features that render it unsafe for the very young or the very old? Do the staircases have railings? If there’s a pool, is it gated? Is it heated? Are fireplaces screened? Would a traveler with physical limitations have any trouble at the property (e.g., stairs, bathtubs, accessing it from the parking area)? If anyone in your group has special needs, be sure to mention these to the villa agent.
10. Is the villa staffed? If not, will I be able to hire staff (e.g., a cook, butler, maid) if needed? Do you provide housekeeping services more often than the once-a-week, which is standard for most villas?
11. Is there a phone? Is there internet access? If so, what is the charge?
12. Is there air-conditioning/heating? If so, what is the charge for using it?
13. Is the kitchen fully equipped? Is there an American-style coffeemaker? A microwave? An outdoor grill?
14. Will I need to bring any linens, such as beach towels?
15. What are the local store hours? If I arrive on Saturday evening, which stores are open on Sunday so I can buy provisions and supplies? How many minutes’ drive are these stores from the house? Is it better for me to stop at the store en route from the airport to the villa? If so, exactly what will I need to buy? Alternatively, can someone stock the fridge for me in advance and buy any household supplies we will need?
16. Can I pay for the villa with a credit card? What is your cancellation policy?
17. What are all the different extra expenses that I might incur?
18. Are multiple sets of keys available in case different members of the group wish to split up for the day?
19. Does a fence separate the property from the main road? Have there ever been security issues?
20. Is a safe or lockbox of some kind provided? Securing valuables and travel documents should be routine whenever you’re away from home.
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