Italian birthday celebration
I am in the process of planning 16 days of adventure to celebrate a very special birthday the end of October. We are flying in and out of Milan and in addition to fulfilling my dream of celebrating the big event in Tuscany, we will be spending time in Venice, Florence and Cirque Terre. We are not going to Naples or Rome. Ideally, I would like to rent a villa in Tuscany for a week that is centrally located so we don't have to pack up every few days. Does anyone have any recommendations of a town? We are planning to rent a car for that week so we can go to the vineyards in the country etc. Any restaurant recommendations would also be greatly appreciated. Should we plan on spending a few days in Florence and then heading to the less populated areas? Friends have recommended Bologna, Lucca and Radda. We want to "experience Italy" not be a typical tourist and have found dining with the locals is always more enjoyable and we're usually served better food at a lower cost. Is 3 days in Milan and 3 days in Venice and the remaining 9 days in Tuscany the right amount of time to relax, eat delicious food. drink great wines and enjoy Italy? Thank you for assisting me so my dream can come true!
I am a huge fan of Lucca since it is a delightful walled city with a close by train station, just outside the walls which makes it a short hour trip to Florence. It has escaped mass tourism because there simply are not enough hotels in this small, elegant city that has had a unique history in Italy and always independently wealthy as a center for the Italian silk industry. It was also the birthplace of Puccini and any love affair with Italy gets a special boost being associated with his life and gorgeous music. The passagiata in the early evening is particularly special in this town because of its array of very enticing and elegant pastry shops. It is a very intimate city with little car traffic and wide tree line walls where you can walk around in the shade and take peeks in people's back yards to see "real life" in this well-preserved and historic city.
Milan and Venice are not typically places to relax. Milan is a busy, noisy crowded city and Venice is always overrun with tourists. But Venice needs to be seen and experienced and 3 days would be wonderful but not sure you need 3 days in Milan, though it does reveal lovely secrets when one takes the time to get to know it, but wonder if it needs this sort of attention on this trip for you.
A good compromise would be to spend a few days in Desenzano on Lake Garda which is on the main train route an hour or so away from Milan and an hour and so away from Venice. It is a small little town of great charm and some really terrific dining options. Easy to walk around, see wonderful views, shop the open air market on Tuesday mornings, take a boat trip to Sirmione for its very romantic castle and roman ruins and stop in Verona maybe on your way to Venice.
You might want to look at the SlowFoods guide for small hotels and restaurants in Italy to get a better idea of special, really "Italian" places to both visit and use as your base on what sounds like a wonderful trip (that will take a lot of logistical planning but with online reservations, this is now highly doable) Venere.com has been very good for hotel and other accomdation reservations. And I provided a link for the SlowFoods Italian guide on another link just a few days ago if you search this forum.
At the end of October, you will definitely be in the fall season in Italy - Venice should not be overrun with tourists, and should be a very pleasant place to experience. there should be mushrooms in the markets of Italy and maybe even some fresh olive oil, as well as delicious grapes, apples. pears etc.
It may be a bit rainly - dont expect steady sunny days at that time of year.
Check out Castello di Gargonza where you can rent a lovely little house for a week - centrally located for touring tuscany. and with beautiful views of the surrounding country side. They also have a good restaurant on the premises, serving rustic dishes including wild boar, and using their own oils etc.
Lucca is also beautiful and a good food destination - it would also be convenient for day trips to Cinqueterre.
We too found Milan less than relaxing, its a large bustling city - its charms are not obvious, though it has some wonderful cultural attractions and, Im sure, excellent eating. Bergamo which is the next major town down the line toward Venice has a lot more charm in its old city, a wonderful setting and some excellent restaurants, if you want to kick back.
glbtrtr has some good suggestions for source materials above.
On my last trip to Italy, we stayed at Podere Collelungo in Castillena in Chianti. We rented a small apartment that was quite comfortable and was in a perfect location for exploring Tuscany. I especially liked that we had a kitchen, so I could shop locally and cook if I chose to, and we had an outdoor patio for al fresco dining. I'd definitely go back again if I were planning on being in Tuscany. http://www.tuscany.net/collelungo
I should mention that a car is absolutely necessary if you stay there. We found that having a car was also wonderful for exploring the wine-producing areas.
One of our most memorable side trips, as recommended to us by our hotel manager near Milano, was to the Lago Maggiore (Stresa and Baveno). The area is lovely, food is great. Best part of the trip was a visit (ferry from Baveno) to the Isola Bella, which has an extremely beautiful villa, visitable for an admission charge. It is like a French chateau, but with distinctive Italian touches, such as floors made of blacka nd white pebbles and stones. Gardens are also lovely. Another picturesque stop on the ferry route going to or returning from Isola Bella is the Isola Pescatore, an old fishing village/island.