Archive for November, 2008
If your mental image of Tuscany is all golden sunshine and vines heavy with overripe grapes… you’ve never seen Florence when it rains. Showers come quickly – once, standing in a sunny piazza, I turned to see a wall of rain sweeping from one end to the other. I had time to pull out an umbrella, and had a good laugh as less observant pedestrians cried out and ran for the nearest shelter.
I’m sure they weren’t disappointed; one of the most charming experiences in the world is joining the mad dash into the nearest church sanctuary. Dismayed chatter falls to a reverent hush; wet clothing is forgotten as everyone stops to admire vaulted ceilings aglow with flickering candlelight. And afterward, when the rain passes, the world is clean and fresh. The marbled pinks and greens of the duomo glow, and terracotta roof tiles turn rust-red.
This is Christmas in Tuscany.
And if you’ve come here wondering if its wise or wonderful to visit Tuscany at Christmastime – yes, it’s both. Crowds are fewer, prices are cheaper, and it’s a gorgeous time of year. Here are some a few special things to look for.
Christmas Markets: Called Mercatini di Natale in Italian, Christmas Markets are a tradition imported from Germany. Outdoor stalls spring up in various places, filled with goodies of all kinds. You’ll find handmade crafts (think leather), ornaments, and absolutely amazing food. In Florence, you should find the biggest area in the Piazza Santa Croce. If you want even more food, check out the Mercato Centrale (be aware most vendors open early and close around 2 p.m.).
Ice Skating in Florence: An outdoor rink can be found at the Parterre Piazza delle Liberta. It’s 20 meters by 30 meters and accommodates 200 people. I’ve been told on Christmas morning, only children are allowed onto the rink, where they can greet Santa Claus – or, as he is known in Italy, Babbo Natale!
Concerts and Exhibitions: Not surprisingly, music and art abound throughout Tuscany. You can find concerts all over the place no matter what time of year it is, but they’re especially atmospheric at Christmastime. For a current list of things happening in and around Florence, go to the official tourism website, www.firenzeturismo.it. Then scroll down to the middle of the page and click on the red magnifying glass icon labeled “Trova.” A little drop-down menu appears; click “eventi.” And… voila! You can now view all events during a particular time period. You can also select Florence or a number of outlying smaller cities and towns, such as Certaldo or Bagno a Ripoli. (Note: This website can be seriously annoying, so if you’re planning on renting through RentVillas.com give us a ring and one of our Travel Advisors will help you out.)
Nativity Scenes: In Italy, Christmas trees definitely play second fiddle to Nativity Scenes, or presepio. St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have created the first one in the year 1223, and the tradition took off from there. Now you’ll find a scene in almost every church, some of them quite elaborate. Families put together their own nativity scenes, and in Florence there’s a public competition for the best one! Some churches will even organize a living nativity for a night or two. Small nativity scenes made of wood or plaster (often sold at Christmas markets) also make wonderful gifts for friends and family who weren’t able to join you on your trip!
As you can see, there’s no shortage of activities in Tuscany in the winter months. Yes, some museums will have sightly shorter hours, and some restaurants will be closed on holidays. Yes, it may rain – or even snow! Nevertheless, it’s a small price to pay for this much charm.
Nothing is so beautiful as Christmas in the City of Lights. If you’re contemplating a winter holiday in Paris, rest assured that it’s an unparalleled delight! There are a couple of extra challenges, but the special events and sights offered only during Christmastime more than compensate. So here’s your handy Paris Christmas guide!
Transportation: The metro and RER are both open during the holidays, even Christmas Day, so no worries there. Cabs will also be running, although you can assume a lesser number will be out-and-about. I suggest jotting down the number of a cab company “just in case.”
Closures: Most closures for major sights will be on Christmas Day, December 25th. You may also find some things closed on the 26th, which is likewise a holiday. Smaller restaurants are likely to shut down on these dates, but you’ll never have any problem finding food in the major tourist areas.
Christmas Markets: From the end of November to Christmas, outdoor markets pop up all over the city. Stalls feature handmade crafts, ornaments, and all sorts of delightful seasonal gifts. When it gets closer to the end of November you should be able to find a list of markets on the offical Paris Tourism website (just search “Christmas Markets”). Alternately, just ask around – they’re everywhere!
Outdoor Ice Skating: In the wintertime, the front of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) is transformed into a giant outdoor skating rink. Très romantique!
Midnight Mass: Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur both have midnight masses. To clarify, that means the midnight that ends the 24th day and begins the 25th. Notre Dame also has other masses and events, notably a concert on Christmas Day. You can see the schedule for Christmas as well as any other day on the Notre Dame website. Although there is a English color-code for the type of event, the schedule itself is in French – so if you need help with anything specific let me know and I’ll check it out. Although less informative, Sacre Coeur also has a website.
Tea House: This isn’t specifically a Christmas event, but it comes highly recommended from one of our travel advisors. She says, “My favorite tea house, Angelina, is right across the street from the Louvre. Their hot chocolate (Chocolat Africains) is something you’ll never taste again in your life. It is a wonderful and very French experience!”
Address: 226 rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris
Phone: 01 42 60 82 00
Directions: Near Jardin de Tuileries west of Louvre next to the Hôtel Meurice on the r. de Rivoli, around the corner from the r. de Castiglione.
Métro: Concorde or Tuileries
The Usual Suspects: Here are holiday-season days and times for a few of the major attractions.
The Louvre: Open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Tuesday and the following holidays: January 1st, May 1st, November 11 and December 25, 2008. The permanent collection and temporary exhibitions will close at 5 p.m. on December 24 and 31, 2008 (Wednesday). Louvre website.
Musee D’Orsay: Open from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except Mondays; late night on Thursdays until 9.45 p.m. Last tickets sold at 5 p.m. (9 p.m. Thursdays); museum cleared at 5.30 p.m. (9.15 p.m. Thursdays); closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25. Musee D’Orsay website.
Versailles: Closed on Christmas, and perhaps the day after. Open from 9:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Versailles website.
Tour Eiffel: Open every day! Hours are 9.30 a.m. to 11.45 p.m., and the last ascent starts at 10 p.m. Eiffel Tower website.
Of course, in addition to all of these things, Paris will also be filled with – what else? – lights. Christmas trees will be everywhere. Everyone will be in a festive mood, and the chilly weather will be perfect for a hearty winter meal, a stroll down the Champs-Élysées, or a cup of hot cocoa shared with your significant other.
One of the great delights of staying in an Italian villa is the opportunities you have to shop for fresh produce. Virtually all towns in Italy have an outdoor market, usually once a week (ask around to find out which day). But regardless of whether you’re at a market, a small grocery, or a supermarket, there is just one rule to remember when shopping for food in Italy: DO NOT TOUCH THE PRODUCE. We’re quite used to handling our apples and oranges in the US, but in Italy it is considered very rude!
In an outdoor market, you should indicate which fruits or vegetables you need, and the seller will pick out the best specimens for you. Don’t try to indicate that you don’t, for example, want that slightly green lemon – picking out produce is a point of honor for sellers, and rejecting his/her choice is an insult! Another thing to note about open markets in Italy is that there is no bargaining. In Italy, a price is a price.
In a small grocery, you still can’t touch the produce! Instead, wait until an employee comes to help you. Indicate you choices and the employee will pick the produce and put it in a bag.
If you really need control over your produce selection, try a large supermarket: here you will be provided with plastic gloves so that you can pick your own fruits and vegetables. Weigh each bag and punch a button for that particular item, whereupon a machine will dispense a sticker that you should put on the bag before taking it to the checkout line.
Another great place to pick up some traditional Italian food is a deli. There are no special rules here (although you might have to “take a number” or wait in line). Pick up delicious marinated meats, prepared olives, artichoke salads, roasted peppers, fresh mozzarella, and everything else you might find at a full-service American deli – only better!
Good packing can make the difference between a brisk walk to another terminal and a missed-plane disaster; between exploring all day and “sitting this one out” to nurse swollen blisters; between sleeping soundly and staying up all night to a symphony of barking dogs. So pack light – and smart! Here’s how.
Clothes: Layers! Take a few light short-sleeved shirts and two good pairs of pants. After that, pack one or two long-sleeved shirts that can be worn over the t-shirts, a sweater, a canvas hat, and a waterproof windbreaker with a hood. If you have clothes that layer well, topped off with the windbreaker, you won’t need a jacket. You’ll be tromping around more than you think, and in the course of even the coldest day you’ll start stripping off those layers one by one. And yes, it is true that Europeans generally dress more formally than Americans, so keep that in mind if you want to “blend in.” For the ladies, bring one wrinkle-free black dress – this can be accessorized for any occasion.
Shoes and socks: When it comes to shoes, comfort comes first. This is not the time to break in a new pair or suffer for the sake of fashion. After a day traipsing through ancient ruins, up and down city blocks, or around an alpine lake, those frumpy old tennis shoes are going to be your new best friends. Another way to keep your feet happy is to carry an extra pair of (new) socks. Changing into a clean pair at noon is an easy way to refresh your tired toes! Also bring a pair of flip flops or sandals. These will come in handy at the beach, or just bumming around your villa or apartment.
Miscellany: So you’ve got your clothes, your shoes, and your toothbrush… that covers everything you’d need for a hotel. But you’ve rented a villa, which means you’ll be on your own. What do you bring to make your rental as comfy as home?
1) Ziplock bags (in many sizes) are practically weightless – great for storing leftovers, small gifts, damp clothing, jewelry… and everything else. Pack empty baggies, pack baggies with cooking spices (salt, pepper, etc), and pack baggies with laundry soap (for machine or hand use).
2) A sharp knife will do wonders for your Italian cooking! Knives are probably the most-used kitchen item in any rental, which means they dull quickly. If you’re planning on cooking, definitely bring one of your own.
3) A book of matches and a pair of earplugs never did anyone any harm. Other small but handy items include a stain remover stick, flashlight, sewing kit, and multipurpose tool (a Swiss Army knife or my tool of choice, the Leatherman).
4) Insect repellant. This may come as a surprise… but Europe has mosquitoes, too!
5) Baby wipes are the salvation of any seasoned traveler. These can be used in lieu of napkins, hand soap, toilet paper, a clean restaurant table, and even a shower. A pack of tissue works nearly as well… except for showers.
6) Airborne is the closest thing to magic I have found. Take a water-soluble tablet before you get on the plane or whenever you’ll be exposed to large crowds – and avoid whatever plague may be circulating locally.
7) Beach towels are usually not provided at villas, although standard bathroom towels are. I recommend buying them cheap and leaving them behind.
Cell Phones: I highly recommend taking a cell phone to your European rental. If you have a dual- or tri-band cell phone, you should be able to use it with your current plan, but it’s more affordable to contact your provider and ask them how to “unlock” your phone. You can then purchase a pre-paid SIM Card that will work like a local number while in Europe. If you need a dual band cell phone, you can rent one.
Space: That’s right, take along some extra room! Take a larger bag than you need, pack a collapsible canvas tote, or take things (like toiletries, paperbacks, and even clothes) that you wouldn’t mind replacing if they had to make room for that precious new pair of Italian leather shoes…
Finally, remember that packing is a vital part of the villa experience. So don’t let it wait until the last minute! Make your list now and check it twice – or even thrice – before you go.
If you don’t know what you’re looking for, picking “THE” villa can be a nerve-wracking experience. In essence, it will be the foundation of your trip, so picking a property you’ll be happy with is important! But how do you know, when you’ve never been there?
Answering the following questions will help order your thoughts and give focus to your search.
What do you see when you imagine yourself stepping out the front door of your villa? Are you surrounded by rolling vineyards, a verdant forest, or craggy sea cliffs? If more than one setting would make you happy, that’s fine! It will give your travel advisor some flexibility when he or she is recommending villas you might like.
2. Surrounding area
What do you want to find in the area nearby your villa? Some visitors want easy access to a grocery store; others want to be miles from nowhere. Perhaps you’d like a leisurely walk into town or down to the beach. Or maybe you want to be in the center of all the action?
How do you expect to get around the area? Are you comfortable driving a car, or will you be using public transportation?
Beyond sightseeing, what activities would you like to arrange? Do you want to go hiking, biking, or horseback riding? Or maybe you prefer to eat at a different fine restaurant every night and visit local wineries.
Does anyone in your party have physical limitations? This is a very important point – not just with regard to obvious physical disabilities, but also general fitness. The Amalfi Coast, for example, is nearly verticle, and visitors must be prepared to climb many steps every day.
5. Room Assignments
Consider your companions. Would some people be willing to share a bathroom, or does each couple need their own en suite? Are there any teenagers who might be content on a sofa bed?
Are there certain items you just can’t live with out? For example, a dishwasher or a washing machine? Also think about which areas of the house are most important. Will your group want to have a big kitchen where they can all have cooking lessons together? Or maybe you want to spend your afternoons around a nice big pool.
Having at least a few of these questions answered before you talk to a travel advisor will speed up the process considerably. Finally, remember to ask the other members of your group for input! You want a villa rental everyone can enjoy.
Renting a villa allows you to experience a culture from the inside out, but it’s not for everyone. As you weigh the villa vs. hotel option, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Busy vs. Relaxed
When you travel, do you try to visit as many places as possible and see everything you can? Or do you prefer to travel at a more leisurely pace, taking in the countryside, absorbing the culture, and reserving time for R&R?
Villas are a good fit for people who subscribe to the “slow travel” philosophy– where the objective is to “live” versus “stay” in a location. Most properties rent on a weekly basis, which means your villa will act as the base for your explorations– a familiar place to return to each afternoon. Many villas have pools and gardens where you can relax and wind down. You’ll be able to shop locally and prepare meals at home. This doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t see all the major attractions, too, but it does likely mean that they will be a little lower on your priority list. Instead of spending a week in a central Florence hotel, you may, for example, take the train in for just one or two days.
2. Group vs. Couple
Villa renting is a fantastic option for a group of any size. Rather than being boxed into individual hotel rooms, a villa gives a group room to congregate as well as find personal space for downtime. In a hotel you might have to gather in one room, or meet in the lobby– whereas in a villa you’ll have a furnished living room. The kids can run around outside, and if you want a sit-down family meal you can do that, too. Another plus: The bigger the group, the lower the cost per person!
A villa or apartment can also be a good choice for a couple. If you’re traveling alone or with one other person, the price for a one-bedroom rental is probably going to be comparable to a hotel. However, unless it’s a studio, rental apartments will still have a living room and a kitchen, giving you more space and flexibility.
3. Cultural Experience vs. Convenience
Part of the attraction of renting a villa (or an apartment) is the cultural experience it offers. If your villa is located, for example, in the Tuscan countryside, you’ll find yourself happening upon wineries and hill towns that you may not find in any guidebook. You’ll also be able to shop local markets for fresh fruit and vegetables; not only is this fun to do, it saves you money! It’s definitely not an experience you can get while staying in a hotel. Do remember, however, that you’ll be interacting with locals rather than businesses that cater to tourists, so be prepared to pull out your English-Italian dictionary or put your pantomime skills to the test!
Villa renting requires an independent spirit. While sometimes you’ll find a book of restaurant and activity suggestions provided by the owner, it’s really up to you to plan your itinerary and orient yourself. If you’re the type of traveler who prefers a tour guide, or wants someone else to worry about the details, then a hotel might likely be a better fit.
Hotels do have one major convenience that villas don’t: a front desk. At RentVillas.com, you’ll be paired with an expert Travel Advisor, and you’ll be met by a keyholder or owner at the property– but in most cases nobody will be on call 24/7. If the washing machine stops working at 10 PM, you’ll have to wait until morning to call someone. And if it’s broken, it might be a day or so before it’s fixed. Most of the time these things don’t happen, but occasionally, they do!
But think about this: How many hotel rooms have a washing machine? Or a kitchen? Or a garden? And how many amazing cultural experiences happen because you got lost or because you had to ask the neighbor for help? Yes, having a concierge to answer every question and fix every problem is convenient, but it also eliminates an element of surprise and exploration!
As you can see, making the villa vs. hotel choice depends a lot on your personality and what kind of travel you prefer. In general, villa renters tend to be open-minded, adventurous people with an appreciation for good food, good wine, and good company. Are you among them?