Twice the Tuscany, Half the Cost

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San Gimignano, Lucca, Montepulciano, and Siena

Tuscany tops its billing. It is an Arcadian countryside strung with grapevines, shimmering silver with olive trees, and peppered with medieval hilltowns and ancient art-stuffed cities. Tuscany is the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florentine steaks, and Chianti wine- an earthly Eden, a must-see stop on big bus tours and a playground for rich wine snobs. Yet the very richness and variety of its culture ensures there's always a budget alternative to $100 wines and $500 hotel rooms. We're going to enjoy Tuscan feasts for under $15, sample some of Italy's greatest wines for free, admire masterful fourteenth- and fifteenth-century frescoes in churches and cheap civic museums, and stay in rooms with a view for under $50. We'll do that by avoiding familiar Florence and tourist-jammed Pisa (where the newly reopened Leaning Tower costs a ridiculous E15/$13.75 to climb) in favor of four alternative urban wonders just a few kilometers away. Two of our towns are also tourist favorites but hide a budget side: Siena, a Gothic city of brick palazzi and notoriously friendly citizens, famous for turning out major saints, sinful cookies, and colorful Gothic frescoes; and San Gimignano, a "Medieval Manhattan" of more than a dozen stone skyscrapers. Two others are on the brink of discovery, beloved by discriminating travelers but as yet bypassed by the big tour buses: Elegant Lucca with its pretty churches and preference for bicycles over cars, and wine-soaked Montepulciano, where wine tasting is free and Renaissance palaces sit atop a labyrinth of aging cellars. (The room rates we cite below are totals for a double room, and the restaurant prices cover a full meal-pasta, main course, and dessert-with wine, water, and cover charge.)

Lucca

Lucca (just next to Pisa) is a genteel, unjustifiably overlooked city set into plains that wash up against the foothills of the snowcapped Apuan Alps, where Michelangelo mined his marble. The choirs of its Romanesque churches once rang with the young voices of future composers Puccini and Boccherini. Puccini warbled at San Michele in Foro, which rises at the very center of town on the site of Lucca's ancient forum. The church's lofty facade is distinctive of the local Romanesque style, a towering stack of open arcades kneeling on rows of midget, mismatched columns. The stack of thirteenth-century facade arcades on the Duomo di San Martino cathedral hangs above a portico packed with medieval carvings and sculptures. The sacristy (E1.65/$1.50) preserves Lucca's great art treasure, Jacopo della Quercia's masterly early Renaissance tomb of Ilaria Guinigi, a tragic beauty who married the town boss before dying at 26. The cathedral's religious treasure is the Volto Santo, a time-blackened Christ that legend holds was carved by Nicodemus himself (it's probably a thirteenth-century copy of an eighth-century Syrian work).

This ancient town still preserves its Roman street plan, including Piazza Anfiteatro, an oval of medieval buildings grafted onto the remains of an ancient amphitheater within a circuit of massive sixteenth-century brick bastions. The broad ramparts were turned into a narrow city park by Princess Elisa Bacciocchi, Napol,on's sister, whose regency ended Lucca's long centuries as an independent republic. It's now a grand tree-shaded avenue thronged with Luccans strolling or riding their bicycles. Luccans far prefer biking to driving, and you'll find few cars within the walls (rent your own cycle wheels for about E2.20/$2 per hour at the rental outfits on Piazza Santa Maria). At 4:30 p.m., locals line up at the Art Nouveau take-out window of Amadeo Giusti, Via Santa Lucia 18-20, to snack on Lucca's best pizza bianca (white pizza). They then take the snack on their evening passeggiata (after-dinner stroll) along shop-lined Via Fillungo, popping into historic 1846 Antico Caff, di Simo at no. 58 for an espresso or Campari.

Luccan lodging

Lucca's best hotels are all small family-run affairs. Phone ahead to book at the excellent Piccolo Hotel Puccini, run by the wonderfully helpful Paolo, a block from central Piazza San Michele (Via di Poggio 9; 0583-55-421, hotelpuccini.com, E80/$73.45 per double room; breakfast E3.50/$3.20). On a pocket-size piazza off Via Fillungo sits the amiable La Luna, where seventeenth-century frescoes decorate a few of the otherwise contemporary rooms (Corte Compagni 12; 0583-493-634, hotellaluna.com, E99/$90.80 per double; breakfast E10.50/$9.65). Cheapest of the lot, half a block from the Duomo near the city's southern walls, simple little Albergo Diana is divided into a main hotel and a slightly more luxurious, more expensive annex; the staff is sometimes unfriendly (Via Molinetto 11; 0583-492-202, albergodiana.com, E52-E83/$47.75-$76.20 per double room; breakfast ... la carte from E3.50/$3.20). Luccan meals Lucca sports three excellent trattorie serving up inexpensive, heaping portions of Lucchese dishes, including zuppa di farro (emmer wheat soup). Trattoria Da Leo is the old-fashioned lunch spot of choice for locals just off the central Piazza San Michele (Via Tegrimi 1; 0583-492-236, meals around E20/$18.35). The huge Da Giulio packs them in for dinner, making up for a lack of graceful decor with quality cooking and smiling service (Via Conce 45/Piazza San Donato, 0583-55-948, E20/$18.35). Papa runs the single room of homey Da Guido, mamma runs the kitchen, and there's a TV blaring in the corner (Via Cesare Battisti 28; 0583-476-219, E14/$12.85). For a lighter meal in Lucca, head to Pizzeria da Felice for excellent pizza by the slice, local specialty flatbreads cecina (made with chickpeas) and chestnut-flour castagnaccio stuffed with sweet ricotta (Via Buia 12; 0583-494-986, E4.55/$4.20).

Siena

Siena is a city in hilltown clothing. Its Gothic brick palazzi and marble Baroque church facades are splayed along three ridge tops centered along a trio of (usually) car-free boulevards: Shopping drag Via Banchi di Sopra, touristy Via di Citt..., and quiet Via Banchi di Sotto. The three meet just outside Siena's lovely main square, Piazza del Campo, a sloping scallop-shell of herringbone brick where people picnic, nap, and celebrate soccer victories. Anchoring the base is the crenellated thirteenth-century town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico/Museo Civico, well worth the E6.50 ($6) admission to admire its public spaces frescoed with Sienese Gothic masterpieces. These include Simone Martini's courtly, early La Maest... (Madonna in Majesty) and the richly patterned Guidoriccio. Ambrogio Lorenzetti's seminal Allegory of Good and Bad Government and its Effects on the Town and Countryside, which is packed with scenes of fourteenth-century daily life and is perhaps the most important secular painting from medieval Europe, decorates the chamber of the old ruling Council of Nine to remind them of the effects of their government.

The bulky zebra-striped Gothic Duomo (cathedral) is free except from August 23 to October 2, when the stunning patchwork of inlaid and etched marble panels carpeting the floor is uncovered (E5.50/$5.05). On other dates, a few panels are always left visible, and most of the cathedral is free (except the Libreria Piccolomini, an antechamber lushly frescoed by Pinturricchio and his young assistant Raphael; E1.50/$1.40). At the duomo's crossing are a chapel by Baroque master Bernini and a densely carved pulpit by Gothic geniuses Nicola and Giovanni Pisano. The brick vaults under the massive sixteenth-century Medici fortress, once a symbol of Florence's dominance, now host the Enoteca Italica Permanente, a sort of national wine museum where you can sample Italy's best vintages for E1.30-E2.60 ($1.20-$2.40) per glass.

Siena boasts many more sights and museums, but most (save the churches) charge admission. The city offers a multitude of cumulative tickets for various grab-bags of sights; there are many permutations, but the E15 ($13.75) one gets you into pretty much everything.

Sienese sleeps

Amazingly, one of the best hotel deals, Cannon d'Oro, is on the main drag, where its big rooms mix some nice antiques with functional pieces (Via Montanini 28; 0577-44-321, svpm.it, E52-E85/$47.75-$78 per double room; breakfast E6/$5.50). Tiny Hotel Bernini is a home away from home. The nine guest rooms are fitted with a rummage sale of antiques set on patterned tile floors, and are only separated from the family's half of the apartment by a curtain. Nadia will let you onto the roof terrace overlooking St. Catherine's house, and Mauro often serenades guests with his accordion (Via della Sapienza 15; 0577-289-047, albergobernini.com, E82/$73.50 per double; E62/$56.90 without bath; breakfast E6.70/$6.15). A bit institutional but remarkably cheap, Alma Domus is run by nuns who unfortunately insist upon an 11:30 p.m. curfew. The basic rooms lack amenities save A/C in a few, and the phones can only receive calls (though this may change). The best have balconies overlooking the striped Duomo across a wide gully (Via Camporeggio 37; 0577-44-177, E65/$59.65 per double room; breakfast E6/$5.50).

Sienese spreads

Next door to St. Catherine's house, the brick floor of cozy Osteria La Chiacchera ("the chatterbox") is scattered with little wood tables crowded with locals. The desserts are stupendous (Costa di Sant'Antonio 4; 0577-280-631, E11/$10 per full meal). Although it's just two doors off Siena's main square, the down-home trattoria La Torre, its kitchen open to the dining room and turning out homemade pastas and traditional Tuscan dishes, hasn't been discovered by tourists (Via Salicotto 7-9; 0577-287-548, E17/$15.60 for an extensive meal). Finally, a big splurge: Simone Romi's service makes the single room of Castelvecchio feel intimate, and Mauro Lombardini's skill in the kitchen brings forth a daily menu of creative Tuscan cuisine based on the freshest ingredients. This classy level of taste, atmosphere, and service usually costs three times as much (Via Castelvecchio 65; 0577-49-586, E25/$23).

San Gimignano

The poster child of Tuscan hilltowns, San Gimignano is a minuscule medieval metropolis with over a dozen stone towers bristling above vineyards that produce a tart, straw-colored white wine ranked among Italy's best. Try to spend the night: The tour bus hordes disappear at 5:30 p.m., the town comes back to life, and the medieval air rekindles in stone-clad alleys. The best view of the skyline is from the ruined ramparts of La Rocca, a tumbledown medieval fortress now planted with a tiny town park. Back on the main piazza, you can climb past the lovely small civic museum of paintings-including rare, racy, fourteenth-century secular frescoes of a wedding night-to the top of the town's tallest tower, the Torre Grossa (E6.20/$5.45), for a postcard panorama of patchwork fields.

Every inch of the interior of the Collegiata (main church, E3.10/$2.85) is swathed in colorful Gothic and early Renaissance frescoes that illustrate, comic strip-style, biblical scenes for the once-illiterate masses. At the far end of town sits the little-visited thirteenth-century Sant'Agostino church, preserving gorgeous fifteenth-century frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli and Sebastiano Mainardi. The tourist office sells a cumulative ticket for E7.50 ($6.90) that gets you into all the main sights in town (except for the privately run Torture Museum; E7.75/$7.10) including those mentioned above, plus the modest Museums of Sacred Art and of Archaeology (Etruscan and Roman remains), the Spezeria di Santa Fino historic pharmacy, and the new Modern Art Museum, which features rotating exhibits.

San Gimignano digs

No hotel in San Gimignano is cheap. The best you can do is the rather nice Bel Soggiorno (Via San Giovanni 91; 0577-940-375, hotelbelsoggiorno.it, E75/$68.85 per double room, E80/$73.45 with valley views; breakfast included). The secret to saving money here is affittacamere (rental rooms). They can be hit-or-miss, but some are quite lovely, and they start as low as E30 ($27.50). The tourist office gives lists (Le Vecchie Mura restaurant, below, even rents a couple at E49/$45); get a sneak peak at several through sangimignano.com. You can book most through the local agency Associazione Strutture Extralberghiere (Piazza della Cisterna 6; 0577-943-111).

San Gimignano dining

The budget trick in San Gimignano is to get off the tourist-choked main street. Near the Porta San Matteo end of town sits Osteria delle Catene, a medieval vault with modern art and lighting fixtures where locals gather to enjoy everything from mixed meat-and-cheese platters to full Tuscan meals accompanied by excellent Italian wines (Via Mainardi 18; 0577-941-966, E18/$16.50 for a multicourse repast). The pricier Le Vecchie Mura serves hearty local fare at long communal tables under brick-vaulted eighteenth-century horse stalls, with a lovely summer terrace outside atop the city walls (Via Piandornella 15; 0577-940-270, E25/$22.95).

Montepulciano

Life in this ancient hill town revolves around the powerful, versatile Vino Nobile, one of Italy's mightiest red wines. For over 1,200 years, this "noble wine" has been aged and bottled in the wine cellars under Montepulciano's Renaissance palazzi. Many of these warrens of stony rooms and tunnels carved into the tufa bedrock are open to visitors, offering free samples of wine, grappa, and sometimes cured meats, cheeses, and breads produced by the vineyards' farms. Plus you'll never find a better price on bottles of Italy's top wines to take home. The free smorgasbords concentrate along Via Gracchiano nel Corso and around Piazza Grande; four stand out.

Ercolani/Pulcino, at Via Gracchiano nel Corso 80, is the most commercial, with archaeological bits and an Etruscan tomb displayed in its cellars, and it boasts the most free samples. Its neighbor Avignonesi, at no. 91, is the classiest cantina in town; no cellars to explore, but a bar to tipple gratis from one of Italy's oldest and most-respected wineries. Classic Cantina del Redi, installed in the multistory foundations of Palazzo Ricci on Via Ricci, stacks huge barrels in a series of towering narrow brick vaults connected by steep underground staircases.

At Gattavecchi, Via Collazzi 22, the "shop" where you enter is just a large storage closet off the bottling room, but you can always rustle up a friendly face to pour a sample and flip on the lights in the most wonderfully creepy, moldy cellar tunnels in town. To connect the free booze and nibbles at either end of Montepulciano, follow the winding main street (it goes by numerous names, all ending in "Corso") lined with an astonishing number of Renaissance palazzi, including Palazzo Bucelli (no. 73), whose foundation is a collage of 2,700-year-old Etruscan funerary urns. The street climbs steadily, often steeply, to the top of the hill and Piazza Grande, studded with Renaissance palaces designed by Antonio da Sangallo the Elder; a duomo that's filled with early fifteenth-century sculptures and a golden altarpiece by Taddeo di Bartoldo; and Michelozzo's Palazzo Comunale, a fourteenth-century travertine copy of Florence's old city hall. Wend your way inside, past civic offices and overstuffed filing cabinets, to climb the crenellated tower for fantastic countryside vistas (free). Just outside this end of town sits an exercise in geometrically precise Renaissance architecture, Antonio da Sangallo the Elder's celebrated Tempio di San Biagio, a travertine temple to classical models built on a grassy lawn.

Montepulciano hotels

Montepulciano has some great little family-run hotels. One of my favorites is Giorgio and Ivana Caroti's Meubl, Il Riccio, with functionally comfortable rooms over the mosaics studio founded by Giorgio's father (Via Talosa 21; 0578-757-713, ilriccio.net, E77.50/$71.15 per double room; breakfast E8/$7.35). Marcella rents a trio of simple rooms without bath above her restaurant Cittino that feel just like crashing in your Italian auntie's spare bedroom-one room even squeezes in a bunk bed for families (Vicolo della Via Nuova 2/Via Voltaia nel Corso, 0578-757-335, E34/$31.20 per double room; breakfast ... la carte). Call ahead so the shopkeeper-owner can open the door of Affitacamere Bellavista. Rooms lack character-just a sagging bed, wooden table, and chair-but they do offer great valley views, especially the 180 degrees of countryside from no. 6's tiny terrace. Avoid viewless no. 5 (Via Ricci 25; 0578-716-341, E49/$45 per double room; no breakfast offered).

Montepulciano dining

Sadly, Tuscany's famous pappardelle al chingiale (sheet-like noodles in wild boar sauce) is often made with frozen farm-raised boar, but the pappardelle at Montepulciano's down-home Trattoria Diva & Matteo is so genuine I once bit into a pellet of buckshot (Via Gracchiano nel Corso 92; 0578-716-951, E23/$20.10 per multicourse feast). At a more modest price, Marcella makes everyone feel at home at Cittino, recommended as a hotel above. The dining room opens off her living room, and she'll bring out a tray of the pastas handmade that morning for you (E20/$18.35 per full meal). You can get great simple dishes and platters of salamis and cheeses from the owner's farm at the tavernlike Osteria dell'Acquacheta (Via Teatro 22; 0578-758-443, E25/$22.95). Since 1868 everyone from Pirandello to Fellini has made Art Nouveau CaffS Polizano their Montepulciano home-away-from-home for cappuccino and panini; try to snag a table with picture-window valley views (Via Voltaia nel Corso 27-29; 0578-758-615, E14/$12.85).

Traveling around

Lush hills and countless tiny towns to explore make Tuscany one of the best places to splurge on a rental car-groups of three won't spend much more on a car than on separate train and bus tickets; for groups of four, a car is usually a savings. It's always cheapest to book a few weeks in advance with the major U.S.-based companies, though specialists Auto Europe (888/223-5555, autoeurope.com), Europe by Car (800/223-1516, 212/581-3040 in New York City, 800/252-9401 in California, europebycar.com), and Kemwell (800/678-0678, kemwell.com) sometimes underbid the likes of Hertz and Avis.

Lucca lies on the Florence-Viareggio train line; it's also a short hop from Pisa, which is a major stop on the main coastal line from Rome. Siena's train station (on a direct line from Florence; from Rome, switch at Chiusi/Chianciano Terme) is two miles outside town, requiring a city bus to run you to the center. For once, taking a bus from Florence makes more sense, as buses tend to be more frequent, slightly faster, and stop in town. There are also a half-dozen daily buses from Rome's Tiburtina station.

Siena's bus station is on Piazza San Domenico; the ticket office is under the church's right flank.

Montepulciano is tricky. There is a Montepulciano Staz stop on a local train line from Siena, but it's way out in the countryside and not well connected to town. Instead, get off at the Chiusi/Chianciano Terme stop, where the Siena line meets the main Rome-Florence line; from here, a local bus meets most incoming trains. San Gimignano is the most frustrating. First you have to get a bus or a train (from Siena direct, from Florence through Empoli) to Poggibonsi, from which 19 buses (only two on Sundays) trundle up to San Gimignano. For Web information on these destinations, visit lucca.turismo.toscana.it, siena.turismo.toscana.it, sangimignano.com, or comune.montepulciano.siena.it.

Getting to Tuscany

No flight from the United States flies direct to Tuscany, though many airlines will connect you through a European gateway to the international airports in Pisa or Florence. But it's usually cheaper just to fly into Rome and then take the train. An even more frugal, but more complicated, alternative is to get any low fare to London (Europe's cheapest gateway) and book a separate ticket on no-frills Ryanair (ryanair.ie) to Pisa for about o50 ($73.40) round-trip. When calling Italy from the United States, dial 011-39 before the number. Within Italy, just dial the numbers as they appear here.

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