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Every great photograph tells a story, but I often find it interesting to read the story behind the photograph — and hence this occasional series of posts. This time it is the turn of an image that has frequently appeared in books and magazines, including the front cover of one property guide, and is also one of the most popular photographs on LodgePhoto.com:

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

First of all, an answer to a frequently asked question: Yes, it’s a true photograph and the haze behind the farmhouse has not been “photoshopped” into the image! Vignamaggio is a charming Tuscan renaissance villa clinging to the hillside above the town of Greve in Chianti. We first found it while renting a villa a short distance away, further up the road. We saw it was a winery and that was enough by itself for us to stop — but we also knew that Vignamaggio was the location for Kenneth Brannagh’s joyous 1993 Shakespeare film adaptation, Much Ado About Nothing.

Today, the villa is an upscale B&B and winery and had billed itself as “The Birthplace Of Mona Lisa” until just a few years ago. This leads to second most frequently asked question: is it really, truly the birthplace of Mona Lisa, sitter for perhaps the most famous portrait ever? Well… no, sorry. The literature at the villa claims Lisa Gherardini, the subject of Mona Lisa, was born at Vignamaggio in 1479, the daughter of a wealthy Tuscan merchant. There’s just one problem with this: the Gherardinis had sold Vignamaggio 50 years before Lisa was born, and the baptistry records in Florence are clear: she was born and baptised there.

There has been intense speculation over the “actual” identity of the model for Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting. Renaissance art historian Vasari states that it was Lisa Giocondo (nee Gherardini) in his “Lives of the artists”. The only problem was that Vasari was writing 30 years after Leonardo’s death, which was enough wiggle room for some to suggest that Vasari was mistaken and that the sitter was Leonardo himself, or Isabella of Aragon, or Leonardo’s mother, or… you get the picture.

In 2005, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a book that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Giocondo. Lisa was married to a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and this gave rise to the other name of the painting: La Gioconda — also a pun on the jovial expression Leonardo painted.

But no matter: today, a visit to Villa Vignamaggio is primarily about wine and/or olive oil, or to stay in its Bed & Breakfast accomodation. The villa’s Mona Lisa Chianti Classico Riserva is excellent, and they also make a range of “Super Tuscans” — wines grown locally that don’t meet the technical criteria to qualify as Chianti Classico. Don’t let that put you off: only wines made almost entirely from Sangiovese can be Chiantis, so a really good Tuscan cabernet has to be called something else!

The picture was taken with a long lens late on a summer afternoon looking down from the villa itself. One of the things that makes this picture is the quality of light, a natural gift in that part of the world, which is largely responsible for the saturated color of the tile and stone. The atmospheric conditions common at that time of year (September) cause the haze, making for a pleasing contrast between the foreground and the background. Quality of light is one of the most important ingredients in “available light” photography, and is one reason why waiting for the right light can make a huge difference to a picture. That’s also my excuse for enjoying a leisurely Italian lunch with a glass or two of wine: the light’s too strong! Finally, the long lens is important because it helps to blur the background, improving the contrast and composition.

Vignamaggio is a magical place to visit or stay, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)
Bottles of Chianti and Brunello wine at a Montalcino Enoteca (wine bar)

A trip to Tuscany inevitably means a glass of red Chianti Classico for most visitors. But what makes this wine special?

Chianti Classico must come from grapes grown in a strictly defined area of the hills between Florence and Siena, centered around Castellina, Gaiole, Radda and Greve:

Chianti wine regions
Chianti wine regions

The original boundaries were laid down in 1716 by Cosimo III di Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and covered the Tuscan villages of Castellina, Gaiole and Radda. In 1932, Chianti was vastly expanded to cover seven different regions of which the original area was just one. Today, the area is roughly 100 square miles.

There are also rules on the grape content that have changed over the years. Since the 1990s, Chianti Classico has to contain at least 75% Sangiovese grapes, a maximum of 10% Canaiolo, at most 6% white wine grapes and up to 15% Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah.

The official Chianti definition

The definition is controlled by the DOCG, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. In the past 40 years or so, Chianti’s reputation has gone from “low-grade red” to a region producing some world-class wines. In the 1970s-90s, it was common to see low-grade Chianti in its traditional straw bottle jacket or fiasco.

In 1971, the Antinori family broke with tradition in releasing a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet called Tignanello. It didn’t fit the DOCG definition, which disallowed Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes, so it wasn’t officially Chianti Classico. But Tignanello began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed. Thus the “Super Tuscan” wines were born. The success of Super Tuscans led the DOCG to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be reclassified as Chianti Classico.

Chianti Classico is what the French would call an appellation: an area where the grapes are grown within a strict geographical boundary. Contrast this with a Napa wine, for example, which is more of a brand. Napa wines might be made within the boundaries of Napa County, but the grapes or grape juice could have been trucked in from the central Californian coast (as they are for Charles Shaw, AKA “2 Buck Chuck”).

Today, thanks to vastly improved wine-making techniques and the relaxation of the official DOCG rules to allow better blending, the Chianti region produces some excellent high quality wines. And none of them are served in a straw fiasco 🙂

[Updated May 2013 with new AT&T screen shots and prices]

Travelling with your AT&T iPhone to Europe? Here’s how you can make sure it works when you get there and avoid a giant bill when you get back. Who doesn’t like to save money?

If you haven’t done so already, register with AT&T’s web site so that you can make changes to your phone plan options online. Log in with your wireless number and password, so that you get to the home screen for your wireless service. Look in the top-left quadrant of the page for a menu called “I want to…”, which will look like this:

Click on "I want to..." to get this menu
Click on “I want to…” to get this menu

Click on “Add or change services”, and you’ll get a long screen showing all your current wireless settings that don’t have to do with domestic US voice minute bundles. You can ignore most of these (i.e., leave them unchanged) and scroll down to the section titled “International Services”. It should look like this (depending on your current settings, you might have different items selected):

International Services
International Services

Now, let’s walk through the settings that will ensure you hit the ground running the moment your arrive in Europe. Straight away, we’re going to ignore the first two sections called “International Long Distance” because that’s about calling and texting overseas when you’re still in the US. So skip this section.

International Roaming – Voice

The next section is important: “International Roaming – Voice“. Select “Standard International Roaming” – this turns on your ability to “roam” (connect) to other carriers’ networks when overseas. It’s free, but turned off by default for fraud protection reasons. Next, move on to…

International Roaming – Messaging

This section allows you to pre-purchase text message packages of 50, 200 or 600 texts. You pay for each text sent when roaming, and receiving texts is always free. The larger packages give you more discount per text. Note that the packages are pro-rated over the billing cycle. So if you turn on the 50 pack for 15 days in the billing cycle, you’ll only get 25 texts. Compared to a one minute call, texting is one fifth the price: you can send 5 text messages. If you are a text maniac, I’d suggest toning it down for the vacation and letting your BFFs know you’re paying for every text you send.

International Roaming – Data

There are a whole host of options here at different price points. Let’s face it, international data roaming isn’t cheap — but prices have come down more than 80% in AT&T’s latest revision to its pricing. To save you doing the math, here are the per-megabyte costs for each of the options listed in most European countries:

  • 800MB for $120 is $0.15/MB
  • 300MB for $60 is $0.20/MB
  • 120MB for $30 is $0.25/MB

There is no “overage rate” — if you exhaust the data plan, you simply cannot use data any more. This prevents a nasty surprise in your next bill if you download a lot of data. 

If you forgot to buy one of these options before you left, AT&T gives you one very limited shot at retroactively buying data options during your trip. You can back date the feature to your last billing cycle start date. You have to know when that is to see if it might save you from excessive charges. If your billing cycle start date happens to be the day before you got back from Europe and you only log in when you get back, for example, you’re out of luck.

If you mess up, scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Reset”. If you’re done, scroll down to the bottom of the page, and click on “Next”.

Confirming your changes

The screens that follow are pretty confusing, because the system splits out each feature you’re ordering, and in some cases lets you backdate or set a future date for your changes for each feature. Read the page carefully to see which feature you are setting up.

Backdating (if available) is really handy if you want to retroactively add global text messaging, for example. But at the moment, we haven’t even left the US yet, so you probably want to select “Make effective/expire today” or “Future date to the next bill”.

“Future date” sounds good but is actually very limited. It only allows you to turn on your settings on the date of the next bill — which may not be near the time of your trip. “Make effective/expire today” means your changes will be complete and active on the AT&T network within the next 12-24 hours. I’d recommend you make all your changes a day or two before you leave for Europe and just make it effective that day.

One “gotcha”: some features like Global 50 text messages and Global data are pro-rated during a month if you don’t turn them on at the beginning of the billing cycle. For example, if you turn 50 international text messages on half way through the billing cycle you’ll only get 25 text messages during that monthly billing period. Gotta love that, eh? 🙁 That’s another reason to use the “backdate” feature, because you can set a feature to start at the last billing cycle, then set it to expire at the start of the next billing cycle. That way you are sure to get 100% of the text or data bundles.)

When you’ve set the effective date for each feature, click on “Next”. When all dates for all features have been set, you get one final chance to review all your changes and read the small print of the services. If all is OK, click “Submit”. If not, you can cancel or go back to previous pages. If you messed up a date, click “Back” and correct it. Once submitted, AT&T will send you an email confirming your changes and you’ll be ready to stay connected as soon as you hit the ground.

On the ground in Europe

To control data usage, use the iPhone Settings app to turn data roaming on or off (Settings->General->Cellular). Apps can still run in the background and access the network without your knowledge, so the only effective way to control network usage is Settings. Do this before you take your iPhone out of “Airplane mode” to avoid inadvertent data charges.

Turn your iPhone on after arrival and, after a few minutes of searching, it will automatically connect with one of AT&T’s roaming partner networks in the country you’re visiting. You typically get a free text message from AT&T advising you of data charges and maybe a text from the local network operator telling you about any features or charges.

Unanswered calls to your iPhone go to US voicemail will incur per-minute charges. The call actually makes it all the way to your phone in the foreign country and then is forwarded back to your voice mail number the US — hence the charges. You can avoid this by turning on “forward all calls to voicemail”, so that the call never reaches your phone in the first place (this means no-one can call you directly, but you can still listen to the voicemails they leave). The other option is simply to turn off your phone when you do not want to be reached — then the call never reaches your phone either and goes straight to voicemail.

To send all calls to voicemail, dial *#67# to see which number is used for your voicemail. Then dial *21*[number]# to forward all calls unconditionally. Then, when you want to turn this off, dial ##002# to restore default call forwarding.

When you get back

Important: log back into the AT&T site and reverse the changes you made. Do not use the backdating capability for the “turn off” date, otherwise you risk erasing the benefits you got from choosing discounts ahead of time. You can use backdating for the “turn on” date if you forgot to order something before you left.

Enjoy your trip!

We recently got back from a photo trip to Tuscany, where we got to see the July Siena Palio. The Palio is the world’s longest continuously running sporting event and runs twice a year during the summer in Siena, Tuscany. Each district (contrade) of the city has a chance to get a horse into the race, and the horses are assigned by lottery.

This short (1 min 30 sec) video gives you a glimpse of the intense emotions of the Sienese around their favorite cultural festival. The video shows the drawing of the horses, where each one is randomly assigned to a contrade, who them parade the horse through the town on the way to their secret stable location (to make sure their rivals can’t tamper with the horse!) Jockeys are also randomly assigned to ride each horse.

Through the many hundreds of years that the Palio has been running, there have been all kinds of dark deeds including bribery, violence and drugging, to try and get an unfair advantage to win the race and the prestige that goes along with it. So the transparency of the lottery system is very important to the running of a fair race, which is the main focus of the horse selection you can see in the video. It’s quite an event in itself — there are about 20 thousand people crammed into the main square (Il Campo) to see the drawing and it goes silent when each Palio horse is matched to a contrade.

Once the horse is safely inside the contrade’s stable, it is guarded day and night and only brought out for the trial races that take place ahead of the main event. The horse is also blessed by a priest on race day, and it’s considered good luck if the horse leaves a pile of manure inside the chapel!

 

You might be forgiven for wondering what is going on in this photograph. It is a vertical view down onto the heads of a bunch of grown men in medieval yellow silk outfits waving large flags in Siena, Italy. You can only tell they’re men and flags by the shadows, which is part of the appeal in this photograph. But what on earth is going on?

Members of Siena's Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Members of Siena’s Eagle contrade throw their flags high into the air during a display in the Campo. Siena, Tuscany, Italy

Flag throwing is a very serious business in Siena: it is part of a larger social structure called Contrade that has lasted for hundreds of years. The city is divided into regions, each one the territory of a Contrade — originally these had a military purpose: to help defend against the hated Florentines. In modern Siena there are 17 contrade, but in medieval Siena there were more: six are remembered as the “suppressed contrade”; they disappeared when the plague decimated the city’s population. Every citizen of Siena is a contrade member, determined by place of birth or “inherited” from parents.

As one Sienese (“Senesi”) tried to explain it to me, a contrade is like a large extended family. I was also told that non-Senesi cannot really comprehend what it means to be a member; after several glasses of Chianti I felt I was definitely getting closer to understanding. Contrade have a church or chapel and headquarters (where Palio trophies are jealously guarded), a patron saint, a symbol or insignia and, of course, colors and a flag.

Active members are passionate about their contrade, and flag throwing is a way of expressing this. It’s part of the ceremony around the famous horse race, Il Palio, and a way for contrade to show off. In the picture, you see members of the Aquilla (Eagle) Contrade practicing in mid June, getting ready for the Palio. The photo was taken from the top of Siena’s town hall tower with a long lens to get the angle and shadows. Luck played a major part in this as I’d just reached the top when I leard the drum beat of the Aquilla as they marched from their part of the city into Il Campo, the main square.

This photo recently featured as the travel section lead in Links Best Of Golf magazine, and was taken from a ruined monastery on the edge of Volterra, Tuscany. The town itself is at the top of a rocky outcrop west of San Gimignano, and the north-western side has been eroding for hundreds of years. Many buildings are already at the base of the cliffs, and this Pisan-style monastery was abandoned years ago. It was late in the day, and as the sun set from the West it lit up the rolling Tuscan plain, framed by the old stone window.

View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.
View west across the Tuscan plain from a ruined monastery at the edge of the cliffs ("balze") in Volterra, Italy.

Links Best Of Golf magazine features a Lodge Photo image to head up its travel section in the Summer 2010 issue (page 65):

View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra
View across the Tuscan plain from Volterra

For many, Tuscan wine means Chianti — but Super Tuscan wines have been growing strongly in popularity, and increasingly appear on US wine lists. So what is a Super Tuscan, anyway?

Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio
Merlot grapes at Vignamaggio

Super Tuscans started out as high quality wines from Tuscany that didn’t fit into the strict definition of Chianti wine according to the Italian authorities. The first Super Tuscan was Tignanello from Antinori, produced in 1971. It was a “Chianti-style” blend of Sangiovese and Cabernet, but it didn’t fit the DOCG definition of Chianti at the time (which didn’t allow Cabernet and required at least 10% white wine grapes). Antinori wanted to maximize the potential of the grapes and wine-making in Tuscany without being constrained to a specific formula. He also broke with tradition in aging the wine in French barriques (oak barrels from Bordeaux) rather than the traditional Slovenian oak or Chestnut used for Chianti. The wine began to win awards and acclaim, prices rose and other producers followed, and so “Super Tuscan” wines as a category were born.

The success of Super Tuscans led the Italian authorities to change the rules of grape composition in the 1990s, allowing many Super Tuscans to be classified as true Chianti Classico. Today, Super Tuscans that still don’t fit the Chianti rules are classified as IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica), “typical of the geography”.

Prices for Super Tuscans range from the very reasonably to the stratospheric. Some of the best known include Tignananello (still a major force), Sassacaia from Tenuta San Guido, Solaia from Antinori and Ornellaia from Tenuta della Ornellaia.

Cadogan’s guide to Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches, 10th edition, features a Lodge Photo image on page 9, at the bottom. This is image IT-B-0111 from Tuscany.

Villa Vignamaggio is a charming restored renaissance villa just outside the town of Greve in Chianti. It’s a beautiful location, is exceptionally photogenic and they make great wine… what more could you ask for? How about also being the birthplace of perhaps the most famous portrait sitter ever: Mona Lisa ? The owners of Vignamaggio crowned the exceptional qualities of their property with the claim that their villa is the birthplace of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — an assertion that I have repeated on this website. The history of that part of the world and the information provided by Vignamaggio on its chain of ownership appears to back up the assertion. However, there’s just one problem: it isn’t true.

In the past few years, Vignamaggio has backed off from their birthplace claim and now says “Legend has it that Lisa Gherardini spent a lot of time at Vignamaggio” So what exactly is going on here?

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, agricultural building, ancient, architectural, architecture, building, dark green, deep green, edifice, edifices, farm house, farmhouse, haze, horizontal, horizontals, landscape, mist, old, scenic, structures, travel, tuscany, weather
Farmhouse at Villa Vignamaggio, Greve in Chianti, Italy

Recent research led me to the English translation of an Italian book, “Mona Lisa Revealed” by Giuseppe Pallanti. Mr Pallanti set out to connect the life of the model (Lisa Giocondo, nee Gherardini) with the painting, and the result is a fascinating book that provides a clear, vibrant glimpse into the world of renaissance Florence and the life of Lisa Gherardini, her husband Francesco del Giocondo (a wealthy silk merchant), Leonardo da Vinci and his father Piero. It is impeccably researched, using Florentine medieval tax returns and registers of births and other official documents. And this is where the birthplace claim of Villa Vignamaggio parts company with historical record.

Lisa Gherardini was born in Florence on 15 June 1479 in a house on Via Maggio, and not at Vignamaggio as the villa owners claimed. This is recorded in the grandly titled Archivio dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore di Firenze “Battesimi” (baptismal record) for 1457-1491. Could confusion between Via Maggio and Vignamaggio be to blame? Perhaps, except that 57 years previously in March 1422, the Gherardini family had sold Vignamaggio to the Gherardi family. This is recorded in the Florentine tax records, the “Catasto” — a kind of medieval 1040 tax return. Despite the similarity of names, it was Lisa Gherardini who later married Francesco del Giocondo and who eventually sat for Leonardo .

Giuseppe Pallanti, author of the book, was born in Greve — the closest town to Vignamaggio — and goes out of his way in the text to document the chain of ownership of Vignamaggio, even though it is peripheral to the story of the Gherardini family. His book shows that he knows the Greve area well, and I’m sure he has been to Vignamaggio; my guess is that this is his way of obliquely refuting the villa owners’ claim.

So, what are we to make of all this? A bit of embellishment where non was required: Vignamaggio is a beautifully restored villa in a superb location, is supremely photogenic and makes great wine — and good olive oil, too. Mr Pallanti’s book was published in 2006, seven years after I first visited the villa and many years after the current owners bought it, so perhaps there was some legitimate confusion. Regardless, I love to visit and I’ll be going back in the future.

Final post script: Pallanti’s book is very convincing that Lisa Gherardini was the sitter but there was still some wiggle room for alternative theories. Shortly before the book was published, an academic at the University of Heidelberg discovered a note scribbled in the margin of a medieval ledger that is contemporary with the time of the painting. It positively identifies the sitter as Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo: the true Mona Lisa after all.

Chianti, Europe, Greve, Italy, Toscana, Toskana, architectural, architectural detail, architecture, building, building detail, building material, building materials, door, doorway, edifice, edifices, entrance, entry, exit, exterior, garden, landscape, medieval, outside, paneling, panelling, path, pink, portal, portals, portrait, private garden, scenic, structures, track, tuscany, vertical, villa
Garden doorway to Villa Vignamaggio, Greve, Chianti, Tuscany, Italy.

On the front page of Lodge Photo is a crop from a photo showing a man on a horse with a lance, tilting at a strange target. It’s one of a sequence of four:

Joust of the Saracens, Arezzo

This is the Giostra del Saracino – Joust of the Saracens – held twice a year in Arezzo, Tuscany.

Italy is alive with various contests that have been around for hundreds of years. Siena‘s twice-a-year horse race, Il Palio, is thought to be the world’s longest running sporting event. In a world of disappearing traditions, it is worth a moment’s thought to ponder why. If you go to one of these events then I think it becomes clearer. These events are form of social cohesion, fun and commerce for the communities within the towns. As one eager participant in the enormously popular Siena Palio explained it to me: “The Palio is an excuse to have fun with your friends for a week”.

In Arezzo, the joust has not run continuously like the Palio; it was resurrected some years ago as a way for the town to come together and, let’s be honest, as a way to boost tourism. It takes place in early September on the day of San Donato, the town’s patron saint. There are four main districts of the town – a bit like Siena’s Contrade – each with their own colors and contestants. The jousters ride towards an effigy of a Saracen King, who holds a target in the crook of one wooden arm. The lance is tipped with chalk and the contestant gains points for accuracy. The other arm holds a “cat-o-three-tails” – three leather strips with heavy wooden balls attached. These swing around and the jouster has to dodge them or risk being dislodged from his horse. The winner of the tournament is presented with a golden lance, that part of the town goes wild, and vast quantities of wine are consumed.

The photo sequence you see was taken the evening beforehand during practice. This is a good way to get better photo access than you would at the event itself (this also works, to a certain extent, for the Palio). The light was declining rapidly as the contestants warmed up and took their turns, which presented a problem. Flash wasn’t an option as it would have upset the contestants and wouldn’t have illuminated the entire scene. By using a fast (wide aperture) lens, dialling up the ISO sensitivity on the camera and selecting shutter priority mode, I was able to select a shutter speed that was fast enough to isolate the action but not so fast that the riders and horses appear completely frozen. This gives energy and a sense of action to the pictures while ensuring they’re properly exposed.

If you’re wondering why the Saracens (Turks) get such a rough deal, consider that when this tradition emerged during the middle ages, the Turks were surging through Eastern and Southern Europe: a clear and present danger to Italian principalities.

Millions of people rent cars every year, but if you’re not familiar with renting in Europe there are a few things that will smooth the path of your vacation.

Tip One: Car rental might not be necessary

In many European capitals and major cities, it is often advantageous not to have a car – parking is difficult to find and expensive, and moving around by car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many hotels do not have their own parking. So when in Rome, Paris, London, Florence etc. don’t rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself. If you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider taking the train or even a bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced.

When it comes to a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, then you are going to need transport to get about, and a car is the most efficient way to do so. I say this as someone who really likes to take good public transport, and often takes not-so-good public transport. It is possible to get around by bus in areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge and fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it on a bus is false economy. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it) if you feel bad about that aspect.

Tip Two: Two smaller cars may be better than one giant car

Resist the urge to rent a large car or van, even if it is appealing because you have a large family or group on the trip. Get a couple of smaller cars instead. Larger cars are rarer in Europe because running them is more expensive, and also European towns and cities were not designed for cars at all. As well as being expensive to fuel, large cars are hard to maneuver in narrow streets designed for nothing wider than a horse and cart.

On one trip, we were staying a few nights in Florence and then heading out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The area is so old, the hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement – it even has its own museum. The streets leading to it are really, really narrow: even the taxi driver had a hard time getting his small Fiat around the final bend. Some kindly Italians stopped to guide him back-and-forth as he edged the car around the corner. With even a small SUV or Minivan you’d be wedged between two buildings several turns back.

Florence cathedral from the Brunelleschi roof terrace

Incidentally, we’ll probably never stay at the Brunelleschi again. Not because it was bad – quite the reverse: it is a truly historic hotel with charm, good rooms, friendly staff and a fantastic location. Dan Brown is to blame: it’s where his characters Langdon and Sophie agree to rendezvous at the end of The Da Vinci Code for a night of passion. I could be wrong about the last bit, but it doesn’t seem like they’re planning to discuss iconography. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.

Tip three: Use your credit card rental car insurance to save money

Many credit cards offer extensions to basic rental car insurance to cover accidental damage and/or theft – far more cheaply than the rental car company. You are already paying for this in your annual card fee and/or interest, so make use of it. Check the website of your card supplier to find out what they offer, and read all the small print so you know what is covered, and what isn’t. We recently discovered that Amex no longer insures larger cars and SUVs, for example.

We’ve been unfortunate enough to claim on American Express insurance a couple of times. Our rental car was vandalized in Toulouse, France — not badly, but bad enough for a hefty charge from the rental company. After sending in the paper work Amex did their investigation and paid up some months later. Insurance is getting simpler in places like Italy where there are a lot of claims – all rental car companies now mandate you buy comprehensive cover.

The insurance cover you probably don’t need is for personal possessions. Most people’s belongings are covered by their household insurance policy, but there are exceptions for expensive stuff like cameras and lenses and jewelry. Read your policy to see what is covered and don’t buy coverage twice. In general, the best policy is to take anything remotely valuable out of the car as any kind of car trouble tends to ruin your day.

I uploaded some new photographs of San Gimignano recently, a small town between Florence and Siena (on the road to Volterra) that has become famous for its medieval towers — “The Manhattan Of Tuscany”, as some tours call it.

San Gimignano and two of its famous towers
San Gimignano towers

It’s certainly on the tourist map these days, so here’s my recommendation for a half day in San Gimignano that allows you both to enjoy the town and what it offers and take some great photographs.

No-one should be rushed on a Tuscan vacation, so plan on arriving in time for lunch. Use the plentiful parking outside of the town and walk up the hill through the fortified gateway, heading for the Piazza della Cisterna — unmistakable for the well in the center. There you’ll find Hotel Cisterna; skip the tables outside and head inside and up the stairs to their restaurant “Le Terrazze”, with its fine views across the Tuscan hills. Settle in at a table with a view, and order their Asparagus Ravioli and a bottle of the local white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano — grown on the slopes you can see from the windows. The ravioli is their speciality — fresh hand-made pasta with a beautiful green asparagus filling and sauce… to die for.

Remember this is Italy, so a couple of courses and some coffee or digestif is likely to take you a few hours — but that’s OK, because the light outside will be harsh and bright and not conducive to good photography. Float down the steps on your food high, past the well and into the Piazza del Duomo. Head into the cool interior of the 12th century church to get away from the heat of the day and marvel at the 14th and 15th century fresco cycles, the chapel and baptistry and museum of sacred art next door.

If shopping is your thing, then now is also a good time to wander down the streets checking out the local artwork, clothing, wine and food.

Wild boar and other local specialities
Wild boar and other local specialities

Heading back to the Piazza del Duomo, you’ll find the Museo Civico, where you can take in the artwork and also work off what’s left of lunch by climbing the steps to the top of Torre Grossa — the big tower. In theory, after a local ordnance issued in 1255, no other towers were supposed to be taller than the Torre della Rognosa, which you can see directly across the square from the church (duomo). In practice, as you can see with your own eyes, this was largely ignored — the very essence of Italian bureaucracy. By now, the sun should be much further down in the sky, making for better light and some great shots looking over the town to the Tuscan hills all around.

After the climb back down the tower, you might be in need of a pick-me-up, so head back to Piazza della Cisterna for ice cream at the award-winning Gelateria di Piazza. As the sun heads towards the horizon, the tour bus crowds melt away, leaving you to take great photographs in the incomparable Tuscan “golden hour”, as the locals come out for passagiata and to enjoy the evening.

Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine
Old Italian ladies enjoy the evening sunshine

I got some follow-up questions to the article on renting a car in Europe. It seems this is a topic that causes some anxiety, so some additional tips are in order.

Yes, gas is somewhere between $7 and $8 a gallon in Italy, depending on the exchange rate. This isolated statistic, by itself, causes some of you to freak out. After all, your small SUV does 18 miles to the gallon (I’m talking actual miles, not the sticker MPG) on a good day, so that kind of pricing is bad news for the vacation budget, right?

Hold on: most of that $7 is taxes, so the actual price hasn’t varied as much since the raw gas cost itself is far less of a component in the price. Car manufacturers in Italy and the rest of Europe have had a while to get used to this kind of pricing level, and this means the majority of cars there are very different to those in the US.

Those of you who have been to Europe know that cars there are smaller. That’s one effect of high gas prices: cars that are smaller weigh less, and therefore require less gas. In general, cars are smaller in size, lighter and have smaller engines. However, to compensate for the smaller engines, they also have very advanced engine management to squeeze out maximum performance. So European cars sip gas like an expensive wine rather than gulping it down like cheap beer, but can still perform.

But that’s not all. Diesel fuel is widely available in Europe and Italy, and not reserved for trucks at gas stations. Diesel cars are even more economical than gas cars — the engine design means they use less fuel, which also means lower CO2 emissions. Diesel engines used to be slow, noisy, dirty things with poor acceleration. But the same engine management technology that has improved efficiency of gas engines means that turbocharged diesel engines are quiet, clean and deliver amazing acceleration — while using even less fuel. Thus you can achieve 50 miles to the gallon or better in a European diesel car (actual MPG, not sticker). To top it all off, Diesel fuel is actually cheaper than gas in Italy and many other European countries.

So don’t freak out at $8 a gallon for gas, because diesel is cheaper, you can easily get a diesel rental car (if you don’t get one by default, ask for one) and it will do far more miles to the gallon. Just remember that diesel is called Gasolio in Italy, which sounds confusingly like gas. But now you know differently, so fill up your diesel car with gasolio with confidence.

Parking: yes, you will need to be reasonably good at parallel parking in Italy. It’s a learnable skill that you can achieve with a little practice.

To rent a car in Italy you only need your US state license. Show it at the rental car counter, sign the paperwork and you’re off. But the law in Italy says that you must have an International driver’s license if you are not a European Union license holder. This means you, my American friends. You can get these for about $15 at AAA. The fine for not having one if the police stop you is 70 Euros (about $100 or so). You may be thinking “OK, so what’s the chance of being stopped?” One major difference between the US and Italy is that the police do not need “probable cause” to stop cars. They can set up roadblocks and do random stops to check on vehicle condition, drink-driving, and paperwork violations. It seems like a reasonable trade-off: $15 and the inconvenience of a trip to the AAA office, versus a 70 Euro fine. If you develop an attitude when stopped in this way, the Italian police can also impound your car… but you’d really have to annoy them to get that far. So be nice and enjoy your vacation.

One of my images of Villa Vignamaggio appears on the front cover of the Cadogan / Sunday Times guide to buying property in Italy. Here it is:

Cadogan Guide

This image was sold by an agency, and often the challenge is finding the actual usage once a photo is sold — as in this case. I believe this guide has been out for some time.