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?
When I first wrote a blog posting about car rental, I wasn't sure it was useful. However, the amount of email it and follow-up postings generated convinced me otherwise (So formal! You can just add comments to the postings rather than emailing). This article is a consolidation of those different postings to summarize everything in one place.
In many European cities, it is better not to have a car: parking is difficult and expensive, "one way systems" are confusing to navigate, and a car can be slower than public transport at busy times. Unlike the US, many Italian hotels do not have their own parking. Don't rent a car if you intend to just sightsee in the city itself, and if you need to get out to visit another town or city, consider a train or bus. Services in Europe can be fast, frequent and reasonably priced. But they can also be slow and inconvenient, so when does it make sense to rent?
For a larger geographical area like Tuscany or the Dordogne, you are going to need transport and a car is the most efficient way to do so. In these times of eco responsibility, when it seems the only thing stopping eco miltants from burning car drivers at the stake is concern over the CO2 that would generate, I feel obliged to defend this statement. It is possible to get around by bus and train within areas like Tuscany, but boy is it a logistical challenge. Fundamentally you will get to spend far less time enjoying the area. When you have limited time to vacation, spending it twiddling thumbs on a bus is truly a waste of opportunity. Buy carbon offset to cover the CO2 emissions of the car (and your plane ride, while you are at it).
Resist the urge to rent a larger car, 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 many 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 few pigs and maybe a horse or two.
On one trip, we stayed a few nights in Florence and then headed out to Villa Vignamaggio. We were to stay at Hotel Brunelleschi, squeezed into the centre of the ancient city of Florence. The hotel is built around a Byzantine tower with Roman remains in the basement - it even has its own museum. The roads 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 locals 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.
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. No, I blame Dan Brown: it's where his characters Langdon and Sophie plan to stay 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 going to sip tea and discuss semiotics. At any rate, ever since then prices have gone up, up, up and you practically have to be Dan Brown to get in.