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Families avoid the crowds in northwest Tuscany
By Carol Stigger | Daily Herald Correspondent

Villa Buonvisi near Lucca is set among 300 acres of vineyards, olive trees and woods.

 

Photos by Carol Stigger

A villa bedroom contains original 17th-century frescoes.

 

Photos by Carol Stigger

Villa guests can relax in the living room or find a quiet nook outside the kitchen door, left. Day trips might include Lucca or Florence.

 

Whip up a meal in the kitchen and dine in the villa's grape arbor, left. Don't want to cook? Try a local restaurant, above. Tuscany is known for cuisine.

 

 

 

 

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Published: 12/1/200 10:27 PM | Updated: 12/2/200 1:28 PM

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One of today's popular vacation aspirations is staying in a villa in Italy, but where in this culture-crusted country can you take the family without worrying about the children being cranky in the Uffizi, teens going native in Rome's clubs, elders stumbling on cobblestones and toddlers toppling into the Grand Canal?

And where can a savvy vacation planner bypass bus tours and crowds?

If you focus your vacation planning on an hour or less drive north of Pisa, you can find villas of all sizes that fit your budget and suit the needs of families traveling with kids, grandkids and grandparents.

This largely undiscovered area of Tuscany has beaches and mountains, authentic restaurants, museums and artisans. You can explore ancient villages where parking lots are never full, but with piazzas and medieval streets filled with surprises from elegant, handcrafted jewelry to 1,000-year-old churches and amphitheaters constructed by ancient Romans.

Much of Tuscany is known to be tourist trampled; the country roads of Chianti jammed. If you bend down to tie your shoe in Florence you might become embedded in the bus to Pisa.

But Pisa is not just an emblem of architecture gone wonderfully wrong and a place to enjoy a frothy cappuccino in the shadows of gravity-defying marble. In addition to the Leaning Tower, Pisa boasts an international airport, making it a gateway to lightly visited cities to the north.

Perhaps the least known of Tuscan cities, Lucca, is one such destination. This walled city, with ramparts you can bike on, has Puccini as a native son and honors the great composer with frequent concerts held in an 11th-century deconsecrated church.

Lucca is a town to explore no matter what your interests, from truffles to turrets, from art to designer fashions, from strolling through botanical gardens to relaxing in the shade of a chestnut tree with an espresso or gelato.

At the end of the afternoon, you will not be frazzled; and you will not want to spoil the mood by asking for your room key at an impersonal hotel. You will go home to your villa -- not a hotel pretending to be a villa, but a restored rustico (farmhouse) or palazzo (palace).

Here, every possible ancient stone, fireplace and wooden beam has been salvaged and incorporated in a restoration that meets strict legal requirements for authenticity. Doors and windows must stay where they were originally placed. The outdoor paint must match ancient chips. Rooms in historic homes may not be divided, so your bedroom will likely be larger than your living room at home.

While the kids swim in the villa's pool, or play hide and seek in ample acres of olive trees, grape arbors and meadows, you can relax with a glass of Prosecco and cook up a simple, but incredible meal with fresh local meat, produce and cheese. You can dine al fresco or raise your glass beneath 13th-century hand-hewn beams, your feet cooling on 500-year-old terracotta tiles.

If cooking is not your vision of vacation, hire a chef or take a short drive to a small restaurant. It is difficult to find a disappointing meal in this region. Italians do not patronize establishments with poor service and food, and there are too few tourists for a trattoria to survive on vacation trade alone.

And here is the surprise: For a family or group, a villa can cost less than a good hotel.

In addition, you have far more recreation options. If someone does not want to go to the quarry where Michelangelo found the marble for his David and Pieta, he can hike up a mountain behind the villa following paths made by wild boar.

You can laze under the grape arbor with a laptop computer or "The Reluctant Tuscan," a book by Phil Doran, your American neighbor who waded through the hilarious morass of Italian red tape to restore his rustico.

Part of the group can swim in the ocean while others hike Cinque Terre, a group of five picturesque fishing villages connected by train, boat and hiking trails.

A villa offers home comforts along with the spiritual arabesques of new vistas. You do not have to dash to keep up with the tour or drive frantically down the autostrada from Venice to Florence to Rome. Set limits. If an attraction is more than an hour away, save it for next time.

Florence is an hour from Lucca. Despite the crowds, few bypass this jewel in the Renaissance crown, but only the masochistic drive there. Take the train; everything you want to see is within walking distance. You can hire a guide, but not even an ambassador can get you into the Uffizi without a pre-booked ticket and in summer there can be a two-month wait for a reservation.

Personal service is another perk of a villa vacation. Your hosts will ask what you want to see and do and what level of service you require. Maids, chefs, nannies, tour guides, drivers, train and museum tickets will be secured before you arrive. Your kitchen will be stocked with two days' worth of provisions to give you time to locate and navigate local markets. And, your hosts will be just a phone call away to recommend restaurants, provide suggestions and directions and help you deal with the unexpected.

Kit Burns, president of Doorways Ltd., manages villa rentals for 300 properties in Italy, Spain and France. With 14 years of experience, she is a savvy matchmaker of European villas to vacationing groups and families and her company personally inspects every villa Doorways represents.

She suggests that groups too large to fit into a car rent two small cars instead of a van. The narrow, winding roads make small cars the only sensible -- and often the only possible -- choice. Plus, while part of the group is being pampered at a thermal spa, the rest can explore a village that is just a freckle on the map.

One such destination, Pedona, population 150, has ancient homes clinging to the mountainside. For lunch, order tortellini stuffed with ricotta and local herbs at Il Soggiorno, Pedona's only restaurant, where every table has a view of the valley and the bread and pasta were made that morning.

A family member might need a day alone where relaxing in a lawn chair can be as soothing as sitting in the lap of God -- nothing to do but breathe in fragrant air and watch clouds drape gauzy veils on mountain shoulders. One villa guest counted shades of green instead of sheep before nodding off.

Dinner conversation may serve up a potpourri of discoveries as well as a taste of Italy:

"I picked the wild fennel and asparagus we're eating … and I picked the wildflowers … We walked through a quarry of Carrara marble, and it really is pure white … dormant in the depths, what masterpiece awaits the next Renaissance … Mommy, I want to go to the beach … tomorrow, I promise … and we're going shopping at the outdoor market while the kids swim … I'm taking the train to Siena … The estate owner invited me to see how he makes olive oil … this oil? … yes, he makes it the old way from the olive trees you were snoozing under this evening … Shall we go to the Puccini concert tomorrow or Friday? … tomorrow, and after we'll eat at All'Olivo… I've heard you can't go wrong anywhere in Tuscany with the Three P's: pecorino, pomadoro, pescatora."

Burns says that before their vacation, guests inquire about accommodations and activities. When they return, they talk about the people: their hosts, the market vendors, the locals they met at the coffee bar.

Living the Italian life is difficult from a hotel. Living in a villa you become part of the country, part of the village, a vetted member of the passeggiata, that traditional Italian evening stroll where everyone can see you look well, have new shoes, a stylish scarf and perhaps a bit of gossip to share while the young people flirt and toddlers beg to ride the carousel in the town square.

Living in a villa, you become a familiar face at the outdoor market where a vendor who does not speak a word of English will select her best tomatoes for you and tuck in a sprig of fresh basil for no additional charge.

Pietro Cascella, a contemporary Tuscan sculptor who works in marble, says, "Sculpture is a stony dream." Chiseled visions, age 2,000 years to two days, peg this landscape of softer dreams to Europe like a picnic cloth spread with a Renaissance banquet. No sense or sensibility will return home unstirred.

If you go

Tuscany

Go: To live like a local in a villa or restored farmhouse while discovering a scenic, lightly visited part of Tuscany

No: If you are more comfortable on a tour

Need to know: Italian Government Tourist Board, (312) 644-0996, www.italiantourism.com

Getting there:. There are no nonstop flights to Pisa from Chicago. Several U.S. and foreign airlines offer one-stop service.

Getting around: You will need a rental car. Along with U.S. rental companies you'll find online, consider AutoEurope, (888) 223-5555, www.autoeurope.com.

Accommodations: Doorways Ltd.,www.villavacations.com" target="new"> www.villavacations.com, has in-depth property descriptions and photos, plus rates and an availability calendar. The Web site lists weekly rates in Lucca and northwest Tuscany ranging from $1,244 for a two-bedroom dependence to an adjacent farmhouse to $58,000 for a 12-bedroom luxury villa. Kit Burns, president of Doorways Ltd., will help match villas to your needs. Call her at (800) 261-4460, or e-mail her at info@doorwaysltd.com.

Weather: The average high temperature in Florence is 89 in July, 49 in January.

Language: "Rick Steves Italian Phrase Book & Dictionary," $7.95, covers most vacation conversation situations.

Resources: Knowital.com (www.knowital.com) offers information about history and attractions in Lucca, Pisa, Florence and other areas in Italy.