Traveling the Italian Wine Route, Part 1: Planning your Trip
Filed under: Guidebooks, Journal, Travel - Italy, Travel - Planning
This is the first part in a 3-part series on how to plan and travel well during your next trip to Italy
Gastronomic ecstasy in Bella Italia
As a frequent traveler to Italy, I’m often asked for advice by new travelers on where to go and how best to experience Italy and its food and wines. Traveling well in Italy, something the Italians call viaggiarbene, is both immensely pleasurable and easy to do — if you plan a bit before you go. Having traveled to Italy over 50 times in the past 15 years, I’ve accumulated some helpful ideas and travel tips that save time and multiply the pleasurable moments of a trip. And since Dall’Uva is all about the pleasure of experiencing artisan wines and connecting you with passionate producers, I’m pleased to share my recommendations on how to maximize the magic of your next trip to Italy.
To be sure, Italy holds the western world’s largest store of cultural treasures. You can spend countless hours exploring the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Vatican Museum in Rome, and the Pompeii exhibit in Naples — and you should. But I find exploring the Italy of today, including its rich gastronomic culture, to be more satisfying to the soul. If you want to explore the culinary treasures of Italy as they were meant to be and bypass the manufactured experience most tourists settle for, print out this blog posting and carry a few of my recommendations with you as you travel. I believe you’ll be much more sensually satisfied.
Plan your travel route: Map out your path to maximize visits to cultural sites, wine tastings, and great restaurants.
Buy and use travel, food and wine guidebooks: Current-year guidebooks will save you time and help you find the best activities.
Select a home base from which to explore: Find and book a small home, apartment or hotel centrally located near your desired sites.
Plan to use cash or credit cards: Travel checks are a hassle — use cash or credit cards. Let your bank know you’re traveling, ask them to raise your daily cash advance limit to $500+, and make sure your ATM card will work overseas.
Know before you go.
Traveling to regions that are new to you requires a bit of advance planning if you want to maximize your pleasure while you’re there. All that’s needed is a good map, a travel guide you can trust, and a fine glass of Brunello (a Mastrojanni Brunello 2004 will do) to put you in the mood.
Guidebooks. If you know which cities you’re flying into and out of, and how many days you plan to spend, mapping out an exploration path will depend on what you want to see. Spend some time reviewing a good regional travel guidebook that is updated annually. I find the Frommer’s Italy country guide, and their regional books like Frommer’s Northern Italy quite useful. A particular favorite of mine, the Rick Steves’ Italy guidebooks offer an opinionated summary of the best cultural stops in the major regions. Other good guidebooks include the Lonely Planet Italy country guide, and the Authentic Italy series of guide books by the Touring Club of Italy. For food and wine guidebooks, see my recommendations below.
Maps. To help you gauge the distance between your planned stops, pick up a good 200,000 : 1 or better touring map (the lower the first number, the more detailed the map). My favorite is the Atlante Stradale d’Italia series of maps from the Touring Club of Italy, but they can be tough to find outside of Italy (I buy mine along the A1 Autostrada from Rome to Florence at one of the many Autogrill rest stops). The next best option is
the Michelin Italy Tourist & Motoring Atlas. Since I drive during most of my visits, I recommend the spiral bound regional books. If you just can’t find these super useful map books, you can always pick up a regional fold-out map like the Michelin Italy North-West Map, but these are a pain to use in the car unless you have a sidekick with you in the front passenger seat doing the navigating.
You’ll find an overwhelming selection of guidebooks and maps at most larger bookstores. If you can buy them locally, do it. My favorite bookstore in Portland, Oregon is Powell’s Books in downtown Portland. Practically speaking, you can get just about anything you want from Amazon.com for a fair price, and it’s the best option if you need something quickly or something unusual like the above mentioned maps and guide books.
Itinerary Planning. My best recommendation when selecting sites to visit is this: Assume that you will return to Italy in the future. Be careful not to overbook your time; racing from site to site is not a vacation. Be sure to allocate plenty of time to relax over a fine meal each day. Block out timeslots reserved for no particular activity and savor the uniquely Italian experience of la dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing). You’ll be more refreshed and satisfied while building pleasant memories that last a lifetime.
Next in Part 2: Wine Tasting at Your Favorite Italian Producers.
Looking for Travel Planning Advice?
Do you have an upcoming trip to Italy and are looking for recommendations on places to see and visit? Have a favorite story or experience to share from a recent trip? Join the conversation and don’t be bashful, we’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have a question about Italian wine, food or travel, ask away.
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I’m in sunny Italia now and I’m always amazed at how much Americans pack for a 7-14 day trip abroad. I see lots of folks struggling to roll their large luggage over cobblestone streets and up long flights of stairs. It’s a pain and really drains the fun out of your trip. Here are a few thoughts on making your trip more enjoyable by packing light:
How much to pack: Pack for ~4 or 5 days worth of clothes. If you’re traveling for 10 days, don’t pack 10 days worth of clothes. You can do a little dry cleaning or laundry along the way, even the smallest of towns in Italy has a lavandaria you can use for ~10 euros per load. I know, it sounds crazy, but you’ll thank me if you limit the amount of clothes you bring.
What kind of bag: Skip the rolley luggage. European cities are filled with cobblestone streets and many steps. The super-smooth streets and big elevators you’ve come to rely on in the US just aren’t there in the locations and hotels you’re likely to stay in. I recommend a backpack (yes, you’ve heard me, a backpack), and the best are available from Rick Steves’ travel store. I often go on 2 week wine hunting trips with just an expandable backpack and do fine. If you pick up wine and other items along the way, pick up an extra bag while you’re in Italy for about 20-30 euro.
Electronics: Keep the electronics simple; bring a small laptop if you must, but know that you can tap into many Internet Points along the way and access your gmail or yahoo account. Skip the cell phone unless you are willing to pay $1/minute, plus about $20/megabyte of data access. Remember that for iphones and blackberries, you’ll incur data access charges simply by having your cell phone on, and sizable charges at that. Don’t believe anyone that says you have unlimited data access in Europe for one monthly fee — it doesn’t exist with any carrier, and you’ll have a multi-thousand dollar phone bill to deal with when you get home. Good alternative: You can buy a cell phone in Europe for ~30-50 and pay local charges of about 40 cents/minute (pre-paid) if you feel you must have a cell phone with you.
I’m a big fan of Rick Steves’ travel style, and I highly recommend you read his “Pack Light and Right” page for great hints on how to pack efficiently and save yourself the unending pain of dragging big, heavy bags all over Italy and Europe. His page is here:
(Typing from the boisterous Blue Marlin bar in Vernazza while tasting the Lunae Auxo Rosso (Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Canailo) from the nearby Colli di Luni hills — http://www.cantinelunae.it/ )
I’m planning a self-guided wine and food pilgrimage of sorts to Italy. I’m leaving in a few weeks, flying into Florence and dividing up the two weeks that I will be there between Tuscany and Piedmont. I’ve recently begun studying wine so my goal is to learn as much as I can about Italian wine, terroir, food, and cultural traditions surrounding those three aspects of life.
Being a well seasoned travel amongst both these regions, I’m hoping I can pick your brain about a couple things:
1. What are the top 4 wineries that can’t be missed in Tuscany and Piedmont? I would prioritize small, family owned wineries and wineries that have employees that would be open to spend time teaching me about their wines.
2. I read the article you wrote about the local enoteche. Are there any others (other than the ones highlighted in the article) that you recommend visiting?
3. I’m on a pretty tight budget so do you have any suggestions for experiencing the fine wine and food of Italy without spending a lot of money?
I really appreciate your help. Your blog has already been very helpful in my trip planning. If you’d prefer, please feel free to email me your response. thanks!
Hi Christina! Sounds like you have a great trip planned, two weeks of exploring will probably go by quickly, but you can cover a lot of ground in that amount of time. How are you getting around? I assume you’re renting a car, which is the only realistic way to see most producers, so my recs are based on that assumption.
About the top 4 producers that can’t be missed — well, that’s going to be subjective, but if you’re looking for interesting producers to visit and explore, I can offer a few. The issue you’re going to run into this time of year is that the harvest and wine making (the vendemmia) is in full swing — which may be a good thing for you. Here are some producers that you can visit while in Tuscany:
1) Due East of Siena in Castelnuovo Berardenga, check out Felsina, they make some fabulous Chianti Classico, as well as a couple of SuperTuscans that people rave about.
2) In the heart of Chianti north of Siena near Panzano, Gerhard Hirmer manages the cantina at Molino di Grace and may have time to show you around if he’s not too busy with the vendemmia — Let me know and I can do an intro if you like. It would be good for you to compare Felsina and Grace Chianti Classico wines so you can learn about differences in winemaker styles. I have a Wine Journal post where you can find out more info about Molino di Grace here.
3) Just outside the hill town of Montepulciano is Canneto, a small producer of Vino Nobile that I really enjoy. Their wines will give you an idea of what the local Sangiovese clone of prugnolo gentile can do. Contact Marco Paoloni, a Sommelier working in the Cantina there — he’s also on twitter @Marco_Canneto. Let me know if you’d like me to do an intro.
4) To learn about regional wines and styles from my Sommelier buddy and good friend Arnaldo Rossi, I suggest you visit Pane e Vino in Cortona, a wonderful enoteca with small plates. Be sure to go during dinner, after 8PM. Arnaldo has a rotating list of Italian wines by the glass, and over 800 wines on his list. Let me know if you’d like to visit Pane e Vino and I’ll introduce you to Arnaldo.
In Piemonte, it’s a wide-open field with many small producers. One idea I suggest is that you visit the folks at Produttori del Barbaresco, the consortium of small producers that make fantastic local wines. Contact the main office in Barbaresco and see if they can hook you up with one of their consortium producers during the vendemmia.
On question #2 & 3 to keep food expenses low and find quality enoteche, I suggest that you:
1) Stay in places that include breakfast — most places do, and while an Italian breakfast is pretty basic, it’s a cheap way to fuel up for the morning.
2) Use the Slow Food guidebook “Osterie d’Italia” for selecting the best options for lunch and dinner. It’s full of ultra-local Osterie, Trattorie and Enoteche that usually offer wonderful “home-cooked” dishes showing off the local specialties, and wines that are quite affordable. You may need to buy it in Italy at a bookstore, as it’s hard to find in the States. I have a handful of 2011 copies left if you’d like to buy one from Dall’Uva — just let me know.
I wish you the best of luck, I’m sure you will have great fun.
Thank you Michael for all of this information. Very helpful!
Want to travel to italy in july. What is the best wine and food route travelling north.
Ciao Lorinda — check out these posts in the Forum! More ideas on what to do up and down the Italian peninsula.