Taking a holiday in Tuscany doesn't have to mean breaking the bank - you can still see the best of it on a sensible family budget
With the pound at a historic low, and pockets a little emptier than usual, there’s a temptation to skip that family holiday to Tuscany. It’s notoriously pricey, right? Well, not necessarily.
Tuscany has many fine, free beaches, away from over-developed Versilia and the Etruscan Coast: try the Golfo di Baratti or, near Orbetello, the Tombolo della Feniglia, where Caravaggio dropped dead from fever in 1610. The island of Elba, just a short hop by car-ferry from Piombino, is home to some of the best sands in the Med. (But best avoided in August, when it’s packed and expensive.) My favourite sandy beaches are Fetovaia and Cavoli, in the south-west of the island.
Festivals are woven into the fabric of Tuscan life, and almost always free. Volterra’s AD1398 and Montepulciano’s Bravio delle Botti embellish August with a dollop of faux-medieval fun. Siena’s two Palio races, on the other hand, on July 2nd and August 16th, are very much the real thing.
And remember: just walking round a hill-town, soaking up the architecture and atmosphere of Volterra, Massa Marittima or San Gimignano, won’t cost you a cent. To really get away from summer crowds and tourist prices, though, head for Pitigliano. The town, perched on top of a tufa crag in Tuscany’s deep south, was once nicknamed “Little Jerusalem”, and preserves its Jewish ghetto, carved from solid volcanic rock. The clifftop town is also surrounded by a network of Etruscan subterranean walkways, known as vie cave. Yours to explore for free.
Even Florence has plenty for free. The city’s 11th-century Santa Trìnita, once home to Gentile da Fabriano’s iconic 'Adoration of the Magi', still sports frescoes by Lorenzo Monaco and Domenico Ghirlandaio. A magnificent hilltop location and striped Pisan-Romanesque façade mark San Miniato al Monte out as one of the city’s special places. And the crowning achievement of the Early Renaissance, Lorenzo Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’, the bronze east doors of the Baptistery facing the Duomo, are on open display. (Though these are copies: the originals are in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.)
Even occasional Tuscan museums are gratis, from the grisly monstrosities at Siena’s Natural History Museum to the Museo Piaggio, in Pontedera, home of the Vespa.
Saving on accommodation
It’s true that booking good-value summer accommodation for families can be tricky, so don’t turn your noses up at youth hostels. The spotless and rather grand Ostello San Frediano, for example, offers easily the best-value family rooms inside Lucca’s ring of 16th-century walls.
For great value bang in the centre of Florence, even in high season, Locanda Orchidea (Borgo degli Albizi 11; +39 055 2480346; www.hotelorchideaflorence.it) has spotless rooms on 2 floors of a Renaissance palazzo about 5 minutes' walk from most of the centre's marquee sights. Bathrooms are shared (about one for every 2 rooms); if you want a quiet night, ask for a room that overlooks the leafy rear courtyard.
The other obvious place to turn is camping. Camp specialists like Siblu (0871 911 2288; www.siblu.com), Keycamp (0844 406 0200; www.keycamp.co.uk) and Canvas Holidays (0845 268 0827; www.canvasholidays.co.uk) always offer early- and late-booking deals, free stuff for kids, and (most importantly) a range of locations around Tuscany that are handy for the regional highlights. If you don’t fancy nights under canvas, a mobile home will get you halfway to villa comforts for a fraction of the price.
Getting good value when you eat
When it comes to eating in famiglia, following a few rules will always save you money. Eat your main sit-down meal at lunch: a menù del giorno with two courses plus wine, water and coffee should be €12–€16. Swapping the panoramic terrace for a seat inside could save €2 a head in cover charges. The house red is always drinkable, always local, and better value than a bottle from the list. If you’re picking blind, walk two streets back from the piazza for better prices and better food. And round your meal off with an ice cream from a nearby gelateria, rather than the dessert menu.
Eateries offering reliable regional cooking include Osteria dell'Acquacheta in Montepulciano (Via del Teatro 22; www.acquacheta.eu), Antica Osteria l’Agania in Arezzo (Via Mazzini 10; www.agania.com), and Ristorante Zaira in Chiusi (Via Arunte 12; www.zaira.it).
Even Florence has a bargain eatery or two. Da Rocco, inside the Mercato Sant’Ambrogio and Le Mossacce, on Via del Proconsolo (near the Bargello), both offer relatively authentic Florentine lunches at bargain prices. Enjoy.