August 27, 2008
A Tuscan Trip Need Not Break the Bank
By Wayne Stackhouse
THE beautfiful Italian region of Tuscany is usually associated as a holiday destination for the more well heeled or Prime Ministers with the right friends.
But that all seems to be changing as the number of low cost airline destinations increases.
And with the help of Ryanair's regular service from Birmingham to Pisa airport, I discovered a break to that part of Italy which has so many charms, doesn't have to come at a particularly high price in these credit crunch times.
While Ryanair is no frills, I found the journey from Birmingham International to Pisa, and back again, perfectly comfortable and with a fair choice of reasonably priced refreshments to help while away the time. And that flight time is only around two hours, with Pisa airport having the advantage of being very close to the city with the fabled leaning tower.
But my group's first destination was to the historic town of Volterra, 1,770 feet above sea level, enclosed by volcanic hills and nestling between the rivers Bra and Cecina.
This is a place rich in things to see and do with some exquisite architecture and curiously famed for alabaster.
It's less than an hour's travelling time from the airport but we stopped off for a welcome traditional Italian lunch at the farmhouse La Mandriola.
The very hospitable hosts also offer a variety of self-catering accommodation on the farmhouse site itself, surrounded by lovely typically Tuscan countryside.
We stayed at the comfortable four star Park Hotel Le Fonti, which benefits from a delightful hillside position with some stunning views.
It's also within easy reach of the town centre itself.
A guided tour is a must because there's so much to Volterra in a relatively small area from the cathedral to baptistry, Roman threatre and fortress remains.
The main square - the Piazza dei Priori - is a great place to relax with some form of refreshment and people watch.
In fact Volterra is also a great place for shopping and dining.
We enjoyed a rather contemporary approach to the usual Italian fayre at the Enoteca Del Duca restaurant under a medieval arch with walls lined with wine bottles. Quite a number of high quality dishes are served up, so overall its just as filling as you expect Italian dining to be, accompanied by some fine vino.
Alabaster may not be to everyone's taste, but it's very much part of Volterra's industrial heritage, albeit declining.
In fact we enjoyed quite an intriguing insight into how artefacts, some quite stunning, are made from the material, with the a little help from an alabaster exhibition which had just opened.
One of the highlights of my Tuscan jaunt was a visit to Fattoria Varramista.
Owned by the wealthy and influential Visconti di Modrone family, the heart of Varramista is its main luxurious house, surrounded by three farms which house guest accommodation.
The house is out of bounds, but visitors can enjoy the stunning grounds and vineyards. We enjoyed lunch while bathed in lovely Italian sunshine, sampling various wines commercially produced there. It was hard to leave.
But leave we had to experience a university city with so much to offer in terms of culture and heritage, not to mention a vibrant nightlife.
Fortunately the tower with the famous lean is now open to the public again after being closed for structural works as part of its chequered past down the centuries. It's a bit of a strange sensation going up a spiral staircase at an angle, but worth it for the views alone.
Close by in Pisa's "square of miracles" are other buildings of considerable interest including the Baptistery and Monumental Cemetery.
But away from the "tourist trap", on both banks of the River Arno, there's a wealth of museums, churches and historic monuments that can be explored.
Shopping and dining opportunities are in abudance and the student population helps fuel a healthy nightlife after dark. We stayed at the four star Hotel Bologna with all the amenities you'd expect from a hotel of its standard but also bene- fitting from being situated in a relatively quiet, but centrally located, side street.
All in all, a break to satisfy all the senses and now experiencing the delights of the Pisa province needn't be a big strain on the pocket.
Seats for flights from Birmingham International Airport, from pounds 5 one way including taxes and charges, can be booked at ryanair.com www.parkhotellefonti.com.
For tourist information on Volterra visit www.volterratur.it and Pisa at www.opapisa.it
The Hotel Bologna can be contacted at www.hotelbologna.pisa.it
For details of the Park Hotel Le Fonti visit www.parkhotellefonti.com
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