Exploring Tuscany from Greve in Chianti

I discovered Greve in Chianti many months ago through my Airbnb search of the Siena and Chianti region of Italy. I saw an adorable villa (the room we are currently renting) which looked absolutely perfect for our 5 night stay. It was in a town called "Greve in Chianti." Perfect. I didn't know a thing about Greve in Chianti other than it was "in Chianti" and the villa looked traditionally Tuscan so I booked it and didn't give it another thought.

Little did I know that Greve in Chianti would actually be the perfect home base for us to explore Tuscany and this region of Italy in the exact way that we like to travel. I couldn't have asked for a better location. We're an hour from Florence, an hour from Siena, an hour from San Gimignano, and 20 - 30 minutes from many charming Italian hill towns that we've taken to love exploring. The word "in Chianti" following many of the town's names is because for the winemakers, in order to be considering "Chianti Classico," a top honor, they have to be made from wines in Chianti-- similar to the word "champagne" or they cannot be considered Chianti Classico. That is why there are so many "in Chianti" towns-- because they are the heartland of where the Chianti wine is produced.

It's been nice for us because we've spent most of our times stopping into towns we've never even heard of and had wonderful experiences-- weaving in and out of alleyways, exploring hills, poking into quiet shops, having lunch at trattorias that don't charge a cover charge (more on that, later) and eating gelato at places that don't have swarms and swarms of people waiting in line. Oh, and we never see selfie sticks in the small towns, either...

I have mixed feelings about the touristy Italian cities. For one, if you travel in the summer, Italy is very, very hot. Add 1,000 people side by side in alleys, piazzas, cathedrals, etc., and you're going to be sorely disappointed that these towns aren't as quaint and quintessential as you expected them to be. It's funny to me because we have seen no American tourists in the small villages-- we've mainly seen European tourists in those villages. And in the major cities, we have only seen Americans. So. Many. Americans. When did we get the idea that all Italy is is Florence, Siena, Assisi, Venice and Rome? Are people afraid to venture outside of what they've read in guidebooks and explore what really is the heart of Italy? The Italy that they have come to admire and dream about from "Under the Tuscan Sun" and their computer image backgrounds?

Because while there is great history in those cities, the major touristed cities are not what Italy is all about. It can be incredibly frustrating trying to "see" Italy while being pushed, stepping in front of their selfies and photo ops (we're guilty of selfies here too-- I'm not on my high horse!), waiting in lines, being charged more for food than normal, sweating profusely, being charged an arm and a leg to see famous sights and cathedrals, and trying to buy something "authentic" only to realize that the exact same items can be found two stalls down, made in China.

There's nothing wrong with being interested in Siena, Florence, Assisi, Rome, Venice and even Naples if you have a true passion for history and a desire to see the architectural and historical legacies of these cities. I have been to all of them and don't regret going for a second. But if you want to experience Italy in all of its glory... through a "La Vita Bella" dinner alfresco on a hillside at sunset, strolling the streets in love with a stratciatella gelato in your hand, visiting with a Chianti Classico winemaker and eating fresh charcuterie with him, and shopping in villages with hand-crafted artisan's goods... then do not go to Italy and only visit the major 5 tourist towns. Get out of town. Get out of your comfort zone. Stay in a small village and rent a car to drive and explore. Experience "agriturismo"-- that is, staying in a B&B in the farm countries and vineyards with local winemakers and olive oil producers and let them show you true Italian hospitality.

As the wine maker we chatted with all night last night said to us, "I have worked at a large ristorante in Florence for too long, and now I quit and work in smaller restaurant in Chianti. They became too big because of tourism and people stopped appreciating the art of the food."

(Side note: We've come to realize that Tripadvisor shows Americans where to go in Europe because reviews are written by Americans, for Americans. So if you want to go to a restaurant that Americans think are great and see a lot of American people, go to the #1 restaurants on Tripadvisor. ;) Not that this is a bad thing... but we started realizing each time we'd consult Tripadvisor with where to eat that, "Hey, there's a lot of English conversations around us..." "Hey, there are a lot of Americans here in this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the back alley of Siena..." 

However, the Americans don't lie because we also have found these amazing restaurants because of Tripadvisor reviews. The sneaky American tourists like us just keep stumbling into these must-go places and seeing our like-minded camarades there as well. :) 

Also, be informed that in Italy, almost all places outside of Rome that are in touristy areas charge a "cover charge," which can look like a lot of different things. In smaller towns it's mostly a charge for bread (usually about 3 EUR for the bread basket) that servers will bring you without asking. It's usually a gesture of hospitality, but nothing is free when eating in Italy. Accept the basket if you don't mind the charge, other way you can say, "No grazie," before the basket hits your table. 

We have also seen "copperto" added, which is basically just a charge for eating there, using their plates, etc. This is usually around 2 EUR per person as well. We've also just seen a tip automatically added to our bill as a service charge-- sometimes around 10% of the bill which is roughly 3 - 4 EUR. However, today in Siena, at the #1 rated hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the city thanks to Tripadvisor reviews, we were charged for all three "cover charge" points-- we were charged 2 EUR for water, 6 EUR for a cover charge, 3 EUR for bread and 3 EUR for a service charge. It was absolutely outrageous. We've never been charged that much at any restaurant in all of Italy just for small things we didn't even order, and we weren't even eating in an area of Siena that was near tourist spots. It just goes to show that there is even more reason to avoid the overly touristy cities because places will take advantage of the unknowing traveler. One thing to note is that a service charge is not a tip; servers, unlike in the US, receive a salary and benefits so actual tipping is not done and not expected whatsoever.) 

Digression aside, these are some of our favorite small towns that we have loved visiting during our time in Tuscany and highly recommend stopping in for an hour or so (that's all the time you'll need unless you have a meal there) during your visit to this area:

1. Radda in Chianti

2. Castellina in Chianti

3. Monteriggiore

4. Montefioralle

5. Greve in Chianti

6. Panzano in Chianti

7. Montainole

8. Montepulciano

9. Pienza

10. Montalcino

We also visited Siena and San Gimignano during our visit which are worth a quick trip but know what you want to see and plan accordingly if you visit in high tourist season. Again, no regrets visiting, but we probably won't be back. There is too much authentic Italy to continue to know and explore!

So many people everywhere...

Timothy's so excited that we got charge 12 Euros for nothing at this restaurant...

The Duomo in Siena

Just doin' a selfie like everyone else! 

Panorama of Piazza Del Campo in Siena

These are the types of restaurants you avoid!

More crowds with selfie sticks...

Piazza del Campo in Siena

Siena... and people. 

Entering into Siena

These are the types of gelaterias you want to visit... the ones in quiet towns! Not the ones boasting "World's best..."

An evening with a wonderful winemaker at his vineyard in Montefioralle

Tuscan views

Relaxing on the steps in Castellina in Chianti

Castellina in Chianti

It's always time for gelato in Italy!

Radda in Chianti

Radda in Chianti

Competing gelaterias in San Gimignano... if you see a line of tourists, probably best to go someplace else. :)

Was it the best ice cream in the world? 

Ahhh... the views just do not get old here. 

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