Things you should know before you leave for your Tuscany vacation
OK, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it's a start. In fact, we have a whole book of useful information we have called The Big Book, and we send this out to our guests before they set out. Most tell us they find it incredibly useful, though it's possible they are just saying that to be nice. Anyway, here are just some of the topics you should consider before setting off on your holiday.
Insurance for your trip to Tuscany
It goes without saying that you should always travel with comprehensive insurance cover for medical expenses and your personal belongings. Bring a copy of the policy documents and make sure you know where all the key phone numbers are kept. If you are coming from with the EC, make sure you apply for and bring with you your European Health Insurance card.
Healthcare in Tuscany
The quality of the public health care system in Tuscany is very high indeed, with excellent local facilities. If you run short of medication you can usually get help from the local pharmacies, especially if you bring your prescription with you. Care for children is some of the best in Europe, with superb facilities in Florence. If you get sick or hurt yourself, rest assured you'll be cared for quickly and efficiently, and for very little cost compared to many parts of the world.
Money, money, money
Trying to work out how much cash to bring with you is tricky. And there are obvious risks to carrying around sacks of cash. But with a bit or research, and a couple of online applications, you can get rid of the cash altogether. There are very few places that won't take either MasterCard or Visa credit cards. The daily produce markets are an obvious exception. So although you'll need a few €100s, you probably won't need more than that, if you have plastic.
The problem is, some credit card companies charge an exchange rate transfer fee when you pay in a foreign currency, but not all. The amount of this fee will vary, but is typically around 3%. As you are coming to Europe anyway, and are likely to be using your card a lot, it’s worth doing some research and finding a card that doesn’t charge you this fee. For example, in the UK, try the Post Office or the Halifax, in the USA BoA or Chase, amongst others. Their cards charge no exchange rate fee and give you the best possible exchange rate (the inter-bank rate).
The same with using ATMs. Some banks charge, some don't, and it also depends on which ATMs you use. Confusing. But do 5 minutes research online, and you'll have the latest info. There are ATMs everywhere, 3 in Castellina and 2 in San Donato (at the last count), so there's always somewhere nearby where you can get cash. The fee is generally fixed, so don't take out €20 at a time, take out the maximum you're allowed (within reason) and stash it.
Mosquitoes & other bugs
These pests are usually around from May to September. We don´t normally have too much of a problem (it is a bigger problem in the towns and cities). Most of the rooms don't have screens, mainly because guests prefer the wonderful views. But if you are particularly sensitive, bring insect repellent spray (though this is for sale everywhere here) and a plug-in repellent device if you are especially worried. Again, these are available in all the local supermarkets. We have mosquito nets for those who would like one and a few spare plug-in devices for you to borrow. If you are planning on sitting outside in the evenings, repellent spray is very useful.
We are out in deepest Chianti, so there will always be a few bugs and flying insects. But please don´t worry. They are mostly harmless and non-aggressive.
Electricity & hair
The voltage here is 220v (as it is throughout Europe) and most of the electrical sockets are of the in-line 2 or 3 pin type. If you have stuff to plug in, remember to bring an adaptor with you. Hairdryers are provided in all rooms.
Mobile phones (cell phones)
Getting your phone to work in Italy might be as simple as talking to your provider and asking them to switch on international roaming. It’s not cheap to make calls, but good enough for emergencies, reservations and the occasional call home...
Otherwise, check your phone will work in Europe and that it’s unlocked, and then buy a SIM card from a mobile phone shop when you get here, probably at the airport. That’ll give you an Italian number and cheaper local calls, though international calls will probably still be expensive.
Finally, bring your computer/tablet/smartphone, load Skype (or similar) and use that to make cheap calls world-wide whenever you are in a free Wifi zone (we have one here at Patrignone). This is very handy for when you need to change flights, book hotels, cancel credit cards, etc.
The water here at Patrignone has been analysed and is perfectly clean. We drink it, and it tastes lovely! However, if you have a particularly sensitive constitution it doesn´t do any harm to play it safe and drink bottled water. You'll find plenty in the Honesty Bar.
Food & vegetarians
If you have never been to Tuscany before, eating out is going to be a major part of your stay here. The food is fantastic, and very varied, from fish to game, pizza to nouvelle cuisine, cheap-and-cheerful to über-expensive. If you are a steak-lover, make sure you try a Fiorentina (the biggest T-bone fillet you have ever seen, often shared between 2 and 4 people, and sold by weight). Pasta here is superb, and game a local speciality, especially Cinghiale, local wild boar.
And of course, you will never be short of choice when it comes to wine. If you feel like splashing out, try the wine made by our neighbour Isole e Olena. They make a superb ´Super-Tuscan´ red, Ceparello; it wont be cheap, but it is worth every cent in my opinion.
Unlike many European counties, finding good vegetarian food in restaurants here is quite easy. Always ask to see the menu before deciding to eat, and ask them for the vegetarian options. If there is nothing you like, ask the waiter whether the chef can prepare something for you. They will usually be very happy to help. Most restaurants have several vegetarian antipasti and pasta dishes, and if you are going for a pizza, you wont have any problems at all.
If you have allergies or other sensitivities, things can get a little more complicated. But everyone in the restaurants here speaks some English, so just explain your needs and they will help if they can, most of the time.
The Italians drive on the right, as do most Europeans. Despite their somewhat aggressive style, Italian drivers are usually quite good. Don´t be surprised to see an Italian driving very close behind you and flashing his lights. Don´t panic – it´s just what they do. Take it easy, drive normally, and completely ignore them. Pull into the slow lane when you get the chance, but don't rush. Honestly, the flashing lights make them look cross, but it's just how they let you know they're behind you. They are perfectly happy to wait until you can move over.
Please remember to switch on your headlights whenever you drive on an Italian motorway (autostrada or superstrada). It´s the law here. (I keep mine on all the time just to be sure.)
Navigating the Italian road network can be a tricky exercise, even for the locals. If you are planning on doing a lot of driving, buy a good map. Plan your journey in advance so you know what towns and roads to look for in advance. Don't just rely on your SatNav, useful though it may be. SatNav dependence will totally strip you of any real sense of where you are. A map won't cost much and you'll find your way around much more quickly.
There are no trespass laws in Italy, so the hunters and their guns are free to roam anywhere they please from October to January. This is unlikely to affect you, even if you are staying here during the Autumn season, though they tend to start at the crack of dawn, so it´s not unusual to hear the first shots just after 6am!