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Despite visiting Italy numerous times before it’s a country we can’t stay away from for long. After nine months in Asia we were craving Italian food and the best thing about our life is that if we feel like pasta, we book a flight to Italy.
We came to eat and food has definitely been the highlight so far – creamy gelato, thin crust pizzas, comforting pasta. Even the simplest things taste good here – cherries are bursting with flavour, and I’ve never enjoyed a bowl of lettuce so much as when drizzled with olive oil made a few kilometres away.
Tuscany can be surprisingly affordable – we found some amazing deals on monthly rentals on Airbnb and our two bedroom apartment costs just 500 euros a month. It’s simple but has everything we need and gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside.
We are just outside the pretty medieval village of Montecarlo, between Lucca and Florence. It’s not a tourist village but it is on the Lucca wine trail so a few pass through to sample wines at one of the many vineyards in the area.
Montecarlo is a hilltop village perched above the surrounding olive groves and vineyards, with thick stone walls and a fortress dating back to 1333.
We love walking up the hill into the village, past silvery olive trees, vines crammed into everyone’s garden, and the houses with terracotta roofs and ochre walls melding perfectly into the classic Tuscan scene.
We walk along the quiet road past trees dripping with cherries and apricots, church bells ringing above, and the air heady with the vanilla scent of thousands of small white flowers we can’t identify (it’s star jasmine – thanks Tracy & Della!).
The first time we walked into the village the same thought struck us both – it looks like Disney! That’s what two Disney visits in the last year will do to you.
It really was the picture-perfect Tuscan street scene that Disney recreates so well, especially at Tokyo’s Disney Sea. We entered the arched 700 year old doorway into the cobblestoned streets of yellow hued houses with shuttered windows and ancient wooden doors. Washing swayed from balconies in the narrow lanes and old Italian men sat on chairs outside their homes, watching the world go by.
Despite wandering down every side street within the walls of the sleepy village it didn’t take us more than ten minutes to explore. There’s not much to do except the most important – eat. In this tiny village there are a couple of bar/pizzerias/gelaterias; a few alimentari selling bottles of local olive oil, wine and chunks of pecorino cheese; an enoteca (wine bar) to sample the local Montecarlo DOC wine; and about 10 restaurants.
That first night we knew we’d be happy here when we sat down at the Osteria del Vento and were brought a big basket of bread plus complimentary melt in your mouth mini pizzas. The baked ricotta with spinach and orange sauce, and the pecorino, fava bean and tomato ravioli that followed were delicious, while Simon’s white chocolate mousse dessert was the best we’ve ever sampled. We finished the meal with intense espresso and complimentary biscotti.
This is why we came to Italy.
We don’t need to eat out to enjoy the food though. Eating a caprese salad with focaccia under the apricot tree in our garden can be just as satisfying.
Although Montecarlo is usually very quiet, on Sundays it comes to life with families on their passeggiata, eating gelato or drinking an aperitivo outside one of the bars. On our first Sunday the streets were busy with an antiques market, while last weekend we found men in medieval dress engaged in a serious archery competition.
Weekends are also the only time you can visit the privately owned fortress (open 4-7pm, 5 euros) which you’ll only have to share with a few other visitors. It was the site of many battles during the Middle Ages due to its strategic position between Lucca and Florence.
From the towers there are views of the village and countryside and there’s a surprisingly manicured courtyard garden. The garden was created in the early 20th century as before that it was used for more practical purposes like storing weapons and training soldiers.
One of the main things to do in Montecarlo is visit one of the many vineyards. A few kilometres down the road we visited Tenuta del Buonamico where for 10 euros we got an informative tour of the winery, and sampled many of their wines and olive oil accompanied by delicious aged pecorino. We loved them all but ended up leaving with a bottle of their award winning sparkling rose and the heavenly olive oil.
We’ve rented a car for the month and are using Montecarlo as a base to explore Tuscany, getting lost every single time we venture out to explore. There are numerous single track roads off this mountain and they all look the same through olive groves.
So far we’ve been to Lucca, Siena, Pistoia, Pisa and horse riding near Volterra. See our Tuscany tips here. We’ve got lots more to explore so please let us know if you have any tips – especially for restaurants!
500 Euros a month?! Sign me up, please!
That’s just beautiful. My better half was singing praises for the wonderful photos. I tend not to sing my praises, but they are quite immaculate.
Thanks for linking the airbnb post as well. I was wondering how you managed transport in the middle of nowhere, and then got to the part about the rental. Any suggestions for monthly rentals in Italy? I’ve always wondered about the best options for longer term car rentals, but admittedly haven’t researched it much outside of Europcar, etc. We’re thinking of Italy at the end of the year after our Balkan stay.
Thanks to your better half!
You do need a car to make the most of rural Italy. I found that car rental companies tend to give reduced rates automatically if it’s more than 21 days. It’s also cheaper the further in advance you book (ours went up quite a bit after I waited a few weeks to book). I used carrentals.co.uk and Travel Supermarket to search for the best deal. From there we found the best deal with eRentals.co.uk/ Atlas Choice. It worked out OK except for the fact we were forced to start with a full tank and return it empty and pay their petrol rate – 135 euros for a full tank! It did last a long time but still more expensive than filling up ourselves.
What a serene little place! I can’t wait to return to Italy. I totally agree – you can’t stay away from it too long :) And you can never get tired of it, there are so many beautiful towns to explore… and the food!! :) Enjoy your time there & thanks for the AirBnB tip – that’s a real bargain!
I agree – even though this is my fourth trip to Tuscany there are still so many places I haven’t visited yet. It won’t be our last visit!
Italy is such a nicest place ever. Sounds like you guys are having so much fun and I wish I could have some travel like you. By the way the place is beautiful indeed and great pictures as well.
Is there anyone who doesn’t like Italy? It is one of those places that everyone falls for – whether for the food, scenery, history, art or fashion.
Italy is always wonderful but even more so when you’ve been away for a while. I loved Umbria when I visited earlier this year which isn’t too far from where you’re based if you want to explore further afield.
We really want to visit Umbria but we don’t even have time for everywhere we want to visit in Tuscany. Although a month seems like a lot there are so many places to visit and we have to fit work in too. Next time!
I didn’t know you were in Italy right know. What a pity, because I would have loved to meet you and I’m now heading to Asia and will be back early August. How long will you be staying in Tuscany? Maybe there’ll be the chance when I’m back. The area between Lucca and Florence is awesome, and if you’re looking for something superb I suggest you to visit the magnificent Calci Charterhouse, between Lucca and Pisa.
Enjoy your stay under the Tuscan sun :-)
Shame we missed you! We leave Tuscany at the end of June and then have a week in Rome. Thanks for the Charterhouse tip – we’ll try to fit that in.
Gosh I so look forward to your Italy posts. I love the small town feel and country-side as well. beautiful scenery and delicious food&drinks. Enjoy!
wow, that caprese and focaccia look amazing.
It only took a few minutes to make but even simple things taste delicious here.
We share your love of Italy and had the good fortune to spend a summer in Tuscany back in 2007. We stayed near Rignano-sur-Arno and used the frequent train service to make numerous trips to Florence.
We had our own car with us so we were able to visit many, many delightful places. San Gimignano being one of our favourites. We spent a weekend in Lucca and particularly enjoyed walking the ramparts and visiting the nearby town of Montecatini Terme. We found that everywhere we ate was first class from casual dining to more sophisticated cuisine. As vegetarians we had absolutely no problem finding dishes that were both delicious and satisfying. We didn’t know about Airbnb back then so paid quite a bit to stay in an old castello high in the hills but, the summer was a hot one so the cooler air was a welcome relief! We travelled at the time with our old dog and it was in Italy that we lost him – he was a good age at 17 and we can’t think of a better resting place for him. By the way, think the small white flowers with the strong scent are jasmine. Safe and happy travels. Tracy & Della
Sounds like a wonderful trip – staying in a castle must have been amazing. We think Italy is one of the best destinations for vegetarians too, even if there aren’t that many here.
Oh yes, I think it is jasmine – thanks for solving that mystery!