Great B&B in Western Sicily – Al Frantoio, Valderice

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We usually don’t write about the places we stay when we travel. Most of the time, they are nothing special, or we aren’t their long enough to appreciate the amenities. However, occasionally, we discover a gem that that provides everything: a comfortable place to rest, a strong connection to the local area, and friendly folks to help in any way they can.

In the western Sicilian town of Valderice, just down from the hill from the ancient town of Erice, we struck gold with Al Frantoio, a B&B run by Iolanda and Alberto. The name means “the crusher,” as it is located in an old olive oil production facility that dates back to the 1800s. The B&B is only a few years old, lovingly designed by Iolanda.

The rooms are large and fashionably appointed, with obviously a lot of forethought into every detail, large or small. The A/C works well (which is important when it is over 100F outside), the terrace offers sweeping views of Erice and the sea far below, and breakfast is a treat, with Iolanda providing accurate local advice on what to see and how to get there.

That is only half the story, however. Alberto runs an olive oil business downstairs, where they produce bottles for consumption all over Italy from locally-grown olives. Yum!

If you find yourself in western Sicily, trying to decide on a place to stay between the beauty and history of Erice, the wild sandy beaches of St. Vito, and the cosmopolitan spirit of Tripani, consider a stay at Al Frantoio and take in a little small town Sicily at the same time.

http://www.alfrantoiovalderice.it

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The NY Times Discovers Indie Memphis

I don’t know if this is a good thing or not, but the NY Times has an article on their site that basically hits most of the cool spots around midtown Memphis.

http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/travel/31next.html

Some choice quotes from the article:

  • The Cove has “a New Orleans style and a nautical theme, with a mast extending over the bar, peeling paint (there’s a lot of peeling paint in Memphis), ragged booths (ditto) and kitschy murals of sailors. The menu includes oysters and Cafe du Monde coffee; movies along the lines of “Brazil” play in lieu of sports.”
  • “To flip through the bins of seven-inches at Shangri-La or Goner Records is to feel the weight of Southern, which is to say American, musical history, gospel to blues to soul.”
  • Ernestine & Hazel’s was “once a dry goods store, for decades it operated openly as a brothel on the second floor; the namesake owners were first cousins whose husbands were cozy with the muckety-mucks at Stax and the local law enforcement, according to legend.”
  • “Indie Memphis has its own community icons, chief among them Shirley Williams, who has been serving drinks at the Lamplighter bar for nearly 40 years. The Lamp, as locals call it, is another Midtown dive. Opened since 1932, it is the city’s oldest continuously operating bar and has lately found its grungy slice of fame as the site of music videos for the likes of Cat Power.”
  • “‘We’re the real deal,’ Archie Turner said as he packed up his keyboard at 4 a.m. at Wild Bill’s, a dive bar, barbecue spot and soul joint that is one of the area’s most belovedly ragged destinations.”

Damn. I think they pretty much nailed it. Does anyone else have some suggestions for spots they missed?

Accommodation Review: Hotel Assisi, Rome, Italy

We were sure Rome was going to be a pain. Almost every large city we’ve ever visited while traveling seems to pull more out of you than it puts back. Our goal was to just to try to have a decent time in Rome during the 2 days we had there and try to see some highlights at the end of our trip, before heading back to the States. Our stay in Rome turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than we imagined, and a lot of that was due to the centrality and comfort provided by the place we stayed: Hotel Assisi [Google map].

After all, when you imagine being in Rome, you might imagine hanging out at the Colosseum.

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However, finding a place to stay near the Colosseum, one that is also comfortable and safe and offers good links to travel beyond the city, well, you have options, but it can be difficult to figure out which one to choose. We went with Hotel Assisi, which received several good reviews online and is a relative bargain at 80€ per night for a double. Is is also located only a couple of blocks from the central train station in Rome, Termini, and easy access to the metro.

On the downside, I saw this random scene from the remains of a very localized Vespa fire a block away from Hotel Assisi and Termini, so it isn’t clear how safe your vehicle would be if you parked it in the area.

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The lobby of Hotel Assisi is where you enjoy the excellent complementary breakfast (feature all of the espresso you can drink!) and a good (if charged per hour) wifi connection. There is also lounge area with some entertaining ancient tourism videotapes of Rome from the 1970s. Don’t miss those!

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Our only complaint is that our room’s fan made a lot of noise (which the management fixed after we told them about it) and the air conditioner in the room didn’t really work to cool it (and there was no way to turn it up or change the settings – which left the room pretty hot). However, the neighborhood around Hotel Assisi is pretty quiet, so we slept well with the windows open.

The bathroom was pretty small but very clean and adequate. There are two competing and excellent Italian restaurants just outside the front door of Hotel Assisi, so getting a good meal at a decent price, even late, is pretty easy. The reception was cordial and helpful, offering advice about the best sites to see (and order to see them in, based on our time limits), as well as providing options concerning getting to the airport (which is pretty easy from the train station – there is a special train that runs every half-hour that takes you there).

All in all, Hotel Assisi was a good deal for the money. You could do a lot worse.

Contact Information:
Hotel Assisi
http://www.hotelassisiroma.it
info@hotelassisiroma.it
Via dei Mille, 29
00185 Roma, Italy

(39) 06 445 3813

Accommodation Review: Bed and Breakfast La Chica, Petrognano, Italy, in the Garfagnana Region

We were unprepared for the Garfagnana region. We thought we were just heading into a more hilly region of northern Tuscany. Little did we know that we were actually heading into some real mountains. Accessible mountains, but mountains all the same. The small community of Piazza al Serchio provides an excellent stepping stone to explore this region, and the tiny nearby hamlet of Petrognano [Google map] contains a nice place to stay while you do it: La Chica, a quaint bed and breakfast.

Unfortunately, we spent too much time taking pictures of the beautiful nature of the area that we never thought to get a picture of our room or the outside of the building. However, the central location of La Chica is one of its best attributes, as it helps to get you keep into the nature of northern Tuscany that is impossible to do if you stay somewhere like Lucca or Pisa or Florence. And vistas like this are just stunning, as you are driving up and around the mountains of the region.

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The towns are charming, too. This is Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a few kilometers down the road from La Chica, where two come together and make their way through the mountains to Lucca. The multicolored buildings were a treat in this place.

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You are also near the Ponte del Diavolo (Devils Bridge), a medieval bridge that spans the river.

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In between the larger mountains, there are serene and idyllic valleys, like this one below Castiglione di Garfagnana.

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Where there are mountains, there are often lakes, and the Garfagnana region is no different. The Lago di Vagli features great picnic spots, a free swimming pool, and a little town in the center of the lake, surrounded by water.

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Perhaps the best thing is that you will see very few tourists at all in the whole region, especially non-Italian tourists. There just simply aren’t any large buses showing up and disgorging tourists by the hundreds, as you see in Siena or the small towns in the south. You get a real sense of what I came to see as “real Italy” in the Garfagnana region.

The amenities at La Chica are adequate. The owner, Paola Pignatelli, lives nearby and really goes out of her way to help in any way she can. Note that English is more rarely spoken in Garfagnana, so be sure you have a good Italian-English dictionary if you have any special needs.

The room we stayed in was comfortable and larger than the others in the trip, and the bathroom was spacious and clean. Strangely, we never got any breakfast at this bed and breakfast, but this was probably our fault and we didn’t mind anyway. We stayed for 3 nights, and for 50€ per night, it was a pretty good deal. Again, you won’t be spending much time in your room here. The nature that surrounds you will call you to explore. And you won’t be able to resist!

Contact Information:
Bed and Breakfast La Chica
http://www.bbplanet.com/bed-and-breakfast-la-chica-garfagnana-piazza-al-serchio_s11386/en/
beblachica@libero.it
via statale, 9 Petrognano, Italy, 55035
(39) 328 705 9270

Accommodation Review: Casale a Poggiano, Montepulciano, Italy, in Southern Tuscany

This place was a highlight of the trip. Located only a few kilometers from Montepulciano, in southern Tuscany [Google map], Casale a Poggiano fulfills the dream of what most people imagine about a vacation in Tuscany. Nestled on a hill and surrounded by tall trees and vineyards, the pleasures of the Tuscan lifestyle are spread before you, from the quaint ancient house to the friends you meet at breakfast.

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Run by a wonderful woman named Isolina, Casale a Poggiano offers a great place to just take in the Tuscan atmosphere or as a launching pad to the many sites and towns just over the next set of hills, including Sienna, Pienza, Montalcino, Arezzo, Perugia, and Orvieto. This is the little town of Montefollonico, I think, as viewed from the backyard of Casale a Poggiano.

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And this is the view of Montepulciano, which is only a 10-minute drive away.

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Speaking of the backyard, the grounds are kept very clean and neat. (Just remember to dodge the monster pine cones that can fall at just the right time and crack you on the head. Seriously, they are dangerious…)

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Everything about the place gives you the sense that it has been here for a very long time. Check out the lichen on the tile of the back house.

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The back of the main house is covered with vines and windows that swing wide. You will swear that you have stumbled on the set of Under the Tuscan Sun.

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There are little odds and end everywhere on the grounds, including this cool little flower planter made from an old plow, sunk into the dirt.

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But, I’m sure you didn’t find this review to read about flower boxes… The four rooms available at Casale a Poggiano fit into the country lifestyle of the house. There are lots of classic, old touches, like the wash basin and the large armoire, create the sense that you are far away from modern life when you visit. There is even complementary local brandy and biscotti outside of your room, which you can enjoy with the complementary wi-fi, which tends to break the spell of being in the Tuscan countryside, but at least you can upload some pics from your trip thus far and catch up on some email.

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Our visit was well timed, as Casale a Poggiano is usually pretty booked, particularly in July, but with the economic downturn of 2009, we were the only people there for 3 of the 4 nights we stayed. This really helped with the illusion that we were Tuscan nobles enjoying the fine weather in our country house, with our own private (and excellent!) pastry chef Isolina to whip up some unforgettable breakfasts.

The three upstairs bedrooms are located up the staircase in this picture. I hope the dog is still alive when you visit, as it is really old but a real sweetheart.

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In short, Casale a Poggiano is a great place to stay, if you have your own wheels and don’t mind the 80€ per night high-season rate. (There are lower rates for other seasons and, possibly, other rooms. Ask when you call or email to book.)

Contact Information:
Casale a Poggiano
http://www.poggiano.com/en/
http://www.tuscany.net/poggiano/
via di Poggiano 21, Montepulciano, Siena, Italy 53045
(39) 057 871 6446 or (39) 328 732 2057