Now that it’s been established that it is in fact affordable to travel through Europe on a student budget, it’s time to kick the penny-pinching creativity to a whole new level by leaving the comforts of Rome for a more scenic tour of Italy. While Rome may be a great place to start your trip, after a few days of enduring the stench of urine and high pitched wailing of Carabinieri sirens, the idea of spending a few days in the serene region of Tuscany sounds pretty appealing. While the region is known for its beauty and expensive wine it is not known for being budget-friendly but there are a few tricks for those who want to experience a more authentic Italy.
The best way to start your Tuscany adventure is to whet your appetite for it by visiting the rugged exotic beauty of Castel del Monte, a village nestled high in the Apennine Mountains of Italy. While it may sound like a difficult and expensive place to get to, it’s as simple as taking a few bus rides. From Rome you can take a bus from the Roma Tiburtina station to the city of L’Aquila for about 11 euro and then from there you switch to a regional bus that will take you to Castel del Monte for another 3 euro. The whole process takes about three and a half hours, which will fly by as you take in the beautiful green landscape of central Italy and then the stunning ride through the swerving mountain roads that lead to Castel del Monte.
Castel del Monte is a medieval hill town located in the heart of the Gran Sasso mountain range and dates back as early as the 11th century. The town seems like it’s frozen in time, with only the cars and the occasional Coca-Cola sign giving away its modern setting. The buildings have remained largely unchanged — narrow cobblestone streets snake around the crevices in between the buildings and somehow manage bring the entire village together. The views of the towering mountains and flat valley floors are breathtaking and the air is so fresh and invigorating you will want to trap it in a bottle and bring it home with you.
Lodging is scarce but surprisingly affordable, as I booked a three night stay at the Il Rifugio del Pastore — which offered a quaint single room with a private bathroom — for only 35 euro a night. The price includes a delicious breakfast and the restaurant is run by a local couple that will take your order in the morning for dinner and have it ready for you in the evening with some of the best Italian dishes I have ever eaten for about 10 euro. Every meal comes with homemade lemon cookies for dessert compliments of the chef. Although it would be worth the visit just for the food, the good news is there are plenty of opportunities to burn off the calories by exploring the village and climbing in the foothills above and around the town.
After getting a taste of a more authentic Italy you will undoubtedly be lusting for more, which makes Siena, the gateway to Tuscany, the next best place to go. Getting to Siena from Castel del Monte simply requires taking the bus back to Rome and then catching one of many connecting buses to Siena, which will cost about 11 euro. The entire trip from Castel del Monte to Siena with minimal wait time between connections will take about six hours and you will be treated to sweeping views beautiful vineyards and hilltop towns that appear on rocky vistas like a mirage.
Siena is a perfect place to begin your tour of Tuscany and well worth spending a couple of days exploring. One of the many highlights include the spacious confines of Piazza del Campo, whose piazza is about the size of two football fields with a tower that rises into the sky. Piazza del Campo was featured in one of the opening scenes of the James Bond film “Quantum of Solace” and for good reason, it is one of the most unique and visually pleasing places to see in Siena. That’s saying a lot, since the Siena Cathedral ranks as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Italy. Lodging is also affordable — I found a furnished private room at the hotel Casacenti, which is near the Siena Cathedral, for only 40 euro a night including breakfast.
While full of the type of vibrant passion that makes Italy famous, the city of Siena is quite crowded. After spending a couple of days there, it’s time to experience San Gimignano, the soul of Tuscany. Located just an hour away from Siena by bus, San Gimignano is a famous, walled medieval hill town surrounded by lush green hillsides full of vineyards. The town is easily identifiable by its unique towers.
San Gimignano is a great way to experience the lush green countryside of Tuscany via dirt roads that connect the village with the vineyards and villas of the region. At night, after the hordes of tourists have thankfully left with their tour buses, you can have a delicious dinner in the quaint Piazza della Cisterna followed by the best gelato you will ever taste. Lodging is a bit more expensive but still affordable — I booked a room at the Locanda Il Pino for 60 euro a night. From San Gimignano it’s only an hour’s bus ride into Florence where there are hostels for as little as $25 a night and more tourists than you can possibly imagine.
Don’t let the crowds stop you from exploring Florence. The city is home to arguably the most beautiful cathedral in the world and of course the most famous naked dude of all time in Michelangelo’s perfectly sculpted David. The only thing more amazing than viewing the mighty David is taking a peek at the camera screens of tourists and seeing just how many of them are zoomed in on one particular appendage.
The best way to navigate the crowds of Florence is to purchase a Firenze Pass either online or at the tourist information center by the Santa Maria train station. The pass costs 72 euro but is good for three days and grants admission to just about every museum and cathedral in Florence with priority entrance to crowded tourist hotspots like the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia.
You can afford to see the real Italy or the glory of Tuscany in the summertime, even on a student budget. So don’t let a lack of money keep you at home or in Rome.