The Italy Secret: Rip-off Tuscany Versus Real Tuscany

Outrageous—$3.55 for an espresso? The normal price is $1.40.

What about $5.70 for a glass of bog-standard Chianti wine? I almost faint from shock. In a bar, that should also be $1.40—or $2.80 at most.

Thing is, I’m in Florence in Italy. And Florence isn’t Pistoia…or the Lunigiana…or the Garfagnana…or any of the small Italian towns and villages around Lucca.

There’s a world of difference between Northern Tuscany and Central Tuscany. Most foreign visitors only explore the Chianti villages and the “Golden Triangle” cornered by Pisa, Florence and Siena. But unless you veer away from the well-trodden paths, you’ll never realize how affordable Tuscany can be.

I was back there this spring. One sunny day, I returned to a favorite trattoria—Il Ciancino. Unless you’ve got lost en route to the medieval walled town of Lucca, you’ve probably never heard of the location: San Macario in Piano.

But why should you know of it? San Macario doesn’t make the guide books. It’s an ordinary village set among woods, vineyards and farmland where ordinary people go about their daily affairs. And to be frank, Il Ciancino looks nondescript from the outside. But go inside any lunchtime, and you’ll find it packed.

Now, if your idea of gastronomy revolves around Michelin stars, crystal glassware and the chef’s so-called “signature dish,” Il Ciancino isn’t for you. But if you appreciate seasonal local produce and traditional country cooking, you’ll love it. The pasta is made by hand. The beef and pork come from beasts reared on the pastures of Lucca and the Garfagnana hills. The robust red wine is from Lucchese vineyards.

I started with lasagna in a ragu (meat and tomato) sauce, followed by osso buco. This is veal shank with the marrow still in the bone. It gets braised with vegetables in a broth of wine and herbs. My traveling companion chose tortelli casalinga—round pasta pockets stuffed with minced veal and ham in a cream sauce. His secondi was porchetta, roast pork. It looked like half a pig was on the plate.

Our pranzo di lavoro—working lunch—included coffee to finish. Plus, a basket of fresh bread, water and a bottle of red wine. Price for two people: 20 euro, or $28. Away from tourist towns and the dreaded menu turistico, two-course lunches with wine for $14-$16 a head are the norm. Not the exception.

Affordability also extends to property prices. You can find plenty of restored stone-built village houses and countryside homes in Northern Tuscany for under 150,000 euro. Near a small town called Comano in the Lunigiana, I viewed a two-bedroom house with a terrace and garden priced at 88,500 euro ($125,000).

Personally, I much prefer Northern Tuscany to better-known parts of the region. Bordered by Liguria and Emilia Romagna, it delivers up an unspoiled landscape of flowery meadows and chestnut woods. Often crowned with a castle, there are hilltop villages from medieval times. Beyond soar the ramparts of the mountains: the Appenines that form central Italy’s spine, and the Apuan Alps where Michelangelo obtained his marble.

From most parts of Northern Tuscany, a drive of 30 minutes to an hour takes you to the coast.

So you really can have the best of all worlds. One day you can be soaking up the sun on the golden beaches of Tuscany’s Versilia Riviera. Or you could head across the regional border into Liguria for the Cinque Terre villages and Gulf of Poets.

From Licciana Nardi—a lovely little Lunigiana town where I saw a restored three-bedroom townhouse for 115,000 euro ($163,000)—driving time to the Mediterranean is only 20 minutes. And if you need a major art attack, Lucca, Pisa and even Florence are all an easy day-trip.

Editor’s note: Property gets even cheaper in Italy when you know all the secrets. In fact, there’s a way you can buy Italian property for just 1 euro. Everything is explained here.

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