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ITALY

Tuscany in winter brings shivers of delight

Sure, it might be cold and rainy, but it's also the off-season, so the tourist spots are less crowded, and hotel prices and airfares are a bargain.

March 15, 2009|Susan Spano

SIENA, ITALY — I was feeling lucky.

That was my excuse for going to Siena in the dead of winter, when Tuscany is generally cold and rainy.

But rules -- including those that govern the weather -- were made to be broken in Italy, I've found. In Rome, you can wake up on a winter morning with rain beating on the window, bundle up and go outside and find yourself sweating in your coat, wishing you had sunglasses instead of an umbrella.

So when my sister, Martha, came to visit me last month, I took a little gamble by planning a driving tour through southern Tuscany in the nadir of the low season. Neither of us had ever been to Siena, about 150 miles north of Rome, home of the famous Palio horse races held in July and August. And I had a yen to see the Tuscan countryside with its vineyards and hill towns, the model for paradise in paintings by 14th and 15th century Sienese masters.

Taking trips in the off-season is a tried-and-true tactic for saving money, especially useful when travelers who refuse to be thwarted must find ways to cut corners.

During the off-season in Europe (January, February and March), airfares are in the bargain basement and hotel room prices are cut by as much as 30%. Winter is concert, ballet and opera season, never mind sale time at shops in most European capitals. Crowds are smaller, so travelers stand a good chance of rubbing shoulders with locals and spending quality time at usually packed tourist attractions.

Of course, some restaurants, shops and attractions are closed in winter, and you can't go out walking unless you put on about 10 extra pounds of clothing.

But in my heart of hearts, I believed the gods would smile on two sisters with the temerity to go tooting around Tuscany in February. At a rental office in Rome's Termini train station, a nice young man said he was giving us a free upgrade to a very special car, which turned out to be a finicky Lancia with a bizarre transmission that sometimes automatically shifted from gear to gear, sometimes not.

Once we got out of town onto the A1 Autostrada, heading north, I pointed out parasol pines standing in silhouette along the ridges around Rome, marshes by the corkscrewing Tiber River and snowcapped mountains to the east where a relatively young, athletic Pope John Paul II used to decamp from the Vatican to ski.

In about an hour we crossed from Lazio to Umbria and then into Tuscany, which occupies what many people consider the fairest part of the Italian peninsula, south of Florence and west of the Apennine Mountains. At that moment, however, we had to take our guidebook's word for it because the fabled hills of Tuscany were shrouded in storm clouds.

A good dual-lane highway took us west from the autostrada to Siena. The hotel where I had booked our rooms had given me directions for navigating the maze of narrow, one-way streets leading into the gated old town. Siena was the first European city to ban cars and mandate a color scheme consonant with architectural tradition, preserving the historic center, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Etruscan archaeological remains suggest that the city was founded at least as early as Rome. But antiquity plays at the back of the orchestra here, because Siena is one of the most splendidly intact Gothic cities in Europe. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it competed for power with Florence and its banks propped up cash-strapped popes and kings. Siena's Monte dei Paschi bank, which opened in 1472, continues to underwrite civic projects that give the town of about 60,000 an air of prosperity and sophistication.

Siena is a red brick beehive built across three steep, calf-wrenching hills. Immediately enchanted, Martha and I checked into the Palazzo Ravizza, a small, distinguished hotel above the city walls. We arrived the day it resumed operation after its annual two-month winter closure and we appeared to be the only guests. Our well-heated rooms had heavy, old-fashioned furniture and windows overlooking the terrace garden whose miniature orange trees were shivering in bubbles of protective plastic.

Back on the street in a spitting rain, Martha and I climbed to the cathedral. A crane poised over the dome subtracted little from the effect created by the building's famous western facade made of alternating strips of black and white marble, encrusted with saints and angels weeping in the rain. Gazing up from my umbrella, I thought of all the other Gothic churches I'd admired in Europe -- Westminster Abbey and Chartres Cathedral -- but they were barnyard ducks next to this Sienese swan, I decided.

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