Spending a week in a hotel didn't sound like a relaxing way to explore Italy.
So, my family and I opted instead to rent a villa in a little town called Gabbiana.
The town had the added bonus of being in the Lunigiana territory — located in northern Tuscany, inland from La Spezia and the Cinque Terre — which is largely undiscovered by the masses.
We found a five-bedroom, two-bathroom rental on HolidayLettings.co.uk, a Web site that connects people who own vacation rentals with people interested in renting.
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This self-catering approach allows travelers to find a place to stay in area or towns that don't have hotels. Places such as Gabbiana, with only about a dozen houses, one church, one restaurant — and not a hotel in sight.
Cost-wise, it made a lot of sense as well. The giant villa, which sleeps 10, cost us $1,600 for the week. Had we stayed in a hotel in Pisa — the closest big city, about a two-hour drive south of Gabbiana — we would have spent about $2,500 for five rooms to fit our family of 10.
The advantages of a home versus hotel were immediately apparent. We had a well-equipped kitchen, dining room, living room, five bedrooms with six beds, two bathrooms, laundry facilities and even a chapel.
We also had the exceptional service of Attilio, the brother of the villa's owner. He provided us with directions for all of our outings. His wife cooked us a fantastic meal one night. And he plied us with a seemingly endless supply of wine, made from the grapes growing on the hillside below the villa.
The villa itself was beautiful. A veranda in front of the house provided a fantastic view of the valley. The weather was so ideal that we spent many afternoons lazing about under a kiwi-covered pergola. A tower at the top of the house had a small living room with an even better view than the veranda.
The villa dated to before World War II, and there were even pock marks in the front door where, according to Attilio, a Nazi officer banged on it when summoning Attilio's father, who was a suspected partisan. We were sleeping amid history. Having a kitchen also gave us an excuse to cook and wander around the fantastic farmers markets. Local markets helped put us in touch with the local produce, wines, cheeses and cured meats. And, because this is a coastal region, the seafood was phenomenal and inexpensive.
We were staying in a villa that was somewhat off the beaten path — and finding it was a little tricky — but the location was perfect for our needs. We were only about 20 miles from La Spezia, where we caught the train to the Cinque Terre, and 30 miles from Carrara in the Marble Alps.
I've gone the tourist route before and stayed in some nice hotels in Europe. I've experienced the charm of older hotels and the peace of out-of-the-way spots, but none of those came close to matching our Italian villa. I've never stayed in a more relaxing place.
IF YOU GO:
Visit www.HolidayLettings.co.uk to find more than 30,000 vacation rentals and villas available in more than 114 countries. The Web site is operated by a British company, so rental prices are listed in pounds.