Best base for three months in Italy

What would the best base town be for spending three months (fall 2013) in Italy without a car? Originally the plan was to use Cortona as the base for spending three months in Italy. Travel would be almost exclusively by train, unless short term visitors had a car. Originally the plan was to reserve for the first week and then look for the rest of the accommodations. Travel period is roughly September through early December of 2013. The plan was to look for a two bedroom apartment that is fairly inexpensive to allow funds for short overnight stays in other areas. I have found nice accommodations at a very reasonable rate for this length of stay in Cortona. These are from the following sources: Cortonaweb directly through the owner, tuscany-villas.it, VRBO & homeaway. However part of the party worry about the reliability of the accommodations and prefer to book as we go. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
17780 posts

Deborah, Cortona is certainly one possibility for a three month stay, and I spoke with someone who was doing exactly that when I was in Cortona in September. However, transportation is not as convenient as some other locations. The Bus from the station up to town takes about 15 minutes, and buying a ticket for the ride TO town can be a bit problematic (that shouldn't be as much of an issue if you're there for a long stay). I was told that in some cases, the Bus driver will pick up passengers at the station that don't have a ticket, but then will have to stop at the nearest Tabacchi so they can buy a ticket (keeping the other passengers waiting in the process). I used the Camucia-Cortona station, as it seemed to be the closest (I believe the Terontola station is a bit farther from the city). Which place to choose will likely depend on which other places you plan to visit while you're there. Cortona is a beautiful town with an interesting history, but there's not a lot to do, especially in the evenings. After a week or two, the evening Passeggiata and activity in Piazza della Repubblica may become a bit boring. A larger centre (Firenze, Siena?) would provide more options in that regard. Good luck with your planning!

Posted by David
Florence, AL, USA
1972 posts

We have always found that an automobile is a big plus in Italy, as so many great hilltop cities and sights are not on train lines. Car leases are a plus when going for 3 mos. I'd hate to spend any time outside any large city on "ankle express." At a minimum, it'd be best for you to be in a town that has a train station--and a good grocery store. I have found Mapquest.com to be invaluable for planning trips, especially since the pages can be magnified to minute details. And as far as accommodations, virtually every farm in central Italy is an agriturismo and has rooms for rent. I'm talking hundreds and hundreds of places looking for tenants for the slower Fall season. AirBnB.com, Venere.com, CraigsList.com, Hotels.com, Villas.com My suggestion is to look at Rick's Heroic B&B column in Graffiti for places to stay. Or, pick a city and then start looking online for apartments in that city. Google is a great source of info for any city.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4871 posts

Please clarify, are you booking one place for three months (actually you can't stay over 90 days), with short term rentals to visit other locations? I have used VRBO and Homeaway to book apartments in Europe. Be sure to read the reviews, but my experiences have been good. With no car I would make sure that public transportation is easy. Have you checked into the transportation options in Cortona? As you travel to other places, how many people will be involved?

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks to everyone for such quick responses. Yes Andrea the plan is to book for ~ 3 months at one location. I have also used VRBO and Homeaway with excellent results but all of these rentals have been in the US. I know you can reach Cortona by bus. However I wonder if other locations would be better for traveling by rail vs. car. At the most when traveling by car there would be 3-4 people. Thanks Ken! It is helpful to know that someone else was doing this very thing when you were last there. Most of the travelers are from small towns or rural areas and would probably be OK with the quieter lifestyle in the evenings. I know what you mean David. I am researching for relatives who have invited us to join them for a short part of this trip. If I join I would prefer to rent a car to tour smaller hill towns not accessible by public transportation. However they are very adamant that they do not want to rent a car. I would think this would limit them to town vs the surrounding countryside for lodging. I will try your idea of looking at mapquest as I am familiar with using both it and googlemaps.

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
8756 posts

Deborah - I'd have thought that a place fairly close to where you are researching would make the most sense. I'd be reluctant to suggest Milan (not really a town and pretty far from Tuscany), or anywhere else unless we knew where you were needing to be. You mentioned that you had considered Cortona previously - is that where you will need to be? As noted above, have you sorted your long-stay visa out? It sounds from your projected dates that you may have more than 90 days on the ground which would exceed the paperless Schengen Visa waiver plan which allows no more than 90 days in 180 within the Schengen countries which include Italy.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4871 posts

I understand the appeal of staying somewhere smaller, such as Cortona. Because of transportation issues though, you might consider Siena. It has trains and buses. The trains don't go to the hill towns, so you might want to consider a car for a few days here and there. What other places are you thinking about for your short trips? Another suggestion would be to consider staying in 3 places for a month in each one, being careful to not exceed your 90 days.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Ralph and Nigel! I think they plan on staying under 90 days so they do not have to deal with the visa. I will be meeting with them this week to go over the travel info I have found online for them. Perhaps then I can get a better idea of what exactly they do want to see in Italy. I looked at Cortona as somewhat centrally located in Italy and not too far from a rail station. I do think they prefer a smaller town vs a city.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4871 posts

Milan is a city in Northern Italy, so not small and not central. You are researching this trip for others to take?

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Yes, Andrea, I am researching for my cousins as they do not have internet. I may possible join them for part of the trip. I understand your concerns about Milan, although it seems to be a beautiful city.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4871 posts

I think the majority of the people who post here would not consider Milan to be a beautiful city. It certainly is not a smaller town. I have only changed trains there, so don't know first hand what it looks like. I know that it is known for high-end shopping (think designer stores), the Last Supper, and that most of the population is not from Milan. If they would consider more than one home base, I think a good one for Northern Italy is Verona. It's not a small town, but it is not a city either. Any place with good rail connections is not going to be a small town, and it would be easy to take the train to many places from there. Verona is too far from Tuscany to take day trips there. The same would apply to Milan or really anywhere in the north. Do your relatives have any physical issues that are a concern, such as problems walking or climbing stairs? If they do, a hill town would not be a good choice.

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
5763 posts

Arezzo is a good possibility for Tuscany. It's one of the transportation hubs. Same for Perugia. Verona is great for northern Italy with many, many daytrips as possibilities. (It's one of our favorite cities.) As for Milan - It has some beautiful sites in it (The Duomo is breathtakingly beautiful), but overall it's modern and industrial and ugly. Have you considered doing one month each in three separate locations? That's what I would suggest.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Andrea! I have checked Verona and I think perhaps it would be a good site for part of their trip. I know they mentioned they hoped to ski the last part of the trip and I would think northern Italy would be the area for that. I found most of the Verona accommodations on airbnb. I think they are OK with walking. I do know there are lots of stairs and uphill walking in Cortona. Michael I did think of Arezzo but I had been unable to find accommodations in the city center. Now I see that there are some on airbnb. I will check Peruga as well. Thanks for your help!

Posted by Roberto
Fremont, CA, USA
3342 posts

I dissent. First of all Italy is not a small country, it's twice the size of Wisconsin, almost as big as California. It's a country that is 800 miles long and it takes at least 12 hours from the top of the boot to the toe driving a Ferrari full speed on the freeway stopping just for gas. No one place can be used as a base for day trips under these circumstances. You should choose at least 3 bases, one for each area. Since you are relying on public transport, sorry but you are limited to the cities, which are the transportation hubs. Cortona wouldn't be my choice if I didn't have a car. ROME is the transportation hub of Latium and Central Italy. FLORENCE is the transportation hub of Tuscany
BOLOGNA is the transportation hub of Emilia, but is actually the most important rail and freeway hub in Northern Italy. MILAN is the hub of Lombardy area and so on. Look at a rail map (or even just a map) and where you see the most rail lime meeting (or the most freeways meeting), that's a transportation hub. So it really depends on what you want to visit. The north, the south, Tuscany, Veneto etc. So prepare a list of places you'd like to visit and I can tell you which central hubs you should choose.

Posted by Andrea
Sacramento, CA
4871 posts

So Michael, Roberto and I have all made the same suggestion of staying one month in 3 locations. Unless your relatives just want to hunker down in one place and make an occasional day trip, one location for 3 months is not very practical. Especially without a car. It is hard to plan for other people, especially if you aren't sure what they want. I would suggest they read some guidebooks and decide where they want to stay, and then you can try to locate lodging for them. Why waste your time doing research if they aren't sure what they want. Long term apartment rentals need to be arranged well ahead of time. For short excursions of a few days it would be okay to book as they go.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks everyone! I understand your concern Roberto. I should clarify that they understand day trips will only be to Florence and the small hill towns surrounding them. Their plan is to have a home base to leave extra belongings and for the security of lodging only. They would make occasional trips of several days to other sites, such as Rome, Venice, Cinque Terra, etc. I think they chose Cortona because they would like to spend many days there for relaxation and being part of the community. I have made a notebook for them with many railway maps and general information. My role was to get them thinking about exactly what it is they are trying to accomplish and that it may not be as they expected. You are correct Andrea. It is difficult to plan for others. My role has been to get them thinking realistically about this. Also I have purchased Europe Through The Backdoor 2013 and Florence & Tuscany 2013 for them. At this point I have done about all I can do. I will print this discussion for them as well. I was glad to hear you say that long term apartment rentals needed to be arranged well ahead of time. That was my conclusion from the research I had read as well. My daughter has been invited to join them for a short period but I do not feel comfortable making travel plans for her until I know they have a plan.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Ralph! I understand your recommendations re Milan being a central point & a transportation hub. My understanding is that they plan to spend their time in Italy. I think their main focus is Tuscany and perhaps Rome. The daughter lived in Paris for a year as an au pair years ago so she has traveled in Europe as a student quite extensively. My concern is things are not quite the same traveling now and with the change in ages of the travelers. My daughter does want to go to Germany if she joins them. I can work that out but first I must be assured of what they plan to do. Many thanks to all of you for your input. I will be out of town for several days starting tomorrow.

Posted by Michael
Seattle, WA, USA
5763 posts

To find long-term lodging in Italy, do a Google search for "case vacanze" and the name of the village/city you're looking in. Some of those resulting sites are Italian only, but some of them do have an English option. Also, there's always Google Translate.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Michael! I had not heard of that option and it should be helpful. I am familiar with using Google Translate & if I am lucky and use Google for a browser it will sometimes translate the site for me:)

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

May I give an usually overlooked suggestion? Bologna. It is a medium sized city, with far fewer tourists than other cities, a big university and a very interesting dining/cultural scene with loads of museums and the like. It should be a place where you don't get bored or short of things to do on a long stay. But it is no small village to have a quaint life either. What makes Bologna a great place to stay? It is located right at the major train node in Italy, with more than 850 trains calling at Bologna Centrale in virtually all directions. It is a mere 37 min by high-speed rail from Firenze, 2h from the Cinque Terre area, 1h30 from Venezia, 1h from Milano, 1h50 from Roma, easy access to all cities on the Adriatic coast, and three low-cost airports nearby where you can often find cheap flights to Sicilia or Sardenga. It is a nice place to stay and use as a "base" to visit many, many interesting other destinations on day-trips with ease. Cortona is not such a good option if you don't plan on having a car. Actually, no small city without direct and easy rail access is. That 20min bus journey you might not bother about for the first 2 days becomes a PITA after a week or so. I'd limit my choices to a city on a major trunk railway. If you really want a small town experience as in "getting known by neighbors, the supermarket clerk and the postman", then you should aim for an smaller place, but a car is kind of a must. There are cheaper alternatives for long-term car rental, the major one being leasing one through RenaultDrive or Citroen programs, which come with insurance. I'd not fully commit to an accommodation for 3 months without actually seeing it in person. I'd rather book one week and then rent after I arrive.

Posted by Andre L.
Tilburg, Netherlands
2176 posts

Deborah, let me play a bit of devil's advocate here. If your relative are so concerned about the hassles of moving around, choosing an inconvenient base from which you all will stay away for days in a row (maybe because it's inconvenient?) might be, at the end of those 12/13 weeks, more than the hassles of making 2 or 3 major moves between 3 or 4 very convenient bases. Think of something like this: instead of travelling to/from a place that requires high-speed train + intercity train + local train + erratic bus just to get to, you choose a location that is easily reachable from areas nearby, allowing you to do day-trips and stay put for the nights. For me, that sounds less a hassle than still staying at hotels and having a deluxe "storage facility location" with all your long-term belongings. So what if instead of spending many hotel nights away, you choose more bases and "commute" to/from them? Moreover, at the risk of angering part of his fanbase, I don't think RS guides are good in terms of planning long-term vacations like yours. Reason is simple: RS guides are meant for visits on a relatively fast pace, focused on a core ion of websites. Comprehensive "encyclopedic" guides such as Michelin Travel or the famous Blue guides, or the Eyewitness series, are good additional sources you can look into.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Andre! I really like your suggestion of Bologna with my preliminary quick look at it. There seems to be reasonable housing in Bologna and it looks like it would be a great second base with a different feel. I have looked into the auto lease option you mentioned and it would be my choice. However they are both adamant about not wanting to drive. I did find an apartment in Cortona that they could book long term yet only pay the first week's rent before arrival. They have already decided to fly into either Belgium or Germany and spend a couple of weeks traveling before coming to Italy to settle in for a couple of months. They are still thinking they want to have Cortona as a base for the rest of the trip but I will suggest Bologna for at least half of their "base" time. I think they really want to get a feel for living in Italy vs. just touring. Thanks for the heads up re the other travel guides. I will check those out.

Posted by Richard
Los Angeles
633 posts

Tell them to buy Rick's book along with a few others and do some reading. If they don't have Internet and refuse to rent a car I'll guess they are older and perhaps a little set in their ways. It is admirable for you to try and help them out but I wouldn't spend to much time here getting suggestions that they probably won't consider. You may want to print out some of these posts and include them in the binder you are preparing. My thought was also to suggest 3 one month bases. Since I am guessing they are considering retiring in Italy I would stick to small towns as opposed to the larger touring attractions. While I would rather stay in Rome for example, it wouldn't be a logical retirement destination. If my assumption is correct about retirement you may be better off on the AARP website than on travel sites like this.

Posted by DEBORAH
AMERY, WI, United States
10 posts

Thanks Richard! They are both big readers and will probably approach this a little differently by not only reading travel guides but also literature from the countries they travel too. One of the party has spend a fair amount of time on the internet and was very happy with the apartment I found for them as she knows what the market is like in the area. As far as car travel she just hates traveling by car and loves traveling by train. We agreed that if I go and want to travel by car any longer distances we will split and her part of the party will go ahead by train. Basically she says she has done Europe twice by the faster method and is going back to spend time in Cortona. She anticipates only making about 5 trips the two months they are in Cortona and is aware of the taxi, local train, intercity train, high speed train sequence required to travel and actually likes the idea of being that far removed from the "hustle and bustle of travel life". She will travel some at either end of the trip now by train as she is now thinking of flying in and out of Brussels and spending some time on the road at each end of the trip. Personally I am happy that she has thought it all through. Now I can decide how I want to proceed with my plans and be assured that her plans are fixed. No, they have no interest in retiring in Italy. Hopefully this thread will be of interest to others looking for bases for longer trips to Italy. Personally I think a lot of good suggestions have been made. I am happy that I have looked at the problem from numerous angles and know that they are aware of the pros and cons and have a firm plan in place. We can reserve the long term accommodations and move on to the rest of the plans.