We are interested in staying in a hilltown for a week in the spring and then going on daytrips to other nearby towns. We had decided on Cortona because it sounds like a great town in itself and seems centrally located. Google and Michellin maps give me the following time/distances from Cortona: Spoleto 1 1/2 hours, Montepulciano 45 minutes, Florence 1 1/2 hours, San Gimignano 1 hr 45 minutes, Assisi 1 hour, etc. Obviously, we are going to have a car. A friend of mine who has spent time in Italy told me those times are unrealistic and it takes much longer to travel around Tuscany. Is that true or are these times pretty accurate?
I think the Cortona area is a fine base for Tuscany, as are any of the nearby towns.
I'll have to disagree with Jon. We were based right at the edge of Montepulciano and found Cortona to be exactly 45 minutes each way, and other driving times to pretty well match what you list above.
Note, though, that we had a GPS and didn't have to slow down to study signs or maps. But we didn't speed either. It just took us straight to our destination by the shortest route.
If you have a car, I'd advise you not to stay inside Cortona or any of the other old towns. Even if you could find parking, which is hard, the drive in and out of downtown each day is a killer, negotiating through the heavy traffic and narrow streets (mostly one-way).
And if you stay inside the old walls but park outside of town, the daily walk to and from your car will wear you out before you've even thought about spending a day sightseeing, plus the constant worry about your car being unattended.
My advice would be to find a place at the edge of town, where parking is easy, there's less traffic, it's easy to get in the car and go visit the nearby sites, and you can still stroll into Cortona anytime you want for shopping and meals.
I haven't stayed in Cortona, so I don't have a recommendation of a place at the edge of town, but if you can find one, that would be idea.
Cars are almost a must to visit Tuscany, but having one is something like taking an infant along on vacation. It's constantly requiring special care and attention!
Your friend is right. In my experience (two long trips to Tuscany) the driving times are considerably longer. Tuscany is big. If you really want to get the feel of it you need to be off the Autostrada and on the local roads. On those wonderful roads there are few stretches where you get out of third gear!
As for location - it depends on what you want to see and how much "go-go" you want to do. We feel that Tuscany is much better sitting outside a little enoteca with some wine in our hands than zooming around for hours in the car. Plan to return someday and you wont feel bad that you "missed" something.
Our favorite central Tuscan location (since we are oenophiles) is Panzano - located exactly between Florence and Siena (30kms to each) on the S222 (the Chianti road). Charming village, great restaurants, wonderful wineries all within an hour or less. Have fun.
We used Cortona as a base this last May and we thought it was great! We'll probably use it as our base again for our next trip. Plenty of restaurants to choose from and a very cute town to explore on its own. Those times were pretty close to what we experienced for Montepulciano and San Gimigiano, in general I add on 20% to the map site guesses for driving times. For Florence I would only take the train there and not try to drive in that area. What you may consider a long drive is also a factor though. When we lived in the Bay Area a 2 hour trip for smallish things was fairly common so spending time in cars is not a big deal to us, we also know some people that an hour drive is a major event, just depends on what you are used to. The trick is to group things in a day trip in the same direction, maybe make your own google map with pins for each of the towns you want to visit. If all the places you want to go are to the east of where you want to stay, then looking further east may be a good idea. If all the places you want to day trip to are fairly evenly dispersed to where you want to stay, then it sounds like a good spot. Sometimes you may even want to break up the stay to two locations if that makes more sense, maybe a few days more south and a few more north.
I should add, we stayed at the Hotel Villa Marsili. It was on the edge of town and parking was easy when we were there.
Cindy I think Cortona is a good and interesting choice. We just drove home to Florence from Ascoli Piceno, in the southern Marche, and I find that the Google maps driving directions are pretty good with the time estimates. You can also hit some of Umbria from where you are - especially Perugia. And I would miss Arezzo seeing how close you will be.
As others have mentioned though - most times are driving point to point on the fastest available roads - and a lot of the fun is just wandering and hitting towns as they come, which will slow you down quite a bit, but can be a good thing in itself.
Just to let you know, Anthony's note is a typo. He clarified with me that he would DEFINITELY GO to Arezzo (NOT miss it.)
where did you stay in panzano? it is one of the towns we really want to visit. mostly because of an article about antica macelleria cecchini from divina cucina website. thanks
"And I would miss Arezzo seeing how close you will be."
Just wanted to clarify--do you think that Arezzo is worth a visit? We will be in that region soon and are considering which towns to visit.
We stayed in several of the towns in Tuscany. When we stay in Cortona (outside) we took a day trip around lake Trasimeno south of Perugia to Deruta. If you like ceramics - this is the place - beautiful shops and artisans at work. there was just so much - some of it in very bright colors but some of the shops had unbelievable pieces. Took about an hour - winding roads around the lake then we hit the highway. Not hard to find if you have a good Michellin map.
Enjoy the hill towns.
We stayed in Cortona last April at the Albergo San Luca and parked in the parking lot just below the hotel. Even during a festival we found parking upon returning to town. I've been to Italy several times and it is one of my favorite memories.
We rented a car at Il Girasole in Cortona Terontola. Just got off the train and walked two blocks and picked up our car. If you don't have your own unit their GPS rental was pretty cheap.
We stayed 4 days and saw a lot- Florence and Assisi will each need an individual day.
Cortona itself is a small town, perfect for relaxing after a day of sight-seeing.
We leave in Oct. for a similar trip- this time we're staying in Umbria.
Cortona is ok to visit for half day walkabout but it pales to other Tuscan -Umbrian villages imo. While not a hilltowm I like to use Siena as a base. Consider splitting your wk half nr Siena the other half nr Assisi. We did this and found it perfect. Car travel can be longer than you post. parking can be difficult and lots of walking may be necessary in your hill towns.
I have found a rental I really like in Montepulciano. I know that's just down the road from Cortona, but I don't know much about the town itself. Any thoughts on using that for a base?
I think the Montepulciano/Pienza area is the best base for Tuscany and northwest Umbria. It's beautiful, and nicely positioned to explore in all directions.