Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 20, 2010
I’ve traveled rich and I’ve traveled poor and I’m here to tell you: rich is better.
I realize that this is not one of those clever insights that make people stop and say, “Wow! How did he ever think of that?”
But the romance of traveling cheap lingers on.
The French have a term for it: “nostalgie de la boue” – literally, “nostalgia for the mud.”
The American version of that is, “Remember how cool it was at Woodstock – when it rained for three days straight and we were all so muddy? Together! Muddy together! Far out!”
I think I like the French version better.
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Anyway, this month, since we have busted our budget by renting a wonderful, but pricey, apartment in Siena, we have been trying to keep expenses down. So, on our occasional weekend trips, we’ve tried to do things on the cheap.
Which brings me to my real point: Why the heck would anybody trust a guidebook? Moreover (I know this is heresy), why the heck would anybody trust the Internet for travel advice?
Once upon a time, we trusted travel agents. Some of them even knew what they were talking about. These days, with the wonders of the Internet and the proliferation of guidebooks eager to tell us all about everything, we are sure we can do it ourselves.
But the guidebooks and websites don’t really tell us all about everything – they tell us almost all. Which turns out to be not nearly enough.
A week ago, having searched two guidebooks and two dozen websites, we set out from Siena to Pienza on the cheap: by train and bus.
The plan was to take the train from Siena to Montepulciano, then take a bus to Pienza (by all accounts a glorious Renaissance village), spend the night, hike through the beautiful countryside five or six miles back to Montepulciano and catch the train home. So simple. And cheap. And easy.
The guides – in print and online – were clear. They mentioned the frequent buses from Montepulciano to Pienza. They said the hike was on a simple well-marked trail.
They also all swooned over a wonderful – if a little pricey – hotel in an old monastery in Pienza. So, with all the money we were saving by taking the train and bus (instead of renting a car), we decided to splurge a little and get a room at the great hotel.
Well, the evening before we left on this little adventure, I discovered – almost by accident, none of the guides had mentioned it – that the train station in Montepulciano isn’t anywhere near Montepulciano. It’s a good five or six miles outside of town.
Having found that, I was suddenly able to find website references to the “frequent” buses between the train station and town.
So, now we had a train to not-quite Montepulciano, then a bus to actual Montepulciano, and then a bus to Pienza.
But when we got to the Montepulciano train station, there was no sign of a bus. No sign of where to find one. No sign of anything.
Eventually, my wife (whose Italian gets better every day) had a chat with a woman in a bar across from the train station and learned that a bus would come along in about an hour.
So we waited. And the bus came. And took us to Montepulciano.
In the main Montepulciano bus depot, they told us that the bus to Pienza would be there in about an hour. Cheap-o travel ain’t fast.
Then, when we happened to ask about buses back to the train station again the next day – which was Sunday – we were told, uh-uh, no buses to the Montepulciano train station on Sunday. But we could take a bus from Montepulciano to Chiusi, 20 miles away, and catch the train there.
Then the bus came and took us to Pienza, as promised.
And Pienza was, frankly, not nearly as delightful as the guidebooks had insisted. And the hotel was an overpriced non-luxury establishment with dowdy rooms and a rude staff. Otherwise, just great.
The next day, we had a truly wonderful hike through the Tuscan countryside back to Montepulciano. It took longer than planned because the very helpful woman at the Pienza tourist office (specifically mentioned as such in the guidebooks) gave us some very bad advice on finding our way.
But then, once we eventually got to Montepulciano, we couldn’t find the depot to catch the bus to Chiusi. And neither the guidebooks nor anyone we asked on the streets was any help.
Finally, after wandering aimlessly for half an hour, we gave up and flagged a taxi to take us to the bus station.
But by then we’d missed the bus. So we wound up taking the taxi all the way to Chiusi.
In the end, our cheap-o train-and-bus travel only cost us a little more than it would have cost to rent a car.
Not, of course, counting all the extra hours of travel time.
We did get two – no, three – pieces of good advice about our trip. None of them from the Internet or the guidebooks.
The first came from a fellow student at our language school, who said, “Pienza’s pretty boring. Why would you go there?” We didn’t heed those words of wisdom.
The good advice we did heed came, first, from a friend in Aspen who told us to go to the restaurant Latte di Luna in Pienza for the roast suckling pig. (It was great.) The second bit of good advice came from a couple we met on the trail hiking from Pienza to Montepulciano. They weren’t traveling cheap-o; they had paid for a trip that included detailed hiking instructions. Without their help we might have kept trying to follow the bad advice from the lady at the highly recommended tourist office and been lost for hours. If not forever.
So, as asked at the beginning, why would anyone follow a guidebook?
Hell if I know.
(And since I’m out of space here, I can’t go into the guidebooks’ bad advice on cheap restaurants in Florence, except to say that if you ever read anything good about Casalinga, don’t believe it. Trust me: seriously mediocre food and a nasty attitude. Stay away.)
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