At the risk of offending those who have taken bus tours in Italy – or those who are going to take them – I’ve decided to share a few of the reasons why we don’t – and why we rarely recommend them. By bus tours, I mean the large coaches that transport tourists from Italy’s major cities and ports into the countryside for “day trips”.
In truth, I was compelled to write this post after talking to a very nice American woman the other day in Montepulciano. She had joined up with the group that I was hosting for the afternoon (a friend of a friend sort of thing) and, while we enjoyed our leisurely lunch at a family run farm and restaurant, she told me how she’d spent the previous day on a bus tour “seeing Tuscany”.
The bus tour had started in Rome and after a more than 2-hour drive into Tuscany the 50+ people aboard were finally able to get out for a brisk walk – and few minutes of quick shopping – in Montalcino. That’s all they had time for (in this spectacular medieval hill town) because they had to hurry to hear the monks chant in the Abbey of Sant’Antimo, a few kilometers away. No time to waste there either, as they had to zip off to lunch at a nearby winery where they were served (I’m cringing as I write this) bruschetta with aioli sauce. (Note: Aioli is a French, mayonnaise-like sauce and is definitely NOT something Italians eat on bruschetta. Ever.) After lunch, the group was whisked off to the charming Renaissance town of Pienza to grab a quick gelato (I was told 10 minutes) before re-boarding the bus for the long ride back to Rome.
What a stark contrast this woman was experiencing between the previous day’s bus tour and our day together in Montepulciano.
Instead of riding and rushing she was now strolling and savoring. Instead of catching superficial glimpses of Italian life, she was taking part in it – up close and in-depth. And instead of having contrived, canned encounters with locals, she was being welcomed and embraced (sincerely, I might add) like long a lost friend – like family, really. Toss in the spectacular panoramas, private cantina tour and walk through the family’s herb garden and you have a truly special day in Tuscany – unforgettable, really.
To say that this woman was enjoying her day trip with us is an understatement.
Of course, day trip bus tours aren’t all bad, and they certainly started out as an affordable, convenient way for tourists to visit the spectacular hill towns and historic sites in Italy’s breath-taking countryside. The problem (and glaring irony) is that too many bus tours today are superficial, offering participants barely a glimpse of rural Italy. And many, let’s just admit, are not based in good intentions, but operate solely to make money for the company behind them. They have, in effect, sold out.
For those of us who so dearly love Italy’s vast, endless layers of history, culture and traditions, the idea of speeding through it – to check it off one’s bucket list – is irreverent.
I’ve discovered over the years that this is precisely why so many wonderful local guides, inn keepers, historians, writers, artists and, yes, even small tour operators like myself, are so deeply committed to preserving and honoring Italy’s treasures, and why we are so passionate about sharing them with visitors in a sincere, in-depth way. It’s a form of reverence.
Pienza in 10 minutes? Never. Heck, I could spend 10 minutes just photographing one cobbled alleyway in that gorgeous Tuscan town (or a blue bicycle leaning on a stone wall), and I, along with a growing number of others, wouldn’t have it any other way.