Tuscany on a Shoestring – Yes, it’s possible!

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The costs of traveling in Italy are right in the middle of the pack in terms of European travel, but the idea of luxurious villas and indulgent food and wine in Tuscany tends to scare off  budget travelers. However, with just a little clever pre-planning, travelers in any budget range can discover this beautiful region on a shoestring, without sacrificing any of the indulgence that makes Tuscany a must-visit destination.

tuscany farmhouse1. Fly into cheaper European hubs

If you travel from the U.S. or from Northern Europe, avoid the temptation to fly right in to Florence. Airlines do not run as many deals to Florence airports as they do to major traffic hubs like Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, three hours form Florence or Milan’s airports which can be reached in under four hours. Car rentals are considerably cheaper from  outlets in major Italian cities than in Florence as well.

You might even consider looking into flights further afield by flying into airport hubs in neighboring countries and then hopping over to Florence, or better still, Pisa with one of Europe’s great no frills airlines. Check flights with Ryanair, Easyjet or German Wings.

2. Team up!

A trip to Tuscany can be the ultimate romantic getaway, but why not get a group of friends or the extended family together for the trip? This is not only a fun escape, but also a way to divide your costs even further. A rental car can run around €24 per day, split between four this is roughly €6 per person per day for transportation. Gas, pizzas and bottles of wine can also be shared, as can accommodation. The ultimate way to stay in Italy is to rent a rural villa for a week or more, which can be a more economical choice over hotels even for couples. Split between four or more people, however, the cost of staying in your own private Italian villa can dip to $20 per person per night and in the off season even less.

Belmonte vacanze vacation rental apartment3. Hey, this is Europe…what about public transportation?

There is plenty of public transportation, and certainly an option, but renting a car affords you the freedom to tour through the various Tuscan villages at your leisure and is easier for day trips. If you can share costs as we recommend above, even better. Since prices at the big car rental companies like Hertz, Budget or Avis looked too high, I checked out different car hire comparison sites. This is the way we found the best rental car deal through a site we had never used before,, for a low-priced Avis rental car.

Public transport definitely has its own set of advantages, however, the first being the cost. Public transport is cheaper than renting a car, and a good majority of Tuscan cities and towns are connected by trains and buses, which leave regularly from main stations and cost only a few Euros for short distances. If you are a solo traveler, or making mostly one way trips through the region, train travel is definitely the cheaper option.

Train travel is very cheap in Italy, if you book in advance online. Book your tickets directly on the Trenitalia website which has a user-friendly English-language booking system. The other option is to buy your ticket at one of the easy ticket machines in the train station, which also have an English speaking menu and discounted tickets for purchases made 2-3 days in advance. Trains from Pisa to Lucca cost €2.50, from Pisa to Florence €5.90, and from Florence to Poggibonsi (for San Gimignano) are €5.30.

The other benefit to public transport is that everyone can sample the wine! Tuscany is all about the wine, and with the responsibility of the rental car comes the role of the designated driver, whereas with the train, everyone can partake.
Italian wines in Lucca Tuscany4. Rent a villa –  seriously.

Far from a bling budget-breaker reserved for rappers or movie stars, renting a villa in Tuscany is simply a smart travel choice. Hostels in Italy are expensive, and even a bed in a dorm room will cost €20 – €30 per night. If you are traveling in a group, booking a villa or holiday apartment will work out cheaper every time. Whether you rent a villa or a holiday apartment – your group will have a private, economical stay for as little as €15 per person per night in the low season. In the high season, visitors to Tuscany will have to be ready to shell out more cash, but if you book a villa far enough in advance, you will still pay less than in hotels or even hostels unless you are traveling entirely alone.

There are very few hostels that charge less than €20 for a dorm bed (€15 if you are lucky), but make sure to reserve a bed in advance, as these wallet-friendly hostel options book up quickly, especially in the summer.

5. Stay away in the summer

Speaking of summer, avoid traveling to Italy in the summer at all costs if you are sticking to a tight budget. Nearly all of northern Europe emigrates to Italy during the school vacation season, and this mass exodus causes prices to skyrocket. We stayed at Belmonte Vacanze in May, and had we stayed in July it would have been nearly double the price. Aside from the high prices, most of Italy is pretty hot during the summer. Why not spend time in spring when the weather is still fresh and flora is in full bloom, or in September when the Mediterranean Sea has warmed up over the summer months to a perfect swimming temperature.  The best part about off-season travel to Italy is that you avoid the crowds. We had the town of Barga almost entirely to ourselves in May.

Empty street in Barga Tuscany6. Drink wine!

That’s right. You can drink bucket-loads of the best Italian wines like Chianti, Montepulciano and Pinot Grigio. These wines are produced locally and are ridiculously affordable, available in stores for between €2-€5 per bottle. So pack your corkscrew and get ready to enjoy inexpensive wines at the beach, on a picnic, or in your villa. Even when eating in a restaurant, a half bottle of house wine costs as little as €2.50, while a full bottle, at up to €6, costs the same as two glasses of beer – so why not!

If you have a car, stop at the wineries around Tuscany, where you can fill up your own containers for €0.50 to €0.75 per liter – larger than the average bottle of wine! For olive oil fans, the same cheap fill-ups can be found in olive orchards throughout Tuscany as well.

7. Cook your meals

Much of the tourism in Tuscany is food-related, and with a bit of hunting you can eat on the cheap, but if you’ve got a kitchen where you are staying, cooking will save you cash. Stop in at the market and pick up great pasta, sauce  and fresh Italian bread (and a lot of that wine we mentioned) and whip up a homemade meal for the whole group for under €10.

You can easily shop at the countless quaint village shops, but if you are looking for the best deals, search out the large big box supermarkets on the edge of town. They have an endless amount of fun new foods to try, plus this is where the locals really shop,which means prices are much cheaper than the delicatessens in town which target tourists.
san gimignano cheese store8. Find where the locals eat

This advice goes for travel anywhere, but especially in Italy. We had been packing in pizza nearly everyday and had no complaints, regardless where we picked it up. However, when we were exploring Siena, we walked past a hole-in-the-wall with no sign and a line of at least twenty locals – school children in uniform and office workers on their lunch breaks. We snuck in line and picked up two giant slices of the best pizza ever and a drink for $3.50. The same goes for gelato. If you develop a gelato vice like we did, you’ll want to find deals, as it can be a pricey addiction. A cone of gelato near the famous Ponte Vecchio in Florence runs at €3.20, but just a few streets further west, the same portion of creamy gelato goodness costs less than €2 for the same size portion.

Visitors to Tuscany can easily get swept up in the indulgent food and gorgeous views, and combining the two might make sense, but you’ll save an entire ATM withdrawal’s worth of cash if you choose not to dine at the pizzeria with views of the Cathedral in Florence or in a main square in Siena. The further from the crowds, the cheaper the food gets. You should be able to find a large Margherita pizza for €4.50, but you’ll almost never see one in the city center for under €11.

9. Drink Espresso, preferably standing up

Known for its coffee culture, Italy has over 110,000 espresso bars and Italians drink over 70 million espressos each year. So immerse yourself in true Italian culture by ordering an espresso, which normally costs €0.55 and is never more than €0.90. You pay the same price for a ‘Macchiato’, an espresso topped with foamed milk, while a cappuccino is usually between €0.90 and €1.10. Many espresso bars charge less when you drink your coffee standing at the bar, like the locals do, so forgo table service while you recharge your caffeine levels.

Espressi - the beauty of Italy10. Take your time

Unless you are in a major hurry, smart travelers to Tuscany should avoid the Italian highways, called ‘autostradas’. The roads are incredibly well-maintained and efficient, but that comes at a premium. Highway tolls can add up quickly. The one-hour ride  between Florence and Lucca costs more than €7, and the four hour trip between Lucca and Milan up to €25 one way! The country roads, on the other hand, are free of charge and many run roughly parallel to the highways. When the roads do twist and turn, you’ll get the chance to pass through lesser known Tuscan villages, and you can stop wherever you want rather than speeding past on the highway. Tip: There is one major fast road in Tuscany that you can use for free: the FI-PI-LI, a highway connecting Florence, Pisa and Livorno.

fiat 500 & san gimignanoHave you traveled Tuscany on a shoestring? Please feel free to add advice in the comments below!

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Our Top 5 Towns to Visit in Tuscany

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For those who haven’t been there, what they say about Tuscany really is true. Hilly countryside roads leading through chains of medieval villages really are lined with vineyards and olive trees. The locals really do move in slow motion, and between all of the wine drinking and pasta sampling, tourists to Tuscany easily adjust to this pace in no time. While you could spend the majority of your trip in a rustic rural villa, swimming, sipping and sleeping the days away, it is also important to get out and take in the culture and life of Tuscany as well.
tuscany farmhouse near san gimignano
The two most famous stops on the circuit are Florence, to see Michelangelo’s statues, the famous cathedral and the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and Pisa with its Leaning Tower, but the top five towns that won our hearts were actually neither of the above.

San Gimignano

The fourteen tall towers of San Gimignano greet visitors from far off in the distance. The town, perched atop a hill 50km south of Florence, is completely contained within the original city walls and the limestone houses along narrow lanes are filled with shopping selling wine, jewellery, and art inspired by the surrounding countryside.
San Gimignano street
The small town of 7,000 keeps these streets car-free, allowing visitors to stroll at a snail’s pace, sampling Italian sweets, cheese, bread and wine-tastings, the gelaterias with the creamiest gelato and pizza places keeping taste buds bursting with deliciously unique combinations. Work it all off with a climb up the hundreds of steps to the top of Torre Grossa on Popolo Square for 360-degree views of the most picturesque Tuscan countryside of anywhere in the region.

view over san gimignano & towers from torre grossaPiazza della Cisterna is the main square in the town and the well in the middle is a great spot for people watching. It is also where the world famous gelato maker Sergio has his Gelateria di Piazza, praised on television and in magazines around the world. If you happen to be there on a Thursday, you can visit the Tuscan farmer’s market here. The area of the old Rocca castle, the highest point of the town, offers splendid views over San Gimignano and the surrounding countryside.  Tuscany Tip: pick up a selection of cheese, olives, Italian bread and cheap, quality Italian wine and take in the sunset picnicking up on the Rocca – the perfect end to a day in San Gimignano.
san gimignano delicatessen store


Another medieval town on a hill in the heart of Tuscany, Siena is a much larger city whose historic town center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is smack dab on the beaten path. Siena is famous for the annual Palio di Siena horse race held for centuries right on the central shell-shaped Piazza del Ciampo. This horse race is easily the biggest spectacle on the events calendar throughout the region each year.

Siena piazza di campo

The 300 steep steps of the Torre del Mangia right on the Piazza del Ciampo can be climbed, its tower also affording terrific views over the town and Tuscan countryside. Siena’s 12th century cathedral, with its striking black-and-white facade, is filled with paintings and sculptures by Sienese artists who were amongst the best and most influential in medieval times, before Florence became the focal point with Michelangelo and Da Vinci.

Siena cathedral

Because Siena is both a fair-sized city and a university town, we found a good blend of medieval history and a modern creative streak, which resulted in quirky shops, street art, and pubs and bars filled with local characters.


What if we said Volterra, just 30km west of San Gimignano, is another hilltop Tuscan town – would you be surprised? Yes, that’s just the way they made ’em back then, but each town, including Volterra, has its own unique characteristics.

Volterra streets & chapelFirstly, Volterra may be familiar to Twihards (fans of Stephanie Myer’s Twilight saga) as it is an important location in the popular books.

Volterra’s city walls are completely in tact, and once you enter through one of six majestic gates, the winding roads are free of cars and the cinnamon-colored houses along the quiet alleys have been inciting inspiration from the town’s early days.

Volterra alley

Italian artisans continue to create works of art here, as did the Romans centuries ago, which can be seen in the remains of a classic Roman amphitheater. Theover 800 year-old city hall also served as the inspiration for the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

Tuscany Tip: Make sure to head up to the panoramic viewpoint at the Piazza Martiri di Liberta on the south side of town where you can sit down on the wall and enjoy the views over Tuscany and Volterra’s red roofs.
volterra roofs


Though just a quarter of the size of Florence, Lucca is by far the biggest city on our list, with it’s population of 90,000. Located in a valley, not on a hill, Lucca’s historic center is still completely surrounded by fully-preserved defensive stone walls, but unlike other walled cities, the Lucchesi, or people of Lucca, built walls of stone 20m thick inside of a substantial moat.
lucca tower & treesLocals and visitors alike cycle, jog and stroll along the top of these massive walls, so make sure to rent a bike or take a 4km walk along the top of Lucca. The town dates back to the Roman Age, mostly visible in the oval-shaped Piazza dell’Anfiteatro where the amphitheater was located. Today, the oval ‘square’ is surrounded by typical Italian houses painted yellow with green shutters. Take in a cappuccino here, or indulge in pizza at one of several pizza pasta joints on the popular Piazza.

lucca piazza dell'anfiteatroLucca is famous for its many churches, especially the Duomo di San Martino, Lucca’s cathedral, San Giorgio church whose bell towers is one of the most remarkable ones in northern Italy, and San Michele in Foro with its striking facade.
lucca san michele in foro
The city’s compact size makes it easily walkable, needing just a day or two exploring its labyrinthine alleys to get a good feel for the place. Lucca has everything, from excellent street markets and dining gems to great music venues and charming hotels.
lucca narrow laneStumble upon fabulous little pastry shops and pizzerias or have an espresso at any of the coffee bars throughout town. There are art exhibits and fashion boutiques, which, even for window shoppers are fascinating in Italy.

We’ve recommended climbing the towers in the towns above for the views, but head up on top of one of Lucca’s medieval towers for the rush of the experience. Other towers have been recently renovated, stairs reinforced. Not in Lucca. Here, the wooden stairs to the top, over 200 in all, look like the original 13thcentury wood.
Lucca guinigi towerClimb the Torre Guinigi, has ancient oak trees on top, or the Torre delle Ore, for views not only of the countryside, but also the Torre Guinigi.  Tuscany Tip:It costs €3.50 to climb one tower, or you can get a ticket for both for only €5.


Barga is far from the Central Tuscan towns above, nestled in the green mountains much further north of Lucca. There are no typically Tuscan rolling hills here, and very few tourists, either.

Barga alley with flagPassing more cats than people, we made our way up to the magnificent medieval cathedral on top of the mountain, and what a difference to Siena’s cathedral which is filled from open to close with tour groups. Seriously steep and too narrow for cars, the  little streets wind undisturbed up the hill, sometimes suddenly replaced by a steep set of stairs instead.
Barga houses & cathedralThe views from the top of the hill are terrific, of course, and we felt that, due to all the climbing, we deserved a pizza reward. We stopped in a mom-n-pop corner place and ended up having some of the most scrumptious pizza and antipasti of our entire time in Tuscany. Tuscany Tip: Barga is our top choice for a day trip from Lucca, only 35 kilometers north of the city.

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La Via dell’amore: The Path of Love | Cinque Terre, Italy

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Love ain’t easy

Until the 20th century, there were no roads connecting the villages of Cinque Terre and most people spent their entire lives strolling through the same winding streets, trekking up and down the same steep staircases of their own village, few daring to cross the rugged mountain cliffs that separate them. Only olive farmers or those who tended to the cliff side vineyards were less secluded, but most villagers were destined to experience all of life’s affairs in one small town – including affairs of the heart. Although the Mediterranean diet and physical exertion of living in such a mountainous regions most likely kept villagers fit, even then the selection of preferable partners was very slim.

Manarola from via dell'amore

Then, in the early 1920’s, improved engineering made the construction of a stone path possible along the sheer cliffs between Riomaggiore and Manarola (a feat previously thought impossible) to trade fruits, vegetables and other goods.
Cinque Terre vineyard & Mediterranean sea
While this was beneficial to the farmers, the new passage quickly became a dream come true for the boys of Manarola to meet the girls of Riomaggiore and vice-versa. Inter-village relationships sprung up, and the path connecting the two hamlets quickly became a meeting spot for young lovers. At dusk, as the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea, couples met here to spend romantic time together along the picturesque cliffs.

via dell'amore dani & jess

La Via dell’amore: The Path of Love

Today, the path draws lovers at sunset, sunrise and all times of day, only now the love is shared by couples from around the world, many of whom seal their love with a lock.

Padlocks along the Via dell'amore

Thousands of padlocks line every inch of available space along the chain link fences, railings and posts on the Via, a tradition which has developed over time by couples who flock to the path and seal their love in order to stay together forever.
Lockpads along the via dell'amore
Locks with Manarola in the background
The passion extends beyond the padlock, with declarations of love written on walls, boulders, benches and even scratched in to the cactus plants which grow out of the cliffs.

Agave cactus via dell'amore
Locks & messages via dell'amore

Via dell’amore – not just for lovers

The Path of Love is set at the beginning of the chain of five towns of Cinque Terre National Park, which means that not only love-birds flock to this northern Italian destination.
Via dell'amore hearts
Hikers can trek the exhausting dirt paths which connect all five towns, foodies can hop between villages on the efficient, convenient train to test the many mouth-watering restaurants. There is swimming to be done on the beach, historical sites to be visited, beer to gulped, wine to be tasted.

Via dell'amore tunnel cinque Terre

Of course, if you happen to be there with the one you love, seal it forever by leaving your mark on the Via dell’amore… We did!

Dani & Jess immortalized in rock


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Hotel Tip Of The Week: Belmonte Vacanze in Tuscany, Italy

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I had spent 12 days in Tuscany before the true meaning of the Italian expression ‘Dolce Vita’ became clear. This happened roughly two hours after checking in to our apartment at Belmonte Vacanze near Montaione in the Chianti region of Tuscany. The Italian expression means ‘the sweet life’, or the good life, and while the lifestyle involves a dedication to eating platefuls of pizza and pasta and necking down countless carafes of delicious Italian table wine, to really feel the Dolce Vita, you must reach a state of such intense relaxation that the concept of stress is lost from your mind entirely. This feeling struck us both somewhere between attending the early evening on-site wine-tasting at Belmonte Vacanze and watching the glowing spring sun set over the rolling green hills with a belly full of truffle fettuccine.

Belmonte Vacanze Sunset

The resort property has a variety of double, triple and quad apartments in three buildings set on 200 hectares of truly breathtaking countryside. Each apartment offers comfortable beds, a bathroom, a living room with a sofa and large dining table, a fully equipped kitchen with four stove hobs, all yellow 1950s American style refrigerators and an outdoor patio with a second table for al fresco dining. There is high speed wi-fi in all apartments.

Kitchen at Belmonte Vacanze

As comfortable as the apartments are inside, the well-manicured lawns outside allow guests to sun themselves in their own front yards while sipping their morning coffee or a glass of red or white each night. Here you can enjoy the breeze as butterflies and birds whiz past your head, or play peekaboo with the tiny green Tuscan lizards that scuttle by along the hot concrete sidewalks nearby.

Belmonte Vacanze holiday apartments in Tuscany

The Lotti family, who own and run these Tuscany apartments, have thought of every last detail to keep their guests free of stress, including a morning delivery service from the local market. Using a shopping checklist, you can order milk, coffee, chocolate croissants and anything else you might need for breakfast, and the market delivers the food to your doorstep first thing in the morning. On arrival, we were also presented with a full listing of restaurants and services in the local area and a map.  The family is incredibly attentive in this way, and get to know most of the guests on a first name basis. A visit to their Facebook or Twitter page reveals online conversations with past guests – from greetings and well-wishes to promises of plans to see each other next summer.

Belmonte vacanze breakfast on terrace

Belmonte Vacanze’s web presence is maintained by Lauro Lotti, whose grandfather bought the property over 40 years ago. Back then, farming of olives and grapes, as almost everywhere in Tuscany, was the main source of income. Today, as in most of Tuscany, tourism is the focus at Belmonte Vacanze.  Lauro and his parents, who took over the property in 2003 and converted it into self-catering apartment rentals, go above and beyond, pouring their heart and soul into customer satisfaction. They also focus on creating an environmentally-friendly resort, incorporating eco-friendly policies at every turn.

Belmonte vacanze vacation rental apartment

The resort is perfect for families of all sizes, offering everything from a large, clean pool, bikes for rent, horse stables with eight horses (kids can be dropped off for a day of riding lessons and activities), a playground and acres and acres of safe space to play. With the kids here having so much fun, the parents seemed to feel just as relaxed as the loved-up childless couples drinking Prosecco and gazing out at the verdant view. Belmonte Vacanze is also a pet-friendly vacation property, providing plenty of space for pets to roam.

View from apartment Belmonte VacanzeStand Out Feature: Location

Not known for its nightlife, Tuscany holidays are all about spending your days out enjoying the countryside, villages and towns. Belmonte Vacanze is perfectly located for exploring Tuscany. The property is just 15 minutes from (our secret gem) Montaione in one direction and the medieval towns of San Gimignano (our absolute favorite Tuscan own) and Volterra in the other. The popular city of Siena can be reached within an hour, and you can even comfortably visit the Northern Tuscan cities of Pisa, Florence and Lucca and be back by sunset. During our stay we made the 2 hour ride to the Cinque Terre region one day, and the beaches along the Tuscan coast can be reached in about 90 minutes.

Belmonte vacanze olive trees & view

Standout Feature: The Friendliness Factor

We can’t emphasize this enough: the good people at Belmonte Vacanze run a family-friendly, LGBT-friendly, couple-friendly, pet-friendly and environmentally-friendly resort – all while managing to simply be the most people-friendly hosts we met in Italy.

Standout Feature: The Swimming Pool

The swimming pool is the centerpiece of this Tuscan farm holiday resort, and when the sun is shining, guests of all ages gather here to swim, tan, or gaze out at the view. Dozens of comfortable deck chairs surround the pool, with another handful point away from the water and out at the Tuscan hills. This is easily the most relaxing and fun element of the property.

Belmonte vacanze pool & view

Room for improvement: Signposting

After you book your stay at Belmonte Vacanze, go directly to the website and copy down the directions word for word. Once in the car and on your way, enter the exact address into your navigation system. Using both, you should arrive without a problem. Directions in Tuscany can be difficult to follow, which is why reading the directions on the website is key to stress-free arrival. It would be great if  Belmonte Vacanze would have a few signs along the way from the highway and San Gimignano. Tip: In addition to following the directions on the website, follow the signs along the way to Parco Benestare. You’ll run right into Belmonte five minutes before reaching the nature park.


Belmonte Vacanze might be a family operation, but this is no mom and pop affair. As guests here, we felt we had the full attention of a four or five star hotel with the freedom of having our own apartment. Despite spending nearly two weeks in this fairytale region of Italy, it was our stay at Belmonte Vacanze that became our defining moment of what it truly means to escape to Tuscany.

Location: Via Torri 62, 50050 – Montaione
Starting at €35 per person per night, but check the website for special weekend or last-minute offers.
LGBT Friendly:
swimming pool, sunchairs & umbrellas, fully equipped kitchen, living room with dining table and sofa, each apartment has its own balcony or terrace, wi-fi internet, free parking, sulfur springs, horse stables, tennis court, table tennis, playground, barbeque, bicycle rental, laundry facility.
Tuscany Holidays

Bedroom belmonte Vacanze

Like this hotel? Book it here.

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Polaroid of the week: The long way down to Vernazza | Cinque Terre, Italy

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polaroid of the week italy cinque terre vernazza

Vernazza is one of the five famous villages of Cinque Terre in Italy. Laundry lines the narrow lanes of this fishing village, which show no immediate signs of  21st century life.

The five villages are all located in a rugged, mountainous area of the Italian Riviera and some of them, like Vernazza, are only reachable by train, boat or on foot – not by car. The best way to visit Cinque Terre is by hiking the path that connects all five villages. The path leads up and down through vineyards and olive orchards along the steep cliffs into which the villages have been built. Although the hike can be rigorous in parts, those who opt to hike rather than take the train from town to town, are rewarded with incomparable, stunning views of each town below.

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Polaroid of the week: A lazy cat in Tuscany, Italy

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..polaroid of the week italy cat in tuscanyAttention cat lovers: The towns and villages in Tuscany are filled with cats. Italian mamas and grandmamas love these four-legged cuddly animals and even if the cat is not in sight, you can see bowls filled with water or milk in front of most houses. The cats of Tuscany have a great life sunning themselves under the Tuscan sun all day long. One of us (guess who) may even occasionally sit for extended periods of time petting any and all of these cuddly creatures….

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