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Slow Europe shows you how to find vacation rentals in Europe - villas, houses, cottages or apartments that you rent by the week.

What are Vacation Rentals?

La Bella Toscana, vacation rentals in Italy

by Valerie Schneider and Pauline Kenny, January 2009

This month we profile La Bella Toscana, a vacation rental agency based in Tuscany, run by people living in Tuscany, serving mostly European and North American clients. As their name suggests, most of their rentals are in Tuscany, but they also have properties in Umbria and the Amafli Coast. They provide a range of vacation rentals from budget to luxury.

La Bella Toscana is a small local agency who care about their clients. I have visited their offices and met some of their team and highly recommend them.

La Bella Toscana (Beautiful Tuscany)

In the crowd of agencies representing Tuscan properties, La Bella Toscana stands out like a well-dressed diva. Twenty years ago, before Tuscany became the "in" place to travel and when San Gimignano was still a small dot on the tourist map, La Bella Toscana set their sights on the gorgeous landscape and set up shop to offer travelers comfortable, affordable and charming places to call home.

San Gimignano, Tuscany

San Gimignano, Tuscany

The agency was founded by Gaynor Powell, an artist who found her muse in the timeless hills around San Gimignano. Since she was inspired by the place, she knew others would be too, and started renting houses to them. Gaynor intuitively knew what people wanted in a vacation rental home, and sought out properties to fit the bill. It started as a hobby and grew into a thriving business with an outstanding reputation. Taking a conservative approach, the company grew gradually, and slowly expanded into other areas.

When she wanted to retire, Gaynor refused to sell to just anyone, and found a family that shared her passion and knowledge of the area and her exacting standards for representing only quality properties. Giuseppe Gloriosi and his wife Fortunata (everyone calls her "Titta"), along with a staff of three, continue to nurture and cultivate La Bella Toscana's high position in an ever-more crowded arena of agencies. Giuseppe and Titta previously ran a printing company near Naples, but moved up to Tuscany when they took over La Bella Toscana.

Family Atmosphere

Including the owners, there are five staff members at La Bella Toscana. "Giuseppe is involved in all aspects of the day to day operations of the company, while Titta handles the financial side. They both thoroughly enjoy running a vacation rental business and both are widely traveled in Italy and Europe. They know the area extremely well," says Terese Hallewell, who manages the office and has been with La Bella Toscana since 2002. Job duties are shared among all the office staff, sort of like an extended family all pitching in to run the business.

Which is why Terese enjoys her job so much. Working for a family-run business allows her to have a family life and a rewarding business life, as well. She left a demanding job with a large, impersonal tour operator that required too much travel. She has been able to seamlessly transfer her 24 years of tourism experience to La Bella Toscana. "It is exactly what I had been doing but on a smaller scale." She is also able to offer invaluable assistance to clients on the best ways to book rental cars, how to get around, and other helpful tips. La Bella Toscana also offers "value-added" services, such as arranging for local cooks, baby sitters, and taxi transfers, and frequently gives out advice on the best dining spots and sights. "We find that clients very much appreciate this type of advice, a well as advice on their desired vacation rental," she adds.

Terese knows Tuscany well, having lived there for nearly 20 years. Simona, who has been with the company since 1997, hails from San Gimignano and knows every nook and cranny of the place

Everyone in the office speaks English, which can be an invaluable help through the booking process and if problems arise during the clients' stay. The office is located in Colle Val d'Elsa and Terese says that many of their clients pay them a visit, either for information or just to say hello. Pauline and Steve, who run the Slow Europe site, dropped by a few years ago to meet Gaynor, Terese and Simona.

While the agency is fully internet accessible, they also like being able to cultivate a more personal relationship with their clients. "We do encourage personal contact, since we know our properties and can help steer clients to the right ones to suit their needs," Terese explains.

High Standards

The reputation of the company and the quality of the vacation rentals they offer are not by accident. Terese says that while they inspect many potential rental properties, only a few are chosen. "We have major criteria when selecting our properties. The most important are caring owners, stunning views, overall charm, good locations, and tranquility." After personal inspections by Giuseppe and another member of the staff, they all discuss each property and make a team decision as to whether to include it or not. Once a house is added to the site, periodic inspections are made throughout the year to ensure that the quality remains unchanged. "We pride ourselves on our choice of properties, and make sure that the prices of our properties are in direct proportion to their quality and location."

Terese points out that their detailed descriptions correctly represent each property, not just listing only the positive attributes but potential negatives, as well. "If a property is located next to a road, it is indicated in the description. Honesty is the best policy, and although you can risk losing a booking that way, it's better than ending up with a dissatisfied client and an owner who is disappointed that the guest wasn't happy."

While their offerings are centered heavily in western Tuscany, they also represent other districts, too. "Many of our clients come back to Tuscany year after year so we like to be able to offer properties in different parts of Tuscany for them to have a greater choice and new areas to explore." They have plans to offer properties in nearby Umbria soon, and they have already expanded to the famed Amalfi Coast. "The owners are originally from that area, and it's a great seaside destination but with so many sights and culture."

Quality and Price Assurance

Since La Bella Toscana is based in Tuscany, they are able to establish direct and personal relationships with the property owners and are in total control of the bookings and the on-going quality of the vacation rentals. Most of the owners are listed exclusively with La Bella Toscana and are represented only by them, although some owners have their own sites, as well. Their contracts stipulate that the La Bella Toscana prices are the same as – or in some cases lower than - booking directly from the owner. Terese says this is significant, "because the client gets the services, advice, and quality assurance of an agency included for the same price."

The services she referred to include a 24-hour emergency phone number to call if clients experience any problems, which can be resolved by the bi-lingual staff. The Amalfi Coast properties have a local representative available, too. Problems are resolved immediately, though Terese admits complaints are few and far between. "Mostly it is something small and easily corrected, like missing a piece of cookware or not enough wine glasses."

Most properties are rented from Saturday to Saturday, but ask if you need a different arrival day because they may be able to arrange this. As is usual with vacation rentals, a 25% deposit is given on booking and the balance is due two months before arrival. They recommend taking out travel insurance in case you have to cancel at the last minute. Many companies and owners in Italy require bank transfers for payment, but La Bella Toscana takes credit card payments.

Over half of their properties in Tuscany are suitable for two people. Many vacation rental agencies specialize in villas - large houses for groups of people. It is not always easy to find a good selection of smaller places, but La Bella Toscana has very nice and affordable places for two people.

Dealing With a Local Agency

Two great advantages of dealing with a local agency are price and dealing with someone who is local. Often US agencies use local agencies and add a commission or booking fee to the original rental price. The US agency may not know the vacation rental property as well as the local representatives.

Terese says this adds a layer of complication to a booking. "What ends up happening is that the US agencies contact a local agency like us for accommodation to propose to their clients. We communicate with the US agency and not the clients directly, so in many cases, as with all situations where there is a "middle man" involved, information gets lost along the way." Clients booking with directly with La Bella Toscana have access to English-speaking staff who can give them all the information they need about a property and the local area.

La Bella Toscana has a varied clientele from all over the world. The majority of their clients are from other European countries. The rest are from the US, Canada and Australia. Most of their clients have stayed in vacation rentals before but some have visited Italy staying in hotels, and are now taking a leisurely approach and trying a vacation rental.

Differences Between Italian Homes and American Homes

We asked Terese to tell us about what to expect in Italian vacation rentals.

"The modern comforts in an Italian home are not the same as in the US. You will not find clothes dryers, fridges with ice makers or air conditioning in your typical Italian vacation rental. Swimming pools are not heated. The electricity supply is limited and if you turn on the oven and hairdryer at the same time, the electricity will trip off (you do get the knack of this after a couple of days – be sure to ask where the electric switch box is when you check in to your vacation rental). Electricity and water can go off in a storm (this is usually resolved quickly)."

San Gimignano is a Great Place to Stay

We asked Terese to give us some "insider's tips" for San Gimignano.

"There are many quirky and fun things about San Gimignano, like getting Gelato at the smallest but BEST ice cream shop in San Gimignano (in the main square but easy to miss). They have loads of great flavours such as Limoncello, and my favourite Champelmo, a mix of grapefruit sorbet and champagne. Yum yum. The chocolate is also divine. Just like pure cold chocolate. Or try the tiny restaurant Chiribiri with great food, nice people and reasonable prices. It is tucked away just off the main street via San Giovanni. Look out for the street musicians - a great harp player and a female violinist - usually in the little square under the main tower. They are not always there; you have to be lucky to see them.

Another great San Gimignano site is the church of Sant'Agostino. It is beautifully frescoed and is often missed by tourists and shouldn't be. There's a nice little pavement café there too and a couple of lovely art shops.

The San Gimignano opera season is unforgettable (usually the end of July and all of August). Sitting on the Duomo cathedral steps watching and listening is so magical even for non-opera lovers that it brings tears to your eyes.

Another one of my favourite spots in Tuscany is the Masaccio frescos in the Church in Piazza del Carmine in Florence. Located on the Oltrarno, the so-called unfashionable side of the river, the church is beautiful and the frescoes even better.

A spot closer to San Gimignano is San Galgano, a roofless monastery where concerts and opera are held in the summer. What better way to listen to music than with grass under your feet, age old stone walls around you and a starry sky glittering above. There is a small church nearby where there is a sword in a stone. If you're travelling with children they adore it.

Another favourite spot is Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore, south of Siena. It is a beautiful monastery perched on the hill surrounded by a thick cypress tree wood. Part of the monastery is open to the public and the cloister is frescoed with some very refreshing depictions of the life of the monks. The monks also make their own herbal remedies some of which they sell locally. (Note from Pauline: This is one of my favorite places in the world!)

I could go on (but won't!), there are endless delights to be discovered in our corner of Tuscany."

Advice to Travelers

We asked Terese what advice she'd give to Americans traveling to Italy. She says that while it's not necessary to speak Italian, a few words do go a long way in generating good will. In rural areas there may be less English-speaking locals, but they overcome language barriers with sign language and a desire to help.

Her advice, after years in the tourism trade, is to "plan your trip carefully and try not to aim for too much." Many Americans apply the fast-track mentality to travel and want to fit everything into one trip, from tip to toe. "Italy seems small compared to the US, but there is so much to see in just one or two areas." Terese recommends reading about your destination area and planning out ahead what you want to see and do.

Vacation rentals give you access to the local culture, and can save money, too. Packing picnic lunches with locally-procured delicacies, finding the pizza take-out stores, and utilizing the villa's kitchen are a few ways she recommends saving money while traveling.

If you travel with friends, you can split the cost of the villa and the rental car. "Shopping and cooking together can be great fun, and two families traveling together can share off babysitting, so each couple can enjoy a romantic evening out. Plus kids have playmates and get less bored. Italy can be experienced relatively inexpensively."

We will give Terese the last word here. "Italy is a beautiful country and Tuscany is one of the most beautiful parts. It has everything: great art treasures, great scenery, great coastlines, fantastic countryside, beautiful towns, history, wonderful friendly people and magnificent food. The best way to see Tuscany is quietly and leisurely while staying in a charming and characteristic vacation rental." ... Booked from La Bella Toscana of course!

Thank you to Terese for taking the time to tell us about La Bella Toscana and Tuscany!

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