The Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria, by Jonathan Buckley & Mark Ellingham
I sang the praises of the general Rough Guide to Italy elsewhere, but revisiting again this regional guide in the process of writing up our trip to Tuscany two years ago, I was reminded of how good indeed this particular Rough Guide is.
I bought it because I wanted to supplement the general Rough Guide to Italy I had with more detailed coverage of the region in which we were going to spend the whole trip - and I was extremely happy with the result.
The Rough Guides are meant to cover the one of the bottom brackets of the travel market - perhaps a notch up from the Lonely Planet audience of backpackers, but I always felt that it was a notch up in terms of age and interests rather than just budgets.
Rough Guides do cover the needs of penniless visitors and those who are "roughing it", financially at least, but have a very broad appeal: from cheap B&Bs to luxury hotels, and everything in between.
As in all books in the series, the Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria starts with a general introductory section on travel, admin, eating out & accommodation, followed by colourful teaser of the best, not to miss sights; it closes with the "Contexts" section, a great feature of all Rough Guides, with articles on history, dictionary of artists and a language guide.
Between the two sits the guide proper, divided into handy sections for main provinces, cities and tourist regions of the area and reliably covering practicalities of accommodation, eating places, transport and orientation. I tend to trust Rough Guide's recommendations and am yet to find a place I picked from one of their lists that would disappoint me - not all are fantastic, but all are at least good enough.
And thus to the sightseeing guide section - and this is where Buckley and Ellingham really excel. Many tourist guides duly but dully describe the sights, but Rough Guide to Tuscany and Umbria is written so well that one can read it like a travel book. It's informative, fairly comprehensive though not overtly academic, selective when needed and most of all, discerning, albeit not excessively so.
A good guide makes judgements, not just provides descriptions and listings, and Buckley and Ellingham do exactly that. The style is lively, the writing erudite; the mix of practical tips, logistical detail, scholarly description and opinionated commentary almost perfectly judged.
The authors do have a - rather expected - penchant for the picturesquely old and artistically attractive, and are perhaps a tad too scathing about more modern developments and communities, but overall their judgements seem well balanced and justified.
The guide devotes a lot of space to art, architecture and generally cultural matters. Things like clubbing and night-life as well as food and wine are covered but not explored extensively, and thus the books is probably best suited to a visitor on such a cultural sightseeing trip: perfect for all Grand Tourers, old and young alike.