Housesitting in Tuscany, Italy (Episode 21)
We spent about a month in beautiful Tuscany, Italy, watching someone else's house and dogs. Instead of spending it in a popular place in the region, we stayed in a far less well-known town: Viareggio. There, we took care of two Spanish Greyhounds, worked from the house we were taking care of, and took a few day trips around Tuscany.
In October, we took a road trip through Ireland, then returned home to New York to attend a friend's wedding. However, the wedding was on the twentieth and we also wanted to be home for the holidays in December, so we had no idea what to do in the meantime. We didn't want to be home for that long, so we brainstormed on what we could do and where we could go between the wedding and the holidays.
We had signed up for Trusted Housesitters and Housecarers a couple of months beforehand, but never used either of them. Both sites are for people who want to housesit and/or watch pets while the owners are away. It's also for people who need someone to watch their homes and/or pets while they're away! You can travel the world by housesitting/pet watching for free!
Trusted Housesitters is the more popular of the two sites. There are tons of new housesitting opportunities posted daily. However, there is one small problem: there are more people applying to be housesitters on this site, so it's sometimes a little hard to find a place to housesit. We applied to at least 25 places or so during our search. Three people told us that we would definitely be selected. But, two of the three cancelled on us last second, then only one selected us in the end. Although you have to apply to a decent amount of places to be accepted, it's definitely worth it if you're looking to simultaneously travel and save money on rent. Plus, there is an annual fee of $119 USD, but you can get 20% off by signing up here! Although the fee may look daunting, it proves to be well worth it if you do just one housesit!
Quick tip: If you sign up with them, make sure to get the daily emails for new housesits. We look at them every day and try to apply to any that we see, like, and can do! It's best to apply once a new housesit has been posted so you're noticed first.
The other site we use is HouseCarers. The reason we signed up with them was because Trusted Housesitters has so many people on it now. HouseCarers is cheaper-- just $50 annually-- and there are fewer people that know about it, so fewer people with whom to fight for housesits! Plus, the housesits are usually for a longer amount of time, which is great for people that want to stay in one place for a while.
(5:15) You can housesit pretty much anywhere in the world. We've seen tons of countries on both sites, but mainly, there are more places for the US, the UK, Australia, and Canada.
Anyway, we were searching both sites for a place to go for a little while before the holidays that was warm, new, and interesting to us, but not too far away so we could fly back home in December. We chose to look basically anywhere warm, whether it was Central, South America, Europe, or anywhere else warm and near those general areas. Unfortunately, there weren't many.
However, we did eventually find a place after applying for about a month. We found a place in Viareggio, Italy, which is found in the Northwestern part of Tuscany on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. It was a one-bedroom house with a large front yard and there were two Spanish Greyhounds ("Galgos" in Spanish) to take care of there. We interviewed with the couple that lived there and owned the dogs. After the interview, they immediately accepted us, which was incredibly exciting! Woohoo!
Our housesit would start on November 15th and end December 16th. When we were accepted, it was the first week of November, so we had to quickly find cheap tickets to Italy! We went on Skyscanner (as we always do) and miraculously found one-way tickets to Rome for $175 each! Wild! We obviously quickly scooped those up. After that, it was official-- we were going to Italy!
(9:00) We were super excited about the entire impending adventure, but we were a little nervous, too. We were going to take care of two large dogs and this was going to be the first time we ever took care of animals in our lives! I grew up with cats and Matt grew up with his Rottweiler, sure, but we never took care of these animals for weeks on end on our own. Obviously, like any other family with pets, our parents took care of them mostly! We were just there for the cuddles and occasional feedings.
(10:05) Before we flew out to Rome, we realized that Rome was actually about a four hour drive from Viareggio! So, we needed to find a way to get there from the airport in Rome. We googled trains and buses, but they were all super expensive, a headache, or not available. Huge bummer! While on GoEuoro, which shows you all of the ways to get to your destination using public transportation, we magically stumbled upon BlaBlaCar.
What is BlaBlaCar? It's a legitimate and cost-friendly carpooling website! You just plug in where you are, where you want to go, and when, and you can find people who are driving the same route, then carpool with them. It's brilliant, simple, fun, and cheap.
We found an available driver that was heading from Rome to Pisa (just twenty minutes to Viareggio by train) and it was just 20 Euros ($25 USD) per person! That was far cheaper than any trains we found and sounded like a much more relaxing journey. Only a couple of days before our flight, we booked our BlaBlaCar. Then, we booked the train from Pisa to Viareggio, just in case.
(11:30) Once we landed and gathered our things, our driver was waiting right outside the terminal for us! She walked us to her car, we put our things in, hopped in, and were on our way! It was an incredible experience. She was a twenty-year-old Italian woman, originally from a town near Rome, but living and studying to be a doctor in Pisa. She was so fun, kind, and hospitable! We had amazing conversations with her and she gave us awesome advice on places to go and things to do while in Tuscany.
We arrived in Pisa a little ahead of schedule-- almost an hour ahead, actually! When BlaBlaCar provides an estimate of how long a ride will take, they include bathroom breaks, gas breaks, and possible traffic. So, they always add on extra time.
(12:20) After waving goodbye to our new Italian friend, we walked into the Pisa train station. We bought our tickets in advance to make sure there wouldn't be any problems when we got there. However, we had no idea what to do once we did.
We had tickets on our phones, but since we were early, we didn't know where to go. Plus, the tickets didn't say which track our train would be on. We asked the teller if we could get on the train early and they said it would be fine. But, we were still unaware of which train to get on! So, we haphazardly hopped on the only train there going in our direction. Fortunately, two stops later, we were in Viareggio! Hooray us!
One of the people we would be housesitting for was waiting for us in her car when we got off the train. She took us right away to an apartment they were renting for us for two nights. Before they left, they wanted us there a couple of days before they left to get acquainted with us and for us to get acquainted with the house and dogs. And rightfully so!
Our apartment was also right on the boardwalk, which is called Passeggiata di Viareggio. It's the most popular place in Viareggio because it's right on the water and there are tons of shops, restaurants, and gelato shops along the boardwalk. What a great, free apartment!
(13:32) That first night and right after putting our stuff down, we ended up getting a glass of wine with the woman we were housesitting for. We went to a lovely little place on the Passeggiata called Gran Caffè Margherita. Afterwards, she dropped us off at a tiny seafood restaurant so we could have dinner. It was the first food we had in Italy and it was-- can you guess what I'm about to say?-- freakin' fantastic. We ate some fish, pasta, and caprese. Stupid good. So good, in fact, that there's no picture evidence! There was not enough time to take pictures!
We walked back to our apartment and instantly realized that it was freezing! If you recall, we wanted to go somewhere warm, so we were quite upset that it wasn't warm!!
(14:53) The next day, we were picked up by the couple we were housesitting for. We went with them to see the house, meet the dogs, and they even took us out for a lovely lunch next to the beach! Luckily, it was a beautiful day, so we were even able to eat outside with the dogs!
Afterwards, we went back to the house with them (all four of them!) to relax and chat a bit. It was then that we started analyzing the dogs. We'd never seen Spanish Greyhounds before and we just couldn't help but notice how strange-looking they were. They're big dogs, but incredibly skinny. Their ribcages are vertical rather than horizontal, as you would see on most other dog breeds. However, we did notice that they were very sweet, tranquil, quiet, comfortable, and lovable furiends! They also have small bursts of energy, but sleep 90% of the day!
(17:30) The following day was our first official housesitting day, so the people we were going to housesit for picked us up from our apartment and took us to the house. Once there, they grabbed their suitcases, said goodbye, and quickly left. And there we were!
Naturally, something went wrong immediately. The house didn't have a landline connection, so the WiFi was a hotspot from the popular Italian company called TIM. It wasn't working at all! And, if you don't know/you forgot, we work on our computers, so the WiFi is a pretty big deal to us! We freaked out instantly.
We quickly hopped on these two bikes that were provided for us and rode them to a TIM place in town (which we luckily found on the phone the homeowners supplied for us!). When we got there, the guy looked at the hotspot and, since we had different names than the owner of the hotspot, he was instantly claiming he couldn't help us. We begged him and pleaded with him! He did eventually gave in, called someone who fixed it (is technology just secretly magic?), then charged us 10 euros for the service. Rude! A couple of hours later, it did work, so I guess that worked out.
Another issue with the WiFi was that we were only given 100 GB of data for the month. When you're working on the computer and need to use video chat for hours each day, that is just not enough. Plus, we like to watch TV, browse the internet, and do podcast/blog stuff. Then, we were nervous about that! Sadly, we had to cut back on a lot of internet usage during our time there. But, the homeowners also supplied us with another hotspot from Vodafone, but we had to keep topping that up with more money because we used it so much!
(20:05) Back to the dogs! The two Spanish Greyhounds were named Freddy and Carlos. While caring for them, we had to pick up their poop every morning, feed them once in the morning and once at night (which I did, no thanks to Matt!), and let them outside in the front yard whenever they wanted to. Since they had a yard, it wasn't mandatory for us to walk them. We could've, but if they had gotten off the leash, it would've been near impossible to get them back apparently, so we didn't want to do that. However, they were never bored outside. They enjoyed laying in the sun while snug in their beds and they would often play with the dog next door by chasing each other along the fence between them. So cute!
For their meals, they had some seriously delectable grub! For breakfast, they'd have some chicken and veggies (all pre-prepared and frozen by the homeowners) with dry dog food. For dinner, they'd have some more chicken and veggies with some pasta with rice, dry dog food, and an extra meat, usually some cheaper steak, liver, hot dogs, and the like. They are some spoiled pups, I gotta tell you. But, they're happy and healthy ones at that!
(22:00) While we were in Italy, we wanted to take day trips at least once per week. We couldn't leave the dogs for more than five hours at a time, which was fine because there were plenty of places nearby that wouldn't require more time out of our day than that.
Our first week there, we took a day trip to Pisa, since we both desperately wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We rode our bikes to the train station in Viareggio, bought tickets at the ticket machine there, validated our tickets in the blue machine (you must do this before boarding a train in Italy!), then got on a train to Pisa, which was fortunately only twenty minutes away (and only a few Euros each way!).
Something we quickly realized about Italy, or at least the places we traveled to and fro, the train stations can be a little sketchy. There's a lot of homeless and/or mentally unstable people wandering around there. They're often shouting, talking to themselves, or even approaching you, asking for anything and everything. It is pretty uncomfortable, to say the least! We started to hate the train stations almost immediately because of this, which is unfortunate because the trains are otherwise perfect! Clean, comfortable, and relatively cheap (when traveling short distances).
(23:24) We got to Pisa and, once we walked out of the train station, we were right on Walking Street, or Corso Italia. It's one of the main things to see in Pisa other than the Leaning Tower, which the street takes you right to from the train station! We walked along there for awhile, admiring the quaint and colorful street, its architecture, the restaurants, shops, and even the people. After a bit, we realized we were starving (aren't we always?), but we didn't want to eat at any touristy places, since we knew A. we'd be ripped off and B. the food wouldn't be that spectacular. Instead, we chose to veer off onto a random side street in search from a lesser known restaurant.
While searching, we realized that this was going to be difficult because almost every place was closed! Then, we remembered that it was Sunday. Of course everything was closed! We ended up walking for about twenty minutes, getting hangrier and hangrier with each footstep. Eventually, we found a little cafe/restaurant that was open. It didn't look like anything spectacular, but we were not about to keep wandering, so we instantly sat down there.
:(24:50) We were brought menus by our friendly and somewhat English-speaking waitress. We immediately ordered two glasses of red wine because duh! When she returned with our wine, we ordered two Margherita pizzas (yes, two, because pizza in Italy is usually served for just one person). We also wanted pasta, but we weren't entirely sure which to get, so we asked her what her favorite sauce is and she said, "Ragu!" Why, yes, we'd love some meat sauce, thank you very much! So, we got a plate of that to share.
(25:35) Yes. Everything we had was outstanding. Do you really even need to hear/read me say/write that?! And, of course, we ate it all and there was no evidence left that our plates ever had food on them.
After eating, we decided to get two espressos (just "caffè" in Italian) so we'd be more awake for the Leaning Tower. We drank those (yeah, duh, they were spectacular and did the job right), then got the bill. It was all just nineteen Euros. Yeah. Definitely worth the twenty minute trek to find that place.
(26:40) With our full and happy tummies, we walked a couple of blocks and found the Arno River. That was a surprising and very much welcomed view!
We walked along the river, admiring the day, then crossed over the Ponte di Mezzo bridge. We stood there for several minutes, enjoying the view on both sides of the bridge. By the way, this bridge connects with Corso Italia (Walking Street), so if we had kept walking along that street instead of venturing off, we would've found our way to that bridge anyway.
(27:10) After the bridge, we walked a couple of blocks afterwards and then boom-- there was the Leaning Tower of Pisa! When we first saw it from a distance, we thought that it looked almost like an amusement park. It basically looked like something extremely fake that an amusement park might have. It just really looked ridiculous!
Once we got up close, we thought it did look much cooler. It also most certainly was crooked! Not even questionable. Then, we took some obnoxious pictures with it, which you just have to do when you're there! One of our favorite parts of seeing the Leaning Tower was actually looking around and watching the people taking funny pictures. It was hilarious to watch hundreds of people looking foolish at the same time!
(28:20) After we admired that for awhile, we walked back along Walking Street towards the train station. On our way, we got some gelato and it was awesome! They even put an extra piece of cone in it that was leaning. How cute!
(28:30) When we were just about three blocks from the train station, we were stopped at this red crossing signal, yammering away loudly to each other. Suddenly, we were approached by some guy who asked us if we spoke English. Normally, we like to lie to people and say "No" who ask us that and are sketchy looking so we don't have to talk to them, but since we were talking so loudly to each other, it was hard to lie to him. We said yes, then he blabbered on to us about how he's from Libya and needs to go to the doctor because he has a bump on his ankle (he showed us and it was the size of a softball!), but he doesn't have any money. Just as we predicted from the moment he approached us: he was asking us for money.
But, we never give people money like that because we know it almost never truly helps people who are in desperate need. Plus, he was a very grimy, dirty, and strung-out fellow, so we knew where that money would really go. Sticking to our guns, we said, "No, sorry," once the crossing signal turned green and walked away from him. Apparently, that didn't sit well with him.
(30:20) He started following us and loudly cursing at us. He was saying things like "fuck you," "I'm gonna fuck your mother," "fucking people," and so on. We were completely terrified and didn't know what to do! I mean, who knows what that man had on him and what he was willing to do to us! We had no option but to walk away as fast as we could from this guy, but he followed us all the way to the train station. Even while walking past people, no one seemed bothered, surprised, frightened, or helpful at all, which was so strange. There were also no police officers anywhere, which is bizarre since it's such a popular place.
We finally got to the train station, almost out of breath from walking so fast and being terrified for our lives, and instantly went to the ticket booth. We bought tickets for a train to Viareggio, looking over our shoulders the entire time. Luckily, we didn't see him anywhere, but that didn't mean he wasn't hiding somewhere nearby. We hustled towards our train's platform, hearts pounding. We still didn't see him, which was great, but didn't mean we were completely safe. And, again, we were in a train station, which isn't entirely safe in Italy, as I mentioned. Once again, no police officers! And no workers anywhere, other than the one teller in the building 100 feet away.
It's one thing to be approached by someone like that, but have someone nearby that can help you, like a police officer. But, when that happens and there's no one there to save you or help you in someway, it's significantly more horrifying. Fear and helplessness aren't very good feelings, especially not when they're combined. In summation, it's a downer that where we went in Italy there weren't any police officers, especially when we needed them. But, luckily, we arrived back to our house and the dogs in Viareggio unscathed.
(32:00) We worked for another week and, of course, took care of the doggies! That weekend, we took another day trip, but this time to Lucca. Lucca isn't a particularly popular place in Tuscany, but it was just a twenty-minute train ride from Viareggio so we figured, why not? After all, many of the greatest places in the world are off the beaten path.
Lucca is a small city with just a population of about 84,000. It's biggest attraction is the wall that surrounds part of the city. This wall was replaced a few times since its first construction during Roman times, but the most recent construction was finished in the sixteenth century. It's also known for its square, called Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, which was built from the remains of an amphitheatre that was built in the 1st or 2nd century. The Piazza itself was constructed in 1830. ***We didn't mention this in the podcast and/or gave incorrect years. Sorry about that!***
(33:00) After getting out of the train station, just like Pisa, we walked straight out and there was the wall! We approached the wall, walked up a few staircases into it, and came out on the top of the wall. From there, you can see some beautiful views of the mountains nearby and the city itself. Also, there is this nice walking trail all along the top of the wall, which is lined with trees. We went in the late fall, but we still got to see the fall foliage while walking on that trail. Just wonderful!
(33:55) We walked on the trail for a bit, then turned off of it when we could so that we could go visit the Piazza. We followed Google maps through all of these adorable, curvy streets for only about eight minutes into the Piazza.
Quick tip: For those who travel without service on your phone, but need to figure out how to get places, you can download Google maps of the region you're going while on WiFi. Then, save it to your phone and use it when you don't have service!
When we got there, it felt almost magical. We'd never seen a circular "square" before, so this was interesting for us. Plus, it was so quaint and there were hardly any tourists there at all!
It was a little cloudy out and only a little warm, but we chose to sit at this outdoor restaurant right in the Piazza anyway. We ordered some food, like pizza, pasta, wine, espresso, and a tiramisu! Yes, we did the exact opposite of what we were preaching in Pisa. We ate at a touristy restaurant-- and guess what? We were overcharged (60 Euros!) and the food wasn't spectacular! Well, the food was good, but maybe it just tasted less good to us because of the prices.
Anyway, after that, we decided to go back to Viareggio, since the weather was quickly turning nasty and there was not much else to see in Lucca, apparently.
(36:35) Before taking a trip on another train to another place, we thought that we should take a day trip around the city we were staying in: Viareggio! We had explored it just a little bit a couple of times, but we never really dedicated a day to it. The main area of Viareggio has the boardwalk (Passeggiata di Viareggio), which is right next to the beach and the Tyrrhenian Sea. There are tons of shops, restaurants, gelaterias (gelato shops), cafes, and more things along the boardwalk. It's such a beautiful place for a stroll, meal, and espresso.
We hopped on our bikes and rode straight to the boardwalk, which was about a 15-minute bike ride away. When we got there, we locked up our bikes, then went to a pretty randomly selected restaurant for some food. While doing that, we couldn't help but imagine how amazing the city would be in the summer. During the fall and winter, it's certainly a beautiful place, but cold and made you feel a little sad that you couldn't eat a gelato, then hop into the ocean right after.
We walked over the pedestrian bridge over the Burlamacca Canal as well, which leads out into the sea where you can snag a beautiful view of Viareggio and the towering mountains behind it.
We took our bikes and wandered into the city a bit where we rode along Via Antonio Fratti, which is a walking street. There are tons of shops, grocery stories, cafes, bars, and more on this little street. It's nice to explore this street at night! There's even a small street market on that walking street as well.
We then wandered back to the beach and boardwalk and caught a sunrise with some fish from a floating restaurant.
Cinque Terre: Manarola
(38:05) For my birthday on December 9th, we both wanted to go somewhere extremely awesome. We went to Cinque Terre! In Cinque Terre, which translates to "Five Lands," there are five gorgeous towns you can visit: Manarola, Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Riomaggiore. All are beautiful in their own way, we're sure, but we only had time to explore one, since we had to take care of the dogs, so we chose Manarola.
Once again, we found ourselves at the Viareggio train station! From there, we took a train for about 40 minutes to Spezia Centrale, where we needed to then transfer to another train to take us to Manarola, which only took about ten minutes. When we got off the train at Manarola, we were nervous that we were going to have to hike forever to the gorgeous viewpoint. However, as it turned out, it was only a little less than a ten minute walk! Fantastic!
(39:42) The view we were looking for did not disappoint. All of the colorful homes, tucked inside a rocky crevice next to the sea... just gorgeous.
(40:35) One big positive of going to Manarola in the winter is that there are hardly any tourists! There were some, but really not many at all, which really made the whole experience there even better. After staring at the view for a while, we went to a little cafe that has tables outside along a cliff, looking out at the view. We sat there together. Matt had an espresso, I had a glass of wine, of course, and we just admired the view for a while.
After we finished our drinks, we wanted to walk around in the town itself a bit and get some food. While waltzing around, we discovered that there was a race going on where people were running through the town. There was some tape strewn through parts of the small town and people running all over the place.
We honestly struggled to find a place to eat in the town because there were only a handful of restaurants and some of them were closed because it was a Saturday. So, we had to settle for a touristy restaurant, which actually was surprisingly not so disappointing!
Once we finished our dinner, we noticed the sun was setting and wanted to look at the view during it. We walked back over to the view again and saw it once more. Somehow, it looked even more magical the second time around!
Unfortunately, we couldn't stay to see it during the night, but if you're able to do so, definitely do it because apparently, it looks magical!
One huge positive of Manarola: there are no people selling you things and bothering you to buy their stuff. At least, that's how it was when we went in December. Who knows what it's like in the summer?
(45:40) That was our last week of our housesit. Once we got back, we had a few extra days before the owners came back. For a couple of days, we scrubbed the house clean and really made sure everything was spick-and-span. We were housesitters, after all. We had to made sure the house was perfect as well as the dogs! Then, the owners returned and we had to say goodbye to the pups. How sad!
The following evening, we had our flight from Rome back to New York, so we left early-ish in the morning. The houseowner was kind enough to give us a ride to the Pisa bus station, where we took a bus with FlixBus directly to the Fiumicino Airport in Rome, which can be a bitch and a half to get to via train. We recommend if you're in Tuscany or in just about any region of Italy, take a FlixBus directly to the Rome Airport, if that's where you're going. Our tickets were only 13 euros each compared to almost 80 euros or so each for the trains! Plus, FlixBus was incredibly comfortable and clean. Plus, it had operating WiFi and a bathroom. Totally worth it!
Quick tip: If you have a flight to or from Fiumicino Airport, be wary of the train that goes from inner city Rome to Fiumicino Airport. That one train itself is 14 Euros per person and is only 30 minutes! If you can, find other means of transportation like the ones we have mentioned: BlaBlarCar or FlixBus. They'll save you money and aggravation!
(49:14) Positives about housesitting:
- Ability to travel to new places around the world
- Free housing
- Travel around and experience an area of a place you never would
- Feel like a local in most cases
- Cuddles with animals!
(51:00) Negatives about housesitting:
- Unable to travel far from the housesit and for a long time
- Responsibility of someone else's home and pets
- Accountability for anything and everything that happens, whether it's your fault or not
(55:55) But, would we do it again? Absolutely! But, from this experience, we realized that we'd most likely never own our own pets.
Something to keep in mind when thinking about housesitting is that this isn't just a laid back thing. It is in a way, but not really because it is a lot of responsibility. You have to take good care of the homes and animals you are responsible for. So, don't hop into it willy-nilly. Definitely take everything into consideration before doing it.
(56:47) The wine t'was good!
Unfortunately, we didn't see enough of Italy while we were housesitting for a month, so we know for sure that we need to go back and explore far more of the country!
Thank you immensely for reading and/or listening! Feel free to comment below! We'd love to hear from you. Cheers!
Wine: Casaleo - Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (Italy)