Getting to Pisa, our side trip before hitting the outlets, was not easy. The last time we drove a stick shift was ages ago and there was a slight delay in receiving GPS satellite signals and thus, we kept missing the turns. We now know the SS1/A1 motorways like the back of our hands and spent a small fortune in tolls. Pisa was teeming with tourists and boiling at 40 degrees when we arrived. Despite the tourist trap warnings of Andy M., we ended up having lunch in an A/C restaurant right at the square which served us scaled down estiva (supposedly, family portion) salad and pizzas with minuscule toppings.
After lunch, we drove eastward to Lo Spaccio , the Prada outlet in Montevarchi. However, as soon as we hit the A1, the GPS went haywire and blanked out! We detoured to the nearest car rental office, which is at the Firenze Airport to have the GPS replaced. The guy at the rental office said to just press reset
It's a bit tricky to get to Lo Spaccio as it is located in an industrial area and there's no directional signs. The outlet is right behind the Prada factory. Unfortunately, it was closed that day.
We headed back up north to Reggello, to the next outlet called The Mall. It is famous for high-end designer brands like Gucci, Armani, Bottega Venetta, La Perla, Tods, etc. Alas we only had less than two hours to look-see-shop as the outlet was closing.
After The Mall, we drove to Villa Olena, a converted farmhouse which was only 15-min away up a winding road. The villa is right on top of a hill overlooking the Pratomagno range. It has a swimming pool, tennis court and seven apartments; each equipped with a stove/oven, dishwasher, satellite TV, iron and board, blow dryer, heater.. everything except an A/C!!
The best thing though, the villa is a short distance to a family-owned restaurant called Osteria Massacio where the father is the chef, the mother is the maître d', the siblings are servers. We started with a summer salad with feta cheese and nuts served in a gigantic bowl (mind you, we didn't order estiva)and prosciutto with arugula; then, fresh-marketed squid (black-ink pasta) and a huge steak topped with arugula seasoned with fresh olive oil; a bottle of Cipresseto Rosata di Toscana rosé; and ended with a panacota and pudding for dessert. Simply divine!
The next day, we were an hour early in Lo Spaccio. There are only two restaurants in the area - one was closed for the whole of month of August and the other opens at noon. We found a nondescript deli on the main road where we ate breakfast. At 10am, we headed back to the outlet and again, found out it was chiuso!! Was this a sign?!?
We decided to drive up to Firenze to drop Pinky's luggage in her hotel in Dante Alegheri (next to where Dante was born) before checking out the last outlet called Barberino Designer Outlet in Barberino. It's an American-like outlet with popular mid-range brands and very touristy since it's close to Firenze.
By the time we were to ready to return the car, the GPS finally conked out. It was the same guy who reset the faulty GPS who was at the return office. We were very lucky since he deducted the cost from our bill which saved us 100 Euros!!
Here's some tips to enjoy outlet shopping in Toscana:
1. Rent-a-car and book a villa to enjoy Tuscany's sights, food and drink (it's the Chianti region). If you haven't been to Sienna or Pisa, try to do a side trip on the way to or from the outlets. Make sure to fully-charge your GPS unit and buy a map, print out directions from google map in case the GPS conks out on you.
2. Try to avoid tourist trap restaurants. The food is pricey and taste so-so. Bring snacks, fruits and drinks in the car.
3. Before heading out to Lo Spaccio or any of the outlets, CALL first to make sure its open especially during the summer months. Lo Spaccio is difficult to find and the farthest eastward.
4. Most of the shops in the outlets participate in EU's VAT-refund scheme. Check the minimum value of purchases to qualify. Normally, it's E125 total in a single receipt. If you don't make the minimum, try to pool your purchases. The shop will fill out a form and put it together with the receipt in an envelope. At the airport, visit customs first to get an export validation stamp. Present the refund form(s) together with your boarding pass and passport. Bring your luggage with you because the customs officer may request to see the goods purchased. Then proceed to check-in your luggage at the bag drop. Before going through immigration, head to the bank to claim the refund which is about 16% to 20% of the sale price.
5. If you haven't been to Firenze, you must stay at least two days to explore this Renaissance capital.
The Outlets (farthest from Florence):
1) Lo Spaccio: Via Levanella Becorpi, Località Levanella, Montevarchi 52025 (Exit Valdarno on A1) Call to check if open: +39 55 9789481
2) The Mall: 8 Via Europa, Leccio Reggello 50060 (Exit: Incisa on A1), Tel +39 055 8657775, open from Mon-Sat 10-7pm and Sun from 3-7pm
3) Barberino Designer Outlet: Via Meucci 50031 Barberino del Mugello (right at the Barberino exit), Tel +39 55 842161, open from Tue-Fri from 10-8pm and Sat-Sun from 10 to 9pm.