Despite going to college an hour from Montreal – and frequent visits during that time – I’d never been to the jewel of Quebec – Quebec City. I’d heard great things about it, from fantastic food to friendly people and amazing vistas. Finally, I just got a chance to explore it myself.
I was asked to speak at a conference in Montreal on Friday December 6th, late enough in the day that it would be impossible to get home to San Francisco until Saturday. And as the scheduling gods would have it, I needed to be at Discovery Headquarters on Monday to participate in our first-ever social summit, which would have entailed travelling BACK to the east coast on Sunday.
But Quebec City beckoned – even though the cold of December loomed. So Friday late afternoon I hopped on a train from Montreal to Quebec, to finally experience this pretty city on the St Lawrence river.
The train itself was a lovely experience. Even in economy class, Canada’s ViaRail coaches only have three seats abreast, and I ended up with the single seat next to an expansive – and clean – window. There’s not much to see as the train doesn’t hug the river, but it was getting dark anyway. I ended up catching up on work with the free WiFi during the three hour jaunt from Montreal to Quebec City.
After dropping my bags at my hotel – the comfortable and definitely recommended Hotel Le Germain Dominion, I headed off to old town for a quick walk around and a bite to eat.
Quebec City really is a taste of Europe in North America. First, it’s the only walled city north of the Rio Grande, circled by battlements that are three hundred or more years old. And since it’s the heart of “New France”, French is not only the official language, it’s spoken predominantly by just about everyone. From the first steps out of my hotel I felt like I was in a northern European town, not a city a hundred miles north of Maine.
Climbing up the long and winding road to the old town was great exercise. and as I crested the hill, the magnificent Chateau Frontenac revealed itself bit by bit.
One of the magnificent Fairmont hotels built to support Canada’s coast-to-coast railway, it’s easily as beautiful as the one in Banff and Victoria. And it dominates Quebec City – you can see it from just about everywhere.
Unfortunately it’s not really much fun inside – at least not now. I was looking forward to having a drink in the supposedly great lounge overlooking the river, but alas it was closed for renovations, which meant either huddling in the basement or pushing on – and I opted to walk around.
I ended up having an AMAZING dinner at Initiale – about 3 blocks from my hotel. Amazingly fresh, delicate and sublime, I feasted on King Trumpet mushrooms, scallops and venison – sauced and enhanced by root vegetables, balsamic vinegar, brussels sprout leaves, dill and much more.
But undeterred I bundled up and headed out on an epic 4 hour walk around the battlements, the walls and the governor’s promenade – an amazing walk around the citadel overlooking the river and with amazing views of islands and mountains in the distance. Plus, because the “promenade” – really a set of stairs and paths that hug the cliffs alongside the citadel walls just past the Chateau Frontenac – faces south, it was actually almost not cold.
One of the joys of visiting great places in the off-season is you often have it mostly to yourself. Although I’d love to see Quebec City in the summer, when Parisian-style cafes tumble down along the beautiful squares of the old city, I certainly enjoyed not being shoulder to shoulder with other tourists. As I walked the ramparts, I passed maybe 4 other people – I basically had the city to myself!
After wandering the city for a few hours, I decided to warm up in the Museum of Civilization – a sprawling three story set of collections that I really enjoyed. I’m not sure exactly what the mission of this Museum is – it included permanent displays on the evolution of Quebec and the Inuit natives. But it also featured fascinating posters and paintings from Paris, a video-game retrospective sponsored by Montreal-based game developer Ubisoft and an exhibit of voodoo art from Haiti. Definitely also recommended!
I was not denied. The Quebec City – Levais ferry heads off on its 10 minute run across the river every half hour, and for $3.50 you can ride over and back, taking in the city and the river along the way. It’s a great way to see the city – and sunset was a perfect time to make the trip.
It was well worth it though. The views were wonderful, and as the sky darkened he city began to sparkle like an icy jewel, as the lights came on up along the cliffs and on the walls and the chateau.
If you’re headed to Quebec City, get ready for a very European experience. The food is great, the people friendly and the views and the old town are amazing. Although it was cold, December does have a lot going for it. The entire town is decked out in Christmas lights, there’s a great German-style Winter market in front of City Hall and the Notre Dame cathedral, and you can get into every restaurant and attraction without waiting. But it’s definitely cold.
Nothing epitomizes big budget television to me like craft service. It’s a separate part of production that makes sure the actors and crew are fed. In many places, it’s even a union job. And if you’re considering it for your web video production, you’ve already lost.
I don’t mean to belittle the profession – it can be indispensable on large productions with mega budgets. And someday videos made for YouTube might actually be big and profitable enough to afford it. But in the immortal words of Buzz Lightyear: “Not Today Zurg”.
And that leads me to my sixth and final way to fail on YouTube – pretending you are TV.
Early on in my Revision3 days I met with a lot of companies that considered web video a gateway drug. Success on YouTube, they posited, was just a stepping stone to success on cable or broadcast TV. From National Banana to Ripe TV, their focus, storytelling and budgeting was all focused on finding the next big breakout TV format.
And while they were burning cash, folks like Shay Carl, Phil DeFranco and iJustine were making videos in their basements, and building huge passionate audiences that would ultimately lead to fame and at least a little fortune. But apart from moving pictures and audio, what these subterranean video dwellers were making had very little resemblance to typical TV.
It’s still true today. Even though some YouTube stars are pulling in millions of dollars a year, there just isn’t enough money going around to support even a fraction of the production expenses you see on the smallest TV shows.
Shortly after Discovery bought us, I was lucky enough to visit the set of a new show for one of our smaller networks. The production company was making 10 episodes, and the rough cost per episode was about $400,000. I later learned that even a mid-level reality TV show had a team of 20-30 folks that would descend on whatever slice of life was being exposed – and stay there for weeks!
Do the math. If you average about $5 in ad revenue for every thousand views, you’d need 80 MILLION views just to break even on that $400,000 production cost. That’s like scoring a “What the Fox Say” every time you post something. And that just isn’t going to happen.
Even what I consider the most successful “expensive” YouTube series – Video Game High School – barely broke even. They spent $22,979.32 on craft services, and nearly $700,000 overall – even with free labor and other creative financing techniques. You can check out the cost breakdown yourself in this great article show creator Freddie Wong wrote last year. So yes, you can spend TV-style money and maybe make a little money. But you’ll need to corral the most talented creators in the web-original video world and call in a LOT of favors. And even then you’ll probably still lose a lot. (as an aside, I’m looking forward to a similar analysis of Season 2 of VGHS).
So before you start shooting your super-amazing new YouTube series, take a close look at that budget. If you see the words “Director of Photography”, or “Grip” or you’re paying for a lot of special effects and sound design you should be afraid. Very afraid. Unless you’re the second coming of YLVIS – and you can do it every time – you’re probably throwing money away.
And if there’s a craft services line you better just throw in the towel. Because unfortunately, web video just isn’t big enough to support TV food.
Now that Revision3 is part of Discovery (and renamed Discovery Digital Networks), I’m once again exposed to traditional television production cycles. Shows here are planned, purchased and produced in seasons. These are typically finite frequencies – 6, 13 or occasionally 26 episodes, with very clear start and end air dates.
Want to fail on YouTube? Do the same thing. Thinking of your content in seasons – or even worse, delivering content at random intervals – is one of the most common ways to fail.
The most successful creators on YouTube know this intimately. Pick any top 50 channel at random, and you’ll probably find a set schedule of release that’s slavishly adhered to – whether weekly, daily, and even at set times during the day. Many top creators are even building new tightly-related properties for their channels that will increase weekly frequency while continuing to follow to a rigid schedule. The incredibly talented Dane Boedigheimer just launched the first of a family of weekly scheduled series to enhance his “Annoying Orange” franchise, while Harley Morenstein – known for his weekly Epic Meal Time – just launched another regularly scheduled gaming channel.
It’s a hamster wheel. Creating successful franchises on YouTube means that once you start you literally can never stop – or face audience erosion. Here at Discovery Digital Networks we call it feeding the content monster. The audience is always hungry – and has very little loyalty to boot.
I learned this early on in my Revision3 days when we brought a show over to Revision3 called “Epic Fu”. Created by the incredibly talented Zadi Diaz and Steve Woolf (and originally called “Jet Set Show”), Epic Fu was one of the early YouTube successes. The creators decided to move their show from Next New Networks over to Revision3, but ended up taking a few months off during the transition. Alas, even though they were slavishly dedicated to regular release, that gap caused a disastrous fall-off in views. With all the other new shiny on the web beckoning, the audience moved on, and we never really figured out how to bring them back.
“But Jim”, I can hear you complain, “what about shows like ‘Video Game High School’”? The popular series just came back with season 2 – about ten months after season 1 ended – and it’s still huge.
True, VGS is an anomaly – and a great show to boot. But even here there’s evidence that regularly scheduled content between seasons contributed to season 2’s success. During that 10 month hiatus, Freddie W and Brandon Jla released 22 new pieces of content on their channel, mostly video game themed. Even so, there was still a drop off between average YouTube views of season 2 vs. season 1– although that could easily be explained by the additional distribution the latest episodes received on their off-YouTube site and other places.
I’ve always thought of web-original video as more akin to talk radio and news than traditional television, and my experience bears that out. Regularly scheduled releases – at least weekly – and no gaps are required if you want to be successful. As a creator, you really want to develop habits, and regular temporal triggers make those habits easier to adopt. So take a tip from Daily Grace, Phil DeFranco and just about every other successful YouTube star: Irregularity is a path to irrelevance.
Aristotle advised readers that if they acted virtuous, they might then become virtuous. That adage has been adopted into by the “Fake It ‘till You Make It” crowd, who practice self-deception as a life strategy.
And for many, it actually works. Nevertheless, it is one of the dumbest things you can do on YouTube, and indeed on the internet in general.
I call it “stream fraud”, and I feel like I’ve been railing against if forever, but it’s only been three years. Back in 2010 I was mostly concerned with shady video ad networks and other low-life players, but since then it’s moved on to YouTube in force.
There are more than a handful of seemingly legitimate companies that will take your money and give you “views”. A quick search on Google for “buy youtube views” turns up a variety of alternatives – from Virool to Channel Factory and Vagex - most of them shady. The recent REELSeo forum had at least two companies promising to deliver 10,000 video views in just a few days on any video. The YouTube sections on many black-hat SEO forum sites have thousands of pages where these illegitimate techniques are discussed. Unfortunately these tools are used by more brands than you might think.
You can typically spot these fake view videos a mile away. How? Look for videos with hundreds of thousands – or millions of views – and just a smattering of comments. Or hundreds of likes and no dislikes. The best YouTube videos engage at least a few people, and if you’re not attracting even a few nattering nabobs of negativity, you’re just not doing it right.
Buying views isn’t just a waste of money – it’s outright fraud if in-page or in-stream ads are served. But if that’s not enough to sway you, YouTube’s not standing still either. At the end of last year they began to target channels and videos that were clearly juicing views, including wiping out more than a billion fake views from Universal Music alone.
But that didn’t solve the problem. I’ve continued to see blatantly faked view counts across YouTube this year – I even called out the problem during my Vidcon keynote in August.
The enclosed screen shot is just one of many examples I’ve found. Published on April 12th, 2013, this video has over a quarter million views, but just 5 comments. Even worse, it has 408 likes, but only one dislike. And that one’s not even legit – I actually put it in myself just to see what would happen.
Here’s another clue that this video’s views were faked. I grabbed this stats screen from YouTube just a few days ago – 23 more views, but nary a smidge of engagement:
Notice that virtually all 250,413 views happened on just one day. That’s just not normal. And no shares nor subscriptions were driven from those views either. If it were a duck I’d call it decidedly odd.
But YouTube has recently started stepping up its enforcement. In mid-September they posted a video warning creators away from buying fake views, The relevant quote:
“YouTube believes that a view should be something that happens when someone decides to watch a video. If someone is tricked or forced into watching a video, that is not OK…. Anything that artificially increases views either through automated means or playing videos for people who didn’t choose to watch them is against our terms.”
So it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. And in the last few days another round of crackdowns has begun in earnest as the company penalizes and takes down suspect videos.
So if you want to fail on YouTube, go buy a bunch of shady views. And when you get caught, good luck convincing your boss, your clients or your partners that it just wasn’t your fault. Congratulations! You just failed miserably at YouTube.
Association with a celebrity is a tried and true way to move the needle. Just put Tom Cruise in a movie, Tom Brady in a commercial or Tom Hanks as a guest host and watch viewers and sales go through the roof.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t work that way on YouTube. We’ve seen a parade of celebrities try to dominate this new medium by riding on their celebrity coattails, and have fallen flat. Everyone from Madonna to Miley Cyrus and Shaquille O’Neil has seen dismal results.
I’ve talked to a number of High Q-Score individuals, and attempted to guide them to success on YouTube – or mostly to scare them away. Because on YouTube it’s not about how famous you are – it’s about how authentic and accessible you will be.
You just can’t expect to toss up a few videos every now and then and never return. That celebrity halo that sells so much soap is just noise on YouTube. You have to actually work for your views – and that’s not what most celebrities want to hear.
That’s because at its core YouTube is a community. You can post videos and you might even get a handful of breakout hits. But without really engaging the community you’ll fall flat over the long term. And most celebrities just don’t want to put in the hard work to grow those group. It’s completely understandable, by the way. YouTube is still an emerging medium, and anyone with a notable Q-Score will make far more money by plying their trade on TV, radio or in theaters rather than on the web.
There is a massive exception though: music videos. In addition to being an incredibly personal medium, YouTube is also the world’s jukebox. A catchy song and some arresting visuals will keep ‘em coming back again and again. And if you can get naked on a wrecking ball in the process, even better!
But aside from music videos, a celebrity-themed channel where the celeb fails to show up at least a few times a week is a recipe for disaster.
Last time we talked about the first dumb way to die on YouTube, which is to put a disparate variety of shows into a single YouTube channel. My friend Mark Gardner pointed out, however, that both Geek and Sundry and Nerdist seem to do this to good effect.
It’s a good point, and yes they do seem to be doing quite well. But it’s important to note that much of the success is attributable to the appearance of some of the big stars behind the channels – Felicia Day and Chris Hardwick respectively. When those two show up – and they do quite often – those episodes typically do significantly better than the others. In addition, all the disparate properties are thematically similar, and feel more like segments of a single variety-type show rather than separate shows with individual missions.
But another reason why both of these channels seem to be successful while so many similar ones fail is that their creators are very good at not falling into the trap of DWTFOY #2. Unlike so many traditional media ventures on YouTube, they listen and respond to their audience.
Back in the late nineties I helped launch a cable TV network called ZDTV – which subsequently became TechTV. I even hosted a show for a few years, Fresh Gear, a weekly roundup of the latest computers, gadgets and tech gear.
We’d rush around all week trying to put the show together, and when it was finally done and shipped off to Master Control that’s the last we thought about it – as we had to start sprinting to our next weekly deadline.
We rarely thought about the audience at all, and outside of a few emails and meetups at Comdex and CES, we had very little contact with the viewers. Similarly when I was Editor-In-Chief of PC Magazine – along with other tech publications – our community was called “Letters to the Editor”. We spent a few hours a month interacting with the community, and every other hour devising content to shove down our readers’ throats.
That doesn’t work today. Successful creators on YouTube typically spend 30-50% of their time interacting with their viewers. Much of that comes from being active in the comments that flow on YouTube after your videos have posted. But it’s more than just that. G+, Twitter, Facebook and email are just some of the ways today’s successful YouTube creators build – and then bind – big audiences.
It’s diametrically opposed to how much of traditional media works – particularly television. In the TV world we build walls between our stars and our audience. Ever see The Today Show taping outside at Rockefeller Center? It’s like being at the zoo, with Matt Lauer and crew safely walled off from their fans. Everything from agents and teleprompters to having your personal assistant hand-craft your tweets goes against the direct, authentic and person to person relationships that the true stars of YouTube are so good at building.
This really hit home for me at Vidcon this year, as I listened to Shay Carl, Phil DeFranco, iJustine and John Green talk about their relationship to their audience. Each of these megastars passionately explained how they consider it a privilege, and not a burden, to interact directly with as many of their fans as possible, whether in person, on message boards or in comment streams. Phil poignantly brought the importance of this connection home as he related how the audience has actually changed his mind on key issues over the years – and that would never have happened if he’d had filters protecting him from his fans.
The message was clear. When you listen to your audience you have to be prepared to be changed by them, and collaborate with them. Conversely, if you don’t, you will fail.
And that gets me back to the first Dumb Way to Fail. I’ve been in the comment stream of more than one of those multi-show channels, and seen posts talking about how they really wished one of the shows was in its own channel. Why? Because the posters were tired of being fed things in their stream that they just didn’t want. And flooding the stream with irrelevant material, and then not listening to the audience when they tell you to stop gives you a double dose of fail.
As YouTube has become more of an institution, more and more brands and newcomers are attempting to stake out a place on the biggest video platform on the internet. And as they do, they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
Also, as the site changes and matures, things that worked five years ago are no longer the smartest ways to build audiences and get views. This multi-part series will explore a variety of ways to deep-six your YouTube investment.
PUT ALL YOUR EGGS IN ONE BASKET: When Revision3 first got serious about YouTube back in 2008, we created a Revision3 channel and dumped all of our shows into it. That was less than successful. After carefully watching (read copying) those more successful than us, we started creating separate channels for each of our shows. Only then did we start to see traction for Diggnation, Film Riot, Scam School and our other popular shows.
But for some reason YouTube decided that it was smarter to follow the single channel model when it started doling out its $200 million dollars to launch new channels. Almost all of the channels (including our own TechFeed) shoved 7 or more separate shows into a single channel. Smarter YouTube experts – including Phil DeFranco with SourceFed and the Green Brothers with SciShow – resisted the advice. Unsurprisingly their single-show channels were among the few breakout successes, while most of the multi-show channels have faded into irrelevance.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, though, I still see media companies and other brands new to YouTube trying to load a slate of disparate shows into one channel. It still doesn’t work – and is clearly a recipe for failure.
Why? Because the way users consume YouTube content is very different from traditional TV. The “subscription” reigns supreme on YouTube, as the path to success is by amassing the biggest pile of subscribers you can. That’s because nearly half of all views are consumed via the feed of new programming that sits on the left side of the screen – and your subscribers are the ones that will push early sharing, comments and social buzz that will drive your views even higher among non-subscribers.
But if you have multiple shows in one channel, they have to *all* appeal to your subscribers for it to work. A variety of different shows, with different audience profiles, just won’t work. That’s because you’ll end up flooding your subscribers’ feed with shows they just aren’t interested in, and they’ll end up either ignoring your feed-entries or unsubscribing.
There are ways it can work – but it’s by creating variants of the same show rather than a variety of different shows. Check out two of our bigger channels – Rev3Games and SourceFed. Both use the same stable of 3-4 hosts and create variations on an existing show theme, rather than creating separate and distinct shows. So Rev3Games has video game “Reviews”, “Previews” and “Casual Fridays” – but all with the same mission of providing intelligent, personality-driven coverage of video gaming. Similarly SourceFed ties their daily news/lifestyle coverage with segments on “Today in History” and conversational round-tables like “Truth or Dare” and “Comment Commentary”.
Contrast that to the relative wasteland of “Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls”, Rodale’s “3V” or “the Intelligent Channel” – all destinations that tried to put a disparate lineup of shows into one channel and haven’t gained a lot of traction.
Next time we’ll dive into how these sorts of problems could be identified, and possibly discovered, before it was too late.
This column (and the entire series) also showed up on Video Ink here.
I’ve finally figure out what we need to make video work around the house. It’s not TV Everywhere, cord cutting or a la carte, although it could incorporate all of those. Nope, it’s Sonos for video. Pure and simple.
If you’re not familiar with Sonos, it’s the absolute best way to get music around your house. The company’s been around for about ten years, and what they do is simple, although oh-so hard. They take all of your digital music sources, and make it simple to browse, select, and then play through every audio rendering device in your house, either separately or together.
Note I said “audio rendering device”, and not stereo or speakers. And note I said “digital music sources” and not iTunes, Rhapsody or something else. That distinction is important.
But first, the magic behind Sonos is a clever Wifi hack that turns all of their devices into a mesh network, rather than using a hub-and-spoke configuration that your home base stations employ. Instead, each Sonos component is both hub and node, and communicates with all other Sonos devices in a mesh. That simple change (albeit hard to implement) is what lets Sonos do what no other wireless multi-room audio system can accomplish: syncing up a song to the beat in every room in your house.
They call it party mode, but what it means is that every note of Dave Matthews Band’s “Ants Marching” happens simultaneously in every room in your house – even if the node in your garage can’t directly communicate to the node on the patio.
In addition, Sonos has a variety of products that work with all the audio equipment you own. Have a killer stereo? The Sonos Connect feeds music to that device. Have a great pair of speakers? The Connect Amp brings an amplifier to the game. Recently they’ve developed all-in-one solutions, combining base-stations and amps with great sounding speakers, and released a TV sound bar and subwoofer to boot.
And when it comes to input, Sonos works with a variety of music sources, from your iTunes library or other shareable MP3 libraries on your PC or Mac, to all-you-can-eat services like Rhapsody and Spotify to SiriusXM, Pandora, LastFM and an almost endless list of web radio stations.
Plus over its life, Sonos has been happy to cannibalize its paid products with free alternatives when devices and forces shifted. For the first 7 years or so they sold an amazing family of controllers that made it simple to access all your music sources in one place, find what you wanted to listen to, combine and break apart groups of base stations, and just get on with adding tunes to your life. But as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous, they killed off what had to have been a profitable line, and delivered free apps for PCs, phones and tablets that were better than the hardware they replaced.
In short, Sonos reimagined what a world-class multi-room audio system would be like in the age of IP-delivered music, and have always been a step ahead of everyone else.
And that’s exactly what we need for video. Here’s what TV looks like in a Sonos-imagined world. Homes have a variety of video inputs, and a variety of video rendering devices. Every glowing rectangle in your home, from the smallest smart phone to the biggest TV is a video rendering device. And every video source, from YouTube, Hulu Amazon and Netflix to that multi-channel cable or satellite bundle – along with all those home and ripped videos on your PC or Mac, is simply just an input. And that phone or tablet? That’s what you’ll use to select what to watch and feed to one, some or all of those glowing rectangles.
Here’s how it would work. A base station sits in front of each TV in the house. Each base station knows how to connect to all your internet-connected video sources, along with your local digitized video, and your multi-channel set top box or DVR. The set top box, though, will need to be physically connected to at least one of the base stations with some sort of IR-blaster or other remote control technology.
Each hub would include both the mesh-based high-speed network to communicate and synchronize with each other around the house, and a local, Wi-Fi based link to stream to phones and tablets in that room.
And for control, tablets and phones would make it easy to find all the available video in one interface, easy to peruse and manipulate.
Sounds great, right? All available video in once place, streamable to every TV in the house in a way that lets every device play its own stream, or some or all of them grouped together.
Of course there are implementation problems. First, the antique set-top box is a weak link. Companies as diverse as Logitech with their Harmony remote, and Sling have tried to make this all work, with some success – but it’s a pain. It’s probably best if we wait until a robust set of virtual MSOs (like the forthcoming Intel service) turn all of our video into IP-delivered streams.
And speaking of Sling, you’d probably need to acquire them to make all this happen, they are already 50% of the way there.
The wireless part is also problematic. Compared to 1080p video, audio streams are tiny. Keeping fat video streams in sync across multiple devices requires much more than standard wireless networking. And streaming wirelessly out to our phones and tablets adds another complexity to the synchronization.
But the benefits are clear. And with this type of system if new services come online, they can quickly be added in – as just another video source.
If someone builds this, and it really works, sign me up. And with a simple out-of-home streaming option, I’d be able to roll my own TV Everywhere – because in the end, that’s what I think viewers really want.
Want to see the world but miss the crowds? Consider off-season travel. I’ve always been a big fan, but after a Thanksgiving-week trip to Tuscany, I’m even more sold on the concept. Here’s why:
First, it costs a lot less. My family and I stayed in some of the best hotels, for a fraction of their in-season rates. Once the calendar turns November, you can typically save 30%, 50% or even more. For example, we stayed in the "family room" at the elegant Montebello Splendid hotel in Florence. This two-level room with 3 beds has a rack rate of nearly 900 euros a night. We paid less than 300.
Similarly in lovely Lucca we stayed at the super-friendly and comfortable Palazzo Alexander and it was 30-40% less than what it would have cost in the summer - or even just a few weeks earlier.
But for me the biggest reason to travel in the offseason is to avoid crowds. I was repeatedly admonished to reserve tickets for popular attractions in advance, or end up waiting hours in line. Florence’s amazing Uffizi Gallery, for example, was supposed to be nearly impossible to get into without a reservation, and forget a sashay up to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa without advance planning.
In late November, everything changes. One morning I wandered up to the Uffizi around 10, and was inside looking at "Venus on the Half-Shell" in less than five minutes. I walked right up to the Tower of Pisa mid-afternoon, and was climbing the steps a few minutes later. We stopped by the always overcrowded San Gimigiano and parked right next to the city walls - and it felt like we had the whole town to ourselves. We even hiked to the top of the Duomo in Florence without waiting more than a minute. From April to October, this kind of access would be unthinkable.
Similarly, restaurants are equally accessible. Although it still might be difficult to get to the top spots, I had no problem making reservations an hour before showing up, and we ended up eating at the top spots in Florence and Lucca. Even better, most of our fellow diners were locals, not tourists, which made for a more authentic experience - even though we stuck out like hillbilly rubes visiting Oz for the first time.
Finally, the fall is harvest and festival time in Italy. Last year I was lucky enough to visit Alba during the Truffle festival, which unfortunately created a life-long addiction to the rare white truffle - nearly as expensive by the ounce as cocaine. This year I uncovered the Lucca slow food fair, a mid-November to December celebration of the wine, food and olive oil from the less well-known, but tasty producers around Tuscany’s lesser-known north-west corner.
Sure, the weather can be dicey - although I was in a T-shirt for quite a few afternoons during my late November visit. Rain is possible, but the glistening streets of Florence and Lucca have a rare and special beauty. And snow is possible - my first visit to Rome and Tuscany 20 years ago was during a rare but ethereal snowstorm that cast everything in soft earthen and ivory hues.
And since much of what you want to see in Florence is indoors anyway - and you don’t have to plan your museum visits in advance - you can tour outdoors on the nice days, and inside when it storms.
Maybe you like stifling heat and crowds. Maybe you enjoy being surrounded by tourists. But if you’re looking for an authentic and laid-back experience in Tuscany, try offseason. It’s a far better way to really experience the art work, sights and cuisine. And if you’re lucky, it’ll snow!
If you are headed to Tuscany, make a point of stopping by Lucca for a few nights. It’s pretty, inviting, friendly and full of delicious food! Here’s where to stay and where to eat:
OK, let’s get the bad out of the way first. I traveled here in November 2012 with my wife and 13 year old son. We reserved a Jr Suite with 4 beds. Apparently there are two junior suites. one has a terrace overlooking the city. The other has naked angels on the ceiling.
Alas, we did not get the terrace. When the proprietor Mario showed us the room, it was somewhat shocking. The entire room was done up in a crazy-quilt combination, with naked angels painted on the roof, overplush and (to our view) tasteless matching couch, chair and bedspread. Instead of a terrace, there was a great whirlpool bath with a window overlooking the town.
My wife and I had a good laugh. My son was terribly freaked out. We were planning to stay five days, but the angels were going to force us into the street far before that.
But here’s where the great staff rode to the rescue. The other Jr Suite was booked, but they readily agreed to move us downstairs to a pair of connecting rooms (luckily it *was* November, and the hotel was not nearly full).
The two rooms were perfect. No wild and crazy paintings. No overdone plush. Just comfortable, clean and inviting . And as it turned out just about everything else about the place was amazing too.
The staff (Mario, his son Gabriel and everyone else) could not have been more helpful. Fully conversant in English, they made dinner reservations, had great suggestions and even went out of their way to help us with our computer connectivity challenges.
The rooms were super comfortable, the common areas a lot of fun to hang out in, and the included breakfast was more than enough to get us going each day.
Oh, about the networking. They have pretty decent connectivity downstairs, but by the time you get to the top floors, it gets a bit spotty. You can do email and read web pages, but don’t expect to stream any video. According to the tech expert Gabriel, the building is built out of thick stone, and stone attenuates wireless signals like no-one’s business.
It’ll get better. While we were there the local ISP was installing fiber throughout the walled city - which led to some internet constipation, but should lead to better performance for you when you arrive.
This is one of those places you’ll want to come back to again and again. And you should. Lucca is an amazingly friendly and comfortable town, the food is tremendous, and the setting divine.
WHERE TO EAT IN LUCCA
Oh, and let me give you some dining ideas as well. My favorite meal was at All’Olivo, a multi-course extravagance with local flavors, friendly service and a lovely ambiance. Buca di Sant’Antonio was a close second, although I’d take a pass on the local salt cod if I were you.
I was less impressed with Ristorante Giglio - both my son and I ended up with extreme stomach aches that night and the next day. And the food was just not that good.
But with so many great restaurants you can’t go wrong. Especially in the fall when chestnuts and truffles are in season!