Thank you to the fodorites who helped with my trip planning.
Here's a summary of the areas covered in the notes below for anyone planning a trip to similar areas...Lake Como, Aosta valley, Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Amalfi coast, Capri and Rome.
We flew into Milan after a 27 hour flight from Australia in mid August, arriving around 7pm. We then hired a car and drove to Lake Como. The scenery on the way was very ordinary, until we reached the lake where we could see lovely towns and lake views. We booked an Air B and B apartment at Montrazio and had trouble finding it in the dark, after struggling to find a parking space, as we didn't realise that Italian streets could just be steps and paths rather than roads. However, our helpful host, Paolo, came and rescued us and gave us an overview of his lovely apartment.
Next morning we awoke, to find ourselves in a beautiful little town with no crowds. Our apartment had spectacular views of lake Como and towns from the livingrooms and the balcony..perfect for enjoying our evening glass of wine. The ferry calls into Montrazio, so it is a great base for Lake Como, in my opinion, if you don't like busy towns.
We spent 5 days on the lake...First day, we took the ferry to Bellagio, passing all the beautiful little towns along the way (we bought our tickets at the dock..there are different tickets, depending on the region of the lake you are travelling to). We had a nice lunch at one of the trip advisor restaurants, bought a gelato and strolled the streets with the crowds.
Another day, we decided to take a scenic drive to Lake Maggiori...it was Sunday, so the towns on the way were closed, and the scenery was not good...we regretted spending the day on this (we went to the east side of the lake, where we struggled to find a park or to see much of the lake). We eventually went to a supermarket, bought picnic supplies and stopped at a lido and enjoyed a picnic watching the locals sun baking. Days later, on our trip away from Lake Como, we stopped on the western side of the lake, at Bavenu, which was lovely, so our Sunday drive was not a fair assessment of the whole area.
Another day we drove to Lenno, (a lovely drive) where we went to the Villa del Balbianello. The gardens were pleasant, but the tour of the house with English speaking guide was really interesting, with a few little surprises that I won't mention here. Well worthwhile doing. After that we walked along the boulevard at Lenno, which is a pretty town, had a pleasant lunch and just watched the people passing, and lined up for another spectacular gelato.
Dinner at the pizzeria in Montrazio on the lido was lovely...good pizza, lots of local families, swans and ducks...a nice way to spend an evening.
Driving in Italy...despite all the naysayers, we have no problems. At home , we drive on the left side of the road, so it is a bit nerve-wracking when we start driving on the right hand side of the road. But the Italians are excellent drivers, in my opinion. They stay to the far side of the road whenever possible to facilitate overtaking by faster drivers, they have brilliant judgement about squeezing through narrow passageways, and their parking has to be seen to be believed. So, we stayed on the eastern side of Lake Como, where the roads are said to be a bit wider and easier to navigate. So long as you stay to the right, maintain a reasonable speed, and slow down when there are parked cars, cyclists or pedestrians to divert around, then the driving is fine. We pulled over occasionally to let drivers pass, too, which took off pressure to drive quickly. The worst part is finding a car park at your destination...they are quickly filled and only small spaces left. I frequently got out of the car to help guide my husband's parking (also on wrong side of road for us!)
From Lake Como, we went to the Valle d'Aosta, via the Simplon pass. We could have taken a faster route, but we wanted to take a scenic route. This was an amazing drive, passing through the valleys of snow capped mountains, rivers, beautiful flower filled Swiss towns, vineyards, ruined castles...it was a superb drive, one that I highly recommend.
We stayed at the Petit Relais in Valpennine...it too is highly recommended. The room was immaculate and well presented, the gardens and pool beautiful and a great breakfast included. We had dinner there one night which was also excellent.
In the 5 days there, we went to the market in Aosta (very ordinary..clothes and household goods mainly), and spent a day driving through to Chamonix, going up Mont Blanc, then picnicking in the park alongside the river just out of Chamonix ( supplies of bread and cake courtesy of the boulangerie in Chamonix...yum..in fact I have to dedicate special mention to that cake..a superb Mille Feuille with raspberries interspersed with the custard..what a triumph!)
We drove to Courmayeur and spent a day hiking over the mountain (fabulous scenery..but if you aren't an experienced hiker, you might find this too challenging as it was a very long, steep climb...we found out later that there are much easier paths from some of towns such as Plamincieux that take you to the same peak ... There is also a cafe up at the peak for a good italian lunch or coffee).
Another day saw us going to Lillaz where a short walk took us to a beautiful alpine field filled with wild flowers, then back to the waterfalls...make sure you cross over the bridge and back down along the path, as there are a series of crystal clear pools spilling down the valley, fed by the falls and culminating in the river. We had lunch in the town where I chose a bread roll with pancetta, red fruit and cheese. I thought the waitress misinterpreted and meant red lettuce...but no, I really had pancetta, raspberries...and a HUGE slab of cheese. It may be redundant to mention now that Aosta is famous for its cheese products! We stopped in Cogne...beautiful little town, with a glorious view from the town square up the valley...perfect place to eat yet another gelati!
We drove into Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso via Introd too, and did a walk from Frazione Eaux Rousses and returned to Valsavarenche for lunch. After all the spectacular sights we have enjoyed, this probably was the least impressive, although I did enjoy watching a goatherd and cowherd at work (work consisted of them sitting and watching their animals eating, then moving them to a new location). We should have got some more information on the trails before going there. On the way back, we stopped in Introd at a stone bridge built over a 80 metre chasm...the story goes that when it was being built, the local workmen fled when the structure starting groaning from the weight of the stone, but returned to work after enjoying some local wine.
From Aosta, we drove via the autostrada to Cuneo, where we booked into a good agriturismo Tetto Garrone in a lovely garden and farm setting for an overnight stay. We were welcomed by Gemma who was very hospitable, friendly and informative... We had a long italian/English chat without really knowing what the other was saying. I think if I had spoken Italian, she would have been my new best friend. I liked the town of Cuneo, with its beautiful high, wide shopping boulevards. The whole town seemed to turn out to stroll on Saturday night, and the biggest crowd caused a major traffic jam at the gelateria. We couldn't get into any of the recommended restaurants in Via Dromero as we hadn't booked. The people of Cuneo obviously love their good food.
The next day we moved onto Genova, enjoying the coastal route rather than the autostrada. We passed through many picturesque beach towns, but needed to be careful about the pedestrians crossing. The route into Genova itself was very unattractive. We liked the port area with the huge cruise ships and all the activity and restaurants and bars. We took a standard open bus tour around Genova, and it didn't appeal to me (but it was a Sunday which makes any italian town look deserted); I thought it looked very dirty and rundown. Our B and B B Domitilla apartment was brilliant ... An old grand hotel, where we had a suite to ourselves that overlooked the port and cruise ships...I highly recommend this if you are staying in Genova.
From Genova, we drove to La Spezia, where we turned in our car, bought a bus ticket from the tabbacherie, and hopped on a S bus to the station ( relying on the goodwill of other passengers to let us know when we got there). From La Spezia station we bought our tickets and nutted out the complexities of the timetable and platforms (which seems to be quite flexible..you need to listen to the announcements as well) and took the train to Manarola in the Cinque Terre where we stayed for 5 nights.
Wow, the Cinque Terre is jaw droppingly beautiful and the towns very picturesque. But don't expect to see a fishing village; you will be seeing hundreds of tourists and locals servicing the tourist industry. Our accommodation at Arpaiu couldn't be better..a bedroom, a bathroom, a shared lounge area and a shared terrace perched right over the cliffs at the front of Manarola. Stunning views and sunsets...no need to leave the terrace, as the evenings are absolutely perfect right from this spot.
In the 5 nights there, we spent one day wandering La Spezia and the market and shops ( it was a day of poor weather and high seas with no ferry service). Another day we took the train to La Spezia, walked to Via Giuseppe Garibaldi and caught the P bus to Porto Venere .. I loved this town particularly with its impressive ruins and church right on the cliffs plus the association with Lord Byron plus just enjoying the people watching. With the walks, paths both ways from Manarola are closed, so we caught the train to Vernazza and then walked the beautiful but physically challenging (we are near 60 and quite fit for our age, to put it in perspective) path to Monterosso. Here we made a big mistake as we got to the Manarola station about 9.20 to find that the next train didn't leave till 10.30. This then meant that we were walking in the heat of the day plus with hordes of other walkers. We were glad though that we walked from Vernazza rather than starting from the other end, as the route was slightly less difficult from the Vernazza start. However, it was a hard climb and we needed more water than we took with us; nevertheless, we enjoyed the glorious views. Arriving at Monterosso, we enjoyed the town and its appealing streets and shops ( and cold drinks) but were shocked at the huge crowds ..we were very pleased that Manarola is far less crowded. We took the train to Levanto afterwards, but took one look at the walk down to town and we decided to turn straight around and come back to Manarola...we were just too tired from the earlier walk and the heat. The next day, we had learned our lesson and got up an hour earlier to be on the station at 8.30, so we could catch the earlier train to Corniglia. At the station, our park tickets covered the bus up to the town so we skipped walking the 350 steps up, stopped and had breakfast and started walking by just after 9. The walk from Corniglia to Vernazza was much easier than yesterday's walk, very beautiful views and a shorter trek...in hindsight, we should have done this walk first. Vernazza itself was lovely ( but also crowded) with lots of people swimming and strolling. After strolling around the town, we bought a one way ferry ticket back to Manarola and enjoyed a lovely cassata gelato before having a picnic lunch on our beautiful terrace and stretching out to enjoy the sunlight. We bought take away local pizzas for dinner on the balcony...and they were as good as any meal we have had in Italy.
We were sad to leave Manarola and the beauty of the Cinque Terre, but it was time to move onto our week in Tuscany. We picked the car up in La Spezia and started driving to Tuscany, avoiding the autostrada so that we could enjoy the scenery...bad call...the route is mainly industry and very unattractive areas. However, it improved eventually, after hundreds of kms. We passed through Carerra, and I would have liked to take a closer look, as they appeared to have mountains that looked like they were covered in snow, but I think was white marble! We did stop in Lucca for lunch ... A beautiful medieval wall city where lots of people were exploring by hiring and riding bikes. I had a local specialty sandwich...raw pork sausage with smoked ricotta...it tasted better than it reads! We finally got to the Tuscany hills late afternoon, and the scenery is every bit as beautiful as I hoped. Little towns dot the landscape, separated by fields and forest and farms. We stayed at Podere Patrignone, which is a glorious agriturismo run by a warm and hospitable family. We have our own apartment, which is made from Tuscan stone and furnished in a rustic manner...full of character. The family provided us with a book full of tips on local markets, restaurants, wine, parking, sightseeing ...they also have a hamper of meats,cheeses, bread, wine, fruit and so on to welcome us. We end the first day with a gin and tonic down by the pool, watching the Tuscan sunset which turned the sky the deepest shade of orange.
Our second day, we went to the local market in Panzano and bought some fruit and vegetables, then did a stroll around the town. From here, we made our way to Castellina in Chianta...a very pretty town that we explored and then settled in for a long Sunday lunch in the square at La Torre ristorante. Oh, it was a great lunch..we shared a platter of roast meats..chicken, guinea fowl, duck, pork, with zucchini flowers, mixed vegetables and roast potatoes ...then we shared apple pie and pannacotta, followed by coffee. We enjoyed watching the locals square up for a beef steak that looked like it was about 500gm..one each...and then they had dessert, coffee and liqueur to follow. Phew! Day finished with a swim (brief, it was cold) and another sunset.
Overnight there was a cool change and strong winds sprang up, so we changed our plans. We stared the day walking through the local lanes, and picking some plums from the wild plum trees and the flowers growing on the verge. Then we visited some of the local towns...and so pleased we did, as they were stunningly beautiful. Particularly Montefiorella and Volpaia were two exquisite medieval villages that I highly recommend visiting. I thought they were the prettiest towns that we saw in Tuscany. We stopped in Radda in Chianti too, as there was a local market where we bought some delicious olives, plus it was another attractive town to stroll through. Poggibonsi market was another one we went to; it was large and had a wide variety of goods and foods, but not much that appealed to me.
We did a bit of ceramic shopping too, including going to the medieval town of Ceraldo which can be accessed via cable car if you don't want to walk up..there are artists actually painting the ceramics while you watch, so you know the hand painting is genuine. We enjoyed a simple lunch of bruschetta while there too.
Other places we visited in the area were Siena, Florence and San gimignano ..all beautiful towns, that were brimming with tourist groups...I recommend arriving first thing in the morning or late afternoon when the areas are far quieter. We took a walking tour in Florence with artviva Tours which covered a general art introduction of Florence looking at the buildings including the Duomo and statuary; a very enjoyable tour with a lot of humour thrown in. We also went on a tour of the Uffuzi museum with the same tour guides, which was interesting .. They used the depiction of the Virgin Mary in art to examine the development of painting techniques over the centuries.
We had booked dinner in San gimignano at Cum Quibis several months before and reaped the reward of having a wonderful dinner in a lovely rustic restaurant with superb food and great service. I loved the wild boar ragout and the freshly made tiramisu and enjoyed the local wine that was recommended by the waiter. They were extremely generous in providing prosecco and a savoury tasting, a free dessert and a bottle of wine to take home! Another night our hosts at the agriturismo put on a 4 course dinner for the guests, which was a very pleasant way to meet the others staying on the farm and enjoy some good food and local wine at the same time. We also had a great dinner at the local restaurant Antico Ristorante Pestello which is family run, particularly the veal fillet with porcine mushrooms was just delicious. The waiter was friendly and helpful too.
From Tuscany, we caught the train from Florence (chaos...my husband waited 30 mins in the queue for information only to be refused because he didn't take a number..we only wanted to know if they had luggage lockers. Needless to say, we ended up keeping the backpacks with us) right down to Salerno, and then the local bus to Minori which is a small, non touristy town on the Amalfi coast. We had taken a beautiful tiny villa overlooking the water and with a terrace, perfect for stretching out in the sun and relaxing and enjoying the view.
We found the public bus transport pretty terrible. We had one day where 2 buses went past as they were full, and it took over an hour to catch our bus. We wasted many hours waiting for buses that didn't turn up or were delayed and caused us to miss the connecting bus. With hindsight we should have caught the ferries more or taken accommodation in Amalfi which is the transport centre of the area. Driving a car would have been possible too..drivers just need to listen for bus horns and know to pull over to let the oncoming bus pass. However, having visited Amalfi and Positano (both very charming towns with lots of shops and restaurants), I preferred staying in Minori, as I loved watching the everyday life of the locals and sitting in the square and main street just people watching. We also swam at the local beach, enjoying the warm water of the Mediterranean. The other towns were extraordinarily busy.
My favourite day was catching the local bus up to Ravello, which is another beautiful town, and going to the two gardens there, especially the Villa Cimbrone which has the terrace of infinity, and the views there live up to the name. This wa the most beautiful garden we visited in Italy. The restaurant next to the gardens also had spectacular views from the terrace and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal there. We also went to Villa Rufalo which was no where near as beautiful with its tower closed and renovations taking place, plus a huge opera stage built over the formal garden (however, a fab spot for opera!). We decided to walk down the 1200 steps from Ravello to Minori, but found the promised views quite disappointing as it was mainly walking between high stone walls. I think the walk from Ravello to Amalfi might have been the better choice.
5 days in Minori passed very quickly, and saw us catching the ferry to Capri, where we stayed for two nights. We stayed at Capri Inn, a B and B, 500 metres from the port and the crowds. Beautifully clean, well fitted out, overlooking the beach with white sand and turquoise water, a good run down on the local sites from the manager and a bus stop straight out the front...a good place to stay. Buses on Capri are excellent, come regularly and punctually and people actually queue in an orderly manner.
The first afternoon was my favourite time in Italy! We walked down paths and found ourselves at a beach shack restaurant at Bagno Tiberio, where we had the freshest and tastiest fish and salad in our trip. It was quite pricey but well worth it in my opinion, and were given a limoncello to finish our meal off. After that, we hired a little speed boat from Capri boats .. 2.5 hours for 90 euro..and drove ourselves around the island. We stopped at a couple of places including the green grotto and jumped overboard and swam. The clear turquoise waters were so enticing. It was just so much fun! That evening we caught the bus up to the town of Capri, which is very pretty and has a lovely square with spectacular views of the bay of Naples, and found ourselves in one of those restaurants that "churn and burn". Restaurant Longano.. The worst meal in Italy for us.
Our second day in Capri saw us getting up early to catch the buses to the Blue Grotto, where we jumped into one of the little boats with the local oarsman who took us in. It was every bit as beautiful as all the photos show. I hadn't appreciated the adventure in actually entering the cave, as it is a tiny opening and the oarsman had to time entry with the waves, while we all laid flat on the floor of the boat and he laid on top of us! Word of warning .. Check that you don't go at high tide or when the weather is rough, as they can't enter the cave at these times. We also went to Anacapri, which I thought was the more charming town, then went to the Gardens of Augustus which gave fabulous views (but the gardens themselves were small and insignificant), and then we walked up to Belvedere Cannone which is a much higher vantage point for the same view. We were too tired to walk up to Tiberus' villa, so will have to read about it instead. For dinner, we went to D'Amore, an attractive restaurant, where we received first class service and had a delicious meal of lemon pasta followed by baked fish served with a delicious sauce that included fresh capers, olives, tomatoes and olive oil. The meal was pricey, but a world of difference to the one the night before.
Next morning, we caught the high speed ferry to Naples, taxi to train station and high speed train to Rome. Once in Rome, we bought metro tickets and went from Termini to Spagna station, and found our B and B. We were early so we left our backpacks there and just did a wander around the streets. After checkin, we continued wandering, going to the Borghese Gardens (very run down), the Spanish Steps (the fountain below and the church above are both under repair) and ran the gauntlet of the dozens of people wanting to sell us tat, and ending up at Piazza Narrone and the fountain of the 4 rivers. We watched the buskers there and then sat at a cafe. It was a funny situation...the service was slow,the waiter brought a dish different to our order, the bruschetta was flavourless and tasted as thought the toast was cooked the day before...the when we finished, the waiter brought over a cd of himself playing the accordion..he wanted us to buy it! The same waiter hovered about 1 metre too while we took our change...he was wanting us to leave it for him. Instead we moved around to another cafe called Cul de Sac, where we had a great wine selection and tasty, fresh food...a wild boar pate and the most delicious meatballs I have ever eaten.
Other things we did during our 5 nights in Rome...we went on a tour of the Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum (really interesting..so much ancient history in such a small area..amazing to think that we were walking where Julius Caesar walked)...another tour to the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel and St Peters (awe inspiring)... Found our way to the ancient Forum (equally awe inspiring)...went into numerous beautiful churches...hopped on the bus and went to Trastevere (loved this area, much less crowded, great little streets, very picturesque, lots of interesting squares and cafés...next time, I would stay here)...went into the Jewish ghetto (I didn't find this very interesting and struggled to find a good lunch spot)..window shopped in the Via del corso...caught a bus out to Porto del Roma to the shopping mall to do some gift shopping for home...went to Del Giudice where I bought two superb leather handbags as gifts for 2 special people (they will custom make handbags!).. Took the train to Tivoli and went to the Villa D'este where I loved the brilliant use of water and fountains in the garden..met 2 fabulous Americans while eating at Edys (Sandy and Marcia) and bumped into them several times at various venues. Our trip to Villa d'este was the last day of our trip and did have a few glitches..we couldn't use credit cards to buy our metro tickets, so we missed our train by 90 seconds and needed to wait an hour for the next, then on the return journey, the train ticket inspector found that we hadn't validated our tickets (tickets from Rome to Tivoli don't needed to be validated, only the reverse...gosh, why didn't we guess that?) so wanted to fine us 50 euros..we gave him our credit card but he couldn't use it, he wanted cash, so we showed him that we only had 5 euros in our wallet, so he waived the penalty! Phew! After that we caught a taxi out to Fiumincino to a small hotel, wandered down the street along the river Tiber to find a place for dinner, and then went to bed early as we were up at 4.30 in order to catch our flight out at 7 am. The last little hurdle was a customs...believe it or not, we had forgotten our picnic knives that we in our on board packs, so now Italian customs has filled out a form about the incident which we suspect will go to Interpol!
Finally back to Australia and thinking about our next trip!
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5 weeks in Italy ... west coast and Tuscany
Thank you to the fodorites who helped with my trip planning.