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Trip Report Adventures in Italy with Momma

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After two years of a pretty intense work schedule with no real vacation to speak of, I finally committed to 2-1/2 weeks off and invited one of my favorite people (my Momma) to join me for a trip to Italy (one of my favorite places)! Not only has she never been to Italy, but she's never been anywhere in Europe. So I wanted this to be a trip to remember - and so far it is, though perhaps not for the reasons I originally planned. But more about that later.

I've gotten many hours of pleasure, great ideas and helpful suggestions on this site, so I wanted to share our journey as a thank you to all those who share theirs!

Let's kick off with the basic plan and I'll fill in the actual trip as we go along (or at least as I find wifi). here's the plan:

Leave from LAX Thursday morning on Delta with a 2 hour lay over at JFK, change to Alitalia for an overnight flight, landing in Milan on Friday morning. Malpensa Express train to Milano Centrale and train to Vernazza for 3 nights. Back on the train for an afternoon visit in Pisa, then on to Florence for 4 nights at a little B&B that I'm returning to after a previous visit. Pick up a car and head down to an agriturisimo somewhere near the middle of Tuscany for 5 nights. Then drop the car at Orvieto and back on the train to Rome for 3 more nights in Trastevere before heading back through NYC to LAX. I know this is a bit chintzy on the time in Rome, but the last time I was here, I got stranded by Hurricane Sandy and spent 9 nights in Rome, so I didn't feel as compelled to spend more than this amount of time (I know you all feel bad for me - stranded in Rome for over a week. Yeah, none of my friends did either). But, I also know my Momma and if she gets overwhelmed anywhere it's going to be in Rome. We wanted to focus more on hanging out in little towns near the ocean and in the country, as I'm overdue for a nice rest.

This is largely a do-it-yourself type of trip, which is a little new for Momma - she's used to cruises and tours. But she wanted to try traveling a little more like I do - staying at a variety of apartment types (with the aforementioned B&B thrown in) without a strict time schedule to keep. A little more footloose and fancy free than what she's done before. So I did as much research as I could, in the midst of a few busier-than-usual months of work, drafted up the above Itinerary and off we went!

I'm so looking forward to this (hopefully) trip of a lifetime and to sharing it here with you!

A presto

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    Thanks everyone for the encouragement - I've gotten great tips from so many of you, so I'm thrilled that you're along for the ride!

    Day 1:

    The flight from LA to Milan was easy-peasy - we were impressed with the better-than-expected airplane meal on Alitalia and with how quickly we got our luggage in Milan. I had pre-purchased tickets for a train from Milano Centrale to Sestri Levante at 14:05, which gave us plenty of time to get out of the airport. So we headed towards the ticket station for the Malpensa Express, and guess what we found? Our travel luck had run out and right into a train strike. Not knowing what else to do, we joined some fellow travelers from the plane, found our way to the bus and headed off to the train station in hopes that the strike would not last long.

    We arrived at Milano Centrale, where I learned a new word - "cancelato". Two long lines later, we had our tickets adjusted for the 16:05 train and we popped upstairs for a bite to eat (nothing spectacular - just a couple of salami and cheese panini and a coffee for Momma) and settled in to wait. And there was that word again - cancelato. So back to the help desk for another change to the 18:05 train and another wait, while I kept telling myself to stay calm and not freak Momma out. I figured, if push came to shove, we could always find a hotel in Milan for the night and try again in the morning. Luckily, we didn't get shoved. The strike ended at 17:00 and the train came along and off we went. Though our first day was turning out to be more stressful then I could have imagined or wanted, we both decided to just laugh at the absurdity of it all and trust that we would eventually get where we needed to be (with the assistance of many kind strangers and saying a few prayers).

    Had to juggle seats a bit, but we eventually made it to S.L. where we caught a Regionale to Vernazza and arrived around 9:45pm. We had reserved a room at the Camere Fontanavecchia on Via Gavino, just a short walk up from the train station (across from the bank and post office, if you are familiar with Vernazza) and were supposed to meet the owner, Anamaria, at the train station. But since we were late and uncertain of our arrival, she had suggested we pop in at the Blue Marlin and ask them to call her. While waiting for her daughter, we decided to order a vegie pizza from the bar to take with us to the apartment, as everyplace in town was closing up for the night. We followed the very sweet Giulia up to the apartment, and she made sure we had all we needed for the night. The pizza was just okay, but food and knowing we had finally arrived and could relax made a world of difference to our flagging spirits. The room was clean and well lit, with a little balcony that we could sit out on and listen to the river flow by. The beds were very comfortable, so after settling in and taking nice hot showers, we gratefully crawled into them around 1:00 am and promptly fell asleep.

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    Day 2:

    After the long trek on virtually no sleep, we both decided that we deserved a bit of a sleep in, so we did. But we finally roused ourselves and set out for the day. The night before, Giulia had recommended a little bar up the street and it turned out to be Il Pirata, which we had read about in guide books and travel sites. We stopped in at the post office first so Momma could mail off a birthday card to my step-dad (yes, I'm a horrible person - I forgot all about his birthday and scheduled the trip not realizing that she'd miss his day... I owe him for being a good sport about it!)

    We also forgot that this day marked the anniversary of the landslide in 2011. We got to Il Pirata just in time - they had only 2 pastries left, as they were closing early to commemorate the day. From several boards and books I've read, there are mixed feelings about Il Pirata - they seem to be a love or hate kind of place. But Massimo was exceptionally kind to my Momma and served us up some cappucinos, fresh oj and the pastries - one plain cornetto and one with ricotta cream and walnuts. It was all so much fresher than anything we get at home and Momma was instantly hooked on the walnut cornetto! Plus, they had wifi and Massimo assured us it would be turned on all day, so we should feel free to stay on the patio for as long as we like or to come back later in the day to use it, both of which we took him up on. He chatted with us for a bit before he and his staff closed up and left us happily checking email and letting our family and friends know that we were safe (Facebook does have some uses.)

    Once our communications were complete, we strolled into town. A few of the bars and shops were closed for the day, but there was plenty open for us to check out and browse through.

    Vernazza was such a happy place to be and strolling down Via Roma, I finally felt that I was in Italy. We looked at pretty scarves and a beautiful red down jacket in the shops before settling on a handful of postcards. We followed our noses into a bakery and got some foccacia for me and a focaccia stuffed with cheese and rucola Momma. Even though the foccacia was not nearly as good as Pugi's in Florence, I greedily ate it up with a smile on my face and didn't realize until I popped the last bite into my mouth that I hadn't even offered Momma a taste! Oh well, I'll buy her the real deal in a couple of days. We stopped at a fresh fruit stand and got a couple of tangerines and bottles of water, which we stowed away for later (and boy was this going to pay off !)

    We made our way to the harbor and after drinking in our fill of the beautiful views, Momma suggested we take one of the little motor boats over to Monterosso. She walked up to the guy with the Est Nord tshirt and next thing I know, we're climbing aboard the tiniest little boat - for a second I wasn't sure if he was going to row us over or drive us there! For just two of us, it was 15 Euro a piece - for a group of ten, the rate is 10 Euro a piece. But even though I was white-knuckling it a bit, it was a gorgeous way to approach Monterosso and worth it, in my opinion.

    As it turned out, we arrived at the harbor in Monterosso just as a Memorial service to recognize the landslide was getting ready to begin. Having been to numerous memorials at home for 9/11, I recognized the intent of the ceremony even though we couldn't really follow the service itself. We watched at a respectful distance for awhile, then moved on into town.

    We stopped for a few minutes in a plaza in old Monterosso to watch some children sliding down a large blow up Winnie the Pooh slide. Spotting a water fountain, I decided to fill up the extra bottle I brought from home and we moved on to do some more window shopping and look for gelato. The stores here have beautiful things and seem to be pricier than in Vernazza, but fun to browse. Found a gelateria called Gelatorosso (I think). Momma's first ever gelato - pistachio! It was quite good, as was my amareno.

    We found a bar back on the piaza near the harbor to get a coffee and sit, and somewhere in all this Momma had decided that we should walk back to Vernazza on the trail. The boat driver had told her that it was a 1-1/2 hour walk, so she somehow convinced me we should go. We set off immediately, as it was near 16:00 and I didn't want us to be on the trail when the sun went down.

    I'll just say that there are really pretty views from the trail, and we met some lovely and fun people, but folks - think carefully before you do this. It was closer to three hours and I was praying the whole last hour that the sun would not set. The tangerines and extra water came in very handy and we laughed quite a bit about being gluttons for punishment, but we made it and Momma was pretty exhilarated that she did. I was just grateful thatnothing other than really sore muscles happened - my sisters would not be pleased if I let our mother fall off a hillside in Italy!

    We eventually made it to Da Sandro for dinner, just past the train station. Momma observed that most Italians seem pretty reserved when you first come in the door, but by the end of the meal they're generally warmed up to you. This seemed to be true at Da Sandro. We split a Caprese salad, an order of trofie in pesto, and an order of a local specialty baked with anchovies, potatos and tomatos. The pesto was so light and fresh - a thousand times better than what we get at home. We followed up with the last slice of the restaurant's chocolate and raspberry cake, which I did not regret. All in all, with a bottle of wine, it came to about 36 euro.

    We seem to be thriving on stress for this holiday, but we're determined to start taking it easy soon!

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    Thanks annhig and TDudette! My mom is the cutest woman that I've ever met, but poor thing - I think she's still a little worn out from that hike. But this is where the beauty of independent travel kicks in... We'll just adjust our plans. Will try to post again later today, but have to go look at train schedules now. Ciao!

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    Day 3:

    To make up for the go-go pace of the last few days, we decided to take things a bit easier today.

    Having decided that Il Pirata was now our neighborhood regular bar, we wandered over for our morning breakfast and were greeted warmly by Massimo and his team. Momma had another of her now favorite walnut cornetto and we added an apple pastry and a plain cornetto to the mix. With 2 glasses of oj and 2 cappucinos, it came to 17 euros.

    Deciding to go the other direction today, we hopped on the train to Manarola. One of the waitresses from Il Pirata was on our train and she made sure we hopped off again at the right place. We popped into the local coop so Mom could get some water and I coud get a small package of Pocket Coffee (I have an inordinate fondness for this espresso filled chocolate that you just can't get in the US - and I've looked!) we walked up the main roadl a short ways to view the terraced hills and then decided that we should generally stick to either flat or downward heading places today.

    Got a little shopping in and ended up in Piazza Capellini overlooking the harbor side of town. The floor of the center of the piazza features a large mosaic/painting featuring several large gulls and many species of fish - I'm guessing all delicacies that they pull out of the local waters. On the hillside up above is one of the more interesting and colorful nativity displays I've ever seen (featuring dolphins, sharks and a few mermaids, along with the Baby Jesus).

    Ristorante di Aristide is right there in the piazza, so we decided to stop for lunch. Momma tried the ravioli and I had the mussels, clams and shrimp - both were very good. The shrimp in particular were quite tasty! We also ordered a side of grilled vegies and I had a glass of white wine (I'm on vacation after all). It was about 35 euro total.

    With full tummies, we strolled down to the marina. No beaches here, but beautiful deep harbors and a path that leads out around the point - I'm guessing the start of the path that leads to Vernazza. Neither of us were up for part 2 of walking to Vernazza, so we just strolled out far enough to get some lovely pictures of the town and then came back. The water was such lovely shades of blue and green, it would be almost tempting to jump in, but we satisfied ourselves with sitting where we could soak up the sunshine and sea breezes. As a few trainloads of tourists seemed to be just rolling into the harbor, we decided it was time to head back to Vernazza.

    Once back to "our" town, we ambled down to see if the fruit store might be open. It wasn't, so the only logical solution was to keep walking to Gelateria il Porticciolo on the harbor. This is reputed to be the best gelato in Vernazza and I can see why. I was disappointed that they were all out of cannella, but my nocciola and Mom's amareno made us very happy. We checked out a few places to see if we wanted to make a reservation for dinner, but by the time we looked at everyone's menus, they were all closed up, so we decided we would take our chances and if nothing else worked out, we would just stop at the excellent smelling pizzaria at the end of the harbor.

    After a well deserved rest back at the apartment (and perhaps a 15 minute nap in there somewhere), we finally decided to just pop back over to Il Pirata for dinner since it was so close. What a great decision! Sure, we didn't have the awesome views of the harbor, but the food was amazing and we enjoyed the time with folks we had come to know after the last few days.

    We finally had the opportunity to order the anchovies in lemon and oil - this is nothing like what we think of in the states as anchovies. They have such a delicate, buttery flavor, you simply have to try them. Mom had the local version of eggplant parmesian, which she claims was cooked exactly the way she likes it (she thinks that too many places undercook the eggplant). Not ready to leave the Ligurian pesto behind just yet, I ordered the gnocci with pesto and we split a vegie salad (more eggplant!), a half liter of house white wine and a bottle of still water (all which came to a total of 55 euro). Unfortunately, we didn't have room for the homemade Pannicotta. Oh well. I guess we'll just have to come back someday!

    The sights and the food today were particularly spectacular, but honestly, the best part of the day was the opportunity to walk arm in arm with my Momma through these charming towns and hearing her talk about her life and experience as a mother and as a woman. This is what I really brought her here to do, and I have not been disappointed.

    Buonanotte and tomorrow - on to Firenze!

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    Thanks, Everyone. We're really enjoying our time together and writing it all down like this makes me feel like I can hold onto it for even longer!

    Day 4:

    Today was the first day that we actually set the alarm, as we were supposed to be checked out and on our way by 10am. We were second day post hike, so the soreness really set in and we made a decision to just go on through to Florence today and possibly use one of our Florence days for a day trip back to Pisa (Momma really wants to see that tower - she says she thinks it must be a sin to come all this way and not see it.)

    We finally met Annamaria today - the owner of the apartment. She and both of her daughters are as delightful as you would hope for. We had a very happy stay here and were pleased with how clean, comfortable and bright the room was. The beds were very comfortable and the shower had good water pressure - I would recommend these rooms to anyone, as long as you don't mind not having an ocean view. There was a moment of dismay when the wifi was not working well enough to get any of our credit or debit cards to process, but luckily there was a bank across the street where our debit cards worked just fine, so it all worked out. But be warned that the internet is still a little iffy in Vernazza, so just come with options.

    Speaking of, my Momma had read up on the landslide that occured in 2011, so she and Annamaria had quite a chat about what it was like for them. It was both inspirational and heartbreaking to hear all that the town, and others nearby went through and all that they continue to go through in putting the town back together. Made me glad we visited, if only to add our little show of economic support for the region.

    We popped over to say good by to Massimo and the gang at Il Pirata, with one last coffee and cornetto order to go. Then up to the train station and off we went. We had to take three trains (all Regionale) from Vernazza to La Spezia, then to Pisa Centrale, then to Firenze SMN. Hint for novice train travelers, if you use the restrooms in the train stations, be prepared to pay anywhere from 60 cents to 1 euro for the privilege.

    In the category of "it's a small world", as we were getting off the train from La Spezia arriving in Pisa, an American couple got off at the same spot and overheard me talking to Momma as I checked the board for the location of the next train to Florence. The husband said, since I spoke English and seemed to know where I was going, they would just follow us. As we chatted, we realized that we were all at Il Pirata at the same time for dinner the night before. It was fun chatting about their travels while we sped towards Firenze. I think I'm getting Momma hooked on train travel (when there aren't any strikes, anyways!)

    Upon arrival in Florence, I found a pay phone to call our B&B to see if we could check in early (and was fascinated to find that you can email and text from a pay "phone" in Florence - this is brilliant!) we're staying at a little place outside of the city center, called B&B Leonardo da Vinci. I found this place on Air BnB two years ago, and though it is not a fancy place, it is very homey and the owner is so sweet, I was looking forward to going back for another stay. In retrospect, it might have been worth thinking of staying somewhere a little closer to town and with a balcony of some sort to make things more comfortable and easy for Momma, but Carla, the owner, and her family are so friendly and kind, and overall it's a really good value, so I think it's working out okay. And Florence has a really good bus system, so...

    Once we got all caught up on the latest news with Carla, and got our things settled in and unpacked, we decided we should head out for a little snack and some sightseeing. We strolled down to the Piazza San Marco (which I am inordinately fond of for some reason) and popped in at Pugi. This is the most incredible little foccacia place that I've been to anywhere and I've been dreaming of their goodies for two years. Momma got a slice of an anchovy and caper pizza and I got a large piece of foccacia - that first bite drizzled with golden olive oil was everything I remembered - such heaven!

    After all that sitting on the train, we thought it wouldn't hurt us to stroll a little further, so I pointed us in the direction of the Santa Maria del Fiore. We chatted and looked in store windows and I almost forgot where we were headed until Momma looked up and gasped "oh my stars!" her first sight of the basilica and, as we got closer, the dome. "Oh my stars!" That seemed to be all she could say, which will not surprise my sisters in the least. My heart was singing - Florence is one of my absolute favorite places, because it often leaves me speechless, and my city was having the exact effect that I hoped it would on Momma. There is something about the Duomo in the moonlight that seems to cast a spell.

    Unfortunately, the baptistry is undergoing renovations, and you can only see a vague picture on the outside covering of what it looks like, but the doors are uncovered, so she at least got a view of that. After promising to bring her back in the daytime, we decided we should start back. I'm not sure if it is to my delight or dismay, but we came upon the new Eataly location in Florence. Thrilled that we got to pop in at this fun store, as I know we won't have time to go to the one in Rome, but I don't know - kinda makes me sad to see something so modern and commercial go in here. But Momma was able to get some fun chocolates for her hubby and a bag of Tarallini crackers for us, similar to the ones we enjoyed from our flight.

    After dropping our packages at the B&B, we walked another block and a half to Edi House for dinner. This is a local place that is largely frequented by residents of the local neighborhood (around the Piazza Savanorola area). I enjoyed it last time I was here and we enjoyed it again this time. Momma had a risotto chicken curry type dish and I had a pumpkin and cheese risoto dish, we split an order of bruschetta, a salad with vegies and fruit (which sounds odd, but was quite good), a half liter of wine and bottle of still water for a total of 42,80 Euro. This is not fancy food, but is a solid meal that put a smile on our face before heading home and hitting the sack after another long but glorious day.

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    Rose - your B&B looks delightful, and i love the pictures of the breakfast on their website.

    BTW, did you see that they do dinner too? some of the dishes look very good, and typically florentine. Are you planning to eat in one night?

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    I have to admit to a teary eye reading about this lovely trip with your Momma. I lost mine a couple of years ago and miss the trips with her - and the wonderful chats about life and love and all the possibilities of both.

    Very much looking forward to more . . .

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    Hi annhig - yes! We cooked with Carla and her charming daughter Elisabetta last night and had dinner with the family and one other guest last night. I'll be sure to write all about it.

    LC - thank you... My heart goes out to you. Last year my Momma caught a bad bronchitis and though, in the overall scheme of life, it wasn't that bad - it did shake me up. It lit a fire under me and made me plan this trip so we could share this time and I wouldn't have regrets later. I'm so grateful for this trip.

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    rose, we are taking my mom to Europe in the spring and your report is making me look forward to it even more, and I love Italy.

    LCBoniti, I'm so happy you were able to take trips with your mom and have those wonderful memories with her...big hugs to you.

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    I really enjoy this community - thanks for being so encouraging of me and other members of the community!

    Day 5:

    Woke up to a beautiful day in Florence! Today we were the only ones at the B&B, so we chatted with Carla about our plans for the day while amply breakfasting on hard boiled eggs, fruit, danish, orange juice and good hot coffee. There was also yogurt and bread with jam or nutella available, if we had wanted them. Certainly plenty to start the day off right.

    We took the bus back to the train station and popped over to the the tourist information office to purchase Firenze cards. They are 72 Euro a piece now, but it covers a few more places than when I was last here. You also get unlimited bus fare and free public wifi for 72 hours. The wifi is kind of iffy - some places you can get it, some places you can't. But just the ability to go into the museums without reserving or standing in line makes it worth it to me. And we're getting alot of use from the bus system - makes things a little easier for Momma, not to have to walk so much.

    The Basilica & Museum of Santa Maria Novella is right there, so we started there. We went through pretty much the entire museum. I really enjoyed it, especially the area where they have the vestiments that the priests used to wear - these hand embroidered garments were incredible. There was also a restoration of a painting happening in that room - fascinating to watch this young woman work, mixing paints, standing back to look at the painting, taking pictures as she went along. Momma couldn't get over the amazing responsibility that must be felt doing this work.

    My favorite part of this site, though, was the church. Really as beautiful as everyone says. I fell in love with Vasari's Madonna of the Rosary - it brought tears to my eyes. Even though I'm not Catholic, I lit a candle for a friend who was undergoing surgery for colon cancer later that day. I figured it couldn't hurt.

    We made a half hearted attempt to find the old SMN Pharmacy, but we were hungry and gave up in exchange for heading to the Mercado Centrale on the way. Momma bought a snazzy scarf from a little shop on the street for 5 Euro, as it was a tiny bit chilly. Since I last was here, the second floor of the Mercado has been transformed into the biggest food court I've ever seen. I showed Momma around the downstairs of the market and then we headed up to see if there was anything up there we wanted. We ended up getting a couple of bowls of vegetable bean soup and Momma got a small bruschetta with ham shavings and cheese as well. I planned to pick up a porchetta sandwich from Pork's downstairs on our way out, but the soup was bigger than I originally thought, so I settled for that and an espresso. The soup was more beans than vegetables, but it was good.

    Next, we walked past the Medici Chapel - I would have liked to go in, but we were there too late and it was closed. Instead, we kept walking down, back to the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral. We went in to see the inside of the dome (though neither of us were up for all the stairs to the viewing levels. We satisfied ourselves looking up from ground level). We also walked all around the church outside, so Momma could drink in the beautiful marble and scupltures on the building. Picked up more postcards and decided it was time to indulge in gelato.

    My favorite gelato in all of Florence is Caribe, which is on Via Ricasoli, in between the Duomo and the Academia. We walked over and got due picolo cono - Momma got a berry flavored sorbetto and I splurged on their amazing pistachio, which costs fifty cents more than the other flavors, but was worth every bite! Once every drop was gobbled up, we caught a bus back up home and decided to rest and check in with family before time to get ready for dinner.

    For tonight, we made reservations for Da Tito's - a traditional restaurant that's just about 7 minutes walk away. There seems to be some debate whether the service is too friendly or not friendly enough or what, but the food seems to get pretty solid reviews, so we decided to give it a shot. We got a 7:30 reservation and showed up just a few minutes before, to see a long line of folks waiting. Since we had a reservation, we were taken immediately to the back room, which seems cosier and more fun.

    We went all out and ordered a bisteca Fiorentino to share, along with a simple salad and a pasta - spaghetti with mushrooms - from a very brusque and busy waiter. A somewhat more pleasant waiter came and opened a bottle of the house chianti for us and then an even nicer waitress brought us a plate of cheese and olives on the house. When they brought the steak, I thought Momma was going to fall over in her chair - it was that big! But it was one of the most amazing pieces of steak that I've ever eaten. Be warned, you must like it fairly rare - they will not cook it longer (there's actually a sign that states this in no uncertain terms). Luckily, I like my steak pretty red, so we were very happy with everything. The pasta was perhaps a little dry, but nothing a drizzle of olive oil didn't fix. (70 Euro total tonight).

    The walk back served us well, as it helped to settle our exceptionally full stomachs (and also allowed us to window shop at a darling clothing company on Via de Matteotti.Very cute sweaters and fun sweatshirts - we took a picture of one for my sister that said "Need More Sleep", because she always does.)

    We had decided that we would attempt a short day trip to Pisa on the next day, so we hit the sack early to help get an early start (at least early for us!)

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    Oh gosh - can't believe I forgot this, but we also went to the Academia after the gelato to see Michelangelo's David! I walked Momma into the main hallway with her back turned and then made her close her eyes until I turned her around, so she could get a good first look at him. I am still amazed by the detail of this sculpture and how lifelike it is. We spent a little time looking at some of the other things in the gallery, but focused mainly on David. What a guy!

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    Fodors is indeed a lovely, supportive community. Thank you for your kind comments and thoughts.

    How could you forget David?!! Must have been that huge steak. :) Sounds perfect to me.

    I'm interested to hear what your Momma thinks of Pisa. I actually enjoyed the town very much.

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    Hi all - Things came to a little bit of a stop... I caught a bad cold and haven't really had the ability to concentrate long enough to post. We're taking the day off to rest in the countryside, so I'm feeling better and will try to get back on track.

    LC - Momma loved Pisa and only wished we had more time there...

    Day 6:

    Today is Pisa and cooking!

    So that we don't commit a sin in Momma's eyes, we head back to the train station for a day trip to Pisa, which is really a half day trip, because we have a cooking lesson tonight and need to be back by 4:00 pm. Truthfully, I've never much had the urge to see Pisa - Lucca perhaps, but not Pisa. Maybe too many bad jokes about Pisans and the tower? But it's the one thing that Momma has really lobbied for, so we're gonna make it happen.

    We take a quick trip through the train station in Pisa to use the restroom and walk past a McDonald's - which sells beer, by the way. We're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We quickly procure a city map and bus tickets and head directly for the Field of Miracles. We arrive just outside the wall and after extracting Momma from the vendors selling purses and such, we enter the field.

    Wow... it really is beautiful. The baptistry and the cathedral in particular - really amazing details. Of course, it was fun to see the tower and take silly pictures for my sisters, but I personally felt like the cathedral was the real showstopper. I wished we had time to go get tickets and go inside, but we were a little hungry and had to make an early train back to Florence, so not this time.

    Knowing we have to be back in Florence by 4:00, we pull ourselves away and start down Via Santa Maria, keeping an eye out for pizza a taglio or something that we can pick up and eat as we walk. At first, we find only very touristy looking restaurants, but as we meander down some side streets, heading for the Ponte di Mezzo, there are some cute shops and I think we pass a gelateria that I've read about, but we're on the hunt for something a little more substantial right now. We eventually find a little pizza shop just before the river, as we get a few pieces - we both choose a cappriciosso, and Mom gets a slice of vegie and I get a slice of prosciutto. The first slice is heavenly and hot, but by the time we get to the second, it's cooled off and not quite as good - could have probably stopped at one slice, but oh well. We're on vacation, right?

    We stop on the Ponte di Mezzo and take in the beautiful river Arno. It's peaceful and restful, but we have a train to catch, so off we go. We take the Corso Italia back towards the station - there are some lovely, higher end stores on this street and we snap some pictures for my fashion loving Auntie. Once back on the train, we agree that a couple of hours really isn't enough and would recommend more time for a visit to Pisa. At the Florence SMN station, we grab a quick coffee and then head towards "home".

    We're scheduled for a cooking class with Carla and her daughter Elisabetta tonight. It was really nice to see Elisabetta again - she visited parts of the US earlier this year, so she told us about her travels in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. The menu for the night was traditional Tuscan farm cooking - Crostini Toscana for a starter, Bread Soup for a Primi, and Guinea Fowl for a main. The Bread Soup is what many think of as Ribollita, but Carla said that on the day you cook it, it's just bread soup - it becomes Ribollita the second day after you re-heat it.

    Elisabetta poured us a glass of white wine and we got started. First we got the soup on the stove, as it needs to cook for several hours. The main ingedients are cabbage, cannilini beans and Tuscan bread, but there is also celery, carrots, red onion and potatoes thrown in there. Carla uses both black cabbage and a white cabbage that looked a little like Napa cabbage, plus a couple of small handfuls of chard for taste. We were introduced to a mezzaluna, which I've seen at William Sonoma, but had never seen in actual use - Mom was amazed at what a handy tool it is (so now I know what to get her for Christmas!) We also learned - butta, butta, butta (in the old times, when certain things were disposed of by throwing them out the window, you were supposed to yell "butta" three times, so people below would know to get out of the way.)

    Next up was the crostini - chicken liver and red onion chopped up finely and cooked in lots of butter and olive oil to make a pate-like topping for our crostini. While we were working, Elisabetta whipped us up a little bite to have with our wine - something her grandmother used to make as an after school snack for her and her brother. She took slices of Tuscan bread, rubbed them all over with tomato, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkle of salt, chopped up the remaining bits of tomato for the topping and there you have it - simple, but so tasty!

    For the guinea fowl, Carla rubbed leaves of sage in a salt and pepper mixture and stuffed the sage and some small pieces of guanciale (pig cheek) under the skin of the bird pieces. It went into a large pan on the stovetop with olive oil, more sage and salt and some white wine. After about 40 minutes, we poured in a spoonful of tomato paste diluted with water and a bottle of tuscan olives and let heat through.

    Now it was time to build the soup in the soup bowl. We layered thin slices of Tuscan bread in the bottom of the bowl and then ladeled about a third of the soup in. Another layer of bread, and so on until all the soup was in the tureen. Then, drizzled a lot of olive oil on top and we were ready to sit down and eat.

    Different wines with every course, plus a cheese course and some lovely cookies that were in season to celebrate the upcoming holidays - we were stuffed! But it was so much fun to laugh with Elisabetta and Carla while we cooked and to get the history of Florence and Siena from Carla's son (who, being a Florentine, had a decidedly one sided perspective) and the other guest at the B&B (a gentleman from Umbria, in town for a training class for work). We ended the evening with a little drop of a homemade walnut liquore, given to the family by a friend. That was some strong stuff and they weren't kidding when they claimed that it would make you sleep well. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow and didn't awake again until about 8:00 the next morning!

    I definitely recommend having a home cooked meal in Florence if you ever have the chance!

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    sounds absolutely delicious, rose. I was lucky enough to "help" a family cook dinner in Tuscany once and it was so much fun.

    Do you think that you will be copying any of those dishes when you get home? I still make the bread and tomato appetiser, but haven't tried octopus salad yet!

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    Your cooking school sounded exquisite.

    DH and I really like Pisa and made it a base one time. As you say, away from the Tower, it's a lovely place to visit. I'm very sorry you missed the Duomo--much great art and history therein.

    More, please, very soon! Oh, do you have a link for Elisabetta?

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    Hi Ann - I think we will.. We already made the tomato and bread appetizer at our place in Tuscany and I took copious notes. I think Momma is looking forward to cooking the soup for her husband and some friends!

    TDudette - it's not a cooking school so much as a B&B where you can ask for a cooking lesson. The website for the B&B is http://www.bandbleonardodavinci.com/. The owners name is Carla and her daughter Elisabetta helps her with the cooking lesson. It's a very homey, comfortable place... Nothing at all fancy about it, but the people are so lovely that I am comfortable there.

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    rose - I have bmked the pensione where you stayed. You never know when you'll need the name of a good B&B in Florence! BTW, the one I stayed at near Santa Croce didn't give cookery lessons, but the owner did take people in tours of the nearby San Ambroglio market which was a lot of fun.

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    Totally agree about Pisa after dark. Plus lots of university students so it has a very young feel - at least in the neighborhood where we stayed.

    And also agree with a cooking class in Florence. We did a pasta making class and it was a highlight of many highlights for us. :)

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    Day 7:

    After a really good food and walnut liquore induced sleep, we woke a bit earlier so that we could get a good start over to the Uffizi. We took a regular bus in to the train station and then crossed the street and hopped on one of those cute little electric buses. This has been one of the benefits of the Firenze card - unlimited bus use and easy entry into the museums with no reservations needed and no waiting in lines.

    We walked around the inner courtyard of the museum first and checked out the statues of many historic figures - Dante, Machievelli, Amerigo Gespucci, Galileo, and others. I opted to rent an audio guide, thinking that Momma would like to know a little about what we were seeing, which she did, but not by listening herself. She preferred for me to listen and then give her the highlights. But I love listening to all the fascinating little details, so this worked well for us. Having been to the Uffizi before, I knew that it would be way more than we would be up for seeing, so we chose between 4 to 6 rooms per floor that we really wanted to focus on and set off. I adore the Botticelli room and always spend the most time there. Momma really liked the room with the portraits of the Medici family members and the few Caravaggio and Caravaggio-like paintings.

    Since we hadn't had lunch, we stopped at the second floor cafe and "splurged" on table service - ordering a few sandwiches and coffees to perk us up. Made friends with lots of little (very cheeky) birds, who fly right on to the table and would eat the sandwich off your plate if you gave them half a chance. But the view was lovely and we laughed alot, so it was definitely worth the slightly higher prices to get table service. As I kind of expected, we were starting to fade a bit, so the number of rooms we spend more than a passing glance in was a little fewer than upstairs.

    Next, we strolled over to the Ponte Vecchio and oggled all the pretty jewelry, and then headed up towards the Pitti Palace and oggled all the pretty shoes and bags and clothes as we made our way up. By the time that we finally arrived, we only had time to either see the gardens or one of the museums, so we decided on the Costume Museum. But this is where things took a wrong turn. We asked for directions and were pointed to the stairs, rather than the elevator (which we did not know existed). After what felt like about 4 or 5 flights of stairs, we were still nowhere near the museum, so we stopped and settled on the Palantine Apartments. Which were interesting in a way, but not what we were really most interested in seeing. So, as it always seems to be for me, the Pitti Palace, despite my best effort, continues to just feel like a mistake for me. Just not my thing. And then, of course, on the way out, we saw the sign pointing towards the lift. Oh well.

    So there was, of course, only one thing to do to make up for our disappointment and exhaustion. Gelato. We jumped on a little bus-let and headed back to Caribe for some ciocolatti and pera for me and tiramisu for Momma (she's not into mixing her flavors).

    We nursed ourselves with a little R&R back at "home" before making plans for dinner. to our delight, Carla asked if we would be interested in staying in again for dinner, so we could taste our soup as actual Ribolita - and of course we were delighted to, considering that we would need to pack up and get an early night's sleep in advance of our departure in the morning. It really had soaked up all the flavors and was even more tasty as Ribolita, than it had been as Bread Soup! Along with some various nibbles, like the remainder of the Crostini Toscana and Cannelini beans in a tomato based sauce, it was a very satisfying meal and was a great way to end our time in Florence.

    A few notes on the B&B Leonardo Da Vinci - I adore Carla and her daughter Elisabetta, and that is enough to make me want to stay there. The breakfasts are plentiful and good, the rooms clean and comfortable, and the cooking lesson and hospitality were amazing. Carla supplied us with bottles of water every day and we wanted for nothing. The room we stayed in had a double bed and a single bed, which was slightly on the hard side, but fine. The en suite bathroom was nice to have, however, it included a claw foot tub with just a spray attachment - no actual shower. So it was a bit interesting to navigate the washing of the hair. But overall, we enjoyed our stay there, and the quiet neighborhood where it is located.

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    Day 8:

    Time to say ciao to my beloved Florence... there was so much more we would have liked to do, but it was time to move on to the country. After final hugs and arrivederla's with Carla, we took the bus to the tramvia out to Sansovino to pick up a car. I had booked through Kemwel and we were to pick up the car at the Hertz office, just on the other side of the river on the outskirts of town.

    I made a snap decision to rent a GPS - luckily they had one available. (We ended up having a love/hate relationship with him, but all in all, it was a good decision). The first car we were given had a broken cover for the trunk area, and knowing we would be making some stops and wanted that area adequately covered, I notified the Hertz guy and he ended up giving us a different (and slightly bigger) car. It was certainly bigger than the Fiat 500 I drive at home, but it ended up being a tad more comfortable for Momma, which was going to come in very handy.

    We programmed the GPS (whom we ended up referring to as "the guy") with the directions to our first stop - Greve in Chianti. Luckily the route he took us was the same route I took a few years ago or Momma would not have believed that it was the right way. Getting out of Florence down these tiny little streets where you have to back up or pull into someone's front drive if another car meets you coming the opposite direction. She kicked herself for not taking video of that street later!

    We joked about having now been in planes, trains and automobiles (not to mention a boat and a tram) and enjoyed the gorgeous drive to Greve. We quickly found a little parking strip and walked a block looking for a restroom. We found a lovely little place called Caffe S. Anna. It was incredibly cute and boasted free wifi, so we decided to grab some lunch. We were looking in the deli case and thinking we would get just some heated up slices of pizza when the proprietor (I think) led us to a table and offered us menus - score! Momma had an anchovy and capers pizza (she's hooked on anchovies now!) and I had pasta - both were so much better than we had originally expected. Highly recommend this little place!

    We then trotted off to Piazza Matteoti - found the amazing butcher shop, Antica Macelleria Falorni, and between that and the wine shop across the piazza, we loaded up on some staples (wine, sausage, cheese, liver pate for Crostini Toscana, cookies and more wine) - which ended up being a very good decision later! There are some very cute shops here, but we were at the hour when most things were closed, so we decided to push on to Castellina and a gellateria I had read about.

    So this was the first of our disagreements with "the guy". I put in the address for the gelateria, but apparently he did not agree and led us through and past Castellina before I realized what had occurred. The clock was ticking on into the afternoon, so I decided that gelato would have to wait til another day and we would need to push on to our farm house, so we wouldn't arrive in the dark. I punched in the coordinates and off we went.

    We saw a little frutta e verdura shop as we went through one of the towns, so decided to stop and add some oranges, apples, grapes and tomatoes to our stock, in case we didn't get to our place in time to hunt for these things. As Momma waited in line to pay, an older gentleman (the husband of the woman running the register?) announced that he spoke English. I asked if there was a place nearby to get bread and he took me by the arm and ushered me out of the shop and across the street. He asked where I was from and when I answered he smiled widely and told me that he smokes American cigarettes!

    After our purchases were made, we pushed off again. And this is where it really went off the rails. Apparently, the coordinates to the place we were staying, don't really work if you try to get there from this part of Chianti. You have to go down to the main highway going through Siena and then in takes you there. And in the back of my mind somewhere, I know I had read this already, but in my haste, I neglected to follow instructions. So we ended up at a Podere, but not the right one. Not even close - it was probably a good hour away from where we were supposed to be. And it was now about 4:45 and the sun was seriously on it's downward trend.

    I reprogrammed the guy to take us to Siena and we got there just as the sun dipped below the horizon and the street lights came on. For some reason, the guy saw fit to lead us up and through Siena, instead of around it, plus we were now caught in rush hour traffic, so by the time we were through Siena and on the way towards Pianella (the Podere we wanted was just 5 minutes or so past there), it was pitch dark. Going down unfamiliar, dark country roads was apparently not Momma's idea of fun, but bless her, she stayed calm while I kept moving forward and eventually and joyfully we found the Podere Luchignano Secundo agriturisimo. The driveway was a bit terrifying in the dark, but we made it the last 50 meters and we were there!

    Wanting to get out of the car and kiss the ground, we met Enzo and his son Duccio, who I think were just as glad that we had finally arrived as we were. They helped us unload and then showed us around the apartment and demonstrated how the kitchen appliances and such work. Once we settled things up with them and confirmed our Sunday evening cooking class, they were off and we hungrily assembled our picnic dinner and several glasses of wine!

    It was too dark to see anything outside, but we were thrilled with the inside of the apartment. You know how often you see pictures of places like this and then when you get there, you realize that it's not as nice, big, clean or whatever as the pictures show? Well, this place is better than the pictures. The apartment was quite large and the rooms were beautiful. I had found this place through a Fodor's poster, so I had assurance that it was nice, but it was really quite luxiourious. And Duccio even hunted down a ceramic Halloween pumpkin candle for us (it was Oct 31)!

    Our only issue was that they hadn't turned the heat on yet, thinking to save us some money, as they felt it was still pretty warm out. In the end, it would have taken a few days to get the place heated up, so we settled for extra comforters on the beds and bundling up in blankets or sitting in the kitchen where the oven kept things warmer at night.

    So we were happy to have arrived and that we had some food to get us through the night. And then I started to sneeze and cough.

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    So sorry I disappeared… when we got home I was thrust into a million projects at work, but am bound and determined to finish this report, so here we go…

    Day 9:
    Morning came and I found Momma outside at a little white cast iron table near our front door. She turned to me with the sunniest smile I’ve ever seen. Walking out into the sunshine to get the full view of the place all at once - spectacular! And really just about worth arriving in the pitch dark. We were the only ones there at the moment, so we walked all over the property and drank in the beauty. It really is an amazingly gorgeous place. There are three different outdoor seating areas of different sizes and views, so even when there are people staying in the other apartment, there’s plenty of room for everyone to enjoy. We both felt incredibly fortunate to have found this little paradise.

    We took our time, assembling a make-shift breakfast of fruit and cookies and ate out in the sunshine, trying to count the number of colors of green there were in the surrounding hillsides. The apartment came complete with a Nespresso machine, which I quickly become addicted to (I’ve since purchased one for myself at home and I can’t remember ever making a purchase that I’ve enjoyed more).

    As the morning wore on, it became obvious that I had picked up a rather severe cold, which in and of itself is not the worst thing in the world. But as a lifelong sufferer of asthma, I’ve learned to pay attention to such things and not let them get out of control. So we decided to stay relatively close and maybe just pop into Siena for a bit. By the time we got there, it was pretty late in the afternoon and parking was almost impossible to find. We finally found a metered spot and wandered into town, looking for an open restaurant. We found a little bar and ordered a couple of sandwiches - nothing fancy, but hit the spot. Unfortunately, the search for parking had put us into the middle of the day and nothing was really open and we were still in need of finding a grocery store before it got too late in the day.

    So we got back in the car and with a little luck found the Pam grocery store in the Piazzale Roselli and stocked up on everything we would need to hold us for the next several days. Luckily, there was also a pharmacy in the mall next to the Pam and with my broken Italian and trusty phrase book, I was able to convey my symptoms to the pharmacist and left with a supply of antihistamine, cough syrup and vitamin c. I laughed as the pharmacist praised my Italian - I didn’t want to tell her that I was only picking up about every 6th word she uttered! Later on, I was able to translate the packaging on my purchases and discovered that the cough syrup had an extra special ingredient - essence of snail. Not sure if it was more of a potion or a medicine, but in the end it was a really good cough syrup, so no complaints here.

    We made sure to get back to the Podere well before the sun went down and had fun whipping up some pasta (my favorite Pici with a tomato base sauce) and some grilled and marinated eggplant, along with Elisabetta’s simple tomato crostini for dinner. Though we didn’t do much and missed most of the historic sights of Siena, it was a simple and welcome entrance into our stay in Tuscany.

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    Day 10

    When we woke up on Sunday morning, it was immediately evident that my cold had gotten worse. Over breakfast we decided that between my cold and Momma being a bit travel-weary, we should just spend the day soaking up the Tuscan sunshine and resting before our cooking lesson that night.

    It was tempting to just push through and keep going in order to see more of the lovely towns of Tuscany, but in a sense, I was glad for the opportunity to relax and soak in the beauty and the atmosphere surrounding us at the Podere. We had all we could want and literally lounged around outside, reading, napping in the sun and just enjoying the view.

    At about 4:00, Enzo and his sons Duccio and Max showed up to start prepping things for the cooking class. This was a very different experience from the cooking demo and dinner in Florence, both in menu and in style. It was a little more hands on and yet fancier than the family style meal at Carla’s. We would help to prepare a course and then be seated at a candlelit, white clothed table to be served the course with the appropriate wine, and Italian opera playing on the stereo.

    The meal started with some nibbles of goat cheese with spices and a glass of sparkling rose wine. We prepped a lemon sorbetto and popped it in the freezer to - well, freeze - before moving on to a traditional bruschetta, with more of the sparkling wine. We then prepared the Malfatti - a spinach and ricotta hand made pasta served in a sage and butter sauce, that looks more like meatballs than pasta, but is delicately rich and tasty. Served with a lovely white vernaccia, it was simple, yet amazing and a little went a long way. Next up was their version of Saltimboca - “jumps in the mouth” - and it did! This time with a red wine. And on top of the cold, I was now seriously fighting drooping eyelids.

    Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the lemon sorbetto had not completely firmed up, so Max (the most fluent English speaker) talked us through how to finish preparing it so that we could enjoy it the next day. Of course, there was a ton of leftover food, so the guys packed it all into the fridge, washed up and put the kitchen back in order - what could be better! The guys were really great - a lot of fun (I just wish I hadn’t had the cold this particular day). It was a lovely experience and a fabulous meal - in fact, Momma wants to put the Malfatti on the menu for Christmas dinner this year.

    As soon as the guys said good bye it was a hot shower and bed for me - what a day!

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    I'm so glad you liked the Podere. We liked it a lot but people's tastes are different so you just never know for sure. I know it's crazy but I felt a little responsible for your decision to stay there because of the good things I wrote about the Podere in my report.

    I'm really enjoying your report. It sounds like you had a wonderful experience. Lucky Momma and lucky you for having such a Momma. Good luck with your million projects and I'm looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    YvonneT - yes, they really are! The funny thing was that my Mom ended up "appropriating" the snail syrup because it was just that good.

    John - you are so sweet, but you were 100% right on about the Podere. We were chatting with the group that moved into the upstairs room about how some places don't live up to the hype or photos, but that this place was actually better than the pictures - it was really amazing and I think was the favorite part of the trip for my Momma! So thanks for the recommendation and you can enjoy being responsible for making her incredibly happy. :)

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    I hope you can take a break from your projects to finish this trip report - even if it is just a quick overview of what you did. I'm curious about what your Momma liked so much. Believe me I know how time consuming writing a trip report can be but even a little bit would be great.

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    I am so happy that you came back to continue your lovely trip report!

    Sometimes we need to be forced to slow down and just enjoy the moment - I'm sorry it took a cold to do that for you, but it sounds truly wonderful.

    I do hope you find the time to continue at some point, but I have loved what you have written so far.

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