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Trip Report Orvieto, Tuscany, Florence, Lucca and the Cinque Terre in October

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We just got back from a wonderful two week trip to Italy on October 16. We travelled with another couple, our best friends. I wrote up a narrative of what we did just for us, but decided to turn it into a trip report in case anyone on Fodor's might find it useful. There were sooo many great people on the forum who helped me make this a great trip!

QUINTEROS AND BROWNS ITALIAN ADVENTURE:

Getting there: Lufthansa 2:30 PM out of SFO; connecting flight Frankfurt; arrived in Rome Fiumini at about 2:00. Train from Rome airport to Rome Termini; train to Orvieto. Went up this cool funicular car to get to the top of the city, then the B bus to get to Ripa Medici.

ORVIETO (2 nights):
Ripa Medici Bed and Breakfast (Sabrina): Two bedrooms off a central living room. Incredible views from both BR’s windows. Breakfast can be included if desired and served down the alley in a separate flat. The best coffee of the entire trip and the best rolls and pastries. Sabrina very sympatica and complained about her housewife-y life picking up kids, cooking dinner, etc…reminded Sal of many Italian movies with restless housewives.
When we left Sabrina gave us each a fragrant bar of soap. It was our first experience with Italian hosts, who often gave us small gifts as we left. Very nice tradition.
Dinner at Mezza Luna around the corner the first night. Very filling and tasty spaghetti carbonara.

Day 1: ORVIETO
Duomo: incredible outside and in. An astounding sight from the outside with black and white façade. Side chapel was beautiful. Was disturbing to see some graffiti (“I was here” type) carved into some of the delicate frescos on the side walls.
Mueso Claudio Faini: Etruscan museum with lots of things to see. We cracked up at some scenes of male to male debauchery on some of the Etruscan urns (looked like the Greek urns we were familiar with).
Underground tour: vast network of caves under Orvieto. Only a fraction are open to the public; many are rented to villagers using them as wine cellars. Several caves had holes carved in the sides for pigeon roosts. The pigeons were able to fly in and out at will and were raised for food, mainly.
Dinner was supposed to be at Trattoria del Morre; closed that night. We found Zeppelin instead. Many Americans. Bob ran into a fellow REI guide from Italy, who told us that the Cinque Terre trails were currently closed. Gave us some suggestions for other hiking.
Walk after dinner and first gelato!

Day 2: CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO
Picked up car at Hertz to use in Tuscany. Drove to Civita di Bagnoregio, a little town perched on a hill with a long pedestrian bridge as the main entry into town (the only entry unless you had a Vespa). Small but picturesque town; lots of photo ops. Lunch with crabby server who gradually got friendlier as we raved about the food. This visit to a magical city was one of the highlights of the trip for me. I could have stayed a lot longer.
Drove to Siena afterwards. Missed a right turn and inadvertently ended up driving through an arch and into Siena itself (which is a pedestrian town with narrow lanes, open to permitted vehicles only). Drove around seemingly endlessly trying to find our way out again, like Dante’s circles of Hell or something. Something that is hilarious AFTER it’s over! We used this as the standard for how lost we would get in Tuscany (that was an “x F-word drive”).

TUSCANY (5 nights):
After the hellish drive through Siena finally found Frances Lodge….just in time for a reward of a glorious sunset.
Got lost AGAIN trying to find the restaurant Frances recommended. Ended up at a random restaurant where Susan ordered a pizza. It came uncut, which we thought was a mistake. She asked for it to be cut, and the waiter brought her a knife and fork. Thinking he didn’t understand, she motioned again for it to be cut with a pizza cutter. The waiter came over and VERY ANGRILY cut the pizza with the knife and fork. How were we to know that Italian pizzas are served whole? He left muttering about stupid Americans, I think. We’ve laughed about this ever since.
Frances Lodge (Franco and Frances): Main house had been in Franco’s family for centuries. They both had jobs in Florence with a rented apartment and got weary of the stressful life. Instead, upgraded the house and created bedrooms out of the barn wing of the property. Large beautiful rooms. Our first experience of having to leave the magnetic room card in a slot in the wall for the electricity to work. Sal tried to enter room using his bus pass. Wonderful hearty breakfast; you could select what you wanted and leave the menu outside the door each night. I had done quite a bit of planning for what to see in Tuscany, but they gave us paper maps with itineraries outlined that included much of what I had already thought of, plus some nice surprises. Having personalized maps and directions/suggestions was invaluable.

Day 3: SIENA
All day in Siena. Parked at San Francisco area and took FIVE escalators to the top to get into the city. Saw the Duomo (beautiful floor was uncovered), baptistery, Museo Opera. Hung out at the Campo plaza for quite awhile just people-watching. Everyone hangs out just sitting on the brick surface.
Dinner at Battanovero (sp?) the restaurant we missed the night before. Giggling about “herpes” (herb) and “fowl” sauces.
Found this giant toad just hanging out on the steps into the lodge. He was not to be moved…I went back to the room to get camera and he was still there waiting for his pic. Funny that he was there again the next night. Guess he has his little spot all picked out.

Day 4: MONTERRIGIONI, COLLE DI VAL D’ELSA, VOLTERRA, SAN GIMIGNANO
Monterrigioni: small medieval hill town. Walked on the mura (walls).
Colle di Val D’Elsa: saw the church. Went into the crypt and found Jesus sculpture lying in glass coffin-like enclosure. Recordings of monks chanting (we heard the real thing later.
Volterra: Took a tour of the Palazzo Viti, a 19th century house still lived in by descendants of the Viti family. Incredible to see this lavish palace-like house that was the scene of several Italian movies. Felt like living history. We spent quite a bit of time walking around and enjoying Volterra.
San Gimignano: We were advised to leave this touristy city to the end of the day as it is so packed with people during the day (especially tour buses). We didn’t get there until after 6:00, so much of the things were shutting down. We did spend some time walking around, but wish we had gotten here earlier in the day, even with the crowds.

Day 5: ABAZZIAS OLIVETO MAGGIORE & SANT ANTIMO, MONTALCINO, PIENZA
Before coming to Tuscany I had read about the two abbeys in the area, wondering which one to visit. We ended up seeing them both and wouldn’ t have wanted to miss either.
Abazzia d’ Oliveto Maggiore: This large abbey is famous for its gorgeous frescoes covering the walls of the cloisters. We were able to view the frescoes for about an hour before one of the monks shooed everyone out so they could have their lunch (it sure smelled great). Don’t know how long the abbey is shut down for lunch, but glad we got there early enough to enjoy the art.
We were approached for the first time by a group wanting us to sign an anti-drug petition, which we did…and of course they then wanted a donation. We had this happen about four more times during our stay. Not sure how legitimate these groups are.
Montalcino: Short visit to this small hill town as we wanted to get to the next abbey in time to hear the monks chanting at about 2:45.
Abazzia d’Sant Antimo: The church is not as spectacular as Oliveto Maggiore; rather spare. The real attraction is the white-robed monks who file in silently and go through their chanting ritual. Made the hair on the back of my neck stand up…so beautiful and affecting. I saw them walking back to their quarters after through a beautiful garden. One of the monks had a rather raffish look about him and couldn’t keep from sort of smirking now and then. I saw some photos of the monks elsewhere…one was hilarious with a bunch of the monks stuffed into a VW bug…three of them with their heads popped through the sun roof. One was the funny monk…with a big grin!
Beautiful views from the site of the abbey. Nearby I found the first of several interesting Italian cemeteries (I do love old cemeteries). This one was mainly walls of crypts with the great ceramic photos of the deceased attached. One impression of Italy is that most people seemed to live to a ripe old age!
Pienza: Since we spent so much time at the abbey and then in the cemetery, we decided to have dinner and walk around Pienza rather than rushing through in order to get to Montepulciano. I regret not getting there, but with the schedule of chanting we had to make a choice. Another group might have pushed ahead, but we wanted to relax and enjoy Pienza, which is a wonderfully atmospheric town.

Day 6: CASTELLO DI BROLIO, RADDA, CASTELLINA IN CHIANTI
Chianti region. I had wanted to visit Radda and Castellina in Chianti. Franco gave us a great itinerary that ended in these two towns.
Castello di Brolio: Home to the Ricasoli family, who still lived in the more modern (but still ancient looking) brick portion of the castle. We took a great tour, learning about Baron Ricasoli , who sounded like quite the renaissance man. He’s credited with “inventing” the Chianti wine. There were some interesting artifacts such as “test” armor (you could see the dents from weapons) and sharkskin sheaths for swords that sharpened the blades as they were taken out.
We also found ourselves in the middle of this humungeous bicycle race (very famous but I forget the name)…thousands of riders on narrow windy roads made the driving challenging and patience wear thin at times.
Ristorante Badia a Coltibueno: We almost didn’t make it into this wonderful restaurant without reservations, as a tour bus slipped in right before we did. Just as I was leaving, a server asked if we wanted a table for four. YES! The restaurant had great food and beautiful ambiance. It was at the site of an old convent. The Abazzia di Coltibuono was interesting, and I even found a statue of the Virgin sporting a neon halo! They had goats in an adjacent field, guarded by a tremendous herding dog.
Radda and Castellina in Chianti: We stopped and wandered around both of these small hill towns before heading back to Siena for dinner at Campagnia dei Vinattieri, a beautiful restaurant with wonderful brick arches.

FLORENCE (3 nights):

Day 7: DUOMO PLAZA, PALAZZO VECCHIO, PONTE VECCHIO
Drove to Florence to drop off the car at the Hertz station at the airport. Another round of Dante’s circle of hell roving around trying to find the rental car dropoff. We’d see this teeny but enticing sign for “Rental Car Dropoff” but the directional arrow was not clear. We kept coming back to the same roundabout, figuring out where we were and then trying a different way until we finally found the darned thing. Took a cab into Florence and arrived at the Duomo plaza to meet our landlord, Luca.
We rented the “Flora” apartment on the fifth floor of a 500 year old building looking eye level at the Duomo. Just unbelievable. Two bedrooms, LR, small kitchen and one bathroom. Very nicely appointed. We made espresso and had croissants and fruit for breakfast each morning. The only drawbacks were: the STAIRS…all 90 of them! This is not for the faint of heart, especially lugging your suitcase up there. Also, the noise from the street below. Random screaming/partying all night long.
In the afternoon we stopped by the tourist office and purchased Florence cards. Expensive but worth it for us to be able to skip the long lines as many of the museums. We visited the Palazzo Vecchio, the historical seat of government of Florence used also as a palace by the Medicis in the 16th century. Beautiful murals and art.
In the evening we walked along the Arno and over the Ponte Vecchio to have dinner overlooking the river. I was rather disappointed in the Ponte Vecchio, which was packed with people and lined on both sides with jewelry stores. I don’t know what I actually expected…maybe I thought it would be enclosed and more atmospheric. It was more interesting later at night when the stores were closed. Many of the doors were ancient, with convoluted locks and straps.
We walked back across another bridge, where I noticed a bunch of small locks attached in groups to the pillars of the bridge. I had read about lover’s locks before coming, but thought they were only at the Via Amore in the Cinque Terre. Found this very cool.

Day 8: UFFIZZI, PITTI PALACE, BOBOLI GARDENS
Uffizzi Gallery all morning. Rented audio guides, the way to really enhance the museum experience. Long corridor with sculptures in a pattern of busts and full body sculptures, then the many rooms of paintings. I remembered Rites of Spring and the Lucas Cranach Adam and Eve paintings from my last visit many years ago.
Hung out for coffee and pastries at Café Rivoire to recover.
Pitti Palace/Boboli Gardens all afternoon. Pitti Palace was incredible. We were actually slightly disappointed in the Boboli Gardens. We knew there would not be many floral plantings due to the season, but other than the wonderful views there really wasn’t much to the gardens. We walked up to the Bardini Gardens, which I had heard were much more interesting, but they were closed already. We took a long walk back to the apartment.
Dinner at Paoli…wonderful 13th century building with arched ceilings, frescoes and ceramic tiles with crests, etc.

Day 9: ACCADEMIA, SAN LORENZO/MAGNIFICI TRE, CAPELLE DI MEDICI, SANTA CROCE
Accademia – there was a line even for Florence Card holders, but it went quickly. When I walked into the hall and saw David for the first time, felt overwhelmed with emotion. The scale is so grand, seeing the statue in person after all the familiar photos makes you realize how the pictures do not do it justice. Seeing the veins in his arms, the proud stance, the way you can enjoy the statue from any angle…just can’t be replicated in a flat photo.
San Lorenzo Church: The church itself was beautiful, but the most fascinating thing to see was the special exhibit in the library, “Magnifici Tre.” It was the tradition for wealthy women to read devotions from their Book of Hours six times a day (guess they didn’t have a lot of other obligations!). Lorenzo di Medici had three daughters, so commissioned a book for each of them. These illustrated manuscripts are gorgeous…the illustrations brilliantly colored and often gilt-edged, giving a jewel-like appearance. I have loved these books since seeing examples at the Huntington Gardens library in San Marino, California, but these were magnificent (everything the Medicis did was on a grand scale, apparently). The three daughters’ books are owned by several different entities, so this exhibit that brings them together for the first time in years is truly remarkable. The exhibition has copies of each of the books so you can turn the pages and also see the bejeweled covers. Also, lots of information about each daughter is presented. Maddalena was apparently his favorite, but he had to consign her to a political marriage to a womanizing boor. Her special book was apparently one way to make amends.
Capelle Medici (Medici Chapel): Another over-the-top Medici effort, this one to house their mortal remains. Rather uninteresting downstairs. Upstairs was a magnificent chapel…marble lined walls with carved monuments to the most important members of the Medici family.
Santa Croce Church: Houses the tombs of Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini and many other notables. I was disappointed as the beautiful stained glass windows behind the main altar were covered by scaffolding, a rather frequent occurrence with churches and historical buildings. Am happy that the artifacts are getting some maintenance, however. We took another audio tour as there was so much to see in this historical church.
Organ Concert, Chiesa St Maria di Ricci (on Via Corso): We had walked by this church earlier and I thought it said 6:30 for the organ concert. Apparently it was at 6, as we got there about 6:20 and heard some nice music in the beautiful candle-lit church until a rather drab-looking man came into the church and up to the altar area. He set up the chalice and several books and then disappeared behind one of the altar doors. He reappeared in vestments…he was the priest, and proceeded to deliver a fiery sermon punctuated by innumerable hand gestures. As it was obviously in Italian we didn’t understand much, but the lack of a large audience didn’t seem to faze the priest one bit (besides the four of us, there was only one Italian woman listening). It was really a fascinating experience.
Dinner at Ristorante Penello. After dinner, we had a last evening walk around Florence, taking lots of pictures of the Duomo. We found a great Balkan/Klezmer band playing at an outdoor café and really enjoyed the free concert. Later I dashed across the street to avoid an oncoming taxi…and ran right into a glass enclosed outdoor seating area for a café. I sure didn’t see the glass and was rather stunned smacking my head directly into the glass at full tilt. Luckily nothing more than a headache and some embarrassment!

Day 10: LUCCA
Giotto’s Bell Tower: I climbed almost to the top by myself while waiting for checking out of the apartment. Was frustrated at being right across from the Duomo and never getting a chance to see inside the Baptistry (it was open later and closed by the time we returned each day) so guess this was to make up for it.
Train to Lucca. The Florence train station was crawling with people (Gypsies, I’ve heard) trying to “help” you navigate buying tickets etc. We were on high alert looking for pickpockets. This was the only time we felt vulnerable on the entire trip. We had brought money belts along and never used them at all, but wished we had just this one time.
Hotel Universo: Mixed feelings about this hotel. It’s very centrally located and reasonable. I loved the slightly time-worn look of it and the breakfast that was included was adequate. The coffee was terrible, however (I later learned we could have ordered cappuchinos) and our shower didn’t drain. One of us took a shower before bed, hoping that by morning the shower would have drained enough for a second shower! They sent a maid to look at it, but it really needed a plumber. This was not a new problem.
Met Garrett Sheehey (sp?), Susan’s colleague who has lived in Lucca for almost two years.
It was pouring…but Garrett showed us the plaza surrounded with high buildings built on the footings of an old Roman amphitheater. It was incredible seeing this large circle of buildings with arched entryways into the plaza. On the outside of the buildings on the other side you could see Roman stones and lintels still in place.
Chiesa San Frediano: this church in Lucca had the most incredible relics I’ve ever seen. The preserved body of Saint Zitae was laid out in a glass enclosure. It is reverered and brought into the center of the church for her saint’s day (as I remember). She was a young girl when she died and was laid out in an intricate lace dress.
Mura: We walked along the walls of Lucca for awhile until the rain forced us inside (we weren’t wearing our rain jackets). We could see that it would have been fun to rent bikes and ride along the walls in better weather.
Ristoranti Bucadisantantonio: Truly this is the best restaurant we had visited in our entire trip (and remained our favorite through the end). The restaurant has been in service since 1782! The service was impeccable and the food scrumptious. I wish I could remember the name of the wine (my friend took a picture of the bottle) as it was the best we tasted the entire trip!
A nice after-dinner walk in the quiet streets rounded off our brief stay in Lucca. It was great to have a personal tour guide in Garret.

CINQUE TERRE (3 nights):

Day 11: RIOMAGGIORE
Train to Viareggio, then to Riomaggiore. Arriving by train in Riomaggiore was interesting as you walk through this long decorated tunnel to reach the town itself.
We met our innkeeper Lorenza of Casa Lorenza who took our luggage by car up to the bed and breakfast she runs. This was fantastic, as the B&B is waaaay up the hill. The shortest way up is some steep steps, or the longer way is up a road and down a few steps. We loved Casa Lorenza. We had a downstairs apartment with a small lawn sitting area, and our friends had an upstairs room with a great balcony. Both rooms had stupendous views of the beautiful town. Lorenza brought us croissants and focaccia each morning and we bought coffee to use in the espresso maker. There was a good coffee maker and coffee upstairs.
We poked around Riomaggiore this afternoon. While others relaxed, I walked up to the top of the main street and found the Sanctuario Trail. It was getting dusk so I didn’t go very far, but absolutely loved it. Good thing I found it (see Day 13).
This was the first time in the trip that things didn’t go as planned. We arrived to find ALL of the Cinque Terre park trails closed due to recent landslides. I knew that Via Amore was closed due to the landslide that injured the four Australian women, but didn’t realize everything was closed. Lorenza gave us a great alternative hike, however.

Day 12: MANAROLA COASTAL PATH, HIKE FROM VOLASTRA TO CORNIGLIA, VERNAZZA
We took the train from Riomaggiore to Manarola, then walked the coastal path until it was blocked off. We then took the green bus to Volastra, where we started on the path to Corniglia.
The hike took about two hours (lots of photo ops!) and not too strenuous, despite the climb. It was another highlight of the trip. Gorgeous views of the intense blue waters, coupled with the picturesque sight of Corniglia far below, growing larger and larger as we hiked through gorgeous vineyards. It was a glorious day and we enjoyed every minute. We also were virtually alone…some doing, after having read about crowding on the other CT trails.
We had lunch in Corniglia, then took the train to Vernazza. Lovely town with a beautiful marina area, but also very crowded compared to Riomaggiore. I was glad we didn’t stay in Vernazza for that reason. I had read about an interesting cemetery at the top of the town, so we set off to find it. My Italian pronunciation must not be the best, as I found an older woman to ask about the “Cimitario” nearby. Despite a sign we found around the corner, she had not a clue. Cemeteries in these old towns often have magnificent views, as superstitions about the dead lead to cemeteries often being placed high above the towns. This one was really interesting as it had all sorts of ways to honor the dead, not just the walls of crypts I had seen before. Numerous decorative tombstones plus large and small family mausoleums. It seemed that most people in the cemetery lived to ripe old ages…very few younger people. There was a very poignant section of some children’s monuments, however.
We saw a gorgeous sunset from a bench at the top of the cemetery. As it was getting late and a train strike started that evening, we decided to take the 7:30 train by to Riomaggiore. We had dinner at a nice restaurant near the bottom of town called La Grotta. Nice outside patio for people-watching. This made up for the night before, where we had our only lousy dinner of the trip. Stay away from the take-away pizzeria with the glass-enclosed patio area on the same side of the street at La Grotta but higher up.

Day 13: SANCTUARIO TRAIL
As we knew about the train strike today, we decided to take the boat to Portovenere, as had been suggested both by Lorenza and by folks on the Fodor’s Travel Forum. Incredibly enough, the boat ended up cancelled due to choppy seas.
Well, there are worse things than being “stuck” in Riomaggiore! I remembered the Sanctuario hike started the first afternoon. We took off on this ancient narrow stone path through vineyards, stone walls, and small shrines everywhere. The views are spectacular. Returning we found the Via Grande, which was a wider path used by pilgrims headed up to the sanctuary. We finished the day walking up to the fortress at the top of town and also visiting the church. A great day after all!
Although nothing turned out as planned for the Cinque Terre part of our trip, we went with “the flow” and didn’t let these things bother us. Our time in the Cinque Terre was magical!

Day 14: GENOA
We hopped on the 10:00 train from Riomaggiore and were in Genoa about 2 hours later. I booked the Marina Place Resort near the airport. Thinking we’d get in later, I wanted to be close to the airport. The hotel was modern and nice and seemed to cater to Italian businesspeople. We went to a small café nearby and the waitress was flustered to deal with American tourists.
After “pranza” (lunch) we walked around the marina. Wow. We had never seen such LARGE or expensive boats! Just amazing. Many were registered in the Cayman Islands (tax breaks for the wealth??).
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot else to do around this hotel. Had I known that we would get to Genoa in the late afternoon, I would have booked a hotel in town. So, we jumped in a cab and headed out to the old town of Genoa. One of the most historical streets is Garabaldi, lined with art museums, palazzos and the like. Wide pedestrian street. Most things were closed by the time we got there, but it was fun to walk around (until it started pouring rain). Once it rains, street vendors magically appear with umbrellas to sell you.
Passing through Genoa in a cab from the train station to the airport hotel gave us one view – of a rather gritty industrial type city. Walking around the old town gave us an impression of a still vibrant but gracious ancient city with intriguing side streets.
We got hungry and smelled something really good…it turned out to be a German Hofbrau which has been around since 1933! We spent our last evening in Italy dining on Wienerschnitzel and goulasch; ironic since I was travelling also with my best friend from the year we spent at the University of Vienna in Austria.
We were of course sad to see such a fantastic trip end, but of course happy to head back to our families back in California.

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