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Trip Report Pre-and post-cruise Northern Italy Trip

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Cruised out of Venice on the NCL Gem last month - that will be reported separately. Due to work constraints, could only engineer two days before and two days after the cruise to enjoy Venice and Tuscany: Here goes:
Started off on Wednesday with (DW and three DDs) before noon with four hours to make a 3 hour trip to Atlanta airport - only to find that the State of TN had to shut down the interstate going south of our town to repair a major sinkhole. So we were delayed over an hour by that detour - which put us in the teeth of Atlanta's rush hour - finally got to the airport front door with 20 min to departure time - dashed through the airport WITH OUR BAGS - arriving at the gate right at departure time - and the flight, mercifully, had been delayed 1/2 hour! So we made it!.
Arrived in Milan Thursday 5/20, and caught the Express bus to the Milan Central Railway Station, checking our bags in for a few hours and buying rail tickets to Venice. A fairly long line for the tickets moved well so it was not too much of a problem getting these tickets. Then we sought and found the Green line subway train to the station close to the Santa Maria della Grazie church for our 1:45 appointment to see Da Vinci's Last Supper. Actually had a gypsy woman help me buy the subway tickets for a euro tip. Made great time on the subway so we were able to have a quick lunch at a place called Rick's Cafe. The waiter spoke good enough English so that he was able to catch the joke when we asked him to play it again, Sam. Viewing the Last Supper was nice, it is alot of hassle to get the 15 min viewing of just this one painting, but now I can say I've done it. Caught the Subway back to Central Station, and found our train without problem. The ride from Milan to Venice goes through the fertile plains of Northern Italy’s Po valley, so you see views of lots and lots of farms growing all kinds of different crops. Family completely slept through most of that ride, until I woke them up when transiting the Venice causeway.
Upon arriving at Venice, we found the transit system ticket office outside the Santa Lucia Station. I had learned on websites earlier, (http://www.hellovenezia.com/jsp/it/index/index.jsp) that when traveling with college aged kids, you can get substantial discounts on waterbus passes if you first buy something called the Rolling Venice (RV) card. So I went up to the ticket counter and advised the man I was the father of three daughters, pointing them out, and stated I needed 3 RV cards, 3 Youth transit passes, and two 48 hour adult passes. The man immediately asked me how often I had been to Venice, and I responded never. He shook his head and stated I got the prize for tourist of the year, as many experienced travelers could not figure out that system even after many trips to Venice! All this to save about 15 E!
We then caught the vaporetto waterbus to the Rialto area, and amazingly found the microscopic door in the diminutive alleyway to our hotel, the Pensione Guerrato, (www.pensioneguerrato.it) which was a delightful little place attended by friendly and very helpful staff. We rented the apartment they have there, which could fit up to 6-7 or so folks – recommended for longer stays if you want an apartment. DDs observed that in the space of a half a day, we had used 7 modes of transportation. (Auto, airplane, bus, subway, rail, waterbus, foot)
Immediately set out on foot, finding near the Campo San Giacomo Del Orio, the Pizzeria Ae Oche, (http://www.aeoche.com/index_flash.htm) identified on MapEasy’s guide map as the best kept food secret in Venice, and I will not contest that opinion. We all ordered more pizza than we thought we could eat and yet, it was so good we only had a few pieces left over. Then strolled a bit toward the train station finding the renowned Gelato Alaska, which I was actually not really that impressed with, but the proprietor there was cheery, friendly, and amazingly multilingual, as we heard him giving the patron in front of us directions in French, and then immediately started talking to us in English.
Next day we shopped around the Rialto market, we then took the waterbus to San Marco Sq. walking around there a bit and taking a lot of pictures. I don't think I've ever seen such an enormous amount of tourists simultaneously trying to take pictures at once, and all of them trying to get pictures of the area without tourists in the pictures. We then went across the Giudecca canal to the San Giorgio Maggiore Island, which is the island opposite (to the south of) San Marco, visiting the church and Bell Tower there. Coincidentally, in this church, which itself was spectacular, is a version of the Last Supper and a Fall of Manna by Tintoretto and one of the most beautiful carved wood choir loft areas I've seen. Outside the church was a small choir of Italians attired in traditional Alpine costumes and singing an Italian folk song for an elderly, and apparently beloved, priest. A nice coincidence to catch their song. We then took an elevator up to the church's bell tower, just minutes prior to its closing time, feasting our eyes on a spectacular view of the San Marco area, still picking out multiple clusters of tour groups, all trying to avoid taking pictures of each other.
Crossed back over to the Zattere area, catching a fine seafood lunch at La Calcina. (http://www.lacalcina.com) A tad pricey but a good value in my estimation. I would submit that a visit to Venice should always include a meal at one of the outdoor restaurants along the Giudecca Canal, as the watercraft traffic there is so varied, and the pedestrian traffic is fun to watch but not as overwhelming as it can be in other settings. There appeared to be 5 or so restaurants along the Zatterre that would fit the bill; all of which seemed to be of comparable value.
We then spent some time in the Accedemia art gallery and crashed back into our little flat for a nap. For dinner that night we ate the cheese fruit and salads we bought in the Rialto market earlier then started off to the opera, seeing a very well performed version of Mozart's Don Giovanni.
For both the Last Supper viewing and the Opera, tickets had to be obtained on Italian websites, which are not very easy to navigate, the conclusion of which is an email, again in Italian, that you then take to each respective ticket office. Seems like an opportunity for a scam, but the whole process was surprisingly reliable. The theater, Teatro la Fenice, (http://www.teatrolafenice.it) is beautiful inside, with lots of sculptures and ornately carved, gold gilded decorations.
Next day we continued to shop around the Rialto Market area, as well as some of the less touristy and more upscale shops along the Strada Nova area, across the Canal. Checked out of the Pensione, returned to San Marco, where we transferred to another waterbus going to the cruise terminal area. This was fun as this waterbus cruised past all five cruise ships currently in dock in the cruise ship area.
I'll describe the cruise separately later.
Got off the cruise ship on Sat 29 May and were directed to a line of people waiting for the shuttle bus to the Piazza Roma area, which is the one place in Venice where vehicles can come into the city, where there is the confluence of parking garages, train station, bus terminal, and general mayhem. Missed seeing the location of the Hertz office as we passed by it, so we found ourselves in the middle of this mayhem not at all sure which way to proceed to the rental office. Finally found directions and proceeded to the counter and was flatly told that it was only 10 am and my reservation was for 11 – I would have to wait an hour! Period! My, how things are different in Europe! So fam and I sort of set up camp in this small office as it had air conditioning and it was starting to turn into a hot day. I guess the idea of this nuisance American crew going nowhere was finally seen as not conductive to their business model, as a Hertz supervisor got us a car after only 20 minutes of waiting. Immediately set out on the much feared Autostrada for Florence. We had smooth sailing until we hit a sequence of very tight turns and tunnels in the rugged terrain just north of Florence where the traffic just stopped and started at seemingly random intervals. Finally reached our destination of Montepulciano after about 3.5 hours of tough driving. This little city is the prototypical little medieval European town where you are immediately lost upon entering town. Driving in the narrow streets did not seem to be a very pleasant option and many alleyways that seemed to go where we wanted to go became passable only on foot. So I found an acceptable parking spot and we set out on foot to find the Central square, which we did only after climbing several few steep inclines. Finally found the very charming little piazza, and we got tickets for a wine tour from the local wine consortium. The lady points to the middle of the piazza and says “There - you wait!” Ok, so after 3.5 hours of intense Italian Autostrada driving my adrenaline level is pretty high, so I’m not really into standing still at that point, and I have to wait in the middle of this piazza for almost ten minutes wondering if I’ve just been ripped off. Finally, a minivan shows up, we pile in, all very glad someone else besides yours truly was doing the driving, and me glad that this dude was proving to my family that other drivers could actually attempt some of the curves in the road faster than I did. The winery tour is very highly recommended, both for the delightful tour they give you as well as for the quality of the Vino Nobile wine. (http://www.stradavinonobile.it/new/ivini.en.php)
Montepulciano is situated between the Valleys of the Chiana and the Orcia rivers. Most people feel the Val d’Orcia is the more picturesque of the two, but - wow – both are just incredibly beautiful.
Had a lovely 3 hour tour of two local wineries. Scenery is simply indescribable. Wine was equally fantastic. Following that we checked into the little Albergo (hotel) la Terrazza (www.laterrazzadimontepulciano.it) run by the charming, if not slightly eccentric, Roberto. Roberto runs a fine hotel, part time enoteca, and claimed to be the ex-goalkeeper of the town football club as well as the current President of their local league. While there, I engaged in a nice conversation with a Canadian guest who is of Italian ancestry who knew the area well and she suggested a day trip itinerary for us for the next day. We visited the famous Temple of San Biaggio (16th century), the Abbey of Sant Antimo (11th) the Castiglione (fortress) d’Orcia (12th) – went swimming in a hot spring fed pond in the town of Bagno Vignoni, had lunch in the tiny hilltop hamlet of Monticciello, and ended at a small farm ( Cugusi - http://www.caseificiocugusi.it/azienda.php) that made, on the premises, their very own sheep’s milk cheese called pecorino and a very high quality Olive Oil. – An outstanding itinerary and easy to do. – In particular the drive from Bagno Vignoli to Monticchiello is not on many maps, very rural, and just left me slack-jawed with the beauty of the landscapes.
Alas, our trip came to and end with a drive to Fiumicello airport, which must be the world’s most traveler hostile airport. Got home without any further complications.

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