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Trip Report Trip report - Italy (Montepulciano/Lucca), October, 2008

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This is a trip report on our trip to Tuscany in October, 2008, mostly in and around Montepulciano. Caution: the latter portion of this report goes day-by-day, and gets a little wordy.

The travelers

We are Margie and Larry, a couple in our mid sixties, from the Boston (Massachusetts, USA) area. This initial portion of the report was written by Larry; Margie may add some comments later. We both post under the screen name "justretired", a name selected by Margie when I retired about five years ago. I pointed out that at some point the name would become obsolete, but up to now we've stuck with it.

Our adult daughter Elissa was able to join us for the second half of the trip.

The trip

The trip revolved around two weeks spent in the wonderful Sant'Antonio country resort (http://www.santantonio.it/), just outside of the Tuscan town of Montepulciano. Prior to the trip, we discussed on the Forum the relative merits of staying in the town itself, versus in an apartment nearby (http://www.fodors.com/forums/pgMessages.jsp?fid=2&tid=35129195). See more about Sant'Antonio below, in the section starting "Saturday, October 4, 2008".

We got a lot of advice in advance on the Fodor's Forum, on SlowTrav.com, and on TripAdvisor.com. We especially made use of two informative files we obtained through these internet contacts. One was Henry Schulte's "Tuscany" file, detailing excursions based in nearby Montalcino, and another was Stu Dudley's file on "Traveling in Tuscany". Margie also put together a restaurant list from these and other sources, which she sorted by town for rapid access. We'd be happy to send it to anyone who is interested.

We flew into Florence, which is closer to Montepulciano than is Rome (and the Florence airport is also less of a hassle than Rome's). We arrived one day early, and had a few extra days at the end. We discussed possibilities for our first night on the Forum (http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=35130596), and settled on the Locanda Casanuova in Figline (http://www.casanuova.info/). Although for us it was just a place to stay for one night on the way to Sant'Antonio, it proved to be interesting in its own right.

At the end of the trip, we stayed two nights at the Palazzo Alexander in Lucca (http://www.palazzo-alexander.it/), before returning to Florence airport for the flight home. We didn't go into the city of Florence, having been there on a previous trip.

We were happy with all the places we stayed. Our major destination, Sant'Antonio, is a wonderful resort, and made a terrific base. The owner, Nico, is a warm host, which is one reason why staying at Sant'Antonio is such a pleasure. His fluent English also means it's never hard to resolve any issues that might come up (he also speaks Swahili - ask him about it). Having an apartment allowed us to cook many of our meals, some of them barbecued over a wood fire on the resort's extensive grounds.

We were in Italy from October 3 through October 20, 2008. The weather was quite cool the first few days, but with occasional use of the wood-burning fireplace (with its heat-exchanger fan), we only needed to turn on the gas heat in the apartment once, and then only briefly. After the first few days it warmed up, and apart from a brief downpour one evening, it didn't rain during our entire stay.

Why we vacation in Italy and France

I (Larry) am interested in Romance languages. I speak French pretty well, and Spanish and Italian well enough for tourist purposes. To keep up my French, I have a French conversation group (http://alum.mit.edu/www/ljk/cercles.html) that meets every other week. I also participate in an Italian study group that meets most Monday evenings, and I take an advanced conversational Spanish course through Concord-Carlisle Adult and Community Education (http://www.ace.colonial.net/). Margie speaks French at an intermediate level, and is studying with a private teacher (http://www.frenchinacton.com/).

Thus, we travel to France and Italy in part because of our linguistic interests - we like to be able to use our languages. In recent years, we've taken vacations in the Fall, mostly alternating between France and Italy.

One year, we tried a trip to southern Spain. Although we mostly enjoyed it, we had a strange problem: we couldn't dine well. We simply can't stay up late enough to eat dinner in Spanish restaurants. If you try to start your dinner in Spain before 10:00pm, it's all tapas, which tends to be too high in fat to make a meal of night after night. In Italy, people also eat late, but in general, you can go into a restaurant as early as 6:30 or 7:00 and get a regular dinner. Anyway, living in the US, I can more easily practice my Spanish in South or Central America, or for that matter, in the Miami airport. We've visited Mexico several times.

Italy vs. France

We've often talked between ourselves about the relative merits of vacations in Italy and France. Linguistically speaking, France is better for us. I speak French much better than Italian, and Margie speaks French, and no Italian. As a general rule, we find the food better in France, although so far we've mostly compared Provence in France with Tuscany in Italy. Both of these are rather rustic areas, less known for their fine cuisine than other parts of their respective countries. We're also not spending top-dollar for our meals, although we've had some fine meals at reasonable prices in both countries.

So France would seem a better bet for us. Why, then, are we repeatedly drawn back to Italy? Well, Margie's an artist, and there are particular artistic attractions in Italy that she wouldn't want to miss. Margie has used photos from our travels in both France and Italy as the basis of her watercolors. We both adored Venice, and after our first visit, we returned there on a subsequent trip.

But there's another aspect of Italy that draws us there: it's easier to strike up conversations with people, and one of the things we want to be able to do when traveling is to meet the locals. We like most of the French people we meet, and I once posted a Fodor's Forum thread which I called "The Friendly French" (http://www.fodors.com/forums/threadselect.jsp?fid=2&tid=34533993). Since we both speak French, we have no language barrier - in fact, asking for help with the language can be a conversation starter. Nevertheless, the French seem to be a bit more private in public places. One can have a meal in a restaurant, and never find an occasion to speak with the people on either side.

That almost never happens in Italy. Somehow or other, we almost always end up chatting with our neighbors in restaurants in Italy - most Italians seem naturally gregarious. And I get a lot of credit for speaking Italian. Fewer Americans study Italian than, for example, French or Spanish. Thus, many Italians seem flattered that I'm interested in learning their language, all the more so when they discover that I am not from an Italian family, and I'm studying the language just because it interests me, and because I like to travel in Italy and meet Italians.

Once, after buying train tickets at the train station in Venice, the man behind the counter asked me where I was from. When I told him I was from the United States, he remarked that I was the first American who had ever bought tickets at his window speaking entirely in Italian (I guess he probably spoke English, but I hadn't asked).

Other trip details

We had a rental car for the duration of the trip, and took excursions in the area, generally driving to destinations less than an hour away from our base. The car was rented on the web through Nova RentaCar (http://www.novacarhire.com/), which we've used before. They arranged a diesel car through Budget Italy. We were happy with all aspects of the car rental.

We enjoy having a cell phone for each of us while in Europe, although some might find that extravagant. In the past, we've bought pre-paid SIM cards for our unlocked GSM cell phones, and added minutes to the cards as needed. This time, we bought SIM cards from Call in Europe (http://www.callineurope.com/), which charged our usage directly to a credit card. This worked out very well - the rates were reasonable, and we didn't have to keep monitoring our balances and recharging the prepaid cards. I'd recommend it.

We brought along a Garmin GPS unit (Global Positioning System), with European maps purchased from Garmin. The maps ($150) are delivered on an SD card that plugs into the unit. The GPS was very useful, but it had some quirks. The English pronunciation of the Italian street names made that name-reading feature almost useless. I know that TomTom GPS units can pronounce street names properly in French, and probably Italian. Apparently, that capability is not available for my Garmin Nüvi 650.

Lots of Italian road names started out with "Strada Provinciale" (Provincial Road), followed by the actual name. "Provinciale" is properly pronounced something like /pro-vinn-CHA-lay/. By the time the Garmin unit got past /STRA-da pro-vinn-see-YALE/, I usually couldn't understand the rest. Fortunately, I could read it on the display, and proper pronunciation of the street names, while helpful, is not a critical part of the operation of a GPS.

The Garmin unit, used in Italy, had one other quirk: it turned us off onto some pretty dicey roads. I think that even small roads that are mapped in the US meet certain minimum standards. This doesn't seem to be the case in Italy. Frequently, we'd be on a main road that looped around a small hillside town, and upon entering the town, the GPS would tell us to turn. Suddenly, the road would tip down in a 25% grade, turn to dirt, and narrow to a couple of inches wider than the car. After a few hairy turns, we'd pop back out onto the main road at the bottom of the village. Sure, it had cut off some distance, but after a while we learned to ignore these suggestions and stay on the main road.

A general problem with any GPS is that you can become addicted to it, and lose track of the larger picture of where you are. It's a good idea to also have a good conventional map of the area. We liked the bright green "Toscana" map of the Touring Club Italiano, 1:200000 (http://store.maplink.com/map.aspx?pid=530645).

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    Our trip day by day: week one

    The following is a journal I kept during the trip, on a laptop computer I had brought along. Obviously, if this is more detail than you want, skim it or skip it. For comments on Sant'Antonio, look under our arrival day, Saturday, October 4.

    Thursday, October 2, 2008: The flights via Zürich on Swiss International were uneventful, but as usual, I couldn't sleep, even with a Magellan "First Class Sleeper" inflatable pillow. Margie, on the other hand, did sleep, probably thanks to the Xanax she takes to conquer her fear of flying. On arrival, we found our cell phones worked fine, and our GPS too.

    Friday, October 3, 2008: We had chosen the Locanda Casanuova mostly due to its proximity to the Florence airport. It was hard to locate, even using our GPS unit. But the Casanuova proved to be a gem. We had a family-style meal at a communal table with couples from the Netherlands and Germany, which is where most of the quests were from. Dinner included a bruschetta, pasta, a pork roast made with their own figs, and tiramisu.

    Most people there stay by the week, and I'm not sure why they accepted our one-night reservation (they must have had a small hole in the schedule to fill). It's in a beautiful setting, and each room is different. You buy wine by the bottle, and label it to keep for your subsequent meals (we took our bottle with us when we left the next morning).

    Saturday, October 4, 2008: Arrival at Sant'Antonio. We stayed in apartment number 9, "Giotto", a spacious apartment with a kitchen, a big living / dining room area, a large bedroom, and a large bathroom with two sinks, and both a tub and a shower. It also had a loft, which would be occupied by our daughter Elissa during our second week. I'll talk more about the fireplace later.

    The apartment also proved to have WiFi internet access. That had not been guaranteed before our arrival, since the stone walls are thick, and their WiFi coverage can be iffy. But I had no trouble with it right in the apartment. Other guests carried their laptops into the common room, or used the computers provided there, so you don't need to bring your own computer.

    A small table with chairs on the entrance terrace allowed us to have antipasti and wine outdoors when desired. The extensive grounds of this former convent had multiple barbecue sites, which we used several times. Other guests were still using the swimming pool, although the October weather was a bit too cool for swimming for our taste. From our living room window, we had a view to the east out over Lake Trasimeno in the distance. It was always shrouded in a low fog as the sun rose in the morning.

    The property at Sant'Antonio is very well maintained. We reported a small leak from our tub drain one day, and a plumber showed up the next day to fix it. Among the expensive touches that add to the ambiance are two underground parking garages. This means that looking out over the property, one sees only expanses of green and rows of olive trees, rather than parked cars all over the place. From above, the flat roofs of these garages appear to be just a pair of patios.

    On our first day there, we went into Montepulciano for lunch, and ended up at Borgo Buio. The owner, Pier ("Pierre") seems to be a character. We split some simple bruschette, and I had a risotto with smoked swordfish (sort of like a swordfish version of lox). We then went to the "CONAD" supermarket to stock up for our stay.

    We came back to Sant'Antonio and unpacked. We took a walk around the grounds, and met Nico's wife Elena and their kids and dog. At Nico's recommendation, we had dinner at "Tre Stelle", in Sant'Albino. I recommend their Cozze & Vongole Picanti (spicy mussels and clams). Poor Margie is allergic to shellfish, but loved their Panna Catalana (when asked what that was, the waitress simply replied, "Crème Brulée").

    Sunday, October 5, 2008: We had breakfast at the pasticceria in Sant'Albino, which would become a regular for us - croissants, caffè macchiato (decaf). We drove to Pienza, and took a guided tour of the Palazzo Piccolomini, and then walked around. We ate lunch at a place on Margie's restaurant list (mentioned previously), the "Trattoria Latte di Luna", where I had my first, but hardly my last, sample of cinghiale (the local wild boar), as a sauce on pici (a kind of spaghetti).

    After walking some more, and having the first of many afternoon geloti, we drove to Monticchiello and walked around. We then had dinner back in Montepulciano, at Acquachetta di Ciolfi. We sat with an interesting Italian couple: Andrea, a CPA who attended Harvard Business School, and his stunning actress wife. Although she was from Colombia, I discovered that I can't speak Spanish in Italy. In Italy, immersed in Italian, my sentences change from Spanish to Italian half way through.

    Andrea, who spoke English very well, helped us navigate the restaurant menu. The Acquachetta di Ciolfi specializes in "Bistecca alla Fiorentina" (Florentine steak), which we had with a salad. Margie and I shared a 1.2 Kg cut of beef, weighed and presented to us raw before it was cooked over a wood fire.

    Monday, October 6, 2008: We spent the whole day walking around Montepulciano, after a harrowing accidental driving tour of various upper parking lots. The town has lots of great stores and art studios. We had lunch at "Ai Quatro Venti", which was good. We chatted with a family with a 3-year-old named Elena. We shared a Tuscan antipasto (lots of ham), and then I once again had cinghiale, this time in a stew.

    We drove down to the lower church, the "Tempio di San Biagio". Then home, to make a fire in the fireplace, and cook a chicken cacciatore. The excellent wood-burning fireplace in our apartment drove a heat-exchanger which effectively heated the bedroom.

    Tuesday, October 7, 2008: We drove to Bagno Vignoni, an odd town with a huge pool in the center that's fed by a hot spring. It's closed to bathing now, but the Romans used to use it. There we had lunch at a place which had been recommended to us, the Osteria del Leone. It was quite good. Nico used to be a chef there. When we mentioned his name to our waitress, she gave us two free Prosecchi.

    We chatted quite a bit with a group of four (there with their dog) at an adjacent table. They were conversing in a mix of Italian and French - they seemed to go seamlessly between the two without a thought. It turned out that one of the couples was French (although they live in Rome), and the other Italian (but the man was originally from Mumbai, although he was old enough to call it Bombay).

    The French man found it incomprehensible that the US Presidential race was at all close. He thought that if Americans had any sense, it would be a landslide for Obama. We had a long, very interesting conversation. On this trip, taken only weeks before the US Presidential election, almost everyone we met was informed about the US election, and almost all were Obama supporters. The one exception was an Australian man we met in our second week.

    And unlike the French, who were often a bit cautious about opening up a political discussion, the Italians charged right in. An Italian hotel desk clerk once told me (in Italian): "If two Italian men get together, they talk about women. If three Italian men get together, they talk about sports. If four Italian men get together, they form a political party."

    Afterward, we drove to San Quirico d'Orcia, where we walked up the main drag, and visited the church. Then back home to cook dinner: pici with truffle/mushroom sauce.

    Wednesday, October 8, 2008: After our usual breakfast at the pasticcieria, we drove to Montefollonico, a very small village. Since it was a bit late in the season, the tourist office was closed. However, a man we asked about the tourist office took it upon himself to give me a quick rundown of what to see in the village (in Italian). In walking around, we came across the workshop/store "Ceramica di Mariella Spinelli" (http://www.mariellaspinelli.toscana.nu), where we bought a serving dish with a contemporary image of a cypress tree.

    We then ate lunch at Il Medioevo, a restaurant in the hotel "La Residenza d'Epoca". The restaurant had an incredible view of the valley to the north-east, and Montepulciano could be seen to the south-east (we ate on the terrace). We were absolutely the only customers in the restaurant, and the lunch was excellent.

    We'd found our GPS to be quite helpful, but it didn't seem to know about all the really small roads, and it's hard to set up a destination when you don't have an actual address (although I had some luck by browsing the map). On this day's trip to Montefollonico, it seemed to get really confused at the intersection of the N146 and the N137. Judging by its behavior, it seemed to think we couldn't make any turns there. We were smart enough to ignore its advice, since after all there was a large sign with an arrow that said "Montefollonico". Once we'd made the turn, the GPS recomputed the route, and picked up as if nothing odd had happened.

    We had chosen a nearby morning activity so that we could visit the gardens at La Foce in the afternoon. La Foce, which is not far from Sant'Antonio if you're willing to drive on a gravel road, is only open on Wednesdays. We took the 3pm tour. The gardens were quite impressive, even at that late date in the season, as were the views from the garden out over the surrounding countryside.

    Then back to Sant'Antonio for their special Tuscan dinner, run by Sant'Antonio's Jack-of-all-trades Susanna. This wonderful dinner, only on Wednesdays, is served at a very long table, and is a chance to meet many of the other guests at Sant'Antonio each week (35 euro per person, including wine). This Wednesday, we met 19 guests, mostly from the US and Canada, but including two men from Brazil. We also met Massimo, who runs Nico's wine shop in Montepulciano, Il Leone (Via di Gracciano nel Corso 89). Massimo is Sicilian, and has been learning English on the job over the last three years, just by talking with customers. I spoke with him in a mix of English and Italian.

    Thursday, October 9, 2008: We spent the day in Montalcino, where we toured the museum (with a strange mix of 13th - 15th century religious art and contemporary works by a particular artist). We also visited the fortress, where you can walk around the walls and climb to the top of the towers, for a commanding view of the countryside. Lunch was in the Enoteca Osteria Osticcio, at a table with a view over the valley to the east. Margie started with a ribollita, and I had an anchovy/pesto appetizer.

    Back to Montepulciano to shop at the market. We bought some charcoal (which turned out to be carbonized pieces of wood, quite different from compressed American briquets), and barbequed some hamburgers, with some assistance from a German couple, Thomas and Petra.

    Friday, October 10, 2008: We made omelets for breakfast, with pecorino cheese, and then spent the day in Chiusi. We first visited "Il Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Chiusi". Some people refer to it as the "Etruscan Museum", because of its very large Etruscan collection, much of which was collected around Chiusi.

    We then had lunch at "Il Kantharos" restaurant, based on a report Margie had from someone on Fodors or SlowTrav about what great fun they had had there. But we ate rather late, and there was nobody else there. It was really just us and one waitress, and the restaurant has a limited menu. The service was fine, but the food was nothing to write home about.

    After lunch, we went to the "Museo Civico", which offered a tour of "La Città Sotterranea". This started as Etruscan waterworks, but later got expanded into the cellars of various Chiusi residences. It houses a huge collection of Etruscan burial urns and funerary slabs, mostly found around Chiusi, and the likes of which can be seen nowhere else. The tour was entirely in Italian, so it was a bit difficult for Margie. I only understood about half myself, but I got the gist of it, and tried to translate for Margie. It included views of some enormously deep wells and cisterns.

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    Week 2

    Saturday, October 11, 2008: We spent the whole day just walking around Montepulciano, going in to various shops. We bought a necklace from a Belgian artist at a street market, speaking to her in French.

    We had a great lunch at Le Logge del Vignola, where we each had a 20 euro fixed menu with two main selections. I ended with a selection of four pecorino cheeses of increasing age, a great way to learn what happens to pecorino cheese as it ages. A sparkling wine was served as an aperitif, and a glass of rosso di Montepulciano was also included. A couple alongside us had the 42 euro menù gastronomique, which was even more elaborate, and included steak tartare, mixed at the table in an impressive ceremony. The ritual for serving their wine was the most elaborate I've ever seen. All in all, a very interesting and good meal.

    On the way back to Sant'Antonio, we stopped at the CONAD market, and bought a steak and some zucchini. I had to ask to find the eggs (for breakfast the next day), because I expected them to be refrigerated, and they weren't. This gave me an opportunity to screw up the Italian plural for "eggs". The word is masculine in the singular, "l'uovo", but changes to an irregular feminine plural, "le uova". It was embarrassing, but now I'll never forget that one again. Back at "home", we made a wood fire, burned it down to charcoal for half an hour, added some additional store-bought charcoal, and cooked the steak and zucchini on the barbecue.

    Sunday, October 12, 2008: We made omelets for breakfast, and then drove to Abbadia San Salvatore, for the local Festa Autunno. This was a medium-sized street fair, with lots of booths selling mostly knickknacks. Street markets are much better in France than in Italy. But Margie bought some paint pigments, and we bought hand-cut and hand painted name signs as gifts to bring home to our nieces and nephews. Kids were bouncing on a bungee-cord-over-trampoline type apparatus. We had lunch there with the locals at long, crowded tables in a large tent - the food was nothing special, but it was lots of fun. There was a deafening roar of conversation, so it was hard to talk, but everyone was very friendly.

    After lunch, we drove over a hair-raising road to Radicofani, with astonishing views in all directions, since we seemed to be driving along a ridge. This is an area with some of those barren white-clay mounds we saw from La Foce. But Margie closed her eyes for part of the trip, since she hates narrow roads with sheer drop-offs and no guardrails. And since we were on a ridge, this road had sheer drop-offs on both sides.

    In Radicofani (stress on the "o"), we enjoyed the great view to the south-west, and looked up at the town's fortress (Margie was definitely NOT willing to drive up there). We also entered the church of San Pietro, which has a large collection of white porcelain terracotta works (statues and altarpieces) from the della Robia workshop, as well as some other nice pieces. We walked around a bit, chatted with a few people in the town, and then followed the GPS route back (except we ignored its advice and took the dirt road directly back from La Foce to Sant'Antonio).

    We dropped in on the Fattoria Pulcino, where we tasted a small sample of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano at their sample table. It's a rather heavy red, and seemed to me similar to other Vini Rossi di Montepulciano that we'd had. Dinner was at La Casina restaurant, at the southern end of Sant'Albino, recommended by Nico. Nice setting, good food, good service.

    Monday October 13, 2008: We stayed around Montepulciano in the morning, pending the arrival of our daughter Elissa, anticipated a little after noon. Elissa had spent a few days in Florence, and then she was driven down to Montepulciano by a friend, Freya. Freya, with her boyfriend Sam, was touring Europe in a Volkswagen camper-van, and had arranged to meet Elissa in Florence. We were able to meet them as they arrived at the front gate, because we all had cell phones and could easily determine exactly when they would arrive.

    Since they had arrived a bit later than originally expected, we didn't get out to lunch until around 2:10, after having determined (by telephoning around) that most restaurant kitchens in Montepulciano close around 2:30. Thus we ended up at a restaurant right down the road, Il Covo, arriving at 2:15. It proved to be quite good. I had a great seafood dish, containing, in the dead center of the plate, what looked like a whole octopus, of substantial size. I loved it. I am obviously not in agreement with the humorist Dave Barry, who wrote in his book "Dave Barry Does Japan" that his main objective in that country was "trying to find food without suckers on it."

    Tuesday, October 14, 2008: We drove with Freya and Sam into Sant'Albino, and had breakfast at our usual pasticceria. They then headed down to Rome, while we drove off to Cortona, following directions from our GPS. We walked around Cortona a bit, and had lunch at the Ristorante Preludia, which was quite good. I had a pigeon on spiced polenta, with snails.

    Leaving Cortona through a torturous route (with the help of the GPS), we stopped at the entrance to San Lorenzo, to take a picture of me next to the road sign. This is because in my Italian classes, I sometimes use the name "Lorenzo", but the idea of me as a saint is somewhat amusing. We then drove to the oddly-shaped village of Lucignano, laid out in a series of concentric ovals. Many of the churches were closed, as was the museum, but a man in the town hall took it upon himself to show us around a bit. He took us into the council meeting room, with enormous brightly colored frescoes celebrating a battle in Rome.

    Finally, we came back to Montepulciano, and walked into the north end of town to visit Massimo in Nico's wine shop. We sampled quite a few wines, including a few samples of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. We ended up buying a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Avignonesi, 2005, for consumption on our trip (at 13.50€, a good deal less than the 85€ bottle we also sampled). Finally, dinner at Tre Stelle, where Larry had a great seafood antipasto, and Margie and Elissa had pizze. After admiring the full moon, off to bed.

    Wednesday, October 15, 2008: We drove into Montalcino, and walked around a bit. We then left to be sure to get to the Sant'Antimo Abbey in Castelnuovo dell'Abate in time for the Gregorian chanting at 12:45. The Abbey is impressive, and in a gorgeous setting. However, the chanting was brief (only about 10 minutes), and involved only four singers, so we were a bit disappointed.

    We ate lunch outdoors at a restaurant at the start of the road to the Abbey. I didn't get a card or write down the name, and looking now at the check (the "bill", to you Brits), I find a generic restaurant check without even a stamp identifying the restaurant. They were the first restaurant we encountered on this trip that, it turned out, didn't take credit cards. I had a "ribollita" soup, so called, but it was much more local vegetables than the traditional bean-based soup (it was excellent).

    We then drove to the other abbey, the Abbazia di Mont'Olivetto Maggiore. This is a much more elaborate set of buildings, with a great deal of art on display. The drive from the Abbazia back to Montepulciano was exquisite. Back at Sant'Antonio, we took part in our second Wednesday Tuscan dinner.

    Thursday, October 16, 2008: We made an effort to get out early (well, earlier than usual), and left at around 9am for Orvieto, stopping at the pasticceria in Sant'Albino for a plain croissant each. Following the GPS, and then the signs, we were still unable to find the parking lot at the station in Orvieto Scalo. Instead, we ended up in a huge multi-level parking lot on the west side of Orvieto, which turned out to be a great spot to park (although we didn't get to ride the funicular). From the parking lot, a seemingly endless set of about six or seven escalators and moving sidewalks took us up to the town (we came back down later on an elevator).

    In Orvieto, we first took the underground tour at 11:15. It was quite interesting. We met a French couple from Angers, and talked with them in French and English. We then went into the cathedral, and bought a "MODO" pass ("Museo dell'Opera del Duomo di Orvieto"), which got us into the Capella di San Brizio, showing works by Luca Signorelli and others.

    We looked around and picked a restaurant for lunch, the Ristorante Antico Bucche, Via dei Cartari. I had gnocchi with eggplant, which the English menu called "garden eggs". Margie had Tagliatelli with mushrooms, and Elissa had a risotto with gorgonzola and Radicchio.

    After lunch, we went into the Papal Palaces on our MODO pass, and then into "Il Museo Emilio Greco", which recently became part of the system of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. We never got to the last attraction we could have visited on the pass, the chiesa di Sant'Agostino.

    We walked around some more, and had some great geloti. While Margie waited below (too tired to climb the stairs), Elissa and I climbed the Torre del Moro, for sweeping views of the town and the surrounding countryside. Then back to the car and home. We had dinner in, cooking pici seasoned with a dried spaghetti ai funghi porcini mix we had bought earlier (supplementing it with sautéed fresh mushrooms). We made a fire after dinner.

    Friday, October 17, 2008: We took Elissa to Pienza and then to Montichiello, where we had lunch at the Osteria Bar La Porta. After two weeks in Sant'Antonio, we had to spend some time packing. Then, after paying at Sant'Antonio, we took a final walk around Montepulciano before our Saturday morning departure.

    Saturday, October 18, 2008: We drove to Lucca, and checked in at the Palazzo Alexander. The staff at the hotel was very helpful throughout our stay there, and I'd recommend it. It's very easy to get into and out of their parking area, except the first time. On your arrival, to bring the car up to the front of the hotel, you need to go a bit past the entrance to the parking lot. Then, due to the one-way streets of Lucca, a rather difficult and circuitous path must be taken, which is equivalent to backing up 100 feet (but backing up would be illegal). We spent the rest of the day walking around Lucca, a charming and interesting walled city.

    Sunday, October 19, 2008: We drove to Pisa, and spent the morning there, which we enjoyed very much. The tower is impressively beautiful in person, but we didn't go up it. Not only would it have cost 15 euros each, that thing was clearly leaning to one side. I'm an engineer - do you think I'm crazy? I didn't even want to stand under it.

    We had lunch at La Bagatella in Pisa, near a group of really noisy kids from Florence on a class trip (they took much longer to clear out than I thought when we sat down). We then drove back to Lucca to walk around a bit more on our last full day.

    Monday, October 20, 2008: Drove back to Peretola airport, returned the car, and caught our flight back. We used Swiss International via Zürich, and Elissa took Lufthansa via Frankfort.

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    Nice report! I really enjoyed reading it and I've bookmarked the resort info for a future trip to Italy.

    Thanks for taking the time to write a report. It is something I always tell myself I'm going to do and it just never happens. :)

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    I mentally traveled throughout your trip with you justretired and enjoyed every moment. Your descriptions of your time in Italy is beautiful, thank you for sharing. And may I say that I can so relate to your wife Margie as I have often closed my eyes also when traveling on mountain roads in Italy. I love Italy but some of those roads still leave me shuddering, lol. Best regards.

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    Your report was just wonderful! You appear to enjoy the remote areas, as do we. By the way, I just retired from teaching. It's a big world out there!
    My husband and I are going to Italy again this fall. Last time, I felt as if I missed so much--just did Florence, Sienna, Rome, Assisi, and Positano.
    I would like to concentrate on Florence, Tuscany, Venice and back to Rome. We are flying in and out of Rome, where we will stay the last 5 days.
    We are also taking Italian lessons. My heritage is 100% Italian, but we were never encouraged to speak the language as children. The adults would speak when they didn't want us to hear! I need LOTS of practice!
    Thank you, again.
    Any itinerary suggestions? We will arrive in Rome on September 25th and leave from Rome on October 12th.

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    Let me start by thanking all who have commented on this trip report. It takes some time to write a decent trip report, so it's very encouraging to know that it's being read, and that there are people out there who appreciate the effort. Margie and I always post trip reports, because we so much appreciate all the advice we get from Fodorites before our trips.

    Alario, the 25th and the 12th will be lost to travel, and I gather you will be in Rome from October 7th or 8th until your return. So you have about 12 days outside of Rome. Our own recent preference has been to spend a longer amount of time in fewer places, sort of a "Slow Travel" philosophy. We rent a car, stay in one place for a while, and use the car for day trips.

    Itinerary

    Margie and I loved Venice. Not everyone does, as it's very touristy, but it's also probably one of the most remarkable cities in the world. I'd be inclined to take the train from Rome to Venice, and spend a few days there. If you're there more than a couple of days, you can get away from the main tourist sites and sights, and explore some of the back alleys of the real city behind the facade.

    Then take the train to somewhere in Tuscany, choose one or two bases, and rent a car. You could stop in Florence on the way, but you've already been there. You don't need to return the car where you picked it up - there's not much extra cost any more to "get it here, leave it there". You could drop the car somewhere in Tuscany not too far from Rome, and take a train into Rome to avoid driving into the city. Or (especially if you have a GPS unit), you could return the car in Rome. You can't use a car in Venice, and you don't want a car in Rome.

    Italian

    It may be just as well that you didn't speak Italian as children. I don't know what your family's background was, but many Italian families in the US came from areas where a dialect was spoken, such as Siciliano or Calabrese. I've heard of Americans from such a background who went to Italy firmly convinced that they spoke Italian, only to find that nobody could understand them. Your background probably gives you an ear for the sounds of the language, without a whole lot of incorrect vocabulary and verb forms.

    Enjoy your trip!

    - Larry

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    Thank's for your posting, love the detail.
    Could you tell me a little more about your trip to Lucca? I'm headed there in July, my great grandparents were from there so I've got a special interest :) Where all did you go? Restaurants? Streets? Shops? Thank you, I appreciate it!

    Email: sam_petrini@hotmail.com

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    "If two Italian men get together, they talk about women. If three Italian men get together, they talk about sports. If four Italian men get together, they form a political party."

    Very funny! Enjoyed your report and share your feelings about France and Italy. We too find France easier but Italy has our hearts.

    Many more trips to ya!

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    Great report. Your descriptions of some of your drives give me pause, though. I'm not crazy about windy roads with sheer drops either.

    Unlike you and TDudette, I find Italy easy and France difficult--though I love them both.

    Many thanks.

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    Thanks for all the comments.

    SamandKy, I can't say too much about Lucca. We only stayed there for two nights, and we spent most of our one full day in Pisa. Do a search on the forum using "Lucca" in the search box, and you'll find a number of threads.

    For the brief time we spent there, we found it a charming city. We spent our time entirely within the old walled city - I have no idea what there is outside the walls. It's small enough that you can walk all over. You can also rent a bicycle - it's a great cycling city. Our hotel (which I'd recommend), the Palazzo Alexander, was near a courthouse, and one day a whole bunch of lawyers showed up, all on their bicycles.

    When we arrived on October 18, we picked a random Pizzeria in the central square (the Piazza Anfiteatro), and got a great lunch. It was "da Gherardo", http://www.dagherardo.com (I got a card). We also enjoyed our two dinners in Lucca, although I have to say I don't recall any details. The evening of the 18th we ate at "Da Giulio", and the 19th at the "Ristorante L'Antico Sigillo", a short walk from our hotel, for our last dinner in Italy on this trip.

    After we returned from Pisa on the 19th, and did some more walking around Lucca, we sat in an outdoor caffè, and watched the passeggiata, the traditional Italian evening stroll. This included many families with children in strollers, and many of the walkers were very well dressed, and were clearly out to see and be seen.

    Lucca is a delightful town, and perhaps some day we'll spend more time there. But on this trip, we were only there briefly, so I don't have much to report.

    - Larry

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    Thanks Larry, I appreciate your added imagery to my idea of Lucca. The Idea of cycling around the sity sounds wonderful...I'll definitely look into that. I've written down the restaurants you've noted. Having names of places people have already tried (and liked) is invaluable. Thank you again!

    Samantha

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