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Trip Report Trip Report - 17 days in Italy, Sept/Oct 2012

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This was our third trip to Italy but this time we were traveling with 4 “Italy Newbies” so we did something different with our planning. After being the beneficiaries of free help from our fellow Fodorites and especially “Bob the navigator”, we decided to actually hire Bob http://bobthenavigator.homestead.com/ to provide planning assistance. Bob’s help, reminders and encouragement were well were the reasonable charge. For those who have read Bob’s constant comments on the list serve, he is an invaluable resource. When you hire him for personalized planning services you get everything from instant feedback on planning but even personalized maps, let alone his lists of “favorites” for wherever you are going. So here is a “shout out” to Bob and to the Fodorites who gave advice last year. Thanks.

For a selection of photos from this trip and a few others go to:
http://gilstravels.shutterfly.com/

For my 2005 Malta and Sicily trip report go to:
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/sicily-malta-trip-november-trip-report.cfm

2012 Italy Trip
Day 1 – arrival in Italy
We flew on Lufthansa out of Seattle to Naples with one change of plane in Frankfurt. Once again used United Miles to fly business class and that is so nice. We arrived smoothly at the Naples airport. No passport control. Just off to get our luggage. Because this was Naples and it had been a very long day we had followed Bob’d advice and hired a driver. We chose “Aldo Limo” to drive us from the Naples airport to our hotel door in Sorrento. www.aldolimos.com/ Our driver was “Mario” who races cars as a sideline. Yet he been a smoother or more careful driver our entire trip. Charming, informative and timely. We were picked up in a comfortable Mercedes sedan and driven to our hotel door in Sorrento for 90E. Along the way we had as many photo stops as we wanted and he even took us to the B of A partner bank so we could get cash at an ATM. The drive to Sorrento is about one hour. He also pointed out places to eat and offered to write them down but we were just too tired to remember and that was a little mistake. One place he mentioned was il buco (#7 of 187 on TA) which is a Michelin one star restaurant at the end of a small street down. We forgot about it until after dinner our last night and stumbled on it as we were walking on the street. A bit spendy but the food looked wonderful and the setting was very charming whether inside or outside.

Our hotel choice was the Grand Hotel de la Ville. http://www.delavillesorrento.com/en/index.php The hotel is just a 5-10 minute walk from the center of Sorrento but on a quiet side street. All rooms face the sea with views of the Isle of Capri and Mt. Vesuvias. We had decided to upgrade our Sorrento phase of our trip so we reserved a Premier Room with a large patio. Cost through www.booking.com was 284E per night. Room was not as large as we expected and the bed was very hard but the patio was truly amazing. The rooftop pool and bar were on one side of the roof and we were on the other. Our patio was a corner patio meaning it extended on two sides of the building facing not only the sea but the mountains. Probably 19 x 12 feet on the ocean side and 26 x 8 feet on the mountain side. Big enough for a party so we obviously needed to make friends soon.

The hotel has a very nice bar and dining room, very helpful staff and both indoor and outdoor dining. Pools on the roof and ground floor. We never ate there for anything besides breakfast so I cannot comment on the hotel restaurant but the menu looked good.
Upon arrival I decided to take an exploratory walk in to Sorrento to scope out a place for dinner but like a dummy I do not ask the desk clerk which way to go nor did I get a map. Big mistake. I stepped out the door and saw people walking to the right so I followed them. And followed and followed and followed. Unfortunately for me, this was the route to the next town over, San Angelo. Although I did end up walking along the seashore drive and other very nice hotels, I end up walking at least 3 miles by the time I got back. As I realized I was not in Sorrento I was glad I paid ATT for their international texting package as I had to text Ellen that it would be a while before I return. The only thing I can say for that is once you get lost and find your way back, your confidence level grows exponentially.

Upon my return and drinks on our patio looking at the sea, Capri and Vesuveus, Ellen and I headed out the door and turned left towards Sorrento. Immediately to our left was a large lemon orchard right in the middle of town so we could take a short cut through the orchard and then walk in to Sorrento to explore and get a snack and drink before dinner. We first stop at Il Leone Russo (#43 of 187 on TripAdvisor). We ordered wine and squid carpaccio which has been a favorite of ours since our trip to Sicily. Inexpensive. We ate outside but they also have a dining room. Then off we went taking the measure of the town shopping and searching for our dinner.
We had no plan and finally went to a place that was recommended by a local shop owner called. 'O Parrucchiano La Favorita (#37 of 187 on TA). It was gigantic. We sat down feeling overwhelmed and ignored. It was so big that it felt like it was designed for tourist buses yet at 8:30 pm at night that was unlikely. Anyway, we got up and left after 15 minutes. We wandered and wandered around the many little side street and ended up, of all places, at a place called The Foreigners Club (#53 of 187 on T.A.) which is all set on a large terrace facing the sea. We were immediately seated right at the edge facing the sea and we could watch the tenders go to and from a small cruise ship out in the bay of Naples. A perfect place for our first dinner in Sorrento. Ellen had fish and I had lemon Tagliatelle which became a staple for me in the area.

Around 1030pm, as we walked back, I went to make a reservation at some popular place for the next night and while I did so, Ellen makes friends with a couple from Australia, who were also in Sorrento for the first time. We decide to have espresso and gelato with them and lucky for us, they hoped to do everything we wanted to do while in the area, the only difference was that we have already reserved drivers and guides. So lucky us, if they join us, our cost just got cut in half and we had fun company.
So at midnight I emailed Aldo limo and asked if we can add 2 more, not expecting and answer until morning but 5 minutes later I get a response that “it will be OK but not comfortable in the car.” We decide that saving 140E beats a little comfort so we said OK. I mentioned before how nice Aldo Limo was. Well the next day we really found out.

Day 2
After a lovely breakfast in the garden, our driver Mario drives up but instead of our car he arrives in a Mercedes minivan saying "my boss said you 4 would be more comfortable in a van. Same cost." How nice was that? I like this company. You would too!
Our new friends, David and Sue, walk over from their hotel and we begin an 8 1/2 private drive on the Amalfi Coast. First with an educational drive in the Sorrento hills and then over the top towards the bay of Solerno. Unlike a tour bus, we can stop wherever Mario finds a spot and he is good at knowing all the great photo stops. Lots of photo stops along the way. Our first stop is Positano and we already see the advantage over a bus drive. Not only can we stop wherever we like on the drive...on our own schedule, but he drives right down into town to a waiting parking space. So no lost time disembarking the bus at the top and waiting for a shuttle.

We walk the narrow corridors down to the waterfront, check out some shops and get our first Gelato of the day. Personally I found Positano to be too many tourists and wall to wall shops and restaurants. Might be more appealing if I was staying there but not for a short visit. But it is beautiful. The best photos of the town are looking back from the hills to the south.

Because seeing gardens was a major goal on this trip, Aldo Limo had set an itinerary where we saved Amalfi for our drive back and we chose to spend over 3 hours at the town of Ravello which is a tiny, cliff top town dominating the Amalfi Coast and the sea. While we are there we first walked to the Villa Cimbrone which is about a 10-15 minute walk up a nice paved path along the residential hill. Quite a charming path walking past vegetable gardens. This Villa gardens (and hotel) are on an unbelievable site that hangs on the cliff side with a view from the peaks to the valley. There are six hectares of historic parkland which are considered to be among the most important examples of landscape and botany in the Mediterranean.
At the end of the gardens is The Terrace of Infinity has many eighteenth century marble bust busts but it is the long natural balcony on the cliff edge of the sea that is the true star. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. A very impressive garden with great views, plats, trees and statuary. Very serene and does not seem to get the main tourist throng that goes to villa Rufolo which is in the main town.

After tasting Limoncello we walk through town way to the back edge to find our lunch at Cumpa’ Cosimo (#9 of 26 in TA). This place was both recommended by our driver and also by BOB. What struck us was that no one else eating there appeared to be non-Italian. A family owned restaurant since 1929. Despite varied reviews, we thought the food was quite good and was reasonably priced.
After lunch we walked back to town to see our second garden which was at the Villa Rufalo. This garden was much smaller and very different. The garden is much more part of the Villa itself but it also had spectacular views, particularly south towards Amalfi. Though we were there in late September there were still many flowers in full bloom. Apparently they do live music performances on a stage suspended over the cliff so that the sea is not only behind but below the orchestra. We missed it by a week as they were just dismantaling the stage,
Our total time in Ravello was about 3 1/2 hours which is longer than most Amalfi coast tours would take but we all felt it was just right. The weather was gorgeous and it was just so serene.

On our drive back we finally stopped at Amalfi which starts right at the waters edge. A cruise ship was right on the beach so you know the town was not only filled with tourists from buses and other drives like ours but also a literal “boatload” of folks. By then we were getting tired so after a brief visit to the Duomo and some Gelato we were ready to head back. Our best gelato of the trip so far was in a place in the main square past the church on the right but I cannot remember the name. Our total trip was about 9 ½ hours and was 280E for 4 people. I am not sure how that compares to bus tour prices but we thought 70E per person for a comfortable trip on our own schedule was well worth the money.
After a short rest we walked over to Dave and Susan's hotel before heading to dinner at a little pasta place they had discovered . The restaurant is call Restaurante O'Murzill on Via del Accademia. (#37 of 187 on TA) Only about 7 tables, no English, but great food. The wife is the cook and husband is the host. Only 40E per couple for 3 pasta entrée’s, seafood antipasto, tomato salad, Grilled zucchini and a bottle of wine.

Day 3
This was the day we had planned to go to Pompeii and Herculaneum to see how the world looked before Vesuveus blew its top. We had searched for a guide on Trip Advisor and found Lucia Pompeii Guide. http://www.luciapompeiiguide.com/. I highly recommend her.
Once again, Dave and Sue wanted to join us at Pompeii. The train ride from Sorrento is 30 minutes and only costs 3.4E for a round trip ticket (that could have gone all the way to Naples).
We arrive and there is Lucia with my name on a sign.
A recent review on TripAdvisor said “My husband and I have been hiring private guides for 20 years and Lucia is quite possibly the best ever. Her English is very easy on the ears and descriptive and passionate. She knows her subjects well and can go in different directions when she senses a particular interest. Best of all was her ability to navigate around the massive crowds of tour groups and find the alternate avenues for exploration.”
That is a perfect description. She was easy to coordinate with via email from the states. She told us which train to take from Sorrento and met us at the Pompeii station with a sign. She immediately helped us get tickets and directed the women to the toilette. Lucia is very knowledgeable and passionate about the ruins. She has been a guide for over 25 years and she is able to keep you away from the large tourist groups while giving you an intimate tour. She went non-stop for over 3 hours. PLus her knowledge base allowed her to turn on a dime when she knows of a special interest. Dave is a Geologist and as soon as that was mentioned, she added extensive geological information to our tour and Dave immediately told me, “she knows her stuff.”
You really understood how good she is when you stood near another guide or two. Some were very slow talking with poor English and even slower moving. Others are more energetic but clearly not as knowledgeable as Lucia. She was worth every penny.

You also have no idea how immense Pompeii is until you go there. Though you can spend all day there, it gets overwhelming. After our tour we ate lunch on site then spent almost another hour wandering more of the sights until we caught the train further north to Herculaneum which is at the Ercolano Scavi stop. Herculaneum which is a completely different experience (and far less crowded).
Herculaneum is completely different. Truly a hole in the ground. You enter and look down in to the excavated town As opposed to Pompeii where you walk up a hill and enter the town on the hilltop.

Herculaneum is much less crowded while we were there, no tour buses or large groups. We were able to leisurely view the town and homes at a leisurely pace and it was very peaceful. Most interesting was a mosaic that was being restored as we were there.
After a long hot day it was the long train ride back to Sorrento. Glad we brought water and had Gelato before we left.

For dinner we went to l'antica trattoria (#8 of 187 in TA). Lots of lovely tables outside but we did not have a reservation and did not want to wait so we were taking inside to what felt like a private dining room way in the back. This was a much more expensive place than the nights before. Much more upscale in decor, service and presentation. I had a 4 course prefix meal for 39E which was seafood salad, lemon angel hair pasta with shrimp, a fish course then dessert. The pasta was the best I had had on the trip so far and was served in a very large lemon. Wine was extra.

We finally got back at our hotel at 1130 pm. Dave and Sue were staying another day to see Capri and as much as we wanted to stay, we were meeting 2 couples in Rome the next day and could not alter our plans.

Day 4
On day 4 we headed to Rome. Again we used Mario of Aldo Limo as our driver. We decided to spend more money and have him drive us to the Archeological Museum in Naples before we got to the train station. That cost an extra 70E to have him wait at the museum but even our Pompeii Guide Lucia advised against checking our bags in Naples and wandering on our own. We had wondered whether to go to the museum the day we arrive or the day we left the Campania region but once we got there we knew.

It is so much more meaningful AFTER you have seen Pompeii and Herculaneum as you realize that many of the items that had been removed from the sites were there in the museum. Plus what you see is all in context. It was however very hot and humid. No A/C. It also took a while to find the items from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Lucia does tours at the museum too and I can see where that would have been nice….but she was booked every day and we had a lot of days to go.


After the museum we took a high speed 1 hour train to Rome Termini. The train was very smooth and comfortable. Caught a cab which dropped us off at the end of street to our hotel. Hotel Cesari Albergo http://www.albergocesari.it/ (108 out of 1269 at TA). Cost was 210E per night.

The room was decent sized overlooking the street. The Bathroom was small with a corner shower next to toilet. It is located at Via di Pietra, a small street which goes from Via del Corso towards the Pantheon. Easy walking distance to the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. Very nice desk guys but don’t trust their restaurant recommendations. To get a snack we took a quick walk around the corner to Taverna Antonina (#1,275 of 4,698 at TA). A nice simple glass of wine with fresh porcini pasta. Cheap, quick and satisfying. And quiet.


Caught up with our 4 friends at 6pm at upstairs rooftop terrace where the hotel provided free drinks. Went to dinner at a lousy restaurant called Ristorante Fonata de Venere (#40 out of 4698 on TA) near the Trevi fountain which was simply awful. The Owner tried to entertain the table but in the end it was simply not very good plus our table was inside, way in the back so it was hot and stuffy. I simply do not see how folks can rate it #40 on TA. I agree with the October TA post that said “To be honest, this is a tourist trap restaurant. The service and waiters are nice, but food was not very nice at all.”

Day 5
We got up early to catch a bus to the Vatican museum for our 9am tour. Got the right bus but going the wrong way. When we finally caught the right bus we still had to walk 20 min after getting out of the bus. Despite all that we were on time for 9am tour. Guide was OK but clearly no Lucia. She was really in to the religion more than the art , history or architecture. Too much talk outside in the sun when we should have been inside. Then she kind of rushed us through the Sistine chapel. About 3 1/2 hours ending at St. Peters Bacillica.
We were all tired and hot.

We walked back and had lunch at Il Falchetto Ristorante near Piazza s. Ignazio. (#322 out of 4,678 on TA). Nice lunch then a long nap

Ellen and I had our own plans for an 8 pm dinner with some Roman friends we had met on an earlier trip to South Africa They had us meet them at a restaurant called cuccucuri which is way out of the downtown area by the new Dutch designed bridge called Ponte della Musica near the old Olympic site. Ellen saw her bridge so I was happy for her and it was quite remarkable to see. Of course our Roman friends complained that it was only a pedestrian bridge but that added to its charm and beauty. Dinner was at Cuccurucu’ at Via Caporati, 10. (#1,597 of 4,698 on TA).
I think the ratings are based on old reviews prior to the upgrades. I agree with this review on TA: “We were lucky to get a table outdoor with view over the Tiber. Inside the atmosphere is more standard. Book a table outdoor or arrive before 20.00. Excellent service despite a crowded restaurang. The food was great, not cheap but we felt we got value for money We will definitely go back.” We were there in the fall at 20:00 and had a wonderful table outside looking at the Tiber and the Ponte della Musica. There is a large meat case facing you as you enter so this is a Roma restaurant you should really consider having a meat course not just pasta or fish. A nice evening with our Roman friends discussing politics.

Day 6
Day 6 was kind of a lost day. Despite all our planning, no one remembered to reserve tickets at the Villa Borghese and as a result they were sold out for days. Despite that, we took a long walk to the Spanish steps and to the Villa Borghese grounds to see if there were cancellations. Not a good plan on a hot humid day but we stayed in good spirits. Walking back we walked by the De Vinci museum at located at Piazza del Popolo at the Chiesa Santa Maria. Entrance fee is (7.00 Euro) per person. One large room and two small rooms, full of interesting Da Vinci replica experimental instruments but the Museo Galileo - Institute and Museum of the History of Science has a hundred times more on display and is a lot better an attraction. So if you are going to Florence, skip all the other Da Vinci museums (like this one in Rome)

On way back had very good lunch at Osteria del Tempo Perso on via dell ‘Oca just a street off the Piazza del Popolo. (#1822 out of 4,698 on TA). This was my best lemon veal of the trip and everyone liked their lunch. Pretty reasonable prices too. It deserves a much higher rating for lunch.

Ellen and I resumed our search for a 240V hair straightener and we found a small travel version just blocks from our hotel. Cool

After a rest we followed through on our plan to attend Kol Nidre services at the Grand Synagogue of Rome. We did as the Rabbi said and got there early at 620am but tourists did get to enter until about 700 or later so we all missed the Kol Nidre par of the service which as it turns out is just about the only part we would have recognized. The women had to sit in the hot and humid balcony with the children and I was downstairs on the main floor. We could not follow any of service and left at 8 pm and grabbed a cab back to our hotel where we met up with our friends for dinner at Le Cave S. Ignazio Ristorante. (#1659 out of 4,698 TA) One review said: “At this Italian Ristorante, they eat tourists alive” and they were right. This was another hotel recommendation and another ripoff. Our bill just had a bunch of 6E charges but the total for our group was over 220E and there was simply no way to challenge anything as they kept bringing things we did not order which appeared like complimentary items but are obviously pad the bill items. Food was OK but it was outside and we still had fun. Maybe the food was my punishment for not fasting.

Day 7
Today we head to Firenze (Florence). Everyone got ready to catch our 10:40a.m.train. We tried to leave before 10am but hotel could not get 2 cabs. Then 100's of protesters marched in street. One cab finally come but not the 2nd cab until 1010. We got to train station at 1025 . Could not see train departures. Looked at ticket and it says 10:20. Damn. A nice guys sees our distress and takes us to a local train leaving for Firenze in 10 minutes. Then a station master tells us in 15 min. there is another high speed train leaving. He gets us to ticket person who rebooks our reserved seats using her PDA. So we get the 1045 train but have to pay 8E. per person to re-reserve seats. On train the same ticket agent that rebooked the seats says we could have changed them for free at the counter!!! But of course she did not tell us until 50 minutes into our train trip. But in the big scheme of things, 8E is just a couple of Gelato’s each and we are in Italy.

We arrive and decide to walk to the hotel with the bags. It is still very hot and humid in Italy, as it has been very day. So we make it to the Hotel Davanzati. Only 199E per night and a 10% discount for cash. Great location, not far from the river but you have to drag your bags up 26 steps to get to the lobby. Medium sized rooms for Italy but the best bed (and pillows) of trip so far. No view. Nice bathroom. Very friendly staff reserving tours, tickets and restaurants even before we arrived and after we arrived. They could not have been more helpful.

On arrival we dump our bags at the hotel and head out the door to La Bussola Ristorante Pizzeria (#90 out of 1,278 on TA), across the street for lunch. Very nice and reasonably priced. Quiet street.

We ran into our Australian friends in the Accademia Gallery where Michelangelo’s David statue is. Really long lines so glad we had reservations. Despite a 4:30pm reservation we did not get in until about 5pm. Had a nice visit with them catching up. Very interesting museum too, particularly the Icons from 1300's

I had prearranged a reservation at a little place recommended on trip advisor that only had 5 tables called Vini e Vechi Sapora at 3 via dei Magazzini. (#4 of 1,284 on TA). This place was great. I had spent the past 6 nights looking for a Papperadelle pasta with Duck Ragout to no avail and there it was, the dinner special. Yay! It was just what I expected. Delicious as was everyone’s dish and every dessert. Inexpensive place, intimate, casual and great food.
All the guys had the Ragout and loved it

Day 8
This was day #2 in Florence and our friend Jo had arranged an amazing guide (guides by locals) who took us around for 3 1/2 hours finishing with the highlights of the Uffizi gallery. Our guide was Elena at www.toursbylocals.com . She was knowledgeable, good English and really made sure we saw the highlights of the town and the Uffizi. We were very impressed with her art history knowledge that made the paintings much more meaningful. Highly recommend her.

After that we split up. 4 of us went to climb the city hall tower to take photos of Florence and the Duomo then we headed across the river to the Boboli and Bernini gardens. After a mediocre lunch at some pizzeria we finally found the entrance to the Boboli. There were Grey skies and intermittent sprinkles. Few blooms and the garden was just not that well maintained. Bernini was nicer but pretty much wasted time. Lots of photos. Gelato and then Back to our room.

Tonight is the big Florentine steak night. I had purposely not ordered steak anywhere waiting for Florence to see if I could get a better steak than I got in a little place in Rome 6 years earlier.
Before heading out I tried to back up my latest photos to my iPad. The message said “Not enough memory.” So in the process of deleting files from iPad I deleted 2 days of Firenze photos from my camera. Pretty much everything . Bummer. I had some great shots.

Tip: disconnect your camera before you fiddle with your iPad or computer. Guess I will have to rely on our travel companions to recover the last 2 days but gee, I really had taken some nice photos.

So anyway, we walked to Trattoria Sostanza (Il Troia) for the big 1 KG Florentine steak. Back and forth but could not find it. Then magically at 730pm the gate opened and it appeared with line of people. (#205 out of 1,284 on TA)
I bought a wonderful Barolo for everyone to share.
The restaurant is tucked away a block off the river near the Westin Excelsior and the St. Regis hotels. Sostanza is known for its "Butter Chicken" a.k.a. Pollo al Burro and Bisteak, so naturally we ordered those. It seats about 215-30 people. Two seatings. 7:30pm and 9pm. Despite the rave reviews on TA I was disappointed in my steak. The chicken was two large bonelss breasts. The steak is big enough for 2-3 people. My Meal was disappointing. Steak was big but surprisingly tasteless and charred in a strange way. The concierge at the hotel was surprised and based on the reviews maybe I just was unlucky that night. But I would try a different place for Florentine steak next time.

Day 9
This was our last morning in Florence then on to Siena. Our companion Kathy suggested we all go next door to the Davanzati Palazzo. Great idea as it was wonderful and uncrowded. It was very interesting to see how an upper crust family lived. Then a quick trip to see the cathedral which looks amazing on the outside but boring on inside (unlike the Duomo in Siena which is great inside and out). We then took cabs to bus station and again repeated our Rome cab misadventure. The first cab went right to the bus station but the 2nd cab went to the train station so we all missed the first bus.

We finally arrived by bus in Siena and had no idea we were so far from our hotel. We had originally planned to get our cars when we arrived but chose to wait a day and save money. But in that process our rental place was on one side of Siena and our hotel was on the other. The bus stop was in between.

Once again we decided to walk. Up and down. A long walk and finally 1/2 way Ellen and I grabbed a cab and took everyone's bags. From now on we take cabs to and from our hotels. No more walking! I tried to use my Garmin as a walking tool because I had cleverly bought an Italy SD card with Italy maps. But every time I turned it on it said not enough memory. Internet solved that later in the evening.

We stayed at the 4 star Hotel Athena on the very edge of the city by the wall. Despite the 4 stars we got room rates of 150E per night including parking and breakfast. Very Large rooms, Bathrooms with baths and bidets. Very nice place. Nice breakfast. Upscale hotel, downscale price.

Dinner at La Taverna del Capitano (#55 of 252 on TA). My grilled rabbit was too grilled but the waiter was fun. A recent review on TA said “Although this Taverna looked interesting and the service was good, the food was average at best. The meat was badly overcooked and the wine, a Brunella, was thin and not worth the 8€ a glass price tag. There are better options in Sienna.” That was my experience.
TIP: Thanks to an internet search I found out I needed to turn off my internal US maps for the Garmin to be able to use the Italy maps. With that correction the garmin was ready to provide GPS help while driving for the rest of the trip..

Day 10
Today we took a Cab ride to the train station area to get our cars. One couple ended up with a Ford minivan and our Peugeot was pretty large too. Plenty of room for all our bags as we were 3 couples. After an hour getting the cars we started out.
TIP: we rented our cars through KEMWEL instead of autoeurope (which actually owns Kemwel now). The prices were about $100 less. We actually got our cars at Hertz.

At the 2nd roundabout we got separated as we followed the wrong car. But between calls and texting we communicated and all met at the town of Greve in Chianti hoping to enjoy a wonderful farmers market. Well there were some farmers there but it seems mostly like a gypsy market of junk. After the obligatory pork sandwiches, Gelato and espresso we then spent the day driving around Chianti. A little too aimlessly.

However in Radda in Chianti which is a small lovely hill town, we stumbled on to Al Chiasso dei Portici (#5 of 23 in TA) This was an excellent choice for a nice lunch on the terrace. We found the service to be friendly and professional and the food was very good. A little spendy but it was a favorite of everyone. We continued to a number of hill towns in Chianti ultimately seeing some signs and driving to a winery, Casa al Vento in Gaiole in Chianti. After driving up a hilly road, that the road turned into gravel and then dirt. We followed this road for about 2-3 miles to what seemed like the end of the world as we were wondering where we were going to end up and then the winery was closed that day.
Upon our return to Siena we were really glad for the GPS as we would never have found the hotel parking without it. For that matter, we arrive and there is about 3” clearance to drive the car up and then a giy appears telling us to squeeze in between cars. Tomorrow he can get the cars for us because no way I am trying to get this out.

Dinner tonight was at another hotel recommendation but I cannot remember the name and cannot find the business carte. Very tasty food tonight.

Day 11 sunday
Today was the day we planned to drive to the Abbey at S’Antimo to hear the Gregorian chants. Then the plan was lunch in Montalcino then wine tasting at Altesino vineyards. But we left
too late (TIP: be sure and leave by 9:00am.) Then we made a wrong turn and got there too late. Also the two cars got separated for more fun.

TIP: In Montalcino there is a big roundabout and the exit to the Abbey is about the 4th exit on the roundabout but it looks like you will just be going back down the hill but you aren’t. It’s really a road that parallels for the initial part going a different way. So my suggestion is take 2 trips in the circle before you exit and you will see the signs for the Abbey without any panic or mistakes.

After a frustrating morning we stopped at some small Taverna for an espresso. We got a crummy cappuccino and pastry and then the others showed up. However our fortunes then turned.

After a while a young woman at the next table, Christal, told us she had lived in Oregon and that started a long conversation. She told us she was working as a Sommelier at Il Cocco vineyard and we should come and try their wines. Of course we could not understand her directions and had little confidence left that we would find anything that had no address.

Anyway, she dumped her friend and went with us in the car taking us first to Montalcino where she gave a small tour and then some wine tastings at local shops she knew. Then lunch at Ristorante Pizzeria San Giorgio. This was a white table cloth place and the food was very good though the service was slow, even with an Italian speaker at the table. (#15 of 42 on TA). This is a restaurant for you if you like to dine with locals, eat good and authentic food, drink excellent wine and enjoy a casual atmosphere.

After our meal and more wine tasting we drove to Il Cocco which is where she works. Never would have found it without her in the car. We did a full tasting there and toured the small winery. Met the owner whose family had owned the land for hundreds of years. A very intimate day. Drove home getting home late. Then the first real rain of the trip.

No one felt like going out so I walked up the hill to Ristorante Pizzareia Spahhetteria Due Ponte. (#133 of 252 in TA). Got take out pasta and salad. Should have gotten pizza as they must have sold 40 take out pizzas while I was waiting.


Day 12 Monday
Today was our planned Day trip drive to Volterra and San Gimignano. Two cars.
Pretty good day. The tour books have lots of information on each town and Rick Steves shows them on his video so I will not bore you with the details. You can easily do both towns in a day and it is a worthy day trip while in Tuscany.

Upon our return we did the Siena City hall (Pallazo Pubblico) tour and the Hall tower climb. All at the base of the Piazza del Campo. Chuck and I realized we keep climbing the city hall towers and looking at the churches instead of climbing the Duomos. The art, rooms and frescos were really wonderful and we were glad we did not miss them. There is a combined price of tower and City hall but they refused to sell us the combo saying there was not enough time to climb the tower and get in to the Museum afterwards.

Challenge met. We climbed. Took pictures and came down in time to demand the discount and enter the museum at the city hall. This was our last night in Siena so we chose to dine at a restaurant on the Piazza del Campo. We ate at a place on the compo but did not write down the name. Very nice meal for our final night.

Day 13 Tuesday
Today our group split up for the day as we left Siena for our next 2 nights in Cinque Terre.
The other 4 drove to Pisa and we drove straight...kind of...to Monterosso al Mare in the Cinque Terre. As much as we would have loved to see Pisa or Lucca (another trip I guess) the weather predictions were uncertain for the next day and I wanted to see the 5 towns of the Cinque Terre from the sea with the sun in the west shining on them. Of course our GPS decided we should get off at La Spezzia which is a large port town to the south of the Cinque Terre. I think it wanted us to drive the narrow mountainous roads above the towns whereas BOB had told us to get off the Autostrade at the Levanto exit. So after about 30 minutes of wandering round trying to get back on the autostrade, we were back headed north. TIP: follow BOB”s instructions.

The weather seemed threatening as we got off the autostrade and the road was very windy yet as we dropped down towards the coast the weather kept looking better. We followed the signs to Monterosso al Mare but missed the signs that gave us two choices so we made the wrong choice and drove all the way to the old town only to find we could not enter. Even though the internet says the road is open to tourists after September, because the fall 2011 floods weakened the roads so much, tourists are not allowed and entry is blocked.

So after a call to the hotel and being told to drive back up, go through 3 tunnels and then head back down we finally drove right to the hotel. Once again, the hotel had free parking. Our choice in Monterosso al Mare was the Hotel La Spiaggia HotelLaSpiaggia@libero.it. We booked early in February and maybe were some of the first people to book after the floods. We were promised 3 terraced rooms facing the ocean and the owner, Andrea Poggi, delivered. Two had massive covered terraces (probably about 20 x 10 feet) with lots of furniture. Ours had a view facing the sea and south towards the town and coastline. The best room in the place. The sea view rooms have no A/C and the A/C rooms have no view. The price was only 140E per night, cash. TIP: I recommend room #23 if you want the large covered patio with the best view. How can you go wrong for 140E? If my photo links work you can see the photo your self.

After a glass of wine with the hosts we were off on a boat. First to Manarola and the Riomaggiore. Think of it as Riomaggiroe is town #1 in the south. Next Manarola. Next Corniglia which is the only town you cannot reach by boat. Then Vernazza which was the town most hurt by the 2011 fall floods. Then Monterosso al Mare at the north as #5. Monterosso is more like a beach resort but a great place if you want to park a car.

The weather was bright and sunny shirt sleeve warm. We took a brief look at Manarola, had a Gelato and then back on the next boat to Riomaggiore. To our surprise, our 4 companions had arrived and were on the 2nd boat. Then we all took the train back to Monterosso

Our hotel host had suggested that when the weather is good we should eat at Hotel Porto Roca at their La Terrazza del Porto Roca (#38 of 43 on TA) is a unique restaurant with a great scenic location. It is one of the few restaurants in Monterosso that offers its guests a terrace view. A beautiful 4 star hotel on a bluff over the ocean on the cliff side edge of the old town. Tables outside, ocean view and you can see the lights of the new and old town from the terrace restaurant as well as see the lights of the other towns of the Cinque Terre. Despite the reviews, everyone thought the food was very good food and with reasonable prices.

However, at night, walking there, I had forgotten it was on the south edge of the old town so when we got to the south edge of the new town, we started walking up the cliff paths until we lost all helpful lighting. We were climbing the steps and hills partly in the dark. Though we could have come down the other side, it required some serious flashlights and confidence which we all lacked. Here we were in the dark, climbing a cliff, lights end, and so we retraced our steps. Went back through the tunnel to the old town and then walked up to restaurant.
More gelato back in town.


Day 14 wed
Today was the day we planned to hike the Cinque Terre. Supposedly, if you walk hard you can do all 5 towns in 5 hours. Our plan had been to take wine and food breaks along the way. But just as we had feared when we sped to Monterosso the day before, it started raining. So we waited an hour for the rain to stop while we toured the new town.
The week before a landslide caught some tourists and seriously hurt them so all the trails were “officially” closed with signs, chains and in some places gates. But our host, Andrea said to just ignore the signs as the trails were fine except for the romatica trail down south as a large landslide had taken the trail out. So we decided to take the train to Corniglia and hike to Vernazza which is supposed to be a 90 minute hike on the blue closed trail.

We followed the advice of many and took the C.T. bus to the town and then after brief tour of the town had lunch at La Posada, another recommendation of Andrea. It could be that they get much of their business from Andrea as you keep meeting people who are there because of him. Though there were 20 French people eating there after a hike.
A review on Trip advisor said: ”Stopped for lunch here on our way from town to town. Our hotel in Monterosso had recommended this place. We had some trouble finding it, but when we did the location was beautiful as promised. The outdoor terrace was landscaped with flowers and trees and there was an amazing water view. The food was also very good. Service was spotty but that is because the owner/manager/waiter Christian seemed to be the only one serving. Ellen and I followed Andrea’s advice to split the seafood antipasti and it was a lot of food.


Luckily the trail head was right near the restaurant. Signs said trail was closed but we went anyway thinking we would go as far as it was safe. We passed about 50 people during the whole hike and they all said it was great. You could see where there had been massive repair work done since the fall 2011 floods and slides. The trail was in wonderful shape. New handrails and bridges. New paving. New retaining walls. Plus we got the chance to see repair crews. They helicopter in the supplies and equipment and then work in place.
90 minutes.

The only downside is that we were so tired that we wanted to catch the train back after our Gelato so we made the mistake of not seeing the lower part of town and probably missed a lot. But every trip has highlights and regrets. Back in Monterosso we took off our shoes and soaked our feet in Mediterranean. After wine and snacks on our patios we went to dinner across the street at Ristorante Milky (#4 of 43 on TA). Fancy presentation with a pizza dough cover to each platter which they then sear and removes. The atmosphere is bit formal but very attractive. Prices were a bit higher. Probably better values but a nice dinner to end our stay at Cinque Terre. As we all noted, much more cost than Porto Rosso but still cheaper than the Rome rip-off.

Day 15 Thurs
The end of our trip nears as we say good bye to C.T. A third day would have been just about right. From here we have a long drive to Lake Orta which is a small lake about 45-60 minutes east of the Malpensa airport (near Milan) and also southeast of the Giant Lake Maggiore. The drive from Monterosso to Lake Orta, with one stop was 4 hours. Lots of tunnels. Our hotel here was La Bussola. 165E including tax. Funny thing. At check out I asked if there was a discount for cash and they said I should have asked when I check in.

TIP: if you stay there, ask for the cash discount at check in and not check out. Most places knock off 10%. La Bussola is on the hill above the town and it’s about a 10 minute walk to the town square which is kind of refreshing. More free and easy parking. The staff seemed stiff and Germanic but helpful when asked. However they really lit up when Italians or Germans spoke to them.

By the time we were in the piazza, lunch was over at most places and we ordered some focaccia at an outdoor table at ai due Santi (#17 of 21). Should have just got Gelato. But back to our day. After waiting 30 min for the ferry we hired a boat for not much more and better return times We went to the island, saw the church and walked the island. Upon our return I wandered around looking for a hidden gem restaurant and thought I had found one where I made a reservation for our final night the next day,

We then returned to ai due Santi (#17 of 21) for dinner on the recommendation of the Gelato guy. Though it had no view it was supposed to have better food than the view restaurants. they had a lovely dining room and much better food than the reviews suggest. Also good wine prices. Very good. The winner dishes were the mushroom tart and the deer chops.

Day 16 fri
Today was the day where a plan really came together. BOB had suggested taking a day trip to Stresa on Lake Maggiore. So a week before we left I read more about Stresa and planned for Ellen and I to go there on our way to Malpensa on Saturday as a calm way to end the trip in beauty. Instead we went as a group on Friday. It was about a 30 minute drive.
After driving over the mountain in a curvy but more direct and scenic route we found our way to the bottom of the tram and the boat launch site.

For 10E each we got a R/T ticket that took us to all three islands. It was like having our own private boat and we wondered why we had been so reluctant to spend a few extra Euros earlier in the trip as these things made it special.

First was Isola Madre. Beautiful gardens and a 16th century palace. Ticket for this palace and Isola Bella was 18E and well worth it. Really well maintained English style garden no crowds, very interesting.

Then on to touristy to Isola Pescatori where we walked the island and ate lunch at Ristorante Belvedere (#5 of 11 on TA) overlooking the lake and Isola Madre. Everyone enjoyed their lunch and view. Plus they have a covered patio out of the sun though for us the sun and earth kept moving and we ended up in the sun anyway.

Then finally Isola Bella where there are also 17th century baroque Italian gardens and an opulent palace. I would describe all three islands but you are better off reading it on line. What I would say it is a wonderful day trip and well worth the time and money. Ellen thought they were the best gardens of the trip and everyone felt it would be a perfect way to end your trip before going to the airport in Milan. But, of course we had one more day.

On exit we got more gelato then our boat to shore
Total time was about 5 1/2 – 6 hours. I recommend you spend at least 90 minutes on Isola Madre and plan for about 7 hours to do it all justice.

On our way back we took the straighter but longer route back around the edges of Lake Magiorre and Lake Orta. Not a very attractive drive. Stick with the mountains and it you have time, drive to the top where the tram goes and you can see all the lakes and the Alps from there. Of course you can also take the tram from the same docks you catch the boats but it is quite expensive and if you ski, trams are not that big a deal.
For our final evening we just sat on our lake view decks and looked at calm Lake Orta and Isola San Giulio then dinner at my little gem, La Locanda Del Buon Riso (#4 of 21 on TA) which I thought was the best restaurant of the whole trip. This is a relatively new restaurant and has yet to be fully discovered. Wonderful presentation, very interesting flavors and every dish (and dessert) stood out. Plus very reasonable wine prices and great service. A recent review on TA says “My husband and I visited Lago Orta for the first time and stayed one night. We walked the town and read up on restaurants in the area. We wanted delicious food but nothing too "out there" (e.g., foam). We decided to try La Locanda del Buon Riso based on the reviews we read, the menu and the look of the restaurant. We were not disappointed and in fact, more than pleased. We had the broccoli cake, the prosciutto with parm and fresh, local mushrooms, pasta with hare ragu, a delicious beef filet with fruits, and a hot baked apple dumpling with vanilla sauce. We savored each dish and left extremely happy. The owners only opened the restaurant last March 2012 and seem to be taking on their new venture with love and care. The building has been rehabilitated and is charming - on 3 floors. Highly recommend trying it out and hopefully they will be a big success!” I agree completely.

Day 17 sat
Today is the day we split up as we fly home tomorrow. The two couples who were new to Italy wanted to go in to Milan and see the Duomo and few sights. We planned on heading back to Lake Maggiori and going on the west side to Verbania, then taking the ferry to the east side at Laveno to see some cliff side churches recommened by our hotel staff. Another sunny day and it seems like this will be a nice alternative to our island tour that we had originally planned. But then, at the last minute we decided to drive in to Milan to see modern art, furnishings and fixtures at a place we read about on the internet.

So we drove to our final airport hotel to check in and dump our bags. We had chosen First Hotel Malpensa (123E) which proved harder to find than we thought. We got there at 11am and the hotel would not let us check in until noon without paying an extra 25E. We refused but they did offer free internet and two lobby computers so we caught up on the news and email. Finally at 11:5am we got into our room and took naps. The room, bed and bath were very nice. 123E.

We found out that our GPS simply could not find the place and we drive around in circles. Finally I asked some guy (mix of English and Italian and arm waving) who does not know the place but knows the village and he sends us a few miles down a road and over a bridge where we still do not find it. I then go in to a 4 star hotel and the desk clerk tells me we are a 10 minute walk away from our goal but driving would be hard. So we park and walk to the train station and while underground go left instead of right. That resulted in 20 more minutes of hot humid walking while lost but then we find the correct street and the numbers are getting closer.

Then we find our goal only to see it is locked up tighter than a drum despite the website saying it would be open. So we give up and right on the other side is the train station.
In frustration we decide to drive further in to Milan and we park at a lot that I can only describe as Nigerian hell. Guys are all over the place trying to sell your something and make you feel like you need to pay them to park even though they are standing in your space. We finally park and head towards the shops feeling very stressed and in need of gelato. For the first time in almost 3 weeks, there is not a gelato stand every 10 meters. But we finally find some good gelato and by then all we want is to get our car back out of the lot.

We drive back to Malpensa to drop our car and since the restaurant near our hotel is closed for renovations, we decide to eat the Sheraton Hotel at the airport. Then back to the hotel and call it an early night as we need to get up at 4 to catch our 430am shuttle for an early morning flight back to the states.

Day 18
A good trip home an all my wine, porcini mushrooms, duty free scotch and vinegar made it home safe and sound. BOB helped us plan a great trip and we look forward to our next adventure.

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