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Trip Report trip report - 2 weeks in Tuscany/Umbria

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Hoping it may be a help to those planning a trip or just and enjoyable read for others, here are my 'diary' notes for the recent 2 and a bit weeks we spent in this gorgeous part of the world - happy to answer queries on any details I have left out...

Italy 2011
This is very strange – we have been well here over a week and usually I would have written in my trip report everyday but here I am setting pen to paper (purely figuratively) for the first time. I put it down to busy busy days and staying with six other friends so that when I’d usually sit down to rest or write there was always someone to chat too … that’s my excuse anyway.

We flew direct Brisbane-Dubai – 15 hours straight and it was great! Emirates are so comfy, the food is great and with a couple of wee bottles of red wine each we both slept long and well. After a brief stop admiring the shops in Dubai airport and trying to get internet connection, we were off again – given at least two more excellent meals (including a full Turkish mezze breakfast) – and landed in Milan rested, well fed and ready for the adventure. Isn’t it amazing to plan something for months, (I even looked at the Milan airport on the internet) and then to be there, taking money out of the ATM I had checked out, buying the sim card and the bus ticket to the centre of town. It was all so simple. The sim card (vodaphone) was E20 and gave me E20 credit, bought from the money changer. It was activated within less than two hours and has been a great asset. After 8 days I still have E11.20 left too.

Into Milan station and with great advice from Roninrome (www.roninrome.com) we bought our ticket to Bologna without any worries and were soon seated in first class with free bubbly wine and snacks (yes there was one little hitch, second class was booked out by the time we got there but hey a little bit of first class doesn’t hurt at all).

Found the Mercure Hotel in Bologna right in front of our noses as we came out of the station – a great find… good price and very comfortable and friendly.

Bologna is a lovely city. I wish we’d had more than one night there. But we made the most of it – rushed out to the main piazza, goggled at the trendy shops, admired the beautiful people out and about on Friday evening, and walked miles of little back streets (not lost just feeling like wandering – at first anyway).

Back at the hotel we met up with our friends Sue and Glen, and Peter and Tara, shared excited news, ate, drank our first Italian wine (hmmmm well you know how we feel about Australian wine, but this was in a cheap café near the hotel – hopefully it will get better) and slept long and deep before rushing out to the train to Florence in the morning.

Aaah Florence… it’s been 16 years since I decided I would definitely come back… it has changed a lot but is still beautiful… but the biggest difference for me is the heat! Last time I was here it was cold. I tramped around in a woollen coat and boots. Now it is up to 35deg and humid too…

As planned, we (the six of us – the last two, Doug and Dee, will join us later in the day) drop our bags and head to the Mercato Centrale for supplies for our rented villa and a delicious lunch at Nerbone restaurant right in the market (highly recommended and rightly so!). The aromas, the tastes, the sights! It bodes well for lovely meals and fun times.

Supplies in hand we head to the hills in 2 taxis and find our home for the week, a 14century building renovated to hold 5 bedrooms in the house plus another unit outside… and a lovely swimming pool which we put to good use since the temperatures don’t really drop for the whole week. We are only 8 in all (one couple dropped out) so we have stacks of room. Have a look at the villa here http://www.florenceholidays.com/florence-luxury-villas-villa-larione-florence-tuscany.html

Sunday is Sue’s 60th birthday and we’ve organised a day out – our guide, the dashing and ever-helpful Maurizio, picks us up at 9.00am and we spend the day in ease and comfort driving around the hills of Chianti, oohing and aaahing over the scenery, hearing all about the violent history of the region, and eating and drinking well. First is the beautiful tower town of San Gimignano – it is our first hilltown and is just fabulous - perhaps a little crowded, it is a tourist mecca after all, and it is Sunday, but we are lucky to get there before the worst of the crowds. Then Maurizio takes us to a friend’s vineyard where we taste the lovely Chianti Classico wines, some not so lovely grappa, and some exquisite balsamic @ E50 per rather small bottle!! Lunch is in lovely surroundings but frankly overpriced and not terribly special but it is beautiful to be out in this fabulous country with friends… Then it’s on to Greve in Chianti, the very centre of the wine country. Their annual wine festival is in full swing with people and stalls filling the town square, offering wine and cheese and other delicacies to try… Tom and I can’t resist a few tastes… we suspect the Italians get much bigger tastings than the tourists but we have probably had enough anyway… drag ourselves back to the van and eventually arrive home after a glorious day to fall into the pool and ‘refresh’ ourselves.

Then it is day after full day, seeing what we can of Florence (love the San Marco and San Ambrogio areas) and the surrounds. It’s impossible to move around as 8 people and we all have different desires so we tend to head out separately and meet up for dinner at night at the house – big meals of pasta and lots of wine. Sienna is a highlight… although what should have been a quick bus trip seems to take ages and the aircon clearly doesn’t work in this heat so we enjoy up to 40deg in the upper level … But it’s market day when we arrive and a huge pork panini later we wander down into the town fat and happy. What a truly glorious town! The Piazza del Campo is fantastic and the cathedral still a highlight of the trip so far. We have a thing about paying to go into churches… just don’t like it, they are holy places of worship after all… but this is one that just should not be missed. The floor tiles are famous and we happen to be there when they are uncovered, but the whole place is just exquisite and worth a long time exploring.

***
Tom and I head off to Lucca alone and love the quiet ambiance of this walled town… sights are not quite so exciting at Siena and Florence, but it is a cultured green town and the central market is full of colour and great snacks. The trains are ‘interesting’ again – in Florence we book a train at the machine and when we ask at the information what platform to go to we are told the next rain goes at 11.30… no I protest, it is at 9.53… don’t get an Italian train official mad at you – it isn’t pretty… but actually it does go at 9.53 and we run to the platform and get on just in time.

Then coming back we again buy from the machine – having checked the printed timetable and thinking we know the ropes now – BUT the machine fails to spit out a ticket or change….. arrrgghh – we stand for ages in a queue to be told we will have to come back tomorrow to get a refund (oh yeah from Florence right?) and eventually have to pay out for another two tickets. At least it is only 10 Euros. Having missed the fast train waiting in the queue we take the slow train and take ourselves out to dinner to compensate (too late to get back to the villa in time for dinner anyway). So we find La Contadina – another highly recommended little trattoria between the station and the Arno and it lives up to all expectations. We eat through a full menu for 13 Euros each including wine and each course is a delight. Miss the last bus home and have to walk quite a way but we need it after all that good food and wine – a great sleep that night!

The final highlight before we leave Florence is to get to the beautiful monastery above the Piazzale Michelangelo (a gorgeous viewing point over the city). It’s pretty special to climb up to the lovely old church at the end of the day in time to sit in stillness and listen to the monks chanting vespers in this very holy place. As we come out the evening light is over Florence – a beautiful last evening and great photos to boot!

So then it’s off in our little hired diesel Fiat – of to explore the hills and valleys, off to drink in the views and the soft red wines… Tom does remarkably well straight away on the wrong side of the road, our Garmin GPS (with Europe maps) is a gem (in spite of some rather strange little anomalies when we find ourselves going round and round the same town over and over) and driving is a joy. Don’t let anyone scare you off. Being free in our own little car is definitely the way to travel these roads, to stop when WE feel like it, to see a town on top of a hill and drop in for a coffee or just to wander. We set the GPS to avoid toll roads and highways and stick to little roads with speed limits of between 50 and 70 and tootle along the backroads through vineyards and olive groves and tiny villages. We strike unexpected markets, a wedding (the bride and groom ride off on a red scooter), lakes and mountain tops, all of which we would have never seen without our own car – and we avoid the dreaded train strikes which hit the weekend we leave Florence.

First stop is the lovely little historical town of Pienza (although we stop in Greve in Chianti and Monteriggione) along the way from Florence. We have chosen to stay in this tiny town for two nights and us it as a base to explore the surrounding area. Our room in Camere Andrei is huge and beautiful but unfortunately on the main road, so afternoon siestas are to the sound of huge motorbikes racing up the hill… after a glass or two of the local red it seems not so serious. If you go there ask for a room at the back – away from the road… and be firm!

We make Pienza our base to see the towns of this area so next morning it’s off early to Montalcino. Tom is reading Vanilla Beans and Brodo set in Montaclino so it’s almost like wandering familiar streets. He can tell me stories of the bleak history of what is now a pleasant, sun filled town with a beautiful market set in an ancient piazza… full of local wines, honeys, olive oils and cheeses, huge mushrooms an even a few truffles (nice to taste but too expensive for us to buy)… we drink coffee that feels like it could strip the intestinal track and watch the local folk and the few tourists mill about on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Next it’s on to Montepulciano – famed for its Vino Nobile and steep streets – actually neither live up to expectations. Perhaps we are spoiled by Australian wines but the heavy strong vino nobile is not ‘fruity’ enough for us and we prefer the lighter (and much cheaper) vino rosso. Now I am not saying we are fit (although perhaps fitter than when we left Australia after all the walking) but the streets are no problem a all – later we find Assisi and Todi much much steeper – real heart pumping climbs there.

Montepulciano is all we had dreamed of in a Tuscan hill town – our room is at the Albergo Marzocca, a 700 yrold mansion – all chintz antiques and ivy – our balcony over looks the tuscan countryside and hangs with flowering vines. What a pity we have decided to only stay one night. We walk in a narrow cool lanes that never feel the searing heat of the late summer sun and then open into sun-drenched piazzas with old people sitting around the perimeter soaking in the early morning warmth (before it become scorching). In one large square we join them to watch the passing parade and no less than 20 black Porsches (mostly Carreras) drive in to park in luxurious rows in the centre of the square – what a line up (and I have to say quietly ‘what a wank’) – a group of wealthy Americans on a driving tour of Europe making quite a statement wherever they go no doubt. We figure there is about 3-4 million dollars worth of cars right there in front of us.

On a different level completely, in our wanderings we notice a little trattoria in the Piazza del Teatro (Sax Wine Bar) and head there for lunch (the first of what become regular meals there). Freshly made and absolutely delicious cheap meals come from some hidden kitchen… Tom’s bean and vegetable soup (better than even he could make?) and my pici (hand made fat pasta) with wild boar ragout AND a carafe of red and some acqua frissante come to less than our normal deli lunches – dinner there is crepe with mushroom, local cheese and truffles (unbelieveable for 4 Euros!!).

Sadly we leave this glorious town and head to our next stop now leaving Tuscany and heading into Umbria where we have chosen to stay in the smaller town of Spello. The trusty GPS is proving a gem except for the occasional glitch where it clearly hasn’t been updated to recently closed roads and new highway entrances and we drive through glorious scenery to Castiglione dei Lago… wander the battelements overlooking the lake (pity it’s our first grey sky) and then head on to find out little apartment in the sleepy little town (well it is siesta time and everything, absolutely everything is shut down)…

So we too rest and then explore the streets of this pretty town as the locals come back to life, find food for dinner (fresh ravioli, great pesto and freshly grated parmigiano – of course along with a lovely local red) and explore the ancient walk along the Roman Aquaduct, with views of Spello, a rainbow over the valley and complete with sayings from wise men like Einstein and the Buddha and strangely including Kurt Vonnegut, carved into stones along the way…

Next morning it’s up early, dig into our breakfast supplies (a huge basket left in our little apartment) and off on the back road to Assisi probably 15 minutes if we didn’t get just a wee bit lost and take the long way round (again). Assisi is astounding! Such a gorgeous town clearly kept very beautiful with plenty of money coming in from pilgrims and tourists alike. We wander tiny streets of stone houses decked with the last of the summer flowers, geraniums and bougainvillea cascading in fabulous colours over ancient stone. We gaze into shops filled with huge hand painted platters we’d love to have at home (but would hate to carry) and finally can’t resist a little tile of St Francis feeding the birds. He’s always been my favourite saint after all. At last we come, as all pilgrims do, to the Basilica! How beautiful and moving! We spend ages there in the upper Basilica, the lower one and the holy chapel of the tomb of St Frances. We sit amongst the Christians and meditate and feel the power of this little space. What a privilege to be here.

After the Basilica the rest of the tourist sites seem less special than before, and we find the car and head off looking for a mountain to climb to view the valley below. Thought we’d go straight above Assisi but somehow our directions get twisted and we end up at Bonetto right on the other side of the valley… lovely little town – the balcony of Umbria they say. Then it’s on to Bevagna another beautifully preserved walled town (although it feels like a college town with lots of young people and posters for concerts etc). We lose ourselves in meandering streets of old stone buildings until it’s time to head back to our little Spello pad again…

And next day we are on the raod again – this time heading to Orvieto a tow on top of a ridiculously high tuff with possible the most beautiful cathedral of all (from the outside at least) but we take it slow getting there and visit Montefalco, where many expats have made homes - and I can see why, the surrounding country is stunning and the town itself a little jewel on the hill with a beautiful square with trendy cafes in amongst the traditional ones. On to Trevi (lovely but a little deserted), Spoleto (far too crowded for us and we cannot park and decide to move on) and Todi, an unexpected delight (but sooo steep). We stop for lunch at a little family trattoria and eat risotto (with porcini and asparagus) and scallopine with lemon/mushroom sauce – what a delight, with a carafe of the local red. We look in vain for Todi Rosso after that… lovely and smooth and fruity.

Orvieto is the cathedral! We arrive mid afternoon and by the time we find out little apartment (very roomy and so cutesy with gingham and tulips but actually not the B&B Ripa Medici we had booked – they seem to have passed us on to another B&B??) and sort out the car (which has to be parked in a multi-storey carpark on the side of the mountain) it is late so we rush to catch the afternoon sun striking that marvellous façade – so much detail and gold it just blows the mind. Every column is decorated with swirls and stars and intricate designs in gold and brilliant colours, every panel is an art work of its own, carved marble stories from the bible, huge paintings of the saints which rival the Greek icons in their elaborate gilding cathedral. We stay in the square for ages, taking pictures from every angle and enjoying the crowds, the group of soldiers on holiday who pose for photos in front, the children tearing about, the tourists from everywhere… so many languages and colours.

The next day, after a wonderful sleep in our lovely apartment and a last walk through this lovely town, it’s goodbye to our little car - so glad we chose to have the car, we would have missed so many places without it. And then it is goodbye to Umbria and our country sojourn, and off to the big city – and they don’t come much bigger than Rome. We are both a bit nervous about Rome and how we will manage but our train is comfortable and we arrive rested and ready to fight our way through …

But actually it is all very easy and quite pleasant. We have chosen a hotel very near the main station (Termini) and it (Galli Hotel in Malozzo St) is fine. The room is comfortable if tiny, the aircon and hot water work well – we need no more – and the bus for Ciampino airport leaves from the end of the street – how good is that??

Tom and I head off to Lucca alone and love the quiet ambiance of this walled town… sights are not quite so exciting at Siena and Florence, but it is a cultured green town and the central market is full of colour and great snacks. The trains are ‘interesting’ again – in Florence we book a train at the machine and when we ask at the information what platform to go to we are told the next rain goes at 11.30… no I protest, it is at 9.53… don’t get an Italian train official mad at you – it isn’t pretty… but actually it does go at 9.53 and we run to the platform and get on just in time.

Then coming back we again buy from the machine – having checked the printed timetable and thinking we know the ropes now – BUT the machine fails to spit out a ticket or change….. arrrgghh – we stand for ages in a queue to be told we will have to come back tomorrow to get a refund (oh yeah from Florence right?) and eventually have to pay out for another two tickets. At least it is only 10 Euros. Having missed the fast train waiting in the queue we take the slow train and take ourselves out to dinner to compensate (too late to get back to the villa in time for dinner anyway). So we find La Contadina – another highly recommended little trattoria between the station and the Arno and it lives up to all expectations. We eat through a full menu for 13 Euros each including wine and each course is a delight. Miss the last bus home and have to walk quite a way but we need it after all that good food and wine – a great sleep that night!

The final highlight before we leave Florence is to get to the beautiful monastery above the Piazzale Michelangelo (a gorgeous viewing point over the city). It’s pretty special to climb up to the lovely old church at the end of the day in time to sit in stillness and listen to the monks chanting vespers in this very holy place. As we come out the evening light is over Florence – a beautiful last evening and great photos to boot!

So then it’s off in our little hired diesel Fiat – of to explore the hills and valleys, off to drink in the views and the soft red wines… Tom does remarkably well straight away on the wrong side of the road, our Garmin GPS (with Europe maps) is a gem (in spite of some rather strange little anomalies when we find ourselves going round and round the same town over and over) and driving is a joy. Don’t let anyone scare you off. Being free in our own little car is definitely the way to travel these roads, to stop when WE feel like it, to see a town on top of a hill and drop in for a coffee or just to wander. We set the GPS to avoid toll roads and highways and stick to little roads with speed limits of between 50 and 70 and tootle along the backroads through vineyards and olive groves and tiny villages. We strike unexpected markets, a wedding (the bride and groom ride off on a red scooter), lakes and mountain tops, all of which we would have never seen without our own car – and we avoid the dreaded train strikes which hit the weekend we leave Florence.

First stop is the lovely little historical town of Pienza (although we stop in Greve in Chianti and Monteriggione) along the way from Florence. We have chosen to stay in this tiny town for two nights and us it as a base to explore the surrounding area. Our room in Camere Andrei is huge and beautiful but unfortunately on the main road, so afternoon siestas are to the sound of huge motorbikes racing up the hill… after a glass or two of the local red it seems not so serious. If you go there ask for a room at the back – away from the road… and be firm!

We make Pienza our base to see the towns of this area so next morning it’s off early to Montalcino. Tom is reading Vanilla Beans and Brodo set in Montaclino so it’s almost like wandering familiar streets. He can tell me stories of the bleak history of what is now a pleasant, sun filled town with a beautiful market set in an ancient piazza… full of local wines, honeys, olive oils and cheeses, huge mushrooms an even a few truffles (nice to taste but too expensive for us to buy)… we drink coffee that feels like it could strip the intestinal track and watch the local folk and the few tourists mill about on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Next it’s on to Montepulciano – famed for its Vino Nobile and steep streets – actually neither live up to expectations. Perhaps we are spoiled by Australian wines but the heavy strong vino nobile is not ‘fruity’ enough for us and we prefer the lighter (and much cheaper) vino rosso. Now I am not saying we are fit (although perhaps fitter than when we left Australia after all the walking) but the streets are no problem at all – later we find Assisi and Todi much much steeper – real heart pumping climbs there.

Montepulciano is all we had dreamed of in a Tuscan hill town – our room is at the Albergo Marzocco, a 700 yrold mansion – all chintz antiques and ivy – our balcony over looks the Tuscan countryside and hangs with flowering vines. What a pity we have decided to only stay one night. We walk in a narrow cool lanes that never feel the searing heat of the late summer sun and then open into sun-drenched piazzas with old people sitting around the perimeter soaking in the early morning warmth (before it become scorching). In one large square we join them to watch the passing parade and no less than 20 black Porsches (mostly Carreras) drive in to park in luxurious rows in the centre of the square – what a line up (and I have to say quietly ‘what a wank’) – a group of wealthy Americans on a driving tour of Europe making quite a statement wherever they go no doubt. We figure there is about 3-4 million dollars worth of cars right there in front of us.

On a different level completely, in our wanderings we notice a little trattoria in the Piazza del Teatro (Sax Wine Bar) and head there for lunch (the first of what become regular meals there). Freshly made and absolutely delicious cheap meals come from some hidden kitchen… Tom’s bean and vegetable soup (better than even he could make?) and my pici (hand made fat pasta) with wild boar ragout AND a carafe of red and some acqua frissante come to less than our normal deli lunches – dinner there is crepe with mushroom, local cheese and truffles (unbelievable for 4 Euros!!).

Sadly we leave this glorious town and head to our next stop now leaving Tuscany and heading into Umbria where we have chosen to stay in the smaller town of Spello. The trusty GPS is proving a gem except for the occasional glitch where it clearly hasn’t been updated to recently closed roads and new highway entrances and we drive through glorious scenery to Castiglione dei Lago… wander the battlements overlooking the lake (pity it’s our first grey sky) and then head on to find out little apartment in the sleepy little town (well it is siesta time and everything, absolutely everything is shut down)…

So we too rest and then explore the streets of this pretty town as the locals come back to life, find food for dinner (fresh ravioli, great pesto and freshly grated parmigiano – of course along with a lovely local red) and explore the ancient walk along the Roman Aquaduct, with views of Spello, a rainbow over the valley and complete with sayings from wise men like Einstein and the Buddha and strangely including Kurt Vonnegut, carved into stones along the way…

Next morning it’s up early, dig into our breakfast supplies (a huge basket left in our little apartment) and off on the back road to Assisi probably 15 minutes if we didn’t get just a wee bit lost and take the long way round (again). Assisi is astounding! Such a gorgeous town clearly kept very beautiful with plenty of money coming in from pilgrims and tourists alike. We wander tiny streets of stone houses decked with the last of the summer flowers, geraniums and bougainvillea cascading in fabulous colours over ancient stone. We gaze into shops filled with huge hand painted platters we’d love to have at home (but would hate to carry) and finally can’t resist a little tile of St Francis feeding the birds. He’s always been my favourite saint after all. At last we come, as all pilgrims do, to the Basilica! How beautiful and moving! We spend ages there in the upper Basilica, the lower one and the holy chapel of the tomb of St Frances. We sit amongst the Christians and meditate and feel the power of this little space. What a privilege to be here.

After the Basilica the rest of the tourist sites seem less special than before, and we find the car and head off looking for a mountain to climb to view the valley below. Thought we’d go straight above Assisi but somehow our directions get twisted and we end up at Bonetto right on the other side of the valley… lovely little town – the balcony of Umbria they say. Then it’s on to Bevagna another beautifully preserved walled town (although it feels like a college town with lots of young people and posters for concerts etc). We lose ourselves in meandering streets of old stone buildings until it’s time to head back to our little Spello pad again…

And next day we are on the road again – this time heading to Orvieto a tow on top of a ridiculously high tuff with possible the most beautiful cathedral of all (from the outside at least) but we take it slow getting there and visit Montefalco, where many expats have made homes - and I can see why, the surrounding country is stunning and the town itself a little jewel on the hill with a beautiful square with trendy cafes in amongst the traditional ones. On to Trevi (lovely but a little deserted), Spoleto (far too crowded for us and we cannot park and decide to move on) and Todi, an unexpected delight (but sooo steep). We stop for lunch at a little family trattoria and eat risotto (with porcini and asparagus) and scallopine with lemon/mushroom sauce – what a delight, with a carafe of the local red. We look in vain for Todi Rosso after that… lovely and smooth and fruity.

Orvieto is the cathedral! We arrive mid afternoon and by the time we find out little apartment (very roomy and so cutesy with gingham and tulips but actually not the B&B Ripa Medici we had booked – they seem to have passed us on to another B&B??) and sort out the car (which has to be parked in a multi-storey carpark on the side of the mountain) it is late so we rush to catch the afternoon sun striking that marvellous façade – so much detail and gold it just blows the mind. Every column is decorated with swirls and stars and intricate designs in gold and brilliant colours, every panel is an art work of its own, carved marble stories from the bible, huge paintings of the saints which rival the Greek icons in their elaborate gilding cathedral. We stay in the square for ages, taking pictures from every angle and enjoying the crowds, the group of soldiers on holiday who pose for photos in front, the children tearing about, the tourists from everywhere… so many languages and colours.

The next day, after a wonderful sleep in our lovely apartment and a last walk through this lovely town, it’s goodbye to our little car - so glad we chose to have the car, we would have missed so many places without it. And then it is goodbye to Umbria and our country sojourn, and off to the big city – and they don’t come much bigger than Rome. We are both a bit nervous about Rome and how we will manage but our train is comfortable and we arrive rested and ready to fight our way through …

But actually it is all very easy and quite pleasant. We have chosen a hotel very near the main station (Termini) and it (Galli Hotel in Via Malazzo) is fine. The room is comfortable if tiny, the aircon and hot water work well – we need no more – and the bus for Ciampino airport leaves from the end of the street – how good is that?

So we eat in a typical Termini street café, overpriced and a bit bland but friendly and we sit next to a couple who are clearly Dutch but turn out to be from SE Queensland, about to embark on a big adventure, flying to Milan and picking up a motor home for nearly two months of driving and camping and enjoying. We are about to leave and I feel a bit envious. They have so much to discover… But I don’t envy the motorhome - winding around those tiny roads in such a brute, having to leave it in specific motorhome parks and find you way to the centre f towns. Give me a pension in the centre of the old town any day (I suspect it is not more expensive either).

Our one day in Rome (next day) we HAVE to do the Colosseum etc and like good tourists we do… and being some kind of national holiday everything is free!! Hey what a plus!. Have to say I find the Colosseum and the Palatino hill les than inspiring. Am I being a bit blaze or is it just that I have seen the Lycian and Byzantine ruins in Turkey and these are … well… ho hum after that. Or is it just that they are surrounded by traffic and filled with tourists? Who knows… I know it’s not the tourist thing because next we walk and walk to the Trevi fountain which is totally packed with locals and tourists and it is great! Crowded but happy… we buy a panini and fill it with delicacies from the deli (yummmm) and sit on the church steps opposite the fountain to watch and enjoy – wonderful!

Next morning, after a rather strange meal in the Termini station Ciao cafeteria (how did we end up there???) and after a good sleep, it’s off to Rhodes and that is another chapter…

I read back over a little of this report and realise there is so much I have left out, mostly the feelings which are so hard to express without gushing. My heart softens when I think back to those lovely winding roads through the Chianti hills and the first sight of any particular hilltop town, Montalcino, Todi, Assisi, Montepulciano… in that magic light I cannot explain – you just have to experience it.

Highlights abound - did I mention the pure joy of that first meal in Florence, the huge delicious roast beef panini at the famous Nerbone’s in the central market washed down with the local vino rosso (all for 10 Euros)… and the big pasta meals with friends in our own gorgeous villa… and the lovely day out in Chianti with our own guide Maurizio for Sue’s birthday… then the excitement of finding our own little trattoria in Montepulciano with exquisite food at their four tables… the fantastic cathedrals of Sienna and Orvieto, the wonderful back streets of Spello and Pienza and those piazzas – sometimes just passing hours sitting and watching, sometimes with one of those rich strong coffees that don’t seem to exist anywhere else, and sometimes just watching… the old men, the children, the tourists, the young chaps with so much machismo. I’m sure I spoke of the Piazza Del Campo in Sienna which seems to still contain the excitement of the annual horse race that happens there (with pomp and ceremony and lots of skulduggery) and just filled us with wonder the moment we walked out into that huge sundrenched area. How lovely to share that with Sue and Glen too.

Clearly we did not have enough time for everything, you could be in that region for years and still have more to discover and a passing competency in Italian would be a great boon, but what we did have time for will last in my memories for a long time – so lovely to sit back and take myself back – aahhh I can almost conjure up the smells.

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