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Trip Report Trip report: Northern Italy - The Great, the Good, and the Not so good

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This is a report on my trip with my husband last September. Yes, it's a little late but better late than never(hopefully). My goal is to present some info that may be helpful to others planning their trips as I was helped when I was planning mine. I will review what we really liked but also not shy away from what we didn't. I will briefly mention the hotels we stayed at with my opinion about them but they will not be full hotel reviews, ditto for restaurants.

The basics: This was a 5 week independent trip starting in Zurich, taking the Bernina Express to Lake Como and then visiting Venice, Siena, Florence, Lucca, and Milan. We got around by train. I primarily used the Rick Steves guidebooks with input from other sources such as this site.

I will organize the report in segments(separate posts) for each area visited.

FIrst up: Since this is really a report on Italy, I will just briefly say we enjoyed Zurich. We spent one day there at the beginning of the trip and one at the end. We then took the train to Chur where we caught the Bernina the next morning. This was the very end of August and the weather was perfect, sunny all day. The scenery was gorgeous with a fair amount of snow still on the mountains. We had seats in a first class dome car and the views are great. The trip to Tirano was about 4 hours and seemed shorter as it is scenic the whole way. We had purchased a Eurail Pass that included Switzerland and Italy. The Bernina is covered under that but you do have to purchase a seat reservation. We did this well ahead of time about 3 months ahead. I did this on the train's own website and chose the seats I wanted, two by the window across from each other.

At Tirano, we transferred to a local Italian train to Varenna. You can buy tix at a ticket window when you get there or you can buy them in advance in Switzerland. We bought them in Switzerland and had them valiidated in Tirano at the ticket office because when we got there someone said we needed to do that. So it's probably better just to buy them in Tirano, probably cheaper there. Note: This train is NOT covered by Eurail as this train is run by Tren Nord, not Trenitalia.

This train is something of a rattletrap(air con is an open window) but it did the job and got us to Varenna. I had read in the Rick Steves guidebook that the platform in Varenna is not very long and you might have to get off where there is no platform but it was not a problem. Seemed like all cars stopped at the platform. Be ready to get off because the stop is short but they give you enough time so don't panic.

The Varenna station is not staffed and as I recall did not have ticket machines either. There were no taxis at the station(as I thought there would not be.) I knew we could walk to the hotel. We travel with one small suitcase and one travel backpack each. I pretty much knew wherethe hotel was but of course every thing looks different in real life. Two different Italians helped us find the place which was a nice introduction to Varenna. The hotel was the Hotel Albergo Milano(details in RS guidebook). It is perfectly located on a cliff above the lake with killer views. We booked one of the two front rooms with large, beautiful terraces, above the restaurant terrace. The room was small but fine, good bathroom. The terrace was almost as big as the room We stayed 4 nights. The weather was sunny and warm the whole time. Be aware there is no air conditioning. We just left the terrace doors open and was fine for us. It is very quiet at night.

Varenna - The town is cute as a button poised on the cliffs above the lake. This is one of those too-good-to be true European villages that keep many of us going back to Europe complete with the adorable church with ringing bells. We spent one entire day wandering around town and the Villa Monastere gardens(not a blockbuster but very nice with lovely lake views). And of course with some terracesitting time in the afternoon. George Clooney, eat your heart out! I should mention the town is full of steep, stepped lanes which make it charming but hard to negotiate for some. You are constantly going up and down getting in good walking shape for the rest of the trip!

Bellagio - We had a day trip to Bellagio via the fun and easy lake ferries. Bellagio is bigger than Varenna with upscale shopping that Varenna doesn't have(we don't care about that but
some might). Bellagio is a lovely place in it's own right but we were happy we stayed in Varenna. Above the harbour, Bellagio too is made up of steep, stepped lanes.

Villa Carlotta - Our third day we took the ferry to Villa Carlotta. The villa is nice. The gardens are the star of the show. We very much enjoyed them. A bit more crowded with tour groups than we anticipated considering the other areas of Lake Como were not particularly crowded as we were there at the end of the high season. After touring the villa we walked into Tremezzo. A fellow tourist had given us a tip to walk the Greenway from Tremezzo to Lenno. This turned out to be a great idea. There are signs for the Greenway in Tremezzo. It's a path that goes up into the hills, then levels out before descending into Lenno. It was about a 2 hour walk from the villa. It's not hard if you walk or hike much. It passes thru the quaint hamlet of Giulio. We then had lunch in Lenno and took the ferry back to Varenna. There is a ticket booth in Lenno to buy your tix back. This all made for a delightful day.

Varenna has plenty of restaurants even though it's small. We particularly enjoyed the restaurant at our hotel, upscale, sophisticated. Beautiful terrace at sunset. We also really enjoyed Quatro Pass in a tiny charming cobblestone pedestrian "street". Excellent pastas, service. A quintessential Italian experience eating outside in the little street.

Lake Como was a wonderful start for our Italian trip. It was fantasy Italy and we knew it. We didn't want to leave. I had debated about including this area on our first trip to Italy. We live in a scenic area and have hiked extensively in the West and I wondered if I would be impressed with this area. Needless to say I was. It's not just the natural beauty. It's the combination of that with the charming towns, great food and wine, overall ambiance.

Next post: On to Venice

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    Thanks for your report our upcoming trip will be similar. I hope we experience the same weather you had this August. We have reservations at the Du Lac in Varenna and will check out the restaurants you enjoyed.

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    Thanks for sharing your experiences. We'll be doing part of your trip the other way in less than two months (i.e. Venice to Varenna, then to Zurich/OB via Tirano). If the Varenna station is not staffed and there are no machines, where do we get tickets for Tirano? Thanks for the restaurant recommendations as well! Eagerly awaiting the Venice portion of your report!

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    Miladeg: I would go to a travel agency in Venice to see if they can sell you tix for Milan(assuming you are going to Varenna via Milan) to Varenna. In Varenna you can buy tix for Tirano at a small travel agency(more about this in the next post) This agency sold us tix for Trenitalia trains so I would think an agency in Venice could sell tix for Tren Nord trains but I don't know that for sure. Also, tix to Tirano might be available at a tobacco shop in Varenna but we didn't do that. The commission charged by the travel agency is very small.

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    I realized after I wrote the Lake Como segment I should have mentioned another restaurant in Varenna:Ristorante Isola Nuova. An unpretentious trattoria run by two sisters. Friendly service, good food, very reasonable prices, above average wine list for a trattoria. Montepulciano nobile at a very reasonable price, anyone? Location details in Rick Steves Italy guidebook.

    And now on to Venice. We purchased our tix for Varenna to Milan (Tren Nord train) at a small travel agency in Varenna. Very inexpensive. We also purchased tix for Trenitalia trains later in our trip for which we would not be using our Eurail pass, i.e. daytrip from Venice to Padua. They were open tix, no seat reservations required. Doing this we had all the train tix we needed. Never stood in line at tik windows or dealt with machines. We already had our mandatory seat res for those trains that required it purchased thru Rail Europe. Yes, I know we could have waited to do this in Italy but I'm the type of traveller who likes to have things pinned down. Details on travel agency location are in RS guidebook. It was a quick and easy process to get everything we needed.

    So we walked to the Varenna station (hotel will arrange a taxi if you want), took the local train to Milan. I have read much about the confusing/and or scary Milan train station. We found it to be neither confusing nor scary. All the tracks seemed to be on one level. Not hard to find the trains. Standard info boards like everywhere else in Europe. We saw no potential pickpocket activity but yes don't wander off without your stuff. We had a first class pass. Train was nice and the first class car we were in almost full. We arrived late afternoon in Venice, got off the train, and were deposited into the chaotic wonder of Venice.

    We had planned to get a vaporetto to Fondamente Nove and then walk to our hotel rather than do the pricey water taxi thing. So we proceeded to the ticket booths. We bought our tix from a surly clerk who wanted smaller Euro notes that we didn't have so she accepted what we had(which were not large bills). We managed to extract from her the general direction we should go to get the proper vaporetto and eventually found it. Trust me, this is a bit more confusing than studying it in the guidebooks. We arrived at the Fondamente and using our good map of Venice(ha, ha) we had bought before leaving home did find the hotel only taking one wrong turn. A major achievement! This was about a 15 minute walk over a couple of stepped bridges. If you have a lot of luggage or are not walkers, forget it, take the water taxi.

    The hotel was Locanda la Corte in the Castello district. Details in RS Venice guidebook. A good location about 15 min walk from St. Mark's but out of ground zero craziness. Atmospheric hotel. Room(non canal side) was quite nice and large with traditional Venetian decor. Good size bathroom but TINY shower stall. Good air con. Unfortunately, the charming courtyard was undergoing an emergency repair the entire time we were there so didn't get the full experience of that. Hotel is on a small side canal and one of the breakfast tables looks right out on it. Pretty good breakfast buffet is included and Tommy the cat makes a fine breakfast companion.(he/she? likes ham) Front desk staff is efficient but not into making dinner res etc. We made our own when out and about or by phone.

    We stayed 9 night nights in Venice. I know, you're thinking that's a lot. Well, 9 nights meant 8 days. One full day was a day trip to Padua. One day was Murano and Burano. So we had 6 days for Venice which was not too much for us. If you only want to see the St. Mark's Square sights, then I guess you don't need that much time but if you want to branch out a bit, you do.

    SIGHTSEEING:

    ST MARK'S - I more or less planned this with military precision. We purchased timed entry tix on the St. Mark's website which directs you to the agency that sells them. They cost 3 euro for the 2 of us which my husband and I agreed was the best 3 euro we spent in Italy. We actually arrived almost an hour early, sauntered up to the special entrance, NO WAITING IN LINE and the friendly guard said no problem, we could go right in. The interior was crowded and we moved slowly around to the back where we branched off and paid the admission to the Golden Alatarpiece area which is magnificent. It was not crowded in that area and we could admire it close-up until...the lights went on in the church illuminating the exquisite mosaics. (Lit from 11:30-12:30) Do whatever it takes to be here at this time to see the mosaics in all their glory. Also, don't forget to admire the floors.

    When the lights went off, we went upstairs to the museum(separate entry fee) to see the ceiling mosaics closer and to commune with the original wonderful horses. Also to see the view of St. Mark's Square from the terrace. We also visited the Treasury on a different day in the late afternoon when the line was short. The Treasury is small but filled with Byzantine arttifacts the Venetians appropriated from Constantinople. We spent a happy hour here

    St. Mark's is one of the world's great treasure and I suggest carefully planning your visit here to fully appreciate it

    Unfortunately, in September there was significant scaffolding on the front of the church so we could not get the full effect of it. One of those disappointments of travel. I hope someday to see it in pristine form.

    As for the square itself, it is of course one of the great squares of Europe. The Doge's Palace was looking very spiffy and the Campanile also. We had read there was construction around the base but there was not so I guess it was finished. There was scaffolding on part of the Correr Museum(with billboards).

    DOGE'S PALACE: We pre-booked the Secret Itineraries tour on the Palace website. This takes you behind the scenes into some of the prison cells and upstairs above the public rooms. These rooms are NOT furnished. The interest lies in the tour guide's stories about what happened here, including the rooms where Casanova was imprisoned. It is interesting but is not a must-do and with limited time, I would not recommend it. After the tour, we toured the sumptuous public rooms on our own. This was pretty crowded with tour groups but if you wait til they move on, it's fine.

    SAN GIORGIO MAGGIORE - This is the evocative island with the great Palladian church you see from St. Mark's square. You take a vaporetto to it. The church is quite different from most with a sleek, simple neo-classical interior that looks more humanist than religious. Do take the elevator to the top of the tower with wonderful views back across to Venice. When you finish, to your right as you exit the church a little ways down the walkway is a cafe, nothing special for food, but good for a drink with great views.

    ACCADEMIA MUSEUM- Enjoyable, uncrowded museum featuring Venetian art. It's been under a long renovation process but seemed finished except for some work around the outside. All galleries were open. We enjoyed this a lot and is a calming respite from the crowds of Venice.

    We also visited and very much enjoyed the Frari church, the Scuola San Rocco, and Ca Rezzonico. The RS guidebook has good descriptions of all of these. These are good sites to escape the crowds as well.

    PEGGY GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM - Modern art collection in her villa. This we thought was somewhat overrated in the guidebooks. Rick Steves rates it the same as the Accademia which I thought was ridiculous. The Guggenheim is small and in my very unexpert opinion contains lesser works by major modern artists of Peggy's era. Be aware the interior of the villa was completely gutted to be a modern showcase for the art. The views of the Grand Canal from the terrace are great. The admission price is high for what it is. Unless you are very interested in modern art from a certain era, I would skip this.

    Then there is wandering around Venice itself apart from the sites. The architecture and the setting are unique in the world. I highly recommend either a gondola or motorboat tour to get onto the canals. The vaporetto are too crowded to see well. We opted for a 1 hour motorboat tour with Avventure Bellisime (in the RS guidebook). It takes you on some side canals and the Grand Canal with a live guide (ours was a native Venetian). It is a small group and everyone got to have an outside seat. We booked the day before the tour by phone when we knew what the weather forecast was. BTW: This was in the first half of September and weather was good the whole time we were there.

    We enjoyed wandering the Dorsoduro and San Polo districts following some of the RS walks. You will get temporarily lost even with a good map. But nothing major.

    The crowds were intense. Even more so than I thought they would be. The problem isn't St. Mark's Square. It's big and can handle a lot of people. The problem is in the small streets surrounding it. Large tour groups clog them and can be annoying for us individuals. Now they use earphone technology, it seems to me the groups are larger because they can hear the guides in their earphones. Also, the areas outside the St. Mark's area are busier than you'd think. Rialto Bridge area is very intense. I've seen the Dorsoduro called "sleepy". Not so much but is is certainly less intense and a good place to walk because you can walk alongside small canals.

    Tomorrow, I will continue with thoughts on Venice.

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    Great report! Taxis used to meet what seemed like every train in Varenna but that has apparently changed. The ticket machines are, or were, in the small waiting room but they never seemed to work!

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    As a follow on, am sure some will appreciate your term for the stuff the Venetians stole <G> from about everywhere they went and aren't we glad they did since it was preserved.

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    Treesa: Unfortunately, no we didn't see the Da Vinci exhibit.

    Continuing with Venice:

    Getting around: We mostly walked. Used vaporetto for to/from train station, to San Girogio Maggiore and Murano/Burano. We did use a traghetto to cross over to Dorsoduro. Note: The traghetto shown as San Marco Vallaresso on RS map was NOT operating when we were there. Wasted some time looking for it. We got one from Santa Maria del Giglio near the Gritti Palace hotel. This is a shorter crossing than Vallaresso. It was fun to do once.

    Restaurants: I had read quite a lot of negative comments about Venice restaurants, indifferent tourist rip-offs etc. We ended up being really pleased with the restaurants on the whole. I did a lot of research on restaurants in Italy and Venice in particular and felt it paid off. So here are the ones we liked:

    Osteria alle Testiere - This is a top notch place that would be so anywhere in the world. There is no view or decor to speak of. It's all about the food here, specifically seafood which is the entire menu except for desserts. It is closed on Sunday & Monday(when the Fish Market is closed). There are 2 dinner seatings at 7:00 & 9:30. It is small and hard to get into. I called 2 weeks ahead for the 7:00 time. I was concerned we might be rushed, I am a slow diner. But we were not. The pacing is perfect and runs like a well-oiled machine. We had some wonderful scallops still in their shells, great prawn dishes, oysters, sole etc. Some nice desserts as well. Menu changes daily. We liked it so much, we booked it for our last night in Venice while we were there the first time. Sometimes when you do this you're disappointed the second time around but here second time was just as good as the first. Both times, we had 3 courses and a reasonably price bottle of wine from the Veneto. The cost was about $220, one of our two splurge restaurants in Venice. I have paid the same or more many times for lesser experiences.

    Ristorante Algiubagio - This was our other splurge restaurant. It is located on Fondamente Nove. It has a terrace right on the water. We booked it while walking around for a couple days later when weather was supposed to be good because we wanted to eat on that terrace. When we arrived, they gave us one of the best tables, a corner one right by the water. Dining here at sunset on the lagoon and watching the boat traffic was one of those travel experiences that will live on in our memories. So you might think with this setting, the food won't match up. But yes it does. Good first courses. Followed by excellent monkfish. Prosecco before, limoncello after, a nice wine in between. (You don't have to worry about driving!) Service was excellent. Tourist rip-off? Not hardly. We were going to order a side dish with the main courses. The waiter advised us to wait and see because he thought it might be too much food. He was right, too. Price range is about the same as Testiere detailed above.

    Osteria da Alberto - Very good trattoria. Friendly, relaxed, homey traditional decor, easy to like. Very reasonable prices. Cicchetti were just ok but we really liked the gnochi in zucchini sauce, the best eggplant parmesan I've had , light and luscious tiramisu. Above average for a trattoria wine list. We went here twice as it was close to our hotel and was so enjoyable.

    Trattoria da Bepi - A bit more sophisticated than Alberto. Had good anchovies in two different marinades(one of them ginger) followed by squid ink spaghetti. Your teeth will be black but it's quite good. A must try in Venice. Gracious service. Meal ended with complimentary limoncello.

    Details on all of the above restaurants are in the RS guidebook.

    Da Simpson - A small trattoria right outside the front door of our hotel, Locanda la Corte. This was convenient the evening we arrived after a day of travel. The owner stands outside and "encourages" you to come in. Can be a bit offputting but this is common in Venice. I was a bit concerned it wouldn't be any good or would have weird extra charges but I had read decent comments about it in the Trip Advisor reviews of the hotel so we gave it a try. And it was fine. We stuck to salad and simple pastas and they were tasty. Decent house wine. Ate ouside by the small canal. No hidden charges or anything like that. This is not a place to trek across Venice for but if you're in this area, a good very inexpensive choice.

    A couple restaurants we didn't like as much, although they are both recommended by Rick Steves were: Osteria al Mascaron and Osteria Enoteca Ai Artisti.

    Mascaron: Service was a bit on the "Why do I have to serve these stupid tourists side?" Although the seafood appetizer platter (served to practically everyone) was good, the seafood pasta was ordinary. The small clams in it were pretty tasteless, the sauce nothing special. In our 4 1/2 weeks in Italy, we had undercooked pasta 3 times. This was one of them. Too chewy. We have had many renditions of this diah and this one was mediocre. I don't know if they have a wine list or not. We were offered house wine, red or white period. Tables (not big) are shared which is fine but since the food is served on big platters, it was a bit awkward.

    Artisti - Small and cute but disappointing. They had 2 seatings, 7:00 & 9:00. We arrived 10 minutes late after an all day trip to Padua. (Were waiting at the wrong vaporetto stop before we realized our mistake). So I was concerned about a rushed dinner. Service was on the slow side getting started which made me feel anxious. As it turned out, the seating times didn't seem to mean anything as people started leaving and coming in at random times. It would have been nice to know this so we would have been more relaxed. It was they that emphasized the seating times! We were expecting to have some interaction on the wine choice as this is supposed to be their thing but we really didn't. I ended up just choosing a wine from the list which was good but not the experience we expected to have. We had a good shared platter of meats and cheeses. Main course was disappointing. Had pasta with pieces of swordfish in it. Sauce was good but swordfish was dry. And this was the second place in Italy where the pasta was undercooked.( First place was Mascaron detailed above).

    All in all though, we were pleasantly surprized by our restaurant experiences, even casual lunch places were fine. Even the places we didn't like so much were not tourist rip-offs. But I would recommend doing some research ahead of time if food is important to you.

    Next post: Day trip to Padua, Murano/Burano and final thoughts on Venice.

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    Really enjoying your report as we just returned from Italy and this brings back great memories of places we also visited. I'll return to read more and hope to find time to write my own trip report soon.

    Fot those needing to buy train tickets in Varenna, be aware that the travel agency has limited hours and is not open on weekends. We stayed in Bellagio and went to Varenna on Friday to buy our tickets to Vencie for Sunday. Train tickets could also be purchased from other locations in Italy.

    I agree about St Mark's Basilica being a real treasure. While waiting to enter, an official tour guide came through the lines offering a tour for 15 Euros each which allowed us to skip the line. The tour was a great value as we learned so much about what we were seeing. At the end, the guide said that we could listen to another guide who explained the Biblical meaning of many of the beautiful mosaics, which we did. I knew that the mosaics would be lighted at 11:30, and this allowed us to sit in the church listening to her interesting explanations while viewing the illuminated mosaics. What an amazing difference the lighting made! I would not have missed this. After that tour, we spent more time in the church and were there for a noon mass, which was interesting to see even though we are not Catholic. We also happened onto masses in Florence and at St Peter's in the Vatican, as well as a christening in another church in Rome, and these experiences made the churches seem even more special.

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    Good info about the Varenna train station. The ticket machine did work for us and there used to be a travel agency nearby that sold tickets. We took the earliest train to Milan and then a bus to the airport. Very relieved that train was on time!

    Great that you had so many days to savor Venice and take some trips from there.

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    Glad some people are finding this useful.

    DAYTRIP TO PADUA: This was a bit of a production. Walk from hotel to Fondamente Nove. Vaporetto to train station, train to Padua. Upon arrival, we bought tram tix at the tobacco shop in the station to go to St. Anthony's basillica. The train station area and first part of downtown was a bit run-down looking with quite a bit of graffiti etc. The area around the basillica was nicer. St. Anthony's was very impressive. It is huge but had an interesting interior, unlike some of the Italian huge churches with cavernous almost empty interiors. The Renaissance wall carvings around the tomb of St. Anthony are really special. The wonderful Byzantine style exterior was somewhat compromised by our old friend scaffolding as was some of the interior (but not the St. Anthony's tomb area) Don't miss the Oratory of St. George (separate from the basillica) with frescoes from the 1300's).

    After touring the bascillica, we headed for the market squares which are quite nice and had lunch. We then walked up to the Scrovegni Chapel. We had purchased our mandatory timed tix for this several weeks in advance. The Chapel website will lead you to the selling agency which I believe was Vivaticket. I had to set up an account with them first before buying the actual tix. (I think this was the same agency that sold tix for Da Vinci's Last Supper in Milan). So there are hoops to jump thru but it was well worth it. You get precisely 15 minutes in the chapel with Giotto's exquisite frescoes. It's not enough time so study your guidebook first so you know what you're looking at. Before we went to Italy, I studied up on Italian art and this really enhanced my enjoyment every place we went to get beyond the ubiquitous religious subject matter to appreciate the emotions being portrayed, i.e. grief is grief whether it's Mary Magdalene or an ordinary person being depicted. After our chapel time, we walked back to the train station, and returned to Venice. A long day but a good one.

    MURANO/BURANO - One of our Venice days was spent visiting these two islands. This turned out to be a highlight of the entire trip. I was somewhat wary of this excursion envisioning Murano to be an excuse to sell glass and Burano to sell lace. I was totally wrong. Both are wonderful destinations and my only regret is that I did not give each of them their own day for reasons I will now explain. The Rick Steves guidebook makes it sound easy to do both in one day. In reality, it wasn't. Why? There were simply not enough vaporetto to meet the demand. So here's how it went:

    Took a fairly early vaporetto from Fondamente Nove to Murano. Fast trip No problem. Murano was delightful. Has been called a miniature Venice and is somewhat. Has it's own litlle Grand Canal. It was only somewhat crowded where the glassblowing demos are and main stores. When you get away from that it's wonderful to wander. Don't miss Santa Maria e San Donato Church. Stunning inlaid stone floor and beautiful mosaic above the altar. We were pretty much the only people here. RS says the hours are erratic but luckily it was open for us. After a couple of hours we made our way to the vaporetto stop to go to Burano. Not so fast. There was a long line to get on. Where did they come from? When the vaporetto arrived, we could not get on it so stood in line for about 40 more minutes. Got on the next one but could not geat a seat. So another 40 minutes standing on the boat. Finally arrived and believe me we were ready to sit down for lunch on the charming and yes tourist filled small Main Street.

    After lunch, we wandered around the back streets. Burano has to be seen to be believed. We spent a happy 1 1/2 hrs admiring the impossibly colorful houses complete with cats napping in the windowsills along too cute to be real tiny canals. Would have liked to have stayed longer. Made our way back to vaporetto stop. This time we got on the first one but still no seats so stood on the way back to Venice and could not see much of the lagoon which was disappointing.

    This was a great day but unless you're really lucky, be prepared for a lot of standing. With a day for each island we would have had time for the Glass Museim on Murano and the Lace Museum on Burano which we did not get to do. I realize few people will have the time to do the ideal thing so either do what we did or choose one for a more relaxed day. I loved them both would have to choose Burano over Murano if only doing one.

    Final thoughts on Venice:

    Loved the architecture, art, ambiance, food. Some people say Venice is not "real". If you're out fairly early in the morning, you will see the fascinating gritty work it takes to keep this city going. The trash boats, the supply boats, the guys wrestling appliances over stepped bridges and rushing around with handcarts etc. Yes, a lot of it's for tourists but if there are no real people living here, whose laundry was it hanging between buildings?

    September was a great tiime to visit. No mosquitos, no acqua alta, good weather.

    Some flies in the ointment(what we didn't like about Venice.):

    Intense crowds as previously discussed.

    Annoying street vendors selling silly trinkets. Amusing the first couple days. Not so much after that. This included the fake designer handbag sellers who spread out their wares on the already congested streets and make it difficult to avoid stepping on them. And also the flower sellers thrusting bouquets in your face while standing in a square and sometimes at outdoor cafes.

    Graffiti - Unfortunately, Venice has a generous slathering of graffiti around town, (not so much in the St Mark's area,)not graffiti art, just garden variey vandalism of beautiful old buildings. This is not unique to Venice these days but I was surprized at the extent of it. The water sides of buildings are a relief from it as I guess the perpetrators do not like to stand in a boat or in the water. So the Grand Canal for instance is fine..

    On the whole, we really liked Venice. However, I do wish they would start a graffiti removal program. Cities that do seem to have less of it in my experience. Don't let it keep you from going, just be prepared for it.

    Tomorrow's posting: Siena

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    This is so far one of the very best trip reports I have ever read.

    You combine the practical and the experiential aspects of your trip to an ideal degree.

    I admire your courage in admitting that you used both Rick Steves and travel agents. Neither is popular here, but in a place like Venice where none of the sites has been a secret for a couple of centuries, why not use a popular guidebook?

    I know that most of us would rather die than use a travel agent, but I also notice that most of our UK and Continental friends use them just as you did, for booking tickets and the like, not for planning the details of a trip. If you value your time at any figure, this is very sensible, and I will follow my own advice in the future.

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    Hi Elizacat, we're enjoying your TR. It makes us want to return to the areas you detail. We'll be in northern Italy in early Sept., in between time in "the Alps" of Austria and Switzerland. It's tempting to head south to Venice, but we'll probably have to make that another trip. Thanks for your interesting report.

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    I enjoy reading your informative report! It's been useful, as I am also planning to travel from Switzerland to Italy.

    Look forward to reading more about your interesting articles.

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    First: Thanks all for the nice comments. Ackislander: I do like the RS guidebooks and use them a lot. However, I don't agree with all his opinions and I also use Fodor guides and travel forums like this one and Trip Advisor. I normally don't use travel agents but the ones in Europe who sell train tix and seat res can save time and hassle vs the stations.

    And now on to Siena: We walked to Fondamente Nove from our hotel, got the vaporetto to the station. Our first class car to Florence was completely full. Our plan was to take the bus from Florence to Siena. I knew the general location of the bus station but could not see it when we exited the train station. It is across a big street but a bit tricky to find. We wandered around and eventually found it. Bought our tix for a bus leaving in a few minutes. Had a relaxing ride. I knew we were supposed to get off at Piazza Gramsci but the bus started making stops when we arrived at the city and I wasn't sure which one it would be. So I played "Are we there yet?" with the driver until we arrived. I'm sure he was glad to get rid of me. There were no taxis at the Piazza. I knew the hotel was walking distance and had a good idea where it was. We found it pretty easily, about a 15 min walk.

    The hotel was a small inn/B&B type called Villa Elda. It was located outside the walled old town in a nice neighborhood of 19th century homes. As a visitor, you will want to spend your time in the old town but this neighborhood was nice to stay in and an easy walk from the walled town. We had a nice, spacious room on the top floor with a panoramic view of the classic Siena skyline dominated by the Duomo. It was especially nice pre-sunset when the stone seems to glow. The inn staff was friendly and it was fairly quiet except for the Saturday night when there was a car race at the nearby Fortezza(a fort built by the Medicis (I think) and now used for various events). The car race wasn't so bad but it was accompanied by very loud rock music until 1:00am. This was the only night that was a problem, though. The inn does not have an elevator so if stairs are a problem, this place would not be good. Details on the inn are in RS guidebook.

    In the interests of full disclosure, I will say right off the bat: we loved Siena! It had made a good impression coming in on the bus, attractive, well-kept, a nice park with a big fountain( I've never met a fountain I didn't like), a lot of pride in the city by it's citizens and it showed. We stayed 6 nights. We had planned to have 2 days for the city itself and 3 for daytrips. As it turned out, we spent 3 days for the city and 2 on daytrips. Siena has interesting sights that take longer than you think to see, at least for me. And then there's just wandering and enjoying the place. I see tours that give it a few hours. It takes that long just to see the Duomo properly.

    Sights: The, Campo, the Campo, the Campo! This is right at the top of my list for grand urban spaces. It has the unique sloped clamshell shape, Renaissance and pre-Renaissance buildings in such good shape they look like they were just built. My city hall sure doesn't look like the Palazzo Pubblico. If you're like us, you'll want to end each sightseeing day here people watching with your beverage of choice. Although the Campo is technically pedestrian, there is delivery truck and other vehicle activity in the mornings.

    The Duomo: IMO, one of the most interesting churches in Europe, inside and out. The striped exterior was scaffold-free(yea!). The interior is filled with art(Bernini, Michelangelo, Donatello, a stunning pulpit by Nicola Pisano, Duccio(although the original of his stained-glass rose window is in the Duomo Museum.) The floors are magnificent inlaid marble. One scene shows Siena as the center of the Tuscan universe with Florence, Pisa etc rotating around it. As it should be! I have read the floors are not always completely uncovered. September(when we were there)is one of the months they are. So if this is accurate, try to go when they will be uncovered. Also, don't miss the Piccolomini Library in the church which is covered in frescoes from the 1400's depicting the interesting life of Pope Pius II who was from Siena. The frescoes are in pristine condition. Use your favorite guidebook to get the most from your Duomo visit.

    We spent a good 3 hours at the Duomo. Bought tix when they opened. Short line to buy at that time.

    Duomo Museum - Enjoyable , not too big, contains art originally in the church. Also, you can climb stairs to a great viewpoint. This is capacity controlled so you wait to go up in groups. Wait was not too long though and worth doing.

    Civic Museum - In the City Hall, has some Sienese art and very interesting frescoes of Good & Bad Government. The frescoes are somewhat damaged but worth seeing anyway.

    Santa Maria della Scala - This museum was once a hospital. The star of the show here is Pellegrinaio Hall with wonderful frescoes of hospital life in the 1400's. Seeing and reading about these in an art book before the trip and then seeing them in real life was special for me. (As it was throughout the trip, the prep time at home really enhanced the art experiences) The Hall has a beautiful ceiling as well and as I recall there were English descriptions of the art. There is more in this museum but we concentrated on the Hall.

    San Domenico Church - A huge, half empty church but interesting for displaying all the flags of the contrade(Siena neigborhoods). It also contains St. Catherine of Siena's actual head. (You read that right).

    Besides the sights, Siena is a joy to walk. Be aware though that Siena is NOT a sleepy village. It is a good size town with plenty of traffic on the very narrow steep streets in the old town. Many times we had to do our Spiderman impersonations clinging to a wall as a delivery van came within inches of us. Sunday was a good time to wander as it was quieter then. We especially enjoyed the streets that displayed the contrade flags of the dolphin, eagle and goose with matching light fixtures.

    Restaurants: Siena earned our "Best Group of Restaurants" award. We liked all of them we went to which for 6 nights is an achievement. This region is meat oriented (and pastas of course) so made a good change of pace from seafood oriented Venice.

    Firtst night we had arrived late afternoon, didn't feel like seeking out a full dinner place. So we went to a wine bar type place in the Fortezza. Had good meats and cheeses and sampled a few Tuscan wines. Nice, relaxed, quiet.

    Real Restaurants:

    La Taverna Di Cecco - Classic trattoria, shared tables, good service. Had classic veal piccata and a great potato side dish with tomato in it. Sounds weird but was really good. Inexpensive.

    Ristorante Guidoriccio - Just off the Campo in a cellar atmosphere. Very nice owner. I would classify as a trattoria as well but pretty good wine list. Excellent vegetarian lasagna and this is where my husband had pici, the local thick spaghetti dish which he liked. We went here for a lunch and a dinner.

    Compagnia dei Vinattieri - Upscale, lovely below ground dining room with arches. Sophisticated, modern Italian. Had a delicious sort of deconstructed canneloni here. Excellent wine list. Professional service.
    Great for a dinner to linger over.

    Taverna San Giuseppe - Also upscale, atmospheric. I sat by the opening to the wine cellar in the former Etruscan tomb below. I would say the food is heartier than Vinattieri. Husband had the boar ragu pasta and I had a duck with some kind of berry sauce. Had interesting salads as well for first course whereas most Italian salads are pretty much the same. This restaurant had a 7:00 and 9:00 seating. We had the 7 and were not rushed at all. A busy but well-run place.

    Antica Osteria Da Divo - Considered one of the best in town. Beautiful ambiance, glassware, dinnerware etc. The "fanciest" of all our choices. This was the start of black truffe season so we had black truffle risotto which was very good. My husband had a good quail app but my first course was a bland vegetable dish. The varied bread basket was the best of the trip. So we enjoyed this place but was not my favorite of the group.

    Details on all of the above are in the RS guidebook We made reservations at all of them(with the exception of Di Cecco where we just walked in) as we walked around. Most are open for lunch. I would suggest making reservations after you check them out because they get busy.

    We made 2 day trips from Siena: San Gimignano & an all day mini-van tour of some of the Chianti region.

    We originally planned to go to Montepulciano but the bus schedule did not co-operate. The morning bus that would have made it possible was not running in September, was summer only. We were disappointed and substituted San Gimignano. I had read about SG being overrun with visitors so was wary. It turned out to be an absolute delight. We took the bus from Piazza Gramsci.

    Yes, there were plenty of people in the little main piazza but who cares? The town is so picturesque with all it's towers, just a picture in a history book come to life. It's much smaller than Siena, the stone it's made of is different and it has much less traffic so it is very enjoyable to walk around with great views of the countryside from the walls. It also had a nice ambiance with street musicians playing Rennaisance music and one guy portraying Dante (Kind of silly but fun) BTW: When you get out of the main piazza area, it's not all that crowded and some parts not at all. SG has an enchanting exhibit called San Gimigano 1300 which is a 1:100 scale model of the city as it was then with all of it's towers. If you like miniatures, you will love this. The RS book says there is an entry fee. There wasn't. It was on view for all to see with a donation box by it which it deserves. We had a lovely lunch at Locanda San Domenico on their terrace with postcard views of the countryside and good food too.

    Rick Steves criticizes SG for "crass commercialism". Huh? It has shops, just like every other town that does a tourist trade. And most of them were quite nice. Sure, there's the obligatory tacky souvenir places. So what? You don't have to go in. He also criticizes it for having torture museums. Well, one of his favorite places, Rothenburg, also has a torture museum. Rothenburg is one of my favorites too. My point is I don't think he's fair about SG. His comments almost put me off from going. I'm very glad we did go. I still hope to get to Montepulciano someday.

    Our other daytrip was a tour with Tours by Roberto. We had a congenial group of 7 of us(3couples and a single) for a minivan tour. We wanted to see some of the Chianti countryside and without a car this seemed to be a good way to do it. Roberto Bechi is an engaging, interesting guide and something of an expert on the Etruscans. After we had picked everyone up from their hotels we drove into the countryside which was lovely and green even in September. Our first stop was an Etruscan tomb. There is nothing to see in the tomb. The interest lies in Roberto's talk about it. And he does make it interesting, though the stop may have been slightly too long for most people. We then headed thru more countryside to a winery. It was very nice in a scenic setting. Roberto gave us about a 45 min tour of the cellars. I have been on several winery tours and thought his was quite good. We then had a nicely done tasting at a table for our group. We got to taste the "good stuff" and not just the lesser lights. I can't remember the name of the winery but it is well-respected. We actually ordered one of their wines at one of the Siena restaurants. So the winery visit was very pleasant but a bit long for me. We love wine but did not want to buy any and ship it home and we had a bottle at our hotel compliments of management still to drink. But others in our party did want to buy so this was somewhat time-consuming.

    After the winery, we headed to a tiny place, not big enough to even call a hamlet, called Vertine. I believe the population was less than 20 plus 3 cats and a dog. Roberto took us around for a description of the architecture and then we had lunch there at the one cafe. Very pleasant sitting outside but service was very slow even though we only had a choice of three things so lunch took a long time and was quite late in the afternoon. After that we headed back to Siena.

    All in all, an enjoyable day and nice to see some countryside. My personal preference would have been for less time at the winery and a shorter lunch adding some time in another village. Details on Roberto's company are in RS guidebook. He has a website. You book via e-mail, make a deposit via Paypal and pay the balance when you go on the tour.

    So sadly, we had to say good-bye to Siena.

    Next post(tomorrow) Florence

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    Hi Elizacat. I am full agreement with your comments on the second-tier nature of the Guggenheim and the excellence of Venetian restaurants, some of my favourites anywhere.

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    Thanks some more, elizacat. We also got goofed up with a vap trip from the Lido--ended up taking way longer as it went to a commuter parking lot no where near Venice!

    I agree more with Mr. Steves about San Gim but to each his own, eh? And yes, Siena's Duomo is stunning indeed.

    Can't wait to go to Florence "with you"!

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    On graffiti in Venice - I also don't remember noticing it while I was there but after reading this review looked through my photos and did see it in one photo. Most of the graffiti I saw was while pulling into train stations and even then it wasn't as bad as I've seen in some other places.

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    Thank for your funny, informative and honest report, which really illustrates that everyone takes their own trip, but we all can benefit from the variety of experiences.

    We also love Siena. As for Taverna di Cecco, also a favorite. Our daughter, who was studying in Siena several years ago, took us there for our first meal when we came to visit there. Went there more than once that week. Last month, on our first visit back to Siena since then, we went there for lunch. Nonna was still in the kitchen, food was still wonderful.

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    Thank you everybody for the kind comments

    Lest you think Siena is absolutely safe, I should have mentioned that a pigeon pooped on me while I was stitting on a bench against a wall across from the Duomo. I didn't realize they were on the roof of the building. To add insult to injury, I had put on a not-yet- worn outfit that morning which is precious on a long trip. At least it wasn't on my head.

    On to Florence: We walked to Piazza Gramsci and got the bus to Florence. We had previously purchased our tix at the bus office. Arrived at the Florence train station and took a taxi to our hotel. About the train station: I had read some warnings about it concerning pickpockets etc. We encountered no problems, whatsoever. No one suspicious approached us or even looked at us as far as I know.. Some had described the area as being run-down. It did not appear so to me, just a busy area.

    Our hotel was the Davanzati, small, family run , excellent location right in the heart of things. We had a good size, comfortable room facing the street. The window glazing was good so noise was not a problem. They have an elevator and we thought breakfast had the most variety of any we had. The middle-aged male owner was on duty when we arrived and offered to make our dinner reservations for us so we had him do that (at our choices). This was a nice service. (His son was sometimes on duty and not as helpful). They have an hour in the early evening where you can have a free glass of prosecco or
    wine. Unfortunately, during this hour, they play loud music, to create ambiance I guess. After one time of this, we took the prosecco to our room. Details on the hotel are in the RS guidebook.

    We stayed 5 nights and so had 4 1/2 days which was a packed itinerary. More than I usually try to do. Luckily, the area of interest to visitors is pretty compact so you can do multiple sights in one day. (until your head threatens to explode from art overload!)

    The first thing we did was to go to the Palazzao Vecchio (didn't tour it that day) and buy the Firenze Card. The card covers admission to a great number of sights with no waiting in line(almost) at the sights. It is pricey, 72 euro when we were there. You have 72 hours to use it from the time you first use it. If you go to a lot of sights, you will break even or save a little. Much of it's value lies in the fact that you can visit the Uffizi and the Accademia without a long wait and you are not tied to a particular time. Those were the only 2 sites with line issues when we there. They revised the Card last year to include the Duomo Museum, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce churches( and some others) but you still only get 72 hours.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon doing RS's "Renaissance Walk" thru the heart of central Florence(do go in the interesting Orsanmichele Church) ending up at the Ponte Vecchio. Of course, you've seen it in pictures but it's more impressive in person( even to the two young Easter European (judging by their accents)male tourists who asked us if we knew what bridge it was) LOL. No, they weren't scammers, just clueless.

    The next 4 days were jam-packed with sights:

    The Uffizi - I knew there would be great art here. What I didn't know was that it would be a very enjoyable experience as well. I had read all the warnings about shoulder to shoulder crowds and was worried we wouldn't be able to see the art well. It wasn't like that at all. The capacity-control policy seemed to work or at least it did that day. We arrived around 9:00 and went right in using the Firenze Card. Yes, there were people but not unplesaantly crowded and you could get close to everything and spend as much time as you wanted in each room. Note: Many pieces are not where they're "supposed" to be so you can't just follow your guidebook. With the exception of Michelangelo's "Holy Family" there were no signs to tell what had been re-located. However, we found many we were looking for just by browsing thru the rooms. Also, don't be afraid to ask the guards where a particular piece is. Sometimes you have to ask more than one to get the right answer. We particularly enjoyed the Botticeli room. When we were there, they seemed to be almost finished renovating a second wing so there will probably be more to see in the future. As it was, there was plenty and we stayed about 2 1/2 hours here. If you don't buy the Firenze card, do buy tix in advance so you won't waste time in a tik buying line.

    Accademia - I'm tempted just to call this David because that's what it's all about here. And it needs nothing else. After seeing the sculpture in every travel brochure know to man for decades, I wondered if it would be a let-down. As so many others have said, it is simply stunning. When you first see it, you are struck by the size of it. Then you get to walk around it and appreciate the grace of it. Again, because it is capacity-controlled, we had plenty of room to appreciate it at length. Even with the Firenze card, we waited 30 min to enter. So buy tix ahead. The tik buying line was ridiculous.

    Medici Chapels - Stunning and emotionally moving Michelangelo sculptures.

    San Marco Museum - Beautiful former monastery featuring the art of Fra Angelico. He had been a miniaturist and to me his art has elements of the art of illuminated books. Really exquisite. There are also the monk's cells painted by him. The monk Savanarola's cell is here also. He of the "bonfire of the vanities" fame. Lovely and peaceful cloisters. A good break from the crowds as it's pretty quiet at this museum.

    Bargello - Wonderful sculpture museum. Small enough to manage in about 1 1/2 hr . The building itself is pre-Renaissance and was once the town hall. Enjoyable, uncrowded.

    Pallazzo Vecchio - Former Medici palace and current town hall, great tower. How do several hundred year old buildings look this good? It never ceases to amaze me. It contains the huge and impressive Hall of the Five Hundred and the Medici apartments.

    Brancacci Chapel - Small but covered with exquisite frescoes by Masaccio.

    The Duomo - Magnificent exterior, the dome that still dominates the Florence skyline. The unbelievable Giotto's Tower. The same Giotto of fresco fame designed the tower. How do you spell genius? We admired the tower at length but did not climb it. Entry to the Duomo is free, there is a line which moves pretty fast. The Firenze card does not get you faster entry here. I enjoyed seeing the dome structure from the inside but the real thrills are on the outside.

    Baptistery - Stunningly beautiful interior covered in mosaics. Will remind you of St.Mark's because they were done by Venetian artists (12-1300's) Also, of course has the wonderful Ghiberti doors which are copies. Originals are in the Duomo Museum.

    Duomo Museum - Unfortunately, this was almost entirely closed for renovation. I do not know what the current situation is. Ghiberti's doors and Michelangelo's pieta were on view but that was about it. It was, however, worth it just for those. Though the entry fee was not reduced. It was covered by the Firenze card though.

    Santa Maria Novella Church - A treasure trove of art. Too much to detail here, this is a must-visit, IMO. Don't miss the Spanish chapel here. I had read the piazza the church is in was somewhat seedy. It may have been at one time. It isn't now. In fact, it was quite nice to sit and admire the exterior of the church and get to sit down for awhile!

    Santa Croce Church - Well worh a visit. Has the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo and more. In a delighful piazza with many cafe's. However, the church doesn't compare with Santa Maria Novella, IMO. Do see the Pazzi chapel, separate from the church, desighned by Brunelleschi(Duomo dome architect). Good acoustics highlighed when a male visitor sang part of a hymn. Lovely moment. The Leather school is around one side of the church. We are not shoppers but this has top-notch leather and my husband bought a wallet here. The prices reflect the quality.

    As you can see, Florence has an overwhelming number of world-class sights. We did not get to the Pitti Palace or the Galileo museum and others. We need a second visit.

    Next post: Florence restaurants and some general info/thoughts on the city

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    drchris: I don't get too upset about grafitti along train tracks etc. It does, however, bother me when it's on great old buildings which I consider art, the same as in a museum. Because we had quite a bit of time, we walked around a lot of areas and I felt the graffiti was excessive in a lot of the otherwise charming small squares and did not see much evidence of attempts to remove it. Something for the city administration to do a better job on. That said, there is plenty of beauty in Venice, it shouldn't stop people from going and I want to visit again someday. I just feel if I'm going to report on the good stuff, I should mention the other stuff too, to try to give people a realistic view.

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    Before I mention the restaurants we went to, I want to finish up the sightseeing in Florence. On our last day there, after visiting the abbreviated Duomo Museum, we walked up to Piazzale Michelangelo. We had planned to take a bus up from central Florence and walk down thru the Oltrarno. But our plans were de-railed by the peloton of the Tour de Toscana. I did not know about this bicycle race ahead of time. We found out when we were leaving Piazza Santa Croce (the day before going to the Piazzale), when the streets were barricaded off and we could not get back across the main drag to return to the hotel. We looked for a crossing but did not find one so we went to a cafe in the Piazza and had some prosecco. With our brains working better after the prosecco, we tried again and finally found a place where the police were allowing people to cross at intervals(in between racers). We assumed this was just for that day since it was a Sunday. Wrong. This event goes on for a week meaning the central Florence streets were barricaded every morning starting by 9:00 and removed around 6:00 in the evening. No buses, no taxis. There were some places for pedestrians to cross which it turns out had been published but our hotel had said nothing about it. It would have been helpful if they had posted some info at the front desk. I got the impression this is an annual event in September so if you wish to avoid it, I would look into that. You can work around it, but be prepared for some disruptions.

    In any case, because the bus we had planned to take was not running, we walked up to the Piazalle. We found a way up that was fairly gradual and we enjoyed the walk. The views from the top, of the Florence skyline are fabulous with the Duomo dominating just like the travel brochure pictures. The Piazalle itself is filled with tacky souvenir stands and tour buses. However, just below it is a delightful outdoor cafe with virtually the same view, a great place for a drink or lunch. The panninis were quite good. You can sit and enjoy the views in a quiet relaxing atmosphere. Frankly, I would opt for the cafe and forget the actual Piazzale itself.

    After lunch we visited the nearby Benedictine San Miniato Church. This beautiful and unique church dates from the 13th century. Very nice to just sit awhile in the exceedingly peaceful interior. While we were doing just that, some of the monks came out and sang some chants(not a full mass) which was a real treat. We then had a nice walk down thru some of the Otrarno and along the river back to our hotel.

    Restaurants: The Florence restaurants were not quite as good as Siena's as a group. Out of the 5 dinner restaurants we went to, we really liked 3, the other 2 not so much.

    The ones we liked:

    Ristorante del Fagioli - I would call this kind of a sophisticated trattoria. It is a little bigger than some, has comfortable seating, tables are not shared. Good wine list. Very friendly and competent service. Food is hearty, I had a flank steak roulade and my husband had excellent meatballs. They had a geat cheesecake dessert that involved chocolate. Moderate prices.

    Trattoria 4 Leoni - This is prominent in guidebooks and it deserves it. It was more "upscale" than I had envisioned with an inviting interior as well as some outdoor seating. We had their excellent finochetti pasta which is stuffed with cheese and pear, one of the best pastas of the trip which is saying a lot. Service was professional. I would really not characterize this as a trattoria.

    Il Santo Belvatore Restorante - The most expensive of the 3 we liked(possibly because we had 2 glasses each of Brunello di Montalcino), it was well worth it. Husband had a beef dish(not Florentine bistecca) because I would have to have it too and I just don't like meat that rare) and I had a pork with cherry sauce. Like Fagioli, they too had a great cheesecake with orange sauce instead of chocolate. Really good wine list including by the glass. Very good service.

    Details on all of the above are in RS guidebook.

    The two we didn't like that much were at opposite ends of the cost spectrum:

    Frescobaldi - Really disappointed in this one. RS lists it as a splurge and those are usually very good but this one wasn't. We were expecting a relaxed, high-end experience. What we got was a noisy dining room and rushed impersonal service. They seem to be catering to groups as one entire large room was filled with a tour group. Our first courses were ok but nothing special. My husband's main was ok and mine was bad. It was chicken and once the crust on it was gone, it was dull and appeared to be not cooked enough all the way to the bone. I ate about half of it. Yes, I should have sent it back but sometimes you just don't want to start over when companion is almost finished. The only thing we could praise was the wine which was from their own winery. (we got no help choosing it, though). This actually was probably the worst dinner we had in Italy.

    Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori - This is an inexpensive trattoria which has become a darling on Trip Advisor.
    Consequently, it is very hard to get into. We asked our hotel to try to get us a reservation a few weeks in advance of arriving. We wanted the 7:30 seating but they could only get us either 9:00 or 9:30, I forget which. We didn't know this until we arrived but figured we'd go with the flow because it got such good reviews. I actually don't think this is a bad place but our dinner didn't go well. The second seating in the very small restaurant was entirely Italians except for us, which was fine with us. But we got the feeling that maybe this is the time they would prefer to have for just locals, which is also fine but that's the time they gave us, not what we requested. We just didn't feel as welcome here as other places.

    But the big problem was with my main course( had a simple salad for first). I was not familiar with one of the pastas on the menu and asked the waiter to explain it. He drew a picture of the shape on my napkin and I ordered the dish. Main courses arrive and mine is...fried chicken. Huh? I told the person who brought it (who was not the waiter) that it was wrong. He looked skeptical but I had the picture of what I ordered on the napkin so he took it back. He did not take my husband's back though so he tried to eat slowly. Even so, he was half finished when my correct dish arrived. The pasta was undercooked, probably because they were rushing to get it out. The waiter brought it and muttered a barely audible sorry. That was the only apology we got and nothing was taken off the bill for this fiasco. The prices here are low so it was nothing major, just disappointing. My main point in relating all this is even at it's best, I don't think this is a place worth jumping thru hoops to get into. Fagioli was so much better and we made a reservation the same day we went there. I think it's a case of too much internet hype for an okay but not particularly special trattoria. So don't feel bad if you can't get in!

    I also want to mention La Bussola where we had the best pizza of the trip. We had a lot of pizza lunches, all of them good, to varying degrees. But this was one of the best pizzas I've had. The toppings were boar sausage, a local sheep's cheese and I believe cherry tomatoes. It was delicious and service was friendly. This, I think, would be a good dinner place also. It is located at 58 Via Porta Rossa, the same street as the Davanzati hotel.

    Final thoughts on Florence:

    We liked Florence much more than I thought we might. Although there were certainly plenty of visitors in town, the crowds were not as bad as I had feared, the traffic more orderly, vespas were not a problem, no safety issues that we encountered, looked "spiffier" than I thought it would and really liked the river setting. The art and achitecture elevate it to world-class. Hope to return.

    The morning we left, we decided to take an earlier train to Lucca than originally planned to avoid the start of the bicylcle race. Although, the hotel would have arranged an early taxi to arrive before the barricades went up, we decided to just walk to the station. About a 15 minute walk. Nobody bothered us.

    Next post: Lucca/Pisa and Milan

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    For Tirano, Trenord has their tickets online.

    http://www.trenord.it/en/timetable/timetable.aspx

    >>>I had read the piazza the church is in was somewhat seedy.<<<

    A few years ago they did a major upgrade of the piazza in front of SMN so perhaps it improved afterwards.

    >>>The most expensive of the 3 we liked(possibly because we had 2 glasses each of Brunello di Montalcino<<<

    Brunello di Montalcino would improve any meal! On your next Siena trip, you can easily hop the bus to Montalcino and sample the Brunellos.

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    kybourbon: Yes, the upgrade of SMN piazza worked because I don't think anyone would call it seedy now.

    And now on to Lucca:

    Taking an earlier train than we had planned actually was a good thing because we really liked Lucca and that gave us a bit of extra time there. Lucca is a more workaday city with fewer tourists than the other places we had visited(with the exception of Padua). However, it is being discovered and there were somewhat more visitors there than I had imagined there would be. Also, don't confuse less tourism with sleepy. It is a busy, vibrant town with lots of street activity. With all the bicycles I thought I was back in Holland at times..

    When we arrived at the train station, there were taxis waiting so we took one to the hotel. It would have been a confusing walk as we didn't have a good map yet. Our hotel was Hotel A Palazzo Busdraghi. A bit of a weird name but that's the official name. It's small, more like a B&B, centrally located in an atmospheric courtyard with private apartments off one of the main streets. Our room, the junior suite, was at the back of the building so there was no street noise. We booked it because it was the only one they had available. It was large, split level and very nice. However, it had a tub only, no shower. You had to sit in the tub and use the hand-held device which I don't like. I know some of the rooms have showers so if you want that, make sure that's what you're getting. Otherwise, we liked it. It is not in the RS book but it is listed on Trip Advisor.

    We stayed 3 nights so had 1 1/2 days for Lucca and one day for a daytrip to Pisa.

    One of the highlights of Lucca is it's intact walls. They are very wide and open, perfect for walking or biking around the perimeter of the old town. We really enjoyed this. Lucca has varied and interesting architecture including the unique Piazza dell' Anfiteatro, which is round, having been built on the site of a Roman amphitheater. We enjoyed drinks here but did not eat here. Lucca has churches worth expploring including the Pisan Romanesque Cathedral, but the real fun is just wandering around enjoying the ambiance and discovering different piazzas. Make sure you see the unique Guinigi Tower with it's little forest of greenery at the top. We would not have minded another day here at all.

    Our dinner restaurants were Paris Boheme and Osteria Via San Giorgio.

    Paris Boheme is a charming cafe on the small "Puccini" piazza decorated in appropriate Parisian style. We had a wonderful dinner at a tiny table outside. They have a unique house salad that contains fruit but is not a conventional fruit salad at all. Also had a pasta in a curry sauce, one of the best and more unique pasta dishes of the trip. The owner who does the serving is something of a character and this was a fun evening. He likes reservations. We made one for the same evening when in the area at lunch time. This is not in RS book but is listed on Trip Advisor.

    Osteria Via San Giorgio is a very welcoming, unpretentious place with a nice interior and outdoor courtyard seating as well. I would probably call it a sophisticated trattoria. We had an excellent risotto here, laced with red pepper cream and something green which I now can't recall if basil or parsley. Also, good meatballs and other pastas. We ended up going here twice because we couldn't get into the well-reviewed Osteria Pasqualino Gubitosa. We had gotten used to getting into the restaurants we chose by making a reservation a day or two in advance but Pasqualino is very popular so if you're interested in that one, learn from our mistake. Lucca has plenty of restaurants but at this point in the trip, we were tired of restaurant hunting so chose San Giorgio for a second visit. Enjoyed it both times. Details on San Giorgio are in the RS guidebook.

    Daytrip to Pisa:

    We took the bus to Pisa, an easy about 40 minute trip. We went to see not just the Tower but the whole complex. We thought the actual Tower might be a let-down but it wasn't. It is actually really impressive. It was delicately beautiful in person, kind of a lacy appearance that doesn't really come through in pictures of it, IMO. We admired but did not climb it. If you want to, I think you have to have a reservation to do so.

    We enjoyed the entire Field of Miracles complex, especially the Duomo and the Baptistery. Be aware: this is tour group critical mass. That said, most of the people are outside taking their obligatory pictures of themselves with the tower. The Duomo interior was not badly crowded and the Baptistery not at all. Both contain exquisitely carved pulpits by the Pisanos(father and son).

    We did not have enough time to see anything of the town of Pisa. We returned to Lucca by bus to have a bit of time back there in the late afternoon saying good-bye with a glass of wine on the amphitheater piazza.

    Milan - We took the train via a transfer in Florence to Milan, our last Italian destination where we would stay 3 nights. When planning the trip I chose Milan over Verona because there were two things I really wanted to see there, the quite unique Flambuoyant Gothic Duomo and Da Vinci's Last Supper. I was also interested in the Galleria, a model for shopping venues elsewhere in the world. It also fit in with taking the train back to Zurich from which we would fly home. As it turned out, we just did not like Milan very much for the reasons detailed below.

    Upon arrival we took a taxi to our hotel. The city was noisy and traffic-flilled with lots of vespas buzzing around. But it's a big city and to be expected and we generally like cities. This one just didn't win us over. Our hotel was the Duca di York. It was very centrally located, right by the Ambrosiana Museum. Our room was nice with a terrace that faced the street. It was not noisy because the hotel is on a little side street. Breakfast was good, the front desk made restaurant reservations for us. Nothing wrong with the hotel at all. Details are in RS guidebook.

    We arrived with enough time to explore so we headed for the Duomo Piazza. I had been looking forward to seeing this since planning the trip. And there it is, massive with countless pointy spires, the parts of it I can see that is. Part of it is in scaffolding. What else is new? ( I had been misled by a guidebook(not RS) to think the renovation was finished and therefore wasn't expecting it). So ok, I'll appreciate what I can until I approach the part that is festooned with billboards, yes billboards ON THE CHURCH, not nearby, on it. And not just any old billboards either but ELECTRONIC ones that changed and called maximum attention to themselves. Sorry, Milan but this is a new low. The advertisements supposedly contribute to the renovation. Fine, how about putting them elsewhere in the Piazza? There may be some out there who will defend this practice but you are not going to convince me. The city of Venice was roundly criticized for having billboards on the scaffolding for the Bridge of Sighs when it was being renovated and elsewhere in St. Mark's Square and yes there were some on the Correr Museum when we there, but NOT on St. Mark's itself and the billboards were not electronic. So if Venice is going to get flak, I think Milan deserves it even more.

    Not in a good mood, we go to the Galleria. It is indeed an elegant urban shopping space. However, it would be nice if there was someplace to sit down and enjoy the architecture. There is no place to sit except at pricey cafes, which we were not in the mood for. Not a bench in sight that we saw. The RS guidebook says there is a McDonald's in the Galleria. It is not. There is one in the piazza, not in the Galleria itself. It is not my life's goal to visit McDonald's when in Europe but at least we could have sat and had a coke and enjoyed the Galleria ambiance.

    The next day we toured the interior of the Duomo which while worth doing is not as interesting as the exterior. Touring the roof, however, is a unique and fascinating experience, up close and personal with the sculptures and gargoyles.

    In the afternoon, we walked up to Sforza castle(did not visit the castle) and back on Via Dante, a pleasant pedestrian street with entertaining street performers. One Asian man was carving shapes from vegetables. The prawn from a carrot had to be seen to be believed.

    Our second (and last) full day in Milan was Leonardo day. We took the tram to the Last Supper sight. You must purchase timed tix in advance. We did this thru the official ticket seller, Vivaticket, first setting up an account with them. As soon as tix could be purchased for the day we wanted, I purchased them on-line at 2:00 am our time. It's hard to get tix because re-sellers buy them to sell at higher prices. You get exactly 15 minutes of viewing time with the fresco which is adequate. By this time, we had seen many artists' versions of the Last Supper so I wondered how impressive Da Vinci's would be. It was not only artisically impressive, but quite moving as well. For us, it was worth jumping thru the hoops to see.

    After picking up the tix prior to our entry time, we walked around the area a bit which we thought was much nicer than the Duomo area. Some elegant 19th century apartment buildings(although some of the great old doors are defaced with graffiti).

    In the afternoon, we visited the Ambrosiana museum. It contains an eclectic, enjoyable art collection in a building which itself is a work of art. They also own a collection of Da Vinci drawings and pages from his diaries, a selection of which were on display on a rotating basis in a beautiful wooded library setting. It was a priviledge to see them but the audioguide really had no information on them. Having good audioguide descriptions would have enhanced the experience. I'm not sure how long they will be displaying these so you would need to get current info if you're interested in them.

    Restaurants:

    Peck Italian Bar - Owned by the same people who have the gourmet food outlet but not at the same location. We had good charcuterie platters here. However, as were the other restaurants in Milan, it was more expensive than similar fare was in the other ciities we visited.

    Hostaria Borromei - Nice, romantic courtyard. Food ok but my lamb was overcooked(and I'm not a rare meat fan). I had not specified anything so they overcooked on their own. Good service, complimentary glass of prosecco.

    Ristorante Bruno - Nice trattoria. Good buffet appetizer spread, charged by the plate. Tasty pasta. Enjoyable for our last Italian dinner

    All of the above are in RS guidebook.

    Final thoughts on Milan: I'm not sorry we visited if only for the Last Supper and the Duomo roof but this was the Italian destination we liked the least. Especially because of the billboards on the Duomo but also the graffiti was pervasive in the general Duomo area(the worst we saw in Italy) While there was some nice architecture, there was nothing really unique except for the Duomo and the Galleria. We are not at all interested in high fashion or upscale shopping so that was not an attraction for us. Also, there is a lot of traffic wizzing down the side streets (to avoid the main drags). I'm sure others will disagree with me about Milan but I can only report my experiences and opinions.

    From Milan we returned to Zurich and thence home without incident.

    Final thoughts on Italy;

    Overall, we had a great trip and really enjoyed Italy. At some point, we hope to embark on Italy II. I have new respect for those who write trip reports. They are harder and take more time than I would have imagined. I hope some will find mine helpful. Thanks for all the nice feedback. I will monitor this site for a few weeks in case anyone has any questions.

    Happy Travels!

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    Very much enjoyed your trip report. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

    I had the same dish you had a 4 leoni in florence. The finochetti. It is one of the ones I remember. Loved it!

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    Elizacat, once again, thanks so much for your wonderful TR. Anyone who has written such a detailed report as yours must really appreciate all the time and energy that went into it. It was a delightful read!

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    tomarkot: Thanks for the kind words. The hardest part of writing it was deciding how much detail to include. Sometimes I thought I was including too much and sometimes not enough. So if anyone has specific questions I will try to answer them.

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    The money-raising marque wasn't at the MIlan Duomo when we were there quite a few years ago. How disappointing!

    I actually tried to get opera tickets at La Scala but was put off by the prices. It's too bad about the re-sellers.

    A super read.

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    Great report! Glad you enjoyed your trip and understand your feelings about Milano. In terms of the piazza in front of the SMN church in Florence, when last in town we stayed in a hotel which fronted on it. Place was busy, especially at night with all those lighted parachute gizmos being launched and for sale.

    Your report has just enough detail IMO.

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    I enjoyed reading your report and appreciated the detail you provided. I am glad to see another RS fan be brave enough to post here. We use his guidebooks (as wel as others) and appreciate the details he provides. It sounds like you did well with his recommended hotels and restaurants. I hope you make it back for Italy II. We just returned (and I hope to find time to write a trip report soon) and had thought it would be our oly trip to Italy as there are so many more countries we want to see but I find myself longing to see more of Italy. Enjoy your memories!

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    drchris: I always take the RS recommendations on hotel and restaurants and vet them on Trip Advisor and other sites. Then we check them out when we're there to see the menus and the vibe. But, yeah we thought his picks were particularly good for this trip. I look forward to reading your trip report.

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    Great report! I was in Milan for the first time this spring and.. I agree with you. Outside of the Duomo and the Last Supper, I would not necessarily care to go again.

    I didn't get my full 15 minutes with Leonardo, unfortunately, because most of us had to wait on someone's tour guide. So, we got about 12 minutes. If I had to do it again, I'd have bought a second ticket online, for the 15-minute slot 1/2-hour after the first one.

    Glad you liked Florence, too. I love it and can't seem to get to Italy without stopping there!

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    Very nice report. I actually visited Lucca as well, last year. It was a very funny story actually, I had just bought a lamp from a website for lighting (for reference: http://interior-deluxe.com/ ) and it said that it was manufactured in Lucca. The name sounded strange and so I googled it and immediately fell in love with it. Saved all my money to visit the place a year later and it did not let me down. A wonderful place!

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    Enjoyed your trip report. Lots of great ideas we can use.
    We will be in Venice for just a weekend. I would like to buy some Murano glass jewelry.
    Wondering if you bought any item or did you do any window shopping for other items.
    Would love to find out what did you buy in Venice and if you have some little tips.
    Our time will be short, so I think your input will be great help.
    Thanks for sharing. Have a great Sunday.

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    Ilene: Can't help you much on the shopping. We travel very light so just don't have the space for stuff. We did buy a cute Murano glass angel Christmas tree ornament on the island of Murano itself. There was certainly plenty of lovely Murano glass in the Venice shop windows but we did not investigate prices or anything like that. Sorry.

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    Appreciate your reply. I also travel very light and have enough souvenirs and don't need much.
    Thus wanted some tiny jewelry, but like your idea of a tree ornament too.
    Will window shop and enjoy.
    Have a great day.

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    Thanks for sharing your trip in such detail. We leave Monday for a month in Italy, traveling to Varenna from Milan, on to Venice, Florence, Siena, Orvieto and ending with 6 nights in Rome. I've printed out all your comments and plan to try many of your restaurant and other suggestions.

    We also have two tours with Roberto in Siena.

    We'll be using RS book as one guide. We've used his books for parts of other trips. I think we're only staying in one of his hotel suggestions. The trouble with following his tour books is that you wind up with mostly RS'ers in the hotels and restaurants. Good place to start planning though.

    I felt this trip was overwhelming, but I feel a lot more confident about doing it on our own after reading your trip report. We'll be traveling by train and bus also.

    Never enough details for me. Thanks again!

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    I just found this report and really enjoyed it. I am so glad you liked Siena so much as it is one of my favorite places. I have never been to Murano and Burano and you have convinced me I must make them a priority if I get the chance to return to Venice. Thanks for an excellent report!

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