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Trip Report Venice and Tuscany May 2012

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Just got back from our trip 5/9-5/19 so here is a heavily abbreviated trip report – we love food and wine and both are featured in this review. I believe that I’ve captured the locations and the sites accurately, but there may be a few things that are out of place so my apologies in advance. Our rationale for doing a trip with so many stops is that we approached this area of Italy as a buffet…we were able to sample a number of places in a short time to find out what we’d like to visit again on another trip. We’re both pretty fit and don’t mind walking but I would love to know how many miles we put in during the trip. Despite eating fantastic food and sampling amazing wines I managed to lose a few pounds by the time we returned. Chalk it up to the mileage…..

Venice - two nights at Hotel Al Piave – we took a water taxi from the airport to within a couple of blocks of the hotel. The rooms were tiny, but clean with a good breakfast and very helpful staff. No elevator, and rooms are at least on the second level. We had a nice dinner at Trattoria Antica Sacrestia near the hotel then walked to St. Mark’s piazza and listened to a violin-led 4 piece band with a couple of glasses of red. The next day we toured St. Mark's Basilica, took the elevator up the Campanile for some amazing views of Venice, saw the Bridge of Sighs, then took a vaporetto over to Murano. After Murano, we checked out Rialto bridge (a bit touristy for my taste) for our photo op. The following day we took a water taxi back to train station to go to Florence – we bought our tickets at the station around an hour prior to departure.

We took a train to Florence Santa Maria Novella, then taxi from train station to Hertz at the airport to avoid the dreaded ZTL's downtown. We rented a car through Kemwel in advance and after getting lost a few times getting out of Florence, we drove to Montepulciano (1 night) staying at Osteria del Borgo right on the main piazza at the top. Spectacular views of the countryside, huge room (we were upgraded since they ran out of standard rooms). The following morning we went up on the town hall veranda overlooking the main square, toured the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta as well as the blue-domed Sanctuary of The Madonna di San Biagio which was beautiful. Additionally, you must try the Riservo Nobile di Montepulciano as it is truly a fine wine.

Headed toward Montalcino, and stopped off for pizza and a glass of wine in Pienza. They were having a festival and had flower vendors all over the streets. Pienza is a very quaint but beautiful town with the Cathedrale di Pienza worth a visit. We drove on from there to Montalcino for 1 night staying at Hotel Giglio which was very nice and in a great location. Went for a wine tasting and got caught in a lengthy thunderstorm so stayed there with another American couple for a couple of hours. I highly recommend the Brunello di Montalcino. We had a great dinner and lunch the next day at a restaurant just outside the hotel, maybe 30 yards away on the same street. We toured the fortress the next morning going to the top tower up a ladder to get some spectacular views despite winds gusting to 25-30 mph. We stopped on the way out of town at the abbey at Sant Antimo, which was only around 9 km outside town. It is a very beautiful abbey, especially with the red poppies and yellow wildflowers in full bloom all around.

We Drove to Siena and stayed for one night at Hotel Santa Caterina just outside the city gate of Porta Romana. We walked the 800m to Piazza del Campo, stopped for some wine and people watching then went for dinner at Papei's just behind Piazza del Campo in Piazza del Mercado which was good and reasonably priced. The following morning we toured the Duomo in Siena which was spectacular. We stopped for a glass of wine in Piazza del Campo for a glass of wine and pizza at Ristorante Pizzeria alla Speranza which was some of the best pizza I’ve ever had. The great thing about Italian pizza in general is that they are very thin and in spite of how much we ate we never felt overstuffed.

Then it was on to San Gimignano where we stayed two nights at Il Casale del Cotone just outside the town toward Certaldo. The inn is small but nestled amongst olive trees and vineyards. The first night we ate at the Ristorante Peruca which we enjoyed while sampling some local Chianti. We wandered around town the next day scaling the tallest tower for some fantastic views of the countryside, then toured the Collegiata. We took the short drive for a half day trip to Volterra, where we toured the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta. We returned to Casale del Cotone to have dinner prepared by Allessandro Martelli, the manager and chef for what might have been the best meal of our lives. Eight courses and bottomless wine, and all we had to do was walk upstairs when finished!

The following day we drove to Florence and after getting lost for 45 minutes trying to find the Hertz lot at the airport took a taxi downtown to Hotel Casci. It is a small hotel with very friendly hosts and a great location for scouting some of the highlights of Florence. We walked the couple of blocks to the piazza at the Duomo for a light brunch, then toured the spectacular Duomo. Afterward we decided to take the hike up the adjacent campanile which, while exhausting provided an unparalleled view of the city. We then had a light lunch at Caffe Concerto Paszkowski in the Piazza della Repubblica before we walked to Ponte Vecchio, dragging my wife away from the huge assortment of jewelry present there.

I panicked the next morning when I tried to make train reservations online for Venice and was unable to find anything! Fortunately, the front desk recommended a travel agency just around the corner which quickly resolved the ticket issue – apparently some of the trains are not available for online booking, but we got our tickets for later in the day as we wanted to explore as much of Florence as we could in the limited amount of time we had. We attempted to see Michaelangelo’s David, but failed to get reservations and the line was wrapped around the building. We decided that rather than burn a half day standing in line we’d make the most of the rest of the day and put David on a trip in the future. We did get a David photo op at Piazza Signoria, although it was a replica. There were beautiful statues there including the fountain of Neptune. We walked through the Uffizi although again didn’t have the time to tour it or the Pitti Palace across the river. To finish up the day, we went to see the Basilica of Santa Croce where we saw where Michaelangelo, Dante, Gallileo, Machiavelli, and other famous Italians are buried. The ornate marble celebrating each of them is truly a sight to behold.

After getting a taxi to the Santa Maria Novella station, we took the train to Venice-Mestre, another taxi to Hotel Antony where we stayed overnight and had a nice dinner. We caught the airport shuttle the next day and bid Italy a fond farewell – for now.

We are not really museum types so I’m certain that many of you will find fault with the omissions, but you have to make any trip your own. We had the trip of a lifetime and the only thing I might do differently would be another day in Florence. Venice was amazing, and I’m glad we were able to see it while it’s still in good condition. The hilltop towns of Tuscany and the drives in between were everything we’d imagined with the flowing tall grasses in the wind and the vistas full of vineyards and olive trees with the occasional sheep dotting the landscape. Florence was amazing but you need three days or more to really do it justice, and I suspect even then you’re only scratching the surface. I truly hope that I am able to return to Italy to revisit some of my newfound favorite places and create some new memories as well.

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