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    by ibobi Fodor's Editor | Posted on Nov 20, 17 at 01:24 PM
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Trip Report Florence, Pisa, Bologna, and a little more. A Trip Report.

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We are recently transplanted Americans experiencing the excitement of living overseas for the first, and likely only time. Our children (11, 16) attend the American School, and the school is generous with its holidays; one per quarter, to be exact. Though we took day trips over their “Fall Break” in Austria and to Budapest, and spent four days in Prague over “Winter Break,” we considered this “Ski Break” our first official holiday. We don’t ski, though, so we chose the furthest point south we wanted to drive in a day from Vienna, which happened to be Florence.

I wish Fodors had a way to connect postings of travel/itinerary inquiries with the actual trip report. Our original itinerary I submitted to Fodors for comments, and I think it might help other travelers to see the proposed holiday versus what the actual holiday turned out to be.

A day before departure, DD commented that our house was “cold.” I, too, had been thinking the same, but February in Vienna isn’t tropical, and perhaps the heat wasn’t keeping pace. That night the radiators all felt cool, and so I sent a message to the owner of the house. The following morning the thermostat was reading 15°C even though we had turned it up to 20°C overnight. Clearly there was a problem, so I sent a second message to the owner of the house. We then packed our Volvo wagon and set off.

Our drive through Austria was gray and frosty, no surprise. But almost as if by magic, once we cleared Klagenfurt and crossed into Italy, the clouds disappeared to reveal the stunning peaks of the Alps against sunshine and blue skies, and the thermometer in the car climbed to 11°C. In the past, and coming from the US, when we had traveled abroad DH was the driver (I can’t drive a manual), which freed me to take photos of anything and everything. Our vehicle here in Austria is an automatic, so I thought it would be fun to drive this time. It was indeed fun to drive, but I don’t think DH appreciated my saying “Take a picture!” every few kilometers. (We’re heading to Croatia for the school “spring break,” so I expect DH will want, or more likely, demand, to drive. ) We had no travel mishaps en route save for 1) thinking we had driven through Slovenia based on a sign we'd read and the subsequent panic over not having one of their expensive highway vignettes (we hadn't); and 2) the strange occurrence of the rear passenger door refusing to open after a rest area pause, causing poor DD to have to climb into her seat from the driver's side for the rest of the day.

In good time we reached our rental villa about 45 minutes outside of Florence, in the teeny town of Vicchio. The owner of the house was pleasant and gracious, providing not only a bottle of wine but a jar of homemade pasta sauce for us to enjoy, and a blanket, bowl of fresh water, and a snack for our DDog. All was most appreciated after the drive. The owner of the villa had also started a cozy fire in the living room. As she took us through the house to explain the ins and outs, and especially the need to keep the fire going, it occurred to me to ask, "Is this the only heat for the house?"

Yes, the wood stove was indeed the only heat source for the villa (surprisingly, this feature was not mentioned in the "amenities" portion of the rental listing on Fireplaces are charming in early fall or late spring, but I was duly concerned with its ability to keep me warm in February. By morning the fire had faded, the villa was chilly and I was just a little grumpy. All of my First World whines disappeared, though, when I turned DDog into the garden and saw the Apennines in the morning light. DH started another fire, we all enjoyed our coffee and breakfast, patted DDog on the head and departed for Florence. Feeling confident, we changed our plans to drive rather than train to Florence, a good choice for us as it allowed us to stop for photos whenever inspired. The children were even impressed enough to remove their iDevice ear buds and comment on the beauty of Tuscany.

Rather serendipitously we had discovered a 400-part PBS series, "Medicis, Godfathers of the Renaissance," on Netflix, and for the last month caught bits and pieces of the series as an introduction to Florence, so we were looking forward to seeing the city in person, and in particular the Duomo. The Duomo rising above Florence makes for ease of navigation, and after successfully maneuvering the Zona Traffico Limitato to park the car, we followed the tourist trails to the cathedral. We used the GoogleMap App on the iPhone to guide us (it had an overlay of the ZTLs in Florence on it, very helpful.)

The Duomo was as stunningly beautiful as in 2004, when DH and I blazed through Florence in six hours on our child-free Tuscan holiday to give ourselves a brief change of scenery from walled cities and long lunches in sunny piazzas. We all climbed the 453 steps to the top of the Duomo and the spectacular vistas. We would not recommend the climb to those who are uncomfortable getting close to fellow travelers making their descent from the top, however. Back down on earth we strolled over to Piazza del Republica for a dose of art appreciation and people watching, both equally enjoyable. The remainder of the day was given to walking across Ponte Vecchio, shopping in the leather market, a failed attempt to go to the Da Vinci Museum (closed for some reason), and general wandering in and out of churches and down inviting streets.

Our second Florence morning was an early start as we had timed tickets for the Uffizi. No crowds in any of the galleries, even by the time we were ready to leave. DH and DS explored on their own, as their appreciation of art runs a little differently than that of DD’s and my own; as we regrouped at the café at the end, though, even DS admitted that “seeing the important art” was worth it. “Good job, Mom,” I said to myself.

Later in the afternoon we walked through a chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Maria Novella on the way to the parking garage. How lucky were we! Lots of sampling and, because we didn’t have to worry about glass breaking in luggage, several items made their way into my tote to bring home. We spent two days in the city, returning each night to the villa. The children found amusement in the pleasant temperatures outside; DDog paced the fence line of the garden in a staredown with the chickens and roosters in the next yard; DH built a Boy Scout strong fire and opened the wine; and I played in the kitchen (with a gas cooktop! Oh, how I miss my American gas cooktop!), whipping up a fresh pasta for dinner. Each night we stopped at the local market, tossing into our cart whatever fresh pasta was available, along with whatever fresh sauce was jarred and stacked nearby. And a local wine.

On our third morning we pointed the wagon west toward the Ligurian Sea. Our first destination was a very pretty university town. Like so many cities in Italy, this town had a stunning Duomo...and a frothy-tipped Baptist...all tucked inside ancient Roman city walls with impeccably groomed grass. Oh, and there was also a Leaning Tower. So, so, many tourists posing for the “holding up the tower” photo that I really think the tchotchke hawkers we encountered every 10 steps should reconsider their business strategy. But that was our only “complaint” on our third-in-a-row gorgeous, 15°C day. Lunch was pizza at a set of tables that leaned (haha) at an outside restaurant near the tower, and was surprisingly quite good for being in a tourist heavy area. The waitstaff even brought DDog a bowl of water and a small plate of pizza crusts. Aww.

(Yep, Pisa has ZTL’s, but everything is so well signed that if you drive into a ZTL you may actually deserve the ticket.)

Our detour to Lucca was via the National Park, where we all dipped our fingers (and canine toes) into the Ligurian Sea. Lucca is a very pleasant walled city. The children rented bicycles and rode the ramparts around the city while DH and I strolled the ancient cobblestone streets with DDog, wandering in and out of stores, and otherwise savoring the warm sun on our faces in our private afternoon passaggieta. One of the perks of living in Europe is that I don’t have to concern myself with, “How am I going to get this home?” so I felt compelled to shop…

(Lucca, too, has ZTL’s. I can not imagine how anyone could not see them! There is plentiful parking outside the city gates to prevent a person from crossing a ZTL threshold.)

The following morning we introduced the children to Volterra and San Gimignano. Although not perfectly picturesque this day due to the smoke from Tuscan farmers burning olive branches, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the scenery still begged to be absorbed by the senses. Just outside the Volterra city wall are some of the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome. On our last visit it was possible to view the ruins up close; a decade later, the gates to the ruins were locked tight. Sigh. We walked over to the 3 B.C. Etruscan City Gate, modified slightly by the Romans. During WWII, the citizens of Volterra filled the gate with rocks and boulders to prevent an attack by the Germans. Their heroic efforts are commemorated on a nearby plaque. A little more wandering, and a pause for coffee later, and we were on our way.

En route to San Gimignano, we offered a Grazie to the nearby sheep that contributed to the delicious fresh pecorino sandwiches we snacked on from a roadside farmer's truck. DH and I visited San Gimignano on our last visit for all of 30 minutes, 20 of which were spent wading through the disgorged tourists and tour buses at the main city gate entrance; and 10 of which were spent deciding that we weren't going to enjoy strolling a city filled with said tourists jamming every nook and cranny. We left, telling ourselves we would return another time. On our visit this day there was not a tour bus in sight. I squealed.

The sun was shining again and the streets were not the least bit crowded; stores were blissfully empty, and shopkeepers seemed happy to have a visitor to greet. We paused in the main piazza for gelato (the humans) and pigeon chasing (DDog). Afterwards we wound around to La Rocca, the 14th century fortress remains atop the city, exploring the nooks and corners, and climbing the steps to the lookouts. Somehow this amused us for a couple of hours? Maybe it was the warm sun on our faces, and the blue skies above us? Then it was home again, to a fresh pasta dinner and a new bottle of wine in front of the fire.

Although we had planned for a five-day holiday, the change in weather forecast for our last day compelled us to consider cutting the holiday short, so we tossed a coin and headed to Bologna, saving Parma and Modena for another time. We may have a Scandinavian-bred vehicle that knows snow, but that does not mean we wish to drive in said snowy weather. ☺ Plus, we had the pesky business of a cold home waiting for us in Vienna that required attention.

Bologna definitely had a different feel than Florence and the hill towns. In the main piazza stands the Neptune sculpture, a curious emblem of the city given that Bologna is not a coastal town. The dolphin-riding lactating nereids from whose breasts water streams in the warmer months, commissioned by Bologna's Cardinal Legate to celebrate the election of his uncle as Pope Pius IV, gave us pause for consideration, as well.

The University of Bologna is the oldest university in Europe. Under the Napoleonic Era the university acquired space throughout the city for different topics of study; in the original structure is the anatomical theater for the medical school, considered the first seat of study in Europe. The palazzo housing the university was severely damaged in WWII, and the theater was rebuilt from pieces salvaged in the rubble. We were rather surprised that visitors could walk freely through the space, and even sit on the benches. And there was no entrance fee to do so! (Only a box for donations.) At first we simply walked around the theater; then the docent encouraged us to sit down, look around, and admire.

The elaborate porticos of the university open to a courtyard, and through them we walked with hushed tones in the umber of three Popes (Innocent IX, Alexander IX, Gregory XV); Nicolas Copernicus (an assistant to Ferrara, an Italian astronomer), and the inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Bologna is also noteworthy for its covered porticos throughout the city. They are all different, and given that the weather was overcast with occasional sprinkles, we moved about nicely protected from the elements for the rest of our day, except for touring the old central market. But who can complain about a few sprinkles when surrounded by luscious cheeses and salamis?

(Bologna, too, has ZTL’s. They’re even easier than those in Pisa to navigate.)

Our holiday did indeed end a day early; the forecast for the mountainous areas through which we would return had changed, with calls for snow accumulations. Now, while we may own a snowy weather capable vehicle from a Scandinavian country that knows snow, that does not mean we want to actually drive in said snowy weather.

For anyone cartographically inclined, the drive from Udine, Italy to Klagenfurt, Austria passes through the Alps and is generally miserable. Think winding roads, commercial trucks, fast drivers and slow speeds, in good weather. Adding snow to that equation was not my idea of fahrvergnügen. So we routed ourselves through the Dolomites and via Innsbruck, a much wiser, but no less picturesque decision. Curiously, although we have an annual Austrian highway vignette on our car, we were required to pay an additional highway fee as we approached Innsbruck for the “special road,” as we were told. There was nothing special about it, save for the fee.

What We Ate. Breakfast and dinner was always at the villa, as we needed to return to walk DDog at the end of the day, and darling children needed homework time (thus giving mom and dad wine and cheese time...). Fresh bread, fresh ricotta and jam, fruit, and fresh pork sausage (and espresso) formed our breakfasts. Lunch was given over to the children, who chose restaurants serving pizza. Gelato stops happened whenever we were inspired. The two restaurants we dined at in Florence were, in their own way, quite good, but in a touristy location near the Duomo that I would likely pass by in busier months. Our al fresco dining in Pisa was wonderful, but again, in a very touristy area that I would walk past in the summer. In Bologna we tucked into a small restaurant with fresh and savory food, but our wait staff was a little overly excited promoting Bologna and interrupted our lunch every 3 minutes. No real complaints with dining, at all.

All’s well that ends well. The house was a chilly 11°C when we arrived home. DH gave the boiler a quick look-see and determined that repairing the leaky valve might just help matters. And indeed, by morning the temperature was a tropical 17°C. We still kept our required appointment with the "maintenance" person, who walked around our house for 90 minutes feeling the radiators and pronouncing, "alles gut." Can't wait to see the invoice.

Over dinner the following night, we asked the children to list their favorites of the holiday:
1. San Gimignano, especially wandering the fortress remains, proving that even a 16-year old young man can still be a knight at heart.
2. Lucca. Riding bicycles around a walled city is just plain cool.
3. Florence. The art, the architecture, and the vibe of the city excited both of them. (Another, “Way to go, Mom!” for me.)

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