MDOD's Italy Trip Report April/May 2007

May 28th, 2007, 07:09 AM
  #1  
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Join Date: Feb 2005
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MDOD's Italy Trip Report April/May 2007

We had an action packed adventure in Italy from April 22- May 5th.
We arrived in Rome and headed straight to Mt Vesuvius/ Pompeii, took the overnight train to Venice. After spending one night in Venice we took the train to Florence and spent tow nights there. Next we rented a car for 4 days traveling to Assisi, Pienza, Montepulciano, Montalcino, Sant’ Antimo Abbey, Siena, Monteriggione, San Gimignano, Volterra, and Pisa with stays in Pienza for 2 nights, San Gimignano one night and Pisa one night. From Pisa we took the train to Cinque Terre and spent 2 nights there. Then we took the train from Cinque Terre to Rome for our last 3 nights.

In order to help people that are planning specific trips, I posted links to the resources I used for planning our trip, hotels and my tripadvisor reviews along with other information and tips I picked up along the way under the thread Italy AprilMay 2007 Trip Research and Tips at http://tinyurl.com/yphv9f

This trip report will cover our day to day journey. We travel light, pack a lot into our trips and keep granola bars and trail mix on hand so we won’t starve if we’re in the middle of something and don’t have time to grab a bite to eat right away. Not the way many people travel but it works for us.

Our travel venture started with renewing my passport. When I mailed off my renewal Feb 15th the website said 6 weeks. We had originally planned on leaving mid May but got a deal on flights at the end of April, which was still over 9 weeks after I applied. As directed, I called the passport office two weeks out from our travel date. After 30 minutes on hold, being tortured by an 8 second recording that repeated every 9 seconds, they answered (apparently I was luckier than most) and told me they would expedite it and “hopefully” I would get it in time. With that response I decided to I contact my Congressman that day. Even after intervention by my Congressman’s office and an $84 charge for expedited processing/Fed Ex overnight, I still didn’t receive my passport until the Thu afternoon before my Sat travel, 9 weeks after I applied. I guess I should be thankful that I didn’t have to use my back-up appointment at the Passport Office in DC that Friday.

The flight over to Rome was pretty uneventful. I looked out the window in the middle of the night and saw a gorgeous glowing moon. Then I realized it was just a blurred out wing light that looked like the moon because I didn’t have my glasses on. By the way, if you like to look out the window, there’s definitely more to see out of the left side of the plane flying from NYC to Rome. I also learned not to open tubes of lotion on a plane while at high altitude.

Our flight arrived 15 minutes early, which was great. We were hoping to fit in a visit to Mt Vesuvius and Pompeii and we really needed to catch the fast train to Naples to have enough time. Zipped right through customs and immigration in Rome. They don’t even make you fill out a form. We only had carry-on so we headed straight to the ATM machine and got 250EU. It worked-big relief. Then we bought our tickets for the Leonardo Express to Rome Termini at the Tabbachi shop next door. So far, so good. The train was due to leave in a couple of minutes so we hurried to stamp our tickets. Wayne’s machine worked but mine didn’t. I put the ticket in a couple of times but nothing happened so I tried putting it in sideways and the darn thing got stick in the machine. Great. The train is about to leave and my ticket is stuck. Meanwhile my husband is saying “ why’d you put it in that way?” To which I respond “because it didn’t work the other way!” I got a credit card out and wedged it into the slot to get my ticket out. Then I tried it the other way again. No dice. Wayne started heading for the train and I’m screaming at him not to get on the train. I rush to the next machine envisioning myself having to making a running leap onto the train as it pulls out. The guy behind me couldn’t get his to stamp either, making me feel a little better. Finally I get it stamped and run over to the train. As soon as we sat down the train was moving. Whew! That was close.

One of the first things we noticed were all the TV antennas on the tops of the apartment buildings. They were everywhere! Sitting on the left side of the train as you’re heading into Rome, we saw a large gate in the Roman walls and later on a two story domed ruin. Welcome to ancient Rome.

We used the automatic ticket machines at the Termini station to get our train tickets to Naples. Piece of cake. Life was good. We walked all the way down to car #10 and sat down only to realize that we hadn’t stamped our ticket. Since my husband had been lugging our luggage, I did the honors. Luckily there was a machine halfway down. Our 2nd class seats in the Eurostar were comfortable and they had small tray tables that fold out.

We arrived to blue skies in Naples so we definitely wanted to go to Mt Vesuvius. We contemplated going there via Ercolano to save time but I read that Ercolano doesn’t have a manned bag check and there was no way we were climbing Mt Vesuvius with our luggage so we decided to go to Pompeii. 5 minutes before the train was due we found out that they sold us the wrong tickets and I had to run back to the other side of the train station (why isn’t the CV ticket booth next to the CV station?) and exchange the tickets. Made it just in time and then spent the next 30 minutes standing up on a crowded commuter train.

We got to Pompeii right around noon. We bought tickets to Mt Vesuvius at the little red hut attached to the train station. I was going to stop across the street to hopefully check our bags at the ruins but she said the café at the station took bags for people on the Vesuvius trip so we took them there. He said he’d hold them until 6:00 PM for 1.50 each. Then we walked past the entrance to Pompeii down to the bus stop at the bottom of the hill to catch the 12:25 bus.

The bus trip was an adventure in itself with great views of the coast as you wind back and forth up hairpin turns with the bus driver beeping his horn several times before each curve while talking on his cell phone. The bus gets you within 5 minutes of Mt. Vesuvius and then it stops at a little store where the driver takes a 25-30 min break and an old guide gives a talk about Mt Vesuvius. He wanted to be in the shade so he had the group move right up to the front entrance of the store. Then he got mad at people because they were walking in front of him and some kids were making noise running in and out of the store. He promptly chewed out the mother and then went on. It was quite entertaining.

Apparently a cable car used to take people up to the top of Mt. Vesuvius but it was damaged in a lightning storm. Instead of repairing it, they decided to replace it with a modern one. This guide had worked for them for 39 years and they asked him to stay on and give his talks at the store until they got the new one built. Then Greenpeace blocked the project so he’s been giving talks out of the store for the past 14 years. Afterwards we got back on the bus for a 5 min ride to the entrance, arriving at 1:25.

So…after 2 planes, 3 trains, a bus and about 23 hours, we finally arrived at our first stop. Woohoo! The bus schedule allows 90 minutes up there. We got up to the rim in 30 minutes but by the time we walked all the way to the far side, looked around, took pics and walked back down, it was about 2:45. The bus left at 2:55, so if you are slow, you may not have time to go all the way to the far side or I’d plan on staying another hour for the next bus.

I was a little disappointed because, although there were no clouds, the sky was hazy so we could barely see the Bay of Naples. I also wish they would have had some signs or displays explaining the view from up there but a lack of information at sites seemed to be the norm for Italy. We did see some little steam puffs coming out of the crater so that created some excitement.

Without the bus stop, we made it to Pompeii at 3:30. I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to see anything but there were very few people there so we were able to cover a lot of ground. The brothel was the only place we ran into crowds so we skipped it the first time around. They did hand out a little guidebook describing several sites but I saved it to read later. I had taken notes from the Rick Steves’ guide and it was too confusing going between the two because the names and the order of sites differed. We decided we were too tired to walk out to the amphitheater so we went back to check out the brothel and then headed over to get our bags at 5:45. We bought our first of many gelatos at the spot across the street from Pompeii before catching the CV train back to Naples. It was good but luckily it was the most expensive gelato we had on the trip (3,60 for a small) because I had a 2 gelato a day habit.

When we got to the Naples train station we asked if there were any good places to eat but they acted surprised that we would want to go outside the station so we just got some pizza at the Pizza/McDonald’s/Café at the station. How’s that for going all out on our first meal in Italy?

Our train was there so we went ahead and boarded. The only problem we had was that when I bought the tickets I thought I had requested bottom bunks (I checked posto basso obbligatorio) but that is not what we ended up with. The seat numbers displayed next to the cabin listed our seats below the others, which I interpreted as us having the bottom bunk. However when our Italian cabin mates (2 20 something males) showed up, they said they were on the bottom. I pointed to the plaque with our seat number at the bottom and he showed me his ticket with the seat number and “basso” next to it (which our tickets did not have) and then he left. Several minutes later he returned with the conductor who told us we had the top bunks. No big deal.

Time to get some sleep so we’ll be ready for our next morning in Venice.
mdod is offline  
May 28th, 2007, 10:31 AM
  #2  
 
Join Date: Sep 2004
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Ciao mdod! I absolutely love your trip report, it is delightful. I also saw your other thread with a ton of information which I am sure will be so useful for those going to Italy!

Some of your comments gave me a good chuckle, you describe the "Italian way" quite well. Even my friends in Italy would agree.
LoveItaly is offline  
May 28th, 2007, 07:39 PM
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Thanks LoveItaly. Glad you liked it. Here's the next installment.
We slept pretty well on the train and arrived in Venice at 5:34 AM in amazingly good shape, given our schedule. We immediately walked outside to see the Grand Canal but it was still dark so we went back inside to find the bag check and an ATM machine. All I could find was the “left luggage” office, which I decided must be the place, but it didn’t open until 6:00. Meanwhile my husband couldn’t get money from the ATM machine! Great. So I get out my ATM card and go over to the machine and I see that the sun is up! ARGH!!!!! We’re up at 5:30 in the morning and then miss sunrise while messing with the ATM machine. Then my card didn’t work either! We were hoping that it was just that particular bank network so we didn’t panic yet.

Next we head for the left luggage office at 6:00 so we can check our bags and hit the Canal. We put our bags on the counter and a Spanish couple comes in to pick up their bags. The attendant leaves us standing there while he gets their stuff?!?!. They hand him a 20 but that is not enough. A bilingual argument over the charges ensues and the Spanish guy gives up and takes out a 50. More trouble. They don’t have change for a 50. They both go back and forth for about 30 sec confirming that neither has change. I look in my wallet but I’ve only got 42 EU (which I had been diligently collecting so that I wouldn’t be in a similar situation). The attendant throws up his hands and looks at the couple that doesn’t seem to have any desire to go find some change. The attendant walks around the office several times opening and closing the drawers, shaking his head and mumbling the whole time, digging through his pockets and wallet and finally comes up with the enough change. Amen! 15 seconds later our bags are checked.

It’s now 6:25 AM and we head out to find the #1 Vaporetto for an early morning ride down the Grand Canal. The ticket booth is closed and the sign with the hours is blank. A boat pulls up and the driver says he can sell us tickets but only single rides, not the 24 hour passes that we had wanted. Darn. What to do? There is another ticket booth at the other end of the train station so we decide to check that out. It’s not open either but we finally find a sign that says they open at 7:00. We had reservations for 9:45 (first group) at St. Mark’s Basilica, so we decided to go ahead and buy a single pass on the 6:58 boat to get us to St. Marks and then buy the 24 hour pass after we finished touring St Mark’s. That way we would be able to use it the next morning too. Too bad I hadn’t figured that out 30 minutes earlier.

The ride down the canal was wonderful. The sky was clear, the canal was quiet and we got seats at the front. When we arrived at St. Mark’s Square the place was almost deserted. It was a treat to take pictures without crowds in the way all the time. We hung around there until about 8:30 and then decided to try and find our B&B, Casa delle Corte. I was a little afraid that we might not have a room because, although we got online confirmation, we never received the email confirmation and when I emailed them about dropping off our luggage early, I never got a response. We found the address easily but it was off a little courtyard with no sign on the door so I was still a little worried. On the way back to St Mark’s we found an ATM that worked so at least we had money again. I think the with one card was that it hadn’t been 24 hours since we used it.

Wow, what a difference 45 minutes makes! At 9:15 the lines for St. Marks’ ran all along the Doge Palace. People, and pigeons, filled the square. Thank goodness for reservations. They actually started letting people in a little early and we decided to go to the museum first. A couple was standing in front of the iron-gated doorway to the museum looking at their guidebook. I wasn’t sure if the gate was open or not so I said “mi scusi” and pushed the gate, which did open. The guard at the entrance immediately yelled that the museum wasn’t open yet so, naturally, I said sorry and closed the gate. Wrong move yet again! The guard was chastising me as he came over “Now the gate is locked and we can’t get in!” Ooops! Then he called up the stairs. A few seconds later a man came downstairs, opened the gate, said something to the guard and then told us they were NOW open. LOL

Going to the museum first was definitely a good move. Everyone else packed into the church and we had the museum and the balcony to ourselves for a while. Then we went downstairs into the church and to the Golden Altar. It was worth the admission but something just didn’t seem right about going through a turnstile in the middle of a church.

Next we bought our 24 hour vaporetta pass and headed back to the train station to get our luggage. I made sure I had change ;-). We called the B&B and were thrilled when #1, they answered, #2 they knew we were coming. After sleeping one night on a plane and the next on a train, it would not have been a pretty sight, or smell, if we didn’t get a room soon. They said it was better to come from the Rialto Bridge so we headed back to the vaporetta with our bags and trusty map in search of a shower and our first real bed in Italy.

If you haven’t been to Venice you have no idea how complicated it is to navigate, even with a good map. Trust me, don’t even bother with a bad map. One street on the map is about 10 seconds worth of walking and some of the names don’t match. Just trying to navigate the cobblestones streets while reading a map is a challenge to say the least. We made it to a small campo and had to decide which of 5 streets to take. I had my nose in the map as I was walking along when I kicked something. It ended up being the music case/collection box of the band playing in the plaza! In my defense, I was aware of the band and easily skirted around them, the problem was that they put their money box out in the open, at least 10 feet in front of them. What is up with that?!?! Needless to say, I got a lot of attention. I figure they probably entertain themselves by trying to trip up unsuspecting tourists ;-).

We made it to the room and checked in. She said breakfast was between 8 and 10 and asked when we wanted it. I said 8 and she grimaced a little. We unloaded our bags into our very small, but clean, room and took a wonderful hot shower- ahhhhh. Life was good.

Clean and refreshed, we headed back to Rialto Bridge to check it out and take the walk from Rialto to St Mark’s that was listed in the Fodor's "Venice's Best". After leaving Rialto Bridge we got lost 5 times in the first 5 min of trying to find the first stop on the walk. My husband got aggravated at stopping to read the map all the time but I can’t stand going the wrong way and having to back track. Gratuitous walking is not my thing. I finally gave up and decided to just walk and see what we came across. 2 minutes later we found ourselves at the first stop! I pulled out the map again and decided to try one more time but gave up only to randomly come across the next stop on our own yet again. Time to pitch the walk and the map and just wander in the general direction we wanted to go and following the general flow of traffic. We eventually made it to La Salute Church, across from St Mark’s. Unfortunately the dome was covered for restoration but it was still an impressive site.

It was about 3:30, the skies were clear and the white marble faced San Giorgio Maggiore had been tempting us from across the lagoon all day so we decided to try to get in a quick trip to see it and check out the view from the bell tower before a late afternoon visit to Doge’s Palace. We took the #1 vaporetta from Salute across the canal to Vallaresso (St Mark’s) and then walked past Doge Palace to the S. Zaccaria stop to catch the #82 to San Giorgio. We went into the church and then headed to the bell tower in the back. According to the hours posted, it should have been open but there was a hand written paper that said “chiuso” taped to the gate so we headed back to the vaporetta. We saw a monk on the way out and I thought about asking him but I figured he had better things to do than tell tourists when the bell tower would be open.

At 4:30 the lines at Doge’s Palace were short so we didn’t bother walking over to the Correr Museum to get the tickets. We weren’t sure our feet would make there and back anyway! I was totally confused for the first 30 minutes because I had taken notes on Rick Steve’s book which I didn’t realize essentially skips the living quarters and starts off in the middle of the tour. We finished at 6:00 and thought about going to the Campanille since it was a gorgeous day but I told my husband there was no way I could climb that thing today. When we found out they had a lift, we decided to go while the lines were short. Wow, what awesome views!

Food was our next mission. 2 recommended restaurants were on San Trovaso , a canal/street I remembered from our walk, so we headed there. We found Taverna San Trovaso but it was closed with a sign recommending their other restaurant nearby, Ristorante San Trovaso. After failing to find our second option, Cantina del Vino Gia Schiavi, we decided to go for it. It had an outdoor garden dining section which was unique in Venice. Their service was excellent. My husband’s spaghetti with mixed seafood was very good. I got Lasagna al forno and it was nothing like the lasagna I’m used to. I wouldn’t say it was bad but something about the cheese reminded me of Velveeta. They had some really tempting desserts but I held out for gelato. Then we tried to pay with our Capital One credit card but it was rejected-argh! Great, I specifically got this card for our trip and it worked one time.

After dinner we decided to rest our weary bones by taking the #82 vaporetto counterclockwise for the full loop. I wouldn’t bother with that again. Other than seeing where the cruise ships dock, there wasn’t much to see on the backside and it took a lot longer than I thought. It was also cold on the boat at night. We walked through St. Marks Square on the way to our room and listened to the dueling orchestras but we were too pooped to hang around.

When we got to the room, I had my husband charge my camera batteries but the adapter he got didn’t fit. Mind you, that was the ONLY thing my electrical engineer husband was in charge of for this trip. He said he’d “make” it work. I threatened him with bodily harm if he messed up my charger so he looked around and found another outlet with a different plug that worked. What a lucky little bugger!

The next morning we woke up around 7:30 and got packed up planning to eat breakfast at 8:00 and leave. I had hoped to see the markets near Rialto in the morning and then go to the ghetto before catching the 11:23 train to Florence. No one even showed up until 8:45 AM. We waited in our room for a few minutes to see if she was bringing breakfast. Then we went out and told her we needed to check out and I asked about breakfast. She stuck some fresh croissants in a bag and poured us a glass of juice that we chugged down and we hit the road. Had I known they would show up so late, we would have just gone out early, leaving our stuff in the room and then come back for breakfast at 10:00.

I had notes from a Fodor’s post that mentioned a 6-story Gothic spiral staircase in Corte dei Risi o del Bovolo, San Marco 4299, between Campo Manin and Calle dei Fuseri which was right near our B&B. We walked down the streets that connect the two and asked a couple of locals but we didn’t have any luck finding it so we gave up and headed to the Rialto vaporetto stop, forgetting all about checking out the market ;-( We got off at the train station and walked to the Ghetto, stopping at a produce stand to buy a Sicilian orange. My husband peeled it and some of the flesh was RED! It tasted a little different, maybe a little tangier. At first we thought they gave us some type of red grapefruit instead but it was definitely orange on the outside. Apparently all the oranges are like that- at least all the ones we had were.

We walked on and found the plaza with the holocaust memorial and the museum but couldn’t figure out which one was the synagogue. One building was covered in cloth but someone later said that wasn’t it. As we walking through the streets we followed signs for another synagogue but we popped out at the canal without having found one. I was too frustrated to go back and look again so we just walked along the area, bought some fruit, shopped for some glass necklaces for our daughters and then headed to the train station. It would have been nice to have 2 full days in Venice, mainly to spread things out a little, but we did manage to see most of the things we wanted.

About 10 minutes before our train was supposed to leave, 2 policeman came up to us and asked for our passports. They radioed in some information and kept them for several minutes. Finally they handed us back our passports, said thank you and we got on our train to Florence. I’m not sure what would have happened if they hadn’t finished by the time we had to get on the train and glad I didn’t have to find out.

We were hoping to get some sleep on the way to Florence but there were 2 Japanese couples sitting across the aisle from us and one of the women was talking loud and non-stop. We were debating as to which was worse, having to listen to a conversation in English the whole time or a foreign language. We decided it was probably better that we couldn’t understand them. Thank goodness she fell asleep after about an hour so we did get some rest before we arrived in Florence.
mdod is offline  
May 28th, 2007, 09:01 PM
  #4  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 3,400
Thanks for posting. I really appreciciated your research post as well.

A couple of comments & questions..

The red orange is called a "blood orange". You can find them in the US, both the whole fruit and the juice. They should be sweeter than a common orange.

I like to move fast too, but whew! what an itinerary you had! Just wondering why you chose the route you did? Why go South before going all the way North? Then down to Tuscany, up to CT, and back down south to Rome. Not criticising here, just curious.

Looking forward to more...
Kristina is offline  
May 29th, 2007, 01:03 PM
  #5  
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Kristina,
Thanks for the blood orange info. I was wondering if that's what those were. One place had a sign calling them Sicilian oranges. The first one we had was tangy but the others were sweeter. We had some awesome red "orange" juice too.

We went South to Pompeii and then north because my husband realy wanted to go to Mt. Vesuvius and I was trying to maximize our time for sightseeing. We could have gone to Pompeii as a day trip from Rome but then we'd spend 2-3 hours getting back to Rome and then we'd still have to get to Venice. By heading straight to Naples we were already at the train station so no time was wasted there and going from Naples to Venice overnight let us travel while we were sleeping. I specifically picked the 19:57 ICN train because it actually took longer and we didn't have to change trains in the middle of the night in Bologna so we got a continuous chunk of time to sleep. I was worried about all the stops but we both slept well. Of course, with our schedule we might have slept well lying on a bench next to the railroad tracks!
mdod is offline  
May 29th, 2007, 01:26 PM
  #6  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
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hi, mdod,

wow, what a trip. Such speed. I'm out of breathe just reading it.

our DS got hooked on blood orange juice in Rome last year; when we came home,[UK] I discovered that you can buy it in cartons in M & S and Sainsbury's, and TEsco have been stocking the oranges, which are indeed sicilian. Then i heard about the blood orange festival they hold somewhere in sicliy every year- loads of different dishes and all of them featuring blood oranges.

so now we're all hooked!

looking forward to the rest of the report,

regards, ann
annhig is offline  
May 29th, 2007, 01:45 PM
  #7  
 
Join Date: Jun 2004
Posts: 243
Enjoying your report! Whew - you really were on the go. Can't wait for the rest.

Thanks too for all the links. I've been checking out many of them.

BarbaraJ is offline  
May 29th, 2007, 02:44 PM
  #8  
 
Join Date: Apr 2007
Posts: 16
Wow. Can't wait to hear about Florence. We leave in 9 days for Florence, Tuscany and Rome. I'm debating about a day trip to Venice. Can't make up my mind.
kimmidwife is offline  
May 29th, 2007, 09:15 PM
  #9  
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Kimmidwife,
Venice was great but I'm not sure I'd bother going for a day trip. If you're taking the train, you'll be there in the middle of the day with all the crowds and I'm not sure how much you'll get to see. If you can spend a night so you can have a slower evening and/or morning there, it might be worthwhile.

All, thanks for your interest. It's nice to see somebody does read this stuff. I'm almost done with Florence and I'll post it in the morning.
mdod is offline  
May 30th, 2007, 06:24 AM
  #10  
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We arrived in Florence around 2 PM. Our B&B, Relais Campanile, was in a great location between the Duomo and Accademia. We had 4:00 reservations at Accademia so we checked in and then I tried to call the credit card company. I kept getting a recording to check the number. I had successfully called my home and office so I knew I was dialing correctly. I called my office again and had them call Capital One to confirm the number was correct. It was. I tried it and the 1800 number several times and never got through. I finally gave up and prayed the ATM kept working. It was pretty frustrating though since I specifically got the Capital One card for use on this trip and told them our travel dates.

We headed over to Accademia. As we waiting for our reservation time, we were entertained by some street vendors selling bootleg (?) art prints. They showed up and started laying the prints down in an open parking lane of the street and beyond, right into the middle of the road. Just as my husband predicted, within 15 seconds an oblivious tourist walked right on top of one. Shortly after that another guy walked across 3 pictures before the vendor ran over and caught his attention. After the third trampling, they finally realized that putting pictures in the middle of the street was not the smartest move.

David was impressive but I was surprised by the number of people that just stood there staring at it for several minutes, almost in a trance. When we left my husband attempted his own “David” pose but couldn’t quite pull it off.

We left and headed to the Plaza S. S. Annunziata behind the Accademia to see the Santissima Annunziata and Brunellesci’s Hospital of Innocents. On the way we heard a police siren and noticed the genius entrepreneurs running past us and around the corner into the crowd with their prints in their hands. The cops went straight so I’m not sure if they missed them or were after someone else. Then as we were waiting to cross the street a woman went by on a scooter darting in and out of traffic while talking on a cell phone and smoking a cigarette.

Next we headed to the Duomo. Massive and gawdy are the first words that come to mind. It’s so packed in with buildings all around that we couldn’t get far enough away to get a picture of the whole thing. The Duomo was closed but the climb was still open and without lines so we did that. As we were paying I turned around and saw a friend from Charlotte, the first of 4 “it’s a small world” encounters. The climb is tough but just about the time you think you can’t go on, they have a level area for a while to give you a rest. The views of both inside and outside are awesome. Looking back at the pictures, I think it would have been more fun to go to the top toward the end of our stay in Florence when we’d know what we were looking at.

Next we headed for the Arno River stopping by the Orsanmichele Church and the Palazzo Vecchio. The David copy in front of the palace didn’t have nearly the impact on me as the original in the Accademia. It was about 6:30 and we decided we’d tackle the walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo to get a view of the city near sunset. We walked through the city walls and up hill along the road. Then we came to a long wide staircase that I knew had to be the route. Nobody would voluntarily go up a set of stairs like that unless it led to something awesome. The view from what we thought was the Piazza was spectacular. When I got back to the room I looked through my notes and was upset that we missed going a little farther up to San Miniato Church. Then as I was looking up info for photos I realized that we were at San Miniato Church all along-doh! I just had noted that it had a great view so I just kept following impressive stairs. Had I known that it had statues, etc, I would have realized that we weren’t in the right place. I’m not sure where the turn off was for Piazzale Michelangelo but I can attest that the view from San Miniato Church was worth the trek.

We wanted to go to Il Pizzaioulo for dinner so we looked at our map and decided that crossing on the bridge to the east was a little closer. I should have known something wasn’t right because the bridge was angled across the river but we were hungry and dog tired and just looking for the shortest route. We started getting worried as we approached the “bridge” and didn’t see anything spanning the river. Then we saw that the river narrowed there and thought for a minute that there was some sort of smaller footpath across in this area. No such luck. It was a low damn or something- argh!!! Now we had to go on to the next bridge. When we were a half block away and my husband turned around and said “oh no, it says no pedestrians on the bridge.” I said “NO WAY!” Then my husband said “I’m kidding, I can’t read Italian anyway.” To which I responded “well, it could have been a picture with a person walking and a red circle and slash through it.” So we go a little further and he turns around and stares at me. I ask what he’s doing and he says he has to see the look on my face. He then points to a sign next to the bridge with a picture of a person walking and a red slash through it. You’ve GOT to be kidding me!?!?! I told him I didn’t care, I was crossing that bridge! Besides, I could see people walking and cycling on it. It ends up that the sign was for a staircase right next to the bridge, but what are the odds we’d see that sign?

Il Pizzaioulo had great brick oven pizza. We got the table right next to the pizza chef and enjoyed watching them make pizzas all night. We topped of the day with gelato.

The next morning we had 10:45 reservations at the Uffizi so we decided to walk by the Duomo and Baptistery for early morning pics before the crowds arrived and then on to Ponte Vecchio and Pitti Palace. All the shops on Ponte Vecchio were still closed but we got some gorgeous pictures of the bridge reflecting off the water. We looked for the locks around the Cellini bust. Someone must have cleared them out recently because there were only two locks there. A tour guide stopped to talk in this section of the bridge and a woman stood there blocking the bust time, oblivious to the fact that people were trying to get a picture of the statue.

We got to the Pitti Palace at 9:00. Since the weather was nice we went ahead and got tickets for both it and the Boboli Gardens. We were done with the Palace at 10:15 and considered not going to the Uffizi because we had already been suffering from art overload but we decided we’d go since we had the time and the reservations. As far as museums go it was nice but, if I had it to do over again, I probably would have saved the money, and my feet, and gone straight to the Boboli Gardens. There’s only so many nude sculptures and pictures of baby Jesus, some of which were downright scary looking, that I can handle.

After we finished the Uffizi, we headed back across Ponte Vecchio, now filled with the masses, to the Boboli Gardens. I thought I saw a woman that lives a few blocks away from us. My husband said there was no way it was anyone I knew and we kept walking but I had to go back and see. Sure enough, it was her! 2 days in Florence and I’d run into 2 people I knew.

Boboli Gardens were very pretty but I had hoped there would be more flowers, especially since it was springtime. If you go, and you have the energy, be sure to go straight back and all the way to the top where they have a gorgeous flower garden with great views of Florence and the surrounding area. I think they had to put the garden that high up to be able to see over the palace! The roses were already blooming in late April but it looked like we were just a few days early for the peonies (?). The gardens are huge with lots of side paths. We were too tired to walk the whole thing but besides the flowers right next to the palace, that top garden was the only place we saw flowers. The rest of the gardens were trees, manicured bushes and vine covered walks.

On the way back to the B&B we stopped at Santa Croce Church. We had seen it the night before but we wanted to go inside. Then we picked up some pizza and the obligatory gelato and went to the room to rest our weary bones for a while. After recharging our batteries, we decided to go to the Medici Chapel and check out the San Lorenzo market and the Central Market. They had pashminas and lots of leather goods and, as another Fodorite commented, there was Murano glass jewelry selling for ½ - 2/3 what it was selling for in Venice. Unfortunately the central market was closed because it was a holiday but they would be open at 7:00 the next morning so we decided to check it out on our way to pick up the rental car.

We had been wanting to eat at Trattoria Il Pallotino on Via Isola delle Stinche, partially because it was right next door to Tivoli’s gelateria ;-), but we had a heck of a time finding that street on the map. FYI it is in between Via Ghibellina and Via Torta a couple of blocks NW of Piazza di Santa Croce. It becomes Palmieri going north.

I was also trying to find the “famous Nerbone” that a fodorite posted was popular with local truck drivers and had great for boiled beef sandwiches. I asked several people if they’d heard of the place or boiled beef or panino e bollita but no one seemed to have a clue what I was talking about. When we got back home I found out it was in the Mercado Central.

We accidentally ran into the Mercado Nuovo on our way to dinner. I missed it on our earlier walk, just one block west and 2 blocks south of Orsanmichele Church. It was too crowded to find the Red X where debtors were dropped and there was a big line for the lucky pig but the vendors were starting to pack things up when we arrived so we decided to come by there on the way home from dinner after the vendors had left.

We arrived at Il Pallotino 15 min before it opened so we looked at the menu they had posted using our worthless translation book to try to decipher what it said. A young lady was standing next to us and asked what we wanted to know so we starting asking her what different things were. Then we hit one that she didn’t know and she said she’d have to look it up on the English menu. LOL…Ends up she was a waitress there and they had an English menu all along. We sat down and a Billy Joel song was playing. We had a running joke going about Christie Brinkley. Anytime I’d be looking for something my husband would say he’d find it for me. Then when he did, he’d always say I wish you’d ask for Christie Brinkley. So I had to laugh when we walked in and they were playing Billy Joel music and I told him that Christie Brinkley used to be his wife. Dinner was pretty good. The salmon gnocchi was really salty while the bread had no salt (which seemed common) but the rest of our meal was good and the service was good. Gelato at Vivoli next door did not disappoint.

We stopped by the Mercado Nuovo and found the red X and got pictures rubbing porcellino’s shiny nose to ensure a return trip to Florence. My husband wondered how many diseases were spread by people touching the boars’s nose. I noticed his nose wasn’t the only shiny part he had.

We checked out of the B&B first thing in the morning and walked over to the Mercado Central. It is a large 2 story grocery market with a bunch of independents vendors. There was a little bit of everything there: produce, cheese, meats, fish, baked goods, dried fruit, etc . We bought some Sicilian oranges and checked out the various vendors. One guy had a barrel full of whole cow stomachs that he was tossing in the meat case. He posed for a picture holding one up with a big smile on his face. He also had a cow face in the meat case. Now that was quite a site.

Next we walked over to Santa Maria Novella but it was all covered for renovation so we couldn’t see much other than the courtyard. Then we stopped by the train station to get tickets for our leg from Pisa to Vernazza. I wanted to get reservations in advance just to be safe because we were traveling during the May 1 holiday weekend. Since my credit card wasn’t working and I wasn’t getting tickets for a trip out of that station, I didn’t know if I could use the self-service machines so I went o the ticket booth. I told the man the train and date I wanted. The guy acted like he didn’t understand so I handed him the printout from Trenitalia showing the exact train I wanted and the date. When he gave us the tickets I noticed it had the current date. I said I wanted them for the specific date and he said they were for any date. Argh! I just took them and hoped the train wouldn’t be full. The next day I was looking at them and realized he sold us tickets from Florence to Pisa too. Great. At least they weren’t very expensive.

Next we head out to find the rental car office. This is when we got an education on the Red, Black address numbering system. I knew red for was for businesses but I assumed the numbers were still related to the block. We were walking along the right road and stopped at a bakery to pick up some pastries. We then continued on down the road and noticed the street numbers were now lower than before so we turned around and asked some businessmen on the corner where the address was. They pointed down the street where we were so we thought maybe the numbers changed somewhere and we walked a few blocks further down the street and saw an AutoEurope garage but the number was too high. Then we realized the red numbers ran independently from the black numbers. We turned around again and found the office, literally right next door to the pastry shop where we had stopped earlier. We got the car without incident and started our driving tour of Umbria/Tuscany.
mdod is offline  
May 30th, 2007, 09:17 AM
  #11  
 
Join Date: Jan 2007
Posts: 96
bookmarking--great report!
greene is offline  
May 30th, 2007, 12:53 PM
  #12  
 
Join Date: Feb 2006
Posts: 52,380
hi, mdod,

thanks for the great report. your mention of the street vendors reminded me of watching them too, in florence; the ones we saw had all their wares laid out on what looked like large mats - when the cops turned up, the turned into large bags, like artists' folders, with handles, that they could just fold up and leg it with.

I don't remember the "artists" outside the accademia; I do remember the supermarket just opposite it, as we were staying in an apartment just round the corner and we were in there every day. I was quite surprised one day to spot in the freezer whole octopuses, complete with suckers and tentacles - I decided that I wouldn't be trying to cook those in our apartment.

your report also reminded me that our kids became quite hooked on the ugly babies and had a competition to find the ugliest one - finally won in siena by a madonna and child of startling ugliness. they also deveolped a "thing" about the flying heads -I'd never noticed them before, but once they'd been pointed out, i saw them everywhere. [age of these "kids" ? 18 & 15 !!!]

keep up the good work,

regards, ann
annhig is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 07:25 AM
  #13  
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Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 247
Thanks for the encouragement! Annhig, glad to hear we're not the only ones that thought thought the babies were ugly. Darn, we didn't catch the flying heads.

For those that have been waiting, here's Tuscany and Umbria.

The AutoEurope guy said it was about 90 min to Assisi. Ha! He must drive one of those scooters. We left at 9:45 and traffic was so bad it took us 30 minutes just to get to the Autostrada in Florence. After exiting the Autostrada prematurely, getting back on and off again at the wrong exit once more and then accidentally taking the southern loop around Lago Trasimeno, we finally ended up in Assisi at 1 PM. This is what happens when your husband takes it upon himself to take an exit every time he sees a town name he recognizes! We had blue skies and spectacular views of the countryside so it wasn’t too bad. There were roadside pull-offs pretty much anytime there was a good view. Coming into Assisi was an awesome sight. I stiched together a great panoramic shot. Once we got to Assisi we followed the signs all the way to the top to park in the Piazza Mattiotti. Note: You get a ticket when you enter the lot and then pay at the booth before you leave. You then have to insert that paid ticket into the machine at the exit to get the gate to open.

It wasn’t nearly as busy as I had feared. After looking at the Roman Arena next to the parking lot we headed into town. My husband has this sick need to climb every tower, dome and hill in sight. He saw the sign to Rocca Maggiore and I told him we weren’t going that way. Luckily, we were running late and he forgot about it on the way out. My legs were just fine with missing that one. We had plenty of great views from the plaza in front St Claire’s.

We left Assisi at 4:00 and we pulled into Il Colombaiolo Pienza at 6:00. Amazingly we survived our first day driving in Italy with only one near death experience when the fresh Italian air turned my husband into Mario Andretti. In his rush to get to our B&B in time, he decided he had to pass a car on a curve (in a Smart car no less!) No cars were coming but HE had no way of knowing that! I’m pretty sure I convinced him not to do that again.

We got out of the car and marveled at the wonderful view we had at the B&B. I just loved this place!!! It was great to be out in the country but still just a short walk to town. We got settled into our room, wrote down their restaurant recommendations and then walked past olive groves on our way to town. After walking around town we found their top recommendation, Latte di Luna, but it was full so we tried the next place, Bucca delle Fatte. They offered to sit us at the corner of a table for 6 if we didn’t mind sharing it, which was fine with us. The food was great and their desserts looked so good we decided to forgo gelato in favor of them. I had been trying to see a sunset in Italy but with their dinners so late, we always ended up eating when the sun went down. Since there was a great view from the wall nearby, I ran out before dessert to try to catch it but there were clouds blocking it ;-(

The next morning we had a lovely breakfast on the terrace surrounded by olive trees. When we checked in they had given us a menu checklist for coffee/tea/milk. We don’t drink tea or coffee so we checked milk only. Lucia brought us a thermos with hot milk in it. It was whole milk, which my husband was drooling over after 15 years of skim, but warm milk is not our thing. I asked her if we could get cold milk the next day and she seemed surprised that we would want that.

We headed out on Stu’s driving tour of Tuscany at 9:00. http://tinyurl.com/2ptbk5 but I doubt that you can go wrong if you pick up the Touring Club Italiano Map of Tuscany from the TI and follow any of the roads in the area. Just know what towns are along your route and follow the signs to those towns. Sinec we were in Pienza we picked up Stu’s route there and headed toward San Quirico. There were great views everywhere you looked. Right along the right side of the road, just before the San Quirico limits, there is a tiny church and an adjacent small farm with a huge cypress tree on each side of the driveway. We had noticed diagonal metal bars on the exteriors of many of the buildings in Florence and speculated that they tied the floor into the walls or something. The church showed that those exterior metal anchors were connected to metal rods that ran to the opposite wall, possibly holding the walls square or maybe just to keep them from falling over (?)

Right after the little church, we stopped at the parking lot for the Taverna del Barbarossa on the left where there’s supposed to be a famous view of a farmhouse from there. The sun made it hard to get good shots. Since we were ahead of Stu’s schedule and his tour seemed to emphasize being at places at the best time of day for photos, we decided to go back to Pienza and try to take the tour of the Palazzio Piccolomino while waiting to get synched up with his timetable. We got there at 9:45 and it was supposed to open at 10 so we waited. The person with the keys to the office didn’t arrive until 10:15 then they told us they only had tours in Italian for 10:30 and 11:00 so we went back to the driving tour and headed for Montalcino.

We walked around Montalcino and climbed the fortress. Note the stairs to the ramparts are inside the Inoteca de Fortenza at the far right corner of the courtyard. We left Montalcino at 12:10 and made it to Sant’ Antimo Abbey at 12:30. The chants started at 12:45 (they started blocking off the alter area a few minutes before the monks come in) and finished just before 1:00. I set my camera to movie mode and sat it in my lap so I could capture the audio of the chants. The Abbey is surrounded by grasses, vineyards, olive groves and poppies. We enjoyed walking around the grounds for a few minutes and then continued on the tour heading SE of the Abbey following the signs to Monte Amiata and then Castiglione d’Orcia where we stopped for a lunch. We tried to climb the Rocca di Tentennao there but it was closed until 2:30 so we continued past Castiglione d’Orcia and picked up the N2 north going past San Querico, exited at Torrenieri and then took a dirt road that ran along the ridge north of where we had driven earlier giving a view from the opposite direction. We dead-ended at a road that led us back toward Pienza.

At Pienza we stopped Stu’s tour and headed for Montepulciano. We climbed the clock tower and walked around town. Wayne did a wine tasting, because you have to do that in wine country, and confirmed that he still doesn’t like wine. It was about 5:00 and we didn’t have the time or the energy to walk down to San Biagio Church and didn’t have directions to drive so we called it a day and headed back to Pienza.

My husband dropped me off in town to see about reservations at Latte di Luna but they were full again. Backing out of the narrow parking lot, he hit a parked car. The bumpers just barely touched and there was no damage on either car. The guy is sooo lucky! When we came back to town for dinner we winged it and ended up at Ristorante Sperone Nudo. It was alright, but nothing to write home about. We walked back to the B&B with gelato in hand under a moonlit sky. This is the good life.

We had another delicious breakfast on the terrace at 8:30. When Lucia brought us the milk she asked “freddo?” and we said “si”. She smiled and shook her head in dismay as she walked away.

We loaded up the car after breakfast and then I went to the bathroom before checking out. Earlier we had run out of TP in the room and I just grabbed my emergency roll from my suitcase. I saw it and picked it up and went off to check out. When we paid I had it on top of my stack of papers and I told her we ran out and I used ours. She said “it’s OK, it’s the same” (I think meaning the price). I said “no, it was our roll” to which she smiled and said “it’s OK”. Geez, I KNOW she thinks we were stealing her roll of toilet paper!

We left Pienza at 9:00 and arrived in Siena at 10:10. We were trying to find the parking area west of the fortezza but ended up going into a restricted area. After a few words with my dear husband and some thrown maps, we ended up parking along the street just south of Porta Romana. As we walked away I saw a sign that looked like it was pay parking there. I asked someone walking by and they directed us to the meter. Unlike our parking meters, this was a community meter that you put change in to get a ticket good until X time and then you place the ticket on your dashboard. The problem was that it was 1.50 EU per hour, it only took coins and even though I told my husband to keep lots of change, he had given most of it away. We dug through our pockets and only found enough for 2 ½ hours. After he came back from placing the ticket in the car, he remembered that we had dumped some change in the drink holder in the car- doh! With our meters we could have just added the change and extended our time but that doesn’t work with these because the ticket counts from the time you put the money in. I’m not sure what they’d do if you had two tickets with overlapping times and didn’t want to find out.

Naturally, we headed to Il Campo to climb the tower first. FYI: If you want combo ticket to see the Museo Civico and climb the tower you have to buy it in the tower, which means that you have to climb the tower first. You get in line by the tower entrance and there is a Red- Green traffic light that is self-policed. While it’s green, people can enter and head upstairs to the tower. When it’s red they stop. After going up about 100 steps, you buy your tickets and stow your bags. Maybe that’s to weed out the weak and give them a chance to bail out before they pay??? We waited in line about 30 minutes before we got the green light. There were great views of the Campo and the rest of the city with stops at several levels. By the time we went through the Museo Civico it was obvious that we would be needing more parking time so my husband ran to get another ticket while I made some phone calls.

With more time on there meterWe got some pizza for lunch and headed for the Church of San Domenico where they have both the thumb and the head (yes, the actual thumb and head) of St. Catherine on display- very strange. On to the Sanctuary of St Catherine. The chapels to the right side were locked but someone said it was going to open in 30 min. Then the Baptistery and the Duomo. There were signs that reservations were available for the Duomo but we only had to wait about 15 minutes. I really enjoyed walking around Siena.

We left Siena at 3:10 heading for San Gimignano. We only had our large map of Italy with no detail of Siena and the Ricks Steve’s book. We had done so well just following the town signs before this that we didn’t bother finding anything more detailed but Siena was much larger and harder to navigate. We headed back the way we came from, thinking we’d hit the highway we took to Siena and continue on it toward Florence but we went quite a ways and then only saw signs to San Querico so we turned around and headed back toward the Porta Romana. Looking at the Rick Steve’s map we decided to turn right at the Porta Romana even though there were no signs to Florence there. Shortly after we turned there was a sign. We saw a couple more signs that we followed then nothing for a while. We hit a roundabout with several towns at each exit, none of them Florence. I finally got my husband to pull over for a while so I could try to figure out which towns would be on the route we wanted. After 5 minutes of looking at books and maps we decide to just go ahead and right after we started the car we spotted a sign to Firenza- ARGH! We kept following the Firenza signs and made it to Monteriggione at 4:00. There is free parking down in the front. Free toilets are beside the pay parking lot higher up, just outside the city gates. We walked around town and climbed the walkway then went to the TI and got directions to our hotel and left at 5:00.

We made it to Hotel Vecchio Asilo (in Ulignano, 6 km form San G) in about 20 minutes. Guido, the host, was wonderful. He went over a map of San G and showed us where to park, sights to see and recommended places to eat. He then made us dinner reservations at Il Pino, his favorite, which also ended up being one of our favorite restaurants of our trip. It is just inside the Porta San Matteo. We headed to San G at 6:00 and it was still packed with people. Went to the Piazza della Cisterna, the Towers and the Piazza del Duomo with the Civic Museum and 200’ Torre Grossa. We got there with just enough time to go to the top of the tower. The entrance is to the left of the Duomo. You go up a few flights of stairs and then buy your tickets and stow any bags. You go through the museum on your way down. Next we went to the Rocca di Montestafolli for great views and then walked by the Sant’Agostino Church on our way to Il Pino for our 7:30 dinner reservations. When we left at 9:00, I was amazed that there were still a lot of people wandering the streets. Most other places were empty by then. I shudder to think what the place is like in the idle of the day.

When we woke up the next morning, we could hear a cuckoo bird. It sounded just like a cuckoo clock- surprise. Guido, decked out in a chef’s hat, made us a wonderful breakfast. He asked what we wanted to drink and when we said we didn’t drink coffee or tea he offered to make (really good) hot chocolate. He’s the man! Next he whipped up some pizza bread and a fresh fruit cup with chopped bits of fruit and topped it off with juice, yogurt and cake.

I told him the name Guido always reminded me of Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live but he didn’t know the show. Then my husband whispered that he hoped Sarducci wasn’t some derogatory term in Italian. That would be just my luck ;-)

I asked him where to get a good picture of San G because the views coming from Ulignano were too far away. He said to go to the south side of town (past the Piazzale Martiri Montemaggio and the parking lots down Via Roma). When you get to the roundabout, take the first exit toward Volterra and Pisa then go a short way and take a left toward S. Lucia. A km or so down we got great shots of the town.

I had originally planned to go to the US WWII cemetery outside of Florence, go to Lucca and then spend the night in Pisa and see Pisa the next morning and then take the train to Cinque Terre. However, we decided we wanted to have more time in CT and we couldn’t get a room for another night so we hoped we’d be able to climb the tower of Pisa later that evening and leave for CT first thing in the morning.

Guido said Volterra’s Etruscan features were unigue from the other towns we’d been to so we decided to go to there. It did not disappoint. The Rick Steve’s map didn’t show many of the street names and we couldn’t find sign for half the ones it did have so we mainly following the arrows to various sites and ended up zig-zagging through town. The Etruscan Museum had several interesting exhibits dating way back to 1500 B.C. but, good grief, how many funerary urns do they really need to have on display? I think the museum might be where we encountered our first toiletless bathroom. I walked into the stall and there was just a molded tray-like platform with footprints on it and a drain. I’d heard of something similar in 3rd world countries but that sounded more like a hole in the ground. This actually had a flushing mechanism that poured water into the tray to flush, it just didn’t have anything to sit on.

We went by the alabaster studios but they were closed on Sunday. We could look into the windows and see some works in progress and there were tons of shops with alabaster items. Next we headed to the Duomo and Via Matteoti. I’m not sure which piazza it was but we stumbled upon a market and watched an artisan pounding out copper platters and other decorative pieces.

We came upon a long stairway leading down through a wooded area toward the Porta di Docciola. One of the paths on the map was called Via Fonte so I figured it must lead to some fancy fountain near the city gate-wrong! It may have been an important site but it just looked like a grungy green pool tucked behind two large stone arches with a little water spout coming out of he adjacent wall that had a sign saying it was non-potable water. That was not worthy of the trek back up all those stairs in my mind.

We meandered over to the Archaelogical Park. There is a very nice park area that is free and an archaeological dig next to it with an entrance fee. It didn’t cost much but I sure wasn’t visualizing what they were describing in the ruins. Then we walked across town to the Porta all’Arco where the towns people took the stones out of the street to block the gate so the Nazi’s wouldn’t blow it up. Walking uphill along the wall past the Porta was a great viewpoint of the surrounding countryside to the east and, if it would have been just a little less hazy, we might have seen the Mediterranean. Finally we walked over to the Roman Theater. The view looking down into it from above was impressive. At this point I realized we had missed the Medici Fortress (now a prison) but it was about as far as you could get from both the theater and our car and we were too lazy to go back so we just left Volterra. After looking it up online, I wish we had gone back.

On to Pisa. FWIW, going from Volterra to Pisa, we hit a roundabout about 10 km from Pontederra with no listing for Pisa at the actual roundabout. We did see Pisa listed on a sign before the intersection. You want to take the exit at 9:00 (to Pontederra)

We made it to Pisa a little after 2. We hadn’t bought advance tickets to climb the tower because we weren’t sure when we would be there. I was hoping my husband could drop me off to pick up tickets for late in the evening and then we could head over to Lucca. But with all the traffic, one- way streets and no good map, we couldn’t even find the tower. We decided to find the Hotel Terminus and Plaza, drop off our bags and return our rental car so we wouldn’t have to pay to park it overnight. My husband dropped me off to check in and I found out that the street parking was free on Sundays. I stood outside for 10 minutes waiting for him to return. I was starting to worry that he got lost and didn’t know the name of the hotel to get directions back. Finally I saw him walking up the intersecting street- whew! He kept hitting one-way streets and couldn’t get back to where he dropped me off so he parked and walked.

We walked over to the Field of Miracles and stopped at the Church of San Sisto on the way. There white roses along the aisles and at the altar so we figured there had been a wedding there earlier. As we got closer to the tower we glimpsed the top of it peeking out behind the buildings and got a little excited. Then the view changed to the Duomo and soon opened up to the whole field. Very cool even if they do rip you off. We got to the ticket booth at 3:30 and the first tickets they had were for 7:30. Darn. I had read that 2 hours was plenty in Pisa so I was still hoping we’d get lucky and get earlier tickets and somehow still have time to go to Lucca at night. Just as well. We ended up using up the 4 hours without too much to spare and got to go up in the tower as the sun was going down.

I really enjoyed Pisa. The weather was perfect and it was so nice to see green around the buildings. Unlike other towns where everything is crammed in the plaza, Pisa is wide open. And the tower is certainly different than anywhere else, even without the tilt. We walked around the grounds and took lots of pictures including the cheesy “pushing over the tower” shot. Then we headed over to the Baptistery. One of the guards sings every 30 min to demonstrate the incredible acoustics so be sure to be inside on the hour or half hour to hear it. Next was the Duomo, then the Camposanto Cemetery and the Duomo Museum. On our search for a restaurant , we saw a bride standing outside that San Sisto Church that we had seen earlier. After dinner we spent the last 30 minutes just sitting in the grass relaxing and people watching.

The climb up the tower was fun. I felt dizzy as we were climbing along the north and south ends but normal when on the east and west sides. You stop at 3 different levels of the tower. I had dropped my camera earlier and was afraid I wouldn’t get any shots up there. Luckily, after taking the battery out, it started working again except my setting wheel was off by one-phew! There wasn’t a lot of color in the sky but we finally got a decent sunset in Italy.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping at the train station to see about getting a refund on the incorrect tickets we got in Florence. The man at the ticket booth didn’t speak English and sent me to the Information booth. They said they would only exchange them but we had already purchased our other train tickets. Hm…the tickets are refundable but what are you going to do in a foreign country? Funny how their English goes down the drain when they don’t want to do something

Next we had to return our rental car. We forgot that we hadn’t filled the gas tank. It was now after 9:00PM on a Sunday and we were sweating finding a gas station open. The good news is that we found a 24 hour self-service gas station on the main road to the airport on the right hand side, after you pass the railroad tracks. The bad news was that it didn’t take credit cards. Ours didn’t work anyway but it didn’t take debit cards either. Luckily it did take bills. We had to feed it the bills multiple times but finally got it to accept 25 EU worth. On to the rental car lot where we dropped off the car and the walked the 1.5 km back to the hotel.

mdod is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 10:41 AM
  #14  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 11,134
loved your report and like how you two roll with the punches. I can never get USA 800 numbers to work, I think you have to use the international number on the back of the card and call collect.

I love your descriptions which reminded me of my first trip in the same area, driving and having the same adventures! Thanks for sharing.
SeaUrchin is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 11:00 AM
  #15  
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Join Date: Feb 2005
Posts: 247
SeaUrchin, Thanks. And yes, that is correct, the US 1800 numbers don't work outside the US. I was calling the international number for my credit card, but not collect (because I didn't know how). I would think it should still work if I called it directly but maybe that was the problem.

When my office called Capital One, they said either one should work so I went ahead and tried the 1800 number too just for the heck of it. No luck.

mdod is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 11:50 AM
  #16  
 
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 11,134
Did you ever get an explanation of the problem?

I have had that happen too, for no apparent reason my card just wouldn't work. Other times my ATM wouldn't work and then sometimes it would!

Well, I loved your adventure anyway!
SeaUrchin is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 12:55 PM
  #17  
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Yep, they put a fraud alert on the account even though I told them when we'd be in Italy. They said Italy is notorious for credit card fraud so I suspect it doesn't take much for them to stop it. As for ATM's, your ATM card has to be on the network that the machine takes and every once in a while you'll come across one that doesn't match. The VISA/debit cards help to minimize that because they'll use the VISA network if the ATM network isn't available.

Cinque Terre and Rome coming soon.
mdod is offline  
Jun 2nd, 2007, 03:58 PM
  #18  
 
Join Date: Feb 2003
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mdod,

I have to say you have a good memory for details considering how fast you traveled! I agree, I thought Pisa was worth the stop, but don't feel bad - driving around Siena is very confusing even with a good map!

On my 2nd trip to Italy, my card was cut off. Thankfully at the very end of the trip (7 years ago)! I had called too, but found out later that the bank doesn't bother to inform their third party security company! Now, I always ask me them make a note in the file, and inform the security monitoring service too!
Dayle is offline  
Jun 3rd, 2007, 09:25 AM
  #19  
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Dayle,
No way my memory could hold this. I've always kept a journal tracking our expenses on vacation. Then when we got a digital camera I started taking notes along the way so I'd know what the heck all the pictures were when we got back home.

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Jun 3rd, 2007, 10:48 AM
  #20  
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We got up early to catch the 7:40 train to La Spezia. Our hotel won the prize for smallest shower. My arm hit the temperature handle while I was soaping up and I was doused with cold water-YOWSA! They also had the strangest towels. The hand and bath towels were more like heavy cotton napkins and tablecloths. They worked so I guess that's what counts.

Their buffet breakfast opened at 7 so we grabbed a quick bite to eat and walked to the train station. Wouldn’t you know it was raining! We’d been blessed with sunshine the entire trip and now that we’re headed for the coast, it’s raining. We got to La Spezia at 8:52 only to find out that the next train to Vernazza wasn’t until 10:07 -argh! But all was not lost. We went to the Trenitalia office and exchanged our train tickets for the Cinque Terre Passes and then we went to the TI office and picked up the Cinque Terre brochure with the color trail map- that’s the map you want if you plan on hiking in Cinque Terre.

By the time we got to Vernazza the rain had stopped. We headed uphill to get some money from the ATM. It was early and I wasn’t sure we’d be able to check in yet so I figured we’d go up to the cemetery while we were close. I had taken notes from the Rick Steve’s book but didn’t have the map with me. He described going uphill for the bank and ATM and bus stop and walking to a modern square called Fontana Vecchia and the nearby trail to the cemetery. Well…I was under the impression that the square was after the ATM machine so we walked further uphill looking for this place. It sure didn’t look like we were coming up on any kid of plaza and we saw a sign to Monterossa- not good. We were just about to turn around when we saw a stone staircase leading up a steep hill so we figured that must be the cemetery. We climbed the steps higher and higher and then followed a switchback trail. Then we came across some workers that looked surprised to see us there. We asked if the cemetery was up there. They didn’t understand so they called someone else over that spoke English. He didn’t know what we were talking about either so we turned around. When am I going to learn that neat stairs don’t always lead to neat places? When we got back to the bus stop area we saw a sign to the cemetery right there-doh! We decided we might as well go while we were there. What’s one more steep trail? Did I mention that we had our backpack/luggage this whole time??? The cemetery was pretty interesting, not to mention the view from up there. All of the graves had flowers and pictures of the loved ones. We were surprised that all of them were fairly recent. We later read that they have very little space so they only stay in the cemetery for a generation or two and then they are moved to make room for others. As we were looking around, a local woman said to us “this is not for tourists, this is for us.” As far as I know, we weren’t doing anything disrespectful. I guess she was one of the locals that wasn’t too thrilled with the tourist invasion of Cinque Terre.

We headed down to the harbor and Trattoria Gianni Franzi, hoping we’d be able to check in to our room or at least drop off our bags. We walked in and told the woman at the counter that we wanted to check-in. She got a twinkle in her eye and asked if we had reservations. When we said yes, she looked disappointed and then ignored us while she took the order of a couple that came in behind us. After she made them fresh squeezed orange juice and cleaned up the bar she came by and said she’d need our passport and disappeared. She came back with a key and grunted something as she walked out the door. We waited a second and figured we were supposed to follow her so we picked up our bags and headed out. She came back and barked at us to follow her. We went around the corner and up some stairs then she handed us a postcard with the map and pointed the way to our room and gave us an evil grin. I knew it! We had # 41, room 24, the highest one. Earlier I had told my husband she was going to give us that room. When were checking out the room we noticed a note on the night stand warning us that the cord in the bathroom was only for emergencies and they had it al tied up so you couldn’t reach it if there was an emergency anyway. We toyed with the idea of pulling it in the middle of the night. If we knew she’d be the one responding we might have done it ;-)

Next we stopped by the harbor and had some great hot pizza at a little place on the left right, before the water. They had cheese pizza with or without pesto sauce. Their sign listed some other kind that I couldn’t figure out but he said they were out of anyway.

We took the train to Riomaggiore to start off our hiking with the Torre Guardiola trail. This was one of our favorite hikes. Unlike the main hikes between the towns that were swarming with people, we were pretty much alone even at 2:00 in the afternoon. It goes out to the point past Riomaggiore where you can see most of the CT coastline. It is also a nature trail with signs for various plants along the way. There’s some elevation but not as grueling as the Vernazza to Monetrossa trail. It took us about 90 minutes round trip with stops for pics and breaks. We saw a sign for it shortly after we got off the train but then nothing else until we were already on the trail. Just follow the signs to the beach and then stay on the path there, going past the boat dock and 2 rocky beaches and keep going. You can see the wooden railing on the trail ahead. At one point you can go down a stairway to the water level to see what I think I read was a WW II bunker but it wasn’t worth the climb back up for me and my bad knees.

As we were getting close to the point I told my husband I was in serious need of some gelato. About 5 minutes later a buiding popped up out of nowhere. No gelato but they did have refreshments, souvenirs and bathrooms and some picnic tables on a terrace overlooking the water. There was a wide paved walk going further uphill to a building. We walked partway up to an area with a good view but didn’t go to the building. I later read that there was a botanical garden somewhere around there so maybe that was what this complex was related to. There was obviously a road somewhere nearby because there is no way the trail would provide enough tourists to support the place and it looked like the facilities were handicap accessible.

Once back in Riomaggiore we walked up hill to see the town. Now we know why they have an elevator right by the train station! Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, I’d take the elevator to the high road and then walk down through town and back to the train station.

We then took the Via dell Amore trail to Manarola. It’s only supposed to be a 20 min walk but it was so packed with people that it took 30 minutes because we had to stop in narrow sections to let people pass. We followed the Rick Steve’s tour of Manarola. He and I just don’t get along very well in the directions department. FYI, the Sciaccherias Museum in not “a few steps” after the mosaic, it is half way up the hill and the “fish mosaic” he describes is the large round mosaic of large birds surrounded by a border of smaller fish. The waterwheel he describes is at the top of the hill, just before the road curves to the left. Walking back looking for the trail to Corniglia we saw Il Porticciolo. We had called earlier and they said they wee full but we figured we’d ask again while we were there. Glad we did because they gave us reservations for 8:00.

It was now 5:00 and we figured we’d have time to hike to Corniglia before dinner. There was a long row of abandoned cabanas along the path. I reached up high and pointed my camera through openings. They had living areas with windows facing the sea, bunk beds and bathrooms. I tried to find info about them online but didn’t come up with anything. I wonder why and how long they’ve been abandoned.

The hike was no sweat- until you hit the staircase of death at the base of Corniglia. No stinking shuttle bus to the top for us. We had to climb the whole thing. We made it to the top by 6:00. At the top of the staircase we turned left , following the bulls eye sign for the center of town. Once again I didn’t do too well with RS ‘s directions. We got to a plaza but missed the turn and walked farther uphill until we saw signs for Vernazza and turned around. We then tried going the other way past the staircase, which wasn’t right either. Time was running out because the next train to Manarola was at 6:39. By now, I was not a fan of Corniglia. We decided to give it one more shot and found it. When you hit the square, you make an immediate left. The second time around we did see another bullseye sign on a wall where you turn. We took a quick peek and headed back to the straircase to get to the train station. Corniglia was not worth the effort for me.

It was 6:29 and we were about 1/3 of the way down the stairscase when we heard a whistle blow and saw our train pull in. We started to run for it and I quickly decided it wasn’t worth it. There was another rain in an hour that would still get us to Manarola in time for dinner and there was no way the train was going to wait that long. Then the train just sat there teasing us. We had gotten to the bottom of the stairs (still a long way from the actual station) at 6:37 and that darn train was still there. We thought maybe it was waiting there until it’s scheduled departure of 6:39 so we started running again. I just knew the thing was going to pull away right as we got there but we made it-whew! Then the train we sat there for 5 minutes before leaving- ARGH!!!! I told my husband I never wanted to go to Corniglia again J.

We made it back to Manarola and did the vineyard section of RS’s walk before dinner. Unless we missed a turn somewhere, the vineyard walk took us high on the hillside, just below the religious figures, and headed toward the sea, then the path headed to the right, toward Corniglia a little while, before it started heading down. We could see the cemetery way down below us. We followed the trail down and toward the cemetery and then went down a steep path to the left toward town. We had gone to the viewpoint near Punta Bonfiglio on our way to Corniglia and we had already seen the cemetery in Vernazza so we bypassed that part.

Dinner at Il Porticciolo was excellent. The owner and our waitress were really busting their humps taking care of their customers. It was such a nice change from our treatment at Gianni Franzi. After a gelato stop and train ride back to Vernazza we were ready for a good night’s sleep. A bunch of young guys were partying on the terrace near our room and offered us some wine as were unlocking the door to the building. They were pretty loud until about midnight but I’m glad to report they were not Americans. I’m not sure who ran them off but all of the sudden we heard a bunch of shouting and then it was quiet.

We were taking the 7:16 train to La Spezia the next day so we stopped at the Trattoria Giovanni to see what time they opened in the morning. Another woman was working, but true to form, she looked at me like I was an idiot and said “we are opened now”. I said I meant the next day because we would be leaving early in the morning. She said Wed was their one day off (as though I should feel sorry for them having to work so hard) and we would need to pay that night. Well…glad I asked since they didn’t say anything when we made reservations or checked in. I would never stay at Giovanni Franzi again just because they were so obnoxious.

We picked up something at the pastry shop in town for breakfast and then headed up toward the bus stop. For some reason I was thinking the trail to Monterossa was up there. Right before the bus stop I noticed a sign for a Sicilian bakery so we went in to Il Pirate’s to see what they had. When we hit the door a very gregarious man behind the counter asked if we were American and then asked if we had about them in Rick Steve’s book. He boasted that they have 3 things: good breakfast, good dinner and no view. Now that he had mentioned it, I did remember something about some crazy Canoli Brothers but we had just stumbled upon the place by accident. He said we had to try their pastry and if we didn’t like it, Ricks Steve’s would pay for it. I told him we had already bought some stuff at the other shop and I was just looking for later. He said “that is not pastry”. We went ahead and got something and it was excellent. Although other pastry we got was good too.

After filling up on goodies, we headed back into town to find the trailhead to Monterossa. We started the trail at 9:10 and made it to Monterossa at 11:00. About 15 min out of Monetrossa there was an old man on the trail selling small bottles of limoncello and fresh lemons. About 10:15 we started running into more traffic on the trail. As I was climbing all those steps near Vernazza I found it hard to believe that this was the easier direction but as we were coming down into Monterossa, I guess it did seem like the steps were more continuous there. I sure felt sorry for the people we were passing that were huffing and puffing right after the first set of steps. Little did they know what was ahead of them!

In Monterossa we walked up the switchback of Monks to the Church of the Cappuchin Monks but it was closed. We went on to the cemetery in the castle ruins. More great views but all the cemeteries were pretty much the same so if you just want to see a cemetery, Manarola’s take the least effort to get to.

My husband had to say he went into the Meditteranean so we went down to the beach and he got in. I didn’t have my suit with me. By the time he got dried off we had missed the 12:40 train. We looked into taking a boat but the next one wasn’t for a couple of hours so we picked up some pizza and gelato and stopped at the TI to find out when the bus ran up to the higher trails. We had time to take the train to Vernazza and stop in our room to get our suits and make the 3:00 bus. We got there 10 min early and dropped in on the Canoli Brothers (Il Pirate) and bought a canoli. I was looking at the trail maps when the pastry chef brother asked if I need help. I said I was just trying to figure out which trail we wanted to walk. He said “You walk? Why you no slim?” Now, it was afternoon and I thought he said “why you no sleep?” and I laughed. As we were walking later on, on my husband started laughing and saying “why you no slim?” I asked what the heck he was talking about. Hmph. No more visits to Il Pirate ;-)

I didn’t have enough information on the upper trail and didn’t want to risk it later in the afternoon so we decided to go back to the harbor, take the boat from Vernazza to Riomaggiore and take a dip at the beach there. The boat ride was very refreshing and had great views but getting in the water at Riomaggiore was a challenge. The rocks are smooth however it sure hurts to walk on them. Once you get into the water they get really slippery. Both of us fell in within 10 seconds. The water was crystal clear though and it wasn’t too cold as long as you kept moving.

Someone we met in Florence said Ciak had the best seafood they’d ever eaten so we made reservations there for 8:00. We ran to the train station to catch the train to Levanto in hopes of hiking from Levanto to Monterossa in time for dinner. Just before the train arrived we realized it didn’t stop at Levanto. It was still in the station when we realized the next train would get us into Levanto too late anyway so we decided we’d go ahead and take this train to Monterossa. It pulled away right before we got to the track. Then we almost missed the next train because it didn’t have the standard Sestri Levanto destination that most of the local trains had. Luckily the conductor showed up as the last passengers were loading and confirmed that it was the right train.

It was already 4:30 so we decided to try to walk the Monterossa to Levanto trail out to the point at Sant’ Antonio and back. We were hoping we’d be able to see Levanto from the point near Sant Antonio. That is definitely the hard direction to take that trail. We walked uphill for an hour straight when the trail finally leveled off right before the 5 min spur trail to Sant’ Antonio. About 5-10 minutes before that there are gorgeous look-outs of the Cinque Terre Coast. We thought we might finally get a good sunset but storm clouds came through and half the coast was in the clouds by the time we got to Sant Antonio. It was clearer to the north toward Levanto so we decided to go that way for a little while to see if we could get a view of Levanto. After about 5 min we ran into a German couple hiking from Levanto. They said we wouldn’t be able to see it. Since the sky wasn’t looking to good, we decided to head back to Monterossa with them.

On the trail from Vernazza to Monterossa we said buon giorno to someone and he responded with good morning in French, Spanish, Italian and English. My husband said he wished he knew some German so he could answer back in German. So...since we had a German couple right there, I asked them how to say good morning in German. The man smiled a little and said “guten morgen”. Oh that was a toughie. So then I asked how to say hello. To which he smiled even more and said hallo –doh!

Half way down, there were a couple of thunder strikes and then some rain. Nothing awful but we were wet and getting a little cold with the sun setting. We headed for an internet café to get out of the rain while waiting for our 8:00 dinner reservations. After looking at the train schedule and now knowing that the train station was quite a distance from the restaurant, we headed over there at 7:40 to see if they would take us early, which they did. It was alright but not even close to the best seafood we’d ever had. Most of their Primos required that you buy two of them. I hated that because we like to each get something different and share. The seafood pasta was alright but my husband didn’t like his swordfish. Then we missed our train anyway because we waited for 15 minutes for the check even after we asked.

We finally made it back to Vernazza and stopped at Tratorria Gianni to pay the bill. I was ready for an argument because there was supposed to be a 10% cash discount but the young man that was on duty was very nice and we had no problems. Then one last climb up those steps for our last night in Cinque Terre. I should have calves like Hercules by now.

Next stop Rome.
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