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Trip report: 2 Amazing weeks in N/Central Italy

Trip report: 2 Amazing weeks in N/Central Italy

Old Jul 10th, 2003, 07:25 AM
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Trip report: 2 Amazing weeks in N/Central Italy

The word we kept using was "amazing"! I joked we needed a Thesaurus because that word amazing just kept dropping from our lips!

Just spent 2 full weeks on my honeymoon (first trip to Italy for us both) in:
Lake Como, Venice, Florence, S. Tuscany region, San Gimignano, Cinque Terre & Milan. Places stayed and seen often based on info from this board-thanks!

Our favorite area was Tuscany and the small hills towns, least favorite shockingly to us was Cinque Terre.

Highlights: Cheap fabulous wine, piazzas and benches everywhere to people watch, wonderful pasta & sauces-food served HOT!, friendly people, ran into few tour grps and Americans overall so got to practice our Italiano, beautiful churches, fabulous vistas and views, and on and on and on....

I worried beforehand about all kind of crazy things that never happened. So don't drive yourself crazy with silly worries! As one of my friends says of Italy: if you don't laugh, you'll cry. Do not worry about anything, make plans but go with the flow!

We left Chicago mid-day Monday, short layover in Newark, and arrived at Malpensa Tuesday morning tired (still recovering from our wedding wkend) but excited. I thought we could catch the quick shuttle to the train station in Milan to get up to Varenna (rather than wait over an hour for the first bus to Como). Wrong! It was rush hour (8:30am) and took us about 1.5 hours on the bus from the airport into Milan. The train station was a lot to deal with for a first time arrival (it got easy a few times later!). We were stuck there for over 2 hours til the first available train to Varenna left. I would definitely advise taking the bus to Como and the boat to Bellagio/Varenna for any of these types of jaunts. Much prettier and relaxed way to enjoy your holiday!

We arrived in Varenna and met a lovely woman walkign down the road who directed us to our hotel (a bit further from the station then we realized): Albergo Milano. It was a pretty as we expected and we did get the front lakeview room with a giant balcony. Unfortunately the Mrs. of the hotel was out of town so Egidio was fending for us all on his own. Dinner at the hotel was sadly no longer an option. He did great but we think it might have had a different (warmer?) feel had it been a normal week with both owners there in their normal modes. No A/C or fans, an investment in fans would be huge as it was 90 degrees in June. But we still loved the place and our room and started learning how to picnic Italy style. We took advantage of our patio and often had wine and bread/salami/ham/cheese sandwiches. New Hubby's great idea to bring his pocket knife and small corkscrew came in super handy! Had dinner at a great restaurant in Varnna called Il Cavatappi, only 5 tables. Mario has a few specials and is very friendly. The risotto was "amazing"! but the fish I ordered showed up on my plate with it's eyeballs and tail intact. eeek! We somehow figured out how to fillet it and realized that was one word our italian class hadn't taught us!

Took a boat ride to Bellagio, a much bigger and very beautiful town. Bought Hubby a swimsuit there to use at our Tuscan farmhouse later in the trip. Wandered the streets and alleys just browsing and experiencing it all. A wonderful relaxing 2 days and nights.

Then, on the train (through Milan centrale again) to Venice........!!
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 07:46 AM
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Carry on, e_roz! I have one question, though, about the pocket knife. We're planning on doing little picnics like you, and the pocket knife would be just the thing. But airlines are so particular about what items you can bring with you (my husband's nail scissors!!! were recently confiscated on a flight) and I'm wondering if you hand carried it with you, or packed it as part of your checked luggage. Or did you buy one when you arrived? Thanks!
 
Old Jul 10th, 2003, 07:50 AM
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Keep it coming--we want to know it all.
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 07:57 AM
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Dear e roz,

Thanks for bringing back great memories - last May we stayed at the Albergo Milano in Rm #1 with the huge balcony! Loved it. It's a shame you didn't get to meet Betina - she is the most delightful host. We also ate at Cavatappi's, it was excellent, the man truly knows how to make risotto.

We got great advice from this board and took the train directly from the airport - with one change and then the ferry from Como to Varenna.

Hope you got to see some of those amazing sunsets.

Please continue with your report - I'm dying to know why the CT was your least favorite.

Bye now.
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 08:09 AM
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dln- we did check our bags so we packed the pocket knife in the checked luggage. We packed for 1 week though there for 2: I brought my 22 inch rolling suitcase, Hubby brought a medium size over the shoulder duffle. We also had a tiny backpack for day trips. I had agonized over buying a backpack but finally checked comments on this board and went with my rolley bag. It was perfect. Hubbys duffle seemed to get heavier each segment and luckily it fit on top of the suitcase while we rolled it easily. We had our laundry done 1 week into the trip and it came back fresher than ever..... There were plenty of pocket knives for sale in most towns we saw if you don't want to check luggage.
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 08:21 AM
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Thanks, e_roz for the tip, and for the luggage info, too. We're off (just the two of us) for 2 weeks in Italia and I was debating about just one big rolling suitcase or divvying it up--now you've presented a tidy solution. I figure DH's suitcase will get steadily heavier as well, based on all the wonderful trip reports we've been reading!
 
Old Jul 10th, 2003, 08:46 AM
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We easily bought our next 2 train tix at the Varenna travel agency. Varenna to Venice orig. train was delayed in Milan. We then used the travel agency in the Centrale station to switch to the Eurostar for only 6 more euro.

Venice was---So much like I imagined and the pics I have seen it was a bit surreal. I do disagree that walking out of the train station was breathtaking, it was a bit of a jumble. We immed. hopped onto the express 82 boat and then the breathtaking part began. It took us all the way down the grand canal to our stop at the Accademia. 5 euro each for the one hop. We popped right into our Hotel Galleria, room 8, large room with sitting area in window. We're tall people so the tiny window was a bit low for us but we enjoyed having our breakfast brought to us in the room each morning and watching the boats go by while we ate! Room was clean and nice, no A/C again but the fan was key! More 90 ish degree days.
We were starving and went to the Pizza place right next to the Accademia bridge. Had Birra grande and pizza, all very good!

We then wandered around the Dorsoduro area to get our bearings and found some wonderful little shops tucked a bit behind the Accademia museum. We went to these often to get bread/meat/cheese. DH noticed the term "Formaggi" on some cheese that looked good. Thinking this might be the type of cheese, he kept asking the Italian only speaking proprietor for Formaggi. The Prop. kept replying "Asiago-my best". DH would say No, Formaggi. This went on for a bit, kind of the Italian version of Who's on first. We later realized that Formaggi actual meant "cheese" in general. The shop owner must have thoughts we were nuts!

First night we hung out in St. Marks Square listening to the concertos and dueling bands. Then got some 1 euro giant Heinekins from a street vendor and hung out at the Accademia bridge people & boat watching. Just missed a fireworks show, we think that was on Lido.

Early the next day DH went on a wander by himself and got a bit lost. Finally followed signs to Rialto, got a boat and made it back! I was trying to figure out how to explain to our families that I lost my new husband in Venice 4 days into our trip!

We made it back over to St Marks and the line to get into the Duomo was huge. We instead bought our Doge Palace tix at the Correr Musuem but found that it was unnecessary. There was no line for the Palace itself. Walked right in and saw the amazing judicial rooms, staircases, art. I got a bit claustrophic in the prisons and had to high tail it out of there after the Bridge of Sighs. Once we were out, the line for the church was gone (so forget the get there early advice) so we wandered inside.

We truly loved all the churches in Italy. We can't believe they dont' charge-the best free art galleries around. People were turned away for bare shoulders and short shorts. Long shorts (to the knees) seemed to be fine. I brough a scarf to drape over my shoulders when needed, some of the churches we encounted along the way gave out paper shawls on the way in too.

We bought our 24 hr boat pass for 10.50 euro. Total deal though we were never asked for it and probably could have done it for free. This made it very easy to hop on and off and explore more of the island in the day we had left. Loved the Frari Church in between the Rialto and Accademia bridges. Walked around the Jewish ghetto area. We had to adjust our times and work around the noon - 3pm closures of everything. Get up by 8, do your stuff, relax mid day, then get busy again. Took a few cities to get this adjustment down.

Enjoyed the Rialto bridge and market. Succumbed and bought a Murano glass wine stopper to bring home! Had dinner that night at Taverna San Trovaso in Dorsoduro. Decent food and atmosphere.
Planned to take a gondola ride that night but fell asleep!

Got up early the next morning and took the boat over to St Giorgio for the daily 8am Gregorian mass. It was just us, one other couple and 6 priests. It was lovely and an "amazing" experience. Then went back near the hotel and wandered the back streets, found a Sat. morning market with fruit, fish, meat, you name it. Then had to catch a boat to the train to get to Florence!

We could have used one more day in Venice. We were there in late June and the only lines we encountered were first thing in the morning at St Marks. The Accademia galleria and Guggenheim were near our hotel and we went buy them several times a day, early to late and NEVER saw a line.
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 09:55 AM
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Hi e_roz,

Thanks for your report. Glad you had an amazing time.
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 11:10 AM
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Hope you'll post about Tuscany!!
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 11:28 AM
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Boy, I'm taking every step with you! So far, we've shared many of the same experiences as our trip in May, 2001. I dream of the homemade ravioli in brown butter and sage from Il Cavatappi! And we stayed in the Accademia area and also ate pizza outdoors by the bridge. That's the wonderful thing about this site - we can relive our own trips again and again. Keep writing!
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Old Jul 10th, 2003, 12:56 PM
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The train from Venice to Florence was quick and easy, the most uneventful of the trip thank goodness. It was exciting to see the scenery outside go from flat to rolling hills!

Florence. Maybe I get too much of the big cities in the U.S. but we did not fall in love with it like so many of our friends have. We did switch from the Hotel Dali to a hotel with Air conditioning, temps were still in the 90's. Stayed at Pensione Bretagna, 95 euro for a double with A/C and a private bath right across the hall. It was fine, the owners and staff were very nice & helpful. Great breakfast room overlooking the Arno river.

We dropped off our stuff and cooled down. Then off to explore the city. So many stores and people and concrete. We headed to the Accademia, had reservations but they were not really needed so late in the afternoon. "David" was "amazing"! I hadn't realize how large (hmmm...I am referring to the whole statue of course!) and how much detail was involved. I really enjoyed the other unfinished Michelangelo sculptures around the museum also. We then walked around that area and saw the San Lorenzo church. Stopped in a restaurant near there (N of the Duomo) for a nice dinner but I can't remember the name. Food was good, the service was average, our first encounter with truffles= very rich and yummy! We explored stores and the city and night, so much going on. Tons of gelato stores and students and young adults. Actually heard a guy sing/playing Hotel California in the Piazza near the fake David. Had to laugh--all the way to Florence to hear Don Henley songs!

Sunday we headed over to the Petit Palace and Boboli Gardens--alas, they were closed, a strike for that day! Couldn't believe it. We did enjoy this side of the river, a bit quieter and less touristy. We would stay on this side if we ever return. We went into some stores and I got a red leather made in Florence wallet of course!
The Uffizi was open in the a.m., they also had a strike that afternoon. !! We later went into the Duomo, amazing facade outside with the marble, another lovely church! Then we wandered the city. Ended up at some point on the other side of the Duomo near a park (my first glimpse of green grass in the city!) with kids and families playing. We sat and people watched some real people for a bit. Temps were finally cooling down! The Don Henley singer in the square had been replaced by 4 students with string instruments playing a great concerto, much more what I hoped to experience!

That night we were on the Arno river, by the Ponte Vecchio== the night and river were still, the lights and moon were perfect and the reflection of the buildings in the water was complete! We took some pics of it and I hope they come out, really beautiful.

Monday morning we picked up the car (rented from Hertz before we left the states), it was a stick shift so DH got to drive the whole time. I was the navigator, meaning any time we got lost it would be my fault!

And we were off to wine country and the Tuscan countryside.......

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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 04:10 AM
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Hurry...I want to read the rest of your report before leaving for Italy tomorrow!! Am most interested in what towns in Tuscany you enjoyed the most and why you were disappointed in Cinque Terre.
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 05:07 AM
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It sounds like you had a wonderful experience to remember for a lifetime! We are planning the same route next May except we will add on Rome at the end. I can't wait! You have given some great information for me to go on. Thank you and report again.
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 05:14 AM
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e roz,

I forgot to ask you how much you paid for the room at Albergo Milano? I want to stay there but their website says around 150 Euros for double per night but when I type in for room availability for double per night the Price comes back double that per night. Any information on this would be helpful.
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 06:29 AM
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Some quick answers to the questions posed:
Albergo Milano was 130 euro for a front lakeview room. Included breakfast.

For Lina:
Enjoy your trip! If you can, see Cortona first, I found it a let down after already seeing Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino- don't miss these 3 if possible. We also loved San Gimignano. 5 Terre was overun with tourists, 20yr old backpackers everywhere.

We drove out of FLorence pretty easily with the map provided, do ask for directions because the signs are non existant. Italy driving tips: Take a speed reading class and pay attention to the blue signs. !! You will come over a hill or around a corner and there are about 12 signs pointing left and right towards cities (rarely a road number) and you have a split second to figure out which way to turn. Just remember, you can always turn back around!!

We finally got on the SS222 through Chianti to head South. We were staying N of Montalcino in a farmhouse. First stop: Greve. Very nice little village. Lunch in Panzano. Not much here unless we missed the main square. ? Did find a cute little place for lunch, balcony overlooking the hillside, had a fabulous pasta dish with veggies and "amazingly" fresh tomatoes. It was past the church and behind the big restaurant over the parkign lot. We have decided Italy chefs need to teach others how to keep the food so hot that it hits the table steaming and stays hot the whole meal. Also, very light on the sauce--when there's that much flavor, there's no reason to pile it on! Had the house chianti, we did this constantly and it always worked out. Bought Reds for 3 euro and loved them. Ok, we are not yet wine experts but you really can't go wrong with a red wine in Italy IMO.

We did pull of the side of the road to take a picture of a view top. They have lots of these areas so you can stop along the way. A father & son from NC had also pulled over (in Italy for a wedding!) and were kind enough to take a photo of us together! It was actually a bit refreshing to talk English easily with someone.

Next stop Castellina. Very cute little town, a few wine tasting places in it. Worth the stop.

Through Siena, for some reason we could not get through/out of this town easily. We came in on the 222 and had to get the 2 to stay S and the signs and roads just came quickly and were busy. I think eventually you are lead in a circle because we somehow ended up going in the direction (S2 to Rome) we needed to go! We did not stop here this day.

Drove to our lovely agriturismo N of Buonconvento. We loved it! Would recommend this area and around Montalcino as a great central location to explore and see other areas. Try to get a place with some trees for shade and a pool to cool off if it's summertime. A place that serves breakfast and dinner is also nice and an easy option to have!
We dropped our bags and headed into Buonconvento for a wonderful dinner at Mario's, served by Mario's grandson Christian who seems to run the place now. He suggested we eat outside and walked us around back to a lovely garden table area. It opened at 7:15 and when we left closer to 9 was packed. Get there early or make a reservation. He recites the menu to you. Great pasta, the meat again like most places seemed overcooked to DH. I like well done so didn't have a problem. We had stopped each ordering a primo and secondo course by now, way too much food. We often only got one or the other or split the primo and got a second. No one seemed to have a problem with this. I also bought my swimsuit here, for a small town it has plenty going on. Certainly not as pretty as many of the villages but worth a stop I think! We also got a new battery for our camera there (yes, the age old story of the battery dying on a major trip happened. Luckily the battery for our non digital Nikon was readily available!!). Note that film was very expensive to get all you can before you go!

Back to the farmhouse, DH was feeling pooped and a pleasant cool night on the hill overlooking the vineyards!

Breakfast in the next morning, quick drive to Mt Oliveto Abbey- beautiful! Got there just before noon (when it closes for the mid day break) so had a quick tour but the grounds were also "amazing"! Bought some grappa here, made by the monks. Later figured out we'll drink the wine we bought in places and serve the grappa to our unsuspecting guests. Yikes! Can you say grain alcohol?

As I mentioned previously, we really only packed for one week. Since we were starting week 2 we needed to find a launderia! We had thought we'd do it ourselves but most smaller towns had the drop off places. We dropped our 6 kg (I think) off in Buonconvento, a wonderful woman washed, dried and ironed our clothes and got them back to us by 5pm the next day. Only 8 euro. We have been joking that we will be sending her laundry from Chicago since we'd never seen our shirts so white!

Spent the afternoon at the pool where we stayed and had a yummy dinner there.
After our one day of rest we were ready to conquer the hill towns South of us.

Next: Montepulciano, Pienza and Montalcino....
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 08:59 AM
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Reading this wonderful travelogue is like turning the pages of a great novel.....don't want to stop! Thanks for all the wonderful information. Can you tell us more about your farmhouse...was it just yourselves renting it...what was it like etc...
thanks so much
keep going..........
barb
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 10:12 AM
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We skipped our included breakfast the next morning to get an early start to our hill towns! We just rented a room at the agritourismo, they had several rooms and several apts (with couches/kitchenettes). Rooms for a day or two (or four like we did), apts for a week min. We saw several places in the Montalcino area that seemed to fit this mold. There were all couples there, no kids, and everyone pretty much kept to themselves. We did chat with a cool couple from Ireland on their trip for their 6th anniversary but did not get together with them for any jaunts or meals. DH and I joked that it's a good thing we get along since there really was no one else to talk to for the majority of our trip! And we found it appealing and romantic, thank goodness!

Off to Montepulicano, easy to drive roads and good signs. I must mention before I forget, there were fields of Sunflowers everywhere. Glorious strokes of gold. We stopped along the road and got some pics of us in among the flowers. again--Amazing!
Got to Montepuliciano in about an hour so we made good time, not sure where all the getting lost in Italy stories came from (at this point). Important note: unless you are an expert stick shift & hill driver, park at the lots they have at the bottom of the hill towns. You can take a bus or hike up from there. We figured this out the hard way. Drove all the way up into Montepulicano. Yikes! 15% grades, tiny streets, quick turns, no idea where to turn, major stress. We found a parking lot at the top but it wasn't worth it. They had a some cute buildings and pretty streets here but more importantly, some great wine tastings! All opened about 10am, the lady at the TI gave us a map of where they were located. It's a small town and we had tastings in 3 of the wine rooms.

Our favorite was right of the main square, Cantina Contucci. We met Amando, the owner, who kissed us and showed us his picture in the Fodors book, Conde Nast, Bon Appetite and many other pubs. Of course, after the tasting we had to buy a bottle of his wine and it made it home with us to celebrate someday (soon)!

Next stop, Pienza. We almost drove right through but were very glad we stopped. So many wine and cheese shops, seemed to be a bit more Americans here. Must have photo under the street sign for Via Amore. Great views, a really lovely little town.

Back to the farm for our picnic lunch & nap, then to Montalcino. Wish we'd had more time here. Next time we'll do a Brunello tour, did do a wine tasting. Finally figured out the diff. between reg. and reserved wines and other reasons wines are priced and sold differently. Had an uneventful dinner here. DH ordered the special of the day: Pasta with Seafood. Again, all shells and the shrimp still had their legs and eyeballs. No more seafood for us! Took him 20 minutes just to get the unedible portions out. Very interesting. Had another good bottle of vini rossa of course.

Wonderful overnight viewing & wishing on the stars. Breakfast at the farm and then debated what to do. Decided on our once in a lifetime trip we should not just "hang out" another day, so we got in the car and headed to Cortona......
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 10:41 AM
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e_roz,

I also enjoyed reading your travel notes as we just got back from having spent a week in an apt in Montepulciano.

I'd like to add a recommendation that people try to visit some of the small Tuscan towns on market day. IT was mind boggling to see "entire stores" brought to the town on wheels.

IT's all part of the Italian experience.
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 11:54 AM
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Wow!! Please post about your farmstay in Tuscany. Where was it? How was it? Did you get to eat food from the farm?

Tell all! Thanks!
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Old Jul 11th, 2003, 01:20 PM
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You Frances Mayes fans may want to stop reading here, We did not get blown away by Cortona. I think we loved the 3 towns we saw the day prior so much that Cortona was just another pretty hill town that tooks us over 2 hours to get to. The super/auto stradas were great though and you could easily do a day trip from Montalcino to Perugia if you desired (about 2.5ish hours probably). We did have some good pizza and birra on the steps of the municipal bldg in the main square. I got us lost officially for the first time on our way out of town. Managed to work our way back around and on the way home stopped in Sinalunga and Asciano. Not much happening in either, though when we drove through that morning there seemed to be more going on. The smaller towns may be better to visit in the a.m. vs. the sleepy afternoons, not sure! We made it back to the farm for another dinner and relaxation time.

Friday arrived and was almost our last day in Tuscany. We were so sad! We must figure out a way to have american corporations be required to give 4 wks vacation time! We had a busy day planned:

First-Siena. Our first time here, we followed parking signs (coming in from the SOuth) and ended up parking in the main Il Campo lot. We got to Siena by 8:30 am and had this lovely city to ourselves for almost 2 hours. Got a croissant and checked out a virtually empty Piazza del Campo. The Palio had been run 2 days prior and they were still cleaning up all the dirt! We then toured the beautiful overwhelming, multistriped and colored Duomo with it's amazing mosaic floors. We also found another church (st Caterine I think) that was very cool. Then the crowds hit about 10:30. Could barely walk anywhere. All kinds of shopping everywhere and crowds worse that Florence I'd say. We grabbed lunch in Piazza del Campo (yes, about what you'd expect for this tourist area but it was still a very cool view/scene) and got outta there!

Again, the only S2 sign said Rome so we improvised and jumped on the A1 to Florence (we were never charged for our hops on & off the larger highways so I'm not sure where the tolls hit). Got off in Monteriggioni- a tiny walled hill town just N of Siena. Worth the stop, some of the restaurants looked yummy also. They were setting up for a big concert that weekend! There were a few wine tasting areas in town as well. Ran into some Americans in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill (as I previously mentioned, we stopped driving all the way up though this one town wouldn't have been so bad!).

Then a quick drive to Colle Val d'Elsa. A very pretty town with lots of glass shops. We just wandered and had some gelato. Bought a cool wine holder for one bottle that we orig. saw in Montalcino here (it's now at home holding our Contucci bottle!).

Finally to San Gimignano-where we stayed the night using www.sangiapartments.com Marcella and her daughter Barbara run the pastry shop on the main street and rent rooms and apts. It was wonderful! We wanted to hit San Gimignano after most of the tourists left but honestly, we enjoyed it so much in hindsight wish we had gotten there earlier! Lovely streets, stores, restaurants. Had a great and affordable meal at a restaurant that starts with an "M" (sorry I'll try to find my notes) and is on the street just West of the main San Giovanni lane.
Beautiful terrace but it was already too chilly for me to sit outside. We bought some kitchen linens and a purse here. Just succumbed to the charm, hung out on the square after 9pm. It was really lovely!

Saturday we decided not to try to rush to Lucca and just easily drove our car into Pisa. Turned it in at the Airport, took the bus on the quick jaunt over to the train station, and headed to Cinque Terre!
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