Trip Report - Italy and Provence

Old Mar 20th, 2006, 05:45 AM
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Trip Report - Italy and Provence

My wife and I had been planning this trip to Italy for about a year and a half. Initially a pleasure trip intended to be a 10 year anniversary celebration last year; we had to go a year later due to other commitments. When the opportunity to combine the trip with business arose I again had to adjust the itinerary and timing to accommodate the fixed dates of the convention. We ended up leaving at the end of September and including Provence in the itinerary on our way to Switzerland for the conference. This limited our time in Italy (Fodorites helped determine what to cut out and alas it was Rome) but Provence was a nice addition to the trip. My sister also decided to take up our invitation to come with us. The timing of the trip worked out great, the crowds were less (I was told) this late in the year, yet we had great weather.

The Fodors forum helped me so much in this effort (especially with the changing itinerary) that I wanted to share our experiences with the hope that others would benefit from it as we did. I’m going from memory of the trip which was actually six months ago, so bear with any mistakes or lapses. With the help of guidebooks like Fodors and Rick Steves, Trip Advisor, and the Fodors web site I felt comfortable that the trip was planned properly and I knew what to expect. This, then, left only the pleasure of participation to remain.

As we were sitting in the CDG airport in Paris at about 9:30 in the evening after late arrival into Amsterdam, rerouting, and now a late connection into Venice, I was beginning to wonder about that pleasurable participation and also where our bags may be. It was truly turning into an exercise in endurance, but finally we made it into Venice at around 11:00 pm. A few other Americans sharing the fate of the same destination were with us and we discussed the probability of our bags actually making the same circuitous and morphing route that we took. We did not like the odds. I had visions of our bags following us around Europe from city to city, a day late and a dollar short, only to catch up in time for us to throw them on the plane back. But, thankfully, as we stood at the baggage carousel in Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, our backpacks came down the ramp, shining in the fluorescent lights like an oasis in the desert – I could hear the chorus singing “Halleluiah!” through my foggy, sleep deprived head. Things were looking up, and we were not to be disappointed.

We came out of the baggage area and into the airport and, I was surprised to see, right out into the warm night. Surely we must have accidentally come out a side door and bypassed security. I was expecting a full squadron of carbinieri to fly out of the building any moment and have us pinned down and spread eagled on the walkway in front of the airport – another infiltration plot foiled. But as there were others on our flight following the same path, I finally figured out that the passport check in Amsterdam must have checked us into the EU and traveling inside was like going state to state – a nice improvement from our trip over five and a half years ago. The common currency was nice as well, although the exchange rate left a little to be desired.

We walked out to the docks where the waterbus and water taxis were waiting (the walk was a little further than I expected, but not a problem). Initially we intended to ride the waterbus, but by this time the multiple stops and time associated with it was not sounding too good so we decided to splurge the 80 euros for a water taxi – it was worth it. The private ride into Venice with the lights of the passing boats, the city, and just the warm air (any air for that matter after 30 hours of airplanes and airports) was heavenly. Entering the canals of the old city with the elegantly decaying buildings and the faded colors of the past, the quite of the night in a city with no cars, and the unreal sense of finally being somewhere you’d only read about will be etched in my memory forever. The driver skillfully maneuvered through a series of consecutively smaller canals until he suddenly stopped near what appeared to be a narrow access between buildings. He gave us directions to our hotel in typical emphatic Italian fashion and we set off. Beginners luck was with us, and we walked right up to it – even the front desk clerk seemed surprised that we found it so easily (we had called him from Paris to let them know we’d be late as we didn’t want to be locked out). We stayed in the Hotel Al Piave which was very nice, in a quiet area near Santa Maria Formosa. I would definitely recommend the hotel, the location was central between the Rialto area and St. Marks. If not coming on a water taxi, though, it would be a little ways to carry luggage from the ACTV dock at San Zaccaria – especially in a jet lagged state. We had a triple suite with a separate room for the single bed; it was nicely appointed and was a welcome sight for us. After calling home to let everyone know we’d made it – we collapsed in a heap, not twitching until morning.

Day 2

We awoke to the sound of singing echoing up between the closely spaced buildings to our third floor open window - singing and the clink of dishes being washed, the smell of breakfast and coffee – caffé, sorry. We were feeling pretty good, considering, and were anxious to get with the program. We went down to the complementary breakfast; it was served efficiently in a small room with a fairly good assortment to choose from. Anyone who’s traveled there can tell you the typical complimentary breakfast consists primarily of croissants and jams, maybe some yogurt and dry cereals. Here, though, were also scrambled eggs and the first of a daily tradition of morning cappuccino.

We set off with the map of Venice in my pocket so see the sights. We walked through the Campo Santa Maria Formosa which was bustling with activity now unlike the night before when it was positively dead. The Venice map provided by the hotel was not all that great (not enough detail). It worked to get you heading in the right direction, however, and getting lost in Venice is actually pretty enjoyable. There are so many little streets and alleys twisting in the most confusing fashion that it is very difficult to keep your bearings, but there are little signs up on the corners of the buildings at most street intersections to get you to the main attractions. We eventually made it to St. Marks Square. Wow. People everywhere – many, we learned later, were day trippers from either cruise ships or outlying towns. The line to get into St. Marks was very long at this point. Even though it was moving at a decent pace, we decided to come back later.

We left the square (and the pigeons), and headed to the main docks in front of the Palazzo Ducale. From here we headed toward the Accademia bridge, meandering through a street market and pausing in the royal gardens to soak it all in, it was great to be there. I really enjoyed just walking around the first half of the day; I believe Venice itself is the attraction and would recommend time to roam aimlessly. For lunch: Trattoria Agli Artisti near our hotel – lasagna. The food here was good and I’d recommend it. After lunch, we wandered past side canals with gondoliers doing their thing – some singing, some playing the accordion, some trying to get us in their gondola. We ended up by the Rialto Bridge so we climbed it, shopped a little and watched the traffic on the Grand Canal. We were getting a little hungry at this point so we went back to the Artisti (I know, there’s so many restaurants, why go back) because it was convenient to our hotel, it had good food and we were starving. Here I was introduced to the Italian Pizza Margherita (basically a cheese pizza) and I have never been the same. None of us are necessarily culinary connoisseurs, and if something works I tend to stick with it. I lived on these pizzas (I ate other things as well, but this was definitely a staple) and enjoyed it anew every time. I think it’s the sauce – a little more mild so the flavor of the cheese comes through. The pizza is cooked at high temperatures in brick ovens, many of them woodfired, and the crust is thin, crispy on the outside and softer in the middle - absolutely wonderful, not to mention pretty easy on the meal budget.

Refreshed, we went back to St. Marks and the line had gone down by this time as most of the day trippers had left or were leaving. We went into the cathedral, and what struck me were the mosaics. It was hard to imagine the time it would take to put together these mosaics on such a massive scale. We went upstairs into the museum, it costs a little but is worth it as you can see the original bronze horses dating before Christ and also go outside on the balcony overlooking the square – a great place for picture opportunities and we took advantage of it. From here we went into the Palace of the Doges, across the Bridge of Sighs and into the prison. This was all interesting and worth seeing, the artwork on the ceilings and elsewhere is incredible, and one can get a sense of the governance of the “Most Serene Republic”. I wondered how serene the Turks felt it was. By this time we were beginning to feel the effects of walking all day and the traveling the day before, so we headed back to the hotel and called it a night.

Day 3

Obviously these effects were felt more than usual as we slept right through breakfast and checkout. Are there any clocks in all of Italy? If you want an alarm, be sure to bring your own (we didn’t have luck with wake up calls either – promised but not delivered). After a friendly but pointed call from the front desk reminding us of the checkout time, we showered quickly (a feat considering the logistics of showering in a tube – I had to open the door to get the soap off the floor when I dropped it) and bolted down the stairs. Many bathrooms in Europe are small and showers seemingly impossibly diminutive by American standards. Many times they don’t have a lot of flexibility in remodeling these old buildings and have to make do with what they have. Just get used to it and enjoy the novelty. After squaring up our bill and checking out – we were off to our new hotel.

I had initially planned only 2 nights in Venice, and this forum recommended I add another, especially since we were just arriving. We did and it was the right decision - we were not ready to move on yet. However, our hotel did not have availability for the extra night so we had to change hotels, an inconvenience but better than leaving. Our third night was spent at the Antigo Travatore, not quite as nice but certainly clean and acceptable. The cost was good and the location was excellent, we could see the back of the Palazzo Ducale from our room balcony and smell the sewer vent from the next door neighbor - we enjoyed our little balcony, nonetheless. Another unintended benefit: arriving in Venice rather than Milan or Rome or Florence and overcoming jet lag. The relaxed atmosphere, no noise from cars, and the serenity of the city make it a perfect place to ramp into a vacation.

After getting situated, we went out to grab a snack. We stopped at a corner café and the ladies went in to buy some breakfast while I sat at a small outdoor table to wait and save a seat. They came out with the food and no sooner did we start eating and the proprietor came out and started to shoo us off since we didn’t pay for the table. I had read about this, but my wife said she didn’t understand what he was asking when she was ordering – so we grabbed our croissants and skulked off under the glare of the proprietor. OK, lesson learned.

We spent the morning and early afternoon browsing in shops and admiring the level of tourism in the city. Being an engineer, I had to marvel at the infrastructure required and building difficulties of construction in a lagoon so long ago. Even to modernize a city such as this with electricity and current plumbing must have cost a fortune. With little or no industry (other than glass blowing) in the old city and a declining population I can appreciate how difficult it is to keep the city going financially, let alone perform any restoration. Asking about this I learned that there are many organizations that raise private money for restorative work – including the rebuilding of the Fenice (opera house) after the fire there about 10 years ago. Venice was started in the lagoon around the 5th or 6th century to provide protection from roving barbarians after the fall of the Roman Empire. The protection from the mainland permeates through today in an almost ethereal feeling of being disconnected from the activity and stress of the modern world on this island of tranquility.

We stopped at a little sidewalk café facing the water near the San Zaccaria stop to get out of the sun and to refresh ourselves and just watch the world go by. We had a waiter named Maurizio who was enthralled with my sister’s pen (she was keeping a journal) from home and traded her for it. We watched an argument among artists displaying their work along the quay. It rose to a crescendo of insults (I assume as I didn’t understand what they were saying) and disagreement that was still poetic with a lilting cadence that only Italians could bring. It was broken up, and after one walked off the other collapsed into his chair by his charcoal drawings and dropped his head onto his hand in a classic tormented artist pose. From here we continued to walk down the water to the east and found what seemed to be more of a living neighborhood of the city near Via Girabaldi. Most Italian cities have a Via Girabaldi and Via Cavour, two people instrumental in the uniting of Italy in the 19th century. We enjoyed the afternoon in the quiet streets and gardens and away from the crowds. After a light lunch and a break on our little balcony we went for a “sunset cruise” along the Grand Canal in the water bus to view the line of grand palazzos from San Marco to Rialto and shopped there in the district until the evening.

For our last evening we decided to splurge and eat at the Café Florian in Piazza San Marco. It was a beautiful and memorable evening – the night was warm, clear with the orchestra playing. I would highly recommend doing this even though it was not cheap as it was a perfect capstone to an ideal beginning of a dream vacation. We went back to the hotel and sat on the balcony discussing our good fortune, bella Italia, sad to leave Venice but with anticipation of what Florence might bring.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 05:47 AM
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Day 4

Wow, I better get a little more concise with my reporting or risk loosing the audience and my wife for the time it’s taking to report this. Writing it has been enjoyable, though, as it’s allowed me to relive the adventure.

We awoke in the morning to the peeling bells from the Campanile (not the promised wake-up call) through the open window from our balcony. The morning was beautiful like the others and we packed our backpacks, checked out, ate breakfast, walked to the water and caught a water taxi to the train station - I wasn’t sure if we had time to make our train on the water bus. We enjoyed the ride to the station, again I marveled at the adaptations to living on the water passing the fire and police stations, garbage boats, etc. We arrived at the station and ran into a couple we’d flown in with from St. Paul – their bags had arrived and they looked decidedly more lively than last time we’d seen them. We caught the train to Florence. If traveling by train, make sure you book the right station into Venice, it has two. Santa Lucia is across the causeway on the island and Mestre is on the mainland. The train ride was enjoyable, looking at the countryside roll by and getting excited as the landscape started to change as we approached Florence. We sat with a young lady from Rome whom my sister befriended and now corresponds with, so that was neat.

Arriving into Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, we gathered our packs and set out to find our hotel. Talk about culture shock – noise, cars, horns, bells, gesticulating Italians in a busy city, unquestionably different than the most serene city we’d just left. We found this to be true of most places we visited in Italy as they existed for centuries as independent republics or ducal states prior to unification only a little more than 100 years ago. As a result, each area has a distinct flair. We exited the station though the tunnel. We’d read so much about the thieves frequenting the exit that we clutched our possessions in the din of the afternoon watching warily for any suspect individual out to rob us. Turned out to be just fine and we reached the hotel in one piece. We stayed at the Hotel Europa on, guess what, Via Cavour. This turned out to be a prize, it was inexpensive, clean, nicely appointed, and the owners Gassim and Miriam were positively helpful and welcoming. They set us up in our room and gave us a map and some recommendations of where to go. We’d arrived on a Sunday and would be there only for two nights. I realized this was not going to work out well for the museums (most are closed Mondays), but it was the way it worked out and we were determined to enjoy Florence regardless – and we did. We walked directly over to the Accademia, but it was already afternoon and we were told that it was unlikely that we’d get in. Oh well. We ate a late lunch at a place near San Lorenzo, I don’t remember the name. Unfortunate as it was the best pizza margherita I had on the entire trip. We walked over to the Doumo – I was impressed with the shear size of the building and detail of the façade. We spent some time admiring the architecture, Ghiberti’s doors on the baptistery, and then decided to climb Giotto’s Tower. This was pretty cool, I thought, but by the time we got to the top after climbing the last few narrow, cramped, twisting stairs barely being able to pass others coming down, my wife was not keen on spending much time at the top, not because of the height, but knowing the way down would be jammed up if there was an emergency made her nervous. We were looking out over Florence when the city bells started ringing - it was a remarkable experience.

Down we went to get refreshments at a nice place on the northwest corner of Piazza Della Republica, I can’t remember the name. We had come to enjoy the time spent at these outdoor tables eating, visiting, and watching the activity in the square. The places around the piazzas were a little more expensive, but we preferred them for the ambiance of being in the middle of the activity. I think we ate indoors only a couple of times on the whole trip. From there, we joined the passeggiata and strolled down to the Piazza Signoria, Uffizi and took some pictures off the Ponte Vecchio at night. It was a great evening of leisurely shopping, snacking, and visiting in the shadow of the Renaissance. We went back to the hotel in no way disappointed with our first night in Florence, and anticipating the next day.

Day 5

After earnestly and cheerfully being administered breakfast by Gassim and the automatic espresso machine he’s so proud of, we left to tour the Duomo. The dome was the most fascinating to me – both inside and out - from the elaborate artwork on the inside with its use of perspective to imitate people overhanging a balcony at the top, to the shear size and expanse of it from an engineering perspective. Brunelleschi had accomplished what no one else could do since the building of the Pantheon in Rome almost 1400 years before and a marvel it is. The engineer in me wanted to climb up it to examine it closer, but the wife next to me did not. After the tower incident, she said she did not want to pay good money to get claustrophobic. I could have gone alone, but rather than splitting up we strolled down different streets and ended up at the Uffizi again. We went into the Science Museum nearby – one of the few open on Monday. This was very enjoyable with many things on display for the technically inquisitive including Galileo’s telescopes (and finger, in a bottle), numerous ingenious gadgetry, a complex model of interplanetary motion showing (incorrectly) that the earth is the center of the universe, and extremely life-like models of babies in various gestation periods and birth conditions. After grabbing a bite at a nearby outdoor café, we headed over to the Ponte Vecchio in search of a ten year anniversary band. Since the trip was postponed a year it turned out to be an eleven year band, but whose counting. That was fun, the shopkeepers had infinite patience in showing us different styles and colors to match the wedding band, and finally the perfect one was found.

From there we walked south past the Pitti Palace to try and get in to the Boboli Gardens – pity their closed the last Monday of the month. Undaunted we decided to climb the hill to the south and get to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the sunset. Confident I’d mastered the geography of the Florentine area, we set off on what my wife says are my famous shortcuts. Thank goodness they were good sports about it an hour or more later. The detour had the added benefit of running into some locals at a bus stop. After asking and getting directions, they recommended we stop at a nearby church called San Miniato. They thought it was the most beautiful in all Florence. It was a very neat, simple cathedral in the Romanesque style with a graveyard, we’re told, designed by Michelangelo. The setting was stupendous and the view from the courtyard here might have been better than the Piazzale when we finally got there. Inside the church were partially finished frescoes on the wall, an ornate timber ceiling, and chanting monks in the crypt – how cool is that. After leaving there, eating ice cream at the Piazzale, and more photos, we decided to walk back to the hotel and get ready for dinner.

Gassim, as usual, had a suggestion. Off we were to Za-Za’s a few blocks away near the Mercado Centrale. This was probably the best meal we had in Italy (yes, even better than pizza margherita). I had sausage ravioli with cheese and a beef sauce that was wonderful and the girls had pesto pasta of some sort that was out of this world. Returning back to the hotel completely satiated, I realized we’d just scratched the surface of this city and was disappointed to have to leave the next morning. But the delights of Tuscany awaited us, and who were we to keep them waiting.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 06:03 AM
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Thanks, Snabes, for sharing.
Am topping to enjoy later.
I have to go to work!!!
Dina
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 06:04 AM
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Brava, Snabes! Enjoying your thorough report. Can't want for more.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 06:07 AM
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Thanks for a delightful report; I'm eager to read the rest.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 08:01 AM
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I like the way you travel- can't wait to hear more of your trip.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 09:03 AM
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Brings back great memories of Venice. Waiting to read your impressions of Tuscany.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 09:52 AM
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don't shorten it a bit - your report is a great read.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 10:56 AM
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I'm enjoying this also. I've never been to Venice and your writing is very evocative.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 06:18 PM
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Thanks for your good report. I'm not sure what you meant about "had not paid for your table"? Because you did not have a whole meal? Or because you got the food inside? Or were you actually at a different restaurant's table?
Vera
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 06:33 PM
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Snabes: I am so enjoying your colorful and vivid writing style. I smiled to myself at your description of arriving at the airport in Venice. My husband and I had the exact same experience in Athens a few years ago. Our flight took us through Frankfurt where we went through the EU security. We were stunned when we picked our bags off the carousel in Athens and walked out some double doors right into the hustle and bustle of Greece! We both did a double take, looked back at the doors we had just walked through and really didn't know what to do! As Canadians, we travel back and forth to the US alot and it was such a different experience.

I look forward to the rest of your report.
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Old Mar 20th, 2006, 10:04 PM
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Day 6

After breakfast we said goodbye to Gassim and Miriam. Armed with directions to the car rental office, we set off once again with our backpacks. Our rental was arranged without incident – a Fiat Punto – not big, but adequate. We had reserved through AutoEurope and picked up at the downtown office on Via Borgognissanti as it looked like an easy shot out of town. It was, if you ignored the one ways which, incidentally, don’t show up on the maps. So, after several trips around some traffic circles, I figured out how to make my around and get back on the main road out of town to Siena. The traffic in Florence is everything you read it to be, but if you get into the spirit and horn your way in and you’re good to go. When in Rome… If that doesn’t appeal to you, I’d recommend renting outside the city. Another consideration: getting out is one thing, but coming into the city to find this rental office would have been even more difficult. I really didn’t mind driving in Italy, even in the larger areas, but it could be tough if you’re a little more timid.

The drive to Siena was scenic and uneventful in a good way. We had directions to our hotel, but had read that it was tough to find. I got a little confused at one point and stopped in a small park on the outskirts of Siena to ask an old man directions – he could only speak Italian but recognized the name of the street I was asking for. His response gave him excellent reason to put his hand waving to good use as he directed me in the characteristic Italian vigorous fashion with accompanying hand motions. While he was giving me directions, which surprisingly I understood somehow, his dog ran off and started to harass an older lady walking by and she enthusiastically joined the discussion – I couldn’t understand her either, but certainly got the picture as Italian ladies are not bashful. I could see that my benefactor was otherwise employed in calming her down so I “grazied” him (he already had the dog under control, but not the lady) and sheepishly exited as I couldn’t see what to do to help the situation.

Our room was at the Borgo Grondaie, near the train station in Siena. It’s across the tracks and up a little hill a ways – a converted farmstead into hotel rooms and apartments. We rented an apartment and kitchenette for 4 nights and it was stupendous. It was situated on beautiful landscaped grounds and completely remodeled inside and out at what appeared to be considerable expense. The staff was helpful and attentive to our needs and it was clean. Conveniently, there was a large Coop supermarket just down the hill from the place and after getting arranged, we enjoyed the experience of a little shopping with the locals to stock up for the few days we’d be there. After spending a few hours relaxing by the pool, we decided to head into town. We called a taxi, as the walk looked to be substantial (we ended up walking back when we realized it was not too far), and had him bring us directly to Il Campo. We arrived in the late afternoon and were taken in by what surely must be the best piazza in all Italy. We had no set agenda, just strolled about the square, ate some gelato, and made our way over to the Doumo. In terms of adornment, it is more spectacular than even the Doumo in Florence – I thought anyway. With its layered marble façade and ornate interior you can get a picture of a time when Siena was not second fiddle to Florence, or anyone else for that matter, and was a European power in its own rite. Hooking to the left as you exit you come across a wall built to start a planned expansion that was going to make this cathedral the largest of it’s time. As you stand there and picture what might have been if the plague had not struck, wiping out over half the population, it’s truly unreal - and truly unfinished. Only the wall was built, an empty courtyard is all that connects it to the cathedral.

Leaving the Duomo, we wandered the back streets of Siena, browsing and visiting and enjoying ourselves. We stopped on a backstreet with a high wall looking on to a street below and watched as a young boy played a drum below and applauded for him when he finished. He was embarrassed as he didn’t realize he had spectators. Looking over the town, we could see where the siena brown color name came from.

We made our way back to Il Campo as we had made reservations at Mangia for dinner at the edge of the square. The food was very good, and we had interesting conversations with our waiter from Lebanon (he liked to think of himself as a Phoenician, correct I suppose). He spoke 14 languages, was studying to be a doctor in Norway, was in Siena for the summer, thought Italy to be the garden of the world, and was a history buff which is an interest of mine as well. It was an enjoyable dinner and evening, after which we wandered back to our hotel. We chatted outside our room on a couple of the stone garden benches until late and sleep was short in coming. You don’t always have to be racing to some sight to enjoy yourself in Italy.

Day 7

Our lack of clean clothes upon awakening was a reminder that we’d been a week in bella Italia. Fortunately for us the hotel had a washer and dryer that we could use. We cooked breakfast of eggs and bacon – boy was their thin sliced ham good fried up into crispy bacon strips. With all three of us needing to do the wash, my sister helpfully volunteered to stay behind and allow us to go into town to market. It was one of the few days that were cloudy and it even spit a little rain, but we still enjoyed browsing around the market area – it was quite large. We walked back, stopping at the gate of the old medieval wall which was pretty cool. There were statues of Romulus and Remus nursing the she-wolf (Roman) on either side – I couldn’t figure out why that would be there, maybe someone out there knows.

After helping finish the laundry and grabbing an afternoon snack, we decided to hit the road to San Gimignano. It didn’t take long; we found a parking spot in a lot on the south end of the walled town. We entered at the south gate and worked our way up the main shopping street to the piazza at the top of the hill. There was a unique and beautiful old well in the middle of the square – unusual location I thought at the top of the hill, but there must have been some purpose. This was our first exposure to a Tuscan Hill town and we enjoyed the sights immeasurably. After taking our usual refreshment break at an outdoor table bordering the piazza, we moved off and came across the Rocca. They are remnants of the old Florentine walls surrounding a park. It was very peaceful and the views from the various openings in the walls over the landscape were awesome. We climbed some stairs of a tower in the corner and got some late evening pictures. We then started to meander back to the south and while talking decided to bolt over to Volterra since we were so close.

It’s not a far drive, but it was dark as we got closer. Our first view of the hill town was some lights perched on a mountain in the distance against the red sunset. It was a spectacular sight and we pulled over to take a few pictures. We drove up the winding road and parked in a parking garage just before the town entrance and just after what we thought was a slightly creepy fountain. Volterra, to us, was wonderful in a slightly grave way. It could have been our timing as there were people in the lanes but not in the main square in town when we reached it. I have a picture taken from behind my wife looking over the square looking very small and unaccompanied among the old buildings – there’s not a single other person in the picture and it’s kinda cool for that reason. We found a nice place to eat nearby on an old building with timbered ceilings – one of the few places we ate indoors. Pizza margherita by the way and still tasting good. From there we left to look at the ruins of the Roman Theater over the hill from the entrance that we came in. It was breathtaking. Later, in Provence, we were to see larger and better preserved Roman ruins, but our first sight of something built almost 2000 years ago left us speechless. It was, of course, late evening and dark at this point. The lights illuminated the remaining portions of the back wall and you could see the old seating and steps covered with vegetation and rising up the hill to where we were standing on a dimly lit road above the ruins amongst swooping bats and with no one around. It was somewhat like visiting some of the old ghost towns of the west where I’m from; empty, but people seemingly calling out through the ages with the traces of their existence as their only voice.

I’m sure there would be more to see here during the day and visiting hours and the experience would likely be a lot different than the one we had. However, we appreciated the unique occasion in Volterra and it rates up with one of our favorite towns as a result of it. We strolled back down to our car, paid the parking tab and had a nice quite drive back to Siena along the curving country roads in the dark, feeling quite sated and mellow. Tomorrow we would drive to the south.

Day 8

After getting back so late the evening before, we slept in a little, made breakfast, had a couple cappuccino to get the engines going and were, at last, ready to move out. We planned to drive the road through Asciano and into Montepulciano. This drive was quite scenic and afforded many picture opportunities – especially after the morning fog lifted. I’m not sure how common this is for the time of the year that we were there, but there was some fog in the morning but burnt off to reveal glorious days later. It was exactly what you picture Tuscany to be, winding roads lined with Cypress and dotted with stone buildings on the landscape. I can only imagine what it must be like in the spring with everything in full bloom.

We stopped in Asciano for lunch, I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but it was on the other (south) side of town and in an old castle of some sort. We didn’t go into the museum so, embarrassingly, I never really found out what it was exactly. But we had great food, as usual, and while waiting I walked around looking and taking some photo opportunities of the landscape. While taking a picture down an alley I could hear someone yelling and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Finally I looked up and an old wild-haired lady with every other tooth intact was trying to get my attention. I couldn’t understand what she was trying to say but finally realized she wanted me to take her picture and I obliged. She shrieked and laughed, clapped her hands and disappeared inside, satisfied with her modeling career - it makes me smile every time I see it now.

We left Asciano and headed out to Montepulciano. We decided to skip Montalcino as we are not wine aficionados and I wished to see the Etruscan tombs in Chiusi which closed at 6. We stopped briefly in Pienza; a neat renaissance town, but it didn’t have the allure, to us, of the older and seemingly more authentic hill towns. It seemed to be built by Rossellino (the architect) for display. The views from the terraces were wonderful, though, and I’m glad we saw it. We loved Montepulciano, especially my sister. She votes it her favorite town. We strolled to the main square browsing in shops along the way and eating vision bars which we came to enjoy. In the main square there was a little boy practicing flag throwing who was only too happy to be the target of multiple pictures. That was fun, but we had to cut the visit short to give time to get to Chiusi. At this point I realized that we had tried to get too much into this day and had started too late.

We arrived in Chiusi in time and followed the signs to the tombs. When we arrived, a guide told us we had to go back into town to the museum (Etruscan), buy tickets, and be escorted back with a guide. It was getting close to six at this point so we roared back Italian style and got to the museum – they had pity on us and said they’d arrange for someone to take us. We browsed the museum for 30 minutes or so, I found it interesting - there were many Etruscan artifacts on display there. Then our Italian only speaking guide joined us and we made our way back. My sister had taken some Italian in college and her job was to listen to Italian CD’s in prep for the trip; I, on the other hand would brush up my rusty high school French listening to CD’s to and fro work. She was able to get the jest of the tour and translate it to us. There were several different tombs to visit there dating back to the 5th century BC – fascinating to be in something built that long ago. The carvings were quite ornate and the writing was fascinating. We drove our guide back to the museum and tried to decide to keep going to Cortona for dinner as planned earlier – we did.

It was fairly late and quite dark by the time we got to Cortona. We ate at a wonderful restaurant overlooking the Piazza della Repubblica, and I had a surprisingly good steak. We were mellow after the long day, but were glad we made it to see the town even if was so brief. We started to wonder where the fountain was from “Under the Tuscan Sun” and asked a shopkeeper about it. He told us that the fountain was a fake prop and “no existe” in a tone that sounded like it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked the question. Now we know, and so do potential visitors reading this, maybe we can save the poor guys breath in the future.

We drove back to Siena in the dark again, accompanied by our thoughts and Bocelli. The day, though enjoyable, had a feeling of being rushed as a result of trying to do so much and the late start. It was the only time on the trip we felt this way, but it in no way detracted from the beauty of southern Tuscany. Tomorrow we would head north and visit Lucca and, if time, Pisa.
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Old Mar 21st, 2006, 06:30 AM
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It sounds like you had an awesome time. I too loved Siena. I especially like your stories of interacting with the older locals and the background on your (phoenecian) waiter was very interesting. Looking to read more.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2006, 06:53 AM
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Day 9

Once again, we had a good nights sleep and awoke ready to see some more of what Italy had to offer. We cooked a quick breakfast in left in a hurry to avoid getting too late a start, and took off again to the north. We’d traveled this road a few times in the last few days and Poggibonsi will be stuck in my mind as we always seemed to be driving through it. The drive to Lucca was a little under two hours, if I remember correctly, and was uneventful. We drove the smaller roads to Empoli rather than taking the superstrada back to Florence and over to Pisa. A note: get the Michelin maps of the areas you might be driving – this forum always recommends them, they show a good level of detail and are extremely valuable, especially when you get a little off the beaten path.

The drive was not especially scenic to Pisa, but once we started to climb the hill to the north on our way to Lucca, the landscape began to change and was quite nice. We arrived in Lucca without incident and found a place to park just outside the city walls. We went into the TI office to get maps and schedules of events. I haven’t mentioned the TI offices yet, but most towns have them and they are great sources of maps, basic information about the town, and any events that may be occurring while your there. We made extensive use of them and I’d recommend anyone going for the first time, as we were, do the same.

Lucca was a very pretty town. The day was nice with a breeze blowing though the chestnut trees. We climbed up on the ramparts, as they call the wall around the old city, and walked about a quarter of the way around. It’s popular to bike around the city on top the wall, and we saw many people doing it. It looked pleasant, but we enjoyed our casual stroll, pausing periodically to look into the town or watch people as they went about their business. Eventually we came off the wall and went into the middle of the town to the main square named after Napoleon who had an infatuation with the town and gave it to his sister, at which time my sister pointed out that I’d not given her anything quite so noble before. True. We ate pizza again at an outdoor table on the edge of the square for lunch.

After eating, we set out to explore and came upon San Giovanni church. The church, I believe, was the first church in Lucca. It’s nice in its own right, but the entire floor has been excavated out to reveal ruins under it dating back to Roman baths from the 1st century AD. We found it interesting that the church was built over these, but someone there told us it was common to use previous structures for the foundations of new ones and that the entire city was built over the old Roman town. They said it was common to use previous structures for the foundations of the “new”. We saw other evidence of it when we exited the church and walked over to the site of the old Roman Amphitheater. It’s no longer there, but the buildings around it follow the old outline, leaving an open area in the middle where the old arena floor would have been.

From here, we walked out onto one of the main shopping drags. We had fun looking for gifts to bring back and Lucca turned out to be a pretty good place to do it. There were actually quite a few stores along the main shopping streets – some of them quite old. We browsed for quite some time, and then decided it was time to start back as evening was approaching and we thought it would be good to see the Leaning Tower in Pisa since we were so close.

We drove back into Pisa from the north, found the old city wall and followed it until a parking opportunity opened up. After we parked and battled our way past the obnoxious and pushy merchants selling designer knock-off bags and watches outside the walls, we were much taken aback walking into the Campo dei Miracoli or Field of Miracles. It was absolutely stunning. The Pisan version of the Romanesque architecture is more ornate and the Baptistery and the Cathedral together form quite a sight. I think the other thing that makes the scene so much nicer is that the lawns around the buildings are so large that you can actually get far enough back from the buildings to get some perspective on the architecture – something that can’t be accomplished in the middle of town like the case of the Florence Duomo. We arrived right as the sun was going down and the lighting was perfect for the panorama, I was very glad we decided to stop. We purchased tickets to get into the cathedral – very nice – and spent some time admiring the leaning tower, which is actually the bell tower. It’s in reality quite beautiful, and quite crooked. Standing underneath it you can really get a perspective of how much it is truly leaning. After roaming the large expanses of grass and seeing the sights, the sun started to go down. We made our way back out past the merchants (anyone else gat harassed so much here, or are we just gullible looking?) to our car and drove back to Siena.

It was a relaxing day, we saw some nice sights, and we arrived back early enough to enjoy our last night in our private “villa”. When we arrived, we were surprised to see that the staff had cleaned our place up from top to bottom – that was a welcome sight as we had left it a mess in the morning. We had thought that we were required to clean the apartments since they were longer term rentals. This allowed us to sit outside, visit, and relive our Tuscany experience before heading to bed anticipating the trip to the Cinque Terre in the morning.

Day 10

It was Saturday. We packed up again, thoroughly cleaned our apartment – not a big deal after the help yesterday, but we wanted to do our part – and checked out. We had to drop our car as we were taking the train to the coast. Before we left, bobthenavigator (I love that name, gives me such a mental image) had recommended we drop at La Spezia. That would have been very convenient and made sense as the train connections from Siena require several changes. However, being a Saturday, the rental offices were only open ˝ day and I wasn’t sure if we’d make it there, find the rental office and get it dropped before they shut down and they’re not open Sundays. So we elected to drop in Siena and our desk person was nice enough to arrange a taxi to meet us there and bring us back to the train station. That worked perfectly and soon we were on the train looking forward to seeing the Mediterranean for the first time.

We changed trains at Empoli and La Spezia where, upon leaving, I was looking out the window to the white covered mountains. Suddenly I realized that the white must be marble as I’d heard that there are many marble mines around that area. That was really something to see. Soon the train popped out of a tunnel and stopped on the tracks just short of what turned out to be Riamaggiore. The first view of the open sea on such a nice day was spectacular. In my minds eye (and the photo on my computer) I can still see the steep rocky shore, the blue water, feel and smell the cool salty breeze coming in off the water. These towns are truly amazing.

We got off in Vernazza – one of the few places we had not arranged rooms in advance. We asked around, and got set up in a nice place with a triple room on the top of the town above the train tracks. It was an easy walk into town and was very quiet. We absolutely loved Vernazza. After getting situated, we walked back into town, got some gelato to stroll with and took it all in. We made our way down to the harbor, people were swimming, boats were coming in and unloading tourists, and the whole place was bustling but not overcrowded. We ate lunch and then cooled it on the rocks of the breakwater – I may have even dozed a little. We browsed the town some and then went back to our room to look over the info we got and to plan the evening. As it turned out, we decided to walk up one of the trails above the town to the south for photo opportunities. We got up high enough where we could see the panorama and got a few pictures. It was at this point that realized the really great twilight picture would be taken from the north end of town where you could see the harbor. We raced down across and back up the other side as it was getting dark and I got set up to capture the moment. They turned out fabulous. While up there and catching our breath, I noticed a little “train” (I don’t know how else to describe it) that road on a single, spindly monorail along the side of the mountain. It looked as though they used it to go out and gather the grapes from the vines on the terraced hillsides. It didn’t look any too sturdy, and it was quite a drop, probably had to have some vino before bailing on.

We came back down, and popped out above the town again. We walked down into town thinking we’d like to eat. We went over to the restaurant right below the castle, I can’t remember the name. Nice people, good food, and an enjoyable dinner. We left, went back down to find a payphone to call back home and check in as we were in the habit of doing periodically in the late evening. While I was on the phone, I could see a guy talking to the ladies and waving his arms about. In Italy that didn’t seem unusual, so I didn’t think much about it. After I got off they said he was delusional and was telling them he was Jesus, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michealangelo – all these people and other things they didn’t understand. I guess while he was waving his hands he started to get more forceful and wild-eyed and they actually were starting to get a little nervous, but suddenly he just walked off. Strange. With that, we went to bed.

Day 11

In the morning I’ve learned that in order for the day to proceed well my wife needs breakfast and coffee – cappuccino in this case – in that order. It’s a small investment that pays huge dividends. There was a café right by our room called Il Pirata so we dropped in. This turned out to be fortunate as we met Gianluca and Massimo – Sicilian twins who own the place. They were outgoing, funny, and seemed to enjoy having tourists around and we ended up visiting with them for quite a while during breakfast. Gianluca is a pastry artist and quite good. They were adamant that breakfast wasn’t their only specialty and invited us back for dinner. Good marketers.

The day was cooler, a little breezy and looked like it might rain. We had planned to hike all the way to the south today and, after breakfast and purchasing the park passes, we set off. We climbed steadily out of Vernazza into the terraced hillside. The less than perfect day actually turned out to be great as it was cool for hiking, the off and on drizzle must have discouraged others and the trails were not busy at all. One thing though, if you do hike when it is raining, watch your step as it was a little slippery in places. Actually, they closed the trail between Corniglia and Manarola for some reason – maybe the weather – so we couldn’t even walk that section. We hopped the train and resumed our walk on the Via del Amore with its lively graffiti and plethora of places to pause and admire the sea. We spent some time in Riomaggiore browsing and then eating lunch before heading back to Vernazza. Back at home base we went down to the harbor again to watch the sea as the wind was picking up and it was exciting to see the surf. Up the hill we went and caught the train to Monterosso, as we’d not seen it yet, and spent the late afternoon and evening there browsing the shops.

Taking up Massimo on his invitation to buy dinner at their place, we returned to Il Pirata and had a good meal and great conversation. We talked about the rising surf and he said to be careful as the waves can be dangerous – unwatchful tourists had been swept off the docks in the past, he said.

By this time it was well after dark. Being careful, but still curious, we returned back down to the harbor. The surf was really up by this time and the wind was fairly strong – what an awesome experience. We made our way down the edge of the harbor on the walkway and to the side of the breakwater. The waves were coming in and smashing into the rocks, sending spray up and over and flooding the backside walkway. Every few waves, the set would build into a big one that would absolutely clear the breakwater and send spray deep into the harbor. It was exhilarating to watch and we made our way along the edge to the steps that ringed the stone tower along the dock edge. It lead to a little platform about 30 feet above the waters edge where we stood for over an hour watching the storm which rose to a crescendo where we actually received a little spray up where we were standing. “The wind-shaked surge, with high and monstrous mane..” came to mind. While standing there, a little light came on and a porthole opened out of the tower (which houses a restaurant) and a worker came out to smoke and watch the storm with us. He related that this occurs once in a while, that this was a decent one but a few years back there was a wave that engulfed the tower and flooded up the main street of Vernazza. It was hard for me to imagine, he said he had a picture and to follow him. We went back into the porthole, which I assumed led into the back area of the restaurant, but found myself wet and dripping among sophisticated diners who looked as surprised to see me as I them. Embarrassed, I followed my new found guide squeaking across the floor (the girls had the good sense to stay outside) to the pictures he had of “the big one.” They were truly amazing. After making my way back out as inconspicuously as possible, we stood back out on the platform for a while taking in the energy of the storm before returning to our room. Walking by Il Pirata, Gianluca asked how the storm was progressing; we gave an update and, convinced by the able marketers to get some dessert, stayed and visited until after closing. We retired feeling fortunate to have witnessed the area under these conditions and being able to contrast it with the absolutely glorious day before, and slightly melancholy that it was our last night in Italy. Could Provence ever hope to compare?
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Old Mar 22nd, 2006, 07:03 AM
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Am enjoying your report. A few years ago I also watched a storm roll in on the Cinque Terra. Quite a site. It took all the power out. It was also March. Looking forward to your provence installment.
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Old Mar 22nd, 2006, 07:09 AM
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By the way, thanks everybody for the comments on the report, it makes it fun to write when people are intersted!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2006, 07:53 AM
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Hi Snabes ~

Thank you greatly, I am enjoying your trip report VERY much, you have a wonderful flow in your writing.

<I believe Venice itself is the attraction and would recommend time to roam aimlessly.>

I couldn't agree more.

Thank you for bringing it all back, even though it has only been 7 weeks since our return, I miss Italy so much already.

I am up to Day 9, and going back to continue now, I just wanted to stop and say thank you. I am really loving this, what a good read.

Bravo Tiff
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Old Mar 22nd, 2006, 08:20 AM
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So happy for you after all your planning it was better than you expected.
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Old Mar 23rd, 2006, 07:27 AM
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Hi:
vision bars? Is that an Italian brand name for a protein bar or what?

I earlier asked about getting chased away from your table in Venice. Would really like to know as we will be going in May.

Thanks for your great report,
Vera
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Old Mar 23rd, 2006, 08:32 AM
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Great report Snabes, although on the downside it makes me miss Italy even more. Looking forward to Provence, where we are thinking of going next year.

I agree with you about the Siena Duomo. We were very impressed.
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