One day in Tuscany
This is the second last instalment of our 25 days – three days in Florence – well, three nights sleeping in Florence and two days out of it on day trips but I digress.
VENICE TO FLORENCE – on the fast train.
I love these fast trains. Australia doesn’t have them – in fact it takes me longer to get to Sydney on the train from my little outpost three hours south than it takes to fly across the country to Perth. I am serious. So, stowing our carry-ons, we happily settled in for the trip – Sam, me and Amy, my sister, knowing that the countryside would flash by and pretty soon we’d be standing in front of the Duomo. We had one of those four-seat combos facing each other with a table in the middle. Sam and Amy got the UNO cards out while I flipped through Vogue magazine and dreamed of dating one of those Dolce & Gabanna models. When I looked up from the magazine, one of them was standing in front of me. No I haven’t been partaking of morning Proseccos – there he was – in all his stunning Italian beauty, politely asking my son to move his ipad off the seat. Roberto introduced himself, chatted happily to us and then asked to play UNO. Nothing like a game of cards, that was invented in Italy, to pass the time. Roberto was a student and on his way to Bologna – in fact he almost missed the stop, he was so into the card game and asking us questions about Australia. He also asked for my phone number. This is not the first time this has happened and whilst it’s very flattering it’s also kind of awkward when I subtract their likely age from mine and end up with a figure that’s in the high teens or low twenties. As was the case then. Bye Roberto, have a nice life.
ARRIVING IN FLORENCE
Anyway, we were in Florence before we knew it and exiting Santa Maria Novella, I announced to our little group that ‘I knew the way to the hotel’ and it was ‘five minutes that way’ (pointing left). Amy disagreed and said we should be walking to the right of the McDonalds across the street. I pulled out my trusty Lonely Planet map, torn from my fat guide book and declared that I was SURE I was right. Forty five minutes later, Amy was right, and we found the hotel after walking on those narrow, tiny sidewalks in completely the wrong direction. Note to self: the Lonely Planet maps are somewhat lacking detail.
Eeek!!! There it is! First glimpse of the Duomo
We stayed in the Hotel Galileo- no doubt the real Galileo would be alarmed to find his name on this dive which also had the most disgusting brown sludge called ‘coffee’ and croissants they re-cycled daily simply by adding extra icing sugar. The shower was like a car wash and even the triple glazing on the windows couldn’t shut out the noise which consisted of drunk Irish guys rolling up and down the street singing football songs.
Via Nazionale - our hotel was on this street. This photo is taken from our hotel room. Hmmm....doesn't look that great but the location was excellent - only about 7 minutes to Santa Maria Novella (if you walk the RIGHT way!)
Anyway, sightseeing beckoned, so we chucked our bags in the room and went out to meet Amy – who was now in charge of the map. We passed the leather markets and that amazing food market where you get those famous tripe sandwiches but couldn’t stop as we had a 3.30pm timeslot at the Uffizi. As it turned out, our timeslot didn’t matter as there was hardly a line for the ticket pickup and no one checked our timed entry at the museum door, so we were in half an hour early.
The leather markets
This place just never fails to impress!
The corridor of the Uffizi - there was a slight break in the traffic as everyone was inside the Botticelli room
This beautiful view greets at the end of the corridor in the picture above. The Arno and the famous Ponte Vecchio
Well, having last seen the Uffizi in 1986, I felt like I’d hopped in the Tardis. Same stuffy rooms, same monstrous crowds, same gorgeous view up the Arno, same snappy security staff. The gallery is undergoing renovation (this was early October 2013) and you needed a map, compass and Bear Grylls to find the Caravaggios which were practically in Siena but worth the trekking and doubling back. Botticelli’s ‘Spring’ is always gorgeous – but the replica in our hotel room was easier to see and not hemmed in by tour groups with their little gizmos glued to their ears. By the time we busted out of the Uffizi two hours later, I was well and truly stuffed. Amy had heard of a great place to stop for a drink so we turned a few corners and found All Antico Vinaio.
Sam and Amy enjoying the atmosphere of All Antico Vinaio - just before Mrs Zombie and her posse went by
This place was just what the Renaissance overloaded soul needed. I found out later it’s famous for its sandwiches but we were happy to just plonk 2 euro on the counter and fill a glass with their superb house red wine. They have little wooden benches on the street, so take your glass outside and watch the world pass by. The world that passed by included a very rowdy hen’s party with the bride dressed as a corpse, surrounded by her zombie overlords. I needed a second drink after that.
We walked slowly back to the hotel, stopped to marvel at the Duomo, along with thirty thousand others including Japanese honeymooners (ten thousand of them) who love to stop and do crazy photo poses in high traffic areas, so everyone politely waits for hubby (it’s always hubby) to take 25 shots of the missus doing peace signs. We had dinner out at a place called Trattoria Nerrone and it was great except I got hit by a car – nothing serious – but those streets are narrow, the cars are almost silent and moral is, don’t step off the tiny sidewalk – ever!
DAY TWO – Day trip to San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Siena with Manuele from Just in Tuscany tours.
(Itinerary courtesy of my gamer son, Sam and PS3’s Assassin’s Creed 2 which is set in these towns)
I flatly refuse to drive in Italy. I have a thing about ‘the other side of the road’ and would rather spend my time ogling scenery than ending up nose first in a ditch. Amy had been joined by a friend so we all pooled our cash and splashed 420 euro for this day trip – split four ways it was reasonable and included lunch at a winery. It also included the gorgeous Manuele who has one of those irresistible personalities really well suited to driving tourists around. He was interested in our agenda and when I told him it was all designed around a video game, he knew exactly which game and then spent half the trip talking about the game with Sam.
Sam and I with San Gimignano behind - Tuscany is picture perfect.
The three towns were as perfect as you can imagine they would be. We went to SAN GIMIGNANO first and as is Sam’s way, if there’s a bell tower – he wants to climb it (see my Venice trip reports). However, unlike Venice, this tower had no elevator and lots of stairs with the final bit being an almost vertical ladder. View from the top was worth the vertigo. San Gimignano also won the award for the trip’s best gelato, bought from the little store in the piazza as you head downhill toward the city gate – just look for all the people clustered around the store and you’ll find it.
The view from the top of the bell tower
The bell tower
The charming streets of San Gimignano
MONTERIGGIONI was the size of a 20 cent coin and again, we went up the city walls and ran around the ramparts. This cost 5 euro but got us access to both sides of the city wall. When crossing the small piazza, there was a marching band in uniform playing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’. I had to stop and watch – in sheer disbelief.
The city gate of Monteriggioni
The ramparts of Monteriggioni
The marching band - see! I wasn't making it up!
SIENA was a surprise. I didn’t know the ‘new city’ butts right up against the old city walls. Manuele was permitted to drive inside but first he took us to see St. Catherine’s head. Yes. Her Head. The cathedral in which her head was located was beautiful and we had it to ourselves. She is the patron saint of Siena and her home is just around the corner from the cathedral. We then went to the Duomo but first had to buy a ticket across the square and it was expensive – about 16 euro for the two of us. It was half an hour before closing and I was nearly ready to call it quits as all I wanted was a coffee and a seat in a piazza but Sam insisted on seeing this cathedral.
Thank you my son, you have my ample gratitude – because the covers were off the floor!!!! What luck – couldn’t believe it – I had no idea those floor engravings were so beautiful and there were so many of them. You’re allowed to take photos inside so my fatigue disappeared and we spent ages in here. Worth every bit of that 16 euro.
Siena's Duomo from the inside
And those incredible floors
So from the Duomo we walked down to Piazza del Campo where the palio is run. I finally got my coffee and Sam had another gelato. We stretched out on the sloping surface of the piazza, surrounded by other families and seriously felt like dozing off. Instead, it started to rain so we had to haul ourselves up and head for the perimeter. While I was looking at a souvenir stand, the young guy looking after it begged me to take over for 10 minutes while he went to the bathroom. Sure! So, I got to sell a couple of souvenirs to other tourists and made him some money – and that was pretty much the end of the day.
Piazza del Campo, Siena
WHERE WE HAD LUNCH – We went to a farmhouse called Tenuta Casanova. They make wine, they have truffle dogs and hunt truffles, they hunt boar in season…they even have bees. This place was magic. I can’t rave about it enough. The food – and they just kept bringing it out – was just how you imagine fresh Tuscan produce would taste. The best part was the passion of the owners – they clearly love their property and their pride shows in their cooking and their products. I bought a bottle of their truffle oil which I dispense like holy water. We had lunch here between San Gimignano and Monteriggioni and I think the copious tasting of their very good wine probably contributed to my Siena fatigue. If you only have one day in Tuscany – and we pretty much did – then this farmhouse would be a must.
PART TWO – TO BE CONTINUED….Pisa and Lucca on the train from Florence and an 8.30am run up the stairs of the Duomo.