My husband and I recently celebrated our 34th anniversary with a trip through the wine region of Italy and what an amazing vacation it was!!!
We began our travels in Florence and ended in Venice, but that certainly doesn’t even begin to describe how amazing these regions are. As some of you may know, I prefer to fly long haul flights in comfort, so we had confirmed Premium or Plus seats whenever possible. (I like to blame it on my husband who is 6 feet tall and has very long legs!) The route to Europe took us from Penticton to Vancouver – Vancouver to Frankfurt – Frankfurt to Florence. It’s a long 10 hour flight from Vancouver to Frankfurt – so those premium reclining seats were very much appreciated!
I can’t say we arrived in Florence “refreshed”, but we certainly arrived excited. After picking up our bags our private driver was waiting holding our “Parrott” sign, a smile on his face and full of amazing little tidbits as we made our way to our home away from home for 5 nights – the Hotel Berchielli.
This hotel has an amazing location right on the Arno River. We had a beautiful view of the Ponte Vecchio and the Ponte Santa Trinita. Every night the colors of the sunset lit the sky just for us! Close to amazing restaurants and nightlife and sightseeing venues, we couldn’t have asked for a better location. I loved the cute little “balcony sitting lounge”, our breakfasts were served in a bright, gold coloured dining room and the very comfortable king bed (unusual in Europe) was very welcome after long days of sightseeing! We were very excited to discover a beautiful 11th century Catholic church right outside our front door! We were fortunate to see the arrival a new bride as her family and friends waited inside for her!
Those who have confirmed travel with me before know that I am a true believer in guided walking tours! They are an excellent way to get the lay of the land, gather valuable little known facts about the destination you are visiting and prepare you for what you may want to go back to experience on your own. Our Best of Florence Highlights Tour by City Wonders was no exception!
One of the most wonderful things about guided tours is Skip the Line Access and personalized descriptions of what you are experiencing. We were very fortunate to have an art enthusiast as our guide, which really enhanced our visit to museums and palaces and even hidden gems along our walk through the streets of Florence. Inside the Accademia Gallery, Michelangelo’s “David” commands your attention. It was very interesting to listen to our guide as he prepared us to truly experience the masterful artfulness of the carving by explaining previous works such as Michelangelo’s unfinished “Slaves” also located in the Gallery. They appear to be clawing themselves out of the marble.
A visit to Florence must include a visit to the Florence cathedral (Il Duomo). Its dome is stunning and inside, its elaborate marble floors, frescoes and artwork will leave you speechless! Be prepared for very long lines – even with the Skip the Line access! As a matter of fact, the line was so long, that it would have been a 2 hour wait – our group opted to leave the line and go back to the Duomo on our own.
Our walk took us through neighbourhood streets, along beautiful sculptures and amazing artwork. Our stop at the Piazza della Signoria and Orsanmichele Church had me snapping pictures and stopping in awe. The Uffizi Courtyard is also a must visit.
It’s VERY important to remember when visiting to be respectful as you enter churches. Shoulders need to be covered and shorts can be worn, but they at least need to come to your knees. You may also run into closures, as the churches are active. (It’s quite something going to Mass in Italian and not understanding a single word!!!)
Still using Florence as our home base, on our second day we had a private transfer to the Verrazzano Winery where we joined the rest of our small group for a tour, wine tasting (of course!) and lunch. What a day! The Chianti region is just a beautiful as you think it is! And it doesn’t take long to leave the busyness of the city of Florence behind you for you to enjoy the scenery of the rolling hills, vineyards, rivers and streams (oh – and animals crossing the road in front of you!) It’s an excellent tour. A local guide explains the history of the winery, stops along the way to allow for pictures, takes you down into the very old cellars and then, at lunch, explains the courses presented! I highly recommend a day visit here.
On day three, we had an extended day visit to Sienna and San Gimignano. It was quite the adventure finding our way to the departure area for our tour, even though we had excellent instructions to follow. Fortunately, we were not the only ones who seemed a little displaced! It was a comfortable bus ride for sure, but as the day went on, the heat went up and it was very warm walking through Sienna and San Gimignano. Be prepared for that if you go on walking tours! Bring along a water bottle. This excursion moved way to quickly and we came to the conclusion that it’s better to break this into a two day trip.
Sienna surprised me. It’s wider streets and open air feeling didn’t leave me breathless as many European towns do. Sienna is the capital city of the region, but it’s historic center is an UNESCO site and has a different kind of charm. It’s located among the hills of Tuscany and is famous for it’s Palio – horse race that takes place in the Piazza del Campo twice a year. Actually, going through the museum there is a must. It really gives one a great breakdown of the turbulent history of the city and the region. The 12th century Sienna cathedral has the most amazing dome that gives you the appearance that you are looking straight into the heavens. Famous for its cuisine, art and museum, it’s a fantastic day visit.
San Gimignano is beautiful. It has the same charm as many of the walled cities of Europe do, but at the same time seems welcoming. Famous for its Towers, saffron, ham and white wine, I loved it here. What makes the walled city and it’s towers different than other UNESCO walled cities with their towers? Well, these towers were and are residences! It’s wide (and some narrow) stoned streets take you on a journey around corners, up and down hills, in and out of small squares. The church here is adorned with 13 century art. The stairs to the church are so worn, that if wet, I bet you can slide down!
May 26th – our anniversary and our free day. We considered several options – extended day trips, shopping, chilling out…but we ended up crossing the Ponte Vecchio and enjoying a visit to the Pitti Palace. It was way too hot to walk through the amazing garden that stretch out from the palace, and we opted to stay inside and do a self-guided tour. This is also a must see – the extravagance of each room plays out in front of you as you stroll through the halls. There are English written guides in each room that do a great job of explaining what you are seeing. We even got a little “displaced” and found the grand entrance staircase that no one uses anymore – and it was VERY grand indeed! My least favourite part of the palace was the Fashion Wing. I was hoping for medieval fashion but that was not the case.
On May 27th we transferred by rail from Florence to Monterosso (Cinque Terre) via Pisa. And, that was an experience! It was my first time on the European rails. First thing to know is travel light! If you are traveling in a regular coach, there is no where to store your luggage. We traveled with two carry on pieces, so it was relatively easy for us to put them between our legs. However, we did see people trying to bring on board large and heavy suitcases and then try to manipulate them to keep the aisles free. Secondly, bring a snack! Thirdly – be on time!!!!! They will NOT wait for anyone to arrive. If you are not there, the train will depart without you. Finally, always have your tickets ready to show the conductors! They absolutely ask for them.
Upon arriving into Pisa for our 12 minute transfer, we thought we were well prepared after reading our instructions for my tour supplier…exit train, turn right, locate screen that will tell you which track to take, go down staircase to track and you’re off! Seems simple enough, doesn’t it??? What we weren’t prepared for was the 500 other passengers all doing the same thing – and there was only 1 screen operating at the top of the stairs – and the staircase is old and narrow! I must admit, definitely felt stressed out in Pisa. (and no, we didn’t stop there and see the Leaning Tower – we’ll save that for another trip to Italy!) During the train to Monterosso I found myself frequently looking at Maps to see where we were! En route, we got small glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea – something I was very much looking forward to.
It was a short walk to our 2-night stay hotel, the Locanda il Maestrale Bed and Breakfast. Now, talk about charm! A split level suite – bedroom in the loft, washroom and sitting area with plenty of storage and a mini fridge on the lower level. Completely air conditioned (whew!) and a wonderful included breakfast. It had an amazing breakfast balcony that overlooked one of the main streets in Monterosso. Excellent for relaxing with a glass of wine!
First things, first – it was hot and sunny – so bathing suit on and off to the beach! Very few of the villages of Cinque Terre have sand beaches and Monterosso is one of them. It took all but a few minutes before I was floating in the Mediterranean! The next day was cloudy and threatening rain, so we opted to take the ferry to visit the other villages of Cinque Terre. Visit them, you must! The ferry is more expensive but you get the amazing vista from the sea. The trains travel every 10 minutes, so it’s an inexpensive and quick way to access the villages. They all seem to “look the same”, as I heard so many tourists say, but each village has it’s own unique presence, charm and specialties.
Take your time exploring them, and the little nuances will surprise you! I would have liked to have one more day there to go back to the beach (can you tell I’m a water baby!), but we were destined to head off to our final stop – Venice (via Milan) once again by rail.
We learned quickly that it’s not uncommon for the trains to run late. We thought we had a comfortable 20 minute transfer time in Venice. Well, late trains take away that comfort zone and it was soon replaced with “now what?” Again, I was keeping in touch with my tour operator and they instructed us what to do when we arrived VERY late in Milan. We were able to change our train and arrived in Venice safe and sound. I still giggle when I think that we were treating ourselves to a food and wine tour through Italy and we ate a very quick meal at Burger King in the Milan train station!
I was very much looking forward to our stay in Venice and it did not disappoint me at all! There is something magical there. I liken it to being painted into a picture. We opted to take the water ferry from the train station to our hotel for our three-night stay at the Hotel Bisanzio. This modern hotel has a fantastic location very close to St Mark’s Square and amazing service (and candies at the front counter to snack on!) It too, came with a simple, but delicious breakfast and the staff were very friendly offering tidbits of advice!
The attendants at the ferry ticket counters, although seeming to be hurried, are very helpful. Once we purchased our ticket and “boarded” our ferry, the adventure began. The ferry make many stops along the way and really is “the way” to get around. The Grand Canal is full of boats, ships, gondolas and excited tourists and locals going about their daily business. Each corner unfolds another amazing vista and view of the beautifully intricate buildings and churches. I was completely mesmerized! We arrived in Venice later in the night due to the trains, so our first night was “find dinner” and walk about. This time, dinner was not a hamburger!!! Truly, the town comes alive after 9:00 pm! The temperatures become more moderate and the restaurants and souvenir sellers are all out in force.
We started the next day with our guided walking tour of the ‘streets’ of Venice and of St Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Place. Once again, I had confirmed with City Wonders and we were very fortunate to have an Art Major with us as our guide. It’s truly wonderful to experience art with their expertise.
Our walk took us through some of the back streets into small little squares where the locals sat and watched us as we walked by. What peaked my interest was the explanation as to why all the bridges are there. Each bridge marks a different district. Once, the streets we were walking on (some narrow, some wider), were all canals and the city is built on wooden pilings…amazing!
St Mark’s Basilica is truly something wonderful to behold. The exterior draws you in and seems to surround you. Its artwork is intricate. From a distance you come to appreciate the piece as a whole, but up close, you become one with it. Each one created by tiles too numerous to number! Small, tiny pieces of tile all laid in perfect symmetry to unfold an incredible piece of art. Apparently, we were very fortunate during our tour: the church had all the lights on, so the gold shone brilliantly, releasing the beauty of the art work. Make sure you go with a tour, the lines to get in are extraordinary! (sorry, no photos allowed inside)
The following day was another free day, so it was our goal to just go out and explore and to visit as many churches as we could. We ended up in the evening again at St Mark’s Square. I love it there. It has a vibrant atmosphere. Two of the more upscale restaurants offer concerts that everyone can enjoy. You can climb up the tower, you can find gelato, you can shop or you can just enjoy the square for what it is – a gathering place. Be watchful and don’t miss – twice a day at high tide the square floods. How high the tide determines how much of the square goes under water. People were gathering (including us) with cameras set up to witness the phenomenon. And the locals, well, they just go about the day thinking nothing of it.
Here’s a tidbit of advice – when in Venice – don’t leave your hotel without a very good map or a good grasp of walking with Google Maps! The streets are twisted and seem to go here and there with no rhyme or reason.
Yes, we did go for the obligatory gondola ride – we had a private one and enjoyed our champagne during the 30 minute journey. There are many gondola companies in Venice, each one offering their own take on a ride on the Grand Canal, so careful when booking this one! I would have liked it to be just a little longer – 45 minutes would have been great, but they are all 30 minutes long. We had a gondolier that pointed out the sites along the way, and I consider that an added bonus. It’s tradition to kiss as you pass under bridges – I’ll leave that one alone!
There’s not too much to see in Venice so 2-3 days is plenty here – but there is more to see for day trips and I would have like a couple of more days to explore those options.
On our last full day in Venice, we decided to go on a day boat tour to the islands of Murano and Burano. I was particularly looking forward to Murano as I love glass art. Traveling by boat with a guide and the captain through the canals is in itself an adventure. We learned about how the canals are streets and boaters must follow the rules of the ‘road’ just as we do on our streets. On our way back we saw a couple that looked like they were walking on water back to their boat. We learned that outside the official canals lie pipes, etc under the water and that it’s not uncommon to see people stranded because they thought they could take a short cut!
Murano is world famous for it’s glass artwork. The trip there is very scripted and the highly sought after glass art is very expensive although extremely beautiful. “If I had a million dollars” – I most certainly would have come home with some amazing pieces that looked like real aquariums! Instead, I did come home with two more modest pieces – a white rose and a red rose.
We were treated to a glass blowing demonstration and given free time to shop in the “store”. If you are not a shopper, there was time to go into town and explore there. The glass blowing demonstration was very “cool”.
Burano known for its intricate lace work was much more relaxed. It’s colourful buildings and lively streets are a joy to walk by and through. We definitely found time for a gelato in our free time there. So, why the colourful facades? It originally was so that when fishermen came home after an extended time at sea they could more easily identify their own house! I really loved it here and to my surprise, found the lace shops inviting and filled with original hand crafted pieces. I managed to spend some money here to on a beautiful hand loomed table cloth (and a surprise Christmas gift!)
Last day – time to head home! There are several ways to get from the island of Venice to the airport. You can take the ferry, but that can take a couple of hours, you can take the ferry and then bus (or taxi), about 1 hour, you can bus or take a taxi all the way, about 1/2 hour or you can take a private water taxi – about 1/2 hour. We opted for the private water taxi. It took us directly from our hotel (there was a water stop outside the side door of the hotel) to the main doors of the airport (there is a water dock for boats to pull in and out of ). It was the most relaxing trip I’ve ever taken to an airport! Venice airport is not well signed and we did get turned around a bit. It’s built on several levels and although there is only on arrivals level, there are two departure levels, so watch for that!
So, how was my food and wine tour through Italy. Well, I ate amazing local delicacies, drank some very delicious wine, had pasta that melted in my mouth, pizza that delighted my pallet and loved every minute of it. We certainly ate at some very fine restaurants, but we also ate at mom and pop local restaurants – all delicious! Wine is served at every meal and is almost cheaper than water. Be prepared to pay for your water! Here, we sit down and we are immediately poured a full glass of water, whether we want it or not. If not, it just gets poured out. There, that is not the case. You will pay for your bottle of water – you can have still or sparkling, it is the same price – but you will pay for it. So, if you want water – bring a water bottle and fill it before you head out – or just buy a bottle, sit down for a while, enjoy the food and scenery or people watch.
Sometimes, it’s just wonderful to be European, even if it’s only for a short time while on vacation.
Is Italy in YOUR Wishbook? Get in touch and I’ll get you on your way! Thanks for coming along with me! It’s a beautiful world and Italy is definitely a part of that!