In an effort to be more timely with my blog posting and knowing full well this blog won’t make it out before Christmas if I wait (thanks PCAOB) I am actually starting whilst sitting in a cute cafe on our way out of Florence and deeper into Tuscany for wine. After 11 years I have returned under to Tuscan Sun this time accompanied by Bill. We have taken this week off of work – originally a light time of work for me which is laughable now considering what hell work has been after getting selected for inspection – to explore Tuscany, Cinque Terre and Venice. So ready or not here we go! First up…
We arrived in Florence late Friday and made our way to our Airbnb in the heart of Signoria Square near Palazzo Vecchio. What a prime location. What the Airbnb has in location though it lacked in amenities (tiny everything – shower, tv, hairdryer) and a non existent WiFi connection. But the price was right and who spends time on the room in Florence anyway? We went right to sleep to prepare for our first packed day.
The day started with cappuccinos and pastries before we met with our walking tour guide Patricia. She actually was our guide when I came to Florence with my family back in 2008. She was just as full of facts now as she was then. We started in Signoria Square where she told us the whole history of Florence starting with the Romans then moving to the Byzantines and the Medici’s. If you haven’t been to the square before, it’s essentially an open air museum. The highlights:
The fountain of Neptune
The Rape of the Sabine Women (aggressive title I know). Actually by a Dutch sculptor who studied the work of Michelangelo to achieve the spiral design. Probably the most impressive piece in the square in my opinion.
Copy of Michelangelo’s David
In the spot where the David first stood is a full size replica. David is shown waiting to fight Goliath, slingshot over his shoulder, anxiety in his eyes. I share details of him later but the positioning of the statue is interesting. He faces Rome, the Goliath of Italy.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa. Perseus acting as an allegory for the Medici ruler of the time telling the people “don’t challenge me”.
At the edge of the square is the Palazzo Vecchio which has always been the home of Florence’s government.
On the second level on the left hand side is a balcony which used to be used by the government leaders to address the crowds but it has not been used since post World War 2 as Hitler and Mussolini had both used the balcony for speeches during that time and Florence decided it would be in bad taste to use it again in this fashion.
Next we passed by the Uffizi (more on this later) down a few blocks to the Ponte Vecchio. This is the last original bridge in the city as the remainder were destroyed during WW2 in an attempt by Hitler to slow the advance of the allies. Thankfully there was one German who didn’t listen and decided to save the oldest of the bridges. Instead of blowing it up, he made it impassible by destroying buildings on the banks and blocking both entrances. Today it’s home to picturesque views and about 50 jewelry stores. Oh and hoard of tourists.
Next we went through some of the medieval￼ streets on our way to the centerpiece of Florence – the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or more commonly, the Duomo.
The dome itself was a marvel of the time as nothing before had been built so large. In fact, today it remains the third largest church dome after St Peters in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. More on the dome later when we hike to the top!
After the Duomo we ventured on to la Basilica di Santa Croce – the Westminster Abbey of Italy. Here we found the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and other famous Italians I only recently had heard of from thus tour so I won’t bore you with them. Also beautiful frescos line the walls increasing the visual splendor.
At this point we left Patricia and went in search of lunch. We found a pizza restaurant called Gustaria just off Signoria Square that fueled us for our next stop: the Uffizi museum.
The Uffizi is one of the premiere museums of the world, home to world class renaissance art by Michaelangelo, Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, etc etc. Rick Steves of course has an audio guide, unfortunately, they are rearranging the museum so it was a little out of date/order. He is in the process of updating it but currently only the old version is available. You can still use his guide but just be aware and use a map from the museum to guide you. Also book your ticket in advance to avoid the long long lines. Here were a few of my favorites we saw – and yes the Birth is Venus is amazing (in my opinion).
After so much culture we needed pick me up and gelato was the obvious answer. We went with a suggestion from Patricia – Perché no.
Next stop (yes we are still going, do your feet hurt yet because mine did?) was the Medici chapel. The chapel was designed by Michaelangelo and is quite impressive. There are five huge Medici tombs in a sea of granite and marble.
By this time, it was time to make our way across the river to the Piazzale Michaelangelo for sunset. We stocked up on wine and snacks to enjoy the view. It is a hike up to the top but well worth it. This is probably one of my favorite things we did but I am also a sucker for a good sunset. We also got to enjoy incredible views of the whole cityscape.
Now dinner time! We went back to a restaurant I went to with my family back in 2008 and loved – 4 leoni. The steak Florentine was the best steak we have had in Europe. Unfortunately for all of you, I enjoyed the food so much I don’t have any pictures to offer except this exceptional cheesecake and even that is half eaten… whoops.
The next day it was time to get up and go see Michaelangelo’s masterpiece – the David. David is so magnificent he gets his own museum. Make sure to book your tickets ahead of time so you don’t waste precious moments standing in line. We followed yet another tour with good old Rick Steves that took about 30 minutes. Along with David we saw Michaelangelo’s “Prisoners” which aren’t spectacularly finished but do let you see into the mind of this creative genius as he took a hunk of marble and released the sculpture inside. At the end you also can see a small exhibit with musical instruments including a feature on pianos and how they create sound (see the video below). Basically a small mallet hits the string creating sound which I didn’t know but I also never played instruments growing up so maybe this is a well known fact.
When we finished admiring the works of Michaelangelo it was off to a small museum dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci. The museum has a video – which we watched basically all of – on da Vinci’s life. Interestingly it seemed when he was younger he actually didn’t have much interest in painting but it paid the bills. He spent a large amount of time trying to become a military engineer. The notebook he kept detailing all his scientific thoughts from anatomy to flight to mechanical designs laid the groundwork for many modern inventions. Below is one of his drawings realized – an early version of a tank.
We had some time to kill before it was socially acceptable to eat lunch so we next visited the Duomo museum. Inside are the famed Paradise doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti. There was also an interesting short video on the building of the duomo and what a feat it was for the time. As this is the 500th anniversary of the David and this is the actual site where the David was sculpted, they also had a special exhibit showcasing another one of his works the Pietra.
Now it was an acceptable time for lunch so we ventured back towards the Uffizi to track down All’antico Vinalo, a restaurant that created sandwiches we had literally seen hundreds of people walking around with. We were successful and swam through the crowds of organized chaos triumphantly emerging with our lunch.
Our next adventure was sure to burn off at least some of those calories. It was time to hike to the top of the duomo. If you also want to see the best unobstructed views of Florence, make sure to book a ticket to climb the duomo ahead of time. They assign you a time to climb the 436 steps to the top between the two domes – the duomo is actually a dome within a dome fun fact. You also get to get up close to the churches painted fresco ceiling. Well worth it.
Even the 436 stair climb couldn’t slow us down as we headed to our next stop – the Pitti Palace, home to the Medici’s. The palace was less palace and more extension to the Uffizi. We saw works by Donatello, Rafael and more. I was sad the costume exhibit was closed. Ultimately if you’re visiting Florence I wouldn’t say this needs to go on your must do list but if you have time it was a nice two hours or so. They make you buy a separate ticket for the garden so we only saw that from the windows but have heard that is nice as well.
Our final meal in Florence was ravioli that was inexpensive and pretty darn tasty and I saved 20% booking with the fork. Winner. We of course had to top off the night with some more gelato, this time from Grom right by the duomo. It was just as delicious as I remembered from high school.
Tuscany – Montalcino, Montepulciano and Pienza
After 2 very full days in Florence it was time to relax a bit in Tuscany. We rented a car to get to Montepulciano which was where our Airbnb was. On the way we stopped in Montalcino at the Campana winery. Montalcino is the home to Brunello wine which is 100% Sangiovese grapes and aged in large Slavonian (Croatian) oak barrels for at least 2 and half years or so. We were a little behind schedule so I felt a little like they were rushing us but the wine was excellent and the views were beautiful.
Next we stopped at a cute little spot called Caseificio Cugusi where you got to pick a selection of cheeses and meats and they put it into a picnic basket for you to enjoy on the grounds. We absolutely loved sitting in the sun, eating delicious cheeses and looking out at Montepulciano. Highly recommend.
Our next stop was the Airbnb which was really nice. When they say the Tuscan hills by the way, they are not kidding. We hiked up towards the top of the hill to just make our way back down to a small church. I wish we had brought a blanket to spread out on the soft grass and enjoy the sun but we made do with what we had. When we were about to walk up Bill says “I messed up” because right there was the restaurant we were scheduled to eat at in 3 hours time. More hills for us! It was definitely worth the trip back up though because the sunset was incredible. We found a place that offered a great view and wine and settled out to absorb all the colors.
Down hill again we made it to La Grotta for dinner. And what a dinner it was! We split two incredible pasta dishes and an excellent rack of lamb. All that plus wine and dessert for just at €100. What a steal! This was our favorite meal of the trip.
Next day was a day dedicated to wine. Yay. Bill signed us up for a tour that stopped in the wineries and the city of Pienza. First was Castello Tricerchi which was probably our favorite on both wine and ambiance. It is a winery near Montalcino in the family castle which dates from the 1400s. When we first arrived everything was covered in fog but when our cleared there were beautiful views.
The next stop was Solaria which was pretty then we walked around Pienza for a bit and had a snack before lunch and the final winery.
Our final stop was Ercolani which was actually right next to our Airbnb in Montepulciano. We had a nice “light lunch” of meats cheeses and breads and were treated to wine from a glass as big as our heads.
Our last dinner in Montepulciano was at l’altro Cantuccio which was a whole 100 feet from our Airbnb – quite appealing. The food was very good though not quite as good as the night before.
Tuscany – Siena
If you find yourself in Tuscany, Siena is well worth a day trip. We left Montepulciano at around 8:30 to arrive for our 10:30 walking tour. We met our guide at the Basilica di San Domenico – home of two relics (thumb and skull) of St Catherine. She is the saint of Siena and is considered to be the one that brought the Pope back to Rome from France.
At this point we also talked about the city of Siena itself. It is comprised of 17 neighborhoods each with their own flag with an animal. Consider a neighborhood as more of a social club than where you may actually currently live. To be an official member of neighborhood, you have to be baptized with the fountain of your neighborhood and once you are a member you are a member for life.
We walked around a bit more before arriving at the Piazza di Campo which is the site of the famous horse races of Siena. There are 2 races each year, one July 2 and one August 16. There are 10 horses in the race each from a different neighborhood. This year, the August race was won by the rhinoceros neighborhood and the horse won without a racer. There are many many more facts I can list but I won’t for your sake as this blog is already quite lengthy. If you’re interested send me a note and I can elaborate. For now pictures of the square!
From there we went to the masterpiece of the city – Siena’s duomo. The church was actually supposed to be much larger but the construction was started and then at the same time the Black Plague swept across Europe. So needless to say that lofty dream was never realized.
The facade is a mix of gothic and Romanesque.
The real star however is the inside. From the stripped columns to the marble mosaic floors to the painted ceilings to the statues by Donatello and Bernini and Michaelangelo to the beautiful marble pulpit and the library dedicated to Pope Pius II, there is so much to see! This church isn’t highlighted is often overshadowed by the duomo of Florence but what that duomo in Florence has in size, Siena has in beauty in the inside. We had our guide inside but we also supplemented her information with the free a Rick Steves walking tour for Siena which has specific tracks dedicated to the church.
Siena was beautiful but after this quick stop out was time to make our way to…
Ok almost to the end. Our second to last stop was Cinque Terre, a series of 5 cities on the sea. We stayed in the city that is the second farthest south – Manarola. We arrived to learn the following day had an orange alert due to the rain (ie flooding risk) which basically meant the whole city would essentially be shut down the following day. So our first stop was actually the grocery store for breakfast supplies, snacks and of course more wine. With that settled we were off to dinner at a place at the top of the hill called Billy’s (appropriate). We had some pretty lovely (and large) lobster pasta then retired home to enter into a food coma.
The next day we braved the rain and headed to Levanto to try our hands at pesto making. Pesto is famous in the region because Genoa right to the north has lots of yummy basil. You’ll be glad to know Bill and I received our pesto licenses and also achieved in making some delicious snacks.
The pesto class was in a store that had all these homemade Italian products so we stocked up on some homemade pasta to go with our pesto for dinner and of course some sweets – amaretti cookies to be exact.
With the weather being crap, clearly the best afternoon activity was to post up at a winery. We made our way up yet another hill to Buranco winery in Monterosso al mare (the most northern city of Cinque Terre). I really enjoyed our afternoon here – good wine, snacks and scenery – and would highly recommend to anyone visiting the area rain or shine.
Once we got back to Manarola the weather had cleared up a bit and we were able to take a short path for some views of Manarola. Note in the picture directly below our Airbnb is the pink building, top floor right by the little White House – literally the highest point.
These pictures should wet your appetite for the views to come from our hikes the next day. First was the sunrise.
Then we took the train to Monterosso so we could hike back to Manarola. First hike up – Monterosso to Vernazza. For those unfamiliar with hiking Cinque Terre, for the most part there is a shorter hike between each of the two cities (hour or so) and a longer hike (2+ hours). There are a couple of the shorter routes that are closed from mudslides so only the long hike is open. The short hikes you have to buy a card to access which is €7.50. When we got to the trail head it was very hastily taped off from the previous day. We assumed no one had removed the tape after yesterday’s storm so we went on. The tail was a bit muddy but totally fine and the views were lovely. This was probably my favorite of the hikes we did.
We arrived in Vernazza and had a coffee before attempting to begin hike 2 to Corniglia. We went all the way to the trailhead and found the path manned by an employee who told us the path would open in “1-2 hours” a very precise and reliable Italian approximation of time. Thankfully there was a restaurant at the top of the hill we already climbed so we settled in for some lunch to wait for the path to open. We were served some excellent food and wonderful views.
By one o’clock we checked back with Mr. Trailhead supervisor and he again told us “1-2 hours”. When I pressed for a more precise time he shrugged and just told us if we wanted to, we could just go ahead at our own risk. So off we went!
Upon arriving in Corniglia we just proceeded to our next hike back to Manarola as this would be the longest hike of the day (the short hike between these two cities is closed). Fair warning if you want to try out this hike, it literally starts with about 45 straight minutes of stairs. So. Many. Stairs. Then the last 30 minutes is stairs straight back down. In general you should befriend a stair master before your trip if you wanna properly train for Cinque Terre hiking.
All in all, we worked up an appetite from our long hiking day…
To fuel ourselves we went up one more hill in Manarola to Nessun Dorma for a proper sunset. The food was pretty amazing too.
The next morning it was time to head to…
But first – one the way we rolled through…
Honestly don’t go out of your way to visit. We just happened to be going through on the train and stopped for our tower pic then peaced.
So back to…
We arrived and didn’t really do much of note the first night, just dinner and wine. We splurged for a hotel because we wanted to have an easy luggage storage location for Sunday. Also hotel points. The next day (our last, you’ve almost made it to the end) was busy busy. We started on the public boat – think public bus but along the Grand Canale – and listened to Rick Steves (we had missed him) guide us down to St Marks Square.
Arriving is St Marks there were so many people. Like so many more than expected. We soon realized why. Today was apparently the day of the Venice marathon and the course goes through St. Marks.
In our attempt to wait it out (ultimately unsuccessful) we started our visit with a trip to the Doge’s palace. The Doge of Venice was the elected leader of the city back in the day. The palace was pretty and filled with art by Titian and Paolo Veronese. You also get to cross the Bridge of Sighs to the prison.
By the time we finished with the Doge it was time for pizza. We then returned to St Marks and caught up with Rick again for his tour of the square itself.
Rick then also accompanied us inside St Marks Cathedral (fun fact you can also call it a Basilica or a church – it’s all 3!). St Mark was one of the writers of the gospel and at one point he docked in Venice where he dreamt an Angel spoke to him saying “Peace to you Mark, me evangelist” and promised him rest after his death. He died being dragging through the streets of Alexandria and his body was eventually smuggled out of Egypt by Venetian merchants who returned it to St Marks in Venice. If you pay €2 to enter the Pala d’Oro you can see his tomb under the alert and the golden altarpiece detailing his life in elaborate fashion. Well worth the small fee.
The church itself is a series of intricate gold mosaics that are beautiful but especially beautiful lit up. It is only lit up for mass and certain times of the day so check online so you can see it in full glory. We unfortunately were not able to see it lit up but the pictures are lovely none the less.
Before you exit head upstairs to the museum (another extra charge) so you can see the deck overlooking the square and the large bronze horses.
And that’s it. You’ve made it through our Italy trip. Thanks for joining us and hope you get to experience this beautiful area of Italy for yourself. Until the next adventure!