Monday 6/25 Arriving in Tuscany - We landed in Florence and were met by Vanessa and Paul. Arrival was a bit troublesome since my checked bag didn't appear and we had to wait in a long, slow line to submit a claim. (The bag was delivered to us a few days later.) Paul drove us to our shared villa in the Tuscany countryside, near the town of Montecarlo, Lucca.
It was beautiful country, with rolling hills, olive trees and vineyards, and small clusters of red-tiled houses. The villa was a nice surprise. Ours was a quite spacious apartment, of a total of four apartments in the building.
Vanessa and Paul had arrived the day before and were already well settled in. We also settled in and had a swim in the pool. We rarely saw anyone of the other apartments, and it seemed like we had the whole place to ourselves.
Tuesday 6/26 Day trip to hill town - We drove to Montecatini Alto, a little town perched on top of a hill. Though it was a short distance from our villa, it was very difficult to navigate because the roads are twisty, complex, and not clearly marked. We had read that we needed to drive to Montecatini Terme, the larger town at lower elevation, then take the funicular to the higher town. But to our surprise our drive took us right up to our destination.
We spent quite a bit of time in a nice ceramics shop where Martha examined each item, taking it down from the shelf to find the price sticker. Paul and I dubbed her Senora Tocca Tutti. Martha did buy several ceramic items including a large, heavy platter.
I had been attracted to Montecatini Alto because of the funicular. It turns out there are many funiculars in Italy and we would see several more on our travels.
Wednesday 6/27 Day trip to Cinque Terre - We drove to Cinque Terre, a series of five scenic towns perched on the cliffs of the Ligurian Coast. We parked at the first town then walked, eventually getting as far as the third town before returning to the first by train. It was partly cloudy, but very pleasant for walking. We were glad we had avoided the weekend since although busy with tourists it was not crowded.
Thursday 6/28 Day trip to Florence - The streets were very busy, very poorly marked, and again very difficult to navigate. Eventually we parked (30 Euros) in town on a street next to the Arno river. It was difficult to navigate on foot also. Vanessa and Martha had been to Florence before, so our desire to see museums was reduced to Paul's and my wish to see Michelangelo's David. So we all stood in line for about 2 1/2 hours. We took turns leaving the line to find food and WCs. The David statue was quite beautiful and worth the effort, but we had no desire to stand in any other museum lines. We walked to the Ponte Veccio, took pictures, bought souvenirs, and enjoyed the outdoor sights of Florence. It's and interesting city and certainly too much to see in one day.
Back at the villa Paul and I cooked dinner. It came out quite well despite the fact we were all tired.
Friday 6/29 Quiet day - We didn't rise until about noon. We drove to Montecarlo, our nearby village, didn't find much happening, then drive to Altopascio, a larger town where were able to check our email.
Saturday 6/30 Quick stop in Pisa then arrival in Siena for Corsa del Palio – We packed up, cleaned up the villa and left, saying goodbye to Anna Maria Selmi and her daughter Elena, the owners and operators of the agriturismo villa and winery. I was most grateful to Elena who had called the airport on my behalf to help with the return of my luggage. The stay at the villa had been a nice comparatively relaxing way to begin our "grand tour" of Italy.
Although destined for Siena, we drove west to Pisa to have a quick look the leaning tower. We found the tower and parking without difficulty. The tower is a popular tourist spot with lots of people posing as if holding up the tower, and a minority posing as if pushing it over. I thought this a positive commentary on the state of humanity. We looked at the tower, took pictures of it and the beautiful marble building near it, and left.
We had a quick lunch at the Autogrill stop on the Autostrada toll road, and continued into Siena. We found our hotel on the outskirts of town without difficulty using a map we had wisely purchased on a Pisa gift shop. In the future before the next such trip I would look up the hotels on the internet and print out a variety of maps to get me there. This time all we brought with us were the names and addresses.
From our Siena hotel we took a bus 3 miles into the center of town. The Centro of Siena is all very old and quaint with stone walls, archways, narrow cobblestone streets, and tile roofs. Wandering around we found ourselves in the Campo, a large plaza, lined with bleachers, a track 30 feet wide of dampened packed sand covering the stones underneath, and a large sloping open area in the center. This was to be the location of the famous Corsa del Palio.
It was pure luck that we were in town for the two days leading up to the actual race. This is an event held in July and August every year since 1482, has tons of pageantry, and attracts every Italian in the world. It's a bareback horse race lasting about 90 seconds for two laps around the track. Of the 17 contradas (neighborhoods), 10 are chosen by lot to participate, and then horses are selected for them by lot. I observed the horses are far from equally matched so there is a lot of luck in which contrada actually wins. Each contrada has a distinctive flag and we saw them displayed all around the city. You can easily tell which area you are in by the flags in the streets. Martha, the quilter, bought a set of different flags with a quilt in mind.
When we arrived restaurants had their tables out on the track so we sat and had drinks, gelatos and almond cakes. After an hour or so we were informed by the waiter we would have to move since they were clearing the track. So we staked out a good vantage post at the railing inside the track and waited as the center filled with people, and the bleachers were filled with contrada participants and other locals. The track was cleared first by local police smiling joking and smoking, and marching side by side. They were followed by a phalanx of carabinieri in berets, with batons and riot helmets on their belts and looking very tough. They in turn were followed by the sweepers, picking up all the litter that had accumulated. Men in the bleachers sang an odd spirited song with competitive force, each contrada trying to outdo the other with the volume of their singing. Eventually the race, at least one of the preliminary races. After the cannon sounded signaling the end of the race, the crowd poured onto the tack, mingling with the horses and jockeys parading proudly. Pleasant chaos.
The police forces in Italy are a mystery to me. They seem to have regular town police, the finance police, the carabinieri, and others. Someday I'll look it up in Google. After the excitement we had a nice dinner in town near the Duomo and took a taxi home.
Sunday 7/1 Corsa del Palio in Siena - We took the bus into Siena Centro again. We wandered in town for some hours. At about 5PM we joined the crowd gathering in the Campo to watch the action. First there was a parade of flag wavers and drummers, a separate contingent from each contrada. Then the coveted Palio, silk banner, the prize of the contest, was paraded around with great ceremony accompanied by trumpeters and soldiers in medieval helmets and carrying pikes. Cavalry trotted around the track with sabres drawn. Then for the second lap the cavalry went at full gallop with sabers pointed. Pretty cool! The race itself was exciting too. There was no starting gate so it took several minutes to get the horses lined up, with one horse never able to get in line with the others. Two horses were remarkably faster than the others. The cannon sounded and people poured onto the track to walk with their horses.
We tried to get into a restaurant but needed reservations so we took a taxi back and ate a mediocre meal in the hotel dining room.
A friend of Vanessa's who works in Italy was also in Rome so we arranged to meet her in the evening. We had a nice dinner in an area where she was familiar, then she took us on a short walking tour seeing several monuments by night. It was a very pleasant evening.
Tuesday 7/3 Bus tour, Vatican Museum, and opera concert - In the AM we took the red-bus tour, where you can get on and off as often as you like. There is an audio narrative via headset done in many languages. We got off and spent some time at the coliseum and the Roman Forum.
In the PM we wanted to see the Sistine Chapel so we took the red-bus to the Vatican and waited in a fairly fast line to get into the Vatican Museum. But once inside we were jammed in with a mob of people and led through room after room filled with wonderful things, but not what we or many others in the crowd had come to see. We felt obliged to look at the great treasures, but after awhile one's capacity is reached. The rooms continued, one leading to another, each sign promising that the Sistine Chapel was just ahead. Although the place was air-conditioned, the shoving sweating crowd made it stuffy and dizzying. It must have taken an hour of plodding, jostling and elbowing to make it to the damned chapel.
The Sistine Chapel was a very large room, also jammed with people. I saw signs urging silence, prohibiting flash photography, and cautioning people not to lay on the floor to view the ceiling. The room of course was a din of shouting enhanced by a PA system bellowing unintelligible instructions, probably urging silence. Children near us were roughhousing while camera flashes blazed away. I saw the ceiling, then was very glad to leave.
In the evening we went to a concert of opera arias. It was at a church, very pretty inside but with no air-conditioning and very hot and stuffy. There was a small orchestra and four singers who alternated singing Italian opera arias. I thought the music was very nice, but due to the heat I'm not sure the others enjoyed it. We had dinner at an "Irish Pub". The service was terrible but I enjoyed my steak and roast potatoes.
Wednesday 7/4 Papal Blessing and easy touring in Rome - The day before we had gone to a Catholic College where Vanessa and Paul had a contact and picked up tickets to the Papal Blessing. We took a taxi to the Vatican and got to the Basilica of St. Peter about 10AM. Already there were many people inside waiting to get a good view of the Pope. At 10:30 he did indeed appear and greeted the people most graciously. I caught a few glimpses of him through the sea of heads and arms with cameras. He did his blessing in about four languages and it was all over about 11. Vanessa and Paul went their way, and Martha and I walked over to nearby Castle Sant'Angelo and had a nice relaxing lunch in a cafe terrace high on the castle walls. We could look over much of Rome from our view.
We heard marching band music (Rule Brittania), looked down and saw a band below marching. We descended and followed them. It turned out they were from Cornwall, England visiting Rome for a few days with another band from Malta which had hosted them the previous year. The Cornwall band played beautifully. The band from Malta had some trouble staying together.
Our lodging (Mami Camilla's) was an odd place with a lot of charm. It's a cooking school and hostel as well as a hotel, with its own vegetable garden, a very large dog and a very small dog. It’s run by a family including mom and pop, two sons and two daughters. We opted for the the fixed dinner served at a communal table. The food was great, well worth the modest 15 Euros they charged, and it was fun to meet and chat with fellow travellers.
We did meet a variety of people: independent young women travelling alone and staying in hostels, a loud obnoxious man and wife from Chicago, a charming Scottish couple with an accent Martha can imitate pretty well, a quiet Norwegian man and his painfully poetic wife.
Friday 7/6 Private boat tour to Capri with local guide - There were about 10 people in all in the 30 foot boat. It was a bit windy but pleasant when we got close to the island. We stopped the boat at a sheltered area and some of us swam. Then we continued to Capri where we docked and had lunch on our own. Martha and I took the funicular to the upper part of the city, shopped a bit, then returned. The sea was calmer for our trip back to the mainland. We had a nice dinner again at Mami Camilla's.
Saturday 7/7 Bus trip down Amalfi Coast and Ravello – We walked to the bus terminal and bought tickets which allowed us to get on and off all day. The bus trip down the coast was wild on twisty narrow roads. The busses were crowded but we managed to get seats. I took great pleasure in the fact that I was not driving. We stopped at the town of Positano for a few hours and walked down many stairs to get to the center of town. Martha shopped a bit while I relaxed in a café. Then we got back on the bus at a lower bus stop (happily avoiding the stairs) and continued to Amalfi.
At Amalfi, we caught a different bus inland and up a mountainous road to Ravello. It’s a beautiful town perched on cliffs overlooking the sea and towns far below. Ravello is billed as the city of music; there is an annual music festival there. We had a wonderful lunch at nice hotel with panoramic views. After lunch we walked in the garden of a beautiful villa with stunning views of the coast. It seemed like a long trip back on the busses and a long walk back to the hotel but we had seen some amazing sights.
Varenna is a wonderful ancient place. All the buildings are either very old or look old. There are two streets, the main one for driving through town, and another below it with no cars. Crossing these are many 12 foot wide stairways, leading down to the lake. Our apartment was 1 ½ blocks and many stairs to the lake. There were no groceries available Sunday afternoon so we had a nice dinner out and enjoyed some great local wine at a restaurant overlooking the ferry dock.
Monday 7/9 Touring around Varenna – We bought some groceries at two little stores in town to give ourselves breakfast and dinner for our three remaining overnights. We read about a restaurant in a little town called Pino; and even though the brochure said it was closed on Mondays we thought we’d walk up to it and see for ourselves. The path was narrow and interesting taking us past a graveyard, under the railroad tracks and up toward the Autostrada tunnel that extends the length of Lake Como on the eastern side. Walking south on the lakeshore we came to the next town called Fumalatte, named after the scenic wonder which is billed as Italy’s shortest river. We saw the little river and continued our hike upward, toward what we hoped was lunch. Eventually we came to Pino, found the restaurant which was indeed closed, found little else, and headed back. It had been threatening rain all day but on the way back the thunder started in earnest and then the rain came. We used plastic bags on our heads to keep a little dry and walked fast. We seemed to have skipped lunch so we had an early dinner in our room.
Tuesday 7/10 Ferry to Bellagio and Mennagio – We got all-day passes and took the ferry to the town of Bellagio, located on the peninsula that divides Lake Como into two arms. Martha had been impressed by the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas so was eager to see the “original”. But there is no Bellagio Hotel. The elegant hotel there is the Serbelloni, so we had a good look at it, identifying a desirable place for lunch, then went shopping. We got a nice leather purse for Martha and I got a gaudy baseball cap that says Milan on it.
Returning to the Serbelloni we found a gallery exhibit of oil paintings. They were mostly monochrome, some of boxers getting punched, others of masked figures in grotesque arrangement. One was a masked variation on Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson", with masked figures hovering over a dissected cadaver. We looked silently at this disturbing art and noticed a young man sitting in the otherwise empty room. We both had the same idea, so I asked him in English if they were his paintings and he said they were. He proceeded to explain some of them to us. Quite powerful work, but disturbing and not stuff I would want to live with.
Our lunch at the Serbelloni was quite nice, very quiet with only one other table occupied in the elegant terrace overlooking the lake. We both had the roasted chicken, and it was very tasty. I had white wine and Martha had what has become her drink of choice, lemoncello (lemon liquer produced near Amalfi) with cold water on the side.
Next stop on the ferry was Villa Carlotta, an old place set up as a museum. The garden was quite nice and we spent most of our time outside. Then we took the ferry to Mennagio, one of the larger towns on the lake, and looked around. I found a cash machine that liked my BofA ATM card, so I got enough cash to pay for our room.
After dinner in our apartment we went of for Gelati and watched the sunset on the lake. Varenna was my favorite setting and I would happily return.
Wednesday 7/11 Drive around Lake Como – We caught the 9:40AM auto ferry to Mennagio. It cost only 10.50 euro for two people and a car, which I thought was cheap, I guess compared to the meals we had been buying. We tried to follow the coast northward but went wrong immediately, headed instead into the mountains, and ended in Brescia. It seemed to be the trailhead for hikes into the surrounding mountains, and we saw Swiss and German hikers with serious boots setting out on the network of trails. We turned around and came back to Mennagio, this time taking the correct road. We tried to see a boat museum in Pianello Del Lario we had seen in our guide book, but the workers there said they would be working on it for about two years before it was open. The guide book lies.
We found a restaurant overlooking the lake and watched sailboat races as we dined. We continued our drive coming around the north end of the lake and headed south on the high-speed Autostrada tunnel. We stopped in a town called Bellano and bought pasta and bottled sauce at an actual supermarket. This is the secret to more economical travel if one only knows about these places. We visited a cave carved by rushing water and Martha posed in a toy Smart Car. At the last minute we finally met our trusting hostess Lucianna and paid her for our stay in the studio.
We walked around and saw the big buildings in Milan, the Duomo looking very gothic, and Il Teatro La Scala, the mother-ship of opera in the world. Before our trip I had tried but failed to get opera tickets for that night. But as we were about to get tickets for a tour of the building, we were approach by scalpers. So we bagged the tour and opted for the real thing, paying way too much for cheap seats. Martha went shopping and I returned to read and relax.
La Traviata at La Scala was wonderful. Our seats were in the 2nd gallery, the topmost of 7 levels. The seats were actually not bad for being narrower than would be acceptable in the US. I was thrilled to be there and I think Martha enjoyed it too. Instead of projected supertitles, each seat has a little LCD screen where you can choose English or Italian text of the lyrics. Very helpful.
At the Venice train station there were long lines waiting for shuttles, so we paid the big bucks and took a water taxi. It was a delightful ride, zooming into the wider canals, then wending slowly in narrower canal around freight boats and gondolas to finally deposit us almost at our hotel’s doorstep.
The hotel room was nice, and located a 5 minute walk from Piazza San Marco, but it was on the third floor and at this point it took both of us to carry Martha’s massive suitcase up the stairs. In the PM we took the water bus (vaporetto) up and down the Grand Canal. We had a nice dinner near Piazza San Marco and heard music from many sources. We had heard there was to be a light show and looked for it, but had no luck.
Saturday 7/14 Murano, Burano and fireworks – We were approached by a dapper fellow offering us a free water taxi ride to Murano and tour of the glass factory and showroom. That was exactly what we had in mind anyway but were planning on more mundane transport (vaporetto), so we accepted, knowing their intent was to sell us glass. With one other couple we had a fun fast trip through some wider canals and to Murano Island. It was a brief factory visit and a very low pressure visit to the showrooms. It was beautiful glass, better and more varied than I’ve ever seen, but we didn’t buy anything. We walked around Murano, which looked like a smaller, less crowded version of Venice.
We bought 12 hour passes and took the vaporetto to Burano Island. It was a colorful pretty town, not as old looking as Murano or Venice, but even less crowded. It was starting to get warm, the beginning of a heat wave that was to begin soon, so we kept to the shade, looking at the lace vendors’ wares and drinking a beer in a shaded restaurant.
That evening was the celebration of the Redentore in Venice, a great fireworks show and party celebrating the end of the plague that devastated the city between 1575 and 1577. We had a nice dinner and got to a spot near Piazza San Marco about 9PM where we thought would be optimum viewing. The crowd thickened and soon we were surrounded by tourists and Venetians, getting more and more festive. We waited until about 10:30 sitting on the pavement. And then found out the fireworks wouldn’t start until 11:30. So we gave up our prize location and went back to the hotel to cool off before diving into the crowd again. At 11:30 there was indeed a full half hour of spectacular fireworks. It was very very crowded though, and I was glad to get back to our nice room.
Sunday 7/15 Walking around Venice – We paid 6 euros each to take the lift to the top of the campanile in Piazza San Marco (luckily you’re not allowed to take the stairs). It gives a great overview of the city. We noticed in the distance the temporary bridge we had read had been constructed just for the weekend of the Redentore celebration. It connects the main body of Venice to the Giudecca peninsula. So we took our map and water bottle and set out to see the bridge before it was taken down. It took most of the day to get there, find a spot for lunch, and get back. The bridge is built of floats placed by a crane over permanent pilings. It even has a raised section to allow water taxis to go under (though not vaporettos). It was a pleasant though long walk. For dinner we found a nice restaurant right by the Rialto Bridge overlooking the water.
Monday 7/16 Travel Home – We rose very early and took a water taxi to the airport (100 euros). The plane from Venice to Rome was on time, but the plane from Rome to Cincinatti was delayed an hour, then sat and additional our on the ground before takeoff waiting for clearance. Fortunately we had a 5 hour layover in Cincinatti. It was a very long flight with the little children immediately behind us kicking, screaming, and occasionally stinking for 10 hours. Our ride home from SFO failed to appear so after some unsuccessful tries at the pay phone, we took a taxi home.
There is supposed to be no tipping in Italy since the service or cover charge is often included in the bill. This doesn’t always result in good service however and it was often necessary to ask for things that were supposed to come with the meal such as bread, oil and vinegar. Also, there is a regrettable tendency to short-change or overcharge. One has to examine the bill and count the change or there will be mistakes made, always in their favor. There were several examples of this where we “caught the error” and I wonder how many where we did not.
Next time: Bring cell phone so we can call when back in the states, print out Google maps of hotel and rental car locations, pack more clothes in the carry-on, bring an ATM card with Cirrus logo (since my BofA didn’t always work), and get luckier with the airplane seats. All in all, for a complex trip things went very well. It wasn’t as tiring as it may sound because we were at most places 3 nights or more, with only one one-nighter. We were very very lucky to have the timing we did, with good weather, Corsa del Palio in Siena, Papal Blessing in Rome, opera in Milan, and Redentore in Venice. Great trip!
Italy All Pictures