Sunday, May 8, 2011

Italy Trip Report, 2011

Trip Report: Firenze, Cinque Terre, and Toscano hill towns
Tenth anniversary, April, 2011

Planning - including shoe strategy

My husband and I hadn’t really been alone together since our first child was born. It was our 10th anniversary and I had been hoarding air miles in my account since before our marriage. For some reason his mom graciously agreed to fly out to take care of our kids for 2 weeks. There were a lot of variables in play, much could go wrong, but it was worth a shot.

We wanted art, history, views, active pursuits, food and wine, sun, sand, and charm. I’d studied in Florence 16 years ago, and had been trying to get back ever since.  I ended up using these resources for my research: Eyewitness Guide: Florence and Tuscany, Rick Steve’s Tuscan Hill Towns and Cinque Terre, Slow Travel and Frommer’s Forums

Our itinerary boiled down to 2 weeks - 4 nights Florence, 3 nights Cinque Terre (Vernazza), 3 nights hill towns of Tuscany (Volterra, Siena, Montepulciano), and 3 nights back in Florence.

I booked the mileage award tickets 9 months out. We booked rooms in Florence and Vernazza (if you want a view room in the CT, book ahead) about 3 months out via the hotel’s own web sites (we were aiming for 70-90 euro places with a bathroom in the room). We decided to wing it with hotels in the hill towns. The other pre-booked items were the car through Autoeurope, Uffizi tickets (crowded even in April), a tour at the Palazzo Vecchio, and a Vespa tour of Chianti.

And shoes? This was my biggest challenge. How could we blend in and look like stylish Italians without killing our feet? I didn’t go as far as wearing 3 inch heels on the cobblestone streets like the locals, but did bring a few items that worked well: Born wedge sandals, Eurostep dark leather walking shoes, and Reebok black Simplytone shoes (felt like walking on pillows). And if you throw a classy belted trench coat over anything, suddenly you look put together. Additionally, Columbia’s wrinklefree travel dresses came in handy. My husband's black sport coat was used daily.

Vespas in Chianti
Firenze - 4 nights

The party started early as we arrived at LAX 4 hours before our flight. This is not a problem if you have access to the Air France VIP Lounge, where we drank champagne and ate brie with two British paratroopers. Flying business class made the journey part of the vacation as well. Thank you airmiles!

Ribollita soup
Firenze was the first stop, staying at the well-located, roomy Albergo Merlini among the “cheap” hotels on Via Faenza. Near the train station but quiet and within walking distance to all sights. Our first meal was at Antichi Cancelli, also on Via Faenza, where you both can have a primi, secondi, and wine and get out of there just under 40 euro. My husband said the lamb was particularly good. It was my first taste of the bread and vegetable based twice-boiled soup ribollita. I think I ate it 5 times on our trip.

Brunelleschi's dome
Our first full day included the Uffizi – the only tickets we pre-booked saving us hours in line - and climbing Brunelleschi’s dome, slightly curving inward as you squeezed between the two shells.

Our second day was a highlight, zipping through Chianti on Vespas. The van took 7 of us 30 minutes outside of the city, oriented us to the scooters, and off we went. Mixing it up with traffic, hills, gravel, and stopping along the way for fresh pecorino panini, gelato, and a stop at the Corsini Winery, where we toured the wine cellars and olive oil operation, had a wonderful wine tasting and lunch, and even saw the princess! A fun stop was the hotel where Machiavelli stayed while in exile. We would do it again in a heartbeat.

Nap lawn, Boboli Gardens
The next day brought us to the Pitti Palace’s Palatine Gallery, royal apartments and the Boboli Gardens. For some reason, many museums were free that week, so Italians were out in force enjoying the gardens. We fell asleep for an hour with about 40 others on a sun-dappled lawn.

Il Due Fratellini
Favorite Florence restaurants included Le Mossace (ribolitta) and Il Due Fratellini (we ate at this fiaschetteria at least 3 times, grab a panini and glass of Super Tuscan and sit on the curb near Orsanmichele). A lavish meal accompanied by excellent wines was enjoyed at Pitti Gola, where Zeno, one of the owners, should really have his own TV show. They travel all over Italy, buying up whatever the small winemakers don’t keep for themselves, making many of their wines exclusives. Rinaldi Brunello was a highlight. The pumpkin gnudi was unlike anything I’ve eaten before. Ricotta, pumpkin, and an egg made into fluffy little balls with a sauce chock full of truffles.

Vernazza harbor from the trail
Cinque Terre – 3 nights in Vernazza

After a 3-hour train ride to La Spezia, switching trains to the towns of the Cinque Terre, we emerged from the tunnel to see the Ligurian Sea. We stayed in Vernazza, near the trail to Corniglia, at Rooms La Torre. The room was spotless, new, and about the size of a king sized bed with a double bed, fridge, and bathroom squeezed in - comically tight for two people. The huge terrace’s 180-degree view included terraced grape vine hills, the pastel town, a castle (well worth the 1.50 euro), the harbor and sea beyond. Most everyone speaks English in the CT and everyone carries an embarrassing Rick Steve’s book. Try to hide it in your backpack.

Vernazza harbor from the castle
Many of the low trails were closed due to rockslides, so we hiked a combination of low and high trails. Some of the trails they said were closed were actually open. The first day we took the lower trail #2 to Corniglia, followed by the hill trail to Manarola. The elevation change was dramatic, from terraced grape vines to pines. New friends along the way included Seattleites and Aussies. In Manarola, we ate panini and pizza and shared a bottle of wine on the rocks by the harbor, before heading off to the Via del’Amore to Riomaggiore. The Aussies were game to add on a hike to a hilltop church so we joined in. About 16 miles were hiked that day. We jumped on the train back to Vernazza and closed down a bar with our new friends.

To Riomaggiore
The next day we set off “early,” meaning 9 am, taking the high trail to Monterosso. The view leaving Vernazza is breathtaking. The trail was empty save a couple Italians and Germans. My husband fixed a woman’s walking stick and we all cheered. The country cathedral of Madonna di Soviore was especially lovely. Frescoes were used throughout as money was obviously not available for marble. Plexi glass floors revealed ruins beneath. A bonus was the attached coffee shop! A lovely meal in Monterosso, where I had pear and pecorino pasta (at Via Venti), was followed by sunbathing at the “new town” beach. Warm blue sea, multi-colored pebble beach, and dramatic coastline.

Sicilian brothers at Il Pirata
Another eating highlight of the CT included Il Pirata in Vernazza. The Sicilian brothers running this place were characters, full of deadpan humor and hand gestures. Don't ask for bacon and eggs, they may kick you out. The pastries and cannoli were out of this world. Go here for your morning pastries, then go back for dinner. At the top of town, this short walk is worth your time. The raisin dessert wine schiattera and local limoncello were great.

Tuscan road signs
The hill towns of Tuscany - 3 nights 

The weather was starting to turn and our bright blue Alpha Romeo coupe was awaiting us in La Spezia. We had a wonderful breakfast in Sarzana at a roadside café off the autostrada.

Artisan in Volterra
About 2 hours later we were in a cold and rainy Volterra. The beautiful medieval town was shrouded in fog. The roman amphitheater and baths were wonderfully preserved and used to be the town garbage dump! We ducked into a take-away pizza shop where we at Schiacciata (thinner, crispier foccaccia) with sea salt and nutella, as well as excellent pizza. A fantastic and inexpensive dinner was had at Il Pozzo Oegli Etruschi. My husband raved about the stuffed wild boar. I had the zuppa Etruscha alla Volterrana, another fantastic peasant-type soup. The roomy Albergo Nazionale fit the bill both cost- and location-wise.

The next day we drove to a rainy San Gimignano, it was full of tourists and we didn’t stay long.

Eating panini in Monteriggioni
Monteriggioni was a lovely, well-preserved tiny fortress built by Siena to give warning if Firenze was on the attack. The Antico Travaglio bar crafted fantastic paninis (mine was pecorino, tomato, and truffle oil) and we picnicked with our wine on a bench in the main square surrounded by turrets and olive trees.

We drove on to Siena, where we stayed at the clean and friendly nun-run Alma Domus. The staff was especially wonderful at this convent turned hotel just under San Domenico church, which looks awfully austere next to Siena’s main cathedral. The relic of St. Catherine’s mummified head is especially powerful.

Stairs to Torre Mangia
We visited the usual sites, Il Campo, climbed the windy Torre Mangia, spent a lot of time in the beautiful cathedral, with its lovely mosaic floor, Pisano pulpit, Bernini chapel, and legions of popes staring down at you. The Alma Domus staff recommended Osteria Il Campaccio. This well-priced meal was stellar (my husband loved the pork with prunes).

Pienza alley
The next day we drove to Montalcino (the town that produces our favorite Brunello wines) but found the shopkeepers and Italian tourists snooty. We moved on to lovely Pienza, with its perfect Renaissance square and idyllic views. We rolled into Montepulciano late and struggled to find a value hotel, but ended up passing Albergo La Terrazza and ringing the buzzer. Roberto and his wife Vittoria were the most enthusiastic and gracious hosts. We had a large sitting room, four-poster bed, parking and excellent breakfast for 90 euro.

We expected to stay one more night in a hill town, but frankly, we were ready to be back in the city. We found that we weren't the "rent a villa in Tuscany"-type folks. We considered sleeping in Greve in Chianti but found it soulless and overpriced, although we did have good wine and a nice walk in nearby Panzano in Chianti.

Another amazing panini at Il Due Fratellini
Back in Florence - 3 nights

We got back to Albergo Merlini, which felt like home, had a tasty Sicilian dinner with ornery service at Trattoria Il Bargello after I Cche ce ce wouldn’t allow us to wait for a table.

San Miniato
The next day was the Bargello, a quick lunch at Il Fratellini (eat here as often as possible, I'd do it daily if I could) and walking to Piazza Michelangelo and San Miniato Al Monte. Le Mossace was again our choice for dinner. Although I am a vegetarian, I enjoyed the loud sound of chopping through meat and bones in the open kitchen at Le Mossace.

Our last day in Florence was filled with a visit to the San Marco monastery with Fra Angelico’s frescoed cells (highly underrated site and not crowded), a fantastic, fast, and cheap meal at Da Mario (worth the wait), and a guided tour of the Palazzo Vecchio, focusing on the Medici family’s reign of power. The map room with the secret passageway to Bianca’s eavesdropping chamber was a highlight (tours are free and some are in English, book ahead at

Mercato Centrale
The Mercato Centrale is worth a visit if you want to get well-priced vaccuum-packed meats, olives, and tomatoes. Be sure to check the USDA web site to see if your edibles will make it past the dogs sniffing your luggage in the airport.

We had gelato from about 15 places and our favorite was Carapina on Via Lambertesca near the Uffizi. Give the Vin Santo flavor a try.

Street art, Oltrarno
Our last night we tried to be adventurous and walked to a recommended pizza place in the Oltrarno. We had slow rude service and the joint was too trendy, so we left. We stopped at a family run trattoria where my frittata and insalata caprese were wonderful but my husband’s pork chop was dry. I believe it was God’s way of saying that it’s time to go home.

Early the next morning we left for the airport and my husband left his wallet in the cab. He realized it not long before our flight was to depart, ran back to the cab line, waited for a cab to show up, told them what happened, and somehow they got a hold of the cabbie, who raced through town in time to return my husband’s wallet and for us to make our flight. Thank you cabbie Signore Manelli!