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!
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.
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.
|Panino at Il Due Frattelini|
|Vernazza harbor from the high trail to Monterosso from Vernazza|
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.
|To Riomaggiore from Manarola|
|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|
The next day we drove to a rainy San Gimignano, it was full of tourists and we didn’t stay long.
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.
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.
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.
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 www.palazzovecchio-familymuseum.it).
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.
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!
|Happy street art, Oltrarno|