One of my dearest friends and a fellow art/food lover is currently travelling around Italy with her partner, J has been wanting to visit Italy for many years and I am so excited that her time has come and that she is getting to see the chaotic city of Rome and the beauty of the countryside. It also means that I’ll have someone else to talk Italy with and she hopefully won’t get that glazed look in her eyes that I see in others when I’m daydreaming aloud about my holiday.
Today J will be travelling through Tuscany and spending time in Florence, on my desk is a copy of her itinerary and it is great for reminiscing about our trip and the various cities and towns we visited. My first visit to Florence was in 1999, I was travelling alone so had signed up for a tour, not everybody’s idea of travelling but perfect for a shy, single girl who had mainly travelled overseas with family. The David was a highlight for me, at that stage photography was allowed in the gallery so I made sure I captured him from all sides, the rest of my (short) time in Florence was spent on the hunt for a leather jacket and eating delicious pizza in a restaurant near Basilica di Santa Croce. There was no time to rub the nose of the boar on the Ponte Vecchio, nor did I try the local gelato and the Uffizi was not even on my radar, however I did get to see the interior of the Duomo and Basilica di Santa Croce and began to appreciate the influence that religion had on art and architecture. Apart from driving through the countryside to reach our accommodation in Pontassieve and stopping for a quick visit at Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, there wasn’t a chance to really see much of Tuscany so I made sure that we spent some time in a Tuscan hill town on our last trip.
Last year we spent three nights in Florence and four in Siena, we could have stayed longer however I was keen to also visit a few towns in Umbria and didn’t want to waste time hopping from town to town each day. Florence the second time around was a different experience, we didn’t have a set schedule although there were a couple of things that were a must: The Uffizi, climbing Brunelleschi’s Dome, Boboli Gardens, a cooking class and the Ponte Vecchio. The aim was to also spend time just enjoying the city: walking along the river, drinking coffee or a glass of wine in a piazza, exploring the food markets and doing a bit of shopping. I am hoping that J is able to enjoy some of the simple pleasures and not spend all of her time racing from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, however, when you spend over 24 hours on a plane and several thousand dollars in plane tickets it is important to make sure that you see everything you want to see.
When thinking of Tuscany I had a particular image stuck in my mind, one of rolling hills, stone houses, cypress trees, fields filled with poppies and olive trees. Thankfully it wasn’t far from the dream, renting a car made it really easy to get around and there were plenty of places to stop for a break, have a bite to eat and take photos. In the four days we visited Volterra, San Gimignano and Pienza as well as spending time in Siena and it was a nice balance because we could take our time in exploring the towns without feeling pressured to move onto the next destination. Next time we will stay somewhere else and see a different region of Tuscany, if you have any suggestions I would be happy to hear them 🙂
In a previous post I briefly mentioned the hilltop towns we were visiting while in Tuscany and Umbria, they truly are wonderful places to stay especially when they’re not so crowded such as Volterra and Orvieto after the sun goes down.
We based ourselves in Siena, Orvieto and Assisi for 10 days and made use of a rental car to travel to the other towns, part of the joy in visiting other towns is the scenic drive through the countryside and taking time to stop occasionally, admire the view and take a couple of photos. From Siena we did a day trip to Volterra and San Gimignano, leaving San Gimignano until the afternoon in the hope that most of the large tour groups had been and gone. Volterra is probably better known now thanks to the Twilight series of stories, it isn’t why we went there, Volterra is home to roman ruins, alabaster and unbeknown to us, a state prison housed in what looks like a medieval fortress. San Gimignano is a medieval town, famous for its many towers, of which only 14 still stand (there used to be about 70) and I could only count 11 from the Torre Grosse (large tower). San Gimignano is also home to Vernaccia, a nice white wine that is easy to drink after a long day of sight seeing.
Siena itself is a wonderful city to explore, once we were finally able to find the carpark and our way to Il Campo. The cathedral is a masterpiece of black and white marble, and although Marty wasn’t interested in seeing yet another church I paid the 3 euro admission and took the time to go inside and it was well worth it. Although we both loved Siena, our day spent driving through the Tuscan countryside to the small town of Pienza was probably more enjoyable. Pienza doesn’t have any major must-see attractions and doesn’t rate that highly in the guidebooks, what it does have is a fantastic view of the quintessential Tuscan countryside and very tasty pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk). In Pienza we were able to taste a variety of pecorino cheese including slivers of one flavoured with truffles, which I was quite fond of but Marty was left with a not-so pleasant taste in his mouth. We dined at a little bar called La Crete, salami and pecorino sandwiches washed down with a Vernaccia for Marty and a Vino Nobile for me and topped off with very good coffee. The drive home to Siena was equally spectacular, cypress pines, yellow fields, winding roads, red poppies and olive trees – all the ingredients for a perfect country drive.
Orvieto is a wonderful town to visit and even better if you can stay within the walls or close by them as we did, providing the opportunity to explore the streets after the tour groups and day trippers go home. From Orvieto we did another day of driving to see Civita de Bagnoregio (the dying town) and Bolsena, Civita de Bagnoregio is a hilltop town with a difference as there are very few residents and it is not swarming with tourists forking out euros in souvenir shops, the town is built of tufa which is slowly eroding causing sections of the hill to collapse and buildings with it. There is no collapsing of buildings while we were there, however we did wish that something would fall on a very loud, foul mouthed american tourist that was part of a small tour group. The drive from Orvieto only takes thirty minutes and after a couple of hours of explorations and one of the best lunches so far we decided to drive to Bolsena on Lake Bolsena. Bolsena is a pretty town, the location on the lake contributing greatly to its appeal and the gelati wasn’t bad either, it is a good place to take a breath and relax by the water but beyond that I couldn’t find the motivation to see more.