Just returned from an amazing holiday in Italy following the wedding in Spain, with the highlight being Glynn's proposal late one evening on Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Just loved Florence which came in the middle of our short tour of Italy. Our trail leading from Rome to Florence by train, then a tour around Tuscany in a hire car which included visits to Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and then up to the Cinque Terre, Lucca and full circle returning to Florence, and then back on the eurostar to Venice. All in 8 days! Here are some photos of our tour and the ring.
On our first evening in Rome we wandered from our accommodation in the Vatican District B&B Antiqua Roma (brilliant B&B) to the Spanish Steps and the Fontana di Trevi or Trevi Fountain, both major sites in the city. As is the custom we turned our backs to the fountain and threw in our coins to ensure we would return to Roma.
The next day we were up early because of jetlag and toured St Peter's Basilica and the Square, and then around the corner to the Vatican Museums to see the Sistene Chapel and the Raphael Rooms. All absolutely incredible and well worth seeing, but it really pays to go early. We emerged onto the streets at 10.30am to find queues 6 blocks long.
Despite the rainy weather, we flagged the idea of catching the tour bus around the city in favour of walking everywhere. In search of roman remains we visited the Pantheon which is probably the best place to see the most intact remnants of the period. Most ruins in the city are literally rubble that require a great deal of imagination or a personal tour guide to really bring it all to life.
I'd been missing my coffee rituals and Roma didn't disappoint with great expresso and a good excuse to sit down in Piazza Navona and watch people escaping the thunderstorm.
If you go to the Vatican on Wednesdays you can have an audience with the Pope. He usually appears on the balcony overlooking St Peter's Square but since it was raining he sat in the Bascilica and delivered his welcome in several different languages. We just happened to be there to witness it all, and the circus of photography and screams from the tourists made it felt more like a Hollywood production than a spiritual blessing.
One of our last stops in Roma was the Colesseum which is surrounded in the Roman ruins of the Forum. You can buy a ticket to see both and instead of an audio guide we opted for a video tour which recreates a virtual view of the colosseum. It's a clever gadget called the TimeMachine which you sling around your neck and hold up as you walk around certain points in the stadium while it generates images of the colesseum as it once was.
We took the Eurostar to Florence, and at 250 km/ph we arrived in 1hr and 50mins. We were staying not far from the station at Hotel Caravaggio which thankfully had wifi internet. I loved Florence, partly because it all seemed more accessible than Roma with the tourists slightly less obvious, and the music and culture more prominent. The food was absolutely incredible and the amount of pasta we ate defies belief.
The highlight of our entire trip came our first evening after the most delicious meal I can ever remember having at La Giostra. Glynn managed to guide me across the city completely unaware to Ponte Vecchio and proposed on the bridge late in the evening. I said yes (of course) and we enjoyed a lovely stroll over the famous bridge and around the piazzas in the city. A night to remember!
The bridge is historic, not only because it is famous for proposals. The current structure that crosses the river Arno, was built in the 1300s following a series of wooden bridges built originally by the romans at the same location. Jewellery stores line the bridge which apparently was saved from being bombed during WW2 under express orders from Hitler. In search of a ring we went back to the bridge in the light of day but the tourists had taken over so we decided to wait till Venice to see if we would have more luck there.
Tuscany (Toscana) - Chianti, San Gimignano, Siena, Pisa, Lucca
We said goodbye to Florence and hired a car for a two day adventure into Tuscany. We weren't sure whether we would make it up to the Cinque Terre so we just played it by ear with only one night's accommodation booked in San Gimignano.
We took the back roads and drove to Siena through the chianti region and stopped at a tiny village called Fonterutoli for a wine tasting and purchase. We learnt that to retain the chianti name, the local wine must be produced using 80% San Giovese grapes.
Glynn looked at me sideways when I compared some parts of the tuscan countryside to the rolling hills outside Dunedin but certain parts of the region really did remind me of New Zealand, mainly Central Otago with all the vineyards. We stopped for lunch at Il Borgo di Vescine and looked out over the vines while we enjoyed a platter of meat, cheese and bread. Magic.
A short stop in Siena, an ancient walled city with a maze of narrow one way alleys that restrict vehicle traffic to a minimum. On our fifth day of rain we decided to abandon common sense and drive our hire car straight into the walled city to try and park up outside the town square. After a bit of kiwi she'll be right and some hair raising moments for the irishman driving under instruction, we found ourselves parked two minutes walk from the main piazza and fountain, and time for another one of those italian coffees. It can be done, but wouldn't recommend it in hindsight.
It just didn't take as long as we thought to drive around the Tuscan region so we found ourselves with ample time that evening to stroll around San Gimignano, have dinner and enjoy "The Best Gelato in the World" - although not as good as Karl's at Kaffee Eis in Wellington. Our accommodation Hotel Pescille on the outskirts of the walled city was located on a beautiful vineyard. Although it was a cool evening we enjoyed a glass of their wine outside looking back at the famous skyline of the medieval city.
The tower of Pisa was still leaning when we got there. Not booked in advance we weren't some of the lucky ones entitled to climb it. The whole experience reminded me of our trip to Paris and laying eyes on the Mona Lisa. So famous and well-known and when you see them in the flesh you just have to stand there until you feel you've properly seen it. In our case that took around 10mins, plus a walk around the base. It is hard to believe how old it is and that Galileo once travelled to Pisa to drop things off the top of the tower to test his theory of gravity. The experience only slightly tarnished by getting lost trying to find a car park and the 5 hawkers in a line near the tower all selling the same battery powered GI Jo crawling along the ground. Who buys those things?
With time to spare we decided we could make it to Cinque Terre so we took the toll road. We whizzed up from Pisa to La Spezia in an hour. Having made good time on the A1, we spent a frustrating two hours trying to find a safe parking building, so we could catch the train into Cinque Terre knowing we would have a car to return to. We finally found the Kennedy car parking building and only took the bare minimum with us for the night.
The Cinque Terre is made up of five villages clinging to the coast linked by a walkway and train which travels between them every 15 mins or so. We decided to head straight into the largest village Monterosso and asked about accommodation at the train station. The lemon festival was on so accommodation options were slim but we ended up with a room in the town - next time we'll definitely book ahead.
Monterosso is a beautiful seaside town, with a great family atmosphere and one of the most popular of the five villages. Lots of children were selling lemonade and men were playing petanque down by the beach. After walking around the town we decided to walk over to the next village Vernazza for dinner. The Cinque Terre is a National Park so we paid 5 euro for a ticket to walk the two hour track which leads up into the small vineyards and market gardens owned by the locals. They recommend sturdy tramping shoes and we passed many red-faced tourists along the steep track. We walked it in jandels because we didn't bring any other footware with us - not ideal but certainly managed it.
The views from the top of the hills before we descended into Vernazza were breathtaking and the hassles with the car in La Spezia were totally forgotten as we sampled homemade limoncello from local growers on the track.
One day I want to return to Vernazza, the most beautiful spot for dinner you could possibly imagine. The walk down into the village is truely spectacular and the dinner of fresh seafood - yum, the whole experience felt so italiano. We'll probably be old and wrinkled and will be taking the train rather than walking but I look forward to returning already and having time to explore the other villages as well.
We'd been lucky with accommodation on our trip and Venice was no exception. Its hard to get accommodation close to the Grand Canal. At the famous Harry's Bar on the canal you can pay over $100 euro for a starter, so nothing's cheap in Venezia. We were lucky to hear about La Rosa Dei Venti 15mins walk along from the start of the canal and St Marco Piazza looking out at San Salute. The boat stop two minutes from the B&B was on the main route to the airport so we were well set up to just enjoy the sites right up until our departure in the afternoon the next day.
We wondered into the St Marco Piazza initially and then around the alley's and canals that connect the city by gondola and boat. Wished we had time to find a museum that explained exactly how the city is staying afloat and their plans to save it sinking into the mudflats on which it was built.
We visited Gallerie dell'Accademia and although it was enjoyable we were disappointed that Leonardo's Vitruvian Man stored at the museum is not available to be viewed.
The heart of the city is down the Grand Canal off the famous Rialto Bridge, so we cruised up the canal on boat No. 1 and got off to walk across the bridge into the markets and shops.
On our last night in Italy we decided to enjoy a nice meal and some tirimisu at the Ristorante Do Leoni in Hotel Londra Palace with a table looking out over the canal. Our visit to Venezia completed by wandering into St Marco Square on our last day to find a small jewellery store called Boldrin Gioielli with the perfect ring - the best momento and a magical end to 8 days in Italy.