ITALY - Tuscany 2007

Italy has been likened to one vast museum.  Few other countries in the world have produced such a rich heritage of art and creative endeavors. This is our trip to Tuscany and surrounding areas during September 2007.

After traveling for 15 hours we arrived in Florence and rode in a taxi to the Hotel Nizza, located near the train station in the center of the old town (tourist) area. We carried our cases up two flights of narrow stairs to a fully tiled, small room with shuttered windows looking out onto other building and small gardens. The bathroom attached to the room (‘en suite’) was a bit tight, but functional.  After a short walk in the area, we ate dinner and strolled the couple of blocks back to the hotel and were asleep by 9:30 pm.

The next morning we wandered through narrow streets full of bicycles and motor scooters parked in front of buildings with old facades. Lots of taxis, since they are the only vehicle that is allowed to roam freely throughout Florence’s five traffic zones.

We stopped at St. Mark’s Plaza and sat for awhile in the square. Then we wandered through an open door into the plaza of the Galleria dell’Accademia – the academy of fine arts that was run by Michelangelo in the 1500's– where we found part of the collection of statues that students copy.

We walked towards Il Duomo ("the Dome") with the Campanile (bell tower) standing above the houses to show us the way. We did stop into a supermarket on the way to purchase some drinks.


Il Duomo and the accompanying Baptistery are breathtaking. The dome on the church of Santa Maria del Fiore was built in the 1400’s and the dome was designed and built by Filippo Brunslleschi and was the largest unsupported dome in the world at the time. There was a long line waiting to get in and we resolved to get there early when we returned to Florence.

Leaving the piazza we wandered down a few streets and found ourselves at “Dante’s Church,” a small church where he and his wife worshipped. We sat inside for a short rest and then walked a block to another church (they are everywhere in Florence!) and purchased tickets for a Vivaldi concert being held that evening.

After a two-hour ‘siesta’ we walked back to the large Piazza della Signoria where the Palazzo Vecchio (a palace built by Cosimo I to be the seat of government) and the Uffizi Museum are located.  We enjoyed the Loggia de Lanai, an open-air sculpture gallery which is actually part of the Uffizi, and the larger sculptures set in the square itself  by the Uffizi - a copy of Michelangelo’s David and another of Poseidon. After dinner on the piazza we went to the concert and listened to Vivaldi by a string quartet while sitting on very hard pews. Then a leisurely stroll back to the hotel feeling very safe in the central, tourist area.



The next morning we were met in the hotel lobby by Michael who announced that he was to drive us from Florence to Monterosso in Cinque Terre. He ushered us to a Mercedes Benz parked near the hotel and we were off. We drove through Florence and joined a motorway that took us over the Apennine Mountains, past towns located on the top of hills, through Carrera where we could see the marble faces of the quarries in the distance and piles of cut stone in shipping yards near the road. Reaching Cinque Terre area, we drove a series of twisting, narrow roads with steep descentsuntil we arrived at Monterosso al Mare.


Automobiles are prohibited in Monterosso so we pulled our luggage into town and to
 Il Giardino Incantato Hotel. What a charming place! We enjoyed a spacious ground-floor room with rustic tiles, tiled bathroom and rough-hewn beams on the ceiling.

The landlady spoke some English and was very friendly and the garden (giardino) across a narrow walkway was spacious and neat- it was where the morning meal was served.  We had two hours before our guide, Michelangelo, was to meet us so we wandered through the old town where we were based.

A three minute walk from the hotel was a beautiful crescent sand and pebble beach with boats at anchor and pulled up onto the sand; people on the beach in beach chairs, swimming and a group of people coming into town on a ferry that had just moored at the quay.  We were hailed by a restaurateur (in Italian) who boasted that his little place served the best food in town so we sat down for lunch. Linda practiced her growing Italian with the young man in the restaurant (who also spoke English, it seems his fiancée is from Paso Robles!). We were sitting outside and a group of Austrian tourists sat down next to us and proceeded to speak to us in German, they spoke neither English  nor Italian – and we didn’t really speak German…but smiles helped!

We continued walking about the town - it is a very pretty place. Monterosso is the most ‘touristy’ of the five towns with the largest number of hotels and the only real beach. It has many small but tall houses located along twisting lanes that move up the steep hills. Terraced hillsides with stone walls dotted with all sorts of plants and vines hanging off the walls that date to Roman times.

Michelangelo, our guide, was a delightful young man in his early 30’s. He took us for a 2 ½ hour walk on the pathways around the town. Walking up and down the stairs and trails we were treated to wonderful views of Monterosso old city, the ocean and the headlands of Cinque Terre. Michelangelo, a university graduate with a degree in Environmental Science, was very knowledgeable of the flora and fauna of the area  and pointed out the caper vines, blackberries, pines, bushes etc. He exhibited a nice sense of humor and we thoroughly enjoyed the walk.  Our final point of interest was a 12th century Franciscan monastery and church overlooking the city. It’s grounds are currently used as an above-ground cemetery.





That evening, we met the other three members of this part of our tour for a walk into the new part of Monterosso and dinner at a restaurant specializing in local fish dishes.

After a pleasant breakfast in the garden Michelangelo collected us and we began our day’s trek from Vernazza to Riomaggiore.

We first took the train one stop to the town of Vernazza.  Michelangelo led us along the coastal path which links the five towns; it’s the lowest of the various paths linking the towns.  It overlooks the sea and passes through terraces of olive groves, grape vines, and lemon trees. The path is narrow and, in places, quite steep. Michelangelo would stop us often to draw our attention to scenic points and various species of trees and plants that were important to the history of the region.  Ini tially we met few people on the path but as the day wore on the number of hikers increased. We continued walking and soon stopped at a small snack bar perched on a hilltop overlooking Corniglia for a drink and a bathroom break before walking on into the town where we enjoyed an outdoor lunch. We passed through the town which is set on the top of a precipice which drops into the sea,


and then down an amazing series of switchback stairs that led from the town down to the train station. 



On to Manarola, a charming town set high above the sea. It’s a fishing village with the boats stored along the main street (they are lowered to the water using block and tackle). 


We ambled along a paved path named “Via dell’Amore - The Lovers Walk” into the last and smallest of the Cinque Terre towns, Riomaggiore. We had been walking up and down the hills for over 5 ½ hours and welcomed the short train ride back to Monterosso.




After a rest at the hotel Michelangelo took our group  back to the train and we rode to Corniglia where he led us through the streets to a small Trattoria: Cantina di Mananan. We were welcomed by Augustino, proprietor and barman.

What a fantastic meal and wonderful evening! Multiple pasta dishes particular to the town. Plates of the four different ways anchovies are served in the region were but one part of the antipasto dishes and the house wine was made by Augustino (our group finished four bottles) and his desserts were mouth-watering (especially his panacotta).  Augustino was a joy- full of life and ready to laugh. He even recited some poetry for us.  The four new group members we me at the restaurant left to catch the 9:30 train but the rest of us stayed and enjoyed the evening until 11 am when we walked back to the train station for the ride home.

The next morning we all met  for breakfast before we were to meet our new guide, Francesca, who happened to be Michelangelo’s wife, and take off for Tuscany. As we were seated waiting for the server to bring coffee, in walks in Ralph Edwards (one of our neighbors from Ojai)! We had known that he was going to be in Cinque Terre with his son and his family, but did not know if we would be able to cross paths. Ralph sat with us for a cup of coffee and we chatted for a while, met his son and then Francesca loaded us into her car and we were off.

She chose to take the scenic route towards Tuscany and we drove along the ridge overlooking the sea, the towns and the terraced vineyards. We watched the harvest as men picked grapes and loaded them into small funiculars that brought them up to the road. In other places we watched the grapes being brought down to the road in baskets carried by the pickers.


Click here to continue our Italy trip (Tuscany)