Monday, June 11, 2007

Tour of Tuscany 2007 - Part One

We had a wonderful trip to Tuscany and this blog includes a lot of details as well as photos. We've included the details for others who are interested in trip planning. Then, there are the photos for those who just wish to view the pictures (click on the photos to enlarge them).

Flying: We flew out of Raleigh Durham Airport (American Airlines direct flight) on May 29th 2007 arriving in London Gatwick the morning of May 30th. With a 12 hour layover, we went into London on the Kings Cross Thameslink train to visit our son (attending graduate school )during the day. We then flew out of Gatwick to Pisa on British Airways (2 hour flight).

Transition hotel: We spent the first night at a business hotel My Hotels Galilei within view of the Pisa Aeroporto The hotel was very modern, very quiet and top notch amenities. We weren't looking for ambiance, just rest and convenience. We had made our reservations through Travelocity and had a rate of only $124 US for a double room. Within view of the airport, it was a great place to recover from our long travel day and get a good night's sleep. The rate included all taxes, a buffett breakfast and a free shuttle to the airport where we picked up our rental car back at the airport on May 31st.

Driving: We had reserved a car through Dollar, but they sent us to AutoEurope who honored our reservation and upgraded us to a Mercedes Smart Four (a 4-door Smart Car). The car was wonderful, comfortable and very dependable. It was very powerful for driving the curving roads and hills of Tuscany. Best of all, it fit into the smallest parking spaces.

We were fairly comfortable driving in most of Tuscany, but there was quite a bit of excitement at times! Yes, the backroads have lots of hairpin turns, but the Italians know how to drive. While they are asssertive drivers, they aren't aggressive drivers. We didn't experience road rage nor see any accidents. If we drove too slow, we'd have drivers tailgating, but there are lots of roadside turnouts where we simply pulled over and let the faster traffic pass, then resumed our sightseeing pace.

As for navigation, we used a Michelin roadmap that we purchased before leaving the US. In Italy, you watch for signs for the towns and cities rather than road numbers. For example, you may be 100 miles away from Bologna, but if you're headed up the A1 out of Florence headed to Pisa, you follow the A1 toward Bologna, then watch for signs for Pisa. There are few stoplights and stop signs. Most intersections are roundabouts with signs pointing to the different little towns and major cities. The only time we had a problem with navigation was LEAVING Siena! The road signs there are very confusing. It took about 3 circles of the old city to figure it out! As for the A1 Autostrada -- it was very nice and had less traffic and less hassle than some of the other more congested main roads that were toll-free. The tolls were minimal for the times that we used the A1. The downside is that you won't see the gorgeous views unless you get off of the main highways and onto the scenic backroads.

Parking -- we always parked outside the "walls" of old cities to avoid getting a ticket. The old walled cities have tiny streets and limited parking which is reserved for the residents. You can usually find ample parking by watching for the large blue "P" signs for parcheggio. Most parking was free, but you may find you have to pay sometimes.

Scenic Drive Day 1: We departed Pisa around 9:30am and decided to just drive south along the coast through Livorno. It was easy to get out of the airport and onto the coastal road. Yes, the coast was beautiful once you passed the shipyards entering Livorno. We were thrilled with our decision to take this scenic route. We eventually turned east toward Volterra because it seemed to be worth a stop and we made it there by lunch. Along the winding roads, the views were amazingly beautiful as we saw vineyards and hills and what seemed to be castles and villas on almost every hill. Every little town was sparkling clean -- which was true throughout our entire stay. The only debris we saw turned up in the larger cities like Florence and Siena.

Volterra: This little town of Etruscan history has great ambiance, is easy to navigate, but there is a climb if you must park below the hill. We just grabbed a very quick lunch from a bar since we were on the road. You can find panini with cheeses and meats such as pecorino, mozarella, prosciutto, salami, etc. at most bars or pastry shops. They usually cost around 2-3 Euros and can be wrapped up to go. If you eat at a table or outside, there is usually an extra cost.

Colle Val d'Elsa: provided a quick and pretty gelato break for us. The Lido has the best gelato in the region as shown by all the awards on the wall. The elderly gentleman running the gellateria is very proud of his gelato and he was quite tolerant of our attempts at Italian. The cherries were in season, so we ordered the Amarena gelato and chocolate. The streets were empty except for the locals, so we felt like we were off the beaten path with this little stop.

Up at the Castle: Castello delle Serre was our B&B for two nights. The B&B is located south of Siena (no, we didn't stop this time -- saving it for a day with Chris) in the town of Serre di Rapolano. Sal, the owner, was truly hospitable and welcoming as was his son, Antonio. Semone, on staff, served us breakfast and made our cappuccini every morning. Yes, we would stay there again! Our room was large, the view out of our window was of the village, the bed was comfortable, the bathroom was totally modern and gorgeous. We stayed in the castle shown in the first photo below. We were welcomed with wine from the region and sat overlooking the neighboring church bell tower (for breakfast as well).

Semone (who makes a delicious cappuccino) was also wonderfully helpful by giving us driving directions and suggestions for our southern Tuscany visit. Based on his recommendations, we visited two abbeys -- Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore on the way to Montalcino as well as the Abbazia Sant 'Antimo on the way out. We included Pienza and Montepulciano on our day trip and made it back to the castle without any problems. It was a wonderful drive through scenic Tuscan wine country (Vino Nobile being #1) and we highly recommended it to anyone visiting that area.

Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore is really worth the extra time to visit. In addition to the beautiful chapel, they have a very interesting shop full of herbal and honey products that are produced by the monks at the monastery. It's basically a pharmacy of natural remedies.

Abbey of Sant'Antimo is located outside Montalcino.

Pienza! Okay, this was the town where you say to yourself "I could live here" as it is such a jewel of a place. . We were entertained by paying attention to all of the cute street names like Via Della Fortuna.

We had an incredible lunch at Latte di Luna where we enjoyed local pecorino cheese, bruschetta, pasta with truffles, local red wine, vin santo (dessert wine), etc. It is a tiny place and locals eat there, so you must be there promptly when they open for lunch to get a table. The staff was wonderfully patient with any mispronunciations as they didn't flinch at my poor attempts to speak only Italian to them as I never heard them use English.

Montepulciano was a quick visit due to our tight time schedule and the heavy rain coming our way. We made it up to the top of the hilltown and were on our way down before the rains set in. I'm sure it deserved more of our time, but we needed to head back to our B&B. No photos due to the rain.

By the way, we enjoyed two dinners at local restaurants in Serre di Rapalano. One was in a restored farmhouse and quite elegant. The other was a tiny little pizzeria that served the best pizza. Ingredients (everywhere we ate) were wonderfully fresh. We had to attempt to use Italian in these local establishments. Just a few phrases got us through ordering, asking for the bill (they won't bring it unless you ask) and thanking them.

After spending two nights at Castello delle Serre, we were heading for our next accommodations in Rosano (outside Florence) on Saturday, June 2nd. On the way, we stopped at Cortona (Under the Tuscan Sun) and took a scenic and white-knuckled drive through the mountains surrounding Florence. Since we were on our way to Rosano, we just grabbed a panini and water (always frizzante) at a local bar and sat on the steps in the main square to watch people and enjoy our lunch.