Our final stop was Florence, a city we had both briefly visited and had lukewarm feelings about. Fortunately this visit was much more rewarding. On a sunny spring day we shopped and explored taking in the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio, a medieval stone bridge now lined with dazzling jewellery shops, a step up from the original tenants – Florentine butchers. Due to the spontaneous nature of our visit we didn’t make it to the Uffizi, known for its staggering queues if you haven’t reserved tickets. Instead we sipped on granita and Campari in a sunny square overlooking the Duomo and indulged in a long lunch of Florentine treats at a hole in the wall trattoria frequented by locals dining at communal tables. The only indication of a restaurant within were glimpses of hanging prosciutto from the doorway.
We were keen for somewhere that would allow us to read, take in the views and relax for our last two days in Italy. Serendipitously due to our hotel double booking we found ourselves with our own two bedroom Tuscan villa overlooking the olive groves about 20 minutes out of Florence. Although it would never have passed RC’s budget accommodation test, thanks to Wotif picking up the tab, it was a wonderful end to the trip. We took advantage of having a kitchen to feast on local goodies on our final night. Packing up on our last day we were sorely tempted to take an extra week and head south to Sicily or hop on a train to France but it will just have to wait a little bit longer.
Next stop: Melbourne!
We took advantage of a favourable forecast to make the trip from Lucca to the Cinque Terre. Until 100 years ago these five brightly washed towns that are precariously built into the coastal cliff face were cut off from the rest of Italy, except by sea. Luckily a train line that is part engineering feat, part tourist spectacle now makes them accessible. There is also a series of hiking trails connecting the villages but in RC’s present condition we opted for a combination of train and boat to village hop.
It is difficult not to make comparisons with the Amalfi Coast. Like its southern coastal cousin driving should be avoided at all coasts. Unlike the Amalfi the Cinque Terre has not had the benefit of centuries of trade and investment. There are no duomos or grand squares. The densely built towns consist of a jumble of gelaterias, seafood restaurants and small shops spruiking local wares. They are more akin to a cluster of colourful fishing villages than a sophisticated seaside resort. The Italian tourism board would do well to market them as such as they are all the more charming for it. Although Amalfi is still our pick for renting an apartment for a year, approaching the Cinque Terre by sea to be greeted by a sorbet coloured town tucked into the cliff was breathtaking.
We came to Lucca on a whim. A barrister couple we know had relocated their family for an Under the Tuscan Sun year and we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out that Lucca is a bit of a gem. Reminiscent of the south of France with grand cafe lined squares dotted through the city, tree lined boulevards and cobble stoned lanes bustling with shoppers. Candlelit trattorias are tucked down laneways, the church per square metre ratio is high and at night jazz and locals spill out onto the street from buzzing bars. Within its medieval walls the town is virtually car free and children and adults cycle around, gelato in hand, until late into the night. It is wholesome, lively and elegant.
Our hotel, a beautifully restored palazzo, overlooked the duomo and one of the many town squares.
On our first night we took in the permanent festival in honour of Lucca’s most famous son, Puccini. Two wonderfully different sopranos performed from the scores of Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Turnadot. Although performances take place every night the program is never repeated. It was one of the most exhilarating performances we’ve attended and left us sufficiently enchanted to immediately book another night in Lucca. With more time we could easily have stayed another month.
From our Chianti base we ventured to nearby Siena, crossing paths with a stream of original 1960s Fiat 500s out for a joyride in the Tuscan countryside.
Twice a year thousands of visitors flood this medieval town for Palio, a barebacked horse race around the city square. The race dates back to the 1600s as a way to settle rivalry between the 17 city wards. It’s caused more than its fare share of fatalities as the jockeys navigate tight corners around the magnificent Piazzo del Campo. We took in the spectacular scene stopping for drinks at one of the cafes dotting the square. The first race is a few months away but during our visit drummers beat through the streets practicing for the preceding pageant.
We continued our cathedral tour of Italy at the marvellous duomo. Construction hit a setback in 1348 when the plague wiped out 2/3 of the population of Siena. What was ultimately constructed is mind blowing and home to masterpieces such as The Feast of Herod by Donatello. A visit to Siena would be worthwhile to see the Duomo’s Piccolomini Library alone. Every inch of wall and ceiling space is painted with mesmerising jewel toned frescoes based on designs by Raphael. It certainly gives rival neighbour Florence a run for her money.
From Rome we motored north to Tuscany. We briefly passed through the region returning from Venice last year and had placed it firmly on the itinerary for our next trip.
En route we stopped in Orvieto, an Umbrian hill town between Rome and Florence which rises dramatically above a cliff face. This is a town that has the colder months down pat. Wood fire smoke wafted through the cobble stoned streets and the trattoria menus featured wild boar, truffles and all manner of porcine goodness. We lunched on fresh pasta generously showered with shavings of white truffles and the local bruschetta topped with salty guincale (think bacon) and aged balsamic. Although this ancient city dates back to the Etruscans, it rose to fame in the 13th century when a skeptical priest who questioned whether the bread used in communion was really the body of Christ found his daily loaf bleeding during Mass one day. The Pope, who was visiting Orvieto at the time, caught wind of it and marked the miracle by building a Duomo. This magnificent Cathedral, rivalling those in Florence and Siena, seems both disproportionately ostentatious and rather magnificent in this small town.
We soon veered off the autostrada again, this time bound for Radda de Chianti, our Tuscan base for the next few days. Radda is a medieval hilltop town surrounded by stone walls and filled with narrow winding streets. It overlooks emerald green fields dotted with stone farmhouses and the surrounding countryside has more than its share of the region’s renowned vineyards and castles. Our accommodation is the stuff of British mini-break dreams. Draped in wisteria and overlooking the city walls, it’s filled with grand fireplaces, a candlelit cellar restaurant and a wine room without a straw covered bottle in sight.
Our last spell in Rome left us vowing to return. A little less than a year later we have, with a small addition, and we could think of few better cities for a pre-baby escape. If nothing else seeing hoards of locals out at all hours of the day and night with immaculately dressed, impeccably behaved bubs gave us hope for post-baby life. Although all the waiters we encountered appeared deeply offended when RC declined a glass of wine, as if we had brought some horrendous American notion of healthy pregnancy behaviour to the land of dolce vita.
We stayed again near Campo de Fiori, a bustling food market this time filled with the last winter squash and early spring artichokes, peas and broadbeans. Although the weather was a few degrees cooler than our last visit the new season strawberries and tomatoes were startlingly sweet. Best of all for the cost of your basket of bread, milk and apples back home you can throw in a couple of handmade cheeses, proscuitto and a slice of cherry tart. In the wee hours awoken by jetlag we listened to the lively arguments in the street below as fishmongers, butchers and green grocers received their deliveries.
Our first afternoon saw us return to Piazza Navona for overpriced Camparis overlooking the fountains followed by the first stage of our cathedral tour of Rome.
The next day we made our way to Villa Borghese at the northernmost point of the city. Our guidebook omitted to inform us that tickets for the gallery must be purchased weeks in advance. Luckily umbrella wielding touts were on hand as a spring shower broke out during our stroll through the gardens. Usually quick to wave away the red rose spruiker, we were more generous with our euros this trip, having watched Italy: love it or leave it at the Melbourne International Film Festival which explored the deplorable living conditions and uncertain fate of the immigrant tout in Italy. We then slowly made our way south. First stopping at the magnificent Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Palazzo Barberini, home of Caraveggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes and Holbein’s Henry VIII. Lunch saw us return to our favourite trattoria near the Spanish Steps for zucchini flowers, carpaccio and lobster with handmade pasta with wine for one at the bargain price of AUD60. A spot of afternoon shopping preceded the next stage of our Cathedral tour, the highlight of which was the Basilica San Lorenzo in Lucina, home to a piece of grid iron on which St Lawrence was roasted.
Apart from the climate the other noticeable difference was that the city was inundated with oversized Americans whining in a chorus of childish voices and all seemingly destined for cruise ships.
We spent our final morning on the rooftop of our accommodation vowing again to return, this time with our own brood of immaculately dressed, impeccably behaved bambinos.
After 4 months away from home we ended our trip in the most beautiful city in the world. From Umbria we travelled north stopping first in the buzzing student town of Ferrara. We loved its old wine bars and medieval castle but after Spoleto we particularly enjoyed the vibrant centre where many shops were open until 11pm and the streets were packed until the wee hours.
Our second stop was Padua which we explored at length on foot looking for somewhere to stay. The old town is surrounded by a canal with few cars allowed within. The architecture reminded RC of Calcutta with grand covered esplanades lined with shops and restaurants. It was also there that we experienced our first earthquake complete with swinging chandeliers and rattling windows.
From Padua we made our way by train to Venice. With only a tote bag by way of luggage it was a joy to be unencumbered after weeks of carting suitcases around. It was our first trip to Venice together, though we have both been there before, and it was pretty damn perfect. The weather was spectacular and the city wasn’t excessively crowded (by Venetian standards). We watched a boat race on the Grand Canal, indulged in a cocktail in glamorous St Mark’s square (fending off the pigeons all the while) and visited San Zaccaria, home to one of Giovanni Bellini’s masterpieces. On our first night in Venice we attended a spine tingling Vivaldi concert, perhaps one of the best performances we’ve heard, held in a grand church. What followed was the highlight of our time travelling; a midnight gondola ride. Whereas during the day gondolas jostle for positions in a canal traffic jam, tourists are snapping away and the water is buzzing with ferries, late at night there is no one else on the water for much of your journey and the city is wonderfully quiet. By moonlight we travelled silently down canals past palaces and churches. We caught glimpses of sumptuous Venetian interiors warmly glowing in the night and it was the first time in that bustling city that we felt it could as easily have been 1512 as 2012. We couldn’t recommend the experience more strongly but only once the city is truly in the depth of night.
The next morning took us to the other technological extreme and we purchased a 12 hour ferry ticket to explore the city by water. Tapping on and off Metcard style, we first circled Venice before island hopping between churches. We stopped for lunch and a lengthy discussion with two French ladies about Sarkozy and Obama before continuing our journey. We particularly enjoyed San Giorgio Maggiore, a 16th century church on a small island of the same name designed by Andrea Palladio. The views from the belfry over St. Mark’s square and the Dodges Palace were breathtaking. We spent our last evening around the beautiful Rialto bridge sipping campari and nibbling on cicchetti (Venetian finger food) by the water before taking the last train home.
Thank you for reading along. Wordpress tells us we’ve had thousands of hits – thanks Mum and Dad, you can resume regular internet browsing now! We’ve enjoyed writing this immensely, generally tapping away over breakfast each morning and sometimes on trains and buses. We couldn’t have asked for a better holiday but when it’s time to come home Frank says it best:
Next stop: Melbourne!