London Diary – Enchanting Italy

(Like other parts of the world, London is in lockdown, one upshot is that I finally found the time to blog about my trip to Italy.)

This is a 10 day holiday that took place at the end of October, 2019. My husband and I stayed 3 nights each in Florence, San Gimigano and Cinque Terre. We flew to Florence from London and back to London from Pisa. We didn’t need a car in Florence, but did preserve a car for the rest of the trip.

Three superb destinations in one, it was one of the most wonderful vacations ever. Each location is distinctively unique but all boast beautiful scenery, great arts and culture, delicious food and wine, fun shopping, sunny and warm weather to boot. I loved them all.

Florence

Is a beautiful town and easy to visit, everything is centrally located and within walking distance. We stayed at a B&B located at Piazza Firenze, which is brilliantly convenient, just around the corner to famous Piazza Della Signoria, a few blocks to Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, and a few blocks to Uffizi Gallery and River Arno.

We booked in advance for Uffizi Gallery, Gallery of Academy, where Michelangelo’s David is the main draw, and dome of Cathedral di Santa Maria del Fiore, which comes as a joint ticket with the Baptistery. One can also climb to top of the free standing bell tower at the cathedral, Giotto’s Campanile. Not having time for both, I opted for the taller cathedral dome. It is a 463 step climb but worthy for the spectacular view from the top. All are well worth a visit, and a good idea to book in advance. Other recommendations, check out Palazzo Vecchio at Piazza Della Signoria and Ponte Vechio (the bridge over River Arno topped with jewelry shops), take a walk along River Arno to Piazzale Michelangelo for stunning views, taste rich variety of Italian meats and wine, shop and eat at Marcato Centrale. Italian leather goods are famous for its quality and design and one find plenty in Florence at reasonable price. A special mention to Fish Lab at Piazza Firenze, a great little place to eat.

Tuscany

It is interesting and important to know that Tuscany’s famous wine Chianti is differentiated as Chianti Classico and Chianti, which are two different DOCG, with two different areas of production and characteristics. Chianti Classico is produced in the Chianti region spanning from Florence to Siena. Its symbol is a black rooster. Chianti is produced outside of the Chianti region.

Most popular destinations in Tuscany are towns and wineries in the Chianti region. Classico Route travels through the region connecting Florence to Siena.

My visit to Tuscany is based on this insight and I chose to stay close to San Gimigano. On the first day, driving from Florence to San Gimigano, we followed the Classico Route, stopping at Castello di Verrazzano and Vignamaggio (two wineries near the town of Greve), and two ancient towns of Panzano and Rada. On second and third day, we explored San Gimigano.

Chianti is enchanting. Rolling hills, acres and acres of vineyards, olive groves, cypresses and charming villas, its scenery is idyllic and mesmerizing. Never had I seen before such heavenly blend of natural beauty and human ingenuity.  

We stayed at Facttoria Voltrona, 15 minutes south of San Gimigano. It was dark when we arrived and we couldn’t see the surrounding at all. The next morning when I stepped out to the balcony, I was greeted by a wonderful vista of green hills, floats of morning mist in the valley, silhouettes of a villa preceded by cypresses and a hamlet perched on a high hill further beyond, all emerged picture perfect under a magnificent sunrise. I was gripped with joy!

Facttoria Voltrona is a charming Agrotourismo tucked in a secluded corner. An unpaved road connecting with the motor way ends here, no through traffic, only foot paths leading to Montauto (the diminutive hamlet on a high hill further beyond) and San Gimigano, among others. Montauto is visible from both of Voltrona’s villas. San Gimigano can be seen at the second villa across fields of vineyards and it makes a lovely picture.

Truffle hunting and wine tasting at Tenuta Torciano

Was a great experience. It was interesting to learn that while black truffles can be cultivated, white truffles can only be found naturally in northern Italy and that dog moms are fed with truffles to produce milk with truffle flavor and aroma and dog babies are thereby trained to identify truffles since birth.

San Gimigano

Is a charming medieval town with many distinctive rectangular towers. We had great fun walking through town, visiting, tasting meat and wine, and shopping.

Highest tower is Torre Grossa, which is part of Palazzo Public (Town Hall), and is located at San Gimigano’s main square, Piazza del Duomo, and right next to the cathedral. I highly recommended it, the view from the top is fabulous!

Another main square in town is Piazza della Cisterna, surrounded by interesting medieval houses, which now house hotels, shops and restaurants. The cistern underneath the piazza is capped by a travertine octagonal pedestal with steps, where tourists are often found to congregate. Vernaccia is a local specialty, a white wine produced only in San Gimigano. Borgo Tellena is a large wine and food store. Ristorante le Vecchie Mura is a super restaurant with beautiful dishes and a terrace with wonderful views.

Pisa

We stopped over in Pisa for a few hours on route to Cinque Terre and had time only for The White Field of Miracle, main attraction of Pisa. You can get join tickets for The Leaning Tower and Baptistery. Cathedral is free. It was pouring the entire time but still great to have visited. We did the touristy photo shots too, cliché but fun.

Cinque Terre

Means five villages in Italian. Built on the rugged Ligurian coast, Cinque Terre is dramatic and beautiful. Every turn and twist, from the villages, the footpaths in between or the sea, there is a postcard worthy picture waiting for you.

The villages are, from southeast to northwest, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Varnazza and Monterosso. Riomaggiore is the largest of the five, Corniglia the smallest and the only one perched atop a cliff far above the sea. Monterosso is the second largest but flattest, and boasts the best beach and a much coveted promenade. The most magnificent sunset is from Nessum Dorma in Manarola. While each has a spectacular belvedere, a better view of Corniglia is from the foot path leading to Vanarzza. The highest point is Prevo, a miniature hamlet midpoint on the footpath connecting Corniglia and Varnazza. The best view of all five villages is from the road not far outside of Riomaggiore’s village gate, leading onto SP370 towards La Spezia.

All are packed with colorful houses huddling against each other and all built on steep slopes. For those who are not fit enough, the best bet is to take the trains between the villages. For those who are able, it is worth exploring the villages on foot and walk the footpaths connecting the villages.

In addition to the fantastic views, the local cuisines featuring lots seafood are fabulous.

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