I often visit places because I like the concept of them, or I have seen or heard that they are pretty or interesting. Quite often this results in seeing a sight or place that is amazing, but perhaps limited in its beauty, or has one interesting thing to do, but the surrounds aren’t quite so great. When it came to Tuscany, I did wonder if there would just be a few rolling hills with the rest mundane plains, but it turns out that Tuscany is just plain stunning, and no matter where you look, you’ll be impressed.
I started my journey by flying into Pisa. Now most people would stay in Florence, but I’d managed to pick up some bargain flights to Pisa and I figured that I could commute. In the end, this did lead to some very long days (think 3, 14 hour days in a row!), but in order to see as many places as I want to, sometimes that’s the way it goes! Because Pisa is quite small, I was able to walk from the airport to my hostel where I was upgraded to a 2 bed share with a nice American student who was staying a month to study archaeology at the University of Pisa.
The Cinque Terre
After a rather disrupted sleep, (the hostel was right near the rail line and the first train at 5am was rather noisy – ear plugs were purchased) I rose bright and early for a day trip to the Cinque Terre. On route, we had an impromptu tour of Lucca, which I think would have been worth a visit in itself, but unfortunately that tour wasn’t available on the days I was visiting. Our guide told us that the villages themselves don’t have much historical significance, but due to their beauty they have been protected and fishing is now no longer allowed due to the ocean being a marine park.
After a stomach churning (2 storey bus, sitting at the back!) drive down the windy cliff face, we departed the bus and head out for a day of exploring. We first visited Manarola, which is one of the smaller villages, which was just opening up and getting ready for the day. After a quick explore, we headed onto the train to Vernazza. Now Vernazza is the village where you get that quintessential shot looking down on the hooked shape village, with the small bay and bright houses perched on the rocks. It did not disappoint, and a delicious piece of tomato, cheese and pesto focaccia sweetened the deal! After a scoop of gelati, it was time to depart on the train to Monterosso al Mare. (Click on the town names to read more about them on the Seize the Day Project)
Monterosso is one of the biggest towns and is split into the more modern town, with the older village to the side. Here we enjoyed a delicious lunch of pesto pasta, fresh fish and a slice of tiramisu for dessert. After such a feast, it was time to talk a walk and enjoy the sun, which had just decided to peak out from behind the clouds. I took my time walking along the cliffs, and found a comfy spot just to sit, relax, look at the sea and soak up some sun. It was fabulous to have some time to escape into the moment, and slow down from the hustle and bustle that being a teacher in the UK forces upon you.
Before long we were back on the train for a pit stop to Riomaggiore before heading back down to La Spezia to catch the bus home. All in all, the Cinque Terre was what I imagined and I had a fantastic day exploring them. After a small dinner at the hostel, it was time to bed to get some sleep before my 6:40am pick up the next morning.
Chianti, Siena and Montepulciano
After a slightly better sleep (I did go to bed with ear plugs in, but woke up with them on a table but cannot remember getting out of bed and doing that!!) I woke up to a yummy breakfast of pancakes, before heading out to the Tuscan countryside to visit San Gimgimignano, Chianti and Siena. It didn’t take us very long out of Florence; before we began to see the rolling hills that Tuscany is so famous for. The green is intense beyond belief and is striking in contrast to the ochre and earthy coloured buildings. This is the Tuscany I had dreamed of.
A lovely thing about Italy is that many of its walled cities still operate as cities, and don’t just run as tourist attractions. We arrived at San Gimgimignano on market day, which was the perfect opportunity to explore. The city itself is set upon a hill with the most majestic view of vineyards all around. What I wouldn’t give to live up in a turret and stare out at that view all day! The views do mean a lot of walking, particularly up hills, so I didn’t feel quite so bad about my indulgences of the day prior. After a scrummy pine nut biscuit, it was time to head to Chianti, where I reconfirmed I am no wine connoisseur.
Now I will try most wines, or new foods, but if anyone ever tells me their grapes grow in chalky soil I think I might opt out. The winery itself was lovely, but in my opinion Chianti wine tastes like sour chalky liquid and would best be consumed in cooking. That aside, the winery sure knew how to cook and we were spoiled with a charcuterie plate of cheese and meats before our main course of spaghetti Bolognese and a dessert of creamy pannacotta. By this point I was ready for a bus nap, but pressed on, excited to see Siena.
Whilst I was hoping for sunshine in Italy, I was greeted with a week of rain. Luckily I had brought my raincoat, unfortunately that couldn’t prepare me for the torrential down pour that greeted us in Siena. After purchasing a €5 umbrella I was a little better off, but my feet were completely soaked, and would remain that way for the next 6 or so hours. Ignoring the rain the best we could, we pressed on for a city tour, where we explored the city streets and learned about the different wards. (contrade). The city is broken up into 17 different wards and each have their own mascot and emblem. We started our tour in the ‘dragon’ district, and our tour guide was from the ‘unicorn’ district. Some of the other wards included, the snail contrade, the caterpillar contrade and the goose contrade. Bi annually, 10 of the contrade compete in a horse race around the town square (Google it to truly understand the madness!), which attracts over 20,000.
I was very excited to have a day out in rural Tuscany, and it made me look forward to the day ahead of me even more. Upon arrival in Florence to meet up with the main group, I met a lovely Canadian girl, and we became travel buddies for the day. Our first stop was a cute village with picture perfect views called Montalcino. By this time it was 11:30, so we decided on an early lunch. I feasted on spinach and ricotta ravioli in a pecorino and walnut sauce. It was bliss and the view out of the window made it all that much more special.
After a short drive, we arrived in Pienza, where we joined up with another two Canadian girls to explore the ancient city and to enjoy a scoop of gelati. Each alley way we looked down afforded us postcard perfect views. It was almost surreal.
Our last stop was at the iconic city of Montepulciano. For those of you who have seen Under the Tuscan Sun or Twilight, this village features in both. It is also a quintessential picture you will see if you ever buy a Tuscan calendar (I have owned a few in my time!) The city itself is extremely hilly and unlike many other villages, most of the houses are made out of stone and not painted. Of course we walked past the door where Edward threatens to walk out into the sun because his love for Bella is just all a little bit too much, but in reality, it’s the door of a gift shop, which is just a little less dramatic than the movie makes out. I did not see any Volturi!
Pisa on foot
By Friday I was quite tuckered out, and enjoyed a sleep in at the hostel (ear plugs firmly in this time!) I was walking distance from the leaning tower, so around mid morning I took a leisurely stroll to find it. Upon arriving I realised that it was going to be near impossible to take a decent shot by myself (earlier in the week I also realised I have way to many pics with my giant head in them so bought a selfie stick on eBay – yes I’ve become one of those people!!!) but wasn’t quite sure who to trust to take a photo for me.
The tower is quite a tourist spot and is surrounded by people trying to sell you fake, I mean ‘genuine’ Rolex’s etc. I came across a girl who looked in a similar predicament who was debating over whether to buy a selfie stick or not. Luckily she thought my suggestion to take a photo for each other was a good one, and after much adjusting, laughing and quite a few retakes, we managed to get a picture each that we were both happy with. I went mid morning, which meant my shot has other people in it. If you want to see Pisa without the crowds, I suggest going first thing in the morning or in the early evening. Another tip is to visit Italy during the winter, particularly the south which is still quite temperate compared to much of Europe.
After a leisurely wander back to the hostel, it was time to walk back to the airport for my flight home. All in all Italy was everything and more than I expected. The food is amazing, the scenery is breathtaking and there is history every which way you turn. In some ways I would love to have stayed and explored more, but I think being able to break our trips up into smaller chunks means we can explore more deeply and see everything with fresh eyes, rather than being on the go for weeks on end.
The round up
In Italy I: Ate a lot of pasta, enjoyed delicious gelati, got rained on, visited the cinque terre, travelled solo, amazed at the beautiful hills of Tuscany, went on a search for Italian sausage for Pete (and triumphed!), realised I’ll take prosecco over chianti any day, did not see a lot of Tuscan sun, ate a lot of pizza, took the typical leaning tower of pisa shot, met lots of lovely people, had a Twilight moment at Montepulciano, made it through three 14 hour tours without napping on the bus, started mentally planning my next trip back to Italy!