A few friends have asked me for my specific itinerary from my Italian Adventure this past May and June. I thought I would lay it out in brief here. It was a full 26 days with 2 towns on some days and one town for three days but each place will get one short paragraph and some photos. It will be long, but it’s a list, and who doesn’t love a list?!
PISA – More than just a leaning tower. I found Pisa to be very charming. There is a big University, which seems to anchor the city, in addition to that tower thing, which by the way, has a beautiful church adjacent to it. We stayed in an adorable old hotel just around the corner from the tower that included a breakfast spread to end all breakfast spreads and ate at a nearby restaurant that was oh-so-delicioso!
LUCCA – I really loved Lucca. All of the cities in Tuscany are surrounded by walls, and most are on impossibly high hills – both protection against invaders. Lucca is a rather large place with a contained city within the walls and a more suburban area outside. As I understand it, it is the only Tuscan city that still has its original wall completely intact. One reason for this may be its width. One, maybe two, cars could drive on it. Mostly you’ll find pedestrians and bicycles riding around the city. Inside the walls are the beautiful Duomo, Puccini’s home, copious gelato shops and quaint restaurants and a big, beautiful piazza. Also at one end is the Palazzo Pfanner with beautiful gardens. Leather is the craft of Lucca. Many of the leather shops within the walled city are owned and run by the families that create the goods.We went twice, once on a power tour of the big places and once we just meandered one street for hours ducking in cafe’s, specialty shops and restaurants.
CINQUE TERRE is on the Mediterranean Sea right next to Tuscany. It is a group of five towns, each with distinctive personalities nestled into the hillside above the sea. There are hiking trails that connect each town. At one point some of the trails were washed out so check before making the trek. You can reach these towns by land or by sea. We went by boat. It was awesome.
Portovenere – Just before the first of these towns is Portovenere. St. Lawrence’s church, built somewhere around 1520, sits high above the sea. A painter (Mori) sets up to capture the views and a harpist plays on the walkway leading the church. Not far from Mori is where Lord Byron walked out to sea never to return. Beautiful hill town on unbelievably blue water. A few smaller churches and charming residential section are on the hills while, restaurants and a few shops are down by the marina.
Portal into Portovenere in A Painter, A Harpist and A View
Vernazza – Full of Americans, but stuffed with Italian charm. Just off the boat and past the piazza there is a hole in a rock where the light comes through. We had to explore. On the other side is a beach covered in smooth rocks and gritty sand right on the sea. Like most of the 5 towns in Cinque Terre, this one has trails that lead to high above it. We walked it to get a bird’s-eye view of this colorful town. Back down just off the piazza, I met a woman journaling in a cafe. While her husband hikes, she writes, wanders and shops. They have breakfast and dinner together. It was a great vacation for both.
More Vernazza stories in Gelato First
SAN GIMIGNANO – Towers. Lots and lots of towers. I was surprised how many people were roaming the streets of this hill town in the middle of nowhere on a rainy day. But once we were among them it was easy to see its charm. Medieval, like most of them, this town boasts many towers – perhaps a contest of some sort. There is a huge duomo attached to one, or maybe more of these towers, and not far from it an old cistern that is now used as a wishing well. Despite the gray weather, the feeling was light.
More details about this special city here Another Day, Another Tuscan Hill Town
VOLTERRA – We had the most amazing tour guide here. Another ancient city high on a hill with impressive walls – double actually, outer and inner – to guard against invaders. Their history can be felt. Also known for their alabaster, there are shops with glowing statues and smooth figurines. We visited a shop that not only sold, but also fabricated, alabaster. It was ghostly and beautiful.
More photos and stories about Volterra in Don’t Mess with Volterra
MONTECATINI ALTO – We came here specifically to “take the waters” at the Grotta Giusti spa. Very interesting and I’m glad we did it. We first soaked in a mineral pool then descended into the steamy grotto beneath the earth. Felt a lot like Florida. Outside the spa the town itself is a charmer. Quiet and high on a hill, you can find beautiful Tuscan art and pottery in the stores and sweeping vistas of Tuscany from the roads surrounding the town. A family that sold olive oil out of their home and an adorable painter working and selling his wares, were near the funicular train. This cute elevated train carries people back and forth from the Alto to Montecatini Terme – a bustling city at the bottom of the hill we didn’t have time to explore. Looks worthy of some poking around.
CAMIORE – This is where we stayed, high above the town proper. This is not a place tourists would choose to come which makes it even sweeter. You really get a taste of small town Tuscan life here with great pizza, Italian beer, and wine of course. And let’s not forget the gelato shop with a line of locals out the door. A drive through place, but a nice afternoon.
Small town musings in Religious Festival Pizza
FLORENCE – Museum central. Highlights were the opera music over loudspeakers in the streets downtown by the duomo in the morning, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus at the Uffizi, sunset over the Arno from the Ponte Vecchio bridge, roof top bars with sweeping views of the city, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, gardens everywhere, sweet little paper shop at one end of the Ponte Vecchio and unbelievably delicious gelato. Way too much to love to list here.You cannot walk this city without bumping into a church or a museum. Great walking city and a great hub for all of Tuscany, Rome and Venice. A nice airport and a train station make things easy.
Many more Florence stories coming soon…
VENICE – My favorite place of the whole trip. We stayed in the Cannaregio which is largely residential. A short walk to the grocery store in one direction (also the direction of the big shopping district) and a short walk to “our” cafe on the open water in the other direction. We washed our clothes in a machine in the kitchen and hung them out the window to dry. St. Mark’s Square is huge and a must see, gave me goose bumps. There are dueling orchestras on the square entertaining diners and passersby. It was a winding hike from where we stayed but a fun walk through the major shopping district. There are other churches on the island that are worth visiting as well. There is a huge art district and the Jewish ghetto that were must-sees that we didn’t make it to. Perhaps one of the best parts of Venice is the absence of cars. After jumping onto curbs to avoid getting clipped in the other towns, there was no fear of losing an elbow here. And the water – loved the water. The sound of the water lapping the side of the building as you sipped your wine by an open window or drifted off to sleep.
Venice love stories coming soon…
MURANO – Glass making island. Quaint. You are probably familiar with their uber fancy glass chandeliers. In recent years they’ve had new artists do more contemporary works including glass bowls that look a lot like pottery. It’s fun to watch them blow glass and shop a bit, but mostly the island is pretty small. Quick stop, but worth it.
Look for Glass Class in the coming days…
BURANO – Most adorable island village on the face of the earth. Brightly colored town houses on waterways. Shops and restaurants along the main canal. Walking bridges over canals. Known for lace making, if you’re lucky, you can find an older artisan sitting in the middle of a lace shop working away. Some really beautiful clothes and incredibly decadent sheets with a hefty price tag. But the real charm for me were the buildings, I could have counted and named every single one.
Colorful musings about this magical place coming soon…
SIENNA – Bigger than it looks from the outside. This was a must see according to some good friends so we fit it in. It is a big and bustling place, both inside the walls and out. Outside, or rather, on the wall, were a number of art students sketching the rooftop views of the city from above. There is an enormous piazza in the middle ringed with great restaurants and sweet shops. I wish I could tell you more about it, but it was a quick stop on our way to Perugia.
Sienna stories soon…
PERUGIA – Huge city. It is the capital of Umbria and hosts two large universities and its own airport. It was much bigger than we expected. There is an old walled hill town that once stood alone. The hike up to it is arduous, steep inclines to the large gates, then steps up after that. But once up in the city, there are wide streets with tons of amazing restaurants and cute shops. This is the home of Perugina chocolate so that’s a plus. Walking further up there are amazing views of Umbria and the rest of Perugia. We had lunch at a cantilevered cafe overlooking the town beneath us.
So much to tell you about Perugia…
ASSISI – Home of St. Francis. His duomo and tomb anchor this town made entirely of light, almost yellow or even white, stone. Surrounding the town is the Umbrian countryside with rolling hills and farm land. Inside its walls are the usual artisan shops and restaurants. The cathedral has an incredible gallery and the gift shop is huge.There are lots of quiet pockets in this place adding to the sense of reverence.
Sweet stories of this reverent and beautiful place soon…
SPELLO – I fell in love with Spello. We were fortunate to be there during the infiorata – a religious festival celebrated with flower mosaics. We were there the evening before the big reveal. Domed tents were set up to protect flower petals from scattering as they were placed in paint-by-numbers fashion on drawn out grids. Everyone from kids to grandparents sat in separate circles or at tables plucking the petals from colorful flowers and placing them by color into separate containers. Hilly and quaint with window boxes and pots full of flowers all over town. The residents of this town are always in competition with one another over flowers. Everybody wins. On this particular night there was a festive air of excitement in the whole town.
Flowery language cannot be helped, soon, very soon…
PASSIGNANO SUL TRASIMENO – Accidental gem. We passed Lago Trasimeno on our way into Perugia but had no idea where to stop or if it was worth it. On our way back to Florence we decided to investigate. This was the sweetest spot! It felt like a beach town you might find in North Carolina. Restaurants along the main road by the water, a gelato shop in the park on the water, boats that regularly delivered people to the tiny islands in the lake. There was also a stone hill we couldn’t resist walking up. It was mostly residential with laundry hanging and cats sunning themselves, but the views of the lake through the stone buildings were spectacular. We ate at an outdoor cafe under the shade of a vine-covered pergola. I’d love to spend a week here writing or painting or just being.
A breath of fresh air ready to share soon…
ROME – It’s difficult to make Rome a list item. It is packed with tourists with selfie sticks. And that would have been my big take away if we hadn’t signed up for a walking food tour. Just past the coliseum and the Forum and the tour buses, through a park and around a corner is the sweetest suburb of Rome called Testaccio. It is the Italian food mecca. At least in Rome. Restuarants and stalls at the farmer’s market have been run by the same families for at least four generations. Just thinking about the food is causing my salivary glands to swoon. On this tour we also visited the non-Italian cemetery where Keats and Percy Shelley are buried. It is a must see. Back in Rome proper, we found the Tiber river. It’s very brown and muddy and nothing like the sparkling Arno of Florence. Near where we stayed, with a little perseverance, we found the restaurants and cafe’s that catered mostly to locals. The servers were more relaxed and the food was delicious. Also around the corner from our home for three days, we found a small piazza surrounded by a few bars that served as an al fresco meeting place. Seemed like happy hour so we joined them. We were a block from the coliseum and the Forum and just around the corner from many ruins. We never made it to the Vatican – that felt like a whole day and we didn’t have it to spare, but we did see the coliseum, the forum, the pantheon, Spanish steps, Piazza Navona and wandered the streets endlessly. The Trevi fountain was closed for repairs while we were there.
Tomes on Rome in the very near future…
All the cities we visited were easily walkable. I would not advise driving in the big cities and there are rules about driving in and or near the walled cities – parking is a process. But there’s really no need for a car. To get from town to town I recommend the trains. They drop you right into town and you can walk around and grab a train back. We took the high-speed train from Florence to Venice – 2 hours. It’s about the same to Rome from Florence.
I would go back to so many of the places we visited but there are so many other places in Italy I’d like to experience; Elba, Pompeii, Sicily, Verona, and other small southern coastal towns some locals recommended. I could not go back to Italy without spending more time in Venice though and if I was close enough to Spello, I’d go there too.
The best part of this beautiful country for me was the grounded feeling of the people. They comfortably lean back into their ancient roots, they know who they are and from where they come. That was profound and tangible and a quality seldom found in the U.S.
When I returned home, I bought tons of flowers and pots to replicate that feeling of provenance. Still working on it. But Italy will always be with me.