After a spectacular time in the city of Rome (that you can read about Here), we headed towards the places of love, romance, good food and great wine – Florence and Venice…rather, Firenze and Venezia!!
Day 1: Tuscany
We had pre booked our train tickets to Florence to reach at the Santa Maria Novella Station at 7 AM. The 1.5 hour journey was very comfortable aboard the Italo which we had booked through Trainline. Florence, as the train pulls in, feels like an old little Indian town or village. The slightly dilapidated houses, dusty roads and a busy station throws you off guard for a moment having arrived from Rome. But one gradually learns, that’s where the charm lies! We had booked a One Day Trip to Tuscany from Viator for about £100 each. But the actual tour is by the Florence group WalkAbout Tours. They were very organized and our guide Eliza led us to a coach(or bus) where we loaded our luggage and settled into the very comfortable seats. Our first stop in the state of Tuscany was the Medieval City of Siena! If Rome made me imagine walking against the giant Romans, Tuscany took me to the grass roots, with the locals of Italy in the medieval ages, making their way through the meandering roads and alleys, busy with their chores and lives. As we walked through the small town (yes, we walked through it in less than 20 mins!), we heard of the stories of Siena’s rivalry with Florence, of the Medici Family that ruled for generations, of the unique concept of Contrade (or communities) each with their symbols marking their areas. Hence we saw a Dragon here, a Rhino there adorning the walls of buildings based on the contrada family it belonged to. Siena is widely known for its unique mix of Romanesque Gothic and Renaissance Architecture.
The Duomo is a glaring example, its interiors bathed in spectacular marble panels. One can also see the Wolf of Contrade Lupa, breast feeding Romulus and Remus, Romulus being the legendary founder of Rome! The distinctive black stripes on the marble give the Duomo a striking look. A young Michelangelo’s work of Saint Paul, is considered to be one of his best pieces. The Piazza del Campo with its unique history of contrade horse racing is a place is to behold!
From Siena we headed on to a tiny farm in Chianti for a lovely lunch of Homemade Tomato Pasta, Dry Red & White wines with a lesson on wine tasting, and some delicious Cantuccini Biscotti with a dessert wine to be dipped into! The nearby town of San Gimignano is again a gateway to the medieval ages with its quaint houses, narrow footpaths and sloping streets. Here you get to eat the Best Gelato in the World (it has actually been awarded this title!!).
As the day came to an end, our last stop was Pisa. We decided to actually climb up the leaning tower and it was a wonderful experience, considering that I am scared of heights and claustrophobic and the tower induces claustrophobia to a great degree due to its narrow stairway and thickly bricked walls!! However, the 284 steps soon conquered and I had yet another goal ticked off my bucket list!!
Day 2 – Florence
Upon our return from Pisa, we had headed over to our Hotel Rosso 23 for about £70 a night. This was a distance of just about 5 minutes from the station, right next to the Duomo and the main square. The Hotel itself confused me a little – as its entrance, check in, and breakfast area was via the Garibaldi Blu Hotel next door. Looked like it belonged to the same group but under a different banner, which initially seemed shady. But the room was neat, the breakfast was very good and refreshing, and the wifi worked fine, so apart from the fact that the shower was literally not for humans even of my size, I had nothing much to complain about. I would absolutely recommend staying in this area as it was at walking distance to pretty much everything. The shopping streets were very close by. The famous market of San Lorenzo, known for bringing out the best of a person’s bargaining skills, was just 10 mins away. Florence is a haven for genuine Italian Leather. There are scores of shops, so lookout for the more authentic ones. Again, there are loads of restaurants in the area. We went for the Trattoria Zaza and had an unexpectedly lovely meal. The Bruschetta Florentine Style, Traditional Tuscan Ribollita Soup and Fresh Strawberries with Zaza Sweet Cream of Mascarpone Cheese Pudding were unbelievably good!! I especially liked the Ribollita Soup which is basically like a minestrone soup with break already soaked and cooked in it – sort of the Khichadi of Tuscany!! Shopping in Florence is a unique experience. The collections are so good, that you do not know what to pick and what to drop. The best part is that there are products for each budget. So there could be leather products and clothes for as low as 50 or 30 euros respectively as well as leather bags worth 200 euros!
A hidden gem in Florence however is the sprawling shopping complex, right under the SMN station! There are boutiques, leather stores and food stalls all waiting for you to discover!!
A recommendation I have is also visiting the Cinque Terre. This is a scenic coastline running along 5 villages renowned for its beauty and as a trekking destination. While we wanted to do this, we were just too exhausted after all the walking and decided to drop it.
Venice is a view to behold when you reach. As soon as you get off the train and walk out, you are engulfed by the vastness of the sea before you. A vaporetto can be easily booked to take you to the stop nearest to your accommodation. The views on the way are simply magnificent. Most houses are atleast 500 years old. Venice consists of about 118 islands with nearly 400 bridges. Every tiny bridge over a canal looks like a scene out of a romance! The place is bustling with energy with extremely narrow streets, shops on either side and throngs of people all around!! We had to get off at the Rialto Bridge and walk for about 5 minutes across many bridges and through many streets, almost giving up to being lost in the maze, when finally we reached our Hotel!! The Rialto Bridge is the oldest and one of the largest in Venice, with the old wooden one replaced with Marble many years ago for longevity.
We had booked our accommodation in the Hotel Rosa Salva for around £90 a night. The Hotel is wonderful from all respects! It has been newly renovated and is as modern from the inside as it is centuries old from the outside. There is the renowned Rosa Salva bakery of the same group right next door with some delicious smells wafting through as you pass by! And the Hotel is just a 2 min walk away from the San Marco Piazza where lies the San Marco Basilica and the Doge’s Palace!
The Piazza is simply spectacular…a row of Gondolas ties to their posts, Gondoliers with their trademark hats standing nearby, the buzz of shopkeepers selling their wares to tourists, the smell of water and the constant flock of seagulls flying overhead!
Gondolas can be expensive when hired at the Piazza. They charge about 80 euros for a simple trip around the narrow canals, 120 euros for a larger one including the Grand Canal, House of Casanova and Rialto Bridge and 160 euros for a complete tour of Venice. We hired a Gondola from one of the smaller bridges found all over the town. He took us on the Grand Canal tour for 100 euros. The beauty of a Gondola ride however, isn’t in watching the tourist attractions from the boat.
The pleasure is in sinking into the lush velvet seats that make you feel like kings and queens, with your beloved’s arm around you, enjoying the soft sound of water lapping at the Gondolier’s oar, watching the little oysters formed outside every house where the water meets it, listening to the little stories and songs the Gondolier shares and just breathing in the beauty of being in a place that, I am sure, is as beautiful as heaven!
Gorgeous Venice, Italy
Being the final lap of our trip, Venice to us was more of a quiet vacation than a sightseeing venue. For those of you who would like to see it all in Venice, there is the famous Opera – Teatro La Fenice for Music and Ballets, the Doge’s Palace, a Gothic style palace of the Duke of the Venice, The Saint Mark’s Basilica, The Bridge of Sighs, The Island of Murano known for glass making, and the Island of Burano, for lace production, both about 45 mins away from Venice and the famed museum Gallerie dell’Accademia. There are lots of shops selling beautiful trinkets made of Murano Glass and many other shopping options as well!!
While in Venice we decided to try out some of the Michelin Star restaurants. The first one was the Ai Mercanti. Buried in a tiny corner of the maze of streets, this restaurant looks completely unassuming from the outside. Of the dishes we tried here, the Garlic Spaghetti and Apparently Fried Egg in Potato Foam were really good. The place is definitely expensive, but not as much as The Bistrot De Venice!! However, the taste here was unparalleled too! The Scallops with Cream of Cauliflower and White Chocolate, roasted quinoa and purple cauliflower was cooked to absolute melt-in-mouth perfection, the complementary Cream of Artichoke with a dash of beetroot powder was to die for, the vegetarian Rissotto was bliss and finally the Tiramisu was a world apart!! On the last night in Venice, we accidentally discovered the restaurant right opposite our Hotel, Ai Due Vescovi!! The Crispy fried Squid (Calamari) and Spaghetti Aglio Olio here were simply out of this world! We ended up having some of our best meals at the end of our trip!!
Italy, to me, is one of the most beautiful places one can visit. More than the scenic beauty, what attracts me to this country is the history it is seeped in, which although in the past, continues to live and breathe even in the present!
A few final tips to you if you are planning a trip here : a) Italians are really warm and accommodative. Do not hesitate to ask for help anywhere! b ) If you are a vegetarian or even an Indian-style-non vegetarian, things might get a little difficult as European meals predominantly contain Beef and Pork in meat. If you eat sea food, you are in for a treat, because all of Italy seems to love their sea food. However, if like my husband who’s allergic to all but few seafood, that is not your cup of tea, all is not lost. Pizzas and pastas in all restaurants can be easily accommodated as per your tastes. All you need to do is ask. Linguine pesto, spaghetti aglio oli, roasted potatoes are evergreen things that any restaurant can dish out for you! C) Strictly avoid ordering things without googling if you do not know the language and their dishes well. Carpaccio dishes are made of raw meat and although very popular there, may not suit everyone’s taste buds. Keep your best friend Google with you at all times to understand what goes into a dish before you order it!
So there it is, All of Italy from me to you! My trip to the country where my baby, my site’s, name originates, did more than justify it!! Ahh La Dolce Vita!! Ciao Ciao!!