Italy has so many fantastic places to go, but make sure Tuscany and it’s hill towns are one of the areas you visit!
This is the second half of the story about my trip to Italy. I can’t say this was my favorite part of the trip because Rome is…well…ROME!! Nothing can compare to it! However, I am not in love with big cities, I love the country, and you can’t find a more beautiful countryside than Tuscany!
On the 5th day of our trip, we packed our bags in Rome and rented a car to drive up north to Florence or Firenze as it is called there. I’ll just put a word in for GPS systems because ours saved us! Neither my husband nor I can speak Italian and the road signs are a bit different there. One sign will mention restaurants, businesses, and oh yes, you better turn here for Firenze! Yikes. Honestly, I was on edge the entire trip to Florence. We didn’t have our guide anymore and without knowledge and understanding of the language, you already feel at a disadvantage. I wasn’t sure how often there would be roadside “rests” if you know what I mean, and with the Italians driving at 120 miles per hour, you could get run off the road to a “rest” of another kind! When we finally pulled into our hotel, about three hours later, all I wanted to do was roll up in a ball and sleep. Thank heaven my husband can get me out of my fear-funk and we cleaned up to go into the city for sight seeing and dinner.
Florence is considered the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. It is the center of art and architecture with its magnificent Florence Cathedral and the San Giovanni Baptistery just peaking into the forefront of the photo on the left. Florence is also the home of the Uffizi Gallery displaying the most celebrated artists in the world. You’ll find work by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Brunelleschi, Donatello and more…
Unfortunately, this trip didn’t allow us the time to browse the galleries. So, I used this early evening to soak in the sights of the city. I found this sculpture placed in a modest little garden up against a church quite interesting. The contrast between the smooth carving of the woman sitting and the rough, weather worn stone of the church was just beautiful.
Speaking of contrast, from the epitome of culture, above, to an incredible display of modern technology on the street, have you ever seen so many scooters in one place? Who says THIS isn’t art?
Or at least a portrayal of our culture today?
Certainly the food of an area is part of the experience and boy oh boy did we have food! This fabulous sampler plate has the “egg” portion of it missing because I didn’t think to snap the photo in time and I guess my husband was starving! These sampler plates were a great way to taste more of what each area had to offer.
This meat dish wasn’t a selection of mine, but I tasted a few items. There is a lot of sausage and salami eaten in Italy and many of them are made out of Wild Boar. These rich meats were either too spicy for me or too greasy. They do make a nice looking “meat lovers” dish, and I’m sure my little boy would have been in heaven. Now add a side of a variety of cheeses and the whole thing would have made much more sense to me!!
Day 6: Hill Towns
Tuscany is a region of Italy whose capitol is Florence. It is a hilly country and many walled towns were formed at the tops of hills to give them a strategic position in case of attack. Often, it’s the hill towns that are the destination, but let’s not forget that the winding trip to those hill towns is spectacular!
Well, these walled towns are full of character, history, some shopping and certainly dining. They are the perfect getaway from a rushed, stressful, life. (I don’t have this but my husband sure does!)
The first town we went to was Volterra. This shot is taken from inside the city wall to show Tuscany in the distance and the road way down below!
Most of the hill towns are for foot travelers only. You find a parking lot at the base of the hill and walk into the towns through openings in the wall. This opening is for both foot and car traffic. Cars are allowed for residents of course, but you can see just how narrow and perhaps a bit how inclined the streets are as they travel up, up, up to the summit!
Here I am taking a break from climbing on one of the residential streets. I’ve climbed quite a bit already and you can see that the read doesn’t end anytime soon behind me!
You might also note that the resident to the left of me has hung their laundry out to dry. Across the way, other residents have decorated their front doors with some plantings to bring a little green to the stone, stone, and more stone!
However, there were more residents that went above and beyond when it came to adding a little green around their front doors. This place was magnificent and it was just one of hundreds that I saw. I think the green, the texture, the color and the flowers were so much more dramatic because of the contrast of them to the streets and buildings.
Shopkeepers and restaurateurs also knew the importance of creating a welcoming entrance. Tell me you wouldn’t walk up this little hill to just take a peek at what’s inside!
Many of the same themes prevailed. There were sunflowers everywhere as décor, as bouquets, painted on ceramics and of course painted in oils on canvas!
This restaurant made us particularly happy as lunch time approached. You see the boar’s head mounted aside the door which was typical. But, take a moment to notice the details. The color of the building is beautiful. You can see that just like the residents, there are hanging baskets of flowers along with pots of shrubbery. The door trim and window trim above is all stone and the iron at the window adds character. Now if I could just understand the menu board at the door, I’d be in heaven!
Guess what? It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the menu board. Actually, most Italians do speak some English because they learn it in school like we might learn Spanish. Some are better than others and in most restaurants they do speak English.
Bruce chose the meat, cheese and bread platter on this day and I just thought it looked so appetizing. So much of what we were served looked so pretty that it has made me think a little bit more about my presentation when I put some of the recipes together that I share with you.
In most cases, we ate outside under a canopy or umbrellas, but most of the hill town restaurants had fabulous (and cold) cellars that were set up for wine tasting and dining. This one had many levels slowly winding lower and lower under the buildings….a bit spooky but with great ambience! If I ever visit Italy in the cooler months perhaps I’ll give this a try, although the amount of wine consumed in these cellars is probably the reason for the cooler temperatures!!
This is another view of Volterra from around the corner but still within the town walls. See how far up the walls were built? You can even see the ruins of an ancient amphitheater at the bottom right of the photo. This was discovered buried under centuries of garbage that the residents would simply toss over the hill!
The view a little further along the wall allows you to see the remains of a two story theater and the seating coming up towards us on the hill.
Well, as the day came to a close, it was time to head back to Florence, our home base. We wanted to get an early start because we were probably about an hour and a half from Florence, and our path led us along winding, narrow roads and many roundabouts.
Our hotel was of a very contemporary design, again quite a contrast to the ancient buildings of the city. I took some pictures of the space because it was so intriguing. Our bed was floating in the middle of the room, but the “headboard” was a desk. The walls were all white as was the bedding and draperies but warmth did come from a wood floor.
The glass top of the desk kept things light and airy in a fairly small space. We each had a light above our heads on the desk top and a little controller that turned off the lights and made the blackout blinds in the windows go up and down….FUN!
Every hotel room we stayed in had this contraption in the wall just as you enter your room. Can you see that I have placed my room key in the slot at the top? This is the only way the air conditioning or lights will work. The key must be in the slot! So my suggestion to you is go ahead and pay the bellman to take your bags to your room so you can find out important information like this without having to figure it out on your own!!
I thought our bathroom was lovely. The frosted glass door slid shut for privacy, most of the walls and floor was travertine and the glass shower with very contemporary faucets was very attractive as well. Notice that the light switch is outside the bathroom…this could make for some shenanigans if you have a jokester in the family!
See how pretty the vessel sink was? My only problem was that there wasn’t enough space on the actual counter for both of us to open our toiletry bags. I tried to slide most of my stuff under the sink on the counter. The towels were always warm, sitting on the metal towel warming rack beneath.
I know that to some, taking a photo of the toilet and bidet is a bit strange, but they were such a sharp design. And, at least in the hotel you don’t have to pay to use them! In most of the hill towns I had to pay to use the restroom. That’s where all my souvenir money went!
Day 7: Siena
Yes, more hill towns! This morning we headed out towards the south and Siena. And, let’s not forget that the trip to the destination is just as lovely as the destination itself! Notice the grape vines in the foreground and the rows of vegetation on the middle left are probably olive trees!
Piazza Del Campo is the most well known spot in Siena. It is the location of the annual horse race where the ring around the piazza is for the horses and the people watch from in the center. There are restaurants and cafes around the perimeter with street venders here and there to make it interesting.
The Duomo or Cathedral of Siena is a wonderful example of Italian Romanesque architecture. The tower with its green and white marble stripes is reminiscent of the Baptistery in Florence. The building was being worked on as you can see from the crane in the background. Wow what a view from there!
Outside the Cathedral was this sculpture of Romulus and Remus and the she wolf that raised them. This is how Rome was created. Romulus founded Rome and Remus’ son Sienus founded Siena. Of course there is a lot more to that story but I won’t go into it here! Hahaha!
Inside the Cathedral it is quite dark and of course there is no flash photography so shots were a little more difficult to get. However, you can get a feel for the immense scale and rich color from this dramatic shot of the columns.
This is a photo of just one small area of the floor. Everywhere were beautiful depictions our of every color marble imaginable. This one is again Romulus and Remus, and the lettering is SENA or Siena. The other animals represent other major cities in Italy. See the rabbit? It says PISA!
Also lining the upper nave of the cathedral were busts of all the past Popes. I suppose it was meant to look beautiful and be a tribute, but it was just scary to me. They seemed to follow you wherever you went!
There were other things, the simple, everyday things about Siena that I liked as well. I haven’t mentioned food in a while, so let’s go back down that road! Along many of the narrow streets were the markets that the residents used to survive on a daily basis. Now here is where I could see shopping very afternoon for your dinner supplies. It’s a lot easier when the market is footsteps away from your home! Doesn’t everything look tasty?
I took this shot for Matt. This was a wine shop and this was the lovely display in their window. I have to admit, some of the things that may seem commonplace to the Italians was a little too graphic for me.
Then I do believe the “piece de resistance” (although that is French) was the gelato shop in Siena. They had it mounded 18” high with real fruit and nuts or sprinkles covering the outside. It was one of those things that was just too beautiful to eat……not!!!
Well, I’m only half way through my visit to Tuscany and already I’ve rambled on long enough. I think I’ll write a third article to hopefully finish off the travel log of this marvelous trip to Italy. I hope you’ll join me next time when we continue on to San Gimignano, Montepulciano, and Pienza.