Tuscany, Italy

The ash cloud again relented and our flight from Yorkshire to Pisa left a few minutes early. We even managed to get our luggage under the weight limit for Ryanair - 15 kgs - no small achievement as we had 22 kgs of luggage each when we left Orlando. We left some clothes with Sarah in Belfast and more clothes in Yorkshire - which we will reclaim on the way back.

Pisa is a wonderful change of pace from both Ireland and the UK. For one thing, it's warm and we are able to get around in shirt sleeves, even at night. Pisa is a wonderful old city and we were thrilled by the many narrow streets, Romanesque buildings, Gothic Churches and Renaissance piazzas. On Thursday, after checking in to our hotel, the Bologna, we took a quick tour of the city and then slept for four hours ! We were more tired than we thought. Then we went out for dinner at a Osteria close to the hotel, and came back to the hotel to slept again.

Finally, this feels like we are on vacation ! 

                  Always time for window shopping

On Friday, we HAD to see the Leaning Tower. We had seen it before, on our way back to Paris from Florence in 1992, but at that time, they were trying to stop it tipping over and the renovations made it  difficult to see and impossible to climb. Now it has been stabilized, renovated and beautifully cleaned.  We arrived at the Piazza dei Miracoli expecting to see a long line of tourists waiting to climb the tower, but to our surprise  we were able to buy a ticket and head straight up - literally. We climbed all 294 steps to the top (out of breath by the half way mark) but the view was worth the exhausting climb.

Of course, the famous (leaning) bell tower was only an afterthought for the spectacular Pisa Cathedral and Baptistry which are only a few feet away !

It's a long way down and it's a long way up

Cathedral exterior

Pisa to Montecarlo and Lucca

Although the  Europcar office was only a short walk from our hotel, getting a rental car proved to be much more of a chore than we had anticipated. When we arrived, the office was full of people waiting for cars because the computers were down, slowing the check out process to a crawl. When it was finally our turn, we found out that they needed to see a passport which we did not have with us. This necessitated a round trip walk back to the hotel and then another wait in line. After all this, the agency had run out of economy cars and had to upgrade us to a nice sporty black Alfa Romero, which was being refuelled, so we had to wait another fifteen minutes for the car to arrive. Finally after over two hours of waiting we were on our way down the Autostrada to Montecarlo.

We had originally planned to stay at Fattoria Cercatoia Alta in Montecarlo because it was to be the location of Paul's old friend Peter's 60th birthday party. Although Peter had changed his mind about coming (twice - just like Peter), we decided to stay there anyway. The old walled town of Montecarlo is located on a hill about thirty minutes from the World Heritage city, Lucca. Thanks to our GPS we found the Fattoria quiet easily and our hosts Sao and Angelo greeted us and showed us our home for the next four nights. About seven years ago Angelo sold his successful restaurant in Twickenham, England and brought a vineyard in Tuscany. Along with a sizeable acreage of vineyards and the buildings and equipment for wine making, the three story home has four individual rental apartments. Sao and Angelo were kind enought to put provisions in our apartment including bottles of their red and white wines, which were both very good. We enjoyed chatting to both Sao and Angelo about their life in Italy, a lifestyle they obviously enjoyed.

 The winery at Montecarlo and our hosts from Sao and Angelo 

Sao and Kris chatting

A view from the front of the winery down to swimming pool

That evening we drove into Lucca for dinner and to attend a music concert at Chiesa di San Giovanni, a converted church. The city of Lucca, hidden behind imposing Renaissance walls, was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. Walking through a maze of narrow, winding cobbled alleys you can just imagine what it must have been like in the 13th century. Sao had told us to park in the Piazza Garibaldi, but our GPS tried to send us down one way streets and finally we gave up and parked in the nearest space we could find.

We found a small restaurant for dinner and then headed to the concert which turned out to be the music of two modern Italian composers. Unfortunately after every song the singer would go into a long explanation about what inspired the composer to write the song. Even in English, it would have been rather dull, but in Italian it was really painful. It was dark when we left the concert and found our way back to our car through the badly lit alley ways. Driving out the town through a maze of narrow alley ways in the dark proved to be a nightmare. The GPS had no idea where it was going and neither did we. After making many wrong turns, we came to an area that seemed a bit lighter and it was then that we realised that we were driving along a pedestrian mall with everyone looking at us as if we were idiots.

It was a bit like a tourist getting lost and driving through the Italian pavilion at Epcot. We had no choice but to keep driving but then we were terrified that we would come to a dead end and not be able to turn around. At this point Kristine got out of the car to scout the area ahead. Fortunately she could see an open space ahead and we crawled in that direction. After what seemed like hours of driving (but was probably no more than 15 minutes) we exited through one of the old town gates and found ourselves on the main road. Phew !

As soon as we thought we were in the clear, all hell broke loose, with cheering crowds at the side of the road, cars honking and waving banners and scooters weaving in and out of traffic as though they had a death wish. And this was at 11:00 pm at night ! This continued for miles and we were completely baffled and not a little nervous. Turns out Italy had won the European (soccer) championship that night - in a another part of Europe - and the local fans we were celebrating on the streets.

Lucca really was a fabulous town and we wanted to go back in the daylight and see more  of it. So the next day we drove back and this time we parked outside the town walls. We retraced the drive thought the pedestrian mall and this time we saw the blue arrows on the side of some of the old buildings that indicated the way out of the city. Easy when you know what you are looking for !

The street we drove down, taken in daylight the next day

The Garfagnana

 About an hour's drive from Montecarlo nestled between the Apuane Alps and the Apennines are three stunning valleys formed by the Serchio River and its tributaries: the low lying Lima and Serchio Valleys and the higher Garfagnana Valley. We explored some of the lovely hill towns: Castrinuovo di Garfagnana, Castiglione di Garfagnana and Barga.

 Florence and on to Siena

We stayed in Florence for two days during our last visit to Italy in 1992 and had decided not to stay overnight on this trip. However, as we  passed Florence enroute to Siena we decided to spend a few hours in this lovely city It was a beautiful sunny day and although May is considered early in the season you would never know it by the throngs of tourists posing for photographs on the Ponte Vecchio and in the Piazza del Duomo. Florence really is a beautiful city and we enjoyed lunch at a cafe by the Arno and strolling along the ancient streets admiring the architecture. We could not leave without a visit to the beautiful Gothic Duomo and the 11th century Romanesque baptistry.

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence

 The Cathedral and the Baptistry, Florence 

One panel from the bronze doors of the Baptistry and a striking detail from the Baptistry ceiling (yum yum, non-believers for dinner)


We arrived in Siena around 3:00 pm and once again we struggled in the maze of narrow streets to find our bed and breakfast, the Antica Residenza Ciogna,  so we parked the car next to a worrying tow-away sign and went in search of the B&B on foot. The B&B is in a lovely building in the middle of the oldest part of Siena and our room has ornate frescos and antique furniture but it would have been much easier if we could have parked the car nearby instead of a fifteen minute walk away. 

 The exterior door of our B & B

Our bedroom - note the decorated ceilings

We found a nice little restaurant and dined al fresco along with an American family from Tampa and a British airline captain who flies for Thomas Cook and his wife who grew up in Singapore.


We only stayed in Siena for two days and on the second day we took a walking sightseeing tour of the city. Our (Latvian)  tour guide gave us an overview of the city with a quick introduction going back to pre-roman times. However, everything that we saw was built in the 12th and 13th century, the "Golden Age" of Siena and Tuscany.

Siena's Cathedral (Duomo) is smaller than that in Florence but the interior is much more elaborate. The interior explodes with color and detail. Disneyland for christians !  The magnificient facade of green, white and red polychrome marble and the statues by Pisano are exquisite as are the interior inlaid marble floor and the carved marble and porphyry pulpit . There is also a library built to house the books belonging to Pope Pius II and frescoes depicting his life.

The Library Ceiling, Siena Cathedral

 Our Latvian tour guide explaining v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w-l-y about the architecture of the main square in Siena. Sadly the tour guide hurried us away from this incredible place and although we had planned to return,  we just didn't have time.

 Antica Osteria da Divo

That night, we went out to dinner at the Antica Osteria da Divo, a highly recommended restaurant built in what appeared to be old cellars. We took our time over dinner and had the best meal of our trip so far. An excellent end to our stay in Siena.

San Gimignano

 We left Siena mostly because we weren't confident that our car was secure and drove to a tiny village deep in the countryside called San Gimignano and a hotel called the le Volpaie. This was a more modern hotel with lots of parking and even a nice pool. Over the next two days, we used the hotel as a base and travelled throughout the area, visiting a series of small, picturesque villages and towns.

The Hotel Le Volpaie pool and lobby

The piazza at Volterra and a roman amphitheater also at Volterra

A local wedding (the Bride Wore Black !) and a typical narrow street, both in San Gimignano

Typical rolling countryside of Tuscany

Poppies were everywhere along the roadside   

     A statue of Verrezano, who built the famous New York bridge

So after two days of exploring the countryside and villages of Tuscany, we returned our rental car and took the train to our next stop, Levanto, on the Cinque Terre Coast.