Italy on our Own
"Love at First Sight"
Chiusi - This could have been a real problem! The original inn where we were to spend our first two nights in Italy had not responded when I reconfirmed all the reservations we'd made several months before. Attempts to reach them via email through several websites bore no response. More discouraging, the telephone rang unanswered, whether I called in the morning, afternoon or evening. I phoned another place, to which it was linked on one site, and the phone was quickly answered. (Me, using my best Berlitz-tape Italian): 'Parle inglese? Non parle italiano molte bene.' Response: 'Yes, I speak a very little English.' me: 'Much better than my Italiano, Thank you!' Response: 'But you speak good Italiano' me: 'Yes, I am molto bene with those two sentences, only!' OK, the conversation from there went well in broken bits of English and Italian. I made the acquaintance of the owner/innkeeper at Residenza re Porsenna, in the centro storico of Chiusi. Esmerelda Serpilla explained that La Querce was closed for how long, they did not know. But she could house us for two nights, when we arrived 10 May. (This was no further away than the next week!) I faxed her my information (and emailed it for good measure, although I don't know if either ever actually were received!). And the next day, I also heard from the proprieter of La Querce, who had to close to do some reconstruction on his place, and was awaiting a bureaucratic re-certification before he could re-open. He offered accomodations at an agri-tourismo nearby, but by then I'd already made the arrangements with Esmerelda, in town. I feel that even if I hadn't tried to reconfirm, had we shown up we would have been well taken care of. It took us a bit longer to get to Chiusi than it should have (more on that in another section), but when we arrived, we parked in a spacious public lot between a theater and a lovely public park. Chiusi was a charming little town atop a hill. The centro is closed to traffic (more or less)and we quickly found the Tourist Info office, where they gave us a map, and showed us where the Residenza was. (Picture is view from balcony at Residenza re Porsenna. See section on accomodations for more details)
This town was fabulous. Maybe it was because it was only early May, but this was not an overly touristed town. It was a place where people live their entire lives. Esmeralda told us she'd grown up here. There is a Chiusi Scalo, where the railway station, and newer homes and businesses are. But the citta still has many residents. There are lovely views of the valley from the citta's parks. Walking through one, we saw local teenagers "doing homework" -- I was sure their books were spread over Etruscan benches, but my husband laughed at me. What do you think? (And what an amazing place to be doing your homework. Teenagers are the same everywhere. Obviously they were have a great time fooling around elsewhere in the park -- it was a beautiful evening.) Chiusi has several very nice restaurants. Our first evening we had a delightful and inexpensive meal at Il Duomo, a rosticceria and pizzeria. The second night, we had an extraordinary meal--one of the best we'd have in Italy-- at La solita Zuppa. They specialize in Tuscan cuisine, and the owner walks you through each course. Wines are matched to the courses -- a nice white with the antipasti of pears, cheese and nuts -- and a delicious Montepulciano red with the rest of the meal. You get several choices for each course. I'll not provide a bite-by-bite detail, but every course was marvelous, including a special after-dinner taste of a Sicilian delight called Zibibbo. The total was under 120,000 lira.
Chiusi was an excellent base from which to visit both Umbrian and Tuscan towns (including an unplanned for early morning trip to Perugia to speak with EuropCar-- see Transportation notes!). We enjoyed Citta della Pieve, Montepulciano and Montalcino. We will need to go back to check out Chiusi's Etruscan Museum. Even after seeing some of the more famous Tuscan hilltowns, I fell in love with Chiusi, simply because it is a thriving, lived-in place...no Disney-factor about it at all.
This is a city we've read about. Beyond the tour books and recommendations from folks on the Fodor's European Forum, we enjoyed Tim Park's "Italian Neighbors" and "Italian Education" as well as a couple of his novels set in and around Verona. How we found our hotel, I'm not exactly sure: it is outside the centro, across the Garibaldi Bridge. We arrived around 5PM in heavy traffic. Somehow we managed to find the street and suddenly, there were green neon letters, HOTEL ITALIA. We pulled up to the curb and I ran in to speak with the desk clerk. (Our reservation was for the NEXT night -- but we wanted to stay for two nights now). Not a problem, AND there was parking in the building. Excellent! (I'm having very good luck with my limited Italian "courtesy" vocabulary. Most people in hotels and restaurants speak more English than I do Italian, but when you make an effort it is pleasantly received.)
There is SO MUCH more to Verona than the Romeo and Juliet connection popularized by Shakespeare! People are stylish, the homes and neighborhoods are exquisite. Piazza Bra, overlooking that amazing Roman Arena, is the ideal place for a glass of Prosecco and a bit of people watching. (The picture here is of a residential building we passed everytime we walked to town from our hotel. I could live here very easily! I probably will during my daydreams when I'm at work...I'd guess there's a fabulous view over the river to the centro storico...)
The supposed Juliet's balcony is in a courtyard filled with souvenir shops and graffiti. That is not very romantic. But the bridge to Castelvecchio, now THAT was a romantic spot. We came upon a bridal party taking some very lovely pictures. Congratulations! Hope you are as happy together as we have been for the past 25 years!
"Verona at night"
Both nights we enjoyed walking to dinner in the centro. The first night, an OK but not terrific meal at La Calmiere...or "the house of meat" as we will forever refer to it. They seem to have been afraid tourists would not order enough to make it worth their while...talk about a stereotype. A much better, and more enjoyable meal was dinner the next night at Trattoria S. Anastasia. The place was filled with people from US, England, Spain and ??? in town for a convention of International Bakers. We had four courses plus wine and water for under $90US. It was a lovely meal, in a lovely setting with gracious service.
Over the river and through the Dolomites...What a way to get to Venice. We left Verona after breakfast, took the Autostrada north to Bolzano, made a short stop in Ortisei-St Ulrich, and crossed the mountains via the Passo Sella. Spring was coming to the mountains, but there was still plenty of snow.
There were very few cars on the road, but then it was a Monday. Maybe two or three tour busses, half a dozen cars, we seemed to have this part of the country all to ourselves. I wouldn't have missed this drive for anything. The contrast with our next destination was so extreme!
"Venice needs no introduction"
It's not a cliche. The light is different in Venice. I noticed this most of all when sorting through 34 rolls of developed photographs! Nearly every shot we took in Venice was special. The time spent lost and wandering with a scenic surprise in every direction...sigh. That is the way to enjoy Venice.
"A Grand Canal View!"
I highly recommend trying to get a room with a view over a canal. It was even better than "in the movies."
We stayed at Locanda Leon Bianco. Our room had a magnificent view over the Grand Canal toward the Rialto market. It was fun raising a toast to passengers of Vaporetto #1 in the evenings, and watching the city fill up with workers and tourists in the mornings.
"What Not to Wear?"
Some people are concerned about dressing right in Europe -- all black, no sneakers, etc. In Venice, there are so many tourists from so many places, wearing absolutely everything...it really doesn't matter.
It is essential to stay in Florence the first time you visit. The centro storico is extremely easy to get around. When in Venice, I thought Peggy Guggenheim really knew how to enjoy her money. Well, the de Medicis had certainly set a prime example for her to follow. Whoa! (We were very glad to have called ahead to reserve times to visit both the Accademia and the Ufizzi. Why waste time waiting in lines when you don't have to?)
"Luxury is Great"
It looked like a good deal when they offered it to me via e-mail, and it turned out to be extraordinary. This was like a fairytale...with all modern conveniences. CastelBigozzi is a luxurious place with fantastic views of rolling hills and vineyards. When you've got a view like this one out your bedroom window, birds singing, fresh breeze blowing, that's a great start. The jacuzzi tub in the tremendous bathroom was a happy surprise (and felt so good after walking up and down all those hills on cobblestone streets...). We stayed for two nights. Next time we'll stay here for a week! Daytripping to Siena and Florence is easy, we can see San G, and explore Chianti country a bit more. I really loved it here.
"Siena rates a Return Visit"
Surprise, surprise! Another city with a totally unique charm. We found that even on a Sunday there was a lot to see in Siena. I love these livable cities. I think even people who live outside the old city come in to enjoy it. We found a great flea market behind City Hall. I think the Civic Museum was terrific. Most of the frescos are brilliantly restored, and I love that they still have City Council meetings in the same rooms that have been used for that purpose for centuries. And of course Piazza del Campo is magnificent. (Pictured is a slice of life. While tourists soak in the sights, life's special moments take place among local families.)
"Ancient and Arty Orvieto"
We hadn't really planned on staying in Orvieto, but CastelBigozzi was just a bit too far away, and we needed to pick up my sister at FCO from the USAirways flight #2 at about 10AM. So we drove to Orvieto and found lodging through the tourist office at Aquila Bianca for 180,000 including parking, but no breakfast. Fit our needs just right. Orvieto also turned out to be a fantastic place to explore...the underground tour, the beautiful Duomo, and a really thriving art and craft community. I could probably spend a lot of money I don't really have to spend in a place like this!
"Vertical Vineyards and Lemon Groves"
I didn't realise the Amalfi Coast was so agricultural...but the drive from A3 across to Maiori gives you plenty of opportunity to see how those lemons grow. This view is simply from the coast road.
"A mouth full in Amalfi..."
The best weather we had was our first day! OK, that and the day we went to Pompeii. But we enjoyed driving that twisted coastal highway. The Amalfi Coast is beautiful. But it does have that "this is not a real town it's a vacation place" feeling. We did have a terrific meal in Amalfi, one night. The name of the place was Eolo. The view was perfect. The food was very good, too. I think the only reason we got a table was because we ate pretty early (7:30PM).
"No wonder all roads lead to"
Roma. What a fantastic city. I need to go back again and again because three nights isn't nearly enough. Even if you have to fight your way through tour groups, it is a complete show. Art, architecture, history, people, food, entertainment, a surprise around every corner. This is a very "social" city. Campo dei Fiori on Saturday night has to be the biggest party scene I've seen since college Spring-break! (Picture is Trevi Fountain)
The Colosseum and ancient forum are must-sees. Even if there is quite a line for Colosseum tickets (and this wasn't even for a game or concert....)
Somehow, I can forgive them for recycling all that marble from ancient Rome...St Peters is extraordinary. A simple little 15-minute walk from our hotel was truly a visual delight. We had joined a free tour of the forum the day before, and signed up for a 6-hour tour of St. Peters and the Vatican Museum, finishing up with that incredible Sistine Chapel. The group was Walks of Rome. You can contact them via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone them in Rome at 06 484853. Our guide for the Vatican tour was terrific. You really need a guide to get the most out of his visit.
I don't know if there is a better way to celebrate your good fortune and success than to share something wonderful with someone you love. Steve and I have been married for 25 years, and it went by in a flash. How lucky we are to be able to mark the occasion with a trip we will never forget. To all my friends and family who read this travelogue...we share our happiness with all of you. It is often said, but very true: life is what you make of it.
We love wine. We've toured Sonoma and Napa county wineries in California, and some surprisingly decent wineries in Virginia nearer to our home in Maryland. So we knew we would visit Montepulciano and Montalcino. They really were storybook towns. Of course at 12noon, expect EVERYTHING except for restaurants to shut up tight until 3 or 3:30PM. I took some pictures of the gorgeous offerings at the little shops lining Montepulciano's steep street entering the "centro." I would have loved to have bought packages of those cunning little multicolored pastas, or pre-packaged soups and sauces, but this was only the second day of a long trip. I knew they'd never make it through intact. We had a nice lunch, and waited for the shops to reopen so we could taste and purchase some Vino Nobile -- we went with the Fanetti 1997 Vino Nobile. A bargain compared to what we could get in the states. We bought two bottles -- one to drink over the next few days and one to bring home.
The presidential election was held while we were there. It was interesting to see how the results were received in different parts of the country. Pictured here is a wall of posters outside of Montepulciano, but we saw them in many towns.
While we decided not to drop big bucks on fine Brunello wines, we did enjoy Montalcino. It was a lovely town, where we found a great parking place across from the local super market. A fantastic place to buy goodies like olive oil flavored with black truffle. (Both Montalcino and Montepulciano were easy daytrips from Chiusi.)
"On the Road"
We're off on the road to Verona...after the tiny backroads we've been driving, the A1-A22 route seems so simple and efficient. The rolling hills and distant towns aren't as picturesque from the highway, and not too long after we've passed Florence, the terrain levels off. Flat fields of crops, meadows with red poppies, we stop in Mantua for lunch. It is hot and the sun is really bright. Parking for the town is near the river. People on bikes are everywhere.
Mantua is pretty impressive. Big piazzas, and it appears to have some wonderful shops (but being between noon and 3PM, everying is closed for a sleepy lunch under the umbrellas). We have our first Prosecco when we order a carafe of vini bianco with lunch. I don't like champagne, usually, but this sparkling treat is very light, crisp and dry and surprisingly refreshing.
On the way back to our car, we notice the cathedral is open for visitors. Wow. I'd done no research on Mantua and know nothing about this church, but it is beautiful.
The last 6 pics here are out of order. Something must have happened at VT, but I've not got the energy to move them...one at a time...to where they belong! (before Verona)