I went to Italy in September, with a group of 11 adults. Arrival in Florence tends to be chaotic. Keep in mind the car rental building is not at the airport, and the buses taking you there are few and far between. With 11 people and luggage it was hard to get us all on one bus so some took a taxi and got there sooner.
Our group stayed in a villa in a town called Montespertoli about 25 miles south of Florence. We arrived prior to check in so we stopped in town and ate at an outdoor pizza café that was around the town square. The square was full of families enjoying the day, and we found it to be this way every time we went into town. Women with baby buggies, men playing checkers, kids kicking around soccer balls….always busy. There was a small grocery store there where we bought things for the week. In Italy, you have to weigh your produce and put them in a bag and put the weight sticker on the bag prior to checking out. They also charged for the plastic bags so we kept them and took them back each time.
We arrived on a Saturday and the next day we had a tour of Florence. Our guide was excellent and prompt. I had our guide make reservations for us at the Accademia and the Uffizi museums so we didn’t have to wait in line. The Uffizi is larger than the Accademia so we did that one first. Those that love art but have limited time, the Uffizi is a must-see. The Accademia is where the statue of David is located but there is not a lot of other art. It has a nice room of old musical instruments that is interesting but it’s in a short hall and it gets crowded. You can easily walk the entire city of Florence and between the museums. A good walking map is useful and can be purchased in many of the shops.
As a surprise for the group, I hired a private chef to make us dinner at the villa. Upon return from our tour, we found Chef Carla and her helper set up dinner outside under the trees and lights. It was a very special night! Her rate was 35euro per person for a 5 course meal, including wines. You can’t beat that!
The following day we drove an hour and 15 minutes to Siena and bought tickets that included the Cathedral, Baptistery and the crypt. It is good to note that the city center is past the Cathedral.
There is so much to see where the Cathedral is, that many visitors spend all their time there and don’t make it to the center which is what made Siena famous. You walk down a steep slope to get to the round center where they have yearly horse races dating back to the 13th century. There are plenty of places to eat and shop and there is a tower that is good for getting those perfect pictures.
Our villa was also 2 hours to La Spezia. We met our guide at the rail station for a tour of Chinque Terre. You can ride the regional train to the five villages of Chinque Terre and this is the best way to get there. Our guide had pre-purchased our rail tickets which made it very easy for us.
We first stopped at Riomaggiore There is a lot of steep walking in all the villages but it wasn’t too bad. The views are just amazing.
We then took the train to Manarola.
And then a ferry to Vernazza which provided more great scenic views of the villages.
I had researched a nearby town called Panzano which is well known for a local butcher, Dario Cechini, also known as the Mad Butcher. We drove to Panzano and found his shop. You actually hear it before you get to it. He had the doors open, blasting rock and roll music! Waiters were outside handing out free wine samples. Inside was a spread of samples from Dario’s shop. Although they were full in the indoor restaurant they were able to fit us in at the rooftop restaurant and it was an amazing lunch!
Below is a street artist in Pisa…..they were everywhere.
We also got to visit San Gimignano which is a medieval walled town.
They have done a wonderful job of preserving the old buildings, filling them with shops and restaurants. It was once known as the city of towers, but many of them have fallen down.
These are the most important things I learned from this trip:
- A GPS is a MUST, updated with Europe maps.
- Make the car rental place explain everything in detail…extra charges, etc.
- RESEARCH information about parking. We had decided to park at the rail station in Florence because it was within walking distance to city center. But we didn’t realize you have to pay before getting in your car to leave the parking lot. We thought you pay at the gate to make the gate arm go up. But you pay at a kiosk and get a ‘paid’ ticket that you insert in the gate.
- Even in the small towns you pay to park. There are kiosks where you put in some euros and it gives you a ticket to put on the dash.
- Take the phone number and address of the local consulate in case of emergency. On the day it hailed we got separated from some of our group, and they were over two hour’s late meeting up at our designated meeting place. I called the consulate and they told me about the public transportation being halted until the streets could be cleared. They took down the names of the missing passengers and said to call back later if they had not returned and they would do a quick search for them. It was a good sense of comfort knowing they were available.
- Take your travel agent’s information with you and do not be afraid to contact them if the need arises.
Janie Leis has been in the travel industry for over 16 years. For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.