It’s late on Tuesday afternoon in suburban Glasgow. I’m sitting in bed, swathed in a polka dot bedspread whilst a sniffling Aaron quietly reads. He’s recently contracted his fourth virus since we disembarked our first flight at Charles de Gaulle, Paris. As I had it last week, I feel wholly responsible (despite division of cutlery, plates, cups and general breathing space, the hated thing still spread. Argh. Don’t you hate that?!).
So, in light of coughs, colds and bone-weariness, we jointly decided that today would be our rest day. Perfect for quiet reading, watching videos, photo editing and general blog-time with some decent wifi. As I type, I’m eating a punnet of sticky, luscious figs that cost me (wait for it) £1 for four (AU$1.80). Food is such ridiculously good value over here in Scotland. I’m already preparing myself for a shock when we return to Australian prices (insert sad face here).
Anyway, in light of this afternoon’s productivity, I’ve finally got enough photographs together share some of our Italian adventure with you all (I say some as… well, I’m guessing that you don’t want to see six hundred photographs of Italian cobbled streets. And even if you do, it might just surpass your monthly internet download allowance). We started our trip in the northeastern city of Venice before taking the train to the stunning capital of the Tuscany region, Florence. From there, we rented a cherry red Fiat 500 (classic Italian style) to explore the historical vine-covered landscape including Arezzo, Siena, Chianti and the fortress-town of Monteriggioni.
The final leg of our Italian adventure was an ItaliaRail journey from Florence to the Roman capital. Despite the impressive architecture, history and artwork, it was ridiculously hot, humid and overwhelmed with crowds. As a couple of native Italians have advised, don’t go to Rome in August. Just don’t (but… well, we did. And it was still beautiful, despite the drawbacks).
As per Five Days in Paris, this Italian post is more of a photo diary than a comprehensive travel guide. To be honest, it’s really difficult to find inexpensive, beautiful food in Italy (well, it was for me anyway, despite comprehensive research) and restaurants or cafes that you locate on the internet can take hours to discover on foot (due to poor or absent signage, winding roads and reluctance of some businesses to attract tourists). I’ve added a few notes where I can, but regardless, I hope that you enjoy this mini tour of Italy through our eyes.
One of the most beautiful, almost-surreal places I’ve ever been to. How this city-on-the-water has survived for hundreds of years is quite remarkable. We stayed at a hostel called Ai Boteri which was value for money whilst still being clean, spacious and very convenient for most central attractions. There’s an unexpected city tax (which from memory was €2 per person per night) but it’s unavoidable when staying in Italian cities (Florence and Rome were the same).
One thing about Venice: there are mosquitoes EVERYWHERE during the Summertime. They attack you as you sleep (or don’t sleep, in our case. I had about 40 mosquito bites from the first night). Bring heaps of mosquito repellent or, even better, a mosquito net.
We also skipped on the classic Venetian gondola ride due to an €80-100 price tag (and lack of romanticism) though admittedly, the skilled gondoliers are quite impressive. We sat at the edge of the canal and watched them for about half an hour and, despite restricted amounts of space, shallow areas and boat congestion, there were no collisions. Very cool (just like me whilst selecting stone fruit. Ah, yep).
We also managed to find an amazing tucked-away bar (it had no signage so I have no idea what the name was) that served €6 mojitos every night of the week. Needless to say, we were happy to provide regular patronage, despite the tiny interior necessitating that we sit on the sidewalk. I’d definitely recommend getting ‘lost in Venice’ as there are so many tiny, beautiful venues (with cheap booze and delicious cicchetti, Italian bar snacks) outside of the main tourist areas.
Disclaimer: I take no responsibility if you thereafter fail to negotiate the Venetian maze of streets back to your accommodation. Your happy, cheap-ass mojito-drinking self won’t care. You’ll just do a ‘weird dance’ (as Aaron calls it) like me. I’m quite impressed that I was standing in one leg (I’m sure that you will be too Graz!). Oh, and mum, that wasn’t my cigarette butt.
In terms of the trio of Italian cities that we visited, Florence was definitely my favourite. The Renaissance architecture, great wine (gluts of Chianti Classico from the nearby wine region), gelato (La Carraia was our absolute favourite) and public art were present in abundance. The city was also big enough to thankfully diffuse the clusters of iPad tourists (I mean, seriously people! You’re seeing your holiday on a screen!).
We stayed at a B&B called Redenza Martin which was spacious, clean and centrally located. The lovely couple who run the accommodation were also very approachable in terms of travel tips and recommendations (factor in city tax which was about €2-3 per person per night).
A tip when staying in Florence: definitely buy fresh provisions from Mercato Centrale. There’s a beautiful daytime fresh food market downstairs (with everything from cured meats and vegetables to fresh pasta and spices) and some great ready-to-eat bites upstairs in the evenings. I’ve included a few snaps below:
In terms of eating out in Florence? Well, let’s just say that non-touristy places aren’t very consumer-friendly. I did a lot of research prior to arriving in the city and half of the venues we wanted to visit were closed (on normal trading days, with no signage advising of a reason for the closure or when the restaurant might be re-opening). So, in want of a better option, we ended up eating at some very touristy pizza and pasta spots. The food was still good, but menus were in English and the produce wasn’t as authentic as we may have liked.
One successful venture did lead us to Da Vinattieri, a tiny hole-in-the-wall sandwich (panini) shop specializing in fresh Tuscan bread and porchetta.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of inconsistency between our sandwiches and the bread of my panino was dry and hard (between me, Aaron and our friend Paul, we couldn’t bite through it. I actually hurt a tooth). Paul’s was brilliant though, with thin crusty bread and thickly sliced, fresh-roasted porchetta.
It’s worth a visit but don’t let your hopes skyrocket from TripAdvisor reviews (like mine did, *sob*. Half of my sandwich ended up in the bin… but I do hope you have better luck).
If you’re planning a trip to Tuscany, hire a car. Non-negotiable. Apparently there are buses than run sporadically around the area but with the amount of ground you want to cover, you’ll spend half of your time at bus stops.
We stayed at an amazing Tuscan villa in an Arezzo vineyard and olive grove owned by the Messina family (who were happy to produce some amazing samples of their extra virgin olive oil and delicious Chianti DOCG wine). We attempted to visit the cellar door during our days in Tuscany but… well, after a few bottles of wine we got lost on the winding roads. Tuscany does that to you (definitely visit if you can, the wine is beautiful).
Over a few blissful days, we travelled from Arezzo to Siena, stopping in Lucca and most of the Chianti wine region before dropping our rental car back in Florence.
The countryside, people, wine and cuisine are incredible throughout the Tuscan region. Simplicity is definitely central to food in Tuscany, and some of our favourite meals simply involved a quick visit to some local stores to pick up thickly-sliced porchetta, Florentine salami (gloriously fatty, rich and delicious), fresh ciabatta, marinated vegetables, olives and Italian cheese.
Paired with deep red Chianti wine and peppery local first-press extra virgin olive oil, we were in absolute foodie heaven.
If you’re interested in wine tasting, there are quite a few Chianti Classico tours that run throughout the Summer months. We preferred to be ‘free agents’ (definition: roaming around the countryside until we drove past a cellar door) but still managed to gain quite a lot of knowledge about different types of Tuscan wines and regional differences.
Personally, traditional Chianti (pure Sangiovese) was by far my favourite wine from the region; rich and dark with subtle tannins. In contrast, the increasingly popular ‘Super Tuscans’ (Sangiovese mixed with a ‘Bordeaux Blend’ of grapes or various quantities of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, occasionally Shiraz) were quite unpredictable from one vineyard to the next. Worth trying but not quite as ‘specific’ to region.
I also fell in love with the gloriously sweet, sticky and syrupy Vin Santo, a dessert wine often served with almond biscuits (cantucci, similar to biscotti) for dessert. The process of dipping, crunching and sipping is a gloriously light way to end a meal.
Tuscan life truly makes one understand the term ‘la dolce vita‘.
On a side note: perhaps of interest to some (Stefano, I’m thinking of you!) is the rising popularity of synthetic corks (alternative wine closure) in Italian wine production. I actually hadn’t come across one until we set foot in the Tuscan region and I’m undecided on whether I like them or not.
I understand that some technical merits exist but… what’s the fun in uncorking a piece of plastic from a quality bottle of wine? Hm. P.S. In Tuscany, there seem to be untended tomato plants growing all over the place, on roadside verges, in fields and other random locations in the countryside (far from fixed dwellings; don’t worry I didn’t raid anyone’s garden). Some have rusted stakes, others just sprawl over the nearby ground.
I like to think that an elderly nonna planted them there, long ago before the roads were built. Now they belong to everyone…
We ended our Italian adventure with two days in the Italian capital, Rome. Many photographs were taken (mostly of the Colosseum and other such things) but as aforementioned, the hot, sticky, touristy aspect of the city was rather overwhelming.
We ate pizzas in abundance whilst sipping on Peroni beer. We trekked to the Vatican City before deciding against spending four hours in a queue to enter the Sistine Chapel. The beauty, history and architecture of Rome is truly stunning but… well, Luigi, you were right. Don’t visit in August. You live and you learn.
So that’s it. The end of another chapter of our massive European sojourn. I’m signing off from our now-darkened Glasgow bedroom before venturing to the kitchen for some leftover homemade chilli con carne (thank goodness for available kitchens, despite an absence of sharp knives).
If you’d like to see more snaps of our visit to Italy (and the rest of our Eurotrip), click over to my Instagram account. Thanks, as always, for being interested in this Aussie girl, her food obsession and present wanderlust x