Our Italy Trip: Part 3, Florence & Lake Como

For the sake of not having one MASSIVE blog post – I’ve broken this into three!

Day 5: A Montecatini Morning &  Day in Florence

Having stayed up so late the night before, we allowed ourselves to sleep in a little bit this day. Once we got up, we had a leisurely morning drinking coffee at our favorite place in the Montecatini Piazza, Centrale restaurant, took some pictures because it was beautiful out, and then caught a train around 1 to go to Florence.

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Knowing we didn’t have much time to spend in the city, we decided on just visiting the Duomo, the bell tower (the Campanile), and Duomo museum with an all access pass. We found the spot on the map, and headed for the Dome because you can see it from most parts of the city. We turned a corner, and heard some beautiful music and the most magnificent view of the building. We were in awe!

The museum was first, and it did not disappoint! It was full of beautiful old relics and artifacts from the building of the Duomo and from those who used it. Because Goodman works in construction and is a carpenter, he really enjoyed seeing some of the old tools used to build the giant cathedral.

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Facade replica in the museum was really impressive.

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We then ate a super late lunch at a great place outside of the duomo that was serving a three course meal for 11 euros. It’s amazing how much great food you can get for so cheap there! (By the way, it was lasagna again 😬) I had to take advantage of the wine special and the duomo backdrop!

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Then we climbed the (million) steps through the crowded tower and got to the top as the bells were ringing! This kind of thing would never fly in America – it was so cramped and I’m really surprised there hasn’t been some sort of lawsuit against the place because it is seriously rough to get to the top. The stairway is maybe 2.5 feet across and the stairs are pretty small and made of stone, and the entire time you are having to side step because people are coming down the steps as you are going up. You have to stop several times because of traffic jams at the corners and when you stop the claustrophobia sets in a little. None the less, we made it through to the top and it was so beautiful! I’m sad we really didn’t take any photos of this, but I’ll share the view of the tower from the duomo below.

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We had to wait until 6:30 to visit the duomo afterward, due to the fact that they only let 150 people per half hour in due to the even more narrow passageways it takes to get to the top. To preoccupy ourselves we had some tasty gelato and walked through some Italian leather street vendors before we made our way to the tour.

 

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By the time we made it up to the top it was dark and Florence was amazing to see from 463 steps above ground atop the Dome!

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Afterward, we made it home by train (no delay this time) and got to relax with – you guessed it – some vino, on our last night in Tuscany.

Day 6: Lake Como

This morning we checked out of Montecatini and drove the 4 hours up to Lake Como for our last night in Italy.

The groupon had booked a hotel very close to the malpense airport, but we decided to forgo this hotel and venture up to Lake Como for the day instead because it was only about an hour away from the airport.

It was still going to be cold when we were visiting, so I decided to book a hotel on top of a mountain in the middle of the lake (if you look of lake como on a map, it’s shaped like an upside down Y and there are mountains in the middle!)

We passed by the town of Carrera in upper Tuscany on our way up (where they make Carrera marble) and saw huge marble factories with large blocks of uncut marble and many slabs of cut marble ready to be shipped across the world. Close by, there were many shipping facilities with shipping containers stacked 15 or more stories high. It was interesting to see!

Then we made it to Lake Como and had to drive up an extremely steep and scary road to get to our hotel on the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, due to a rainy/foggy day, we weren’t able to see the view of the lake from our hotel room during the daylight.

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We decided to venture back down to the town of Como by furnunculare, which is essentially a type of train that takes a handful of passengers up and down the mountain.

When we got to the town, we shopped and had a nice dinner outside before returning up the mountain to our hotel. By that time the rain had cleared, and we got to see the amazing view of the lake!

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Once we were there, we enjoyed some wine and got to talk with the owners of the hotel on politics, world news, perspective, and culture which was super interesting!

 

Day 7/8: Lake Como, Bellagio, flying and driving home.

This last day of the trip was officially the longest day of either of our lives.  Having woken up at 7:30 am Italy time (1:30am Virginia time) and not getting to sleep until 4:30am Virginia time the next day (10:30 am Italy time), we were jet lagged for at least a week after this! But the day started out great!

We started the morning by waking up able to see our crazy high view of the lake.

 

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Then we decided on driving up to Bellagio to see the famous village at the point of the lake. (The one they named the casino after in Las Vegas) We are really glad we did – it was gorgeous, and so well kept!

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Then, we rode a ferry across the lake and drove to the Milan airport to make our way home. After a long flight, we got to JFK in New York and made it to long term parking where we realized that at some point during our trip, my car key had gone missing. A call to the car insurance agency, 3 hour wait in the (very cold) air train terminal and new key later, we made the 6 hour drive home in the middle of the night.

After such a great experience in Italy, we can’t really complain too much about the hiccup at the end and were both really happy to be in our own bed at home! We were so excited to pick up our puppies, be able to cook our own food, and enjoy reflecting on the great experience! We were both so so grateful that we were able to enjoy Italy and definitely hope to be back sometime in the future.

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Our Italy Trip: Part 2, Rome

For the sake of not having one MASSIVE blog post – I’ve broken this into three!

Day 3: Roma!

Although it wasn’t part of our trip itenerary, we decided while we were in Italy we had to see Rome. Before we even went I booked a hotel for one night, and we planned on taking the train.

We woke up early this morning and planned to eat a quick breakfast and then catch an 8:00am train to Rome that connected through Florence.

When we got to the train station in Montecatini, there was a train already in the station, which we thought was ours, and we hopped on only to realize that we were going toward Pisa and not Florence. We had to get off at the next stop to buy another ticket and change our transfer, which unfortunately set us back about an hour and a half. Eventually, we made it to Rome around noon!

Side Note: The frecciarossa or “fast trains” in Italy were really amazing to me! The drive there from our hotel  would have taken us around 5 hours, and the train was relatively inexpensive, and got us there in just under three, including the transfer and all of the other stops we made. I really wish there was something more like this in the U.S.! I would love to make day trips to OBX or to New York from Richmond!

Anyway, when we got to the city, we were a bit paranoid just because of the sheer size of everything and by being completely out of our element. We didn’t want to pull out our maps too much or do anything that would make us stand out as tourists. We were more uncomfortable because we had to carry our backpacks with most all of our important belongings because we had planned on staying in a hotel in Rome for just that night. So, we decided to pick a place to eat to look at our maps at the table and make a plan of action.

We happened to stop in this really cute little pizzeria right before a crowd of people got there, and enjoyed some of the best weather we had during the whole trip! The sun was out and it was about 65 degrees outside!

Afterward, we planned to stop by a street vendor and buy a ticket for one of the hop-on hop-off tourist busses to be able to see the city and choose what we really wanted to see. Rome is somewhat small, but there are so many things that we wanted to see and we didn’t know if we could fit in everything we wanted during the day and half that we would be there. It was also way less expensive to get a “tour guide” from the bus because they gave us headphones to plug in that would tell us about the sites we were seeing as we passed them. To me this was the same thing as taking a go-cart up the Appalachian trail instead of hiking it. But given the time we had, I felt no shame.

We hopped off of the tour near where our hotel was located – Vatican City. We got lost on the way to our hotel. This is probably because we literally only had a printed Expedia reservation of the address (so a street name) and a tourist map that didn’t show all of the Vatican area where our hotel was (go figure). Next time we travel to Europe, I’m looking into an international phone plan.

Anyway, we had to stop into a coffee shop to ask for help. A barista helped us out by speaking Spanish with Goodman – turned out we were very close the whole time but just needed to make one more turn.😆  We got to the room and settled in and then made our way back out for a sunset visit to a great cafe, some window shopping, a visit to the Pantheon, Piazza Novana, a walk through some empty roman streets, and an empty St. Peter’s Square with a great night time view of the Vatican. My feet hurt so bad because I decided to wear my Converses (don’t wear Converse on cobblestone streets) and I actually got a little bit sunburnt from the lunch outside, but it was well worth it!

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Day 4: Rome Part 2

The next morning, we checked out of our one-night hotel around 9. Then we walked down to the same cafe where the barista helped us and efficiently ordered our breakfast in Italian (it only took 4 days haha!) Then we kicked off the day’s activities at the Vatican because it was closest to our hotel. We stood in line for about an hour, but got to see the overwhelmingly enormous and beautiful buildings within the Vatican and it was definitely worth it. We kneeled and prayed in one of the chapels and it was really moving!

Having taken an awesome art history class in undergrad at JMU that focused on Renaissance and Baroque, I was seriously in awe of seeing the sculptures and frescos that I had studied come to life. I wish I had brushed up on these with my old textbooks (that I will never throw away btw) before we went! St. Peter’s Basilica was amazing. I don’t actually think you are supposed to take pictures in the Vatican, which I learned later, but I did manage to get a couple. I wish they truly demonstrated the gigantic size of everything – it’s impossible to capture in a picture!  I’m really happy I got a picture of Bernini’s Baldachin (3rd photo down) which marks the center of the dome in the church and is above St. Peter’s tomb in the grottoes below. Look how big it is compared to the people in front of it!

We also learned that the Vatican or Vatican City is technically it’s own country! And is therefore also the smallest foreign nation in the world! I wish we’d gotten another stamp in the passport!

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Ceiling of the Vatican in St. Peter’s Basilica
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Bernini’s Baldachin
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The Holy Door

 

After the Vatican, we jumped on the bus and found our way across the city to the colosseum and roman forum. Because it was the off season, we easily got in and were able to see the inside. I have to admit, it wasn’t as magnificent as I expected. Seeing as this is the top tourist destination in all of Italy, I guess I just expected it to be more intricate or something. Not that it wasn’t super cool, but I was much more impressed with the Roman forum that we saw later. (P.s. – please excuse my crazy hair, it was super windy!)

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Then we walked over to the Roman Forum. It was such a surreal experience to see ruins and columns that were around in the BC years – so hard to believe those places are still around to see and touch! I’m honestly really surprised that they aren’t more carefully preserved or off limits to touch. You really can go in and walk through, touch and feel most everything! Very little ropes and barriers guard the ruins. I wish we took more photos! 

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Afterward we walked to the Spanish Steps and the other major sightseeing stops in Rome and finished the day off at the Trevi Fountain. It’s kind of crazy how magnificent it is, and it’s just sitting in between several old buildings that look like regular houses in the middle of Rome. We were following signs to find it and thought we may have taken a wrong turn, and then we heard lots of people talking and the sound of flowing water. We turned the corner and sure enough stumbled upon the huge fountain. I will say, although it’s GORGEOUS, it’s also very very crowded! More than anything else we visited. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the summer! 

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After the fountain we decided to head back toward the train station. Having walked well over 10 miles, we didn’t feel guilty whatsoever that we decided on another delicious lasagna and spaghetti dinner before catching a train back to Florence.

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Unfortunately, once we were on the train to Florence, there was some sort of technical malfunction in a train on the tracks in front of us, delaying our train by almost 2 hours and causing us to miss our connecting train from Florence to Montecatini. After an hour of trying to communicate with several people that spoke almost no english, we ended up in a cab paid for by the train station that we weren’t completely sure was even headed back to Montecatini 😆.

We did arrive back to the town, but were dropped off about a mile from our hotel…. in the middle of the night. Needless to say, we were really happy to be back and safe in our hotel in Montecatini sharing some wine and vending machine snacks (bc that’s all that’s available at 1am) in the middle of the night.👌🏼

Keep reading with Part 3: Florence & Lake Como! OR Go back to read Part 1: Montecatini Terme & Tuscany!

Our Italy Trip: Part 1, Tuscany

A DREAM of mine has always been to go to Italy. As an avid Italian food lover, wine lover, and pizza fanatic, it always seemed like a little piece of heaven on earth to me.

So, in December, I happened to be browsing Groupon for Christmas gifts and things like that, and stumbled upon an “8 Day Fly and Drive Getaway to Tuscany & Milan.” The deal, the timing, and the price seemed too good to be true, but knowing that Groupon deals can sometimes come through HUGE when it comes to vacations (we took a Groupon to Mexico when we got engaged and ended up with a second, free trip out of the whole thing a couple of years ago) I decided to look into the deal.

After a little research, we decided to go for it. The planner in me decided to create a full itinerary, and to modify the Groupon trip a little bit so that we could get more out of our stay in Italia. While we were there, I keep a “travel diary” of sorts on Facebook to keep open communication with friends and family back in the states who wanted to stay in the know, and it allowed me to document the whole thing! I’ve put it together here in one place, and changed it to past tense! I hope you enjoy it!

For the sake of not having one MASSIVE blog post – I’ve broken this into three!

Day 1: Flying to Italy & Driving for the first time in Europe

The Groupon deal had us flying out of JFK, so we drove up there from Richmond – about a 7 hour trip. We flew out of JFK around 11pm on an Emirates flight (which was amazing BTW – UNITED AIRLINES NEEDS TO STEP IT UP!) On the flight we got to watch new movies, have a full dinner and breakfast, and a warm towel to wake us up in the morning.

After we opened our eyes and our window on the plane, we looked out to see the Swiss Alps! It was crazy huge, the picture truly does not do it any justice (I’m sure you will find me saying that a lot throughout this post).

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Going through the Malpensa Airport was pretty easy – dealing with the rental car guy was not, but eventually we got out of there and to our little Fiat 500 that was waiting in the parking lot.  Goodman has recently gotten super into Top Gear and was probably more exited about driving the Italian highways as he was anything else in Italy. I was just happy it was a stick so that I had an excuse not to be the DD at the wineries (hahah).

A four and a half hour drive down the coast later, and we arrived at our little village in Tuscany, Montecatini Terme. We weren’t able to see too much on the drive because of the rain. But driving through the fog and seeing the mountains was incredibly beautiful! I didn’t even take any photos because we were just soaking it all in.

As soon as we checked in and made it onto our balcony we saw the most beautiful sunset – it was like something out of a movie, seriously! We relaxed for a little bit and then walked around town until we found a little wine bar that was open.

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The bartender (? not sure if that’s what they are really called in wine bars) scoffed at us for asking for Pinot Noir – and tested our wine tasting skills by giving us two glasses of very different wines, and asking us why we liked or disliked each of them (in very little english). He also brought us a slab of wood with salami, prosciutto, and bread with what we think was foie gras on it and asked us to try it with each of the wines, on the house.

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We ended up learning that aged, fine Italian wine is 100% better than we even expected, and that Italians are very hospitable hosts! We bought a bottle and took it back to the room.

Day 2: Exploring our small village in Tuscany, Montecatini

We woke up and had a great breakfast of meats and croissants at our hotel. Then we walked around town looking for a barber, because Goodman didn’t have time to get the beard shaved before we left, and was sticking out like a sore thumb in Italy.

We found a super cute barbershop close to the piazza, and Goodman got an authentic Italian haircut and shave by a barber named Fabiano. He was extra careful on Goodman’s hair because he was training his apprentice!

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We ventured up to the top of the mountain above us called Montecatini Alto, and explored a few classic churches and neighborhoods. Alto was basically deserted because it was the off season, and most of the homes up there seemed to be vacation villas. However, in the churches, there were burning candles at the altars which was a little spooky given that we didn’t see one person the entire time we were up there! This was probably my favorite part of the trip to be honest. It was like a dream being in this beautiful but deserted Italian neighborhood!

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We took some pictures and then drove back down the little mountain where we had some coffee at a small bar.

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Then we drove out to a nearby town called Montecarlo were our hotel manger suggested we go for a winery tour at a very old family winery called Fattoria Del Teso.  There, we found an empty winery and a host waiting for us with a private winery set up! The “tour” paired locally made honey, cheeses, and prosciutto with the best wine either of us have ever had!

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After tasting all 7 of their red and white wines, we still wanted more of their house red, so we asked how much a bottle of the wine would cost and it was only 18 euros! Like, this wine tasted better than the Octagon wine from Jefferson Vineyards, (which is 6 dollars A GLASS btw) and this wine that was literally the best either of us have ever had was 18 euros total. We bought a bottle and decided to take it home for our next special celebration.

 

Continue reading with to Our Italy Trip: Part 2, Rome!