On May 9, 2008 Patricia and I, along with our friends Don and Mary Ann Sadon, left LAX for a two week visit to Italy. I’ve been to Italy several times, but always as the prelude or ending of a cruise. Patricia, whose mother was born in Sicily, has been to Italy many times, but, is happy to point out that no one ever gets enough.
Our itinerary included four days in Venezia (Venice), five days in Firenze (Florence) and four days at Lake Como in Bellagio. Sound like a dream vacation? You bet!!
HOW TO PLAN THE PERFECT VACATION: Since we planned to cover our destinations by rail and had specific ideas about what we wanted to do, we asked our friend Elaine Lee, a former travel agent herself, to recommend someone to help us put the trip together. She recommended Rosemary Pedretti who did a wonderful job of planning.
Here’s what Rosemary did for us: She arranged for a driver to pick us up at the Venice airport and get us delivered to our hotel by water taxi; obtained first class train tickets for us from Venice to Florence along with a driver to pick us up at the train station to deliver us to our hotel; arranged for a driver to pick us up at our Florence Hotel and take us for an all day tour of Tuscany plus a tour guide in Siena; First Class Rail tickets from Florence to Milan along with vans to take us from hotel to train station and from the Milan Train station to Bellagio some 100 kilometers away; a van to pick us up in Bellagio and deliver us to the Milan Airport for our trip home and, best of all, reservations at 3 of the finest hotels in Italy. She even made dinner reservations for us and provided museum tickets. If you want Rosemary to help with your trip you can contact her at email@example.com.
MONEY MATTERS: Your question is, “What will a trip like this cost?” I’m reminded of the time I asked a Hatteras dealer about the cost of one of his yachts. He said, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”
The major problem is the plummeting value of the dollar as compared to the Euro. There was a time when a hotel at 500 Euros a night was high but affordable. Now, thanks to the dollar’s decline, that will approach $800 U.S. a night.
The good news is that your expenditures will probably be limited to lodging, meals and travel. The days of buying goods at a discount anywhere in Europe are long gone. For example, a LaCoste shirt I bought in the States for $75, cost 75 Euros in Italy, about $120 U.S.
There’s hardly anything you’ll see in Italy you can’t buy cheaper when you get home.
Still, shopping in Italy is a unique experience. You’ll see some merchandise unavailable anywhere else. The question you have to ask yourself is: “Will it be cheaper the next time I’m in Italy?”
Americans who asked themselves that question three years ago are sorry they didn’t buy when they had a chance. AND, Americans in our age group have to ask themselves, “Will we ever pass this way again?”
If your answer to that last question is, “maybe not,” then my advice is “Go for it.” Don’t worry about whether your kids will be able to buy a Porsche or only a Chevy with their inheritance after you’re gone.
CARRY MORE EUROS: One thing has changed since the last time we were there; we were required to pay for certain services with Euros in cash. In the past, if we arranged a tour guide or driver through the hotel Concierge the cost would be added to our hotel bill. Now in most cases, you’ll have to pay your “Concierge” bill in European currency before you check out. This may be to avoid the discount on our credit cards, or to avoid the fluctuation in the value of the dollar, or both. Either way, you’ll find yourself making many trips to the ATM machine so you’ll have enough cash. By the way, in addition to the banks, all Italian Post Offices now have public ATM machines located on the outside of the building.
COMPUTER ACCESS: Most Italian hotels have one or more computers set up for the use of their guests – for a fee. The good news is, there are numerous “internet cafes” and public computer centers costing a lot less. I paid 2 Euros for 20 minutes in an internet café. The same time cost me 10 Euros at the Hotel.
LAUNDRY: We usually pack about one week’s change of clothing for a two week trip to avoid having too much luggage. We’ve been sending shirts and other items needing cleaning or laundering out through the hotel’s valet service. Not this trip.
The price to launder a pair of socks was 9 Euros, roughly four times the cost of the socks when purchased new. We found a laundry in Florence where we got all our things washed, folded, and ironed (where appropriate) within 24 hours for about 25 Euros. If you need laundry service, ask the concierge for directions to the nearest laundry.
If there’s no nearby laundry, we suggest throwing the dirty laundry away and then buy all new stuff. Or, you can always bring along a small supply of liquid detergent and wash your things in the bathtub.
TIPPING: In Italy we used to carry around $1 U.S. bills to use as tips. While the people who wait on you can always change your dollars into Euros, remember the change in the value of a dollar is our “never mind” not theirs. If you would tip a luggage handler $5 U.S. at LAX, I’d give him 5 Euros in Italy. Unfortunately, you can only get currency, no coins, in Euros before leaving home and their smallest bill is a five. My advice is when you arrive at your first European airport exchange a 20 Euro Bill for 1 and 2 Euro coins to use for tips.
Restaurant bills often show “Service” 10% or 15%. But, this does not customarily go to your Server. We suggest you leave 10% of the check in cash on the table when you leave if you’ve had really good service – which we did at every single restaurant except one.
The exception was in Florence where our Head Waiter got in a heated argument with the owner. They yelled at each other for all of 20 minutes at which time the Head Waiter took off his apron, wadded it up and threw it on the floor. Then he walked out. One of the waitresses left, too. Our waitress was trying to stay out of the line of fire, but, did her best to convince the owner to prepare our bill while he was still engaged in the shouting match. He ignored her and we waited. Finally, left alone at his cash register, the owner attended to our bill. We all agreed the argument was very entertaining so we left 10%.
Italian cab drivers are happy to have you say, “Keep the change.” In Florence, the only place we used taxis, the drivers seemed to have long ways to go short distances, so we figured they made a little extra on each trip because of our unfamiliarity with the street lay out, so we didn’t go overboard. They seemed happy to get anything.
WEATHER: May is a good month to travel in Italy. You will encounter some rain, but, rarely huge thunder storms. We were lucky because none of our planned activities were ruined by rain.
You can expect temperatures in 70s in the day time and 50s at night. I’d suggest you check the ten day forecast on www.weather.com for the city you’re visiting a couple of days before you leave and then pack accordingly.
Italian temperatures are quoted in “Celsius.” My buddy from St. Jude Medical Center, Ray Hansen, once gave me a simple way to convert Celsius to Farenheight. Take the Celsius number, let’s say 30, and double it (now it’s 60), add 32 (freezing in Farenheight) (now your number is 92) then subtract 10%, making the temperature 30C approximately 83F.
Spring and Fall are generally accepted as the best times to visit Italy, but the number of tourists is at its peak. The problem with a mid summer vacation is that Italians believe firmly in taking a “holiday” and in mid-August you’ll find a lot of businesses and attractions closed.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING BACK: Patricia and I remember when your air travel was part of the adventure. Today it will most surely be a nightmare experience. Here are a few tips that may help you.
Your flight to Europe will take 10 hours or more, so you will leave at say 5 in the afternoon and, because of the nine hour time difference you’ll be getting into your first stop around Noon the following day. Then you’ll probably have a layover and a second flight to get you to your ultimate destination. That will take another 5 or 6 hours, getting you into your hotel in early evening.
If you leave home on Friday, as we did, this gets you in on Saturday night. Venice has become a weekend destination for people from all over the E.U., so hotel rates are much higher on Friday and Saturday nights than on weeknights. If you’re like us, you’ll want to get a bite to eat and then go to bed to make up for all the sleep you lost on the plane. So, you gain no benefit from the extra room rate you’re paying for a Saturday night. In addition, coming back you’ll get stuck in your local version of Friday night rush hour.
If we had it to do over again we would leave and return on Saturday.
UPGRADE IF YOU POSSIBLY CAN: We save our airline miles for upgrades, not free tickets. If you’ve tried to trade your miles for a free ticket to Europe you’ve found yourself with three or more stops and the most inconvenient flight times. The difference in comfort between coach and Business Class is absolutely enormous.
OH NO, NOT HEATHROW: If you are going anywhere except an English destination, Heathrow Airport in London can be a nightmare. It is poorly laid out, poorly signed and manned by British Civil Servants who specialize in routing your Italy bound bag to the United Arab Emirates. Our bags have been mishandled three different times, so we avoid Heathrow when ever we can.
AIR TRAVEL TO ITALY: In order to avoid Heathrow and still utilize our frequent flyer miles to upgrade to Business Class, we flew on United from LAX to Frankfurt, then flew on Lufthansa from Frankfurt to Venice.
Frankfurt is not our favorite airport either. There are no “sit-down” places to eat and only a very few sandwich shops all of which seem to offer only packaged products – sandwiches, etc. There are very few flight boards showing arrivals and departures and you’ll find yourself searching in vain for an information booth. Also, at the security gate you can expect to be “frisked.”
On the positive side, German planes are almost always on time and they seldom lose your luggage. The flight from Frankfurt to Venice takes you over the Alps, one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see.
TRAVELING BY TRAIN IN ITALY: Mussolini is credited with causing Italian trains to run on time. You probably won’t have the monstrous delays and cancellations common back home with Amtrak.
If you are traveling by train in Italy, here are a few tips:
- There are no baggage handlers and no baggage cars on European Trains. That means you’ll have to handle your luggage yourself. Storage on Italian trains is overhead – yes, the overhead space is large enough for a good sized suitcase – but, you’ll have to put the bag in the space by yourself. So, Hall’s First Law of Italian Train Travel is, “Never bring a suitcase you can’t comfortably lift over your head, without hurting yourself.”
- Travel “First Class.” You can purchase First Class train tickets in advance and get assigned seats. Let’s put it this way, 2nd class, means “no class.” Some people purchase a 1st class ticket without an assigned seat, so if you get on the train and someone is sitting in your seat show them your ticket and they’ll move.
- There’s a dining car on most trains and you’ll be able to purchase lunch or dinner. Some train dining cars require a reservation, so ask your travel agent to take care of this for you if you’re traveling during a meal hour. If you don’t get in the Dining Car, there’s usually a “Bar Car” where you can buy a sandwich or snack. Take my advice, the Dining Car is better.
- There are no security screens or other hassles to Italian train travel. So, there is no need to arrive at the train station early. We arrived an hour before the departure time and found ourselves standing around for more than 30 minutes.
- There are no seating areas in most Italian Train Stations, you’ll find yourself leaning against the wall, or, sitting on your suitcase. This is another good reason to avoid arriving at the station too early.
- Many train tickets require the ticket be “validated” at the train station. You’ll find a yellow or orange machine on the wall of the station to validate your ticket.
- Train Travel in Italy is a hundred times better and more comfortable than Amtrak. Also, more used by the populace, be prepared for a full train.
VENICE: This is my 4th trip to Venice; I never tire of the place. Patricia has been there more often. I’ve included information about Venice in at least two other travelogues, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. But, there are a few things to do in Venice worth doing over and over.
SOMETHING NEW: In the past, when we flew into Venice we picked up our bags and walked a few feet to a Water Taxi to take us to our hotel. Now, a brand new Venice Airport has opened. It accommodates much larger planes than the old one, but, it’s not on the edge of town. Now you’ll fly into the new airport, take a cab or limo some 40 minutes to the outskirts of Venice then catch your water taxi to the hotel. The price to get the four of us from airport to hotel was 200 Euros (in cash) or about $75 U.S. a head.
Our Hotel in Venice was the Londra Palace located just up the canal from Piazza San Marco. A “Junior Suite” – a very spacious and beautiful room cost 599 Euros a night on weeknights and 699 per night on the weekend. It was our favorite hotel on the trip.
We had a fabulous view of the Grand Canal and the church San Giorgio Maggiore on the island of San Giorgio across the Grand Canal. The monument to King Vittorio Emanuele
is just outside the Londra Palace front door. Once upon a time the hotel was two separate palaces; they were joined to produce a spectacular result. It has been serving the public for more than a century and has been the favorite place to stay of many celebrities. Tchaikovsky composed his 4th Symphony while a guest of the Londra Palace in 1887.
Yet the services and furnishings have kept up with the times. There is a very good free breakfast every morning, a computer is available, and the bathrooms have both shower and tub. We loved it and, when we go back, we’ll stay there again.
Venice is divided into 6 “Districts.” While the Londra Palace is less than 100 yards from the Piazza San Marco, it isn’t in the District of San Marco but in Castello. It’s important because guide books give hotel and restaurant recommendations by Venetian district.
VENICE IS CROWDED!! Cruise Ships stream into Venice and all the passengers end up in the Piazza San Marco feeding the pigeons and taking photos of each other.
Venetians feel their city has become a “Theme Park” attracting week-end tourists from elsewhere in the EU in addition to the cruises and tour groups. Making it worse for them, now that the dollar is down, American Tourists are not spending as much as in the past.
WHAT TO DO IN VENICE: First is the Piazza San Marco where you’ll find both the Cathedral San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.
THE DOGE’S PALACE: Venice was once the most powerful of the Italian City States, because of its domination of the seas. The ruler was the “Doge” (Duke). Immediately behind the Doge’s Palace is the Doge’s Dungeon connected two stories above the water (across a canal) by a covered bridge known as the “Bridge of Sighs.”
Tours of the Doge’s Palace are available and you can make reservations in advance, both the tours and the advance reservations are highly recommended.
BASILICA SAN MARCO: We enjoy attending Mass in the great Catholic Churches around the world and decided to attend San Marco on Sunday, the day after we arrived. If you want to go, make a note, Mass begins at 10 AM, even though the guide books say 11 AM (which is correct every other day of the week) We arrived late to find every pew occupied, folding chairs in the back were all occupied, too.
We found a wall to lean against and realized that the people attending the mass were all Catholics, not unbelieving tourists as we had found in previous years. Most everyone stayed for the whole service even though it was a High Mass lasting more than 90 minutes. Only a handful of folks, mostly Americans, left before it was over.
You can tour the great Cathedral, again advance reservations are suggested. It has a great number of art treasures by the world’s great artists. You’ll also see the water damage done by “Aqua Alta” (High Water); flooding that periodically raises the Venetian Lagoon above flood stage. Beautiful and ancient mosaics have been damaged and painstaking restoration is in progress. It’s a constant battle.
MORE PIAZZA SAN MARCO: Before you give up on the Piazza, come back at night when the cruise ship passengers and other tourists have moved on.
Two Café/bars (Café Lavena and, across the square, the Café Florian) have outdoor orchestras playing well into the night. Each plays a piece and then waits for the other. Both orchestras feature the best violinists you’ll ever hear for free, playing light classics like the Flight of the Bumble Bee and Hungarian Dances.
There is a very beautiful and complicated clock tower to the left of the Basilica as you face it from the Piazza. Not only does it tell the time, it gives you day, month and year as well as an astrological calendar.
Of course, the window shopping around the Piazza is well worth the effort.
It’s all fun, and free, too.
THE RIALTO BRIDGE: Getting to the Rialto Bridge is half the fun. You leave the huge Piazza San Marco and follow the signs through a labyrinth of narrow streets jam packed with shops and restaurants to tempt every shopping traveler. While Patricia and Mary Ann paused at the many jewelry and curio stores; Don and I found shops devoted to “Boy Toys” including toy soldiers, outrageous chess sets and even a Ferrari store where we could inspect a race car and buy Ferrari apparel, the shop’s only merchandise.
Don’t worry about getting lost, there are many signs saying “Rialto” and “San Marco” with appropriate arrows to guide you. If you lose your way, a few steps will take you to the intersection of another little street that will have a sign.
The Rialto Bridge itself is a walking bridge across the Grand Canal. It’s lined with shops. We stopped at Café Marco Polo on the way back for pizza and “Bira” (beer).
A GONDOLA RIDE: This is a must do, if you’ve never been to Venice and a lot of fun even if you have. The price hasn’t gone up in the 3 years since we’ve been there; it’s still 100 Euros for 4 people for about 45 minutes. But, the decline of the dollar has made a significant difference. If you’re in Venice only once in your life and don’t take a gondola ride, you’ll never forgive yourself.
The route of the Gondola takes you through the many side canals and will include views of Marco Polo’s House, Casanova’s House and Mozart’s House. Depending on your Gondolier’s command of English (they all speak at least some); he’ll regale you with legends of these and other legendary Venetians.
Our Gondola ride was on a Sunday. When we got up that morning we looked out our window saw a hundred or more boats in the lagoon. They ranged from 2 rowers to eight, and most were rowing skulls. But, there were also groups of 6 and 8 standing in their boats rowing gondolier style. It turned out it was a “non-competitive race,” meaning everyone rowed like Hell, then, got together to down a few biras with no one paying attention to who crossed the finish line first.
On our gondola ride we ran into a few of these rowers who were trying their skills in the Venice Canals – I mean we literally ran into them. Gondolas are about 36 feet from bow to stern and weigh a little less than 1,000 pounds. Gondoliers are highly skilled athletes and you won’t believe how they manage to steer your gondola so effortlessly with a single paddle in those narrow canals.
When they come up to a blind corner they will “holler.” The echo will tell another gondolier coming the other way, not only that there is another gondola coming, but identify the gondolier, since each develops his own distinctive holler. Our Gondolier, Antonio, was adept at avoiding amateur rowers in the water, but, twice rowing skulls got in the way of the gondola. Both times he avoided hitting the other craft, but barely. We learned a lot of Italian swear words from Antonio.
Seeing the rowers in the canals, however, proved the popularity of the Regatta. One skull with 6 rowers, each wearing a tee-shirt proclaiming “Budapest Rowing Society,” glided smoothly past Antonio.
MURANO GLASS: Venice is famous for Murano Glass, beautiful and expensive pieces produced right in the Venetian Lagoon on the island of Murano. If you want to see the glass pieces being made or you want to buy, you’ll have no difficulty getting there. Just whisper “Murano” to your concierge and he or she will have a water taxi waiting to whisk you to the factory at no charge.
You’ll be personally escorted into the factory to watch the glass being made. It’s an old fashioned and delicate process that’s fascinating to watch. Then comes the “full court press.” Your guide becomes an expert salesperson pressing you to buy something.
If you’re of strong constitution you’ll be able to repulse their expert salesmanship. If you’re not you’re liable to end up owning a beautiful but overpriced work of glass art. They know all the tricks of successful sales. After all, they’ve paid the water taxi and “the shills” who work the hotels to deliver you to Murano and they expect you to pay for their hospitality by acquiring something.
I have to admit we were tempted, but, a vase we liked turned out to cost $5,000 U.S., just a bit beyond our budget for glass. AND, you can buy it cheaper in the United States because of the Dollar-Euro exchange rate. If you go, you’ll enjoy it, but, be prepared.
GETTING AROUND IN VENICE: Venice is a group of small islands connected by walking bridges. There are no motorized vehicles of any type except boats on the canals. That means, to get around, you walk. Be sure you take comfortable walking shoes. For those who need help getting around, most of the bridges are wheelchair accessible.
There is a low cost water bus system to take you from district to district, but, for the most part you’ll be on foot. Luckily there is a coffee house or wine bar on every street, so feel free to stop and refresh yourself awhile before you press on.
All goods delivered to restaurants and shops are delivered either by barges or by hand trucks. If you see a man with a load on a hand truck coming your way, stand aside and let him pass. He may be delivering your dinner.
EATING IN VENICE: Now here is a topic easy to warm to. Let’s start by saying there is no such thing as a bad meal in Italy. Unfortunately, there are a few “High End” places that are trying to copy “California Cuisine” and insist on serving tiny portions with “presentation” being the most important element. Lucky for you, you can easily avoid them by looking at the menu posted on the door. If it says you’ll get “Rhubarb Chutney” with your pasta, just keep walking. However, even if you stumble into one of these over-expensive places, the food will taste good and you can always get a double gelato a few doors down to fill your empty stomach.
Our favorite restaurants from this stay in Venice were:
HARRY’S BAR: This is the most famous restaurant in Venice, at least for Americans. It’s the place Ernest Hemingway “hung out” during the 1930’s and it’s a favorite of Woody Allen, too. The founders and owners of the restaurant are the Cipriani family, famous world wide for fine food and accommodations. It also could be the most expensive meal you’ll have in Italy. If you recognize that everything (meaning EVERYTHING) is ala carte, you can keep your bill within reason by reducing the number of side dishes.
The normal meal in Italy involves four courses. First the “Antipasto” or appetizer; second the pasta course; third the main course and fourth the dessert. In a really expensive place you can “cut to the chase” and order only the 2nd or 3rd course and a dessert.
We have been to Harry’s Bar on every trip to Venice and it’s always one of the best meals we have. To lure Americans, they are currently offering a 20% discount to any American who comes in the door to help with the lousy exchange rate. You don’t have to ask for it, they recognize you by your accent. However, there is a strict dress code – absolutely no shorts or sandals. We saw a group of 8 Americans turned away because one man was wearing walking shorts.
It’s located on the Grand Canal about a block from the Piazza San Marco and is surrounded by high end shops. There is no sign, but the name is etched in glass on the door. Reservations are definitely recommended, but, leave your shorts at home.
I had Liver and Onions, which you may be surprised to learn, is a specialty in Venice. The Harry’s Bar chef prepares it by slicing the liver paper thin and then sautéing it with the onions in olive oil. It is wonderful, even Patricia who hates liver agreed.
Patricia and Mary Ann had a special Ravioli and Don had Tortellini. Then we ordered two desserts and four forks. They brought an extra dessert at no charge. Even with no salad, soup or appetizer it cost about $75 U.S. a person for lunch. But, worth it.
RISTORANTE DO LEONI: The restaurant at the Londra Palace is excellent. If the weather is nice, sit outside to watch the canal traffic and the tourists wandering by.
Don and I ordered sea bass served with fresh vegetables which was outstanding. One caution: When you order fish in Italy be sure to ask them to bone it and remove the head. If you don’t, you’ll get a whole fish just as it came from the sea. As a first course I had pasta with baby clams and tomatoes – terrific! Patricia and Mary Ann had Scampi. The Restaurant serves a complimentary “Bellini” (a champagne cocktail invented at Harry’s Bar) and we had local red wine to compliment the dinner.
A really great experience.
TRATTORIA DO FORNI: Recommended by our Concierge and by our guide book, this Trattoria is located near the Piazza San Marco. To find it, exit the Piazza under the clock tower, turn right at the first street, pass McDonalds (Yes, Mickey D’s is truly everywhere) and left at the next street. You’ll find it on the right down about 20 yards.
Trattoria Do Forni is deceptively large with a tiny entrance and several rooms attached. It’s obviously very popular because it was jammed on a Sunday night. Reservations definitely recommended.
We all had Chateau Briand; you could cut it with a fork. Patricia and I had the “Pasta Fagioli (bean and pasta soup, another specialty in Venice). Excellent.
Also, when you leave the restaurant you’ll come into Piazza San Marco where you can get close to the “Dueling Orchestras.”
RISTORANTE LA NOUVA GROTTA: On our last day we asked our concierge to direct us to a pharmacy. It was only a few steps away from the hotel and down a side street we hadn’t noticed before. On the way to the pharmacy we discovered this little wonderful neighborhood ristorante. It’s been there since 1876, so it must have something going for it. I had Pasta Fruita di Mare; Pat and Don had Lasagna and Mary Ann another pasta dish. It was the best meal we had for the price in Venice. With three courses and wine it cost less than $100 U.S. per person, a real bargain.
The atmosphere was particularly pleasant; we sat in a room with a large active fountain. The chef/owner visited each table to see if we found the food exceptional. Here’s a perfect example of the kind of “Little Gem” you’ll find by following the back alleys.
We plan to go back to Ristorante La Nouva Grotta on our next trip to Venice.
FLORENCE: I once heard that 60% of the world’s “Great Art” is in Italy and more than half of that is in Florence. On our first trip here we stayed just two days. This time we spent five days. It still wasn’t enough time. In addition, Florence is in Tuscany, by all accounts the most beautiful of all Italian areas. Pisa, home of the leaning tower and one of the largest cities in Italy is also in Tuscany as are numerous beautiful smaller places such as Lucca and Siena. You could spend years here and still not see it all.
Our hotel was the Hotel Lungarno, a four star hotel within a short distance of the Ponte Vecchio – one of Florence’s great landmarks. “Ponte Vecchio,” meaning “Old Bridge,” was built by the first of the “Great Medicis,” Cosmo. The bridge was spared by both the American and German bombers who attacked Florence during World War II. All the other bridges over the River Arno, which bi-sects the city, were destroyed to hinder the opposition. Lucky for the Florentines, their landmark bridge is a walking bridge that couldn’t accommodate German Tanks.
The Medici family came to power in the 14th Century, Cosmo was a banker and merchant, but, within a couple of generations they became the “Royalty” in Florence. If not the Fathers of the Renaissance they were certainly the Patrons.
Ponte Vecchio was originally the home of all the butchers of Florence, making it easy to drop the discarded animal parts into the river. Lorenzo di Medici, the patron of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, decreed that the butchers leave to be replaced by gold merchants. Today the popular bridge is home to some of the finest jewelers in Tuscany.
GETTING AROUND IN FLORENCE: While there are no motorized vehicles in Venice, Florence is full of them. Most are motor scooters that get about 100 Kilometers to the gallon. There are lots of folks on bikes, too.
You can easily walk to many of the most famous sights, but, there are taxis for longer hauls. On two of our days in Florence we opted to hire a private car with driver and private guide. One of those days we went to Siena and on the other we hired a guide to show us the sights of Florence we had not yet seen.
TAKE CARE IN FLORENCE: In most of Italy you are not at risk for becoming the victim of a violent crime. But, petty theft is a different matter.
Gypsies are numerous and are particularly adept at picking your pocket. A mother carrying a baby will approach you, palm extended, seeking a handout while at the same time her 5 year old is lifting your wallet. Italy has recently been cracking down on illegal aliens, most from Eastern European countries, who have joined the gypsies in petty theft. Unfortunately, for the newcomers, they lack the generations of experience of the average Gypsy and are much more likely to get caught.
Women should take care to carry their purses on the side away from the street. Purse snatchers on motor scooters have been known to carry heavy duty shears to cut the shoulder strap of your purse, snatch it and dart away before you can say “hey.”
THINGS TO SEE IN FLORENCE: They are almost too numerous to mention. As a general rule, if you want to see great art in Florence you are as likely to find it in a church as in a museum.
THE UFFIZI: Built originally in the mid-16th century as an office building by the Medicis it was soon converted into a gallery to show off their art collection. The Uffizi is now one of the most famous galleries in the world. You’ll find works by all of the Italian masters including Titian, Giotto, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Botticelli, creator of perhaps the Uffizi’s most famous work “The Birth of Venus.” You can spend all day at the Uffizi and not see it all. Get tickets in advance, you won’t be sorry.
PIAZZA DELLA SIGNORIA: Near the Uffizi and adjacent to the “Palazzo Vecchio” (Old Palace) the Piazza is a Sculpture Garden, where Michelango’s David originally stood. David was moved to the “Galleria dell’ Academia” in 1894 and was replaced by a replica. All the other statues are the originals, however and are worth a stroll around the Piazza. There are lots of shops and cafes on the Piazza too, and it’s only a few steps from the Ponte Vecchio.
PALAZZO VECCHIO: Called by Florentines, “City Hall,” it is still the seat of government for the city 700 years after it opened. Filled with Art treasures, Palazzo Vecchio is worth the visit.
GALLERIA DELL’ ACCADEMIA: Here’s Michelangelo’s David in all his glory. The small gallery also contains numerous unfinished works in marble by the master. He always said his subjects “emerged” from the marble. The unfinished works show why he felt that way, and the very much finished “David” is the masterpiece. If you only have an hour in Florence and can only see one thing, this is it.
MICHELANGELO SQUARE: Actually, it’s not a square in the usual sense; there aren’t any shops or restaurants. There are a lot of vendors selling t-shirts and gelato, but only a replica of Michelangelo’s David saves the square from being a gigantic parking lot. No matter when you visit it will seem as if every car in the EU is parked here.
Why? Because of the magnificent view of the city. It’s a plateau elevated perhaps 1,000 feet above the city of Florence providing the most fabulous view of the city you can possibly imagine. Your picture album won’t be complete unless you come here to be photographed with the Ponte Vecchio or the Duomo over your shoulder.
CHURCHES: The highlight of your trip will probably be visiting the churches.
THE DUOMO, a term reserved for a Cathedral, or home church of the Bishop, is near the Galleria dell Academia. It’s one of the oldest churches in Christendom, perhaps dating to the 4th century. Access to the interior, except during mass, is limited. If you are a “climber” you can walk up the 463 steps to the top of the dome.
Here occurred my most embarrassing moment on the trip. We saw a line waiting outside the Duomo and all of a sudden it started to move into the building. I convinced my travel-mates to follow me and we got in line. We paid 6 Euros apiece at the entrance only to discover that we had paid for the right to walk up 463 steps to the top of the dome. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it even in my vigorous youth. We decided we would consider our 6 Euros a contribution to the Duomo and asked to be let out of, what became known as, “Frank’s Folly.” Before we could leave we were required to wait as a long line of young tourists passed us and began briskly walking upstairs.
Most churches in Italy have three separate buildings, the Church, the Campanile or bell tower and the Baptistery. The church needed a separate building in which to baptize children since only the “confirmed” could enter the church itself.
At the Duomo, the main attractions are the golden doors to the Baptistery. Not to be missed, but you have my permission to skip the 463 steps.
SAN MINIATO AL MONTE: A Dominican Monastery where the monks are still cloistered, speaking rarely. The church itself is beautiful and the grounds beautiful, being tended by the monks. It is singular because of its beauty and its location just below Michelangelo Square. The view from the church of Florence below is spectacular.
THE CHURCH OF SANTA MARIA NOVELLA: Built by the Dominicans in the 13th Century, this church contains some of the most important art in Florence. Worth the visit all by itself is the Strozzi Chapel featuring Dante’s Divine Comedy dating from the 14th century.
SANTA CROCE: Is a Gothic Church built by the Franciscans in the 13th century. It’s notable as the burial place of many Florentine notables including Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and Machiavelli all of whom have monuments on the premises. You’ll also find a monument to Leonardo Da Vinci, who was in France at the time of his death. The Italians asked to have his body shipped back to Florence but, the French said “Non.” He may be buried in the Loire Valley, but, his monument is in Santa Croce.
There are less than 20 Franciscan Monks left at Santa Croce, but, they have a leather factory founded centuries ago to provide a trade to local peasants, and their leather goods are on sale. You have to go through the leather factory to get to the basilica. They’re such good sales-people; you’ll be reminded of Murano.
AND MANY MORE: There are hundreds of beautiful things to see and wonderful places to visit in Florence. I just hope you’ll be able to stay long enough to see more than a few.
SIDE-TRIP SIENA AND MORE: One of our days in Florence we had a car and driver, arranged by Rosemary our Travel Agent, to take us to the beautiful city of Siena and to help us spend the day in the Tuscan countryside. Here’s where we visited:
SIENA is a mountain-top city about an hour’s drive from Florence. At one time it was a great rival to Florence and Pisa, but lack of access to a major water-way kept them in the rear of the march to greatness. There is a Duomo and, of course, other churches all with remarkable art. They are worth a visit, although it seems everything in Siena is uphill from wherever you happen to be at the time.
Siena is most famous for the “Sienese Palio,” a festival running 6 weeks from early July to mid-August, culminating in a very famous horse race in the Piazza del Campo in the center of the City. The festival started in the 13th Century and continues to this day much as it was then. Each of the city’s 17 districts nominates a horse for the race and each district also employs a professional jockey. However the horse’s jockey is not decided until the night before the race, so as to reduce the possibility of “Hanky Panky.” Only 10 horses, chosen by lot, actually compete. Betting on the race is strictly forbidden, but the Italians find a way.
The race itself is bareback and each jockey has only a whip to defend himself. They are allowed to whip their own horse or another horse or even another rider – it’s “no holds barred.” Mercifully, the race covers about a quarter of a mile and is over in 90 seconds.
Our guide said that a few representatives of PETA have shown up in the last few years, to protest the race, but nobody pays any attention to them. They say the horses are treated better than most of the citizens are.
It’s a great place to visit.
GIACHI WINERY: We then had a “Wine Tasting Luncheon” at the Giachi Winery near San Gimignano. They’re famous for their Chianti.
Having recently been in the Napa area for a wine tasting, we were struck by the differences. In Napa you will pay $6 to $12 for a “taste” of 3 or 4 wines. No food is included. In Tuscany there is no charge to taste the wines and only a modest charge (about $30) for lunch. The meal was excellent and the wine flowed liberally, which may account for the relatively large order we left with them for shipping back home. Our wine has arrived and it’s just as good here as it was there.
SAN GIMIGNANO: is a little Tuscan town near the top of a hill with a magnificent view of the Tuscan countryside. There are many shops (which Patricia and Mary Ann enjoyed) and a very nice outdoor coffee bar (which Don and I enjoyed). I’m not sure what attractions San Gimignano has other than their scenery and their shops, but I did see a sign pointing the way to “The Museum of Torture.” We decided it wasn’t for us.
EATING IN FLORENCE:
IL LATINI: The last time we were in Florence 15 years ago we ate at Il Latini and could hardly wait to go back. A Trattoria located in an old brewery, it’s famous for good food and lots of it. You might call it “Anti-California Cuisine.”
As a starter, there is a liter of Chianti on your table and several types of bread and olives. There is no menu at Il Latini and no choices; they simply bring you some of everything. The first course is antipasti consisting of Caprese Salad, Proschuto and Melon, Chicken Liver Pâté, Bean Salad, and a couple of others I don’t remember. The second course is the pasta course of 3 dishes: Macaroni with meat sauce, Cheese Ravioli and Shells with Mushroom sauce. This was followed by Pasta Fagioli soup.
Next came the main course including a platter with Beef, Veal, Rabbit, Chicken and Lamb. The Lamb was “to die for,” although by that time we only had room for a taste.
Finally, they brought dessert – 4 of them plus a glass of Grappa. Before we left they delivered a bottle of Muscato Canelli, the famous Italian Desert Wine and gave us a bottle of Chianti to take home.
All of this redefines the word, “Feast.”
Il Latini has two seatings, at 7:30 and 9:30. The early one is primarily for tourists and the later one for locals. By all means go to Il Latini when you are in Florence, but, eat a light breakfast on the morning of your reservation, then fast until dinner time. Maybe you’ll have room for it all.
We loved it.
QUATRO LEONI: (The Four Lions). This little restaurant is a couple of blocks from the Ponte Vecchio on Piazza del Passera on the south side of the River Arno. It is very popular and reservations, particularly on weekends, are a must.
The menu is in Italian (most Italian restaurants have a menu in English, not Quatro Leoni), but, your waiter will gladly explain the dishes available. I had an appetizer consisting of thin eggplant crepes around soft white cheese and mild chilies. It was fabulous. I also had a veal chop and my traveling companions all had pasta. This was followed by the best cheesecake you’ll find outside of the Carnegie Deli in New York. We had a liter of the house red wine and the whole meal cost about 30 Euros apiece. This was definitely our best meal in Italy for the price.
RISTORANTE BORGO SAN JACOBO: This is the restaurant at the Hotel Lungarno and it is quite good. We actually ate there twice and it is also the location of the hotel’s free breakfast. The Rack of Lamb was quite good and I had a Cioppino that was too. It’s not by any means inexpensive and the portions are a little small, by Florentine standards, but we think you’ll enjoy your meal.
LAKE COMO: To get to Lake Como we went by train from Florence to Milano. Rosemary had a car waiting at the Milan train station to take us to our hotel in Belagio, about an hour and fifteen minutes driving time. Our hotel was the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni one of only two 5 star hotels in the area. The other, more famous and even more lavish one, is the Villa del Este, near the city of Como.
Lake Como is a very long thin lake which divides into two legs. On the map, it looks like the stick figure of a sprinter running from west to east. The town of Como is at the sprinter’s western toe and Lecco is on the eastern toe. Belagio is right where the two legs come together. Wherever you are on Lake Como, it’s breathtakingly beautiful.
The problem, it’s difficult to photograph. At eye level you have the clear water and the little towns that line the lake on the other side – each in the typical colors of small town Italy. The lake is no where so wide that you can’t see the opposite shore. Each little town is at the base of the towering Mountains surrounding the lake. As you progress in your visual assent up the mountain, you’ll see the many variation of green of the rich plant life and as you near the top you’ll see the clouds covering the mountain tops. In the distance you’ll see snow covered peaks.
It’s one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see, but, you’ll have a devil of a time capturing it in a photograph. My advice: buy postcards and include them in your album.
THE GRAND HOTEL VILLA SERBELLONI: Built in 1852 as a private residential Villa, the Grand Hotel is an absolutely beautiful specimen of 19th century grandeur. There are great lounges, sweeping staircases and a magnificent view of the Lake. It is luxury personified and the prices are spectacular, too. Don’t get me wrong, we loved it, we just tried to avoid spending much money there.
Just a couple of examples:
A Scotch on the Rocks in the Grand Hotel Dining Room is 16 euros (just about
$25 U.S.). Across the street, at the hotel Florence Bar, the same call brand was 6 Euros, still over $10 U.S., but a far cry from $25.
Patricia takes a medication each day mixed in Apple Juice which isn’t on the free breakfast menu. I was charged 7 Euros or about $11.50 U.S. for a small glass.
If you want a Lake View you’ll pay an extra 200 Euros a night for it. We figured we would be “out and about” all day, so it wasn’t worth the extra money. We had a “Garden View” meaning the window opened onto the mountainside.
We made the mistake of having dinner in the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni on the first night. The food was tasty, but the chef was taking lessons in California Cuisine. My little serving of fish was accompanied by a tiny half potato and a single green bean. The price was over $100 a person and we were compelled to seek a gelato at a cafe up the street to avoid going to bed hungry.
I know I’ve left you the impression that we weren’t pleased with the Hotel, but we were. The staff was very attentive and helpful, the well appointed sleeping rooms were spacious and the public rooms of museum quality. You just want to limit your expenditures there.
BELLAGIO: The city of Bellagio is built on the side of the hill that separates the left leg of Lake Como from the right. So it is nearly completely surrounded by the lake. Auto traffic is restricted, so, the most common mode of transportation is by ferry. There is a fast ferry, or hydrofoil, that will get you to the City of Como in about an hour. Then there is a slow car ferry which takes about 2 hours to make the same trip.
The town itself is lovely and there are many shops to tempt you as well as some great places to eat. There is a “flat” street that runs along the waterfront, but all side “streets” are actually public stairways. They each have shops and cafes, too.
GETTING AROUND LAKE COMO: The Ferry service will take you fairly quickly to many nearby little towns on the lake. Varenna and Menaggio are nearby and are worth the ferry fare to visit. Both are quaint, but differ from each other. Varenna is very non-commercial, a beautiful path leads you to a little shopping area, but, more gelato is for sale than hard goods. Patricia fed her gelato cone to one of the mallard ducks and found herself leading a parade back to the ferry. Menaggio has many cafes and more night life than the other near-by communities.
The City of Como on the western toe of the lake has all the attractions of a mid-sized Italian city. You can easily spend a day browsing in the shops and churches and have a lovely outdoor lunch on the square. Nearby is the famous Villa de Este one of the most famous 5 star hotels in Europe
You can spend weeks taking the ferry to different spots on Lake Como and never get bored.
EATING IN BELLAGIO:
CAFÉ BARCHETTA: Founded in 1887, this is the oldest and best restaurant in Bellagio.
Situated on a stairway, it is open and airy. The food is terrific. I had Veal Milanese preceded by Minestrone soup. You could cut the veal with your fork (Patricia’s rule for good veal.) Don had Ravioli while Patricia and Mary Ann had pasta dishes. All were excellent and the price was less than we expected only about $60 U.S. per person.
We enjoyed our meal so much we made a reservation to return the next evening.
LA GROTTA: Italy is responsible for the invention of one of the world’s great experiences – Pizza. Legend has it that pasta was introduced to Italy by Marco Polo who brought it back to Italy from the Far East. But, pizza didn’t exist until a chef in Naples threw his “leftovers” together to make the world’s first pizza pie.
We ate a lot of Pizza on this trip. We all like it and it’s particularly good in Italy. La Grotta is the only Pizza place I’m mentioning because it was the best pizza we had on the whole trip. A small La Grotta Pizza can easily be shared as lunch for two pizza lovers. You always get enough to eat in Italy, except perhaps at the Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni.
Thanks to Rosemary, we had a driver pick us up to take us the Milan Airport on the day we left. Because of Friday morning traffic he elected to take us by an alternate route which turned out to be a bit nerve wracking. At one point we thought he was lost, which made us all very nervous. Just as we were about to challenge him we saw the sign that said “Airport.”
THE END: Would we do it again? In a minute!