Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Illustrious Italy Fall 2013

So, I know it's been a while since I last posted, more than a while actually, and I'm a few trips behind. Hopefully I'll get to them but for the most part I am going to skip past my trips to Barcelona/Pamplona, Spain and a second trip to Brussels, Belgium and hopefully I'll post them later. I want to jump to my most recent trip to Italy, which will also be a pretty long post since we did so much.

Our first night into Italy we stayed in the hotel Grand Hotel Duca di Mantova in Sesto San Giovanni outside of Milan. I have to admit, this was just a basic hotel and we didn't go into Milan on this trip so I don't have much to report. All in all, a reasonable hotel with adequate food in the restaurant. Nothing to shout home about but comfortable.

The next day we started our drive into western Italy, towards our next destination of Savona, near Albenga. Two of our cars GPS's took us along the Mediterranean Coast, which while a slow and somewhat tedious drive at ~50-60kph, was very beautiful with clear blue sky and water along the coast. The other two took a more direct route of the Autostrada. Ironically we only arrived ~10 – 15 minutes apart. At Albenga was our second hotel for the night, a villa called Villamir, a quaint and beautiful and very reasonable villa turned into a bed and breakfast. The proprietors (who had only been managing this B&B for a few years, spoke enough English to hold pleasant conversations and give us excellent suggestions for lunch and details of the surrounding area. I'm getting ahead of myself, but breakfast the next morning was a fantastic assortment of local meats, cheeses and pastries (including a few baked fresh by the proprietors). We the chatted pleasantly with the owners until we paid (cash or credit card) and left for Florence the next morning. I highly recommend and will definitely be interested in staying in this villa again.

After checking in, but before spending the night in Villamir, we also ate lunch in the local town of Savona. We grabbed some pizza at a local pizzeria while cautiously eyeing our sportier cars from some slightly sketching looking locals. Odds are nothing would have happened, but we decided to take no chances. As we've found with all Italian pizzeria's, the pizza was delicious. After lunch we took our main trek for the day which was planned to go to Monaco, and at least see the famous Monte Carlo Casino if not go in. Monaco was a very clean, if not crowded small country where the population reaches a staggering 50,000 per square mile (The country is .74 square miles). There also happened to be what appeared to be a Halloween related festival going on while we were in town. 

After finding parking in one of Monte Carlo's many parking garages, we wandered around, taking pictures, and even entered Monte Carlo Casino which was gold embossed as you might expect but rather underwhelming otherwise. In the public area there was a smidgeon of tables that tourists could poke at but the action was probably in all the private rooms where we weren't allowed. After that we wandered until it was dinner time and decided to eat at a small restaurant called which I believe was called La Shangre`la. All in all a very lack luster and uninteresting restaurant. While the food was not bad, we regretted not visiting another restaurant we had passed. Once we had finished dinner we began the hour plus drive back to Villamir and stared at the stars for a little while before going to bed. And you've already heard the rest of the story.

The next morning, after breakfast, we departed to head to our final, multi-night, destination of Park Hotel Chianti in Tuscany. This was a fantastic hotel, all the quality of a good Hilton or Sheraton without the need for membership for WiFi or breakfast. And quite affordable, it was lovely.  On the way to the hotel, we took the time to stop at a famous part of Italy, Cinque Terre, specifically the village of Riomaggiore.  We did have to hustle through the village since we were a little short of time, and parking there was extremely difficult.  I suggest leaving plenty of time to find a parking spot so you can leisurely spend time in the area.  It is very beautiful.
After we checked in and almost immediately departed for a food and wine tour (apologies, I didn't organize the tour so I don't have a link for you. I'll try to find one). Normally the tour is an all day affair, but our guide was flexible and picked us up from the airport to start us on our tour around 1200. After pausing for some history and picturesque photo opportunities from our guide, we started by heading towards the Tanuta Torciano Winery near medieval San Gimignano. where we were served a fantastic 3 course meal of meats and cheeses for appetizer, delicious Ribollita soup, and the main course of one of the best lasagna's I have ever had, drizzled with truffle flavored olive oil. Each course paired with a variety of wines for tastes and introductions to the wines, olive oils, and vinaigrette that this winery has to offer, all for direct purchase or delivery to your home. I came way with two bottles of wine and a bottle of the truffle olive oil. 

Once lunch was complete we continued for a small walking tour of San Gimignano, which was fascinating and a pleasure to wander it's streets and take photographs of it's 14 remaining towers representing families from medieval times. We even sampled gelato from the local gelato shop Gelateria Dondoli that has won the World Gelato Championships TWICE. Our guide knew and introduced us to the owner and it really was fantastic gelato. Finally to round of the day we headed to the winery at Fattoria Poggio Alloro where we sampled a few more wines and Italian appetizers of bread, cheese and olive oil and enjoyed a history of making wine and great conversation with our guide. Here I brought home some Italian pasta for future use. Another great stop. We then headed back to the hotel for the night, content and ready to sleep soundly through the night.

The following day, after a light and delicious breakfast at the hotel, we decided to take a trek into Florence for touring around the city. We consolidated our group into two cars and drove in. One group parking in a garage just inside the river, and the other parking in a small parking lot just below Piazzale Michelangelo which provides a fantastic overlook of Florence. We wandered around Florence, visiting such attractions as the statue of David, had lunch near the outdoor markets, Cathedral of Santa Maria delFiore and the Piazza della Signoria where the Fountain of Neptune lies. We even stopped for coffee at the Gucci Cafe outside of the Gucci Museum. The hot chocolate was had by a member of our group, and looked like melted chocolate. 

 Following a full day of wandering we returned to our vehicles via the Ponte Vecchio bridge and returned to the hotel. We then went next door to the restaurant Ristorante Pizzeria Pontenuovo and had some more amazing Italian food. Italian restaurants (at least the ones we attended) are organized into courses. You can order appetizers, first course and second course (or only one or two dishes) and you get treated to delicious dishes. Here I had Pappa al pomodoro, a tomato and bread soup, as well as a Gnocchi and seafood dish (potato noodles with seafood). All were fantastic. Finally, we ended the night with playing monopoly before going to bed to put a good relaxing feeling to the day.

The next day after breakfast, our group split up. Some heading home early, some going shopping, and some (me included) going to Pisa. Once arriving at Pisa and parking we wandered toward that famous leaning tour and the cathedral. Even doing the obligatory holding the tower up. We even paid to go up into the tower and partake of the fantastic panorama of Pisa and the nearby mountains with perfect weather. Another great day. 
When we were finally done wondering and acquiring some souvenirs we headed back to the hotel where the remainder of our group reconvened and we went out for our last dinner at Ristorante La Fattoria where once again we had amazing service and amazing food. Dinner this evening consisted of another bowl of the fantastic Ribollita, as well as the main dish of fried rabbit with fried vegetables, also quite spectacular.

After an amazing night sleep, we departed the hotel to start our last day in Italy and our trek home later that night. We had preplanned a trek through some Italian mountain roads on our way to Maranello, Italy where we planed to visit the Ferrari Museum. There we also took the opportunity to pay for some time (80 Euros for 10 minutes) to drive Ferrari's around for the fun. While some of us had great co-drivers that encouraged us to "have fun", I unfortunately had a co-pilot who grumpily kept me slow and steady. All in all a decent experience driving and seeing Ferrari's. (I no longer want one). After the museum we also visited the Pagani Factory in Modena and received a tour of the factory. We were able to see a Zonda R super car and walk through the factory as they actively worked on building new Pagani super-cars

. This was a very enjoyable tour. Finally we started our trek home at around 4pm, and after about 9.5 more hours of driving we arrived home after 1am in the morning to go to sleep and end our weekend vacation.

Even though we had a lot of driving, I highly recommend a road trip through Italy. Just remember to stay in the speed limit, since both Italy and Switzerland can gift you with speeding tickets of 100-200 Euros if caught. Safe travels!

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