Tuscany

Tuscany

Ryan couldn’t wait for today and our tour through Chianti wine country. His favorite wine’s of all are Chianti Classicos which are from the heart of the Chianti region in Tuscany and have black roosters on the label to signify that they are made with the right formula of Sangiovese grapes.

Chianti region in Italy

Our hotel didn’t include breakfast, so we walked to a little pastry shop to carbo-load on croissants and doughnuts before making our way to the train station to meet our Walkabout Florence tour group. Our tour guide, Lavi, was energetic and ready to go. She led us through the station and down to our smaller sized tour bus. There were about 15 people on our bus and it was the perfect size for a tour. Unlike some of our tours in Phuket, Thailand, we did not encounter any other tour groups during the rest of our day on this tour, making it very intimate and unique.

The drive to our first winery was about 50 minutes but it went by quickly as Lavi told us all about the history of Chianti wines. Apparently, in the days of the Romans, wine was terrible tasting. The Romans used any grapes they could find, didn’t prepare the wine well, and diluted it with 2 parts water. Because it tasted so bad, the Romans would add spices and other things to it to mask the taste and mainly drank wine for health reasons (it was safer than water in most cases). Over the years, people discovered that the way you grow the grapes, the size of the bunch, the altitude of the grapes, the soil, amount of skin used, and the aging process are all critical components to making a decent tasting wine. Harsher growing conditions and smaller grape yields typically give the best tasting wines. Not what you would typically think, right?

To grow a Chianti Classico, there are rules the govern all aspects of the wine making process so that the wine quality maintains the Classico standards. For example, the vines have to be planted close together so that they compete with one another for water and minerals. The wine makers do not water the plants so the vines have to drive their roots deep into the soil to find water. The vines have to be planted between a certain altitudes and on a slope because water is harder for them to get. Most importantly, all of the wines have to be at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. There are a slew of interesting rules that go into makings such amazing wines.

Our first winery was Villa Li Corti which sits on top of a hill on the 617 acre estate. We toured the vineyard and the olive groves before going inside to see the wine making process.

We took a tour of the barrel rooms…

And we got to see how olive oil is made. Apparently, “extra virgin” for olive oil means it came from the first press of the olives in the machine (below) after picking. Buyers be ware, the new and trendy “extra extra” virgin oil is just a marketing gimmick and the closest thing to “extra extra” would be eating raw olives.

We went up to the tasting room and sat at a 4 top table with bread and meats for us to try. We started talking to the other couple across from us and learned that they also got married on September 16th as well and were also on their honeymoon! Small world. We had a good conversation about all things wedding, living in Brooklyn, and other miscellaneous topics while drinking some delicious wines and eating the meats.

After tasting #1, it was off to our lunch location – La Cantinetta di Rignana. We bounced and swerved our way on the bus, deep into the heart of Tuscany, to this little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was just as special as the restaurant we went to in Hvar and apparently, it was so good that George Clooney and his wife went their twice in the same week! The view was amazing and we were treated to an insanely good meal. George has good taste in food…

Up first were 4 different types of bruschetta: tomato and olive oil, chicken liver, “lardo” which is cured ham fat (like on prosciutto), and mushroom. My favorite two were the lardo and chicken liver – sounds gross but it was so good!

After that, we had two types of pasta: boar rigatoni and truffle ravioli. The shavings of truffle were huge and I am now addicted to everything truffle. It was family style so I had to share the ravioli, but I did not want to!

After lunch, Ryan and I walked through the vineyard and tried a grape that had fallen from the vine. IT was so good.

We hopped back on the bus and off to the third winery. The roads were very bumpy, windy, and narrow and we almost had some “too close to the edge of the cliff” moments… but we eventually made it to the Montemaggio estate. The manager gave us a tour of the vineyard and the gardens.

They were actually harvesting the grapes while we were there, so we got to see the grapes getting crushed and pushed into one of the big tanks. It was quite a treat to get to see all parts of the wine making process in action.

Grape sorting at the Montemaggio vineyard in Tuscany, Italy

We were led through the villa and up to the tasting terrace. There were cheese pairings with our wine and we must have tried 6 different, delicious varieties. The lady next to me was making very strange, monotone noises while our host was speaking, and Ryan was imitating her in a way that almost made me lose my wine a few times. Between his silliness and the wine, we had a blast!

After the last wine, it was back on the bus and to a little square for some shopping. There was an amazing butchery there that smelt heavenly, so we bought some meat and cheese to take back to the States.

After about a 50 minute bus ride back, it was time to say goodbye to our tour group, drop the wine and goodies we bought back at the hotel, and walk over to Il Latini for dinner. Like the night before when we first stumbled upon the restaurant, there were 30 people already there waiting for the doors to open. At least there was a line this time, instead of a massive, unorganized crowd. Thankfully, we had reservations and went to the front of the line to get in pretty easily once the doors opened.

The place was family style so everyone sat close together and it was a very social setting. There was a pre-fixed menu for $55 euro a person, but we were not that hungry, so we ordered a few things off of the menu instead and stuck with the table wine that was only 10 euro a bottle. Little did we know, our “small order” got us enough food for 10 people.

We got the 3 salami plate and did not realize that the “selection of 3 pastas” was actually 3 full servings of various pasta dishes!

After that, was the massive steak and two different, complementary desserts. Thank gosh we did not go for the tasting menu!

As it turns out, the couple next to us who did get the tasting menu didn’t get that much more food than us but they paid double! They got one additional entrée, but we were also given the same desert and a free bottle of desert wine! We started chatting with them about the sheer amount of food and what tasted the best. The couple was in town from California and were pretty fascinating. One was an artist and the other was in the energy business and we had a good convo about American politics for about 45 minutes until all of the wine finally disappeared. Overall, the dinner was very enjoyable and we would recommend Il Latini to anyone in Florence that is anywhere on the scale of very hungry to starving. You will get a delicious meal for a great price.

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Florence

Florence

Off to Florence this morning! After a quick walk to the Spanish Step’s Metro station, we were on our way to Roma Termini to get on the train to Florence. The Metro station was attached to the train station so there were plenty of signs to easily direct us to the train tracks. We bought tickets at one of the self-serve stations and we in quite a hustle to get on the train. Ryan was running ahead of me, weaving in and out of people to a track. I had no idea if it was the right one, especially since the destination portrayed on the screen was not ours. Ryan made his way down the platform and hopped into a train car and I was still confused. We sat in some open seats and I was pretty sure we were on the wrong train, but there was no one in sight to help direct us. The only thing we had going for us was that the train number on the screen was the same as that on our ticket, so I just had to trust Ryan that we were going the right direction. After the water taxi debacle in Hvar though, I was a bit nervous.

The train from Italy to Florence, Italy

It also turned out that we had assigned seating and were in cart 6 instead of 11. We got kicked out of our seats and had to travel the carts to the back of the train. We finally found our seats, and I was a little stressed out, but thankfully, we were able to confirm we were on the right train! Phew!

It only took a little over an hour to get to Florence, and our hotel, C-Hotels Ambasciatori, was right across the street from the platform which made things super easy. Our room was quite large, the bed was soft, and we had pretty nice balcony with a good view.

After a quick refresh, we were off to find lunch. We walked for 20 minutes or so through the alleyways, past the markets, super expensive stores, the Duomo, and down to more reasonable restaurants outside of the tourist section.

We ended up at a hole-in-the-wall place down a random alley and had a delicious pasta meal, however, the bread was terrible. We had to douse it in balsamic to give it any taste. Little did we know that, in Florence, the bread is made without salt. Apparently, years and years ago, the coastal city of Pisa was in charge of the salt trade that fed into Florence. Florence and Pisa went to war, and Pisa refused to sell Florence salt so, Florence stopped putting salt in their bread and, instead, made their olive oil and meats more flavorful and salty to make up for the bread’s flavor deficits. Florentines also typically do not eat the bread until their main course, not with the appetizers or pastas, so we were doing it all wrong!

Truffle ravioli in Florence, Italy

After lunch, we explored a little bit before walking over to the Uffizi to meet up with our tour guide for our Skip the Line Uffizi Gallery Tour. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was officially sick. My nose would not stop running and I was exhausted. I think the wine at lunch also affected Ryan because all he wanted to do was nap – we were a pretty pathetic looking duo at this point. On top of that, we realized that the meeting point for our tour was about 5 blocks away at a square, not at the Gallery as I thought – oops. This was not a “good mood” day unfortunately. We made it to the meeting point and were not the “talkative” couple in the group. We somehow made it to the Uffizi and I had to get about half a roll of toilet paper to use as tissues throughout our tour.

Our guide was super nice and chipper though, and did a great job of perking up our spirits and walking us through the amazing rooms of the gallery. We looked at a lot of Gothic, Medieval, and Renaissance period pieces, learning all about the style of painting during those times and the breakthrough’s of Davinci, Raphael, and Micheal Angelo.

The paintings and sculptures were pretty amazing, especially considering the massive size of them. Even the frames were incredible. We just had some art framed and could only imagine how much the ornate frames here would run.

The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

We made it through the Uffizi in one piece and followed our guide over the Ponte Vecchio bridge which is filled with jewelry stores. Ryan kept having to pull me past all of the sparkles in the windows. After we got over the river, our tour was over and we were ready to pass out at the hotel. We made a quick stop for a bite to eat in the Piazza della Repubblica. I had some yummy petso raviolis and Ryan had a delicious salmon gnocchi. Apparently the best day to eat gnocchi is on Thursday’s because that is traditionally the day most restaurants make it and, luckily for us, it was Thursday.

During our entire dinner on the patio, we watched the illegal sellers of random junk harassing people in the square. They had selfie sticks, light up balls that they threw high into the sky, roses, and other little things for sale. As soon as you made any sort of eye contact with them, they would run up to you and hustle you to buy whatever it was they were selling. They even came up to the people inside the restaurant multiple times. It was quite annoying and invasive of our space. The entire time we watched, we did not see one person actually buy anything. It was a little sad really.

We walked through random little alleyways back to the hotel. Along the way, we stumbled across a huge crowd of 50 – 60 people. I thought there must have been a fight or really good street artist or something, but in reality, they were all crowded around the closed doors of a restaurant, Il Latini. The doors opened at 7:30 on the dot and people were basically “Black Friday” rushing to get in. Those with reservations were picked out to enter and everyone else could go in as tables opened up. With such a crowd, the place had to be good, so we called to make a reservation first thing once we got back to the hotel.

 

We were getting ready for bed and I noticed that yet another one of our hotels had a bidet. Since we both had no clue how to use one, I turned to YouTubed to show me the way. Ryan and I laughed our way through the video and then I proceeded to go into the bathroom and turn the thing on out of curiosity. Little did I know, the water spigot was facing upwards and water went everywhere! Not kidding, I flooded the bathroom. I busted out laughing and Ryan kept asking me what happened from outside – my strategy, obviously, was to deny deny deny, but he totally caught me making a total mess of the loo. It was hysterical! Thankfully, we had a bunch of towels to absorb all of the water before hitting the sheets to sleep.

 

Florence & Pisa, Italy

Florence & Pisa, Italy

I woke up this morning at 7 AM with a purpose. The doors for the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo climb open early and we wanted to be first in line for the 420 step hike to the top! I got dressed via flashlight so I wouldn’t disturb my roommates, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before meeting some of the other girls for our trek to the Duomo. We waited in line for about 30 minutes and watched at least 4 or 5 brides walk by with their groom and photographer in tow to take early morning wedding pictures – hat a great idea to avoid the crowds!

The climb up to the top of the Duomo was like going back in time. The pathway up was narrow and old and you could feel how the stones had worn over hundreds of years to other adventurers. Mid-way up, you walk around the inside top of the Duomo and see the incredible paintings that line the dome. The scale of this Heaven, Earth, and Hell depiction is just mind-blowing. You can see, in the picture below, the 10 foot high fence lining the walking path in relation to how giant the whole place is.

After more stairs an a steep ladder climb, we finally made it to the most breathtaking view in Florence:

On top of the Duomo, Florence Cathedral, Italy

Since we got up so early, there were not that many people, so thankfully, it wasn’t crowded. If you can climb the stairs, and they are challenging, this is a must do in Florence!

After the Duomo, we met back up with the tour group and our Florence guide to learn about the Florence Cathedral itself, walk past the Uffizi Gallery, and continue over the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence. It had a truly beautiful view of the river. We continued our walk to a local leather factory for a demo! The leather workers showed us how to tell real leather from fake leather and how they make hard boxes completely made out of leather. It was super interesting and I highly recommend watching a demonstration before buying any leather goods from the markets.

By the time we were done with the leather demo, we were starving. We picked up a bag of cherries to snack on on the way back to the hotel where our bus to Pisa was waiting.

A 1.5 hour drive later, we finally arrived at the market around the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa for a gnocchi lunch before our next tour. We walked through the gateway to the giant green Piazza where the Leaning Tower of Pisa and cathedral are.

We toured through the cathedral in front of the Leaning Tower first. The catherdal has several huge stone pulpits with intricate engravings that each took 10+ years to carve. The wealth of the church back then is truly astonishing and hard to grasp until you have toured your share of Italy’s cathedrals.

We walked into the Baptistry, the 100% marble Duomo looking building in front of the Cathedral. Every hour, a priest enters the Baptistry to sing for the sole purpose of demonstrating the amazing echo effect that the architecture of the Baptistry creates. It was unlike anything I have ever heard before. A must-do in Pisa!

After our tour, we walked to the Tower, and saw just how far down it has sunk. Apparently, architects have found away to fix the leaning issue, so the Tower will not be sinking or leaning any further.  We took a bunch of pictures (typical tourists) and then soaked up the sun in the lawn. It was amazing to relax in a place with such a view!

We packed up about 45 minutes of free time, headed back to Florence, and took a quick shower before walking to our wine tasting dinner. Our dinner was in the cellar of a wine shop. The cellar was quite large and went under the main road. It used to be a jail with lots of tunnels but, overtime, the some of the tunnels collapsed and this particular one now only takes wine as its captives. It was a very cool vibe for our very Italian, mustached wine instructor to teach us how to pair wines, meats, and cheeses in. We had very generous amounts of wine, a white and two reds, and ate a ton of parmesan cheese, and bread with balsamic vinegar.  Needless to say, it was a tasty and tipsy night!

Florence & Pisa Tips:

  • Climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo in the early morning for a quick climb and views without lots of other people.
  • Go to a leather factory and learn all about the leather process. They are mostly free and teach you great tips for spotting fake and real leather throughout the markets.
  • Try the fruit at the local markets. It is so delicious and a great, healthy snack.
  • Listen to the singing in Baptistry in Pisa. The echo in the marble building is not to be missed.
  • Wear sun screen and / or a hat. There is not much shade in Pisa.
  • Visit a local winery in Florence and learn how to pair wines and how experience them.

Florence, Italy

Sometimes when you are on a trip with random people you’ve never met before and you have to share rooms with them, you learn quickly if they have different tendencies than you. One of the girls in our group liked to get up at the crack of dawn, and so, it was another 6:30 AM wake up to embark on our journey to Florence!

We got a later start on the road and hit some traffic, so our journey took 2.5 hours instead of 1.5, but it gave me plenty of time to catch up on sleep and my travel journal. We drove through the spine of the Alps, but it was hard to see through the fog. Finally, we arrived at our hostel in Florence! We stuffed all of our bags into a room, ran to the front door to start our exploration, and was confronted with torrential rain!

We bought some umbrellas at a shop next to our hotel and took off through an alley way to a tiny little deli the size of a closet for a delicious goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, and salami sandwich. It is amazing how every alley in Florence is packed with little gems of stores and restaurants.  After lunch, we walked past the gigantic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers to the Palazzo Medici.

The Palazzo Medici is a huge palace filled with amazing architecture, views, and art. The ceilings are so ornate with gold lief, intricate carvings, and paintings. We were completely in aw walking through such a place. You can see the scale of the ceiling and how ornate they were in the photos below, plus my favorite painting of the tour.

We also tried to go to the Accademia Gallery to see the Statue of David, however, the line was around the block and we couldn’t get in. I definitely recommend buying tickets to the Florence museums in advance as both the Accademia and the Uffizi (one of the most acclaimed museums in the entire world), were sold out on the days we wanted to go.

Since we couldn’t do any more museums, we went to the market to shop for goodies. Florence is known for its leather and, while there are a lot of faux-leather in the market, you can find some good deals on the real deal. I bought a beautiful leather jacket and haggled my way to a great price! On the way back to the hotel with all of our new stuff, we came across this really interesting building that, starting at about 10 feet up, was completely covered in dollar bills:

Dollar bill building in Florence, Italy

You never know what cool things you will encounter down the non-touristy path.

We walked through the cobbled Florence streets to an adorable little restaurant for a group dinner. The wine, sausage pasta, and bruschetta made for an excellent experience, but the waiters really topped if. They were young men and, with the 40 women in our tour group and our tour guides teasing, their faces were redder than my wine! The waiter’s dad even let them off duty early to lead our group, like parade grand marshals, to the bar. Hilarious!

Dinner in Florence, Italy

We ended up at a space age style club appropriately called “Space” where all of the tourists apparently go. The music was funky and we had a great time people watching the night away on the dance floor!

Florence tips:

  • Bring an umbrella and shoes that can get wet.
  • Buy tickets to the museums and tours you want to take in advance.
  • Wake up and climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo as soon as it opens! The stair ways are super narrow so, the less people, the better. Also, the view is so much better without the crowds and the climb will take you half the time.