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.

 

Rome, Day 2

Rome, Day 2

Another day, another train! After an early wake-up and quick breakfast, we were off to the train station under the Spanish Steps to hop the Metro over to the Vatican City for our tour. We met our guides on some stairs by the main entrance to the Vatican with about 30 other people. Thankfully, they divided all of us up into a few groups, so our group was only around 15 people. While we waited for the tour to start, all of these very insistent guys were trying to sell us scarves, selfie sticks, and other doodads – they were everywhere! You have to ignore them and avoid all eye contact so they don’t get one spark of hope that you may be willing to buy something.

Our guides handed out headsets and we were off to enter the Vatican. Because we bought the Rome Combo: Skip the Line Vatican, St. Peter’s Square, and Colosseum walking tour, we got to cut in front of the hundreds of people in line waiting to get in. Our guide said that the line was actually shorter than usual since the Pope was giving Mass and everyone was in St. Peter’s Square. That was hard to fathom given the line that went from the entrance around the entire square!

Our guide was very knowledgeable and funny. She kept making jokes about the status of guys she would have dated if she lived back when they were alive. She talked about the status of the guy she loved most and sighed at how he would never loved her back because he was in love with another. She then dramatically pointed to a statue across the room – of another man! Talk about the drama of it all!

We went into the Pine Cone Square and some people in our group were missing. There were two women in particular that kept losing each other and causing issues with the group. They were pretty clueless as to what was going on so it was comical, especially considering our guide would try and page them over all of our head sets when they went missing. It was like a game of Marco Polo.

We made our way through the Vatican museum, past hundreds of sculptures, each more grand than the other. I was just astonished at the size and scale of these statues. Some of the big toes on the statues were the size of my fist – can you imagine just how big they where?

Everywhere you looked there was another amazement. The Gallery Of Maps  was probably my favorite room with giant maps of each part of the country all down the walls and the most decadent ceiling.

We then went into four rooms painted by Raphel and our guide pointed out fun facts about various features in the most important of the paintings. Eventually, we got to the modern art museum in the Vatican that also houses thousands of pieces of donated work. It was pretty amazing.

At that point, we gave our headsets to the guide and she pointed us to the Sistine Chapel. Since the Pope was speaking, St. Peter’s Basilica was closed until he was finished, so we decided to get some sandwiches for lunch in the café before entering the Chapel and onto the Basilica.

Since it is such a holy place, you are not supposed to take photos or talk in the Chapel. Ryan read one of the signs wrong and was convinced we could’nt even hold hands, but after seeing the same sign, we discovered it was really talking about clothing restrictions, not hand holding! Anyways, we were in awe of the Chapel once we entered. Just the scale of the paintings and how significant they were was inspiring. We spent a good 20 minutes just admiring the various frescos and pointing out the areas our guide mentioned within each painting.

Eventually, we moved down to the Basilica and entered it’s doors. That place is just so shockingly massive that you feel like the size of an ant, it is detailed down to the last paint stroke, stunningly opulent and inspiring how much care was involved over its 120 years of construction. You need all of the adjectives in the book to describe it. We saw quite a few bride and groom couples walking through the Basilica as well. Apparently, over the summer the Pope will bless marriages within 2 months of getting married, so couples come in their wedding attire to Mass to be blessed, and then take pictures all over the city. Considering we were on our honeymoon, I loved seeing all of the happy couples and checking out all of the wedding dresses.

We had about 1.5 hours to make our way over to the Colosseum for our next tour at 3 PM. Being the public transport pros we’ve become this trip, it was back on the Metro to meet our next guide. Quite a few people from our Vatican tour were also on our Colosseum tour as well – it was a long day for all of us.

We got another headset for this tour to listen to our guide. I really liked the headsets because the guide doesn’t have to yell to the group, it makes hearing the guide super easy, and you can go look at something without losing the group and missing out on information.

The Colosseum wasn’t too crowded and we were in under 5 minutes. While this was my second time at the Colosseum, I was still in awe. I am fascinated by the gladiators and have watched all of the shows and movies that come out around the subject. I find ancient Rome, its politics, mythology, and history so interesting.

One of the main themes of both of our tours was the Pope’s influence on things. Over the years,  the Popes destroyed much of the Colosseum to reuse the marble and statues for other buildings like the Vatican. Since they took a lot of the metal frame work within the walls of the Colosseum, there was not enough to support the walls during a large earth quake and much of the northern wall fell as a result. The Colosseum was basically used as a mine to get materials until 1749 when Pope Benedict XIV decided to preserve it. It would have been such a spectacle to see back in 87 AD in its glory days.

Much of the other sites we saw that day had the same story as the Colosseum. They were huge, intricate buildings that were made with opulence and then destroyed for material use. Those buildings that did remain intact were only so because the Church deemed them important and kept them up to date. Thankfully now, all of those ruins are preserved.

We walked up the Palatine Hill and learned about a massive palace that was once there. We walked through it’s gardens and grounds and again, were astonished by the sheer size of it.

There were also some amazing vista points looking over the Forum from the Hill.

We then went down into the Forum and walked the ancient roads of Rome. It was interesting how Rome was built on different levels as people would just build on top of older buildings. Because of the various levels, city planning for Rome is difficult because builder’s never know what they will find once they break ground.

We were pretty exhausted after our tour, but Ryan was still willing to walk over to the Trastevere area where our Biking guide from the day prior said the best restaurants were. We walked for about 20 minutes before happening upon a row of really cute places with great menus. We looked at all of their menus and saw some of the food people were eating, and opted to eat at Ditta Trinchetti. What a great idea that was! The kitchen was right behind us and we could see the chefs making our food. We had some delicious olive bread to start, and then I had the most amazing carbonara of my life. Ryan had a lasagna that was mouth-watering as well and I would have eaten there the rest of the trip if I could.

Right before we tabbed out, the power went out for the entire restaurant! It took them a few minutes to get back up and running, but then the credit card machines didn’t want to connect! Our waitress gave us some delicious lemon cookies to munch on while we waited and, after about 7 attempts to process our card, we finally paid for our meal. We had about a 30 minute walk back to the hotel, so we grabbed some gelato for the way back, and admired the Castel Sant’Angelo and other sites we came across along our moon lit stroll back to the hotel.

Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii, Italy

I have always loved Greek and Roman history and mythology. I took multiple classes on the subjects in college, have watched almost every TV show and movie released along those themes, and went to Greece a few years back, so now was my time to visit one of the most well-known areas of Italy to see the ruin that Mount Vesuvius caused in Pompeii!

For those of you who don’t know, the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Under 13 – 20 feet of ash, most of the city was preserved and excavated, and you can see plaster moulds of the Pompeii citizens in the ash.

We woke up at 6 AM to have a carb heavy breakfast and hop on the bus for the 5 hour drive to the ruins. We slept, watched the Davinci Code, and observed the view of castles and farms in Limoncello country –  a delicious lemon liquor famous in the region. The lemons in the area were bigger than grapefruits!

Once we arrived at Pompeii, we grabbed some lunch in the market and shopped around before our tour. We were so relieved to find a place that had salads and fruit instead of bread and pasta to help digest everything. There was tons of volcanic rock to buy for souvenirs and pretty jewelry. One of the old gypsy ladies that was selling jewelry to one of my friends while eating rice and the rice was rocketing out of her mount between her missing teeth and hitting my friend. It was so gross but hilarious and I ended up buying a really pretty stone bracelet from her. Make sure you have a personal zone between you and these sweet old ladies just in case!

When the time came for the tour, we met our guide and walked through the turnstiles to the momentous place. I was in awe to finally be walking through a place I have been wanting to visit since my Latin class in 7th grade. There were tons of other people touring and getting around some of the larger tour groups while walking through the houses and bath houses was a little tough. I definitely recommend getting an early tour before the masses get there.

Dating back well before the destruction in 79 A.D., it was amazing to see that some of the frescos in the homes were still preserved and you could even see colors from the paint! There were pots, tables, and other objects preserved in the ash, but the most interesting were the moulds of people who were made during the excavation, Parents holding children, people crouched down, and even dogs… all having almost no time to react to Mount Vesuvius‘s wrath.

The bathhouse’s were also pretty cool. The engineering that went into making the steam rooms and hot baths vs. the cold pools was visible in the ruins and very interesting to learn about.

Pompeii, Italy

We toured up to Pompeii’s city center which had a fantastic view of the volcano. Note: even though other people might be doing it and there are no signs, do not climb on the ruins or else you will be chased down by angry site workers.

Pompeii Tips:

  • Have salads when you seem them on the menu. With carbs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the majority of the trip, salad will really help with digestion and bloating.
  • Get an early tour to avoid the crowds.
  • Bring a hat, sun glasses, sun screen, and water. There is almost no shade while touring and the light color of the ruins reflects the sun, making it very bright.
  • Do not climb on the ruins.

 

Seina, Italy

Seina, Italy

I don’t know what is worse news; waking up to heard that your travel guide is MIA, or waking up to hear that your guide is missing who has the breakfast vouchers! Apparently, our guide was out and about with some of the group until 5 AM and slept through endless knocking and texts until we broke into his room to rouse him! With Dario in tow, we scarfed down some nibbles and took off our Siena.

Siena is just beautiful. Rolling hills, gorgeous old buildings…  stereotypical Italy that any painter would want as their subject. In trend with all of Italy’s other cities, it also has a massive basilica dedicated to St. Catherine, however, it actually had St. Catherine’s remains on display inside which was a little different. The streets in Siena are very hilly and lined with various flowers and flags from all of the different districts that make up the city. Every year, these districts participate in two-horse races in the track in the middle of Siena, called the Palio di Siena, which people from all over the world come to see! Unfortunately, we were not there at the right time of year to watch, but if you visiting Italy between July and August, you should definitely check it out!

We stopped for lunch and sat outside of a little restaurant on random street we wandered down during our free time. As we progressed through our meal, dull thuds reverberating through the streets started getting louder and clearer to hear, and it turned out that the district we were having lunch in was having a parade! There were about 50 people dressed up in their traditional garb with their district flags flying high! It was so neat to see the locals traditions in-person like that.

Eventually, we made our way back to the main square where the horse races take place, the Piazza del Campo, and hopped on the bus for Assisi. About 20 minutes into the bus ride, we realized we were missing to of the more wondering-off types in our tour, and we had to go back to Siena to pick them up. Major bummer from a timing perspective, but at least they were OK.

I took a nap on the bus to Assisi. We arrived and took an escalator up to the top of the steep hill on which Assisi stands, and walked to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi; yet another astonishing catholic building filled with incredible art and sculptures. We quickly toured the church as a darkening sky and the rumbling of distant thunder warned of the impending downpour. All of a sudden, we were in a race against the rain and huge gusts of wind to get to our hotel and unload our bags from the bus before getting soaked! Thankfully, my bag was one of the first to get unloaded, so I was able to remain somewhat dry during the luggage battle up to our room on the 4th floor. What a sight it was watching the rain run over the beautiful view we had from our hotel window!

Once the storm dissipated to an acceptable umbrella level, a few of us ventured off into the streets of Assisi to find a spot for dinner. We ended up finding this French-ish Italian restaurant that was decorated like the inside of a doll house… That should have been our first warning. I got sat in front of some really creepy dolls that wouldn’t stop watching us and a TV near by was playing a very dramatic, old Italian soap opera show. Not only was there a creepy factor, but we could see the waiters SMOKING in the kitchen! Unfortunately, we had already ordered at that point and my scrumptious sounding meal came out as a soggy, truffle, mushroom, and bacon mess. How do you screw those ingredients up so badly?! We paid way to much for our meals, I guess entertainment was included, and left to find a market to buy Pringle’s to fill us up and wine to finish off the night.

Creepy dolls in the French / Italian restaurant in Assisi, Italy

Siena Tips:

  • Watch the Palio di Siena horse races in July & August.
  • Explore the different districts to encounter surprise parades, see the differences in the decorations and flags, eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and stop into enchanting little shops.
  • Take silly pictures with scenic views!