We had three-odd weeks in Italy in 2014, in the North mostly around Tuscany. We flew into Milan, which seemed to be the cheapest place to fly into and then drove a car down to Siena, stopping at Bologna on the way and on the way back stopping in Pisa and Cinque Terre.
It’s official, Bologna is my favourite Italian city, which shouldn’t be diluted by the fact that I’ve only been to six. It’s my favourite because it’s a winning combination of grungy, old and lovely, it has a great record shop in the town centre and food, food, food….
We stayed in a pension type place just off one of the main squares, the smell of urine in the doorways was the smell of freedom after enduring the Summer months in Abu Dhabi, but I don’t suppose it would be to everyone’s taste.
Still pensions do have the advantage of offering big rooms with bunk beds, and this one included an edible breakfast and some down at heel charm, but again this may have been part of the detox after being in bling bling UAE too long.
We were only in town for a night so confined ourselves to a wander round the city centre including some serious people watching in the Piaza Verde, which was a stone’s throw from the hotel. We also had a cracking meal at one of the many side street tratorrias in town and the owner even gave the boys a toy to kick around while we ate…
Oh, I should also add that we stumbled across a big street market on our second morning and we picked up a few bargains, including a rather spiffy Judas Priest T-shirt which I’m modelling in some of the photos.
After Bologna we took the motorway to Tuscanny, about a 3 hour drive….
On the way down to our rental cottage we broke the journey up with a visit to an Etruscan/Roman site near Florence, it seemed better than trying to negotiate the traffic in Florence and the previous year Tommy had studied the Romans at school, so he was keen to see some Roman stuff in action…
The site was not blow me away BUT it was in a beautiful setting (isn’t everywhere in Tuscany?) wasn’t too busy or expensive and gave us all a flavour of of things past without hordes of people and stress, while giving the boys a chance to blow off some steam.
We also had some lunch in the restaurant at the site which I wouldn’t recommend, but at least it was quick.
After our archaeology break we continued on for another couple of hours until we got to our final destination. We hit the jackpot in Tuscany in this little house rented for two weeks. It was next to the owner’s house Francesco and Juliana, and on land where they ran their bee keeping business. The place was like something out of movie, and was a reasonable price, what was bizarre was that the owners told us it wasn’t always fully booked because it didn’t have a pool.
Not only was the cottage fantastic the gardens were gorgeous, as was the view, so much so that we spent half our days here not moving from the house other than to play in the garden or go for a walk. The only danger were the bees who seemed to crash on the grass, Tommy who can’t keep his shoes on soon got stung, in fact I think eventually we all did.
Also Francesco took some time to show us how to make honey and we all got to dress up as bee keepers. Maybe I’m easily pleased but I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.
Around the house was what I suppose is a typical Tuscan combination, woods, hills and old villages. The nearest village to us was Monticiano, which is a pleasant village with a co-op to do some shopping and a bar to get a coffee. There was the hamlet of Tocchi even closer than this with a restaurant where we had some good meat, seafood and pasta with good wine and boutique beer, it was good and informal but like much of Tuscany a little on the pricey side. The owners spoke no English which was also nice as Lorena got to practice her Italian, but they were great with the kids, who got to run around in the small garden and in fact the street.
Francesco also recommended another restaurant around 20 minutes drive away. Again the food was great, in fact a bit better than the place is Tocchi, it also came with a brilliant view, but the service was not so friendly, so you can’t have it all. Again the boys could run around after they had finished their inevitable Pizza Margarita and me and Lorena drank a glass of wine and enjoyed the view in relative peace.
The nearest city to our cottage was Siena around 40 minutes away by car. The city is high on the list of must sees on the Tuscan tourist trail and was busy with tourists. This was even more the case as we were in town for the Palio the round the square horse race that has made Siena famous.
On the day of the race itself we didn’t even try to get in the square which wouldn’t have been feasible really with the boys. So we found a spot just outside the square and watched the medieval procession of the teams go by, Danny was happy with the military uniforms on display and me and mom loved the colours, Tommy seemed to enjoy hanging out with the crowed more, as evidenced if you look closely at the photo below….
I’d recommend going to Siena for the Palio for the atmosphere and the procession was great, but with really small kids prepare for a taxing day. Danny also nearly got run over in the narrow streets of the old town because he just isn’t used to Fiats hurtling around such small roads.
We went back to Siena on a non-Palio day as well for a look around. I have to say writing this less than a year later I can’t remember too much of what we saw, like much of the old stuff I saw in Tuscany it has merged into one old church/museum/monastery over time. I do remember doing whatever the Lonely Planet told us to do, although I think the highlight for the boys was playing in the park. Oh, I do remember a massive church which was probably really important.
Talking of old stuff, we did a a day trip to Florence at my insistence. All the guide books say you can’t miss Florence, and it is undoubtedly impressive, but there were a lot of buts… First off, we went on a warm day (in our cottage in the hills) that was super sticky in Florence making walking energy sapping. Second, to say there are a lot of tourists in Florence is like saying there’s a lot of sand in the UAE. There are TOO MANY tourists in Florence and to be honest this completely wrecked my head. Third, and perhaps most important, incredible Renaissance art holds a 5-year-old’s attention for about 5 minutes, and if the kids are bored… well you get the rest…
In retrospect I would leave Florence until I could go without the kids in the off-season (if it has such a thing). Still, while we there we managed to take the requisite photos, go into a museum and check out the street performers and do a bit of marveling (in between getting ratty with each other and the kids)
Maremma National Park
We were about 90 minutes from this coastal national park, and we thought a day of bracing air would do us all good. We took the main road to Grosetto and got lost a few times on the not-so-well signposted road, but we eventually made it to the park. When we got there we headed for the visitor’s centre, with plans to do a nature walk, only to find out we were too late in the day (or it was the wrong day, or we had the wrong colour T-shirt). So we scotched that and headed for the beach. This meant driving into a small village and catching a bus to the beach, which involved a 10-minute-wait (once we’d found the bus stop), followed by a 20-minute (very slow) bus ride. When we got to the beach we found it had plenty of facilities including the all important beer and grub ones, so we were able to eat and be merry, as well as hang out on the beach.
The beach itself was natural with a lovely views and room for the boys to run around. As we had been planning a walk and not a beach day we weren’t too well prepared but a swim in your underwear never hurt anyone. We also found the beach covered in lean-tos that offered a novel form a shade which was welcome on the very sunny day.
If I was in this neck of the woods I’d come back to this park, BUT I’d check my opening times first and even consider basing myself here for a day or two. Oh, and like many other spots in Tuscany there were plenty of opportunities to stock up on local goodies here, like salami and local wine.
This ruined abbey was a twenty minute drive from the house through the wooded national park. We ended up visiting twice, once as part of an afternoon drive with no particular destination in mind and then later on for a concert.
San Galgano is not a big tourist destination, there were some locals there, but there was space for the boys to wander around and Danny enjoyed taking photos.
The concert a few nights later was a Pink Floyd covers band that played The Wall in its entirety, and what an atmospheric spot for it! there was a cool light show and we had a good view and although the boys got a bit bored towards the end it was money well spent.
One of our more adventurous day trips was a 90-minute or so drive to the hill town of San Gimignano a yet another utterly beautiful and utterly packed with tourists Tuscan hot spot.
What I do remember about the San Gimignano is climbing one of its famous towers and having to queue to do so. Yes, the views were great, yes the sheer numbers of visitors spoiled it.
I also remember going into one of Italy’s? Tuscanny’s? Torture museums, one of the tourist trap spots that the kids badger you to go in because of the grizzly delights promised outside only to be disappointed when they get in…
This Tuscan hill town (yes another one) is famous for its wine and again was between 60 and 90 minutes from the house. This one was not quite as heaving with tourists as other spots but it was pretty busy. By now we knew the drill, have a walk around, eat pizza, followed by ice cream, buy local products (in this case bottles of red), find some space for the kids, castle, photo, view, photo, toilet break back to the car…. and so it came to pass….
Kids’ Adventure Park
A lot of the day trips we did in the area had more for the adults than for kids (think eating, drinking and looking at old stuff), so one day we thought an adventure park was in order. We found the ideal one, cheap, small and very quiet 🙂 Saltalbero is one of those parks where the kids climb around walkways suspended from trees, then pet some goats, perfect 🙂 It was an hour or so drive from the cottage (like everywhere I claim) and can be combined with a visit to some old stuff…
A Village Festa
After moaning about too many tourists it’s time to regal you with a beautiful hill town with only locals (or at least Italians) in sight. We stumbled across this village whose name I can’t remember when they were in the middle of their village festa.
I guess most of the people there were either from the village or perhaps family who moved to the city and had come back for the festivities. Anyway the main street was full of trestle tables and you could buy tickets to get plates of pasta and wine. Which of course we did. There was a band chalked in for later in the evening that we didn’t stay to see and the couple of hours we were there seemed to be just a warm-up.
Tommy really wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa as he had done it at school, and as it was on the way back up to Milan we decided to stay over for two nights.
There was good and bad to be found and I’m afraid the first bad was our digs. I used Airbnb for the first time and it was a disappointment. The place advertised itself as a family home but it was a dingy student B&B. the bloke was friendly enough but I won’t be repeating the experience. Although I should note it was cheap and if I had been in my early 20’s I would have been happy enough with it. And there was a green space with some swings just in front of the house which was nice.
The other bad, (might as well get it over with), was the Leaning Tower, which was packed with weird people taking photos holding the thing up. Tourists (and I know I’m one) kill a place stone dead, there were rivers of people everywhere and the restaurants around the area were typically of lower quality than in non-tourist areas…
Still we got the photo and got out to a nicer side of Pisa, namely the rest of it. The historical centre on the other side of the river is atmospheric and interesting. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, had a great breakfast in a cafe that had lots of board games (and locals relaxing with their kids too) and took in a small museum. All in all a pleasant way to spend the morning.
If you don’t know, Cinqe Terre is a collection of 5 ridiculously picturesque coastal villages near Genoa in North West Italy. We stopped on the way back up north between Pisa and Milan (although we had to do a bit of detour).
We only had time to visit the first of the 5 villages from the South, we had a walk around, a lovely fish lunch and then hit the road again. The first thing to know is that you will park outside the village, in our case in multi-storey car park with the smallest spaces in the world…
Then it was a walk down a steep hill into the village along with several thousand other people. Yep, like so many other tourist hot spots in Italy this one was heaving. And yep it made the whole experience feel WRONG. This area is certainly one to spend more time and I guess the other villages wouldn’t have had as many tourists, but for a day it was all a bit rushed, although the splendid lunch helped a bit.
Would we go back?
Tuscanny is undoubtedly beautiful and the house we stayed in was a dream, but I wouldn’t go back in the Summer simply because there were too many tourists. Having said that I would go back to Italy to explore further, it seems a bit like Spain in that it is a country that no matter how many times you visit there is always something incredible to see and of course eat 🙂