Touring Tuscany

We were sad to leave Venice but excited for our arrival in Florence, we had treated ourselves to a nice hotel in the centre of the city called Grand Hotel Baglioni, a prestigious hotel which had an epic rooftop terrace with views over the city and did an amazing breakfast.

Our arrival didn’t go perfectly to plan, the old city of Florence has tiny streets and only a few of the locals even bother driving on them, we had to drive through to get to the hotel and unfortunately a few streets were shut down and our GPS refused to plot another route. It was a stressful half hour of driving but after some minor improvisation down a one way street we arrived at the hotel and could check in, drop off our gear and go exploring.

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We both loved roaming the streets of Florence, everywhere you go there are incredible buildings, masterful sculptures and breathtaking views. We spent a large portion of our time here walking around the city, hanging out in the squares and checking out the stores which gave us the opportunity to really get a feel for Florence. We liked it a lot and will definitely back to spend a larger amount of time here on a future Italian adventure. Two of our favourite places in Florence were the Piazza Duomo where Florence’s cathedral can be found and the Piazza della Signoria a square filled with incredible sculptures which is free to enter and looks incredible when lit up at night.

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Another area of Florence worth checking out is alongside the river, with the most action being found around Ponte Vecchio. It is the oldest bridge in Florence and one that houses a variety of luxury jewellery and watch stores built on the bridge, apparently these were originally bakers and butchers stores. When the Nazi’s were retreating at the end of World War II every bridge in Florence was destroyed to slow the advance of the allies with the exception of Vecchio, depending on which tour guide is telling the story this was due to either a direct order from Hitler or a rebellious German officer who refused to follow his command to destroy it. Either way here it still stands and Florence is much better for it, we have seen so many sites that were destroyed during the war and it was great that this area was preserved despite all of the destruction around it.

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That evening we grabbed dinner in the first restaurant we saw that looked ok, we hadn’t really done any research or had time to get some local tips yet. The food wasn’t especially memorable, other than me being randomly served a shot of Vodka with my pizza, and I can’t recall the name of the restaurant but the head waiter was hilarious. He was the personification of the Italian male stereotype and his banter with guests was great to watch as he really had limited care factor which meant he often came across more mocking and contemptuous than friendly which was highly entertaining for us. The best example was when he asked a couple of ladies where they were from and they replied “Russia” he asked them “With or without love?”. They didn’t get the James Bond reference and rather than dropping it he kept it going for ages before giving them a lecture about how communism was stupid because they obviously didn’t get any good movies. They hated it – we laughed.

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The next day kicked off with Jess using her newfound mastery of the Italian language (10% fluent according to Duolingo, our official language tutor for the trip) to find a salon and successfully negotiate a haircut. After that she followed up by ordering an ice-cream without uttering so much as a syllable in English. Ice cream in hand we crossed the river and climbed the hill to the Piazza Michelangelo, famous for its panoramic views of the city and large bronze replica statue of Michelangelo’s David. We hung out here for a while and found a couple to take some reciprocal portraits with before climbing higher still to the Basilica San Miniato al Monte which had the best views of the city.

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As sunset approached we joined the hordes of tourists and locals alike who sat on the steps at the Piazza Michelangelo as the sun set to take in the view. Beer, wine and food were available from street vendors and a local guy was serenading the crowd with a mix of international hits and local favourites for hours. It was a great vibe and such a great experience, very peaceful to be elevated above the hustle and bustle of the city and watch the sunset play out over the incredible buildings. After a quick stroll along the river as they lit up the bridge we decided it was time to find dinner.

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Jess had been given a hot tip on an amazing restaurant from the crew at the hair salon so we set out to find it, we ended up wandering the streets for so long that Jess needed immediate sustenance. Coincidentally this stuck her at the exact same moment we walked past the Magnum boutique that lets you create your own custom Magnum, selecting from a range of different ice-cream flavours, chocolate coatings and delicious toppings, you can see in the photo that this experience restored Jess before she even took her first bite. I call miracle!

We eventually found our restaurant, La Fettunta, and discovered that we had walked past it several times but hadn’t found it because it hadn’t opened and the storefront was hidden behind a roller door until 7pm. Our persistence was definitely rewarded though, the food and wine was incredible and ridiculously cheap, we had dinner there the next night as well and were able to sample a range of dishes and a few different wines, everything we had was incredible. If you are after food at a great price in Florence where it can sometimes be a bit pricey this is definitely the spot, if you want to lash out a bit you can also try the local specialty of Florentine Steak. The smallest size they have is 1.3kg though and they start from 45Euros so not an option for the budget conscious travellers perhaps. Next time though it will be on!

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The next day was Jess’s birthday and I must admit to somewhat failing this year, I had taken the easy option and given Jess her present months earlier rather than risk trying unsuccessfully to hide it and keep it a secret whilst packing and unpacking in close proximity every couple of days so there was no big surprise for her. Other of course than the fact that I had been laid low by a mystery illness overnight that ended up taking a week to shake off entirely.

Jess was lovely and offered to just stay in the room as I was sick but we couldn’t let that be her birthday in Florence so we headed out for the day. Our first stop was the Galileo Museum, an incredible collection of scientific devices and artifacts from throughout the centuries that had been collected by some of the cities most prominent families. Some of the highlights of the collection for us were the globes which displayed in chronological order gave a timeline for the “discovery” and plotting of the world by European explorers. There were also a collection of the telescopes built by Galileo himself to study the universe as well as the machines he built to test his theories. There was an interactive area at the end of the museum that had replicas of his machines and other devices you could get hands on with and play with yourself which was a nice end to the tour. Neither of us are massive science and engineering buffs but we really enjoyed it, if you lean towards the sciences it would be a must do I’d imagine.

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After the museum we set off for lunch (another local tip) and went and picked up a couple of mega sandwiches from All’antico Vinaio. This place is clearly an institution in Florence as it had lines out onto the street in both of it’s stores, loved by locals and tourists alike it is easy to find as from a few blocks away you will find people sitting on steps, street corners or wandering around battling the monstrous sandwiches. They bake their own bread in house, use only the freshest local ingredients and make their own sauces… Incredible sandwiches and a bargain at 5 Euros each. Our original plan was to grab some drinks and head to the park for a picnic, we had not factored in the size and instability of our meal so instead decided to head around the corner to the river to eat. After that we headed down to the giant park, it wasn’t quite as well maintained or picturesque as we had imagined but Jess was longing for some trees and sunshine and we eventually found a quiet place to settle in for the afternoon to relax before heading back to our new favourite restaurant for a birthday dinner.

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The next morning it seemed as though there were some issues in the hotel as the check out process took forever, we took it better than some of our Italian counterparts who were quite expressive about it all. Admittedly the guy with the amazing Ferrari did probably did have more to worry about than us when the valet seemed to go missing and no one would tells anyone what was happening with their cars…

Eventually we escaped the hotel and successfully navigated out of the city and made the short trip East to Pisa and its “Piazza dei Miracoli” or “square of miracles” to those mere mortals who aren’t fluent in Italian. After successfully wading through the hordes of people selling selfie sticks and terrible merch outside of the city walls we passed under the gate and emerged into the piazza, it was incredible. Unless you have visited it is difficult to comprehend how impressive the site is, enclosed by the ancient walls and surrounded by a green are the Baptistry, Cathedral and of course the Leaning Tower. Each of the buildings are impressive in their own right, seeing them all together, perfectly maintained and with no development around them is incredible.

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After doing a lap of the site and touring the town we headed on to our accommodation for the next few nights, Albrego Villa Marta, a former eighteenth century hunting lodge which has been converted into a boutique hotel in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. With its famous restaurant not open as peak season had finished we wandered up the road to La Cecca, a local favourite we were advised by our lovely hosts. We had barely eaten so were super hungry, unfortunately everyone tends to eat later over here and the restaurant didn’t open until quarter to eight, needless to say we were there on opening. The staff were great but had limited English and we had no clue what we were reading on the menu, after some rough translation we discovered I had ordered a local pasta dish and Jess had been adventurous and gone for the pigeon risotto! Those who know Jess would be very proud to know she got through her pigeon dish almost in it’s entirety despite her reservations. The meals were great, as was the wine and by the time we left it was packing out with locals. It had a great community/family vibe and everyone was happy and having heaps of fun, if you are ever in the Lucca region it is worth a dinner there. Menu roulette entirely optional although it definitely added to the experience for us!

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We decided to head in to Lucca the next morning after breakfast as it was only a fifteen minute drive and we had heard it was a highlight of the region. We parked outside of the city walls as we had been told it as pedestrian only inside, to enter we had to walk under the walls which are five metres thick. The medieval walls have been maintained in their entirety and have a promenade and parkland on top of them so it is possible to walk around the entire city and get an elevated view. We walked about a third of the walls before deciding to head in and try and navigate the labyrinth like streets to find some of the points of interest we spotted from the walls.

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The most interesting thing we spotted was the cities tallest tower which was multiple stories higher than everything else and seemed to have a rooftop terrace on it covered in trees. We checked our map and discovered that it was called the Guinigi Tower and that for four Euros we could climb to the top. We arrived and found that the tower was hollow and that it was almost 250 rickety steps to the top, the climb was not Jess’s favourite part of the day! After a couple of false dawns we finally arrived at the final staircase and the rooftop terrace was beckoning.

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The views out over the city and the surrounding countryside were incredible and it was great to be able to sit under the shade of the trees and enjoy the panoramic views, the lack of traffic on the streets below made it even more serene and we really enjoyed and appreciated our time up here. Definitely worth the cost and the climb!

After the tower we explored some of the churches and piazza’s, there was some great architecture on display and many medieval buildings have been preserved. The low levels of traffic made it great to walk around and explore and it was much less crowded than most places we have visited, there were hardly any other tourists evident which was a huge change from Florence. We had an early dinner in the city before heading home, more amazing pasta, unfortunately no wine for me as I was yet to make a recovery from my illness. Disappointing as quality wine is readily available and incredibly cheap everywhere!

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Unfortunately my illness hit me pretty hard the next day so we decided to declare it a mandatory rest day and hung out around the villa so I could recover a bit. We got heaps of research and bookings done and it was a great spot so not a total loss!

Thats all from Tuscany, we next headed down to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast but are heading back through Tuscany and checking out Sienna in a couple of weeks on our way to France. I hope you enjoyed checking in on our travels, as always thanks for reading!

Cheers,

LF & JT


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