As you all probably know from reading my blog, our first dream was to spend a length of time in Greece. Well, our second dream was to visit Tuscany. I’ve been in love with all things Italian – see my blog: www.retirementexplored.com/stories/all-things-italian since I was a little girl; I’ve been to Italy three times before but never explored the famous vineyards of Tuscany. So off we went for a twelve day tour.
We began our journey with an early morning airplane ride from Thessaloniki to Athens and then on to Rome. From there a cab ride to the Rome Termini train station, a train ride to Florence where we picked up a local train – making endless stops – to Lucca where we arrived at 11:30pm! We fell into a deep sleep and woke up into a dream come true.
Much has been said about Florence and it is indeed the center of the Renaissance, but Lucca is in a category of its own. A walled city that is simply beautiful. Small and large streets inter-connecting at various points into piazzas where churches, towers and tall statues can be found. Along the way restaurants and cafes spill out into the streets under arches and trees, and tucked away in alleys. The Antitheatro, formally a coliseum, is huge and while it has a big open arena in the middle, all around are restaurants and little shops. We ate there a couple of times, but our favorite places were those where the locals ate outside in the off streets; an American couple we met at lunch one day, who live there full time now! – gave us the names of a few places and we tried them – they were the best!
During the day, you see the locals going to work or errands, lingering at cafes or just walking around. Siesta time brings a lull to activity only to spring into full bloom at about 6:00pm when it seems like the whole town has locked their doors and filled the streets. They were seen popping in and out of the numerous shops, ordering espressos while standing on the sidewalk besides the counters, or taking long walks. By 8:00pm the restaurants were filled; on several occasions we could not be seated because the tables were all reserved. Young people congregated in certain sections where the noise level was quite high with chatter and laughter; older people had their own areas where they met up with family and friends. A carousel was just outside our hotel where you can hear the laughter of children as they came round and around. The whole of Lucca came alive; it was as though they had to get their evening packed with merriment before curfew struck at 10:00pm and they didn’t want to waste one single minute. I fell in love with Lucca.
Outside of Lucca, about half an hour away by car, is the town of Barga; another charming city, much smaller but lovely in its own way. Just outside of it was our destination hotel high up in the mountains. A first class hotel with all the best amenities and views you can imagine. We took a taxi here and since we did not have our own car, we were limited to taking rides into the green, green surrounding landscape. Other than a day’s trip into the town of Barga, we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. One early morning, I drew back the curtains and I saw this:
The cloud formation hovered over the valley and lingered for a couple of hours. It is an amazing sight to see and I just had to capture it and share it with you. Our exploration has given us unforgettable sights indeed!
We went back to Lucca for a few more days and then onto Florence.
My third trip to Florence did not disappoint. And while Zaf and I had visited the key points on a previous trip, we made sure we covered the spots we missed. A Uffizi museum tour, an inside peek of the Duomo (we turned down the opportunity to climb over 460 steps to the top!) and a day trip to Pisa, where we also turned down the opportunity to climb over 295 steps to the top! A return visit to Ponte Vecchio, browsing at the outdoor flea markets and lunch at the Mercado Central were one day’s excursions. Zaf bought two leather belts and I bought a beautiful leather bag which I carried back to Greece in a shopping bag because I just couldn’t seem to let it go out of my hand!
We booked a private eight hour tour of Siena, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and the Chianti Vineyards. Our driver, Alejandro, picked us up at the hotel and off we went. A fountain of knowledge, he began by telling us some historical facts of the wine country. He spoke perfect English and indeed was fluent in seven languages! After about an hour, we arrived in Siena. I can’t begin to tell you how beautiful and astounding this place is. We walked into the walled town through a stone arch and began our walk through cobblestone streets interspersed with alleyways and steps leading to other streets curving around and around the town. The main piazza is quite large; in ancient times they held horse races here; the horses ran around the entire circle (which is clearly identified) and everyone stood in the middle of the circle. There was betting and much fighting with punches thrown in for good measure. The antiquity of this place is mind boggling (and we come from an even more ancient birthplace!). If you take a minute to really look at the old stone homes and other structures, you can picture the citizens of old walking through here, mingling with the merchants and the farmers who came into town to sell their crops. This place is in stiff competition with Lucca as my favorite place in Tuscany.
With much reluctance, we left for San Gimignano. Once again, we drove up to the gate of the walled city and this time we walked into a medieval city! The churches, the towers, the piazzas and the complicated little streets leading to other complicated little streets were spell binding. Lunch at the main square gave us time and opportunity to watch people and while we spotted a few tourists here and there, our focus was on the locals who actually live here. A small town feel where everyone knew each other; a delivery truck pulls up to drop off products to not just one store but to many of the stores in the square. Talking loudly, waving their hands, borrowing boxes and barrels from one another and shouting Ciao, Ciao as they drove away made our day!
I had told Alejandro that for me Tuscany was vineyards upon vineyards. And so, we were given a tour of a lifetime. Through the area of Monteriggioni and then through Chianii, we climbed hill after hill with views of one vineyard after another. Of course, this time of year, they were not fully grown, but nevertheless, they were there. Greenery all around, lanes leading from one hill to another, we could not get enough of viewing the vistas from the top of the hills all the way to the bottom. And then he drove us into Chianti Supiriori. This is the more elite area which is identified by the land structure of vineyard ownership and their vineyards. The owner lived at the top of the hill – naturally – in a villa – naturally! The immediate landscape was the garden and stoned patios overlooking the entire property. Some smaller homes stood a little further away and that is where the staff lived. From that point on, as far as you can see, were the vineyards. Rows and rows, symmetrical in size and shape, there they were…the vines that grew the grapes that were harvested in the fall and thus made wine. We stopped at a private vineyard (Alejandro has connections!) and took our photos. I began to cry, so overwhelmed by the fact that I was actually here.
Our leisurely drive back to Florence took the long route home; we drove through the outskirts seeing some very upscale neighborhoods and some not so nice; we stopped at the David Statue piazza high above Florence with a magnificent view of the entire city; we drove through the center of town once again and arrived back at our hotel. A tad expensive, but worth every Euro.
Retirement can bring in some new experiences that you’ve wanted to have for years and years and that is a good thing; it can also bring you back to some places where you have been before but now can see with a fresh, new perspective and that is a good thing too!
Photograph of Siena From The Personal Collection of Helene and Zaf
Photograph of the clouds over Barga From The Personal Collection of Helene and Zaf
Photograph of the Chianti Vineyards From The Personal Collection of Helene and Zaf