Italy
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Tuscany Part Four: out of Florence and into the Tuscan Hills

12th August

Friday brought with it my last morning in Florence. Since my to do list was still no where near done I was up and out before the rest of my family were awake. I had a quick breakfast on my hotel’s terrace (stocking up on as much of that smoked bacon and scrambled eggs as I could) and headed over to the Bargello museum – close to the Palazzo Vecchio – so I arrived just after it had opened at 8.15am. This was very early for me but it turned out to be an excellent time for sightseeing. The city was relatively free of tourists and the museum only had a few other visitors.

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The museum itself is in an old palazzo and the building is as much on display as the artefacts. Although there were, of course, many examples of religious-themed paintings, there were also a lot of more sculptures here which I loved – in particular, Donatello’s famous bronze David and marble St George. I had been in two minds about making the effort to visit the Bargello but I was very glad I did. The only slightly annoying thing was that several the artworks (including some beautiful Islamic artefacts) didn’t have much information about them. Instead, the rooms they were in had a board with general information about the pieces in there but it was kind of hard to tell what artefacts the board was referring to. But it did mean that I didn’t spend as long here as I have otherwise – which was necessary on my tight time frame.

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Once I was done, my next stop was the Santa Maria Novella. This had been pretty high on my Florence bucket list but I convinced myself to leave it until the last morning of my visit. The church was just across the road from my hotel so I figured I would be able to nip in and then get back to my hotel in time to meet the family and pick up our rental car. Unfortunately, disaster almost struck when I headed over at around 10am, only to find that the church doesn’t open until 11am on Fridays. After a quick think I decided to head back to the hotel, pack and get ready and then squeeze in the church before it was time to leave for the Tuscan hills.

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I arrived back at 11am to find quite the queue waiting for me. Thankfully, my Firenze Card gave me priority access. Being a Brit (we all know Brits love to queue), it didn’t feel right taking the fast lane, passed all the people who had queued longer than me, but I didn’t have enough time to care enough not to.

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The outside of the church is a decorated facade, stuck on the front of a plainer building. The inside of the church was equally beautiful. The ceiling was arched, Giotto’s crucifix was hanging down from it and there were frescos on many on the walls (including Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, which was the main thing I had wanted to see). There was also a small nativity scene by Botticelli on the end opposite the altar. There was even more when you went outside, with several rooms coming off an arched walkway, and a museum. Sadly, I didn’t have time to do this so I glanced in as many rooms as I could before I really had to go.

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I went back to the Grand Hotel Baglioni for the last time, to pick up my stuff and my family, and together we walked through the streets of Florence to find our car rental place. My Dad thought we had already been assigned a car but upon arrival he was asked what kind of car he wanted. His answer was that we needed something that would fit all five of us in (taking into account that the boys are 6 foot 5, 6 foot 6 and 6 foot 7 – we’re not a small family) and all our luggage. They replied that the only thing we had was a mini-van. We were thrilled. Well I don’t think my Dad (the designated driver for our trip) was happy about having to manoeuvre a van around the narrow streets of Tuscany’s towns but the rest of us were very excited about having actual leg room and space to stretch out.

After we hit the road, we were on it for about an hour until we arrived at our resort in the quiet (and not particularly touristy if you don’t count the resort) town of Monsummano Terme.

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In all honesty, when we first arrived at the Grotta Giusti we weren’t too sure about it. Everything seemed quite expensive, including the restaurant and bar, and you even had to pay to use the tennis court. The place seemed aimed at people coming to stay for a couple of days of spa treatments and use of their thermal pool (which was really busy when we were looking around) and grotto whereas we were a family of tourists staying for week. But we soon changed our minds. The hotel itself was very nice – the downstairs areas had the feel of an old country house – and the hotel pool was much quieter than the one in the spa and was set at the bottom of a grassy slope, surrounded by foliage. We got a little bit covered in insect bites but I think we were all too relaxed to care.

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Once we were all checked in, we went exploring and grabbed a light lunch of sandwiches (around €3.90 each) at the Bioaquam Café next to the spa’s thermal pool before setting up for an afternoon by the hotel pool. The weather was perfect for starting work on my sun tan.

When the sun started to retreat and we started to get hungry again, we headed out to the town to find some food. En route, we asked at reception for a recommendation and they booked us into a restaurant called Il Maialetto. The place was busy and seemed to be a popular choice amongst locals (we might have been in trouble if the hotel hadn’t called ahead for us), making it a perfect choice for our first night in the area. We’d had some nice food in Florence but it wasn’t the stuff that makes Italy so well known for its food. This, however, was.

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It seems in Italy that dinner is a four course meal: antipasti for starters, then a first course, second course and finally dessert. We began with a meat platter to share and three lots of bruschetta with “rustic” bacon, tomatoes and garlic (the last of which was particularly good). Then we each picked a dish from the first and second course lists (which were all very meat heavy with a couple of pasta dishes thrown in). The first courses were a bit smaller but still seemed to be filling enough, however since the place seemed to specialise in veal and pork I went for a second course: the roast suckling pig with zolfini beans – because that sounded amazing. And it was. I’ve eaten a lot of pork in my time, but nothing that tasted like that. I have no idea how they did it. I don’t often go for things that are particularly peppery but here it worked. I’m also not usually much of a bean person but here they actually provided a good, creamy accompaniment. By this point, I was pretty full – but not too full for no dessert, so I finished with some ice cream. This meal seemed to be an excellent example of quintessentially Tuscan cuisine, which was much meatier (and not necessarily so pizza and pasta-based as I had expected) – so obviously we had to go back. By the time we were done I was definitely ready for bed.

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