Italy
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Tuscany Part Six: Tuscan towns and leaning towers

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My last post may have made it sound like I just didn’t leave the hotel for a week (apart from for food). That’s not really that far off but it’s not entirely true. We had a whole two day trips. Okay, perhaps they were more like afternoon trips – we needed a minimum daily quota of pool time after all.

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On Saturday night, after our first full day in the Tuscan hills (which involved minimal movement) we asked at reception for another restaurant recommendation and were told we should try a place called La Torre. This was a little bit of a drive away in a nearby town called Montecatini Alto but we were assured the views would be worth it, so off we went.

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The drive involved some winding roads up the side of a very big hill/mountain which was slightly nerve wracking in the Family Van but we arrived to find that the views of the valley below had not been over-sold. We parked and followed the groups of people walking into the town, who led us to a square full of restaurants, teaming with people – helpfully one of which was La Torre. This was definitely the place to be on a Saturday night and the food definitely lived up to the location. I started off with a tomato soup (which a lot of places do but not many do like that) then moved onto tortellini with a meat filling and creamy sauce and finished with some chocolate ice cream, filled with little bits of chocolate. It was so yum that we had to come back. Stay tuned.

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The next day, we decided to head out for a visit to Pisa, about an hour’s drive away. My parents had been before and weren’t sure how much there was to see but we wanted our token tourist pictures of the leaning tower (of course) so off we went. We able to park pretty easily, close to the tower which is part of a cathedral complex.

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It is possible to go up the Leaning Tower of Pisa but we hadn’t booked tickets in advance, meaning we would have to wait around for the next free time slot in a few hours time. We just weren’t that fussed. Instead we spent a while finding the best position amongst the hoards of selfie-stick laden tourists to get our standard ‘holding up the tour pictures’. I think our final results were not too bad.

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Once we’d got the important bit out the way, we did go and have a look inside the cathedral and baptistery. There are free tickets to go inside the cathedral each day but sadly these were all gone by late afternoon. Still tickets to go inside the two sites were still pretty cheap and they were both queue-less.

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Sightseeing done, we decided to grab some food – stopping en route so my brother could buy me a ring that had started life as a fork for my birthday. The guy on the stall was incredibly friendly and inscribed the inside of my ring with the words ‘Happy Birthday’ in Italian. He even threw in a free pendant as a birthday gift. I also picked up a Leaning Tower of Pisa mug – because I love a good novelty mug. I do have to drink carefully out of it though because it does lean and it is easy to spill if I am not paying attention.

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I was slightly worried that any restaurant close to the tower wouldn’t be great as it is such a touristy area but it was a Sunday and we weren’t sure how many places would be open in quieter areas near our hotel. Thankfully, however, we ended up finding nice, reasonably priced pizzas (and free wifi) at the nearby Ristorante Antonietta – so we left for our hotel feeling pretty happy.

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I’m not sure what there is in Pisa apart from the tower but I did think these alone were worth the visit. The cathedral and baptistery were both beautiful, as was the tower itself. The fact that it does actually lean so much is quite impressive but even if it stood up straight, I think its classically inspired design would still make it a sight worth seeing.

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A couple of days later, we thought it was time for another outing. We had debated visiting the bigger towns like Lucca and Siena but decided to go for somewhere smaller. My Dad in particular fancied a trip into the Tuscan countryside to find tall trees and fields full of grape vines – and that’s exactly what we found on our afternoon out.

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We first drove to the town of Cerreto Guidi where there was an old Medici hunting lodge for us to visit. A lot of the information there was in Italian but the villa still had some beautiful features for us to see and rooms (including chapel which one of the staff kindly opened up for us) and gardens for us to explore. We also found some pretty amazing views of the surrounding area.

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The town itself was actually eerily quiet and many places were closed, despite it being a Tuesday afternoon. It seemed that there had been an event there the day before (which was Bank Holiday Monday) so we figured the town was probably suffering a hangover and we decided to move on.

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Our second stop was Vinci – as in Leonardo de Vinci. There were several places in the town related to his life which visitors could visit. We went to precisely none of them. We had intended to go to one of the museums, focussing on Leonardo’s inventions, but we ended up stopping for a drink and a slice of chocolate cake in the nearby Caffe del Castello and afterwards we were feeling too tired and lazy to do much more. Lying in the sun all day really takes it out of you.

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Instead, we had a brief wander before making our way back to Monsummano Terme, where we ended up back at Il Maialetto, which was thankfully opened when most places still seemed to be closed after the Bank Holiday. We arrived at 7pm – earlier than we had on our first visit, which turned out to be a good thing as this time we hadn’t booked a table and the restaurant soon started to fill up. This time we all shared both a meat platter and a cheese one, which turned out to be an excellent decision because that cheese was tasty. After some pondering I decided to go for the suckling pork again, particularly because it was really delicious but also because on our first trip my mum had ordered a pork fillet and I thought it might be a bit rare for me (although this time they turned out to be a bit more cooked). Despite having probably eaten more food this time, I went for a proper dessert – some kind of custard pie. It was just as good as everything else.

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After that, we didn’t leave the hotel again until our last full day in Tuscany – which also happened to be my birthday. Since we’d had such a good evening at Montecatini Alto, I decided that one visit to La Torre was just not enough. We arrived at the hilltop town early – at around 5pm – so that we would have some time for exploring the town before dinner. We walked uphill, past La Torre, until we came to the Church of S. Pietro Apostolo, which also contains the Parish Exhibition Gallery, full of local treasures, which we explored for a bit before wandering around the ruins of the Fortress of the Ancient Castle/Rocca di Castel Vecchio/Tramontana, which consisted of a high tower and an ancient wall, wrapped around a grassy patch where we could sit on benches for a short while.

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We explored a little more around the town, popping into a couple of cute shops and taking in more views, before getting to the restaurant at about 6pm. This was way earlier than people usually eat dinner in Italy so we basically had the place to ourselves. We ended up here for several hours as the service did slow down as the place completely filled up. One thing we realised from our trip was that Italian service is way more chilled – even if staff are often still rushing around. They just don’t expect you to go anywhere fast. You can spend an entire evening just relaxing, eating and drinking at your table – unlike back in London where once you’re done there is someone else ready to snap up your table.

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This time, we all went for a full four course meal. We all started with a couple of excellent meat and cheese sharing platters, I then had the tomato soup again as my first course because of how good it had been the first time. Since this was my last night in Italy, my second course of course had to be one last tasty pasta dish and for dessert I went with a chocolate fondue with strawberries for dipping. I had planned to get that amazing chocolate ice cream again but I couldn’t turn down fondue. This turned out to be the right decision, not only because it was tasty but because it was served up adorably. As you can see from the picture above. It was the perfect way to spend our last night. Happy Birthday me!

The next morning, we were all up, out, breakfasted and in the Family Van for our drive back to Florence airport. This turned out to be possibly the best place in the world for sightseeing as I am almost entirely sure I saw both Bob Geldof and Helena Bonham-Carter there. What a trip this had been.

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