When I laid out this Italy trip with travel between so many cities, I thought the time in the car would be great for sight-seeing, catching little glimpses of places to visit on the next go-round. Hilarious. I can barely stay awake in a car I’m not driving without six hours’ worth of jet lag, so inevitably, after putting in eight hours of sight-seeing in Venice by mid-afternoon, we both slept most of the way to Florence. God bless Pino for Driving Miss Drowsies all over Italy.
In Florence, we checked into the adorable Rovezzano B&B, where the room keys were adorably quaint and the ambience was on point.
We took a few brief moments to settle in before navigating the buses up to Piazzale Michaelangelo, a lofty viewpoint over Florence. The only thing that ranks higher than my love of churches is my love of a scenic overlook, and it was magnificent!
We rode the bus back down into town with good intentions of exploring Florence by night, but it soon became apparent that none of us had the energy for it. We were hungry and we were tired, so we found some food in a cross between a farmer’s market and a food court and then got right back on a bus bound for our beds.
We had a light schedule planned the next day touring Florence, so we enjoyed the opportunity to sleep in and linger over breakfast and the patio view before traveling into the city centre. As we walked through the B&B grounds, I spotted a lawn-mowing robot tending to the grass. I had no idea those existed, and being American where we find new ways to be lazy about everything, I didn’t expect my introduction to it to be in Italy.
Our first stop was Florence’s Duomo, where we waited with a long line of people for doors to open.
The exterior was staggering in size and beauty.
The interior was lovely, but couldn’t hold up to the outside. Nevertheless, the view under the dome was quite impressive.
Roman numerals still being something I have to stop and think about, the better part of a minute ticked by before I figured out this bizarre clock. It’s funny how ingrained some things become in our minds, like the hand placement on a clock.
Like most churches in Italy, the Duomo boasted some fantastic doors.
Even more eye-catching was the door on the battistero.
Our next church was the Chiesa di Orsanmichele, featuring sculptures of saints along the façade and an impressive Gothic interior.
The crowds in Florence were unrelenting. Like Rockefeller Center at Christmastime, but EVERYWHERE. I found it utterly baffling and extremely overwhelming. I realize that my view of Florence was tainted by my disdain of mobs of people walking slowly in my way, but of all the places in Italy, I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why Florence is the place everyone flocks to. I’m glad that I ignored every travel blogger that told me I should spend the bulk of my time in Italy in Florence. I didn’t even need the whole day.
That said, we did see some lovely places.
We ducked inside the Palazzo Vecchio in search of a bathroom, and found this beautiful foyer.
We walked by the Uffizi Gallery and stopped for a kitschy photo in homage to our White Collar memories, and then kept strolling, leaving other suckers to stand in line for hours to spend their whole day in stuffy, crowded hallways, pretending to care much more about old paintings than almost anyone actually does. Hard pass – no regrets.
We continued the Tourist March of the Penguins to the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). The water isn’t very pretty – pollution, presumably – but we snapped our photos, anyway.
Once we crossed over the bridge, the mobs dissipated greatly, making this my favorite part of Florence. We had a lovely lunch at 4 Leoni, arguably one of the best overall meals of the trip. (Except the chicken. Hear me: Italians haven’t the foggiest idea what to do with a chicken, so just say noooo.) We passed plates around as usual and discovered a new Italian appetizer, Fiori di Zucca, fried zucchini flowers. The flower that blooms before the zucchini grows – they pick that and fry it up, sometimes on its own, and sometimes with other fillings like meat or cheese. It was great! And, as always, Pino finished his meal with the tiniest cup of coffee.
During lunch, I was distracted trying to figure out the meaning of this street sign. At first I suspected graffiti, but upon closer inspection, it didn’t have that haphazard look to it, and I decided it had to be intentional. I took this picture and since discovered that it is the work of street artist Clet Abraham, who has cleverly altered many street signs across Italy in this manner. You can see more of them HERE.
We crossed back over the river via a less populated bridge and maintained a break from the crowded city centre on our way to Santa Maria Novella.
Santa Maria Novella was sprawling and had plenty to look at both inside the church and in its exterior passageways along the courtyard.
While we were nearby, we stopped into the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, founded by Dominican friars in 1221 to serve the monks’ infirmary by making herbal medications. It is accordingly one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, now selling high end perfumes and still featuring natural herbs in the vein of an old world Apothecary.
As we walked in search of our daily gelato ration, we stumbled upon another church (Chiesa dei Santi Michele e Gaetano) not in our plan, so of course we took time to peek inside.
We found our gelato and ate while we walked back to the Piazza della Signoria, better viewed in the afternoon light and with a somewhat lighter crowd.
The “Plaza of Statues” featured reproductions of many famous statues, but why linger around the reproductions when you can go see the real thing? So Tracey and I headed off to our appointment at L’Accademia for just that purpose, stealing a glimpse at the Riccardi Medici Palace as we passed.
At L’Accademia, the collection is quite small (comparatively speaking), but it boasts one particular crown jewel – the most famous sculpture in the world, Michaelangelo’s David.
Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabine Women” is also on display.
And the newest addition to L’Accademia is a museum of musical instruments, containing many masterpieces including this Stradivari.
Having considered Florence to be one of the “rest stops” in our busy Italy itinerary, we headed back to the B&B early again and picked up a pizza to share on the terrace before turning in early to rest up before resuming our Tuscan adventure the next day.
Much like a first-time visitor to New York City must make a point to see Times Square, so must a first-time trip to Italy include a detour to Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli – the Plaza of Miracles. The tourist trap stands of random merchandise were thick as we walked toward the Piazza. I scooted by those, but got fascinated with these guys. If your question is, “How?” … the answer is that I have no idea.
Of course, the real star of Pisa is its Leaning Tower.
Our favorite part was watching the tourists.
Aaaaaand then BEING the tourists.
Get it? Yeahhhh, you do.
Some pictures work out…
…while some pictures are just so much better.
The tower is cool to see, I must admit.
The church was lovely as well. We almost missed it because it was closing for an event. The girl at the ticket counter (the church was free, but you had to have a ticket) said we were too late because they weren’t letting anyone in after noon. It was 11:58. I said we’d take the tickets AND our chances. And then we RAN the length of the piazza, using valuable tourist-dodging skills we both perfected in NYC. I didn’t even have to look back, because I knew that when I got to the entrance of that church, Tracey would be right behind me. She was, and we made it!
Then we were able to take our time touring the Baptistery of St. John, including climbing the very narrow and steep stairs up to the top.
The window at the top afforded a nice view of the church, with the tower leaning in the background.
Leaving Pisa, we stopped at a grocery store to get some more snack provisions and a lunch we could eat somewhere in Tuscany. Never in my life have I been so happy to see a pre-packaged grocery store salad. You know the kind with the tiny forks that can barely stab through a piece of iceberg lettuce? Yep, I nearly trampled people to get to them like it was the Black Friday sale of the century.
Then we drove on and watched for a place to stop and enjoy our lunches. We considered one spot along the rows of grapes, but decided to keep driving – after taking a few pictures, of course.
We pulled over again for a magnificent Tuscan landscape as we approached the town of San Gimignano. Its medieval skyline of towers can be seen on the hill to the right side of this picture. 14 towers remain of the original 72.
We had our salads (I devoured mine and half of Tracey’s) on park benches at the entrance to San Gimignano before we set out on foot to explore the fascinating 13th century town.
Another spell of riding, snacking, and snoozing brought us to Siena. Like every other town we visited in Tuscany, there was something beautiful to see in every direction.
Siena’s Duomo may have been my favorite both inside and out.
And yes, this is still inside the same church:
Siena is also home to the famous Palio Horse Race, which happens here in the Piazza del Campo every year on July 2nd and August 16th. While I’m sure it’s a sight to see, I was pretty content with a quiet piazza and no animals stampeding anywhere.
Having covered nearly 200 miles of road that day, we reached our hotel for the next two nights in Chianciano Terme, in the spa region of Tuscany. Once again, we followed our formula of finding dinner and then settling in for the night.
In the morning, we awoke to the sun rising over our balcony. This is by far the best way to wake up.
And the sun lured us out onto the balcony, pajama-clad, to take pictures.
Fortunately, at this point in the trip (day 7, if you’re counting!), we’d finally come around to the ability to keep our eyes open in the car – good news, since being awake is somewhat integral to enjoying a drive under the Tuscan sun. I attempted hundreds of through-the-window-on-a-winding-road pics, most of which didn’t turn out at all, but I certainly enjoyed taking them!
We pulled over for some better photo ops and visited a few more ancient towns along our way. First up was Montepulciano, seen here on the approach.
Much to my dismay, the (not-so-)secret passage was locked.
I recovered pretty quickly, having many other sights to see.
I loved this little farm house.
This mountain looked just like home.
Hay bales are more exciting when photographed through the car window, driving around a foreign country. Right?
And then we spotted our next stop – Pienza.
The highlight of Pienza was walking along its southern walls and taking in the view.
We passed by a shop that offered to pack up picnic provisions, and we all stopped in our tracks, each of us having the same idea. We headed onward to the Abbazia di Sant’Antimo to enjoy our lunch. It elicited gasps when it came into view – the photos don’t begin to do it justice.
Even more stunning than the views OF the Abbazia were the views FROM it. It was the perfect spot for our picnic and to spend plenty time wandering the grounds to marvel at the view.
We had a visitor who became very interested in us when we pulled out our food.
The views were so spectacular that I almost forgot to look inside the abbey. Let me repeat – I, Amanda, almost forgot to look inside a church!
One parting shot as we walked back to the car…
As we circled back toward Chianciano Terme, we pulled off upon seeing a great view of Montepulciano (our first stop that morning) shining in the distance.
Grace and Pino had their own afternoon adventure planned, so they dropped us off at the hotel in time to put on our “bathing costumes” and catch the hotel shuttle over to the Terme Sensorali – the Sensory Spa! Tracey and I were booked for the 4:00pm time slot, good for three and a half hours to follow whatever “path” we chose, or blaze our own trail through the spa. Neither of us really knew what to expect, but whenever I hear the word “spa,” I am all in.
We checked in and were given bath robes, shower caps, shampoo and body wash, plus bracelets to wear with our locker keys on them.
We began by walking over a stone path while cold and hot water alternated spraying us. I moved much quicker when the cold water sprayed! Next we climbed into a huge pool with jets where you could sit or lay at various points and let the jets massage you. From this pool, you could swim outdoors to enjoy more jets. I could have stayed in there for the whole three and a half hours, but we wanted to go see what else was available.
We found a sauna, a mint shower (yessss!), an ice crash (nooope!), and a tub in a room labeled as music therapy. I was sure I had misunderstood the sign, because I heard no music. It was just a warm tub with changing-colors lighting up the tile walls and ceilings as the water ripples reflected in the dancing colors. It was really neat, but I was still confused until I realized the two other people in the pool had their ears below the water. I laid my head back, and as soon as I submerged, I could hear the music playing. Super cool!
There were aromatherapy rooms where you could sit and breathe in natural scents to either energize or relax you, depending on your preference. There was also a room to sit in those egg-shaped chairs that are supposed to simulate the comfort of the womb or something bizarre like that, but my skepticism abated when I felt how relaxing it was. Another room featured cushioned lounge chairs where you could rest quietly as music played.
We proceeded downstairs to the mud room, where we smeared mud all over our bodies and waited for it to dry, after which you sit in the sauna for 15 minutes before washing it all off again in a huge shower room. After feeling cramped in every hotel shower in Italy, we LOVED the big open room full of showers! The mud experience was Tracey’s favorite part.
Having tried everything (except the ice crash), we still had over an hour remaining, so we repeated some of our favorite things. Tracey went to walk through the rocks again while I revisited the music therapy pool. This time, I was the only one inside, so I floated in the water listening to the music and watching the lights and it was complete bliss. I could have done that for hours and hours, but I decided to come out and grab another mint shower before spending the last of the time in the jet pool.
We showered and changed and our shuttle returned to take us back to the hotel just in time to meet Grace and Pino for dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was quite good. Our day was a tremendous success, and we were rejuvenated in preparation for the rest of our trip.
Chianciano Terme treated us to another lovely bed-and-balcony-sunrise before we got back on the road.
Next stop… Roma!