Italy Bound; A Day in Pisa, San Gimignano & Siena

One of the great things about Florence was that it was so well connected to other parts of Italy. So, when we were approached by a tour salesman offering a day trip to Pisa, we readily agreed. The tour was to include a morning trip to Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa to see the leaning bell tower, Duomo and the Baptistery. Then we would be taken to the medieval town of San Gimignano to explore the wonderful views, have lunch and wine tasting in a local vineyard and finish with a tour of Siena.

 

Pisa

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“You can’t go all the way to Florence and not see the leaning tower of Pisa” is what my younger brother told me, and I have to agree. This famous symbol of Italy is a must-see if you visit this side of the world, only 1 hour 30 mins away from Florence by car.

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Aside from the iconic leaning tower shot that everyone will be getting (I include you, no matter how strong willed you are, you won’t be able to resist), you can actually go to the top of the bell tower for great views over Pisa. I warn you now, walking up will feel wonky!

After you have got your shots and climbed wonkily to the top, make sure you visit the Duomo next door and the baptistery. I didn’t feel like I needed more than a morning in Pisa to see the Piazza dei Miracoli (square of miracles) but there is more to Pisa than the tower if you do want to spend the day!

 

San Gimignano

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A magical town, built upon a hill, enclosed in medieval walls; this beautiful location happened to also be the place that my colleague and friend got engaged, in fact the friends whose wedding I attended the day before my very first solo adventure (read about it here… it was emosh).

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It’s easy to see why it is a popular romantic spot for many couples from all over the world when you approach the castle-like walls and wander through the inclining and declining walkways defined by the towering medieval stone shops and houses.

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Between buildings you may find winding alleys that lead you to magical views, history-infused sculptures, medieval buildings or local Italian restaurants, gelaterias and cafes.
Take your time and explore, you will certainly find something you love here.

 

Wine Tasting

We were taken to a local family vineyard, the vineyard of Famiglia Mazzarrini, for a tour of the winery, a taste of the Tuscan Italian wines and a delicious pasta for lunch. We enjoyed a selection of refreshing and rich red and white wines, as well as a sparkling, and this was a chance to really get to know others on our tour who were sat with us.

In addition to the wines, we were given a platter of meats and cheeses with breads to try a drop of the most expensive and potent truffle oil I’ve ever tried (probably the only truffle oil I’ve tried).

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Afterwards, we were also educated on real olive oil/balsamic vinegar; extra extra virgin olive oil comes with extra bullshit and if you buy balsamic vinegar that contains sugar or colourant then throw it in the bin. Consider yourself now also educated.

A few glasses later this was us…

Shout out to spinach boy and to the girl who got wasted on the wine tasting, fell asleep on the bus and then wandered off so we couldn’t find her. What a lad.

 

Siena

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So the final part of the excursion was a guided walking tour of Siena, by which time my feet were so sore it felt like I was wearing down the heel bone. But, I hobbled through the tour paying particular note to the bi-annual 90 second Palio horse race that takes place around the Piazza del Campo. They transform their main square into an arena by adding sand to the outer square whilst people gather in the centre by the thousands, or if they are lucky (rich) they can nab a balcony above one of the many shops and restaurants surrounding the square.

I also learned that there’s an equally weird reason for the weird breastfeeding wolf symbol of Siena and that’s all thanks to a legend of two brothers, Senius and Aschius, who were suposedly raised by wolves.
A final point worth noting is the Cathedral in the centre was built by the same architect who built the leaning tower of Pisa as well as Florence’s esteemed Duomo.

Thus ends my Italian mini adventure.

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Italy Bound; Florence

Firenze, or Florence, the heart of Tuscany. Historic and romantic, sense tingling and taste teasing, beautiful and intriguing… so where could I possibly begin?

The three of us met at the Venezia Miestre train station; Rachelle, Pablo and I. If you read my last post on Venice, you may remember that I met this honeymoon couple in a queue and invited them to join me in Florence… after a quick discussion as to whether or not I am a serial killer it was a “sure, why not?”!

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So two hours of delightful scenery, freezing air-con and awkward phone charging later, we arrived in Florence. Immediately we felt like the floor beneath us was moving when we made our way out of the station, maybe it was a mini earthquake or maybe it was just the rumbles of the trains or maybe Florence just felt different somehow. A short bus ride then walk away was the two-bed, light and airy top floor apartment.

Exploring Florence 

Florence is much bigger than Venice and has a lot to offer. One moment you are surrounded by high street shops like Zara and H&M, the next you are staring up at a marble clad Cathedral.

Surrounded by mountains, and with the river Arno through the heart of it, Florence has everything for every type of person. For the history geeks, there are over 80 museums, for the foodie there are many restaurants, cafes and sandwich shops, and for the explorer the winding streets will always lead you somewhere new.

Here are some of the things not to miss.

The Duomo


Il Duomo di Firenze, previously known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower) is one of Italy’s largest churches and until recently, was the largest dome in the world but is still the largest brick dome ever built. This Gothic-styled Cathedral was built in 1436 with the exterior of the basilica clad with white, green and pink marble panels.

A major tourist attraction, the cathedral includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile.

Other churches are full of historical art, with their walls covered in beautiful paintings as well as marble sculptures. Even the most outwardly unassuming church can have the most stunning art inside so make sure you wander in when you come across a church.

Museums
Michelangelo's David

For the keen history and art boffs, Florence is heaven! With over 80 museums, you are sure to find one you can get completely lost in. The Galleria dell’Accademia and Uffizi are two of the most popular museums.
The Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, an art museum, is best known as the home of Michelangelo’s sculpture David. But it has many other sculptures by Michelangelo and a large collection of paintings by Florentine artists, mostly from the period 1300-1600.
The Uffizi, however, is the main art museum in Florence. It is one of the largest and most visited art museums in the world with a collection of priceless art. Waiting times to get in can be up to 5 hours, so if you plan to visit, get your tickets in advance online.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio, Firenze

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is a medieval stone bridge that crosses the Arno River. It is famous for the expensive jewellery shops built along it, and each night the jewellers cover their jewels and bring down large wooden chest-like barriers to protect their shops.  Also enchanting are the Ponte Vecchio’s two neighbouring bridges; the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie. Make sure you make a sunset visit for some very romantic views of the Arno River.

The Beach

Urban Beach on the Arno

Who knew there was a beach in Florence? Not me!
Located in the middle of the city, on the banks of the Arno, is a recently built urban beach. The city council decided to use part of the river bank of the Arno for a relaxation spot in the summer, free of charge for locals and tourists alike!
Sunbathe, play ball or dip your toes in the water… but I don’t know if I would swim in the river!

Double Helix Slide in Palazzo Strozzi

Double Helix Slides

Installed by a German artist, Carsten Höller, who is also known for his playful interactive installations, this pair of slides in a double helix formation can be found within the famed Palazzo Strozzi of Florence. It’s open quite late, doesn’t cost a lot, and at the bottom you can find a couple of bars and restaurants. I don’t suggest going on after a few drinks though!

Piazzale Michelangelo
Piazzale Michelangelo

A long walk from the centre, and an even longer climb, this Piazza is not worth missing! The best views over Florence, you can also find churches to explore and if you’re lucky you may find yourself in a Gelato festival!

Gelato Festival

I stumbled across this festival which took place between 20th – 22nd April this year (2018) but check the website to see when it’s next on. A festival dedicated to tasting ice-cream, the Italian and international gelato makers will prepare pounds and pounds of ice cream and with one ticket you can taste all of them!

Food in Florence

Let’s face it, you don’t go to Italy for McDonalds. Probably one of the most popular cuisine worldwide, Italian food is easily a palette-pleaser with its heartwarming combination of pastas, tomatoes, meats, herbs and cheeses. In Tuscany, pasta (especially pappardelle) is traditionally served with meat sauce (including game meat). Also famous for its wine, there are so many reasons your tastebuds will fall in love with Tuscany.

Here are some of the places you must not walk by.

All’Antico Vinaio Sandwich

After seeing queues nearly 30 people long, I felt it would be foolish not to join the crowds, each holding their own foccacia sandwich filled with an array of meats and cheeses, as they sat along the curbs drinking and eating.

Make sure you choose enough of the more succulent ingredients as the foccacia is quite a dry bread, and this large €5 sandwich won’t let you down.

Officina

By far one of my favourite places to eat, this restaurant had it all. Great food, great vibes and great staff, it was no surprise that I came back more than once. I recommend the fresh pasta, the meat plate, the burgers, all of it! Just pay this place a visit!

€2 Pizza on Via dei Neri
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Who wouldn’t give this place a try for €2?? I admit, I didn’t actually expect much from this place being so cheap and my being dairy free but I was pleasantly surprised! I was offered a marinara pizza custom topped with parma ham at my request and it was delicious! I admit, I didn’t catch the name but you can’t miss it on Via dei Neri.

Ditta Artigianale
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Come to this cafe for a chilled out vibe, freshly blended juices or a coffee on the go. They have dairy free options which was a first for me here in Tuscany, and whilst some relaxed on the bench outside, others worked on their laptops inside. I simply enjoyed my pancakes and soya chai latte.

Desserts

Wherever you go, whatever you do, make sure you grab one of Italy’s delicious pastries; most famously, Cannoli. You won’t miss all of the gorgeous cafes lined with colourful sweet treats as you explore the city of Florence.

In my next post, you can hear about my day tour to Pisa, San Gimignano and Sienna.