While the rest of the world was going back to school 2 weeks ago, MrS and I finally set off on our hols. Yes, the perks of having grown up children (I’ll tell you about the non-perks later. Maybe)
Our two previous “main” holidays have been total chill out beach holidays, in Mustique in 2014 and our honeymoon in the Maldives last year. This year we thought we’d do something a little different and we asked the tour operator to put together a two-week tour of Italy for us. Apart from a school trip to Lake Como, skiing in 1983, I’ve never been to Italy. If you were to ask me I would tell you that week doesn’t count because all I really remember about it is not having a lot of fun due to being bullied mercilessly for not having a boyfriend.
Anyway, as usual I digress.
We landed in Pisa on Sunday evening, unfortunately an hour and a half late due to some idiot checking in a bag then not boarding the flight. We had hired a Peugeot 308 convertible for the fortnight; the tour operator had offered us a Vauxhall or a Ferrari so we hired this ourselves. After a brief thought of hiring a Mini convertible, we abandoned that idea when we remembered how we’d struggled to get all our things into my Mini when we went to Cornwall for the week earlier in the year!
Because of the flight delay it was nearly dark before we were even half way to Fiesole, on the outskirts of Florence, so we didn’t even bother to try and drive past the Leaning Tower, but headed straight off and into the “end of weekend” traffic all heading home from the beach. We finally arrived at Villa San Michele at 9pm, having been directed through the most ridiculous route (the highlight being a 90 degree turn between two walls that we had to shuffle back and forth between several times before we could get round it) by our Sat Nav. “Ah yes, the sat nav, it send you a silly way…” announced the concierge.
Part of the Belmond Group, Villa San Michele is a former 15th century Renaissance Monastery perched on a hilltop with beautiful gardens and a stunning vista over Florence. As it was so late we ate in the bar that night whilst looking at our guide to Florence and crashed out.
After breakfast, once more overlooking that spectacular view we journeyed off to Florence for the day in the hotel shuttle, which dropped us at Piazza della Repubblica, just round the corner from the Duomo. Florence’s most iconic landmark, this was where we headed first. We people watched in the square and wandered a bit. The queue for entry was really long (as we had been advised) and just as we were wondering what to do, we were approached by one of the ever present tour companies offering a jump-the-queue, English speaking tour departing in 5 minutes. We decided to go with it, even though we had no idea how good it would be. We had both dressed for the visit unlike some who were having to borrow wraps and scarves to cover shoulders and I saw one lady with a wrap tied round her knees as her shorts were too, well, short. (it never ceases to amaze me that people don’t know about this stuff in advance).
The outside of the Duomo is stunning, crazily ornate, and was completed much later that the cathedral itself. Once you get inside it’s hard to relate the ornate outside with the sparse inside, many of its treasures having been removed over the centuries, but the underneath of the dome is beautifully decorated.
Our tour guide was very good, definitely worth the extra and we were in the Duomo for an hour.
On leaving and seeing the queue for climbing to the Dome itself, we decided instead to climb the bell tower, for which the queue was much shorter. Plus, it gave us a good opportunity for people watching while we waited. Mostly this involved watching people trying to take photos of themselves holding the top of the Duomo...
The bell tower has 459 steps, fortunately divided up into several levels where you can stop and catch your breath. Unfortunately, the stairs get narrower the higher up you go so I wouldn’t particularly recommend the climb if you’re claustrophobic or unfit. MrS, as regular readers will know, is not good at heights but he made it all the way to the top, if only briefly popping his head out on the final level. It was absolutely worth it for the views.
Following our exertions, we were ready for a drink and some lunch, but keen as always not to eat in a tourist trap around the square we wandered off in the direction of the river to see what we could find, stumbling upon a tiny “pizza by the slice” bar which was perfect.
After that we just followed our noses, heading for the medieval Ponte Vecchio. We stumbled across, rather than consciously found, Piazza della Signoria, which is stuffed full of statues – some originals, some copies, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David. It was also at this point I realised the Uffizi Museum was closed on a Monday… disappointed and promising we would try and return tomorrow we consoled ourselves with crossing Ponte Vecchio, which is crammed with little shops - practically all jewellers - and having a gelato.
We crossed the river at Ponte Vecchio and came back along the other side in a loop back to the Ufizzi, behind which we found a cafe to grab a drink before wending our way back to the Piazza della Repubblica to catch the shuttle back to the hotel.
That night we ate in the hotel and enjoyed their tasting menu. To be totally honest with you here, I can't actually remember what we had to eat, we seriously ate so many fantastic meals over the fortnight. I can remember that for one course we had Green pasta ravioli with aubergines and goat-cheese filling in a fresh thyme sauce!
Before we came away we had made a list of what we wanted to see but had also cautioned ourselves to take rest days. On our second day in Florence we decided to take a pool day at the hotel, and with a pool like this why wouldn't you?
Our final meal in Fiesole was an interesting experience... I asked a colleague of mine, who is half Italian and knows Florence well, to recommend somewhere to eat. I hadn't realised how far out of Florence center we would actually be so in the end we flew solo and checked out some places on Trip Advisor. We came up with Ristorante La Reggia degli Etruschi, which was a 20 minute walk UP hill from our hotel. The reviews had described it as "cosy" and a "favourite with locals".
I have to say right now that the food was excellent, it's presentation and mix of flavours in-keeping with a much more sophisticated establishment . The restaurant itself was lively with a mix of both tourists and locals and whilst the view is romantic (it's a serious hill you have to climb to reach the restaurant) I wouldn't say the atmosphere was.
They plied us with extras - amuse bouches, and at the end of the meal the most delicious Poire Williams. The only bum note of the evening was the wine.
MrS knows about wine, but by his own admission doesn't know much about Italian wine. So he went with what he thought, but as always asked for a recommendation. The wine recommended by our waiter was a lot more expensive than the one MrS had picked out (this was the only time in the entire holiday that we were recommended a more expensive wine) but we went with it.
There was much show of our waiter tasting the wine himself and then pouring it through an airer into the decanter. MrS tasted it, tasted it again and decided it was ok. After the waiter had left MrS said to me "it needs a good breather, it's quite young but I think it'll be nice". I didn't think it was the best I'd tasted but often red opens up more when you have food with it. It did finally dawn on him, then me that it was corked but only slightly, so we thought we would persevere with it.
It was the Longest Lasting Bottle of Red Wine EVER.
It felt like the carafe just kept refilling itself. Normally we only have to look at a bottle of wine and it's gone, but this was like the magic porridge pot. Once MrS stopped kicking himself for not sending it back, we spent the rest of the holiday laughing about the longest lasting bottle of wine ever.
Fortunately the Poire Williams took the taste away and then we rolled back down the hill for our final night at the beautiful Villa San Michele