48 hours barely counts as dipping your toes in the water that is Tuscany, but it is what we had for this first visit over last weekend. With Claire in the country for a limited time, we opted to experience a few sites and then return later for a longer drink of more that the region has to offer.
But first, let me detour to talk about trains.
At the suggestion of our friends Tom and Rod, we booked our trip on the Italo high-speed train from Rome to Florence. Ninety minutes after boarding – following the smoothest train ride I’ve ever experienced and going 260 km/hour (that’s about 160 mph for the metrically challenged) – we pulled into Florence and walked ten minutes to our cozy little historic hotel. For those who talk about American exceptionalism, I’d beg to differ. When it comes to train travel, we aren’t even on the same planet! On Monday, while we were coming back from Florence on the train, our DC Metro apparently had another fire in a tunnel that shut down three lines for the day. I often take that line. As I’ve written before, “Take the train whenever possible. It is civilized and, short of walking and riding a bike, it is the most environmentally friendly way to travel….Imagine how well our transportation system could run if people demanded, and politicians funded, train travel.”
End of rant.
We had a few key things we wanted to experience over the weekend: wine, food, architecture, art, the landscape…all the basics of life. True to our plan, we did touch on every one of our desired experiences and had a chance to understand why Tuscany is often described as the quintessential Italian experience.
After checking into our small hotel about a block from the Piazza Del Duomo (the cathedral), we went in search of our first taste of food and wine. The restaurant Candice had identified online had – at most – ten tables and – not unexpectedly – was packed. (Candice has become very adept at reviewing an online menu and identifying great places to eat, but alas, she isn’t the only one who can pick out a great place for a meal.) However, we searched nearby and found a wonderful wine bar with excellent food that satisfied our cravings.
Suitably fortified, we made our way to the Uffizi, often called Italy’s greatest art gallery. In room after room we viewed the Medici art treasures – paintings we had seen online and in reproductions our entire lives.
From Botticelli to Titian to Michelangelo, the Uffizi was a treasure trove of Renaissance art.
Having stumbled in our attempt at eating in our choice restaurant for lunch, we decided not to make the same mistake twice and made reservations at dei Frescobaldi, a restaurant and wine bar that rated a Michelin guide review. We were not disappointed. Almost three hours later we finished a wonderful meal combined with local wine – Claire said she would be satisfied if this was the best of the food she had all week – and found our way back to prepare for Sunday’s tour of the top sites in Tuscany.
I suppose that Pisa is one of those bucket list places to visit, but even an early morning visit – when the crowds were relatively thin – didn’t help get past the “tourist trap” feeling of the place. It is difficult to view the tower without walking around folks putting up their hands (or other body parts) in the obligatory “hold back the tower” photo. I was glad to get back on the bus and get the hell out of Pisa.
From the ridiculous to the sublime was the theme of our next stop, in lovely San Gimignano.
A World Heritage Site that was built by noble families in the 12th and 13th centuries, this beautiful medieval town features fabulous craftsmanship, stunning views of the Tuscan countryside, and surprises seemingly around every corner.
After a meal paired with local Chianti Classico, we headed into Siena, a true treasure trove of medieval design and hidden treasures.
There are two must-see things in Siena: the incredible medieval piazza and the Duomo. I could go on and on about the piazza here…but I’ll save that for another post. It is, however, one of the wonders of the world and is not to be missed.
The Siena Duomo is also an incredible landmark for the community. Striped black and white marble sets off this unique cathedral in ways that are hard to describe.
We arrived back in Florence after 14 hours on the road: exhausted but satisfied. And we tumbled into bed to catch a few hours of sleep so that we could check out the Florence Duomo and museum before boarding our train home on Monday afternoon.
474 steps after we began, we stood on the top of the famed Brunelleschi dome on Monday morning and surveyed all of the historic core of Florence. What an incredible treat.
We ended up at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Cathedral Works Museum) where we could have spent all day. What an incredible collection from the Duomo and Baptistry. We ended with a view of Michelangelo’s Pietá – often called his most personal one – with the hooded Nicodemus widely believed to be a self-portrait.
We returned to Rome full of wonder and a desire to see much more. And while there is so much to discuss…why, for instance, we could go an entire weekend without hearing one word from a guide as to how the rulers in Florence and Siena acquired such incredible wealth on the backs of conquered people and with resources extracted from other countries…that is for another time.
48 hours. It turns out to be just enough time to whet the appetite.
More to come…
Image: View of Florence from the Duomo dome