Well, we have made it home from our delightful tour of Italy and it’s time to catch up on our last few days. We spend two nights in Florence and Florence was a treasure. It’s quieter than Rome and quite a bit smaller – a very pedestrian friendly historical downtown, which was a nice change.
Our hotel, the AC Firenze, a Marriott Property, was just across the street from the start of the historical downtown area. It was a brand new hotel and very modern, nice bed (best we had in Italy) and a great breakfast buffet in the morning. The only complaint was that the Air Conditioning couldn’t be turned down lower than 20 degrees and I found it quite warm at night. We could walk to the main sights, like the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio, the Accademia Museum and some world famous shopping areas with top of the line leathers and gold. However, it was quite a long walk from the hotel. If you had mobility issues, they had bike-taxis (a guy peddling a two seat carriage) and a few regular taxis that could take you around, but most traffic is restricted within the downtown area. A Bike-Taxi from the Duomo to our hotel was $12 EUR – we took one back at the end of our day.
We had one full day in Florence and made the most of it. Unfortunately, as it was a Monday, we couldn’t visit the Uffizi or the Accademia as they are closed on Mondays. But we did a walking tour of downtown to familiarize ourselves with the area and saw where the Duomos was, as well as the replica of David which is in David’s original home in the Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza di Santa Croce which is the square with the best shopping and also home to the Basilica di Santa Croce which was well worth visiting. It is the oldest Franciscan church in Florence and one of the oldest in Italy and is home to the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and more. It was also a beautiful church. After visiting the Basilica, shopping for some leather goods and filling up on lasagna, we decided to tackle the 450 steps or so to the top of the bell tower, connected to the Duomo. We first visited the Duomo and the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the famous cathedral with the huge dome that dominates the Florence skyline. The outside was very ornate and the Duomo incredible, however, most of the masterpieces and sculptures from this Basilica have been moved to the museums, so they say it is like an empty jewelry box. We had the option of climbing the Duomo (almost 500 stairs) or the Bell Tower (about 450 stairs). There was a lineup for the Duomo and none for the Bell Tower, so that made our decision easy. It was about $6 EUR for an entry fee. The stairs are very narrow with people coming up and down and at times they are steep and you can feel a bit claustrophobic. However, the views from the top were incredible and made it well worth the effort!
Following these adventures, we had to go back and prepare for our evening in Tuscany. We were driven about a half hour outside of Florence into the Tuscan hillside to the Castello del Trebbio – a 12th century castle, surrounded by 350 hectares of vineyards and Olive Groves. It was originally the home to the Pazzi family, and was the site of an attempted murder of the Medici brothers, who were the biggest advocates and supporters of the Renaissance movement. The current family bought the estate in 1968 and raised their 5 children there. After the death of the parents in the 1980’s, one of the daughters, Anna, took over the running and management of the estate with her husband. They further developed the winery and olive oil production and opened the estate up as a venue for weddings, special events and also started renting several farmhouses on the estate to tourists – all to support the upkeep of their lovely castle. The castle itself has the winery and wine cellars in the basements – which also used to be the prisons. The castle is heated only by fireplaces, with the exception of one special event room which has central heating and it is filled with antiques and is very authentic. It was magical. There were rolling hills, flowers and vineyards everywhere. It was very peaceful and easy to see why tourists would want to come and stay. It was also one of the best meals we had on our entire stay in Italy and included wine tasting. Although I had to abstain from the wine this time, I was sure to buy some to bring home for a later date!
The next morning, it was on to Venice and the city I had been waiting for! Venice, like Rome, was just as I had imagined it to be. Our hotel, the Amadeus, was only one street over from the Grand Canal and about a 5 minute walk from the train station, so it was very convenient. The rooms were decorated with antique Venetian furnishings, but the bathrooms were quite modern and the rooms were very charming and clean. We had a little balcony and the nicest part was with the windows open, we overlooked a quiet courtyard and all you would hear in the morning when you woke up was the birds and the bell tower. You didn’t hear the people or noise of the canals and busy streets, etc at all.
We had about a day and a half in Venice and we spent quite a bit of that time just wandering through all the quaint streets and alleys and over bridges and canals. It was the nicest city to just walk around. At first I was worried about getting lost, but they had little signs on the sides of the buildings pointing you down each alley and street either towards St Marks, Rialto or the Piazza del Roma. Our hotel was near the Piazza del Roma and we usually wandered towards St. Marks or Rialto and shopped or saw the sights as we came across them. That way, we could always have an idea which way to go and which way to come home. It worked well and we never had to look at a map – we just enjoyed the journey. We did a private Gondola ride for two, leaving from right near our hotel. It was 100 EUR for about a 40 minute ride (total for two of us). I didn’t think that was too bad compared to prices I had seen online. The Gondalier was very good, although he didn’t sing – he told us it was better if he didn’t as he only ever sang in the shower! We did the Gondola at Sunset and it was dark by our return. I think this was the best time to see Venice and see the city light up. It was well worth the money.
We also toured the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s square and were glad we did. There was no lineup and it was 15EUR each. You tour the private apartments of the Doge, which were incredible, as well as the Institutional Chambers, which is where a lot of the official meetings and judicial/court proceedings happened, etc. Then we were able to tour the Armoury and go across the Bridge of Sighs to the Prison. It was really interesting and you should plan to have at least an hour to an hour and a half to tour.
The main public transportation in Venice is the Vaparetto (water bus). It is quite expensive! For locals, it’s only about 1.5EUR for each ride, but for tourists, it was 7EUR for each ride and they have a schedule, just like buses, so in one case we ended up waiting about 40 minutes for the bus and we could have walked back in that amount of time (but my feet were tired!)
Getting back to the airport doesn’t really have any inexpensive options. You can take a water taxi right from historic Venice to the airport for about 120EUR, or we could walk (and drag our bags) the 10 minute walk to the bus terminal (just past the train terminal) and from there you can take an airport bus for 10EUR each or a taxi for 40EUR flat fee. We opted for the taxi for 40EUR so we didn’t have to wait and drag our bags on and off the bus. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the 120EUR on the water taxi, but it would have been very nice and convenient! You could also take a train, but you would have to change trains in Mestre and again you would be dragging your bags to and from the trains.
From Venice we flew Alitalia to Rome. We arrived at the airport early and they put us on the earlier flight for no charge, so we didn’t have to wait three hours for our flight – we basically just checked in, went through security and boarded the plane. It was a quiet 45 minute flight and we were there. In Rome we had to overnight before flying back to Canada on Air Canada. We opted to stay at the Hilton Rome Airport as it is connected by covered walkway (5 min walk) and we wouldn’t have to take a taxi or deal with shuttles. The best rate I could find was a prepaid non refundable rate of $189EUR. I have to say, this was the only hotel I was disappointed with on the whole trip. The pillows were terrible, the sheets were worn out in places, the bathroom was not very clean and there was rust on the fixtures and mildew in the grout in the shower. It was OK, but definitely not the standard I was expecting from a Hilton. The best part – the Hilton Burgers from room service. For 18EUR each, we got enormous Beef Burgers with onion rings, cheese and bacon on them and fries and after two weeks of pasta and pizza, it was nice to have a taste of home! 🙂