Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pickpockets in Pisa

I have some experience with pickpockets.  I once caught a child thief unzipping my fanny pack on a crowded metro in Paris.  Yes, I know, nothing screams tourist like a fanny pack, so what did I expect?  I think (I hope) I look a little cooler today.  My husband, Jim, had his clip-on sunglasses lifted from the backpack in Barcelona.  I warn my adult children about the latest scams and danger areas whenever we travel together.  They just roll their eyes.  Suffice it to say, wherever there are tourists ripe for the picking, there are pickpockets ready to employ their skills and Pisa, Italy is loaded with opportunity.  Here’s what happened.

Walking from our hotel with our bags in tow, we had some difficulty finding the small, regional train station at San Rossore.  When we finally spotted it, the train station was across the tracks from us and signs announce it’s illegal to cross.  You have to take the passageway under the tracks to the station and then return to the platform where the train will arrive.

Pisa Train Station across the tracks

Pisa San Rossore Train Station across the tracks

As we discussed the situation, a group of tourists approached to validate their tickets at the yellow box nearby.  We thought maybe we could buy tickets there but the tour guide explained that we had to go to the station to purchase tickets, then return to validate them before boarding the train at the platform on this side of the tracks.  We were short of time and the next train would be hours later if we missed this one.  I asked the tour guide, “You don’t happen to have any extra tickets, do you?”  She said, “As a matter of fact, two people didn’t join us this morning so I do have two extra tickets.”  What luck!  Needless to say we bought them on the spot.  A word of caution is in order here.  Had someone appeared trying to sell us tickets, this may not be advisable.  This, however, was undoubtedly a tour group and the guide had an Australian accent so I felt certain we weren’t going to be ripped off.

The train arrived soon thereafter and we waited for passengers to disembark before pressing forward in a group to board.  As we boarded, a woman with a baby strapped to the front of her pushed through the crowd at the last minute to get off the train.  In the crush of people, confusion ensued.  Once the train got underway, one of the tour group realized someone had opened her fanny pack.  Luckily, only her glasses which were on top, had been taken.  Another in the group announced he’d lost his glasses as well.  The pick pocket clearly used the “baby” as a cover to get into the two bags on her way through the throng.  The tour guide used this as a teachable moment with her group as she pointed out that fortunately no one lost money or credit cards.  The victims felt violated by the experience, nevertheless.  We discussed and debriefed this upsetting episode during the 13 mile ride to Lucca.

5 simple travel tips to avoid being victimized:

  1. Keep in mind that popular tourist areas are inherently higher risk.

  2. Be particularly alert whenever you are in a crowd and keep your hand on your purse or backpack zipper as you move through a crowd.

  3. Be wary of people approaching with offers of help.  I hesitate to even mention this one because I have encountered many friendly people who have given us directions or even led us to places but caution is still advisable.

  4.  A commotion is often used to divert your attention so move away and guard your valuables.

  5.  Google the latest travel scams for an area before you visit.  You’ll be amazed by what you learn.

Enjoy your travels and stay safe.

 

Based on events in October, 2013

Categories: Italy, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

Exploring Tuscany

After Florence, I wanted to visit Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, and Lucca on our way to Cinque Terre.  I’d also read about Chianti Road in Tuscany’s wine region so I was keen to visit a local winery.  My first thought was to take the train, which I adore, so of course, I googled it.  To my surprise, I discovered it’s less efficient to take the train to Siena and you can’t get to San Gimignano by train at all.  You must either rent a car or take a bus.  That research led me to bus schedules, which led me to bus tours, which led me to Viator Tours, which led me to reviews of Viator, which led me to Rick Steves Travel Forum where I learned that Viator is a consolidator that buys from local operators with whom I could book directly at a lower cost.  That led me to Walkabout Florence where I booked The Best of Tuscany Tour.

I don’t typically choose a tour for several reasons.  First, I can usually book the components myself at a lower cost.  Second, I like flexibility to adjust my plan based on our enjoyment or additional discoveries along the way.  Finally, I get annoyed when others are inconsiderate and make us wait for them because they don’t follow the tour guide’s instructions to return on time.  This tour appealed to me, however, and for 90 euro ($124), it was a bargain.  Learn more about Walkabout Florence.

Leaving from Santa Maria Novella Station near our hotel at 8:30 am, we had a scenic ride through Tuscany in a comfortable air conditioned bus with a lively tour guide offering interesting commentary until we reached our first stop.

SIENA

Medieval Siena, with less than 60,000 inhabitants, is a walkable city built around Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful piazzas in all of Italy.

Piazza del Campo

Piazza del Campo

Since the 1500’s, the famous Il Palio horse race has taken place in this piazza amid great excitement and pageantry.  Ten horses chosen from the 17 districts of the city engage in a wild and dangerous race that lasts no more than 90 seconds to win bragging rights until the next race.

The gothic Duomo (Cathedral) of Siena dates back to the 1200s.  It’s one of the few cathedrals I’ve visited that charges admission and fortunately it was included in the price of our tour because I would have been tempted to skip it, having seen many cathedrals throughout Europe.  This is a sight not to be missed.

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Duomo Di Siena interior

Even more awe-inspiring than the beautiful frescoes by Pinturicchio and the impressive sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello inside the cathedral, are the 56 etched and inlaid marble mosaics found on the floor.  Most of them are ordinarily kept covered to protect them from damage except for a few weeks in September and October, when we just happened to visit.

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

Marble floor mosaic in cathedral

After a walking tour and the cathedral visit, we were allowed some free time in Siena.  Fortunately, everyone met at the appointed time to leave for lunch at the organic farm just outside the town of San Gimignano.  Was it the promise of food or wine?

Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Literally translated Farm Hill Laurel, this organic family farm grows or raises everything they served us for lunch except the cheese which came from a nearby farm.  After touring the farm, we enjoyed Tuscan dishes including homemade breads, pasta, salad, several cheeses, sausages, beef, cookies, and olive oil accompanied by locally produced wines.  They even accommodate dietary restrictions such as gluten-free.  The views of the Tuscan countryside are unbelievably lovely from the terrace where we ate communally at long tables while visiting with others on our tour.

Interestingly, the world’s most expensive spice, saffron, is painstakingly produced here from the crocus sativus flower grown on the farm. For more information about the farm and all their products, look at Fattoria Poggio Alloro.

Olives grown on the farm

Olives grown on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Cattle raised on the farm

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Lunch at the farm with views of the countryside

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed at lunch

Wine produced on the farm and enjoyed abundantly with lunch

Enjoying lunch at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

Enjoying wine produced at Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

View of San Gimignano from Fattoria Poggio Alloro

San Gimignano

After a leisurely meal and some time to shop, we commenced the short drive to San Gimignano.  Nicknamed the Medieval Manhattan for its towers, San Gimignano is one of the most charming and best preserved walled medieval towns in Tuscany.  In the Middle Ages, the tower was a symbol of wealth and power and this town originally contained 72 of them but today only 13 towers remain.  We were free to explore on our own for several hours and we enjoyed every minute of our walk through the Middle Ages.

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

Gate in the wall surrounding San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

View of the Tuscan countryside from San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Medieval street in San Gimignano

Several towers in San Gimignano

Towers in San Gimignano

Pisa

Our final stop for the day was in Pisa.  One reason this tour suited us so well is that they offer the option to leave the tour wherever and whenever you want, with proper notification, of course.  We wanted to spend the night in Pisa and take the train to Lucca the following day before going to Cinque Terre so we brought our luggage with us on the bus in the morning and parted company after our tour of Pisa late in the day.  The tour group then returned to Florence and we took a taxi to our hotel.

Pisa is one of those places that gets mixed reviews.  Some love it, some not so much.  We had low expectations of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but we were pleasantly surprised.  The most famous bell tower in the world is located on the Field of Miracles which also contains a cathedral, a baptistry, and a cemetery, all situated close to the medieval city wall.  The tower has leaned since its construction began in 1173 due to its position on soft ground but recent stabilization efforts have ensured that it will stand for at least another 300 years.  You must reserve a time to climb the 294 steps to the top of the tower so we returned the next morning to experience the view and to visit the cathedral.  The walk from our hotel was reasonably short and enjoyable.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

Duomo di Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

View from the top of the Tower of Pisa

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Cathedral of Pisa interior

Once we’d enjoyed everything the Field of Miracles had to offer and the crowds started to arrive, it was time to take the train to Lucca.

 

 

 

 

Categories: Italy, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Highlights of Florence in 3 Days

Regarded as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is reputed to house more artwork than any other city in the world relative to its size.  You can view works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli, just to name a few.  We initially intended to purchase the Firenza card for 72 euro ($99) that would allow us to see 72 museums over 72 hours but we soon realized that was beyond our abilities and endurance for a three-day stay.  Besides, with so much beautiful architecture and sculpture outside the museums, as we discovered on our walking tour, it seemed a shame to spend all our time indoors.   So, while it’s good advice to make a plan and stick to it, it’s also advisable to be flexible and recognize when a change is in order.

After our walking tour, we headed straight to Il Duomo di Firenze (Florence Cathedral) to see the area before the arrival of hordes of tourists from cruise ship excursions.  The dome of the cathedral was engineered by Filippo Brunelleschi, completed in 1436, and remains the largest brick dome in existence.

Il Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower

Il Duomo, Baptistery, and Bell Tower

Il Duomo interior

Il Duomo interior

The Last Judgement fresco in the dome of the cathedral

The Last Judgement fresco in the dome of the cathedral

Later it became a crush of bodies, but as you can see by these photos, we beat the (c)rush.  After our visit to Il Duomo, we crossed the River Arno via the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) to have a look at the Palazzo Pitti (Pitti Palace), the official residence of the powerful Medici family beginning in 1550, and the attached Boboli Gardens.  The ticket options were several and varied but pricey.  We opted for a combo that included the gardens, which is more like a park with many paths, trees and a few fountains and outbuildings.  It’s not as vast and impressive as the gardens at Versailles, outside of Paris, but we enjoyed a leisurely stroll, nevertheless.

Palazzo Pitti

Palazzo Pitti

Boboli Gardens

Boboli Gardens

The Old Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, is a medieval bridge spanning the River Arno.  Originally occupied by butchers, fishmongers, and other merchants, the stench was so rank that in 1593, Duke Ferdinand I ordered that only goldsmiths and jewelers could locate shops on the bridge.  Today, there are still many jewelry shops along with souvenir shops.

Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)

Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge)

View of Ponte Vecchio and River Arno

View of Ponte Vecchio and River Arno

We decided to try the Uffizi Gallery next.  It was mid afternoon and the queue wasn’t too bad so we visited with people in line with us for about 45 minutes while we waited.  We’re friendly but we can’t help it.  Photos aren’t allowed in the museum so follow this link to sneak a peek at the highlights of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primaverahttp://www.uffizi.org

Since that strategy worked well for us, the following day we went to the Accademia later in the afternoon to see Michelangelo’s David.  Again, photos are not allowed inside but there is a reproduction in the Piazza della Signoria  where photos are allowed.

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo’s David

Tell me honestly, don’t you think his hands look freakishly large?

There are many other sculptures worth seeing in this piazza located outside the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) so we took our time there.

Piazza della Signoria

Piazza della Signoria

IMG_4453

Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa

IMG_4454

Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus in front of Palazzo Vecchio

Allow some time for shopping in the Mercato Nuovo, a covered outdoor market with many vendors selling Italian silk and leather goods.  Outside the market you’ll find the famous Fontana del Porcellino, a fountain with a statue of a wild boar.  Legend has it if you rub his snout, you’ll return to Florence.

Fontana Porcellina

Fontana Porcellino

We also visited the Medici Chapel which contains tombs of Medici aristocrats and seven Michelangelo sculptures along with a lot of other beautiful artwork but again photography is forbidden so here’s a photo of the outside only.

 

Medici Chapel

Medici Chapel

Our tour guide suggested a walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a panoramic view of Florence and we’re so glad we did.  It was truly a highlight for us.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.

View of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

We saw many other beautiful sights in Florence but these make my list of “not to be missed.”

One final recommendation–Take some time just to smell the coffee.

Cafe on our street, Via Faenza

Cafe Sabatino on our street, Via Faenza

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Un-Foodie’s Florence

I am not a foodie.  I like food that tastes good and looks appealing but I lack a truly discriminating palate.  That said, I admit I’m somewhat of a food snob.  I refuse to eat in fast food chain restaurants while traveling (unless it’s McDonald’s on the Champs Elysees, but that’s a story for another time) and I prefer locally owned restaurants serving dishes native to the region.  I abhor really expensive restaurants that will bust my budget.  When I find a place I like, I’ve been known to return to try another dish on the menu.

Italy is known for high priced cuisine.  We discovered this on our first trip to Rome in 2006, traveling with two big sons with even bigger appetites.  Lest we had any lingering doubts, our previous experience was confirmed in Venice in 2012.  So, how do you find reasonably priced, tasty regional dishes in Florence, Italy?  The most obvious answer is a computer search and I have all the usual suspects loaded on my smart phone–Urbanspoon, Yelp, even Find Me Gluten Free but my go-to app continues to be TripAdvisor.  The map with GPS allows me to find something nearby and the reviews help me decide whether to give it a try.  Yes, I know reviews are planted on all these sites but I personally submit reviews to TripAdvisor, so I believe many of the reviews are actually genuine.  Second, avoid the high traffic tourist areas where you’re paying for location.  Even if you find a good price, I often find the food just isn’t very good.  So get off the beaten path.  Third, ask for recommendations.  Ask your friends who have been there, the hotel staff where you’re staying, or your tour guide.  If you can find a place where the locals eat, you know you’re in for a treat.

I found my favorite restaurant in Florence on TripAdvisor.  Trattoria da Giorgio serves homemade authentic Tuscan dishes with an attractive fixed menu price of 14 euro (less than $20) for a first course, second course, side, bread, house wine and bottled water.  We asked the owner/waiter for his recommendations for typical Tuscan or Florentine dishes.  He reported soups, beans, fresh vegetables, and generous amounts of local olive oil are very common and we dutifully complied with these choices

<img class="size-large wp-image-618" src="https://lclalor.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/img_4421.jpg?w=690" alt="Homemade Vegetable soup and Tuscan sausage with beans at Trattoria da Giorgio” width=”690″ height=”920″ /> Homemade Vegetable Soup with Beans, Tagliatelle with Meat Sauce,  and Chianti at Trattoria da Giorgio
Stuffed Eggplant at Trattoria da Giorgio

Stuffed Eggplant and green salad at Trattoria da Giorgio

Or you can opt for the famous 1 kg. (2.2 lbs.) traditional Florentine steak which includes a side, bread, wine, and water for 28 euro ($39).   The owner showed his approval of  Jim’s eating prowess by giving him the thumb’s up sign as he passed by our table and saw the remains.

Jim before Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Jim before Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Jim after Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Jim after Bistecca alla Fiorentina

Friends recommended that we visit Trattoria Sostanza for the butter chicken.  It was as delicious as promised but although it’s off the beaten path, the place has been discovered. We dropped in and couldn’t be seated without a reservation so we made one for the following night and returned.

Trattoria Sostanza

Trattoria Sostanza

Butter Chicken

Butter Chicken

You simply must have gelato in Italy and this gelateria was recommended by our tour guide for homemade and reasonably priced gelato and she was right.  They even served several tasty dairy-free fresh fruit sorbets.

Gelato!

Gelato!

 

What tips do you have for finding outstanding meals while traveling?

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Florence, Italy— October, 2013

Our first view of Florence was in a downpour.  Although we brought umbrellas, the wind made them almost worthless and the water in the streets was over our shoes.  I chose our hotel, Mia Cara, because it was reasonably priced, well reviewed, provided breakfast, and was located near the historic center and Santa Maria Novella train station where the bus from the airport delivered us.  We couldn’t find our small, poorly marked hotel on Via Faenza, however, because the rain destroyed our map and the numbering system in Florence is extremely confusing.  Residences are numbered in black or blue and businesses are numbered in red followed by an r.  Not all buildings have numbers displayed and the numbers don’t necessarily run consecutively so 90r, the address we sought, was among residences with blue numbers in the teens.  After passing the hotel several times, we finally spotted the small sign on the door and entered, feeling bedraggled and tired after a transatlantic journey totaling 22 hours.

Our lightweight rolling backpacks have one fault that came to light when we opened them.  They are not waterproof.  Everything was soaked so our first job was to drape everything around the room to dry.  Although we pack light, we had more items than hangers and soon every surface was covered with pants, shirts, socks, and underwear.

IMG_4427

Our room at Hotel Mia Cara

Our room was comfortable and clean, typical of  a 3 star Italian hotel, with a window on the street side.  At 90 euro ($125) per night including a scrumptious, ample breakfast, I think I may have found the best deal in Florence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast room

Breakfast room

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Outdoor Courtyard

Outdoor Courtyard

Although we didn’t use the outdoor courtyard because we were on the go all day and it was chilly outdoors by the time we returned in the evening, it looked like a charming space.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hotel’s sister property next door is a hostel and each morning, they provided a free walking tour of Florence.  There were two different tours on alternate days and we enjoyed both.

Our guide for the walking tour

Our guide for the walking tour

 

 

These tours oriented us to the city and provided us with plenty of historical detail.  Here our guide is telling us about the small wine door through which wealthy families sold wine they produced in the countryside without allowing the buyer into their home.

 

 

 

 

Next:  Our favorite affordable restaurants in Florence

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

%d bloggers like this: