Best of Tuscany Tour
Visiting Italy for the first time was such a dream come true. The entire country is so beautiful and the people are full of passion and zest for life.
It was nearly impossible to pick only a few cities to visit it on our trip especially when there is so much to see in each destination. In the Tuscany alone, you have the city of Florence, the wine country, the regional medieval towns of Siena, San Giminano, and more, the iconic city of Pisa, and the coastal region of Cinque Terre.
How to see them all in a day or two? With a little help from my friends at Walkabout Florence. This group offers several tours, including a Best of Tuscany tour and a day trip to visit the five villages of Cinque Terre.
We decided to do the Best of Tuscany tour, because we felt like this would allow us to see the most. We woke up early to meet our tour guide at the Firenze SMN station by 7:30AM. We rode on a comfortable air conditioned coach bus with about eight other couples. Throughout the ride our energetic tour guide gave us a historical overview of the city of Florence and our first stop of the trip, the medieval city of Siena.
Before our trip, a friend strongly recommended Siena as an authentic Italian town with no crowds. How could we know that we had booked our tour on the day of the famous bi-annual horse race, Palio di Siena, which draws over 60,000 people inside its narrow walls.
Regardless, the town was still perfectly charming and rich with historical significance from accommodating travelers on the Roman road to becoming a fortress of bankers, some of which have been involved in major international scandals. As we made our way through the narrow streets, we turned up a steeper path to the town's Duomo, a beautiful architectural dream at the top of the hill.
Instead of plain stonewalls adorned with sculptures of saints, the church is built with black and white striped marble and its walls are covered in bright, colorful. The ceiling is especially breathtaking with its star studded dome. I hardly had time to take notice at first though, because I had to pee so badly after the long bus ride. Thankfully, the church had a bathroom which could be used for 1 euro. I would have paid twenty!
On our way out of town we stopped by the town square, which had been laid with dirt and mounted spectator stands for the big horse race. I wish we could have stayed for the actual race! Before we left Siena, our tour guide gave us some free time to shop. Then we got back on the bus to travel to rural Tuscany for a wine tasting.
Our bus arrived at Fattoria Poggio Alloro just in time for lunch. We had a brief tour of the cellars and the expansive grounds, before settling onto the picnic tables on a patio with a view of the vineyards and San Gimignano, another medieval town we would be visiting.
Our farm-sourced organic lunch included Penne Bolognese pasta, bread and olive oil. Our "tasting" included several bottles of red Chianti wine and white wine, followed by a grappa, or port wine, paired with almond cookies called Ricciarelli. Needless to say, we enjoyed this stop on the tour very much.
We especially enjoyed getting to know the other couples on our trip, including a couple on their honeymoon and a newly engaged couple from, small world, the same city as us! We loved hearing their travel stories, which ultimately helped us define what we now call the travel tax.
For example, the honeymooners connected in Toronto on Air Canada, and once there, realized there was no in flight entertainment unless you had an iPad, so the wife quickly downloaded a book on her phone for her Kindle which cost her over $200 in international data fees. The other couple had boarded a train without a validated ticket and were fined $50 each. This obviously made us feel better about losing Dan's wallet in Paris, and we've determined that at some point there is always a tax on this wonderful privilege to travel.
We finished our meal and prepared for our next stop. Our guide was great about taking photos of everyone in front of the view before we left. We drove the short distance to San Gimignano which is famous for its iconic medieval architecture, marked by the towering skyline. It is also famous for having the best gelato in the world and great shopping for key items like leather goods. On this stop the guide gave us a brief history on the drive over and then let us roam around for free for an hour. Finally, we got back on the bus for our last destination Pisa!
The drive to Pisa was less than two hours long through the Tuscan countryside. We saw many gorgeous sunflower fields along the drive, but unfortunately the bus did not stop for photo ops. Instead most everyone on the bus took a nap. I will never forget how beautiful the Tuscan countryside is, though, and next time I hope to rent a car for better exploring.
For our final destination, we arrived at the leaning tower in the city of Pisa which is right near the coast. As we approached the tower, our guide detailed the cities intense history as a significant naval and trade port, which has seen various powers struggle for its control since ancient times. The city is also known for its cultural and academic history, most notable for producing the early physicist, Galileo Galilei.
As we stepped off the bus, I could immediately sense the coastal breeze. We were given an hour here to explore and take pictures at leisure. Our guide provided great tips for taking the best pictures of the leaning tower. When we purchased our tickets there was an option to add tickets to climb up the tower and to visit the Baptistery, but for whatever reason we chose not to and I'm not mad about it. We enjoyed just walking around and people watching. The leaning tower is definitely leaning, so it is an amazing tribute to engineering that it has been sustained for so many years.
On the one hour bus ride home everyone napped, and our tour guide turned on the bus's tv to find the horse race in Siena. Our guide explained the corruption and rivalry involved in the race and how a horse can still win even if the jockey is knocked off, which apparently happens quite often.
When Dan and I got back to Florence, we were ready to eat again so we walked to a restaurant that was showing the USA versus Amsterdam World Cup match. I had the penne ragu and Dan the florentine steak. We asked for a bottle of the house red wine, because everyone knows the house wine in Italy is as good as any. The waiter clarified that we wanted a bottle, and we replied "Yeah, that's like four glasses right?", to which he replied "Sure, like four... five, eight, ten!" He went behind the bar and revealed that a bottle of house wine was actually in 1.75 L bottle. We all laughed at our mistake and corrected our order to get the carafe. In the end we suspect we ended up drinking the whole bottle, though, since we closed out the restaurant watching the game with our new Dutch friends and our waiter generously kept our glasses full. All in all, I can't recommend Florence and the Tuscan countryside enough. It's a beautiful mix of city, country, history, and culture.