Itinerary: 3 days in Paris and a day in Belgium. Between this was a 3 day work trip to Dijon. Paris Itinerary: Day 1: Sacre Couer, Paris Opera and Eiffel Tower Day 2: Louvre, Notre Dame Cath…
Started the day with a good breakfast at the Mercato Centrale, left for the bus to San Gimignano, the town was pleasantly quiet. The beautiful sun lit town was well over the fog, everything looked so misty and mysterious from the top. One of my best moments of the trip. We walked all across the town, was very beautiful and medieval(if you choose to ignore the swanky branded-ish shops). The views from top of the castle like structure were great.
We then walked over to the Via Veccia and walked for atleast a mile along the road admiring views of the entire town,, the road passed across several vineyards. Came back to the town, had a good lunch at one of the few places open, again strolled around the town, went to the sunset spot for a good sunset. The bus going back was at around 5 PM, and it didn’t look like the towers would be illuminated. So we left by the bus, returning back to Florence at 7 or so. Had a good dinner at OSteria Santa Spirito, good, but not the most favorite of my meals on the trip.
A little more Tuscany, Montefioralle and a little of Bologna
We had about half a day before our flight back from Bologna. So we got the bus to Greve-in-Chianti, got down just before the town, walked along the road for atleast a mile or so. The road was quite pretty, it was a little uphill along vineyards. The houses, vineyards all were very pretty. Finally we reached the village, it was really really small, but pretty. Walked round the village, walked till the other side of the village, Montefioralle looked like a nice, imposing castle-village. We walked around the private vineyards wherever we could find paths, finally hit a road which got us back to Greve.
Came back to Florence, had a quick lunch at Zaza Trattoria, mostly some truffle based dishes, which were pretty good. Did some quick food shopping at Mercato Centrale, I bought pesto, truffle cream and some pasta. We got a high speed train to Bologna, the journey was pretty drab, though the countryside was beautiful, most of it was through tunnels so we couldn’t see anything. We had a couple of hours at Bologna before the flight, so quickly parked our luggage at the train station, walked till the main squares which were absolutely amazing, they were big, busy, red and very aesthetically built. Sat around for a while and came back to the train station and left for the airport by the shuttle. And so ended the trip.
Got a really good Pesto-mozarella sandwich at one of the stalls at the Mercato Centrale, Cantuccini at one of the specialty cantuccini shops, picked up a friend at the train station, we immediately booked tickets to go to Pisa by the local train. The journey was quite good, the walk to the tower from the station wasn’t bad and there was a Christmas market on the way.
The Pisa Complex was excellent, the white marble, and the green lawns made a good combination. The battistero’s a very attractive building, and so is the cathedral’s façade. We didn’t go inside, we just checked out the cathedral, walked around the complex and walked back to the station, took a train to go back. The return journey took a long while, the train took a longer route to get back to Florence.
On returning we checked into Hotel Montreal, went for dinner to Ristorante Caffagi, the Ravioli and Risotto we had were really good, and so were the desserts. Took a long stroll along the river and ended the day.
Did Siena as a day trip from Florence.
Siena’s no less, the red buildings, the Cathedral, the Tower, the Plaza, views over the countryside make it another star destination. I left by the early morning bus from Florence. The old town certainly makes you feel as if you’re in a different era. The Piazza Del Campo was outstanding, one of the best squares I’ve ever seen. The entire had fascinated me by now. Went up the Tower ( Torre Del Mangia), the climb was quite a bit, but the views of the surrounding area and the town was totally worth it. Next was the Cathedral and the Duomo. The cathedral is probably unlike any other you would see in Italy, so richly decorated, huge and dark. Very different from the ones in Rome and Florence. I got the combo ticket for the Gates of Heaven. The Gates of Heaven tour takes you up the cathedral and you walk all around the cathedral, so you get to see the entire interiors of the cathedral from a good height. Later, visited the Picolomini Library, the paintings were really good and well restored. It’s also well lit and the lighting goes well with the color of the paintings.
Now it was lunch time, headed to Osteria Al Grattacielo, a very local place. Had a good vegetarian plate, with several unique items like barley in pesto sauce, cauliflower-cheese cake, potatoes with basil, aubergines, ribolita, all done very well.
Post lunch headed to the Battistero of the Duomo, another wonderful and grand building, then walked up the Campanile of the Duomo, to get beautiful views of the town and the tower and Piazza. The surrounding countryside too looked really good. Siena from here looks like straight out of your dreams or the movies. Then walked around the town looking for views of the countryside, but couldn’t find any, however the park down the town is worth a visit. Quite a green change from the red town.
Picked up a gelato, wandered around the main square and got an evening bus back to Florence. Had dinner at a place near Santa Maria Novella, had a colossal mozzarella salad, unfortunately I don’t have the name of the place, but it’s one of the well rated ones.
First of all, a note of my favorite places to eat:
- I Buongustai
- La Cantinetta in Borgo
- Gusta Pizza
- Ristorante Caffagi
- Ristorante Zaza
- The sandwich guy who sells pesto-mozarella sandwiches inside the Mercato Centrale.
- Cantuccini Al Borgo, for their cantuccinis, a pastry.
I had prebooked an early morning high-speed train seat for a pretty good price(20 EUR). The journey was smooth, most of it was through fog, so couldn’t see a lot outside. My hotel, Veneto Residence was close to the Academia Gallery, left my luggage and set out to explore the town. I had booked for 10 AM with the Uffizi Gallery(turns out I didn’t need to book, since you could just go in,there were no lines). The piazzas looked great, especially the Piazza Signoria, the Duomo looked fantastic, but the light wasn’t enough for it to glow, the Ponte Vecchio too looked superb.
Later, spent several hours at the Uffizi. You need to several rounds, one to look at the murals, another to look into the rooms, another to look at the sculptures in the passage, I could do just one in every round. Views over Florence and the river bank were pretty good. View of the Duomo were good from the café, but you can see just the Duomo, not the entire cathedral. Had lunch at I Buongustai, bruschettas(one with walnuts and cheese on top),and pasta in Pomodoro Sauce, all cooked to perfection, and really cheap!
Visited the Bargello museum, went up the Duomo, have really no words to express the marvel it is from both the inside and the outside, the paintings-murals were so real. Views from the top were absolutely fabulous. It was late afternoon, there was light mist and the sunlight was soft. Florence couldn’t have looked better at any time, very dreamy, out of this world. But I didn’t linger here for long, went to the Palazio Vecchio, got a ticket to go upstairs to the battlements and the tower. Views over the entire cathedral, the Duomo, the town were fabulous. Waited almost till sunset, when the lights came up on the cathedral, was quite a sight. Later walked all around the old town, all lit up and beautiful. Had dinner at Gusta Pizza on the other side of the river. The pizzas are Neapolitan and really good, the crowds attest to that. So make sure you’re there before 7, because there’s a queue to get in.
Visited the Academia wandered at the David for quite sometime, the details are mind-boggling. Rest religious paintings are certainly worth a look. Proceeded to the Duomo area, had a look at the Duomo museum, a really well done and well lit modern museum with some really good sculptures. The Baptistery leaves you spell bound. That was one of my most favorite buildings in Florence. Had lunch again at I Buongustai, their Risotto was really well done, while their desserts didn’t impress me enough.
Climbed up the Giotto Bell Tower, the views are just phenomenal. The Duomo’s scale is even more evident when you go up. Walked up to the Santa Croce, didn’t really go in, walked around the Square and the markets and proceeded towards Piazza MichaelAngelo.
Views from the top are fabulous in the evening! Yes, it’ a little crowded, but certainly worth it. The Basilica San Miniato Al Monte was absolutely great, a bit dark inside but really beautiful, infact one of my favorite basilicas in Florence, the light outside had become very dreamy and evocative. All shades of colors possible, red, pink, orange..headed back to the Old Town after it got dark stopping by the Pitti Plaza. Had dinner at La Cantinetta in Borgo, a pear stuffed Ravioli and a spaghetti in Truffle Sauce, both very well done. The truffle dish was smelt so good, everyone looked towards the dish when it arrived. So ended my second day in Florence. There were several places I hadn’t seen, the Pitti Palace or the Medici tombs for example.
Here’s an account of my 3.5 days in Rome:
Arrived in the morning, quickly got a 14 EUR train ticket to go to Termini, although the significantly cheaper bus would have done as well. But I wanted to get all the daylight I could, so I took the quicker option. Italy was unlike any other part of Europe I had seen before, it looked very Mediterranean, with palm trees, terraced houses, it was also quite warm and sunny. Reached the train station, I quickly located my hotel and settled in.
Began exploring Rome with the Santa Maggiore, which was definitely very impressive, very different from the Renaissance art I would see in the rest of my trip. The streets of Rome were busy, with vespas, a little honking and plenty of people, tourists as well as non-tourists making it a very lively place. The area around Termini wasn’t really a very likeable one, but as you walk away from it, walks become nicer.
Had lunch at an outdoor place outside the Maggiore church, really good Gnocchi in Pomodoro sauce, the weather was great, sunny and warm(yes, even in December, global warming or just a heat wave or just temperature difference, I don’t know). Had a nice stroll towards the Roman Forum area. The Trajan Market building was absolutely beautiful! And vibe on the streets reminded me of Istanbul. Climbed up the Capitoline Hill to get brilliant views of the Forum. While it looked beautiful, I just wish more had survived. Then I got a ticket to enter the Forum, went in, looked around, trying to remember and recreate mental images from the book “History of Rome”, It was definitely fascinating, but again, very little remains. Palatine Hill tuned out to be the star attraction for the day. Everything up there was impressive. Walked and saw as much as I could, enjoyed views of the Forum, the place was very “Roman” indeed. And there were trees loaded with oranges as well. Got down as it tuned dark, it was barely 4.30 PM. Now I had several hours to spend before I had dinner. I got a gelato from a shop, was pretty good and cheap.
Walked all the way upto the Spanish steps stopping by the Trevi Fountain and Piazzas on the way. Christmas decorations were at their best, and crowds were high. Repairs are on at the Spanish steps, which was a disappointment. Had an early 4 EUR pasta dinner at Pastifico, making up my mind never to have pasta at pasta on the go places. Had a good tiramisu at Pompi, right infront of Pastifico. Walked back to the hotel, again, walking through empty streets in Rome is a pleasure, especially at night. Slept off, tired from the walking and jetlag.
More Ancient Rome
Had breakfast at a Pasticceria, not the healthiest, but pretty tasty, quick and cheap. Went straight to the Colosseum. And wow! It was phenomenal. Crowds were less, since it was a winter morning and a little fog was still around. As the sun went up, crowds went up, but the colosseum looked even better. The area around the Colosseum looked pretty neat from up there. Spent a couple of hours exploring the building, then walked to the San Clemente church. The church was really pretty, the underground portions too were really interesting, you go several levels below the ground. Later, had a big lunch at a restaurant just outside the church, their vegetable fritters and Ravioli in pomodoro were fabulous.
Next on the list was the Pantheon. The sheer size of the temple amazed me, from the outside it looked very beautiful with all it’s Greek columns and Latin and it’s cylindrical rear portion. Around the Pantheon were several interesting buildings which included basilicas, restored buildings with greek columns and so on.
Now the plan was to go to Gianicolo Hill, but then GoogleMaps guided me to a deadend lane just below Gianicolo, and the only way to get to the hill was a long walk, so I decided to skip it and go to the Castel Angelo. Turned out to be a great decision, sunset was fabulous, and views over the Vatican and Rome were great from the terrace. Had dinner at a pizzeria near Santa Maggiore, Zaza Pizza, which was pretty good.
A little More Ancient Rome and some Baroque Rome and Rome at Night
Took a bus to the Carcalla Baths, was quite awestruck by the huge surviving ruins, walked around what would have been grand baths. Walked further to the Pyramid of Cestius which was a short pleasant walk through residential neighborhoods. The pyramid was certainly quite a sight. Got a metro ride to the Spanish steps, had to take the mandatory walk up the steps, although a lot of it was closed.
Took a long walk across all piazzas, stopping at each for a fairly long time. Bought fruits from Piazza Campo Di Fiori’s farmers market, gelato from Piazza Navona, wish I could get a good aerial view of the Piazzas. Had lunch at one of the touristy restaurants with fixed menus, turned out to be pretty good. Arrived near the Colosseum to get pictures of the Colosseum after dark, which was superbly lit, but the restoration work had hit the most photographic features of the building.
Next on the plan was looking at the Pantheon all lit up. The Pantheon ofcourse looked great, the square was much busier than what it was during the day. Had a good Ravioli with Porcini mushrooms and an artichoke dish at a restaurant whose name I don’t remember, unfortunately, it was pretty close to the Pantheon though. So ended my 3rd day in Rome.
Vatican, A different world altogether.
I had booked for the 9 AM slot, I reached there at about 8.30 and I could get in easily. Entrance and security was quick, and I quickly reached the museum. The grounds and gardens were interesting, the Gallery of Maps blew me away(and there were hardly any people!), the Raphael Rooms were stunning, I spent more than an hour looking around. Sistine Chapel was obviously the best of all, I didn’t particularly know a lot about the paintings, but the audio guide helped to a good extent. Again, I spent a large amount of time just looking up and walking around. You just can’t have enough of it. Tour groups came and went, and crowds went up and down accordingly. I would definitely call a visit to the Sistine Chapel as something close to a life changing event. I just wished they allowed photography, and it’s impossible to “cheat” and click pictures in off season, the chapel isn’t packed, which is a great thing since you can really take in the place.
Stepped out of the chapel, walked through endless corridors with good murals, passed through the iconic spiral staircase and stepped out of the museum. Had lunch at a Pasta place near the St.Peter’s square, one of the cafes ripped me off with a 14 EUR cake(that was the sit-down price, the take away price was 5 EUR, so always check the menu when you sit down). St.Peter’s square was quite busy,so I got into the cathedral, and wow! I wasn’t prepared at all for the grandeur and the scale of the building. Spent a super long time in side the cathedral(make sure you go in when it’s atleast fairly bright outside, everything glows). Then took the stairs upto the dome, was quite a climb, but worth it. The views of the Square, of the Vatican, of the countryside around, of Rome all were fabulous. Came down when it started getting a little dark, roamed around St.Peter’s square for a pretty long time, watching the lights come up, the skies were beautiful as well.
Came back to “main Rome”, the streets to the main piazzas were beautifully decorated, had one of my best dinners in Rome, at Alfredo E Ado, had an artichoke lasagna and an Eggplant parmigiana, all made to perfection. Spent some more time hanging around at the Pantheon, returned back home to get up early the next day.