A Revenge Trip: Sicily, Amalfi Coast,Tuscany, Lake Como, Florence

It's time for our Covid-19 revenge trip and we decided on Italy.

9/3 - Fly into Florence

No excitement, but traveling through Munich (rather than Frankfurt) is much nicer. Only have an overnight in Florence so it's just a short walk to the hotel (ignoring getting oriented and making a few mistakes in navigation) before we take off to Sicily the next morning.

NB: International Drivers Permit. All the travel people in the US say you have to have one. Renting a car twice in Italy the subject never came up. The conversation was simply show me your driver's license, passport, and a credit card - here's your car.

9/5 - Sicily

Navigating from the airport to the city of Syracusa was a breeze (Google maps is your friend). Finding the hotel in the city was a nightmare (Google maps hates you). Arriving in Ortesia (an island that is part of Syracusa) we missed one turn near the waterfront and tried to drive down a pedestrian mall. Backed up and, after driving completely around the island and starting over, made the correct turn (we really were supposed to drive through that narrow arch that looked like the entrance to a castle). Get to the destination and there's no hotel, just an entrance to an alley way too narrow for a car. Eventually park the car a block away, walk back and find the hotel, discover that the only parking is the pay lot a 10 minute walk away. Works for us.

The next day we had an all day tour of Mount Etna. Van takes us up to the visitor center where we opt for the gondola ride up followed by a 4-wheel drive bus to the 2800m level (maximum allowed for people, the actual top of Etna is currently 3357. Note the `currently', it is constantly changing as erruptions blow off the top of the mounntain and lava flows add to it). It was interesting to walk around a crater where you can still feel the heat of the rock, although the heat is not enough to cook a pizza (they tried :-) We then went down practically to the base of the mountain where we explored a lava tube. Interestingly enough they used it to store ice in the tube to last them through the summer.

The next day is a road trip to explore the towns of southern Sicily (and check out the actual locations for the Montalbano shows).

Funny story. When we were leaving the parking lot in Syracusa on the last day a nice French lady was confused about the payment machine and asked for my help. Since I had successfully used the machine multiple times of course I offered to help. She had minimal English and I've been taking online French for a year so it was time to put that learning to the test - unfortunately the test was a failure. We got her squared away but it was more through her broken English than through my broken French (She could not understand when I tried to say "fifteen euros per day" as "quinze euros pour jour", probably because I was pronouncing "quinze" as "keense" when it should have been "kaanse", lord knows what she thought I was saying.)

Another funny story. driving around Sicily - easy, dealing with the rental car - not so much.

9/8 - Pompeii, Positano & the Amalfi coast

Fly to Naples where a hire car picks us up and drops us off by the visitor center but we're a half hour early for our tour of Ponpeii. The driver tells us to get a drink at the cafe across the street and our guide will find us - hah. We have a snack and then, right on time, go back to the visiotr center to wait for the guide. No guide after 20 minutes so we call our travel agent contact (after finding out which phone numbers to use and which to ignore) and our guide arrives (she was searching the cafes aross the street for us, we just missed each other). Very informative tour of Pompeii. I hadn't realized that the Vesuvius eruption was pyroclastic (super heated ash and pumice was thrown 1000s of feet into the air until it came straight down on Pompeii) rather than magmatic (the slow moving flows of lava typical in Hawaii). The residents of Pompeii had no chance, especially since earthquakes that preceeeded the erruption made the harbor unusable.

After Pompeii we had a wine tasting/lunch at the the Bosco de Medici winery. Turns out the winery is not related to the Meidci's at all, I guess they thought the name added a certain cache. The tasting was a bit of a waste for us, 5 different wines (prosecco, a white, a rose, and 2 reds) since we're not really wine afficianados but it was a beautiful setting (arbor with grape vines providing shade) so it was a pleasant way to have a lunch.

Next it was on to Positano on the Amalfi coast which is stunningly beautiful but soo many steps. The car drops us off in the middle of the (very) narrow road by the hotel. Amazingly the owner is right there expecting us. The hotel is 100 steps up the side of a vertical cliff from the road. Fortunately Costantino handles the luggage (I was not looking foward to carrying the bags up those steps). Turns out the hotel has a pool (100 steps down from the road) and a private beach (another 150 steps down from the pool). Note that steps are the operative work for this area, I don't think there's a single level street in the town of Positano, it is all up or down very steep hills.

The next day we take the ferry to Amalfi (beautiful town but way crowded, one main street with tourists packed shoulder to shoulder the entire way). Got to watch a wedding party come out of the church (the bride had the most sparkly dress I've ever seen, Meaghan would be so jealous). Then took the bus up to Ravello where we toured the Villa Rufolo - a bit of a let down as there wasn't all that much to see. Watched a marching band lead off yet another wedding party to the church - lots of weddings this day. Ferry ride back to Positano was a bit of a hassle since the dock was extremely crowded and they only announced the boats that were there, no clue about when the next boats would arrive. Wound up waiting 2 hrs but did catch the last ferry to Positano.

Spend the next morning doing a little shopping. The new ceramic table for the front porch is beautiful (but just a tad expensive). In the afternoon we went down and hung out by the pool a little bit and then braved the climb down to the beach so that Barb could get her toes in the mediterranium - mission accomplished.

Evening meal - that was an adventure. We asked Costantino for a recommendation and he suggested Ristorante da Costantino (no relation). The restaurant has a car service but it was only available too late so we said we'd make our own way and walk to the restaurant - big mistake. Remember how I said Positano had 'soo many steps'? Well, the walk to the restaurant was even worse. Google maps said the walk was only 30 minutes but neglected to mention anything about elevation gain - it was all up hill. We'd go up narrow, steep stirways, turn a corner and look up at the next narrow, steep stairway - there was no end. Eventually we got to the restaurant, drenched in sweat. The meal was good but not even close to being worth the effort to get there. Fortunately, the car was available to take us back so our walking was done for the day (except the 100 steps up to our room, never forget that)

9/11 - Tuscany

We had a car drive us to the Naples train station (nice driver, he spent years in Australia to the point his daughters were born there and speak Italian as a second language but his whole family is in Italy now). Easy train ride to Florence where we take the tram to the airport to pick up our car (I was bummed becaue they wouldn't give me that Maserati SUV that was in the lot - oh well). Picking up the car was easy, from there things got a little interesting.

The next day was a rest and recover from the trip so far. We just hung around the villa (a beautiful cottage nestled in the main buildings of a working winery) and did laundry.

The next day we just explored the local town, Castellina in Chianti. Small town, narrow streets, mutiple restaurants - that's about it.

The next day we decide to visit Volterra, a well known hill top village with a lot of Etruscan excavations. I can't talk Barb into the Torture Museum (it had at least 4 signs advertising it so it had to be good - right) so we went to the Etruscan museum instead. It seems like over half the museum is devoted to funerary urns so, either the Etruscans were more concerned about the after life than the Egyptians or that's all they've been able to find so far.

That afternoon we had a wine tasting at the Castello di Verrazano (yes, that Verrazano). We chose this winery because this is where my niece Jenny and her husband got married 15 years ago. Learned a bit about chianti (classico is the best, make sure there is a black rooster on the bottle, that's the symbol of the officially designated chianti classico).

The next day we decide to take a 2 hr drive to Gubbio, the site of another of our favorite Italian shows 'Don Matteo'. We start out at the roman theater, one of the largest theaters that have been discovered. Then we explore the town and find the church where Don Matteo lives and the municipal building where the police headquarters are located - kind of cool.

The next day we go to Siena (with the side trip to the Hertz office). Beautiful city with a main square, Il Campo. This is where they have yearly Paleos (horse races), one in July and the other in August, 3 times around the square, 60,000 people packed into the center of the square cheering things on. The square is not that big, a horse race around it is pretty frightening. Anyway, there are 17 contrades (unique areas of the city) and they select 10 contrades to enter a hore in the race. No real prize, just bragging rights for the next year. Interestinglly enough, the first horse to cross the finish line wins, with or without a jockey (they ride bare back so losing a jockey is not an uncommon event).

We then visit the Santa Maria della Scala, originally a hospital now a museum. Unlike many places it was built on the side of a hill. You enter/exit on the top and then work your way down into the excavation site. There were some great rooms/chapels down there (I'm going with the rooms were meeting places for secret societies, that's my story and I'm sticking with it.)

As we reach the lobby to exit the museum we are surprised to find it packed. No, we didn't beat the rush, there was torrential rain outside. We stand in the lobby for about a half hour and then decide to brave the rain and make it back to the car in one piece, only a little soggy. (When we first entered the Il Campo piazza it started to sprinkle just a bit and we realized we had left the rain gear back at the car. I went back and got it, a fortuitous decision even if Barb got worried about how long it took me.)

The next day - Pisa. Easy 2 hr drive into the city and we find a parking lot right next to the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the leaning tower and the duomo are located. We start by visiting the Sinopie Museum, absolutely fascinating. Sinopies are the first outline of a frescoe that the master paints on the wall in red pigment that is brushed onto the wall. The master draws and redraws the sinopie until he's satisfied, then a copy of his work, the cartoon, is made on pager. Then the real plaster is applied to the wall, the cartoon is copied into the plaster, and finally the color is applied - quickly before the plaster dries.

Next was the Compasano cemetery, more a building with two long corridors and two short corridors surrounding a courtyard. The bodies are buried either in the floor of the corridors or in Roman funerary urns that line the sides of the corridors. (Rich people, the only ones who could afford the Compasano cemetery, selected an old Roman urn and then added their own decorations and added their ashes inside. Note that these urns are rectangular cubes about 3 ft per side.) For me the highlight was the segments of the chain that used to protect the harbor that hang from one wall. When Genoa defeated Pisa they took the chain as a trophy and gave it to Florence (Genoa knew that Pisa would hate that Florence had a symbol of their defeat so they decided to twist the knife a little). When Italy unified Florence graceously gave the chain back to Pisa.

On to the Duomo, a rather impressive church. I have to say I was not impressed with the stained glass, they were small and widely space, not many of them. I liked the massive chandelier that Galileo observed swaying in a strong breeze (it would take a very strong breeze, that chandelier was huge) and developed his theory of how pendulums work. The massive pulpit (just covered in carvings depecting yet more stories from the bible) certainly catches the eye. (Why the caryatids, slender statues used for columns to support the pulpit, were placed in the back of the pulpit where no one could see them is left as an exercise for the reader.) Loved the crystal coffin containing the mummified body of Saint Rainerius, Catholics do love their relics.

Finally we visit the Baptistry, a very imposing circular building in front of the Duomo. Inside is just a big open area with a pulpit and baptistery font (large enough for full body immersion baptisms). A remarkably imposing building for not much inside.

We end the day by walking over to the Piazza dei Cavalieri. Impressive statue of Cosimo I de Medici and some interesting buildings around the square.

The next day - rain. It had to happen some time and, let's face it, one day of rain during a 3 week vacation isn't that bad. Spent all day working on this blog (still working on setting up infrastructure to easily manage/annotate photo galleries). At 5PM we had our wine tasting that was part of our villa rental. I assume they were good chianti's (remember, we're not real wine afficionados) but we had a real nice conversation with the Australian couple who were there with us.

9/18 - Lake Como

Travel by train from Florence to Lezenno (Lake Como). As always the train trip, even with the 30 minute connection, was just pleasant. A hire car (the only way to travel) meets us at Como and completes the 45 minute drive to the B&B which is a beautiful place right on the edge of the lake. Lezenno is a nice little town but it's more of a bedroom community, not much to do here but take the ferry to more interesting places.

The next day we take the 9:30AM ferry to Bellagio (it's early morning so the streets are practically deserted, not shoulder to shoulder like it becomes in the afternoon). After an hour and a half wait (time to check out the panoramic views which are astonishing) we get the next ferry to Como. We then take the funicular up the side of the mountain to Brunate where we, foolishly, decide to take the 30 minute walk up to the Volta Lighthouse. The 30 minute straight up hill walk. (Note that there is a lot of vertical walking on this trip.) The ferry back to Lezenno is uneventful - well, except for the irate man at the Como ferry dock that almost started a fight with one of the ferry attendents (the argument was all in Italian so we didn't know the details but...).

NB - Constantino at the B&B told us to get an all day ferry pass but I told the tiket agent at the Lezenno dock that we wanted to go to Como and he convinced us it was cheaper to buy one way tickets at each stop. Cheaper to go just to Como (not back) and, oh by the way, you will probably get caught in a 30 minute line to buy a ticket for each leg. Lesson learned, get the all day pass next time no matter what the attendent says.

The next day was rather frustrating. We decided to start the day by going back to Como and check out the sites associated with Volta (the inventor of the battery). That we did, the museum dedicated to him had lots of the instruments (both real and reproductions) that he used in his experiments, including what I believe was his first actual battery. Then a walk through old town, checked out out the basilica, the duomo, and the tower where Volta put in the first lightning rod (unfortunately you couldn't go up the tower, you could only look at it from the ground).

The frustrating part was we wanted to go have dinner in Varenna (the city we stayed at for our last visit to Lake Como) but the ferry schedule just didn't cooperate. The fast boats were sold out and the slow boats took so long that, by the time we left Como, we would not have had time to spend in Varenna and make a ferry back to Lezenno. We just bagged it and took a slow boat back to the B&B, rest a bit, have dinner, and then get ready for our last travel day.

NB - remember how I said we screwed up the ferry passes on the first day but now we were old hands and knew how to do it right - not so much. Turns out yes, we got an all day pass but the pass was only good on the slow boats. You had to pay a surcharge to get a new ticket for a specific fast boat and you can only pay the surcharge at the embarcation dock for that specific ferry so, guess what, you still had to wait in a long ticket line for every fast boat leg. Note that the fast boat takes 30 minutes to go from Como to Lezenno (30 mph with about 2 stops on the way) while the slow boat takes 1.5 hours (15 mph with about 6 stops on the way) - you `really` want to take the fast boat if you can. Talking to Constantino at the B&B later we discovered that the proper way to get around the Bellagio area of the lake (what we were interested in) was to use a ferry to get on the right side of the lake and then take a bus if the ferry to your actual destination wasn't available.

9/21 - Florence

Travel day - since we were traveling by train there were no problems, just a pleasant 3 hr. trip back to Florence, one of our favorite cities. When we get to Florence we take the 10 minute walk to our hotel and decide to take in some sites. We go up to the top of the Campanile (all 400 steps - steps is the code word for this trip) and check out the amazing views. From there we go to the Santa Reparata, the crypt under the Duomo (highly recommended, a great explanation of the remodeling of the original Roman temple to the current Duomo). Then it's a quick look at the Baptistery, very similar to the one in Pisa but with a much more interesting ceiling (other than that they were both just big rooms with a big basin in the middle for dunking people in water).

NB: we have a couple of experiences that prove that the Italian people are very friendly:

The next day started with the Bargello Museum, all about statuary. It is one of my favorite places, the statues are stunning. Multiple versions of David (Renaissence sculptors seem to really like the story of David and Goliath) and I especially liked the two competition panels (they had a competition to decide who would sculpt the Baptistery doors which came down to Ghilberti and Brunilleschi. Ghilberti won but don't feel bad for Brunilleschi - not doing the Baptistery doors meant he had time do design the dome of the Duomo. Not sure who truly won that competition).

Then we went on the the Gallileo Museum, a definite highlight for me. This was just an amazing museum showing all kinds of scientific instruments from Gallileo and others around his era, the displays were varied and intriguing. I especially liked the Thunder House (a model house that showed the effects of an improperly grounded lightning rod. Put a little gunpowder inside the house, set a panel such that the the ground wire for the lightning rod is broken, add some static electricity to the lightning rod and - boom the gunpowder explodes and blows out the sides of the house. Set the panel to correctly connect the ground wire, add static electricity to the lightning rod and - nothing happens).

End the day by going to a leather school and checking out the quality goods that were about 5 times more expensive than the couple of items we got from the vendors selling goods from carts at the outdoor market. I'm sure you get what you pay for so we'll see how long our frugal (e.g. cheap) purchases last.

The next morning - Uffizi. What can I say, the Uffizi has a collection of renaissance art that is probably second only to the Vatican. Got there early and was able to view things while it was just crowded, not jam packed. Loved the sculptures on the top floor and am sad that there are many more in storage that they just don't have space to display. Trust me, you have to go to Florence and visit the Uffizi at least once in your life.

In the afternoon we went to the Medici Chapel. Remember, these are the Medici's, their chapel is just slightly smaller than the Duomo. The first floor is actually a room housing 6 tombs, with statues above to honor the dead. There is also a room showing just a small sampling of the reliquaries that the Medici's amassed (one woman had over 600 reliquaries). The next floor has two rooms, a stunning chapel with a very imposing `marble` altar (note the quotes on the `marble`, the alter is actually a very well done fake in painted wood), and the Sacristry designed by Michaelangelo with his statues decorating the 3 sarchophaguses housing 6 more Medici's.

Last day, leave the hotel at 7AM and take the tram to the airport. No problem making our flights although we did have one hickup in Munich. Discovered we were flying back on the same plane - 10 rows apart. Unfortunately, it was a completely full flight so there was nothing we could do just wave bye-bye and promise to meet up again in Denver.

Pictures - Italy

Arrival Sicily Pompeii Positano
Tuscany Lake Como Florence