On the heels of the Slow Roll through the South of France and over to San Sebastian, and in response to 18 months of unfulfilled, backlogged travel aspirations stymied by the pandemic, we headed back to Europe less than a month later. This time to Italy.
We had two goals for this trip:
- Finally visiting and hiking the Cinque Terre – the five tiny and charming towns along the Ligurian coast of Italy south of Genoa. We’ve been interested in traveling to the Cinque Terre for years, but the charm and beauty of the towns has always been accompanied by a well-earned reputation of being overrun by tourists. We don’t like mobs of tourists, so we never went. Then: pandemic. As soon as Italy opened back up, we beelined it there to experience the region before a resurgent tide of of humanity could reach it.
- Returning to Tuscany. Unsurprisingly, we’re fans of Tuscany. Surprisingly, we have only spent 5 days there, biking between five Tuscan towns during our only previous visit in 2004. Quintessential Tuscan towns, to be sure – Montalcino, Montepulciano, Siena, San Gimagnano, and Florence – but such a short time to spend in an area that was immediately so appealing to us. So, we thought we’d remedy that and head back to get a more immersive experience of the area (and hit two towns that occupied the eastern and western extremes of our 2004 bike route, and that we missed, as a result).
Here’s the route for the trip, starting at the top left:
We started the trip in the Cinque Terre – flying into Pisa, then taking a series of trains to get from the airport to our home base town there. We then trained back to Pisa to pick up a car and head into Tuscany, rotating slowly clockwise to visit or stay in towns around Florence before heading back to Pisa to fly back.
We spent the first 3 days exploring the five little towns of Cinque Terre, comprised of Riomaggiore at the southern end:
Followed by Manarola:
Vernazza (our home base for our stay in the Cinque Terre):
And finally, Monterosso, the northernmost village and the only one with an actual beach:
We hiked the only trail open between two of the towns during our stay, and had to hop a train or a boat to see the rest. A little disappointing not to be able to hike through all five, but we made out okay.
After killing the Cinque Terre, we headed back to Pisa to pick up our car (taking advantage of a delay in the car’s arrival by trotting up the street from the rental office to quickly check out the leaning tower). We then drove a short distance to Lucca in northern Tuscany. We’d spend only a day there, but Lucca turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the trip. The town was protected by fully intact, thick Renaissance walls, the 4k circumference of which you could circumnavigate by bike or by foot (which we did):
It offered a cool Torre Guinigi in the middle of town, with oak trees growing from the top:
And one of its piazzas retained the oval footprint of the ancient Roman amphitheater that previously occupied the space:
All of this added up to make Lucca a historically and atmospherically appealing highlight of the trip.
From Lucca, we headed south to Cortona, driving around the urban core of Florence and stopping for a bit in Fiesole at the recommendation of our niece, Tara. Fiesole sports, among other features, a remarkably intact Roman amphitheater, which was being put to use while we were there by an Italian band shooting a video. As you can hear, the 2-millenium old amphitheater’s acoustics still work!
We reached Cortona, and settled in for 2 days there. Our bike trip in 2006 took us through the center of southern Tuscany, so we missed the two famous hill towns on the periphery: Cortona on the east and Volterra on the west. Cortona was worth the wait.
Cortona’s Palazzo Comunale in the center of the small town:
Cortona also was the site of our second Air B&B of the trip (and only the fourth rental we’ve tried during our travels). We’ve always stayed in some flavor of hotel on our trips – more than 200 of them so far – and we’re now dipping our toes into the rental approach on this trip and previously on the Slow Roll. Generally, they’ve been positive experiences. In Cortona, our place sported a view over the Chiana Valley, which worked out quite nicely for evening Brunellos:
From Cortona, we headed west to Siena in the absolute center of Tuscany, and spent 3 days in and around town, which we had pegged as having Uzès-like potential as a longer-term destination for us in the future (nope – a much bigger city than we recalled from our bike trip).
But, it turned out that Siena itself would not be the main attraction of our stay there. Instead, it would be truffles. Without intentionally planning for it, we found ourselves in Tuscany during truffle season, much to our delight.
White truffles at dinner in town one night (when all we were looking to do was to grab some pizza and ended up here purely by happenstance), at a restaurant featuring a menu designed to pair with white truffles, which they served by the shaved – and carefully weighed – gram:
Black truffles the next day, foraging in the woods by a winery about 20 minutes away from Siena. The Italians use trained dogs to find truffles in the forest, rather than the pigs used in France:
A very successful foraging foray!
Trying out another Air B&B with another amazing view, this time from a private roof deck in the center of town:
After our time in Siena, we continued west to Volterra, stopping on the drive over to the tiny, but heavily fortified hamlet of Monteriggioni:
Where the final activities of a cyclocross race were winding up:
Monteriggioni was fortified because it served as a forward base of the Sienese during the Renaissance against any attempted incursions by their arch-enemy to the north, Florence:
Variations on a theme: after Monteriggioni’s walls, we ended up in heavily walled Volterra. We spent a day wandering about the eastern outlier in Tuscany that we missed in 2006 – it did not disappoint:
And then, as a departure from our stays in towns throughout the trip, we headed to a borgo – an entire village converted to a hotel – in the countryside outside Volterra for our final night:
One of the village’s old buildings had been converted for use as a museum of vintage Italian cars, motorcycles, and bikes – very cool.
Early the next morning, we drove back to Pisa, dropped off the car (this time without incident), and flew home – another road trip in Europe successfully executed!