Bella Italy – Part 4 Quaint Countryside


We awoke early and boarded a small shuttle bus.  We started out into the countryside as the fog was beginning to lift.  After a short time, we made a surprise stop at a remarkable location.  The Florence American Cemetery. A veteran cemetery and memorial in the lovely wooded hills of Chianti. The Italian government gave the land to the United States so that we could bury and honor our lost and missing from WWI and WWII. It was simply a profound experience. We silently walked through the rows of graves, looking at names. As we visited the small chapel and the Memorial at the top of the hill the fog began to rise, and you could see the numerous headstones that stood like solders at attention and the tears fell from our eyes.  This surprise stop was so meaningful to all of us, it touched our hearts and as we silently boarded the bus, it was hard not to reflect on the many things that took place and the men that died so that we can have the freedom to visit this magical countryside.  A wonderful hidden little gem that should not be missed.

The next stop on our trip through the Tuscany countryside was San Gimignano.  We passed many vineyards and were able to see the iconic trees of Tuscany, as we climbed the hillside, we arrived at this Italian hill town surrounded by 13th century walls.  Its medieval tower, a Piazza with a little well in the middle, and anchored by an old church with its stone stairs leading down into the center was exactly was I thought of when I dreamed of walking through a little town in Italy.  The beautiful flowers, the vines hanging off the windows.  As we entered the Piazza there was a group of old Italian men sitting at one end of the Piazza like guards watching over their family.  They smiled and nodded, but you knew you were being inspected. We walked up the stone steps to visit this wonderful little church and as we exited, we watched a groom meet his bride as she stepped out of a black car.  Surrounded by his groomsmen he greeted her and handed her a exquisite boutique. The wedding was going to take place in this amazing setting.  It was a delightful site that made my heart feel so blessed to be witness to.  It showed real Italian life not something you read about in a tourist book.   We shopped in a couple of the small stores and then walked to the outside wall on the top of the hill, for another Story exclusive an Aperitivo to toast our arrival in this quaint town.

We got back on the bus and proceeded to a family owned vineyard, Castello Monterinaldi. We were met my a young lady who gave us a short tour and then were escorted into a building that seamed like at one point is was an old family home, we were served flights of wine and the most delicious sweet olive oil and thickest sweet balsamic that I have every tasted.

We then proceeded to Cortona, known as “the Grandmother of Rome,” were we would stop for a couple of nights.  Another quaint little Tuscan town, where the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” was filmed.  This little family run boutique hotel with a little courtyard and charming dining room. As the rest of the group gathered for their group dinner, Bert and I walked up the hill and found a charming place for dinner, after dinner we wondered around, listened to people in the Piazza, it was a wonderful day.  We awoke early and had the best breakfast buffet so far, with delectable Lemon Ricotta Cake, the owner was so proud of this creation she brought a piece to each of us. We decided to attend mass with another couple, at Santa Margherita, a Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic church on the very top of the hill. With it being Sunday there were no cabs and we weren’t going to have time to walk to the top of hill. This is where you get to hear, not only about the wonderful service, we received but the helpful, friendliness of the Italian people. The owner of the hotel told us to wait one minute and then pulled up in front of the hotel was a car driven by a young gentleman who worked in the kitchen. He was so nice; he drove us to the top of the hill and dropped us off in front of the church.   We generously thanked him and walked into this wonderful little church.  You could tell it was a beloved local church, because as we walked in the elders of the church, turned to see who we were, as were outsiders.  We sat in the back and prepared for this amazing experience. Sitting there hearing mass in the beautiful Italian language, sitting next to the locals from this remarkable little town brought tears to my eyes. After mass everyone walked to the front and passed by the actual remains of St Margherita. This was very special to see the people honor this patron saint of the church.  We walked leisurely down the hill back to the piazza. Sat in the Piazza with friends and incredible pastries and coffee.  A few of the other people on the tour visited Sienna, went to a cooking class or walked down to see the house from the movie.  Staying in this little town gave you many options. We spent the afternoon, wandering around the Etruscan Museum and visiting the little shops, enjoyed some wonderful gelato and a cocktail.  We found a restaurant that advertised American Hamburgers, we knew there were a couple of people in the group, that even though we were surrounded by all this amazing food, wanted a hamburger and a beer. So, we returned to the hotel and made arraignments to dine with the group.  Before dinner we gathered for happy hour with delicious appetizers and wonderful glass of wine in the courtyard.  As we sat and discussed everyone’s day, the friendships grew.

Tomorrow we leave for Rome with a stop in Orvieto.

Bella Italy: Part 3 Classic Florence

Imagine you awake and your bags have already been picked up, you wander down and have your last breakfast in Venice, although you are sad that you are leaving this amazing city you know that you are going to experience another Italian classic, the city of Florence.  We board a train for a short ride to the Tuscan town of Florence.  We get step off the train and you can immediately feel the difference, the laid-back quiet town of Venice is gone and you hear traffic and horns honk and feel the hustle and bustle of the city. There is a short walk to our hotel. Garibaldi Blu, in Santa Maria Novella piazza.  Where there are musician playing in the square.  We are greeted warmly by the hotel staff.  The hotel was wonderful, you walk into the lobby where Palm trees stand and, in the back, a small little bar with an amazing bartender.   We are shown to our room where our luggage is brought to us.  I never realized that extra step of portage makes everything so easy.  It is definitely the way to travel in Europe.  We meet the group for a short leisurely tour of the area and of course an Aperitivo.  Bert and I chose not to dine with the group and enjoyed the evening, strolling through the city, we walked to a nearby restaurant and had a lovely dinner.  Then visited with the bartender while he introduced us to some valuable wine information.

The next morning, we awoke had a great breakfast and joined the group for a day sightseeing. We met our local guide and followed him through the streets of Florence.  We visited the magnificent architecture of the Duomo and learned much about the formidable Medici family.  We also went into the Galleria Dell Accademia, to see the breathtaking “David”.  It was so amazing, pictures could not do it justice.  We visited a couple different Piazzas where you really experience the heart of Florence. The leather works there was incredible, you can see the pride in each by the craftmanship and heart put into it.

After the morning of touring a few of us went to the Uffizi gallery.  The numerous paintings and collection of ancient statuary was so impressive.  We spent 3 hours in the amazing building and still didn’t see everything.  You really need an entire day to experience every room in this very large building.  I would also suggest that you purchase your tickets in advance to avoid the long lines.

After leaving the Uffizi we strolled into the Piazza, sat at an outdoor café and had a wonderful pizza and wine, as we reminisced about what we were blessed to see, take in the atmosphere and enjoy the sights and sounds of Florence.

The evening was magical as we met back up with the group and walked over the Ponte Vecchio, again the sights, sounds and smells of Florence were everywhere.  People were singing, shopping and of course taking numerous selfies. We were headed to Piazzale Michelangelo, where we overlooked the entire city, we enjoy a cocktail some appetizers and a musician playing while the sun went down over this spectacular town.  I am sure this is not a regular stop for most tourists, but this hidden gem made visiting this town even more memorable.  As we walked back to town we left the group to find a little restaurant and a friend had suggested just over the bridge, but away from the tourists, Ristorante Santa Felicita, was a local spot with good food, great wine and you could tell by the friendliness of the staff a neighborhood favorite.  After dinner we leisurely walked back to the hotel as we anticipated another great day in Tuscany tomorrow.